We watched it on TV, but some people went down to the lake and took pictures and video on their cellphones. The President’s security was pretty relaxed, they said, all things considered. But we watched it on TV. The President in his waders, and the still surface of the lake. And everyone saw it, everyone except me saw it, when he plunged his hands into the water and brought up the Baby Jesus.
The Baby Jesus did not cry or choke. The President held Him right up to the sky, shiny like a silver dollar and naked except His diaper, and then it was a bright mess of cameras flashing and phones going off and people crying. On the TV they played the Star Spangled Banner and Beyoncé was singing, but I just couldn’t see what they all saw.
“Look,” Mom said, touching the TV screen. “See here, son, that’s Jesus.” But all I saw was a smudge on the screen and the President holding up his empty hands, dripping with lake water, and his face so solemn and holy.
“And to think he used to be a Moslem,” said Mom, and she sighed.
I asked Mom could she describe the diaper on the Baby Jesus, because out of everything, that was troubling me the most. Like, how come the Baby Jesus could be in a diaper under the water? But Mom hushed me, and she said, “You know fine well what a diaper looks like.”
Next day was a school day and all anyone could talk about was the little Baby Jesus that our President had fished out of the lake. Imagine what else is in there, I said to Mike Powell. We’d been swimming in that lake since we were three years old or maybe even younger. Imagine if there are other babies in there, I said. But Mike Powell punched me on the arm and said, “That’s blaspheming.”
Then I ran into Ginny Evers in the hallway and grabbed her and said, “You seen the Baby Jesus in the lake?” And Ginny said, “Well, did you see the Baby Jesus in the lake?” So that way I knew Ginny hadn’t seen nothing either and I started to say something else but then she leaned in to me and whispered, “Pretend you saw it, doofus.” She pinched me on the arm so it hurt and nodded her head. “Doofus,” she said.
All the lessons that day were about the Baby Jesus in Lake Chorizon. Mrs Royce played the TV footage over and over, and I still couldn’t see nothing but a dribble of water in the President’s hands. The others though were all gasping and cheering and Mike Powell stood up and started singing the school anthem, Lord Jesus we are humble students, so we all had to get up and sing it and Mrs Royce wiped a tear from her face.
At lunchbreak, me and Ginny took our sack lunches to the bottom of the playing field like always.
“You think it’s cause I’m bad I can’t see the Baby Jesus?” I wanted to know.
Ginny rolled her eyes. “Geez, you’re such a dumbass. You really think they all see it?”
“Sure,” I said. “They all can see it, my Mom and Dad too.”
“Bet they can’t,” said Ginny.
In history we did the American Presidents and how it was that only our current President could raise the Baby Jesus from out the lake, even though his history of being a Moslem and a black man should have went against him. Mr Victor, the history teacher, left us be to write in our notebooks about this moment in history, and that was when Ginny got up on her desk and said, “Wasn’t the Baby Jesus just the darlingest baby you ever saw?” And Mildred Cuth, with her buck teeth, said, “The darlingest!” And Ginny said, “And all that curly black hair, like a little African!” And Mildred Cuth said, “What you talking about, curly black hair? That baby has the cutest blonde fuzz.” But Mike Powell spoke up, saying maybe it was dark blonde and the water could have made it darker, or something, and then everyone was talking at once and debating, and no one could agree what color the Baby Jesus’s hair was.
Ginny got down from the desk. She winked at me and smiled her clever smile, and Mike Powell must have seen that, because he said, “Why you stirring up trouble, Ginny?”
And the others stopped talking and all looked at Ginny.
“She didn’t even see the Baby Jesus,” said Mildred Cuth.
“Course I did,” Ginny said.
“Your folks is atheists, I heard,” said Mike Powell.
“What’s that got to do with it,” said Ginny.
“Only believers can see the Baby Jesus,” said Mildred Cuth. “And patriots.”
Mike Powell said, “We ought to write the President about you. It’s unpatriotic.”
“You’re ridiculous,” said Ginny.
“Leave her alone,” I said, weakly, but then Mrs Royce came into the class to see what all the commotion was about and Mike Powell yelled that Ginny was anti-American and an atheist and didn’t believe in the Baby Jesus. Mrs Royce told everyone to calm down and be quiet and respect this moment in the history of our country with quiet contemplation. Then she locked her eyes on Ginny and said, “Come with me, Miss Evers,” and Ginny got up and followed her out of the room while the rest of us steepled our hands together to look like quiet contemplation. Mildred Cuth whispered, “Serve her right,” but Mike Powell hushed her. “Contemplate,” he told her.
Ginny didn’t come back to class so when the bell rung I picked up her backpack along with my own and went to Mrs Royce’s office. The door was open and no one was there. So I went out front and waited on the steps until the school had emptied out and then I rode my bike round back of the woods two miles to get to Ginny’s house and wheeled down her steep front drive and rang her doorbell.
“Hey,” said Ginny’s mom, wiping her hands down on her apron.
I dropped my bike on the path and held up Ginny’s bag and said, “Ginny left her bag.”
Ginny’s mom said, “Thanks, hun. You wanna come in and get a snack?” I followed her to the kitchen where she poured me out a glass of milk and stirred in a sachet of red powder which made the milk turn pink and frothy like a shake, and she put some cookies on a plate.
I said, “Is it true you’re an atheist, Mrs Evers?”
She smiled and said, “You talking about the Baby Jesus in the Lake? No one can talk about anything else today.”
“I can’t see the Baby Jesus,” I admitted. “I can see the President just fine, but I can’t see no baby. Do you think that means I’m an atheist?”
“Not necessarily,” said Ginny’s mom. “Maybe you just saw what there is to see.”
I didn’t understand what she meant, but I nodded like I did and went back to sucking on my milkshake.
“Where’s that girl of mine?” Ginny’s mom picked up her cell from the kitchen counter and dialled a number, I guess Ginny’s number, and she listened a while and then she said, “Ginny, it’s Mom, it’s getting late, can you call me back honey?” She smiled at me and said, “I’m gonna call that school.”
She went out of the kitchen and I ate my cookies and drank my milk, and when I got to the bottom of the glass, there was a dark pink sludge and I stirred it round and round. I thought about Ginny’s face when she got up and followed Mrs Royce out of history class. Defiant was the word for it. I heard Ginny’s mom say to her one time, don’t you defy me, young lady. But that was Ginny all over.
When Ginny’s mom came back in the kitchen, she didn’t look so good.
“Mrs Royce said she left at the normal time. She should have been home by now. I think I ought… you think I should call the police?”
I nodded yes, because she was a grown up and if she was asking a little kid for advice she must be real worried, and I figured a cop might be more use to her than me. She went out of the room again, but this time I could hear what she was saying, bits of it anyway – she was crying and saying, you have to do something, she’s a little girl. When she came back in the room she looked bad, shaking and red eyes, and I got down from the counter and went over and held her hand. We didn’t say nothing, and then a while later the doorbell rang. “Oh thank God,” said Ginny’s mom. She rushed down the hallway to the door, and I followed behind, wanting to see if it was a cop. But it was Mike Powell’s daddy. He was shuffling from side to side, and he shoved something at Ginny’s mom, a slip of paper.
“Oh Michael,” said Ginny’s mom, “you know I got no problem with your beliefs, I respect your faith.” She looked down at the paper. “I just don’t know about this.”
I eased the paper from out her fist. It was a picture of our President, standing in the lake, and holding up his hands. I guessed his hands were holding the Baby Jesus, but I still couldn’t see it. And there were words on the paper, saying “In Jesus we are free.”
Mike Powell’s dad said, “You do know, Sara, we all know, cause we all saw it. Now we got proof, the Baby Jesus came up from the lake, from our lake, he even had that fucking golden halo to prove it was Him, pardon my language, and now I’m here to ask you to accept the Baby Jesus as your personal savior. I don’t want to see you suffer no more.”
“Michael,” she said, “It’s not the right time for this discussion. I’m sorry, but my baby girl is missing, I’m waiting for the police to come.”
“The police ain’t gonna come to an atheist house, Sara. This is America.”
Then Ginny’s mom made a sound like the sound you make when you get winded from a punch, and my eyes flicked up to the road and I saw they were all there, Mildred Cuth’s parents, and Mrs Royce and even my Mom was there, but she didn’t see me. And Mr Powell was wrong, the police were there, but they were in the crowd, not coming down the drive. All of them were hanging back at the road, maybe twenty or thirty folks, and they weren’t doing nothing, but you got this funny feeling off them. And Mr Powell said, “Sara? Do you accept the Baby Jesus into your heart?” And Ginny’s mom said, “Yes I do, I truly do,” and Mr Powell smiled and said, “Well, hallelujah.” He walked up the drive to the top, where they all were standing, and there was some shouting and calling out, but Mr Powell was gathering them up, urging them away, and they all went, slowly at first, like they really wanted to stay and do something. I don’t know what.
When they’d gone, we went back into the kitchen, me and Ginny’s mom, and she said, “You want something else to eat, hun?” but she was crying and I said no thanks. She sat next to me at the kitchen counter and we were silent for a time and then we just prayed. And then it was getting dark and I said I better go home if that’s all right, and she said I could wait for Ginny’s daddy and he would give me a ride but I said it was no trouble on my bike. We didn’t say nothing else but I could see she was thinking a lot of deep thoughts and when I left she gave me a hug and said I was to take good care.
I cycled home fast as I could go. After everything, the streets seemed kind of dark and I didn’t want to be out there on my own. It was always Ginny who was the brave one, not me, and I was wishing so hard that she was with me, or at least that her daddy would find her safe. When I got onto my street, I could see the house was real dark and quiet, no one home. I let myself in and locked myself in the upstairs bathroom, and through the window I could hear sounds coming from the neighborhood: the whoops and calls of our parents, praising Jesus.