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It would be the last summer that I would visit my cousin. Maybe that is why the memories of that summer are still so vivid. The pastoral scene is as crisp and clear as if it occured yesterday. I remember the path that led to our woods, the fence dripping with blackberries, the bees buzzing and darting in and out of the honeysuckle, the fragrance of colorful wild flowers, and kudzu racing to the tops of spindly pines.
In the woods the blossoms of dogwood and red-bud had come and gone, but the leaves of the hardwood were full and green. Everything was alive and growing, but it was the pungent odor of the deep humus-rich soil that rose between our bare toes that still lingers.
Forest, Jr., three years my senior, was simply outgrowing me. As painful as it was for me to accept, it was inevitable. Forest, Jr. had gotten his first real rifle from Sears-Roebuck, I still had a BB gun. He was reading Huckleberry Finn, I was still reading comic books. I would have enjoyed another game of detective, but Forest, Jr. had other ideas. For a number of years I had been wearing my cousin's hand-me-down clothes, but on this visit, he would pass down one of his treasures, a Prince Albert can filled with his favorite marbles.
On the last day of my visit we waited until dark, picked up a couple of army blankets and a flashlight from the store and went down to our hideout in the woods. We stretched out on top of the Clabber Girl sign. There was a slight chill in the air, and a full moon cast an eerie glow that filtered through the tree tops and left patterns as white as milk around our secret place. We lay there with our hands behind our heads, looking up at the moon for a long time without speaking. Finally, I said, "I got baptized."
Forest, Jr. chuckled, "That kind of water scares me," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
My cousin leaned up on one elbow, his face looked like chalk in the moonlight. His mood was turning serious.
"Let me ask you something," he said, "Do you think John Sasser is in heaven?"(John Sasser was a notorious criminal that murdered a man and was hanged in Brookhaven)
"I don't think so," I answered.
"What about Uncle William?" (Uncle William had killed his father-in-law and then committed suicide.)
"I don't know," I answered uncertainly.
"And Bird Noobie, Where is he?"
"I'm not sure."
My hero continued, "And what about Denon? He couldn't even be buried in our cemetery. Is there going to be a black heaven and a white heaven? I don't think so."
He looked me straight in the eye. "Do you really believe that a handful of folks in Lincoln County, Mississippi, that only go to our brand of church will be the only ones sitting up there in heaven? I don't believe it, not for one minute."
Quickly his mood changed. He could see the confusion on my face. "If you wanted to be baptized, then I'm proud of you, but it's not for me."
Then he extended his hand and we sealed our night with our secret handshake.
As quickly as a fallen leaf would disappear in the swift current of Jackson Creek, so would the summers of our youth.
At fifteen Forest, Jr. would declare his independence and tell his parents that he would never darken the church house door again. He lived and died an agnostic.
When I delivered his eulogy I was careful not to make any religious reference. I chose instead to talk about his brillant mind, how he chose to share his mathematical genius as a teacher, and I spoke of my love for him. Paying my last respects, I looked into a casket that held his vacated remains and thought, "Forest, Jr. if you didn't make it to heaven, I'm not sure I want to go."