A thin sheet of sepia sprung lightly over the lake. It lurked in the rippled crevices. It snuck into the shadows of logs. It floated along the soggy bank. The morning fog turned the sky into a murky and soggy gray, yet his gaze was solidly on the center of the lake. Joseph pressed his bare feet against the wet wooden frame of the aged water walk. He gripped against the rough surface. It was wide and inviting like opened arms or a sweet promise. It clung to his pained soles as he stared down into the dusty bottom of Lake Hanover.
The demands of spring and summer weighed heavily on the trees. They were tired, exhausted, frail and thinned out; nearly cloaked fully in their winter coats. His eyes darted up towards their vague sways, then back down to the fading corners of life in the vague bottom of the lake. There he saw rocks and dirt, skeletons of discarded items like a doll’s head and a keychain, then a dull-colored fish. He glanced towards the trees. There were two in particular that caught his eye: the first was a near-naked yellow tree that was fading and waning in its ochre pigment, the second was a short, stout red tree that stood like Santa against the whipping air. Strong and still. He looked downward again, back to his roots to a pair of bare white feet. His body was cold and wet, but still. And quiet. It was all serene and bare.
Then ducks began to call. Their shrieks were flares of high pitch, gut wrenching yelps. His head jolted. The scent of wet grass and bark sifted into his nostrils as his eyes settled on the birds. The disgruntled flock parted ways in mid air. There was a heaviness in his chest, a pounding in his heart. He heard ringing, pulses, charges, all ripping into his lungs while his sight flickered. Joseph gasped for air. His knees shook then dipped into the wooden walk. His fingers dug deep into the rough edges, daring the splinters as he prayed and sobbed. Both echoed over the light layer of ripples and erupted at the center and the border of the lake. Then it was quiet again.
Then the only sounds that came were faint, padded ones, from frogs and swooping chatter from birds. Occasionally there was a slight creak or a heavy croak as the wood beneath him threatened to buckle under his weight.
He stood again but stepped closer to the edge. One step. Another. His toes wiggled out, hanging and baiting his reflection. Frightened still from the weight of his sins, he shut his eyes. He could smell charcoal. It filled him with uncomfortable itch, and a tight, secure warmth. He could feel the tightness of the Preacher’s grip on his wrist and the hardness in his stretched palm as the Preacher supported him in one moment and drove him down in the next. The grip was fitting for a man of God and yet unusual.
Preacher was once a drunk and a carpenter. He held the coarse panels of rough wood and the cool smoothness of curved glass. He held them with earnest skill and an impression that felt to Joseph to be related somehow to the rebirth of any Christian man. His own October ceremony had saved him. For that autumn, chilled moment at least, he felt weightless.
Today the Preacher’s warmth did not coat the lake. Hanover lacked his glow and was void of his wisdom. It held something darker, something hollow and sinister. It was brittle like crumbling clay and bruised gold. The nature of its serene glare was dented. It struck him as a painfully honest depiction of his soul. Empty. His eyes opened to the marsh cemetery. He met his hands together as if the Preacher were clutching them still.
“As for me, I baptize you with water for Repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
He opened his eyes. His body leaned forward. His mouth opened. He sucked in the thick air and puffed his chest outwards. His feet reached for the water. They stretched out over its dull, blank pit before dust and water sprung up and out of the depth. Each particle seemed a part of the grayish blue arm that jumped out towards him. Drops of water turned to beads of sweat, then to soaked pulps of flesh. Stiff fingers reached for his pale ankle, gripped the white limb and yanked it down. His mouth opened. The air he had collected swooshed out in one uneven pant. His final inhale was met with water rushing into his weak lungs. Holy Spirit and fire, he thought, as he sunk into Lake Hanover.
A pair of pale yellow eyes stared back at him. He felt his legs meet the dusty bottom of the ground. There was a soft cushion of sand that made him sink inches more as his body twisted. His arms flailed upwards but were caught by the awkwardly bent limbs of the yellow-eyed beast. A muffled and wet, groggy and disturbed, sound came from Joseph. It was unlike his own shrieking cries. This sounded nothing like him. Though his mouth morphed and stretched and formed those sounds, it was foreign to him. As he struggled, he heard a whispering chant:
“Repent… Repent… Repent.”
He kicked away from the beast and reached opened armed for the surface but a hand, like the heavy hard hand of the Preacher, dug into his back, clawed into his spine and pulled him down into the river’s pit.
If this was rebirth, it was not as calm and inviting as his baptism. It was like the murky skies and the misleading water of Lake Hanover. It was gray and white and it bled onto the canvas. It was not the smooth coat of oil, glistening and whole. It was the sharp tug of a limb and the muffled cry of a sinner.