Karen Salyer McElmurray, who has been a landscaper, a casino employee and a sporting-towel factory worker, is in her current life a writer and a teacher of writing. She is the author of Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey, which received the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction and was named a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book. McElmurray's debut novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, was the winner of the Thomas and Lillian D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her newest novel is Motel of the Stars. She is at work on essays, a new novel, and a memoir.
I’d heard the voice of god in the thunderstorms and powerful winds that beset our subdivision that summer. I looked for Him in stories of Joan of Arc, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and in the closing scene of The Robe, when Jean Simmons and Richard Burton are condemned to die by arrows at the hands of the Roman guard. I recited my prayers and promised my goodness to the Lord that summer, and each night, as I heard my parents quarreling in the bedroom across the hall from mine, I whispered promises. If only you make them love each other. I loved most the parts of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs where the Christians were set upon long spikes to die awful deaths and I told myself that my parents’ shouts were like that, a slow, sad hurt I could pray away.
I remember that Sunday afternoon like filtered sunlight.
Hot air blasted through the rolled-down window of our Pontiac as my father drove. My mother stayed home, like she always did where church was concerned. It had upset her that I’d have to strip down in the sanctuary and leave my clothes in an unsanitary heap somewhere. What trouble we were causing her, she told us as she readied us for church. Didn’t we love her? Just never you mind, my father said as we parked in the lot out back. He was pleased I was joining him in that land he inhabited with Jesus and His Fortitudinous Disciples. He squeezed my hand hard as he left me to change with the other two girls who were to be immersed.
Chris was a wiry, blonde-headed cheerleader who’d never been particularly nice to me, having rolled her eyes more than once at the homemade dotted Swiss dresses from my granny that I wore to church. But she looked beatific today.
“Aren’t you just so glad?” She beamed at me as she handed me a robe out of a box beside a table.
“Yes,” I said, though what I really felt was shy.
At home, my mother still changed me for school and church, wiped me when I peed, bathed me and fed me and washed my hands after. I’d start my period in two years, and that, too, became her domain, my body more hers than my own. I’d never undressed in front of strangers before and I was kind of glad that the other newly dedicated one was Wanda Lacey. She, too, was an outcast who was two grades behind and still in my class. She had already had a hickey on her neck and admitted in health class that she drank Kool-Aid for supper. She had rough, dry palms when she held my hand at recess on the playground.
Chris handed me a towel from a stack on a file cabinet. “You’ll need one of these,” she said, and I took the thing and held it. “To wrap your hair up with,” she said. “After.”
After was the thing I’d dreamed about for over a month at that point. For over a year, I’d believed in essential goodness. How He was the redeemer. How, once I believed, the ways and means of sin, my parents’ voices and hateful words, the sight of my own pale body washed each afternoon by my mother’s housework chapped hands, would all fall away. I would be new again. Some other girl. Goodness would pick me up, carry me to heaven, all that distance beyond who I was. Goodness was Friday nights when we sat watching comedy shows my mother loved. Lucille Ball and I Dream of Jeannie. Goodness sweet as sugar syrup and biscuits.
I held my eyes tight shut and believed with my whole heart as I waited in line behind Chris and Wanda as they mounted the steps to the baptismal tank. I could see them from the room through the clear glass. How Chris’s blonde hair floated out beside her face, and her puffed out cheeks where she was holding her breath. And Wanda, by weekday lean and a little yellow skinned where she snuck out and smoked cigarettes behind the school—even she looked rosy and light-filled as the preacher’s arms bore her down beneath the waters. I stood on the steps leading up as Wanda passed me by on her way back down.
Jesus, Jesus, she whispered, and she gave off a scent like swimming pools.
Then I, too, I stepped down into the bathwater warm tank. All these years later, I remember how the preacher’s hands reached out to me and how I noticed his fingers. Fat little fingers with chewed off nails, but I reached for them and watched the waters flood from the long, wet sleeves of his robe. All these years later, I remember how it suddenly occurred to me that, outside, it was summer, and that I had never been allowed to learn how to swim, never been shown how to hold my breath at a pool or beside an ocean. In the name of Jesus. In the name of the Father.
My legs kicked and I flailed, reaching myself up toward the light of some far-distant bulb, some ceiling a million miles from myself. What I want to remember from that moment is the face of Joan of Arc peering up to heaven, lifted up and fearless. What I want to remember is goodness bearing me safely over to some home beyond all the world I knew. This is the body of the Lord. Take ye and eat. What I want to remember is the light of god in my mouth forever and ever, amen.
Later, much later, all these years later, what I remember best is how, after that magical translation of myself before god, my immersion in the waters of renewal, what I did was stand again in the room beside my little heap of clothes, water dripping down my back. Chris and Wanda were gone already, had dressed quickly and tried not to glance at me as I fumbled, trying to dress myself. I held the towel Chris had given me, like the one I’d seen turbaned around her blonde head. I tried to ascertain how it felt to be me now, made new by the blood of the lamb. All l I really felt was cold as I pulled on my dress over my damp skin.
Are you there, I whispered up to the dim light in the empty room, a child made helpless by her mother’s strange love.