My Grandfather Gets Doused

1982_Barnwell_River Baptism.jpg

Tim Barnwell, River Baptism, Arrington Branch Baptist Church, 1982.
Courtesy of the Artist.

My Grandfather Gets Doused
by Fred Chappell

He hedged his final bet.
The old man decided, to get saved
You had to get all wet.

An early April Sunday he braved
Cold river and a plague
Of cold Baptist stares. He waved

And nodded. I saw his wounded leg
Wince at the touch
Of icy stream-edge.

Righteous clutch
Of the preacher dragged him farther in.
Maybe now he didn’t want it much,

But ringed by mutely sniggering men
And contraltos making moues,
He managed a foolish unaccustomed grin

And plunged to his knees in ooze
And rush of Pigeon River.
What a bad black bruise

Of reputation! Never
In a thousand thousand thousand years
Had Davis or Clark turned hard-believer

Baptist. Weeping wormy tears
His Methodist fathers screamed
In paid-for plots. My uncles’ sneers

Rose like spiritual kites. Who dreamed
Heresy lurked in his slick Sibelius-like head?
It was not seemly what he seemed.

And grounded like a hog or horsefly, would
Be better than raving Baptist. No one admitted

It, but to be good
Was to be Methodist.
And everybody should.

Man, were they ever pissed!
He’d taken the habit of laying down laws,
So now this exhibitionist

Apostasy didn’t sit so well.
And they all felt sneaky-content because
There went his ass to hell.

They’d togged him out in white,
And he rose from the water with a look
As naked and contrite

As a fifth-grader caught with a dirty book,
Was he truly saved at last?
Before he could take it back

They said the words fast
And hustled him to dry ground
And shook his hand with ungracious haste.

If his theology was unsound,
At least he had a healthy fear
Of dying. . . .He frowned

When he saw me gaping. A double tear
Bloomed at the rim of his eye.
In a yellow-green willow a finch sang clear

And high.
Silence seized us every one,
Standing bemused and dry.

Now O pitiful he looked. The sun
Cloud-muffled, a cold wind-stir
Brought us to compassion.

They fetched his clothes from the car;
Still expostulating,
The preacher led him to a laurel thicket where

He changed. And changed again. Waiting
In numb wonder, we heard his voice go

Baptized he was. But now
He decided to be unbaptized. Pale
Pale the preacher grew;

I thought his heart would fail.
“No, Mr. Davis, no no no.” It couldn’t be.
Baptism was all or not at all.

Like virginity.
He’d have to stay washed white,
Baptist through eternity.

“Well, that’s all right,”
He said. “But I had no notion it took so quick.”
His voice glared unworldly light.

Grasped his walking stick,
And saddling his armpit on his crutch, he strode,
Dragging the dead foot like a brick.

At the side of the narrow road
He turned to watch the river driving east.
(Was West Fork Pigeon really the Blood

Of the lamb?) A shadow-creased
Scowl huddled his face
When a thought bubbled up like yeast:

The water that saved him was some place
Else now, washing away the sins
Of trout down past McKinnon Trace.

And now he hoisted his stoic limbs
Into the home-bound Ford. “What damn difference
Will it make?” he said. “Sometimes
I think I ain’t got a lick of sense.”

     Midquest: A Poem
     Louisiana State University Press 1981

My Grandfather Gets Doused