Excerpted from St John by Kathryn Moore
The pickup was stalled under a palm tree. It was summer, the beginning of summer, so the palm had these little fruitish clusters. Now and then, one would thupk down on the hood. The antenna wagged in time with the palm fronds. Some sort of staticky reggae-kumbaya played through the old stereo for a few seconds before coming back to the news.
--oday, we remember a hero, brother, an--…d father. Known in the Ocea…--y area as “John the Baptist,” Brother John--…omas was the former nav--…and pastor of St Francis souther--…ptist church located on--…thside Rd--…. He was known fo--…r his traditional baptisms in the St…--ns River. He passed on…--s day--…rs ago--
I turned off the radio. I cranked the window back up, then pulled back the door handle, once then twice, jerking it. The air was like sand and brack, smelled like the wet marsh. A small sedge of sandhill cranes prodded at the sand in the middle of the parking lot, a plague of boat-tailed grackles picking at their legs. I leaned into the backseats of the truck and got my toolbox.
“I emerged from the marsh onto the beach. It was soft-sanded beach. Far on the horizon past the delta and ocean was a lonesome fleet of cargo ships like ghosts.”
Out of the truck bed, I got my fishing pole and a change of clothes. I’m not really a fishing person; heard a story from my neighbor once about how a friend of theirs caught a hook in the back of their head, and it stuck: the back of my head pangs whenever I think about casting from behind. I more just stand in the water and toss it out in front of me, let the line move down current on its own.
From here the marsh surrounded me on three sides, the parking lot and trees at my back. I shoved the butt of the rod deep into the waterbed. There was a row of shallowed indentations all along the mud from previous fishes. I laid out my change of clothes on the hood of the truck, slipped some tools and a handheld radio into my pockets, and then I waded north into the reeds, away from the pole and the truck.
The grasses were about breast-high, tickling my arms. Sifting through the reeds I saw a few sparrows flutter around each other; I heard an egret croak. The grass made shift- and crackling sounds, like how I’d imagined corn stalks would do, and like sea oats at the beach. My foot slipped on a crabhole and a fiddler crunched under my big toe; more crabs pinched at my feet. As I waded northward the mud got caky and softer, the air felt saltier, stickier.
I emerged from the marsh onto the beach. It was a soft-sanded beach. Far on the horizon, past the delta and ocean was a lonesome fleet of cargo ships, like ghosts. One of the ships’ navigation lights blipped in and out in the late sunrise. An egret stalked the wet bank with some semipalmated plovers, eyeing me. I kicked my shorts off my ankles and undid my fishing shirt. I emptied my pockets and then unzipped my shorts. The cargo ship with its navigation lights blinking let out a low pitch wail, startling the congregation into flight. The great white egret turned its eye to the ships and stood still. I turned on my handheld radio and sat it next to my clothes.
--t’s a cool 75 degrees out there this m--…ou’ll want to have your umbrella with…--this afternoon--…. Scattered thunderstorms throughout NE FL, all--…up into SE GA this evening. Traffic on I95 is alm…stagnant down--…thside--
The water was between low and high tide by about halfway. Most of the beach was wet; my feet pressed neat indentations, and then waves smoothed them away. The egret turned its eye to me again and stalked out of my way.
The water’s coolness spooked my skin into gooseflesh. I sifted the sand with my toes, sand fleas and coquina shells shifting around beneath. Small, fleeting fish came in with the waves to nip at the sand but avoided me. My steps were heavy and skimmed broken shells. I trudged another step and another, up to my neck, my chin, and then my toes dug into rock. I closed my eyes and ducked under.
The river muffled the air, the wind, the reeds. It was murk and muddy water; it felt like bathing. The mud mixed with my hair and settled into my pores. My fingertips were raw and pruney and grit with sand; seaweed brushed against my wrists and algae slipped my hands against the rock. Salt steeped through my eyelids, through my lips. I get nightmares of this moment: where a hook catches my scalp and tugs, where waves bash my skull open like a coquina mermaid’s bra, where something else touches my foot, my back. Where infection worms its way from my ear to my head and drains out everything good. Where I’m forever half-naked at the bottom of the Johns. Where the rock sinks me down with it and holds me for the rest of my breath.
When the water had come into my lungs, the sand broke its hold with a suction I could feel. I gasped a mouthful of brackish water and choked; I brought the rock to my chest, heavy and rough like a bare-chested bearhug. Slogging out of the water with it was like the weight on my knees and shoulders, low and hefty, encumbering. I dropped it on my bundle of clothes. It made a thick whump I felt in my feet. I collapsed myself crisscross on the sand next to it: it was a concrete sort of cinderblock, gruff and gray, eroded from the water.
I scrubbed at the concrete with a fraying brush, scraped between grooves and barnacles. The handle was slimy with the water from my palms, and so was my chisel--it slid out of place every time I cut in. I used a broken brick washed down from up shore as my hammer. It was grave, anniversary work. The graving read as it always did: In memory of a Great Man; may he rest peacefully with the LORD in this last baptism.
A steady drizzling rain had started up, the ship with the navigation lights was blaring its foghorn; the great white egret had stalked back into the reeds. I decided I’d toss it back. My arms yelled at me. The splash was underwhelming, like that of an Olympic diver.
I bagged my clothes and tools in my fishing shirt and washed out in the saltmarsh stream. Checked the pole: nothing but the blue crab that always tangled my line. My new clothes were warm and humid on my body. I tugged the pole out of the riverbed--another hole, another day--and tossed it back in the truck bed. I wouldn’t be coming back. The truck rattled to life.
The radio spit out a hip-hop beat, then a woman’s bitten rasp continued talking: Ailing third-…--orld countries ar--…the globe, waiting…--for your k--…nd and generous donation.