Issue 1:2 | Fiction | Silas House


DOG DAYS, 1968

They came down out of the shadows of the mountain and stepped into the white light of a Sunday morning. The crowd was large and they were all singing. Their voices drifted down the river and was carried to people who lived near the water's edge. Dozens of people singing, all of their voices lifted in the same harmony, forty mouths making their lips work around the same words. There was harmony in their voices, but also in the way they moved down onto the river's bank, as if they had practiced so their legs would move in the same stride, so their arms would swing in rhythm.
This morning there were six people who were to be baptized. Among them were Easter and her husband, El. Easter had started crying as soon as the crowd started singing and walking down the worn path that led to the river's edge. She was filled with such an amazing joy that she cried from the effort of containing it with her chest. She let the tears fall freely from her face as she joined in with the others:
I'm going to live right now
I said I'm going to live right now
When I woke up this morning,
I felt that great glory
I'm going to live right now.
She ran her thumb over El's hand as she held onto it. He walked along very stiffly, and watching him from the corner of her eye, Easter wondered if he was as moved as she was. When he became very still and straight-backed like this, he was usually suppressing some emotion that he didn't feel free in sharing. She hoped that he felt this pressing of joy against his ribcage, the way she did. She wanted him to know how it felt to be completely happy, to finally be at peace. She had been baptized once before-when she was a child, but she had backslid and now she knew that she had to be baptized again. She needed to be cleansed.
The people kept singing until the preacher waded out into the water and held his Bible high in the air. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and the sunlight glinted off the little waves, making golden pockmarks on his face. He began to talk, but Easter did not really hear him. She was looking for her sister, Anneth. There was a great crowd of onlookers on the riverbank. Most of them were from the church, but there were lots of people who had come to see the baptism. She saw several people crying, moved by the sight of the first woman who walked slowly into the water. Easter leaned to this side and that, trying to catch sight of Anneth standing on the shore, but she couldn't see her anywhere. Anneth had assured her that she would be here.
One by one they made their way into the water and finally it was El's turn. Just before he went out, Easter stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. "I love you," she whispered in his ear, and in that moment she loved him more than she ever had before. She had a sudden, startling thought: he is only doing this for me. She didn't want that; she wanted him to serve the Lord because that was what he most wanted to do. But she knew that she would always keep this in the back of her mind, this notion that he was only going to start attending church because he knew that that was she wanted. This was a good thing, to think he'd do something this large for her, but still, it wouldn't be right. She shook this from her mind and tried not to think about it, for fear of spoiling the beauty of this day. She trembled with tears when he she saw him standing there in waist-deep water. He kept his head down and looked at the water while the preacher said a few words. Then the preacher put one hand over El's mouth and the other at his back. Then they were dipping back, like dancers, until El was under the water. When the preacher brought him back up, El lifted his arms high in the air and kept his eyes closed and his mouth moved. He was praying, he was full of the spirit. Slowly he began to speak in tongues and the preacher was lifting his own arms high into the air, shouting "Praise Glory!" The spirit drifted from El and hit the people on the bank. Some of them jerked back as the Holy Ghost descended upon them. Several people began to speak in tongues and cry and call out to the sky, but Easter was so overtaken by gladness that she could do nothing except put her hands over her mouth and laugh. The joy within bubbled up and escaped this way, through laughter. She had never been so happy in her life.
Anneth stood among the trees, watching. No one was aware of her, and she loved this feeling of spying, of not being known. There was a crowd of people on the bank and when El was baptized, they all got into the spirit of things. They were shouting and waving their arms and hollering. She knew this was because they all knew El had been a bad sinner. When church-people see a bad sinner be baptized, they get real happy, Anneth thought. She saw Easter standing down there, the next to be baptized, and it made Anneth want to cry. It filled her with a great sadness but she could not put her finger on the source of its manifestation. Easter just looked so pitiful there, her thin arms, the wisps of her hair flying out of the bobby pins that caught sunlight. Anneth wanted nothing more than to run down the mountainside and wrap her sister up in her arms. She thought of all the kindness Easter had shown to her since she was born. She had been both a mother and a sister to her. "I love you so much," Anneth whispered. Only the leaves heard.
 Anneth lit a cigarette. The strike of her match was so loud that she looked up quickly, afraid it had drawn the attention of the people down on the shore. But there was much noise down there and of course nobody had noticed. She was wearing last night's dress and it reeked of smoke and whisky. She had been out all night partying with Lolie and Israel and had nearly overslept. She had awakened just in time to jump into her car without so much as brushing her hair and speeding along the winding road until she got to the baptizing place. She didn't want to be seen, so she had crashed through the woods away from the path. She had been careful of snakes, as it was dog days, and this meant they were crawling blind. Finally she had caught sight of the river and made her place here, hidden.
She sat down on the mossy ground while Easter waded out into the water. She didn't know if she could bear seeing Easter be put under. She didn't know why. But when the preacher swooped Easter back Anneth felt a sudden start, as if Easter might drown, and she sat up very straight-backed, peering through the trees. It seemed as if Easter stayed under forever, as if she might never be brought back up. Anneth had a sudden thought that the preacher was holding her under, that he was drowning her. Just when her panic spread all the way up her back, the preacher brought Easter out of the water and the whole crowd started singing again and all their hands went into the air, praising the Lord. Easter shook all over as she walked out of the river. She paused halfway out, standing in the water with her arms raised and her eyes closed. There was so much joy on her face. There was complete peace. And Anneth knew why she felt this great sadness; she feared that she would never know what that felt like, to be completely sure of yourself, to know for certain that what you are doing is what you most want to do in your life. That is what Anneth wanted more than anything, to have that look of assuredness and happiness upon her face. She was positive that such knowledge would never come to her.
The crowd moved back up the riverbank and climbed the steep path that led back up the mountain to the road. They were singing again, "Meeting in the Air," and their voices silenced those of the birds who sat silently, watching, in the trees lining the path. Something told Easter to look up, and when she did, she saw Anneth, standing back there amongst the trees. No one else had noticed her, for she stood within the shadows of the great hickories and sycamores leaning over the river. She started to let go of El 's hand and run through the woods to her sister, but then Anneth simply put one hand up and made a peace sign. A big smile covered her face and she nodded. She kept her hand up, two fingers frozen in the air, and Easter knew this meant to move on, to stay with the singing crowd as they made their way back up to the mile-long line of cars that sat on the side of the road.
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