Mama says the sun gets closer to the Earth on Revival Days. Helps keep the freshly baptized warm—dries dripping river water from their hair and clothes, shines off their white button downs. On Revival Days, Heaven gets a little closer to us too.
Today on the drive to church I am in the front seat. As the oldest I get the front when Daddy isn’t in the car, even though Gabe is taller now and makes a stink about his legs cramping. I think it’s Mama’s way of making me feel special. Long as I can’t talk to God the way Gabe does, I can sit in the front seat. Mama tells me not to feel too bad about Gabe’s special relationship with God because he had a head start. Gabe grew up in the church and I’ve only been going since I was two. That’s when Mama was born again as a Christian. She says God came to her when she was in labor with Gabe, that God said it was her duty to bring her babies to the church.
Mama drives twenty miles per hour on the steepest hill in our county with her window down. Every inch of the hill is a curve. Mama gets carsick on the way to church. Daddy says if she’d just eat something before driving she wouldn’t have to go so D-A-M-N slow. He thinks a person ought to eat before doing anything as exhausting as church service.
I touch my fingers to the hot dashboard of the Bronco that Mama’s had since Gabe was born and ask if she thinks maybe it is actually the Earth moving closer to Heaven.
Mama doesn’t take her eyes from the curving road. Her hand out the window, she says, “Miriam, there ain’t no way this Earth can get closer to Heaven. The weight of all these sinners is likely to pull it closer to you-know-where.”
Mama thinks the world is going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in a hand basket. That’s why we go to church three times a week. Twice on Sundays and once on Wednesday nights. Daddy says Mama’s going to drive the Bronco into the ground going back and forth to church so much—once, right after the air conditioning went out, he asked Mama if being inside the Bronco was like a visit to you-know-where. She mostly ignores him when he says things like that, but sometimes I wonder if Daddy has a point. Then I have to pray real quick because everybody, me especially, knows what a heathen I am, but nobody knows how big a one I am inside my head.
On Wednesdays Gabe and me have to finish most of our homework in the car. We’re the last stop on our bus route and we got to leave right after school to make it on time for Wednesday night service. Most days, Mama has the car started already and two apples waiting for us. We’re allowed to eat before night service because Mama says our God ain’t cruel enough to ask us to starve all day the way some other people’s Gods ask them to. She told us the state of the world is a sad thing, but at least we got something to look forward to in the hereafter. The state of the world is also why Mama sent me straight to my room after dinner last Thursday when I asked if could go by “Amy” instead of plain “Miriam.” Don’t matter to her that Gabe don’t go by Gabriel.
A truck honks from the rear and instead of getting mad, Mama does the Christian thing and pulls to the tiny shoulder so the truck can swerve around us. It’s a black S10 and they got a trailer with two four-wheelers loaded up on back. After they pass, Mama turns back on the road, shaking her head.
“See that. See how these people are spending their Sunday morning. And you think this world can get closer to Heaven.” She shakes her head again and reaches for her purse at my feet.
I know she wants to smoke, but I also know Gabe ripped all her cigarettes up last night and buried them in the backyard. When I saw what he was up to I stomped out on the back porch and in the meanest whisper I could muster I said:
“You are either going to get caught or you ain’t going to get caught and Mama’s going to think I did this. You better quit it. I’m not going to bed right after dinner again for something you did.”
He wiped his dirty hands on his jeans and stood up. “Mama isn’t going to know anything. She’s going to think she lost them, is all.”
It’s hard to fight with Gabe since he was saved. He thinks he knows everything. In the backseat Gabe’s knees press against the middle of my spine. I can feel it sharp in my back through these old seats, but I don’t even squirm. He does it first to make sure I’m quiet about his cigarette-tearing secret and second to remind me that he is too tall to be in the backseat. I push against the seat and him, but my seventy pounds is nothing against his one twenty.
“What’s wrong, Mama?” Gabe asks and the pressure of his knees disappears.
“Oh dang it.” She tosses her purse at the floor. It lands with a thump just after I move my feet. “I forgot my cigarettes. Find me a piece of gum, will you, sugar?”
I want to pinch Gabe, but I can’t without giving him away. Instead, I start digging in her purse for the pack of Big Red.
It’s twenty more minutes before we make it to the church. It’s tinier than the Baptist Church just a mile down the road, but Mama says what we lack in size we make up for in Spirit. Before the building was our Apostolic Holiness Church it was a barn. According to Reverend Ray, he raised that barn with the strength of his conviction and belief in the Holy Spirit. Daddy says that’s a load of bull—Reverend Ray raised that barn with the strength of his congregation’s dollar. That’s one thing Daddy says that Mama don’t ignore. She leaves the room, even if we’re at the dinner table and everyone hasn’t finished eating yet. Daddy can make Mama mad enough to forget good manners. Last time Daddy said that, I prayed silent to God and asked him to understand my daddy ain’t a heathen—he’s just got a temper bout religion sometimes and that ain’t the same as hating God.
I figure if God is going to listen to someone’s prayers, though, it ain’t mine. That’s why I started asking Gabe to pray for Daddy.
Gabe said, “You don’t got to ask me, Miriam. I’ve been praying for Daddy since I could talk.”
That made me happy and mad at the same time. I told him, “Gabriel, you are so full of it. Having God’s ear don’t make you God and you better not forget it.”
That was something Daddy said. I heard him tell Mama if she didn’t watch it, she was going to ruin Gabe. Make him think he was something he wasn’t.
Gabe balled his fists up and if he were a different kind of brother, he might have hit me. But instead he said, “I don’t want to be like this.” When he walked back inside I felt real bad.
Reverend Ray was the first person to say Gabe’s got God’s ear; he said that’s why Mama had a vision when Gabe was born. Reverend Ray says God can’t visit every church on Sunday morning and you can feel it when a church ain’t got it. Ours has got it. A lot of people think that’s all because of Gabe—he has visions about once a week and can speak in tongues. A lot of people even left the Baptist Church down the road and joined our congregation when they heard about Gabe. Everybody thinks the world spins on Gabe’s visions. I think in my more unholy moments that weekly visions are a little too regular to be that full of glory.
The Revival tent is set up a few feet from the river’s edge. It is too hot already, but the heat is good. Sinners are more likely to get saved if the sun is burning down and the water is singing up to them. Our river isn’t a calm body. It’s always raising its voice in bubbles of waves, of conversation to the Lord and sometimes, on Revival Days, to us—the congregation. Its bubbling rush is the only sound in the valley. No one is singing or preaching yet so the river gets to swim in its temper. The best kind of river for water baptism is one that’s got a little spirit to it, a river that can’t sit still.
That’s where Gabe goes in his white button down and Levi’s. He will go check the river. Mama’s ironing out the wrinkles in her white sundress with her hands, her car door still open, her purse in the driver’s seat. It’s her nicest dress, knee length with a cream ribbon around the waist. I stand behind her.
I ask her again if I can please take my braids out.
“No, Miriam. I told you. Your hair will dry faster in the braids.”
Today, God willing, I will be water baptized. Mama doesn’t know it for a fact that today I will be called, but I know it. I had her braid my hair just in case and now my scalp regrets it. Mama always braids too tight.
Mama thinks it’s a shame that my baptism hasn’t happened already. I’ve been waiting and waiting to be called to the glory, but I’ve never even heard a whisper of God’s voice. I am twelve and Gabe is only ten and he was still baptized before me, but he might as well have been baptized the second he was born. Gabe got the calling for baptism two years ago when he was eight. God came to him in a dream—He was a river and He rippled and called Gabe to the water. Gabe’s first vision. That’s why he can speak in tongues and I can’t and why he has a direct connection to God and I don’t—God thinks I’m a heathen.
It is five minutes before the singing will begin. Mama is on the stage with her holy sisters and they are warming up. Mama’s dress is the prettiest, but it is also the shortest. The other women have dresses that cover their shoes and their hair is piled up on their head. Mama’s dark hair is down and shining. She can’t get her fine hair to stay in pins. Once I heard one of the church ladies say if it wasn’t for Gabe Mama would still be an unsaved jezebel. None of them is brave enough to say that to Mama’s face. I am proud that my mama is the prettiest one on stage with her small ankles and perfect teeth. This pride is one of my many sins this morning.
Gabe comes up then and sits next to me. His Justin boots are coated with mud, but his white shirt is still clean. He takes my hand, but only because he knows no one is looking and that means no one can call him a baby. The women are warming up or taking care of the children and the men are reviewing their sermons. Gabe doesn’t look at me when he starts to talk; he stares at top of the tent, at the pointed tip. Probably staring straight through the tarp and sky and everything, right up into Heaven. If people’s belief in you is enough to make you a prophet, Gabe is a prophet sure enough.
“Everything will be fine, Miriam, if you keep your eyes closed.”
I ask what he means.
“When Reverend Ray puts you under, keep your eyes closed and everything will be fine.”
I find Reverend Ray to the left of the platform. He is pacing back and forth, wiping his bald-head with a white hanky, sweating already. His hands shake and he closes his eyes more than he opens them. The shakes spread to his arms. He rolls his neck. The Spirit is strong today.
I tell Gabe I ain’t scared.
“A little fear of God is a good thing.”
I know this is something he heard Reverend Ray say and part of Gabe’s holiness is borrowed from our preacher. Still, I know Gabe is right. I add that, my fearlessness, to my list of sins. If I can just get water baptized today it won’t matter how many sins I got—they’ll all be washed away. Gabe leaves. I don’t know where he will go. Maybe back to the river.
It is Mama’s singing that brings God into the tent. It is her voice above the others, her sorrowful soprano that raises even the people in the back to their feet. Her question, are you washed in the blood? that lifts their arms, pulls their hands to the point of the tent. Are your garments spotless? Everyone, everyone in their white-white revival clothes, shakes their heads. No, no, they are not spotless. We are not spotless. I am not spotless, Lord. When Mama tells them lay aside their garments—stained in sin—the women moan, a man drops to his knees. I can feel the fall more than I can see it because I am staring at the point of the tent with everybody else. I am trying to stare through the tent and into God’s face. I can feel the ground shake with the music, with the man’s fall, with my mama’s singing. Gabe’s voice above the rest begins to speak God’s tongue, the language of angels, and I am touched. The warmth spreads from the crown of my braided head through my throat like fire; it ignites my chest, my empty stomach, and spreads to my toes. I raise my arms and I have been Chosen. For the first time, I am Chosen alongside Gabe.
Gabe’s arms lift; he closes his eyes so tight the corners wrinkle. He speaks the language of angels. Reverend Ray leads the congregation with his worn black bible in the air, his eyes closed, his right foot stomping. He says:
“Rise up, children. Rise up and greet your all merciful God.”
Gabe’s right arm comes down and takes my hand. His warmth spreads into my warmth and our hands are hot metal, Lord. I begin to translate Gabe’s words, his message from God:
“I know you are lost. I can forgive you. I know you are lost. Come to the river. If you are lost come to the river. I know you are lost. Come to the river. At the river, I can forgive you.”
I stop speaking and Gabe’s arms drop. He falls backwards to the ground and I collapse next to him. I have never felt so heavy and light at the same time, like if my body wasn’t weighing me down my spirit would just fly away. It only takes a moment for Gabe to rise again, to sit next to me. He has sweated through his white shirt and his arm sticks to mine.
The call to baptism that Gabe has made and I have translated leads us to the river and I, the one that God has touched today, am the first to follow the men into the water. Reverend Ray has my left hand in his left hand, his Bible in his right. Reverend Charlie has my right hand—he is older, but he is kinder and his hand softer. Once he brushed his hand all the way down my face, from my forehead to the tip of my chin, and told me my spirit was full of light. After he said that Gabe wouldn’t look at me during the whole church service. Reverend Charlie touches my braids on the way to deeper end of the river and smiles at me. Reverend Ray prays, but Reverend Charlie whispers for me not to be scared. He tells me the river is God’s cradle. The river is his vessel. In the river, we are all in His hands.
They flank me and we turn back to the river’s edge. Mama is at the front of the crowd, her shoes off and her feet in the water. She is leading a song that I can’t hear, her arms raised to Heaven. Two women are holding Mama up, their arms around her waist. She is weak with the Spirit. She is overcome with joy. Her first child has been chosen by God to translate his tongue and will be water baptized. Gabe stands closest to the shore of anybody. His hands at his sides, I can feel him watching me.
The edge of my dress is wet. The dampness spreads up the cotton skirt and soon it sticks to my legs. Reverend Ray’s hand on my forehead, anointing. Reverend Charlie’s hand at the base of my skull, supporting. Reverend Ray prays. Half his words I hear in English and the other half he speaks in tongues, but I can hear his meaning in my head—God translating for me. Before they dunk me, Reverend Charlie gives me one warning. He says:
I wish Mama was here, that she was the one who would pull me out of the water. Or even Gabe. I don’t feel light anymore. Suddenly I feel like if these men put me under the water I’ll drop straight to the bottom. I especially wish for Daddy. He would have pulled me up already and told everybody I shouldn’t have been in that dirty river in the first place. What did they think they were doing with his oldest child, his only girl? For a second I hear Daddy’s voice, I hear him saying:
This is a load of s-h-i-t, Miriam, and you know it even if your Mama and brother don’t.
Under the water, I forget to hold my breath. The river shoots up my nose and into my mouth. The river of God inside me. But it is filthy water, filled with the sins of all these church-goers. The current flips me, the bottom of the river with its glass bottles, its Pepsi cans. A car tire rests below, the silt covers and uncovers the river bottom trash. I choke, close my eyes, and kick. Squirm right out of Reverend Ray’s hands. Reverend Charlie grips the back of my dress right at my spine, but I kick him with everything left inside me.
I am gasping, still under, and flapping my arms like a bird. But a bird doesn’t belong in the water and I know it now. I don’t belong in this river, but it takes me anyway.
It is Gabe who pulls me out. I know it before I even open my eyes. He is sitting beside me and I know that he is keeping everybody else away with the pure force of his holiness. I am so ashamed I want to keep lying there, pretend to be dead. I try to make my breathing shallow, but I am coughing now and it feels like an electric saw ripping through my throat. I roll over and heave pure water out of me and into the grass. Mama is next to me, rubbing my back, telling me to get it all out. I wonder if the baptism stuck—if almost drowning means I am too wicked for baptism or if it means I am holier than everyone else. Even Gabe.
“God bless the child!” Someone shouts and I sink my face into the grass.
Gabe doesn’t say anything, but he puts his hand on my shoulder.
“We’ve seen a miracle today,” Reverend Ray says. “God has reminded us how precious life is, how quickly it slips from our fingers.”
I am so angry that I want to push Reverend Ray right into the river. He is too stupid to even know what he said and I want to remind him that I am the thing that slipped through his fingers. This thought assures me that I am probably less baptized than ever.
I don’t want to look at anyone else so when I finally open my eyes I stare through the grass and toward the church. I can see the congregation’s movements in the corner of my eye. They are heading back to the tent. Everybody but Mama and Gabe. I think about how dirty Mama’s dress must be getting from the wet ground, how good a job Gabe did with his white shirt and that now it has to be all mucked up by the river. All because of me. I want to say:
Damn it, damn it, GODDAMN IT.
But I figure I’ve disappointed everybody enough today so I keep my head on the ground. The sun burns through my dress and straight through to my skin. Maybe Heaven gets closer to the Earth on Revival Days to give all us sinners a taste of Hell’s fire. I figure that’s something I better not say, either.
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