My name is Grace. I am 20 years old and I am a healer. The old folks say I am a miracle, a blessing, a gift sent for the benefit every soul on Sourland Mountain.
I came into this world on the 20th day of March, 1860. My mother tells me that a fierce and furious thunderstorm accompanied her labor. As she struggled and strained to bear me, booming claps of thunder exploded in, what seemed to her, an endless barrage. It gave the impression that the boulders strewn about the mountain were tumbling down its sides, crashing into anything in their path with deafening blasts that shook the mountain to its core. Rain came down in relentless sheets as bolts of lightning cut through the sky in every direction and illuminated it in a manner that was simultaneously frightening and beautiful. Very much like my power to heal: frightening and beautiful, all at once.
I am my parents’ only child. My father, a stone cutter originally from southern New Jersey, is as black as coal, and my mother is the color of fresh cream, which places me somewhere at the center of this continuum. The residents down the mountain, in the town, do not care much for us mountain folk. They do not subscribe to the practice of interracial marriage and, therefore, look upon us with scorn and contempt. While my mother is very fair she is not white — not entirely, at least. My mother’s father was an Irishman from Donegal and her mother was one of Stives’ kin. Stives was a slave from Virginia who came here to Jersey with his master to fight in the Revolution with George Washington. He married an Indian girl, earned his freedom, and formed a settlement on Sourland Mountain where my mother’s people, Stives’ kin, have been ever since.
As a child growing up on this mountain in central New Jersey I learned, at my mother’s knee, to weave baskets. We made baskets for the owners of a peach orchard in a neighboring town. Sometimes, after we delivered some new baskets, they would offer us some peaches, and we never turned them down. We would walk leisurely back to our Sourland home, singing songs and carrying baskets that we had made, full of sweet, succulent fruit.
I no longer weave baskets. I have found employment in Princeton, serving tea and other refreshments at an establishment not far from the university. Most of the time I enjoy what I’m doing but sometimes it can be quite uncomfortable. The majority of the young men who attend the university are perfect gentlemen. Others forget their manners, groping and grabbing and helping themselves to handfuls of me and the other girls. Henry would be appalled if he knew I was being “handled” in this way.
Henry and I grew up together and were always the best of friends. He was the sparkle in my eye, the boy who made my heart leap for joy. I love Henry. I love him because he is beautiful and perfect. But most of all I love him because my gift, my power to heal, was never foreign to him. He understood me completely because he understood my gift.
On a cold night late last year, some local boys had too much apple brandy and went down the mountain and stole some tools from a man in town named Owings. Someone told Owings that Henry had taken his tools. Owings was furious and vowed to shoot Henry on sight! So my poor, innocent Henry fled like a fugitive, although he had done nothing wrong. Henry had not drunk any apple brandy that night and he had not stolen a thing. He was wrongly accused. I know because he was with me, standing right by my side as I was laying hands on old Miss Peola Atmore.
When Henry left, no one would tell me where he had gone. I missed him so. I could lay my hands on a suffering person and allay their discomfort and relieve their pain but I could not seem to “heal” myself. I was consumed with longing for Henry and with hatred for Owings. Vacillating between blinding rage and wretched misery, I would walk to the summit of Sourland Mountain and cry and scream and pray and think. Sitting there, wounded and small, watching as golden rays of sunlight reach over the horizon, grasping the land and brightening my world; or sitting there livid and seething, watching as the sun tucks itself in for the night, leaving a stunning watercolor splashed across the sky that assuages my ire and calms my spirit.
The mountain comforts me, as do my parents. My father reminds me that I was not raised to hate others. He pulls me close to him and hugs me tightly. My mother brushes my tears away and whispers softly in my ear, reminding me of who I am. I am the one, she tells me, who was born with the power of the storm that carried me painfully to her, and the peace of the dawn that soothed her afterward.
I can heal people. I can lay my hands on them and they get well. I don’t know why or how. I only know that I can.
Whenever I am summoned I answer the call. I never refuse even though the process wholly depletes me. At its completion I am achy, exhausted, and drained. When a distraught young mother ran up the mountain to personally beseech me to help her baby, I hesitated, for the first time in my life. She lived down the hill and the people in town looked upon us with suspicion and disdain. This tiny young woman, probably about my age, with a messy mop of curly, blond hair sitting on her head and a tear-stained face took my hand and held it so tightly she squeezed the blood right out of my fingers. The sincerity of her plea and the urgency her eyes conveyed compelled me to follow her into what I knew was hostile territory.
Inside her modest home I could see that her sick baby was lying in a crib in the front room. He was no more than five months old and he was screaming violently. With each breath that he drew, he released an ear-splitting scream that went right through me like the sharpest of knives. I could feel his pain. A man standing very near the baby and gently patting his stomach was, I assumed, the baby’s father. I nodded and smiled at him but the severe expression on his face only seemed to tighten when I did.
I walked over to the baby and looked down at him, feeling more pain and discomfort with every distressed scream. I briefly held his little fingers in mine but as he kicked and flailed, they fell away.
His chubby, round face was red as a beet and covered in sweat, snot, and saliva. His eyes were pinched shut and his mouth was agape as each scream became more anguished. I laid my hands on the baby, one on his forehead and the other on his stomach. He was burning up with fever. I closed my eyes and prayed over him. Then I wiped him down and scooped him up and rocked him in a rocking chair near the window. He cried, I rocked; his mother prayed, his father paced. By the time the little baby settled down and slept in my arms, his mother and father were sound asleep as well.
When the first hints of sunlight crept into the room the baby’s father jumped up like someone had snuck up on him and startled him. He looked at me, holding his son, and nudged his wife awake. She looked confused as she attempted to make sense of the peace and calm that had settled on her child. I slowly handed her the baby, who was no longer feverish and was cooing and giggling. She held him close and gazed down at him as if she was experiencing him for the very first time.
“Thank you,” she whispered, over and over. “You see?” she told her husband. “I knew she could do it. I knew it, I knew it.”
As I rose to take my leave, every cell in my body was in agony. All I wanted to do was make my way up the mountain and rest.
The baby’s father ran into the kitchen and returned with an armful of blackberry preserves. He rushed back into the kitchen and this time, returned with a sack so I could carry the jars more easily.
The severe look he bore last night was replaced by one of relief and gratitude. It felt good knowing I had helped this family. Now all I could think about was getting back up the mountain and sleeping. I would awaken after hours of peaceful slumber that would renew and refresh me, then enjoy tea and toast with blackberry preserves.
“I . . . I . . .”
“Yes? What is it?”
“I want to say I’m sorry. I did not mean to run your friend off. It wasn’t him after all. He did not take my tools. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
OWINGS! This was the man who was responsible for Henry leaving Sourland Mountain. This was the man who had inspired so much hate and resentment. And here he was, standing in front of me, weeping, ashamed, pitiful, and grateful, with a healthy son. As many hours as I sat up on that mountain, imagining the moment when I would come face to face with this man, I never thought I would feel compassion for him as a man, or as a husband, or as a father. I never imagined that I would embrace him and forgive him. But I did. And that, it turned out, was the key to “healing” myself: forgiveness.
So I will return to my mountaintop refuge and laugh and cry, think and pray, rest and smile, heal and pacify, pardon and forgive, and wait. I will wait for my Henry to come home.
Tammy Amani is the pen name for Tammy Harris, who says, “To pay the bills, I am an educator, but my real job is writing.” She lives in Pennington, where she writes children’s stories, plays, novels, and screenplays.