By Frances Ogamba

The baby, nameless still in this model of spirituality, and his parents, Sarah and Fabian, catechists at Saint Mary’s parish, sit in the front pew. The baby’s godfather and uncle, who is Uche elsewhere, but not on this day, not in this ritual where he must be Silas, sits behind the baby’s parents.

There is the parish priest, Father Kevin, who stands at the purple-robed altar, each word of his recitation slanting toward the next. There is a mass server, a stripling who lowers his body too deeply into tasks: lighting candles, opening the rites book, ushering the baby’s parents and the godfather into a patch of light at the mouth of the altar.

In the name of the creator, the redeemer, and the sanctifier.

The priest imbues sanctifier, vertical stroke sliced by horizontal stroke, into the baby’s upturned lips. He stirs in his sleep. His parents watch the ritual, joy sheening in their eyes.

The priest signals for another implant, Oil of Baptism, which would forever scoop the baby from the urn of sin and temptation. This oil, the transmitter of holy light, sticks to names and they become irreversibly translucent like grease on paper. And should the baby go astray or if, by ill chance, a fever snatches him away from his mind in the middle of his living, this oil will chant this name.

What name do you want to call this child?

The question instantly invokes them. Names. Thousands of names. Names whistling like pine forest leaves, shining like rocket plumes, pouring like Victoria Falls. Names “knock-scratching” at the baby and his parents. They are everywhere. Johns and Peters. Philips and Andrews. Alexanders. Matthews. There are Pauls and Anthonys. All the names who lived before and after Christ. Names fastened onto a people in the guise of religion. Names given in the honour of a patriarch or an advocate. Names visible to the baby. Names hovering like mid-sized balloons. The baby’s parents hand the mass server a paper with the chosen name. Nobody asks the baby’s opinion. The air is crisp when they also say it: Jean. A mournful wail rips the air as the horde of rejected names gather their crushed hopes and depart.

Well, the baby must now choose which Jean to become.

The bell might have tolled crudely into far corners of Christendom. Jeans of different origins and languages permeate the small chapel’s stained windows, fluttering excitedly.

Han, Ivan, Sean, Jan, John, Johann. Some come with anger still tightly held. They come limning the things that ended them. They sway the baby with promises of how much fun they’d have together. They recite poetry to the baby. They are tricksters and swindlers and teachers and healers and earnest workers. They killed or were killed. They died tending to sheep, or in their sleep, or on their ship. They speak to the baby in Igbo and Bemba, in Greek and French. The baby, fresh from his creator, like his creator, understands them all. His mouth curls in a smile, which the parents assume is his acknowledgement of the Christ newly in him.

Jean, we anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ our Saviour; may he strengthen you with his power, who lives and reigns forever and ever.

The desires of these Jeans strobe around the baby as their welcome dwindle. The baby’s sinus prepares to inbreathe a Jean.

Take me, I was born in a war and didn’t know how…!

Take me, I want to feel another sunshine!

Take me, I just want another chance to …!

Take me, I never met my mother!

Take me, please!

Just take me!

Me! Me!

Jean! I baptize you –

Suddenly, a new Jean gusts through the chapel door. Swift as a youngling. Soft as cotton. This new Jean lunges at the baby, emitting a babble none of the waiting Jeans can pitch. The baby chuckles in his sleep. This new Jean had expired after one month of birth from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

The assembled Jeans nudge the baby not to take this Jean.

Take John the apostle, the one Jesus loved! Take John the Baptist, the one Herod floored! Okay, consider this Johann who died for speaking the truth! Oya, manage this Juan who died in prison! Why not look the way of this Jan whose kidneys failed? Take this Ivan who ran the red lights! Just take any Jean who already traversed life’s hallway at least by half. Do not take this new Jean! He never grew beyond breast milk! Do not take this Jean who died while still wrapped in his birth face!

In the name of the creator, the redeemer, and the sanctifier.

Maybe this baby is the kind that burns his hand before pulling it away. So he flares his nostrils and sucks in this new Jean. He trembles and sneezes. Your life! his parents chorus.

All the Jeans understand the lateness of that chorus, the futile wish of life where there might be none. Heads lowered, shoulders hunched, they deflate into quietus where they shall await another infant baptism. Their hearts squeeze in sadness at the lost chance with this baby, sadder at this baby’s stupid gamble, saddest that he wasted energy coming at all. E

Frances Ogamba is a 2022 CLA fellow at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She has won the 2022 Diana Woods Award in Creative Nonfiction, the 2020 Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction.