Baptism by Dan Mancilla
Associate fiction editor Mike Berry on today's story: Have you ever wondered what happens when a family finds a porch full of dirt after they baptize their first child? Me neither. But stretch your arms, shake your legs, and wash yourself in a dirt-baptism with this family’s briefly brilliant yet hopeful story.
The new parents return from St. Alphonsus and discover their front porch blanketed under a foot of soil. From sidewalk to sill the dirt is groomed more carefully than a Zen garden.
When she considers the tiny furrows, so fine they could have been raked by fork, the mother sees rows of cornstalks, lines of lonely boys. She grew up on Foothill Road in a trailer park abutting the city’s last farm. As a child she wandered through the farm’s cornfields stomping the soft earth, searching for a patch of quicksand or a sinkhole, some portal to another world. When that proved fruitless, she’d snap off an ear of corn, hold it to her mouth, and rehearse answers for the talk shows she’d frequent after she escaped the trailer park and made great discoveries as an archeologist. “Just think of it, Barbara,” she’d marvel into an ear of corn, “all that treasure beneath our feet!”
When she was older she’d lead boys into those fields where they’d commit mortal sin. Always the same sin. Sin to which she would never confess. She sought no priest’s absolution but dug miniature graves in the furrows, no bigger than a shoebox, one for each lover. She marked their graves with corn cobs instead of names. One cob for the selfish, handsy boys who finished too soon. Two cobs for the gentle, sweet boys she mothered along so they could satisfy her. There had only been a pair worthy of three cobs, boys who knew what to do with her from the start. The first one had enlisted in the army and shipped off after their only rendezvous. She brought the second one out to the cornfield for nearly two years. They conceived there in winter. Married before she started to show.
The father rocks their son on his shoulder. The infant’s baptism gown glows white, gleams like a fresh snow against the soil. The father resists the urge to plunge into the dirt and demonstrate the art of snow angels for the infant. As a boy he loved nothing more than diving into new-fallen snow, to be the first to spread wings and leave his impression.
He squats down, smells the earth on their porch, smells the anointing oil on their son. Reaches a hand over the neatly raked soil but stops before disturbing the tableau, remembers the summer he was ten and a Gypsy family moved in next door. There’d been a Gypsy boy he’d played with, Mike Dave, who carried a pouch of dirt with him wherever he went. “Graveyard bone dirt,” Mike Dave insisted. “Present from my busha.” His grandmother told fortunes and devised hexes and gifted Mike Dave with dirt enchanted to protect him from enemies. The father convinces himself the dirt on their porch is protection for his family and not a prank or curse. He can’t remember crossing Mike Dave during that brief time they were neighbors, only remembers thinking it odd the boy had two first names.
His son only has one first name, but he has a middle name. It’s a family name passed down five generations. He’ll acquire a third name if he chooses to confirm his faith when he comes of age. While the father is a young man, of sound mind and body, he cannot immediately recall his own confirmation name. When it does come to him, the father regrets what little thought he’d put into choosing it. If his son ever asks his confirmation name, the father will choose more carefully.
The father notes the soil’s color. He will repaint the nursery porchsoil black, protection for the child when the father’s not around. He’d paint the entire house that color but knows his wife wants to move. They bought the house a year ago, an old home in an old neighborhood. It suited the father more than the mother; he planned projects, refinished floors, fenced in their meager yard for the day they’d bring home a dog. The trailer park where the mother grew up was old. Not antique or historic. Just old, charmless, without nostalgia. Last time she’d been out to Foothill Road, she saw the dump trucks and earthmovers lined up straight as cornrows. Soon those machines would break ground, bulldoze crops, dig foundations for new homes. She hopes they’ll be able to afford one of those new homes, dreams they’ll find contentment there.
She runs a hand through her husband’s hair, strokes her son’s cheek. Both parents now hold the infant just as they had over the baptismal font. She kisses her husband, and then he lets go, plunges backward into the dirt.
The infant’s eyes grow wide when his father sprouts wings.
Dan Mancilla lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds a PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University and teaches at Kendall College of Art and Design. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Barrelhouse, BULL: Men’s Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, The Malahat Review, Monkeybicycle, The Saturday Evening Post, and Slice, among others. “Baptism” is a story from his book-length manuscript, All the Proud Fathers. You can read more about Dan and his work at danmancilla.com.