Serpent Daughter – Snippet 15
Ferpa took special care of the boy, and Kort watched over Ferpa. Chigozie noticed the large bison-headed beastman watching the cow-headed beastwife who was his counterpart whenever she was in the child’s presence.
Worried he might harm her?
The child needed a name. At eight days of age, which seemed propitious to Chigozie, he, Kort and Ferpa carried the heron-headed child down into the Still Waters, into a pool deep enough that Chigozie was submerged up to his waist. Long discussion the night before with the Merciful and with the Zoman outrider Naares Stoach had ended with no conclusion, so as Chigozie stepped into his place in the pool, he was still considering possibilities. Benjamin, son of the right hand. Daniel, who did not resist, but went peaceably into the lions’ den. Matthew, who recorded Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. Like a wheel of fortune in his brother’s casino, the names rolled past his eyes in sequence.
The discussion had, though, dwelled at length on the child’s need for baptism. Seeing the Heron King’s child eat the flesh of his own mother had shocked Chigozie, and what felt like the appropriate remedy was to baptize the child, asking for aid from the powers of Heaven in restraining the child’s innate wickedness and violence. To be baptized, Chigozie had explained to Kort and the others sitting with him, was to die and rise again, a new creation. It was to enter the waters of chaos and emerge remade, free of former guilts and clean and ready for a new life.
“The river,” Kort said. “The river and the dry land.”
Chigozie had nothing to say to that, so he merely smiled.
Kort, looking across the ravine at Ferpa, rocking the child to sleep, asked why he was not baptized, and Chigozie had no good answer. In his heart, he feared the answer was somewhere in the space bounded by several sentiments, not all equally noble. First, he had a feeling, never verbalized, that the Merciful were not quite the same as the children of Adam. In the same way that he would have felt uncomfortable baptizing a dog, he did not feel at ease baptizing a man with a dog’s face. Second, perhaps more flatteringly, he found that on some level he didn’t feel the beastkind needed baptism. They seemed more like children to him, like innocents. On the other hand, he knew some of the things Kort had done, and he knew that if Kort were a child of Adam, Chigozie would enjoin not only baptism, but serious repentance, upon him. Third, to his shame, the idea simply hadn’t occurred to him.
He had promised he would baptize Kort.
Within minutes, he had had to promise that he would baptize any of the Merciful who desired it. This proved to be all of them. Stoach, when urged earnestly that he, too, should consider baptism, had waved a hand to dismiss the idea. “I’ve done my god time. It was good while it lasted, and it was enough for me.”
Chigozie briefly met Stoach’s gaze as he stepped into the water. Stoach looked away.
God of Heaven, Chigozie prayed. Give me a good name for this dangerous child. And redeem the child from its nature.
Kort and Ferpa joined him in the pool, holding the Heron King’s child between them. The bird eyes looked at Chigozie, reflecting his own image back at him in glittering black pools.
“By the authority vested in me by this community,” Chigozie intoned, “I christen thee Absalom.”
The name hadn’t even been among the possibilities he’d discussed with the Merciful. Was it an ill omen? A good one? It meant father of peace, or perhaps my father is peace, and Chigozie certainly liked the idea that peace was part of the name of the Heron King’s son. An assertion, contrary to fact, that the child’s father was peace might act as a shield against the fact that the child’s father in fact appeared to be war and destruction incarnate.
Kort and Ferpa bowed their heads.
“I baptize you,” Chigozie said, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
He cupped his hands and filled them with the warm, sulphurous water. Raising them together, he poured water over Absalom’s head.
Absalom shrieked, a strangled sound of hideous rage, and attacked Chigozie.
A single thrust with his beak struck Chigozie in the shoulder. He fell back, blood mingling with the warm waters that closed over his head.
He kicked, his feet striking nothing, and then hands grabbed his shoulders, dragging him from the water. The cold air on his skin shocked him, but he still couldn’t breathe. With dry air on his face, he felt himself drowning — and then the person who had pulled him from the water turned him and struck his back. Chigozie coughed water from his lungs, sucking air back into them in its place. The Zoman outrider held him and continued to thump him between the shoulders, but Chigozie couldn’t tear his eyes away from the pool.
Absalom hurled Kort from the pool. The big beastman was four times the size of the Heron King’s son and it didn’t matter; he bounced off the steep ravine wall, tumbled down onto rocks, and lay dazed.
Ferpa seized Absalom from behind. She seemed to have hooked a leg behind the child’s leg, because he was off-balance and shaky. She bore down on him from above, leaning her weight across both his shoulders and pushing him down . . . down . . .
Trying to force him into the waters of creation.
“No,” Chigozie said, but the sound was weak because his lungs still held water. He tried to stand, but Kort rose before he could, and leaped back into the pool.
The Merciful stood staring, in distress and fascination.
At the last moment, when it appeared that Absalom was about to break the surface of the water, he twisted, and pushed Ferpa under instead. He slashed with his beak, aiming for her throat — and Kort caught the blow.
He wrapped the fingers of one enormous hand around Absalom’s beak, squeezing it shut. Absalom hissed in rage, twisted his body, yanked his head back, and tried to open his maw, to no avail. Finally, he grabbed Kort’s fingers and thumb with his own hands, trying to pry open the beastman’s grip.
Kort bellowed in anger, but Absalom didn’t flinch.
Kort grabbed the beak with his second hand, wrapping his fingers around Absalom’s fingers and squeezing. Ferpa emerged from the waters shaking her head and bellowing. She made sounds that sounded like squeals of protest, but there were no words in them that Chigozie could understand.
Chigozie coughed up more water and managed to stand. “Peace!” he cried. “Blessed are the merciful!”
If Kort heard him, he gave no indication.
The Heron King’s son ripped one hand free. As Kort maneuvered the bird-headed boy into the deepest part of the pond, Absalom punched Kort, twice in the belly, and then in the loins. Kort flinched, flinched again, and then roared in anger.
Just when Chigozie though Kort might force the boy underwater — and Chigozie was considering whether it made sense to recite a baptismal prayer, whether it would mean anything to God or anyone else in these circumstances — Kort headbutted Absalom. He cracked his thick bison forehead down on the crested heron skull. The contact made a noise that Chigozie felt in his bones, and then the beastman hurled the boy from the pool.
Absalom rattled across the boulders at the edge of the water, then drew himself up into a crouch at the base of a cliff. He bled from several wounds, and so did Kort. They stared at each other for long seconds, and then Kort turned to Chigozie.
“Baptize me,” the big beastman said, and knelt in the center of the pool.
“This is madness,” Naares Stoach said.
Chigozie tottered into the pool, limbs shaking. Again, he cupped water in his hands. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He poured the water over Kort’s head.
Kort rose, eyes gleaming, and he gripped Chigozie in an embrace.
Absalom emitted a sullen chirp and didn’t move.
“Now me.” Ferpa entered the pool.
One by one, the Merciful entered the pool, and one by one, Chigozie administered baptism to them.
When he was finished, the Zoman outrider was gone.
Absalom, though, remained. When the last of the Merciful emerged from the Still Waters, Chigozie stood and looked up at the Heron King’s son. Absalom stood, straightening to his full height, and stared down at the wet priest.
“The water is warm.” Chigozie extended a hand. It was a ridiculous gesture to make to a monster who had attacked him as well as the beastkind who nurtured him.
Absalom stared at Chigozie with cold, glittering eyes, for nearly a minute. Then he opened his mouth and spoke, with a voice that was shrill as the war cry of an eagle and pierced Chigozie to his core.
“You may place your Adam-name upon me, priest, but that is all that you shall do. I shall not be remade, not by you, and not by anyone else of your kind.”
Then Absalom fell silent, crouched, and didn’t speak for weeks.
When Chigozie next looked for him, Naares Stoach was gone.