The day of my baptism, I wear a neon orange swimsuit underneath my white dress. What was I supposed to do, go naked and let everybody see my brand-new nipples? As I wait by the river, bullfrogs jumping from bank to bank and croaking like a choir, the swimsuit keeps finding its way up my butt crack, giving me what Paw-Paw would call the “cowboy’s hello,” a term he coined for what happens to underwear on a saddle. “That’s why cowboys go commando, Darlene,” he always said.
I yank the suit out of my crevice. Mom, perched up on dry land, yells out, “Darlene, God is watching you!” I want to yell back, God gets wedgies too, but before I can, the pastor arrives.
He wades into the water, his eyes bulging from the cold. It’s only April, and the river flows with leftover winter water. He turns to face us, waist-deep, robe billowing up around him like a tutu. There are six of us getting baptized today, including Phoebe, who always makes a big show of praying with her eyes closed in church and saying Amen when she is done. Once I asked her what she prayed about. She said world peace. I pinched her arm and asked what she really prayed for. She cried and said that is what she really prayed for. Then her mama called my mama and I had to stick my nose in the corner of the wall for two hours.
I pray for normal things like chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, to see a butterfly cracking open a chrysalis, and to have my little nasty brother to shrivel up like a prune and get turned into prune juice that will be served at the old folks’ home where Paw-Paw lives.
I stick my tongue out at Phoebe, that goody-goody. She gasps as if she hasn’t ever seen my red tongue wiggling at her and turns away, blushing like a bride.
“Morning, my children,” the pastor says to us, and I can smell fish sticks and liquor on his breath. “Today is the day of your Baptism, the day you accept Christ into your little hearts. When you become submerged in the river, your original sin will be washed away – all that sin that causes lyin’, cheatin’, stealin’, covetin’, and adulterin’ washed downstream to the sea. When you emerge from the cleansing waters, you will be purified, cleansed, chock full of the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t know about all that. But before I can even say Holy Spirit who? I’m yanked by the pastor and hoisted up into the air like a trophy. “Darlene Harvey, do you take the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart, with love and devotion, in order to be cleansed of original sin?” Without pausing for my answer, he dunks me. The ice water feels like a slap. The pastor’s hands dig into my shoulders, keeping me down, making sure I’m getting my cleansing. Soon, I’ll pop back up and be purified, a good girl, a child of God.
But I like being a grimy thing. I do the only thing I can think of. I bite the pastor’s arm. His hands fly off me and I take my chance at escape, kicking my legs as fast as I can and pulling my body forward with a scooping motion of my arms. I feel movement behind me, but I don’t dare look back. I can swim faster than the pastor can wade. The fabric of my white dress has grown heavy, so I wriggle out of it and it floats up to the surface, translucent as a ghost. Just me and my orange swimsuit now. Without the dress’s weight, I can swim even faster, so I keep going, swimming farther and farther away from the bank where the congregation is gathered.
Feet fluttering, I follow the current, away from those cursed cleansing waters and Phoebe’s prayers for peace and the pastor’s stank breath. Something brushes my foot and my heart jumps. It must be the Holy Spirit, coming to get me. But it’s not a spirit. It’s a catfish. It swims in front of me and looks me in the eyes. Its skin is smooth and perfect, no blemishes or bumps. The sun refracting through the water catches its whiskers, illuminating each one like a pin light. I reach out my hand and scratch it beneath its chin, like I do with the cats that live under our porch. It leans into my hand, letting me scritch-scratch just like one of those kit-kats. My chest starts to feel tight, but I don’t want to go back up to the surface and be a member of the church and listen to the pastor’s thous and thines and be expected to pray for things that will never happen. I just want to stay down here with this radiant critter. I keep scratching it real good and it purrs, both of us free from damnation and deliverance, enjoying the sharp sting of April river water.
I’ve already been under for a few minutes now. I just need one breath, and I can go back under. I resolve to be amphibian. I grab the critter around the middle and propel upwards. I break through the surface of the water and the pale air stings my face. A breath forces itself into my lungs, but the air feels clogged compared to the cool water below. I take another deep breath and prepare to dip back under, then I realize there is no catfish in my hand. What purred at me was a sneaker. A white one caked in pond scum. The whiskers: untied laces. I let the shoe go, let it sink back to the bottom of the river, and swim back to the bank, a child of God, cleansed and alone.