Sure, we had seen the small wooden sign posted high in the tree, much higher than the normal viewing range for even the tallest of men, saying that this was Mount Lebanon Baptist Church property and that permission cards were available by calling the church office. But in the five or six times we’d been coming to the swimming hole—at the bottom of the road to Rock Mills, discovered one day while Neil and I were driving country lanes: a convention of pickup trucks and bare-chested men with flag tattoos at the convergence of two rivers—no one had seriously ever asked us for those permission cards before, and no one seemed to pay the signs any mind.
It’s the Sunday before kids head back to school, and we figured the swimming hole would be teeming with locals—testosterone-pumped high school boys jumping off the rope swing trying to out-Tarzan one another with forward and backward flips or climbing the tree to the swing even higher than the ten-foot ladder. The big, lichen-covered, pulsing-hot rocks slathered in sunbathers on striped towels—bikini-clad eighteen-year-olds with toddlers, and their bleached-hair mothers. Dogs paddling to retrieve sticks and balls. Instead, as we drive up to the parking area, the rocks bare, a clean-cut, middle-aged man in a burgundy polo shirt emerges before us and asks us to move our car to the other side of the gravel lot.
He says there is about to be a baptism.
“Are you with the church?” he asks as we tumble out of the car, white flesh bursting out of tankini, three sets of bare male pecs.
“No…” we stutter.
Busted, I’m thinking.
“The sign tells you everything you need to know,” he says, friendly, pointing to the treetops, about the permission cards. “Just make a visit to the church office someday.”
Neil tries convincing him by way of a failed circular argument that we’ve been coming here for a while now, and we never needed permission before. But the church man trumps him with the fact that someone’s been leaving beer bottles on the property lately, and the sheriff plans to start citing people for trespassing. Neil does not do trespassing. In our backcountry adventures, Neil has insisted we walk miles out of the way to avoid trespassing. I’ve never been cited or arrested, never had a conversation with a sheriff, and I don’t plan to start now. But I don’t want to have to go to the church office either.
We’re not exactly from around here.
The four of us sneer at the idea of beer bottles left on the rock, shards of blue glass that could make their way into our feet. We’ve drunk our fair share of beers here, though (always removing our empties, of course), and memories of our last visit—a three-cooler expedition (one on wheels), enough beer for twenty even though we were just six—makes me think the church man and sheriff would write us off as the type that couldn’t be trusted.
“You’re welcome to join us,” he says of the imminent baptism. “Or we’re going to have to ask you to stay out of the water.”
Our friends, brothers James and Mark, have driven an hour and a half to the country today for this one last day at the swimming hole, far too long a journey for them to turn around now. I’m certainly not going to be the one to speak out: pushy northeastern urban Yank chick in the small-town rural South. I think Mark is too soft-spoken for any disagreement. Neil the atheist doesn’t really want to tangle with the church. So James—with his innocent-country-boy, sweet-as-pie, slight-Virginia-twanged voice, his angelic baby face, the kind of personality that can get along with anybody—negotiates us staying out of sight instead of out of the water. We won’t stake out our favorite place in the shade and enjoy the day holding our noses and touching bottom or doing laps in the main body of water as we have done—the deepest, the cleanest, the most frequented, the place we know there are snakes but at least we know they slither along at the edges. Instead, we will haul our stuff up and over the big rock to the dirt path behind the rope swing, through the water, thigh deep, across the moonscape rocks, upstream to where the water is shallower and funkier with massive green algae blooms like some kind of burnt pond scum and the mud is mucky, but if you go far enough, James says, there is a deep pool for plunging in.
A few thin, greying, liver-spotted men, standing around in their straw hats, looking serious, watch us take our leave after the burgundy-shirt man accepts this agreement. They remind us one more time about getting those permission cards from the church. They tell us the church is up on Scrabble Road.
Back then, the black kids who could’ve walked a few feet from their homes to a white school had to, instead, walk three or more miles, even in the heart of winter in deep snow, to this school on Scrabble Road, though it is said that they never missed a day.
Neil and I know exactly where Scrabble Road is because just four days earlier, during a week-long summer stay at our one-room weekend cabin, when it was too scorching hot to play outdoors, we took a trip in the air-conditioned car over to the Scrabble School, a refurbished old schoolhouse once built for teaching African-American kids during segregation. Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears Roebuck, and Booker T. Washington had joined forces in 1917 and built 5,000 proper schoolhouses across the South to provide blacks with a high-quality education in a clean, safe environment, rather than in the shoddy black schools provided by white governments. There were four of these special schools in this Virginia county, but the Scrabble School is the only one still standing, refurbished just three years ago as an African-American heritage center (and senior center), though most blacks in this county have moved away. Back then, the black kids who could’ve walked a few feet from their homes to a white school had to, instead, walk three or more miles, even in the heart of winter in deep snow, to this school on Scrabble Road, though it is said that they never missed a day. It happens to be down the road from the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, a white congregation then and now.
The four of us head upstream with our things like we agreed, with Neil the elder first—the science teacher, the introvert but natural on-the-ground leader; James next, four years younger than me, not yet forty—fit and fast; Mark, the older brother, following, heavier set, red-faced and careful; and myself in the rear: a posse of the middle-aged and childless, living out our childhoods again or the ones we never had, over the rock, past the rope swing, in and out of the thigh-deep water, single-file, slipping on wet rounded rocks, sand from the river’s edge filling our shoes, through the algae and the mud and the funk, and we throw down our stuff on big flat rock, smooth as bare skin, jutting into the river.
I am the first to take the plunge into the chill. It’s just one of those things I’ve learned to do in my adult life, no matter how cold the water, because it has ingratiated me into being one of the boys.
James and I had begun making plans for this day several weeks ago because James and I are the social planners of the group. Emails and calls about timing, lunch, whether he and Mark would stay over at the cabin. I had anticipated the day since then, a day I knew would be charged with the longing of the season’s end.
The first time I swam here, I came just with James, each of us from our respective houses aching to try a dip in cool, crisp water, a refuge from the heavy cloak of heat; that hot, wet, wool drape of July, his less-outdoorsy wife left at home, my husband too tired from work and a bit wary of the locals. We drove the distance together, talking nonstop like gabby girlfriends. In our bathing suits, we dropped ourselves into the smooth dark water, treaded water with silent ripples while sharing one single glass-bottled beer, billygoated across the black moonscape rocks, and then I watched while James made the plunge from that frayed line of twine tied high up in a tree over the water, worrying like a wife that he might land on a buried stump and break a leg.
Ever since meeting James while hiking a few years ago, he and Neil and I have become regular outdoor-recreation buddies, often along with Mark. We hike together; we bushwhack together; we search for historical remnants of human habitation in the mountains and woods. We’ve rafted. We’ve swum. In wetlands and fields and mountains, we admire landscapes and the natural world together: howling coyotes up on a ridge, a Golden Eagle alighting from a rare Great Blue Heron feast, orange slime on a log, or a centipede on a rock. I might go as far as to say he is the only one of our friends who is as interested in what we are interested in. Or he is simply so convivial and excited by everything in life that he makes me feel as if whatever we love, he loves too.
Our friendship with the brothers is uncomplicated; it is activity-based. We know them in an unquestioning, need-to-know kind of way: whatever comes up in conversation while we walk and play: food, weather, maps, pee break. In four years, we haven’t talked politics, religion, or world issues. When we are together, we are sweaty hot, filthy wet, or struggling against hypothermia, hiking or playing hard in the empty places of the map. In those conditions, we are stripped bare of whoever we are in the rest of the world. We are simple to one another: nature lover, curious, listener, adventurous, talker, responsible, afraid, kind-hearted friend.
And yet, somehow, there is more, but perhaps only to me, and only with James, only in some tiny, quiet, and windowless place of my very small world. I have developed a bit of idolatry toward James. He is like a light too bright to look at directly but from whom I cannot turn away; a vessel of boundless, unexpected kindness, acceptance, joy, and pure love of the world in the form of a soft-spoken, charismatic man in flesh. Someone whose humble magnetism seems to have lessons to teach that I keep wanting to learn.
I don’t know how to feel about it. Improper. Religious. Or brotherly.
. . . and it is quiet here, and there is no one else around, and we are surrounded by the verdant vegetation of Virginia: Joe-pye weed, grape vine, greenbrier.
At our new perch, upriver from the baptism, the air is cooler than the other times we’ve come out here this summer. Goosebumps, instead of sweat, roll out over my shoulders and back. The water calls me in only because we’re all here and I can’t break the spell of the place and the group, but James and Neil plan to snorkel their way upriver together, away from Mark and me, who are gear-less and uninterested in underwater explorations anyway.
I accept the first flash of cold up to my neck, then my head; everyone else follows. Where it’s shallow, the water is warm like urine, and where it is deep, the water is as cool as if refrigerated, and it is yellowish-green no matter what the temperature, and it is quiet here, and there is no one else around, and we are surrounded by the verdant vegetation of Virginia: Joe-pye weed, grape vine, greenbrier.
There is just a moment here, before the snorkelers take off. The Jewess looks out at the atheist and two men of unknown Christian faith as we bob together in the sepia stew.
“What exactly happens at a baptism?” I ask.
Mark says there are prayers, and then the people being baptized come forward one by one, and the preacher holds their noses and lowers the backs of their heads into the water. I can see this image, from movies, the women in white, the stain of wet water on their dresses, the preacher holding a cloth over their mouths and noses as he submerges their heads.
“What would happen if I stood in line and wanted to get baptized?” I ask out of curiosity. How would it change me? I wonder. Would I notice any difference in my life?
“It’s not really a matter of what the church will think or do,” James responds quickly. “A baptism is when you decide to embrace Jesus Christ. It’s a decision you make within your heart.” It is a symbolic gesture of commitment, he explains, a public declaration of faith. James says he goes to church every Saturday night with his wife and was baptized a few years ago to declare his devotion.
There is a kind of awkward silence that follows this conversation, as I come to understand the seriousness of James’ faith, the most resolute I’ve ever seen him about any subject. We’d all seemed so similar when we walked together in the woods and talked health food and alternative medicine, fascination with olden days, local towns and community; he seemed so unattached to dogma, giddy with silly pranks and potty humor. Now I see there has been a line in the sand between us all along.
Two weeks later, James and Neil and I will wind up taking a spontaneous walk to a natural area near James’s house, which we visit for the first time after an outing in his town with his wife. We are out of our normal zone with each other—in street clothes, in the built world. As we stroll through the wheat-colored late summer grass—part of an industrial/military-site-turned-wildlife-refuge—sweat dewing our faces, James begins to talk about God.
“Isn’t it amazing how God created every little thing so perfectly?” he asks. “The spider built for weaving its web. The snake for shedding its own skin. How each creature fits just right into the whole web of life.” Neil and I—scientists by training, evolutionists—reflexively eye each other, neither willing to put immediate voice to the divide springing up between us and James. “I mean, things are too complicated and brilliant to have happened by chance,” James says. “I watched a three-legged spider still weave a web. That is too intelligent to be random.”
After such a long, jolly, issue-less connection between us all, these statements feel like a lead sinker plunked into the still pool of our friendship, ripples demanding attention in the silence of our true beliefs.
I let the language linger, and then I say a thing or two about evolution: adaptation, natural selection, and survival of the “fittest” over millions of years. DNA, genetic drift, mutation. Phyologenesis and those diagrams of all life’s common and uncommon ancestors since the beginning of time. The sentiments and vocabulary are foreign to our normal exchanges, multi-syllabic, clinical, and highly charged. James does not seem to want to entertain these ideas; instead, he mentions his church’s discomfort with the idea of humans evolving from something else, like moss or monkeys. I can’t even begin to explain that’s not how it really works.
Instead, in this moment, I see how the line between us might form into a wall now if I were to attach myself to my beliefs, to exclude the framework and community from where James’s views were born, to treat them as any less than my own. Neil stays silent on the issue, continues birdwatching in the brush surrounding a marsh and announcing species names to avoid the discussion, to avoid conflict, to avoid outlining in black and white the chasm of world views between us and James and how it might spill over into still-untouched topics that could split us anew. As we continue our walk, side by side, and as we sit on the edge of a dock, and as we talk about the people who once lived on this fallow land and how we three will return here in winter when the leaves have fallen and find where the old homestead and slave cemetery once stood and marvel at the known and the unknown, the explainable and the unexplainable, we dance around the words we’ve shed, the line in the sand. What’s not said envelopes us like fog. And as quickly as it rolled in, it evaporates.
We do not quibble over who made the tiny, beautiful things of the world.
Back at the swimming hole in our bobbing circle, I say, “You must think I am a heathen,” reflecting on my infrequent reflection of God and religion.
“We are all heathens,” James answers gently and then beckons Neil to join him in taking their positions on their stomachs, face down in the water with snorkeling masks to make their way upstream like playful ten-year olds. Mark and I swim forward and back in their wake for a few minutes, a watery duet to pass the time, but the glue and energy that James brings to our foursome is gone, and the air is no longer warm, and Mark is talking about snakes and leeches, here in this undiscovered section of the river, which sets me on edge. I decide to retreat to where we left our things, slimy brown rivulets of river running down my neck and legs, and rest on the hot rock, lulled.
In my half sleep, I hear the voices of angels, sigh-inspiring sopranos like heavenly bird songs, downriver and around the bend, past the rope swing, over the big rock, where I imagine the group has set up a little tent on the grass and believers are descending into the water wearing white. When the singing stops, I hear clapping too, palm joining palm as the afternoon fades. Then the singing starts again, and the clapping resumes, and this repeats, folded in with the metronome of the unyielding river trickle. Mark joins me on the rock, and as we each lie in our own space, not talking, song and clapping ultimately give way to laughter and splashes, and it seems the entire congregation of adults and children have plunged in to celebrate and release, frolicking, swimming, playing in God’s great watering hole. These are sounds I recognize, sounds I can understand.
. . . I am watching them from a distance, like a mother, happy for their fascination, my heart wrapping around each of them as if they were my sons.
I won’t know today or any day soon whether or how Neil’s and my friendship with James and therefore with Mark will unfold in the future. I won’t know whether or how often we will again find ourselves standing on the edge of a great abyss. I won’t know if the differences between me and James are enough to douse the small fire that alights inside me when I’m in his presence, or whether I would miss the comfort of that slight warmth. What I know today is this: the four of us—believers in something, all—are meant to gather and know each other here.
By 6:00 pm, I find myself suddenly quite ready to leave. It is the last night for Neil and me at the mountain cabin, and I want to be back at that haven, in the hammock looking out over the landscape, taking in the sounds of cows and owls with the man I married. Tomorrow, we go back to our real lives—a place of bills due and dress-up shoes; back to our real house in the city, like the place where I was born, a long time ago, where we didn’t have swimming holes and the glint of sun on water beneath an afternoon moon in a quiet country place like this was something I only read about in books.
By the time we make our way downriver, the baptism group is gone. The water is still. Neil and James are in the lead again, Mark following. The three of them try to stay dry, hugging the edge of shore, but I diverge. I am still wearing my bathing suit, and I am still wet, and Neil is carrying my things. I cross in front of the moonscape, fumbling over the slick, moss-covered rocks, and at the edge of a sandy slope, and I let myself slip into the river to my waist. In the still silence, I imagine myself slipping in all the way to my neck, a splashless submersion, underwater over my hair, then breast-stroking my way all the way to shore, to have the water to myself, the last of the summer sacrament.
“It’s holy water,” Mark had explained earlier. I want to feel awash in it.
But I don’t immerse. I keep the water below my waist, not a drop to my head, and I walk the long, narrow canyon of river between the vegetated banks where serpents lie on one side, and the big flat hot rock where we normally sun ourselves and drink beer and enjoy each other’s company on the other. I don’t need to create a dramatic moment here. At the end, at the shallow beach, where the group was baptized, a black man and a white woman, and their baby on her hip, are making their way downhill from their pickup truck to where river meets shore. At the edge of evening, the time of day when clouds gather and the sun’s descent watercolors the landscape a golden pink, the man points to the ground in front of my path and warns me to be careful, for bees have begun emerging from the grass.
Sue Eisenfeld holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University where she currently teaches. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, Under the Sun, Ars Medica, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Blue Ridge Country, Virginia Living, Blue Lyra Review, and other publications and has been listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays 2009, 2010, and 2013. She is the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and 2011 and 2014 fellowships as well. Her first book, a hiking journey through the history of the lost communities of Shenandoah National Park, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2014.