TATHAM SPRINGS

I pulled skidding into the gravel parking lot of Pleasant Grove Presbyterian Church. I didn’t plan for my entrance to be so abrupt, so aggressive, but I nearly missed the parking lot while cruising inadvisably speedily down the perpendicular, curving Highway 555. I had been driving down that shifting road for more than five miles, and I had begun to zone out, listening to the ethereal, high-pitched guitar wails of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead, which blared out from within the spherical speakers of my car, from my connected playlist of the month. The small speaker, bulging out from within their home in the dashboard, looked like the helmets of miniature deep-sea divers. 

I needed some air; I needed to wake the hell up. I rolled down the window.

The parking lot was well-hidden, lined densely by a shaded sycamore forest, the canopy of which hung like a giant, natural fan over the church and the adjacent cemetery.  The forest stretched backward, sloping down to the muddy bank of the nearby Beech-Fork River. This area of Central Kentucky – though not terribly remote – felt detached from society.

I pulled the key from the ignition of my trusted maroon Toyota Scion and yanked upward the emergency brake, a force of habit developed back in high school, back in driver’s ed. class. We had to do that, back then – it was important to the teacher. 

The antique church – which stood directly outside my windshield – was colored similarly to my car – though with a bit of glaring, aggressive crimson. It was a pentagonal, brick building – its colliding edges pointing skyward to the Kentucky summer sun. That sun was blistering out on the road, but here in the parking lot – in the forest clearing – it was comfortable. The forest canopy, combined with the wet breeze blowing up from the river – insulated by the dense, surrounding foliage – gave the clearing a natural system of air-conditioning. 

I opened the door, grabbed my yellow-paper legal pad, and headed to the splintery wooden, swinging double front doors of the church. The legal pad wasn’t necessary, not really, but I liked bringing it, especially when I was working on a story in which I knew I would be talking to elderly people. They seemed to appreciate longhand notetaking. It gave them the sense that I was really paying attention – like I actually gave a shit.  I would also record all conversations and take numerous photos and videos, for later analysis – no doubt about that. The problem with this particular story, putting it as bluntly as possible, was that it was fucking stupid. My career was in a rut – I was well aware of that unfortunate reality. I had been reduced to accepting these types of non-stories, just to get by. An alleged fountain of youth, sitting in the middle of a small, muddy tributary in the bluegrass? It was embarrassing, working on this story – it insulted my journalistic integrity – but I was trying to force interest upon myself. I needed this story to be good, and if I was interested, these old bastards in the church would be much more willing to tell me everything they knew, which would in turn allow me to craft a better story – regardless of how much of a load of shit it was.  If the story was good, those assholes at the magazine would like it – whether it was factual or not. That’s the problem with journalism – no one ever, ever, really gives a shit about the facts.

The front doors burst open before I had the chance to knock:

“Welcome! Welcome, Mr. Marrs! Name’s Jimmy Rhiney – pleasure to meet ya’”

Reverend Rhiney, the pastor of the church, abruptly grabbed my right hand – which hung limply aside my waist – and started shaking aggressively. He shook with his right hand and used his left to clutch the back of my hand.  It was uncomfortable, but I needed to build rapport with this man, so I looked him in the eye, smiling big. I hoped that I didn’t look like a wide-eyed, fucking lunatic – this type of small-talk fakery didn’t come naturally to me.

“Well, come on in!” he said, “My wife’s been waiting on you! She’s real excited a big-shot journalist has decided to write about our little fountain. We’re all excited about it, truly, but I think she is the most! She’s been talking about it all week!”

Reverend Rhiney was certainly an elderly man. His shoulders slouched forward, nearly hunchbacked. His brow creased and folded into itself, likely from years outside in the sun. He was missing several teeth. I thought it surprising that he didn’t use a cane – but apparently he didn’t need one. Turning away, he thrust the doors wide and waddled happily into the sanctuary, like an obese raccoon.

The church somehow looked even smaller from the inside. Old, wooden pews – softened by maroon cushioned seats – lined each side of the sanctuary leading up to the pulpit. Red carpet – the same maroon color – led from the front door, up the three steps, to the altar. Walking down the aisle, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was in Hollywood, striding confidently forward to accept an award. That certainly wasn’t the case – not in this damn place – I was merely hoping to salvage whatever might be left of my career.

Reverend Rhiney’s wife, who introduced herself as Tammy, was sitting cross-legged in one of those regal-looking chairs preachers use, swinging her hanging leg up and down, rattling her foot chaotically, as if simultaneously irritated and anxious. She was also an older woman, though much more well-kept. The pair of them, together, looked bizarre – as if they didn’t quite match. 

I wondered why in the hell churches felt the need for so many modern manufactured, fake relics. Regal thrones, fake golden bowls, stained glass windows. Could any God possibly give a shit about any of that? What was the point?

I snapped back into reality. Tammy, having risen from her chair, was now standing in front of me, reaching for my hand. I shook, introducing myself.

“We’re so happy you’re here!” she said, “I can’t wait for you to see the fountain! I just know you’ll write so many great things about it! Please! Sit down!”

I took a seat in one of the large chairs, sinking briefly into the cushion before catching myself and sitting up. I flashed my legal pad and pen, signaling my readiness to begin the discussion.

“So!” I said, “Tell me a little about the history of this place!”

“Oh!” said Reverend Rhiney, “Getting right to it, aren’t we? Well, I would start at the beginning, but – to tell you the truth – I can’t say exactly when the beginning was. This fountain – this pool of youth – has, as far as anyone knows, always been here. It was here before Abry was settled, or anywhere else in Kentucky, for that matter. It quite possibly even predates Native American activity in the area. Older than the Shawnee, older than the Cherokee, older than the Mississippian peoples – unbelievably old! Heck, the good Lord may have placed it right smack here as he was constructing the Earth – straight from the beginning!”

“A natural place infused with the spirit of God,” I said, “Like the tree in the Garden of Eden.”

“Oh, no!” said Tammy “Not like that! This isn’t an evil pool! It isn’t here to tempt anyone! There aren’t even any snakes in it! Truly!”

Tammy’s face was flushed crimson; she was passionate about this pool – I could tell. Noticing his wife’s increased emotion, Reverend Rhiney limped over to her chair, rubbing her back gently:

“Now, now, dear,” he said. “We’ll be able to show this writer, here, the magic of the fountain soon enough.” He then looked over to me, smiling:

“Deep and wide, it flows!” He started laughing. He even bent down – as much as he was capable – and slapped his knee. His loose suspenders rippled from the vibration. I smiled, forcing a chuckle:

“The hotel is still going strong, right?” I said, “I’m really interested in seeing it. Shaded, on the banks of the river – it seems like a really comfortable place!”

“The most comfortable!” said the reverend, “We’ve never had any financial issues here at the church – neither us nor any of our wonderful congregation! And you know, it’s all thanks to that hotel – it’s all thanks to the fountain!”

“I’m looking forward to staying there,” I responded, “Could you give me a tour of the place?”

“Absolutely!” said Tammy, “I manage the hotel; I’d be happy to show you around!”

We stepped out from the sanctuary, back into the shaded clearing in which it sat centered. 

Before making it down to the river – upon the banks of which sat the elderly Tatham Springs hotel – we had to walk through the cemetery. Strolling through the waving, lengthy though well-kept bluegrass, I glanced down at each of the headstones as I walked past. This was an old cemetery. I noticed deceased individuals from as far back as the early nineteenth century; the most recent additions, as far as I could tell, were from the 50s – proud frontiersman, farmers, and Korean War veterans. 

Squirrels, leaping confidently across high branches, fought violently in the overhanging tree canopy, shaking the limbs as acorns fell like pointed bombs to the soft earth below. One of them struck me on the shoulder. A housecat – white, with a burnt orange stripe – snuck stealthily out from behind a headstone, into the adjacent wood.

“That’s Peter,” said Reverend Rhiney, “He’s our congregation’s cat. He just showed up, one day. Nobody knows where from. We took him in; he’s a good boy. He’s got a little spot, where he can sneak into the sanctuary; that way he don’t get cold, come winter time. He even strolls the pews during the service! He loves everyone – he’s a good boy.”

I looked back in Peter’s direction. The cat, having already entered the dense brush of the wood, I could no longer see him – only the dancing shake of the tall weeds as he shifted through them unseen, down to the river.

 We made it to the edge of the wood. A porous, algae-stained, wooden stairwell led down from the cemetery to the hotel, which sat facing the circular irregularity of this alleged fountain of youth. 

“Looks like a nice place!” I said, staring downward to the hotel building. It was a white painted, black shuttered, antebellum, southern gothic looking building. It stood strangely leaning on that riverbank – as if arrogant, almost confident, while simultaneously sliding slowly into the river. It sat shifting, though also changeless – mature.

Reverend Rhiney belted the cracked paint of the front door like a massive woodpecker, thick lead chips flying backward into the air:

Hey!” he yelled, “We got this writer here! You knew he was coming! Open up the dang door so we can get out of this swamp!”

He continued slamming the old wood. It buckled under his beat, as if to eventually split. Tammy approached him and placed her hand on the now sweaty shoulder of his thin, green summer button-up shirt:

“Now, now!” said Tammy, “Give it a rest; they’ll come! Give it a minute, you old scrooge!”

Reverend Rhiney abated his barrage of the door, briefly panting, bending in strain and clutching his knees with his hands.

The door opened. Inside stood a short, slouching man. He looked slightly younger, though more well-worn, than Reverend Rhiney:

“Hey there, boss!” said the man, chuckling, “Sorry about that! I was cleanin’ up one of the rooms, from our last guest! Son of a bitch left it dirtier than hell, he did! Left so abruptly!”

“Don’t curse!” said Reverend Rhiney, still heaving, “This is a holy place – an ancient place – don’t taint it with your crude language!”

“Right, right!” said the man, “I always forget! I’ll do better – I promise!”

Tammy looked up to me:

“This is Samuel,” she said, “He’s the groundskeeper, here at Pleasant Grove-Tatham Springs. He takes care of both the inside and the outside – of both the church and the hotel! He’s a hardworking man, our Samuel is!”

I looked at this crazed individual. He stared back smiling wide, winking at me consecutively. It made me uncomfortable:

“Don’t call me Samuel,” he said, winking again, “The name’s Crank. That’s what everyone has always called me – since I was a boy. My friend’s gave it to me. I can’t reckon why, but it’s stuck! It’s my name!”

Crank then gestured for me to come inside:

“Come on, now!” he said, “I’ll give you a tour of the place!”

The interior of the Tatham Springs hotel was dark and narrow – the polar opposite of an open-concept. Swirling, gothic trim bordered each doorway and every base, as if to drive home the muddy green, shifting color of the outside river. The foyer, a claustrophobic hallway leading left into the alleged dining area, straight ahead to the checkout counter, and upward – by way of a wobbling, rusted spiral stairwell – to the second floor, was a sight in itself.

“I know the look; I know the look!” said Reverend Rhiney, “You’re wondering how a place like this is legal! Well, let me tell you, it is! It passes code! It checks all the boxes – it’s as sturdy as can be! It only appears slouching – this place has been a picture of stability since its construction. No one know why – not really. It looks to be sliding into the river, does it not? As if it may well float away any moment – like Tom Sawyer! I’ll tell you what I think; I think it’s just another testament to the magic of the river. Those spiritual waters, they understand the importance of this hotel, they know that people are saved when visitors decide to stay here! I think the river itself supports the hotel – both financially and physically!”

I looked Reverend Rhiney right in the face – speechless. Tammy, walking up from behind me, placed her hand gently on my shoulder:

“Oh, don’t mind him!” she said, “I’m not saying I doubt the holy magic of this place, but he gets a little too excited about it, from time to time!”

The rooms of Tatham Springs hotel were cramped and narrow – not at all dissimilar to a standard college dorm room. The hotel also housed – on the other side of the dining room – an apparently seldom-used ballroom. The place looked as if to at any moment collapse, its walls caving inward – unstably wedged into the ever-damp mud of the riverbank.

Stepping into my room on the second floor, I threw my bag onto the overly firm, creaking twin bed, and lay down, staring up to the low-lying ceiling as I collected my thoughts. I began dozing off, at which point I forced myself out of the old bed. It wasn’t comfortable – not at all – but I was fucking tired. I didn’t need to sleep, though; I needed to get down to the river and take some notes before sunset. I had decided that I would put on my swimming trunks – a generic, navy blue pair I had bought at the local Walmart, not far away, down Highway 555 – and wade out into the water. See what it was actually like out there. After getting a literal feel of the place, I would eat dinner in the restaurant hotel, talk a little more with Reverend Rhiney, and then head back to my room, from where – using the provided tiny, splintery antique writing desk – I would spend the rest of the night finishing the story. 

I unzipped my bag, pulled out my yellow legal pad, and began reviewing my notes. I noticed, wedged comfortably in the bottom of my Army surplus camo backpack, an only lightly swigged bottle of Wild Turkey 101. I dislodged it from its cozy home and set it on the writing desk; it would come in handy later, when the writer’s block – caused by my inevitable future lethargy – set in. 

I went to the bathroom and stepped fumbling into my swimming trunks, tying tightly the waistband before heading out the door.

I saw no one in the foyer; I walked straight through, out the front door – which sat facing the river – down the wooden stairs to the quietly flapping wake of the river. The water was calm, but a slight wind was pushing the slow-moving current metronomic-like against the soft, ancient bank. I sat down in the mud – my hands placed behind my back, in the goop – and took everything in. The Beech-Fork River wasn’t at all wide – probably less than forty yards – but the pool surrounding this alleged fountain of youth widened it circularly to a much greater diameter. Overhanging trees – combined with the relative stagnancy of the river-flow – shaded the area so much that I could tell – just from briefly dipping my innocent toes – that the water temperature stayed permanently uncomfortably cool.

Dusk hadn’t yet begun setting in, but the shade of the canopy made the day appear later than it actually was. I looked across the river to the opposite bank. A tired doe limped across the small rocks lining the other side. It stepped gently to the edge of the bank, bending to take a drink. Upon lapping up the water, the previously slouching deer lunged excitedly to life, sprinting northward with urgency, up the hill and into the dense, weedy wood. 

“Deer are such spazzes,” I thought – feeling tired, myself. 

I needed to wake up; I still had a long night ahead of me. I slid abruptly from my self-made, natural memory-foam, muddy cushion into the cold river, thinking the water temperature might awaken me. I was right about that. Nearly instantly I felt a rush of energy. I was back to life. The biting cold of the cloudy water filled my being with clarity. Emerging from the water – after having submerged myself for as long as I could stand – I gasped skyward, my wide eyes staring through the sole crack in the canopy toward the lone sunray shining in like an overworked Edison lightbulb.

I floated for a while in the middle of the pool. I breathed heavily – my bulging beer belly protracting and retracting spasmodically – I felt good. The pool, at first cold, now felt nice. The current pulsed wavy, like oil, around my stagnant figure, though my body didn’t in any fashion float downstream. It was as if I was in a sensory deprivation tank. I attributed this oddity to the general stagnancy of the circular, swirling pool.

Multitudinous nests of great blue herons sat numerous in the trees above the pool. The gangly birds stood towering in their oversized, prickly dwellings. Apparently unnerved by my presence, they gave their robotic, electric squawk – communicating vibrational noise around the near perfect, natural circumference of the pool. The waves kicked up by the wind seemed as if created by the organic static of the birds’ grating call.

I decided to check the depth of the pool. Splashing around awkwardly, I dove into the river, feeling around blindly in the dark, muddy water. It seemed to me about ten to twelve feet deep – not terribly unusual, but respectable for a small river such as the Beech-Fork. Beneath the surface swam aquatic life innumerable. Small fish – likely minnows, bluegill, and smallmouth bass – brushed their scales roughly against my forearm as I grasped at the bottom. Crawdads sprang backward, offended, in retreat. A large turtle’s shell, likely a hog-nosed snapper, swiped its smooth edge against my calf. It kicked off from the base of my leg upward, toward the surface. 

Wildlife was natural, in the wild – I was aware of that – but this was abnormal. It was as if I had dived into an aquarium. 

Briefly unnerved, I surfaced and swam freestyle toward the riverbank. A knot of small frogs hopped frenziedly from the bank into the water as I splashed onto the damp surface of the mud. I was confused. 

I thought for a while about the river, about the hotel, and the church. Overly religious people were normal – especially in this bluegrass band of the Bible belt. Capitalizing on a geographical irregularity – even one as small as a permanently cold, irregularly circular part of an otherwise normal river – also checked out. What didn’t, however, was the swarming population of wildlife inhabiting the pool. There had to be a reason for it, I knew, but I couldn’t think of anything. 

“I guess that’s why I’m a fucking journalist,” I thought to myself.

Arising wobbling from my spot in the mud, I trudged up the stairs, back toward the hotel. Before I could ascend the bulk of the stairwell, however, I saw Reverend Rhiney scampering hurriedly toward me:

“Mr. Marrs! Mr. Marrs!” he belted – his thin, previously combed white hair flailing wildly down into his eyes, “Mr. Marrs! Please don’t go into the river! You can’t just do that! It’s sacred!”

I stared in disbelief. It was a fucking oversized creek. Reverend Rhiney continued:

“The river is only used for two very specific reasons: baptism and revival! You can’t just go in there! It isn’t safe! It isn’t right!”

I gripped the sides of the stairwell. I needed to squeeze something. I was wet; I was hungry – I had to take a shit. I wasn’t prepared to talk about the story of this place with Reverend Rhiney – I needed to clean myself up before I could do that. I needed a shower. I had a schedule. 

“Sorry about that,” I said, “Look, I would love for you to tell me everything you know about the river, but first I’ve got to get cleaned up. Could you meet me somewhere a little later?”

“Well, absolutely!” said Reverend Rhiney, looking flustered – almost angry, “As a matter of fact, we do our baptisms at night; we’ve got one tonight – at ten! You could come on down for it, if you want – it could give you some quality information for your story!”

Reverend Rhiney wasn’t wrong about that – seeing an actual baptism in this goofy place would certainly provide me with the ethnographic data I needed for my story. I would easily be able to conjure up something workable after witnessing the church at work. I looked up to Reverend Rhiney, who was still a few steps above me – looking down at me as if an authority – and responded:

“Yes! I’ll definitely be there. I’ll see you at ten!”

After arriving back in my room, I hopped immediately into the shower. The steaming water – though seemingly clean, and burning hot – had a lingering scent reminiscent of the river. It smelled like fish, and snakes. I scrubbed myself, stepped out, wrapped a towel around my waist, and used a hand towel to wipe the collected fog from the large, adjacent mirror. From behind I saw – through the bathroom window I had inadvisably left unshaded – the peering face of a crazed man. It was Crank. He was staring at me. I turned around, pissed off. He darted away. Out the window, I noticed the sun beginning to set. The tree canopy looked as if to be the long, gangly fingers of a shadow-beast – they closed collectively around the pool; that alleged fountain of youth.

I needed to get something to eat before viewing this baptism. I head out the door and down to the dining area on the main floor. The place was empty. An old, Victorian gothic chandelier hung strangely low from the ceiling. It waved back and forth, as the wind coming in through the opened windows swung it round. The shadows of the chandeliers arms – swirling around the maroon carpeted room – look as if the shadowy, encroaching limbs of a demonic entity. 

I got a drink from the bar – a gin and tonic. The bartender looked at me strangely – I guess for not ordering the local favorite, bourbon. Many of the most famous distilleries sat near the hotel, in other rural locations – Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey. I needed something refreshing, though – it had been an exhausting afternoon. Mentally straining, at least. 

“You the story guy?” said the bartender. 

I looked up, not previously paying attention to his facial features. He was a wrinkly, though middle-aged man, his unkempt whiskers bristling black, gray, and white, sprouted out from his thick chin like the defensive back of an angered porcupine. 

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, lifting my drink as if to toast. He didn’t respond to that. He instead stepped back, putting his hands in the pockets of his thin, black suit-vest.

“Well,” he continued, “What’re ya’ gonna’ say about the place?” 

“I’ll tell you all about it,” I said, “but can I see the menu first?”

He slid a single, laminated sheet of loose-leaf paper across the bar counter. I glanced over the handwritten menu:

“I’ll have a turkey sandwich on white bread, with mayo, Swiss cheese, and sweet pickles.”

“Coming right up.”

While scarfing down my sandwich, I told the bartender all about the story I’d been contracted to write. He seemed like a sensible guy, so I gave him mostly the truth. I told him about how I was a struggling journalist – how I used to have a real career, but it had gone sour. I told him that I’d had no other choice but to take the story, for the simple reason that it was just about the only story I could get. I told him that I needed the story to be good, but I didn’t have any sort of ulterior motive – any desire to fictionalize anything (that part was a lie). I told him that I simply wanted to check the place out, talk to the local people, and document what they told me about the history of this supposed fountain of youth. He seemed, for the most part, disinterested. I guess he was expecting something a bit more exciting. Turning away from me to the cash register, he turned his head:

“You want the bill?”

“Yeah” I said, “Thanks.”

I signed the receipt, drained the rest of my gin and tonic, and headed out the front door. It was dark outside – very dark. The tree canopy encircling the riverbed shaded the darkness vantablack. Descending the stairway to the river felt similar to walking into an unlit, musky cave. I did notice one light, however – a single flickering flame, which had just been lit. Following that one, other flames doubled and tripled in number – new lights emerging in a chain along the bank of the still lapping water, which became visible – in a shadowy sense – upon the lighting of the numerous candles. I continued to the foot of the riverbank, where I saw Reverend Rhiney standing – his rolled up khaki pants, held up by suspenders – shin deep in the water:

“Hello there, son!” he said, “Welcome back to the river! Are you ready for a baptism? Are you prepared to witness the work of Christ, here in this holy place?”

“I’m ready,” I said, leaning backward against a slouching tree trunk, “It’s about time for this shindig to start, isn’t it?”

“Shindig!” belted Reverend Rhiney, affronted, “What, you think we’re going to start line dancing? A river dance, is that what you think? This is no mere shindig, I assure you of that! You’re about to behold the physical presence of the Holy Spirit! This may well be the most important night of your life, Mr. Marrs!”

“I don’t doubt you,” I said, gesturing with my legal pad, “I’m just here to take notes.”

“That you are!” said Reverend Rhiney, looking upward and motioning to the crowd, “Let’s begin, shall we!”

The crowd – its voices even more numerous than I had at first recognized; some of them were standing hidden in the blackness, without candles – murmured whispering, choral hallelujahs in cultish agreement.

A little unnerved, I shrank into the tree. I began jotting things down on my legal pad, not because I really needed to take any notes, but because – in my current state of fearfulness – I wanted to make myself look busy. The legal pad, as always, was simply a prop.

“Brothers and sisters,” said Reverend Rhiney, “We have a guest with us tonight! A guest come to be baptized in our small, hallowed pool!”

I looked around, wondering who the other out-of-towner could be. I didn’t see anyone come to the fore – I assume maybe they had backed out, last minute. I didn’t blame them, for that – these people were fucking weird. 

“Mr. Marrs!” continued the reverend, “Please step forward!”

I glanced around, confused: “Oh!” I stammered, “I’m not here to be baptized! Maybe I misled you, if so – I’m sorry! I’m just here to take notes; I’m just a journalist.”

“You were swimming in the pool today,” said Reverend Rhiney, “I’m sorry, but you’ve already baptized yourself. The waters have already penetrated into your physical and spiritual being. Because of that, we have no choice but to perform the ceremony.”

“What?” I said, baffled.

Without responding, Reverend Rhiney gestured to the now encircling crowd. Stepping forward, they pushed me toward the water. I turned to run, trying to break through them – but their formation was firm; it was as if an Ancient Roman testudo, shoving me forcefully forward. They pushed me roughly – I stumbled into Reverend Rhiney, who still stood in the water. He grabbed me. His grip was intensely firm – I shook around, but I couldn’t escape:

“Fuck! Let me go, you bastard!”

“Don’t curse in this holy place. You have already desecrated it once with your ignorance of our local culture – don’t do it again!”

Reverend Rhiney then reached his right hand into the river, cupping it and lifting out some water. He flicked the water in my face, rubbed the moisture around my head:

“In the name of the Father.” He dipped his hand again into the river, again flicking the water in my face: “In the name of the Son.” And finally, once again: “In the name of the Holy Spirit.”

I blinked repeatedly, dirty water staining my eyes: “God dammit, you fucking asshole,” I said.

Reverend Rhiney didn’t respond. A nefarious scowl painted his wrinkled, worn face. He turned and threw me into the river. 

I splashed around chaotically beneath the now strengthening current of the swirling pool, finally collecting myself and resurfacing:

“You fucking piece of shit!” I said, embarrassed. My pride was hurt. I was done with this stupid story – I wanted to get the hell out of there.

Before I could make it out of the river, however, I felt a stinging, clutching grasp against my heel. It pulled me; it was a turtle, I thought – one of those snappers, from earlier. I hurt like hell. Before I had time to react, though, the other, innumerable aquatic wildlife swarmed around me like a whirlpool. Snakes bit at my hips; alligator gar dug their teeth into my thighs; great blue herons swooped down from their nests, pecking at my mouth and eyeballs. I fell back into the river. I was quickly pulled deeper – to the bottom. The feast continued. I screamed out from the depths, the bubbles of my underwater voice vibrating upward to the surface – which at this point felt miles away. 

Finally fighting off the animal horde, I swam to the surface, briefly resurfacing. I yelled for help. It was no use. At the riverbank, I saw Reverend Rhiney. He looked at me, grinning: 

“All right, everyone!” He said, “It’s been a while since we’ve had some new blood in the river! Everybody drink up! We’ve been getting old! I know I’ve been feeling especially elderly, lately! Let’s turn back the clock!”

Reverend Rhiney again cupped water from the river – this time to drink. He drank and drank again. Tammy joined him, as did Crank, as did the rest of the congregation. When Reverend Rhiney, his spiritual thirst quenched, lifted his head from the water, he was at least twenty years younger. He stared at me, smiling. He laughed loudly.

I flailed around, splashing in the water. Eventually, I was again pulled into the depths, this time never to resurface. I screamed from the bottom; water filled my lungs. The animals ate.

— Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at Kaidankai, Tall Tale TV, Black Petals, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, The Corner Bar Magazine, Yellow Mama, APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary.