Thackeray stepped out of the back door of the church. The whine of a car transmission in low gear cut through the evening gloom as an automobile climbed the steep hill to the parking lot above the embankment. Thackeray looked up and saw the headlights flash around. He felt a light rain on his face.
The alley was dark and damp. Mounds of moss surrounded the rusted drainage pipes that jutted out of the cracked surface of the retaining wall.
“Are you there, companion?” Thackeray said.
“Yo!” Matlock appeared at the other end of the alley.
The baptismal font was between them. It fit snugly between the side of the church and the retaining wall. Brother Iwakawa said the font had been lowered into the alley from the parking lot with winches.
Matlock lifted the edge of the plywood sheet covering the font and pushed it toward his companion. The wood was warped and weathered and split along the sides.
“Got it.” Thackeray leaned the plywood against the side of the church. He wrapped a towel around the rim of the font, squatted and pushed up. “Yusho!” he grunted, locking his elbows and knees.
Matlock grimaced. The drain was clogged. An inch of silt and dead leaves had gathered on the smooth metal bottom. He picked up the hose. “Here comes the water!” he shouted.
The stream thudded against the stainless steel. Spray showered over the rim.
“Sorry about that.”
Thackeray ducked his head against the mist. Japanese writing was etched on the side of the font: Nippon Steel/1.5 cubic meters. He called out, “Done?”
“Just a sec. Okay.”
He heard the hiss of the nozzle and lowered the font slowly. The rim brushed against the retaining wall. The stainless steel rumbled like faraway thunder.
“Throw me the hose.”
Thackeray washed off the plywood. “Set the plug?”
He leaned over the rim of the font with the hose and unscrewed the nozzle. Water spilled out over his hands. The water was as cold as the sky.
Matlock peered down at the swirling water. “Ever done a winter baptism before?” he asked.
“I once swamped a canoe on a spring camping trip in the Adirondacks. I thought I’d never get warm again.”
Matlock said, “My grandmother said she was baptized at the first break of ice in spring.”
“Makes you appreciate hot running water.”
Gordon leaned through the doorway. “Hi guys. Which of you is doing the baptizing?”
“Both of us.”
“Who’s with who?”
“Matlock’s baptizing Shinako. I’m baptizing Michiko.”
Gordon wrote this down. “Parents coming?”
“Mrs. Yamamura is.”
“Good evening, Choros,” came the voice of the branch mission leader.
“Hi, Brother Iwakawa.”
Brother Iwakawa looked over Gordon’s shoulder at the font. “All ready?”
“As soon as it fills up.”
“My wife has the kimonos.” He rubbed his hands together and shivered. “Sure is cold! Ganbatte!”
“Ganbarimasu!” said Matlock, from the other side of the font.
“Hey Thackeray,” said Gordon, thumping him on the back as they walked inside. “Looks like you made it happen.”
“If you say so.”
The last Sunday in November, Mr. Yamamura had finally given permission for his daughters’ baptisms. But with one condition: they’d have to wait until school let out for the New Years’ recess. In four weeks, Thackeray had been convinced, anything could happen.
“The world will blow up,” he told his companion, “and Japan will sink into the sea.”
“Or you could get transferred.”
“Don’t say that.”
Gordon had reassured him. “Don’t worry, Thack. I won’t let them transfer you.”
So he made it, just as Gordon had promised. But he still didn’t know what it was they had done right.
“Let’s not question our blessings,” was his companion’s opinion.
The girls arrived with their mother. Chieko was with them. Chieko was one third of the seminary program in Odawara. She, if nothing else, was what went right.
“Sister Iwakawa was showing us the baptism kimonos,” said Michiko.
“She’s changing her baby’s diaper,” said Shinako.
“Are the kimonos going to fit all right?”
“Yes,” said Chieko.
“Then we’re all set.” Thackeray glanced at his watch. “Actually, it’s a little early. I think Gordon Choro has some forms he wants to fill out.”
President Kanda didn’t arrive until after eight o’clock, bustling through the door, briefcase bulging, his presence commanding the meeting to begin.
Sister Iwakawa played the piano. Johnson gave the opening prayer. Chieko introduced Shinako and Michiko to the branch members. Brother Kondo gave a talk about the principles of the gospel.
Thackeray listened to the introductions, and then his mind wandered. It was hard to think and translate at the same time. He recited the baptismal prayer to himself, and recited it again.
“Matlock Choro will baptize Shinako first,” he heard President Kanda saying. His mind flashed back to the present.
Matlock stood up. “Let’s go, Thack,” he said.
Elder Gordon and Brother Iwakawa climbed up the hill behind the church to the parking lot. Iwakawa had parked his car alongside the upper railing of the retaining wall. He clicked on a small spotlight and directed its beam down into the alley. Reflected light danced on the retaining wall.
The rest of the members crowded together beneath the small back door awning. Johnson set a chair in front of the font and steadied it while Matlock climbed into the water. Thackeray heard his breath whoosh out as the water rose past his waist. Shinako sat on the rim of the font and swung her feet around, curling her toes tightly as her feet brushed the water. She slid into the water. A surprised look came over her face.
“Oh!” she exclaimed.
Gordon called out, “You people okay down there?”
“We’re f-fine.” Matlock placed Shinako’s hands on his wrist, took hold of hers, and raised his arm to the square. He glanced at Thackeray, who nodded. He closed his eyes and spoke the short baptismal prayer. Amen. He lowered her into the water and brought her up into the cold, dark air.
“Looked fine to me,” said Gordon from his perch.
Matlock helped Shinako out of the font. Chieko threw a towel around her shoulders.
“Hurry up, companion,” said Matlock. “Before we freeze to death.”
Thackeray jumped into the font and then wished he had gotten in more slowly. It was like an unbroken fall onto a icy sidewalk. Sudden, wet, cold.
“Do you remember how we practiced?” he said, helping Michiko into the water.
She didn’t speak. She nodded her head.
He paused, positioning his feet, raised his arm, said her name and recited the prayer.
“Ready?” he whispered.
“Hai,” he barely heard her reply.
He lowered her beneath the surface. She disappeared in the reflected glare of the spotlight. When she came up again, the water streamed off her hair, shimmering like liquid ice. Her lips were blue. Smiling.
Thackeray looked up, shadowing his eyes.
“It’s a keeper!” said Gordon.
The spotlight clicked off.
Michiko skipped over to her sister. They hopped up and down the wet concrete, shivering and laughing in a funny kind of dance. Chieko and Sister Iwakawa finally bustled the girls inside.
“Remember the plug,” came Gordon’s voice.
Thackeray reached for the chain, fumbled at it. His fingers were stiff with cold. He breathed on his hands, and tried again. He pulled out the plug and hung it over the over the edge of the font. The water ran down the alley to the gutter, washing away the scattered debris.
Thackeray hoisted himself over the rim and sloshed into the branch president’s office. His companion was peeling off his shirt.
“Feels weird, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Like your legs are burning up.”
“Yeah. All tingly. Nerves trying to make up for the cold.”
Thackeray reached on top of the filing cabinet and pulled a plastic garbage bag out of a box.
“Put the clothes in here,” he said.
They undressed in silence. Gordon knocked on the door. “You guys dressed yet?”
“A few more minutes.”
Johnson was mopping up the hallway when they came out. They sat next to Brother Iwakawa. He was holding his baby daughter against his shoulder. The small face turned and the dark brown eyes stared curiously at the two Americans. Thackeray glanced at the dozen or so chairs that were set up towards the front of the meeting hall. Johnson walked in and sat down in the front row. Behind him, Kondo was reading a textbook. Kumiko was talking with Gordon and Mrs. Yamamura.
Sister Iwakawa came in from the Relief Society room. “Almost ready,” she said to her husband. She took the baby into her arms.
Chieko popped into the meeting hall. Shinako and Michiko followed her, sheepishly, their long hair lying damp on their shoulders.
The branch president stood, and after ushering them to their seats, announced that Shinako would be confirmed first, then Michiko.
Iwakawa was voice for both confirmations. Thackeray closed his eyes and listened to the words. He understood the words. He repeated them in his mind as he had the baptismal prayer.
He opened his eyes.
“Thank you, Thackeray Choro.”
Michiko was smiling at him. He nodded. He shook her hand. Her hand was very cold.
Brother Kondo offered the closing prayer.
Mrs. Yamamura came up to Thackeray. “It was very nice,” she said.
“Do you have any questions?”
“Gordon Choro explained everything very well.”
“Wasn’t it wonderful, Mama?”
“I told Thackeray Choro I liked it very much.”
“Not too cold, was it?” asked Matlock.
The girls shook their heads. “It wasn’t so bad,” said Shinako.
“Odawara members are proud of being baptized in cold water,” said Chieko. “It toughens the spirit, neh?”
“Want to ride back with us, Choros?”
“We have to teach a discussion at nine.”
“Diligence, Thackeray, diligence,” said Gordon. “Well, close up, will you?”
“O-yasumi,” said the Suzukis and the Iwakawas.
“Bye-bye,” said the girls.
The missionaries waved goodbye. Michiko hugged her hands inside the pockets of her jacket as she walked to the car.
Thackeray opened the front doors and stepped out onto the damp sidewalk. In the darkness, he could barely make out the outline of the castle museum jutting up among the tall, leafless trees in the city park. The wooden shutters of the cupola perched between the gables were open. The small rectangle of light glowed like a beacon through the driving rain.
“You know,” said Matlock, from the doorway. “You see that light and you have to wonder who in the world is up in that little room at this time of night.”
“What time is it?”
Thackeray ducked back into the meeting hall and picked up his coat. “I don’t think he’s coming,” he said.
The department stores were open late. Bright red and green bunting hung in the display windows, above the Santa Clauses and mounds of fake snow. The sidewalk was crowded with shoppers.
“Christmas isn’t a holiday here, is it?”
Thackeray shook his head. “Not a holiday. A good excuse for a sale. Wait till New Year’s. That’s when the real party begins.”
The ice cream vendors were out in front of the commuter station again. There were two of them this night, one ringing a bright copper bell while the other called out, “Ice cream! Ice cream!”
“Hey, wait a minute,” said Matlock, reaching for his wallet.
“What? You’re not cold enough? Besides, they charge a fortune for that stuff.”
Matlock shrugged and grinned. He walked over to the vendors and returned a minute later with a liter of Neapolitan. He tossed the carton to his companion.
“Merry Christmas!” he said. “Let’s celebrate that cold that toughens the spirit. Neh?”