First Place | Fiction Writing Contest
53rd New Millennium Award for Fiction
Ellen Pauley Goff of New York City for “Baptism”
Goff will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.
Ellen Pauley Goff
The librarian was aged in a town where old things soured rotten long before they got the chance to become heirlooms.
Well, perhaps not that aged. In the town of Mud Lick, the librarian was old in relatives.
Old for an unmarried young woman.
Old for a girl who still lived alone.
Old for someone who spent so much time in the children’s section of the library. Especially considering she didn’t yet have any children. That too—old for a woman who didn’t have any little helligans running around. Usually, girls didn’t celebrate a twenty-first birthday because they started celebrating a first, or even a second and a third. The librarian had survived several birthdays in her twenties so far.
Her head popped up when the library door swung open and the bell above it shivered with a single shrill tone. It was old, too.
The woman’s perfume arrived first.
The librarian remembered what her mama always used to say when she was dolloping out advice, wrists deep in biscuit dough, flour to her elbows like she was wearing a pair of those fancy white opera gloves.
Perfume should be discovered, not announced.
She’d always thought her mama was a fancy woman.
Now here was a fancy woman, in the flesh. But maybe only elegant because the librarian had never seen this person before. A new person was a rarity in a place so small a graduating class of high school seniors was never guaranteed. Rare became the same as beautiful in these hollers, like the shine of perfect teeth or a passport.
The woman approached the information desk. Wide-brimmed straw hat, depthless sunglasses, a blue silk scarf around her neck to match her eyes, which peeked over her sunglasses as they slipped down her nose. She looked down at the librarian as if from a great height. The librarian’s eyes were also blue, her brain whispered in defiance, but she was pretty sure hers didn’t match any kind of expensive fabric.
“Cell service?” the woman said, dropping a leather purse onto the desk.
The librarian’s eyes stuck on the bag. She hadn’t seen that brand at the Goodwill. “No, Ma’am. You’d have to go north. It’s a fur piece to the next town.”
The woman tilted her head like she’d only understood half those words. “Wifi?”
“Uh, internet.” The librarian pointed to a solitary desktop computer in the far corner next to the water fountain, on a table that had once been a sewing desk. An ethernet cable snaked out of the computer like a coiled small intestine.
“Never mind. Maybe you know. I’m here for the baptism. Do you know when folks are gathering?”
The librarian perked up at the way she said folks. Maybe this woman wasn’t such a stranger to the holler. The woman did have a familiar look about her, a walking aftertaste the librarian couldn’t quite swallow. An old neighbor? A girl whose family monopolized one of the front church pews? No, that wasn’t right. Had this woman…had she left? Left this place entirely?
“Do I know you?” she blurted, and immediately felt like a child pulling on her mama’s apron for attention, decades younger, though they looked to only be a handful of years apart.
The woman pushed her sunglasses back up a nose like a playground slide. “I doubt it. Baptism?”
Right. Of course. The woman’s white summer dress made sense now. White was for brides or baptisms, not for daily life where it’d turn yellow with sweat and dirt by sundown. The librarian hadn’t forgotten the baptism scheduled for today; no one in the town of Mud Lick ever forgot. They didn’t have them too often, but when they did, baptisms consumed entire Sundays.
“Where are you in from?”
The woman’s eyebrows rose above her sunglasses. Blonde eyebrows, like her hair. Like the librarian’s hair. “New York.” The accent in folks was gone.
The librarian whistled. “Like New York City? I’ve never been there.”
The woman smiled in silence, in the way the library’s patrons grinned after one of her particularly longwinded book recommendations.
“Do folks really never go to sleep up there?”
“We sleep on planes.”
The librarian leaned forward. She’d never been on an actual airplane. Caught herself staring at the illustrated planes in the library’s picture books sometimes. The internet rarely worked well, so most of what she knew about New York City came from the recycled guidebooks decaying behind the newspaper racks, but she often lost those to the mice; they scavenged the glossy paper for their nests of hair and droppings. The rest of what she knew came from the pageant of plastic souvenirs in the window display of Old Nan’s dollar knickknack store. But those cheap baubles had to be based on something. There could be truth in an echo.
“Have you been to the big library?”
“We have a lot of libraries,” was the only response.
Multiple libraries? The librarian couldn’t help herself. “I’ve always wanted to see the one with the lions. And the train station. How far from here would I have to go to catch a train up there, you reckon?”
The woman paused. “Too far.”
Too far sounded like the start of one of the novels the librarian took care of here. Sounded like a promise. Some folks in town would give her an odd look over the coffee passed around after church services, and tossed words around just loud enough for her to hear: No, no family. That girl’s books is the only chillern she’s got.
The words weren’t a lie, but the librarian always got sick to her stomach at the look that paired off with them. Not disappointment, or embarrassment. Something much more sour. Rotten. The fancy woman wore that same expression. Then, in a hot flash of shame, she realized. Pity. The librarian felt her armpits sprout sweat. She loathed pity. And she definitely loathed sweat. All this town did was judge and sweat.
“Listen, I’m just trying to meet the pastor from the church. He’s supposed to baptize me today. My parents’ request, I didn’t want to, but they insisted before they—Well, that doesn’t matter. Do you know the way to the church, Alice?”
“You look like Alice in Wonderland, that face, your blue dress—Never mind. Church?”
The librarian nodded. “I can take you there. Baptisms are a town event.”
The woman’s smile slipped. “Wonderful.”
This fancy lady had perfect teeth. Like the small cubes of cream her mama used to freeze so their milk wouldn’t get watery during supper in the summer. Pursing her lips, the librarian ran her tongue over her own canines and tasted weak coffee, her taste buds tripping over the ridges of her teeth, uneven yellowed piano keys. Aged.
The librarian pushed her handmade Back in Ten Pages placard face down on the information desk and instead flipped the Open sign to Closed on the door as they left the library. She’d been planning to close for the baptism today, anyway. There was no use staying open on a Sunday, especially the day of a town event.
“You don’t lock up?” the woman stranger who was maybe not a stranger asked as she followed the librarian down the gravel street leading further into town.
The librarian looked over her shoulder, remembering to slow down for the woman and her heeled sandals. They must not have to walk a lot in New York City. “Eli locks up the general store on account of the smokes,” she replied, confused. “No one steals the books.”
The woman stumbled on a hunk of gravel or what could have been a broken beer bottle. Flowers sprouted up through the rocks and clay freshly wet from the springtime rain. Well, weeds. But the librarian thought they were still pretty, in the way strong things were pretty, clawing up from the earth, roots sipping at nothing but the need for sunlight and survival. Spring was the perfect time for a baptism.
The walk from the library to the church across town was not long; when Sunday school got too crowded, begrudging parents would send their kids to the library for babysitting. The librarian didn’t mind those days, though. She would never utter it aloud, and especially not near the church, but the books in her children’s section were much more interesting than anything the little ones would find strapped to the back of a pew.
They passed the post office—closed—and then the fire department, which was not so much a department as it was a one-port station that had once been a barn—doors shuttered, too. Soon, the trees cocooning the gravel road thinned out, and they found the main town square. The court house here was the only building in town with pavement for its foundation, and real sidewalks, except of course for the church, which always seemed to have plenty of money to expand outward even though the town’s population never kept pace with it.
To the librarian, the court house was the only building in town that looked like it belonged in the cities on the television. Every city had a courthouse, right? Columns, big double doors, Latin scribbled in corners. Different cookie cutter maybe but the same recipe. Like everywhere else today, the court house was closed. No one in town ever missed a baptism.
She turned to check on the woman behind her. “I like to watch the cop shows in New York City,” she said, trying to forget the woman’s earlier expression of pity. Folks deserved a second chance. “You ever run into a movie set? Like when they film in the streets?”
The fancy lady adjusted her scarf; it’d gotten twisted and knotted like an expensive noose around her neck. “Oh, yeah. They close entire blocks for that shit. Adds fifteen minutes to my morning when I’m trying to get to work. The summertime is the worst.”
Oh. Well, that wasn’t what the librarian was expecting. That couldn’t be the truth, surely. The fancy lady was probably just a bit lightheaded from the walk. New York City must be a dream in the summer. Elegant cocktails cold as January, reading books on park benches, air conditioning in every building you walked into, shoot, even the bathrooms.
She couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice. “I’ve always had this idea that after I work here for a bit, I’d move up to New York City.” But when she glanced back at the woman, her eagerness withered as she met that same infuriating look. Confusion and pity skittered into the lines around the woman’s mouth.
The woman stopped at the edge of the pavement surrounding the courthouse, one foot on sidewalk and one on gravel. “How old are you, Alice?”
An answer clogged the librarian’s throat; she wasn’t quite sure what kind of number the lady thought was acceptable. She had time, right? That’s why she wanted to go. Down here, she was old, but up there…Everyone in a small town started life so early. She hadn’t been ready. She wanted a second try. People in cities seemed like they got decades to figure themselves out. Were young at thirty. Young and smart at forty. Young and wealthy at fifty.
“I’ve been saving money,” the librarian mumbled to save herself, but in the breath it took to say it, she heard how she painfully young she sounded. Saving money didn’t guarantee she’d make it, not in this fancy lady’s town. Not in a place folks spoke of in As, not Thes. A library, not the library. A school, not the school.
A dream. One of many.
The librarian turned away and kept walking. The strange woman shuffled after her, uneven again on the gravel. A laugh gasped for air. “Are librarians even a thing anymore?” It came out breathy, like she was trying bake a joke out of bread dough that didn’t rise.
But the librarian didn’t turn around, didn’t acknowledge the attempt to lighten the mood. She let it sag heavy, let the fancy lady carry it in her wobbly heeled shoes.
Despite the cool spring air, heat crept in as they neared noon, summer a threat on the horizon. June air could stifle a person into sloth and other devilish sins down here in the pores of the South. An invisible sunburn bloomed on the librarian’s nape as they approached the general store, which sprouted up just before the church. Her eyes cut to the single red door.
Eli would be in there, stocking the Cheerwine. The heat kissing her neck grew hotter.
She made a decision, her stomach twisty. It was an odd day. A person from real-live New York City. Maybe there could be other firsts. “Fancy a drink?” she threw over her shoulder.
The woman stopped several paces behind her. “Please.”
When they entered the general store, the woman’s desperation faded. She plopped her sunglasses on top of her straw hat. The librarian almost giggled. As if a hat would need sunglasses. What a look. Without the lenses, that pinky of déjà vu poked the librarian’s mind. This lady was familiar and not; memorable like an actress no one had actually ever met.
“Oh. Not a bar then.”
“Not on a Sunday. Or any day, really. Dry county.” But the librarian wasn’t paying much attention anymore to this woman from out of town. Her not-scarf-blue eyes stuck to the young man behind the counter, like cicadas to strong bark.
The young man named Eli looked up from the book he was reading. A novel he’d rented from her library. She smiled, pride swollen in her cheeks like chewing gum.
“Afternoon, ladies,” he said. His farmer’s tan poked out from his T-shirt and his dark hair curled against his temples. The general store always smelled of straw and old newspapers, and so she knew he must smell like that, too. She inhaled deeply. Stood frozen at the front of the store where the barrel of pigskins snuggled up against the display of cow tails. All she wanted was to give the fancy lady a chance at some water, to get out of the sun. Truly. No other intentions.
The fancy lady eyed the small aisles like she was trying to decide if her purse would fit down one. Her gaze finally went to Eli, who was watching her with curiosity. She strode to the counter, an ease back in her step now that they were off the gravel road.
Eli gave the woman a wide grin and the librarian found herself suddenly very much regretting taking the woman here. He was looking at the woman, like…well, like how the librarian had stared at the elegant woman who’d swept into town from a far-off place. Longing, for something previously out of reach. Maybe Eli thought silk scarves and hats with their own sunglasses were chic. Not that she would ever know since she’d never mustered the courage to speak to him for longer than it took to order a bologna sandwich from the deli case.
“Hi there,” the woman said to Eli, tossing blonde hair over one shoulder. “Anyplace I can find a Starbucks? Or hell, even a Dunkin Donuts?”
The librarian was not sure what came over her, but a spark of something rotten wrenched up from the bile in her gut. “Seattle,” she snapped back, lightning quick.
A bark of laughter came from the woman as she glanced away from Eli. “Would anyone in this town be able to point to Seattle on a map?”
Now the librarian was really blushing. The woman seemed to realize what she said, opened her mouth to—to do what? Redeem herself?—but instead turned back to Eli, fanning herself with her hand. Eli closed his book and straightened up, eyes moving between them. “Now hold on there, Ma’am.”
The librarian perked up. Eli was going to defend her! The air bubbled in her chest like yeasty champagne. (She’d never had champagne.) The woman was not as impressed, and her shoulders went rigid at ma’am.
But then Eli said, “Let me look at you a second,” and leaned in a hair to squint at the woman’s face. “There. I knew it. You look right familiar. I reckon we’ve met, down at the high school? What year were you?”
The woman’s lips turned downward and her confident demeanor disappeared with her eyes as she dropped her sunglasses back on, but not before she could hide could a twinge of disgust that cinched her face. As if Eli were some sort of bug, not even worth mucking up the underside of her shoe. She leaned her breasts away from the counter, her body language screaming This guy? Who would want this fellow?
The librarian would.
When she’d first started to notice Eli inching upwards, biceps inching outwards, charm poking inward at her vulnerable squishy-soft heart, she thought maybe, just maybe… Options were limited in a town this size. Who you married depended more on who had helped your pa fix his Chevy the most. But she’d been eyeing Eli for years, but here she was, still stuck in her silence, a book on a shelf when all she wanted was to be spread—
“I’m sure of it.” Eli, poor thing, was oblivious. “We must’ve had a class together, maybe my junior year? You might not’ve been so blonde…”
The fact that Eli had now said more words to this woman than he’d ever said to her smarted like a yellowjacket sting. This woman wasn’t worth ten Elis. If the librarian judged her on this alone, she’d find this stranger wanting.
“You’re mistaken,” the woman cut him off. “I’m good with faces, and I don’t remember yours.” With a clipped tongue, she added, “Let’s go, Alice.”
“Alice?” Eli asked, finally—finally—looking away from the woman.
The librarian frowned, studying Eli as his memories rewrote themselves. He knew who she was, of course. It was impossible not to know in a town this size. But Lord, one wrong name out of this woman’s mouth and Eli was questioning—she could see it right on his face—whether he’d ever actually gotten her name right. Like he was never fully sure. More than two decades of sharing the same zip code twirled down the drain with a flush of doubt from this fancy lady.
She looked down at her cotton blue dress. She was no Alice in Wonderland, but she’d be a sinning liar if she said she didn’t wear this nice (her nicest) dress on the days she thought she might run into Eli. She’d worn it to church just this morning, sat in the row behind him.
This tourist was ruining everything, a gust of icy air deflating perfectly pregnant bread dough. Didn’t they have more men than they could handle in the big city? Why would you ever go poking around LouAnne’s consignment shop over on Second Street for bras when a brand-new Walmart super store had opened up a couple towns over?
It was Eli. She was staring like a fool, mouth open. Even the New York City woman was looking at her funny. She scrambled to compose herself. “Uh, I’m taking her to the church first. She’s the, um, our baptism today. I, we’re, uh, headed up the road now.”
Eli was still puzzling over her, doubt fresh on his face, and she lost the ability to make any sense at all. She might as well just shove her head in the toilet bowl out back and flush.
Chasing the wrinkles from her dress with her sweaty palms, she added, “Um, the baptism—the whole town’ll be there. Would you like to come with us?”
Great. Inviting the fellow on a date to a baptism. One he already would’ve been attending. Real romantic. She was quickly going from Approachable Maiden to Dangerous Old Hag Who Was Probably A Witch. At least, according to the fairytales in the kids’ section.
But Eli grinned. “Sure do. It’s tradition. I’ll close up and join y’all at the creek.”
The woman sighed. “Great. A helluva cavalcade.”
In a nervous flurry, the librarian fled the general store, barely had enough sense to remember to hold the door for the fancy lady. When they were outside, again crunching across gravel, a midday silence took hold, wringing the air between fists of humidity until nothing living made a sound, not even the wind. A dip in the creek sounded all kinds of pleasant right then, what with the chilled water from the Appalachian Mountains weeping into their cupped palm of a holler. The librarian almost wished she were the one being baptized today. Almost.
After a while, the woman must’ve been missing the city, because she broke the silence the librarian thought was just fine as is. “Did he say creek?”
“The creek. Crick. Whatever. They don’t just…splash you with a little water anymore?”
“Oh I reckon most places do that now, but our church likes to keep things traditional.”
Was the lady worried about having her pretty white sundress soaked through? The librarian felt a stitch of sympathy. She understood. The men got to wear their nice slacks and a shirt that, even when the creek water suctioned their clothes to their bodies, just revealed their chests made broad from farming. She’d gone to Eli’s baptism when they were teens and thoroughly enjoyed herself.
But the girls. Lord. Dresses so white they made pale skin look tan. The minute the creek grabbed hold of the young women—the wetness emphasizing their curves or creating the illusion of some when there were none yet—the men watching from the bank of the creek leaned forward, as if God were giving them a pat on the back. She remembered her own baptism, staring at her pink nipples through the fabric of her bone-colored eyelet dress. Her mama never kept mirrors around the house, so she’d barely gotten a glimpse of her own body before the men caught up with her. She’d let the preacher dunk her for the Lord, not for eyes made nearsighted with lust. It was unfair.
There were a lot of unfair things in life, she thought as she listened to the lady clop along behind her. The woman had clearly left the holler at one point. When she was a little thing? Older? The librarian’s age? No, it must’ve been earlier. That screen door slammed shut once the tornadic teenage years hit folks. By the time you were old enough to pay enough attention, you were already stuck. No wonder the lady looked at her with pity when she spoke of New York.
The librarian pushed ahead, daydreaming of shining buildings as tall as caves were deep, lights as bright as woods were dark, and midnight grilled cheeses at a diner that charged you five bucks just for sitting down but it didn’t matter because in a wonderland like that your time was more valuable than anything, was the most valuable thing you had to your name, not hand-me-down gold wedding rings from kin long dead. Land, the old folks said. The most valuable dollar in your pocket. But New York City didn’t have land like they did down here. Didn’t seem to need it. The librarian snorted to herself. What good was land, stolen land that did not even belong to anyone living here now, when the world outside traded in a currency of ideas, art, skyscrapers, and time? The land took so much of their time that there was never any left.
Usually, she needed her books in the library to picture herself in the middle of something important, as crucial as the whipped cream on the Ale-8 jello cake. But not today, not with this woman stumbling along behind her. If this lady had escaped on an adventure, seen far-off places with handsome princes, maybe she could, too.
Mud Lick Grace Church crested the horizon as they tackled a low hill leading away from the town square. The small white church only had one room with a row of black windows that peered into the dark sanctuary, a single white domino placed on the hillside.
“No one’s here,” the woman protested when she strode ahead and tried the double red doors. Sunglasses on her hat again, she peered into the windows as if she could turn on the lights inside with just a thought. Silence. No sign of the congregation, or even the preacher himself.
“Of course no one’s here,” the librarian said.
The woman whirled to face her almost like she’d said Boo.
The librarian took a sinful amount of pleasure from the glimmer of fear hiding in the lady’s eyes. Without another word, she trekked around to the back of the church where the headstones slept, smiling when she heard the woman follow behind her, a lost little animal. So she wasn’t one of the smart ones, then.
The graveyard was twice the size of the church, which to her said a lot about the direction of their town’s tiny population. Despite the death withering beneath their feet, the graveyard was one of the librarian’s favorite places. Granted, there weren’t many places to choose from. But still. The sweet honeysuckle blossoming around the perimeter smelled like a bakery, like an obscenely large birthday cake from friends shared in a tiny apartment, city sounds of horns and sirens singing along to Happy Birthday to You.
When she was sure the fancy lady was good and nervous, she stopped between a few headstones and said, “No one’s here because this isn’t where we hold our baptisms.” She knew something the woman didn’t. Triumph.
The lady’s blue eyes seemed to study her a bit differently. “So why did we come here?”
The librarian gestured at all the plots and headstones around them. “So you can pick out your spot, of course.”
A laugh. Another laugh. And then a whole slew of them, a storm of belly-deep giggles brewed up from the woman’s small frame. “My spot?”
“You’re getting baptized here, aren’t you? Your folks is from here? Everyone in this town is buried here. We all got a spot.”
The woman wiped her eyes. The graveyard sunk back into its silence, and the librarian was almost grateful. The laughing was worse than the pity. The disbelief in her chortles…like the woman didn’t even consider it a possibility she’d end up back here, her body resting where it once awoke into the world. How lucky for her. How wonderful it must’ve felt to be so confident in where you were headed that you could forget where you’d been. But it wasn’t really the laughter the librarian disliked. It was the silence it left behind. She felt like she might sink into the enveloping hush, how her feet sunk into the damp and loamy soil when she stood too long atop a grave after a storm.
This fancy lady, with her dreams and sawed-off tethers, turned quiet into empty.
The librarian couldn’t look at her, and turned away. How could she be so jealous yet hateful of a person all at once? And on a Sunday, at that?
She could hear the woman stepping through the grass, exploring the closer headstones. “Alice, I’m not going to be buried here.”
The librarian almost snorted. If only Eli could see this lady now, hear the dismissal in her tone. Not so elegant on the inside. Would he still want to claim her as a fellow classmate? Thoughts of Eli sparked an ember of confidence just big enough to light a smoke. She whirled, the words ready on her tongue: The land would spit you back out, she wanted to say.
But the strange woman wasn’t paying attention to her any longer.
A few paces away, she was standing over a pair of unmoving, stoic headstones near the gate. The newer plots were there. She stared a long time at the two polished headstones, head bent, almost to the point her sunglasses were about to slip right off her hat. The librarian tried to peek the names around the woman’s back. A Mr. and Mrs. was all she could see.
Finally, the odd woman removed a crumpled pack of smokes from her fancy designer handbag. “I’m praying you’ve at least got a light?”
The librarian shuffled forward. That she did have. The librarian didn’t smoke herself, but a quick light could mean a new instant friend who might listen to her talk for a while.
Cradling the cigarette between her lips, the woman let out a chortle-cough over the graves in front of her, shaking her head in the cloud of her own fumes. “Goddamn rednecks,” she spat, and without any ceremony at all, flicked ash onto both graves and then tossed her still-burning smoke in between them. “Some inheritance.”
The librarian startled, almost rushed forward just as the spring-wet grass sucked the embers from the cigarette and left it benign. What the hell kind of person—and then a memory sprouted, a weed that couldn’t wither even under the spark of fire.
A girl, shorter. Hair darker, skin tanner from long days under a hotter sun and not the shadows of skyscrapers. Behind the library where no one would find her, flicking her smoke to the earth as if she intended to plant a fire under her feet. The girl looked like she belonged in one of those magazines, eyeliner thicker than any accent. Cool.
“You!” the librarian shouted, startling a crow from a nearby tree. The woman looked just as surprised. “You’re the Hollow girl. From our high school.” The woman recoiled but the librarian barely noticed. She was too fired up. “We were in chemistry together, you were graduating, weren’t you? I was a freshman. I jumped up a grade to be in there and you had to—to make it up…” Now she did go quiet. Her gaze dropped to the pair of graves. “Mr. and Mrs. Hollow ran the clothing drive for…”
The woman’s blue eyes narrowed.
“I saw the accident in the paper the other day. I’m real sorry. They was nice folks.”
Silence. Then a breeze changed direction and the woman’s eyes popped open and her jaw went rigid with a tight smile. “Sorry, hon. I don’t remember you.”
Just a few tiny words, but they gave the librarian the sudden urge to throw up.
Of course she didn’t. Because she was She and the librarian was…still here. Her cheeks glowed hotter than any shade of red Eli could conjure from her body. This woman—who the librarian had watched bum smokes after school for the entire year they overlapped, asses in the same bleachers and on the same school toilets—had left and never looked back.
The pity, the laugher, none of it tasted as rotten as this new feeling. Her stomach smarted, like she’d swallowed that cigarette to keep it from consuming the earth. The woman tossing her ashes onto the graves of her old folks felt like she was tossing them on the librarian too, as if to say, Look at that, I burned you and left your bones behind.
Or maybe there was no deeper plot. The woman had left and only come back to honor a memory, not to take it with her. She had new ones, in New York. The librarian ached to know what it felt like to make a new memory with a different backdrop, different people within the edges of the picture frame. Would it feel like a fresh start every time, every small adventure becoming a single memory, not an entire legacy?
The feeling was clear, now. That unidentifiable sensation finding a name.
The librarian hated her.
The fancy lady shook herself like she was waking up. “Right. Needless to say, I won’t need my own spot. I’m not coming back. So—Baptism. Creek?”
She nodded, somewhat stunned. What an unholy kind of woman. The Lord promised judgement and it did not look kind. “Follow me.”
They left the church behind as the librarian led them to the edge of town, toward the frontline of woods bordering Mud Lick. Silence stuck to them both now, and neither said a word as they left what civilization there was in their wake. As if they had trampled across some sort of invisible threshold between each other. What was left to say when one of them spoke in memories and the other never looked back?
But soon, like summer mosquitos searching for water, one by one, they appeared.
The librarian noticed them quickly, but it took the big city woman a few minutes to come out of her head. When she did, her shoulders jumped a hair, but she kept going.
Two townsfolk followed behind them, on the way to the baptism. They didn’t speak.
Then two became three became several became a handful. Soon they were part of the world’s quietest parade, the librarian leading, the woman behind her, and all the townsfolk the woman had left behind some long time ago following at her heels. A baptism was a town affair, after all. They’d all come to see the preacher stand like a rock in the stream, bible in one hand and faith in the other. They’d come to pass judgment, lest this strange woman who was not quite a stranger seeking a cleansed life be false in the eyes of the Lord.
At some point, the townsfolk began to hum.
The sound birthed as a buzz, like a swarm of mosquitoes searching for soft skin to pierce. But then the white noise grew into a song. A hymn. The city woman looked around with wide eyes, stepping closer to the librarian, the girl she did not remember but who was now probably the most familiar thing for fifty miles. It Is Well With My Soul hovered between the trees. The librarian doubted the woman knew the name of the song. Nothing a baptism could not fix.
By the time they reached the creek, everyone’s face shown with a sheen of sweat from the hike out of town. Or was it anticipation? The librarian could never tell. She wondered if women sweated in New York City like they did here. Surely all that concrete stifled a person’s pores after a while. Her own armpits were sticky with a dampness.
The crowd of townsfolk on the bank—farmers and school teachers and children and even the teen boys that liked to smoke outside her library because they figured their parents wouldn’t look for them there—parted to let the preacher man pass.
The humming stopped.
The preacher was a thin man with deep eye sockets and deeper craters beneath his cheeks, which were permanently pink from when he had been a farmer before he found the Lord. The librarian always thought he looked like a sunburnt grim reaper; his white robes never helped temper his flushed skin. No wonder the little babies always cried during their baptisms, before they ever felt the water.
The librarian and the townsfolk clung to the bank as the preacher waded into the water. His robes billowed up around him as if to keep him afloat. When he stopped in the middle of the shallow creek that only submerged him from the waist down, he raised a hand and gestured at the city woman. Standing next to her, the librarian caught the woman’s heavy sigh, as if only now, out in the middle of the boonies, did she actually realize why she was here. Or regret her decision to come here. The sigh smelled like cigarette smoke and it was distracting.
The woman began to shed layers. First, the large straw hat (sunglasses on top), then the leather purse, next her heeled sandals that honestly should’ve come off a while ago. “Will you?” was all she said, dumping the items into the librarian’s arms with no ceremony. “Make sure the Brahmin doesn’t get wet.” The last thing she did was unspool the blue silk scarf from around her neck, and rewrapped it around the librarian’s wrist. “Thanks, Alice.”
As she approached the creek, townsfolk reached out to brush their hands against her, as if to be close again to their own past baptisms. She only flinched at the first touch. Then she drifted into the water like she’d done it a hundred times before, elegant as ever. The librarian had not looked that graceful at her own baptism. She’d been too worried, not confident she’d be found worthy. She hadn’t been confident in much, actually, looking back. A shame.
Not unhappily, the librarian watched the woman’s sundress soak up the creek water until the garment was a pale and dirty gray.
The preacher began the baptism, his voice finally breaking free of his throat to call scripture into the soundless woods. There was no one else for miles and miles. They could have been on an island. An island probably had Wifi, though.
“In baptism, we are the death and new life of Jesus Christ. As we are immersed in water, our old self dies, and as we break free of the water, we find new life in Christ.” The preacher scanned his congregation. “Romans Six tells us so,” he continued. “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
A chill tore through the clearing and the librarian shivered. Everything smelled like creek: Wetness and grass and mud. Some would call it a rotten smell, but the librarian only thought of seeds and roots and loam. Rebirth.
The preacher at long last looked directly at the odd woman. “Who will bear witness to your new life?”
The woman looked confused. “Right, well my folks are gone—”
“Kin in spirit then?” he asked.
Perhaps only because the dragging silence was awkward to listen to—all those accessories she’d brought with her and not a single friend?—the woman whipped around and pointed at the librarian. “Alice.”
A command, not a question. The librarian felt her chest expand with something that scared the chill from her skin. She’d never been chosen for this before. Quickly, she handed the woman’s things to Eli, who she’d only just noticed was standing behind her. She hadn’t really been thinking of him. After removing her shoes, she slunk into the creek. Her dress went heavy and the small pebbles of the creek bed bit into the soles of her feet. The chill of the water stole her breath and yet she felt decidedly more awake than she had been in a long time. She took her position behind the woman, placing her hands gently on the woman’s shoulders, and nodded to the preacher. She could do this. She could be fair.
He bowed his head. The woman took a steadying breath, shaking her hands at her sides. “Fuck, it’s cold.”
“Now,” the preacher said.
The woman took a large breath, sunk low, and closed her eyes like she was jumping off a diving board. Just as the librarian pushed her head beneath the water. The librarian’s world went silent, her ears buzzing the way they sometimes did in the middle of the night.
It was just supposed to be a quick dunk.
But the librarian became transfixed.
She watched the woman’s pretty blonde hair tentacle outwards in the water, a halo around her submerged head. Tiny goosebumps rose on the woman’s bare arms. Superwomen and goddesses didn’t get goosebumps. Then she noticed her own dress was the same blue as the dingy creek, so exact a match she almost disappeared right into the water herself. Finally, she saw the silk blue scarf, still tied around her own wrist, weaving under the water, soaked through with slime and probably worthless now. She could not take her eyes off the woman, could not hear beyond the buzz in her ears and the white noise of the empty place she called home.
Just a quick dunk, and then rebirth.
But the librarian was distracted, was a long way from here.
Her stomach twisted with a fierce cry of hunger and she felt her mind leave her body for half a moment—or was it her body leaving her mind?—and found herself floating above a memory, years ago. Watching a girl smoke behind the library.
You shouldn’t smoke here.
You might cause a fire. The books might go up in flames.
This whole town should burn down. The soil would be better for it.
A quick dip beneath the water for someone worthy. A light soul didn’t sink.
But the librarian made her judgement. And found this woman wanting.
Even when frantic bubbles drifted to the surface, popping as they broke free from the water like the creamy bubbles that exploded on top of a fresh-from-the-oven hot brown—even when the woman’s body began to spasm, either with desperation or fight or both—even when the woman’s fingernails carved red and angry chicken scratch across the librarian’s hands and arms, limbs fighting—even then, the librarian didn’t let go.
The preacher was silent. The townsfolk were silent.
After what seemed like only seconds in her head, the librarian finally released her grip on the woman’s shoulders. The buzzing in her ears popped and she looked around, clenching her hands so the blood would run back into her pruney fingers.
The woman’s limp body floated to the surface.
The librarian just stared at the woman who strut into her library only a few hours ago, alive and demanding. She had done this. Her own hands were capable of more than flipping the pages of someone else’s book.
The preacher placed a soft, comforting palm on the threadbare shoulder of her blue dress. “Thank you for your fair judgement.”
He waded out of the creek, not sparing a backward glance. The townsfolk dispersed. Numb from her ears to her toes, the librarian climbed from the water, stepping in the muddy footprints of the townsfolk so she would not sink too deep into the earth. This time, the stragglers reached to brush their reverent palms against her.
How quiet everything had been. How easily a life had disappeared, again—the woman escaped years ago, but came back. What a fool.
Eli waited for her. He handed her the woman’s things and she accepted them before she even knew she’d stretched out her arms. “Blue is a good color on you,” he said. “Would you like to come over? I can make you a hot meal. You’ll catch a cold out here, even this time of year.”
She peered up at his tall form, at the face she liked to imagine over the faces of dashing heroes in the illustrated novels on her shelves. She was hungry. But she looked at his eyes which were finally looking at her. The fancy lady from a far off place had chosen her—her!—for a very special task. But only then, through that coronation of a stranger, had Eli seen her. Only after she’d absorbed some part of that woman, her confidence, had he thought to look.
“Thank you kindly, but no,” she said. Now that she had his attention, she didn’t want him. She wanted what this fancy woman from a land of lights had.
With a frown, Eli trotted ahead with the others.
The librarian ambled at the back, wet and cold but running on some kind of caffeine she’d never found in one of the church’s Styrofoam coffee cups. They probably drank a lot of coffee, those folks who lived in the big city. Wide awake all the time.
The librarian followed the townsfolk all the way back into Mud Lick, but she never joined them. She walked alone with the echoes of the woman, petting the rough straw of the hat, the fine leather of the handbag. She found the woman’s wallet in the purse-that-shouldn’t-get-wet and stared a long time at a washed-out driver’s license photo that was so old and fuzzy, it could’ve been any blonde girl. They almost even kind of looked alike in this picture.
But now up close, the librarian could tell the silk scarf—even drenched—around her wrist definitely didn’t match the blue of her own, dingy eyes. But that was okay. You certainly couldn’t tell what kind of blue the woman’s eyes were in this terrible picture.
After all, the license just said BLU.
Alice really wasn’t such a bad name anyway.
She would need braces.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Pauley Goff (she/hers) is a graduate from The University of Chicago. Her adult short fiction can be found in the Indiana Review, Hunger Mountain, and Glimmer Train. Her writing has won VCFA’s Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing, and she is also the inaugural recipient of SCBWI’s A. Orr Fantasy Grant for speculative fiction. Ellen was born and raised in Kentucky, and now lives and works in New York City.
Baptism © 2022 Ellen Pauley Goff