All right, I confess. In One Boy, No Water, when I first wrote that Zader was allergic to water I didn’t think all the implications through. I was looking for a way to explain all the fiery pain and blisters that appear when water touched his skin that Liz, his adoptive mother, would buy and Uncle Kahana, who suspects the real reason, could say. An allergy excuse popped into my head. It was simple, sort of believable, and most people have enough experience with allergies not to wonder about it too much.
The first problems were easy to solve. Bathing? Zader uses oil and a raw sugar scrub to remove dirt and dead skin like the ancient Romans and Greeks did, although they used sand or salt instead of sugar. Rain? Carry an umbrella. Beach? Water-proof suit. Drinking? Once water’s past his lips, I decided, there’s no real problem, just some tingling, plus anything like juice or soda that’s not pure water is fine, just gotta watch out for condensation on the outside of a glass.
It’s good to be the king and make all the rules.
But after One Boy, No Water hit the bookstands, two things happened. First, I discovered that there really were people in the world who suffered from Zader’s condition. (The allergy one, not his real one, of course. If there are people in the world with his real problem, life is far more interesting and complicated than even I imagined and that’s saying a lot.)
Secondly, a waaaay too precocious child who lives in our neighborhood named Tate (Tater to his friends) read the book—and liked it. A lot. Tater tends to think deep thoughts about things that capture his imagination, and he likes to bounce his ideas off adults. His mind fascinates me; there’s a pretty rigid framework of how the world should work—like most kids his age, fairness is a big thing with him—from which he launches breathtaking flights of fantasy blended with reality. He makes connections between things that most never consider, like his opinion that scientists need to create a vaccine for bird flu. For birds. That way the birds won’t get sick with a flu that could mutate into something that destroys the human race.
When you meet a young mind like this, you have to be careful not to stifling creative thought by bombarding it with too many adult concepts. You have to consider the real question. His solution to bird flu is less about science and more about a fear of something out of his control that destroys the human race, i.e. his family. The best response isn’t a technical explanation of all the reasons his idea is doomed to fail, but rather questions that eventually lead him to better understand and cope with his underlying fear.
As I said, his friends call him Tater.
Tater wandered over one afternoon to ask me a profoundly serious question: how was Zader baptized? Did I mention in addition to precocious he’s earnestly religious? With him, religion is kinda like remarking chocolate tastes good and hearing his “Well, duh,” response. Tater liked Zader, and his faith taught that baptism is essential, and not by a sprinkle, but by full immersion. Tater was concerned.
And I was a little trapped. You see, I feel very strongly that a person’s belief system, religious or not, must always be respected, and like Horton the elephant said, a person’s a person no matter how small.
Now I could have spent all day explaining to Tater the difference between fiction and reality, discussed religion as allegory or relative truth, or even said something flippant like they’d coated Zader in Crisco before baptizing him so the water didn’t touch his skin. But Tater sincerely wanted to know; he really cared about the answer.
For once, my brain engaged before my mouth and instead of saying all the knee-jerk adult things that popped into my head, I just smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and said I’d have to get back to him on that. Satisfied for the moment, he’d skipped back to his house, but I knew Tater wouldn’t forget. I’d have to come up with an answer.
Eventually I did what I usually do when I’ve thought and thought about something and haven’t a clue. I woke my husband up in the middle of the night to ask his opinion.
He looked at the clock. “Lehua, it’s three in the morning.”
“Seriously. This is what keeps you up all night?”
“Not all nights.”
He rubbed his eyes and tried to focus. “Tater knows Zader’s fictional, right?”
“I think so. But there are people out there who can’t have water touch their skin. It’s not entirely hypothetical.”
“Tater and his questions,” he muttered. “Instead of encouraging him to read, somebody ought to hide his books and teach him to shoot baskets.” He thought for a moment. “Crisco,” he said.
“Thought of it.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
He sighed. “Is this your question or Tater’s?”
I just looked at him.
He shook his head and stared at the ceiling. “Okay, what if the water isn’t the important thing in a baptism? Clean water, dirty water, salt water, fresh water—none of that seems to matter. It’s the immersion that seems most important in Tater’s religion. So if Zader was a member of Tater’s church, they’d fill a deep enough container with some kind of liquid he could tolerate and dunk him that way.”
“Would other the members accept it, though?”
“You’re asking me if a fictitious group of religious people would consider a theoretical baptism by immersion in a vat of melted chocolate kosher for a character in a book who’s allergic to water?”
He reached over and flicked off the light. “Yes,” he said, “they would. God’s grace and all that jazz. I’m going back to sleep. In the morning I’m hunting Tater down before school and teaching him how to throw a baseball.”
Olive oil, Kool-Aid, ice tea, guava juice—it makes as much sense as water, I guess. On a whim I went back to my computer and googled ‘can’t be baptized by immersion due to water allergy.’ To my utter amazement, I found several pontifications posts about it, most saying it was proof that God either didn’t exist, was a closet sadist, or played favorites—fill in your own anti-Christian baptism slogan here. A few mentioned divine grace making up what a willing spirit wanted, but weak flesh could not endure, citing references in the Bible where God seemed to make exceptions to some of His rules. The things insomniacs learn at four in the morning.
I talked it over with Tater, and he decided that God gave Zader his water allergy because he was special, so special he didn’t need baptism. Told you this kid was a deep thinker.
Personally, I was rooting for the vat of gooey chocolate, but what can you do? It’s Tater’s belief system after all.