From The River Gods
by Brian Kiteley, originally published in The Ohio Review
Ministers should be Sons of Thunder: Men had need have Storms in their hearts,
before they will betake themselves to Christ for Refuge.
—Solomon Stoddard, The Defects of Preachers Reproved (1723)
Pastor Jonathan Edwards and his sixteen-year-old nephew arrived at the Connecticut River ferry before noon. The ferry captain asked if they would join him at his midday repast. He had not eaten at all that morning—a spat with the good lady of his house—so he was too hungry to wait on lunch. Edwards nodded yes, although he was lost in thought. His nephew Medad, inflamed by the passion for his eighteen-year-old cousin in Hadley, looked on the scene with tender excitement. Cascades of purple, white, and pink flowers fluttered in the breeze over the river bank, and petals floated downstream. Medad watched the ferryman chew his lunch without teeth. Here was one of the great majority of the town who could not take the covenant because they did not own land. These men waited outside the church after the sermons for notes written down during the service. Edwards was oblivious of this fellow, in no way discomfited by his exclusion from the church. The boy spoke a few sympathetic words to the ferryman, but he forgot what he’d said the instant the words left his lips. The hot sun and sweet air and drone of bees made them all sleepy. On the other side of the river, Medad could see his cousin and her father waiting. Her father had the reins strapped tightly across the horse’s breast—a cruel way of leaving the animal at rest; the tension of the man multiplies in the horse. Medad forgave himself this moment of anger—and loved his cousin with this wash of river between them as he would never be able to do in her vicinity.
• • •
She breathed up at him. Her breath smelled of God. They did not deceive their elders out of fear of discovery or because the Devil lived in their choice of a sensual nature and their mutual physical affection. They deceived casually, because it pleased them to, because they did no one harm, and because they enjoyed accumulating venial sin. Neither good Reverend suspected his ward of evil. The two intimidating figures fell into conversation and rode ahead on horseback. The youths stayed behind to check the bridles of the draft horse and to load the shipment of books from New Haven Edwards was delivering to his brother. In plain sight of the ferryman, with her back turned to him, Molly revealed one white breast to her astonished younger cousin. Quickly as she undid, she did up the blouse and jumped onto the buckboard unassisted. This the ferryman saw, with delight and scorn mixed equally, and this was the sort of thing he might report to her father, so she said, “A spider on the ground did throw me into fright.” He nodded, knowing otherwise to be truth, but now also having to admit to himself he had nothing solid to report, for if he did it would have to include the subjective and salacious finding that Molly jumped onto the buckboard sensually, as if in a dance, as if possessed briefly by the Devil’s own sense of play.
They drove off under no clouds, although ahead on the path, far ahead, they could see a storm gathering to obscure their elders’ sunlight. The road turned sharply at Deacon Hawley’s field, and the innocents lost sight of their moral guidance. Medad urged the horse to take a left turn back toward the river, which plied to their favor. He found the spot, far from anyone’s home because so close to the river’s annual flooding. They alighted and slid down the mud trail to the river. To their surprise, they undressed completely, unafraid and truly as if they knew what they were doing. But they knew not what works they had in store. They knew only the hushed mechanism of action, operating as if by a spring unwinding. They faced one another, surprised by the clumsiness of their bodies. She took him in her hand and turned herself around and lay hold of a tree trunk for support with her free hand. She guided him. It was not easy, contrary to what they expected of sin, but the pain, the sweat, the unaccustomed shapes conjured against the shadows in their minds, the very struggle, made this action tangibly pleasing. Lilacs nearby colored the surrounding smell.
Inside a small inlet of the river, they found a raft made of fallen logs with green willow branches as lashing. They climbed onto it, dimly aware their sin was great, but in the grip of a force that made their movements, at least, seem sensible and clean-spirited. The boys who made the raft would not disfavor its being employed for a half hour. They intended only to drift in place in the tiny, protected bay, so they hung their clothes neatly on the bushes by the water. The raft did at first turn gently in soporific circles so at length they fell asleep in each other’s arms. But rivers are mischievous spirits and, with a start, they woke to find themselves midstream, down river, past the ferry landing. They judged their chances of swimming ashore poor at this stage of the river, where it moves with cunning and authority. They did not yield to despair, however, and came to see, from their lowly berth, the beauty of this river valley. The Connecticut River here comes to a great gap in the mountains, which were just this week a riot of new greens. The raft moved quickly for a time, then it came to a stretch of languid swirls, and water began to penetrate the careless vessel. This might have alarmed less optimistic souls, but the two cousins luxuriated in the sensation of cold river water and hot sun above. Mortal danger also awakens carnal desire, so they moved together again and held each other as one scene gradually melted into the next. The notch in the Mount Holyoke Range came closer. The stack of white clouds in the sky rested along this ridge, too, a pattern the lovers saw as prophetic not of danger but of passage from one state of bliss to another. The opposite bank drew very near at this point. The raft drifted within easy reach of several roots and branches. The underbrush rustled, and a pair of shiny foreheads flashed. Two Indians lay on their stomachs, long sticks in their hands, confabulating about who knew what aspect of the inner workings of Nature. The Indians stood up, brown leaves painted on their flesh. The young couple waved. The Indians stared unblinking at the white-skinned devils who were slowly sinking in each other’s arms, unconcerned by the river that gathered them in its embrace. Even underwater, sunlight glinted off their open eyes. The lovers sat upright on the sandy bottom, breathing regularly as if they would survive the airless realm they had discovered. The Indians backed away toward their canoe, more certain than ever that this once fertile meadow was hopelessly human.
• • •
The shadow of a great oak gathered a small crowd outside the meeting house on Main Street. The men could hear a thundering sermon inside, but not the words themselves. Now the holy voice stilled, and all they heard was the creaking of the benches, coughs, one embarrassed sneeze cut short. Oftentimes these men, the unelect, would try to listen to the sermon, but they would end quietly chatting among themselves, aware that they should keep peaceful and avoid spontaneous outburst. But this day was unusual. At the center of the excitement was the ferry master. He was not ordinarily paid much respect. He was known to drink spirits and had once been questioned for embracing his wife on the doorstep. He also had a tendency to tell stories with too much zeal and joy, despite warnings to keep to the point and not over-elaborate. Such a reputation usually sequestered him. This Sunday he blushed at the attention all eyes paid him, and, for once, was shy of telling the story again of this star-crossed couple, children of the River Gods, who had not been seen since the ferryman bid them well on the Hadley side of the river, four days past.
The ferryman, Tom Matthews, inhaled the smell of leather and sweat, and exhaled all evil thoughts. He said simply, “They evinced a holy pleasure at the soft air. The boy read scriptures as they left. The girl stumbled once and let out a cry but not a licentious sound, only a fearful noise, perhaps at a spider on her breath. The buckboard stood near the banks of Hadley Meadows, no trace of them hereabouts.” These lies frightened Tom. He had bundled the clothes he found and tied a rock to them and thrown the packet far into the river current. He knew what to make of the arrangement—or disarrangement—of the clothes. This surprised him by not pleasing him in any way. She was a beautiful girl and the boy a much stronger force of nature than Tom had ever been. But when the two reverends returned, stern in their anxiety, he did not tell them of his discovery. Was this wrong? Was he already under the sway of evil, somehow colluding with the sin he had just missed witnessing?
The next night, certain townspeople convinced Tom to meet them by the Mill River, at the first ford. One brought a bottle of cider he had no difficulty encouraging Tom to believe was medicinal. It did indeed taste like health and goodness. Many were not convinced of his earlier story. Shaking, Tom recanted. After much prodding, he told his second tale.
“I had often before this said that if the Indians should come, I would choose rather to be killed by them than taken alive, but when it came to the trial my mind changed. Their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit that I chose to go along with those (I may say) ravenous beasts, than that moment to end my days. They were some twenty in number, all naked and surrounding the girl often in a frenzy if you’ll excuse my describing it so. The boy they killed quickly, a wooden bat to the temple of his head, for crying out too often. In the heavy brush north of Hatfield, I eluded my shadow. My surprise that they did not return for me was lessened by the great spider-webbed forest I fell into, dozens of the creatures crisscrossing the branches, most the size of my closed fist. I paid very careful attention to these beings because, though I feared them greatly, they seemed to protect me from the wrath of these silent, stealthy men. It is certain that these webs, when they first proceed from the spider, are so rare a substance, that they are lighter than air, because they will ascend in it, as they will immediately in a calm air, and never descend except driven by a wind; wherefore ‘tis certain. And ‘tis as certain, that what swims and ascends in water is lighter than water. So that if we should suppose any such time, wherein the air is perfectly calm, this web is so easily drawn out of a spider’s tail, that if the end of it be once out, barely the levity of it is sufficient to draw it out to any length. What came of the girl? I dread to say they had loosened off all her garments and she seemed to find joy in the naked gait, running as quickly and quietly as these wild animals, not as if she were a prisoner. They must have cast a spell on her.”
The townsmen were more satisfied with this story, even if the ferryman was not. He drank quickly, both of the cider and later of whisky. No one was surprised that he died three weeks later after an outbreak of small pox. The bodies of the two cousins were never found. The Indian villages to the north and west were eventually razed, but not because of these purported abductions.
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