a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
It was the one answer she never forgot and had no trouble memorizing.
Sunday nights practicing whatever chapter of the Baltimore Catechism Sister had assigned the previous week, Johnna always struggled, stammered, spat out the words and hated it. Until the lesson on baptism. Even then there were too many questions and too long and wordy answers, hard to learn perfectly. Except for one. “Who can administer baptism?” That she thought she already knew the answer, then found she didn’t, made it even more memorable. “A priest”—of course—but then, “…in case of necessity anyone who has the use of reason may baptize.”
Who has the use of reason. Who has the use of reason? This was one of those long and wordy phrases that confounded. But Johnna remembered, too, that when Sister spoke of who needed to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, she’d instructed, “whoever has reached the age of reason” needed to comply. And then, when Scottie Johnson had asked what age that was, because he loved hot dogs and every Friday his grandmother took him to Pete’s Hot Dog Stand to get one smothered in onions and meat sauce, and Sister said, “Seven,” Scottie had slammed down his catechism and said, “Damn,” and got sent to the principal’s office and his mother got called. Because Scottie was eight. And so was Johnna. Both of them, Sister’s words meant, had “the use of reason.” So.
Even her name seemed to foretell. Johnna. The female equivalent of John, that crazy saint who ate bugs in the wilderness.
Johnna liked the wilderness, too. At least as much of it as the woods behind her house could provide. When summer came, and catechism classes were over, she sat on stone by the stream and contemplated “necessity.” Like “necessary” she supposed. Like her mother saying no new toy at the grocery store because she only had money for necessities, and then she bought bread and milk and peanut butter, but also a six-pack of Utica Club for Johnna’s father. When her older brother asked why her father got beer but he couldn’t have Pepsi, Johnna’s mother walloped him one and said when he worked more than forty hours a week in that factory—the salt mine, her father called it, but when Johnna asked to go see the salt, he just rolled his eyes—maybe then her brother would understand what necessity really meant. It meant something you really needed, Johnna knew. And as she looked at the river rocks and swamp marigolds and wild raspberry bushes, Johnna thought they really needed to be blessed by God, and who would do that for them if not her? Her priest barely came into their classroom full of—she heard him say this once in the hallway when she’d gone out to use the bathroom—germy kids. She’d felt his hands, smooth, soft and white, once when he gave her a bookmark with a holy picture on it when she’d won the reading contest. He’d never come to this spot and risk getting them dirty, or let them touch poison ivy by mistake, or tear bloody stripes in them picking the early raspberries.
So if these beautiful things outdoors needed blessing, and why wouldn’t they, so far from the stone cold church, someone else would have to do it. Johnna knew. Only Johnna knew. That seemed need and reason enough to her. Besides, Sister said only the baptized could go to heaven, so one sunny summer day, Johnna started baptizing everything she loved. She didn’t wanted to be in a heaven without the round rocks of the stream bed to balance her winter-soft feet atop, to hold in her palm and lay a sunburned cheek against, to gaze into nights when she couldn’t fall asleep and would sit up and see her collection lining her window sill and breathe in the still-muddy scent of them and be calmed, knowing if there were a trickling stream and it was lined with rocks like these, her world was all right.
The first time was hard.
Johnna felt a little shaky and unsure. As if she might be doing something wrong. Something that would get her sent straight to hell where for sure there were no streams or cool rocks. But she remembered her catechism’s definition of an apostle—a person sent—and didn’t her mother just this morning, already tired of having Johnna and her brother underfoot now that school was out, send her outdoors, tell her to go find something to do, to not come back in whining that she was bored?
Johnna wasn’t bored.
She was inspired.
She could almost feel the open wings of the Holy Ghost spreading out above her ponytail. Their wisps of wind urging her forward. She knelt. She said a quick “Our Father” and a quicker “Hail Mary.” Then got down to the business of baptizing.
Lovingly, she lifted her favorite stream bed rock above her head, gazed past it into the blue sky, bright sun, until her vision blurred with sunlight and tears, then lowered it toward the stream. Scooping a bit into the curved palm of her other hand, she drizzled water over the already wet stone. “I baptize thee, in the name of the father,” she scooped more water, “the sun,” another scoop, “and the Holy Ghost.” Oops, she corrected. “Holy Spirit.” Sister Evangelica had reprimanded Scottie Johnson for saying “ghost.” We don’t believe in “ghosts,” she’d told him, but in the “spirit of the lord.”
It wasn’t until Johnna’d baptized some seven stones, a stand of marigolds, and the thorny raspberry bush that Johnna recognized her other mistake. “The son.” She was supposed to be claiming these wonderful woodland wild things for Jesus. But in her mind, when she’d said the word, she’d heard “the sun.” Pictured that bright burning ball that browned her arms, rosied her cheeks and made the gardens grow. That sun.
It was a conundrum.
This was a new word, taught to Johnna by her old uncle whom they’d visited in the nursing home last weekend. She hadn’t seen Uncle Steve since he’d moved away and stopped stopping by with Devil Dogs and Hostess Cupcakes for her brother and her every Saturday morning. Uncle Steve wasn’t really her uncle. He was her mother’s uncle. Her grandmother’s crazy brother. At least that’s what Johnna’s father called him. He also called him freeloader, bum and jinx. But Johnna didn’t know about those things. What she did know, but thought maybe her father didn’t, was that her mother loved him. Her mother told her once she’d wanted to name Johnna Stephanie, after her favorite uncle, but her father wanted to name her after his father, the grandfather she never knew, because he was dying just when she was born. So the name seemed a fitting tribute.
But Johnna always wondered what it might have been like, who she might have been, if she’d been Stephanie. It made her a little sad.
Until she’d discovered her true purpose on earth.
Now she was happy to be Johnna the Baptist.
While she was thinking of all these things, the sun, the one she’d called on by accident, had disappeared behind piles of gray clouds billowing. The warm breeze turned into a cold wind. And the sky cracked open, sending a giant “Z” of light, like a bent sword, zipping to earth.
Johnna dropped the holy rock in the water and fled home.
Next morning the word was all new.
A different color saturated. The odor of ozone still permeated.
Johnna grabbed a cinnamon bun, bought by her mother after the visit to Uncle Steve because, Johnna thought, her mother remembered what it felt like to start a day in sweetness. Johnna’s father was all yogurt and bananas and morning runs. Johnna didn’t mind a morning run, but not on a track like her father liked. She shoved the last of the sticky sweet between her teeth and ran now. Loped and leapt over long tufts of dew-damp field grass. Gamboled in and out of sumac shrubs, still bare, but baring browned reminders of the wintertime red fuzz candles. At the top of the hill, she stopped to catch her breath and the rest of the cinnamon bun she’d bit almost off in her efforts. She stood a muted hue in the metallic colors of the post-storm morning. Silvery air surrounding her. Titanium sparkled on wet grasses. The stream, a coppery shade, that deepened and dimmed in the rivulets. Birch leaflets glittered pure gold.
She didn’t know where to begin.
She cupped hands and washed her sticky lips with stream water.
Cupped them again and carried a trickling to the birch she and her brother had learned to climb, dribbled it into the low crotch that made easy access for arboreal adventures, blessing it.
Raced back to the stream for more water, and baptized the makeshift bridge of leftover plywood pieces from their father’s remodeling in the basement.
Brought another handful to the lilac bushes, still blooming, emitting aroma to defy the gods.
When she got to the old oak further from the stream bed, her hands were empty but wet, so she rubbed them on the rough bark proclaiming the tree good and naming it God’s. Pausing there to catch her breath, arms outstretched but not long enough to encircle the ancient trunk, when her brother’s friend’s voice startled her from her holy reverie. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” it asked. Charlie must’ve been watching for a long time, Johnna thought, as she tugged back her hands, raking them over the oak’s sharp edges, gouging scratches into her palms.
“Nothing,” she said. Voice soft, feet turning to go. Away. From Charlie, the stream, the world.
“I heard you,” said Charlie. His voice a mix of indignation and consternation.
Johnna said nothing, just watched the toe of her sneaker turn dark with wet as she poked it deeper and deeper into the gravelly sandy soil.
Charlie came down the bank beside her. Disconcerted. Stood and stared. Needing to make sense, he offered her excuse. “So what were you doing? Just playing priest or something?”
It was an idea that Johnna had not considered. But she snapped at the bait like a hungry bluegill at a hot dog hunk on a hook. Nodded.
Charlie grew strong then, having something he understood to stand on. “Ooh,” he threatened, “you are in big trouble now.”
Johnna reached for his arm, but he pulled away. As if even her touch were damning. “Girls can’t be priests,” he shouted from the safety of the field as he fled.
Charlie told Johnna’s brother, of course, who tattled to their mother, who discussed it with her father, who must’ve said let the nuns handle it because the very next day Johnna and her mother stopped by church to have a chat with Sister Evangelica. Who asked what Johnna thought she was doing. Who frowned and said that it was good to want to be holy, but that Johnna was going about it the wrong way. Who suggested summertime Bible school classes to keep her on the right path.
Johnna’s mother felt so bad after the visit that she took Johnna to Izard’s Tea Room for a hot fudge sundae afterward and told her about how she herself had wanted to be a nun when she was a child, but had heard a story about nun’s needing to cut off all their hair and so gave up her dream. Johnna’s mother’s hair was still long, thick, a chestnut brown that she wore in a ponytail when she was working around the house. Johnna liked to watch it bounce when her mother scrubbed the floor. She was glad her mother wasn’t a nun, all dressed in black with a hard white collar and and a veil covering her pretty hair. On the way home, Johnna’s mother held her hand, something she hadn’t done in a long, long time. And she did something else, too, something she had never done. She said Johnna shouldn’t tell her brother or her father about the ice cream sundae.
So she didn’t.
Johnna liked sharing a secret with her mother.
And besides, if she didn’t tell, maybe her mother would take her for another sundae sometime. Just the two of them. Now that Johnna had to go to Bible school every Thursday afternoon.
Sister Evangelica seemed to make it her mission to rid Johnna of her desire to baptize. Every Thursday she had a new and horrible story about John the Baptist to tell. One week, it was about how his parents were so old and thought they couldn’t have any kids and then they got him. The next was about how he lived in the desert and ate only locusts and honey. She even made a point to explain that locusts were a kind of grasshopper in case the kids thought this sounded like something good. One time it was about his scratchy camel hair cloak and hard leather belt. Another it was about his feast day on June 24 that they’d already missed so there would be no celebrating this saint. But the biggest surprise was on the last day of Bible school early in August, when Sister Evangelica explained that they wouldn’t be in class to honor the Saint on his other feast day, which was at the end of that month—August 29—the day he was beheaded. The whole room fell silent. Until Scottie Johnson said, “Say what?” and Sister Evangelica frowned at him until he stood beside his desk and said, “I’m sorry, Sister, I didn’t hear what you said,” and then she told the whole story, silver platter and all, and Johnna had to stop on her walk home to throw up in the bushes behind the church because she couldn’t get the picture of the wild-eyed statue with the streaming hair sitting on a plate dripping blood and brains all over somebody’s kitchen floor.
Sister Evangelica had been right.
It made her stop baptizing.
It made her stop imagining.
It made her stop going to the woods and the stream.
Johnna sat in her bedroom, looking in her mirror, holding hunks of hair in her hands. Hers wasn’t as pretty as her mother’s. It was ordinary brown. It was tangled and straight. It got in her eyes and never stayed in a pony tail or barrette. She took the scissors from her desk drawer. They weren’t very sharp so it took her a long, long time to cut through the thicknesses of it.
When she was done, her desk and bookshelf and floor were covered in chunks and tresses. She looked in the mirror again. Laughed and laughed and cried.
Her brother spied her first.
Pushing open her bedroom door to tease her about Bible school, he took one look and actually screamed. Like a girl. Then shouted, “Mom,” so long and so loud he sounded like a fire siren going off in the hallway. Johnna could hear her mother rushing. Her brother, still shouting, “Look what she’s done! Look what she’s done!” then vanishing into his own room, awed by the enormity of Johnna’s newest crime. Johnna, for her part, sat cross-legged on the floor, holding a mirror, gazing at the new girl she’d made for herself, surrounded by tufts and tresses.
Her mother stopped, halted, froze in the doorway. Watched. As Johnna tenderly caressed each leftover lump on hair on her small curved head. Tiptoed in, finally, and crouched in front of her daughter. Reached out, too, to finger the fine soft patches of short short hair. With difficulty she configured herself into a cross-legged position. With still more difficulty, she found her voice, said, quietly, her palm cupping the back of her daughter’s shorn skull. “I like it like this,” she said, eyes overflowing to form small streams that flowed along her cheeks. One ran straight down to her jawbone, but the other, she must have tipped her head a little, Johnna thought, tipping her own to look into her mother’s eyes, traced its way toward her left ear and into the thickness of hair tumbled there. Johnna’s mother tucked the hair, and the tear, back. Asked, “Do you?”
Johnna peered from mirror to mother, her own eyes blurred in response. Smiled then. Said, yes. Meant it, too. For the first time since Sister killed John the Baptist, Johnna believed something good.
“You know,” said her mother, doing something no one ever did any more, pulling her daughter into her lap, sitting with her there on the bedroom floor, putting her head close to Johnna’s so she, too, appeared in the picture the mirror made, “I’ve been thinking about cutting my hair, too. It’s so hot in the summertime.”
Johnna’s whole body stiffened in surprise.
“Won’t Daddy be mad?” was all she could manage.
“Oh, I don’t know,” her mother’s voice meandered, seemed to have no clear direction, as if this were a land she’d never visited, “I suppose he might not like it at first, but, I know he loves me—and you—and so I think he will get used to it. To us.” Johnna relaxed. “What do you think?” her mother urged. “Want to come with me?”
“Yes.” It was the second time that day, that hour, that Johnna found an affirmative. It felt good.
It felt even better when she and her mother walked out of Marge’s Beauty Salon on Baylor Road, holding hands and sporting their new short hairdos. Her mother’s a bouncy bob, that swayed when she walked, tickling her neck and making her look, Johnna said, like a happy horse, and Johnna’s a pixie cut, trimmed up and shaped a bit, her mother convinced her, by Marge. Her mother said it made her look like a fairy. That all she needed was a wand and she could work all the magic she wanted. That if she didn’t watch out, her mother rubbed a hand over Johnna’s shoulders, down her back, feeling, she might even grow wings.
Johnna knew her mother was right. Could almost feel the wing buds burgeoning between her ribs. They walked lightly on the earth, toward home.
When Johnna’s mother turned from the sidewalk to the trail along the creek bed into the place the big kids called Blackberry Jungle, Johnna was surprised but pleased. This was even better than Izard’s Tea Room. They plucked ripe berries and stained their lips and palms with eating them. When Johnna’s mother finally turned to return to the cut lawns and trimmed hedges and concrete sidewalks to go home, Johnna though for a moment she saw bulges in her mother’s blouse where wings would go.
“Did you?” Johnna asked. Just that.
But her mother knew. “I used to,” she explained. “But I didn’t use them enough and they withered away.”
She grabbed her daughter then, by both arms, crouched before her at the end of the pathway, right at the place where the wild went tame. “Don’t let that happen to you.” It wasn’t a plea; it was an admonishment. Her tone, strong, not sweet. Her hands and eyes urgent.
Johnna said it quickly, to quiet her mother’s voice-crack, to ease her fear-grip. But she meant it.
The next morning, Johnna filled a watering can from the outside spigot and wandered off toward the flower garden. When she was certain no one was watching, though, she turned and traced the way back to Blackberry Jungle. She blessed every bit of of earth and growth and flower in the place. Baptized them all, in the name of the mother, the sun, and the holy, holy, ghost. The one she saw flitting above her mother’s shiny short brown hair yesterday. The one she felt sitting, like a crown, on her own happy head.
Ruth Ann Dandrea is a poet and prose writer whose work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Minerva Rising, Rock and Sling, Paterson Literary Review, and other literary magazines. She is also co-author of a book on women’s kayaking, WOW: Women on Water, which was named the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Nonfiction Book of 2012. Since moving to the Adirondacks thirty years ago, she has explored the importance of place, to life, love, and story.