By Forrest Brown
It was one of those miserable summer days in Creek County, Tennessee, the kind where your bare legs stick to the vinyl seats of your car. You wouldn’t be outside for more than five minutes checking the mailbox, and you could already feel the sweat running down your back. The thermometer read 85 degrees, but the air was so humid that the sweat never evaporated from your forehead. The air simply couldn’t hold any more moisture without coming up a downpour.
The river felt refreshing when Isaac Johnson first stepped into its waters that summer day in Creek County. It had been a wet July, and the heavy rains made the water feel like ice around his feet. He had just finished mowing the grass at the Douglasville Church of the Holy Redeemer like he did every Saturday morning, and he watched as the little flecks of grass that were stuck between his toes gently floated away as the water washed over his feet. He waded out deeper, taking it slow to allow his body to adjust to the water gradually. The first nearly unbearable point was when the water was above his knees, then his belly button, then his chest.
It was freezing, and he was breathing heavily for a short time while his body got accustomed to the ice bath. He stopped there, with the water right around his chest.
Before Isaac’s daddy died, he had always told Isaac never to go any deeper than his chest when swimming in the river alone. It wasn’t safe. In some of the deeper places the current got strong and could knock a grown man off his feet. Isaac’s body was cool, but he could still feel the sun singeing the back of his neck and the crown of his shaved head. He dunked himself under the water, came back up, and was wiping the water from his eyes when he heard a cheery voice call from the bank.
“Good morning, Mr. Isaac!”
Isaac whipped around to see Pastor David standing on the bank. Pastor David was wearing neatly ironed khaki pants with leather shoes, a short-sleeve button-up shirt, and the big, rounded wire-frame glasses that were popular for businessmen in the 50s.
He looked like he should be burning alive, but as far as Isaac could tell he hadn’t broken a sweat.
“Hi, Pastor David,” Isaac called back.
Something about the man made him want to stay as far away from him as possible. He took a step back even though he was a good twenty feet away.
Pastor David gestured behind him with his right thumb.
“Lawn looks nice. You sure do a good job of keeping it looking pretty.”
“Thank you, sir,” Isaac replied. “I just finished up about ten minutes ago. I thought I’d cool off in the river real quick.”
“It is mighty hot out,” Pastor David replied. “Say, mind if I join you? I’m sorry to say I haven’t been river swimming since I was a boy.”
Isaac shivered. “Yes sir, of course. Water’s a bit chilly but it feels good once you’ve gotten used to it.”
“Oh, I think I can handle it,” Pastor David replied as he began to unbutton his shirt. “I may be old, but my body still does a fine job of keeping itself in check.” He finished stripping down to his boxers and stepped slowly into the river. “Ah, now that’s nice.”
Pastor David’s face and neck were tan from many sunny days such as this, but underneath where his shirt usually covered his skin was so pale it almost hurt Isaac’s eyes to look at him.
“I learned about how people’s bodies stay warm in biology class,” Isaac replied. “Most people’s temperature stays about the same most of the time, usually right around 98 degrees. My momma taught me that last part.”
He talked more when he was nervous.
“My, aren’t you a smart boy? I bet you’re almost too smart for school. They probably let you teach the class, don’t they?”
“No sir, not quite yet. But I might teach classes one day.”
“Really?” Pastor David was up to his belly button in the water by now. “That sort of career choice usually requires some sort of higher education, usually at least a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. Have you thought at all about continuing your education after you graduate from high school next year?”
“Yes sir, I have. I’m looking at a few schools already.”
“You don’t say! What schools would those be?”
“UT Knoxville, Arkansas, UNC, and UCLA.”
“UCLA! That’s mighty far away, Mr. Isaac. Not too many people of faith in California either, now. They’ll try to tell you that we all evolved from monkeys! You don’t believe that you evolved from a monkey, now do you, Mr. Isaac?”
Isaac blushed. “No, sir, I’m a Christian.”
Pastor David was up to his chest in the river now. He didn’t gasp as Isaac had when the water reached his chest.
“That’s right, Mr. Isaac. And I don’t care how you try to spin it, the Theory of Evolution is simply incompatible with Scripture! The Bible says very clearly that God created man and woman, not ‘God created monkeys that evolved into man and woman.’”
“Now, college is mighty expensive. Say you do get accepted to one of these fancy schools you applied to and you do want to go there– how might you pay for that exactly? I know Mr. Herb gave you this job helping take care of the church property, but surely that wouldn’t be enough money to cover four years of tuition at one of those prestigious universities.”
“I’m not quite sure yet, sir. I’ve been looking at a bunch of different scholarships, so maybe I’ll get one of those.”
“Well, maybe so, but you can probably imagine how many other boys and girls are also looking at those scholarships! I thought I heard something one of the elders was saying about a college fund through the church…you wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Mr. Isaac?”
“Yes, sir, I think I’ve heard something about it.”
“It would seem that Mr. Landry…you know who Mr. Landry is, don’t you, Mr. Isaac?”
Isaac nodded, taking another step back in the river.
“Well, the Lord has been very good to Mr. Landry, so in return Mr. Landry made the extremely generous offer to pay the entire sum of tuition for an intelligent young man or woman, given that they are a baptized Christian. Have you thought about looking more into that scholarship, Mr. Isaac? That could be a really good opportunity for a bright young man such as yourself, and just as you said, you are, in fact, a Christian. Isn’t that right?”
“Well, see, that’s just it, Pastor David,” Isaac said. He could no longer back up for fear of being caught in the rapids on the far side of the river and being swept off downstream.
“What do you mean, Mr. Isaac?”
“I do believe in God and in the Bible and in Jesus, Pastor David, but I’m not a baptized Christian.”
“Well, you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for your sins, don’t you?”
“Yes, it’s just that I haven’t been baptized yet.”
“Well, how come?” Pastor David replied, as if teasing a confession out of a small child.
“I don’t know, sir, I just haven’t. I really wanted my daddy to be the one to do it, but as you know he passed away when I was a little boy.”
“Well you want to go to heaven, don’t you, Isaac?” He paused for a moment and said in a deeper, quieter voice, “I sure would like to see you in heaven one day.”
At this Isaac was nervous. “Yes, sir, I do. I guess I’m just waiting to see what God wants me to do.”
“Well, I can understand how a boy would want his daddy to baptize him, but it’s written in the Scriptures that baptism is necessary for salvation. Even Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist. You don’t think you’re better than Jesus, now do you?”
“No, sir, I just…”
“Well, what are you waiting for? I can baptize you right here and now! God accepts all who accept the gift of Jesus on the cross. All you need to do is repent and be baptized.”
Pastor David stepped closer toward Isaac and he was almost within arm’s reach. “Come on, Isaac. You want to be saved, don’t you? I can take you into His Kingdom.”
A strange look came across Pastor David’s face, and Isaac could see the devil in his eyes at last.
“No!” Isaac screamed and Pastor David lunged forward. Isaac ducked his head underwater, kicked off from the riverbed, and swam back towards the bank as fast as he could.
When he finally did reach the bank he grabbed hold of a tree root sticking out of the water and came up to catch his breath. Perhaps only a second had gone by before he noticed the muffled screams coming from the far side of the river. Pastor David had stepped off into the deep end when he lunged at Isaac and was swept off in the rapids.
Isaac looked on in horror as the current flung the pastor’s body against massive boulders and dragged him underwater between cries for help.
Breathing heavily and on the verge of a panic attack, Isaac made his way back up to the shore where his and Pastor David’s clothes lay in a heap up on the grass. He dragged himself out of the water, grabbed his clothes, and was about to take off running for the church when he nearly ran right into Mr. Herb. He was standing behind a honeysuckle bush, staring off through a break in the branches. Isaac followed his gaze to catch the last glimpse of Pastor David’s still body floating down the river. Isaac’s eyes darted back to Mr. Herb.
Mr. Herb turned his head slowly to look down at Isaac. Everyone always said that Mr. Herb was mostly blind, but Isaac knew from the way he looked at him that he had seen everything.
“Mr. Herb,” Isaac said, feeling the onset of hot tears at the corners of his eyes, “It was an accident. He…Pastor David…stepped off the deep end and…”
“…and nothing,” Mr. Herb said slowly in his quiet, deep voice that could silence a room.
He was standing so that his wide-brimmed straw hat blocked out the sun, and it looked like the rays were emanating from his skull. His cataract-misted eyes contrasted against his almost pitch black skin gave Isaac an uncomfortable feeling, like he could see right into what Isaac was thinking.
“Pastor David agreed to baptize you in the river. You lost your footing since the rains have been so heavy and the water is so quick, and in the process of trying to save you, Pastor David regrettably drowned. You just ran up to the tool shed and informed me, whereupon I went to call the police.”
Isaac stood in awe, his mouth wide open.
Mr. Herb slowly turned his back to Isaac and started walking towards the church to find the telephone. Within thirty minutes the police were taping off the area, and a crew was on their way to come drag a net up the river for the pastor’s body. Isaac sat on the bumper of his mother’s old Buick LaCrosse, watching from a distance as she talked to the police. Mr. Herb stood over by the front door to the church, catching some shade while the July afternoon sun beat down hellfire.
Isaac stared at him, and Mr. Herb eventually looked back at him. This time it was different though, as if he were looking at something behind Isaac. His gaze shifted to follow a bird flying overhead. He hadn’t seen Isaac staring at him after all. The bird flew over where Isaac sat and landed on a white oak branch beside the church, near Mr. Herb. It ruffled its feathers and looked down at Mr. Herb, as if in admiration. Mr. Herb looked up and nodded his head, then he went right back to looking straight ahead. Isaac cocked his head sideways in puzzlement—it was the first time he had seen a dove, white as glory, in Creek County.
Isaac remembered learning in Sunday school about the story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. Even though Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize him, John the Baptist had refused because he said he wasn’t worthy to baptize Jesus. Jesus insisted, and after John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the river, a dove came and landed on Jesus’ shoulder. The Sunday school teacher said that the dove was a sign from God that he was pleased with Jesus. Isaac wondered now, looking up at that dove near Mr. Herb, if maybe God wasn’t telling Mr. Herb that too.
The Pharisees were also there when Jesus went to be baptized, and Jesus had called them a “brood of vipers.” They were religious leaders, just like Pastor David. Isaac had always been taught to respect Pastor David, but now he couldn’t shake the thought of how much Pastor David had looked like a snake, like the devil, back there in the river. Jesus said every tree that didn’t produce good fruit would be thrown into the fire. Isaac couldn’t help thinking Pastor David was trying to drag Isaac down with him.
Isaac’s mother came back over to the car where Isaac sat, pondering the events of the afternoon.
“Come on, honey, let’s go home.”
Raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the outskirts of Metro-Atlanta, Forrest Brown grew up mostly unappreciative of the musical and literary traditions of the South until high school. After a brief stint in the music industry, Forrest returned to doing what he loves most– writing fiction informed by his love/hate relationship with the region he calls home. Forrest Brown currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @frrstbrwn.
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