It’s all over. Leave the preacher with his stuffed head. Leave him to pipe alone, in his vaunted, windowless chamber. Mincing steps and words together play a tune of figurative rhetoric that’s best left to poets. And who is he, but a man whose eyes are stained glass, with splits that break through Mary’s skull? He knows nothing.
And yet he’s broken me with his ideas. The effects of ideas from powerful men are flies on corpses. Bury the dead, and bury the ideas with them. Set the living free.
I traveled to the river to be done with him. I stepped in the water, and its muddy eddies caught me, overwhelmed me. But this is what baptism is about. This is it. The river swallowed me and spit me out, and, in an instant, I was a fair distance from the dock where I’d stepped down. A man–a black spot, a black crow–stood on the dock with head craned to watch me. I knew him; he was a homeless man who’d been homeless since childhood when it was cool to wash his greasy hair in Skidmore fountain and smoke cigarettes stolen from strangers–when it was cool to smoke, to hold slender cylinders between two fingers and wave the hand around as though life’s meaning could be discovered in mimicry.
It couldn’t. I fought my way back to the dock and pulled myself up. The black crow was disgusted with my show, but he was too stooped to hurl abandoned shopping carts at me as he had done in this very place twenty-five years ago. It wasn’t a show, though. I hadn’t meant to drown, or drift away, or fight for my life. And when I stood, dripping with water, the mud clinging to my old shirt–as if the shivering wasn’t enough–the pain hit me hard. I had picked up a hitchhiker in the water.
She was a water creature, as ugly as any other blood-sucking leach. Her body was miserably deformed, her face awry with a twisted nose, crooked teeth, and sagging lips from too much clinging with her mouth. I tried to brush her off, which was wasted effort. And so I carried her with me, away from the homeless man, who followed me up the waterfront for a while, shouting at me all the insults I’d been telling myself for the last twenty-five years: Who are you, stupid bitch? You’re nobody. You’re a lowlife like me, only worse because you’re an old lady now, and age doesn’t suit you. Too bad there was no need for him to add to the din already present. Aside from that, I had more important problems, such as the hitchhiker attached to my side with her disgusting teeth. I could feel her venom filling my veins.
Back at the pastor’s house, the world was ordered with people who made sense. Here–a group of ladies who smiled at me and talked behind my back. There–a group of men who avoided my eyes. God, I hated the women’s dresses, full skirts and cut with roses. I hated the men in their tough jeans. I hated all of them, but the hate wouldn’t last. The venom of it ran out of the bloodsucker’s mouth, emptying itself.
Who did she think she was? I yanked on her body, but she wouldn’t budge. I panicked. I stumbled outside; I swooned on the top step. I covered my face with my hands in order to avoid the ugly eyes staring back at me. But I could feel her. I could feel her teeth digging into my flesh. I winced, and then I peeled my salty, mud-encrusted hands from my face. I was stronger than she was. I was three times her size, and my strong fingers were capable of inflicting damage.
I wrapped my hands around her neck and pressed down on her larynx, crushing it. She didn’t let go. Her face turned blue, and I hated her for her blue face, and I hated her because she was ugly, and for the way her body convulsed with the pain of death. Things of feminine nature were supposed to be beautiful and enchanting, especially those who rose from waterways. They were supposed to captivate. Yet, she was as ugly as sin. She was as ugly as I was. Finally, her disgusting leach body–her disgusting blob of crude femininity–limped to my side. She was dead.
I entered the house, shaking. Her teeth still punctured my skin. In fact, an early onset of rigor mortis had set in, and I knew I wouldn’t remove her from my side very easily. With a smile set from one cheek to another, I strolled in the house. I attempted to pull her from my side, but my efforts were frail. The women with their cut-rose dresses surely would understand why I had a stinking river maid attached to my side. It wasn’t my fault. But it was my fault, and they would inform me, because I’d tried to baptize myself in the river and wash myself clean. Consequently, I had a leach attached to my side. I pulled my baggy shirt over her figure. I was a murderer, and the men and women didn’t need to know.
I hid in the bathroom. Nobody would break in on me there, and I could extricate her teeth from my fat. I shut the door and scraped the hanging lock into its loop with shaking fingers. I pulled off my shirt, saw her figure hanging there, dead. Her eyelids jolted open. I fell on the edge of the tub. Her mouth twisted into a smile against my skin, her teeth still clinging hard.
What was I thinking? This was the outcome of water. I was she. She was I. I couldn’t kill her, not even in a last fit of suicide in the river because I would find her there. She would wait for me in the silt, deep below where nobody dares drift.
She wouldn’t let go. I wouldn’t let go. And the pastors with the stuffed heads could sleep in their windowless chambers, their stained glass cracked through Mary’s head. They could pipe for their own, who would follow like mesmerized sheep.
I wasn’t a sheep. I was an ugly river maid, and I would never let go.