“Welcome to this world of tears. Try to keep an even keel.”—Admiral Pyx
Pink, white and plump as a birthday cake, Our Lady of the Immaculate Sorrows has opened its doors on this buzzy, summer afternoon for the baptism of young Yaroslav. Confined in a tiny suit of white satin, a sailor’s cap and ivory booties, he beats his pink fists on his mother’s shoulder as she carries him inside.
Gilded stucco entwines pale columns, and the dusty air smells of incense. Fluffy angels wheel in the sky-blue dome split by the rainbow on which Christ is standing. He looks kind. Farther down, over the main entrance, a golden portal painted in trompe l’oeil looks as if it might open any moment for a few, properly qualified souls.
Garbed in a white stole, hawk-faced Father Eustachius waits like a sated bird of prey at the font near the altar, its waters pure and cold to brace little Lucas for his journey. Good-natured greetings bat through the sunny, dust-moted air like shuttlecocks. Directed by the priest as if for a photo, the baby’s party, new shoes creaking, assembles around the pink marble font. Awkwardly his father, a sallow chain-smoker 30 years older than his buxom, blue-eyed wife, clears his throat. He’s already dying for another smoke.
Father Eustachius signals to the godfather (burly and balding, with a sleepy expression, like an overfed bull sunning himself on his side in the long, sweet grass), and tenderly Dr. Mobius lifts the warm satin bundle from the mother’s arms. The godmother, his pinched and nearsighted wife, looks like a rodent peering out from bushes where it has taken shelter. Firmly the priest directs her to place her right hand on the baby’s shoulder; and she obeys hesitantly, as if Lucas might bite her in the wrist.
“Let us begin.” Father Eustachius raises his long hands like a conductor. Instantly Lucas howls like an alarm, maybe because his godfather, a well-scrubbed pediatrician, reeks of hospitals, confusion and the vaguely remembered pangs of birth. The baby’s cries almost drown out the priest’s Profession of Faith beginning:
“Lucas, credis in Deum Patrem omnipotentem…?”
Dr. Mobius answers for the irate baby, “Credo.” More questions follow, while Lucas howls. Can’t his wide-eyed mother take him back for a moment, to comfort him? Jesus and the angels peer down sympathetically from their darkening dome.
“Vis baptizari?” asks the priest. (Lucas, do you wish to be baptised?) As his godfather answers “Volo”, tears the size of unshelled peas roll down the baby’s cherub cheeks and plop into the font like raindrops heralding a sudden thunderstorm. As their ripples spread his godmother sighs, her exhalation tossing the family’s light, summer clothing like a chilly breeze and flickering the twin star candles burning on the high, white-shrouded altar.
Dipping an elegant, silver ladle into the icy pool of the font, Father Eustachius pours holy water three times over the rebellious baby’s head: “Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” Roaring like a banshee, Lucas flaps his plump arms, as if to burst the seams of his confining suit and take to the air.
Now thunder rumbles outside, like a building collapsing, followed in moments by the crescendo of a violent downpour. Calmly the priest carries on, however, even as raindrops drip onto the circle of heads bowed patiently. The godfather shrugs them off like an old bull shaking flies from his hide, while his rodent the wife peers nervously up at the shadowy dome, scrutinizing it for cracks. The baby’s parents grip each other’s hands. Soon this inconvenient rite will be over, which we call human life.
“Pax tibi,” Father Eustachius intones, anointing Lucas with the holy chrism.
“Et cum spiriritu tuo,” Dr. Mobius mumbles sleepily.
With that, half the dome—with most of the angels—rips away, letting in the storm. People crowd tighter around the font, as if its power could protect them. Water is rising over their ankles as wind pipes weirdly in the unattended organ. A crow swoops and perches on a stone statue of the Virgin, who reaches up and slaps it away.
And still Lucas cries with furious gusto, flapping his arms like eagle wings. The priest takes up a cloth of white linen and reaches it towards the baby’s head.
Just at this moment the walls crumble under a vast and dark deluge, like an ocean unforeseen, a tsunami of the mind sweeping over Lower Bavaria. While the baby’s parents and the steady priest obediently sink below the waves, his pagan godmother tries in vain to shimmy up a smooth, marble column, calling on all the gargoyles in the place.
Meanwhile, the unflappable Dr. Mobius dozes off on an oaken pew, which miraculously floats… And miracle of miracles, little Lucas has made his way into a collection basket (maybe the Virgin Mary helped). Sailor cap jauntily perched on his head, down the central aisle he sails, and the crumbling façade’s doors flap open to let him out, like a second birth, as an invisible choir sings triumphantly from beyond the storm:
“I am captain of my soul,/ I am master of my fate.”