First Place | Fiction Writing Contest

55th New Millennium Award for Fiction

Mekiya Outini of Kansas City, Missouri for “Baptism by Earth”

Outini will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.


Baptism by Earth

It took Maria twenty years to paint the solar fields. For twenty years, every Saturday afternoon, after downing a few cups of coffee, maybe a bowl of fruit and yogurt that I fixed her, she’d grab her climate-controlled case of cultures and drive up I-75 until she hit the turnoff where the skeletal panels waited for her, disused, stripped of precious metals, overgrown. She’d park on the shoulder and amble down a footpath into the graveyard of yesterday’s renewable energy dreams, indifferent to the biting, buzzing, swarming things, until the brush grew thick enough that she had to crawl on her hands and knees. When she found wherever she’d left off the week before, she’d unpack her case and her custom-made brushes and set to work sewing the spores of graffiti that no one besides her was likely to see. 

She only ever painted the panels’ undersides, where the sun couldn’t scorch all the life from the fungi. Heat-resistant strains had been available, still unregulated when she’d started the project, but she’d never used them where they’d come in contact with the wild populations. It was only a matter of time, she’d always said, before the mushrooms learned to take the heat, and then we’d all be in for hell, susceptible to infections that our mammalian metabolisms had prevented for the last few million years. Human infections by rare, lethal fungi had been steadily rising since the start of the century, driven by the warming climate and declining average body temperatures, but things had not yet reached a tipping point, and Maria, loyal to her fellow mammals, was loath to hurry things along. 

* * *

I knew we’d crossed some kind of line the day I found her in the kitchen with her insteps sewn together, leaking blood. She’d left the needle and thread on the table, a splintery relic that her mother had hacked out of loblolly pine before dying of snakebite, and there was red on the knots and the whorls, on her hands, on the dingy linoleum, and on her swollen feet, pus mixed with blood. 

“What the hell are you doing?” I heard myself say, like she hadn’t gone and done it already. 

“What’s it look like I’m doing?” Her voice came out steady, like she wasn’t in pain. “I’m rooting.”

I dropped my bag and went straight to her, knelt on the floor and held her swollen limbs. I’d been out working on a new neighbor’s internet relay, a favor. My fingers were black from the ladder I’d climbed and the tangles of wires I’d dug through. I fought the urge to touch Maria, but then I remembered the bridge to infection was already crossed and burned. My heart grew up into a wave in my head, one that wouldn’t stop breaking. I felt the room begin to spin, a huge, liquid screw boring into my brain. I’d been putting off the knowing, but it came in full force now: our nearly nineteen years of partnership were coming to an end. I wasn’t ready for it. Never would be. 

I wanted to hurt her for doing this to me. I couldn’t stand the thought of her hurting. I wanted us to be in this together, arm in arm against the pain. “You said you’d never leave me,” I told her. “You said you’d never go unless I hurt you. How’d I hurt you? Tell me what I done?” 

A chunk of laughter fell out of Maria’s mouth, or the mouth of whatever it was that was taking her. “You ain’t done nothing,” she said, all matter-of-fact, like I was a damn fool for asking. “And I ain’t going nowhere. I’m rooting right here. Can’t you see?” 

* * *

You could say I met Maria nearly nineteen years ago, when I installed her Ma’s first ever broadband relay a solid decade after the rest of the rural Old South went online. She served me sweet tea in a mason jar and clocked the way I stared at the trailer’s outer wall, the same one we’d ended up living in, streaked with all the colors of a mushroom trip wherever the curtains of Spanish moss made all-day shade. 

Or you could say I met her two years before that, when she was hired to paint the mural on the outer wall of the server farm where I was working, so it wouldn’t look so ugly from the interstate. They had her using heat-resistant strains, and every day, when I clocked in at 8:00 a.m., I’d see her up on her ladder, decked out in hazmat gear, smearing the sheer metal surface with cultures. I’d shared a couple of cigarettes with her on lunch breaks before quitting that job and switching to cybersecurity. That’s when it struck me that she wasn’t what you’d call pretty, normally, but normally has its limits just like any other word. Hers was an earthy, rangy sort of beauty even then, the kind that’s like bourbon or cheese, that gets better with aging. I saw it in the way she’d draw those long, slow breaths while sizing up a wall before going at it as deft as an animal feeding, painting like she alone could see what would bloom there, working for hours in a trance or a rapture. I saw it in the way the murals always blossomed to perfection, verdant-coral-crimson-azure streaks and lattices and frills and tiers that transformed the wretchedly terraformed landscape of the Georgian hills into something almost like they’d once been, back when they were miles farther from the sea. 

You could say, too, that I met Maria twenty-six years ago, when I first saw photos of her murals in an art book on sale in a gallery where I’d gone on a bad date. I didn’t buy the book, but it stayed in my memory after the rest of the evening had faded away. 

You could even say I met Maria thirty-seven years ago, when she got suspended from my high school for graffitiing classrooms in a one-woman protest campaign against still-un-curbed carbon emissions—a campaign rendered moot when those same classrooms flooded the following year. 

However you slice it, it seemed that our paths had been crossing and crossing for most of our lives, which is maybe why it hadn’t much surprised her when I’d turned to her the afternoon I rigged her mother’s broadband, iced tea sweating in hand, and asked her on a picnic just like I’d been working up the nerve to do all afternoon. Nor had it surprised me when she’d answered, “Meet me here,” and sent me a pin to the old solar field. It had felt just like an engine starting up, making all those years of tinkering worth it, finally worth it: it was running on its own. 

Our courtship had proceeded in a sidewinding fashion for much of the following year. For me, the whole thing had presented a wondrous challenge. Before going out with Maria, I’d lived every day with the half-formed impression that my whole life, thus far, had been no more than preamble. I’d felt that I’d carried some greatness within me and was only waiting for the opportunity to loose it on the world. What form that greatness was to take, I’d never known. I’d just been sure that nothing in my life—not my trade school education, the first in my family in two generations; not my estrangement from my hot-headed brother, who’d shot me in the side one night when I’d landed the game-building job he’d tried out for; not my meandering career or my parents’ slow, alcoholic decline—had mattered for its own sake; that all of it had resolutely pointed toward some other, not-yet-realized end. 

As soon as we’d started dating, though, I’d found myself against the wall of understanding that I’d never actually carried such a greatness. Her genius lived in every gesture, every flick of her attention, every offhand word. Mine had been nothing but a fantasy leftover from a bygone age. What I did have, I’d discovered soon enough, when I’d dared to let go of that ghost of ambition, was another kind of talent altogether. (Saying it like that makes it sound as if I let go all at once, and easily. In truth, it was more of a drawn-out bloodletting, but I choose to remember it as a blip before the better part of life began.) I found that I could be the soil that she grew in: firm but not too densely packed, fecund, nutrient-rich, and sustainable year after year. 

I’d fallen into that new role as if into baptism water. I’d sunk and sunk and let myself become submerged in her. I’d taken her shape and held it, steadfast, for what now was coming-up on nineteen years. 

Only now her shape was changing faster, and I couldn’t match her speed. Sometime in the last few days or weeks, a mutant spore had slipped its case and made its way into her brain. She’d had fungi under toe- and fingernails before, yeasts in her urethra, rashes on her skin, but she’d never had it in her nervous system, and it was doing things to her that couldn’t be anticipated, rearranging her in ways I couldn’t understand. 

* * *

“Hell,” she declared as I dug in the icebox, my back to her wounds, “and heaven, Lyall. They’re just states of mind.” She’d asked for cold water before I’d got through disinfecting her stitches. When I brought her the glass, she pressed it to her forehead first and then her lips. “Hell’s right here,” she went on. “Heaven, too. Wherever you are, there ought to be a sign for hell and heaven—you are here.”

“You want the fan on?” Part of me wanted her temperature spiking, rising faster than her colonizer’s heat resistance, but even if it did, I knew, it would take too many of her brain cells with it. It would make her suffer more. She acceded with a nod. Trembling, barely equal to the task, I raised her from the chair and carried her toward the bedroom at the far end of the trailer. There, I laid her on the mattress that stretched wall-to-wall. I brought a cooler full of ice and set it on the hand-sewn quilt beneath the fan that pushed stale air from the windowsill. “You’re all right,” I told her, though her feet were swelling up like two balloons now, and her forehead scorched my palm. 

“I know it.” Her eyes were on the ceiling, brimming with that far-off look she always got when setting up a mural in her mind, and all the rest of us could see was empty concrete canvas. I lay down beside her. Her heat and the sun’s and the room’s clutched me tight as a strangling vine. I stripped off my T-shirt and smelled my own sweat, and my eyes boiled over. “You just had to go and do it, now,” I said, not knowing if I wanted her to hear me or to answer. “No one’s ever even going to see it, but you had to go and do it. All that time we could’ve been together, and you had to waste it out there in that goddamn field….” 

“It’s not about seeing.” 

I let my knuckles brush her jeans. My hand would’ve melted if I’d tried to hold hers. “I never held you back from anything,” I said. “I never even tried. I trusted you. I trusted you with everything…too much, I guess.” 

“Ain’t no such thing as too much trust. There’s in and out of equilibrium, that’s all, but good, and bad—just states of mind. Just human things.”

“And what are you, then? What’re you saying you are?”

“I’m not saying nothing,” she said with a shrug in her voice. “All I’m doing is being.” 

“How long, M? I mean, how much longer we got? How much longer…together?”

“You do one thing for me, Lyall,” she said, graver now. “You plant me somewhere nice and shady in the solar field.” 

I couldn’t make words for a good long time, and when I did manage, they were pointed and brittle, like the bones of glass birds, and they stuck in my throat just like wishbones. “You know I can’t do that,” I said. “That ain’t legal.”

Legal and illegal—human things.”

I’m human,” I told her. “Look here. I’m a human thing, too.” I rolled toward her, reached for her, felt for her, burned with the heat of her. She was giving the ceiling that all-knowing stare, but I got between her and the ceiling, and then she was painting her futures on me, and my mouth was on hers where the spores had gone in, the passage along which I hoped they might enter me, too, and take me to wherever they were taking her. The heat became a fever, and the fever blossomed into a mirage, and I sank into her and into the vision I knew we were sharing, of the two of us lying on top of each other, our bodies stitched together by webs of mycelium, fungal heads sprouting from our eyes and our pores. Our ever-afters piled up around me, kept me thrusting through the heat, and through the smells, and through the tears, and something in her answered, or seemed to. She finished with me, seemed to, and then we lay together, weak and unspeaking and sunk in the swamp of that vision, but it was only sweat that pasted us together, not those living webs, and I already sensed her receding. “That’s a human thing,” I said, as if reminding her, but it came out more like punctuation. 

She said nothing. Her breathing stayed heavy after mine had gone calm. I rolled to the side, and the coolness that opened between us relieved me, but it also laid me low. Overheated, I couldn’t crawl back to her. I could only lie there shaking, mixing sweat with salty sobs. The tragedy of needing space and coolness in that moment, when I should’ve needed her, reduced me to a small, stony pit of a thing. I knew that when I needed her, she wouldn’t be there anymore. It crossed my mind to put off needing her as long as possible in order to forestall her absence, too, as if the tail could wag the dog that way, but then I remembered she was slipping away at a pace that had nothing to do with me, nothing at all, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, and it laid me low. I got up and left the room. In the kitchen, I popped a beer. The needle and thread and the blood on the table all pricked me. I took the beer went out to stand on the cinder-block steps leading down to the yard. I swallowed huge mouthfuls of cold, bitter foam. I wore nothing. There was no one to see me but the gnats and mosquitos, and I didn’t begrudge them their feasting, not when all they wanted was to take me over as the spores were taking over her. I briefly wondered if it might be possible for them to suck me dry, to bear me by wing to the same destination where the fungus was bearing Maria by fibrous strand. 

But then a slick proboscises pierced my testicle and changed my mind. 

Back inside, I found leftover macaroni in the fridge and ate it cold. I wanted Maria to come from the bedroom, but she couldn’t, of course. Not on those feet. I let the crumbs fall in the sink, and when I finished, I washed my hands and went to her. She was still lying there, watching the drop tiles, face blank like a wall she was fixing to paint on. I sat by her side. The heat had turned my one beer to fifty. “I’ll never forgive you, M,” I slurred. “Don’t say forgiveness is a human thing.” 

“I remember you,” she said. 

A shiver twitched along my spine. 

“Don’t worry,” she added, her eyes on me now. “Don’t you worry. I’ll never forget you.”

I started to cry. I said, “I want to massage your feet.” 

“Go right ahead.”

 I couldn’t bring myself to follow through. I extended my legs at an angle to hers and propped my back against the wall. The cooler shifted. The ice cubes clinked against its sides, still melting. I felt the dead weight of a lifetime’s worth of questions pressing on my lungs, all the things I’d not yet learned about Maria, from her, things I’d have normally worked out from watching her, except that now that future was a dying candle flame. It had all come on so sudden, like a bounty hunter after twenty peaceful years. Last week, the rashes. The fever. The chills. This week, the strange behavior, the dysregulation of her biorhythms, the moments when I couldn’t tell if she was talking lucidly or through delirium. Then, today, the needle and thread. We’d never needed any doctors to know. It was the nightmare that had lurked beneath our nightmares all this time—except, I realized now, for her, it maybe hadn’t been a nightmare after all. That, for me, was the most nightmarish thing of all. 

“You know,” I said after a while, real quiet, “I’ve always loved how you don’t care who sees. How’d you end up like that?”

Phlegm crackled in her throat, but she made herself answer. “It’s just how I grew.” 

“I never could’ve done it, M. I never could’ve spent so many years on something no one’s ever going to see.”  

“Who’s going to see our life together, then?” she asked, and I knew there was some of her left in her, after all. 

I clenched my two fists till my nails cut my palms. I let my head fall back against the wall, lurch forward, then fall back against the wall. “I’m not going to make it,” I promised her, weary. 

“You’re going to bury me in the solar field.”

I shook my head. “Not going to make it on my own.” 

“Tell me, Lyall, who’d you think was watching, anyhow?” 

“I was never doing anything for anyone but you.” 

“Heaven and hell are states of mind.” 

“Do we believe in those?” I wanted her to tell me like she’d always told me, but she’d always told me with her body, and her body was immobile now, feet cats-cradled together, the rest of her eerily rigid and still. Only her mouth and her eyes were still living. 

She asked, “How come you never asked before?”  

“I been trying to figure it out, I guess.” I chuckled, self-effacing, wry. “Trying to figure it out just by watching…but, just tell me, M, please…who am I going to watch now? Just tell me, what am I going to do?”

“I ain’t done growing,” she said. “You keep watching. You keep watching me grow.” 

“Are you, you?” 

You and me are just states of mind. Human things.” An undulation seemed to ripple through her body, starting in her fingertips and snaking through her arms, her chest, her neck, her abdomen, her knees. “Borders is human things. Edges, too. Mammalian, animal—maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong. All life begins with first encapsulation, me and not-me…only, you animals take these things to an extreme.” 

“Maria?” I reached for her hand, but her palms had gone cold. She was shivering, still, not like someone having seizures, more like a dolphin quick-darting through tidewater. 

“You think life and afterlife are different,” she went on, “but one’s the other, other’s one, no difference, no edges, no borders at all. There’s stages, metamorphoses, extrapolations…there’s extensions, see. Extensions…seeing’s all about finding the edges of things. Language is all about parsing the words. Perceiving’s a matter of cutting, chopping up the world. Butchering, butchering the world. But being…what’s divided in being? What’s divided and doesn’t stay joined at the root?” 

I gripped her palm tight. “Are you already gone?”

“I’m right here.” 

“Please stay. Please, just let her stay a little longer…stay.” I fell forward, squeezing her hands in mine, pressing my forehead to her knuckles, pushing the bedspread down. The cooler tipped over. Cold liquid sluiced over my haunches and knees and her arms and seeped into the mattress. Ice chunks collected where our weights made impressions. I was rocking and sobbing, and the ice cubes were clicking, and Maria—her body, at least—was still moving, still liquid and solid at the same time, together, on the verge of a phase change, but maybe, I told myself, maybe, just maybe not all the way gone. 

* * *

Night came. The mattress was damp, and the dampness was warm, and Maria had cooled but continued to breathe. 

I spent the night curled up at her side. Spent the next day with her. Spent the next night, too. Sometimes she shivered, and sometimes she seized, and sometimes she was still, but her eyes remained glassy, and her face stayed a mask, and her mouth stayed a hole, not for speaking. 

* * *

When she pissed herself, I washed her. When she defecated on herself, I washed her. When her feet grew inflamed, I washed them with carbon peroxide to no avail. When I sobbed, she responded with animal noises, but they carried no language, no meaning. At best, they were inchoate murmurs from within a fever dream, but her fever had broken, and the dream carried on. 

* * *

I missed emails from work. I missed messages. Calls. 

I missed meals. I missed days of the week. 

I missed time. 

I missed, and I missed, and I started forgetting. The calendar rotted to dust on the wall. The weeds ate the garden, and the trailer wheels sank in the thick Georgia mud, and the summer fruit got bigger and fermented on the trees, and the bees threw drunken parties, and the sunsets and -rises swung further off kilter, and the earth’s orbit shivered, and civilization’s light washed out the stars. 

* * *

I took Maria’s body to the solar field. It was twilight, the sun gone, its light half-remaining, and the place was deserted as always. I imagined ticks, leaches, and venomous snakes lurking in the brush and was hopeful.

Her body was light, and her breathing was shallow, and my arms were so weak that I barely could lift her. I left the car and carried her down the embankment, along the thin path she’d spent twenty years making. From the road, the panels looked completely overgrown, but from the footpath I could see the mouths of tunnels leading into the greenery, a vast and branching catacomb. I crawled on my belly through dark, pungent loam, nearly swimming in places, pausing every few feet to catch my breath and haul Maria after. 

Soon the bulk of the panels and the blackberry brambles and kudzu and tall grass all filtered out the last of the sun. I dug out my phone, switched on the flashlight, and when I flipped onto my back, I found Maria’s life’s work blossoming there, mere inches from my eyes. The fungi that she’d sewn had grown to become an iridescent, multilayered, nearly liquid tapestry of countless colors, textures, and forms. Her murals had always left me breathless, overwhelmed by scale, but her magnum opus conjured up a different sort of grandeur, more like a cave painting: hidden, somehow archetypal, and infused with timeless, secret power. Its force was in its subtlety—in the way it seemed, at first, to only exist in the light from my phone, but gradually spread beyond the edges of my narrow human consciousness, borne outward by the sweetly musty scent of shedding spores. I took deep breaths, greedy and hoping. 

In laborious fits and starts, pausing now and then to catch my breath and lose myself in each successive instance of Maria’s genius, I advanced, her body in tow, into the solar field. At first, I thought I’d know the center when we came upon it. I imagined a cavern with a high, leafy dome and a great, throbbing mushroom like some kind of throne. Soon, though, I realized how absurd that was. Hearts were, after all, animal things. This was no labyrinth, but a boundless network of mycelium, asymmetrical and ever-spreading. 

This realization stopped my slow advance. I lay beside Maria at the juncture where it came, switched my phone off, and let the darkness settle like a sediment around us. I whispered, “I’m watching.” I felt sure, all at once, that Maria could hear me—that she was present in this darkness as she’d not been in the trailer that we’d shared for nearly nineteen years, or the body she’d inhabited for fifty-four. I clasped her hand in both my own. I licked my lips. I closed my eyes. I waited for some kind of metamorphosis to come. 

But then a second, still more quiet realization stole into my brain: in the darkness, there’s no watching, any more than there are borders, boundaries, edges, language, human things. There’s no subject. There’s no object. There’s no Lyall, no Maria. There’s no doing. There’s no done. There’s only being; the slow, steady pulse of the animate world; and a new kind of consciousness spreading its tendrils, millennia old and waiting, patiently as always, on the verge of being born. 


Mekiya Outini’s short fiction has appeared in The Coachella Review, Chautauqua, and elsewhere, and the first two chapters of his novel, Ashes, Ashes, were featured in the West Trade Review. He now serves as Managing Editor of The DateKeepers, an international media platform, which he co-founded with his life partner, Itto Outini. The Outinis are also co-authoring Itto’s forthcoming memoir, Blindness is the Light of My Life

Baptism by Earth © 2023 Mekiya Outini 
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2 thoughts on “”

  1. Juicy, dense and ethereal at once. Pyrotechnic writing. I will read this again, just to watch how you did it. #wordward

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