by Katie Daniels
The minivan drove out of the church’s flooded parking lot, pulled onto the one-lane country highway, and drove up into the Kentucky hills. It was drizzling, and a mist folded gently around tall, bone-thin trees. Through the water droplets on the minivan’s windows, the forest blurred into reddish brown and mossy green streaks of color.
The minivan’s passengers were silent in solidarity with our driver, a tense college junior who gripped the steering wheel and focused on steering the van straight along the curving road. Left to stare out the fogged up windows, I squinted through the condensation to see the trailers and houses we were driving past; some were missing windows or had cardboard patching their roofs. I wondered if their owners could keep out the rain.
The one-lane road turned to loose gravel, then dirt. Our minivan stopped in front of a neat, freshly painted log cabin. “Elmer and Fairy are real sweet,” Rebecca said as she hopped out of the passenger seat. She worked at the church and was chaperoning our volunteer group around her tiny Kentucky town for the week.
Elmer and his wife, Fairy, were standing at the door. I noticed his hands first—thick, gnarled knuckles and calloused fingers. He bent his head towards Rebecca while she introduced us; a hearing aid peeped out from under his John Deere baseball cap.
After we sat down on their living room floor, Elmer wordlessly handed us walking sticks and rifle butts that he had whittled; tiny flowers and vines peeped out of smooth whorls and intricate curlicues. We ran our fingers over the silken wood, impressed that anyone had seen something so beautiful inside a hunk of wood.
Not many people came up the hill, so Rebecca had brought us to keep Elmer and Fairy company for the afternoon. Fairy told us stories in her soft drawl, about how Elmer had built their house himself, right up the road from the one-room building where he and his 25 brothers and sisters had grown up.
But Elmer didn’t say a word until we stood up to leave. Then he stood up too, opened his mouth, and began to pray.
If anyone else had done it, it would have been an act. But with Elmer, it wasn’t. He simply bowed his head and began to pray aloud, like he was having a conversation with us.
Heavenly Father I pray
I thank you for the things you have given me on this earth
I can never praise you enough
Forgive your son to give me a chance at eternal life in heaven
I ask you heavenly Father to
Forgive me my faults
All things I ask in Jesus’ precious name
Our group held still; seven strangers in the old man’s living room all instinctively knowing that one sudden movement could break this moment.
When he was done, one of our volunteers stepped forward. He held his iPhone towards Elmer, and asked him to recite the prayer again so he could record it. Elmer, a little deaf and confused by the iPhone, was baffled. But Rebecca and Fairy coaxed him into it, and he repeated the prayer again, slightly differently this time. His manner seemed quieter. I don’t think he knew what we wanted to hold on to. I don’t think we did either.