Magdalene had never been my favorite. She was everyone else’s favorite, though. When she was born, all the adults smiled and laughed and poked and prodded and told Mom, “What a fine little baby you have!” And Mom would nod her head and smile, and say “Thank you, I hope you can make her baptism!”
I don’t know why they said she was a ‘fine’ baby. She was an ‘okay’ baby at best. She smelled like farts and couldn’t even talk, so I wasn’t sure why everyone thought she was such a ‘fine’ baby.
Even now, dressed in her baptism frills and lace, she was still just ‘okay’. When the adults talked to me, they were talking about her. “My, my, Theresa, your sister is going to look just like you!” I held my hands behind my back and said “Thank you very much, I think so too.” I didn’t think so, though. She looked nothing like me.
Magdalene was an ugly baby. But I wouldn’t say that out loud; mom says unpolite business shouldn’t be spoken within the church walls. After all, the saints were watching.
Above the elaborate stained-glass windows were portraits of the saints: Saint Afra, Saint Pollio, and my favorite, Joan of Arc. Of course, Joan was everyone’s favorite. She had the most beautiful painted smile. Even as the flames licked at her arms and legs, she still smiled. It wouldn’t do to say unpolite things in front of Joan.
The congregation all settled into their pews for mass (Mom says that ‘congregation’ is a fancy word for all the people who are good churchgoers and make it to mass every week). We got to sit close to the baptismal tub this week. The sharp, familiar scent of holy water stung at my nose. Mom must have seen me wiggling, because she laid a hand on my knee and quietly said, “Behave yourself, Theresa.”
Which was a ridiculous thing to say because I was behaving myself. It was Maggie who was misbehaving. She’d already begun crying and church hadn’t even started. I leaned in her face and shushed her, but she kept on crying. Even her crying was ugly.
Mass began. The choir led the congregation in songs that I knew by heart. Glory, glory, glory to God, eternal flame of love, make us in your image, Lord. The priest entered the church holding the holy book aloft, its shining red and gold cover glistening in the candlelight.
I’d never say it in front of Joan, but mass is terribly boring. Mom says that when I get older, I’ll be able to pay attention, but even at the grown-up age of nine, it’s hard to listen to the priest. He has a boring voice, and it’s more fun to look up at the saints and pretend conversations with them.
The priest concluded his sermon and walked down the aisle to us. I jumped to my feet alongside Dad and Mom, Maggie in Mom’s arms. She was still being fussy and a complete nuisance (Mom says ‘nuisance’ is the word for ‘won’t stop being very loud and awfully rude’). The priest asked what name they’d given her, which was silly because the priest knew her name was Magdalene. Baptisms have a script that the priest has to follow, even if it means asking silly questions that he knows the answer to already. Mom had to hold my hand and squeeze it because I kept jumping up and down on my heels. “Soon,” she whispered to me. “Behave.”
And soon enough, Maggie was ready to be baptized. The priest lit a small candle from the very tall one that was planted on the baptismal pool. He offered it to me, smiling. “Theresa, would you do the honors?”
Mom urged my hand out to take the candle. I hesitated. It was as if a little fire was licking at me inside my stomach. Everyone got baptized at one point or another, so it couldn’t hurt that much, could it? I stared into the flame and looked up at Joan. I pretended a conversation with her.
Were you scared when you burned? I asked her inside my head.
Joan said nothing. Amid the flames, she smiled.
Maggie fussed again. She was so terrible at behaving. I decided it would do her good to be baptized.
I lowered the candle, letting the flame catch along the tulle of Magdalene’s gown. Maggie didn’t howl immediately, and the congregation was silent. The fire crawled across the dress, catching the ends first and quickly crawling up towards her center. Maggie grunted a few times, then shrieked. I knew the fire must have reached Maggie’s almost-perfect skin. Almost perfect—but not yet.
Maggie’s screams rattled in the rafters and shook the stained glass. She was screaming loud enough to wake the dead, but when I glanced up to the saints, they stayed in place. Joan’s painted smile remained indifferent as she burned.
When Maggie was so far engulfed in fire that it wasn’t safe to hold her, the priest dropped her into the tub of holy water. Mom pulled me back a little bit, but I already knew to step away. I’d seen other babies get baptized, and I knew how high the bonfire would grow when Maggie splashed into the gasoline.
She fell like a comet, a blazing trail following her down until it was overtaken by the roaring pillar of fire that sprung from the holy water.
Maggie’s figure was completely lost amid the flames. My eyebrows felt a little tickleish; I’d look in a mirror later and discover the heat had burnt them practically down to stubble.
Mom pulled me back a little further. The flames had gotten higher and it was getting harder to breathe in the smoke. I tried to hide my cough (Mom said it was disrespectful to cough out the smoke, since it was holy). I tried to swallow it and let the tears stream down my face as the soot pricked at my eyes.
The fire died eventually. The gasoline burned out from the tub. At the bottom was Maggie, her baptismal gown all burned away. The priest lifted her up and declared her clean of sin. Everyone burst into cheers and clapped for little Magdalene. Even I clapped along, because now Maggie wasn’t quite so ugly.
The ladies who poked and prodded were right. She did look like me. A beautiful scalp that was free of coarse hair, and skin as red and cracked as cooling magma. She looked like all of us now. Finally, she was cleansed of her sin.
She didn’t fuss at all. She was perfect now.