The tall preacher lays his palm upon the man’s forehead. With his other hand the preacher cradles the man’s nape. All around them the Snake River flows easily, aglitter in the dawn. The preacher speaks loudly, clearly, so that the rest of his followers may hear as they watch from the bank of the river.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The man takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The preacher lowers the man backwards into the gilded water, pausing a moment as the man disappears into the sky on the water, and then raises him, holding him steadily as the man breathes out and blinks rapidly into the bright light of a new day. His white long-johns are soaked through. Droplets of water stud him like diamonds.
“Thank you, preacher,” the man says.
“Thank the Lord, Billy,” the preacher says. His black robe is like a raven perched amidst the river. “Forgiveness is His alone.”
Billy nods and then crosses himself, trudging now to the bank of the river to join with the others, drying in the sun. He sits down, his mousy hair wet and lank. He smiles through his wet beard as if a boy again, and the rest of the followers return his smile with childlike joy.
The preacher looks upon them with the look of a shepherd for his sheep. Then, with a gesture, he invites the next member of his flock forward into the waters to be baptized for the new day of pious devotion.
The sun rises higher and the day grows hotter, dustier. The flock harvests the crops they grow near their settlement of tents and wagons and palisades. Some men go fishing for trout in the river to add to the evening’s meal. The preacher stands solemnly nearby, a bible in his hand and his cool gray eyes watchful of his flock. The sun bakes skin and earth unto a clay. The preacher vows that he will mold the clay as God molded Adam.
Billy approaches the preacher, his breeches and hat dusty with the work of the day. The young man’s eyes squint perpetually, the sun having cracked wrinkles prematurely beneath them. The young man’s bare torso is as gaunt as Christ on a Catholic crucifix.
“Preacher,” Billy says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh?” the preacher says. “There is no need. That is why I baptize you every morning. Your sins are washed away.”
Billy lets his eyes drop to the sagebrush and other shrubs scattered across the expanse between himself and the mountain-hemmed horizon. The preacher seems taller than the mountains themselves, and looms over all things.
“It’s not my sins I’m worried about, preacher. It’s those of…of my wife.”
The preacher gazes toward the womenfolk as they busily pick green beans. Sarah stoops among them, her red hair ablaze in the afternoon sun.
“And how has Sarah trespassed against God?”
“Sarah avoids you, preacher,” Billy says. “She doesn’t take baptism every morning. And for that, I am sorry.”
“She will see the light,” the preacher says. “With time. She will make a goodly wife.”
Billy sighs and looks away. His voice is despondent. “I like to believe so, preacher. But…”
He falls to silence.
“But?” the preacher says.
“But I fear she is going astray,” Billy says, his voice trembling. “She…disappears sometimes. Goes missing. At night…”
“And you believe she is meeting with someone else among my flock?” the preacher says, his gray eyes grim.
“No, no!” Billy says, hastily. “I would never doubt my neighbor. I know we are all Faithful here.”
The preacher turns his gray eyes upon the young man, his gaze burnishing and unblinking; steadfast as the sun itself. “Then what do you suspect?”
Billy looks to his wife kneeling among the green beans, then lets his eyes drift away in defeated silence.
The preacher’s voice is softer.
“Billy? If you suspect something, you must speak it, if not to unburden yourself, then at least to unburden the air. Unspoken suspicions are phantoms that grow in power and darken all that they touch with their shadows.”
“I don’t know, preacher,” Billy says, heavily. “Maybe it is just a phantom in my head.”
The preacher nods. “Do you know what dispels phantoms?”
“What?” Billy says, looking up with expectant hope at the preacher.
“The sun,” the preacher says. “And honest labor beneath the sun.”
“You’re right, preacher,” Billy says. “I need to work off this restlessness.”
Billy returns to the crops, taking up a hoe and weeding alongside the other members of the flock. The preacher watches him for a long moment, then turns his eyes elsewhere. Like bloated deerflies his black pupils wander about slowly, restlessly, from person to person, coming, at length, to Billy’s wife, Sarah. Her hair is as blood among the beans. She glances up, notices the preacher’s gaze, and turns quickly away.
After dinner—when the long day has settled its ashes on the horizon—the preacher reads to his flock passages from his bible. He stands tall while they sit low before him, wet with the sweat of their labors as if they have only recently emerged from their baptism in the river.
“You will know them by their fruits,” the preacher reads. “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruits…”
Billy listens attentively, but is clearly distressed. His wife is not beside him, nor among the congregation. The preacher notices this, too, but says nothing. He reads until the fire dies out in the West, then wishes his flock a good evening and the sleep of the righteous. His flock scatters to their various concerns; some to chores, others to conversation and innocent pastimes.
As the preacher walks toward his tent he is intercepted by the wife of one of his followers.
“Preacher, that was a fine sermon,” she says.
“The Lord saw fit to make it so,” the preacher says.
She follows him for some time, quietly.
“I was curious,” she says as he reaches his tent. “Why not baptize your flock at dusk, too, preacher? Why let their sins follow them into their dreams?”
The preacher does not face her. His tent is as tall as he is, and is arranged on tall wooden posts. He does not look at the young woman, even as she peers boldly up at him. He parts the flap of his tent, holding it with one hand while he stands erect, tall, like a dark sentinel whose dark hair reaches the darkening sky and its nebulous stars. His eyes do not meet her, even still.
“So you may see the fruits of your sins bloom in the night,” the preacher says. “So you may dream the guilt that you harvest from sins and learn from them the lessons upon waking, otherwise you will waken in the next life not to Heaven, but to the flaming orchard that is Hell.”
She snorts, then leaves. The preacher retires inside his tent.
The moon is pale as a salmon’s belly. The wolves howl in the distant mountains to welcome the moon. The fires die around the settlement and the flock retires to bed.
A voice calls faintly to the preacher from beyond his tent.
“Preacher? Preacher, can I have a word? Please?”
The preacher rises from bed, then goes quickly to the flap.
“Billy?” he says.
“Yes, preacher,” Billy says, glumly. “I am sorry, preacher.”
“Give me a moment, Billy, and I will be out.”
The preacher pulls on his long-johns and then his black robe. He regards his bed for a moment, in regret, then opens the flap and exits his tent. Billy’s face is distraught in the moonlight.
“Sarah has gone missing,” he says. “Preacher, you have to help me convince her to take to the Lord’s path again.”
“She is likely making night-soil,” the preacher says.
“I’d like to believe that, preacher,” Billy says. “But she has been gone for so long now.” His eyes are as wide as a salmon’s with distress. “I’m afraid she is lost to me.”
“You must believe in the Lord’s guidance,” the preacher says, sternly. “In all things His hand works His will.”
Billy hangs his head. “I know, preacher…I know…but…”
“Do not persist in this mistaken belief,” the preacher warns him. “Or it will unmake you and all of the hard work you have done for this refuge of souls.”
“I know…preacher…but Sarah…she’s been acting strange for so long now…”
The preacher’s tone is curt. “Do you not think the Lord capable of changing hearts?”
Tears glisten on Billy’s cheeks. He trembles with indecision and doubt. His voice cracks as he speaks. “I know, preacher, but what if she has turned her back on the Lord?”
“Your doubt in the Lord’s influence is a sin,” the preacher says. He shakes his head angrily, looking from Billy back to his tent. At length, he sighs in resignation. “Come. I will baptize you again. This time, perhaps, you will feel the power of Jesus Christ and, then, the truth of these petty frets will be laid bare before you.”
The preacher leads Billy to the river, his shadowy figure seemingly as tall as an onyx steeple in the moonlight. The preacher steps into the shoals, gesturing for Billy to follow. Billy hesitates but a moment, but then, too, steps into the shoals, feeling the steady flow pull at his sorrow-stricken knees. He stumbles as if burdened beneath a great weight, but the preacher steadies him.
“Billy,” the preacher says. “Doubt in your wife is doubt in the love of the Lord. Do you ask forgiveness for this human failing?”
Billy, sobbing, nods. “Yes. Please, God, I ask for forgiveness!”
The preacher puts his large palm upon Billy’s forehead, and cradles his nape gently with his other hand. The preacher pauses, hearing two wolves howl together in the distance. He then continues.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The preacher dips Billy backwards into the river. He waits a moment, says a short prayer, and twists his hands in opposite directions. This done, he trudges back to the bank and—robe weighed down with water—emerges from the river. Returning to his tent, he enters and takes off his wet robe, long-johns, and lays down next to the figure awaiting his return.
A new day dawns and Billy’s limp body is washed away by the river, his arms outspread as he floats along an easy flow mirroring the sky.