"Take Me to the Water"
Bernestine Singley © 1999
Elfin McEachern cut his eyes to the right when he heard one of the boys sitting halfway down the pew behind him raise a howl, but he knew better than to turn his head. He didn’t want to get in trouble with Grandma Annie. Neither did he want to see anyone doing anything that he really felt like doing or he just might do it too and then he’d really get in trouble.
Elfin and four other seven-year olds were lined up on the front pew waiting to be baptized at the evening service. The twins were holding hands and staring straight ahead. Dinky Cato was weeping quietly. Every now and then, he would close his mouth, sniff real hard and drag snot back up his nose. But as soon as he dropped his bottom lip and started breathing again, his little trail of slime began its slow descent.
Elise Mitchell leaned forward to get a better view of the howling boy sitting a few spaces down from her in the middle of the nine-year olds. She glared her disapproval and reached up, tugging a huge pink-flowered bouffant-style shower cap down over her ears and letting it snap into place.
Suddenly, the howling stopped. Elise smiled. Her smallest finger crept beneath the plastic cap’s lace-lined elastic edge and scratched daintily along her temple. The howling boy cranked up again, a spasm of hiccups occasionally interrupting his braying. Elise turned a deaf ear as both her hands methodically worked their way around her head, scratching furiously. It was all unsettling to Elfin. Plus, now he had to pee.
If Lolly Redfern, Elfin’s best friend, had been sitting next to him, he would have felt a lot better.
As it was, Lolly was already up there, firmly in Rev. Clemmon’s grip, raising Cain, thrashing and flailing trying desperately to get loose. She was soaking wet and so was he even though she was the first Candidate for Baptism and he hadn’t even taken her down yet.
Lolly’s body glistened. Her sun-browned face and arms stood in stark contrast to the creamy whiteness that stretched from her puny chest down to the tops of her thighs. She looked as though she might have been put together from someone else’s spare parts.
Nobody was surprised that Lolly was raising hell. Or that she showed up to be baptized in a chartreuse double-knit bikini. Everybody had a Lolly story and a Lolly story couldn’t end until somebody said, “Jes’ lak her momma.” Then somebody else had to say, “Unh-huh.”
The men made their points, always directed towards Elfin, a different way.
“She gone be hard to handle, li’l man. Yes, indeedy!” Or, “You thank you gone be able to keep her in line when y’all get married?”
Whenever someone teased him like that, Elfin just smiled sweetly. He sensed that he was being complimented on his choice, but he was not at all certain about whatever else they meant.
Now in the gloom of the Sunday evening service with all of the windows raised and the fans whirring overhead, one long tremor came out of nowhere and slipped through the soles of his feet. It snaked up his skinny little body and spread out, icy, across the top of his head. He sat there shivering on the pew feeling naked as a jay bird in the middle of winter.
Grandma Annie’s alto harmonized somewhere behind him, picking him up and carrying him back to the previous night’s conversation on the back stoop. It floated up and hung, suspended and heavy, over his head.
“Coloreds ain’t safe nowhere,” Deacon Beaty volunteered. “Them crackers ovah theah in Jasper hitched that boy to they pickup and dragged him around ‘til they pulled his head and arms clean off.”
“Lak he wurn’t no mo’ than a June bug or sumpin’,” Brother Bohannen agreed.
“And they ain’t gone do no time either. We already know that.” He straddled his chair, balancing on its two back legs and leaning against the brick wall separating the two apartments sharing a stoop.
Y’all, hush,” Grandma Annie hissed, rolling her eyes first towards the child in her lap and then towards the one at her feet.
“Don’t talk like that in front of these children.” She wrapped her arms tighter around the small boy sitting in her lap with his back to her chest. Her knees brushed gently from side to side against the little girl whose bent back had stiffened and whose fingers had suddenly stopped twirling the grass at her feet.
“Why not?” Brother Bohannen asked, indignation raising his voice. “Sooner they know, the better.”
“Know what?” Grandma Annie shot back. “That black folks scared and white folks crazy? They born knowing that lesson. You can’t add nothin’ to somethin’ that’s already full without causin’ it spill over.”
“Agreed, agreed,” Brother Bohannen nodded slowly.
“Tha’s perzackly whut ah’m talkin’ ‘bout. You gotta teach ‘em the rest of the lesson, how to protect they’sef when the spillover spill ovah. They know ‘bout the bein’ scared part. Now they need to know ‘bout protection.”
“If God don’t protect us, we doomed anyway,” Grandma Annie cautioned.
Brother Bohannen brought the kitchen chair down hard on its front legs. Lolly jumped at the sound of metal scraping concrete, then rose to stand between him and Grandma Annie. She leaned into the old woman’s muscled rose-scented firmness.
“God! God?!!” Brother Bohannen shouted. “See, there you go again. First off, you ain’t nevah seent yo’ God walking nayah street in dis neighborhood. Second, he sent his son down here umpteen years ago and let the crackers kill ‘im.
“Man cain’t take care ah his own flesh and blood, I sho’ hell ain’ trustin’ him tah take care ah me an’ whut’s mine.
“’Scuse me fuh the cussin’, chil’ren,” Brother Bohannen said, his huge paw falling in gentle thuds against Lolly’s back. A cloud of black cherry smoke rose from the embers in his pipe and momentarily wrapped itself around them before wafting lazily away.
Deacon Beaty swatted at fireflies with a rolled up copy of The Blue Street News. He shifted his weight from his foot on the ground to the one on the stoop and waited.
“You ol’ fool!” Grandma Annie sputtered. “You ol’ infidel! These two young’uns gonna be fine. They done give they life to Christ and tomorrow night, they gone be washed in the blood, gone be white as snow. Caint nuthin’ harm ‘em now.
“You, on the other hand, is a diff’rent story. You already knee deep in Purgatory, but yo’ neck so stiff, the devil won’t let you see it. If you had one eye and half sense, you’d brang yo’ heathen ass up in the church and try to git right wif God before it’s too late.”
A knot grew in Elfin’s stomach just beneath Grandma Annnie’s clasped hands. This was the first he’d heard about being washed in blood and turning white.
He glanced sideways at Lolly. She had climbed into Brother Bohannen’s lap and had her head thrown back trying to blow his smoke in different directions. She didn’t seem to be bothered one bit by what was, at least for Elfin, this new and startling piece of information.
“C’mon now, y’all,” Deacon Beaty pleaded softly.
Brother Bohannen laughed and leaned towards Grandma Annie. “I oughta come jes’ to see you sittin’ up somewhere in some church.
“What is it anyhoo? Second time maybe since that boy was born that you even set foot in a church? Now you tryin’ to sound lak you da bride of Christ or something. Yup, that right theah all by itse’f would be wor’f a trip to church!”
“A little child shall lead them!” someone screamed a few pews behind Elfin, snatching him back to the matter at hand.
Lolly’s whimpering had changed pitch. She looked completely spent and sagged against the preacher.
Rev. Clemmons beamed out at the congregation, nearly smug at having finally wrestled his wriggling charge into submission. His right temple throbbed, his blood percolating along the big vein that ran from the side of his head, down his neck, and disappeared underneath his starched white collar.
For the fourth time that night, Rev. Clemmons released his grip on Lolly and raised his right hand to God. He started his prayer again.
“Door by whom to God we come, the light, the truth, the way. The stony, rocky path we trod; Lord, teach us how to pray.”
The children on the bench bowed their heads and knotted their fingers, limp from relief, grateful that they had just been bestowed, at the very least, a fifteen-minute reprieve.
“Yes, Lord.” “Praise God.” “Sweet Jesus. Do, Jesus. Do, Sweet Jesus.” Lolly hiccuped. Even though his head was bowed, Elfin watched Lolly through eyes so squinted they fluttered from the strain. He waited, confident that he would not watch her suffer and fail to render aid. Rev. Clemmons droned on.
“This evening, our Heavenly Father, once more and again, we….” Suddenly, Lolly folded from the waist, pulling Rev. Clemmons forward and off-balance. He caught her just in time to keep her from falling face first into the water. For a moment, she hung over his left arm like a pair of worn trousers.
Elfin’s eyes flew open and Lolly, upside down, locked in on him with laser precision. “Faaaaatherrrrr!” Rev. Clemmons, face suffused with victory, crowed his praises even louder. Grandma Annie began softly singing the hymn for the occasion.
“Take me to the water, take me to the water, take me to the waaaaaterrrrr to be baptized. None but the righteous, none but the riiiiighteous, none but the riiiigtheous shall see God….”
Lolly straightened up so fast you could hear the air move. She smashed the back of her head into Rev. Clemmons’ chest, bounced off him, and dived into the water.
“Umph…!” Rev. Clemmons’ breath left him in a whoosh as he crashed backwards into the pool. His white robe fanned out around him, keeping him afloat and giving them all a notion for the very first time of what a black angel might look like.
Lolly surfaced, coughing and sputtering, just out his reach at the other end of the pool and scrambled over the side. When she hit the floor, her toe caught on the carpet that had been rolled back from over the pulpit. She kicked herself free, rolled over three times and came to a stop on her feet directly in front of Elfin.
Elfin’s hand closed over hers and the two of them bolted down the aisle. Grandma Annie’s eyes were sealed against the events unfolding around her. Bent on securing the protection of the Almighty for Elfin and Lolly, she threw herself into the second verse again for good measure.
“…None but the righteous, none but the righteous, none but the righteous shall see God.”
The children burst into the hot summer night and stopped at the church steps. Lolly peeled off her bikini top and dropped it at her feet. She sat down, patting a place next to her on the steps. Elfin lowered himself beside her.
They sat for a moment in silence, surveying the scene. As the strains of the hymn died down to a wordless hum, Eflin stood and pulled his white choir robe over his head, and folded it neatly. When he sat back down, he placed it in his lap and rested his elbows on his knees, his chin in his cupped hands.
“You scared of the water,” he said sympathetically, not looking at Lolly. “No, boy!” she said indignantly. “You know I can swim.”
“Why then?” Elfin persisted. Lolly shook her head. Wet hair whipped the sides of her face and flung water in every direction. Elfin wiped dry the ear nearest her.
“’Cause I didn’t wanna get my hair wet.” “Oh.”
“Here,” Lolly fumbled along the waist band of her bikini and pulled out a stick of Juicy Fruit chewing gum which she tore into two equal pieces. She popped her piece in her mouth. Elfin carefully scraped off the bits of silver foil and yellow paper that clung to the dampened gum. When he was satisfied with his work, he rolled the gum between his fingers and then stuck it in his mouth. He curled his tongue around the sweetness.
Brother Bohannen stepped out of the shadows of the weeping willow branches that kissed the ground in some places even as the tree trunk leaned away from the church. For a moment, it seemed as though he were laughing at them above his pipe. Then with a kind but stern voice, he turned to Elfin.
“Son,” he said, “I think we better have a talk.” Lolly stuck her fingers in her ears. Brother Bohannen leaned over and, taking each of her hands in his, removed them from her ears.
“Miss Lolly,” he whispered, “go git yo’ clothes on and we’ll walk you home. Go on, now.” Then he planted her fingers back in her ears and started up the stairs towards the door. When she recovered enough to take aim with her most deadly eye daggers, he winked.
The church door shut behind them, leaving Elfin and Brother Bohannen standing face to face alone in the dimly lit vestibule. The old man was the first to break the silence.
"Looks lak it’s time for you to gone back inside and face the music, son,” Brother Bohannen advised, his lips opening and closing around his pipe stem
Elfin pulled his robe over his head and smoothed out the front. He reached for the door. Then he paused. He could feel the old man standing close behind him, could smell black cherry and Old Spice mingling about six feet in the air.
Elfin cocked his head back and a little to the side. Then he opened the door to the sanctuary and headed down the aisle. Brother Bohannen followed a few steps behind.
"Elfin!" Lolly yelled as the door closed. "Find my shower cap for me so I won't get in trouble, okay?"