She stood over her island in a flour dusted apron, the light made everything look like it had been brushed in butter. She barely looked at me, shook her head as she bent and pushed the wood over dough, rolled it out and cut it through into long thin strips. "It's dead of winter Sarah." She turned from my mud soaked body to drop the white ribbons into boiling water.
We lived by a creek and the creek lived by a mud hole my father had dug out to make into a pond. My friend Emily and I were fascinated equally by both. My father walked us around the long circle of brown muck shaking his head and telling us he thought it would never fill. He had a way of making things out for the worst, just in case. Once I overheard someone say "That man is the most positive human alive when it comes to things of the spirit, but boy is he a pessimist about everything else." I didn't know what half those words meant at the time, but I was pretty sure he was suggesting my father thought God would likely raise up a dead man before the water in a pond. Even still I believed every word my father said, and I would worry over it with him. I'd stick branches in the dirt a few inches above the waterline and wait for the two to meet, just to be sure he hadn't dug that hole for nothing.
The pond had been built like a giant measuring bowl with a wooded slope forming the lip on one side and the other a narrow rim that abruptly dropped and disappeared into woods at the bottom of a steep hill. This worked as the dam. It was covered in zebra grass which grew so tall it blocked from view a footpath that followed a small stream to the mouth of the creek. Emily and I would abandon our bikes in the grass and sneak down, leaving but a trail of socks and shoes.
The water was just wide enough that one could half heartedly cast a fishing pole without catching the bank on the other end. It was freckled with large smooth rocks, connected by smaller stones that formed capricious trails from one side to the other. We would take off most of our clothes and drape them from low hung branches then pass the time leaping across the constellations of brown stones, made black with water. It did not matter the weather, as children have a keen way of not feeling the cold.
When we would become tired of not so accidentally slipping into the water, we'd spread out our bodies on the larger flattened rocks, finding Jacob pillows in the curves of stone and let our skin dry out. The conversation always seemed to turn to that of God. Heaven and hell and what happened in the air between. I'd recall to her times my father had laid hands on men who turned strange when their tormented insides were exposed. We'd shiver at the thought and whisper low about what might be happening all around us if only we could catch a glimpse.
On one such occasion, as we spoke of the greater things in hushed voices I told her I had asked God to one day see. Id like to witness the furious light of angels and even the darker parts of shadows, just to be sure I was really here with Him. My skin prickled at the thought, unsure if what I had asked for was really such a good idea. We had both become quiet, reverently contemplating these things, when I saw a movement in my peripheral. I glanced to the side, and slipping out of two stacked rocks was the face of a red brown snake. Its smooth angular head lifted to looked me square in the eyes, about a foot from my nose.
Now satan himself couldn't have startled me more than that serpent, and come to think of it, it was satan I thought I was looking right at. I was always told to become very still when seeing an animal you had no business being near, but after all our spirit world talk I was thoroughly convinced I wasn't looking at just any old snake. I leapt clean off the rock, grabbing Emily by her elbow and screaming the name of the good Lord Jesus as water splashed up our bare legs. The snake reared and struck forward just where my cheek had been.
If someone had been watching they would have thought we were walking on water the way we moved across the creek and up the embankment. Emily's eyes were as big as moons and her bottom lip was trembling. We grabbed our clothes off the branches and ran towards the dam. I felt like there were snakes everywhere, sliding under foot and creeping through the legs of the pants slung over my shoulder. We found ourselves bare-skinned and heaving, doubled over in the slanted grass.
I stared at Emily, a reflection of my own awe and terror in her pale eyes. "I saw the devil in that snake, and I don't want the devil inside, so I suppose you ought to baptize me."
"Well you'd better baptize me too then," she whispered, her bottom lip still fluttering.
Memories have a sly way of shrinking and deflating with time. They collide against the hardness of age, and the impact reshapes the way we remember. My adult mind would like to suggest to my younger self that it was merely a snake sandwiched between two stones, but that wouldn't be fair. The fledgling me that dwelled within a gangly, tangled haired girl witnessed something else all together. I am beginning to think these robust, untouched memories of our youth might hold more truth after all, depending on the kind of truth you are searching for.
And so, this is what shall be remembered.....
The bank that dropped into the pond was steep. We half ran, half slid down its side, powdery skin against black of dirt and roots. Our feet sunk into the mud, surfacing plums of brown mist that wrapped around our waists. The sky was an ashen dome, its edges bowing to meet the contours of a watery nest. The heavens, all seated in a silent circle, watched two tiny flecks of white move against the darkness.
If words were spoken, voiced prayers to consummate our intent I don't recall them. I can only see the pale yellow of her hair become translucent in the water as she lowered, my hands clinging to her body tilted. She disappeared and then returned, each strand fanned out around her like a crown of wheat. Tiny rivets of muddy water slid down her face and caught in a pool beneath her neck. Shivering, she turned to me and placed a hand on my back, the other wrapped around my forearm.
For that briefest moment I was nothing more than the stones underfoot, the silver branches grazing heaven. I did not deserve the breath I held, and yet I still received because that is all I could really ever do. I just hadn't known. God poured out the seas He contained in jars, and the pond stretched endless. Hands and feet and belly all there to accept the well inside the water, the life found only in drowning. I can still close my eyes and feel the cold wet cloth that held me, forever giving back what was His to keep. I am baptized again and again, filth washed from feathers, left at the bottom of a half full pond.