Marie Smysor Watson
Whoever Loves His Life Will Lose It
My father, the flesh-n-bone one, loves nothing more than tramping the small hills and valleys that make up the county where I was born and raised, throwing a line in whatever bit of water he happens across. Says that’s his church, his God. Ma cusses him for his sacrilege.
You dumb sunavabitch, you keep blaspheming and God’ll strike you down, she rails.
Awww hell, Kate, Pa says. Ain’t nothing in this world or the next that’s gonna keep me from enjoying what I got right here.
Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life, Ma quotes.
Hell, woman, who wants to keep his life for eternity if he hates it? Pure foolishness.
Ma flings a half-peeled potato, hits his chin. Pa rubs the spot, fingers rasping his three-day beard.
Sorry, Paul, she says, sagging. I dunno what comes over me.
Aw hell, woman, Pa says, don’t waste good potatoes on the likes of me. He picks it up, sets it in the pan gently, like it’s a new kitten instead of an old potato, jacket already wrinkled, sprouting eyes that can’t see a thing.
When Ma goes into one of her black moods, Pa and I head to the river so she can work it out without our interference.
Course, we both knew what came over Ma. Everytime, the same thing. Preacher Dill. His visits inspire Ma to levels of savagery neither of us can fathom. It’s getting worse too. Now he leaves Ma with tidbits of pastoral wisdom that she turns on us like a knife, pointy-sharp.
We head down to the River the only way we know how - the hard way. Ma, even when she’s feeling fine, says Pa does everything the hard way. I don’t know but she might be right. Course I don’t say that. Pa’s got enough on his mind.
We skirt our neighbor’s soggy fields over to its far eastern point. The hill there’s steep, partly washed away. It slips under my crackled boots. Blackthorn trees, sticky brush pull at my patched overalls. The railroad tracks woulda been an easier path but Pa’s afraid of the train sneaking up on us, even with me there to help listen. He don’t say, but I know it just the same.
What’s wrong with Ma? I ask, thinking of Preacher Dill, eyes cold and blue as fishgills, soft hands gripping his Bible like a gun.
Wrong? Pa gushes, shaking his finger skyward. Hell, son. I’m wrong, you’re wrong. Only He’s right but even if you get close enough to touch His Face, you still ain’t good enough. Then you do something human and you’re right back at the bottom of the gulch you just crawled out of. Holy Father, my eye, he spits.
We hear it before we see it. The river’s swift from the heavy rains that got the farmers all in a tizzy. Pa says rains like that are what knock the big ones loose. It’s one of those tales fathers tell their sons but I don’t correct him. He’s had enough of that.
It hasn’t flooded yet but it’s damn close. Someone stands on a log in the midst of the surge. It don’t take but a second to know it’s Preacher Dill. Straw-colored hair blooms from under his black preacher hat. Black suit shiny at the elbows. Dressed like the Devil himself, if the Devil had time to be dabbling in the Spoon River. I dunno, maybe he does. I never met him so I can’t rightfully say.
Christ on a Cross! Pa hisses through his teeth, one of his favorite swears and the one that riles Ma up most often.
Preacher Dill balances himself on a downed cottonwood trunk like a travelling cat. The wide water rushes around it; it can’t make its way through it. Trees like that are made to last a thousand years, living or dead.
Barefoot, he dips his toes into the flood, propping easily on one leg. I’m left wondering what that damn sinner’s doing in the midst of all this nonsense. It ain’t a big river, but it’ll kill you all the same if you ain’t watchful.
I’m too preoccupied watching Preacher Dill to notice Pa, setting down the can of nightcrawlers he’d dug up out of the potato bed, hoisting a mighty piece of puddingstone, and heaving it. I don’t believe he’s aiming for Preacher Dill, only channeling Ma and her potato. I think.
The big rock sails wide over the preacher’s head, landing in the River with a gun-sharp clap. He jerks, his foot slides off the log, he goes under. Smooth, no splash.
He bobs up once, twice, mouth open, ready to confess his sins. Then he sinks and doesn’t resurface. His hat carries along ahead, swirling in the current, racing him to get wherever they’re going first. Neither Pa nor I move.
“Heaven help me, I didn’t -” Pa’s words collapse, drown. He don’t speak again, afraid of inviting in something we’re unprepared to defend ourselves against. We can’t quote the Bible by heart, like Ma.
If all the big ones followed Preacher Dill downstream, we woulda been none the wiser. We didn’t cast a line that day.
I heard his hat made it downstream, over the dam at Bernadotte to Havana, where the Spoon River channels into the Illinois. Trouble is, I don’t know if I actually heard it or if it’s just a wishful prayer. Either way, it don’t pay to mess with ghosts.
I try not to think about it much. I mostly succeed, unless it’s a night Ma serves catfish, always served with a side of fried potatoes, her smile eternal. Catfish, fresh caught from the Spoon, though Pa and I don’t fish it anymore. We stick to the neighbors ponds, no catfish to be found. I’d ask Ma where they come from, but some mysteries are better left underwater, ain’t it so?