WITH THIS GIFT

The Story of Edgar Cayce

By Anne E. Neimark

Beneath a tangle of willow branches, the boy sprawled over the moist ground. Pages of the opened book in his hands were as tissue-thin as the wings of the nearby dragonflies. The boy’s face, pale and somber, was bent down towards the printed words. For fifteen or twenty minutes, he id not lift his eyes from the book, and then only to gaze, spellbound, at the Kentucky hills.

The book slid to the grass, and the inside cover lay bare. In small, awkward handwriting was a name and a date: Edgar Cayce, March 18, 1887. The boy looked past the woodland stream and willows that curled in a crescent by his feet. The book, the Bible, had been given to him three years before, when he was ten. He had vowed to read it through for each year of his life, and once in every year to come. This was his thirteenth reading.

Neighbor boys from other farms, shooting marbles among themselves in the yard behind the schoolhouse, often scoffed at the vow. Edgar was never sure how to make friends with them. Sometimes they took a poke at him, and he would hit back a kind of rage. “Where are you going, Old Man? They might shriek, as he slipped off after school to his secret placed by the willows. “What’s that book under your shirt? With all the Cayces in Christian County, I guess one of them had to turn out odd!”

Was he so different? Edgar would ask himself. Some of his uncles used to say that he was “old before his time,” and the name Old Man had stuck to him. Even his father called him that. But marbles did not seem nearly as exciting as the adventures on the fragile pages. Day after day, his schoolwork folded unfinished in his pocket, Edgar would read of Samson and his mighty strength, of Noah and the ark, of David and his slingshot, of Joseph’s coat of many colors.

He had not been doing well in school. He tried to concentrate on his studies, but his mind would wonder to other subjects—to random thoughts, almost images, of places he’d never seen, like India or Egypt, to memories of his grandfather, who’d been killed before Edgar’s eyes by a wildly bucking and frightened horse. Grandfather Cayce had been known to locate underground water by cutting a stock of witch hazel and carrying it about until it quivered. He was said to have second sight, an ability for seeing things in the present and future that most others couldn’t see.

So Edgar’s thoughts , as he sat at his school desk, would tend to journey away. He was thirteen years old but was still in the Third Reader. He could thrust hungrily through the Bible yet be stymied by spelling or English. “Perhaps you are meant to be a missionary, Edgar,” his mother would tell him. “You might someday carry the message to others in need.”

He rolled now across the dampened grass, the willows in a canopy over his head. He had dreamed of being of help to others, perhaps to children when they were sick. But how could he do anything fine with his life when he stayed so ignorant in school? His father, he felt certain, was ashamed of him. After being appointed justice of the peace in the county and called by the title of squire, would Leslie Cayce want a dunce for a son?

Suddenly from behind the willows came a soft humming sound, and Edgar pulled himself to his feet. He was familiar with the timbre of the music in the woods----the burrowing of the animals, the buzzing of the insects, the rasping of the wind----but this was a sound that did not belong.

He waited, straining to listen. At the edge of the stream, he could glimpse a gauzelike spray of bright light, hanging in a veil above the water. The light shone strangely apart from the sun on the hazelnut bushes and dogwood. Anxiously Edgar leaned against the willow bark, the humming growing stronger in his ears. At the light’s center was the figure of a woman in a long gown----someone he did not recognize, some he’d never seen. His stomach knotted, and he drew the back of one hand across his forehead and eyes.

When he looked again, however, the figure had not moved. Was his mind playing tricks? Was he dreaming? Had he fallen asleep? The figure seemed to be speaking to him.”What you want most is possible,” he heard a voice say. “Tell me, if you can, what that might be.”

Edgar was stunned. No dream had ever seemed so real as the figure of this woman in her glow of light. But what was she doing inn the woods near Hopkinsville, Kentucky? How had she appeared among the trees and the weathered barns and the damp, rolling hills?

Somehow Edgar sensed that he not caught or lost in any dream. He could not answer his own questions, but he managed to chock out a few , halting words. “I would like most,” he said shakily, “to be of help to the sick----and especially to little children.”

The humming drifted slowly upward. Edgar stared at the bank of the stream, where the light had first circled in its radiant halo. The figure of the woman was instantly gone, as if her mission had ben completed. Cautiously he stepped forward. Alongside the water, the wild grasses swayed, but no indentation was left of the stranger’s prints.

Edgar scooped up his Bible and headed home. In all the years of his life, he was never to forget the vision in the woods. He would mark it as the beginning of what lay ahead. He did not stop that day, at the machinery house where the men might be repairing the binder for grain. He raced between the barns, past the russet-planked smokehouse, and beside the white rail fence at the road near his cottage. His mother was in the kitchen, canning fresh fruit, and he was grateful she was alone. His four younger sisters must have walked to his uncle’s store at the crossroads to buy sticks of cinnamon. “I have to talk to you, Mama,” he breathlessly began, for wasn’t she the only person who would truly listen?

“Yes, Edgar,” she said, smiling. “Do you have some good news?”

He took a jar top in his fingers, shifting it from left to right. Its rim caught the sun rays from the window. “Something happened,” he told her, his face flushed. I thought at first that I might be reading too much of the Bible I thought I was imagining. But I know I wasn’t, Mama. I know that what happened was real.”

His mother was silent, accepting, and Edgar blurted out the story of the strange figure by the stream. He described the humming, and the woman’s request that he had answered. “Do you think I’m not right in the head? He asked, for his mother seemed always so wise. “Do you think something is wrong with me?”

“No!, “ she replied at once. “There is so much that we cannot understand. Our preacher at church spoke of a French Shepard boy who became famous because he could see into people’s bodies... Your vision must have great meaning, perhaps for your future. Don’t regret reading the Bible, Edgar. Doesn’t it comfort us, ‘Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full....Let not your heart be troubled’?”

“But what will father think of this?” Edgar said carefully. “He always worries that my head is stuffed with cotton.”

His mother firmly tightened three of the jar tops. “Your father is a wonderful man,” Carrie Cayse answered. “W we are fortunate for his devotion.” She turned then and looked calmly at her son, reaching out to touch a strand of his brown hair. “But what happened in the woods, Edgar, can remain a trust just between you and me. No one else needs to know of it, do they?”

Edgar gazed back into his mother’s eyes. The light that shone there reminded him of the glow by the willows. A spring breeze from the window was bathing his face. “No, Mama.” He said slowly, nodding his head at her in agreement. “No one else needs to be told.”

The schoolroom had almost emptied of students, the last scuff of shoe leather echoing on the stone pavement. Edgar was kept behind, however, writing with painstaking care on the blackboard. He had misspelled the word cabin in class, when long ago he should have memorized it. With a groan of despair, his teacher had insisted that he work in school after the bell. “You’ll write cabin five hundred times on the blackboard,” Edgar was told. Will that make you remember?” And today I shall talk to your father. Someone must take you to task.”

Four hundred and eighty-two cabins covered the blackboard. Again and again Edgar had written the word in chalk. Yet even now he was thinking of the quail that he’d watched strutting across a field of jonquils and the silver-streaked fish that had darted through the shallow pond. He wished that the letters c-a-b-i-n could be branded into his brain, like the smoking marks stamped with the hot iron on the hides of new cattle.

At Last! The blackboard was filled with the five hundred words. Edgar laid the stub of the chalk in the tray and put on his woolen jacket. He hastened down a row of desks and through the broad, open doorway. When he’d passed Liberty Church and his uncle’s store at the crossroads, he breathed a sigh of relief. His father was not waiting for him at the store window, where the farmers gathered to talk of politics and tobacco crops. Perhaps the schoolmaster had changed his mind.

But at diner that evening, Edgar was aware of the stern glance directed his way. “Enough is enough,” the squire announced. “I’ve brought home your spelling bok. Edgar. Tonight you will memorize all the lessons.”

“I’ll try, Father,” he answered.

The squire frowned and wiped his moustache. Edgar’s sister Annie giggled nervously, while Mary , Ola, and Sarah were busily eating their bread. Edgar’s mother folded her napkin. “Trying, Old Man, won’t do.” Said the squire. You are to succeed. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father,” he’d answered.

After the dishes were washed and Edgar’s sisters sent to bed, the squire positioned himself at the dinning room table with the tattered spelling book. Edgar set next to him in another chair. For more than an hour , the lesson words were barked like commands, and Edgar was to spell them.

Finally a confusion poured over him. He blinked tiredly, words clattering in his mind. Letters seemed to hop back and forth. “S-i-e-z-e,” He said slowly.

“No!” the squire shouted. “I’ve asked you that word ten times! IT’s-e-i-z-e. Don’t you listen, Edgar? Don’t you care whether you pass in school?

“I-I’ not very good at spelling,” he murmured.

“Or, according to your teacher, at English, history, or geography! It’s a disgrace! One more chance, Edgar. Spell ounce.”

Edgar stiffened his shoulders, pushing against some invisible weight. Why did he always fail?

The word ounce began to sound quite peculiar to him, as if it were not any word at all—as if it were a cry of frustration or pain. “Ounce” he repeated quietly. “O-w....n-c-e.”

The slap of his father’s hand on his cheek knocked him to the floor. He wanted to disappear, to dissolve. “I give up,” the squire said. “I’m waiting my time.”

Edgar felt the rom spinning around him, but then a soft, somehow familiar voice spoke beyond the ringing in his ears. A humming circled the table. “Let me help you,” the voice said soothingly. “Rest your head on the spelling book. Sleep a few moments.....”

“Could I rest a bit, Father?” he pleaded. “Ask me the lesson again in five minutes. I’ll do better, I promise.”

The squire shrugged and stood up. “I’ll have myself a glass of water,” he said, starting towards the kitchen door..”But what’s the use? You’ll never learn.”

Edgar pulled himself back up into the wooden chair. The spelling book was on the table, and he bent forward, letting his check sink down on it. His arms were folded and he closed his eyes. Only several seconds passed before he was dozing. When his father shook him awake, he felt deeply rested. He felt ,in a way that he could not name, a kind of release, a renewal. “Let’s stop this nonsense for the night.” The squire muttered grimly.

“WAIT! Edgar said. “Please ask me some more words, Father. I think I’ll know them now.”

Disgustedly the squire lifted the spelling book and swung it open. He pronounced one of the words, and Edgar spelled it correctly. With surprise, the squire choose another word, and then another. Edgar spelled each one without a mistake.

“What does this mean?” The squire asked.

“I can tell you the page number where you are reading,” Edgar answered. ” It’s page number fourteen!” You can turn to any page in the book, Father----and although I can’t say why—

I”ll know all the words on it! You’ve just stopped at page forth-three There’s a picture of a covered haystack. Under the haystack are two words: thatched, t-h-a-t-c-h-e-d, and preservation, p-r-e-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n!”

The squire closed the book with a snap. He raised his are as if to strike Edgar again, and then he slumped into his chair. “Are you trying to make a fool of me, Edgar? You’ve known the lessons all along, haven’t you? Did you want to stay a schoolboy and not become a man?”

“Honestly,” Edgar answered, recalling the soothing voice in his ears and the radiant vision from the woods, “I can’t explain what’s happened. I just went to sleep on my spelling book, and for some reason I see all the pages inside my head.”

The squire sighed. “I’m too tired,” he said, “to understand what makes no sense. How can you see without looking? Tomorrow we’ll find out if you know your work.”

Edgar fell into bed, the walls of his room striped by the shadows. Wary of losing his new power, he tucked the spelling book under his pillow. He was thinking of the shepherd boy who had been able to see into people’s bodies. Had the Shepard boy also seen into books? Were there other people, someplace in the world, who could do such impossible things?

The next morning, when he recited at home—and in school----he did not make a single error.

The book seemed printed across his memory. Following dismissal bell, however, he blundered onto a game of ball in the field. The other boys allowed him to run a base or two, but as he slid onto a burlap patch of cloth he felt a sharp blow on the bottom of his spine. He had been hit by a hard thrown ball. Trebling and dizzy, he stifled a cry. He reeled across the dirt field, and then backed away to the road, forcing himself to stay upright. “Go on home to your books, Old Man,” yelled his schoolmates, unaware and uncaring about his pain. Were they more content, he wondered, when he’d been the dunce in class?

As the afternoon wore on, Edgar felt worse and worse. His parents were concerned over his bluish-white color and the dazed look of his eyes. They put him to bed, not knowing that he had lapsed into shock, his pulse weakened and slow. He was perspiring on his blanket, fitfully drowsing, when suddenly he began to speak aloud. “Make a poultice.” He said in a loud, bold, confident voice, a voice much deeper and more authoritative than usual. He listed herbs that were to be mixed in a base of corn-meal. “Hurry!” he told his astonished parents. “Place the poultice on the back of my head, at the nape of my neck. It will heat the skin surface, increase circulation, and will bring me out of spinal shock. Otherwise, I will suffer permanent damage.”

The squire simply gaped, but Edgar’s mother rushed from the room to gather the herbs. After the poultice had been applied, Edgar smiled and stretched out in a peaceful, unbroken slumber.

At sunrise, there he sat at the breakfast table, completely recovered. “Good morning,” he said. “I must have been seeping since yesterday, when I was put to bed. But I still know my spelling book. I’ve already practiced.”

“Don’t you recall instructing us about the poultice, Edgar the squire asked.

“No , Father. What instructions? Edgar replied, but the squire shook his head and did not answer.

As Edgar and his sisters left the table, the squire was talking in low tones to Edgar’s mother.

“I am not easily made afraid,” the squire confided almost shyly. “But I keep asking myself, Carrie, who is this stranger, this changed boy, who is supposed to be my son?”

From the doorway, Edgar could see his mother’s face. “Edgar is special,” his mother answered his father. “He has always been special.” She smoothed the pleated folds of here cotton apron. Was this mother remembering about the vision in the woods, about the secret that was a sacred trust between them? “There are signs and wonders,” Carie Cayce said at last, “that may be difficult to believe. But Edgar has a gift, Leslie, that is all his own. And I think,” she added gently while Edgar scooted from the cottage, “that it is a gift that you and I must not ever try to question.”

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