When I was coming up, what we knew about chiggers we heard through the grapevine: our mothers and fathers, true, but mostly our grandmothers and great aunts. They were the source of that kind of lore. Chiggers, they said, would feast on your blood. They liked, most particular, my Great Aunt Ida would say, the flesh of little boys. The smallest sinners. They liked to burrow in right around the elastic of little boys’ underwear, getting close, close as possible to the family jewels.

The chigger, I now know, know most intimately, does not burrow in under your skin—and yet, those things are microscopic, so you’re not going to see them right away.

The chiggers that bite you are the larvals: these are the children, and they’ll create a nasty bumptious bite and suck the blood out, like through a straw. Devil-red, but you’ll never see them. You’ll never know what bit you until after the swelling maybe two to four days later; and they’ll itch you like a hellfire.

I never did write a sermon on the chigger, but it’s so like the bite of temptation, like that he-man, Devil-May-Care who gets in close to the pressure points, close to where the blood pumps: the collar, the wrist, the waistband, the crotch. And chiggers are stealthy, like lust, and childish, and in the forms of children.

The children are the ones I most worry about, especially the young girls with their short tops showing their bellies, the tiny skirts and slicked-on-over-the-bottom jeans. There were mini-skirts in my day to be sure—but good, right and proper girls did not wear them. My dear wife Pearl did not wear them. Not in these parts you wouldn’t. The girls today are encouraged to truck with evil and to provoke. To provoke lust even in the men in my very congregation, most suredly, and those out in the world. Part of my calling, part of my ministry is to help these girls. I do what I can, when I can.

I did lay once in the grass. I did. I did float there on the banks of the creek. As if floating. There was a girl with me then. I was a teenager, and I will not remember her name. There was the bad moonshine in jars, and we swung out over the creek on a rope, and we hollered. We lay in the grass, our mouths dry, our mouths hungry. But quite rightly after a few days, the chigger bites appeared. Such an almighty itching. And me always thinking, maybe even saying: I’ll never do that again; I most suredly won’t. I fell many times as a young man, lying in the grass filled with chiggers. Until that day I came to know Jesus. The one and holy man I could brag on all day.

Which is what I been spending this one life doing. Which is why I know I will have eternal life. I did put in the appropriate time at the Bible Study School that used to be in Hephzibah, Georgia and have had my ministry both in Tallapoosa and at the Cleaneth Baptist in the nearby county after all that rabble-rousing mess there. I’ve been to South America, in the deepest jungles to grow the ministry. There was scarce drinkable water and natives of all kinds, and I got sore sick from the meats with all those parasites, but I did what I could. Now, as temporary pastor, there’s been a bit of rambling. These past ten months, in particular, I’ve been traveling to new congregations, this time near where my wife’s people once lived. Their pastor is off for the summer in Canada, spreading the word of Jesus. Spreading the word in all the lowly places. I am well-regarded among these fine people, knowing, as they do, my ministry to my church over on West Axes Road the next county over.

Pearl’s father’s relations had a little house right up along Hog River Road. She’d visit there as a girl. A peculiar name for that road, you might say, but part of the heritage of these parts: hog farms lined these old roads. Hog farms, and a few dairy farms; there were sorghum crops and the cotton. It’s a name like that—Hog River—that those new ones— the suburbanites moving in around here—want to change: the names of roads, the layout of the streetways in town. And the businesses: they want to drive out the locals, put in all the chain stores those suburbans are used to. They’re moving in everywhere, coming in from Atlanta or other places across the country. It’s a college town too, and they got Indians from India running the motels and Quick-E Marts. They got Mexicans walking roadside looking for work. But those Atlanta transplants: they have the audacity to put on running clothes and run along the county roads like they’re running in Central Park. Maybe they’re running to Starbuck’s in the figment of their minds.

Every morning, but Monday and Tuesday, I go by on the back road to the church, and there’s this woman I know to be unsaved: she’s plugged in, plugged up, not too young neither, and running near nude on the back roads behind the good holy house where I’ve been preaching these last weeks. Doesn’t back down when I come by—running too far into the road. Testing. Always testing, the Devil.

Last week, I told that congregation about the transfiguration of Jesus, found in Matthew 17. Took that as my opportunity to brag—once again—on Jesus Christ. His raiment of white, and his outstretched arms. Saw, among those listeners—among the good men saying Amen— the girl in the yellow pumps. Got a look at her just before the service, out the side window of the back vestry. Wearing a little blue shift with a yellow ribbon, and the yellow high heeled pumps. Teetering a little on them. A swirl of pale brown hair around her head, a sweet and taunting face. Maybe freckles, hard to say. Legs right up to her rear end. I don’t mind telling you, it’s a rear end that some men would just be begging to put their two hands around.

While she sat listening, and I was preaching, I thought about the kinds of temptation. That savory girl being one of them. And Dorothy, so long ago, being another. The child and the full grown female. Wily and wild, the both of them though they may have the appearance of Christian piety. I did lay once in the grass. And did I float? Did I float out across the grass?

I thought about the forms temptation will take while I told the people gathered in that house of the Lord that there weren’t no way, like Peter said, that Jesus could be on the same plane with Moses, nor that sinner Elijah. You can’t set up tents to all three. It was all retroactive, is what I explained. Elijah was in Heaven on credit, and Moses was a sinner. Jesus is the most holy, best, the Almighty, with a capital A, the one that brought them all into the fold, brought them all through those gates to be saved like children. Like the Lord God, I too am a parent of five grown children, and eight beautiful grand-babies. All infants in my eyes.

I told my congregation that like any parent God is most proud of Jesus, for that is His only son. He is not “one among,” like some people say. God only has eyes for one. For I am like that proud father. I only have eyes for Jesus Christ: one tent; one God. And the good men in that house said Amen, and the girl wearing yellow pumps tilted her head toward me, and I imagined if she were to open her mouth, the serpent’s tongue might come out. Without her being able to help it. That’s the nature of the beast.

My wife heard the calling some time before I did. High school, fact of the matter. Not being one of them whores down by the creek, my wife came from God-fearing people. I did see her straight and narrow back two rows over in Civics class; did not know at the time she would bring me into her fold. Tomorrow, she’ll sing the hymns for Jesus like she always does. A fine singer, Pearl. Last week she sang “Take Time to Be Holy,” and she is practicing, for the congregation’s enjoyment, “The Promised Land.”

You could say it’s been a steep road being with Pearl. Five babies right in a row; and she was strong and tested my strength. Those babies grew up from mewling snot-nosed babies to fine and strong fibers of being. All, I will admit, but Denton and Mary-Beth. Vestiges, I think, when I pray, of the way I erred at the creek. Born, my Mary-Beth, at the crossroads of our crisis—that being between Pearl and me. But we haven’t given up on those two yet.

The solid length of Pearl’s back next to me at night is my reminder not to stray, and to lead all the little girls to the high mark of one like her. During that far-ago time of crisis, Mary-Beth just born, that is when Pearl discovered the truth about Dorothy, my secretary down there in Tallapoosa. Now the very name Tallapoosa can make the sweat run cold on me. The afternoons at the creek down behind the chapel, Dorothy, the slaking of the whiskey, and the way I strayed. Took down those nylons from her body—how they cinched her like a pineapple and when I took them down and laid with her, it was aggravating painful afterwards to be weeping across her wide amorphous body, thinking she had taken me down into that very gate of hell. Her nylons cinched across her thighs, looking like ladders all the way to midnight.

Her unruly smile, and me feeling sorry even while I rammed myself into her. My coming home probably stinking of that whiskey, and Pearl telling me real quiet from the maw of our bedroom to pull myself together fast afore she ran me and Dorothy down in the church parking lot. I started my sobbing right then and there.

Pearl was most right to tell me to fire Dorothy quick, and to get on my knees to pray. We did. We did while Mary-Beth, our newborn, let out a hollering in her bassinet—waking up every last child. All of them at the door of our bedroom screaming while Pearl undulated to the Lord’s calling, telling me to repent, and I rapped my empty head on the bedstead with grief. The bodice of her nightgown was dripping and for some time I thought it was from tears: mine or hers, I did not know which. Later, I knew it to be the milk for Mary-Beth.

There would be times I would find my way to the creek after Dorothy’s departure. She was a country woman, but not proud of what she’d done; there was the one postcard she sent from Chattanooga, and there was me weeping on the banks of that old creek, getting bit by the chiggers every time to remind me. To remind me of the pull of that old life, the misspent life, the one Jesus did not ordain. Thank the Lord, he has saved me, has elected me already, else I would be sore afraid. I mouth in the darkness John 1:12: “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”

There have been times, when I’m out spreading the word, in the countryside, or going to see my congregation when I might see some girls walking on the side of the road. Maybe they try to wave me down for a ride; maybe they’re just walking along by themselves. What I do is I tell them one thing, and do another. There’s been more than one occasion when I’ll pick them up, ask them real polite where it is they want to go, tell them to get on in the back, then drive my pick-up straight out past where they’d thought they were going. Down a back road, getting a little lost myself, just to make the point. Just to learn them a little about how they can provoke a man to the kind of violence they might not survive. “All have sinned,” so the Romans 3:23 goes, “and fall short of the glory of God.”

“Hey Mister,” they’ll always say, tapping on the back window. “This isn’t GoDown Road,” or “I thought you said you were going straight to West Axes Road too.”

I stop the car, and I say “I’m giving you a learning, so you’ll remember not to tempt those that would do you evil. For the Romans says, ‘the wages of sin is death.’” Those girls—fat, skinny, black or redneck white—big scared eyes and the surly narrowed eyes—you know they’ll remember that lesson.

I’ve told the story many times, about Pearl. The way she got me going to church, when I come back from the military, a regular discharge to be sure, but still aflame, still flaming with some part of my past that had me drinking and hollering out at too many fly-by-night pool halls and truck stops and joints that would play me the Elvis too long, too slow on those black-as-hell turntables spinning in the juke box.

The way I tell it to my congregation she was a vision—wearing a raiment of white. She came to me at the creek where I was weeping, most sorrowful I was for a life so far misspent. Truth be told, she did come on me at the creek, but I’d been laughing like a hyena with some foul woman, and Pearl had come with her father straight from the church and out into the woods, doing a particular kind of ministry. Rescuing the creekside bums. Her hair in those days—early sixties—had a sassy little flip up at the ends, and when her Daddy raised and railed his Bible over our sick bodies still wrapped up in the blanket, Pearl’s bright head bobbed with curiosity, and though she stood back near some tree clinging to her Bible, I slurred out:

“Hey weren’t you in my high school class down at Bowden?” I stood up stark naked, while her daddy uttered those blessing words, closing his eyes, and throwing his head back, and that fool woman I was with kept on a laughing. When Pearl turned to high tail it back to the car, I saw the ramrod strength of that back—like a man’s. There’d be a way to have her, is what I thought. The rest, like they say, is the history of my remaking, and my saving, and, Lord have mercy, my backsliding.

When I watch her singing to the congregation, I have to put away what she is: the parts of her that sag, the voice that wobbles too far into the next verse. At night, she’ll take off her wig, remove her make-up, leaving on a tight cap. There before me is the face of her father. But I do consider on what she was and what she will be in the Glory of our Eternal Heaven. She is an exacting woman, my Pearl. She wants everyone to be exact with Jesus Christ because we are His brides: both Pearl and me. If my breasts could leak the milk of plenty like Pearl’s did that night, I would want it to happen.

It was the day she was singing “Take Time to Be Holy,” when I grew sore aware of something else, something sinister in the congregation. I’d already seen the girl in the yellow pumps, but there arose from the pews—after the blessing and before my sermon— a mewling sound. Like a hurt animal. It had me spooked, a little irked, and reminded me far back of some other cry I could not capture. When I gathered myself to the pulpit and looked out at the eyes and the nodding heads and the pale finery of all gathered there, I found the source of that plaintive cry. It was a bundle held by a girl so far unseen to me, so far unknown to everyone— I could tell— sitting at the back of the church, near the door. The girl’s face was flattened pie-like and dimpled with pockmarks—she was so plain you wouldn’t have noticed her, short hair the color of a mule, but her expression was screwed on tight, like a lid on a jar. Like there must have been something else underneath. And she held that bundle with great unease, that bundle without words, but sinister all the same.

I commenced to deliver the Word, to correct the misapprehension, of even the disciple Peter, that the Lord Jesus Christ is just one among. Some out there would have you believe, these people, the unsaved, like that woman running down the backroads all plugged into hellfire, that Jesus is a prophet among other prophets: the Buddha, or God forgive those who think it: Mohammed, that terrorist. I tell them that ain’t true. I may dote on all my children. Even my lost ones, which is what I don’t let on about: even Denton, who got divorced, and Mary-Beth who still gives my Pearl some hell. I can dote on them, but there is only one Jesus Christ. He is one above, the Almighty.

While I was preaching the Word to them I noticed that girl, that superstition struggling with the infant: it burring like a soft motor, a machine. I looked at that girl while I was talking and watched the phantoms cross her face.

“Moses would be evicted if Jesus had backed out. For when he was accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven—that one act reached forward and backward into eternity. For didn’t you know that Elijah was in heaven on credit?” I banged the pulpit to emphasize, and my mind swarmed back to all the sheiks holding out their be-ringed hands for money. I looked at the girl with the yellow pumps. I don’t have to suppose I had her in the palm of my hand: I saw her upturned, elfin face, the supplicating eyes. I thought of the banks of the creek, the fiery chiggers.

“Don’t you just know that with the blood of Jesus Christ, we are made pure? We are made pure in his love? We are richer in Christ’s love than the richest sheik in Arabia, driving up in his gold Cadillac. Those sheiks that persecute Christians are rich in wealth, but they are poor—very poor— in spirit.”

“Amen,” the men said, and the women nodded; the thought of Aunt Ida, unbidden, swam up, her hand outstretched, bejeweled like a sheik’s to pull me up where I was in the broom closet, sent there by my father after one of them beatings. Aunt Ida, who showed off her bi-weekly hairdos to my dear mother, her niece, who had neither the luxury nor the money to get her hair done and used those tight pin curls at night. I still hold the vision of my mother sacred, wisps of tissue clinging to her thin pale hair. Self-satisfied, foolish Aunt Ida, a woman I will never forgive. Aunt Ida, who took my hand to pull me from the closet, but laughed when I emerged, covered with the chigger bites. I was hiding those bites from every gaze, but she wouldn't let me. The bites were everywhere around my scrotum, and despite myself, I grew stiff with a strange lust, even as she beckoned. Come look everybody, look at Arvy’s jools.

“They have the riches, but they do not worship our Christ, our Lord and they are corrupt,” I told the worshippers. The baby let out a shrill cry and I felt the girl must have squeezed it to make it sound more human. All the women’s eyes in the congregation cut to that young mother, and my dear Pearl turned in her seat in the front row to look back at her. Yellow Pumps had a smile on her face despite it all, and I went on, thrilled by the errant, and the errors, and lusting for the digging itch of the chigger.

“We bathe, we bathe in the sweet blood of Christ,” I raised my hands, “and therefore, those terrorists, those worshippers of Mohammed shall not have a tent, shall not have tent among one of us!” I let loose with a voice to rock the church from bottom to top. Out into that church, into that chapel they heard my cry. There was most definitely an us and a them. Most sorely and suredly.

“Amen,” the men shouted, the women sighed, and I wasn’t looking to see what made the girl get up and go ahead out into the vestibule. But I was relieved to see her go. There was the final hymnal, but I was too fired up to tell you what they sang. The congregation filed out, and I shook their hands: the men’s rough with the work of their entire week, the women’s tufted with soft householding flesh. I clasped their arms and greeted Yellow Pumps, whose small lips pursed and wrinkled in admiration. The deacons shook my hand, while I watched the tail-end of Yellow Pumps as she made her way to her car. There was every bit of demon in her, yet I knew my words had choked the demon silent for the day.

And yet that other pock-faced girl had waited for me, and the sight of her standing in khaki pants, swaying with that bundle filled me with revulsion. We exchanged pleasantries; I made the offer that we go to my vestry to consult. But she shook her head, seemed nervous standing there before me, maybe ashamed. It appeared she wanted something quick from me, some hasty bending permission to be what she was, what it was plain to see she already was.

Not the chosen, not the elect. I smiled as Christ would smile, and I inquired about her babe. Was the child baptized? Behind me in the chapel, I heard my Pearl laugh among the parishioners. I followed the girl outside. She said her name, but I will not remember it.

The girl stood in front of the church on the sidewalk swaying with the child, her eyes both furtive and frayed. She told me no, the child was not baptized, that the child had been conceived in Iraq, that she’d been sent home, discharged for disobeying orders.

The phrase brought to mind my own brief acquaintance with the brig; the lust and lechery of the typical military man is what had made me go AWOL, however briefly. I looked at her, but I did not feel pity, though I mouthed a condolence, though I thanked her for her service in warding off the beasts of a new terrorism, threatening the very tenets of our Savior, Jesus Christ. But something in me held off from her though I smiled and patted her shoulder as the tears welled in her eyes and spilled down the length of her flaccid face. She was sobbing into the flannel of her infant’s blanket and her words were of I.E.D’s and how there was too much she’d seen. Too many wrongs, she said. She knew too many things she was trying hard to forget. It wasn’t just the prisoners they were hurting, and killing, it was the Iraqis too.

“You mean the insurgents?” I inquired, gently; keeping my hand on her shoulder.

“No…no, no.” It was most clear she was confused, bullet-addled, driving out toward evil because it was what would make her feel better about what she’d done. I squeezed her shoulder and a ripple of pain passed through her. She had already been made frail and her weakness could surely be punctured by Jesus Christ.

I said to her, as in the Romans “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Come and pray with me, and welcome Jesus into your life, to seek your salvation.” She looked up at me over the head of the child, shifting and straining beneath the blanket, roiling like a worm in an apple.

I could see her mind’s figments would be difficult to break, but her gray eyes—behind thick windowless tears—clung to the hope I offered. The blanket fell from the head and I saw it was a brown child, the hair black and standing on end.

“Let me see the baby,” I said to her. She didn’t relinquish the baby with fear; she handed it over with a dull relief, an acceptance. I held the child up to the sun. Its head wobbled on its stem, then drew up to peer back at me.

What I saw there will be with me until my dying day: the infant’s face was wrinkled up like a walnut. Its eyes were tiny in the woolen head. A bat’s inscrutable eyes. At first, those eyes found my face, my inquiring eyes. I did not utter baby noises to it. I wanted, in the light of day, for it to expose what evil it had wrought on this girl and all the others out there in the world. Its eyes roved to a region unseen, some space next to me; it held something or someone there.
Yet I knew what it had seen: the itching persistence of everybody’s familiar. I felt my groin enflamed by a thousand chiggers, felt most suredly runged by an everlasting and crippling fire. The sand-dirt child had seen my sin, peering right there over my very shoulder. “Conceived in hellfire,” I said.

When she took it back, we had an understanding. The girl’s tears had quieted, and I smiled kindly. I waited on the sidewalk, and I waved to her as she drove away. The child squalled, buckled in the car seat, and I knew they would— neither of them— be back.

Only a few days later, I was making my way to church on High Tangle Road. It was a September morning, too early for the locusts that would take up the afternoon with their angry bleating. Mist spilled out of the hollers on either side of the road. Something of the memory of that brown child, and its moon-faced mother, propelled me to push on the gas. The infidel that sees, sees the infidel.

I saw the persistent female runner ahead, plugged up once again, indifferent to all the ways she was working evil and weaving it into the very texture of the morning. Into this season, and on into the next. I pushed at the throttle of the machine, angry with the passion of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. The fog rose like a garment to show me the startle of her face before the impact of what I could not have foreseen.