In the dawn light, Mike and I drop kayaks into the Rivanna River near downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. Dead fish bob on the water, their bloated bellies like floating eggs. We push away hastily from the bank and paddle into the riffles. The current sweeps us into marshy Virginia bottomland, and the quiet splash of our paddles sends herons laboring into the air.
Mike is a silhouette in the nimbus of early morning fog that hangs above the river. I hear him paddle faster through a series of small rapids, and then silence as we drift into a languid stretch of flatwater. Trees crowd the river’s edge like an audience, tendrils of mist snaking around their roots. The dark forest beyond sighs cool, damp air, and I shiver involuntarily. A quick stern sweep guides the kayak back to the safety of mid-river.
An hour of paddling brings us to the takeout, a tiny, red clay boat ramp in a town called Shadwell. As we near the beach, a rhythmic moaning seems to rise from the water, rising and falling like the buzz of cicadas. Through the mist I see three people standing waist-deep in the water, one hanging limply between the others. Fearing the worst, I paddle faster. But as my blades slice the water, a cry rings through the haze: “Higher! Higher!” The moaning waxes stronger. I stop paddling. There are people on the beach in white patent leather shoes, white tuxedos, long, gauzy white dresses, towering, white-feathered hats — all speckled with the umber of Virginia mud. In the water an elderly woman hangs between two people in purple robes, shaking violently.
Mike and I slip silently into an eddy just as one of the ministers raises his chin and speaks to the sky: “Almighty God, we ask you to bless this humble servant and wash away her sins just as the rains of heaven scour the earth.”
“Yes, Jesus!” hisses the crowd. They draw closer to the water, glistening shoes and stocking feet sinking in the soft mud. The minister continues his incantation, eddies of cool water spiraling from his hip, until the crowd seems ready to pounce. Then he grasps the woman’s head and thrusts her violently underwater. She rebounds to roaring and wailing onlookers, water streaming from her matted hair, and runs sobbing to the beach.
As the crowd wraps the woman in blankets, Mike and I peel out of the eddy and paddle to the bank. We drag our boats quietly over the coarse sand and speed to the car, baptismal water dripping from our sprayskirts.