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A Caravan " Two Strangers " A Story on the Topic of God
And so the living persist, stubbornly, and the memories, and the crumbling road, and the stories. And so the caravan moves east, its people all a-marvel that the bridges, some, still arch mighty across the Mississippi. The men clap each other on their backs, they puff out their chests, they feel a moment's shelter beneath the girders of their own ensteeled history.
The sun rises and sets, and they move on, huddled together, five vehicles in a row – a school bus in the middle holding the young, the old, the sick, the frail, the weak. They collect others as they move towards Florida. People are not lost, there are no more lost, not this long into the new world, thirty years gone into the wastage. The people they collect are not lost; they are simply wanderers. And if their vectors of travel happen to coincide, then they will share the road for a while.
One such wanderer is a large man with a beard, ursine and spectacular. They discover him somewhere east of the river. He is simply there, one evening, on the margin of the bonfire, as though he were a distillation of the damp night air itself – heavy water, a coalescence of air and earth and ice and dark. He wears an eyepatch, and the children, fascinated, inch closer to him until they are snatched back by their mothers.
He sups with them, holding a tin plate close under his chin. Some of the men approach him, their hands twitchy on their weapons, and enquire about his business.
I ain't a brigand, he says and scoops a spoonful of beans into his mouth, nor any other kind of threat to you. How you can tell is my guns are in that duffel over there. You can hold them if you're inclined, but make no mistake I'll have em back when I depart. Meantime, I'll help you keep your meatskins down.
He refers to the dead who share the landscape with the living, who wander in unhurried strides of ownership across the earth as though it were – by proper claim, by title and right – their own bleak purgatory. The one-eyed man promises to keep them at bay while the company stops in the evenings.
And he does, wandering the perimeter of the circled vehicles after the others are abed, putting down roaming slugs with nothing but a long curved blade.
He has a companion with him, another man almost as large as he, except this one is slow and mute. The one-eyed man speaks almost nothing to him, but he makes sure the mute is fed and washed and kept from harm.
The two men travel with the caravan for three days, and the one-eyed man says little more than the mute himself. He is not accustomed to company.
When queried by some of the men or even the women, he brooks the attention as bones brook the sun that bleaches them white over the span of dusty years. He answers questions cursorily and looks behind him over the dark, empty plains, as though weighing, with minute fineness, the value of this coterie compared to his own lonesome desolation. He seems to find them comparable, the contradictory enticements of humanity and wilderness, and perhaps the only thing that keeps him by the bonfire is the warm inertia of indecision.
On the third evening, someone declares it to be a Sunday, and since no one knows otherwise the talk around the bonfire turns to holy matters.
Some words are read from out an old Bible, and if they are not prayers they string together to sound prayer-like enough for the delectation of this assemblage.
All eyes lowered, lips mumbling, one of the children clambers over to the one-eyed man before anyone can grab him back.
Hey mister, the kid says. Mister, do you believe in God?
The man licks his lips as though considering whether to consume the child whole, a wolf in a grandmother's bonnet. But his gaze is not on the boy. Instead, it stays fixed on the void, as though magnetized by darkness.
I ain't got to believe in him, the one-eyed man says. I see him everywhere I look.
The boy glances behind him, as though expecting to see God himself emerge from the dark like a vaudevillian from behind a curtain.
No one speaks. He is a man who would be listened to, for his voice contains grand and grimy oratory, and they wonder at this curious preacher who seems to utter passages from some Bible scripts lost centuries before.
He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, the bristles of his beard loud as the cicadas. He is quiet for a while longer, as though his speech were a byproduct of silence, requiring effort to form itself out of that drear material. Then he does speak.
More'n a half-century old, he says. For the hire and salary of a few hearers, I could remember you some things on the topic of God.
No one says a word, and their silence is a contract, an acquiescence.
And then are they all mute, and all slow. And then are they all his companions in journey.
And this is the story he tells.
Brothers " Las Cruces " A Contract and Its Fulfilment " Two Beatings
It is a time of vision, a time before the loss of his other eye. Any cyclopean will tell you: there is a clarity even in broken things – the way things fall is governed by laws so immutable they could be inscribed on the earth by the ink of rivers and streams. So too the way people fall.
It is a time ten years before this telling of it, twenty years since society itself fell down, forty years after the birth of the bear-like man himself.
These measures of time, they eddy and flow, capricious. In truth, there are only two states: before and after – and even those only relative to arbitrary points. Pick one point and call it zero – you might as well count the motes of dust in an abandoned room.
Moses Todd, for that is his name, has a travelling companion. Not the mute – who he doesn't yet know and won't even meet until five years later – but his younger brother, Abraham, his only remaining family, runted and greasy and dangerous of appetite. They travel the wide open spaces, and though they are brothers, they seek very different things.
They move during the day and hole up after the sun sets. In whatever bastions of civilization they come across they remain strangers, sometimes welcomed, sometimes suspicioned, sometimes reviled.
Moses Todd has been many things in his life – father, warrior, thief, wastrel. Abraham Todd has been one thing only: degenerate. Moses watches his brother as a man who keeps a rabid dog penned in his own backyard.
Once in the course of their vagabondage they stop at a small gated community in Las Cruces. The struggling residents are in need of supplies, and they speak to the brothers of employment. If the brothers bring food, medical items, guns, ammunition, then they will be compensated with a feast and comfortable beds for as long as they would like to remain.
Sure is difficult, Abraham Todd says and shakes his head, to settle on coin of value these days. But there's other specie than food and lodging.
And his eyes cross a low-lit room to a girl in a blue nightdress.
Moses Todd walks out.
His brother emerges soon after, having agreed on terms.
We're in business, Abraham says.
It don't have to be that way, Moses says. You don't always have to take the most they're willin to give.
They agreed to it, didn't they?
So they collect the supplies for the community and return. The people are pleased, and the brothers are fed. Moses watches as the girl in the blue nightdress is instructed by three older men to go and sit by Abraham. She does so, and Abraham puts an arm around her shoulders as though to reassure her. He takes a slice of tomato from the table and tries to feed it to her, but when she doesn't open her mouth he slides it across her lips as though he were applying a stick of lip rouge.
You and me, Abraham says to her, we got time to kill.
A highball of whiskey is brought for Moses, and when he gulps it down they fill it back up again. He drinks and smokes his cigar down to an ugly stump and feels all his muscles go slack. They are gathered in one of those big cardboard mansions built in clusters on culde- sac roads, and there is a blazing fire on the hearth that casts lovely shadows on the thin eggshell walls.
He sits on the couch and drinks more and talks to the elder men about all the places of the country they have been, and he can hear his brother's hyena laugh behind him but he can't bear to cast his eyes backwards. Instead, he lets his eyes fall closed and is soon asleep.
It is still before dawn when he is awoken, though the fire has burned down to embers. All is quiet, and he is quiet in himself, when a sudden shrill cry sounds through the mansion. He is up, quick, a blade readied in his hand, despite the woozy, thunderous tides going back and forth in his head.
A figure bounds down the stairs, a frail white shape. The girl from the night before who was wearing the blue nightdress, except now she's na**d. She notices Moses at once, screams again, and runs out the front door. Now others appear, men and women commoted from sleep.
And his brother, Abraham, at the top of the steps, na**d also, his filthy unwashed hands and face like gloves and mask on a pale, chalky skeleton.
We had a deal, Abraham says.
Get in your clothes, Moses says.
It was bought and paid for with services, Abraham says.
Get in your goddamned clothes.
Abraham disappears and returns a moment later. Half wrappered in his pants and shirt, he stumbles down the staircase as the men of the community begin to circle, looking angry.
What's going on? they say.
We're leaving, Moses says.
And the two brothers open the front door to find a man with a shotgun aimed directly at them. He is a skinny old man with white hair and red-rimmed eyes. He is decrepit, and the shotgun shakes in his hands.
What did you do to my granddaughter? the old man says.
It was bought-, Abraham begins, but then Moses seizes his brother by the back of the neck as you would pluck a kitten from a litter. Abraham winces with pain and hushes.
We're leaving, Moses says to the old man.
My granddaughter, you filthied her.
I got no truck with you, old man, Moses says.
Others from the community gather round. They wonder what devils they have invited into their midst for the price of a few supplies.
You got truck with this, the old man says, gesturing to the shotgun with shaky hands.
Moses quickly unsheathes his knife and thrusts it at the man's face, the point of the blade an inch from the old man's nose. The old man quakes and shrinks away but keeps the gun pointed at Moses.