West Condon, small-town USA, five years later: the Brunists are back, loonies and "cretins" aplenty in tow, wanting it all — sainthood and salvation, vanity and vacuity, God’s fury and a good laugh — for the end is at hand.

The Brunist Day of Wrath, the long-awaited sequel to the award-winning The Origin of the Brunists, is both a scathing indictment of fundamentalism and a careful examination of a world where religion competes with money, common sense, despair, and reason.

Robert Coover has published fourteen novels, three books of short fiction, and a collection of plays since The Origin of the Brunists received the William Faulkner Foundation First Novel Award in 1966. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Playboy, amongst many other publications. A long-time professor at Brown University, he makes his home Providence, Rhode Island.

Robert Coover

The Brunist Day of Wrath

For James Ballowe, who was here well before page one. And in memory of Sol Yurick, generous and uncompromising sharer of our first-book annealings.

The Kingdom is at war, besieged by a roving band of demented Cretin Wizards who have stirred up the forest wild things and aroused the demonic within the commoners. Undermined by intrigue and stupidity, its battlements crumbling, the Kingdom is about to capitulate. The King and his minions cannot save it. But Beauty can try.



Tuesday 7 July

“Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so…” The young Reverend Joshua J. Jenkins, candidate for the West Condon Presbyterian ministry, whushing along through the rain-drenched countryside, the bus nosing out of lush farmlands and dark wet forests onto the gently undulant and somewhat barren coal basin that is to be, if his interview goes well, his new home, finds himself meditating upon his church’s Great Awakening — a great disaster, as he was taught (he himself is just awaking from a thick early morning doze, his head fallen against the bus window, muddled dreams of collegial dispute) — and upon the sequence of disruptive church schisms and rationalist heresies that followed upon the Awakening’s excessive evangelism through the convulsions of the American nineteenth century, so shaped by Presbyterian thought (and, one might say, confused by it as well), out of which musings he hopes to craft his inaugural sermon, and humming meanwhile that children’s hymn of simple faith…“Little ones to Him belong, They are weak, but He is strong…” He does not know why this old Sunday school tune has sprung to mind, but perhaps it is a subconscious reminder that he will not be addressing fellow intellectuals in this remote little coaltown, and must therefore keep his message, however profound at the root, simple and direct in its expression. Not his forte, as his professors have often remarked. He has the ability, which he perceives as a virtue but others more often as a fault, of holding several contrary ideas in his head at the same time, acting on each as if they were independent, even while being fully aware of their relative veracity or utility. On the one hand, for example, the Biblical account of the creation of the universe some six thousand years ago, and, on the other, what we know about the half billion years it has taken to produce the landscape the bus is now rolling through (a landscape, as seen through the smear of streaming rain on the window, increasingly scarred by the grotesquerie of strip mining: man’s impact on nature is more dynamic than geological processes, about which he also holds various conflicting views). Glaciers left their mark on this area as recently as some twelve thousand years ago, but the primordial swamps that nourished the vegetation which ultimately became the coal now being mined here, powering a nation but fostering much local violence and misery, existed at least three hundred million years ago, he knows that; yet he also knows that God, in His omnipotence and wisdom, can play with time as man might play with a ball of string, so that such so-called scientific facts do not exclude, even if they superficially contradict, the sacred stories in the Bible. There are various modes of discourse, Joshua believes — narrative, analytical, rhetorical — and each proceeds toward a truth of its own kind. He personally prefers (usually) that which leads, not to further disputation, but to action, the social or moral mode, as one might call it—“Jesus loves me when I’m good, When I do the things I should…”—and it is that way of thinking that has brought him aboard the bus this morning. He was in fact contemplating missionary work in Africa or in the poorer nations in Latin America when the offer of a pastorate in an impoverished and depressed coalmining community came along, thanks to a professor who had not previously been very supportive (“Jesus loves me when I’m bad, Though it makes Him very sad…”), and he recognized it as the perfect challenge with which to launch his ministerial career, though the professor may well have thought of it as a way of getting rid of him. Joshua has a deep instinctive sympathy with the unemployed, with the less privileged, the minorities, the illiterate, the maimed, and not excluding overworked and underpaid coalminers. Not many of whom are apt to be Presbyterians, of course, but still there is a mission here. He understands that currently there are divisive eschatological issues in this community, and he believes he will have something constructive to contribute to the discussion of them, having both an ecumenical tolerance for confused and heretical beliefs and an unbending faith in doctrinal orthodoxy, not to mention a profound distaste for emotional revivalism such as that which characterized the Presbyterian Great Awakening — a distaste, as he discovered in a telephone conversation, that he shares with church elder Theodore Cavanaugh, chairman of the Board of Deacons. Yes, this will be the right place for him. Intellectually engaged and socially concerned though he is, however, ultimately it is his simple love for Jesus that is his mainstay. Jesus is his master and his guide, but he is also his friend, a friend he has talked with daily ever since his earliest days in the Sunday School Brigade. Young Reverend Jenkins has few friends, but he does not need them, for his is to be — as designed, he believes, by God Himself — a lonely, austere, and singular passage through life’s mazy uncertainties. He has a friend in Jesus, and that’s enough. Which is why, in reality (whatever that is; many possibilities), he is humming this simple song. “Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me…!” In his zeal, he is singing aloud and, to his embarrassment, someone at the back of the bus joins in: “The Bible tells me so!”

After bus stops at a progression of small wet towns, eerily empty and haunted by the skeletons of abandoned mine tipples, Joshua arrives in West Condon at last. The rain has stopped and the sun is surging from behind the clouds, welcoming him to his new life. One of his companions on the bus, perhaps the one who had sung along with him earlier, asks as he steps down behind him: “Are you a defender, brother?” A big man in a billed cap, plaid shirt, and hunting boots. “Of the faith, you mean…? Yes, of course.” “Better git a gun, then,” he says and lifts his rifle in demonstration. The man and his two friends rattle off in somebody’s pickup truck before young Reverend Jenkins can reply (repartee is also not his forte) that, no (though why did he ask?), he is a man of peace. It is the message of the New Testament (one of them; militancy is another of course, though a peaceful militancy, mostly peaceful), a message he will try to incorporate in his inaugural sermon. So that they will know who he is, what he stands for. Peace. Faith. Charity. And so on.

The bus pulls out with a gassy wheeze, leaving him standing alone on an empty street. He is surprised that no one has come to meet him. In the inside jacket pocket of his new three-piece corduroy suit he bears the flattering letter from Mr. Cavanaugh and the First Presbyterian Board of Deacons, which suggested that Mr. Cavanaugh himself would be waiting here for him. Inside the little one-story corner bus station, he finds the manager complaining about a power outage. “You get a half sprinkle in this damn forsooken town and ain’t nothin’ works,” he says, adding an unnecessary vulgarism or two. When Joshua inquires, he is told that, no, no one has been asking for him. Impatient fellow, rather rude and rough of tongue. Almost certainly not a Presbyterian. Joshua supposes Mr. Cavanaugh’s bank cannot be far away, but he decides, now that the sun is coming out (he is perhaps a bit overdressed for July, but he knows the importance of first impressions), that this might be a fortunate opportunity to examine his prospective new town and church on his own, without a local booster at his elbow. As the four beasts of the Apocalypse say: Come and see. So he shall. He has the bank’s phone number; he will call later to explain why, having been “forsooken,” he chose not to bother Mr. Cavanaugh but to make his way on his own. According to the map Mr. Cavanaugh sent him, the town, though free-form in shape, is laid out on a simple grid, numbers running one direction, trees, flowers, and American and local patriots the other; the church — soon to be his church — is marked on the map with red pencil and should be easy to find. He deposits his heavy bag, overweighted with his cherished books, with the station manager, who drags it disdainfully behind the counter, kicking it back against the wall, and he sets off on his exploration.

Joshua has hardly left the bus station before he is out of the commercial district, there being so little of it, though the residential neighborhoods are not free of the occasional shop or repair facility as well as small homespun enterprises announced by hand-lettered signs in the windows. An unzoned blurring of private and working lives, profoundly American. The wet street is aglitter with the sun shining on it and, though people are beginning to emerge from their doors, it is peaceful yet, as if newly created, and largely free of traffic. He had expected to feel out of place, but he does not. He can make a home here. The town is not as impoverished as he had imagined, though of course this is the Presbyterian side of it, so to speak (he is passing a quite monumental Baptist church even as he has this thought), and probably not where most of the miners live. He will visit those neighborhoods and discover their needs and bring the power of Christian love and the charitable weight of his own church to bear upon them. Here on these dripping tree-lined streets (he walks on the sunny side) there is the charm of the ordinary: brick houses with broad porches bearded with flowering shrubbery, white frame houses with mock shutters and screen porches and carports, others brightly painted, yellow, pale blue, rose. American flags fly, and in many of the yards there are portable barbecue grills and cedar picnic tables, bejeweled still with raindrops, poised for homely smalltown family pleasures. There are no fences; the yards are one shared yard. People greet each other from their porches. “Are your lights working?” a woman calls to another. “No, they must be out on the whole street.” “I hope my freezer don’t melt!” Some have well-tended lawns and colorful flower gardens, others are scruffier with balls and toys and tricycles in the front yard, rusting bicycles leaning against porch posts, a tire swing hanging from a tree branch, a dented pickup truck on cement blocks. Dogs have been let out and are chasing each other. In a house somewhere, a child is being scolded. Dandelions proliferate between the sidewalk and the street. Where a bent hubcap lies in the gutter near a clogged drain. Is all this beautiful? It must be. God is the first author of beauty and all his handiwork is a priori perfect, and thus good and true and also necessarily beautiful. It cannot be otherwise. Instead, one asks of all one sees: wherein lies its beauty? His inaugural sermon, as yet unwritten, is entitled “An Old Evangel for a New Day,” and perhaps that will be the theme, one of them: Seeking the extraordinary in the ordinary, the uncommon in the common. He feels quite wise and rich with insight, touched as it were by something holy (“Just a closer walk with thee,” he is humming as he strolls, “grant it, Jesus, is my plea…”), the world behaving as a theater for his inmost thoughts.

A block before the Presbyterian church, a convoy of three Army trucks full of soldiers comes rolling by as if conjured up from the puddles in the street. They are certainly not conjured up from his thoughts; they surprise them. The trucks pause and the driver of the lead vehicle leans from his window and calls out: “Hey, chubby! Can you tell me how to find the high school?” “I’m afraid I am not yet from here,” he replies, then realizes that will not be easily understood. “But I have a map.” He hands it up to the driver, who studies it. A young officer is sitting beside him, staring straight ahead. There are impolite comments from the back of the truck about the manner of Joshua’s dress. “Right,” says the driver. “Mind if I keep this?” “Well—” “Thanks, chief.” And they go rumbling on down the street, spewing black exhaust and rude remarks. A curious and, given his present transcendent state of mind, somewhat jarring apparition. Perhaps it was to remind him that that “peace in the valley” he longs for is not without its obligatory sacrifices. That there are those for whom peace is not a first priority. He knows them; they were the bane of his childhood. He is reminded of the line from Luke: And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. But he, young Reverend Joshua J. Jenkins, is a man of peace, yes, he is, through and through. He would outlaw all the world’s armies, if he could; he will never ask his congregation to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” A man of peace like Christ Jesus and his Gospel of Love. His friend. His best friend. Yes, what a friend I have in Jesus! He is humming to himself again. Again, an old Sunday school song. In spite of his aptitude for abstruse and complex thought, so convoluted at times that he baffles his listeners and even sometimes gets lost himself, it is the simple songs that Joshua loves most, songs like the one he is humming now, standing before the church that is to be his home, his platform, his testing ground, and his awesome pastoral responsibility, tunefully murmured like a kind of prayer to Jesus: Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on…

The church is less impressive than in the photograph they sent him, a modest brick structure, vaguely modernist in style, far less grand than the Baptist church near the town center and not so classic a house of worship as the stone Lutheran church he passed a couple of blocks back with its solid square bell tower and big double doors; but just as Joshua loves the simple songs, so does he love the simple Christian virtues, which people in this country in their ignorance think of as American virtues, and this church in its honest friendly dignity stands as a quiet monument to them. It suits him. It suits Presbyterianism and its democratic community spirit.

As the church is presently without a minister, he fears the doors may be locked, but they are not. He removes his felt hat and wipes his brow. “I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home!”

“You have arrived, Mr. Jenkins. Mr. Joshua J. Jenkins.”

“Why, yes—!” He has been thinking so much about his friend Jesus that young Reverend Jenkins is not altogether surprised to see him standing at the pulpit. Sunlight enters the church through the high windows in clearly defined beams. Jesus is standing in one of them, exactly as he appears in the frontispiece of Joshua’s favorite book of Bible stories for children. It is an astonishing sight. Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, Joshua is thinking, somewhat madly, the melody tinkling in his head as if played on glass bells. “But how did you—?”

“Your résumé, Mr. Jenkins.”

“My résumé—?”

“And what does the middle ‘J’ stand for, Mr. Jenkins? Not my name, I hope.”

“No!” He has been anticipating this visit to his new church with such excitement, perhaps he is only dreaming about it and the bus not yet arrived. That would explain the nightmarish army trucks. He touches his breast pocket; no, the map is gone. But dreaming is another mode of discourse, similar to the narrative mode but freed from some mimetic conventions. The map, for example, can be there and not be there at the same time. When he wakes, he will take notes. They will make for an interesting sermon. Perhaps his inaugural one. What happened to me on my way into West Condon. On the other hand, if he is not dreaming, and he probably is not, it can’t be Jesus, and in the realization of that he understands the terrible shallowness of his faith. Though in one part of his mind, that part he takes most comfort in, he is having a personal encounter with Christ; in the larger part, wherein his reason resides like the house demon, he knows it is not possible. “It’s…it’s Jehoshaphat. My grandfather…”

“Jehoshaphat! A king! ‘I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses!’ Hah! What a memory! Not all of us are so lucky to have such a grandfather. Or even a grandfather at all. On my paternal side, it is something of a mystery.” Joshua is nodding at all this, hat in hand, but he’s not sure what he’s affirming. “Yes, I know you wrote a paper on it. I thank you for your contribution.”

“Pardon? Paper—?”

“He was reminding me that he wrote an essay on the old fellow, your namesake, getting diddled by the king of Israel. He got a B-plus for it. I was acknowledging that.”

“Oh yes, I see.” But he doesn’t. Who got a B-plus? He feels as he often feels when lost in his own theological conundrums, and wonders if he should go out and come in again.

“Who, Mr. Joshua Jehoshaphat Jenkins, do you say that I am?”

“Well, hah…you look a bit like Christ Jesus, but—!”

“Looks, Mr. Jenkins, are not always deceiving.” The man smiles benignly down upon him, stroking his beard. “We were talking, I believe, about the end of the world.”

“We were?”

“Everybody is. It is, I am afraid, the topic of the day. By many it is expected imminently. Perhaps before lunch. But the end of the world, Mr. Jenkins, is not an event. It is a kind of knowledge. And therefore, at least for those in the know, it has already happened. And those who are not in the know are living in sin, for ignorance is sin — the worst sin, am I right?”


“Of course I am. As soon as it was imagined, it was a done deal, I told you that millennia ago, don’t you remember?”

“I–I wasn’t—”

“‘But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out the devils,’ I said,” he says, pointing a finger down at Joshua as if probing for more demons, “‘then be sure the Kingdom of God has already come upon you.’ That’s what I said. ‘Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ My very words, repeated hundreds of times. They wrote them down. ‘But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God.’ You’re a man of the Good Book, as it is called in the trade. You have read it. Would I lie to you?”

“No! But—”

“Shut up! Apart from me you can do nothing!”

“I–I’m sorry—?”

“He was telling me I lie all the time.”


“That business of driving out devils like chasing hair lice, for example, he meant. Not exactly true, I admit it, but it was the way we talked back then.”

A lady enters. Like Jesus, she is also dressed in a flowing gown. A flimsy thing the color of fresh peaches. She seems almost to float. Is she walking on her toes? “Jesus! Those awful people are marching up that hill again! And they all have guns! I was watching it on TV until the lights went off. I don’t know what’s going to happen! I heard some very loud noises! I think we should excuse this gentleman and hurry back to the basement!”

“On the contrary, my dear. We too shall proceed to the infamous hill. I believe they are waiting for me.”

“No! They don’t know what they are waiting for! They’re completely crazy! Come with me now! Please!”

Jesus, or whoever he is (she called him Jesus!), only smiles calmly and raises one hand in a kind of blessing. Which would be completely convincing were he not scratching himself with the other. “We shall take Mr. Joshua J. Jenkins with us. He is the grandson of a king. He will protect us.” He winks at Joshua. Is he supposed to wink back? What people is she talking about? What infamous hill? Why do they need protection? Perhaps he should have waited for Mr. Cavanaugh at the bus station. “Come! Follow me!”


And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals,

and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder,

one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

And I saw, and behold a white horse:

and he that sat on him had a bow;

and a crown was given unto him:

and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

— The Book of Revelation 6.1-2

I.1 Easter Sunday 29 March

It is the hour of dawn, but the skies are black and stormy, curtaining the sun’s emergence from the catacombs of night. A small party of climbers is struggling up the muddy slope of a steep man-made hogback ridge toward the pale wet light at the top, ghostly figures wrapped up against the elements when viewed from atop the ridge, black featureless silhouettes when seen from below against the dull nimbus, ribboned with rain, at the crest. Some lose their footing, drop to their hands and knees in the mud, swallowing down the curses that rise to their throats, mindful on this most holy morning that the stakes are high: nothing short of everlasting life. The source of which is death. That is the message of the day. For on this day, they say, exactly at dawn nearly two thousand years ago, one who died arose and walked again, promising a similar reward for all who would follow him, an easement against the anguish of death’s hard passage. “For as in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be made to live.” Stirb und werde, as the Trinity Lutheran pastor intends to put it up here in the opening prayer he has been invited to deliver. Die and come to life — die and be—the meaning of this moment.

This the incentive for the community’s long tradition of witnessing at a prayerful sunrise service the breaking of Easter’s dawn, though never before from such a place as this: a high artificial ridge of disturbed heaped-up earth at the South County Coal Company strip mine, the easternmost of a parallel set of such ridges. For nearly half a century, the Presbyterians have held their Easter sunrise service on Inspiration Point at their No-Name Wilderness church camp, gradually expanding it over the years into an ecumenical occasion as the town population and church memberships declined; but this year, the camp was mysteriously unavailable, rumored to have been sold to a developer, and this site was chosen in its stead by the West Condon Ministerial Association as the setting for the annual celebration of the Dawn Resurrection. The light at the top of the ridge is provided by battery-operated mine lamps mounted on stanchions, which do not so much light up the area as cast a pale otherworldly glow upon it, through which the rain falls as if upon a rubbly forsaken stage, one seeded with coal chips and bits of gravel, and barren except for weedy grasses that have taken root here and there. The giant claws that sculpted this strange terrain lurk in the pooled black waters below like skeletal creatures of the netherworld, mute witnesses to the sacred ceremonies at the top.

The pastors of several different denominations are clustered under umbrellas up here, each with a few brave members of their congregations, though the minister of the First Presbyterian Church, traditional host of this event, has not yet arrived; they await him with what patience they can muster, as the remaining stragglers slowly make their way up the slippery slope to join them, feeling somewhat martyred by their own righteousness, many with hands and knees muddied and umbrellas broken. To fill the time, the Presbyterian choirmaster, huddled with his wife under a large striped umbrella with a handkerchief at his nose, is leading them all through some Easter morning hymns that no one can hear, the voices, even their own, drowned out in the lashing rain. “His Cheering Message from the Grave.” “A Brighter Dawn Is Breaking.”

When Inspiration Point at the Presbyterian church camp became unavailable, alternative locations for the sunrise service were few, the land around here being generally flat and uninspiring. One of the highest points in the area is the mine hill out at the Greater Deepwater Coal Company, an old slag heap from earlier in the century, now part of the landscape, but since the terrible disaster out there five years ago and the Brunist cult’s temporary appropriation of it for its own heretical purposes, it has acquired an unholy aura, for which reason it was not even considered. The rise at the sixth tee at the country club golf course was proposed, but not only was it deemed a secular and elitist location, there was also drinking out there and dancing and card playing and other even more un-Christian behavior. So when the wealthy owner of South County Coal and former member of the Church of the Nazarene congregation offered this ridge, it was hastily and gratefully accepted. There was some talk about canceling the event when foul weather was predicted, but as several pastors declared: What if Mary and Magdalene had stayed home on the day of Christ’s rising merely because of a few showers?

Easter sunrise services being a modern invention of American Protestant churches, there are no Roman Catholics in attendance — indeed, they have not even been invited — but there are also many Protestant denominations whose spiritual leaders oppose the very idea of ecumenism as a dilution of the true faith and a liberal corruption of the Word of God and who have discouraged their congregations from participating in this service, offering them pancake prayer breakfasts in their church basements in its stead. One world, one church: this is not the American way, and it is not God’s way. There are those who are with God and those who are not, and there always have been and always will be until Judgment Day. It is by our differences that we know one another, and those differences divide and cannot be denied. Some will be welcomed into the Promised Land, but most will not, and that’s a plain fact, the Bible says so. It’s either/or: step up and take your pick, brothers and sisters. It’s your eternity. A sign outside the First Baptist Church says as much.

Others, however, including the Presbyterian hosts, take a more generous view of their fellow religionists and welcome these opportunities for interdenominational Christian fellowship. Chief among them is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran, whose grand vision is of a global one-world, one-church ecumenical order focused on social reformulation, a contemporary articulation of meditation, contemplation, and prayer, and a recovery of the Holy Scriptures while embracing secular spirituality, for God is good and everywhere. He has written about this, though none here have read his writings, nor would they likely understand them should they try to do so. His parishioners have occasionally heard such thoughts expressed in the pastor’s Sunday sermons, but they have not understood them there either.

The black-bearded South County Coal Company manager, whose task it has been to prepare the site for the morning’s service at his boss’s request, detests this entire pagan event as an unholy abomination. He has stood sullenly on the shadowy slope in his black slicker, a lit cigarillo dangling under his rainhat, hands resting on the butts of his holstered guns, watching the fools slip and fall on their climb but helping none of them. They are the condemned; let them get used to falling. The so-called Christian church is not Christian at all; it is an evil and degenerate institution, infiltrated and controlled by Satan, who, as the Holy Book says, deceiveth the whole world. The whole world. Christ was not crucified on a Friday, did not rise on a Sunday. Can they not read their own Bible? Do they not have fingers on which to count? The very notion of Easter, absorbed into Christianity by the early church fathers, so-called, in their corrupt lust for power and named after a whorish pagan goddess, is obscenely ludicrous. Sunrise services, Easter parades, chocolate bunnies and colored eggs: all vile impurities, idolatrous humanist perversions. The Great Conspiracy, as he calls it. The church’s pact with the Devil. He loathes them all.

The Presbyterian minister appears on the slope at last, hatless, coatless, unshaven, floundering about in the mud. He is met partway up by the town banker, a Presbyterian stalwart, dressed in heavy boots and the sort of rain gear worn by hunters and fishermen, and helped up the rest of the way, the banker asking why he has only one shoe on. “What? What? Am I not free?” he shouts in reply. “Where am I? There is a darkness on the land!” The Lutheran pastor steps forward to lead them all in prayer, but he is interrupted by the Presbyterian minister who, upon reaching the top, plants his stockinged foot in a murky puddle and without prayer or preamble (“Oh no!” squeaks the choirmaster’s wife) raises his face to the downpour and, shaking his fist at it, cries out: “Blessed are those who are free from the infection of angels! What? What are you saying? I know, I know! A people laden with iniquity! Woe upon them all! But what about me? I am filled with bitterness! Get out, damn you! Out!” Whereupon, there is a sudden blinding flash and a ground-rocking blast of thunder and everyone flees, slipping and sliding urgently down the greasy slope.

Last down is the town banker, guiding the confused and increasingly incoherent Presbyterian minister, the banker picking his steps out carefully with the help of one of the mine lamps lifted from its stanchion, avoiding the slick tracks laid down by those who had lost their footing and, with yelps of alarm, feet flying, had slid down on their backsides. The Presbyterian minister, soaked through, stumbling unsteadily, one shoe off, one shoe on, babbles on. “No! Not one jot or one tittle! Not an iota, not a dot!” The sky flares again with lightning—“Can you hear me? Who do they say that I am?” the man yells at the storm, and his knees buckle and down he goes, nearly pulling the banker down with him. “God damn you!” the banker mutters under his breath, fully aware of the peculiarly precise power of such an oath on such a day. But too much is awry for propriety. He hauls the minister to his feet and, slapping through the ankle-deep water at the bottom, bundles him into his Lincoln Continental and heads in a fury, kicking up mud, for the church manse.

It is in such browbeating weather that West Condon prodigal son (there is an army of them) Georgie Lucci steps down off the bus from the city on his first return in nearly five years to the scene of his youthful indiscretions, somewhat nauseous from the long overnight ride, having sucked up half a case of cheap beer en route and fallen dead asleep only an hour before pulling in. He hardly knows where he is, only that he is getting fucking wet. At this unholy hour, the old corner bus station, where once he reigned as pinball king, is closed (he decorates its doorway with a pool of vomit, just for old times’ sake: Ciao, bambini, Georgie’s home!), as is the rest of the downtown, which he examines in a brief futile stagger, seeking shelter and a bite of breakfast, wearing his duffel bag as a ponderous rainhat. Not a soul on the streets, everything dark as midnight and shut up tight, some shops boarded up as though forever, the cold rain bombing down, the thunder and lightning giving him a headache. Fuck off, he groans, though to no one in particular, being no blasphemer, at least not by intent. None of his crimes have been, they’ve just happened. He tries the door up to the Legion Hall above the Woolworths, hoping some old pal might be sleeping it off on a couch up there, but that door too is closed to him, so he pisses on it, adding his bit to the flow flooding the earth. There are a few cars parked on the street in front of the broken penny parking meters, their junky antiquity bespeaking the town’s present economic circumstances. He tries their handles, no luck, the mistrustful bastards, so he breaks into a rusty old Ford station wagon and crawls inside, strips off his wet clothes and wraps himself in the woolly blanket he finds in the back. He still has a couple of beers in his bag, so it’s hair of the dog for breakfast or as a nightcap, whatever. Not for the first time in his long and unkempt life.

That’s about all Georgie remembers of time’s recent passage when he is jostled awake by the police chief, Dee Romano, and asked what the hell he’s doing there. “Ah, the welcoming committee has arrived,” he growls froggily. “You’ve unloosed some pretty unfriendly weather on me here in old Wet Condom, Demetrio, I had to get in outa the storm to save my life. Whose car is this, by the way?” “It’s my car, you stupid stronzo.” “I shoulda guessed. Only you could own a blanket that smells this bad.” “It’s my dog’s. He won’t appreciate that remark. And what have you done, thrown up in it? Merda! I may have to turn him loose on you.” “Well, I’m pretty hungry, it might be an even scrap. Why don’t you do the right thing, compagno, and go bring your honored guest some scrambled eggs and coffee?” “C’mon. Outa there, Giorgio. I got no time for wiseasses; I got too many problems. We’re shorthanded with Old Willie gone, our cruisers are falling apart and no money from the city to fix them, broken streets full of drunks and thieves, the damn Brunists back in town, trouble at the school—” “A chi lo dice! The Brunists! Them rain dancers are back?” “Yeah, they’re setting up shop out in the old summer camp on the road to Tucker City. From what I hear, you should be dressed just about right for them. But here in town it’s against the law. So get them rags back on and haul your ugly culo outa there. Now!” “Them rags is cold and wet, Dee. Listen, do me a favor. Arrest me and lock me up in a warm dry cell for a few hours. I deserve it.” “You want a roof over your head, Georgie, go to Mass.” “Mass? Is it Sunday?” “It’s Easter, you fucking cretino. Now move it!” “Okay, okay. Good idea, Dee. I’ll go to Mass. Easter. Whaddaya know. I’ll go confess to old Bags all the evil things I done, give him a rise. I got stories from the city that’ll burn his hangdog flappers off. But first gimme a lift over to my old lady’s so’s I can borrow her tub and clothes dryer.”

So that’s how it is that, in due course, the explosive news about the Brunists detonates upon the broad well-worn steps of St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church on this Easter morning. Several of the worshippers have gathered there before High Mass during a break in the thunderstorm, grabbing a quick smoke and grousing about the economy, the kids, the corruption at city hall, the weather, what’s ailing them, what’s ailing West Condon, the rest of the world, the cosmos, etc., and what can be done about it; namely, nothing. The plagued town, still mourning its dead from the mine disaster of five years ago, is in a state of terminal decay and depression, so broke it can’t fix the winter potholes or pick up the garbage. It has been bypassed by the new interstate, all the deep-shaft coalmines are closed, the downtown is emptying out and the car dealers are shutting down, the only hotel is an empty derelict, subsidence is sinking home values as if they could sink any lower, strip mines have torn up the countryside and polluted the water, the high school basketball team has won two games all season, the old coal-burning power plant is unstable and blackouts are frequent, prices are up, wages down for those who have jobs (not many), families are breaking up, friends are dying, the local newspaper has folded, TV reception is poor and there’s nothing on it but protests, wars, assassinations, corruption, riots, quiz shows and beer ads. Sal Ferrero and one-armed Bert Martini have been out at the hospital this week visiting fellow ex-miner Big Pete Chigi, who’s dying of black lung or something worse, and Sal reports that he’s in a respirator now. “Big Pete ain’t so big no more,” says Bert. “Damn coal dust,” is another’s mutter. “It’s not just the dust, it’s also them coffin nails,” says Guido Mello, grinding his out under heel, and Sal, staring dolefully with baggy eyes at the cigarette from which he’s just taken a drag, says, “I’m quitting tomorrow.” Mickey DeMars, whose downtown sandwich joint is closed for the day (the high price of meat has been the subject of his previous discourse, which aroused some surprise among his interlocutors that his hamburgers actually contain such an ingredient), says he heard on the radio that fully one-fifth of the nation was living in abject poverty. “That ain’t bad odds,” growls Vince Bonali, wallowing a dead cigar in his jowls. “Wish it was that good here.” Vince has recently lost his wife, has long since lost his job, and it’s said he’s drinking more than he’s eating these days. There’s a rumble of thunder and, peering up at the black sky, Carlo Juliano says, “It don’t stop. Better go home and build a ark.” “I would,” says Bonali, “but I can’t afford the mortgage.”

Which is when errant native son Georgie Lucci is spotted (he gets a welcoming shout) hurrying their way over the puddly potholed street and broken sidewalk like a tall clownish bird, bearing glad tidings, bad breath, lurid tales of nightlife in the city, empty pockets (cousin Carlo, when pressed, reluctantly loans him a five-spot), and the news that the Brunists are back, reportedly up to their old tricks out at the edge of town. This evangel draws a large eager audience, so Georgie, always the crowd-pleaser, elaborates on it, describing the Brunists’ ecstatic and diabolical rites in fulgid colors, details supplied by a stag movie he saw up in the city about a secret orgy society, and using the chief of police as the horse’s mouth. The ladies in the crowd peel away to spread the word among the others (“Monsignor Baglione must know!” gasps Mrs. Abruzzi, hurrying off in her sparse orange hair and the black widow’s garb she has worn for thirty years) and Carlo says maybe they ought to hide the Pincushion, popular name for their statue of St. Stephen, so the Brunists don’t steal it again.

So they’re back. Vince Bonali, gazing off toward the rainsoaked streets as though pondering their bleak future, feels a stirring of something commingled of nostalgia, excitement, mortification, and anticipation. When that insane cult first started up here, he helped his old high school teammate and town banker Ted Cavanaugh create the Common Sense Committee to try to put the brakes on. After the mine disaster, West Condon was in deep shit, and that end-of-the-world lunacy was the wrong story to send out to the world — Vince said as much in his famous “rockdusting” speech at the first big rally, and Ted loved it. Ted runs this town, and Vince became his righthand man. He was at the center of things and welcomed all over town, his pals were even calling him “the Mayor”—except for his days as second-team all-state tackle, it was the proudest moment of his life. And, after his stupid fuckup, the worst. Total humiliation. From king of the hill to the bottomless pit. Thinking about it still made Vince sick to his stomach, and he feels sick now. He’s not happy to see Georgie back in town. Georgie was there for it all, witness to his most shameful moments. Georgie has no pride. Sooner or later all those old stories are going to get retold. Just for laughs. Sick jokes from the past. Even now they’re yattering on about that mad carnival out at the mine (“At least we felt alive then,” someone says), the day he sank the lowest. But he has changed since then. Stupidity sometimes has more to do with heart than head. His refound faith has centered him, put his reason right. Most know that and respect him for it. “You remember when old Red Baxter tried to lay into our altar with a mining pick?” “It was crazy! He called the church a whore!” When Vince’s wife Etta died a couple years back, Ted sent flowers. A sign of forgiveness? Angie works at his bank now. And he and Ted were WCHS teammates after all on the best football team in their division in the state. That’s what the big-city papers said. Maybe he should give old pal Ted a call, see if he needs any help. “Yeah, but remember what we done to their prayer barn afterwards!” Maybe he shouldn’t.

“Isn’t that Joey Castiglione over there, putting a play on your daughter, Vince?” asks Carlo, and Vince grunts in reply. He is well aware of his daughter’s dangerous beauty. And her likely misuse of it. Angie is pretty dreamy and out of the human loop of late and she’s taking a lot of baths; it’s his impression she’s putting out on a regular basis. Right now she’s cooing over the Piccolottis’ baby, who is getting christened today, Joey whispering something in her ear. Joey’s all right. College kid, smart, better choice than most. His old man, killed in the mine blast, was a tough union scrapper, and Joey, though just a runt, has a lot of his feisty grit. But Angie’s probably too dumb for him. He rather wishes she’d take an interest in the Moroni boy, a good kid more her speed upstairs, decent footballer in his day, Ange and Concetta’s only boy, named after his crusty old nonno Nazario. Keep it in the family. Five years gone since Deepwater blew up, and he still misses Ange. Damn it. His best pal since kneepants. Got laid together for the first time in the same Waterton whorehouse. In-fucking-separable, to speak in the old way. Young Nazario now wears his dad’s old hat, tipped cockily down over his nose the way Ange always wore it playing pinochle or sharing a bottle. Angela is dressed in a new Easter outfit she bought herself with a hemline just under her chin. It’s a scandal, everybody’s looking at her, but what can he do? With Etta gone, there’s no one to talk to her. His daughter gets all her advice from the trashy romance rags she reads. As the family wage-earner, she dismisses him as a tiresome and useless old fool. The older kids have all gone their own ways, she’ll be leaving soon, too. He’ll be all alone. “That’s your daughter?” Georgie asks with a shit-eating grin on his face. Yeah, and keep your fucking hands off her, Vince says to himself, otherwise remaining silent except for an ambiguous grunt. “Hey, where’s Etta?” Georgie asks.

Joey is smart, Angela knows this. She likes him. Unlike that stupid creep Moron Moroni who is, regrettably, part of her Dark Ages, and still acts like he owns her; at the moment he’s staring at her legs from under the brim of his dad’s hat, tipped down over his broken nose, and kissing the air. Which is as close as he or any of his rough pals will ever get again. Joey is considerate and sweet and he loves her. He used to fix her bike and help her with her homework and he wrote “To the one and only!” in her yearbook. She would never have made it through math without him, and that helped her get the job at the bank, where everyone says she’s really good at numbers. He and his dad were close, it was always Joe and Joey, so it was so sad when his dad got killed in the mine accident. Her heart went out to him. And then, when her mom passed away, Joey was the first to drop by and say how sorry he was and how he knew how she felt. He came home from college, where he’s studying to be a mine engineer, just to do that. But, though they’ve gone to dances together and he’s had his hand between her legs, she doesn’t love him. Not the way he loves her. It is Tommy Cavanaugh she loves and that makes Joey really mad. Joey saw her in Tommy’s car last night and he has called Tommy a very bad name. “Don’t use language like that, Joey. You’re at church.” “An asshole’s an asshole wherever you are.” “Honestly, Joey, Tommy and me are just friends. We didn’t do anything, we just drove around.” “Oh sure. That rich fratboy is only interested in hicksville chitchat.” She sighs. “You don’t understand, Joey.” He doesn’t. She is having her period. Tommy will have to wait. Until Wednesday.

The news that the Brunists have returned, taking over the old closed-down Presbyterian church camp out by No-Name Creek, is spreading across the waterlogged West Condon church lawns this morning like a storm within a storm, causing alarm, anger, disgust, fear, disdain, curiosity, ridicule. Some say they are squatting illegally, others that they have a rich patron who has bought the camp for them, yet others that they were invited in by the Presbyterians, though none can fathom why the Presbyterians, chief architects of their expulsion five years ago, would do such a thing. Probably has to do with money. With those people, it always does. That those foot-stomping rollabouts were shown up as deluded fools and chased out of town should have been the end of them, but they have apparently been able to find plenty of other gullible saps and are now said to be a full-blown church, nearly as big as the Seventh-Day Adventists, many of whom have joined them. But though Brunist churches may have sprung up across the country — it’s said in the magazines in doctors’ offices that they’re the country’s fastest growing new Pentecostal church — they must know they are not welcome here. Their return is a taunt, a slap in the face.

But what to do about it? Some few are willing to live and let live, but most believe the cult must be sent packing, and right away, before they’ve had time to sink new roots, for as it says in the Old Testament, “Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it.” Many of the townsfolk were out at the old Deepwater No. 9 coalmine — it was about this same time of year, and it rained then, too — when the Brunists, watched by the whole world, waited for that watching world’s fiery end, dancing around in the mud in their wet nightshirts and underwear, whipping each other, crying and screaming for Jesus to come — it was like the storm was egging them on, driving them all berserk, and a lot of locals went crazy and joined in as well. The state police had to be called in, there were brawls and beatings, a lot of people were jailed or hospitalized, including their so-called prophet, who was sent off to the loony bin where he belonged, and in the middle of it all, laid out on the hillside like bait for the angels sent to gather the elect, there was a sickening blue corpse on a folded lawnchair, that sad little Italian girl, her dead body getting rained on while her hand pointed spookily at the sky as though accusing it of something. Some say the cultists themselves killed her in some sort of weird ritual sacrifice, and few would put it past them. For the rest of the world, the end might not have come that day, but for West Condon, it surely did. It was the worst thing that ever happened here and the town has never really recovered from it.

How the Brunists have ended up in their old church camp is something of a mystery even to the Presbyterians themselves. Ted Cavanaugh, head of the Board of Deacons, is having to field a lot of questions about it in a kind of ad hoc gathering of the board on the church lawn during the break between Sunday School and the main church service, the storm having let up for the moment in timely fashion. He explains that the minister and his wife evidently took a number of actions of questionable legality without consulting the board, and that he has already begun the processes that will recover the camp and force the intruders to leave. But privately he knows it is largely his own fault and it won’t be easy to get it back. When the Edwardses brought up the idea of selling the old camp a couple of months ago, back when winter was at its worst, Ted thought it was a good idea. The camp had fallen into ruin, and the church could use some immediate revenue. He told them to go ahead and see if they could find a buyer. When the strip mine operator Pat Suggs came forward with a decent offer, he’d seen nothing wrong with it, supposing that Suggs, who owned adjacent lands, was planning to develop the site as an industrial park or strip it for coal or both. Suggs is destroying the countryside, but any investment and source of new jobs in these hard times is welcome, so Ted helped negotiate a tax break and used his connections to get electricity brought over from the closed mine, the camp’s old generator having long since given up the ghost with no hope for resurrection. He’d heard there were people living out there in trailers, a construction crew of some sort, and supposed they were Suggs’ cheap imported non-union labor. Should have looked into it, should have insisted on a review by the board, but his mind was elsewhere. He finally picked up on the Brunist connection a week or so ago when Clara Collins and Ben Wosznik turned up at the Randolph Junction bank to set up an organizational checking account and he got called for a reference, they having each had accounts at his bank in times past. It was a substantial initial deposit, garnered apparently from donations from the worldwide faithful. They gave the camp as their address and explained that they had a five-year lease on the site at a dollar a year. A side of John P. Suggs he hadn’t paid attention to. Hasn’t paid attention to a lot of things of late, too much going on in his life, he has let things slide. Edwards’ onrushing breakdown, for example.

“Some Easter,” Burt Robbins says sourly, scowling at the thick black sky. Burt runs the five-and-dime, is a member of everything, complains often, contributes little, a man amused only by pratfalls and public humiliations. “And now those Armageddon nuts landing on us again. Sorry I didn’t get out there to the sunrise service, Ted. But the sun never rose. Thought it must have got canceled.”

“Me, too, Ted,” the Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Elliott says. “I wasn’t even sure where it was this year.”

“Out at South County. Pat Suggs set it up.”

“That was a friendly gesture,” says Elliott with his dippy smile.

“No, it wasn’t.” Standing up there among the rainsoaked and muddied few, he’d wondered if in fact it had been some kind of practical joke, but he’d discounted it. John P. Suggs is not a humorous man, not even meanly so. It was simply a tactical move. He has tried to pin Suggs down all week, hoping to cut some kind of deal, undo this wretched business somehow; the bank has its hands on properties elsewhere in the state that could be used as a trade. But Suggs was resolutely unavailable. Ted also put pressure on Wes Edwards to renege on the sale, got nowhere. Couldn’t even get his attention. Seemed off in some other world. Ted talked to his bank lawyer, Nick Minicozzi, about trying to get an injunction on the grounds that the minister had illegally bypassed the church board; Nick said he could try, but it would be difficult, given Ted’s own earlier approval.

“South County Coal,” says Robbins, squinting in that general direction, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “You know, you can probably see the Waterton whorehouses from up there.”

“Oh, nice,” says Elliott. “Of course, I wouldn’t know.”

“Serviced at sunrise,” Gus Baird says.

Jim and Burt are board members and they and Gus teach Sunday School classes. Ted doubts they’ve read any more of the Good Book than he has, but he may need them close at hand this morning to help with the rescue operation if Wes Edwards loses it or doesn’t show. Full house today. Extra rows of wooden folding chairs and more chairs in the aisles. “Couldn’t see anything this morning in that downpour. It was a mess. And so was Wes. Good thing I went out there.”

Burt nods. “Ralph says Wes was splashing around crazily in his stocking feet out there and yelling at the rain.”

“He was somewhat out of touch.”

“Just singin’ in the rain,” croons Gus Baird, the travel agent and Rotary Club president, and he does a little turn around his umbrella.

Burt laughs dryly and says, “Them two kooks should be locked up, him and his wife both.”

“Well…” And, while fresh thunder rumbles overhead, he fills them in on what he found when he got Wes back to the manse, the general disorder, foul smells, things flung about, the spilled milk in the kitchen and the smashed eggs. “Wes said he’d been trying to make breakfast.”

“Well, I’ve dropped a few eggs in my time myself,” says Baird amiably.

“On the walls?”

“Oh oh.”

“Wait a minute. What do you mean?”

“I mean, his wife’s gone.”

“Debra? Really?” Elliott turns his dopy gaze toward the manse. “Wow, what do you think? She’s gone off with some—?”

“Wait. She wouldn’t have anything to do with that damned cult, would she?”

“You can bet on it, Burt. That screwed-up Meredith kid who was in it from the start has been living with them, and he’s gone, too.”

“Oh boy,” says Elliott, flashing his stunned stupid look. “We have a big problem.” Ted has a big problem with Elliott. An incompetent drunk, holding the town back. The area still has a lot to offer — cheap energy, old rails still in place, unused land, a workforce desperate for jobs, favorable tax incentives — but Elliott is useless. The Chamber needs new blood, someone with energy and imagination and appeal to get the town back on the commercial map again. Something Stacy could do well if she’d agree to it. She’s off visiting family. When she’s back, he’ll try again.

Robbins strikes a match to light a new cigarette and says, “It’s a disaster.”

Ted rose this morning before the unseen dawn, a routine now. His emaciated wife has already had a couple of falls trying to get to the bathroom on her own, so he tries to be up in time to take her. Irene’s decline infuriates her and she’s resentful of his help, insists he shut the bathroom door and leave her alone. He grants her that, but stands by to help her back to bed again. Poor sweet Irene. It’s heartbreaking. There’d been a couple of giggling young lovers up at the aborted service who evidently, following the Easter vigil tradition of watching the rising sun dance its bunny-hop to have their loves and lives blessed by it, had stayed up all night before coming, and seeing them Ted had felt a pang of grief, remembering Irene at that age and their own premarital spring. Such a pretty thing she was, and so loving, and so his. The girl’s wet dress clung provocatively to her body and the boy slipped his hand between the cheeks of her bottom, and then he felt a sudden pang of desire, and a pang of guilt. Whereupon, with equal suddenness, lightning struck.

Across the lawn, through the crowd, he sees his son Tommy, home from university for the Easter break, leaning against the Lincoln. He looks cool, but Ted knows he’s hurting. He had given the home care nurse Easter Sunday off, so he let Tommy sleep in and be there if Irene needed anything, and when he got back from dropping Wes off at the manse, he found Tommy trying to help his mother, at her insistence, get dressed for church. The boy was down on his knees, struggling with her nylons, and he looked miserable. “Tommy,” he said, “she can’t go.” Outside the bedroom, they embraced and wept a little.

The sadness of a house saturated with the depressing odor of mortality and decaying connections got to Tommy last night, so he borrowed his dad’s car and, on a whim inspired by the home-again Brunist news, gave Angela Bonali a call to get together to talk about her new job at the bank. That conversation lasted a minute or two and then his old high school flame gave him a spectacular blowjob while the rain drummed down on the car roof, best in a long time, nearly brought tears to his eyes. He’ll see her again Wednesday when she’s off the rag. It’s a kind of anniversary. They lost their cherries together on an Easter weekend five years ago and, thanks to a couple of gut courses at university, browsing through the old myths, he now knows how appropriate that was. He has been through those juicy old rituals countless times since then, it would have been easy for her to drop out of the memory stream, but those were pretty unforgettable times. First everythings and all that, but the Brunists also helped make them so. Those apocalyptic lunatics not only stirred things up in town, adding an edge of danger and something bordering on an alien invasion, they also gifted him with a what-if line to score by. Later helped him ace a sociology course too. “Making History by Ending History” was the title of his A-plus term paper, a high-water mark in his academic career. Angie was curvy and cute back then, an inexperienced virgin like he was, but just naturally good at it. Because she liked it. She exemplified his notion of loose hotpants Catholic girls. Perfect for an uptight hotpants Protestant boy earnestly looking to get laid. Now she’s a grownup dark-eyed beauty with all the moves, plus a world-class ass and humongous tits. He gets hard just thinking about them. She’ll be big as a barn someday, but right now she’s gorgeous. And his. She’s crazy about him. Complete surrender. No limits.

Sally Elliott, wearing an Easter getup of sneakers without socks, frayed cut-off jeans, and an old stained trenchcoat with torn pockets, pulls up on her bike, leans it against a tree, and comes over to where he’s sitting against his dad’s car, keeping his distance from the dismaying well-intended remarks of the church congregation (“We’re praying for a miracle, Tommy!”), and asks him how his mom’s doing. “Not so good.” Coming home was a shock, really. Her body all raisined up and twisted, hair gone, her mind mostly somewhere else. She’s changed a lot just since Christmas. Weird look in her eyes. Not even remotely the mom he used to know. “She’s got very religious. In a crazy kind of way.” “What other kind of religion is there?” Sally says. Surprises him. Always thought of Sally as the dumb smalltown Sunday-school type, though he’s heard she’s turned a bit wild. “The plain truth, Tommy, is life is mostly crap, is very short, and ends badly. Not many people can live with that, so they buy into a happier setup somewhere else, another world where life’s what you want it to be and nothing hurts and you don’t die. That’s religion. Has been since it got invented. Totally insane, but totally human.” He’s not religious himself, though he doesn’t think too much about it. Why break your brains over the unknowable? But he’s not exactly an atheist either. When they asked him to read the scripture lesson this morning, he agreed without thinking about it — he’d done it often enough before, a tradition at this little church, he feels comfortable with it — but it isn’t the same thing as believing what he reads. Just a way of joining in. He glances across at his father on the other side of the soggy First Presbyterian Church lawn, having a smoke before the service with Sally’s dad and other old guys, and no doubt filling them in on the Brunist story. Main news of the day, though his dad’s been worrying about it all week. His dad’s the reason Tommy is here today; church is not something he does up at school. It’s rough for his dad right now, but he’s standing tall. Tommy once asked him what he really believed, and he said, the Apostles’ Creed, the gospels, the Commandments, that sort of thing, but he wasn’t really made for religious or speculative thought. He’s a doer not a thinker. So he had to accept the historical weight behind Christianity, the great thinkers who worried out its details. He had to trust that all those really smart guys can’t be wrong and believe as they believed, even if he didn’t completely understand it. That suits Tommy. “Well,” Tommy says now, “you don’t have to be crazy to believe in something.” “Like Christianity, you mean? Yes, you do. Eat your god, suck his blood, and live forever. I mean, come on! Just look at today. Has to be the wackiest day on the calendar. A zombie horror story with Easter egg hunts. Open up that tomb and let the ghouls go walking, scavenging for chocolate. Weird, man!” He laughs as she staggers about in the grassy muck, her arms out monster-style, her snarly hair falling about her face in wet knotted strings. Or maybe she’s hanging from the cross. She’s a lanky girl, looks down on a lot of guys, used to look down on him in junior high. They’ve got some history. They had a flirtation or two back when they were both virgins and he was still a bit desperate. He even tried that apocalyptic line on her back when the Brunists were in town and had her pants down in the back seat, but that’s as far as they got. Angela came along, and then others, a parade of them really, then university. Sally went off to some dinky liberal arts college where they taught her to dress like a tramp. They’ve both moved on. He can’t even remember what her ass looked like, and inside the trenchcoat, there’s no telling now.

Sally lights up and offers him a cigarette. “Nah. Thanks. Training. Unless you’ve got a joint.” She reaches into a ripped pocket and draws out a little stash bag. He grins, shakes his head. “Just kidding, Sal. Gotta stay cool here in the old hometown.” From her other pocket she offers him a hollow chocolate Easter egg, already cracked open, and he breaks off a chunk, brushes away the lint, hands back the glossy remains. The bells are ringing and Sally says: “Hear that? They’re dropping eggs picked up in Rome.” “Who are?” “The bells. They go to Rome to have supper with the Pope and pick up the eggs they’ll drop on their return. Or maybe the Pope knocks them up. Not sure about bells.” “Yeah, I think I read that somewhere. We must have taken the same courses. Leads to egg fights. Better than crawling around in bunny shit, I guess.” She sucks on the cigarette, exhales slowly, drops the butt into the running gutter. “So, are you staying around this summer?” “Looks like it. I had plans for Europe, but Dad wants me here.” “At the bank?” “No. I told him I wanted to stay outside, pool or parks or whatever. No money counting. Keeping books is too much like reading them.” Actually, he would have been happy to work at the bank, it’s air-conditioned and the work’s easy and now Angie’s there, but his dad said there was nothing useful for him to do and promised instead to get him on the city payroll in some fashion. Probably his dad wants him to mix more with the hoi polloi, one of his little civics training exercises. Or else he’s already heard about him and Angie. “Anyway, I’m dropping econ and business school and going for a PhD in sociology.” “No kidding.” “It’s what I’ve got the most out of up at the U. Got me thinking about more than decimal points.” He’s mak ing this up as he goes along, but he likes the sound of it as it comes out. “Now that the Brunists are back in town I may use them as a summer research project.” “What? You’re shitting me! The Brunists are back?” “Yeah, they’re out at No-Name. Where we used to sing ‘God Sees the Little Sparrow Fall’ around a campfire, remember?” “I remember you put your hand on my butt up on Inspiration Point.” “Oh wow! I did? How old was I?” She grins. “About nine. You started young. You pretended it was an accident. So how did those crazies end up in our camp?” “I guess we sold it to them. Some rich guy gave them the money. Looks like they’re making it their home base. Dad got blindsided and he’s freaking out about it.” He fills Sally in on the gossip as picked up this morning from his dad, including stories from the so-called sunrise service, making the most of the lightning bolt that sent everyone skidding down the hill on their asses and the completely nutty behavior of Reverend Edwards, staggering around in the mud like My Son John and spouting gibberish, which gets Sally laughing. “You may get an even daffier Easter story today than usual, Sal.” “Oh, I’m not staying. I heard you were in town, figured you’d be here, just wanted to stop by and say hello, ask about your mom. Can’t bear this infantile nonsense myself. Have fun in the arms of Jesus, Tommy. See you around.”

The church bells are clanging away in concert with the approaching thunder. Time to go back in. “I could use some help,” Ted says to the others, flicking his cigarette butt out into the wet street. “Edwards seems to be going through some kind of nervous breakdown, and anything can happen. Before I left him, he’d got into dry clothes and seemed to be getting a grip on himself, but he kept turning his smile on and off like a tic and muttering to himself. When I asked him what he was saying, he said he was practicing his sermon. At one point he blurted out, ‘I’m doing my best!’, but I don’t think he was speaking to me.”

“To tell the truth, he’s been acting pretty weird for weeks now,” Burt says around a final drag. “Almost smart-alecky. Like week before last when he seemed to just sort of blank out and stare up at the rafters when it came time to give his sermon. And what was all that last week about Jesus and the holy ass? Was he trying to be funny, or what?”

“I thought at first it was a dirty joke, but it was probably just craziness,” Baird says, rolling his eyes. “Yesterday, I saw him walking down the street talking to himself and waving his arms about like he was directing traffic.” He imitates this.

“I know. He has to see a doctor. I gave Connie Dreyer a call over at Trinity Lutheran this morning. We’ll move what we can of today’s other events over there and postpone the rest, and we’ll bring in some guest pastors over the next few weeks. We just have to get through this morning’s service somehow. I’ll make an announcement about all the changes during church tidings before the scripture reading, and I’d appreciate having you guys down front. After Edwards gets going, if you see me get up and go to the pulpit, I want you to join me. Ditto, if he doesn’t turn up at all. Be ready to read the Easter story from the Bible to fill the gap.”

“Oh gosh,” Elliott gasps. “Which book is that in?”

“A couple of them. Luke, I think. Or John.”

“That’s in the New Testament, right?”

“Should be. Check the program. Tommy’s reading a few lines from it.” He glances across the lawn, sees that Elliott’s daughter, who has been talking with Tommy, has wandered off. A real handful, that girl, fast and rebellious, her mother’s daughter, but Tommy’s probably up to the challenge. “I’ve had a talk with Prissy Tindle. She understands the problem. If she has to, she can play another number or two on the organ to fill time. I’ll get Ralph to lead us all in a couple of songs and we’ll have a quick prayer and then get everybody out of there.”

“Right,” says Robbins, dropping his cigarette to the sidewalk and crushing it underfoot as they prepare to re-enter the church. It’s starting to rain again. “Roll that stone away.”

I.2 Easter Sunday 29 March

When that bully Cavanaugh, shouldered round by all his fawning scribes and elders, rises in the middle of the opening prayer like a self-righteous Sadducee to silence Reverend Wesley Edwards (was he shouting? Of course, he was shouting, God is deaf as a stump), neither he nor Jesus is surprised. In fact, they welcome it. Such persecutions are to be expected when what is hidden is revealed, and indeed stand as validation of it. What else is the Easter story about — for Christ’s sake? Who concurs: As they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you. A prophet in his own country, and all that, my son. But rejoice and be glad, your reward is great. His immediate reward is to have to sit beside the pulpit, biting his tongue, staring out on the sad blank faces of his congregation, while the banker, having skipped ahead in the proceedings to the tithes and offerings, money being all he knows (and power, he knows power), speaks of the general good health of the church finances, its immediate needs (an assistant minister, for example—urgently!), and Easter as a loving family occasion. No, no, you idiot! It is a time of rejection of family, indeed of all earthly connections! Have you no ears? If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple! Leave everything—everything! — and fol low me! You ignorant fool! Listen to your own son’s scripture reading: “But who do you say that I am?” Do you not know? It’s all Wesley can do to stop another noisy eruption. The indwelling Christ, too, is aboil with indignation, cursing traders and moneychangers and all their abominable progeny. Look at them all up there! Smirking! A den of thieves! They are polluting the temple! Drive them out! He’s in a state, they’re both in a state.

It has been a trying couple of weeks. The Passion of Wesley Edwards. He’s not kidding, he has endured it all in this Passiontide fortnight, from the deathly silence of God and the collapse of his faith, through all the upheavals at home and a plunge into harrowing desolation, a veritable descent into hell, to — finally — a kind of weird convulsive redemption that has left him rattled and confused and not completely in control of himself. Wesley was always a dutiful son and responsible student, and he has tried, all his life long and even now while suffering so, to be a dutiful and responsible pastor and citizen, which is to say a typical West Condon hypocrite, and though the sunrise service didn’t go well (all right, so he forgot to put on one of his shoes, what was so important about that? Jesus said: That you had one shoe on was your undoing…), he got himself dried off and properly dressed and dug up one of his old Easter sermons and was prepared to fulfill his parishioners’ expectations of him for one more day.

And the service began calmly enough. In spite of the storm, there was a large wet-but-festive crowd, a chirrupy twitter of Easter greetings, colorful floral displays banking the brick walls. Priscilla, accompanied by muffled thunder and the drum of rain on the tiled roof, did something peppily Risen-Sonish on the organ to get things started, there was the usual unsingable hymn (“The Strife Is O’er…”), followed by the Doxology and prayer of confession muttered in unison, a cantata (“Was It a Morning Like This?”), and then the weekly welcome and church tidings. This was normally his task (and what tidings he had!), but Cavanaugh took it over, canceling the rest of Easter. No problem with that. In fact, a great relief. He would never have got through it all, the maddening detail of his ministry — all the weddings and baptisms and funerals and christenings, the bake sales and potluck suppers, sickroom visits, board meetings, Girl Scouts, quilters, the obligatory golf foursomes and service clubs, spiritual counseling, breakfast clubs and Bible study, not to mention just keeping the church clean and the pianos tuned and the lights and toilets working — contributing intimately to his crisis. But then the banker’s wiseacre brat read the Easter scripture lesson and reached the part where John says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you,” and he couldn’t hold back: “You don’t know the half of it!” he cried, and launched into his Job-inspired diatribe in the name of the opening prayer (“I will not restrain my mouth! I will speak in the anguish of my spirit! I will complain in the bitterness of my soul!”) and got sat down.

While Cavanaugh carries on with his family values malarkey, thanking his son for the scripture reading and speaking of the church as one big family — there is a suffocating stench worse than the old family farm in the haying season of wet clothing, damp bodies, thick perfume, musty song books, and dead flowers that seems to be rising from the speech itself — Wesley glances over at Prissy sitting at her keyboard and sees that she is staring at him, clearly in shocked pain, but as if trying to console him with her sorrowful but adoring gaze. Jesus asks who she is. Priscilla Tindle. Wife of the choir director. Used to be a dancer.

Hah. You, as we say, know her.

An innocent flirtation. Her husband…

Is impotent.

…is a nice fellow.

Thus, Wesley carries on with what he thinks of as a redemptive dialogue if it is not a damnatory one, trying not to move his lips or yelp out loud, sitting meekly as a lamb while the banker speaks sentimentally of his mortally ill wife, who so longed to be here today, thanking everyone for their Christian expressions of concern and sympathy, and announcing a special fund that Irene is establishing with her own substantial contribution for the purpose of creating a proper well-equipped fellowship hall in the church basement. Irene has fond hopes, he says, that in lieu of gifts and flowers for her, her fellow presbyters will add their own generous offerings to the fund in the hope that she might see the consecration of the hall in her own lifetime. Pledge slips can be dropped in the collection plates being passed.

Money, money, money, groans Jesus. Why don’t you drive that viper out? Nothing good dwells in his flesh! Cast him forth!

If I tried to do that, they’d lock me up.

They’re going to lock you up anyway. But all right, this is a complete farce, so rise, let us go hence. The place stinks.

And so, stirring a dark muddy murmur through the sluggish sea of gaping faces, Wesley rises, withdrawing his briar pipe and tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket, and steps down into the midst of his congregation. No, not a sea. A stagnant pond, a backwater. Wherein he has been drowning. He nods at each of his parishioners as he strolls up the aisle, eyeing them one by one in search of an understanding spirit (there is none), idly filling his pipe with sweet tobacco, tamping it with his finger. The poor ignorant hypocritical fools. He hates them — he would like to tear their silly bonnets off their heads, strangle them with their own gaudy ties — but he pities them, too, lost as they are in the wilderness of their hand-me-down banalities. Nor can he altogether condemn them, for all too recently has he been of their number.

Why seek ye the living among the dead? Tell them that nothing but eternal hell awaits them!

Shut up, he says to Jesus, I’m in enough trouble as it is, and a lady in a pink hat with flowers says, “I didn’t say anything, Reverend Edwards! Are you all right? What trouble?” Not just to Jesus, then.

Do something! It is time to wake them from their sleep! It may be your last chance!

A collection plate reaches the aisle up which he walks, threading his way through the added folding chairs. He takes it up, stares into it a moment as though trying to decipher its contents, his pipe clamped between his teeth, then he heaves it across the church, coins and bills and pledges flying. “Woe to you, hypocrites!” he bellows, coached from within. “You desolate whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones! Woe!

That’s my good man! Brilliant! Truly, I say unto you, there will not be left here one stone upon another…

“I tell you, there’ll be no fellowship hall, no church either! There will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down!” He gestures to indicate this wholesale destruction and strides, pleased with the exit he is making (but brick, he corrects himself, not stone), on out of the church and into the waters of chaos awaiting him outside.

Later, he finds himself walking in the downpour at the edge of town along a small gravel road, lined by soggy patches of hardscrabble farmland, a few scraggly sassafras, black locust, and mulberry trees drooping skeletally over the roadside ditch as though contemplating a final exasperated plunge, and, in the near distance, scrimmed by the sheets of rain, the strange combed disturbance of a strip mine, looking like a field harrowed by giants, black water pooling in its long deep furrows. He seems to have forgotten to return to the manse. Perhaps he dreads it. A site of much suffering. He is still clamping the pacifying stem of his pipe between his teeth, though its contents have long since been doused by the rain. His hat is gone, who knows where. Why is he out here? It is not Jesus Christ who asks this question; he asks it of himself. An unconscious return to his boyhood on the family farm? If so, he is being presented with a desperate parody of it — bleak, wasted, lifeless. These muddy yellow plots with their mean little shacks and their collapsing unpainted tin-roofed outbuildings bear no resemblance to his hardworking father’s well-kept acres with their rich fields and orchards, red barns, bright white house and sheds, groomed lawn, well-oiled equipment and healthy flocks and herds, except to suggest the inevitable decay and death of all beauty. No, encouraged by his mother, who was not born to a farm, poor woman, Wesley left happily and took up his faith as career to his father’s and grandparents’ great disappointment, he being not only first-born but also only-born, and never looked back. If he feels nostalgia for anything it is for the comforting old certainties — as embodied in his father’s sturdy hickory fences and the black family Bible with its notched carmined edges — to which, all too effortlessly, he has since clung.

No longer. Although his faith was always more an occupational convenience than a mission and tainted from early days by irony (he and Debra were both whimsically amused children of The Golden Bough, Eastertide in the early years of their marriage their most ardent season), he had felt at home in it. The routines of it filled his life quite amiably, its language playing on his tongue as easily as that of baseball or the weather — until that Ash Wednesday Rotary Club luncheon forty days ago when everything, with dreadful simplicity, changed. He was asked to give the usual benediction and, in the middle of a prayer he had routinely delivered hundreds of times, he was silenced by the sudden realization: My God! What am I saying? I don’t believe any of this! He blinked, cleared his throat, bit his lip, apologized, finished as best he could, fearing with good reason that nothing would ever be the same again. For a month, he plunged into an introspective frenzy, scribbling out page after page of justification for his faith, his calling, his life, his very being (there was no justification), rereading all his old course notes and desultory diary entries, his infinitely tedious sermons and lectures, and poring through all the old books that had once meant so much to him, from Augustine and Abelard to Kierkegaard, Kant, Buber and Tillich, books he hadn’t looked at in years, not since he moved to West Condon, realizing in his wretchedness that he had never understood any of them, nor would he ever, he wasn’t smart enough, or good enough, the Mystery was forever denied him, he was nothing but a hapless dunce living an empty meaningless life. Only Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” made sense to him. He lost his appetite, developed a sniffle, as much of self-pity as of a cold, suffered sleepless nights and so felt only half-awake by day. He wore the same clothes every day. He stopped taking his vitamins. He didn’t want to think about such things. It was actually convenient that that manic orphan boy had returned to keep Debra entertained, he had no time for her or for anything else beyond his most unavoidable pastoral duties and the impassioned soul-searching that possessed him. Who was he? What did he really believe? He found he could not reject God entirely, the world seemed unimaginable without Him, but he no longer had the dimmest idea who or what God was or might be or might have been. God as a kingly father figure had vanished years ago along with Santa Claus and the Easter bunny, but his longheld notion that the universe was something like the Spirit expressing itself through matter, the resurrection story a kind of sublime mythology, now seemed vacuous and dishonest. It was too much for him, really. He’d never figure it out. He’d been a poor student, the Bible his only refuge, and now that refuge was denied him. When he tried to explain all this to Debra, she said God had simply found him unworthy. In short, He had turned His back on Wesley. Speaking anthropomorphically. But God owed him more than that, he felt. Wesley had after all, in his fashion, devoted his life to Him. When he’d prayed to Him, he’d always felt God was listening, they were having a kind of conversation. But it was too one-sided. It was time for God to speak to him. If God would only speak, he thought, all would be well. Was that too much to ask?

So on Passion Sunday, known also as Quiet Sunday, he made his appeal during the scripture reading and opening prayer (“O God, do not keep silence; do not hold Thy peace or be still, O God! Wilt Thou restrain Thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt Thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?”) and then stood motionless throughout his notorious “Silent Sermon,” head cocked toward the rafters, listening intently. Naturally, there was a lot of restlessness among the congregation. He raised one hand to shush them, cupped the other to his ear. A quarter of an hour passed. Nothing. He lowered his head. Not in prayer, as those in the pews probably thought, but in abject despair. He had no choice. It was not that he would forsake the pulpit; the pulpit was forsaking him. He attempted to express all this last week on Palm Sunday — a day for irrevocable decisions — in his sermon of the “Parable of the Holy Ass,” in which, speaking as Jesus spoke (“Is he not a maker of parables?”), he told of all the neglected mules and donkeys of the Bible, from those of Absalom, Abigail, and Abraham to the mounts of Moses and Solomon, and then imagined for the somewhat amazed congregation the fate of the ass that Jesus rode into Jerusalem the Sunday before his execution, after the Prophet had dismounted and gone on to glory, no longer interested in the beast that had served him so humbly and so well. “Jesus rode me, but he rides me no more,” he declared, speaking for the abandoned donkey, thus imitating the dumb ass that spoke with human voice and restrained the false prophet Balaam’s madness — or, rather, parodying that ass, for here no restraint was at hand. What can one do with a rejected donkey, too clumsy and stupid to make its own way in the world? Rent it out as a circus animal perhaps, a caricature of itself. Come see the ass the Prophet rode, a creature for children to ride, adults to mock and abuse… As ever, he was misunderstood by his congregation. They called it his “funny donkey sermon,” and few if any grasped in it his intention to abandon his calling. Or his dismissal by it. Most thought it might be some sort of Sunday School story for the children, as there were many in the audience, waving their little palm branches, and at least he said something, which was better than the nothing of the week before. The organist flashed him a look of wrenching sorrow, though it was hard to know what she meant by it. It was a look she wore as if born with it. At the door he was either avoided or complimented with the usual platitudes. Another failure. Debra was not there. She had left in the middle of the service, looking aggrieved.

Debra, too, has been changing over the years, but in a contrary direction, finding resolve and purpose — one might almost say character — in her intensifying commitment, not just to the Christian ethic (that’s easy, they’ve shared this) but to the fundamental message, the spookier side of the hung-Christ story and its cataclysmic place in human history. Their bed was no longer a frivolous playground, it was a place of prayer. She was increasingly dissatisfied with him, accusing him of smugness and hypocrisy and of playing to privilege (she was right, all this was true), ridiculing his sermons and his pious banalities and his meaningless little pastoral routines, insisting on some transcendent vision alien and inaccessible to him. Back on the Sunday before Lent and that fateful Rotary Club meeting, as if to taunt her — she was totally obsessed by that crazy suicidal boy, Wesley wanted her attention — he used a frivolous golfing metaphor, suggesting that approaching Jesus was like approaching the green in a game of golf. One should “make straight paths for your feet” and strive to enter by the narrow gate that leads to life, but whatever else happens along the way from first tee to journey’s end, he announced solemnly, it’s all won on the approach shots. You can power your way recklessly down the fairway toward the ultimate goal, knowing that even if you get caught in the devil’s sandtraps, slice sinfully into the rough, or hook into a waterhole, there’s still time for redemption if you approach the green’s blood-flagged tree at the end with the right irons and with sensible and measured swings. He’d hoped Debra would recall their myth-and-folklore days, green the symbolic color of the Risen Son as emanation of the Green God and all that, but though his parishioners loved it, grins on their faces at the church door afterwards, she was furious and she did a very strange thing. She dumped all his golf clubs out in the driveway and drove the car back and forth over them, the mad boy Colin cheering her on, both of them laughing hysterically.

Well. Those two. Wesley traces their marital problems back to the moment during the Brunist troubles when the Meredith boy spent a wildly distraught night at the manse and tried to kill himself. Cavanaugh and his so-called Common Sense Committee had persuaded Wesley to help them try to break up the cult by luring away its weakest members, and consequently he had participated (he is ashamed of this now) in the hotboxing of young Meredith, a vulnerable unstable boy, easy to confuse and persuade, but an unreliable convert. Colin, weeping, agreed to renounce the cult and moved that same night into the manse, under Wesley’s protection. It was Debra who found him later, lying naked in the bathroom with his wrists slashed. He was rushed to hospital — Debra managed this, Wesley feeling about as stable as the boy at that moment and facing police and television interviews — and he was released a few days later to the same mental institution the brain-damaged coalminer Giovanni Bruno was later sent. Colin is an orphan. Someone had to sign the committal papers, and Wesley did. Enraging Debra. “We could care for him!” “Oh, Debra, he’s very disturbed. He needs professional care.” Cavanaugh’s phrase. Debra never forgave him that. Nor for what happened after…

You don’t want to talk about that.

I don’t want to talk about that. Where have you been? I was rather hoping you’d left.

Just resting. Seventh day and all that.

What right do you have to rest? You’ve created nothing. A bellyache.

Jesus acknowledges this with his silence. A cranky vindictive silence. The turmoil within brings Wesley to a temporary halt at the edge of the road, clutching his stomach. The miserable farms are behind him, now nothing but the bizarre extraterrestrial landscape of inundated strip mines, reminders of this morning’s ignominy. God is dead. And has left His Only Begotten buried in him like a gassy tumor. When did this happen? Thursday night, probably. Debra left him that night after offering to prepare for him what she bitingly called a last supper. “It’s our anniversary,” he said. “Oh, is it? Well, I’m sorry, dear Wesley. Shall I make you an omelet before I go?” “No. What thou doest,” he said, quoting his own traditional Thursday sermon on the theme of the betrayal of Judas, one of those annual replays Debra finds so despicable, “do quickly.” He wanted to break her neck, but instead accepted her chilling bye-bye kiss (“This is forever, Wesley…”) on his forehead. After she’d left, he decided to commune with Jesus’ body and blood, consuming the True Vine and Bread of Life, as was the evening’s custom. He ate an entire loaf of sliced white bread, washing it down with a half gallon of jug wine, and when that was done, emptied the gin and bourbon bottles, too.

He woke up the next day before dawn on the bathroom floor where he’d fallen, suffering from a splitting headache, his sacred head as if disfigured and crowned with piercing thorn, as someone has said. “O blessèd Head so wounded, reviled and put to scorn…” Thus, deep in hell, he mocked himself. He even had (the passion of Wesley Edwards was complete) a pain in his side and his hands were numb; he worried he might be coming down with multiple sclerosis, though it was most likely due to sleeping all night on the floor. He seemed to remember a crashing tile, but maybe that was himself crashing on the tiles. Had he been throwing up? He had been throwing up. He was lying in the evidence. It was Good Friday. He had more services to face, hospital calls, who knows what all. What a season. It never stops. He stripped and crawled on all fours into the shower and scourged himself with stinging lashes of ice-cold water, which woke him up — but he was still desperately sick, and he threw up again, this time finding the great white throne, praise the Lord. Left a sour vinegary taste in his mouth. In the mirror, he saw a skull with some pale greenish skin stretched over it, eyes red like the devil’s, its tongue out. He did not stay to study the ghastly apparition, but pulled on his bathrobe, the silky lavender one given him one bygone Christmas by Debra (how she longed for her own little manger event, oh yes, failure upon failure!), and staggered into the kitchen, hoping to find she’d come back and cleaned up his mess. No such luck. It was not a pretty sight, the walls decorated with the eggs he’d thrown at them, milk spilled and sour now, chairs and table overturned, though it was not so bad as the bathroom. He leaned into the sink and drank straight from the tap, consumed by thirst. There were puddles of pale wax here and there. He must have lit some candles. Might have burned the manse down around him. Might have meant to.

In the bedroom he found Debra’s old wedding nightgown with the hand-embroidered scarlet hearts ripped to shreds. In grief? Rage? Horror? She’s grown heavy, it no longer fits, so maybe just in humiliation. A more intimate grief. Or maybe he found it and tore it up himself. Everything else of hers was gone. All her clothes, shoes, hats, toiletries, personal papers, scarves and kerchiefs, adornments. Her red-rimmed reading glasses. Address book. Her sunflower alarm clock and her makeup mirror. Probably the stuff had been disappearing for weeks; he hadn’t noticed. Empty dresser drawers hung open like jaws agape, her closet stripped out like a vacated jail cell, door mournfully ajar. Though he hadn’t slept in it, the bed was unmade. A spectacle of hurried flight. No matter. Good riddance. Those who marry will only have worldly troubles; it would have been wiser not to have married in the first place. Which was something not thought so much as heard. It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful woman. I know, I know. Wesley, like his mother, often held inner dialogues with himself, responding silently, more or less silently, to his parents, his grandmother, his professors, his coaches, his old girlfriends, Debra, people who challenged him in any way. But who was this? There was a man here in West Condon some years ago with whom he’d had the first serious conversations about religion since seminary. Justin Miller, the newspaperman. An atheist and romantic rationalist. A fundamentalist in his way, infuriatingly aggressive and blockheaded, but smart and well read. Debra liked to say in her damning faint-praise way that Wesley was more interesting when Miller was in town. Miller had departed about the same time the Brunists did, having launched that madness largely with his own perverse evangel and having thereby made himself unwelcome around here, and for some years after, Wesley had continued his conversations with the man in his head, worrying his way through all the arguments Justin had thrown at him. This was not a one-sided dialogue. Wesley often won the point, or convinced himself he did, but sometimes the Miller within was cleverer than he — or, more accurately, closer to a truth Wesley was reluctant to acknowledge. These inward exchanges had eventually faded away, Miller having been dead to him for some time except as an occasional television image from one international war zone or another, but now, during this Lenten crisis, he had arisen once more in Wesley’s thoughts like unattended prophecy. Not so much the things Miller had said, but the things he himself had said in reply. A brief period of creative thinking, hinting at dramatic changes in his life, quietly snuffed out with the newsman’s departure. On the floor, crumpled up, lay Debra’s pithy farewell note: Dear Wesley. I’m leaving you. Love, Debra. Two of her seven last words were at least words of endearment. But used more as nails to the heart than as balm. Never mind. Forget her. Those who have wives should live…? As though they had none, Wesley said aloud, completing the thought. A text he’d never preached upon except in private to himself. So, was this Miller? No. He knew who it was. He had a white-bread Jesus inside him.

The revelation was sudden and explosive. Almost as though the floor were heaving. Wesley flung off the robe and lurched to the bathroom, where he emptied out violently at both ends, adding to the mess in there and to his despair — a thorough purging, his quaking gut gushing out as did Judas’ bowels. As he sat there, letting it rip like the tearing of a veil, he thought of this immediate ordeal, somewhat hopefully, as ridding himself of the invasive Godson, but in fact it was only the debris he expelled, as it were. The residue continued to speak above the eruptions. Hah, it declared. Let the temple be purified! A voice more distinct than ever, as if freed from the muffling crusts and dregs. Whereupon, Wesley, his belly relaxing at last, came to understand the communion service in a way he had not done before.

You let that bully push you around, Jesus Christ says now in the rain. You didn’t stand up for me as you ought. You denied me.

No. Should’ve denied you maybe. Didn’t. Only doubted. Your story’s so full of holes.

Probably you were reading the wrong people.

Well, the Evangelists…

Like I say. Another generation, never met them. They made up stuff and couldn’t get their story straight. And they may have had their reasons, but they changed everything. You can’t trust them.

I know that. I wrote a paper on it.

You got a B. It wasn’t very good.

How do you know what I got?

What? Am I not the Son of God?

Are you asking me or telling me?

You don’t believe in me…

How can I not?

Wesley, all alone in the inhospitable world, is climbing a small rise, snapping his replies out around his bobbing pipe stem, gesticulating in the rain. Which shows no sign of letting up. There are legends of Indi an burial mounds in the area. Maybe he’s on one. Walking on pagan bones. Dem dry bones. Getting a bath today. He is surrounded by folds of raked land (one of those huge steam shovels, taller than the buildings of West Condon, sits idly in pooling water at the bottom of a giant furrow) and considers that the road he’s on with its glossy black chips amid the gravel may be merely an access road for the strip mine. Going nowhere, like himself. He doesn’t know why the mines look like that, though he supposes it’s not unlike digging up potatoes with a harrow. Though coal doesn’t grow in rows. Does it? He’s been here for years and knows almost nothing about mining. No miners in his congregation. No owners either, who mostly live elsewhere, one big city or another. An engineer, once. Man who coached the church softball team, but whose main pastime was extended fishing and hunting trips up north. Wife sang in the choir. Had nice legs. Which she showed in a friendly way. He ignores Jesus’ remark. He is an innocent man. This has often gone unappreciated. Maybe too innocent. Miller often railed at him on the subject, saying innocence was the main cause of the mess the world was in. Suffer me no little children. Did Miller say that or did Jesus? Jesus, he recalls, rather liked little children. Some say too much. Not Wesley’s problem. On the contrary.

From the top of the hump, he can see, some distance off, perched on the side of a hill and silhouetted against the drizzly sky, one of those intricate mine structures for tipping and emptying coal cars. Or were they for loading them? What does he know? It does not look like a cross. It looks more like a crazy assemblage from a child’s toybox, but it has the stark lonely aspect of one, and it adds to his melancholy. Must be Deepwater No. 9. He saw it up close only once. The day after the accident. Ninety-eight men dead or buried. Most catastrophic thing to happen to the little town since the early days of the union battles. About which he also knows nothing. He and Debra went out there because it seemed the Christian thing to do. Offer consolation and so on. He felt completely out of place. He knew none of those people and didn’t know how to talk to them. They brushed him aside like the clumsy ineffectual intruder he was. The best he could do was commiserate with other ministers he recognized and offer his church facilities, though for what he couldn’t imagine. He was grateful to see Justin Miller out there, covering the story for his newspaper. He ached for a connection that would make him feel less an outsider. But Miller was tired and ill-humored and belittled him, calling him, in effect, a complacent ill-informed hypocrite. Which he was. What could he say? He went home, didn’t return, though Debra stayed on to serve doughnuts and coffee in the Red Cross canteen. People are suffering, she said when she came home. And we’ve lost touch with them. His response was a Sunday sermon on the spiritual origin of physical matter: i.e., that the carbon in the coal is not from the soil but from the air. Buried sunlight. He’d discovered this in the set of encyclopedias kept in his church office, frequent source of sermon inspiration. Didn’t know why he hadn’t looked up “coal” before. It was created, he’d learned, in the carboniferous age when the Earth was seething hot and the air was saturated with the fine dust of carbon atoms, a time when there were dense forests, trees a hundred feet tall, and forty-foot ferns, bats with wingspreads twenty feet, dragonflies as big as vultures (the grandeur fascinated him and he took notes for other sermons)—“And then: the Earth shrank, the crust wrinkled, forests sank into shallow seas, tons of boiling mud buried millions of green trees in the Earth’s hot maw, mountains pitched upwards, vomiting floods of lava, earthquakes split mountaintops into jagged peaks, seas bubbled — ah! we live, my friends, in a quiet time: 8,500,000 furious years were needed to press out that one bed of coal out there, which we hack out, bring up, burn in minutes — we live, yes, in a quiet time, but at incredible speed…” Debra called his sermon frivolous, an insult to the dead and bereaved (she said that someone, who was either scandalized or laughing, told her they thought he’d said “in the Earth’s hot ma”), and went straight back out to the mine, arriving just as they were bringing up that fellow Bruno, the lone survivor. It’s a miracle, she said when she got back. She was clearly moved.

If that is the Deepwater mine, then he’s not all that far from the old Presbyterian No-Name Wilderness Church Camp. You could see that same mine structure from Inspiration Point. The Presbyterian kids at camp called it the Gate of Hell and threatened to take the little ones over there and drop them down the bottomless pit. “You just keep falling forever and ever and you can’t see anything even with your eyes wide open!” And that hill must be the one where the Brunists gathered to await the end of the world. Another kind of blind forevering. How did he find his way here? To this hump, this vista, this convergence? He reconsiders his abandoned Presbyterian belief in predestination, for he seems to be doing what he has to do, even though he does not know he is doing it. That hill, he knows, is John P. Suggs’ next target. He should warn Cavanaugh, but he owes the man no favors. When Suggs approached him back in the early fall with a fair offer on the old abandoned camp, Wesley was interested. Church camps no longer had much appeal among his Presbyterians and it would require a major investment to make it operational again, even as a rental. Except for the occasional church picnic and the annual sunrise service, it had fallen into complete dilapidation. Debra, having a romantic attachment to the place, objected. She had loved it out there, had often spent days at the camp on her own, cleaning it up, making small repairs. Wesley had felt more comfortable in town, hated the flies and mosquitoes, the dark, the straw ticking and old dust, the privies and communal latrines and showers, the constant worry about snakes and ticks, the burrs, thorns and nettles, the lack of books, poor light, bad food; but the rough life excited Debra. She confessed once that she felt like she was naked all the time out there, or wanted to be. She still had fading hopes the camp could be restored in the way that she still had fading hopes they might have a child. She hated strip mining and said it was his moral duty to protect the camp from such a brutal sacrilege. Then suddenly she changed her mind and urged him to complete the sale. They could use the revenue for her halfway house for troubled teenagers, she said. Her pet project. Her abrupt turnaround was a surprise, but suited him. The sale was approved by the synod, and in early February the papers were signed, turning the land over to the coal baron. Whereupon Colin Meredith turned up with his strange beatific smile and goggle eyes and the conspiratorial whispering between them began.

You were deceived.

It was not something I wanted to think about. I deceived myself.

So what’s going on out there now?

I don’t know.

You have some idea.

I have some idea. A kind of evangelical commune.

You know what I mean.

She loves that camp. Always has. She’s a good camp mom.

Especially for that boy.

He’s an orphan. She’s the mother he never had.

As he’s the child she never had.


You are filled with remorse about that. And you’re jealous. Nonsense.

Those sexy Easter egg hunts, for example. With the boy around, no time for that. Made you angry.

Not angry. Just…disappointed.

Wesley feels wobbly through the middle. Is Jesus laughing? He’s probably imagining all those eggs splattered against the kitchen walls. Easter hilarity. The expulsion of unclean spirits was one of Jesus’ best tricks. Wesley needs a similar sort of exorcist to rid himself of the indwelling Christ, buried within him for three days now with no sign of rising. Anyway, it’s not just that stupid boy. The decline of the egg game has been going on for some time. Though Debra has continued to hide Easter eggs for him each year till this, she had already stopped — well before that end-of-the-world carnival over there — hiding the last one between her thighs. Hiding and revealing. The World-Egg, she used to call it. As was their youthful fancy, her wishful thinking. He didn’t object to her withdrawal. It was becoming all too testing anyway. Over the years, she had become less warm to him, more impatient, was adding a chin, her eggnest thighs were spreading, the enticing little gap in there had closed. The bloom, as they say, was off the rose.

The bizarre events of that Sunday gathering of the cult on the mine hill five years ago happened without him. He did not go out there and did not watch the coverage, retreating to his office in the church. He had a sermon to deliver, even if to a half-empty auditorium. No doubt another pretty piece of his trademark nonsense. Maybe he looked up “delusions” in the church encyclopedia. The Brunists embarrassed him. He felt exposed by them, as if his faith were being mocked by their nutty extremism. Miller in fact made a comment to him much to that effect. Debra was irritable with him — she still hadn’t forgiven him for the Colin Meredith episode a few days earlier, would never — and stayed glued to the television after the service, finally going on out to help care for the injured. Fulfilling her Christian duty, as he thought of it at the time, though in truth, the rift between them was opening; she was finding a cause and he was not it. She visited Colin in the mental hospital every week or two thereafter, close to a hundred-mile drive each way, exchanged letters with him between visits, his being mostly protestations of his sanity and complaints about his treatment, sent him packets of food and clothing. Finally, after a year or so, she secured his release and brought him back to the manse, making it clear there was nothing Wesley could do about it. She openly mothered the boy, cuddling him in her soft bosom when he cried or got hysterical, feeding him when he seemed not to want to eat, washing his clothes and buying him new ones, reading to him from the Bible and saying his bedtime prayers with him, all of which Wesley indulged with Christian forbearance while expecting worse to come. Inevitably, it did, and it was back to the mental hospital for Colin. Debra tried to shield the boy, but Wesley had seen all and said no. The hospital visits resumed—“They’re torturing him up there,” Debra protested tearfully — but when Colin was released once more, Wesley put his foot down. In front of the front door. Debra was furious, screaming at him that he was worse than the Antichrist. Colin assumed his familiar pose of the sorrowful martyr and promptly vanished. Debra blamed Wesley for a catalog of imagined horrors, though, as it turned out, Colin had simply hitchhiked to California where some of his fellow cultists had settled. The letters resumed.

If Wesley’s own fate has brought him here today like a severed head on a platter, whither now is it taking him? This dirt road may lead to the camp. Is he meant to follow it? To what end? Does he want her back? He does not. She took the car when she went. Does he want it back? It would be useful right now, it’s a long walk back, but wet’s wet, it hardly matters. But how is he going to fulfill his pastoral duties without it? He is not going to fulfill them, with it or not.

How will you get food and drink?

If I get hungry, I’ll order out pizza.

And if they come to get you as they came for me?

Ah…good question…

Remember the old rule of the prophet, my son. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.

He pauses. He is standing in the middle of the road, worn away to hard greasy clay here at the crest of the little hump, staring out through the downpour on the vast barren desolation and the fateful mine hill beyond, and he feels a momentary horror in his heart. But also a thrill, and something like illumination. Am I a prophet then?

Have I not said? Why do you not understand what I say? I have appointed you! You only have I chosen!

A prophet. That is to say, a truth teller. His life, yes, is beginning to make sense. He has always felt some special mission awaited him. “You will do great things, Wesley,” his mother often said. He has come here to this hillock in the rain to receive the news. He understands better now the nature of his recent crisis, his forty days in the wilderness of his own confused and troubled thoughts. They are still rather confused and troubled, but the pattern gradually being revealed is heartening. If he didn’t invent it all himself. How could he have? He’s not smart enough. But he is getting smarter. A kind of wisdom is descending on him. He has a purpose now; his self-confidence is returning. He’s not sure what he’ll have to say, but he is certain it will be important.

Let not your heart be troubled, my son. What to say will be given to you. I will be your mouth and teach you. I will give you words that no one can withstand! I will make my words in your mouth a fire! He knew this would be the Christ’s reply. Such thoughts have been on his mind since this dialogue began. Not consciously, but underneath. That he might be being used by some power beyond him. Even if it does not exist. If that makes sense. The pride in that. But also the fear of losing control over his own thoughts. Prophets do not merely tell the truth, they are possessed by the truth. He has used all these lines in sermons and they have come back to haunt him. Or, as Jesus would say, perhaps is saying, they have come back to recreate him. Is he ready for this? He is still hopeful, but the sudden surge of self-confidence is draining away. He is cold and wet and tired. He had not realized how tired he was. He wants to return to the manse. Perhaps he can figure things out tomorrow. He can read Kierkegaard again.

No, says Jesus, listen to me. Forget the past. I declare new things. The old has passed away, the new has come. Let us proceed.

He glances back over his shoulder as if to survey that which has passed away and sees the banker’s tall, lanky son a few hundred yards down the road, standing under an umbrella on a small plank bridge over the ditch.

They’re after you. You should have paid heed to that line from Psalms: Muzzle your mouth before the wicked.

I know. But I don’t seem able completely to control myself.

Even as he says this, or thinks it, he is charging down the hill straight at the boy, glaring fiercely. The boy staggers back a step, looks around as though pretending to be sightseeing or searching for some place to hide. “Crazy weather, eh, Reverend Edwards?” Tommy says awkwardly as Wesley storms up. “In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor!” Wesley shouts in righteous fury, removing at last the pipestem from his mouth and pointing it at the boy. “Let them be caught in the schemes which they themselves have devised!” The boy looks somewhat aghast. “Really? I–I don’t know what you mean, Reverend Edwards.” The minister lowers his voice. “You are a wicked, boy, Tommy Cavanaugh. Beware. The wicked will not go unpunished. It’s God’s law.” And he turns abruptly on his heel and strides back down the gravel road through the worsening storm toward town. Tomorrow will begin tomorrow. For now he needs a hot bath.

Wesley had left the manse in a state of egg-spattered squalor following upon three days of serious neglect and abuse, and it is that sad state which greets him when he returns, there being no magic in the world, though by leaving the lights off (nobody home) he is able to dismiss the worst of it to shadow. “Let there be dark!” he says. More than three days of neglect. Debra traditionally does her spring housecleaning the first half of Easter week, but this year those energies were devoted to getting the Brunists moved in. Likewise, all their supplies; he’d seen her empty out the cupboards under the sink and bundle the stuff to the car. So, that’s right, he couldn’t really clean the place up properly if he wanted to. Good, forget it. The prophet’s drear unkempt hovel. Which he has entirely to himself now. There’s a certain melancholy in this, and a certain elation. He runs himself a hot bath, strips off his wet garments and throws them on the pile of other wet garments, and—“I stand naked before the Lord!” he declares to the silent house, and Jesus replies good-naturedly (they are coming to an understanding): Nakedness will not separate you from the love of Christ, my son! — settles his cold shivering body (now, as it were, the humble abode of the Master) into the hot water for a long healing soak and a solemn meditation on the nature of his new vocation.

While walking home through the deluged town (the drains are clogged, the potholed streets are like running rivers, the desolate little town is in deep decay; no one cares), Jesus brought him the new evangel: the end has already happened. It was something Wesley already knew, has always known, and yet, walking through the cold rain down deserted streets in a numbed body, it was a revelation. He was thinking about the Brunists and their apocalyptic visions to which his wife has been drawn, and Jesus said: They are prophets of the past. That’s old news. The world has already ended. In fact, it ended when it began. This is not merely a post-Christian or post-historical world, as some of those people you’ve been reading say, it is a post-world world. We are born into our deaths, my son, which have already happened. I am the first and the last, he said, acknowledging John the Seer who he said was blind as a bat, the beginning and the end, and so are you. We are not, but only think we are. Our actions are nothing more than the mechanical rituals of the mindless dead. This is the truth. Go forth and prophesy.

A prophet, Wesley knows (he has preached on this), does not see into the future, he simply sees the inner truth of the eternal present more clearly than others. He understands what Jesus is saying. He knows that he was born into death. Sure. This makes sense. Someone he read back in college said as much. All beginnings contain their own endings and are contained by them. It is his calling now to bring this truth to the world, or at least to this place on earth where he has been found, and to reveal all the hypocrisy and injustice and corruption and expose the madness of sectarian conflict which has no foundation. To what end such endeavor? There are no further ends; the question is irrelevant. Ignorance is sin and this town is full of it, for every man is stupid and without knowledge, as Jesus has reminded him. That’s all one needs to know. Thus, his feelings of failure and unworthiness are being transcended by a new sense of mission. His life, thought wasted, is acquiring meaning. Direction. Procrastination, the cause until now of much regret, can be seen in retrospect as a patient waiting for the spirit to descend. He would perhaps prefer to continue his ministry as of old (it ensures the comfort of hot baths, for example), but it’s too late for that. Actions have been taken, in particular his own, and, like Adam before him (Adam did not eat the apple, the apple ate him), he has to live with their consequences. If one can speak of consequences in a world that has already ended. He is somewhat overwhelmed by all this heady speculation and fearful that he might be inadequate to the charge laid upon him — he was only a B student, after all. But at the same time he feels he has indeed been chosen, if not by Jesus, then by his genes, and he knows that, either way, there is nothing he can do about it. Thus, he’s a Presbyterian after all.

He also understands that he who has taken up residence within is not so much the Risen Christ, about whom there are still doubts, as the suffering Jesus who was betrayed and forsaken. He too has suffered and has been betrayed and forsaken. They share this. Which explains in part why Jesus has chosen him. I have chosen you out of the world, he said. I can see you are a prophet, for you bear the wounds of one.

With the Lord, Jesus says now, a thousand years are sometimes as one day, and sometimes a day is as a thousand years. This day has been more like the latter. One wonders if it will ever end.

I have often wondered the same each year on this day. Even now I should be doing baptisms, christenings, evening services, who knows what all. All in celebration of your rising.

What’s there to celebrate?

Did you not arise from the dead?

No, Jesus says with what might be a sigh (it causes bubbles in the bath water). My time has not yet come. Is it not evident? What would I be doing lodged in here if it had? It has been one insufferable tomb after another.

Then it has all been a lie! A fabrication!

No, no, my son. Remember your Golden Bough. Truth is not fact. Don’t confuse myth and history.

But the Bible says—

Wishful thinking. Mine, everybody’s. You know better than to trust that book. I’m still waiting. Though I have no expectations. Perhaps waiting is the wrong word.

But they saw you! They said so!

Did they? People will say anything to draw a crowd.

“No, they didn’t see me, Wesley. I promise. I was careful.” It is not Jesus Christ who has said this. It is Priscilla Tindle standing in his bathroom door. Drenched, her wet hair in her eyes. “I have been so worried about you. I came here right after church but you weren’t here.”

“But how did you get in? I thought the door was locked.”

“It was. I came in the back door. The garden gate was bolted, but it’s easy to scale. Are you all right? Somebody has thrown eggs all over your kitchen wall.”

“I know. I did. I was trying…to understand something…”

“I didn’t mean to intrude, Wesley. But I had to warn you. I heard Ralph talking with Ted Cavanaugh. They’re going to send you to a mental hospital. They plan to ask Debra to sign the committal papers. They’re also recruiting the entire Board of Deacons as backup witnesses. That’s why they talked to Ralph about it.”

This is not a surprise. He and Jesus have surmised the same. Even now, Jesus is saying: Have I not so prophesied? All the same, it is an alarming prospect. He remembers Debra’s tales of poor Colin. Electric shock treatments: What do they do to you? And what if that’s not all? Is her signature enough to authorize a lobotomy? They will destroy his creativity and thwart his mission. How can he prophesy from inside a mental institution? Who will take him seriously? “Tell me. Do you think I’m crazy?”

“No, Wesley. You’re different. But I believe in you. You’re the most sane man I know.”

“Who do you say,” he asks speculatively, “that I am?”

“You are a saint, Wesley. A noble and kind and wonderful man. A teacher. When I came to you for help, you told me about the megalo-psychoi. The great-souled ones. You are one of those.” She is standing in the room now and removing her wet clothes. Jesus is remarking on her lithe, interesting body. She and her husband Ralph were both once dancers and she is still in good shape. When she came to him for religious counseling (she confessed: “I don’t think my husband is completely a man…”), it somehow got a little too personal. Perhaps because he had tried to explain to her, in his best pastoral manner, the nature of the male erection. He remembers standing in his office in the middle of this well-intended disquisition, gazing meditatively out the window onto the church parking lot where some boys were playing kick-the-can, with his pipe in his mouth and his pants around his ankles, Priscilla passionately hugging his bottom, his penis in her mouth, and though he wasn’t sure just how it had got in there, by that time it didn’t make much sense to take it out again. The affair, though brief, was sinful and it pained him, but it was also hugely satisfying and was a deeply loving relationship. She really understood him in a way that no woman had before. I know what you mean, Jesus says. “I’m ready to do anything for you,” Prissy whispers, peeling down her leotards. Jesus makes an Eastertide remark about hot cross buns that is not entirely in character. “I adore you, Wesley.”

She steps into the tub and kneels between his feet and commences to wash them, one at a time. And then she lifts them and kisses them. “You are so beautiful,” she says. “You are the most beautiful man I have ever known.” When she says this, she is gazing affectionately past his feet at his middle parts, which are beginning to stir as though in enactment of the day’s legend. It is not hard to prophesy what will happen next. Is he being tested? Be anxious for nothing, Jesus says. As it is written, no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. She has a car, she can be helpful to us. I, too, have known the company of helpful women of dubious morals. So, accept her gift with a willing heart, do not disparage it, for every good and perfect gift is, as they say, from above. Remember, as it is written in the scriptures, she who receives a prophet as a prophet should receive a prophet’s reward.

I.3 Easter Sunday 29 March

The sumptuous baked-ham Easter feast at the International Brunist Headquarters and Wilderness Camp Meeting Ground has long since been consumed, but the rain, which has done what it could to spoil their morning, is still thundering down in the afternoon. There was talk at the meal about carrying on with the electrical work in spite of the rain and even though it was the Sabbath and the Easter Sabbath at that (but working for the camp is not working, as Ben Wosznik always says, it is a kind of devotion), and now the two recently arrived ex-coalminers from West Virginia, Hovis and Uriah, waking up in their camper from their afternoon snooze, are trying to remember whether Wayne Shawcross said that if the rain stops they will start working again, or if he said that they will start working again even if the rain doesn’t stop. Certainly they still have a lot to do before tomorrow night’s big ceremony and maybe Wayne is waiting for them. Wayne is a good man and they do not want to let him down. “I’ll go ask him,” Uriah says, and he leaves the camper. After he is gone, Hovis notices that Uriah left without his raggedy old rain slicker, so he takes it off the hook and goes looking for him. He finds him standing in the mud and rain, all alone, up by the darkened Meeting Hall, but when Uriah, surprised by his arrival, asks him what he’s doing here, Hovis, with a puzzled glance over his shoulder, says he doesn’t know. Uriah, peering at him through the curtain of cascading rain, admits he doesn’t remember why he’s here either. “I’m lookin’ for somebody, I reckon,” he says, peering about, “but they must of left. That my slicker?” “Yep. That’s right, Uriah. I brung it to you. It’s rainin’.” “But where’s yourn?” “Shoot. I must of forgot it.” “Then you better wear mine.” “No, you’re older’n me, you git it on.” “But your rheumatiz is worse’n mine, Hovis, you wear it.” They argue about that, passing the slicker back and forth in the rain, until Uriah pulls out his gold pocket watch and gazes at it quizzically and says: “I recollect now. We was agoin’ to see Willie Hall.” “We was?” “Yup. Come along now. And put this old slicker on, Hovis, afore you catch your death.”

The man they seek has just left the bedroom at the back of the Halls’ mobile home and stepped forward into the lounge and kitchenette area, his suspenders hanging loosely from his belt loops, to announce to the ladies gathered around his wife in there: “And it come to pass meantimes, that the Heavens they was black with clouds’n wind, and they was a awful great rain! First Kings 18!” Then he returns to the bedroom. The women acknowledge this intrusion without remark, for they are well accustomed to Willie Hall’s quirks and talents. The little fellow knows only one book, but he knows it well, as well as anyone, and, as it is God’s book, they all agree he needs no other, nor for that matter do they. He also reminds them in his way that, although the things that happen in the Bible happened a long time ago, they are also, being eternal things, like those contained in Mabel’s cards, happening right now.

It is Sunday and Mabel Hall does not, by a rule admittedly often broken, read the cards on Sundays. But yesterday, the day of the Harrowing of Hell — when the Lord, gone underground, is not among them — she did so, using the simple five-card spread she prefers when considering less personal questions. Yesterday’s was, “What will happen three weeks from now on April 19th, the fifth anniversary of the Day of Redemption?” And there was much there on her card table to feel cheerful about — the upright Sun appeared right off, smack dab in the middle, proud as punch, and the happy communal Ten of Cups showed up last as the wild card of the far future, boding well for their growing church — but there was also, inevitably, a hovering darkness (visible in this case in the figure of the Knight of Wands standing on his head), because, as Mabel often remarks in her quiet little girl’s voice, the future, however rosy, always casts a dark shadow, that darkness into which all must descend, even if, hopefully, to ascend thereafter into glory.

A shadowed joy is how one might describe all the long month they’ve been here. When they first arrived — just six couples and their children in house trailers and caravans and the two office boys in their car — there was snow on the ground and the trees were black with ice and there was nothing here but utter ruin and desolation. The old summer camp cabins full of rot and excrement and vermin and broken glass, a main lodge with its roof half caved in, its old generator wrecked, no phone or proper toilet facilities, thick dead overgrowth and mounds of frozen rubbish everywhere. There was well water on the premises, but the pump handles were broken, and the cisterns and creek were frozen up; until they could get the pumps working, water had to be brought in in gallon jugs and old milk cans or melted from snow and ice. The abandoned camp had apparently been used for drinking parties, judging by the litter, and there were obscenities and blasphemies scrawled on the lodge and cabin walls and there were rotting mattresses on the floors and all the windows were busted out, even the screens. Its sorry state did not dismay them; they just set to work making a home for themselves in the wilderness. For, if anyone asks you to go one mile, as Jesus said, go two. They have done so. They had no end of volunteers wanting to come stand with them and help them build their new world center, but they feared drawing attention to themselves in a place where Satan’s power is strong and people, so cruel to them in the past, hate them much as Jesus was hated. For sinners, the truth is a dreadful thing, as Clara has often said, and they will attempt to crush it by any means at hand. With Mr. Suggs’ offer of extra workers, they have been able to keep their core group small and secretive and, except for the two Bible college boys managing the church office, limited to skilled construction workers with their own campers or mobile homes, for as it’s said, with the help of God, few are many. Ever since they pulled in, they have been working from before dawn to after dark, working so hard it has sometimes been hard to stop and recollect what it all means that they are doing this. It was like something had got hold of them and wouldn’t let go, and they supposed it must have been like that for the early settlers when they first came through.

They were met here at the camp on their Leap Day arrival by the West Condon Presbyterian minister’s wife, Mrs. Edwards, who, working quietly with Mr. Suggs, had made it possible for them to acquire the campgrounds in the first place, bless her soul. She was not alone that night. It was the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Night of the Sign, the night that their Prophet set everything in motion — exactly seven weeks after his miraculous rescue from the mine disaster, seven before he led them up the Mount of Redemption; Willie has often recited Bible passages to let them know why this was so and how thereby it was prophesied in God’s word — so it was like a sign from Heaven that Mrs. Edwards, her conversion itself a sign from Heaven, had in her company young First Follower Colin Meredith. He was, like Mabel and Willie, Clara and her daughter Elaine, one of the twelve witnesses of that fateful night (the Sign was a death, it was very sudden and very frightening and made Mabel’s knees shake, nothing in her cards had ever alarmed her so), a boy unseen since his brutal kidnapping the week before the Day of Redemption and rumored to have been tortured and killed. Mrs. Edwards and the boy, holding up a gas lantern, were waiting for them at the front door of the old wrecked lodge with a hot cooked supper in a picnic basket, a trunkload of groceries, extra dishware and utensils, spare flashlights, linens and blankets, cleaning supplies, aspirin and cold tablets, and even a fresh-baked cherry pie. They looked like angels there under that lantern in that dark place. The little advance guard of Brunists had been traveling all day and they were cold and tired and a trifle dismayed by the camp’s state of ruin as they entered it, but the affectionate welcome warmed their hearts and turned gloom to festivity. Willie loudly recited verses from the Moses story about getting fed manna in the wilderness, and Clara hugged the woman and the boy and found herself near to tears because everything she’d dreamt of was coming true and her gratitude was overflowing. Mrs. Edwards showed them where to park their motorhomes down on the old baseball playing field and they all feasted together in great joy.

All this they have been explaining to Bernice Filbert, visiting from town, who has inquired about the presence among them of the rich folks’ preacher’s wife and the boy. “I know them Pressyb’terians is a biggity lot,” says Ludie Belle Shawcross, still wearing her stained apron from preparing and serving the Easter dinner, “but that lady she works like a slavey and she’s all heart. The boy he is a orphant and she has took him in like her own youngun. He calls her his mama, first he ever had.”

Bernice nods but she does not seem satisfied. She is dressed, as she usually is, like a lady from the Bible. Because today is Easter, she has told them, she is wearing the same clothes that the Other Mary wore on the day the stone got rolled away and she witnessed the Miracle of the Empty Tomb. It is a simple sepia wrap with a hair clip pinning up one shoulder, a brown sash at the waist and a headscarf to match. Bernice has left her muddy galoshes and medical bag by the door, not part of her Other Mary getup. Her painted-on eyebrows are arched like she’s just had a big surprise, like the surprise the Other Mary must have got when she stuck her nose in. “I was wondering if something was ailing the boy,” Bernice says. “He seems all skittery, like as he might have some mental virus.”

“He is strange,” Mabel says softly, her fingers twitching faintly as if laying out cards, “but he is a chosen one.”


“He knows things.”

“His thin little hands is near as smooth as unwrote-on paper and a mortal task to cipher,” says Hazel Dunlevy, the wife of the carpenter Travers Dunlevy. Hazel is a palm reader, small and pretty with a drowsy way of speaking. She always seems to be just waking up. The driver’s seat of the Halls’ caravan and the seat beside it swivel to serve as extra chairs in the tiny sitting area, and she and Glenda Oakes are perched up there, their backs to the streaming windshield, Glenda’s gold tooth gleaming in the shadow of her face. “They ain’t a line on neither palm that’s whole nor straight, just little choppy wiggly bits you cain’t almost see, crisscrossing into each other like ghostly stitchery,” Hazel says with a soft yawn. “The pore thing is purty ghostly hisself and don’t seem hopeful to live long.”

Bernice nods again, more satisfied. Her being among them is an exception to the rule about outsiders, as they have mostly avoided their friends from hereabouts so as not to give out too loud that they are here, but one day one of the little Dunlevy boys stepped on a rusty nail and needed a tetanus shot and when Hazel told Clara, she said: “Ask Ben to go find Bernice.” Bernice is a practical nurse who works part-time at the hospital when she’s not caring for sick folks at their houses. Like so many of their friends, like Clara herself, she is a woman widowed by the Deepwater mine disaster, and for a short time she was a Brunist and maybe still is, though it’s hard to tell. She is what Mabel calls a trifle enigmatic. She gave the little boy his lockjaw shot, washed the nail puncture, painted it with mercurochrome, and dabbed it with her miracle water, and though you could hear him yowling all the way to the other side of the Appalachias while she was doing that, he was soon up and running around as if hunting out more nails to step on. Bernice comes out to the camp regularly now to treat cuts and bruises and the common fevers of the little ones, and to bring them gossip from town, which likely travels both ways. They try to be cautious in what they say but probably they are not. Bernice still goes to their old Nazarene church Bible readings, dressed usually for the reading of the day, and so almost certainly their secret is out. She also works as a home care nurse and at present is attending the critically ill wife of the town banker, whom all remember as the evil one who was the powerful cause of so many of their troubles. Bernice says Mr. Cavanaugh is truly a mean bully as wicked as Holofernes, but Mrs. Cavanaugh is an abused and pathetic creature with an aptitude for true religion, and they should pray for her.

The heavy rain, which washed out their sunrise service up on Inspiration Point, is still rattling steadily on the roof of the caravan when there’s suddenly a loud knock on the door, as if it were the bridegroom knocking, which makes everyone jump, and when Mabel opens the door, there standing in the downpour are those two elderly ex-coalminers who drove in from West Virginia a few days ago in their camper. For some reason, one of them is carrying a raincoat instead of wearing it. Mabel invites them in, but the one with the raincoat says, “No, ma’am. We’re jest soppin’, we’d puddle up your place. We only come a-lookin’ for Willie.” “Tell him we’re here,” the other one says. “He’s anticipatin’ us.” Mabel pads in her house slippers to the rear of the caravan, then pads back. “He must of forgot. He’s dead asleep.” The two old fellows look perplexedly at Mabel, at each other, at the sky, at her. One of them consults his fob watch, nods, thanks her, and they trudge off into the storm.

Those two old miners asked to be baptized by light this morning in the Brunist way, their church’s most beautiful and particular ceremony. Wanda’s man Hunk Rumpel had built a roaring fire in the great stone fireplace to stand against the damp morning chill and, though thunder cracked and rain pummeled the new roof high overhead and lashed the windows, there was much rejoicing as they prayed and sang together, snug and safe from the storm — from all storms — for they were met together to undertake a grand enterprise, a blessed enterprise, and the success of that undertaking could be seen all around them. It was Clara Collins-Wosznik herself, their Evangelical Leader and Organizer, who conducted the baptism with her martyred husband’s mining lamp, using the occasion to recall the white bird that appeared to Jesus at the moment of his own baptism, and the white bird that came to her dying husband Ely in the mine to inspire his last words, the founding document of their young church, now hanging on the chimney wall, and also the white bird witnessed by all the early Brunist Followers on the Night of the Sacrifice, perched on a telephone cable over the ditch where the poor saintly girl lay dying, now the subject of a famous painting. Clara reminded everyone there in the lamplit morning dark of their late Prophet’s commands to “Baptize with light!” and of Paul’s admonition: “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.” “For the children of light,” she declared in her clear strong voice, honed over the past half decade of missionary travels, “they won’t have to die!” “Praise be to Lord Jesus!” the others shouted back and the thunder rattled the windowpanes. “This is the Easter message, it is Christ Jesus’ message, it is Giovanni Bruno’s message, it is Ely Collins’ message, and it is our message! Give thanks to our Father, who has brung us together here into the wilderness, outa the wilderness — has brung us home!” And then her second husband, Ben Wosznik, stood up, his guitar strapped over his shoulder, to sing his glorious new Easter song, “When Christ Rose Up Death Died.” “And when the tomb was opened/Lord, it cannot be denied/There poured out the purest light/When Christ rose up, death died!” Their hearts were wrenched with the beauty of it.

Now into their midst once more comes Mabel’s husband Willie, suspenders dangling as before, shirttails out, his eyes swollen with sleep. He clears his throat and, scratching his narrow chest, declares, “And the Lord God a hosts is him what touches the land, and the land it’ll melt’n rise up like as a flood! Lord Jesus! It’s him what calls for the waters a the sea, and pours ’em out ’pon the face a the earth: The Lord is his name, ay-men! Amos 9:5–6!” When he is done, Mabel tells him that the two fellows from out east were here looking for him, and he nods and returns to the back, drawing up his suspenders. “Oh dear. Maybe I shouldn’t of told him. Now he’s gonna go out there in that rain.”

“He’ll be all right,” Ludie Belle says. “It’s easin’ up.”

Glenda and Hazel glance over their shoulders through the wet windshield and see that the rain has stopped and the men have come out in their heavy boots and are inspecting the channels they’ve dug for the underground wiring, tracking them through the mud up toward the Meeting Hall. The plumber Welford Oakes turns and sees his wife Glenda staring at him through the caravan’s front window with her good eye, her glass eye catching the hazy light from the brightening sky, and he grins and blows her a kiss and she turns away. Hazel Dunlevy, sitting beside her, shrugs and waves at her husband Travers when he turns around, and then the two men continue on up through the dripping trees along with Ben Wosznik and Wayne Shawcross to see what the storm has done.

“I got tangled up with the pillow and waked up this morning from a nightmare in which Wayne here was a-tryin’ to rip my head off,” Welford says. “I made the mistake a sayin’ so when Glenda asked what I was yellin’ about, and she said that only means I got a way a dodgin’ the truth and I act afore I think, and I said well, maybe, but it hurt more’n that.”

“Your Glenda got Hazel in a tizz,” Travers says, “by tellin’ her that a dream about gettin’ to Heaven and flyin’ around with the angels was really about her knowin’ down deep she ain’t never gonna get there, and then she told her some scary stuff about them angels which Hazel won’t even tell me about. Dang near ruint her. She ain’t been able to sleep good ever since.”

“My lady can be a trial and a terror,” Welford says. “Basically, she don’t believe in happy dreams, it’s bad news whatever, somethin’ her ole lady laid on her early. So I’ve learnt to shut up ‘ceptin’ when I forget.”

They find that some of the trenches they’d dug for the underground wiring but had not yet sealed up are running with water, like canals seen from the sky, and the uncovered lantern bowls have pooled up, but, though the ground is soft and soggy, all the lamp posts seem to be standing true and nothing has shifted. Welford asks after Hovis and Uriah, and Wayne says he sent the old boys over to his house trailer for hot showers. “They wandered out into the rain and got lost somehow. Their rags was stuck to ’em like another skin. But it seems to’ve let up. Figger we can sweep out the trenches and carry on?”

“Whatever you say, Wayne. Sure as heck don’t wanta get my head tore off.”

The camp’s new system of streetlamps is Wayne’s pet project. He has installed circuit boards inside the janitorial supplies closet off the Meeting Hall entryway, fed with power from the old Deepwater mine, accessed by over four miles of underground and overground cable, crossing county roads, ditches, and wooded land; a massive challenge, but, thanks to Mr. Suggs, they have had outside help for that from his own strip-mine crews and their heavy equipment as well as from members of the private militia he sponsors, the Christian Patriots, who are mostly the same persons. The Meeting Hall with its kitchen, office, and spare rooms has its own circuit board and there is another for all the cabins, the carpentry shop, the new laundry room, and whatever comes next. But incoming cables have also been directly connected to a separate distribution board and from there they have laid wire underground through these foot-deep trenches to new tubular steel streetlamp posts, donated to them by their Florida congregations and set up throughout the camp. Wayne has strung wire through the posts and they have dug three-foot holes for them with a post hole auger borrowed from Mr. Suggs and planted them squarely on the bottom on beds of gravel and staked them there in their upright positions. When the lanterns are in place on top, it will be possible to turn the lights on all at once or by sections or from inside the lanterns one at a time. All that remains before tomorrow night is to pack the post holes tightly and pull the stakes, empty out the bowls and attach the lanterns to the tops of the columns, and finally test all the switches and circuits, and if they don’t finish it today, they still have all day tomorrow before sundown. They are all looking forward to this camp-lighting ceremony with great excitement, amazed at their own accomplishments. It will seem like a regular little city then, bright shining as the sun.

In her cabin next to the old lodge, the minister’s wife, watching them work with such enthusiasm, understands their excitement and that of all her other new friends, but she does not fully share it. She loved the camp just as it was. Just as it was ten years ago, that is. She is grateful that circumstances have made it possible to rescue her favorite place on earth from what had seemed terminal ruin, and she is infinitely happy here in their little cabin, far from the outside world, with Colin safe and under her constant care, but the camp that was wholly hers is no longer hers. When Wesley first took up his ministry in West Condon, they were still holding summer church camps, and she was out here year round, making it ready, welcoming young campers, overseeing its rentals to other denominations, cleaning up after they’d gone. Debra cared little for most church duties in town, though she got used to them, but she loved the camp, and she often came out on her own at this time of year to air out the lodge and cabins, clean up the litter of off-season intruders, do some weeding and painting and creosoting of the cabins and tidy up the picnic areas, feeling more at home here than in their own home, which was really not theirs at all but more like an annex of the church. She liked using the outhouses and bathing in the creek and picking berries and chopping wood for the fireplace and the old wood cookstove and, above all, just walking through the campgrounds, day or night, often wearing nothing but her working gloves and mosquito repellant. She even loved the rain, the chattery patter of it on the cabin roof, the thin tinny sound it made when falling on the creek like insects walking on glass. And the insects, she loved the insects, their hopeful abundance, the chittery songs they sang. She felt closer to God out here, and though in town she could be quite skeptical and lighthearted about ultimate things, out here she knew she was a true believer. And Wesley, too, seemed to love it and love her in it. He was so passionate out here — the way he looked at her then, all over! — she was sure they were going to have a baby. They bathed together in the creek, soaping each other up, and sometimes made love in broad daylight among the flowers in Bluebell Valley, the sun beaming down on them, warming their bodies with its excited gaze. Even peeing together thrilled her, walking naked hand in hand under the stars did. Of course she still had her figure then, and her nakedness thrilled her even when he wasn’t with her. Well, it still does.

Wesley lost interest in the camp when he lost interest in her and that was when everything started to fall apart. The generator broke down, a fungus invaded the communal shower. Vandals toppled the outhouses, left a scatter of broken beer bottles. She did what she could, but he rarely helped, paid little attention to the work she did, and he looked away when her clothes came off. When he complained to the Board of Deacons about the malodorous unappealing condition of the collapsing camp and requested a complete renovation, she sensed that it was she he was describing. He was disappointed; she was also disappointed. They refused to meet his budget request and he peremptorily closed the camp. On health and safety grounds, he said. She got angry about that, but he just puffed on his little pipe and went off on his pastoral errands. For a time she continued to come out on her own to care for the camp, but it grew away from her and she gradually lost heart. She never stopped loving it, though. And now at last, in an unexpected way, if it is not exactly hers again, she is, as before, its residing spirit.

In her love, she mapped the entire campgrounds in her head and learned the names of the trees and flowers and when they budded and bloomed, and became acquainted with the songs and calls and plumage and even the migration patterns and nesting habits of the birds that pass through or live here, using their calls as her own clock, and she has that back again. The world, someone has said, is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning; she believes that and lives by it, a devoted reader. There is everything out here from little wrens, finches, and song sparrows, to redwinged blackbirds, whistling bobwhites, woodpeckers, and the family of great horned owls, who have been here for years, helping to keep the vermin population down. Goldfinches, cardinals and bluejays have already been customers at her new bird feeders, painting the gray days with their primary colors, and on Good Friday she spotted a little tail-pumping silvery phoebe down by the creek.

On the excuse that she hopes to enlarge it and eventually turn it into her longed-for halfway house for troubled teenagers, Debra has appropriated for herself and Colin the old camp director’s cabin on a slight rise overlooking the lodge, a bit larger than the others with a small extra room, though she told a little white lie and said it had been the cabin for the janitorial staff and their tools, not to seem too greedy. It is the cabin that she and Wesley always used, and that was her home out here, whether or not he was with her, he often feeling like her guest as she was his guest in the manse. She has paid for the restoration and furnishing of her cabin completely out of her own pocket, hers and Wesley’s, has bought all the paint, tools, insulation materials, window glass, the space heater and linoleum, even the electric plugs, and has done much of the work herself. The men helped her replace the rotted steps and roof of the little front porch, built to accommodate the slope, and Welford Oakes has promised to plumb fresh water in straight from the cistern when they do so for the Meeting Hall, so she has also bought a small sink unit and faucets. “Get you connected up proper,” he said with a wink. She scraped away the old mud dauber nests under the eaves, oiled the hinges of the awning window frames, tacked up insulating plastic over the window screens to keep out the cold and allow a little privacy, and hung all her favorite pictures from the manse on the walls. Not religious pictures, not in the usual sense, but pictures of rivers and mountains and fields, a robin on a tree limb, a toad at the edge of a creek, a shimmering lake hugged by a pine forest. Religious to her.

The rain has let up. Perhaps Colin will come home now. If he is still too restless to stay inside, they can put their boots on and take a walk down by the creek, which must be leaping its banks. They can see if the little phoebe is safe in her nest. The rain for Debra is like an extra cloak wrapped around her private space; for Colin it’s more like a strait-jacket, poor child. Except when sleeping, he is in constant motion, as though to escape the constraints so cruelly imposed upon him during his imprisonment in the mental hospital, and storms particularly unsettle him. “I’m sorry!” he cried after one thunderclap, and ducked as if warding off a blow. His anguish sometimes makes her cry. This afternoon he has dashed out through the mud and rain to the church office in the Meeting Hall to be with Darren and Billy Don, dashed back to make sure she was still here, then back again to the office, and here again and back, giggling faintly, but terrified, too. Everything so new, so exciting, so delightful, so frightening. It is certainly the strangest Easter she has ever spent, but she knows she has done the right thing. A new beginning, just what Easter means. She hid chocolate eggs this morning for Colin, but had to put them in obvious places for he quickly lost interest in the game. He bit into one of them, left the rest on her bed, was out the door. He was back in time to be cleaned up and dressed for the morning church service, which was beautiful, as was the Easter dinner which followed — intimate, warm, festive. She’d bought and baked the hams for it and had let Colin supply the dessert — his abandoned chocolate eggs — and they all gave him a round of applause, which so pleased him.

Though they have only been living in the cabin for three days, they have been part of the community all month. She and the boy greeted the first arrivals on Leap Day’s Night with food and water and medicine, and since then she has brought them carloads of linens, blankets, pots and pans, brooms and dustpans, toilet paper and paper towels, bugspray, air fresheners, all the things she has collected over the years for the manse and no longer needs there. The day after they drove in turned out to be the anniversary of the Night of the Sign, “when six became twelve,” as she was told (so much to learn!), and she attended her first Brunist service. She came out to the camp every day after that, Wesley too self-absorbed even to notice her absences. She worked feverishly on her own cabin so as to be able to move out as soon as possible and rescue Colin, who was temporarily sleeping on the office floor with Darren and Billy Don, but she also helped the others in every way she could, showing them around the grounds, explaining what things were for and how they were named, helping Clara with the composing of letters to the Followers, and making shopping trips, often with her own money. She has almost singlehandedly taken on the task of cleaning up the entire campsite after years of neglect and desecration, removing litter and rubbish to the dump in the trunk of her car or in Ben Wosznik’s pickup, pruning bushes and dead tree limbs, raking the leaves and small branches out of the creek, clearing paths, and she has created a new vegetable garden on the sunny south side of the camp near the creek, which she has taken on as her own special responsibility. The ground was very hard — before it can be worked, clay soil rained on and baked in the sun has to be smashed up just like smashing a pot — but Mr. Suggs came in with heavy machinery to churn it all up and even moved in a load of rich bottomland dirt dug up from the edge of the creek below the camp and plowed it in, and she and Colin have taken over from there. She bought an ample prefab cedar toolshed for it, spades and shovels, forks, a hoe and wheelbarrow. She sketched out a design with paths and borders, set out rows with stakes and string and surrounded the plot with bean and pea trellises as a kind of fence, and this week she and Colin began the planting, starting with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, with such things as cabbage, radishes, beets, and squash to follow. There are some old fruit trees on the west side and wild blackberries and blueberries, and she has added raspberry and strawberry patches at the edge of the garden near the woods and planted a flower and herb garden outside their cabin. All of it has received a good soaking from the rain; though others have complained about the rain, she has not. In fact, if she were out here alone, she would have taken off her clothes and walked around in it, her face to the glorious downpour.

It’s all like a miracle, really, and it was she who made it possible by working with Mr. Suggs to engineer the sale of the camp in the first place. When she first heard about Mr. Suggs’ offer, she was horrified and put her foot down, vowing to stop this desecration with her own body if she had to, somewhat alarming Wesley with her vehemence. For Debra, the camp was holy land and J. P. Suggs with his hideous strip mine operations was a notorious destroyer of the wild. Wesley Edwards would rot in hell if he let this happen, she shouted. Wesley said Mr. Suggs had promised to restore and preserve the camp for church usage, but she didn’t believe him, so she decided to go pay the man a visit and find out for herself. Though Mr. Suggs was coy about it, she eventually coaxed the truth out of him. His plans meant not the destruction of the camp, but its recovery from ruin and for a godly purpose, and so from then on they worked together. That it might bring Colin back was just a bonus. Using her old dream of a halfway house as the pretense for changing her mind, she got the negotiations back on track — the place was a nuisance to Wesley and he only wanted to get rid of it — and they bypassed the local board by going straight to the synod for permission. The deal was done before anyone knew what happened.

It will be time soon for supper, and then the candlelight evening prayer meeting, something Debra now feels part of and awaits with an open heart, a moment when she can feel at one with the universe and with her new life and not have to think about anything except her love for God. She was startled at first by the Brunists’ emotional side, and for a time she felt out of place when all the crying and shouting and arm-waving and loud praying began, but she envied them their access to ecstasy and has learned to release herself into it as best she can and to weep and pray and clap and fall to her knees with the others, trying not to be too awkward, and tonight, the last without electricity, she will become at last, her soul surrendered, a true Brunist like all the rest: she has asked to be baptized by light.

In one of the boxes he is unpacking in the new church office, Darren Rector comes upon official documents describing the court decisions that led to the incarceration of so many of their Followers on the Day of Redemption, including that of First Follower and Apostle Carl Dean Palmers, jailed that day and not seen since. He is said to be serving a life sentence without parole in the penitentiary, though Darren cannot understand what he could have done to deserve such punishment. There’s a rumor of a murder inside the prison, but he has found no evidence of it. At least once a week they pray in unison for

Carl Dean’s release and his return to the fold, yet somehow it always seems more like a recitation than a heartfelt appeal, as if they don’t really believe he will be released, or want him to be. He was a true hero, sacrificing himself to allow the others to escape; it should be a bigger deal than it is. He wonders if there is something he doesn’t know. Something perhaps to do with those embarrassing pictures of him in his tunic in the rain. He will study them closely again. Clara is sitting at her desk nearby, sorting through correspondence and marriage and baptismal records from the opened boxes, and he has asked her about Carl Dean, but she only says that she didn’t see what happened at the end that day and anyway all that was a long time ago. She is a great woman and Darren believes wholly in the church she has brought into being — at exactly the right moment in human history! — but even though the Brunist faith rests wholly on historical events, the past is of little interest to her. Instead: the day-to-day rhythms of practicing a faith and building a church. Which might have been how God wanted it, else this great movement might never have been launched nor his own life so dramatically changed by it; but for Darren, the present — existence itself — is an illusion. At best, it is a passing flow of concealed clues about what is really so and what is yet to come, a clouded window onto superexistence — God’s place — where the truth resides and can only be glimpsed. A brilliant professor back at Bible college taught him that; he used heady words like “being” and “becoming,” but Darren understood what he meant. And churches are also, like all other worldly things, mere illusions; they may represent a search for truth and provide a framework for it, but they are not the truth itself. The truth. That is what Darren seeks and all he seeks. It is his vocation.

Creating this new office has been their first task and accomplishment, the seed and model of all else, the vital center. They arrived in bitter wintry weather, and all the others had heated caravans and house trailers, but he and Billy Don Tebbett had only Billy Don’s old green Chevrolet two-door, a tent and sleeping bags. So they were put up in a highway motel at the church’s expense while everyone went to work on this room off the main hall of the old lodge, a room that was apparently part of a later extension with its own flat roof that only needed resealing. The rest of the lodge was something of a wreck, but Ben and Wayne were convinced it could be restored, and so it has been. They treated this first room as a kind of model exercise for the refitting of the whole camp, stripping it down to the timbers, cleaning up the wet rot, then insulating, plasterboarding, and plastering the walls, fitting double hung storm windows in place of the top-hinged awning windows, wiring it up for future electricity with wallplugs and ceiling fluorescents. They gave the walls a couple of coats of white paint and even pinned down wall-to-wall red carpet, said by their patron Mr. Suggs to have come out of the old derelict West Condon Hotel. They added a gas heater and a gas lamp and he and Billy Don have used the room ever since as both the church office and, with sleeping bags, a temporary dormitory, awaiting a restored cabin of their own. During their missionary travels, he and Billy Don bunked down under their small tent or on the floor of someone’s house trailer; this room of their own is a luxury.

Colin Meredith has been popping in and out, running between here and Mrs. Edwards’ cabin next door, or chasing about after Billy Don. Until a few days ago, they have shared this room with Colin, who joined them while waiting for his own cabin to be ready. Darren and Billy Don will be babysitting him tonight because he tends to get overexcited at prayer meetings and they will have to invent ways to keep him distracted. A game of water baptism down at the creek maybe. He is a strange boy, living at the edge of hysteria and given to terrifying nightmares, sometimes waking up the whole camp with his screams. One doesn’t get much sleep around him. But he also seems to be in touch with something outside himself, even if he himself does not understand it. It was Colin who brought the news about the Prophet, and though he spoke of it as a memory it did not seem like one. He is one of the original twelve First Followers and Darren has been watching him closely, recording what he says, using a new tape recorder he has purchased with office funds. In fact it has been running now while he has been talking with Clara. He has not mentioned it to her, though perhaps he should.

Thanks to this new space, Darren is now, except for meals and church services, free to work the whole day long — and there is so much to do, so little time. The anniversary of the Day of Redemption is only three weeks away, falling on a Sunday exactly as it did five years ago. They are living through a mirrored cycle as if in some kind of fairy tale, the calendar amazingly shifting into synchronization on the very night of their arrival at the camp. A Circle of Evenings! Darren can feel the old vibrating in the new, the repeating days spinning toward…what? something glorious? dreadful? He must open up all these boxes of documents and read everything — more than that, he must try to read through everything. Billy Don, who flees office chores at every chance, is not as much help as he’d hoped. As soon as the rain let up, he went out to help Wayne and Ben with the new streetlamps, and Darren, standing to stretch, now watches him from one of the Meeting Hall front windows. Whatever they’re doing, Billy Don is good at it, gets smiles of respect from the older men, smiles back under the drooping moustache covering his overbite. The heartwarming kind of smile Darren was not blessed with. Though it is still overcast, Billy Don is wearing dark glasses as he always does because of his strabismus, even at night or when naked. A tall, lean, sweet-natured boy, innocent and vulnerable. They met at college when Billy Don joined his Bible study group, which Darren had set up as charismatic opposition to the antiquated self-serving authoritarian orthodoxy of the Bible college. The old fools who ran the college recited Jesus’ message but they didn’t believe it. They spoke of the Rapture as if it were a school picnic. The world could end, Jesus could return at any moment and no one cared. His group cared. They sought ultimate answers. Urgently, for the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. The Dean called him in and warned him that he was flirting with heresy, just as Jesus was accused in his own time, and he might be asked to leave the college. It was a choice between truth and lies. Darren sensed that he was being pointed in some new direction. Which is when the Brunists came along. He recognized them, knew he had been waiting for them. And Clara needed someone just like him. The perfect fit.

Billy Don was studying to be a youth pastor and first attended the study group in the company of a twittery young girl who, thankfully, didn’t last long. When she left, Darren begged Billy Don to stay on, and he did, becoming his most trusting follower. Which has its limits. Billy Don believes just about everything Darren teaches him, but rarely seeks insights of his own. They have had arguments — about the uses and misuses of dogma, about the interpretation of this or that verse, about the impermanence of the church and the nature of divine punishment — but ultimately Billy Don always grins and says Darren is too smart for him. Only on the subject of sin is Billy Don obtusely doctrinaire, unable to grasp that while for the common man the artificial concept of sin is essential to maintaining order, for those who by knowledge and understanding have risen above the mundane world, there is no sin. God and nature are one. Nature’s desires are God’s desires. In satisfying them, one is carrying out God’s will. “Nothing is sin except what is thought of as sin,” as a great man has said. “But what if what I wanted to do was to throw that cute girl in the front row onto the teacher’s desk and rip her clothes off?” “Well, you’d probably be arrested, and it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing a wholly free and knowledgeable man would contemplate, but it would not necessarily be a sin.” But Billy Don doesn’t get it. “I don’t know,” he always says with a grin, “sounds to me like just an excuse for raising Cain.” Darren misses the challenge of an intellect comparable to his own and sometimes grows impatient, but is always instantly appeased by that affectionate grin of surrender.

The men have stopped working. They seem upset about something. Colin runs into the hall, yelping, eyes darting in all directions, arms flung about like he’s trying to fly, runs out again. As Clara steps out of the office, removing her spectacles, Billy Don comes into the hall and explains that there are people driving past on the roads out at the edge, honking their horns, shouting insults and obscenities, throwing beer bottles and stinkbombs into the camp. A lot of them. “Yes, we been expecting them,” Clara says, looking both calm and worried at the same time, fingering the medallion around her neck. “Don’t pay no at tention to them. They’ll go away.” But then three cars of young people swing into the camp itself. They crawl out of their cars, some of them carrying clubs and chains, which they swing about menacingly. Their leader is a cocky young fellow who wears an old black fedora tipped down over his Roman nose; he stands with his hands on his hips, legs spread, grinning icily like a Hollywood gangster. Ben Wosznik and the others walk down to meet them and tell them that this is now private property and they are trespassing, but they just laugh and shout out insults and tell them to pack up and get out, religious sickos are not welcome here. One of them gives Wayne Shawcross a push. Then big Hunk Rumpel comes lumbering up from the campsite below, cradling a rifle. He doesn’t say anything. He just walks slowly up to them and stares solemnly into their faces. After a quiet moment, they get back in their cars. All but the one in the black fedora, who holds his ground, glaring at Hunk, baring his teeth. Hunk flicks his hat off, stands on it. “Hey, Naz,” shouts one of his friends from inside his car. “Time to go!” “All right,” says the one called Naz, “but this fucking asshole’s gotta get off my hat.” Hunk, staring steadily at the boy, slowly grinds the hat into the mud with his boot heel. The boy’s eyes begin to water up. “C’mon, Naz. That dude looks like he might not be all there.” “That was my dad’s hat,” the boy says, his voice breaking. “He…he died.” Hunk stares at him without expression. Kicks the hat away. Then he turns his back on him and walks away toward the trailer lot below. The boy picks up the mashed muddy hat, wipes away the tears. “That fat fucking sonuvabitch. I’ll get him,” he mutters, his face still screwed up. He raises a finger to them all and stalks off to his car and, wheels spitting up mud, roars away.

While there is still a trail of pale late-afternoon light in the sky, Ben and Clara pull on their boots and raincoats, tuck flashlights in their pockets, and climb the muddy path up to Inspiration Point, Ben’s old half-blind German shepherd, Rocky, padding along beside them. A habit they’ve learned: coming up to the Point to pray alone together and talk things through. They have a lot to talk and pray about. The anniversary of the Day of Redemption and dedication of the camp is close upon them, and there’s still so much to be done, so many problems to face. Not least of all, the multitude of Brunist Followers believed to be on their way here. How will they ever accommodate them? God has been good to them and Ben and his crew have worked miracles, it is amazing that so few can have done so much, but it has also been a hard month, with flooding and sickness and construction setbacks and difficult living conditions, this little summer camp not being built for such harsh weather. And now today these new harassments and intrusions. They will have to speak to Mr. Suggs about it; maybe his friend Sheriff Puller can help. The sheriff’s visits worried them at first, but Mr. Suggs assured them he could be trusted and would help protect them from the townsfolk if need be. The sheriff’s deputy turned out to be an old Nazarene church friend, Calvin Smith, who became a Brunist Follower the same night Abner Baxter did, though he and his wife Lucy did not stay active after the Day of Redemption. Cal Smith is not one to show what’s on his mind, but he did not seem unfriendly and gave the building work they were doing an approving nod. He told Ben he still listened to his records and hoped he would make some more.

With the skies slowly clearing, it is brighter up here than down in the camp, where the night is already settling in. Inspiration Point — they were calling it just “the higher ground” like in the song, until Mrs. Edwards told them the real name for it — is a small wooded rise with a granite outcropping some forty or fifty feet above the rest of the No-Name Wilderness Camp, their own mighty rock in a weary land, looking out across the trees and flat scrubby lowlands toward the old Deepwater No. 9 coalmine, long since closed. The abandoned mine buildings, with their skeletal tipple and rusting water tower, sit on a rise close by a sizable hill over there that is said to be, though not much higher than where they stand, one of the highest points around. The Mount of Redemption, as they have named it and as they know it and revere it. It was the discovery of this view during their first inspection tour in January that most convinced them to accept Mr. Suggs’ offer and come back here in spite of the adversity that must inevitably follow. It seemed to say: This place is our place. A place in the wilderness, shown to them by God, to pitch their tents, wherein to make a dwelling-place for the Lord. Like young Billy Don Tebbett said when he saw the view: “It’s awesome. Almost like a picture in the Bible.” This morning’s sunrise service up here got canceled by the rain, but it was just right for their Good Friday vigil two days ago, the sky blackening then with the coming storm. It made them feel like the Disciples must have felt in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, which people who have been there say is not much higher than where they stand now.

So much happened over there on and under that hill, so much pain and grief and desperate hope, then pain again. Ben has been over a few times in his truck to help with the electric and phone cabling, to look for mine tools left behind, and to gather slate and cinders for the camp access road, ground coal for the new Meeting Hall stove. It is not too far off, but Clara has been reluctant to go back until something calls her to it. It is so bare and deserted, with nothing happening on it, or even looking as if something could. Like a forgotten burial mound. And so it can be said to be. Somewhere in the closed-off mine workings down below, Ely’s leg is buried, never recovered, though friends searched for it. Bishop Hiram Clegg said perhaps it was transported straight to Heaven and that could be so, though it is not the sort of picture Clara has of Heaven and what might be found there.

It was down there that night of the mine explosion that her husband, trapped and dying, wrote the prophetic goodbye note that has so changed her life, and the life of the whole world. Ben’s brother Frank Wosznik was killed that night, too. It was the tragedy that brought Ben and her together in a common bond, that and their mutual love of Ely, and their unshakable faith, and now, after so many dangers, toils and snares, here to Inspiration Point tonight. “On a cold and wintry eighth of January/Ninety-eight men entered into the mine/Only one of these returned to tell the story…” Ben’s own famous “White Bird of Glory” song, which for a while the whole country was singing. That saved one, if there was to be only one, should have been Ely, whom God had clearly chosen and to whom He had sent the White Bird vision. But it was his partner who emerged instead, bringing Ely’s vision up with him — as he himself announced: “From the tomb comes God’s message!”—though everyone said Giovanni Bruno wasn’t really himself anymore; they said he had died and his body was inhabited by Ely’s spirit, because Ely’s own body had been crushed and could no longer serve God. Which explained everything, even if Clara never quite felt it in her heart. The White Bird maybe, but not Ely. Wouldn’t have been like him to take up residence in any body but his own. Then, just fourteen weeks after Giovanni was brought up from the mine, driven by prophecy and the urgent necessity that had descended upon them, and partly because of Ely’s last note and how it had come to be understood, they all gathered over there on that hill to await the imminent Coming of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Light — the Blessèd Hope! — which seemed like such a certainty. Instead, they suffered only crushing humiliation and cruel punishment and a persecution that has driven them from their homes. A great movement has sprung up out of that persecution, for as Paul wrote to Timothy, you must endure suffering and do the work of an evangelist and fulfill your ministry, and maybe that was God’s true purpose, but if their prophecies be true, it is not a time for new earthly orders, but rather a time for an end to all worldly concerns, a time, as Ben’s song says, “to meet our dear Lord face to face.”

“Please help us, O Lord, as you see fit, to understand Ely’s death and message rightly,” Clara says, praying aloud, and Ben says: “Amen.” “Let us poor sinners know the right so as we can do the right. And keep that good man Ely always close to your bosom, dear Lord! In the name of Christ Jesus, who has rose up this day in glory, and in remembrance of our beloved Prophet, amen!” “Amen.”

Although their Prophet is at the heart of their public prayers, all the more naturally so now that he is dead, in their private prayers both Ben and Clara always put in a particular word for and to Ely, who is always somewhere near, she knows, watching over them. Sometimes near enough to touch if he could be touched. When she doesn’t feel him close by, she knows she is doing something wrong. Like thinking too much about everyday details and losing track of their main objectives. Which are not about next things, but about last things. It is Ben who often brings her back to what matters by asking her, “Where’s Ely, Clara?” Thus, merely by his presence, near or far, Ely sanctions her mission and guides her in it. The Brunists are as much his creation as hers or Giovanni Bruno’s, though not everyone in the movement is fully aware of that. It is more like a kind of secret knowledge that she and Ben share. And little Elaine, too, who also in her loneliness talks to her father and her brother in her prayers, and sometimes when she’s not praying. Ely with that quiet look on him seems always at peace, but at the same time concerned about them. As though he were God’s servant, unable to rest until all that must be had safely come to pass. Harold, their boy who died so young in the war, is always there with him, just behind his shoulder. He and Ely were always close. Now they seem closer than ever.

Only recently have they learned that their Prophet has been called unto the Lord, though Clara was not surprised. She has felt Giovanni Bruno to be gone since the Day of Redemption, if not in some sense even before, his mission — God’s mission through him — having been fulfilled by bringing Ely’s message up from the black depths into the light that it might be understood and acted upon. Prophecy’s broken vessel, alive and not alive. There was only a spark left in him, mostly in his eyes. When he spoke it was as if from some cavernous depths, deeper than he was deep, and she was not sure his lips moved. He was in bed mostly; the First Followers met beside it. At first there were six of them, and then twelve, and of these first ones now there are but six again unless the Palmers boy returns some day; out in the world, however, they have expanded manifold. It was young Colin Meredith who brought the news of the Prophet’s last hour in an ecstatic and dramatic manner not unlike that of speaking in tongues, shortly after he joined the encampment some three weeks ago. Wayne Shawcross had tried to get Colin to help with wiring up the cabins, and even though there was no current running through the wires, as soon as the boy touched one of them he fell to the ground in convulsions with his eyes rolled back and he began howling like an animal with its paw in a trap. When they finally freed his hand from the wire and got him calmed down and back to himself again, he explained around his sobs that he had witnessed Giovanni Bruno being killed with electricity. They had both been sent to the same place after the Day of Redemption, and one day, he said, he saw they had the Prophet strapped down and wired up and then they turned on the electricity and his body started bouncing and jerking and smoking. He saw them rolling him out on a hospital trolley afterwards, completely blue, and he never saw him again, and he knew then that he would have to run away or they would kill him, too. He still has nightmares. After that, they released Colin from construction work and let him clean up the campground litter and help Mrs. Edwards — Sister Debra — in the vegetable garden. Though the boy clearly has emotional problems, to Clara his witnessing rings true. The Prophet of Light crucified by light. And now God’s message, having passed through Ely and Giovanni, is lodged in her. It is not a safe or easy thing to be God’s messenger (already there is a lump where there shouldn’t be one), and she hopes she has enough life and strength left to overcome the powers of darkness and accomplish God’s will.

Sister Debra was not around when Colin had his fit, but she was very upset to hear about it and pushed harder than ever to finish up her cabin so she and Colin could move in. Clara doesn’t quite understand Mrs. Edwards’ whole story, especially as regards the boy, and whatever happened between her and her cruel husband, but the woman seems truly dedicated and is an important convert right from the very heart of those who have persecuted them. She has asked to be baptized by light tonight. Her joining them feels like a story straight out of the Bible, like one of Jesus’ parables, or Paul’s “remnant chosen by grace.”

Rocky is rooting about in the wet underbrush nearby. Might be a rabbit he’s after, though he has no teeth left to do anything about it if he finds one. Wanda’s Hunk Rumpel, who was such a hero today, has already shot a few and skinned them and cooked them up for everybody. Everybody who likes rabbit, that is, she not being of that number. Across the way, the distant mine hill is slowly slipping into the overcast sky, though the tipple and water tower still stand out as if inked there (it is like a picture in the Bible, Clara thinks, like something flat on a page you can’t walk into…). Sometimes in the late morning the low winter sun hits that water tower and turns it into a beacon so bright it hurts the eyes, and even now it radiates a peculiar glow against the dark sky. Though she has hesitated to revisit the Mount, it is likely that, if Mr. Suggs can get permission for them, and maybe even if he can’t, they will all make a pilgrimage over there together three weeks from now during the anniversary and camp consecration ceremonies, for it seems like the right thing to do. Maybe even an urgent thing to do.

“I come from plain people,” Ben says alongside her. “Us Woszniks never come to a place like this with just only the view in mind. Might check to see if it was a good position to hunt from, but otherwise we wouldn’t give a hoot. I guess none of us ever had much imagination. Nor much brains neither.”

“You got brains aplenty, Ben — and more than brains, wisdom. The kind the Good Book tells about, the word of wisdom as given to believers by the Spirit of God. I depend on you, Ben. You know I couldn’t never do this without you.” She is not flattering him. He is a good man, a righteous man, and with his quiet no-nonsense manner he has counseled her through many a vexation during their long exodus, and she knows that Ely has chosen him for her and for her task. Ben is slow to move, but when he moves, it is with right judgment, his humble steadfastness a model for them all. Still a handsome man, too, tall and big-shouldered, with a bushy salt-and-pepper prophet’s beard grown on their travels, a man comfortable inside himself, if a bit stooped now, starting to get the settled look of men his age. And he surely can sing. “Now, why don’t you sing me your new song you was telling me about?”

“Well, it ain’t exactly a new song. I figured we’d be singing ‘Amazing Grace’ tomorrow night when we turn on the lights, so I only made a special verse to begin it with.” His guitar is down below, so he sings without it, just as he did the night he turned up, almost like a miracle, at one of their first meetings all that time ago, his mournful voice floating out over the dripping trees and into the dying sky, rolling gracefully up and down through the stretched vowels…

“It was da-hark a-ha-hand damp i-hin Wil-derness Camp

As we worked through-hoo the ha-hard winter days;

Bu-hut theh-hen cay-hame a flame fru-hum God’s-a holy lamp:

Thu-huh light uh-huv Amay-zi-hing Grace!”

“Oh, that’s beautiful, Ben, and it says so much in so few words.”

“I reckoned I’d sing the first part in the dark, and when I got into the last line, Wayne’d throw the switch, and then we’d all sing ‘Amazing Grace’ together.”

“You’re a showman, too, Ben. Sing it to me again. Sing me all of it. It eases me so.” Which is something Ely always said about that song, and now it’s as if he has just said it himself, talking through her as he sometimes does.

Bringing electricity to the camp is in truth an amazing grace. They will celebrate it and give thanks to God at tomorrow night’s Coming of Light ceremony, and now that the word is out about their being here, Clara has decided to invite some of their old friends in the area. It seems like the right moment. With electricity, they will not only be able to light up the whole camp, they will also have a big commercial refrigerator in the kitchen and electric ovens instead of that old cast iron wood-burning cookstove left over from the Depression era. They’ll have electric space heaters that can be plugged in wherever needed and dehumidifiers so the plaster will set proper, and they can use their power tools in the workshop, speeding up the construction work. There will be lights in the Meeting Hall and in all the cabins that can be saved — many of the sockets and switches and ceiling and wall lamps are already in place and wired up — and this afternoon Wayne and the others have been testing out the new streetlamps, a gift of Florida Bishop Hiram Clegg’s congregation. They have set the date of April 19 for the formal consecration of the new International Brunist Headquarters and Wilderness Camp Meeting Ground, and they hope to have all the most essential things done by then. Crowds of Followers will be flooding in, and they are not near ready, but the turning on of electricity will make it feel like they might have a chance.

The electrification of the camp could not have been done without Wayne Shawcross. The movement invested in a house trailer for Wayne and his wife Ludie Belle, needing his experience as a builder and electrician, and he has been worth many times the purchase price. Ludie Belle, who converted from a life of sin, is a willing worker and a lively presence, though, as Ben has said, when she gets the Spirit on her, she does throw it around a tad. Purchasing a mobile home for one of their Followers was something they had already done, out of necessity, for Wanda Cravens and her children. Her husband died alongside Ely in the mine, leaving the poor woman at loose ends, and for these past five years she has been tagging dumbly along with them, not knowing what else to do or where to go, finding herself pregnant about half the time, Wanda being a simple thing men take advantage of. As Ben says, sin is sin, but for some folks there’s just not much built in to fence it out, though it doesn’t exactly stay either, but just sort of blows right through. She and Ben had to share with Willie and Mabel Hall the burden of carrying along Wanda and her sickly brood, until they finally decided to buy her a used trailer home of her own, Willie at first doing most of the driving. And it did help her find a man, another man in a string of men, though this one may stick around. Wanda is not much help, and whatever she does usually has to be done over, but they use her to run small errands, do the washing up, and serve coffee and cookies at their church services and tent meetings, and that was how she met Hunk Rumpel, an army veteran who was otherwise homeless and happy to have a trailer to move into, relieving Willie of his driving duties, though he may or may not have a license. Hunk is not much brighter than Wanda but he is a stalwart Follower and he has some construction and survival skills picked up in the Army. Smoke is now pouring out of the Meeting Hall fireplace chimney down below; Hunk is probably banking up the fire for tonight’s prayer meeting, while Ludie Belle lights the candles and sets out the folding chairs.

Their general all-purpose Meeting Hall — church, dining hall, school room, offices — was converted from the old camp lodge, built early in the century in the days of rustic grandeur with heavy beams and stone walls and foundations. It was solid still except for the roof, which needed to be stripped to the rafters and rebuilt, and it was up on the roof that Hunk proved as invaluable as Wayne Shawcross has been on electricity. Though a big man with a lot of belly ballast, Hunk is agile and fearless in high places and he can command work crews with blunt authority and can lift the weight of three men. Once the building was tight and could shelter them, Ben installed a coal stove at the back and hung Coleman lanterns from the beams. Their brothers and sisters from Randolph Junction, still in touch with Hiram Clegg, presented them with a fine old upright piano. Ely’s final message in its gilt frame now hangs by the fireplace, alongside the Prophet’s “Seven Words” on a wooden plaque, created by some South Carolina youngsters with a woodburning kit, and a framed near-lifesize photograph of their late Prophet standing in the rain on the Mount of Redemption, a mine pick over his shoulder, his hand raised in a blessing. The Meeting Hall is where their Easter service was held this morning, celebrating Christ’s triumph over death, and where tonight’s candlelight prayer meeting will be. It is beautiful and it is hallowed by their labor and it anchors them.

So much of this is due to Mr. John P. Suggs, his money, time, influence, and his good Christian heart, a man who gives, as it says in Proverbs, and who does not hold back. He has obtained many of the materials for them at wholesale and purchased some things for them outright, has provided his own workers and equipment for pipe laying, erecting light and telephone poles, and resurfacing the access roads, has seen to the repair of the fresh water pumps, and, with Welford Oakes’ help, work has begun on a new cesspool and modern septic system. He has brought in trucks and heavy machinery to rip out underbrush, shovel up rubbish, demolish and haul away rotted structures, and to clear a half acre on the south side for Mrs. Edwards’ vegetable garden. He used his connections with the mine owners and bankers to get electricity extended to the camp from the old mine and is now arranging for phone lines from there, something crucial for Clara in her evangelical work. In effect, they will be wired up directly to the Mount of Redemption, something Clara plans to remark upon during tomorrow night’s Coming of Light ceremonies. Mr. Suggs is a saintly man who attributes his conversion to one of Ely’s tent-meeting sermons, at which time he gave himself to Jesus and became a regular supporter of Ely’s Church of the Nazarene. He loved Ely and took his death hard, saying it plunged him into doubt and despair, and he did not at first understand the Brunist movement with its Italian Catholic prophet and its talk about the imminent end of the world. He was a businessman and he did not have any particular end date in mind, and he had no sympathy for wine-drinking Romanists, being a reformed drinker himself. But the Nazarene church fell onto hard times, and after trying on other denominations without conviction, he started thinking again about the Brunists and the role that Ely had played in their origins and it all began to make sense to him. Whereupon he got in touch with them. He and Ben hit it right off, and together she and Ben dispelled his doubts.

Their main worry is what they will do with the crowds of Followers they anticipate will be rolling in here over the next three weeks. The Meeting Hall, so warm and ample a haven for the twenty or so living and working at the camp now, could seat a couple hundred at a stretch, and though there are a few more cabins that might be made livable and others could be built, it is hard to imagine many more people living here than are here now. Even if they come with their own mobile homes, the trailer park itself is full already, and the parking lot near the Meeting Hall, not yet cleared, is meant for visitors’ cars only. They have always intended this place to be a religious center and church headquarters, not a place for people to live, but Clara knows that many of those coming for the dedication ceremonies three weeks from now have no notion how they will live when they get here and will have no plans for moving on. Word about the new Brunist Wilderness Camp at the edge of the Mount of Redemption has spread among the believers; she herself has helped to spread it. Many of them are selling up or giving away all they have to be here, fully expecting the Coming of the Kingdom of Light, and Clara cannot naysay it because it may be so. She has sometimes said as much herself, following their Prophet’s own call and asking for such commitment as Jesus asked, “Leave everything and follow me!” The coincidence of dates seems to fulfill the Prophet’s enigmatical prophecies of “a circle of evenings” and “Sunday week,” making ever more urgent his call to “Come to the Mount of Redemption,” and, moreover, this place has mystical overtones for those who have never been here, and they will want to see it for themselves.

So, they will have to set up tents in the fields about and use all the local motels and call upon friends to take in pilgrims. They cannot turn anyone away. God has led them here, He will somehow provide. Mr. Suggs has offered mine property land for Followers to pitch their tents on or park their cars and mobile homes, as well as temporary accommodation in his Chestnut Hills development at the edge of West Condon, partly emptied out since the closing of the mines and the general exodus. Ben still owns a small farm nearby with a one-room farmhouse, and he has been back to see if it might be useful for visitors, but found it vandalized and in worse shape than the camp cabins, the porch and walls partly harvested for lumber or firewood. In fact, he pulled some of the loose boards off himself and threw them in his truck for use in repairing the camp cabins. They will just have to hope that, if the day passes without God’s intervention, these people will see for themselves what is possible and what is not.

Though some will be more difficult than others…

“I know. We been getting on so well. He’ll just only stir things up again.”

“Who will, Clara?”

She realizes Ben has left off singing some time back. There is still enough light up here to see each other’s faces, but it is completely dark down below. Camper and trailer lights have been coming on, casting their thin yellow glow upon the darkening evening, and she can see people moving about with flashlights and candles. Soon it will all be so different down there. It’s almost impossible to imagine. “Sorry, Ben. I was talking to Ely.” The blackest patch is just below where they are standing where the land dips away toward a kind of shallow ravine that the creek runs through. Her daughter Elaine named it Lonesome Valley, the poor child expressing her own sad heart. Bernice Filbert claimed to see ghosts drifting about down there on foggy evenings, though she always was one for exaggerated fancies. “About Abner.”

“What does Ely say?”

“God will judge, not us. Abner is a Follower and must be took in.”

“All we can do, I reckon. But he don’t need to stay here in the camp.”

“No. But he surely minds to. Him and all his people.” They have been worrying over this ever since Abner Baxter sent word he’d be at the consecration ceremonies and assumed they could house him and his family. Ely has been worrying, too. Abner hopes to arrive a day earlier for the Night of the Sacrifice, the night five years ago of his own conversion. They have told Abner the rules and limitations, but they know he’ll pay no heed. He was one of their most important early converts, for he was one who persecuted them and then believed, like Paul did, and he became their first bishop of West Condon, staying on to take the punishment here when the rest of them scattered. Of course Abner has had many conversions, all the way from godless communism. But he is still one of those most loyal to the faith, as best she can tell from the reports reaching her, even if they don’t agree on a lot of things, most things maybe, and there’s not much hope they ever will. “I don’t know what we can do.”

“This ain’t meant as a place for living in.”

“Well, we’re living in it.”

“We’re building something, Clara. And they ain’t but a few of us. What does Ely say about Elaine?”

“That we should oughta care for her more.” Which is not exactly what Ben meant with his question. The lopsided Easter moon hangs low in the damp sky like an orange balloon that’s losing its air. When it looked like that, her grandmother used to call it God’s ear. “You see? He’s listening, child. Tell him all what you know.” I am afraid, she tells Him now. Her daughter has grown up tall and rambly, coming to look like a kind of scrawny slump-shouldered version of her father, but with none of his natural friendliness. She hasn’t been back to school since they went out on the road, has been traveling only with grownups, so she hasn’t had a chance to be the age she is. There have been teenagers at all of their revival meetings around the country, and in the early days Elaine was able to run the Junior Evening Circle, read Scripture lessons, talk about her experiences as a witness of their origins and as one of the First Followers, but she has become more and more withdrawn, shying away from people, ducking her head and covering her mouth the way she does, retreating to their trailer when not absolutely needed. When Clara asks her what she’s doing there, she always says she’s reading the Bible. The poor child. She has known too much sorrow for one so young. She brightens up only when she gets a letter from Junior Baxter, and then sometimes Clara hears a smacking sound behind her door. She knows what that is all about and she doesn’t like it. She still has a nightmarish memory of being caught up in the fever of the Day of Redemption and being unable to rescue her daughter, to protect her from what was happening. There was so much else she had to do. Just like now. It’s like in a dream when you have to run but cannot. She has tried to talk to Elaine about that day, but gets no reply. Clara knows what it is to be at that time of life and to be alive to one’s own desires, and frustrated by them. She wasn’t the prettiest thing in the county either when she was Elaine’s age, but she was patient and steady in her faith and what she eventually found with Ely was pure and beautiful and wholly satisfying in a godly way, and she wishes for something like that for her daughter. Junior Baxter is not going to answer that wish. And so she is afraid. Elaine is all the family she has left. “We’ll just have to trust in the Good Lord,” she says finally, flicking on her flashlight. “Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace’ll lead us home. Reckon we better go get our tunics on and make sure the candles’re lit.”

“Ho, Rocky. C’mon, boy.”

In the flickering candlelight, the snow-white tunics of the Brunist Followers, assembled for their Easter night prayer meeting, cast a rippling otherworldly glow, adding to the awe and grandeur of this day of Christ’s Resurrection. There is a divinity present here in the Meeting Hall tonight, and it is they. Ben Wosznik leads them in the singing of their traditional baptismal hymn, “I Saw the Light,” his sweet country voice lifting their own—“No more darkness! No more night!”—and then the Brunist Evangelical Leader and Organizer beams the lamp of her dead husband’s mining helmet upon the head and shoulders of their kneeling benefactress and newest convert and says that baptism in the Spirit, as Ely Collins always preached, is the outer sign of what’s happening inside, going from being dead in sin to being alive in Christ, and Mrs. Edwards says, “I am a terrible sinner seeking salvation,” and Clara replies that whosoever repents and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ is justified and regenerated and saved from the dominion of sin by the grace of entire sanctification, and Mrs. Edwards, who is beginning to weep, says, “Oh dear God, I do believe and I feel so sanctified! Thank you with all my heart for allowing me to join the saints in light and for delivering me from the dominion of darkness!” Willie Hall shouts, “Colossians 1:12–13!” and the others hug the new Follower and commence to weep and wail joyously and to give testimonies of redemption and of the infinite mercies of God and, led by little freckle-faced Hazel Dunlevy warbling away like a bird in the trees, to sing in the Spirit, accompanied by Ben on his guitar as best he can follow the spontaneous eruption. Willie’s wife Mabel drops to her bony knees and, eyes closed, raises her hands toward the rafters as if grasping for something, then lowers them to the floor, doing this over and over, touching different spots on the floor each time as though setting a table or laying out cards, and others do the same or similar, waving their hands about ecstatically, slapping the floor and themselves, even as they continue to sing in their medley of voices. “The Lord He has warshed away my sins, warshed me in the blood a the Lamb, I been born again!” declares Wanda Cravens in her soft nasal whine, barely audible in the noisily prayerful hall. “I been livin’ for Him ever since in glory hallelujah freedom!” Wanda’s husband Hunk Rumpel is minding the little ones tonight, but the plumber Welford Oakes is here and he responds with “Glory! Hallelujah! Freedom!” and others echo him and Willie Hall declares: “And Paul he said, But I was free born! Acts 22:28!” “Amen, brother! Born free! Hallelujah!” Travis Dunlevy barks fiercely. “God is light and Bruno is His Prophet!” Whereupon his wife Hazel goes under the power, falling to the floor and speaking in tongues, which the plumber’s wife Glenda Oakes, her glass eye reflecting the myriad candles, interprets as a prophetic utterance about the horrors of hell awaiting all unrepentant sinners. “I want so much to be part of you! I’m so sorry for who I am!” Mrs. Edwards bawls, heaving to the floor next to Hazel and rolling about (she is wearing nothing but her flowered underpants underneath the white tunic, and some approve of that and some don’t), “I love you all! I truly do!” The West Virginia coalminers Hovis and Uriah, rocking back and forth, separately confess to unclean thoughts, while balding Wayne Shawcross grips the straps of his bib overalls and, eyes closed and head tipped back, bellows out: “I hear ye, God! I kin hear yore trumpet soundin’!” Which is another cue for Willie Hall: “And he’ll up’n send his angels off” with a great sound of a trumpet, and they’ll go and gather his elect from out the four winds, sweet Jesus! from one end a Heaven t’other! Matthew 24:31!” “Ay-men, Brother Willie! From outa the four winds! We was lost but now are found!” They can feel the Spirit stirring. Clara Collins is on her knees, praying for guidance and strength and talking quietly to her first husband, her daughter Elaine beside her, hand at her mouth, whispering a plea to her father that he not forsake them. “I’m sorry, Pa! It’s important! I know you can see me. But I have to do it!” Mrs. Edwards is sobbing and gasping and thrashing about and words are coming out that is likely some kind of speaking in tongues, like in all baptisms, though there’s something about her husband and Easter eggs that is probably not. “Sin crep up on me, Lord,” Wayne hollers, drowning her out. “Tell us about it, Brother Wayne!” shouts Welford Oakes. “Tell us about your rassle with sin!” “I was cattin’ around and cuttin’ shines sumthin awful, Lord, but You walked with me and You talked with me and You even come along unto a house a sin and led me to my lady and my salivation!” His wife Ludie Belle, who has been shouting and crying and dancing and shaking like all the others, though perhaps with more abandon, now commences to recount the story of her own fall into sin and timely conversion, which has been often heard but is always appreciated and is never told the same way twice. “I was jist a harmless split-tail thing and I thought my frolick-some carryin’s on was jist only doin’ my do, but my body it misfooled me with its carnical desires and carried me off down the Devil’s black alleyways!” As Ludie Belle traces her passage through the diabolical regions, her husband Wayne, eyes closed, nods at all she says and leads a chorus of “amens.” Hazel Dunlevy, emerging from her holy trance, commences to clap rhythmically to the beat of Ludie Belle’s story, the others clapping with her in unison and singing out phrases that catch their fancy. Clara claps along absently, but her head is down and her eyes are closed and her lips are moving in private dialogue. “But I never left off a-goin’ t’meetin’ nor beggin’ off to the Lord for all my sins!” Ludie Belle exclaims. “My body it belonged to Satan but my heart belonged to Jesus!” All are aroused by this to a fever of prayer and repentance, and the newest Brunist Follower, still tossing about on the floor, cries out: “O dear God! Help me! I don’t know who I am!” Ludie Belle, standing legs apart and arms out among the shouts and slapping of palms, pauses to gaze down sympathetically upon this suffering sinner. “It’s the question I useter ask myself when I was a unsaved working girl!” she declares, just as young Colin Meredith, calling for his mother, comes through the front door behind her with the office workers Darren and Billy Don, all three of them with wet heads. “I was that nameless lamb what went astray, but Jesus He found me when Wayne done! And now I do know who I—Oh no! It’s him! It’s Satan hisself! Look out!” She throws her arms up as if to ward off an attack, tumbles to the floor, goes rolling about, bowling into people and knocking over folding chairs, screaming: “No! Stop, you mizzerbul fiend! I know you’re jealous a Jesus, but I ain’t a-comin’ back!” It’s as though someone has grabbed her in a private place and is dragging her violently around the room and she is trying to tear his hands away. Hazel Dunlevy screams and ducks as if under attack herself, and others cry out as well as the chairs and hymnbooks fly. Billy Don, eyes agog, watches, he watched in turn by his coworker and roommate Darren, hands pressed prayerfully, palm to palm, before his face. Colin, seeing his adoptive mother bouncing about on the floor in such agitation, commences to shriek madly and dash about the room as though possessed, banging into the walls and furniture and other worshippers. Ludie Belle grabs a table leg as if hanging on for dear life, shouting: “Pray for me, brothers! Pray for me, sisters!” She is ripped away and tumbles along as though falling into a pit, grabbing at ankles and reaching hands. “I feel it! I feel it! I feel the ecstasy!” comes the other voice from the floor, still sobbing. “Law sakes!” exclaims Ludie Belle, clutching the leg of a folding chair and dragging it along with her. She struggles to her feet, but falls again. “He’s wild as a rollicky boar in a peach orchard! Halp!” She is on her back, squirming, twisting, her fists flying. Oh no! The Devil seems to be having his way with her! It’s terrifying! Wayne strides through the room, swatting at the air, and snatches her up. Ludie Belle, clinging to him, kicks out at her attacker. “Git outa here with yore ugly ole hoe handle, Mr. Satan!” she hollers. “I been saved!” Clara emerges from her deep reverie and says sharply: “Stop that boy, Ben! He’s gonna hurt hisself.” Her husband captures Colin as he comes flying by and brings him, yipping and trembling violently, to his mother, now getting confusedly to her feet and blinking as if returning from some vast unearthly distance and pulling her tunic down. Clara announces with a brief closing prayer that the Sunday night prayer meeting is concluded. Wayne picks up the fallen chairs and Ludie Belle snuffs the candles, as the others, with a chorus of amens and goodnights, turn to make their way back to their trailers and caravans. At the door, Hovis remarks to Uriah: “Ifn that ain’t the beatenest! You think Ole Nick was really there?” “Shore he was. I seen him.”

I.4 Wednesday 1 April

On his way over to Lem Filbert’s garage to hunt down some wheels after a fortuitous cheeseburger and beer at Mickey DeMar’s Bar & Grill, Georgie Lucci stops in at Doc Foley’s corner drugstore to check out the centerfolds in the magazine rack. It is a glorious April day, first of its kind, the sun’s popped at last, he has money in his pocket, the birds and flowers are doing their hot-ass spring thing — it is a day in short for draining the old coglioni, for having one’s ashes hauled, as they say in the Land of Oz, and Georgie is many moons overdue. His last fuck wasn’t even one, just a tired blowjob in the front seat of his city taxi by an aging whore—una troia turpe, as his long-gone old man used to call his mamma while belting her about — which he had to pay for. He’d even make a play for the scrawny snatch behind the soda fountain, but he’d probably have to order something and he hates anything with cow milk in it and has a philosophical objection to spending money for coffee. He loosens the staples and slips the centerfold out of the magazine (if he wins a pot some day, he’ll buy a camera and take up photography), tucks it under his jacket, and with a wink at the big-eyed jugless kid who has been watching him, strolls out into the sunshine.

It has been shitsville since his vomitous predawn return on Sunday, un merdaio di merda as his dear babbo liked to put it when speaking of his beloved family, but things have at last turned around. For the past two days he has been mostly slopping around in the cold wet weather looking for a job, getting nothing better from it than a sore throat. The post office, the lumberyard and iron works, the strip mines, the bowling alley, the flour mill, the power stations, the bars, the gravel pits. Niente. Main Street is like Death Valley. That scarred-up war vet who runs the bowling alley and talks out of a hole at the side of his mouth could be elected its beauty queen. Shops boarded up, jobless guys hanging about in the pool hall and barber shop trying to stay dry, the streets potholed and littered with garbage. No trains, few buses, newspaper now just a print shop, the old hotel looking like a war casualty. Even the bus station pinball machines have been permanently tilted. His old mine manager Dave Osborne apparently got suckered into buying the shoe store from the new mayor when he got elected, and Dave, gone gray, looked twenty years older. Georgie figured there were worse things to do than tickle young girls’ feet and peer up their thigh-high skirts, but Dave just shrugged when he asked and gazed off into the wet gloom beyond the shop window. He looked in on his late cousin Mario Juliano’s widow Gina at the mayor’s office in city hall, and she snorted when she saw him and said he must be crazy, no one who leaves this town is ever stupid enough to come back. At the Piccolotti Italian Grocery Store, the kid now running the shop laughed in his face. “Fucking highway supermarket’s killing us,” he said. “Go try them.” He did. Offered himself up as a stockboy, bagger, delivery boy, whatever. The manager wouldn’t even talk to him. He stole some razor blades and a candy bar and left, wondering what the fuck had dragged him back here. He should have got back on the overnight bus the same day he arrived. Nothing has happened here since he left, nothing good anyway, and nothing ever will.

His mother was startled to see him when he turned up back on Easter morning in his filthy wet rags, as big a surprise as Christ crawling out of his tomb and about as fragrant. “Where have you been, Giorgio?” she asked. “I thought you was dead.” She fixed him some breakfast after he’d showered while he rattled on about the high life in the big city, but then when she saw he was broke and jobless, she started putting everything back in the refrigerator and cupboards again and cursing him for being un imbecille, un testone stupido, same way she used to curse his old man. Another hand-me-down of a sort, his life story. She had shrunk up some since he had last seen her and had retreated into widowy black, though when Georgie asked if the old fellow was dead, she just shrugged and curled her lip and said she had no fucking idea, or Italianisms to that effect. Georgie was just a teenager when the evil old bastard took off, heaving a few chairs around and giving his mammina a thorough walloping on his way out the door. Except for his kid sister, all his other brothers and sisters had by then vanished over the horizon, and his sister was soon to follow, running off with a stock-car driver, but Georgie, pulling on his old man’s abandoned boots, went down in the mines and was still there a dozen years later when Deepwater blew up, convincing him it was time to change careers. The only brother Georgie knows anything about is the one who became a priest and who still sends his mother a little pocket money now and then. Georgie saw a lot of stag movies up in the city, his favorite being one about monks and nuns having an orgy on the altar in a monastery chapel, and watching it, he couldn’t help thinking somewhat enviously about his brother, though as best he remembers him, he was never very interested in ficas. Georgie discovered that his mother, poor thing, still distrusted banks and hid her money under her mattress, which helped him get through the next couple of days while he beat the streets like a puttana, looking for work. The old lady makes him feel guilty all the time anyway, he figured he might as well give her cause. And it’s just a loan; he’ll put it all back with interest when he hits a lucky streak.

Which may have just begun. Making his rounds this morning, he dropped by the police station to see Dee Romano, whom he’s probably related to in some bastard way. Playing pinochle up at the Legion last night (not part of his lucky streak), he had learned that Old Willie had been losing what few wits he had (as Cheese Johnson said, “Old Willie has lost his marble…”) and had been retired from the force, and though everybody at the table and no doubt half the town were applying for the job, Georgie decided to throw his own tattered sweat-stained cap in the ring. As he had expected, the chief, who had locked him up a few times in the days of his dissolute youth, only snorted at this prospect, but agreed to put him on his list of volunteer deputies in case of future need and suggested he go visit Mort Whimple at the fire station, he might have something. This cheered him up. He had always wanted to be a fireman, ever since he was a little kid. But Whimple said no chance, he was facing probable layoffs of his underpaid part-timers as it was, all he could offer him was a cup of coffee. Never say no. They sat in the sun by the firehouse door and gabbed about the disaster and the crazy evangelical doings back before Georgie left town, when Whimple was the town mayor, Whimple shaking his grizzled jowls and saying he couldn’t wait to get his fat butt out of the fucking Fort and back here to the fire station. He had eyes too close to his big nose, one a bit higher than the other, giving him a clownish look that made everything he said seem funny. The chief filled him in on the town’s nightlife—“After the Dance Barn burned down, whaddaya got? A coupla sleazy roadhouses, the old Blue Moon, and the Waterton whorehouses…”—and said that probably the worst thing he could do if the town were burning down was try to save it. Georgie spun him a line about the good times up in the city, hinting at important family connections and a debilitating sex life. Why didn’t he stay? Well, you know, dear old mammina, all alone… Whimple seemed interested in that and asked about other folks in the neighborhood, and then got up and announced it was time for his weekly visit to the crapper. “But stay in touch, Georgie,” he said. “If something turns up, I’ll let you know.”

Empty as that was, it was the first time Georgie had been treated with something other than derision in his job hunt, so it and the delicious weather lifted his spirits enough to go treat himself to a sandwich and beer at Mick’s Bar & Grill. He didn’t even have to dip into what remained of his mother’s pile to pay for it, having picked up a few bucks in the pool hall over the past couple of days, cleaning up on the young fry a quarter at a time, so he ordered up feeling virtuous. A man of means like other men. Mick, a heavy guy with a high squeaky voice, was full of stories, too. Georgie sat at the bar and heard about what a sinkhole the town had become since he left and how Main Street was dying as if it had an intestinal cancer, about all the people who had left or had popped off, who’d married whom and split with whom and screwed whose wives, about Mick’s troubles with his alcoholic Irish mother (they were trading bad mother stories), and about the decline of the high school football and basketball teams and how it all seemed part of the general decline of morals among the kids these days, not to mention the rest of the general population, which was going to hell in a hangbasket, whatever a hangbasket was. Georgie said he thought it was something they used to use down in the mines, back before they had mechanical cages. Mick had a good story about how the old guy who owned the hotel died right here in this room laughing so hard at a dirty joke about a priest, a preacher, and a rabbi that he fell backwards out of his chair and broke his neck. Mick pointed at a big table in the corner where he said it happened. “He just tipped back, hoohahing, and went right on over and—snap! — he was gone.” “Well, at least he died laughing. Not the worst way to go.” “That’s what I always say. Even the guys with him couldn’t wipe the grins off their faces.” Georgie elaborated on the line he’d just given the fire chief about life in the big city, inventing a few cool jobs, furnishing himself a swank bachelor’s pad, augmenting the bigwig connections, and throwing in a ceaseless parade of hot chicks. Mick, all agog, asked him what the hell he was doing back here then, and he began to wonder himself until he remembered he was making it all up. He shrugged and said he’d got in a little trouble and had to leave town for a while.

Mick was just telling him how, speaking of trouble, business was so bad a year or so ago he was at the point of having to close down, until the mayor stepped in and gave him a tax break, when who should walk in but Mayor Castle himself, along with Chief Whimple and a couple of others, including that snarling asshole Robbins, who runs the dimestore down the street. They took the same table where the old hotelkeeper keeled over. Georgie got a nod from the fire chief, who then leaned over and muttered something to the mayor, and pretty soon they were all looking him over. He grinned and raised his glass and they invited him over, bought him a beer, offered him a cigarette, while Mick retreated to his yard-square kitchen off the bar to burn some hamburgers. Georgie had had dealings with Castle and Robbins in the past, which he hoped they had forgotten, though as it turned out later, they hadn’t. It didn’t appear to matter, maybe even gave him an in. It seemed they were worried about the general flaunting of the fire regulations in town, and to avoid a senseless tragedy, they needed someone to help enforce them. What they had to offer was a sort of unofficial job both with the fire department as a part-time inspector and also with the mayor’s reelection campaign, helping with fund-raising. “He knows how to talk to his own people,” Mort said on his behalf, and the mayor explained that they didn’t have enough money in the budget to pay a salary, but they could cover him on a sort of contract basis: five dollars for each preliminary visit he makes for the fire department, fifteen for actual inspections, and two percent of all the money he collects personally for the campaign. He grinned and nodded, tossing back his lager, and he was told to report down at the fire station on Monday. They even picked up his lunch tab. On his way out the door, Robbins called out, “Oh earthling Ralphus!” and the mayor boomed, “The Destroyer cometh!” “Makest thee haste, our spaceship awaits thee!” Georgie, ball cap tipped down over his eyes, hunched his shoulders, waggled his arms as though shaking a sheet, and whooed like a ghost, which set them all off laughing so hard there was some risk of a sequel to the hotelkeeper’s demise.

When Georgie reaches Lem Filbert’s garage, Lem is not in, but Georgie’s old drinking pal and classmate, Guido Mello, is still working there, looking heavier and a lot soberer than he used to. Married now, couple of kids, as he says, he is showing the burden of that. Black grease on his fat nose where he’s rubbed it, adding to his general down-in-the-dumps look. Guido tells him Lem is out test-driving a car whose shocks and wheel bearings they have just replaced, but if Georgie has come by looking for a job, forget it. Lem has plenty of business, these being hard times when people have to fix up their old cars instead of buying new, but they also don’t pay their bills. “He’s an ornery sonuvabitch to work for and he pays shitty wages for too many fucking hours, but what can I do?” Guido says, and smears the other side of his nose. “Little as it is, my kids would starve without it.” “Maybe you should unionize,” Georgie suggests, and Guido snorts and says, “Yeah, me and who else?” “Well at least you could be union president,” Georgie says, but instead of laughing at that, Guido only shakes his round burry head and sighs. “Jesus, Georgie, we’re halfway through our fucking lives and what have we got?”

Long tall Lem rolls in then in the battered purple Ford he has been test-driving. Georgie greets his old mine buddy and baseball teammate and they shoot the shit for a while, Georgie filling Lem in on what little he knows about Wally Brevnik and the other Deepwater refugees who fled town after the mine closed and letting fly with his by-now well-rehearsed tales of the big city, which for the first time fail to impress, Lem meanwhile unloading all his sour gripes about the garage, the fucking irresponsible mining company, this pig’s ass of a town, and the whole stupid fucking world in general. No, there’s no baseball team; he hasn’t swung a fucking bat since Tiger Miller left town. Lem’s brother Tuck was killed in the disaster and Tuck’s wife Bernice is now living with him, doing the laundry and housekeeping and fixing him his lunch pail every day, just as if he were still working a mine shift. She is some kind of a nurse and Lem figures Tuck married her to have someone to massage his hemorrhoids. A peculiar cunt who wears Bible clothes and lives in some fucking crackbrained dreamland of her own, Lem says, and she has recently gotten involved with those evangelical wackos out at the church camp. They have been having rows about that, but he knows Bernice was always close to Ely’s widow and needs a connection, and it suits her angels-and-devils nuttiness, so he’ll just have to live with it. Georgie asks him why he doesn’t just marry Bernice, and Lem says, “Nah. Then I’d probably have to fucking fuck her.”

Georgie tells him he is back in town for a while and needs an old junker to bum around in, what has he got? Lem looks skeptically down his long nose at him, so Georgie, on the pretense of digging for a coin for the Coke machine, flashes his mother’s roll and mentions that he’s going to be working for city hall and might require wheels for that. Lem shrugs and takes him around to the back lot where a lot of old wrecks stand rusting in the sun. Lem recommends a small rebuilt Dodge coupe with about seventy thousand alleged miles on it, but Georgie’s lustful eye falls on an old two-tone crimson-and-cream boat-sized Chrysler Imperial with Batmobile tail fins and gunsight tail lights, a fucking classic and perfect for his more urgent needs. Lem says it has had a rough life and he can’t guarantee it will make it out of the lot without breaking down, but Georgie’s heart is set (“Well, it’s your money, go ahead and buy the goddamn thing,” Lem says. “I could use the fucking repair business…”), so they haggle for a while and agree on a price, and Georgie talks him into letting him give it a run around the block, setting his half-finished Coke down as if planning to come right back to it.

Inspired by the baseball talk and the lush weather, Georgie takes a run out by the high school athletic fields, first closing the glove compartment door on the top of the centerfold so that it dangles there to cheer him on his journey. He has done a lot of driving up in the city, that being mostly what he did except jerk off, and it feels good to get back behind a wheel again, and on mostly empty streets and roads where he can open up. The old crate makes a lot of clunky noises, has no pick-up at all, the gear shift is tricky and the steering wheel is pretty loose, but what it has, he knows, is presence. In it, he is somebody, and, window down and arm out the window, he blows kisses and tips his cap to all he passes to let them know he knows it. He decides to name the fading beauty after one or another of his favorite blue movie characters like “Nympho Nellie” or “Sadie Sucker,” but finally, given her colors, settles on “Red-Hot Ruby,” who, as he recalls, also had a big thrusting creamy ass and lipsticked her anus. It was an old black-and-white silent, but they’d gone to the trouble to hand-color the lipstick red. It jiggled around going through the projector, like the rear end of this old car on a rough road.

He is in luck. The boys are having their first practice of the new season. He stops, keeping the motor running, to jaw with the coach for a minute. He volunteers his services to help the kids with their hitting, while they gather around to admire Ruby. Georgie could never field a ball for shit, but he was a natural with any kind of stick in his hand. He had quick wrists, could watch a pitch until it was nearly across the plate, then whip the bat around like a fly swatter, and the coach remembers that and says, sure, come along any time. Georgie, waving goodbye, feels like this day is turning into the best day of his life.

After that, he rolls around the periphery of the town, the centerfold’s raised culo flapping merrily in the breeze, checking out the motels and roadhouses that the fire chief mentioned for later on. “Big night tonight, baby,” he says, rapping the dash. “Gonna get it on!” He passes, chattering away to Ruby, or else to the centerfold, they’re an agreeable blur in his mind, the Sir Loin steak house and abandoned drive-in movie, the sleazy old love-cabins motel which charged by the hour, the driving range and country club, a few golfers already out enjoying the first real day of spring. He’s joining the in-crowd, maybe he ought to take up the game, pick up a few bucks once he’s got the knack. He swings into the rootbeer stand with the intention of offering his bod to the short-skirted carhops, but there’s not a one looks older than thirteen, so he blows them kisses and rolls on out, passing the new shopping center, new when he left town, the turn-off to the gravel pits and old swimming hole, the road to the Waterton whorehouses, and the burned-out ruins of the old Dance Barn where the big bands used to come and where they served anyone who could see over the bar. First got his cork popped by the hand of another under the table in a hard wooden booth in there, the hand belonging to a girl just fifteen years old like his green young self. At the time, he didn’t really know what came next, or if he knew, didn’t know how to make it happen, so he lost out with that chick. Never mind. Many more to follow. Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them sigh.

He pulls into a filling station to add a few dollars of gas, patting Ruby’s provocative rear end while he’s got the pump in her (a patch of deep rust back there, he notes, like some kind of fatal crotch disease), and sees by the gauge it’s just a drop in her bottomless bucket. Ruby’s the deep throat kind of girl — he could run through a pile pretty fast just keeping her juiced up. He cruises the strip of car dealers, most of them closed down, their vast lots vacated, but still flying their faded flags and streamers, then Chestnut Hills, the cheap prefab developments built mostly for mining families at the edge of town where there are no hills, no chestnuts, looking for who knows what. Some broad from the past probably. A lot of scabby abandoned houses, muddy yards, old cars and trucks on blocks. Potholes that jar the dust out of the ceiling fabric. Then it’s the rich folks’ side of town with their big houses and flagpoles and fancy shrubbery — though even they are looking pretty seedy and uncared for, and there are FOR SALE signs on some of them — and finally, after a clanking cap-waving spin down Main Street and a kiss blown to his new employers at the Fort, on past the white RR XING signs, over the rusty unused rail tracks, and into his own neighborhood. “Home, baby,” he tells Ruby. Mostly painted frame houses in various states of dilapidation, many of them multifamily, overcrowded and depressed, but comfortingly familiar and welcoming in the warm afternoon sun. He tours all the houses where former girlfriends once lived, letting Ruby show them what they’ve been missing. Probably all married now, swarmed round with brats and gone to fat or worse.

He spies Vince Bonali rocking on his front porch with a beer in his hand, and, as Ruby’s been getting overheated, he pulls over to the curb to let her calm down and invites himself up past the molded cement Virgin foot-soldiering the muddy front yard, thinking he might be able to hit his old faceboss up for a buck or two of gas money. He is an understanding guy. They have been through a lot together, had some great old times. He would do the same for Vince. He’d heard that Vince had sunk pretty low after his wife kicked off, and he finds him so, a morose old musone, too grumpy even to stand up and shake his hand, but after commiserations and family talk and a few reminiscences about the old section, Vince lightens up enough to offer Georgie a beer and pop another for himself. Vince is wallowing a dead cigar in his mouth. “Want me to try to light that mess for you?” “Nah. If I smoked it, I’d have to buy another and I don’t have the dough. Eating it, it lasts longer.” He turns his pockets inside out in demonstration before settling heavily back into the rocker. There went that idea. Vince nods toward the car. “Pick that piece of faggot junk up in the city?” “No. Here. Just shopping. Giving it a trial run. Gotta go turn it in soon.” “Made a pile up there, did you?” “Well, hit it lucky a coupla times, but—” “You know, when I first seen you coming, Georgie, I had the funny idea you were looking for a handout. What a laugh that woulda been. All the spare cash in this town is at the bank. That’s where this comes from,” he says, holding up the beer. “That guy at the bank’s supplying you?” “No, Angie. She works there. She buys the groceries now. She gives me an allowance, Georgie. A fucking beer allowance. You’re drinking up part of my weekly allowance.” That makes him feel just great. What is he supposed to do? Give it back? It doesn’t even taste good anymore.

“You were smart to get your ass outa here, Georgie. Look at me.” He does. The old man is staring morosely at his missing finger joint. He’s got about as much life in him as his sodden cigar. “I haven’t had a goddamn day’s work since they shut the mine. It’s been a long, hard five years. And it’s gonna get worse. I don’t know what the hell you’re doing back here.” He can’t use his little mammina line, Vince knows better, and he doesn’t want to suggest to his old faceboss (he’s still the boss) that he has been in any kind of trouble (he hasn’t really, other than the everyday). So instead he tells him about his new job as a fire inspector, thinking to earn a little respect. Vince snorts and shifts his wet cigar to the other side of his mouth. That thing really is disgusting. “They’re using you, Georgie. It’s a shakedown racket. You remember old man Baumgarten?” “The dry cleaners?” “Yeah. He was asked for a contribution to the mayor’s so-called campaign fund, and when he didn’t come across, he got a visit from the fire department. They found a lot of things wrong. So he fixed them. They found some more things wrong and he fixed them again. He was reminded that it was costing him more to comply with the regulations than to cough up the campaign fund donation. Still, he wouldn’t go along, so one night his business burned down. The inspectors said it was faulty wiring and he’d been warned, he couldn’t even collect on his insurance.” “No shit.” Georgie’s good mood is sinking as the sun sinks. It’s clouding up and there’s a cold wind. It was a mistake to come up here and let this sick old man bring him down. “Robbins is in on it, too, right?” Georgie nods glumly. He really doesn’t want to hear any of this. “It was those two guys who dropped us in the shit five years ago, you remember that?”

“How could I forget? That loony lawyer we spooked.” A glorious night of masquerades and theatrical revelry (they were shitface spirits from another world), and then a would-be gangshag with an old buddy’s widow and a drunken brawl, ending up in handcuffs down at the station with newsguys’ flashbulbs popping. He, Vince, Cheese Johnson, and Sal Ferrero — though Sal had fallen away before the end. Georgie thought it was all hilarious, but Vince had big ambitions back then and that night fucked it for him. He turned bitter and weird after that, and it all ended in a daylight raid on the old lawyer’s house while everyone else in town was out at the mine waiting for the end of the world and playing bingo. Their aim was looting, plain and simple, but the house was empty. Mostly empty. What Georgie remembers is all the dead cats. “I spun by Lee Cravens’ old place a little while ago. Looked like nobody lived there. Whatever happened to old Wanda?”

“How the hell should I know?” It is clearly a touchy subject. Not much prospect of a second beer. Bonali has got his sulk back and is giving him a look like he wishes he were dead. Georgie glances at his wrist as if he had a watch there. “Well, shit, I better get the car back. I’ll drop back and see you again soon, Vince.”

“If you do, bring your own beer.”

“Well, lookit what’s fell down the shaft,” says Cheese Johnson when Georgie walks in. Cheese is sitting at a card table with old Cokie Duncan, Steve Lawson, Buff Cooley, Georgie’s cousin Carlo Juliano, and one-armed Bert Martini. Some kind of whiskey bottle on the table. Drained. Collecting cigarette ash.

Georgie has made the usual rounds, but it’s midweek and drizzly, the lush spring day having turned cold and windy again, it is doornail-dead all over town, and still too early for the roadhouses. He has never seen streets so empty. Like some kind of nightmare movie. Even the bowling alley and the Legion Hall, where he’d found two of these guys last night, were deserted. Meeting of the geriatric society in Hog’s Tavern: the old union boss Nazario Moroni, who once punched him when he caught him with a pack of cigs in his mine jacket, and a couple of others of like vintage, including a senile cousin of his nonna, others unknown or aged past recognition. Watching a small mute TV hanging behind the bar. Or more like the TV was watching them. The Eagles Social Club was his last shot. “I was wondering where all the action was.”

“That you, Georgie? You must of forgot your hair somewheres. What drug you back to town?”

“Too much tail up in the city, Stevie. It was making an old man outa me. Had to come back for a rest cure.”

“Well, you come to the right place. Sure won’t find no tail up here.”

“I’m disappointed, Coke. I figured you’d be amenable.”

“Listen at the nasty fella with his city ways!”

“Talk like that,” Bert Martini says, shaking his head. Bert lost his left arm in the mine accident, the one he used to catch baseballs with, so even in draw poker he leaves his cards face down on the table, tipping up their edges briefly to read them, then tossing his quarters into the pot with the one hand he has left in life. “Sign of how bad the times is got.”

“You mean, when you’re up shit creek,” Buff Cooley says, “Georgie’s what you find at the other end.”

There is faint laughter at his expense and he grins his grin. “You turned up just in time, Giorgio,” his cousin Carlo says. “I could use that five bucks I staked you Sunday.”

“Lemme see if I can win it back, cugino. What’s the game?”

“Dealer’s choice, stud or draw, nothing wild. Cap’s three raises, limited to a quarter each.”

“A quarter!”

“If that’s too high we can lower it.”

“This ain’t the big town, Georgie.”

“Okay, high rollers. Deal me in.”

He’s keeping up a brave front, but Georgie’s earlier euphoria has drained away. Visiting Bonali was a real bummer, and the betrayed promise of spring weather hasn’t helped. A new front has moved in like a kind of sudden sickness of the air and there’s even talk of snow. April fool. What little he’s eaten (there’s an empty pizza delivery box on the next table still giving off a spicy aroma, reminding him how hungry he probably is) hasn’t set well, nor has the hip flask of cheap rye he has polished off; he should have picked up some antacids in Doc Foley’s this morning when he was in there. Worst of all, he has come to the sinking realization that he’ll never get enough money together to pay for Ruby, cheap date as she is. Certainly not up here. Even if he took all these guys’ money, there’s not enough between them for a pair of windshield wipers. Which he has discovered is among the old tart’s many urgent needs. Had to drive her with his head out the window during the showers. For all his bravura, he does wish he were back in the city. He misses the action, even if it’s an action from which he was mostly excluded for lack of the wherewithal. All he has here that he didn’t always have up there is a room to sleep in out of the weather, and the price for that is his old lady’s ceaseless scorn and fury. Which can get worse. He can only hope she has not looked under the mattress yet.

“All I’m saying is that for the mine company fat cats the disaster wasn’t nothing more than one bad hand,” says Buff, picking up on some conversation Georgie interrupted. These guys are all survivors of the explosion that blew out Number Nine’s innards and closed it down, and they’re still grousing about it five years later. And using the same lines. It’s like time’s stood still here. His life had been shit in the city, but not this bad. He borrows a cigarette from Bert and lights up with Cokie’s lighter. Buff’s real name is Bill, but when he was younger he was a wild man during union strike action, whooping it up like a rodeo rider, and they started calling him Buffalo Bill, which got shortened over time. “They pocketed their winnings, quit the game, and went home, or wherever they go to get their fucking done, and left the workers holding an empty kitty.”

“What did you expect?” says Bert with a shrug. “Them was the cards we was dealt.”

“At least you got your disability pension, Bert,” Steve Lawson says. Like Georgie’s cousin Carlo, Steve lost a brother in the explosion. Steve sees Bert’s quarter and raises.

“That makes me the lucky one, hunh?” says Bert, waving his stump.

“Put that thing back in your pants, Bert,” says Cheese, meeting the bet and asking for a pair, “and stop showing off.”

“We’re halfway through our fucking lives and whatta we got?” Georgie says, repeating Guido Mello’s line.

“Well, the clap,” says Cokie Duncan. “Hemorrhoids…” Cokie once had a wife, but she ran off during a stretch on the night shift so long ago no one around here remembers her anymore, Duncan included. Cokie was Bonali’s assistant faceboss in Georgie’s crew and on the night of the disaster was left in charge when Bonali went looking for a phone. Georgie was sure Bonali was not coming back and they were all going to die if they just stood there in that black smoky furnace, so he and Wally Brevnik took off on their own. It was Georgie’s intention to claw his way out by his fingernails if he had to. They went through some rough stuff, but Wally had a cool head and they eventually reached the top and already had a cup of spiked coffee in their hands by the time the rest of the section came up. All but Pooch and Lee. Names on a T-shirt.

The best card in Georgie’s rainbow hand is a ten of diamonds, but after Buff Cooley drops his two bits in, he raises a quarter, pretending to want to throw in all he’s showing, and it is not so much a bluff as an act of frustration, wanting desperately for something to happen, any goddamned thing, even a fight. Betwise, not smart. After drawing blanks, he tosses, and Carlo wins the little pile of coins with low triplets, Georgie’s dwindling roadhouse reserve now diminished by his contribution to it.

When it’s his deal, to do Bert a favor he calls seven-card stud. “I seen Guido Mello today. He’s not a happy man,” he says, passing out the hole cards.

“Well, he up and married the Sicano girl, the one who was never quite right in the head, and one a their kids has a medical problem. Some sympdrome or nother. So he’s sorta lost his sense a humor.”

“Sicano? The one we all banged on the Hog pool table one night?”

“The same.”

“Oh man. Well-buttered buns.” A memorable night. Used to be a popular neighborhood spot, Hog’s Tavern, but Hog Galasso is long dead and it has fallen on hard times. Dark and foul-smelling. A few ancient habitués like those he saw tonight. But back then he was still just a kid working his first mine shift, getting tanked in there with some older guys from his section, when one of them went out and came back with the Sicano girl, and Hog locked the doors. The pool table got knocked permanently ajar by what happened afterwards; you had to know how to play the slope. “What’d he go and do that for?”

“Il Nasone never had lotsa options amongst the ladies.”

“He says Lem has turned out to be a hard man to work for.”

“Who ain’t? He should try that tightwad cocksucker Suggs for a spell.”

Cokie and Steve, he learns, have got on part-time at one of the strip mines, but when he asks, he’s told don’t even bother — old man Suggs and his hardass mine manager are not partial to Italians. “They only like to abuse their own kind.” Cheese and Buff also got hired out there, he’s told, and then fired — Cheese for his fuck-off wisecracks, Buff for trying to organize the workers — and they add to the asshole portraits of J. P. Suggs and his site boss, a surly black-bearded gun-toting church going westerner named Ross McDaniel. “McDaniel hates everybody and everything. He’s one of them guys that if his feet don’t carry him fast enough to where he wants to go, he’s apt to shoot them off.”

“He believes the Bible should be the constitution and law of the country, and wants to execute everbody who don’t agree with him.”

“Never seen a guy with a lesser sense a humor,” Cokie says.

Buff lights up. “There was a day we’d of strung up guys like him.”

Several of them have been out to the hospital to see Big Pete Chigi, who has black lung and is breathing his last through respirator nose plugs, and he hears about Ezra Gray, who was in Red Baxter’s section and got out of Deepwater okay, but then went down in another mine a state over and got crippled in a roof fall that killed three other guys.

“Yeah, I seen him — broke his fucking back. He’s on rubber wheels for the duration. Ez was working non-union, so no comp or insurance. A hotshot lawyer talked him into filing suit, but the owner faded away like he never was. Like he disappeared into the paperwork or something.”

“Same as what happened here. The ruthless dickheads.” Buff slaps his cards. “C’mon, Georgie, cheer me up. Goddamn make me something. Send me down sixth street singing.”

“Fulla potholes, sixth street.”

“Ez is completely off his nut now. One a them Brunist types. He travels some with Red Baxter, I hear tell. Out there ranting about the end a the world and all that.”

“Is old Ez back? Is he out there at the camp?”

“He’s in town,” says Steve, “but I never seen him in the camp and he’d be hard to miss.”

At first Georgie thinks Steve might have got mixed up with those crackpots somehow, but it turns out Suggs has been helping them rebuild the camp, using his own workers for some of the heavy jobs, so both Steve and Cokie have been putting in time out there. It’s not clear what old man Suggs is getting out of the deal, but they’re pulling their normal paltry wages, so no complaints. “So what’s going on out there in the woods?” Georgie wants to know. “Are they wearing any clothes?”

“We ain’t sposed to talk about it,” Steve says, “but, yeah, leastways by day. We don’t stay past quitting time, so I don’t know whatall they get up to, but it’s too fucking cold to go round bareass even if you’re rolling round a lot. From what I could see, they’re mostly just only working their butts off, fixing the place up. Generally I didn’t reckanize no one nother than Ben — ole Ben Wosznik, y’know — him and Ely’s widder. They kinda run things. And also Willie Hall’s out there. Willie and big Mabel.”

“That’d be a cute pair, butt-nekkid.”

“And Lee Cravens’ skinny little widder with all her brats, she’s there, too.”

“Wanda?” Georgie glances up and catches Johnson’s wink and gap-toothed grin.

“She’s shacked up with some bigass hulk. I mean, really big. A man who’s dragging around a whole heap a excess mollycules. But he can move. I seen him dancing round on the open beams atop the old lodge like a man who don’t know what fear is.”

“He ain’t never been down a mine then.”

Georgie has dealt himself a second king over a pair of eights, and he risks a couple more quarters, but Johnson beats him with a club flush, so even his luck is bad. Buff gets back on the mine bosses again, so to change the subject and lighten things up, Georgie elaborates on some of the tales he has been inventing during his job hunt, including a new one about a highprice hooker named Ruby, red-hot Ruby, using anatomical details from the centerfold he’s had hung in the car all day and personality quirks based on the old junker’s clunky behavior. “Well, we’re just getting warmed up, you know — really shimmying down the road, burning rubber — when her fucking eyelashes fall off and she gets so hot she starts making these really nasty noises down below…”

“Sounds a real beaut, Georgie,” Carlo says, laughing.

“No shit, she was. Even posed for one a them centerfolds. She invited me along for the photo shoot. She said me watching got her hot. Sure got me hot. She was a sight to see. An ass-end to die for! I still have a copy somewhere, I’ll show it to you someday.”

“Hey, speaking a pitchers, show Georgie the ones you got, Cheese!”

Johnson shrugs, reaches into a paper sack, and tosses out a half dozen well-thumbed black and white photographs of two naked people doing a kind of sex manual thing on a leather couch. No hardcore shots and the light’s bad, could be stills from a cheap stag movie, but the guy’s well hung, they’re both good lookers, and the beaver shot with the guy standing over her with a newspaper in his hand like he’s about to swat her with it is good enough to make you want to poke her. Then he looks closer. “Wait a minute. Who is that? Is that Tiger Miller?” They’re all grinning. All except Bert Martini, who says, “You shouldn’t ought to be showing them photos around. She was a nice girl. And Tiger was a pal. When I was in hospital he come by to see me near every day. I figure there’s more here than what meets the eye.” The others laugh at that.

“And that’s the Bruno kid, right? Marcella. The one who got killed. She was in school with me. A young kid, coming in as I was going out. These are a little different from what’s in the high school annual. Where’d you get them?”

“You remember Jonesy, useta work at the newspaper, back when we still had one a them shitrags. We was playing cards and gitting blitzed together up to the Legion the night Jonesy split town. I walked him to his train and he give ’em to me as a see-ya-later present. Plumb forgot about ’em till them apocaleptics showed up agin.”

“Sure you did,” Carlo laughs. “You can tell by all the cum spots on them.”

Something about the photos bothers Georgie. Not just the realization that something was happening back then and he’d missed out. He missed out on plenty. She always had a nice smile, but she was just a kid, he hardly knew her. Her brother was a complete psycho and he supposes some of that rubbed off on Marcella. He doesn’t remember anyone ever dating her. No, it’s something about seeing her so exposed like that. Not so much her naked snatch, he’s seen his share of those, but all the rest of her, so laid open. Georgie has never seen that look on a girl’s face before. She is looking not just with her face but with all her body, her snatch as much a part of her looking as her eyes. Her navel or her toes. Her mouth, half open. So it’s like something terrible is being bared that shouldn’t be seen, something that, once bared, can never be covered up again, and he hates it that these cackling shits are ignorant witnesses to it. And she’s so still. And silent. It’s like she has been spread out to be carved up. Consumed. Well. She’s dead. Must have died right after these pictures were taken. It’s like getting the hots for a corpse. He wants to cover her up. Close her eyes. “Her nutty brother was in my class,” he says, feeling soberer than he wants to be. “Is he out there at the camp now?”

“Giovanni? Nah, they locked the loony away right after the world ended and he never come out.”

“He’s dead, I think,” says Steve Lawson.


“So I heerd.”

So, Georgie decides, tossing in another losing hand, is this dump. He feels suffocated by the dead. He looks around the table. Even these guys are dead. The whole fucking town is a town of the walking dead, and he’s going to be one of them unless he moves his ass. Besides, if he wants to score tonight, he should get on the road while he still has coin left to operate with. He had thought to invite these guys along, but he really doesn’t want to be around them any longer. He glances at his empty wrist and announces he has a date waiting for him, gotta go. He had made the mistake of tossing some money on the table when he sat down and, as he gets up to leave, Carlo reaches over and snatches up a couple of loose skins. “Now you owe me three,” he says.

“Ruby,” he says, leaning his heavy head against her wheel, “Ruby… what I really feel like doing is shooting somebody.” Georgie is sitting in the Blue Moon Motel parking lot waiting for the old girl to warm up, sucking on the joint the Moroni kid gave him. Soft wet snow is falling like a punchline for the stupid joke that is his life. On the travel office window this morning, he saw a sign advertising holidays at a beach place called Brazil. Where he ought to be. Where he deserves to be. Wherever it is. He’s cold, wearing only a shirt and jacket, feeling miserable. The only way morning’s promise is going to be fulfilled is in a Waterton whorehouse, provided they still exist and he can find an old puttana who will take what little money he — he and his mother — have left. Ever hopeful even in deepest despair, he assumes that, on a shit night like this, they’ll take any trade they can get.

The motel was the last stop on his desperate but futile nightlong quest. For what? Cunt? More than that. Some kind of affirmation is what he was looking for. Some justification. Just a pleasant conversation with some pretty young thing would have been nice. He is full of sorrow and could have used an arm around his shoulder. A soft breast to nuzzle. The roadhouses weren’t completely empty. Worse. Those few out on the crummy night were all juveniles. Drunken teenage high school kids. Boys pissing themselves with their own confused excitement, a few girls going bad. Well, that was all right. Hey, let’s rock. Georgie felt like one of them — he was one of them. But they didn’t feel like one of him. They called him an old pervert. Baldy, they called him. Gramps. In one place, an unshaven kid they were calling Grunge even threatened to take him outside and beat the shit out of him if he didn’t fuck off. He would have welcomed a brawl, but his own team had a membership of one and those red-eyed boys with erections bulging their jeans didn’t look like they would know when to stop. Then a short stocky guy with a fedora tipped down over his broken nose swaggered over and told Grunge to lay off. “Pal of my dad’s,” he said. “You worked out at Deepwater, right?” Georgie acknowledged that he did, and recognizing now the tipped lid, he introduced himself and said he was in the mine the night it blew up and killed his dad. “Been away since then. Just checking out the old haunts. Ran into your granddad today, too. At the Hog. Nonno Moroni’s the toughest bastard I ever knew.” “Yeah. Who I’m named after. But this is a private party, Georgie. Sorry.” “I smell fresh-baked cookies.” Young Nazario smiled faintly, fished out a joint and handed it to him. “On the house. Lemme know if you’re in the market for more. Me or one of my boys will fix you up. With whatever. Ciao.”

By the time he had reached the Moon, he was no longer looking for women; he was happy only to sink into a drunken stupor and let his life end that way. Just as well, for there were no women to be had, unless one of the two couples in the room should have a blowup and leave a partner behind. He had hoped to catch the old girl who used to play a melancholic piano in here, but she had been replaced by one of those twangy hillbilly types, a long loose assembly of bones with some skin on them, wearing a sweaty cowboy hat and a plaid shirt. Boots that looked like they might not have been off his feet since he grew into them. When Georgie took his stool alone at the bar, the hick was singing about dead mommies and daddies, which was a real pick-up. There were two older people in a booth back in a dark corner and a young couple on the dance floor sort of melted into each other, mouths together, the guy’s big mitt on the girl’s plump little ass, the other holding her hand and pressed against her boobs. The Georgie Porgie of old might have cut in on the young stud, he could still show the little cunt a trick or two, but he had taken enough knocks for the night. “…And each night as I wander through the graveyard, darkness hides me where I kneel to pray…” Holy shit. They’re getting off on lines like that? When they parted mouths long enough to go into deep-gaze mode, Georgie recognized the girl from Sunday at church: Bonali’s hotpants daughter. The one at the bank. The boy, who was at least a foot taller, looked familiar, but he couldn’t place him. Everybody around here looked familiar. It was a kind of curse. Even the bartender turned out to be a punk from the neighborhood, a kid who was in grade school when Georgie was in high school. Only he wasn’t a kid anymore either. Beardy. Already developing a gut. “White dove will mourn in sorrow,” the hayseed whined, and Georgie, though suffering a deep grief of his own, decided if there was one more fucking chorus, he was going to trash the place. Gratefully, the song came to an end, though the lovers stayed in their swaying clinch on the dance floor, grinding away softly. The girl spotted Georgie past the boy’s elbow (Georgie winked, she ducked) and whispered something to the boy and they left, and the older couple soon followed them out. The woman was either a whore or somebody’s wife. If he’d come here earlier, he might have made out. It was when everyone was out of the place that, looking around, you realized how filthy it was.

The singer did an Elvis imitation of “When the Blue Moon Turns to Gold,” apparently the house theme and just for him, for him and the bartender, who applauded, then, setting down his guitar, came over to the bar, to try to cadge a drink maybe, and Georgie told him flat out he hated hillbilly music. “Go fuck a horse,” he said. The guy only grinned faintly out of the side of his mouth and shrugged and said there wasn’t much else he knew how to do except drink and split the beaver, maybe Georgie had a better idea for picking up enough small change to get by. He didn’t. That eased things, and though neither could afford to buy the other a drink, they ended up trading tales, leaning there on the bar, Georgie finding himself telling the truth for a change about his fucked up family and fucked up life, while the singer, who introduced himself as Duke (Georgie gave him his Italian name, just to let him know where he was coming from), told him about the shit life of the country music road circuit, and the even shittier life of the bush leagues. He said, when asked, he used to throw a little, and Georgie said he used to hit a little but could never stay sober enough to go pro. Georgie even got around to telling about the girl who had been killed, the girl who was, he only realized this just now, the true love of his life. “One thing about country music,” Duke said, “is they got a song for ever damn thing that ever went wrong. They ain’t many differnt tunes, but some words is better’n others.” “And some words are worse,” Georgie said and asked him why he was singing that sick mommy and daddy graveyard merda when he came in. “The girl ast for it. It was the third time I’d done ‘White Dove’ for the moony little thing tonight. Probly has to do with the first night she got laid. Most usually does.” Georgie felt warm enough toward Duke by then to ask him if he’d like to join him on a run to Waterton, go give the dog a bone, but Duke said it was still too early, he had to stay on until midnight in case anyone came in. “But I’ll be around. Got no place to go. Drop in agin.”

The fat unseasonal snow is still falling in thick clots as Georgie, hunched over the steering wheel, pulls out of the motel parking lot. After the warm day, it is mostly melting as it falls, though it is a nuisance without windshield wipers and the roads are greasing up. Ruby is making a farting noise; that cheap gas he bought was probably watered down. Ought to forget it. Way he’s feeling, he may not be able to raise a boner anyway. But it’s his last chance while he still has wheels. Lem will be pissed off enough about him keeping the car overnight, especially since he won’t be buying it, so no chance for seconds — it’s tonight or who knows. Another thing he should have picked up on his rounds, he considers, was a pack of Redi-Wets. Old Doc Foley used to give all the boys free rubbers and showed them with a broom handle how to use them. Could use some now, but he’s not a boy any longer. Learned that tonight if he didn’t know it before. And anyway, it’s too late, he’s already a VD donor.

“Goddamn it, Ruby,” Georgie asks, “what’s all this for? If life is such shit, why do we go on living it?” He answers himself: Because you’re scared not to, asshole. And because there’s always hope for one more piece of tail. He pats the dashboard (he’s glad he didn’t turn her in, he’d be all alone without her), his nose at the windshield, trying to see through it, thinking about dying. Or rather, trying not to, but unable to keep it out. Where was Marcella Bruno killed? On this road? No, out by the mine. “What’s it like, Ruby? What happens when you die?” The Waterton road is empty, almost spookily so. Nobody else fool enough to be out. No risk of hitting anybody, but it is easy to lose the road altogether. Can’t see through the window but when he sticks his head out he gets snow in his face. Maybe he should never let Ruby go, he’s thinking. Just drive through Waterton and keep on rolling. Go somewhere warm, make some money, fix her up. Whitewall tires. Radio. Leopard-skin seat covers, soft to stroke. Then he sees it, a small dark thing scurrying across the snowy road out in front of him with glowing ruby dots where its eyes are. It startles him with its sudden challenging presence. Raccoon maybe. Cat. Squirrel. Whatever. It’s dead meat. Georgie floors the accelerator. No pickup at all. If anything the old girl slows down. He knows if he can hit this thing, everything will be all right. “Come on, sweetheart, throw your hips into it! You can do it!” His fingers are snapping at the wheel as if working pinball flippers, his whole body twisting and pushing. The animal has frozen. He’s got it! And then, just as he’s about to score, Ruby starts to fishtail, he whips the wheel back and forth trying to straighten her out, everything is suddenly spinning around him, trees that weren’t there wheeling about in front of his face, and he braces for the impact.

The whumping crumple of metal is not as loud as he’d expected, though in the silence that follows it echoes loudly in his mind. He has been thrown around, whacked his head on the window, but he’s okay. He switches off the motor, leaves the lights on, crawls out. He has wrapped Ruby around a light pole on the passenger side, the old girl nearly cloven in half at the waist, her rear end at an angle to the rest of her. “Oh, baby. I’m sorry.” He is. It is the saddest thing that has happened in a long sad day. He’s even crying a little. For her. For himself. He walks around her in the falling snow, whispering his apologies. His farewells. He crawls back in on the driver’s side to rescue the centerfold, looking a bit the worse for wear. He kisses the steering wheel, getting out. He has a long walk back to face. But first he clambers up on Ruby’s hood and, kneeling there in pious homage, lowers his pants, and using the centerfold’s taunting raised ass to arouse himself, jerks off on Ruby’s cracked windshield, fantasizing a loving blowjob (“Marcella! I love you!” he whispers as he comes). His final blessing. He wipes himself with the centerfold, no doubt inking his dick colorfully, and, a mile or so down the snowy road toward town, tosses it in the ditch.

I.5 Wednesday 1 April — Friday 3 April

Her true love is wedged deep inside her as if trying to take root there. Oh, would that he might! She squeezes as hard as she can, gripping his muscular bottom tightly, her ankles locked around his thighs, wishing this moment could last forever. She feels like she is in Heaven, floating on silvery clouds (she will say so later in her diary), waves of ecstasy throbbing through her like a sweet angelic storm. Five years of a terrible emptiness, this is what he is filling. Her dark ages. Oh, oh! Her whole being is flooded with rapturous delight. Soft white snow is falling all about them like the feathers of a dove, curtaining them where they lie on her bed of dreams in the back of Tommy’s mother’s station wagon. “Oh, I love you, Tommy!” she whispers. “With all my heart! I do!” Tommy moves slowly in her as though he too wishes to prolong this awesome moment for as long as possible, and as he does so she can feel her whole body begin to vibrate with liquid desire. He raises himself up to gaze adoringly down upon her and she knows herself to be a glowing image of fire, passion, and love.

The day opened up warm and sweet, heralding a new awakening. Angela arose feeling blissfully happy, fully alive. No heroine she has ever read about ever felt more so. On her way to the bank, she saw a white dove perched on a telephone wire like a kind of miracle, and she crossed herself and prayed to it, and now what she prayed for has come true. Oh, thank you, God! Thank you, Santa Maria, madre di Dio, piena di grazie! “White Dove” is their song, a strange song for lovers, yet prophetic too, for their love is tinged with the sorrow of dead and dying mothers. It was playing on the car radio that night, when, as the only gift she had to give, she gave him her virginity out here at the ice plant. Where she insisted on coming tonight. A sacred place (now doubly so), a sacred day. His white dove, Tommy called her that night so long ago, kissing her breasts worshipfully. They were much smaller then, she was still just a child, immature in body and mind. She dried his beautiful organ with her own panties (there was precious blood), her head leaning against his chest, listening to his pounding heart. And this day (she is an April fool for love!) is now another for her secret calendar.

He picked her up at the bank, not in his father’s car but in the family station wagon, which was now his own car up at college, his mother being too ill to drive. Angela had hoped to see the big Lincoln come rolling up front to receive her as it had in times past (she had told her friend Stacy to watch), but now she is grateful for the extra room. It had been her suggestion that he come to the bank so they could go for a ride first, for she really didn’t want him to come to her house where her sour old grump of a father would be sitting in his front porch rocker in his dirty clothes like he always is, drinking beer and bellyaching, coming out with who knows what awful remarks. They drove out to the lakes and nearly got right to it — a breast was out and his hand was between her legs almost before she knew it, and she knew she was soaking wet down there and feared for a moment she had lost the power to resist — but she jumped out of the car, gasping for breath, and they went for a walk holding hands and other things (well, his hands were all over, he could not restrain himself), and even as she walked along, she was suffering little orgasms almost like hiccups.

It clouded over and a cold wind came up (her panties were off, she can’t even remember how that happened), so they went to the Blue Moon Motel for supper. She had a chicken salad sandwich, but she could only eat half of it, she was too excited, and she kept having to use the bathroom. It turned out there was a country singer in the lounge named Duke L’Heureux, so they went in, and since they were almost alone they danced for a while. Duke L’Heureux was pretty awful and they whispered jokes to each other about him (“What do you expect, with a name like that!”), but they asked him to sing “White Dove” for them and he did, several times, and Tommy bought him some drinks, so it was really a nice time, though Tommy’s hardness rubbing against her and his hands squeezing her breasts and pinching her nipples and stroking her bottom and crawling down between were driving her crazy. If he had asked her to take her clothes off and lie down on the dance floor, she would have done it. She wanted to get a room immediately in spite of all her romantic plans and she knew he was thinking the same thing, but then one of her father’s stupid friends turned up and started ogling her and she pulled Tommy out of there. It was beginning to snow when they returned to the car. It was very beautiful, and she reached into Tommy’s pants and took hold of him and kissed him hard on the mouth and asked him to drive to the ice plant, her head in his lap, kissing him all the way, and he had to stop for a moment to avoid having an accident.

Now he is sliding back and forth in her with measured strokes, still gazing down upon her with a look of intense fascination in his eyes, as though he cannot see enough. And then he kisses her, tenderly yet hungrily, his tongue licking her lips and exploring the recesses of her mouth, while his thrusts become more urgent and his fingers reach for her other opening down below, sending electric tremors of pleasure and mad desire racing through her, and she rises to meet him in a moment of uncontrolled passion, crying out in her delight. When she was a little girl she had once heard her parents say of a friend of theirs who was not married but was expecting a child that she had been touched by the finger of God, and though the grownups seemed to think that was funny, it made Angela recall that painting in St. Peter’s in Rome of God’s finger, the one touching Adam. There was something so mighty and awesome about that finger, frightening even, and she had never forgotten it. That’s what it feels like inside her now. The finger of God.

Snow is falling outside her window, recalling for her a long-ago walk through a snowy campus, a night of such exquisite purity, the flakes dropping past the lamps overhead like big soft petals. It was the first night he said he loved her, and during the long goodnight kisses outside her sorority, she let his hands cup her breasts. Such strong masculine hands — as was he in all respects — and so handsome, so passionate, and yet so kind and gentle. So loving. In the spring, she accepted his fraternity pin (his brothers serenaded her, singing the song with her name in it) and, trusting him implicitly, she surrendered to him before they separated for the Easter holidays. Which were agonizing days for both of them. Mail was slow and phone calls difficult and expensive, so he drove all the way to her parents’ house to see her, and they walked hand in hand along the river, and he made love to her standing up against a secluded tree, and though it was all so new to her, she was able to laugh at the awkwardness of it, and then, still joined together, she cried. As she is crying now, and without him here to comfort her. Nor wanting him, for he is no comfort. She shudders and calls for the home care nurse Bernice, asks her to bring her one of her photo albums. The long white one.

The Presbyterian manse lights are off and the curtains are open on this first night of April, and Prissy Tindle, who should perhaps at this moment be known by her stage name of Priscilla Parsons, is dancing the “Dance of the Annunciation” for Reverend Wesley Edwards by the pale glow of the unseasonable snow falling outside. She has been thinking about it and choreographing it in her mind all day, ever since she saw the shimmering white dove preening itself in much balmier weather outside her kitchen window this morning. Her horoscope encouraged artistic endeavor and suggested that she foster new relationships with imagination and transparency. Which she took to mean she should dance with her clothes off. Wesley’s record collection leaves much to be desired (it is probably his wife Debra’s, that silly woman, he seemed to know nothing about it), but at least she was able to find Debussy’s Nocturnes, the “Clouds” piece being both texturally and thematically appropriate for the angel Gabriel descending from Heaven while the dove of the Holy Spirit casts its fertilizing beam upon the magical scene. The mystery of mysteries. Forget your risen Christ, this is it.

Priscilla has chosen to interpret that mystery, not from the perspective of one of the three protagonists, but as an expression of the exchange occurring between them, including the respectful but lordly intrusion of the messenger, Mary’s bewilderment and disbelief, and the dove’s sweet feathery aggression, focusing, as the album cover notes say about the nocturne, on “an instant of pure beauty,” which is also of course an instant of pure terror. All of this is, simultaneously, in her dance. Further nuances of gesture have been suggested by other album notes regarding the melting of juxtaposed discords into impressions of lucent sonorities, the rich languorous tone of the English horn set against the undulating background of the other instruments (languorous undulation is one of her best moves), and Debussy’s own remark that the music he desired “must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams,” which describes perfectly her own lifelong aspirations as a dancer.

Suppleness perhaps comes less easily to her now, her body being less lithe than it once was, her feet no longer quite leaving the floor in her little springs, but time claims its little victories, what can you do. Not that she is any heavier, she has always been careful about that, dieting and exercising regularly, but her flesh has rearranged itself subtly, adding a touch of texture here and there, as she thinks of it, and in what she hopes is an opulent and intriguing way. And she can still touch the floor with her palms without bending her knees, a gesture that always gives Wesley particular delight (he has often kissed her then highest parts in respectful gratitude). Wesley, too, is naked, for she has explained to him that he will join her in her dance, or at least be part of it. And, semitumescent, he has been watching her and commenting on her performance and on her beauty with his indwelling Christ, who claims to feel quite abashed (Wesley’s translation) at this celebration of his conception. With his, or their, eyes upon her she feels flushed with anticipation. The room is sweetly perfumed as if with incense, adding to the sacred aura, for the three of them have been using Wesley’s briar pipe to smoke the marijuana she brought, the teeth marks on the stem giving her a sense of profound intimacy. Like sharing a toothbrush.

Priscilla can empathize with Wesley’s Christ within. She herself has always felt there to be another dancer inside her, trying to express herself — or itself — in a body that is, alas, never wholly responsive to its demands. In effect, this inner dancer represents the distance between the way she imagines herself dancing and the way it actually turns out. Although Prissy has held no two-sided conversations with this dancer within, she has sometimes spoken to her, or it, usually in exasperation or apology, much as one speaks to one’s conscience, and sometimes “listens” to it, too, if not literally or with much compliance. Her husband Ralph, with whom she danced in her early days, used to complain about her muttering while dancing, saying that it broke his concentration while communing with the music, which for him was a sacred connection, her muttering therefore a kind of sacrilege. All she could say to the pompous ass was he just didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t understand, which is the sort of philistine incomprehension poor dear Wesley is now enduring in this town. Reviled and ridiculed, abandoned, expelled from his pulpit and facing eviction from his home and, as she discovered today when trying to bank for him what’s probably his last paycheck (though she hasn’t told him, won’t, for fear of what he might do or ask her to do), pauperized by his traitorous wife, no doubt in collusion with his worst enemy, the bank owner. He has his rights, he cannot be evicted without due process, cannot be arrested for he has committed no crime, and he seems determined to stay put and fight his oppressors, but Prissy knows this is too dangerous. If the deacons can get him certified, as they intend, the men in little white suits will come to get him and he’ll be straitjacketed and locked away where she cannot help him.

Immediately after her “Water Dance of the Megalopsychoi” on Sunday night, their hair still wet and shoes not yet on, Wesley wanted her to drive him out to the church camp so that he might confront Debra with all her crimes against him, including something having to do with his golfclubs which Prissy didn’t understand, and to demand of her that she not sign any papers presented to her by the church deacons and that she give him his stolen car back. She felt complete sympathy with the poor man from the bottom of her heart, but she couldn’t do it. She was afraid. Of the scandal, sure, and of having to face Debra, and of Wesley’s currently explosive temperament which might land them in all sorts of horrible trouble, but mostly she was afraid of those strange violent people with their diabolic visions of ultimate catastrophes. She had been afraid to go out to the stormy mine hill when they were waiting for the end to come, though she had witnessed their bizarre frenzies on live television while doing her morning exercises, never having seen so much exposed flesh on the screen before. Later, the networks censored most of it, but that morning it was all on display, all the fat wet bottoms and flopping breasts and all the screaming and whipping and the mad muddy brawl that followed, the beatings and the arrests — it was a nightmare, she couldn’t bear it, she had to turn it off. She’d had no idea until church on Easter morning that those awful people were back, so she was in a state of alarm and anticipation even before everything else that had happened. Her horoscope that morning had urged her to take bold advantage of any unforeseen circumstances, and, well, she did.

“No,” says Wesley now to his inner Jesus, while slowly exhaling a pale plume of smoke, “that must have been the dove descending, not the Virgin fleeing the scene of the crime.” She realizes that thinking about Sunday morning has made her dancing increasingly agitated and fluttery, quite out of character with the music, and she has completely lost the thread of her argument, an unfortunate tendency Ralph often complained about. But no time to think about that, for “Clouds” is receding, its grand vistas about to give way to the dazzlingly festive and more earthbound “Fetes” nocturne. “The Dance of Life,” someone has called it, with its sensuous melodies and celebrative processions, and during it she will, as the adoring Virgin, receive, by the silvery light of the falling snow, the Holy Spirit on the living room carpet, which she has earlier vacuumed for just this purpose. In the silence between the two nocturnes, she stoops to Wesley’s floppy little bird and puts it to her ear like an old-fashioned telephone receiver, and Wesley, his hand stroking her bottom as though to say you have found favor, explains to Jesus, “I think she’s trying to hear you directly. Say something.” No, he has misunderstood, but no matter, the power of her touch is having its usual magical effect and the bird is puffing up and pushing its beak against her ear as though to impregnate her as Mary was impregnated. The jubilant procession has begun. The Virgin, making herself prostrate before her Lord, lifts her voice and sings: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“Somebody loves me,” the town travel agent and current Rotary Club president Gus Baird croons, waltzing through the bank, winking at the giggling young tellers and passing out flyers advertising a special holiday rate for flights to Brazil. “I wonder who?” He knows who, even as he points to each of them. No one. It’s a sad song. Gus loves everybody but no one loves him. “Who can she be? I wish I knew!” The girls are used to Gus and carry on; he’s in here every day, telling his silly jokes, dancing his dances. By chance his old WCHS classmate Emily Wetherwax née Hopkiss enters through the front door, and he sidles up to her: “For every girl who passes me I shout, Hey, may-be,” and he does a little shuffle around her, goes down on one knee, “you were meant to be my lovin’ ba-by!” Emily laughs and does a plump turn of her own before continuing to the counter, shaking her head (she turned him down in high school, she turns him down now, it’s a habit, everyone’s habit), and the girls clap and laugh. “Hey, wow,” one of the Italian girls says, “Brazil! Great! Where is it?” Gus strikes something like a bullfighter’s pose or else that of a tango dancer, clicks his heels and sings: “South of the bor-derr, down Mex-ee-co way!” “Gene Autry does that better,” says Earl Goforth, the scarred war veteran who owns the old movie house on Main Street, talking out of the hole in his cheek as he empties a canvas bag of coins at the business counter, “and he can’t sing neither.” The pretty kid from college who’s interning — first newcomer in a decade — is watching Gus with a puzzled smile, so he twitches his shoulders like Jimmy Cagney and, with a glance at a bank calendar set out to help people date their checks and deposit slips, growls with what he hopes is a fair imitation of Bogie, “Don’t mind us, kid. It’s what we do on Thursdays.” For some reason she blushes. That doesn’t happen often. He blushes back.

“Just because some preacher’s a kook, Sal, doesn’t mean the whole religion is crazy.”

“No. On the other hand, if the whole religion is crazy, then every preacher’s a kook, right?”

Sally Elliott is sitting on the Cavanaugh screened-in front porch, having a beer and a toke with Tommy, discussing interesting topics of the day. She has managed to bump into him just about every day and this evening she found him babysitting his sick mom while his dad was away on a business meeting, the home care nurse having the day off, so he was feeling unhappy and more amenable to company than usual. The days are getting longer, the sun’s still out, yesterday’s freak snowstorm is ancient history. There are still a few dirty white spots in dark shadowy places looking like little blisters, but spring is sprung. She is wearing her dirty cutoffs, a faded rose-colored T-shirt, and her grotey trenchcoat, which is not really hers but her father’s, rescued one day from the trash can, redolent with garbage and washed only once since, when her mother stole it from her and tossed it in with a load of golf togs. The shirt reads: THIS IS MY BODY. It’s her handcrafted Easter tee. Earlier, Tommy was staring at it thoughtfully and she wondered if, amazingly, he was admiring those little bumps he used to fondle. She stretched the shirt out so he could read it better, and what he said was: “I was just thinking: How would that look if my mother was wearing it?”

Well, he’s depressed about his mother, she understands that and knows he’s hurting. Little Boy Blue. He is feeling let down, as though the world has double-crossed him. His mother was not supposed to fall apart like this. All of which has led them to the meaning of life, or rather, the meaninglessness of it, and the way that religion steps in to provide a comforting madness (her word). Which is what has been happening to his mother, who has been moving toward the radical evangelical line, much to Tommy’s dismay. He finds he cannot even talk to her anymore; she’s gone completely wiggy. The end is at hand, Christ is knocking on the door, repent before the shit hits the fan, and all that. The problem is, ultimate things are not in Tommy the Jock’s repertoire. The topics of religion and craziness have in turn led them to the lunatic Presbyterian preacher and his dippy wife, the scandal of the day. When the preacher freaked out Sunday morning and stormed out of the church, Tommy’s dad asked Tommy to tail him to make sure he didn’t do himself or others harm, whereupon Tommy ended up out in the country with the rain bombing down and a crazy preacher charging down upon him and sending him straight to hell.

“He kept waving his arms about out there and shouting at the rain. It was weird, man.”

“Tommy Cavanaugh, private dick. Or not so private.” That sounds like the making of one of her Tom and Sally stories. Tom and Sally Play Detectives. Like playing doctors but with magnifying glasses. Tom and Sally and the Case of the Disappointing Universe. “So, imagine, the guy has a gun pointed at his temple. What do you do?”

“I don’t know. Probably look the other way and duck.”

“Your dad asked my parents to visit Auntie Debra. They want her to sign some papers to get Reverend Edwards committed.”

“So I’ve heard. They tell me she’s shacked up out there with some kid.”

“Colin Meredith. She is taking care of him. The blond cutie from the orphanage. The emaciated angel. Remember him?”

“Vaguely. A flake. A pal of Ugly Palmers.”

“Carl Dean? They don’t seem to have much in common.”

“Ugly didn’t have many pals. Meredith was just about the only guy who could stand him. A couple of fucked-up loners. Ugly ended up in the pen, your blond angel in the loony bin. The Reverend’s wife must be even crazier than he is.”

“That’s what my dad thinks, though he only thinks whatever your dad thinks. As far as he’s concerned, they’re all nuts out there. They should just put a fence around the place and send the doctors in.”

“He’s probably right.”

“Yeah, well, they’re all nuts in here, too, and he hasn’t figured that out yet. What do you think? Is he going to lose his Chamber job?”

“Nah, why should he?” Tommy says, but he’s blushing, caught off guard by her broadside, and Sally knows it’s true. Damn. The only hope is that it’s too dumb a job and no one else will want it. “How about another beer?”

“Sure. More ganja?”

“Why not.”

While he’s gone, she takes her notebook out of her trenchcoat pocket and writes, thinking about his mother inside (she can hear Tommy talking to her): There’s only now. And when that’s insupportable, there isn’t even that. She pauses, adds: The hardest thing in life is to face the fact of nothingness without a consoling fantasy: at the brink, no way back, unable to jump. The only thing left is to grow up. That’s a bit heavy so she writes: Inspiration: His hand on my ass. It felt like God about to take a bite. There’s a cartoon she has drawn on the page of a sleeping princess with a wicked grin and her hands between her legs. Absently, trying not to think about that stupid night at the ice plant, she defaces the sleeper with a mustache and beard and a rising dick, then writes: He’s not asleep, he’s just been hymnotized. It’s a sick world, she thinks, but (she writes): With a bit of dope, there’s always hope. And, stuffing the notebook back in her pocket as Tommy returns with the beers, she rolls a buddha. She’s feeling good. Rising sweetly into the evening. Let’s see what happens. “So, how did we get here?” she asks, gazing out distractedly upon the technicolor neighborhood, gilded by the dipping sun, while licking her cigarette paper. “One day we’re a kid, and the next we’re not.”

“And the next day we’re a kid again.”

“Some of us just never get it.” She lights up, sucks in a lungful, passes him the joint. “When are you going back?”

“Sunday afternoon. Econ test Monday. But,” he wheezes, exhaling slowly, “I’ll be back from time to time because of Mom. Except during finals. How about yourself?”

“Not going. Just a lot of exams I’m not ready for. Taking incompletes. My dad’s totally hacked, but what’s the big deal about graduating? I’ll finish up next year.”

Tommy nods. “I just want to get this part over with, try on the next thing. While you’re catching up, I’ll be backpacking through Europe.”

My plans exactly. Let’s meet up. Share room costs. But what she says is: “How tall are you now?”

“Six two.”

“That’s pretty tall.”

“Not enough for the courts. I have to play guard, and I’m not quick enough. They kept me on the team up at State through most of my junior year, but when I didn’t grow, they dropped me. Which was okay. Too much like the army anyway.”

She’s heard otherwise, badboy stuff, but she lets it go. “Not so long ago, you know, I was taller than you. To prove it, we stood nose to nose and touched foreheads, do you remember? I could feel that little lump down there pushing against me. I was trying to figure out just what it was. That’s why it took me so long to get the measurement right.”

He grins and his expression suddenly turns warm and affectionate and she flatters herself that she has got something right at last. Cool. She feels a sweet glow in her chest and other parts. But he’s looking over her shoulder. Angela Bonali has pulled up at the curb in a girlfriend’s car. His old high school flame. Shit. She’s been through this before. Tommy drops the spliff and trots down there, tail wagging. They kiss, glance up at her, laugh, kiss again. Out comes the notebook.

They have met some distance away, at the new motel out on the highway, where she has a room on weekends, for cocktails and dinner. With fresh oysters from who knows where, very nice, and a pianist quietly playing golden oldies. Their Thursday treat. They have avoided all the difficult topics at dinner, talking instead — when they weren’t just holding hands and saying how much they loved each other — about the arrival of spring and the surprise snowfall, about the need for better public relations to draw new industry to the area, and about the threat to that hope apparently posed by the evangelical cult that originated in the town and has now returned, intentions unclear. She sympathizes with his worries (she loves the way his brows knot up when he’s troubled, loves it more when his smile and love light smooth the knot away), but, not religious herself, or at least not in his way, there was not much she could say about the problem of the cult except to suggest that maybe the cheapest thing would be to buy them all one-way tickets and guidebooks to the Holy Land, which he said (there came the smile, there went the knot) he didn’t think would work. There were presumably thousands of the cultists by now, a lot of whom he expects will be descending on the camp and the town over the next couple of weeks. It all seems quite remote to her, but she supposes it means she may see less of him until all that is over, so she is able to share his sadness. This affair has surprised her with its spongy intensity, filling her up as it fills up with itself, making all else irrelevant. Though she has tried to end it (it’s not right), she can’t. Now, in their room, though their kisses on closing the door were as tender and searching as ever, his strong hands under her skirt exploring her with the usual urgency, the knot has returned and he is taking his time about undressing and coming to bed. She puts her chin on her crossed hands and draws her knees up under her breasts, raising her bottom in the air, her little nightie falling down around her shoulders. She knows that he adores her young body and cannot look away. He likes to lick it all over, starting with the little pink butterfly tattoo on her tailbone, as she does his. “You’ll catch cold like that,” he says as if scolding, but she can see that he is excited, even before his shorts come down. Always a nice moment. She finds his softening belly endearing. He is such a powerful man, still very athletic, even a bit intimidating, and his soft fuzzy belly, which she likes to lay her head on while she’s fondling him, makes him seem more human and vulnerable. “You know, when I was a little girl I used to pray like this,” she says. “I had read the Bible stories and been told about the birds and bees and I put the two together: I wanted to be the mother of Jesus and I was, as you might say, opening my ear to the Angel of the Lord.” His gentlemanly laughter thrills her. As does his tongued “I love you!” to her opened ear.

“Thank ye, lays’n gents! That song, as we like to say down to Nashville town, went out to some very special folks here tonight. I’m fixin’ to take a short break now, but I got a mess more a heart-stoppin’ boot-stompin’ country tunes to lay on your ears, or noses, or whatsomever y’tune in with, so don’ go way. Anybody lookin’ to stand me a beer, I’ll be parked right over here…

“…Whoa! Lookit what’s landed at my table! You settin’ to buy me a drink?”

“No, honey, I’m clean broke. Only popped in here to see if I couldn’t find a nice gentleman who’ll tempt me with one.”

“Ifn I was a nice gentleman, purty lady, I might. What was wrong with that feller who was leanin’ all over you at the bar, the one with the big lump on his forehead?”

“I seen by the way he was tugging at hisself and by the spots on his pants he’s most probably got a dose. So I told him I was with you to shake him off. Hope it don’t offend you.”

“Nope. Wisht you’d worked a drink off him first, though. We coulda shared it.”

“You the sharing type?”

“When it suits me. This where you sprung from?”

“Yeah. But I left here twenty some years ago when I was still a kid. Nobody knows me anymore. Patti Jo Glover, Duke. What’s your handle? The real one?”

“I ain’t tellin’.”

“That bad, hunh? Hey, you got nothing on me.”

“Patti Jo? What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, it’s not Patti Jo. I’ll tell you if you tell me.”

“Awright, you funny-names fans, git a grip. It’s Armand. Armand Rendine. That’s it, darlin’, that’s whom I am. Whaddaya laughin’ at?”

“I’m not laughing. It’s cute. Sounds like it must be French.”

“I like to think I got some bayou in me. It’s good fer the marquee. Thoughta callin’ myself Bayou Duke. Probly jist commonplace everday downriver canuck, though.”

“Bayou L’Heureux rhymes better. What was your mama’s name?”


“Uh oh. One of those, hunh? Why they call you Duke?”

“Picked it up back when I was pitchin’ bush league, along with a messa other tags, mostly not usable in polite company.”

“Well, that’s me, all right. So, a baseball player, hunh? You don’t strike me as the athletic type.”

“Wasn’t mucha one. I could throw a purty mean fastball but not mostly where I aimed to. Spent mosta my time out in the bullpen gittin’ blisters on my butt and tellin’ dumb jokes. To kill the time, I picked up a box in a pawn shop and fooled around with it out there, entertainin’ the fans bored with the games, gittin’ a bigger hand than any the players done. So I quit baseball and headed fer Oprytown.”

“Yeah, I heard them announce you as coming direct from Nashville, Tennessee.”

“Oh, I’m from there awright. ‘Direct’ might be stretchin’ it. Left that town a whole long buncha years ago. But as I been driftin’ round out in nowheresville without a address ever since, I spose y’could say ‘direct.’ It’s jist took me a while to git here is all, bein’ as I git lost easy.”

“Did you ever play at Grand Ole Opry?”

“Got a backup gig at Ryman wunst when the flu was goin’ round and they was a mite desprit. Had two weeks over to a bar in Madison singin’ with a lady friend. But that was the sum total a my Nashville joys. They was nuthin fer it finally but to pack my cardboard suitcase and hit the road. So I’m still out in the bullpen, as y’might say.”

“What happened to the lady friend?”

“She quit the racket and married a dentist.”

“Smart girl. But you seem to have a lotta fans here.”

“Friday night at the Moon. No place else to go. Most of ’em’d probly rather hear band music.”

“Well, you don’t make it easy on them. That was an awful song about dead mommies you were just singing. Who were the special folks?”

“Them kids over there. The ones puttin’ on the floor show and excitin’ all the patrons. It’s a purty unwholesome weeper, and I ain’t big on religious songs in genral, nor not religion neither, but they’re new reglars and got a amorous hankerin’ fer that tune and the boy sets me up with a beer ever now’n then, so what can y’do?”

“I been watching them. The boy’s gonna dump her.”

“Everbody dumps everbody. What’s important is the moment. They’re havin’ a good moment. I better git back to it and see what I can do fer ’em. Any requests?”

“You say gospel’s not your thing. What is?”

“Honky tonk mostly.”

“Okay, so how about ‘If You Got the Money, Honey, I Got the Time?’ Or ‘Honky Tonk Blues?’”

“You got it.”

“Hey, I’m impressed! You can even yodel! Chased those kids right outa here, though.”

“They ain’t goin’ far. Jist down the hall.”

“And thanks for the beer.”

“Thank the kid.”

“Oh. He bought that one for you. I’m sorry.”

“Did it taste good?”

“Best I ever had.”

“There y’go then. Enjoy the moment, Patti Jo, and fuck the rest.”

“I like your grin. It spreads all over your face. I like your singing, too. Didn’t think I would at first. You can’t hold a note for long so the slow stuff’s not so great. ‘White Dove’ was a cooked goose. Likewise, ‘He’ll Have to Go.’ It’ll have to go. But if you can move your voice around, you got something.”

“You sorta jist lean back and let fly, dontcha?”

“I’m nothing if not honest, Duke. If that’s the word for mouthing off like I do. Can’t hold it back.”

“Yeah? Not me. I was a born liar. Who was y’talkin’ to while I was up there?”

“Just to myself. Bad habit I got.”

“Now you’re lyin’.”

“Mmm. Dead sister. It’s a conversation we have. I just sorta keep hearing her like.”

“All the time?”

“No, mostly only when I got troubles. Which I suppose is next thing to all the time.”

“Well, we seem t’be playin’ in the same ballpark, Patti Jo. How old was your sister?”

“Just barely borned. She died of diphtheria before I came along. But I happened next and I always felt like she got reborned in me.”

“Reminds me of a guy I knowed in the bush leagues. He played second base and he was always yappin’ away there behind the pitchers, drivin’ us nuts. I ast him who he was talkin’ to, and he said he had the whole St. Louis team inside a him and they was always goin’ at each other and never give him a moment’s rest. I tole him I understood now why they called ’em the Gashouse Gang, and mebbe all he needed was a bicarb. So whatsa funny name? Gimme a laugh.”

“Patricia Josefina Petteruti. That’s the short version.”

“You sound half-cracker, but I thought you had the Eye-talian look.”

“That a bad thing?”

“Hell, no. I love it. The cook in this bedbox is Eye-talian. Cep fer the garlic, I cain’t git enough.”

“My dad was a coalminer here. Got killed in the Deepwater disaster five years back. Ever hear about that?”

“Yeah, sometimes I sing that Ben Wosznik song about it, the one he done down at Grand Ole Opry. The one, y’know, that starts — y’begun to say sumthin?”

“No. Well…no.”

“Well, probly y’don’t like reminders. Sorry bout your ole fella.”

“I’m not. I hope the sick bastard rots in hell. When I was about twelve or so, my mom packed up and left him, dragging us around with her. She had raised us Catholic because she thought she had to, but she dropped all that when we took up traveling. Left us all pretty mixed up on that subject. Only thing left is I still cross myself when I’m in trouble.”

“So you took your ma’s name.”

“No. Well, yes, probably. Can’t remember. Never went to school after that, so I never had to tell anyone my name. She did start calling me Patti Jo around then. When she was sober. Worse names when she wasn’t. She took good care of us but she had a mean backhand and a temper that just took the top of her head off sometimes, especially when coming down or when a hangover’d got the best of her. Haven’t seen her since I first got married, and I don’t miss her.”

“You’ve had a run at knot-tyin’.”

“A few times. You?”

“Nope. When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man. Or else Ma did. She was a great disbeliever in the institution.”

“I can feel for that. My first time was to an older guy when I was fifteen, maybe I got sold to him, who knows, it just kinda happened, and then later, when he kicked me out, to a coupla others, one of them named Glover, I forget which. I sorta blank out a lot.”

“Y’been around the block, Patti Jo. Like them pore little honky tonk angels.”

“Well, ‘angel’ might be like you coming direct from Nashville, Duke, stretching it a speck. Hung out mostly in trailer camps in those years of holy matrimony, washing dishes or waiting tables so as not to starve, picking up the way I talk. I was sick a lot as I remember. One of my husbands, Glover probably, liked to play cards and when he was short on cash he used me as his stake. He wasn’t very good at cards, always drank too much, so I got passed around the camp a fair bit. Apprentice work, as you might call it. Then, when he was sober, he’d beat me for sleeping around. Knocked a coupla teeth out and cracked a rib. Finally one day I just got on a bus and went someplace else. And then just kept moving. Been to both coasts. All through the south. There’s always a bus going somewhere, somewhere better than where you are. So from time to time I just buy a ticket and climb aboard. A bus is a cheap overnight hotel, sometimes you pick up a little trade, and you always wake up somewhere new.”

“And that’s how ye ended up in this burg?”

“Sort of.”

“How’d y’git all the way out here to the Blue Moon Motel?”

“Well, no place to stay downtown. The old hotel’s closed up and all its windows are busted out. They told me where this place was and I just walked out. Nice day. Even took a stroll through the old neighborhood. Which is just as ugly as I remembered. Only dirtier and more shrunk up.”

“Memory lane. Ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. I got a song about it.”

“You write your own material?”

“Sometimes. That song I just ruint bout a drunk mournin’ his dead sweetheart fer a sample. Got that from that feller with the spotted pants who was introducin’ hisself to you earlier on. So how long y’plannin’ t’stay round?”

“Hard to say. Got a room here for tonight, but they’re filling up. Those religious people. Everything’s booked for next week. A coupla busloads from Florida.”

“Yeah, I know. I gotta change my repertory for ’em. But they gimme a bunk’n mornin’ grub here as part a the deal. You kin crash there a coupla nights ifn worse comes to worst.”

“I sorta feel like that just happened, Duke. I had one real friend when I was in grade school here. She was a little older, like the big sister I never had. She was very pretty, not much bigger than me, a little strange, kinda poetical as you might say, but very sweet and loving. Well, she’s dead now. I miss her a whole lot and I went around to all the places today we used to play and talk. Went by her house. It’s all messed up and fenced off. Made me sad.”

“That’s what brung ye back here?”

“Not exactly. It’s a long story. Sure you wanta hear it? When I get going I’m pretty hard to turn off.”

“I got all night, Patti Jo. First, though, I gotta crank up another set. Anything y’wanta hear? I swear, no slow stuff. I know enough t’stick with my money pitch when my change-up ain’t workin’.”

“So, let’s keep right on honky tonkin’. ‘Lost Highway.’ ‘Walkin’ the Floor Over You.’ You into Elvis at all?”

“Who ain’t?”

“How about ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ then?”

“Okay. I don’t have his moves.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to.”

“Hey, where’d the beers come from?”

“I figured I could stand us a round. Specially if I can start saving on my room rent.”

“Mmm. That goes down a treat and a half. Y’hongry?”

“Haven’t eaten since yesterday. Or maybe day before that.”

“The cook always brings me a sandwich after my last set. One a them fat Eye-talian ones with the thick bread. I’ll ask fer two. What’d your sister have t’say while I was away?”

“She said that’s one handsome fella who can really sing his socks off.”

“Your sister’s got good taste.”

“Well…it’s really not my sister. That’s the problem…”

“I’m waitin’…”

“When I was little, especially after we left town, I used to talk to my dead sister to beat back the loneliness. You know. Like other kids talk to their pets or stuffed animals. But I never had any pets or stuffed animals — all I had was this dead sister. I did sometimes have the weird feeling she was somehow living out the life she never had inside of me, like I owed it to her, or she thought I did, but mostly she was just somebody imaginary to tell my troubles to. Then, one day, she started talking back. Or it seemed like she did. Mostly saying she wanted me to come home. Now, from here on, it gets a little spooky…”

“I kin roll with it.”

“Traveling around like I been doing, cut off from most everybody, you don’t always get the news right away. It was only a year or so ago that one of those end-of-the-world preachers come through the town I was in and some working girls I knew talked me into going with them to hear him preach in a little storefront church nearby. And it was through the stories the preacher told that I learned that my friend from childhood, the one I was telling you about, had been killed. I didn’t know that. I couldn’t hardly believe what I was hearing. I just started crying and everybody thought I was getting religion, and maybe I was. She’d been killed and there was something important about it, almost like Jesus getting killed. When I got the dates sorted out in my head, I realized she’d died about the same time my dead sister had started talking back. And I knew then it wasn’t my sister. It was my friend Marcella Bruno.”

“Bruno? Y’mean this group that’s gatherin’ here now? The gal in that song Ben Wosznik useta sing?”

“Yes, and that’s the really peculiar thing. When I finally got on the bus and come here like Marcella kept telling me to, I didn’t know about those people moving back to town. I didn’t even know who they were except for what that preacher told me or that they were from here or that they’d ever left. That so many more were on the way, like something was about to happen, was downright scary. I learned that here at the motel this afternoon and it almost took my breath away. It’s like they all been listening to the same voice I been listening to.”

“Well, doggone my soul, as Ma useta say. That’s quite a story, Patti Jo. So you been wanderin’ round town today, pickin’ up vibes?”

“Yeah, and one thing Marcella said today, while I was walking through the playground at the grade school, was: That was my sister, Patti Jo. And then I remembered how I’d made it all up about my dead sister, that it was Marcella’s sister who had died of diphtheria when she was just a baby, before Marcella was borned. I never had a sister… That sounds pretty crazy, right? Can I still use your room? I’m kinda scared and need company.”

“You’re on. It ain’t no palace.”

“Don’t worry. I been in a lotta these places. It’s almost like home. If I ever have a real home, I’ll have to install ice machines, artificial potted plants, Gideon Bibles, old steam radiators that knock all night, and a macadam parking lot with fluorescent lights just to feel like I belong. I even got some grass to share, if you like. Picked it up from some kids on the bus.”

“Hey now, that’s the number one toppa the charts idea a the week, Patti Jo. I got my K’s fer the night. Jist one more set, so’s they’ll feed us. I’ll cut it short. Kin you sing?”

“I can almost carry a tune if it’s not got any more notes than ‘Jingle Bells.’”

“Okay, how bout ‘Honky Tonk Angel’? It’s silent movies in here. Let’s jist have us some fun.”

“I really liked singing with you, Duke. That was fun.”

“Me, too. You ain’t got a very big voice, but it’s purty.”

“Oh, I’m not a real singer. But you help. Best night I’ve had since can’t remember when. I feel so good I almost feel bad. You’re some kinda lover, too.”

“Not mostly. I can genrally raise enough wood t’do the dirty, but cep fer the little spurt at the end, I don’t git a whole bushel a kicks outa it. But you’re sumthin special, Patti Jo. Took me clean outa my mizzerbul beat-down self. How long y’been doin’ that?”

“Since I was twelve. My father did me in my confirmation dress. That’s how I know I was twelve. I don’t remember much about it, but I do recall the blood on the starchy white skirt and worrying how I was going to get it out before we had to go to church.”

“And that was when your mama split.”

“Well, yes, about that time, but I don’t think him raping me was the main cause of it. She’d married this good-looking Italian high school football star who’d turned into a fat drunken bully like a prince into a toad, and finally after fifteen years or so had got fed up with him. Him and his quick fist. He always had this sick grin on his face when he hit you, and it was what you remembered even more than getting hit. She always said her only regret was that the mean sonuvabitch never got killed or crippled in a mine accident. But finally he did. I don’t know if she was sorry about that or not, but probably not. Probably she went out and got drunk like it was a birthday party or something.”

“I had this guy I useta play ball with. He was a pitcher like me, and though he couldn’t throw as hard, he was trickier and sharper — he could smash a fly on a barn door at sixty feet — and he actually got a brief sniff at the big time. He was specially good at a inswingin’ curve so sharp it could break batters’ fingers on the bat, but that was his undoin’ cuz them batters got pissed off and begun sendin’ line drives straight back through the mound, aimin’ at his dome. He was too quick fer ’em but eventually they nailed his pitchin’ shoulder and he ended up workin’ in a doughnut factory. But the point a my story is his ole man had been a sarge in the army, had got shot up and had, you know, one a them hinged meathooks fer a hand, and he used it to terrorize everbody, includin’ the guy’s ole lady, who went completely crackers from the thing and finally stuck her head in the oven, and his two sisters who was both somewheres round twelve or so like you was. He’d snap that claw over their shoulder from behind, push ’em to their knees and threaten to stick that hook up ’em and do a lot more damage ifn they didn’t take it and shut up. Well, the guy noticed his old man was beginnin’ to cast lustful looks his way, too, and he figgered it was time to git his little butt on the road. So he waited until one day the ole fella was humpin’ one a his sisters and he had a good look at his backside with everthing floppin’ and he took his baseball and sent in a hummer that crushed the ole guy’s maracas. The sonuvabitch was in a unholy rage and come roarin’ at him t’kill him, but the kid was waitin’ fer him with a live wire that he calmly handed to the steel hook and walked away, leavin’ the ole man dancin’, and went off into the world t’seek his fame and fortune. Ain’t that the berries? Whattaya laughin’ at?”

“Your stories are always so funny, Duke. Why aren’t my stories funny like that?”

“Probly cuz yours are true.”

“Aren’t yours?”

“Some parts. ’Djever have any kids?”

“I got pregnant a few times. A lotta miscarriages, if that’s what they were. Had the weird feeling sometimes my dead sister was killing them off. Who I thought was my dead sister.”

“Ain’t none of ’em lived?”

“I don’t think so. I think I would of remembered that.”

“Well, I sure ain’t fixin’ t’make new ones, good lookin’, but I wouldn’t say no to encorin’ our duet. I’d like t’try it agin, as the song goes. One more time.”

“Sure. Move it on over, Duke, and come on in. You sing the high part this time, honey, I’ll sing the low.”

I.6 Sunday 12 April

“I don’t like the man,” John P. Suggs says plainly. “Never did.”

“Well, his conversion seemed genuine,” says Reverend Hiram Clegg, the plump silver-haired bishop of the State of Florida and president of the International Council of Brunist Bishops, who was present on the Night of the Sacrifice and witnessed that conversion. Reverend Clegg, the most successful of all the Brunist missionaries, has arrived at the Wilderness Camp today with two busloads of pilgrims from his Fort Lauderdale congregation, the first of hundreds of Brunist Followers expected later this week, and this little Sunday afternoon meeting in the church office has been called to talk about the logistics of all that and about the anniversary celebrations and dedication ceremonies next Sunday. It is, however, the imminent return of Reverend Abner Baxter, who is expected the day before those ceremonies that now has their full attention. Debra has been included in this meeting because of her knowledge of actions likely to be taken by city and state officials, and she is eager to exhibit the kind of thoughtful serenity that has been all too lacking of late (she doesn’t know why she said those things at the Easter prayer meeting, it was as if she were under a spell — that holy ecstasy maybe that she’d been seeking, but it was terrifying, and she found herself suddenly coming like an impassioned bride in front of everybody). She has only the dimmest recollection of Reverend Baxter, though she has been aware of the anxiety he arouses and learned more about him during her shopping trips with Clara. “The man then stayed on here a time and suffered more than any of us from the persecution, escaping only when incarceration became imminent,” Hiram continues. “And he has been intransigent in the vigorous propagation of the Brunist faith. He might not be the man you once knew.”

“He was the one who struck that girl with his car and killed her, was he not?”

“That would seem to be the case,” replies Hiram, whose people are presently getting a tour of the camp conducted by Darren and Billy Don. “If one ignores divine intervention. It could equally be said that God called her to His bosom and thereby launched our true religion, Abner Baxter merely His instrument of the moment, in the manner of Saul of Tarsus.”

John P. Suggs grunts and shakes his burry head at that.

Ben would seem to agree with Mr. Suggs that Reverend Baxter is a troublemaker and apt to be disruptive (“There’s no music in him,” he says and Debra feels she understands exactly what he means), while Clara, like Hiram, is more inclined to be conciliatory and respect Baxter’s loyal ministry on the grounds that not to include him, and with open arms, would amount to a failure of their mission, and that is Debra’s thinking, too, though her only expression of this has been the occasional nod while Clara is speaking.

“I have known Red Baxter a very long time,” says Mr. Suggs, whose own short-cropped white hair was probably once red, “since back when he was an atheistic God-hating communist. He has condemned me to hell or worse many times over. He is a power-grabber, a parasite, and a renegade firebrand. If he moves in here, he’ll just bring trouble.”

“Well, people moving in is surely a worry,” Clara says. “And not just Abner and his folks. This is a home for our movement, but not a home for people. We are mighty grateful, Hiram, for putting your congregation into motels. You can tell by the way things are out there that we ain’t set out for heaps of visitors. Soon as we’re done, all us living here will be heading out again on our missionary travels, except for them who run the office and keep the place in order and receive visitors and the like.” That’s me, Debra thinks, a little shocked at witnessing her life, its critical turning turned, spread out before her suddenly like a dummy hand in bridge, a win still possible, but not hers to play, she at best a kibitzer. Tour guide. Outsider still. “But I know, no matter what we’ve told them, a goodly number of these folks coming to the dedication got no place to go afterwards. They ain’t even sure there’s gonna be a afterwards. They figure they’re here till God calls them to glory. And I don’t doubt but what Abner and his people are thinking the same way.”

“I would not want to see that man residing here,” says J. P. Suggs.

“Well, I don’t know what we can do about it should he put it in his head to stay, seeing as how he’s still the bishop of West Condon.”

“That was a mistake,” says J. P. Suggs. “I suggest you name a new one.”

“Why are we so certain he wants to abandon his mission in the field?” asks Reverend Clegg. “He, too, may be inclined to think of this campsite development as a ceremonial home and central office, useful to him in the same way it is to the rest of us.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” says Ben.

The fear of Reverend Baxter’s return leads to a discussion of the harassment of the camp the last couple of weeks by the locals, and Mr. Suggs says they’d best get on with fencing the camp off and patrolling it with armed guards. “I’ll bring a work crew over. We’ll use barbed wire.” This idea does not find favor with Clara, for it does not fit her notion of the movement’s frank openness and universality: “The Rapture ain’t gonna happen only here at the camp. Them people need to be saved, too. Maybe they want to be. Maybe they’re like little kids who say no when they mean yes.” Debra too is dismayed at the idea of an armed camp, hating weapons of all kinds, but the men seem to accept it as inevitable, and Mr. Suggs explains how he will help. Clara glances her way as though to say: We shall see about this.

She and Clara did this week’s grocery buying over at the shopping strip outside Randolph Junction in order to avoid West Condoners, but while her keys still worked, Debra wanted to make a quick trip to the Presbyterian manse, so they risked a drive into West Condon on the way back. Clara said that now the word was out, it was anyway better to meet them head-on and not be afraid, though she probably was afraid. On the way to the manse, they swung by the charred foundations of Clara’s old home. Still much as it was five years ago, just more overgrown, the exposed basement filling up with weeds, leaves, litter, a sapling or two. “Like an untended grave,” Clara said, gazing out the car window. “I loved that basement, and I miss it now. And the big porch we had out front. Ely would write his thoughts, setting out there in a old wooden rocker we had. That burnt up, too. They never found who done it. They left a burnt black hand in a shoebox by the door, and everbody said that was the name of a old Italian gang, while others blamed the Klan or the Satanists. At the time I imagined the hand was my dead husband Ely’s and considered he mighta burnt our house down hisself as a hard message that all that was in the past, the Rapture was coming, Elaine and me we had to leave home and go out into the world to bring sinners to Jesus afore it was too late. Well, I was just so upset. Losing Ely was the worse thing ever happened to me, other than my boy getting killed in the war. Ely’s hands was not burnt and he never lost one. Only the leg.”

Mr. Suggs informs them now that, based on conversations he has had with the Deepwater mine owners, it appears the West Condon authorities have been anticipating they might try to gather on the mine hill next Sunday and are planning to bring the state police out to close off access as they have done in the past. Clara wonders if, given the growing hostility toward them in the area, they should hold their ceremonies here at the camp instead, but Hiram reminds them that his people are counting on gathering out there on the nineteenth; that is mainly why they have come here, to reach the Mount of Redemption and learn first-hand from personal witnesses about the events of five years ago. These are the Followers, mostly elderly retirees, who have raised much of the money for the electrification of the camp, and they have come a long hard way to be here. They have even brought along their own tunics, purchased from the company that, thanks to Hiram’s initiative, now officially supplies them. Clara sighs and nods. “They’re right. It don’t make sense to be smack next to the Mount on such a day and not go there.”

“Whose legal jurisdiction is that mine?” J. P. Suggs asks. “I think it must be the county’s. I will speak to Sheriff Puller. Cavanaugh more or less owns the governor, but the governor is a weak man and I am sure he would like to stay out of this. We could give him cause to back off, leave it in the sheriff’s hands. Besides, the owners of that mine are desperate to sell, and they know I am a prospective buyer.”

“Well, we could simply finesse them,” Debra suggests, aware, even as she speaks it, that that verb may not be familiar to the others. “I mean, we could all go out there the day before and just stay on. We could set up tents and have a big campfire and hold an all-night vigil like they used to do on Easter Eve. If we are already there, the very worst they can do is force us to leave, but they might not want the negative publicity of that.”

This idea gets general approval. Saturday is after all the Night of the Sacrifice. They all gathered on the Mount around bonfires on that night, too, before what happened happened. Hiram says he’s not sure all night on a hillside without adequate facilities is the best thing for his oldtimers, but once the hill is occupied, they could return to the motel, and if there is any sign of official resistance, they can be awakened and bused back out there. Mr. Suggs says he will see if he can get the washhouse latrines at the old mine reopened for the weekend. “Also,” Hiram adds, “I think my good friend, the mayor of Randolph Junction, might wish to join us on the Mount on Sunday. There will be news media present. Any attempted arrests could then be the cause of much local embarrassment. He will be among us here tonight and we can discuss it with him.”

On such a positive note, the meeting draws to a close, but not before Clara speaks, as she did on their shopping trip, of her dream of a proper Brunist tabernacle church to be built on camp land, or even on the Mount of Redemption if it can be acquired, something Mr. Suggs is already working on. He acknowledges this news with a nod as all turn admiringly toward him, and points out that this weekend’s ingathering is a valuable opportunity for fundraising to this purpose. He promises rough architectural sketches by Saturday, but swears all to silence about his negotiations for the hill, lest they be compromised. This is warmly agreed to and Clara says, “Hiram, do you reckon you could say a few words about it tonight at the special ceremonies?”

When Hiram Clegg smiles, he shows all his teeth, and they are very white.

After the meeting, Debra slips away from the busy Main Square and takes a walk along the creek to the arched wooden footbridge that in turn leads to a path through overgrown brambles and a thick stand of trees into an open weedy place full of high grass and wildflowers, a hidden corner of the camp she has so far kept secret from the Brunists. In the old church camp days, she used to come back here to get away from the children and collect her thoughts and on sunny days to open up her shirt and let the hot sky make love to her in the old creation myth way, in the same way that God made love to Mary: sweetly, gently, immaculately. With all the strangers voraciously prowling the camp, she can’t risk that today (well, she undoes a button), but the sun on her, lying in the grass, brings back warm memories of it. Everything was so easy then, her life seemingly so sensibly and comfortably structured. An illusion of course, like so many that life throws up, projections on a screen that seem real but vanish when the bulb burns out. She is learning to free herself from such fantasies, to make her own life, redeem her own soul. Uncertain times lie ahead, but she’s doing what’s right and everything will work out — she feels certain of it. It has to. True, she has done a rather dangerous and scary thing, but the world is dangerous and scary, and, if anything, she feels safer out here among these kind people than in that cruel and stupid town, living with that cold unappreciative man.

Not that Wesley was not important to her. He was, and there was a time she loved him dearly, or thought she did. She was without direction until he came along, rescuing her from the tedium of boring college courses and giving her a role in life: the minister’s wife. She sometimes felt like she was in a movie and that was her name, not Debra Edwards, who was merely the actress who played the part. Wesley back then was both fun and serious, always a bit distracted, but thoughtful and loving with a playful sense of humor, and she lived for the little games they played and the good deeds they did, waiting for the children to come. But they never did. And then the possibility that they might withered away as Wesley got more and more absorbed in his pastoral duties, his sermon writing, his engagement with the dismal insignificant affairs of the town, his golf playing, his locked-away whatever. As her body filled and sagged and her hopes for children faded, she had to make do with the church nursery, summer camps, her projects for troubled teenagers. Sometimes after christenings and baptisms, she had to slip into the cloakroom where the choir robes were hung and have a cry. But then came the April night her husband and his friends kidnapped Colin Meredith from the cult and brought him to the manse. She immediately recognized the tearful orphan boy as the beautiful and sensitive son she never had. It was she who found him later that night, lying naked in the bathroom with his wrists slashed, and saved his life. Wesley’s decision after that to commit the boy to a mental institution, just when he most needed the sort of love and nurturing that only she could provide, was the beginning of the end.

She can hear a meadowlark somewhere, quite nearby, asking its persistent question, which sounds like “What more must I do?” Debra is determined to play her part to the full, to surrender utterly to the Brunist community and to what they call the Spirit, just as she did on Easter night, no matter where it leads her, no matter how embarrassing. She wants desperately to believe as they believe and do as they do and become wholly one with these people to whom she has pledged the rest of her life, yet she knows she still has not achieved it. She is still Mrs. Edwards. When the Florida buses pulled in today after church, the visitors poured out to embrace old friends — Clara and her missionary team had visited the Florida congregation on more than one occasion in the past and had brought about many conversions — and, though she was politely introduced as the camp director, Debra felt very much excluded. Mrs. Hiram Clegg, another West Condon disaster widow, then joined other women in a visit to Mabel Hall’s caravan, where, as Debra understands it, other forms of prophecy are entertained, and where Debra has never been invited. Not that she would know exactly what to do or how to behave, finding suchlike as horoscopes and tea leaves a bit silly. She shares this with Clara, who rarely goes there either, though Clara does trust Mabel’s intuition and often follows her advice. But the snub hurts. Even Colin with his strange ways is more welcome than she. As one of the original twelve, he was warmly embraced by all the new arrivals, most effusively by Reverend Clegg himself, who came limping down out of the bus to hug him, his pale blue eyes atwinkle with tears. When they asked about Colin’s friend, Carl Dean Palmers, Colin told them that he was still in prison, where he will be kept for the rest of his life in solitary confinement, and they all sighed and commiserated with him about that and promised to pray for Carl Dean and for his release. There are some young guitar-plucking teenagers in the Florida group and they immediately made friends with Colin and the office boys, and they all went off together, leaving Debra feeling ever more bereft even as the crowds welled up around her. Lonely amid the many: Is this part of her fate, too? What more must I do?

There are voices nearby. She sits up, rebuttons her shirt (there are three buttons undone; how did that happen?), gets to her feet. It is Cecil and Corinne Appleby, all in white, scouting out new places for their beehives. “Look at all the wildflowers!” Corinne says. The Applebys arrived a few days ago and set up hives by the creek near her vegetable garden in a patch of dogwoods and maples and wild roses. They are a pious soft-spoken couple to whom the entire camp has taken an immediate liking, and they are adding something valuable to the camp’s economy, but Debra doesn’t want them intruding on her private space, so she tells them that unfortunately the area is off-limits, having been designated as a building site, a white lie she hopes never comes true, and she recommends the bushy area with the webby tangle of sickly young trees on the far side of the garden. Cecil shakes his head. “Skunks,” Corinne says. “Do skunks like honey?” “They like bees,” Cecil says. “They have a clever trick for luring the guard bees out of the hive and eating them.” “Really?” “It’s a parable,” says Corinne.

“Oh my friends, it is such a lovely spring evening, a Heavenly spring evening, and I feel such a wondrous happiness, standing here with you in the dusk of the twilight under this budding dogwood tree. As you all know, it is the wood from which Christ’s cross was made, but that was long ago when the dogwood tree was as tall and strong as the mighty oak. It is said that the Risen Jesus, God be praised, decreed that forever after the dogwood should be stunted and twisted and unsuited for such dreadful purposes, thus blessing the tree with a seeming curse. Just so have we been blessed by the seeming thwarting of our hopes by the powers of darkness on the Day of Redemption and the persecution which has followed, for from its soil has sprung, like spring itself, this great spiritual movement of which we are all a living part. Soon this tree will be releasing its precious cross-shaped white flowers with their little stains of blood and their tiny thorny crowns in the center of each blossom, making us all think of Him who was once nailed to a cross from a dogwood tree and whom, we have every reason to believe, we will, in our own lifetimes, rapturously embrace in person and live with in holy bliss forevermore. In the words of Brother Ben’s inspiring song, We shall meet our dear Lord there face to face! Oh yes! I hear you! Amen! Amen! We have come here this week to dedicate to the service of Christ in the name of our Prophet Giovanni Bruno our new official home, the International Brunist Headquarters and Wilderness Camp Meeting Ground, and all week long there will be special ceremonies and prayer meetings devoted to this consecration, climaxing on Sun day with a commemorative service on the Mount of Redemption. Yes, I knew that would draw gasps of hope and joy. Praise God that we are here and able to witness this holy event and to be there on the Mount on that great day and receive Jesus in our hearts. Amen! This is so magnificent a setting! I had no idea it was so beautiful. A veritable garden of God with a spring running through it as a river ran through Eden, a spring whose name is No-Name, as if to declare the purity of its source. It is a garden not unlike that of Gethsemane and is within view, as all of you who have been up to Inspiration Point know, of our beloved Mount. It is as if it were planted here for us and for us alone! Oh, thank you and God bless you, Brother John P. Suggs, for all that you have done to make this miracle possible! A large portion of Heaven awaits you! You have brought us home! For this, this, my fellow Brunists, is our home. Here, truly, He walks with us and He talks with us and He tells us we are His own! Here, truly, we shall find peace in the valley and glory upon the mountain! This is veritably a terrestrial paradise, as Mrs. Edwards calls it, a place she loves with all her heart and knows as no other knows it. On Wednesday she will be giving all of us a nature tour through it, an opportunity not to be missed to commune with God’s creation. But it was not always so. These paths were not always so open and well-tended. Our Meeting Hall, where later this evening we shall break bread together, was not always so beautifully kept and secure against the weather, nor were the cabins habitable or free from vandalism and vermin nor was there heat or water or light or refuge from the ravaging elements. A heroic effort was required to create what you see here today, dear friends. I ask you all to try to imagine the disheartening scene of ruin and desolation that greeted the first small band of Brunist Followers who arrived here in the dark winter days less than two months ago. The branches all were black and bare. There was no life in them. The winds howled and the snows fell and the rains poured down. A veritable flood ensued, a flood of mighty waters overflowing, lapping at the foundations of our little ark. Still, our valiant brothers and sisters pressed on with their noble labors, day in, day out, whatever the hardships. Only three weeks ago, my friends, there was no roof over our Meeting Hall. Only two weeks ago, as night fell, this camp was still enveloped in darkness, a darkness you will soon experience, as we re-enact the moment of the Coming of the Light, a moment our own dear Evangelical Leader and Organizer has called one of the most inspirational moments of her life, and a moment that some of us here helped, in our small way, to bring about with our modest contributions, and which we shall ceremonially share tonight, so hold on to your candles, you will need them soon. Such was the time of darkness, but now, lo, the winter is past, the deluge is over and the waters have receded; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come — listen to their godly chorus! And, ah! can you hear the doves cooing just behind me?”

It’s picture perfect, as if a painter had arranged it: the tree haloed in golden late afternoon sunlight, the two pure white doves preening on an upper branch. The doves arrived a week or two ago and took up residence on the ledge of the old cistern behind the dogwood tree. They are too white for mourning doves. Debra thinks they must be domestic white doves, the first she’s ever seen at the camp. Escapees from a wedding party maybe, who lost their way. When she mentioned this to the others, the news was received with great excitement, and Clara said, “Or who found their way.”

“And Jesus, when he got hisself baptized,” cries out little Willie Hall, “he went straightaway up outa the water, and, lo, the Heavens was opened up to him, and he seen the Spirit a God droppin’ down like a dove, and landin’ right on him. And behold they was a voice outa Heaven, sayin’, This here is my beloved Son, in who I am right pleased!”

“Thank you, Brother Hall! Oh, the scene is vivid before my eyes, my friends! The Lord Jesus, who is the Incarnation of the Word, has come to the Prophet, who in his time was named John just as he is in our time, Giovanni, as you all know, being the Roman name for John. John was the greatest man on earth at the time, Jesus said so. So here he comes, watch him now, here comes the Word, walking straight down to the water, straight to the Prophet. And John says, There He is, that’s the One! Can you see it? The Word comes to the Prophet, they’re both standing there, there in the water, two of the greatest who ever walked on earth, the Prophet and the Word, looking in each other’s eyes. Oh, that’s too much for me! The eyes of the Word and the eyes of the Prophet meeting in the water! It takes your breath away! I want you to baptize me, says the Word. And he does, and when the Word is raised up out of the water, there comes the message from Heaven on the wings of a dove, ‘This is My beloved Son!’ The Spirit of God descending in the shape of a pure white dove! Oh yes! Hear it cooing behind me! It knows who we’re talking about! The sweet bird of God’s grace, the sign of the Holy Spirit! Ely Collins saw it! Even in the pitchblack depths of the mine he saw it! A sign from above! Oh yes! He sends us His pure sweet love! Sing it with me! On the wings of a snow-white dove…!”

After leading them all in song (it might help, Debra is thinking, if she knew the words of the songs they sang), Reverend Clegg moves on to tell how doves were used for atonements (“You take a pair of doves, cut the head off one of them, turn it upside down and bleed it out on its mate, and then you set the living dove free, and when he flies he splatters the ground around with the blood of his beloved, and the blood cries out to God, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God!’ You see? Just so was our dying mate Jesus Christ killed and His blood sprinkled on us, my friends, so we might go free, crying out, ‘Holy, holy, holy, unto the Lord!’ Oh yes! Holy, holy! Amen!”), how the robin got its red breast, how Jesus as a young boy was said to have made sparrows out of clay that flew away when He clapped his hands, and how swallows, who blind their young before restoring their sight, represent the Coming of the Light and also, somehow, the incarnation of Christ. “We once were blind, but now we see!” Reverend Clegg’s own little bird-watching tour.

Returning last week to the town she left only a couple of weeks ago was like landing on the moon, the real town she once knew now buried under the strange otherworldly one they were driving through. Clara, too, remarked that it felt very peculiar. “It is hard to think,” Clara said, “that all our troubles come from here.” The camp, which seemed a million miles away, had become their cloister, their universe. All outside it was alien, though not dangerously so; there was something pathetic about the town, and about the manse as well. Which was, as she’d hoped, empty, though it was in a filthy state. There were dried eggs splattered against the kitchen walls and cabinets, spoiled milk in the fridge, a countertop and sinkful of dirty dishes, heaps of dirty towels and linens everywhere, and the furniture was all shoved about helter skelter. Pillows on the floor. Stains? She sniffed at the rumpled linens. She didn’t really want to do that but she couldn’t stop herself. How could she have lived here all these years with that stupid uncaring man? Clara waited anxiously in the car while, feeling like a thief (she was a thief!), Debra hastily gathered up everything she could carry and loaded it into the back seat, the trunk already packed with her new galvanized steel washtub, filled with chicken and beans and sweet potatoes and boxes of Jell-O. She started with her favorite chair, a low nursing chair bought at a country auction and reupholstered, piling everything else in around it, including the photo of Colin she’d saved, hidden inside the stacks of church sheet music (which she also grabbed up), the one taken of him at the orphanage on his ninth birthday, so cute in front of his birthday cake in his little shirt and tie, such a hopeful wide-eyed smile on his tender face. Clara does not know quite what to make of their living arrangements and on the way back to the camp expressed her concerns. Debra answered those concerns, explaining that she thinks of Colin, not only as a patient, but as her adopted son; they took out papers to adopt him officially when he was still in the hospital, but then Wesley selfishly refused at the last moment to sign them. Which was nearly true, and something like that might have happened had not Wesley been such a pig.

Now, because Ben Wosznik’s dog has wandered up to sniff his leg, Reverend Clegg pats Rocky’s head and asks, “Do you folks know how Rocky here got his name? Brother Ben told me only today. The dog’s real name is Rockdust, for, as Ben says, he and his brother wanted to name man’s best friend after a miner’s best friend.” The dog wags its tail. It is almost as if it has known its cue. “It is rockdust that is spread in coalmines to prevent explosions, and had Rocky’s namesake been in sufficient evidence five years ago, we might still have Frank Wosznik and our beloved Ely Collins among us!” There are moans amongst the worshippers in the darkening evening, and some tears. Reverend Clegg’s eyes begin to water, and Debra, watching Clara and Elaine, feels her own throat tighten up. “Oh, I tell you, that was a dreadful night! That disaster that struck Old Number Nine! So many good decent hardworking Christian men died and died so young! But from that tomb, in the words of our ‘White Bird’ hymn, came a message of gladness, a message of gladness, though its author, so much loved and revered by us all, had passed to his reward. ‘Hark ye ever to the White Bird in your hearts,’ his message said, ‘and we shall all stand together before the Lord!’” Elaine is as pale as her limp tunic, though her ears seem flushed, her dry-eyed gaze fixed on some far horizon. Clara is worried about her daughter, and after telling Debra a little about the scenes on the Mount with the Baxter boy five years ago and their secretive correspondence ever since, has asked her, as an experienced counselor for troubled teenagers, to try to draw her out, but so far the child has shied away from any attempt to befriend her. Elaine does her work about the camp — setting tables and washing dishes, emptying the new trash bins, weeding, sometimes minding the little ones — in more or less utter silence, her distant stare unsettling. She is so ardent a believer it is almost frightening, and it is maybe that intensity her more practical mother cannot quite understand.

“Oh, God’s ways are surely inscrutable, my friends. Out of the horror of that black night, that incomprehensible tragedy in the depths of the scorched earth, has emerged a transcendent vision and a stirring prophecy, one destined to shake the world! For it is the truth, and the truth is world-shaking! Just as the Holy Spirit was pleased to dwell in Jesus, so did it take up residence in that holy man Ely Collins, bringing to all of us, through him, the White Bird vision, and then, upon Brother Ely’s cruel death, the Spirit passed on into that disaster’s sole survivor, Ely Collins’ own underground workmate, our Prophet Giovanni Bruno. The Chosen One. In Brother Giovanni, the Spirit worked, as we know, a most marvelous transformation, turning a quiet solitary Roman Catholic coalminer into the prophetic leader of a great evangelical movement, awakening deep within the miner’s heart an unforeseen profundity, a remarkable visionary sensibility. It was our own Ely Collins who perceived this spiritual potential in Brother Giovanni. We know that the poor man had been taunted and abused by his fellow religionists, for a prophet, as is well known, is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house, and we know that he had been ruthlessly driven from his church for standing up against the priesthood, just as Jesus had stood up against the Sadducees, and it was Brother Ely, we know, who took him under his wing and sheltered him and nurtured his soul. And to what wondrous effect! In the words of Brother Ben’s hymn, my friends: Think of Moses, discovered in a river! Think of Jesus, a carpenter’s son! Think of Bruno, a humble coalminer! ’Tis the poor by whom God’s battles are won!” Whereupon — amid the cries of “Amen!” and “Yes, Lord!”—the gathered Followers, arms raised and waving, break spontaneously into another chorus of the song…

“So, hark ye to the White Bird of Glory!

Oh yes, hark ye to the White Bird of Grace!

We shall gather at the Mount of Redemption

To meet our dear Lord there face to face!”

Debra’s arms are also raised and waving, she is singing, tears are streaming down her cheeks, she doesn’t know why but it happens all the time now, it’s as though for the moment the Spirit is lodged in her own heart, and she is no longer the camp director, she is only a humble believer, part of God’s company, God’s glorious company, it’s all so vivid and real. “Yes, Lord!” she cries out. She wants this. “Amen!” she says. And yet at the same time she is watching herself and questioning herself, feeling a stranger even to herself, so she knows she is still not saved.

“Oh yes, how well I remember him and all that happened in that historic time! For, as you all know, I was here, yes, I was here and blessed to be a witness to all that transpired on that stormy Day of Redemption and the awful night before, the Night of the Sacrifice, which haunts me still. As you all know, my dear wife Emma was taken, over there on the Mount of Redemption, God rest her pious Christian soul, taken like the young girl Marcella Bruno, she was redeemed, they were redeemed, redeemed on the Day of Redemption, their souls were transported straight up to Heaven, leaving the rest of us poor sinners here on earth, pining to join them in God’s Heavenly kingdom. For the days that remain to us, God in his great compassion brought me my dear Betty, one of our First Followers who has devoted her life to our calling and who is here with us tonight. God bless her. Yes, I was here. I was here at that remarkable infolding of the faithful at the home of the Prophet on the eve of the Day of Redemption, summoned, as were all, by the Spirit. I was struck by the imposing nobility of our Prophet, by his august silence, his sober poise, his simple but powerful gestures. Not the gestures of a mere coalminer, but those of a being inhabited by the divine. You have all seen his portraits and his photographs — there is a large one hanging in there in the Meeting Hall — wherein one can see at a glance that here was a holy man, a good man, an inspired man, a genuine vessel of the Lord. I say ‘was.’ Now, some of you may not know this, for I have only learned of it today, but our beloved Prophet has suffered the fate of so many prophets and saints before him. He has been ruthlessly executed by his captors, and by that element for which we celebrate his new New Covenant — by light itself! Probably shortly after his capture, though we have until now been denied the knowledge of it. Yes, he is gone — that’s right! pray for him! I hear you! God bless him! — confirming what many of us had suspected all along, for his going began that night, that day, over there on the Mount of Redemption, he seemed already half-transported. I was here. I was here when the fateful decision was taken to visit the Mount, the night before, to acquaint ourselves with it for the great day to follow. Was this a decision we made, or did God make it for us? I was in that room when Sister Clara, as though herself possessed by the Holy Spirit, rose to declare: ‘We go to the Mount of Redemption, not to die, but to act! The Kingdom is ours! It awaits us on the Mount of Redemption!’ Oh, how moved we were by this great lady’s majestic bearing and the depth of her faith, echoing her dear husband Ely, for whom we all mourned! You have all read about this in our church pamphlets. And I was there, over there on the Mount that Saturday night, as we all gathered around a great fire and sang and prayed and confessed our new commitment. I was there as the Prophet strode among us in his flowing white tunic, tall and bearded as Jesus was bearded and manifesting a strength heretofore unseen, his dark cavernous eyes aglitter with firelight, his hand raised in solemn benediction, nodding from time to time as if to say, Yea, in thee I am well pleased! It was as if Christ were growing in him, filling him up with his presence. I was there when someone cried that there were lights on the mine road and we extinguished the fire and rushed to our cars and — and — and — oh, my friends, I can barely continue! Forgive me! But I was there, there in the ditch beside the old mine road which you can see from up there on Inspiration Point, standing there over the dying girl, the saintly sister of our Prophet, who had been fasting and seemed dreadfully frail, lying there — I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I cannot hold back the tears! — lying there in the wildly crisscrossing headlamps of wrecked cars, her little body in its white tunic broken and bleeding, yet somehow at peace, yes, at peace, we all saw that, and on the breast of her tunic, here where the cross in the circle is embroidered, a heart-shaped bloodstain — oh, God save us! God save us all and bless the soul of our beloved Sister Marcella Bruno! Amen! Amen! I was there. I was there when foe embraced foe and all enmity ceased and we became one unified and universal movement, God be praised! And I was there, my friends, oh I hear you, I was there at the Prophet’s house at dawn the next morning, none of us had slept, when that heartbroken man of God, his strength failing him, rose up out of his grief and commanded us to baptize with light, the seventh of his famous seven words, and we did that, I was baptized by the Prophet himself, we all were. He was never to utter another word, for he had already, choosing his words one by one as if mining them from his very depths or as if extracting them from the beyond, said all that was to be said. We all marched out barefoot to the Mount and there began the day with which you are all so familiar.”

Now has begun the night. Reverend Clegg, his white teeth and silvery hair seeming almost to glow in the dark, has preached them deep into the evening on this clear moonless night. Debra can see why there is talk of his running for the U.S. Senate, for he has the gift. Her heart is pounding and her cheeks are still wet, but after her momentary flight she is once again the camp director and her feet are on the ground and her elbows by her sides and she is ready to organize what happens next. Soon the candles they are all holding will be lit and they will parade down to the open area in front of the lodge, the Meeting Hall, under the darkened streetlamps. The candles, on cue, will all be snuffed, Ben will sing his new verse for “Amazing Grace” in the dark, and on the last line the lights will all come on, just as they did two weeks ago, and they will all sing the great song (she knows this one) together. Then, after prayers of thanksgiving, they will go into the now fully lit Meeting Hall to share a buffet supper. It was Debra who created tonight’s ceremony. This is what she can do, and they admire her for it.

“As the light fades from the sky, I ask you now to light your candles. The young servants of the Lord, Brothers Darren Rector and Billy Don Tebbett, will pass among you with lighted tapers. While they are doing that, let me remind those of you who came with me that we have organized a bus tour of the area tomorrow, including the Mount of Redemption and the Bruno home in West Condon. We may encounter hostility; we must be brave. On Tuesday, Sister Linda Catter will be here at the camp for all the ladies who want their hair done, and on Wednesday is the Brunist Wilderness Camp nature walk. Each day we are here, we are all expected to lend a hand with the building work, under the direction of Brother Ben and Brother Wayne and Brother Welford, and we will all attend the evening prayer meetings before returning to the motel. You have all heard the rumors of the future Brunist tabernacle to be built here, for, as it says, there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain. Brother John P. Suggs, God bless him, expects to have architectural drawings by the weekend for all of us to see. It is our hope that, when we depart once more for Florida, we might leave behind a substantial gift toward this exciting project. Certainly Betty and I will give all that we can. And now that the candles are all lit — oh, what a sight this is! what a vast glimmering multitude of little flames all burning together, one feels such a joyous unity here, such a togetherness! — let us bow our heads and pray!” She feels Colin draw near. This is the time of day when he most needs her. Her frightened little boy. She takes his hand. “Dear Lord, we thank Thee tonight for the promise of the imminent coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, when we’ll all be together in a great prayer meeting that will never end, as we praise You through the ceaseless ages that are to come! Whether He comes tonight, this weekend, or in the weeks and months to follow, Lord, we will be ready! Our lamps are trimmed! We ask You to bless these, Lord, who have come so many miles to be here; lay Your hand of mercy upon them. And now, may He Who makes the stars to shine bright at night to lighten up the path when it’s growing dim, may He lighten your path with the Star of Bethlehem to guide you to a full surrendered life in His Word! Praise Jesus! Amen!”

Later that night, after Hiram Clegg and his Florida party have boarded their buses and returned to their motels and the others have gone back to Chestnut Hills or their campsites or wherever and everyone at the camp is asleep and the birds are silent, Colin wakes up from a terrifying nightmare in which he’d been dreaming he was hanging in the dogwood tree and the doves were pecking his eyes out, and he comes into her bedroom and asks to crawl in with her. She’s quite sleepy from the long day and quietly agrees, making a kind of chair for him to nestle into. The poor boy. He’s still gasping for breath and trembling like a leaf. She wraps her arms around him from behind and strokes his chest soothingly. Her own dreams are happy ones. The evening has been a great success. Reverend Clegg — Brother Hiram — even called her Sister Debra when lavishing praise upon her, and all beamed at that, and those who came up here with him called her Sister Debra thereafter, and some of the locals did, too. They even sang some songs she knew and she was able to join in. Colin likes to put his head inside her nightshirt and snuggle against her breasts, and he does so now. He has grown a funny little beard on his chin, wispy, like loose pale threads dangling, and it tickles her. She has been losing weight here at the camp, what with all the physical labor, and one day, alone in the garden, Colin shyly expressed his unhappiness about that. He loves her ample softness and wants her always to stay the same. This is my body. She and Wesley used to have a joke about that, one that usually led to oral sex, which Wesley seemed to like more than the real thing. Now it has a whole new meaning. Not her body as a sexual instrument or object, but as a maternal one, a nurturing one. Not a fetish, but a shelter. She knows her relationship with Colin may seem strange to many, but he is so innocent, she can only be innocent, too, and as protective as he is vulnerable. When he returned to the manse after his time in the psychiatric hospital, he was very fragile. She worried about him every minute of the day and kept as close an eye on him as possible. And one afternoon, peeking in through the half-opened bathroom door, she saw him with a knife at his penis, about to cut it off. She entered the bathroom in alarm, an alarm she tried not to show, and talked him into giving her the knife, and then she sat on the toilet seat and took him in her arms like a little boy and asked him why he was doing that. He was trembling then as he is trembling now. How do you explain such things to a troubled boy? She did her best. It is such a nice little thing, she told him, he shouldn’t want to harm it. “It makes me afraid,” he said. Which was when Wesley walked in and, without making any effort to understand the situation, just exploded and ordered the boy out of the house. Colin ran away in shame and was nowhere to be found and she was terribly worried that he might do himself harm, but he finally turned up in California with his old schoolteacher and began writing letters to her from there. “Mother,” he addressed her. Now he guides her hand down between his legs. His underpants are damp and sticky as they often are. She often sees him pushing at his pillows and has to launder the pillowslips several times a week. While she is cupping his tender little pouch in her hand, he falls asleep like that, snoring softly under her nightshirt the way children sleeping soundly do.

I.7 Thursday 16 April

Ted Cavanaugh, aging fullback and team captain, sits outside their en suite bathroom door with toast and coffee and a morning cigarette, waiting to see Irene safely back to bed. He is thinking about his wife, as he does now so much of the time, and with pity in his heart, but he is thinking about much else besides. His life this winter had seemed so simple, but reality has shouldered in and blitzed him. He thinks of himself as efficient, rational, cautious, orderly, responsible, eye on the ball, but he has been none of these things. He has let problems at the bank and in the town slide, has not kept a close enough eye on his or the bank’s investments, has let his young son go his own way without counsel, and through sheer heedlessness has allowed that virulent extremist sect to return and sink new roots. Their followers have been swarming in all week, tents are up in the fields, the motels in the area are packed out, and there are more rolling this way. Pat Suggs, with the collusion of the Edwardses, has outmaneuvered him, and with time running out, there’s all too little he can do. Although that little will be done. All week he has been working on defense — injunctions, health and safety inspections, roadblocks and trespass regulations, anything to slow them down — and he has found that he can influence the town, even to some degree the state, but not the county. Did he give his support to Tub Puller in the election for sheriff? Can’t remember. Probably. Ex-coalminer, disaster survivor. If he didn’t oppose him, then same thing.

The church is without a minister, too, another headache. Connie Dreyer is helping them out over at Trinity, but the board must find a replacement for Edwards soon or they’ll all end up Lutherans. They have advertised the position in the church bulletins and consulted with the synod and Ted has made his own inquiries, but West Condon is not an easy sell. Ted has tried to get Edwards committed to a mental hospital for his own good as well as the town’s, but his wife, whose sanity is also open to question, has balked at signing the papers, and there are several on the board who are reluctant to get involved with controversial committal procedures. Probably have to wait until Wes does something crazy enough to involve the police and hope he doesn’t hurt himself or others. He’s thankfully out of the manse — they will have to send in a cleaning crew and the whole place will have to be redecorated — and is living now in the Tindles’ garage-cum-dance studio. Ralph is unhappy about it but saying little. Is it charity or an affair? Most think the latter, and many believe that’s what broke up the Edwardses’ marriage. Ted is skeptical, but what does it matter? He has always thought of Wes as a considerate softspoken intellectual, friendly, reliable, a loyal Rotarian and decent golfer, good citizen, so, even though there were early signals impossible to ignore (but he ignored them), Wes Edwards’ Easter crisis came like a bolt. No less so his wife’s sudden move out to the Brunist camp around that same time. Fleeing a lunatic maybe, or off on some wild tear of her own. Debra never struck Ted as particularly religious, just a kind of liberal do-gooder, a nuisance but no fanatic. Until now. Ted is fully aware of their finances. He has peered into their accounts and knows what Debra has done.

The toilet flushes and the doorknob rattles as Irene braces herself on it on the other side; he sets down his cup, stubs out his cigarette in the saucer, waves the smoke away. He has learned not to open the door for her, but to wait patiently for her to work the knob and stagger crankily out on her own. She always resents his presence, not wanting him to see her as she is now. She should be in hospital under constant care, but she refuses to go and he does not have the heart to insist. She is being “selfish” as she dies, and really for the first time, having always bent quietly to his wishes. He feels it as a kind of penance he must perform for what else is happening in his life.

It was the loss of her hair more than anything else that broke her spirit. Irene had such pretty hair, which she wore when young in tight dark curls. He made a special effort up in the city to have a dark curly wig fashioned for her, using old photos, but in truth it looked heartbreakingly silly on her and in her bitterness she managed to get it to the stovetop one night when he was away and set it afire. Does she even remember the love they once felt for each other? When he asks her, he gets only a dark stare in return. Such a pretty thing she was, tall for a girl and slender with a shy winsome smile, always well-dressed, fun to be with, a Homecoming Queen and the most popular girl in her sorority. And so utterly and charmingly dependent upon him, a faithful helpmeet, quiet and elegant in public, sweet and passive as a lover when they were still lovers, given often to tears after — of gratitude, he always believed. When they were young and courting, their song was “Goodnight, Irene.” Now that song is full of bitter irony. He made the mistake of humming it to her one night, meaning only to remind her that he still remembered and that he loved her, and she reached up and clawed at his face.

With her illness and the dread accompanying it, she has become increasingly religious in a more fundamentalist way, something that disappoints him but that he understands and tolerates, even if she calls it patronizing. It is distancing her from him and he doesn’t like it, does not want their life together to end this way. Yesterday, in her scratchy voice, she told him when they say goodbye, they really have to say goodbye, because she won’t see him in the afterlife, he’s not going where she’s going. He wonders if the home care nurse, Bernice Filbert, is influencing her. She’s a licensed practical nurse, which is why he hired her, but she seems to have progressed to that office with minimal interest in medical science, preferring folk remedies, superstition, and prayer. One day he saw her wet her finger with a murky water from a little flask and dab Irene’s forehead with it. When he asked her what she was doing, she said she was refreshing her patient’s spirit. She speaks of the Bible as though it were the morning newspaper, and she dresses eccentrically in shawls and long floor-scraping skirts that might be in imitation of Florence Nightingale but probably are not. She is also Lem Filbert’s sister-in-law, Tuck’s widow. He’ll ask Lem about her the next time he’s getting gas. Probably he should look for other help. Italian Catholics maybe, who seem to take ultimate things more casually. Bernice and her helper Florrie Cox, who also does the housecleaning, are both good workers at modest wages, though, and if they make Irene happy for the time she has left…

“We looked into it, Mr. Cavanaugh. But it’s unincorporated land. It’s in Tub’s jurisdiction.” “We did this last time, Dee.” “Well, we didn’t know better. And the sheriff back then was a cousin of mine.” He tucks the phone between his chin and shoulder and lights a cigarette. Through the glass panel that separates him from the bank floor, he can see Stacy talking with a customer. Looks like one of the mine widows. Mostly hard luck stories these days. Foreclosures and repossessions up, bankruptcies, loans to cover loans. He grants as much leeway as he can but finally the bank has no choice. Stacy is full of natural sympathy and handles these people well, even when the news is bad. A real find. She came as an intern on the recommendation of an old fraternity brother now teaching up at the business school, a guy he still has a drink with when they cross paths and whose university projects he has occasionally funded. A tight end with good hands and some speed in his day, still fit. He told Ted the girl was whip-smart in all their investment games, almost always raked in the pot, and he’d like Ted to do him the favor. Ted guessed he might have been sleeping with her and was passing her on, but he no longer thinks so. You wouldn’t want to lose someone like this. Her investment expertise as a games player faded as soon as she had to deal with real people, but her grace with them is an even greater plus. She stands, smoothing down her skirt (she probably knows he is watching), to walk the client to the door; Ted swivels around in his leather chair, turning his back on this spectacle, not to lose the thread. “But, damn it, Dee, we have a major problem here. Right on our doorstep. What are we going to do about it?” “Not much we can do.” “Listen, part of the state highway runs through the town limits. Can we block it off?” “Not if the state don’t want us to. Wouldn’t do much good anyway.” The police chief reminds him that with Old Willie gone, there’s only Monk Wallace, Louie Testatonda, and Bo Bosticker left; he’s at least a man short. “And Monk’s getting on and Bo and Louie aren’t much more than traffic cops.” The banker sighs. Nothing will come of this. He used to have to deal with trade union militancy, an un-American foreign import, and there were a lot of brutal old-fashioned knockdown power fights with some pretty tough bastards, but at least it was clear and simple, a case of those who deservedly had against those who undeservedly wanted but thought otherwise; it was easy to understand each other in a dog-eat-dog sort of way. Not so, these militant evangelicals. It’s like an imaginary conflict on some other plane, but locally just as virulent and disruptive. “They say Red Baxter is on his way back here, Dee. Could we arrest him on those old murder and property destruction charges?” “Sure, if he comes into town. Just rile them up, though.” He knows that Romano, though cowardly and frustratingly unimaginative, is right. They have to hit hard, right through the middle, or not at all. And they’re too damned late, too undisciplined. He is. Suggs has been better organized. Unless the governor commits state troopers on Sunday, all his work this week will have been nothing more than a meaningless scrimmage.

He hangs up and Nick Minicozzi calls from his office upstairs. When things got tight at the bank, Ted let his bank manager go and moved down here, renting out his second floor office to the city attorney, who has become his bank lawyer as well. Sharp young guy. And Ted is glad to be back on the bank floor. Keeping an eye on things. Nick has been pursuing the question of camping permits. None of these people living in the fields are likely to have them, but again it’s a problem of jurisdiction, even if they are issued here in town by the county clerk at city hall. Ted, mulling this over, scribbles idly on his desk blotter. His straightline gridlike doodles have given way over recent months to rounder, softer, more complex and flowing shapes. More sensuous ones. He smiles inwardly at that, wheels round to steal another glance; can’t stop himself. She has been watching him. She looks away. Lovable, you’re so lovable…he’s a hummer now. “If the sheriff won’t cooperate,” Nick says, “about the only way to force the issue is if a property owner complains.” As the major non-absentee landlord in the neighborhood of the mine is John P. Suggs, that’s not likely. Nick is developing a brief on Suggs, hoping to find something they can use. There are rumors of past links to the Klan and various rightwing militias, though even if true, they might do him no harm. Unless a crime can be found. So far, only a few meaningless bar brawls when he was young. Ted asks Nick to have a talk with the priest to brace him for possible problems on the weekend. “And, Nick, you and the accountant might take a look at the Presbyterian church finances, make sure all the money from the sale of the camp is accounted for.” Nick says he’ll do that and reminds him of their foursome at three. His requested call from the governor comes through.

When Ted walks into Mick’s Bar & Grill for lunch, Earl Goforth, Burt Robbins, and Jim Elliott are at the back table, heehawing with the mayor and the fire chief, apparently at the expense of the scruffy character just making his exit, grinning but teeth clenched. Looks vaguely familiar. Might have been in the bank for a loan. Like everyone else. “That’s Georgie, our new fire inspector,” Maury Castle explains in his bellowing voice. “A coupla weeks ago, he took one of Lem’s old junkers out for a test drive and never brung it back, totaling it that night out on the whorehouse run. Lem keeps a loaded shotgun in his shop and he’s swore to kill Georgie if he ever shows his fucking face around there again. We just told Georgie his next fire inspection is Lem’s garage.” They all roar with laughter again, or at least the mayor roars; Robbins’ laugh is more like a mean snicker, Elliott’s a mulish snort, Mort Whimple’s a gasping wheeze, Mick’s a high-pitched hee-hee-hee, Earl’s a wet whistle out the hole in his war-scarred face.

Ted smiles faintly, orders up the usual, bowl of soup and a grilled ham and cheese, asking Mick not to burn the sandwich. About what’s edible in here, the soup not always. Where the elite meet to eat. “Why Lem’s?” he asks. “It’s not a public place.”

“Well, it is,” booms the mayor, still grinning. For Castle, the whole world is funny. Tragedy is funny. Death is funny. Power is. “We all take our cars there. There are oil spills everywhere, oily rags tossed about, welding torches going, sparks flying. And Lem’s a smoker. He can’t get insurance, or won’t. It’s almost sure to go up, sooner or later, and it’ll cost the city a ton to put the fucker out.”

“Lem’s struggling to make ends meet.”

“Ain’t we all?”

He knows there is something wrong about this, people have been complaining, but he cannot think about it just now. Other priorities pressing. The Chamber of Commerce problem, for example. Elliott stands, weaving unsteadily. “Gotta go practice my putts,” he says bleakly, swinging through on what looks more like an approach shot. “See you at three.” Useless.

“How’s Irene?” Robbins asks.

“The same.” But he’s not thinking about her. He’s thinking about the people he’s sharing a life with here. This is his town, he has devoted his life to it, and nothing’s perfect, but sometimes, like now, staring at their dumb grins, he has the urge just to pick up his ball and leave the field. When Justin Miller, who ran the newspaper here some years back, left town (good thing he’s not around now, hyping these nuts in his paper again; he sometimes misses the Chronicle, but closing it down and elbowing Miller out of here turns out to have been the smartest thing he could have done), one of the last things he said was, “Everything that happens, happens right here in West Condon. If it starts to look like nothing, then you’re beginning to get the picture.” Now Miller’s out chasing that nothing around the world for one of the television networks. Ted used to hate that kind of cynicism, but love, if it is love and not just some kind of late-middleaged confusion, is making him rethink everything. “What you see in a place like this,” Stacy has said in her soft plainspoken way, “is how sad everything is.” Which sums up his present feelings. Even the cheese tastes stale today, the soup lacks salt. Sad soup. But damn it — Castle, who’ll be running for reelection in a few months, is wheedling about the need for a new cop, especially with all this trailer trash rolling in — he’s still the captain. He got cast for the part and he can’t hand it off. And anyway, cheer up, it’s a Thursday. “Well, better start interviewing,” he says between bites. “And meanwhile let’s see if we can get some help from the towns around. I’ve asked Dee to send out an alert. At this point we’re expecting six or seven hundred cultists over the weekend. At least half that many are already here. Plus all the local sympathizers, at least another couple of hundred. Which means we could have a serious crowd control problem Sunday, especially if a lot of sightseers and hecklers turn up like last time.” He casts an accusing glance at Castle, who was one of the perpetrators of that infamous carnival. Grinning nastily around his cigar. “We’re getting zero help from the county, even though the hill is technically in their domain. We’d better be prepared to face this alone.”

“I hear tell Baxter’s coming back,” says Whimple, who as mayor had to deal with all that madness. It was all too much for Mort, especially when all the big-time news media hit town. Baxter in particular was a constant thorn in his side. Funny-faced Mort was a reliable ally at the Fort while he was there, but he hated the job, was glad to get back to the fire station.

“That’s the rumor. Baxter has been fulminating at every workplace accident in the country, and he may have gathered together his own little dissident army by now. The FBI tells me they’re still keeping a dossier on him, have done since his commie days, but they don’t have as free a hand with religionists, even dangerously kooky ones.”

“Are we going to get any state troopers?”

“I don’t know yet.” Actually, the governor has told him the request has to come from the sheriff’s office, but he doesn’t tell them that. Must be some way to get at Puller. Unless Suggs has bought him. Probably. So the question is, how much would it take to buy him back? “There’s bound to be some media coverage. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop by and have a strategic prep talk with Nick, Maury, make sure we hit ’em hard but don’t break any rules.” Castle laughs at this. “You might as well come along, Mort. You never know. They’ll probably want to rake over the past.”

“Maybe Lem loan me that fucking shotgun of his,” says Mort, rolling his off-center beebee eyes.

As Ted has explained to Stacy (she thinks golf is funny), he loves golf as he loves every competitive sport, including banking and life itself (“And love?” she asked, and though ordinarily he would have laughed and said, sure, that most of all, he found himself momentarily voiceless — this is not a game, he was thinking), but there is something different about golf. Though she said she used to be a Quaker like the rest of her family, Stacy is not a religious person, so he couldn’t explain it in those terms, and he had to fall back on the idea of beauty, with which he was anything but comfortable. Music, painting, books failed to move him. But a long completed pass or an explosive run through a swarm of tacklers, or watching his son sink a game-winner from the halfway line as the buzzer sounded, that was beautiful. And a golf course, when used as one, that is to say, purposefully, not merely as a park to walk in, is beautiful, can be. A revelation (he didn’t say this) of God’s bounty, His love of a moral order. Ted was not being frivolous when he proposed the rise at the sixth tee for this year’s Easter sunrise service. It was while standing there at the sixth tee one day, about this time of year but many years ago, not long after the war, that he first understood the nature of prayer. A prayer was not a recitation. It did not even have words. It was a silent whole-body communion with the divine. In the way that a good golf swing is. The mechanics of a church service never touch him that way. He always feels that he’s just going through the motions. Out here, it’s the real thing. He may be a secular churchgoer, but he is a Christian golfer. I may be a cynical old bastard, Teddy, his father once said, having just hit a beautiful drive down the middle of the eighteenth fairway, back when they had eighteen fairways (it was beautiful, this was beauty — he said this to Stacy), but one thing I believe is that being a good Christian (left this out), a good banker, good citizen, good lover, good anything, is like being a good golfer: it’s not something you do with just your head or your wrists, it takes your feet, your knees, your hips, your shoulders, your whole body and your whole concentration. Head down, stay focused, and swing easy. “Well,” she said, smiling up at him, her breath coming in short gasps, “it seems to work.”

Now, he’s standing in the middle of the fairway on the dogleg fourth with a clear view of the pin. Chance for a birdie. In the old days he would have reached the green from here with a three-iron or even a four; now he’ll probably use the three-wood again, the one he is using more and more as his driver, too. It gives him more loft and backspin, meaning it stays up in the air longer and so is still as long as it ever was, while his driver shots, though they still go further, have shortened — he feels younger than ever these days, but the length of his drives tells the true story — and are a little less reliable. The shorter shaft on the three-wood allows him to take a half step toward the ball, and that seems to help. Can take some of the wayward arc out of a slice, too, as he explained to young Nick Minicozzi, who has hit a couple already, because the backspin offsets the sidespin. Nick is over in the woods to the right now, debating between an easier shot back out onto the tee-side of the dogleg, or a tougher one through the trees and over the old cemetery toward the green. Nick, Ted knows, will settle for the sure thing; how they differ. Jim Elliott is on the other side of the fairway in the rough, looking for his ball. Which is about half his golf game. It wasn’t a hook, just clumsily mishit off the heel of the club. He’s got the swing of a heathen, as his father used to say. Elliott, after consulting his hip flask, will slash around a while, lie about his strokes, probably eventually send the ball — or a ball — straight across the fairway into the trees on the other side; he should have warned Nick to keep his head down. Connie Dreyer has just plunked his third shot into a water hazard and is now waiting for Ted to take his second before joining him for the walk to the green. The Reverend Konrad Dreyer is the very model of what he’s looking for as a replacement for Wes Edwards: a thoughtful softspoken intellectual utterly committed to his mission. The voice of Christian reason and moderation. Too bad he’s a Lutheran. Connie once told him he’d started out as a somewhat secular historian in search of what he called the “spirit of history” and with a fundamental belief in the creative force in the universe, that which orders and evolves and impels, what some people call “the ground of all being.” Impressed by the incredible tenacity and power of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as an evident emanation of that spirit, he’d moved on into church history in graduate school, preparing for a life as a professor of theology and church history. But then he woke up one Sunday morning to the realization that in acquiring the athletic skills of the academic he had lost the fear of God. Which is when he entered the Visible Church, taking on a pastorate. Ted’s shot hits the green, but too hard, and bounces off the other side. Should have used an iron after all.

On the walk to the green, he thanks the Lutheran minister again for all he’s doing to help the Presbyterians in their crisis, and they talk about Wes Edwards. Wes often joined them out here on weekday and Saturday afternoons. Would that be good therapy for him? No. Lost cause. Though Dreyer is more hopeful. “Wesley has been a faithful servant of God. God will not abandon him.” “Far as I can tell,” Ted says, “that’s just the problem — He’s got inside him and Wes can’t get Him out!” Connie smiles compassionately at that and goes on to explain the sources of some of Wesley’s outbursts, including what seemed to be an Easter morning threat to destroy the church. “Mark 13.2,” says Connie. “Don’t worry. People with Christ parapathies often use that verse to assert themselves without even considering what it might mean.” Ted tells Connie about Debra emptying out all their bank accounts to finance the Brunists. “Jim’s wife Susanna says Debra told her she’d decided to lay down all she has and follow Christ. Only she laid down everything Wes has, too.”

While Connie sorts out his problems at the water hazard, Ted studies his lie. Not too bad. He’s played it before. About twenty yards beyond the pin in a clump of unmowed grass. It is technically fairway, so, with an unskilled parttime groundskeeper, it is within the club rules to clear the grass and debris around the ball, and he does so, then joins Connie on the bench beside the ball washer for a smoke while waiting for the others. He can still par the hole and plans to. Dreyer tips back his straw skimmer, strikes a match over his briar pipebowl, and asks about Irene. “A little better right now. Some kind of remission, I think.” When he called home from the bank to check in with the home care nurse, Bernice said, “Well, she keeps trying to get up and walk around, Mr. Cavanaugh. I think she wants to up and fly like Elijah.” “It has been hard, Connie.” “I know. The children?” “They were all back at Christmas and we’ve stayed in touch. It would help if they could get back more often, but my oldest is in the State Department and posted to the Far East, where they really have their hands full, my daughter out on the coast has a legal practice and small children, and Tommy’s finishing university, so I’m pretty much on my own. Tommy at least will be back for the summer.” He needs Tommy, needs his help, his attention. Tommy’s a bit lost right now, is even talking about going on to grad school, studying some subject other than business. Pointless. His grades are mediocre, way below his abilities. He got dropped from the basketball team, in spite of Ted’s influence up there, apparently for flaunting training regulations. He seems all too loose and easy, as if life were just a passing joke — it’s not a joke, damn it. Ted has only a B.A., all he has needed, and has always thought of business school as an excuse to keep fucking off, avoiding the hard decisions. But at least it might keep a kid like Tommy on track until he can grow up, so he’ll push the idea. Tommy had wanted to work in the bank this summer, but Ted couldn’t risk it — the boy has made a play for just about everyone in there, including Stacy — so he has managed to get him on the city payroll instead. They’ll talk all this out when he’s home for the weekend.

Nick Minicozzi’s shot lands conveniently at the lip of the green. Must be at least his fourth. A tough couple of holes but he has a natural swing and, though not daring, is a stubborn competitor. When Nick sent the official foreclosure documents down this afternoon, Stacy brought them in and stood by his desk for a moment while he leafed through them. She seemed decidedly unhappy. Probably she had talked with most of these people at her desk. In the stack, along with the unpaid house mortgages and failed small businesses: Maury Castle’s old shoe store. As the Deepwater night manager, Dave Osborne was something of a hero on the night of the disaster, so, with the mine closed, Ted helped him buy the store when Castle was elected mayor. He should have known better. Even Castle was losing money and he knew something about salesmanship. For a while, Osborne joined the others for lunch at Mick’s, trying to fit in, but he has not been in for some time now. Except for small loans Ted granted him, he has had no money to buy in fresh stock, so most of the shoes for sale are the same ones as four or five years ago. Osborne is now deep in debt with no obvious way out; the bank has played along too long, the shop has to be closed and put on the block like so many others on Main. But Stacy was still standing there—“Look,” she said, pointing: “New shoes!”—and he realized how much, just now, he needed her. He could not bear her censure. He set the documents aside. “These can wait,” he said (was he growling? he was growling). “If the bank owns all the property in town, what the hell’s it going to do with it?” “You’re beautiful,” she whispered as she left. Elliott’s ball lands short of the green. He may have just picked it up finally and thrown it. If he announces it was his third shot, he’ll fire him on the spot. When Nick arrives, cursing his slices, Ted says, “Your hips are moving forward before your hands are, Nick. At the driving range, try hitting a bucket of balls with your feet together. If your hips move first, you’ll lose your balance.”

The beautiful man is returning home in his beautiful car in a beautiful mood. It is late. He has stayed too long, and the drive from the distant highway motel where she stays on weekends takes more than an hour down dark two-lane country roads. But an immense peace has settled over him and he feels afloat on the night. Changes are taking place. Deep at the core. She has released something in him that he himself did not know was there. A buried self more open and lighthearted. Not frivolous, but possessed of a genuine lightness of being, one able to rise above (yes, he is afloat!) the cares and anxieties of the day-to-day world. The bank, the church, the Brunists, his so-called community have settled dimly into the background like two-dimensional markers of his new distance from them. And more loving, a self more loving. He had not known he could love as he loves now. Or be loved as she loves him. With all her heart, he knows that; she has touched him with her almost desperate confessions. It’s a miracle. A touching of souls. Her young body, he loves that, too, is crazy about it, cannot keep his hands or eyes off it, and when he apologized for his abject adoration (he was undressing her, slowly, as if unwrapping her, as if revealing something holy, her emerging body — it is holy! — quite literally aglow under the bedside lamp), she smiled dreamily and said, “You have the hands of a poet.” But it was not just her body — that was just, so to speak, the frosting on the cake (that is probably not the most poetic way of putting it, though he did like to lick it) — it was the young woman inside the body that most fascinated him: her good heart, her gaiety, her charming unpredictability, her fresh youthful wisdom. When he expressed his worries about the events of the upcoming weekend and all he was doing to confront them, she stroked his brow and said, “Maybe you’re overreacting.” “Could be. But I don’t think so.” “Listen, why don’t we go somewhere Sunday? A drive…?” And though it seemed preposterous and irresponsible, it also suddenly seemed right. The nurse and cleaning lady have the weekend off; maybe they’re going out to the mine for the ceremonies (are they part of that cult?), but Tommy will be home. It was possible. No, it was necessary. “Yes,” he said. A weight seemed to be lifting. “We’ll do that.” And she kissed him, and then straddled his shoulders, presenting him her butterfly to kiss, and leaned down to stretch her body out over his, her head between his legs. You go to my head…their little joke about that. He was so glad he’d left the bedlamp on. Is this wrong? It cannot be, it is too beautiful, too pure, too profound. And life is short, its rewards few and precious, gifts of the passing hours to be accepted or forever lost. If not now, when? “It goes on and on,” Stacy has said about life, “and then it stops.” She’s an agnostic. Or something else. But that’s all right, maybe he is, too, he hasn’t thought about it all that much. Probably not, but never mind. Love transcends all that. It’s her religion, really. Love as God, God as Love. If it feels good, it is good. They can go over by the river, he was thinking as her thighs squeezed his cheeks, is thinking now, afloat in his big Continental, and also of her thighs and all between them (unbelievably, in spite of all the night’s activities, he is hard again). That state park over there with the massive stone formations, hasn’t been there in years.

There are lights in his rearview mirror. Another lover headed home? No, four lights. Two lovers, then. He’s leading a parade of returning lovers. The lights do not seem to resolve into headlamps, spreading apart and drawing together again. Stacy has been introducing him to marijuana. Is it already affecting his brain? Probably just more tired than he thought. He slaps his cheek and looks again. He sees a fifth headlamp and knows now what they are. Before he can hit the accelerator, they are all around him, in front of him, behind him, roaring along beside him, five black-leather-jacketed motorcyclists, their metal jacket studs glittering infernally in the headlights, their ratty hair flying. They weave patterns around him, taunting him with obscene gestures and icy maniacal grins. One of them looks foreign, Hispanic. He pulls up alongside, spits on his window, smashes the side mirror with his gloved fist. An empty bottle caroms off his hood and windshield. On their jackets: skulls and crossbones, crosses, American flags with daggers in them, dragon-like serpents, the name WARRIOR APOSTLES. It’s unreal, a nightmare — indeed, he feels almost as if he has fallen asleep in the motel and is having an anxiety dream about getting home again. They continue to crowd him as if trying to slow him down, force him to the shoulder. They probably mean to rob him, even kill him. All right, team. Fuck this. Huddle time. The scrawniest one leans down and smashes out his left headlamp with a heavy wrench. Another roars up on his right and takes out one on the other side. The tail lights are going, too. He hits the brake, hard, forcing the two at the back into a spin, then, leaning on the horn like a war cry, barrels forward, head ducked, through the narrow space between the two peeling bikers in front. Driving a hole in their line. He hears the scrunch of metal against metal. Something thrown cracks his windshield. Not a lot of pickup in this cumbersome machine, it’s a moment when he’d love to have the old manual gearshift back, but it does have power and he knows he can eventually outrun them. He only hopes they are not armed, or, if armed, don’t shoot. And that, with only one dim left on the ditch side, he can stay on the black seamless road on this moonless night. It’s like running the sideline to the end zone blindfolded.

When the banker reaches his house, he takes a moment to catch his breath, calm down. He’s absolutely furious. He’ll call Chief Romano, get him out of bed. The sheriff, too. Tell them he wants action and now, goddamn it. This is an outrage. Those shits should be run down tonight, captured and jailed. Or hung, preferably. He would personally like the pleasure of taking a sledge hammer to their fucking motorcycles. The innocent citizen strikes back. The more or less innocent citizen. He will have to explain what he was doing out on that road. Well, business meeting, possible investors, job interviews, etc. Could those guys follow him here? Do they know who he is, how to find him? He listens for the sound of their bikes, but the night is silent. To be safe, he puts the Lincoln in the garage, though not much worse could happen to it. Maybe he should leave it out in the driveway as bait and wait for them with his rifle. He could shoot them and they’d never be missed.

Inside, his mind still gripped by the hellish racket of crunching metal and shattering glass, he finds that Irene has taken a turn for the worse. “We didn’t know where to reach you,” Doc Lewis says, stepping out of the bedroom. Bernice Filbert is in there, sitting by the bed, head bowed, holding Irene’s hand, her white head scarf curtaining her profile, spectacles dangling on a chain beneath her chin. They seem to be praying together. “We called the club…” “Sorry, M.L. An appointment. Lasted longer than I expected. And I got attacked on the way home.” “Attacked?” “Motorcycle gang. They smashed up the car. I was lucky to get away. How bad is she?” “She’s better. I gave her some morphine. Should settle her for the night. She should be in the hospital, you know, where we can monitor her.” “Irene’s pretty determined on that subject. And I tend to agree. Don’t want her to die in hospital. She belongs here at home. With me.” Lewis nods. He looks tired. Probably got dragged out of bed. A good man. Living proof that there are good men. The sort that, by who they are and what they do, ease despair. Something Stacy, expressing her love, once said about him. He didn’t deserve it (love’s like that), but Lewis does. As for the Sunday drive, forget it. What was he thinking of? “Should I call the kids?” “Not yet. Her heart’s strong and her will seems intact. She could live on for months still. Let’s see how she’s doing tomorrow.” “Bernice said she was so lively earlier.” “Flush of euphoria probably. Often precedes a crisis.” “Thanks for coming out, M.L. How about a nightcap?” “Well, that’s kind, but…” “I need something to crank me down. Join me. The car’s in the garage, go take a look. I’ll let Bernice go home and say goodnight to Irene. Be with you in a sec.”

That night, the banker dreams about the bikers. Only, it’s not a nightmare. He’s riding with them, matching their cool smiles with one of his own. The sun’s shining and they’re out on the open highway, blazing along. Nothing exists except the roaring machine between his legs and the exhilarating sensation of freedom as vast as the limitless landscape. No goal to reach, just the joy of life itself. One of the bikers pulls up alongside him. It’s his fraternity brother, the one teaching up at business school. He has an ecstatic expression on his face. “This is beautiful,” he shouts, and the banker agrees. The scenery is streaking past. “But once you get one of these things going,” his fraternity brother asks, his expression metamorphosing to one of terror, his bike beginning to shimmy, “how do you get off?”

I.8 Saturday 18 April

When they arrive like returning heroes after their exhausting all-night journey, anticipating warm embraces, they find the steel gates at the end of the access road open, the camp abandoned. There are some trailers parked in a field with THE COMING OF LIGHT stickers on their bumpers and other evidence of recent occupation — in a cabin up from the main lodge, there are dirty dishes and muddy jeans, and the beds are unmade — but the atmosphere is one of a spooky emptiness. It reminds Franny of their father’s pictures of the Rapture, which she used to think were photographs: the saved taken bodily up to Heaven dressed in wispy gowns like shower curtains, clothes left behind in castoff heaps. No fat people ascending. Which suits her fine. Her father wonders aloud if there has been a raid on the camp, everyone arrested. Maybe the Persecution has begun again. That suits her not at all. Franny Baxter is sick of being hated and chased about and wants to hear nothing more about the abuse of prophets and the suffering of the righteous. She hates her name that draws such bad feelings to it. She wants to be a nobody quietly living a nothing life in nowheresville, believing in nothing except her own crummy nothingness. She sure doesn’t want to be back here. Their father has been in a state of repressed fury for days now, and sometimes not so repressed: little Paulie has been whacked and swatted so many times this week, he can do nothing but scrunch up and snivel all the time. Not that he’s capable of much more at his best, she thinks, though Paulie himself dreams of more. Like burning down the world and everything in it, for example. While roasting marshmallows over the flames. And he’s not a nobody. He’s Nat Baxter’s brother. And he is going to be a Warrior Apostle. Nat promised him. They will cut him and mix his blood with theirs and together they will fight the war of the gods. Nat and Littleface have shown him pictures. The Apostles have roared here ahead of the rest and gunned their motorbikes up the hill to take over the high ground, and Paulie now follows after on foot. Amanda goes to tell her father what the others are doing, but he is standing in the big house, staring at all the folding chairs and the things on the wall and thinking about something. There’s a big man on the wall, looking like God when He’s mad. She is afraid, as she always is, it’s all so frightening. Her oldest brother Junior meanwhile is on a come-and-see reconnaissance mission. Down in the trailer park, he finds the doors all left open as though their occupants had fled without time to lock them. Junior looks for Elaine Collins’ trailer: he guesses the biggest and newest one, and he is right. For five long punishing years, he has been dreaming about her and about this moment. At times, it has been all that has kept him going, kept him believing. Their passionate togetherness in Christ, their dream of sainthood. He thinks she might be waiting for him in her bedroom, but she is not. In her underwear drawer, he finds his letters to her. And a man’s leather belt. He leaves the letters, takes the belt and a pair of panties. In the kitchenette, he discovers an old cookie tin, too old to have cookies in it. Guessed right again. He pockets the bills, leaves the change. There’s a shotgun near the back that’s tempting, but too big. In a drawer behind it, though, he finds a handgun. When he returns to the camp, his father is just coming out of the lodge with a frown on his face. Nothing new. He always has a frown on his face. Their mother has not left the car, the sad old thing. She just sits there, staring into space. Nat, from overhead, shouts down, “There are a lot of people over on the mine hill!” That seems to cheer their father up. “Then we shall go there,” he says.

Like Junior, Elaine has been waiting and praying for this moment for what feels like most of her life. Something happened to her out here on the Mount of Redemption, it was strange, she can’t explain it. Just being back here today in her tunic, even with her other clothes on, makes her knees shake. It felt like, for a moment, she stopped being Elaine Collins and just rose right up out of herself. As if it really was the End and she was rising toward her Pa. It hurt but like leaving your body must hurt. Before that, she was standing all alone and the rain was pounding down and there was thunder and lightning and everybody looked almost naked like in the pictures when the Rapture happens. She was crying and trembling and she looked around desperately for her Pa, sensing him there, needing him, saw Junior Baxter instead. He was crying, too. He had torn a willowy branch off the little tree up there and he handed it to her. “Hit me!” he begged. “Please! Now!” Others were whipping each other or themselves and screaming for the Rapture to begin. She almost couldn’t see through her tears, but she did as he asked. It started slowly, awkwardly, but when the pain began — he had a switch, too — it went faster and faster, like time itself was speeding up and it really was almost happening! If they could just hit hard enough and fast enough! She felt terrified and rapturous at the same time and she called out for her Pa and swung the switch, over and over, with all her might. And then suddenly everyone went mad and there was someone leaping on Junior and pounding him and bloodying his nose and mouth and she had to throw herself on top to stop him from being killed and her Ma was pulling her away and they were running, she was crying, they were all crying, her Ma too, it was as if they were running out of a new world back into the old one, which was no longer familiar or friendly, and then she was cuddled up in her Ma’s arms in the car, her tunic muddy and her body stinging all over, and they were leaving West Condon behind. And after that day it was like everything had changed and for the first time she understood what it meant to be born again. Elaine grew up with religion, it was not something she chose or even thought about, so maybe what she had before wasn’t really religion at all, just more like habit. Like most of these people up here today. A lot of praying and singing and saying things she has heard and said herself a thousand times, and then a snack in the food tent and polite smiles: You must be Clara’s daughter. Her Ma probably thinks it’s some kind of love between her and Junior, and it makes her Ma afraid of the Baxters, but what happened wasn’t love, not for Junior Baxter. He’s fat and has pimples on his chin, or did then, and he’s not even very nice. Elaine knows about love. About Christian love and family love and other kinds, too. She loves Jesus and loves her Ma and she loved her Pa and her brother Harold with all her heart, still does, even though they’re dead. She also loved Marcella Bruno. whom she’s been thinking a lot about today. It’s partly why they are all standing up here on the Mount of Redemption, remembering how she died on the road down below five years ago tonight. It was horrible, and remembering it still gives her a sick feeling in her stomach. Except for her own family, Marcella was the nicest person Elaine ever knew. Marcella loved Mr. Miller, but her Ma says that was the wrong kind of love, and that’s why it ended the way it did. Elaine had a boyfriend once she loved for a little while in Marcella’s way, or thought she did, Carl Dean Palmers, who was a nice Christian boy, a bit rough, but sweet to her and one of the original twelve First Followers like she was. Even though her Ma was not convinced, Elaine began to think that some day she and Carl Dean would get married. But all that stopped when Carl Dean went crazy up here on the Mount, and she saw the worst in him. The police took Carl Dean away and she hasn’t seen him since and she doesn’t want to. In their church prayers, they pray for his return, but she hopes that doesn’t happen. She hasn’t loved anyone since then, not that way, and she doesn’t think now she ever will. So it’s not Junior Baxter, it’s something else. Something bigger than both of them, something they’re just a part of, like a drop of water is part of a river. Again, the way religion is. She said that once in a letter to Junior, and he wrote back very excited that that was exactly what he was thinking, though he tended to think of it more like fire than water. They call it a kind of sainthood, a reaching for it, because that’s what Junior had been reading about in his Pa’s books. She gave up love for that. What’s strange is that it has to do with whipping each other. This was not something Elaine had ever experienced. Her Ma and Pa never raised a hand against her and her big brother Harold was always gentle and protective; she never got sent to the principal’s office and she never did anything to make anyone mad enough to hit her. And she doesn’t like pain, not at all. It’s more like Junior has opened a door onto the real world, the world behind the world, showing her something she hadn’t seen before. Something about God and what one has to do to get close to Him. What it means to be washed in the blood of the lamb. And so, yes, it’s about love, after all. The most important kind. And it makes her heart beat like crazy just thinking about it. Earlier, she heard the roar of the motorcycles over by the camp. Everyone was afraid someone might be attacking the camp in their absence, and Ben and Wayne and Hunk went hurrying over there, but she knew. Her knees were shaking so, she had to go to the old people’s tent and sit down on a chair there.

Before going over to the mine hill, Amanda is helping her father, Junior, and her fat stupid sister put up their big tent behind one of the cabins. Her father seems in an awful hurry to do this now. She knows she will have to sleep out here with her mother and Franny. The cabin is nicer, but the front door is missing and there is sawdust all around. Then some big men arrive and jump out of their truck, looking angry. Such moments, even though they seem to happen fairly often, always startle Amanda and make her squeak and hide behind her father. But it’s not as scary as she thought because one of them turns out to be Mrs. Collins’ husband, though she would never have recognized him with his beard on. And he’s got so old. He and her father clap each other on the shoulder and shake hands, and Mrs. Collins’ husband introduces the other two. “And you must be Amanda,” he says, smiling down on her, and she gives him the smile she always gives everybody, the one that hides how scared she is inside. It’s a flirtatious smile that Franny knows will one day be the little retard’s undoing, though she wishes she had access to something like it, reduced as always to a deadpan nod when introduced (naturally, old Ben did not remember her name). One of the other two is pretty good looking and not so past it, but Franny is not interested in any man who has religion in any serious way. Enough of that for one lifetime. She wants a guy who goes fishing and falls asleep in front of the television, whether or not he even remembers her name. Her brother Junior is preening and sucking in his gut and stroking his silly little red mustache which looks more like fever blisters, pompously introducing himself as Young Abner, as he always does on formal occasions like this, wanting them to understand that he stands by his father and is his father’s heir. “We have endured a great trial of affliction and suffering,” he says, speaking as his father might, “but we have got here and didn’t see you.” Mrs. Collins’ husband explains that they are expecting a police blockade of the hill tomorrow, so they decided to occupy it today and maintain an all-night vigil, and his father agrees wholeheartedly with this strategy and says he is prepared to do his part, and Young Abner nods solemnly. The men express surprise there’s only their own family here, having expected the big numbers their father had written about. Their father explains that they have hurried on ahead to be sure to be here on the Night of the Sacrifice, so important to him personally, the others would be following later, though Junior knows, as do they all, that there are no others. Things have not been going well. Their father’s message is a hard one and few can live with it. There also seems to be some problem about their tent. That cabin has already been allocated, and anyway the camp itself is not for personal residences. This confirms the worst for Franny, who assumes they will soon be on the road again in their beat-up old Plymouth Suburban, sleeping in it or in tents in parks and fields. Her father glances up toward the next-door cabin with the unmade beds and muddy jeans. “Except for working staff,” says Ben. “That’s for our camp director. And her boy.” All three of them expect their father to explode as usual, but he only smiles sorrowfully, showing his weariness, and says, “Well then, we will only use it for the weekend, having no place else to go for now. Our tribulations have been many and we are footsore and heartsore, but happy are we thy servants to be standing here before you. Come, let us dress in white and put our tunics on.” “You don’t have to do that no more, just wear underneath whatever,” says Ben Wosznik who is himself wearing boots and jeans under his tunic, but their father ignores him.

Darren Rector and Billy Don Tebbett interrupt their taped interview in the Florida tent of Reverend Hiram Clegg and his wife and follow them down the hill to the mine road, where Brother Ben and the others, returning from the camp, their arrival announced by the roar of motorcycles, have paused beside the ditch, alongside a squat barefoot man said to be Reverend Abner Baxter. He and his wife and four children are all in white tunics and not, it would seem, much else. The motorcyclists have moved over to the company parking lot under the water tower, sitting their bikes like sentinels, occasionally gunning their motors like smoke signals. One of them must be the fifth Baxter child. “Welcome,” Reverend Clegg says, embracing Reverend Baxter. Reverend Clegg is not a tall man, but Reverend Baxter is even shorter. “We thank the good Lord that you have arrived safely and can be with us on this poignant day.” Darren believes it is important to record the recollections of all the witnesses while they are still alive, starting with the Cleggs, who are not young and leave Monday to return to Florida. Not just to preserve the history, for history itself may not last much longer, but, more importantly, in the hopes of capturing a prophetic hint of God’s plans for the end of things. The more he and Billy Don have learned about the origins of the Brunist movement, the more Darren is convinced that something truly profound and revelatory happened here five years ago, and their task is to understand it — to read it, as they used to say back in Bible college — and then to act according to that understanding and help others do so, too. While there is still time. While time still is. Both had become impatient at Bible college with the lack of respect for the prophetic impulse, the soul of all true religion, and with the school’s diminished interest in the science of eschatology and the close reading of contemporary signs, their beliefs leading to accusations of heretical and disruptive behavior and threats of expulsion. And just then the Brunist missionaries came through. Their message, expounded so plainly and convincingly by Mrs. Collins-Wosznik, made perfect sense, it was just what Darren was looking for, and they have been traveling with them ever since, serving as the mission office staff. Now, at the ditch, Reverend Baxter has fallen to his knees. Darren and Billy Don know who Reverend Baxter is and why he has knelt just here, staring ashenly down into the ditch, for it is where, like Saint Paul, he was struck down with remorse for the death he had just caused and thereby became among the most fervent — and most punished — of all the early Brunists. Though others fled after the Day of Redemption, he remained defiantly in West Condon until driven out, threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace and for negligent homicide if not for murder, his local church wrecked, his home broken into and looted, black crosses painted on his door, his children attacked and beaten, his phone cut off, his mail filled with anonymous threats. They also know that Sister Clara’s group has found fault with his interpretation of Brunism and think of him as an egoistic, ambitious and contentious man, endangering their movement with the threat of schism, and Darren is curious about that, fully aware that this is the moment in a religious movement before everything gets defined and codified and all still seems possible. He plans to interview him, for Reverend Baxter knows things no one else knows so well. He might, for example, know what happened to the girl’s body. Nowhere in all the documentation from the opened boxes he has pored through has he found anything about her actual interment. Now, on his knees on the cindery mine road, Reverend Baxter declares in a strong quavering voice that can be heard all the way to the top of the hill: “I was the greatest of sinners!” And all the others fall to their knees and join him in prayer. “Yea, we were all born sinners,” replies Reverend Clegg, going down on one knee only because of his bad one, “but by the obedience of one shall many be saved! He was not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance!” As the others chorus their “amens,” Darren nudges Billy Don. “Turn on the tape recorder,” he whispers.

Paulie knows that his brother Nat hates their older brother, and so he hates him, too. When Junior came up the hill to tell them they were going over to the Mount, Paulie stood behind him and did an imitation of him, puffing himself up and putting his finger against his upper lip like a moustache and waddling about, and had the Warrior Apostles grinning and cheering him on until Junior spun around to glare at him. Paulie smiled innocently, pressing his palms together as though in prayer, drawing more laughter. Normally, Junior would have boxed his ears, hard, hard enough to knock him down, but he knew Junior was afraid of the Warrior Apostles. Everyone was. Junior said there might be trouble over there, their enemies might be lying in wait for them, they needed the Apostles to provide an escort. That was different. They left their backpacks and loose gear to claim their territory, revved up. Nat told Paulie to go along with Junior, but he begged to ride with him (“Give Runt a break,” said old Houndawg with a grin), and finally Nat gave in, provided Paulie got off when they reached the mine hill and stayed with the others. Junior had already started back down the path when they went blasting past him, making him jump into the bushes, all of them hooting and laughing and giving him dirty gestures, Paulie, too, pumping his fist like Juice did. Young Abner waited until they were out of sight, then turned and went back up the hill. A little something he had to do. Down in the camp there were some men with their father and sisters. Franny and Amanda were trying to get their tired old bag of a mother into her tunic. The men didn’t seem happy to see the Apostles and backed off. Which suited Nat just fine. Not looking for approval, not from braindead old fossils like these. Just respect, man. Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, as his old man likes to say. A kind of power. He stared them down for a moment while his father scowled, then they roared away to wait for them at the exit to the camp access road. Now, astride his bike Midnight over by the mine tipple alongside Houndawg, Cubano, Juice, and Littleface, all five in black leather, he has watched the Collins people come waddling down the hill in their white tunics to greet his family, giving each a lot of playacting hugs. Nat has a clear notion of what the Last Judgment is all about, and it has nothing to do with those faggoty white nightshirts. His he has torn up to use as grease rags. After the hugs, they’re into the praying, as usual. They do that like most people say hello. What they call praying. Really, just a way of showing off to each other that they’re all in the same dumb club. Not Nat’s way. He goes straight to the Big One. Raises his fist and tells Him what he needs and what he’s going to do for Him. Short, snappy, in words that would fit inside a speech balloon. The Big One knows who he is, knows he can count on him, they can talk directly, no phony niceties needed. Just get the job done. The one useful thing Nat’s ass-cracking old man did was push his nose in the Bible. Taught him about God’s hatred of the sick world and what He plans to do about it. Armageddon. A final do-or-die rumble with Satan. No holds barred. Cool. He has seen images of it in his War of the Gods comics. Nat’s ready. He’ll be there. He will bring the fire. He has drawn the Apostles to this place with the promise of a rumble to end all rumbles. They won’t be disappointed. Just two sides: the Big One and His Apostles against the rest. Get ready to choose. And die. Amanda knows which side she’ll be on: her father’s side, whichever. How he gets judged, she’ll be judged. Anything else is too scary. Armageddon? Franny’s just going to skip it. Let them do what they want. Her poor broken mother has not stopped bawling since she got here. Of course, this place has lousy memories for her. A miscarriage in a rain storm in front of all the cameras with everybody screaming like lunatics right when you think the world’s ending — but unfortunately it doesn’t — is about as bad as it can get. While her father and the silver-haired guy try to outpreach each other (her father is casting off the works of darkness, as he likes to say, and putting on the armor of light, and beseeching the others to do likewise), the women standing around mutter about how poorly her mother looks. “Pore Sarah ’pears to me pert nigh too weak to stand,” one of the old ladies whispers. “She oughter be wearing shoes, her condition.” “I have some days as bad as she looks,” whispers another, “when I feel like jist layin’ down and not never gittin’ up again.” “Yea, walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth!” That’s silvertop. Her mother perks up a bit when some other people turn up. Franny knows them. They all do. From their old church. More hugs, tears, prayers. Paulie is doing his little shake. He likes to pretend it’s rock ’n’ roll, but really it’s just a panicky twitch that sometimes turns really bad, a kind of high-pitched whinny leaking out his nostrils like sound-snot.

Harriet McCardle is watching all this from the large food tent at the top of the hill. It is all quite remarkable, just as this entire week has been, and she wishes she could remember more of it, her very salvation may depend on it, but memory is no longer her long suit as it was in her championship bridge-playing days. It is why she is taking these photographs with her little box camera that one of her husbands gave her as a birthday present long ago, something to help her bring it all back when she’s far away from here, provided she can remember to take the film in for development, which she often forgets until it’s too late, the pictures then becoming mere teasing glimpses of a lost piece of her life, a mystery to go along with all the other mysteries. All of which, this problem of memory, has caused her to wonder about sin and redemption and the efficacy of grace. When they talk about washing away one’s sins, she doesn’t think this is what is meant. The scene down below, while dramatic, is quite confusing and she will have to ask Reverend Hiram Clegg to explain it to her later. He is down there with Clara Collins and her husband Ben, whose name is not Collins, and some other fellows, including a short reddish-haired man who shakes his fist a lot and seems to be arguing with them all, or perhaps they are just praying together, which these people often do in a quite vigorous and sometimes alarming manner. The hillside is filling up and the flat land down below by the road as well. Some of the new people seem to be members of this faith and are coming on up the hill, including one fellow in a wheelchair. He and the woman pushing him are met halfway up by several women who all seem to know each other and some men who help with the chair. She takes a photo. One of the women, the biggest one, is said to read the future with playing cards, just as Harriet McCardle once created the future with them in a more practical way. She has forgotten vast portions of her life, but she can still remember finessing a particular queen (it was a spade, held by a retired medical doctor sitting to her right who specialized in the inner organs and wore a toupee the color of a golden retriever) in a tournament she and her husband won, and, oh, many other such card-by-card details as well, including a hand she once was dealt which was nothing but diamonds, though she may only have fantasized holding such a hand, and then the fantasy became like a memory, something that further erodes her understanding of sin and redemption; she is convinced many of her remembered sins were about as real as that automatic grand slam hand, for as a young woman, she had a very lively imagination. So maybe that’s what’s being forgiven: her sinful imagination. Mrs. Collins’ daughter Eileen, or Elaine, is also keen on whatever’s happening at the bottom of the hill, watching it from behind Harriet’s shoulder; whenever Harriet has tried to push her chair out of the way, she has moved with her as if afraid to face whatever’s going on, wringing her hands and shrinking into shadows. Poor child. Perhaps Mrs. Collins and her husband have been too hard on her, though it seems unlikely for she and her mother are as close as any mother and daughter she ever saw. The mine tragedy happened just under their feet, and the girl might be afraid the hill will blow up again or just fall in on itself. Well, if that does happen, it probably won’t happen today, more likely tomorrow, which is the anniversary of the End of the World, a concept that seems strangely paradoxical to Harriet, but one she will just have to accept, for religious faith is like that. Religion is something, thanks to her last two husbands, Harriet McCardle has come to quite late, at least in a serious way, and she is still, though years have probably passed, getting used to it. The sweet blond boy she first met in the vegetable garden seems quite agitated and his worried mother is trying to draw him back into the tent where she has been serving coffee and doughnuts. In his tunic, he looks just like an angel. She remembers to take his picture. The very nice Glover girl and the handsome man she sings with step out into the sunshine from the tent behind her to watch the proceedings below, the girl saying something about the ditch and how she can hear somebody down there talking to her. Harriet McCardle remembers the girl’s name because she once had a six-grade geography teacher with that name. Why she remembers the six-grade geography teacher’s name, however, she has no idea. The two of them perform religious songs for their group every evening at the Blue Moon Motel, using the bar area which has been closed down for their stay at Hiram Clegg’s insistence, demanding peace and quiet for his religious community, and also no scandalous artwork on the walls or anything objectionable on the room TVs — something he could do since they are renting the whole motel. It was he who organized the singing, proud, he said, to be turning “a den of sin” into “a house of worship.” He has been their Good Shepherd. And, oh, so successful. When he talks, you just have to believe him. Now, there are people who want him to run for political office and they have asked her for money for this and she will give it. Reverend Clegg has built their own little church into one of the largest in the city, the two busloads she traveled with being only a small portion of the congregation, and many of those he has converted have gone on to found churches of their own in other cities. Thanks to Hiram Clegg, she may not have to die. Being translated is a much nicer idea. Harriet McCardle is quite fond of Reverend Clegg and rather regrets she wasn’t around when his wife died. Betty Clegg is such an uncultured person and not right for him at all. Harriet and Reverend Clegg have exchanged some thoughtful glances on this bus trip. Well, at their age, one never knows what might happen. Harriet McCardle has already been widowed three times and her fourth husband is not well. She remembers her first husband best of all and each one after less distinctly, though it was her second husband who was the bridge player. He was the one named McCardle, after which she stopped changing her name, as it got too confusing. As she imagines it will be when she gets to Heaven and they all try to sort things out. She hopes she doesn’t get stuck with the first one. She and Mr. McCardle retired to Florida, mostly just to play bridge, and then he died and she married another man from the retirement home who was a good dancer but didn’t last long. Best of all, she remembers her high school days when she was the toast of the town. She was less religious then, the end seemed impossibly far off, and she was a bit wild, she’d be the first to admit it, and has done from time to time in church during confession time. They used to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet” about her, which was embarrassing, given that just about everyone knew what it meant, but she has no regrets. She loved those times and would have them back in a minute.

Climbing the Mount of Redemption, Young Abner Baxter has at last caught a glimpse of Elaine, standing behind an old lady sitting stiffly under a raised tent flap. He can’t see much of her but he knows it’s Elaine because the one eye he can see is staring right at him, and in a way that no one else ever would or could stare at him. He is momentarily stopped in his tracks by the intensity of that staring eye, and then, in a blink, it vanishes. Franny doesn’t know what he’s looking at, frozen there like that with his loose mouth gapping open, but she can guess. She has read some of Elaine Collins’ letters to him. What they’re up to is a bit odd, but then most people’s relationships with other people are odd. Just look at her mother and father. And it might be useful. When her father came home from out here that awful night, he had changed into a different person, humble, repentant, almost tearful — like a little boy, Franny thought at the time, shocked by him and by the thought. For months her father had been railing against Clara Collins, calling her a vain deceiver and a false prophet, and suddenly she was a perfect saint who had helped him to see the light. The Bruno house was a Romanist den of iniquity, and yet he’d just come from there, praying with all the others. He had raised a little army to march against those Bruno people and suddenly they were all marching together. The change scared her and made her think something awful was going to happen. And of course it did. Only the next day on the march here, carrying a dead body, did they come to understand that their father had struck the girl with his car and killed her. Franny knew it wasn’t right, but all she could think at the time was: Was that all? Her mother, despondent and heavy with a child she was about to lose, was also frightened half out of her wits, and sank into a depression she’s still in. And now, after all the bitter years on the road, here they are again. He speaks admiringly of Clara Collins as a woman of spirit and great vision, but those two do not see things the same way and never will and so they’re in trouble again. In one of the string of stupid high schools she was in during their travels, they read a play about two lovers from warring families called Romeo and Juliet, so maybe, she thinks, Junior and Elaine will do their own little Romeo and Juliet thing and somehow make them all loving in-laws. Franny smiles, thinking of Romeo and Juliet frantically switching each other while yelping out their love lines, lines the teacher made Franny recite in class just to make a fool out of her. Amanda sees her big sister smile and thinks she might be laughing at her in her tunic, which is too big and drags the ground. Later she will tell her father that Franny was laughing at them all and made her cry. Franny’s always scolding and belittling her and calling her a sniveler and daddy’s pet. Well, she is daddy’s pet, and that’s just too bad for Franny. Though she didn’t understand everything, she knows her father has just done something very good and brave and everyone loves him for it, and it makes her happier than ever to be back here, walking up the sunny hill beside him, holding her tunic hem up above her pretty bare ankles, with people taking her picture. Her brother Junior sometimes gets in the way and she’d like to give him a kick in his fattest part, but at least he’s never cruel to her like Nat and Paulie, who often hurt her or scare her and make her cry, calling her a fraidy-cat and a tattle and a dummy. Paulie sees none of this for his eye is on the mine entrance across the way. He can see Nat watching him and he wants to be with him and Houndawg and all the others. They call him Runt and he knows that that’s a compliment, just because they’ve given him his own special name no matter what it is. He’d rather be Runt than Paulie Baxter any day. He does a little hop and gives them a wave, hoping his brother waves back. Nat’s eye is indeed on the hill but focused on no one in particular, certainly not his kid brother. He is reading the lay of the land. Scouting the territory. Sorting the combatants. Who a lot of these people are he doesn’t know, but it’s easy to line them up. There are all those turkeys up on top belonging to old lady Collins and then there’s his old man and his naked white feet and his fist in the air down below. He’s a failure, but you wouldn’t know it. There’s the usual dumb swarm of gawkers and hecklers, some jerks with cameras. Disposables. A sheriff has turned up, so Nat has kept his distance. He has no papers on the bike, which he picked up on the run, and no license to ride it; he can’t risk getting asked. Cubano says he knows someone who can fix that, but he’s a long way from here. And finally there’s that burly guy who came with the sheriff who seems to have them all on a string. Nat recognizes him. Mine owner. Longtime enemy of his old man, like most rich guys. He sensed the way they stiffened up when they saw each other. So the enemy list is growing. Nat points his finger at various targets and makes popping noises with his tongue. Like the heroes in War of the Gods, he has holy work to do here, and pals to help him do it. Though they have joined up just by crossing paths, they’re close. They have signed blood oaths, which they call baptisms of blood (water and light are for pussies), tattooed their bodies with Bible phrases like “Terror of God” and “Destruction Cometh as a Whirlwind” and “My Name Is Dreadful,” and have run missions of assault and plunder against the godless, who are just about everybody, considering themselves agents of divine retribution. And redistribution. Above the skull just over his left armpit, Juice has added the Brunists’ mine-pick cross in a circle, signifying his commitment. The Warrior Apostles: Nat trusts them and they trust him. Totally. Otherwise, you’re dead, man. Littleface is standing beside him while the others explore the mine buildings. The doors all have padlocks on them, but they can come back some night when no one is around. Growing up, he thought he’d be working out here, down a stinking hole, the rest of his life, they all would, like their old man. Funny how, if you don’t watch out, your life gets made up for you without you knowing how it happened. Littleface has a head too big for his face. It’s just a black ball of thick snarled hair with a small patch of pale flesh like a baby face in the middle, narrow beady eyes that sometimes look like they’re crossed, a nose like a finger knuckle, a mouth barely big enough to work a spoon into. Almost no ears at all, just little buds. What’s left, he says, after getting them torn off by some badasses who were coming after his brother and got him instead. He looks like a cartoon. Which is how he got his name. From a villain in a Dick Tracy comicstrip. “Look out for Dirty Dick,” he likes to say, meaning the law. He wears an old army shirt with epaulettes under his leather vest and rides a bike no cleaner than he is, but one, rehabbed from a previous owner like Nat’s, that is always in prime condition and finely tuned, tinkered with daily. Houndawg’s best pupil. Everybody is everybody’s pal in this gang, it’s all even stevens, but Littleface is Nat’s closest friend, having joined up with him the same day he appropriated Midnight. He saw Littleface tearing out of a liquor store with bottles in his arms and a wad of money in his fist and jumping on a bike that wouldn’t start. Nat wheeled over, grabbed some of the stuff so Littleface could hop on behind him, and they roared off into the nearby hills where his family was camping out and they holed up there for a while. They hit it off right away. It was like they’d known each other all their lives, and Littleface said maybe they had met before in another life. “We don’t die,” he explained to Nat, “we just go into another body.” Nat said that he’d seen something like that in a comicbook, but that he held more to the idea that when people died they lost their bodies but otherwise stayed the same, and that way they could sometimes come back to earth like in Eternal Forces Comix when Legions of the Holy Dead join the living in the battle against Evil. “I know that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Littleface said, “but I can remember some of my past lives. Maybe it’s, you know, like a bit of both. Like maybe some people aren’t bad enough for hell or good enough for Heaven, but have to come back and try again in a different body.” That made sense to Nat and he began thinking about other lives he might have led. They found another bike for Littleface and they’ve traveled together ever since, picking up Houndawg, Juice, and Cubano along the way. Houndawg is older and has taught them a lot; Cubano calls him El Profesor. Nat and Littleface call him B.O. Plenty, the name of another Dick Tracy villain, but not to his face. Juice is the wild one, a believer who joined up with them after turning up at one of Nat’s father’s tent meetings and recognizing Littleface from their days as strikers with a biker gang called the Crusadeers. “Weird!” Juice said, punching Face’s shoulder when he saw him, and Face nodded and said: “Some things are meant to be.” “Dirty Dick’s cleared out,” he says now. “Do we go back over there?” Nat shakes his head. Something is going to happen, but not right now.

“Well, I hear tell from Mildred,” Linda Catter is saying, “that Sarah never got over what happened out here that day and has become a dead weight round Abner’s neck. She don’t even warsh herself proper, and mostly won’t eat lest they set something in front of her. Then she’ll eat anything and won’t stop till they take it away again. Don’t ask me about other things.” “Some days,” Wanda Cravens says with a weary sigh, “you cain’t take no more’n jist want the Rapture to hurry up’n come.” She is still the same old Wanda, Betty notes, though more beat down; she used to have nice little breasts, but no more, and she has gone slack in the britches and her belly is sagging, unless she’s stumped her toe again. They have all crowded into Mabel Hall’s caravan here at the foot of the Mount of Redemption to get out of the afternoon sun and catch up on each other’s lives over the past five years and wait for the visit, promised by Mabel when it starts to get dark, of the young woman in spiritual contact with Marcella Bruno, who died right here on this road. Betty was here. At Clara’s side. And the next day up there on the hill where the body was laid out on a lawn chair, pointing stiffly up at Heaven. Hazel Dunlevy wants to know what happened to Marcella’s body afterwards, and Betty says it disappeared and folks reckon she got raptured straight to the other world. “She seemed to stand straight up and she ain’t been seen since!” Betty had not met Hazel before. A pretty little thing with freckles and a dreamy look. She and her husband Travers, who is a plasterer and carpenter, are recent converts who have been here all winter. Hazel is a palm reader, and she read Betty’s palm and everything she said was completely true: that she is a down-to-earth person with solid values, a practical outlook on life, a soft heart, and a pleasant romantic nature. Her money line and fame line cross, which means, Hazel said, that she will come into some money by surprise and luck, and her fate line means that her life will find its way into the public eye, but that already happened, which just shows how true palm-reading is, because Hazel didn’t know that. Hazel wouldn’t say anything about the health line, only that there was nothing to worry about, and so of course she has been worrying ever since. “Well, if this Patti Jo is talking to Marcella’s spirit,” Corinne Appleby the beekeeper says, “maybe she can just ask her.” Sarah Baxter, who is not privy to these after-dark plans of Mabel’s, has left, too miserable even to say goodbye, which gives them the opportunity to talk about her and her enfeebling illness. Sarah told Linda a long time ago that she saw the girl’s head hit the windshield, she said her eyes were wide open, staring straight at her, and then smack! and that was what caused the miscarriage the next day, especially when the corpse just reared up like that, and Linda, who has given Betty a fresh perm this morning, relates that event to everyone now, goggling her eyes out at the staring part, and they all jump and gasp when the poor girl’s face smacks the windshield, and they flutter their hands at their breasts and shake their heads at the tragedy of it all and how it has undone poor Sarah; it half undoes them, just imagining it. Glenda Oakes, who is another of Clara’s new converts and is said to have the gift of interpreting dreams — having only one good eye, she explained to Betty, helps her to see into the fourth dimension, where dreams are — says she thought Sarah was just going to tip over into the ditch herself a while ago over at the mine road: “Her ankles look like her thighs has slid down round them.” Truly, Betty has noticed, Sarah does look dreadful, her chin fallen to her breastbone, her eyes rheumy and hair all snarly, barely able to shuffle along by herself, her shoulders higher than her head. Bernice Filbert put some of her miracle water on her, but it didn’t seem to do any good. She has been crying almost without stopping since they arrived, though Mildred said that was really out of happiness at seeing everybody again. It was the first sign of life she’d seen in the poor woman in years. Mildred joined them in the caravan for about five minutes, but could not leave Ezra alone any longer than that without him yelling for her and calling her names, mostly those of the devil and bad women of the Bible. She has dark circles under her eyes now and an unhealthy skinniness about her, probably from pushing the wheelchair around all the time, and she has adopted bitter ways. Why, after all that had happened, that man wanted to go back down in a mine again, no one can imagine, but there it is, you can’t tell what’s coming next in life. Unless, that is, you have someone like Mabel and her story cards. Mabel kept her husband Willie home from the mine on the night of the disaster because of what she saw in her thick little deck and she even foretold Ezra’s accident for Mildred. “The five of spades come up flat against the Tower on its head, it was plain as the nose on your face,” she said while Mildred was still here, and Mildred allowed as how all that was so, though just when this happened, neither of them could remember. Betty has already had Mabel read the cards for her, but without the best results, so she is hoping they will have another opportunity before they go back to Florida to see if they come out better, for Mabel has usually found good news for her. Betty, who is known here more as Betty Wilson than as Betty Clegg, realizes, talking with her widowed friends, how very fortunate she has been and how envious they all are of her, and how all this was prophesied long ago by Mabel, though she didn’t exactly understand it at the time. Yes, she’s been lucky, but nothing’s perfect. As she admitted when the others kept remarking on what a fine man her Hiram is, “Yes, he’s a mighty good talker and a holy man, and I’m right proud a him, but he don’t do nothing for hisself,” and they all laughed at that and said what man’s not the same. It was a pretty short romance. Lasted about a day. Of course, Clara’s the luckiest one of all, even if dear old Ben is showing his age. Betty still feels a twinge in her heartstrings when she sees him. “I hear tell Abner’s people is baptizing with real fire,” Linda says, and Betty is able to confirm this, for Hiram has spoken about it, saying that Abner has misread what John the Baptist said in the Gospels and that is sure not what Giovanni Bruno meant when he commanded them to baptize with light. “But how do they do that?” Bernice wants to know. Bernice is not exactly a Brunist either, having always been her own church of one. She dresses in long skirts with layers of things on top like shawls and capes and aprons, and today she is wearing bracelets and a pretty beaded headband. Hiram has spent some time talking with her about faith and prophecy and the afterlife and she seems interested in a deeper commitment. Most ladies are when Hiram talks to them. Bernice is providing home nursing care for the wife of the town banker, who is wasting away like the synagogue ruler’s daughter, as she remarks, but she has the weekend off. “I mean,” she asks, “when they do their baptizing, do they really burn theirselves?” Betty doesn’t know, but she says she thinks at least at first they walked through fire, or else jumped over it like jumping over balefires. “Hard to say whether that’s for saving souls or getting them used to the other place,” says Corinne. The room is dimming as the twilight settles. All the talk about fire has reminded Mabel to light some candles and get out the folding card table she always uses. That girl who talks to the dead will be here soon.

Nat is sitting beside Midnight in the dark, under the mine tipple, watching the thickening crowds on the hill through stolen binoculars, most of them in those white gowns like old women at a dance. They’re all making tent meeting noises now, mixed in with some twangy guitars and the tiny pops of flashbulbs going off. Usually, even at this distance, he could hear his father’s voice above the racket, but not tonight. The old man has turned beggar. Not so many gawkers now as before; the sheriff’s car has been parked more or less permanently down there, so people don’t tend to hang around unless they want to go on up and be part of it. Anyway, it’s boring. The sheriff himself is not there, but his number two is. Smith. Nat knows him from churchgoing days when his old man was the preacher. Smith marched out here that day with everyone else, but as soon as it was over he dropped out, just when his old man most needed him. Maybe he was a double agent, working for the other side. Another target. Pop. Midnight’s chrome picks up flickering lights from the bonfires over there, making her seem alive and restless, burning from within. Like Nat is. He rests his hand on her frame, as though to calm her. He feels another headache coming on and needs to get himself in motion. The other Apostles have been making a swoop of the roads around, plotting out escape routes, casing supply joints, siphoning off fuel from parked cars, visiting roadhouses. Like Houndawg, Nat doesn’t drink, but the others do. Houndawg calls it laying down roadslick. Juice says it keeps the machinery oiled. Midnight was green when Nat appropriated her, but Houndawg has helped him chop her down and rebuild her, bobbing the fender, wrenching in some scraps from the junkyard, reshaping the pipes, filing away all the ID numbers, and adding new engine guards, then repainting her body bits shiny black. Littleface calls her Nat’s Batmobile. She’s faster now and no way anybody could identify her. Houndawg himself rides a souped-up flathead with stretched downtubes and buckhorn handlebars, what he calls his old war horse. “Butt ugly, but fast and smooth.” He’s back, having a smoke in the darkness, Juice and Cubano are just rolling in, and Nat can hear the rumble of Littleface’s shotgun pipes out on the access road. Have to do something about eating. There’s food over there in the big tent and on a table set by one of the bonfires, he can smell it from here, but he doubts his pals would be allowed, and the Warrior Apostles travel together. Besides, the deputy sheriff is over there somewhere. “C’mon,” he says as Littleface pulls in, “I’m hungry. Let’s go.” He stows the binoculars in his saddlebag, mounts Midnight and kicks her into life. Paulie hears the motors turn over and aches to be with them. Franny has tried to force some chicken and beans on him, but he’s not hungry. He never is. There’s some green Jell-O with marshmallows in it, and the twitchy little half-pint eats some of that. Franny thinks all the beatings may have stunted him, but he’s only thirteen, he may not have started to grow yet. His not eating always makes their father mad, and Franny started getting fat eating up Paulie’s leftovers so he wouldn’t get another whipping. Now, eating is the only thing she feels like doing. Her kid sister, who is two years older than Paulie, is stunted in another way. She’s got okay looks, a good figure, but she’s got the brains of a seven-year-old. Amanda has taken her share of their father’s beatings just like the rest of them, and still gets hauled in from time to time, but on her they seemed to have had a different effect. Maybe they weren’t so hard. While the rest shy away from their father, Amanda clings to him. Thankfully, all that holy smiting of sinners’ backsides seems to be passing away. In the early years of the Persecution, their father was more severe than ever, the laying on of the razor strop a regular family worship ritual, forcibly witnessed by all, but he has mellowed over time or else he is just giving up on them and has his mind on other things. The razor strop itself got thrown away or else Nat stole it. It was probably Nat who broke him. Nat was threatened with a thrashing when he stole the motorcycle, but Nat’s near as big as her father and when Nat stood him down, her father just got older overnight. Franny often, out of pity, took beatings for the younger ones, but they didn’t seem to appreciate it. Even, oddly, resented it. Well, the problem with big dumb Franny is, she just doesn’t get it. She thinks her father’s whippings were tough, wait till she gets to hell. Amanda knows. It’s about the saving of souls, and Franny’s will not be saved. Amanda can feel her own soul inside her, anxious for its fate, and she knows the body must be punished for it to be redeemed. She is, she knows, a sinful girl, and when she heard her father shout from the pulpit, “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off, and cast it from thee,” and that if you didn’t, your whole body would get thrown in hell, it frightened her so she could sleep only fitfully for weeks after, afraid the hand would do in her sleep what she refused to let it do awake, and sometimes it did. Not even to her father can she talk about this, she can only beg him to punish her for her redemption’s sake. Her father, she knows, is going to Heaven, and the worst thing Amanda can imagine about hell is not the eternal torment but being all alone there. Junior, too, understands the relationship between the punishment of the body and the redemption of the soul, though he has a more generalized notion of sin — we are all born into sin — and consequently has a more traditional and communal notion of the need to punish the flesh to be free of the flesh. Mortification: this is a word Junior has taught Elaine. Whom he has been keeping an eye on, just as she has been furtively watching him. He has approached her, but under the watchful eye of her mother she has been very jumpy and unfriendly. But he knows. He has been in her underwear drawer. The belt he found there is buckled tightly around the tops of his thighs, under his tunic. He feels the tug of sin each step he takes. Like Paulie, Junior has also heard the motorbikes leave, and has heard Ben tell Elaine’s mother that he’s worried those boys are headed to the camp again and that he should get over there to check on things. So he’s gone (Nat’s an idiot, but a useful one) and Elaine’s mother is dragged away to preach to everyone about the new tabernacle. Junior looks at Elaine and she looks at him.

Littleface and his fellow outlaws are throwing together a supper out of things found in the Brunist camp kitchen fridge and cupboards. Some cold fried chicken, milk, apples, cookies and crackers — a feast. Nat has told them to help themselves to the food, but to leave everything else alone. “If we wanta camp out here a while, we gotta stay cool.” That makes sense like everything Nat says. He’s just a kid but smart as hell. Even skinny old Houndawg looks up to him. Littleface loves him, has his name tattooed in tiny Gothic over his left nipple near his Warrior Apostles tattoo, though Nat doesn’t know that. Religion is not a big deal for Littleface, but if Nat wants this scene, he wants it. He’s mad at something, so Littleface is mad, too. Nat’s old man is a preacher and Nat is a kind of preacher, too, but he doesn’t preach to anybody. No stupid church services — that’s for sissies, Nat says — no talk about sin, no praying. Nat just yells at who he calls the Big One from time to time, telling him what he thinks and what he’s going to do, and the rest of them tune in and sometimes shout at the Big One, too. Face’s pal Juice from Crusadeer days really gets into it, stomping around like he’s marching and hooting and hollering along with Nat. Nat showed Face his Classic Comics version of the Book of Revelation to give him some idea of what’s ahead. God and Jesus so damned mad they’re going to destroy fucking everything, and the Apostles, Nat says, are going to be God’s hit men. So all right, why not, let’s at it. Littleface’s old lady was an evangelical type, probably still is if she’s alive, so he’s heard the stories, but he never realized Jesus was such an awesome dude. He raises just one finger and the earth splits and swallows up all the howling and screeching sinners and then snaps shut on them again. Ker-splat! He speaks and the bodies of the enemies are ripped open and it’s hard not to get hit by the flying flesh and blood. It’s amazing! There’s guys on horses and, even as they go galloping along, their flesh dissolves and their eyes and tongues melt away, the horses, too, and they end up just hideous skeletons, falling apart. Stories his old lady never told him. His old man got shot up and is no more and is not missed. Littleface does miss his brother whom he used to ride with, but who’s in the federal lockup doing hard time and may never come out. Just as well. Lot of guys on the outside trying to kill him. His brother was a first-class gearhead and Littleface often argues with him when working on his bike. “Who ya talking to, Face,” Cubano asked him, “to your asshole?” “No, to yours, Spic. Unless that ugly thing is your face.” Nat is pressing his fingers to his temples: one of his headaches coming on. They usually hit him in the predawn hours, set him to howling like a wild animal. Can last for hours, days even. Why he says he doesn’t drink. Whiskey, anyway. One day, when Nat was twisted up with headache pain, they came on a goat tied to a tree. Nat walked up to it, slit its throat, and put his mouth to the spurting blood. Did he want them to drink it, too? Nat didn’t say, but Littleface and Juice took it as a dare and did. Houndawg chopped the head off and threw the body over his buckhorns and they left the area, and that night, after Houndawg and Cubano had skinned and cleaned the animal, they grilled it over an open fire. What was amazing was that Nat’s headache had gone away, and that set off a pattern of his killing animals and drinking their blood, and it seems to work. Littleface has a bottle of bourbon he lifted from a shopping center liquor store out on the highway, in spite of all the eyes on him (he bought a pack of cigs and a beer to cover his exit), and he shares it now with Juice and Cubano. Beats blood any day. Juice rides what Houndawg calls a garbage wagon, a bike pieced together from boneyard scraps and very heavily loaded with saddlebags, chrome, accessories, and as covered with pins, stickers, flags, and Jesus paintings as his body is with tattoos. His Juicebox. He can do anything with it, spin it on a dime, walk it on its back wheel, leap cars with it. One of the stickers on its back fender says: “Watch your ass! Jesus is coming and He is as mad as hell!” He likes to say that he wants to get raptured doing a ton down an endless highway. Juice was very impressed when Nat showed them the big photo of Bruno by the fireplace. They all were, even Houndawg. “Look at that fucking mine pick,” Juice said. “Cool, man! I want one a them.” And he swung his arms like scything a wheat field. “You knew that dude, Nat?” Nat nodded, studying the picture. “The Man,” he said. It was near lifesize and in the dim light it seemed to Littleface almost like the Man was alive and staring straight at them. Like something out of a horror movie. Go get them motherfuckers, he seemed to say. Like Jesus. Raise a finger and—zap! “Maybe they got some picks like that over at the mine,” Littleface says now, gnawing a chicken leg, and Juice lights up and says, “Hey!” Cubano, sitting on an upturned crate, is showing them a trick he can do of throwing an apple into the air and slicing it in two with his switchblade as it falls, when old lady Collins’ husband walks into the kitchen with his German shepherd. “What’re you boys doing here? They’s food over on the Mount.” “We don’t feel exactly welcome there,” Nat says. Nat, Littleface knows, has taken a natural unliking to this beardy hayseed, though he looks like one of the good guys in that Revelations comicbook. Of course, in Nat’s interpretation of that story, maybe the good guys are the bad guys. “We thought you wouldn’t give a care if we ate up some old leftovers.” “Well, I think it’s better if you stay with the rest of us.” He’s seen the bottle of whiskey and he doesn’t seem happy about it. Houndawg has called the dog over to him and is stroking him gently. “I do love dawgs,” he says with his usual easy drawl, taking a grip on the dog’s snout and peeling his lip back, “even old toothless ones. How d’ye call him?” “C’mere, Rocky,” Ben says. But Houndawg has a grip on Rocky’s collar in one hand, his open blade in the other. “Now just set still, Rocky. We’ll find ye sumthin soft t’gum.” Littleface realizes the man and his dog are all alone. Five to one, not much they couldn’t do. He can see that Nat, gripping his forehead, is thinking the same thing. “C’mon,” Nat says finally, rising with a fuck-you shrug. “Somebody here don’t smell so good, and it ain’t the dog. Let’s cut out.”

I.9 Sunday 19 April

Two children enter the garden. God’s children. They have not chosen each other. God has chosen them, as He did the first stunned parents — whose initials they share, though they are not thinking about this. Nor are they thinking about parenting. It would make no sense. They are thinking about, not first things, but last things. Clad like forest ghosts, they step into the garden in the predawn dark, oblivious to its mysterious beauty, to say goodbye to this doomed human world, and to seek God’s grace in His eternal one to follow. She does not like this world and will be happy to see it go away. She wants it to end so that she might be with her father and brother again and be freed forever from timidity and bad teeth. She wants it to end right now, and she believes that this day that’s dawning might be when it happens. And if not, then very soon. Her father said so. Who is, as always, nearby. When she says the words, “Our Father which art in Heaven,” it is her father she sees up there. No beard. Tall and wise and smiling down at her with love in his heart. She talks to him every day, and she promises him she is coming as soon as she can. An eternity without him is the most terrible thing she can imagine. And a life without him is nearly as bad. She will be redeemed and will do all in her power to be sure of it. That is why she is here. Her mother does not understand, but her father will. The Bible has taught her the relation of pain and suffering to salvation, and in a moment of inspiration — long ago, when they were both still very young — he with whom she walks has shown her the path. It was all quite new and baffling, but his letters (he’s very smart) have explained things better.

Although in truth (and, it might be said, as his own father might say, in weakness), he is more reluctant to let go of this world than she, her instructor does feel he has at last returned to the source of the most rapturous moment of his life (only recently has he learned the word “transcendence,” though not well enough yet to use it when he talks), and he is prepared to bear all consequences of its re-enactment. His own life, after all, has been difficult and mostly unhappy, and he is ready to accept a better one if that is what happens next. He is less keen than she on spending the afterlife with his family, but at least his infidel brothers will not be there and the others can be somewhere else. It’s a big place. In fact, when he imagines it, he is all alone in glory with Jesus, standing side by side with Him over the fires of hell, punishing the wicked. Perhaps, because they are approaching sainthood together, she’ll be there too.

It is she who has led them here. “I know a place nobody knows.” Whispered behind the tent last night on the Mount of Redemption. They have met at the dogwood tree (the white doves were already cooing in the eaves of the Meeting House) and slipped stealthily past the cabins down the hill to the banks of the creek and across the little bridge there into the woods, the brambles snatching at their tunics. They wore shoes and jeans to come here, but now in the small clearing they kick them off, punishing their bare shins and feet as they will soon punish the rest of themselves, protected only by their cotton tunics and a few thin underthings. They are fearfully excited, their hearts pounding madly in their chests — hers feels almost like it has escaped her chest and is leaping about on top, like the heart on the statue of Mother Mary she once gave her mother — but there is no lust in their beating hearts, certainly not in hers. Her father is watching, she will do nothing wrong in his eyes. The boy’s heart is perhaps not quite so pure. He has, for example, and for reasons not wholly religious and unbeknownst to her, stolen a pair of her panties; in fact, he is wearing them. But he too has his eye on the Eternal Kingdom, and if he has sinful feelings, well then they must be beaten out of him, and he needs her help for that. And to the extent that she excites him wrongfully, she too must be punished. There is no real love in their hearts for each other — nor for their own bodies (she hates hers), which must be chastised — but only for their souls, trapped within like caged birds, and for their Heavenly Father who must release them, receive them and clasp them to His bosom like all the preachers promise. They are each, for the other, a means to an end. The end.

In the Bible story, the garden was the serpent’s own until the two people showed up. Naturally, the serpent was put out by their intrusion and he watched them closely and did all he could to get them expelled. These two children are also being watched. Not by a serpent, but by the minister’s fascinated wife, a shadowy figure lost in shadows back in the trees. This was her secret garden, she its keeper, and she knows it will soon be a secret and hers no longer — look, it is already no longer a secret — and she has been paying a kind of wistful farewell visit to it this morning. Her ritual morning pee in the woods. She is wearing a loose frock and a cardigan, not her tunic. That was left back in the cabin where her boy sleeps fitfully. He was overexcited by the emotional crowds on the hill and she had to bring him back to the camp to calm him down. It was not easy. She is worried about him. He cries a lot and is increasingly given to nightmares and childish behavior and is spending as much time in her bed now as his own, desperate for solace. Out in the gloom of the clearing, the boy is giving the girl something. What is it?

“What is this thing?” the girl asks when he hands it to her, her voice barely audible in the damp dark. “My father’s razor strop. It was what he used in our evening family worship.” “Oh.” Her father used to have one too. It hung on a nail in the bathroom. It feels heavy in her hands. Too short. She’ll have to be too close. She’d rather have something like a switch, like the first time. There are plenty of them over there in the woods. Oh, the minister’s wife is thinking. This is not what she has expected. The boy holds something, too. What is it they mean to do? What the boy holds (the girl knows this, he has shown it to her) is her father’s old leather belt. The one she kept coiled up in her drawer and used sometimes on herself, feeling closer to her father when she did so. Though he never hit her, ever. Her own use of the belt was always a kind of practice; she never really got out of herself, but she has sometimes made herself quite dizzy and has hurt herself enough to cry. She does not ask how it came into the boy’s hands. “We should pray,” she says. She is a little frightened. She is alone in a dark field enclosed in a thick brambly forest, far from anyone who loves her, with a boy she hardly knows, who is bigger and heavier than she remembers, about to do something that, if it’s like the last time, is a kind of letting go, when anything might happen. She has seen people lose control of themselves in tent meetings and fall down and pitch about and babble in tongues — there were people out on the Mount like that yesterday — and sometimes something like that seems to happen to her mother. But it has never happened to her, not completely, except for that one day on the Mount of Redemption, the rain storming down. “Dear God,” the boy says. He has a soothing voice, but it doesn’t stop her trembling. She who is watching is trembling, too. “Help us to do what’s right. We only want to be with You. Forever and ever. Amen.” “Amen,” she whispers, and another whispers, “Amen.” “I want you to hit me first,” he says, also in a whisper. He’s scared too. The girl senses that. “No,” she says, “hit me first.” “Well. All right. But when it’s my turn, you have to promise to hit me hard.” “I will.” “Turn around.” “Why?” “It doesn’t hurt as much.” “I want it to hurt.” “I know. Me too. But first we have to get used to it.” “Okay,” she says, staring hard at him. His face has a mustache on it and isn’t a young boy’s anymore. “But don’t touch me!” “I won’t. And, no matter what, I want you to tell me when to stop.” “Okay. You too.” She turns her back and crosses her arms over her chest, squeezing the razor strop, bows her head. The keeper of the garden is somewhat horrified. Not only by what she realizes she is about to witness. But also by her own hand, snaking between her legs. “Help me, father,” the child whispers. “Help me be brave.” Somewhere, not far away, there is a flutter of awakened birds rising.

Evangelist and country gospel singer Ben Wosznik is a worried man. He is sitting on the fold-down steps of his mobile home, his twelve-gauge shotgun over his knees, gazing up at the faint first light of dawn just beginning to creep into the darkness up at Inspiration Point. They are up there; he heard them coming back about an hour or so ago. A sinister growl, like the night itself was growling. As a good hunter, he knows better than to rush upon his prey; he must think this through, anticipate what they might do. Especially now that they are armed. But Ben has been up all night, tending the campfires and steadfastly keeping the overnight vigil at the Mount, sometimes singing with the youngsters and praying with them and with Clara and the others staying up, or trying to. His weariness now is making it difficult to reason clearly. “How mean y’figure them boys is?” he asks. Rocky’s answer is, as usual, noncommittal. But, tail wagging, he’s ready for whatever.

Maybe he should wait for Abner Baxter to rise and talk to him about it first, but he doesn’t know when that will happen. Could be halfway to noon, beat down as the man is, and Elaine meanwhile could be in bad trouble. The fellow, Ben has to allow, is much changed, and not just by the graying of his thick red hair. The missionary life on the road has tempered him. Certainly Abner said some very generous things about him and Clara in front of everybody at the Mount of Redemption yesterday, and it seemed to come from the heart. His middle boy’s a heathenish little devil, though.

Ben feels uneasy being away from the Mount, even for a short time, for he is a strong believer in the imminence of the Rapture and the Second Coming — has been since he first heard Ely Collins preach — and he is fearful of missing it somehow. Not through faithlessness, but simple negligence. Bad luck. He knows what they have been saying about the seven years of tribulation — meaning there are at least two to go, if they’ve got their start date right — but he keeps feeling in his bones something is apt to happen today and he has to be on the Mount when it does. Maybe so it does. But there’s nothing he can do. He has to wait for Elaine and work out these other problems, which he has been talking over with his dog.

He doesn’t know where the girl is. Not on her bed where he left her, collapsed half-dead on top. She is often given to wandering around restlessly, talking or praying to her father, though she seemed almost unable to stand when he brought her back, so it’s hard to figure. She kept going last night in her meek shrinking way until well after midnight, but she was looking peaked and was plainly giving out, and when he asked, she admitted she wasn’t feeling very good. Maybe it’s her periodicals. She is always shy to say so, even to her mother. So he drove her in the pickup back to her own bed in their trailer home, she begging him in her timid little voice to please come get her if the Rapture suddenly started up. The lot was empty except for a trailer or two, those like the Halls with caravans and smaller campers having driven over to the parking lot at the mine or the access road at the foot of the hill, and by now most had retired into them, though, at Clara’s suggestion, they kept their window blinds open in case anything should happen during the night. Rocky was alone back here at the camp, tied to the hitching bar at the back of the trailer and feeling sorry for himself. Ben had had to leave him behind. Too many people around make the old fellow edgy, especially if they’re all fired up with the Holy Spirit, like so many were; but by midnight the crowds had faded away and those keeping the vigil on the mine hill were mostly dozing, curled up in blankets and sleeping bags — even Abner and his family had come back to camp, worn out from their long hard journey to get here — so he picked up Rocky when he brought Elaine home and took him back to the Mount with him to feed him scraps from their hillside feast and exercise him a little and so as to have company through the rest of the night. And was he thinking about the possibility of his dog being raptured up and joining him up there in the presence of the Lord? He was. As Hiram says, God created animals and God loves them. Look into your dogs’ eyes and see their soul. God will not forsake them. You will see them in Heaven.

Now he has returned, bringing Rocky back to camp to protect him from the crowds, which were already, before dawn, starting once again to assemble — coffee is on over there and there are fresh doughnuts — and to check on Elaine. When it turned out she was not in the trailer and nowhere to be found, he couldn’t help but worry, not with those biker boys around. He is a man of peace, but if they did anything to little Elaine, he would kill them. Last night, when he walked in on them in the camp kitchen, the knives came out, so he figured, if he was going to pay them a visit, he’d better arm himself, and he went looking. His shotgun was there, but his wooden-handled three-screw Blackhawk wasn’t. Had he misplaced it? He spent some time hunting for it and chanced on the can where they kept the slush fund for day-to-day camp supplies. They had been dipping into it pretty often, what with all the expenses of this big reunion and anniversary, but he had topped it up himself only three days ago, and now there was nothing in it but a few coins. So, though it took a few minutes, it finally registered on him that they had been robbed. The money, the handgun, maybe other things. Probably in retaliation for his breaking up their little kitchen party. When they left or when they came back? Was Elaine here? Various scenarios flicker through his worried mind, none of them comforting.

He stands. Has he heard something? Sort of like the muffled snapping of a dry branch. Down near the creek. Some animal probably. He hears it again. Was that a cry? Likely just a bird, or the squeal of a rodent — the owls often hunt down there. But now he’s torn. Does he go down to the creek to investigate or on up to the Point to confront the bikers? He asks Rocky what to do, but Rocky doesn’t know. He just wags his tail slowly in his melancholic way, as though he were worried, too. Ben could circle round but that might take too long. The direct path to both the creek and the Point bifurcates beyond the cabins. He’ll carry his dilemma to the fork.

Maybe he is too weary from his journey, waxing faint like David among the Philistines. Or just overwrought by this homecoming and what it might portend. But, far from collapsing as Ben Wosznik has supposed, Abner Baxter, except for a thirty-minute doze, fraught with terrifying highway imagery, has been up all night, unable to put his troubled mind at ease. The Lord has directed him as Jacob was directed: Get thee to thine own house. Every man to his tents, saith Moses. Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee. And so he has, with great effort and hope in his heart, returned to his origins and to the site of his spiritual rebirth. But he feels like he is home and not home, part of these people and this movement, and yet an outsider still, distrusted, misunderstood, resented even. Just as he was in his union organizing days. He has left the wilderness only to arrive in the wilderness. He understands the rules of the camp and wishes to abide by them, but they seemed uncommonly zealous about pointing them out. It was like they were intent on moving him on before he’d even alighted. He was hurt by that. For all their doctrinal differences, he does truly esteem and honor Clara Collins as a pillar of the faith, and even feels a certain Christian love for the woman unlike any he has ever felt for another, has since that night in the ditch when she reached across the horror to forgive and embrace him. “We are all murderers! Abner, join hands with us and pray!” He came late to the Prophet — almost too late. He was, as he has often declared, the greatest of sinners, for he not only denied the Prophet and his followers, he reviled and persecuted them. Then, on the eve of the Day of Redemption, God Himself intervened and the greatest of sinners was himself redeemed. To become — he knows this — the greatest of believers. That that night proved as decisive as the very Day of Redemption is a reminder that no date on the way to glory is without import. Abner believes that the day of the Christ’s coming will fall at the end of the seventh year of the Tribulation that began five years ago today, in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and that of the Prophet Bruno. But that does not make this day any less charged with potential meaning. Since his conversion, every day of his life from the best to the worst has been so charged.

Abner is well aware that there are many who call themselves Brunists but who remain merely plodding unchanged Christians, attached to their old beliefs and, even if convinced of the imminence of the Last Days, shy to profess Bruno as their Prophet. Abner has no such trepidation. He looked into the eyes of the Prophet on that fateful night as the man rose, gaunt and bearded, from his kiss of the dead girl, blood staining his lips and beard and even his brow, and he saw in those eyes the holy fire of divine possession. Bruno the coalminer, he barely knew, though they often worked the same shift. Bruno the Prophet, drawn up out of the fiery bowels of the earth, perhaps even resurrected from the dead, was transparently God’s messenger, and he knew him instantly. Perhaps, as some proclaim, the Holy Spirit passed from Ely Collins at the moment of his horrible death into his partner Bruno; more likely, Ely Collins, for all his renowned goodness, was found unworthy. Bruno was the Chosen One. Was he once a Romanist? Well, Jesus was a Jew. All that night in the house of mourning and during their Sunday morning crusade through the papist temple, and then all day on the stormy Mount of Redemption, the Prophet strayed not far from Abner’s side, and Abner felt anointed by him. Chosen by the Chosen. Bruno. Who, for Abner, has no other name. That the man is no more has come as no surprise. While others fled the Mount that day as the lightning flashed and the wind blew and the rain poured down, Abner stood his ground and railed against the attacking Powers of Darkness, and as they shackled the Prophet and led him away, Bruno turned to gaze one last time at him, and in that gaze Abner saw both a final farewell and a command: It was he, Abner, who must carry the sacred flame.

For much of the Tribulation that has followed in faithful and intransigent pursuit of that mission, Abner and his family have lived mostly in tents pitched in campsites, fields, parks, church grounds, back yards, and cemeteries—“alongside troubled waters,” as he has often said — and they will no doubt have to do so again. Their travails have made vivid the Biblical accounts of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, but they have been, in the high-speed rulebound modern world, a bitter hardship. He has often had to bite his tongue while the law forced him to strike his tents and move on. And jail they have known, too, and worse. They have been as if destined for affliction, like Paul himself as he wrote in his letter to the church of the Thes-salonians. “For yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto.” For the moment, however, they have this barren little cabin to rest within, if God so grants, their tent pitched as an annex at the back of it. He has collected a set of cots from the Meeting Hall for his family, most of which remain unused. Only those of his wife and daughters in the tented extension are being slept in, if his wife’s nighttime misery can be called sleeping. Nathan and Paul are up in the motorcyclists’ encampment and Young Abner left to use the privy and never returned. The minister’s wife next door has also left her cabin — he saw her slip out into the night — but her whimpering boy is still in it. Abner heard them when they returned shortly after midnight, the boy having a hysterical fit, she shushing him; he hears him still. At a glance yesterday, Abner could see that the woman, though boasted about as an important convert, was not a true believer. A rich lady on a lark. And her boy, though one of the First Followers (and where was his mother then?), seems seriously disturbed. That they should be granted a cabin within the camp, even if she did pay for its repair, while he, the Brunist bishop of West Condon, is denied is an intolerable injustice, but one that he will have to learn, in this evil time, to tolerate. We glory in tribulations, we commend ourselves in afflictions, we are afflicted but not crushed.

A sullen dawn now muddies the sky, and out of the trees below the Main Square emerges a shadowy armed figure, stooped and menacing, bearded, his dog at his side. It is Ben Wosznik. A simple man of simple faith, slow and steady, but though Abner admires him and has tried always to ingratiate himself with him, there is a distance between them that seems hard to bridge, and he worries now why he should be approaching him in this manner. “Abner,” he says, “I am glad to see you risen.” “Yes, Brother Ben. Like Joshua, who rose up early at the dawning of the day to bring down the walls of Jericho.” “Well, I hope you do not bring down these walls which has took a right smart a labor to keep standing. Abner, I got a serious difficulty. I come upon your middle boy and his friends last night in the camp kitchen, raiding the supplies and drinking hard likker. I asked them to leave, and afterwards my trailer got robbed. They took a handgun and all our emergency fund money. I don’t know what all else, but I am worried.” “That boy!” Abner feels his choler rising. Nathan has been a vexation since the day he was born, and all the whippings the boy has endured have not turned him from his innate wicked ways. He came into the world by the evil one possessed. Abner is already climbing the rise toward their encampment, his fists clenched, Ben Wosznik and his dog trailing along behind him.

On top, he finds his two sons and their despicable companions sprawled out in a thick heavy sleep in their filthy sleeping bags, a surly and angry lot when awakened. They arise with knives out and with blistering blasphemies and obscenities, but they see Ben’s shotgun and back off, snarling like trapped animals. Ben circles around them, shotgun on his hip, peering into the undergrowth with a worried look. “They has been a robbery,” Abner says. “A gun, some money. I want them things. Now. Empty out your bags and pockets.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, old man,” Nathan says sourly and throws his backpack at him. “Empty them out yourself.” He does so. Greasy unwashed clothing, rags really, tools, comicbooks, transistor radio, leather gloves. A gun. “Is this the one?” “It is,” says Ben. Abner snatches it up, points it at his son. “The money.” “Ain’t got any. And I ain’t never seen that gun before neither.” Abner kicks through the miserable contents of the backpack. “All right. Then leave your motorcycle as repayment. And get out. All of you. You have shamed me.” There is a pause when nothing moves. Except his own shaking hand with the pointing gun. Which Nathan ignores, glowering instead at Ben Wosznik. Then he gathers up his possessions, stuffs them back into his backpack, and mounts his bike. “I said, leave the motorcycle here.” “Go to hell, old man,” he says, raising his middle finger at him. “Paulie—?” “Hop up here, Runt,” says the tall skinny one, and Paulie climbs up behind the older man with the gray braid down his back and raises his finger, too, and they’re off. Abner swings round with the gun pointed at his middle son’s head, but Ben Wosznik grips his arm and presses it down. “It’s only money,” he says quietly, taking the gun. “And I reckon that bike ain’t worth nothing anyhow. Probly stole, ain’t it?” “Yes.” His will is breaking, his humiliation complete. He feels like the night he fell to weeping on Clara Collins’ shoulder. No man should have to bear so much alone. The taunting roar of the motorcycles fades into the distance, punctuated by a final backfiring pop or two like snorts of cruel laughter, and then the morning songs of the birds return on this, the slowly brightening dawn of the Day of Redemption. He turns toward Ben Wosznik and opens his arms as though to offer an embrace and to say he’s sorry, when there is a sudden rustling in the thicket below them, and deer hunters both, they turn toward it.

The bad brother has been sent into exile, but the reconciliation of the two patriarchs has been interrupted by the appearance in the valley below them of two spectrally white shapes fluttering separately through the trees and into the dimly lit clearing leading to the cabins. It is the two children, the children of God, tearfully departing the garden, clutching their talismans of leather, a kind of delirium possessing them still. The patriarchs stand as if frozen, high on a stony jut of land above them, beholding the scene. “My eyes ain’t so good,” whispers the bearded one. “Is that blood?”

I.10 Sunday 19 April

“I’ve been thinking about the Holy Blood,” Sally says. Is she just killing time or impatiently pressing her luck? She has talked Tommy Cavanaugh into bringing his cameras and tape recorder and joining her on a “research project” out here at the Deepwater mine hill in preparation for his new PhD career, doing her Girl Scout good deed of the day by luring him away from the bloodless banking life—“I’ll be your R.A. and take notes,” she said — and they are now mingling with the media folk and the crowds of the curious at the foot of the hill, watching the Brunists wander around up on top, about half of them in those white choir gowns. God’s little lambs. His white corpuscles. The hill is aswarm with them, and there’s a lot of coming and going and cheerful Heavenward gestures, but not much is happening, and Tommy is getting bored. Certainly no sign of the End of the World — though, who knows, maybe this is what it is like. The sheriff and his boys are out here, rocking around wide-legged like cowboys who just got off their horses and are trying to air out their crotches, but they seem intent only on keeping the townsfolk and reporters from pestering the cultists. She’d like to get closer, but there’s no way up unless invited by a Brunist. They apparently pitched their tents up there yesterday to get the jump on everybody, as Tommy put it; he said he drove by last night (with whom? don’t ask) and saw big bonfires blazing, and his dad, who had been working on ways to stop the gathering, bully that he is, was hopping mad when he heard about it. Tommy is sharing his mother’s old station wagon with his dad now because the Lincoln got beat up by a biker gang and is in the garage having the the dents taken out. She has heard about these guys. They’re some kind of Brunist tagalongs or security guards, but they’re not out here today. “The Holy Blood was the blood that came spouting out of Jesus’ side when that Roman soldier porked him with his spear. Later it got passed around to all the churches as a relic to work wonders with. Also whatever leaked out when he was scourged or squirted out from the nail holes. Like, you know, they had somebody there collecting it in little cups like you do when you kill a pig. It cured everything. Miraculous effluvia, they called it.” She liked this phrase. Miraculous effluvia. It has gone into her notebook. Which today she is pretending is her steno pad for Tommy the Scholar. “It was a hot pharmaceutical product. There was a lot of money to be made and there were several enterprising bagmen trafficking in it, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cartel in Jerusalem cornered most of the market since they claimed to have all this stuff on the premises, the place being a kind of dead meat mine. They also sold his sweat, tears, hair, nail clippings, and foreskin, not to mention everything he ever touched, like rocks he stepped or sat on, raggy scraps from his loincloths and winding sheets, and even shards of the basin he used to wash the disciples’ feet.”

“His foreskin? C’mon, you’re making this up, Sal.”

“No, he apparently had several, actually. They’re scattered all over Europe and displayed in jewel cases like little wedding rings. More than a dozen of them. Does that mean he had several dicks? I don’t know. It’s one of the unrevealed mysteries of the Christian faith.” There is a festive atmosphere up on the hill, but also an undercurrent of fear. The cultists are spending a lot of time peering up at the sky, and the onlookers down here can’t help following their gaze; when someone yawns, everyone yawns. She looks up, too. After a sexy, summery week, it has turned cooler and the sky today has a dark woolly look, uncombed and knotted (she is thinking about her own neglect in this respect; epic rats’ nest, as her mother calls it), and maybe it reminds everyone of the apocalyptic storm that pounded the hill last time. She remembers it. She was here. A giggler with other gigglers. Pathetic. “One big collectors’ item for a while was a farewell note he supposedly left his disciples, writing with the nails he got tacked up with, using his blood as ink and his own skin as parchment. But, as we all know, his skin went to Heaven with the rest of him, even if he left his blood and other exudations behind, so that article got remaindered.”

“I can see it coming. Next you’ll be telling me they collected his shit.”

“Well, there are rumors. I mean, if sweat, why not snot or vomit or ear wax, right? And what-all else. Dandruff? Dingleberries? That stuff under your toenails? I can just see all those guys chasing around after him, trying to grab up anything that fell off or out of him.” Idea for a story: Jesus Has a Wet Dream. Sacramental consequences. “They also sold off all of Mary’s bits and pieces, though her big item was her milk, which must have been more like cheese by the time it reached the customers.”

“Oh my God! Spare me, please!” Tommy turns away with a pained grimace (she has grossed him out again, the tender little thing; why does she do this?) and, handing her his Polaroid, busies himself with his Nikon. The Brunists are a colorful lot, animated and emotional, lots of hugs and tears and emphatic declamations and occasional convulsions, and they dress funny, so there are plenty of great shots to be had — the amateur yodeler from the radio station, for example, in his matching white Stetson and white boots with red flames at the pointed toes and on the crown of the Stetson, a white jacket with fringes on the sleeves and tight white pants, blood-red tie like his throat has been cut, guitar over one shoulder and tape recorder over the other, picking up field recordings. Or that cluster of wailing worshipers in white tunics gathered around the pudgy silver-haired faith healer with the sparkling teeth, praying for the grumpy broken-backed man in the wheelchair to get up and walk. But Tommy ignores them (she has not; this has all gone into her notebook) and, shifting the bill of his baseball cap out of the way, points his lens at some young moonfaced kids with guitars wearing Brunist tunics. Well, one of the girls is cute, bare-legged and bosomy and wearing her shortened tunic like a loose nightie, the hypocritical little bitch, he probably has his eye on her. Or, more precisely, on what she’s showing off between her legs. Come and see. Sally drops her cigarette and grinds it out. Fiercely. On edge. Can’t help it. A lot of young kids out here, buying this craziness. It’s scary.

“What I can’t figure out, though,” she says, hanging his camera over her shoulder and shoving her hands into her trenchcoat pockets, trying to stop herself from lighting up again, “is that, with all this emphasis on magical blood, there’s no mention of hawking Mary’s menses. I mean, hey, talk about miraculous effluvia.”

“I suppose they figured it’d make you sick instead of better. The curse of Eve, right?” This said over his shoulder while clicking away. The little twit, knees still raised, is smiling at him.

“That’s what the guys in charge called it. They used to chase menstruating women out of town and lock them up in a shed because they thought they’d ruin the crops or mess up the hunt — I mean, you could smell them from a mile off, couldn’t you? — and they got blamed for everything from causing the milk to sour and the clocks to stop, to bringing on earthquakes and hailstorms and curdling the mayonnaise.” That one about curdling the mayo she got from her Grandma Friskin. Who said it backwards a decade or so ago: “Well, at least I won’t curdle the mayonnaise anymore.” “But the magic sauce was also used to fertilize the veggies and fruit trees and chase off evil spirits, and they fed it to their pigs and chickens to spice up their bacon and eggs, so its rep was mixed. People even blended it with wine and drank it themselves for a longer life and for more kids and to pump up their spiritual powers and their dingdongs, which to guys is more or less the same thing. I mean, you know, good or bad, whatever the Ineffable touches, whammo. They believed the gunk could cure gout, warts, worms, the bubonic plague, epilepsy, and leprosy, not to mention fever blisters, buboes, and the whooping cough. Ragtime is a cosmic event, Tommy. It swings with the moon and flows with the tides. The big red monster. Powerful stuff.” Not that she believes any of this. It’s a literal pain in the gut. “So you can imagine the market potential of Mary’s monthlies, right? The real Holy Blood. In fact, the Blood of Christ is probably just a euphemism for it. Men are always trying to get in on the act. Take that wound Jesus got from the Roman dogface. Ever look at the paintings of it? It looks just like a bloody you-know-what.”

“No, it doesn’t.”


“No pubic hair.”

She grins at that. He’s listening. “Well, but he was still just a virgin, wasn’t he? In that respect at least, with his little loincloth like a sanitary napkin.”

“What’s with you?” Tommy asks, a bit exasperated. “Are you on the rag or something?”

“How’d you guess?” What did she think? He’d feel sorry for her? Probably just makes him want to throw up. It always infuriates her when it comes on and it makes her lose her cool. Today it seems worse than usual. It feels like her ovaries are eating her intestines. Like maybe her uterus knows she is excited and is trying to claw the egg back in case something happens. Is she excited? Sure. Damn it. She takes a drag on her cigarette. (Another one. When did she light up? Doesn’t remember.) “Cousin Tom, my roommate calls it.”

“How did I get this honor?”

“Time. Of. Month.”

“Oh. Very funny. Well, I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with that.”

“Too bad you don’t. The world might be a better place if men had their turn. Monthlies keep you pegged to the earth. Men get lost in their own spacey heads and fly off somewhere, and that’s how we got all this religious idiocy.” She gestures up at the middle of the hill, where a huge theatrical fat woman with arms as big around as phone poles and stiff hair poking up like straw ticking out of an old mattress, her tunic riding up over her bulbous rump like a wrinkled slipcover, has knelt and started to moan beside an unfolded aluminum lawn chair with plastic webbing raised up on four cross-like stakes, which seems like some kind of weird altar or shrine. Others fall to their knees around her. The woman points up at the sky and shakes her head violently and all the others do the same. Some of them seem to have red crosses painted on their foreheads. “I mean, just look at all those wacky Christians! Looney tunes, man!”

“But that isn’t real Christianity.”

“Yes, it is.”

He sighs impatiently, as though to say, oh shut up, and stares absently down at her shirt. She had tried this morning to pull on her old No-Name Wilderness Camp tee from when she was eleven, imagining it might be like a cool skin-tight top leaving a bare midriff, maybe tease out a romantic joke or two (hah), but she couldn’t get her head through the neck of it. She decided it was not smart to wear anything too provocative, so she left her perversely illustrated JESUS LOVES ME tee at home and chose instead one of her noncommittal holiday shirts, the one from Yellowstone showing Old Faithful geysering. Figured it might give Tommy ideas. It does. “Reminds me. I need to pee. Time to go anyway. Dad will be waiting for me.” See Sally smile. See Tom run. Off to feed the dummy. “We’re taking turns with Mom. The home care nurse has the day off. In fact, that’s her up there by the big tent. Bernice. The one in the headband, looking like an Arab refugee.”

Nuts. “So how’s your mom doing?” It’s like her presence has somehow created her own absence…

“Better. That lady has been attempting some kind of faith cure, and it seems to be working. Sort of. At least Mom’s in a better mood. Less bitter, somehow. She seems to have resolved something in her mind. So what the hell. If it works, all power to her.” What can she say? That his mother would be better off suffering? “Here, Sal. Why don’t you take the cameras, get us some more pix?”

“Nah. I’d just lose them. Before you go, though, could you let me use your car a minute?”

“Sure. What for?”

“I’m about to blow a fuse, Tommy. I need to change ponies.” Is that a mixed metaphor, or what? I gotta sandbag the flood. Reload the rocket chamber. Feed the kitty. Diaper up. Ram a tam.

Make a list.

“Well, all right. But don’t leave the old one in the ashtray, please.”

“Don’t worry. It’s what trenchcoat pockets are for. Keeps the sniffer dogs away from the grass.”

In his car, after making the change, she takes out her notebook and writes down that phrase about presence and absence. What does it mean? And what will she do with the spent bullet? Dracula’s tea bag, as her roomie calls it. Where will Angela most likely poke around and find it?

Gods fucking mortals, whether as birds, bulls, dragons, or rain, are always stories of rape. Mary got bonked in the ear, so it was a kind of mind-rape. The Annunciation as an act of conceptual violence.

Words as random ejaculate. Potent. Diseased. Syphilitic. Mind rot.

Virtuosity alone is not satisfying, she writes. What is needed is the unmistakable crack of a hammer against glass.

Riding the Hood. Story about a chick who comes of age, dons the rag, and heads out into the world to make her fortune, delivering the goods to grandma. Who is juiced beyond redemption. A wolf tries to cut in on her territory, but he gets stoned on grandma. Red rules.

A woman’s biological liquidity — blood, milk, tears: the emergence of life from a fluid medium.

There’s a chinless little guy with big ears and buckteeth who passes through the food tent at regular intervals, spouting Bible verses. Mostly about last times. Death and destruction and the tortures of hell. God’s playground delights. The verse-spouter doesn’t look at anyone or speak to anyone. He is speaking to the world. Or some world. He reminds Sally of a sick polar bear she once saw in a zoo, striding compulsively back and forth between two fixed points. She draws a cartoon of him. “A city on a hill cannot be hid!” the little fellow cries out. For at least the fifth or sixth time. A line from the Sermon on the Mount. Most loathsome text in that loathsome book. He’s probably talking about the plans for a temple up here. If he knows what he’s talking about at all. “Sweet Jesus!” he exclaims.

City on a hill. Imagine. A wandering hill. A soft hill. A slippery hill: The city loses its footing. Oops. As the city slides toward the darkness below, the city fathers enact desperate ordinances against the decline. They float away like comicstrip balloons as the slide accelerates. This tent is perched on a hillside. Made of what? Coal slag maybe. She has to sit facing downslope for fear of tipping over, holding her place by gripping it with her butt. Facing upslope would be easier, but she might fall backwards.

Story idea: Struggling against invisible resistance up a hillside or mountain, like in a dream. What is on the other side? A destroyed town? Pleasure? The abyss? The feeling of persisting inside a negative force for no reason other than the need to persist. Ipsey Wipsyphus.

Sweet Jesus: a killer, dangerously criminal but given to endearing eccentricities. Pissed off at what they’ve done to him and out for revenge: Listen, you think I can forgive this? He shows his scars. When I think about them they still sting. I’m going to rapture the shit out of those dickheads! Dirty Pete as his enforcer. His ma: Big Mary. I Love to Tell the Story…

Maybe the easiest thing to do is found another church. She writes that, turns the page over, hoping no one demands to see what she has written. She tries to look like she might be praying. Her scribbling has drawn scowls, questions. But also beatific smiles. She’s more comfortable with the scowls. To be sitting here among them is no doubt dangerous, but here she is. On one tagged page, which she can quickly flip to if someone comes to peer over her shoulder, she has written: The Brunists: an amazing movement! And it is. Almost like a magic act: something conjured out of nothing.

Two homely kids in tunics come into the tent, go out, one skinny, the other fat, looking stoned, careful not to touch, but never more than a foot or so apart. Not part of the others. Vaguely familiar. A rash of red fuzz on the boy’s lip. They seem to share some dreadful knowledge. Or wrongful expectation.

One is deprived of full contact with reality by the flaw of hope.

Write about that. The woefullest thing. Hope.

As best she can understand these people, they hope the world is about to end, possibly even today, but are also afraid it might. Meanwhile, even as they get ready to fly away, they are building themselves a big spread for their headquarters and even a temple up here on the mine hill. Part of what that “city on a hill” cry is all about. The cathedral impulse: Is it an admission of failure?

There’s a sad sack of a woman who can’t stop eating. She picks up a sandwich, leaves the tent, tugging her tunic down at the back. A few minutes pass, she returns, picks up another sandwich, leaves, tugging her tunic down. She’s not wearing any shoes. Chin sunk in her cleavage, mouth stuffed with sandwich. Often, she seems to be crying. She must have put away at least twenty sandwiches since Sally has been sitting here.

Time. Back to that. The shriveling of those foreskin relics. What time does. But: Christ preaching, riding a donkey, posing on the cross. Acting. In time, objects dissolve, but gesture is frozen forever. Sally Elliott’s molecular law.

Words: somewhere in between. Their excessive superfluity. Like sperm. Now and then, after millions swim past and die, one sticks. Makes everyone sick for a while.

At first, people came over to speak to her, introduce themselves, invite her to come pray or sing or just walk about with them and she was able to put them off by saying she was waiting for someone, thanks; now they mostly leave her alone. Some asked what she was writing. “My thoughts,” she said.

Her discomfort. Her stupidity. Her ugliness. Her blood sacrifice.

There’s an old lady in the doorway, sitting upright in her chair as though bracing herself for an immediate ascent. Must be nearly a hundred. Can’t come too soon for her, else she’ll have to go through the burial, decomposition, and resurrection drill.

Idea for a story: The dead rise from their graves. Billions of them. Brief elation. And then they fall over and die again. A mess.

Now and then a helicopter rattles overhead. Five years ago, there were a lot of them. She thought of them then as pestilential, locust-like emblems of the last days. Today’s loner is a distant melancholic echo of that day, like a marker on the grave of that lost time, of all lost time. But what time is not lost? Even future time is lost. What is different about the end when it comes: it cannot be remembered.

There are some snotnosed brats running around in the tent and a huge bald redfaced man in a split tunic gives one of them a sullen clout that sends him sprawling. Bawling. A lit cigarette dangles between the fat man’s thick lips like a pea shooter. Darren and Billy Don said no smoking in the tent, but nobody is going to argue with that guy. A thin little woman with coarse sandy hair, a pooched belly, and a sad martyred look comes in and leads the yowling kid out. The big man takes up a fistful of sandwiches and follows them, brushing the tent flaps, making everything tremble. So much of him.

Flesh generates melancholy.

Everything generates melancholy.

That night in the back seat of his dad’s car all that time ago. Boy Blue. His boner poking at her side like the legionnaire’s spear. Knocking on the door. That she was ready to open but didn’t know it.

Where is the little girl afraid to peep? She’s behind the ice plant, getting in deep.

A pastoral romance.

She sighs irritably, folds up her notebook, stuffs it back in her trenchcoat pocket. She aches for a smoke, but if she leaves the tent she’ll just have to walk on down the hill and home again. Her thirty minutes were up half an hour ago.

After Tommy split (when Angela tips down the sun visor to admire herself in the makeup mirror tonight: sur-prise!), she decided to try for an invitation up the hill. Fellow believers were recognized and led up past the sheriff’s barriers, but she could never fake that. The reporters and camera crews, like the tourists, were restricted to the bottom of the hill, but cultists sometimes came down to talk to them. Two guys in particular seemed to be acting as spokesmen for the group; a tall slouching boy with handlebars covering an overbite, shaded pilot specs, burns and a hairknot, and his shorter friend, a more earnest and scholarly sort with a round face, granny glasses, and curly blond hair (she’d die for hair like that, she’d even brush it). She wandered over to tune in and it was clear they knew, in the way that baseball nuts know their stats, what they were talking about. They had the cult history down pat. Christian history, too. All the schisms and theories and prophecies and interpretations. Or at least they seemed to, what did she know? They had the Bible mapped in their heads as well. They could jump around in it at will, whip off quotes, name chapter and verse, draw parallels and morals. When some guy behind a camera asked if the Brunist movement wasn’t heretical, they coolly said they didn’t believe in the concept of heresy. All human efforts to grasp God’s purposes have value. No one has a monopoly on the truth.

“Right on,” she said over the reporter’s shoulder, and the boys smiled benignly.

“The truth,” said the blond one, “is more like something that exists apart in the intellectual space shared by everyone, not something bottled up inside this or that individual. All voices have to be listened to closely in order to catch a whisper of God’s voice behind them.” Whisper. Nice.

“The truth’s more like the air we share,” said the mustachioed one. “Not what you or I happen to have in our lungs at any moment. And like air, we can’t see truth, but we know it’s there and we can’t do without it.”

She could see problems with that metaphor, but she didn’t say so. Instead, she waited until the reporters were out of the way, and then she said, “Hi. I’m Sally Elliott. You guys really know your stuff. I’m impressed.” She knew she had a genuine expression of angst on her face because of the cramps. “I don’t think I’m going to become a member or anything, but I’m really curious and I wondered if you could give me, like, a kind of guided tour and tell me what’s going on?”

“Are you a Christian?”

“Well, a Presbyterian.”

“Really? Here in town? The minister’s wife is a member now.”

“I know. Auntie Debra.” Not really her aunt, of course. Was that cheating?

They looked at each other and nodded and introduced themselves and invited her up. Maybe her scruffiness helped. From what she could see under the tunics, or by those who lacked them, she fit right in. Probably a good thing she didn’t have the cameras, though. Billy Don, the taller one, said this was hallowed ground and she could only stay for thirty minutes, unless she wanted to confess and become a member. There was still time. They were watching her uneasily (behind Billy Don’s shades, she could see, one eye was askew), but they also seemed hopeful for a new adherent. Probably gave them status. Banking another soul.

The tour didn’t take long. There wasn’t much to see, but that wasn’t the point. “Hallowed ground” was the point, and she its inquisitive intruder. When she asked, Darren and Billy Don explained that the lawn chair perched on the four waist-high roughhewn wooden crosses was like the one on which the dead girl (they said: “first martyr”) was laid out on the Day of Redemption. Others passed by, pointing at the sky. She remembered the thin bluish corpse, whipped by wind and rain, only the second dead body she had ever seen. But she had forgotten the lawn chair. Probably too freaked out to notice. On the day, even while she laughed with her friends, she worried the Brunists might be right and she’d get left behind. She could still think that way. She’d been poised for a sprint up the hill if things started to happen. At the same time, she was afraid of getting struck by lightning. Billy Don asked her if she’d like to stop and pray, and she said she would like to meditate for a moment, and she assumed a grave expression and stared down at the lawn chair and had a rather ghoulish thought about Sleeping Beauty.

They walked her around behind the reception tent, as they called it, to the lone tree there, which had something to do with the invention of their new baptism ceremony with light instead of water. “It’s like a new covenant — not replacing the old, but transcending it in the way that light transcends water.” This ceremony awaited her if God granted her grace and understanding and she became a True Follower. They pointed to a large tent further up the hillside, whose open flaps revealed rows of folding chairs and said this could happen tonight if she were ready to confess her sins and give herself to Jesus. She asked more about this. Apparently there is a special “liturgical” flashlight they use just like the one from the first time. Or maybe it’s the same one. The tree had a frail shaggy martyred look of its own, gaunt, leafy but without real branches, a wounded pole. Not unlike that of their leader Giovanni Bruno, as she remembers him from the day and from photos of the day. She asked about him and learned that he is dead. Not, apparently, from natural causes. Unless all causes are God’s causes and therefore natural, she reminded them, hoping they didn’t hear the irony, and they nodded solemnly at that, and seemed to relax just a little. They pointed out the place down on the mine road where the girl was killed and the area just below them where the Powers of Darkness gathered with their ominous yellow schoolbuses. Where she herself had stood. Full of darkness, to be sure. By the time things really got hairy, though, the Powers had to do without her and her friends. They’d earlier started for the bingo tent to get out of the storm when they heard a lot of screaming in there and that scared the pants off them and they ran all the way home and had to watch the rest on television.

Though some of the scowls she got suggested she was still oozing an aura of darkness, for the most part she was welcomed with smiles and praise-the-lord greetings, the two boys her ambassadors. The kids from Florida all gave her loving hugs, including the cute one (who, Sally was happy to note, had gapped front teeth and a lisp), and introduced her to others from their bus and people they’d come to know here. There were apparently over a dozen buses parked at the camp, and more down below here on the mine road. It was like being at a big school pep rally. On Homecoming weekend. She learned from the boys that the cult was now hundreds of times bigger than it had been. Something was happening. It was almost elbow to elbow up here. She met the radio announcer in the white cowboy togs, who was talking with a tall skinny dude with a guitar and his girlfriend about a gig at the station. She might have been part Mexican. When Sally asked her why she was here, she said she’d got called. Like someone called her on the phone. A lot of these people talked that way. Voices in their heads. In the wilderness of their heads. A dingbat with a rigid grimace and steely blue eyes under a peroxide blond toupee wandered past, trailed by admiring ladies in bouffants. He was lecturing them at full throttle on the meaning of the cross in the circle they were wearing on their tunics. Some numbers game involved, having to do with Christ’s thirty-three years. “And, yea, there was give them to each one a white robe,” he cried out. “Cause the spirit has took on flesh, a new day is come, brung by the White Bird, the Holy Spirit, and you are in it, my friends, a new day what will last to the end a the world!” There were people falling about in what her comparative religion textbooks used to call fits of divine madness, and other people strolling about with cups of coffee and beatific expressions, calmly watching the ecstatics as they might watch children playing in a sandbox. Weird. Tom and Sally at the Reality Border. “Do you guys ever do stuff like that?” she asked, and got only smiles in return, though Darren added, “God speaks with many voices.”

That home care nurse in the beaded headband Tommy pointed out, his mom’s faith healer, looked alarmed when she spotted her, and hiding her head under her shawl which might have been made out of an old bedsheet, quickly vanished, as did Aunt Debra, who did not seem happy to see her. She caught only a glimpse of Colin Meredith before Aunt Debra whisked him out of sight. A wisp of a fellow, rigid smile on his face, thin silvery hairs hanging from his chin. His goggle eyes were darting everywhere, and when they lit on her, they flashed with panic. Which, on seeing his, she felt, too. When she asked, Billy Don said, “He’s a kind of visionary genius, like, and one of the first disciples and about the sincerest, most intense guy I’ve ever known. He almost vibrates like a live electric wire, you know? Sometimes it kind of drives him crazy, but he loves his mother very much and mostly does what she says, and she keeps him from going over the top.” Hmm. Something Sally’s mother didn’t tell her but hinted at: “The trouble with Debra…”

After consulting with each other, the boys showed her roughly where the new Brunist tabernacle temple is going to be built and said in a secretive voice that the great news of the day was that they had just received a really fantastic gift, nearly enough to build the whole thing. They didn’t know where the money came from but supposed it was from their principal benefactor, Mr. John P. Suggs. He was pointed out to her. Not in a tunic. A burly big-skulled man in a gray suit and boots, plaid shirt, no tie, suspenders. He reminded her of the farmer who chased Peter Rabbit in a picturebook she had. Or the nursery rhyme man in brown who tried to net the flying pig, dickery dickery dare. The horsey, strong-jawed woman in the tunic beside him, she learned, was their evangelical leader, Clara Collins. “A saint.” Sally had already noticed her. A bold lady, sure of herself. She didn’t walk, she strode, and wherever she went, there were people around her. Mr. Suggs had unscrolled a large sheet of paper and was showing it to her. Darren said it was architectural plans for the temple, which would be formally presented tonight at their evening prayer service and dedication ceremonies. She asked them if there wasn’t something paradoxical about building a new church when they were expecting the end of the world. Well, the Rapture could come any time, but they didn’t think it would happen for at least two years (“Me and Darren are working on that,” Billy Don said), and this gives them time to build a proper tabernacle wherein to receive the Lord, wherefrom to fly to Heaven. A kind of launch platform, as she later wrote in her notebook. A docking station.

Though they’d told her that the main events in the meeting tent wouldn’t be starting until later in the afternoon, there was already a lot of preaching and singing going on all over the hillside, some of it broadcast over loudspeakers. That was to encourage anyone who wished to join them, Billy Don said, and he added that he sincerely hoped she would make such a decision. They accepted her thoughtful silence. These guys were easy. Clara Collins was a different story. When Sally was introduced to her, she asked bluntly, “Are you here as a believer, child?” “I am here as a seeker after truth, Mrs. Collins.” “Well, so are them reporters down there.” “No, ma’am. They only know their own truth and want you to confirm it. I don’t know the truth and am on a quest for it.” Got that right out of her medieval lit course. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and in the resurrection of the body, and in the Bible as God’s holy word?” “I wish to believe, but I am full of doubts. I am trying to resolve those doubts.” “She’s the niece of Sister Debra, Sister Clara.” Clara gave her a stern look-over, gazing into her thicket of hair as though to search out there the demons who possessed her. “All right, child. But don’t abuse your welcome.”

An invitation to leave. But she wasn’t feeling so great. She needed to sit down. The boys asked her if she’d eaten and she said she hadn’t, so they led her in here under a tent where they had tables of food set out, found a folding chair in a corner, and brought her a white-bread lunch-meat sandwich and a cream soda, and that helped. Sometimes, it’s true, it seems to her that she grasps or is embraced by a great cosmic mystery, and for a moment she enjoys a certain rapt serenity. But usually the mystery eludes her or it evolves into some familiar banality, like the cream soda burp she burped then, and it never comes close to happening when she’s bummed out with the blahs.

A guy walks into the tent now wearing a chocolate Stetson and an unbelted white gown over jeans and dusty high-heeled boots. Looks like some kind of cowboy cross-dresser. Said to be a honcho politician and rich rancher from Wyoming and a bishop from there. She takes out her notebook again and commences a sketch. He grabs up half a sandwich, stuffs it whole into his jowls, and wallows it around in there like a chaw of tobacco. Suddenly, he topples over, knocking his hat off, and starts twitching and yelping out unintelligible noises, spewing half-chewed sandwich. When his tunic falls back, you can see that he’s wearing holstered pistols — he is a cowboy! A crowd gathers. A woman with one dead eye and a gold tooth claims to be able to translate his gibberish. She says the Prophet is inside him and speaking through him. The Prophet says: Prepare! Christ is coming! They all know this, but they gasp and cry out all the same. A whispered chant: Bru-no! Bru-no! Bru-no! All this ecstatic communion: how the fantasy of soul gets made. After a while, the gunslinger gets up, dribbling chewed bread, looking dazed. He doesn’t acknowledge those gathered around him. He straightens his tunic, brushes off his hat and leaves the tent. Singing ensues.

The Great Myth of the Rapture. She’s sitting in it.

Nothing more certain, said Darren solemnly. “The Second Coming of Jesus Christ, his literal physical return and all that means, is referred to 1845 times in the Bible.” She wrote the number down and factors it now just for fun. Three and five and one-two-three.

Another thing Darren said. About the religious calling. She flips back a few pages: An invisible form calling out for substance. One is conscious of this summons and its attraction, without knowing what it is that is calling. Something he read somewhere probably. Now she writes: The writer’s vocation: An invisible form calling out for substance. One is conscious of this summons and its attraction, without knowing what it is that is calling. When she looks up Aunt Debra is standing there, frowning down at the notebook in her lap.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Sally. I didn’t think you were a believer in much of anything anymore.”

“You know me, Auntie Debra. I always have to know it all. How about yourself? I never thought of you as an evangelical sort.”

“Well, I have changed.” Certainly she seems to have lost some weight. In fact, like her mom said, she’s looking pretty good. Settled into herself, at home in her tunic. Tanned and strong. But maybe not so soft and loving as before. More determined, somehow. In control. The opposite of what her dad says. He says Debra has blown all her money and her husband’s too, and she is shacked up with a crazy kid and is completely out of control. Fruitcake is his word for gross dysfunction. She’s a fruitcake. “These are good people who have suffered so much for their simple faith. I love them and have become one of them.”

“But you seem so different from them, Auntie Debra. They’re all so — well — so emotional.”

“I know. I resisted that at first. Afraid of direct communion with God. All buttoned up like a good Presbyterian. I’m past that now. For the first time, I feel like I really have a personal relationship with God and belong in His world and am at last living a truly meaningful life. Everything is suddenly so real!”

“Well, that’s great, Auntie Debra. I mean, I guess it is. You’re sure looking good. But Mom says your husband has turned kind of weird.”

“I was slow to wake up, Sally. He was always kind of weird. And he knows nothing at all about true religion. He’s a showoff without substance or faith or beauty. Like a strutting jay among meadowlarks.” Do jays strut? She knows nothing at all about birds. “But,” Aunt Debra adds, glancing skeptically at the tee and trenchcoat, into which she has hastily buried the notebook, “these people are very serious about their beliefs. You must be careful not to offend them.”

“I am. But I have to be me. I saw that orphan boy before, Colin, is he…?”

“I’m taking care of him. I’m establishing that halfway house for troubled young people out here I once told you about, and he’s like my first case. He’s hanging onto life by his fingernails, Sally. He’s been through a lot, more than you and I can even imagine, and I’m sort of keeping a grip on him, not letting him let go.”

She wants to ask more about that, but Billy Don joins them, slouching up, hands in pockets. There’s a red patch on the side of his face where he’s been catnapping on it. “Are you staying?” he asks cheerfully.

“I think she needs more time, Billy Don,” Debra says. “She was just leaving.”

Well, she’s ready to go. The cramps have subsided, but she desperately requires a cigarette, and she has had about all of this holy mania she can take in one go.

“Colin seems very frightened about something, Sister Debra. Darren’s talking to him, but he probably needs you.”

“Oh dear.” She turns and gives Sally a brief but affectionate hug. “I love you, Sally. Come see me any time,” she says, and hurries away, holding up the hem of her tunic, slapping along in her sandals.

“I better go help,” Billy Don says. “Do you want me to walk you down first…?”

“No, downhill’s easy, Billy Don. Like sin. Who’s that mopey fat girl over there? I think I know her.”

“That’s Reverend Baxter’s daughter.”

“Right. Baxter. Frances Baxter. I was in school with her.”

“Listen, if you change your mind…” He takes her hand in both of his and gives her a deep gaze through his sunglasses, at least with one of his eyes.

“Thanks, Billy Don. You never know. I may come out to the camp to see Auntie Debra and we can talk more about it.”

“That’d be great.” He squeezes her hand tenderly and leaves, pausing at the tent opening to toss her a wave.

Franny Baxter remains slumped in her chair when she passes, gazing up at her sullenly when she introduces herself. She’s already looking like an old lady, bloated at the belly, round-cheeked, bespectacled. “Hi, Franny. I’m Sally Elliott. I used to see you at WCHS. I was a year or two ahead of you, but I think we had a history class together.”

“What are you doing out here?” Her voice is flat, like it’s been ironed.

“Oh, I’m just trying to figure things out. What do you think is going to happen?”

“I dunno. Nothing probably.”

“You look pretty sad, Franny.”

“What’s it to you?”

“Oh, nothing, I guess. Sorry. But, hey, if you want to talk things out sometime, let me know.” She tears a blank page out of her notebook, writes her name and telephone number on it, and gives it to her, Franny accepting it with a dismissive shrug.

At the tent portal, she pauses to add a note. Life’s a story, she writes, and you either write it or get written. Accept somebody else’s story and you’re the written, not the writer. She smiles at that. That’s me, she thinks.

“Pardon me, my child. Could you please hand me my cane?” It’s the old lady sitting stiffly just outside the opening. Mrs. Mc-some-thing. On the Florida bus with those cute Jesus children. Sally shook her frail blue-veined hand on coming in here. “It seems to have fallen.”

“Sure. Are you all right?”

“All right? Well, for my age, I suppose I am.” There’s a mischievous knowing look on the old lady’s face. “That boy’s sweet on you, I do believe.”

“Maybe. But I think it’s only my soul he’s after.”

“You’ve been writing. Are you a writer?”

“Well, not yet. I want to be.”

“What sort of writer? Love stories? Whodunnits?”

“Sort of both, I guess. I mean, I want whatever I write to be about finding out about things, you know, the way a detective solves a case. And love, well, everything’s about love, isn’t it?”

The old lady smiles at this, showing a pretty good set of teeth, assuming they’re her own. Her skin is mottled, loose on her bones, her jaws are sinking inward, hands trembling slightly, but she’s still clear-eyed and sitting up primly, straight as an arrow. “Yes, it is. Even when ‘love’ means zero.”

Sally smiles back, imagining a tall trim debutante with bobbed auburn hair in white tennis clothes. A classic beauty. “I bet you were really something in your time,” she says. “You’re really something now.”

“I was a bit wild.”

“I’m a bit wild.”

“But then, after a while, it all became something else. I started playing bridge.”

“I don’t want to do that. I want to stay wild.”

“I think you probably will,” says the old lady, and blesses her with a sly wink. And then she sort of blanks out, her expression goes flat, her eyes dull. “Ma’am?” There’s a little windy sound. Oh my god. Time to go.

I.11 Sunday 19 April

The discovery of dear pious Harriet McCardle, sitting bolt upright in her folding chair just outside the food tent, staring down as if in judgment upon the multitudes gathered below her on the sunswept Mount of Redemption with eyes blinded by life’s cessation, augments the probability in the minds of many that there will indeed be no tomorrow. As Brunist First Follower Eleanor Norton, presently a professional Spiritual Therapist on the West Coast (she now refers to herself as Dr. E. Norton) and the author of Communing with Your Inner Voice and The Sayings of Domiron: Wisdom from the Seventh Aspect, once famously announced on what in Brunist church history is known as “The Night of the Sign”: “Death as a sign can mean only one thing: the end of the world!” A pronouncement absorbed by First Follower Mabel Hall (she was there in the Bruno house that night and heard it herself, saw the dead man in the living room) into her own systems of divination, which accounts for her solemn nods now to her friends on the hill who nod back.

Although Dr. Norton, seeking transcendence from all earthbound forms, is no longer an active Brunist or even a Christian and so is not present today on the Mount of Redemption, her influence on the early days of the movement was profound and has shaped the thinking of many here, not least her young acolyte and fellow First Follower, Colin Meredith, who, upon the discovery of the body, shrieked, “I saw her! I saw her! The Antichrist!” and, tearing wildly at his tunic, set off running at full gallop, pursued by his mother, all over the hillside. Since the Antichrist is generally presumed to be male, the boy was probably mistaken; perhaps he meant the Whore of Babylon, for the person he was referring to was the snarly haired young woman in the tattered trenchcoat (the Judas who betrayed them wore just such a garment!) who was the last person seen with Harriet McCardle when she was still alive and who then vanished as though she never was. A matter of concern to the church scribes, Darren Rector and Billy Don Tebbett, who were responsible for inviting her up and who now face intense questioning from their fellow believers. Was she wearing an inverted cross? Was that a picture of a writhing serpent on her T-shirt? Was it a T-shirt, or her very flesh? What was she writing? Did they notice any peculiar body odors? A burnt smell? Her figure was not particularly feminine — was she even really a “she?” They answer truthfully, describing her as, by outward appearance at least, a sensible Christian girl with a healthy curiosity, while at the same time acknowledging, while poor Colin goes clattering by, that, yes, the devil is a crafty dissembler, one cannot be too cautious, for they are serious open-minded students of redemptive history and are willing to consider all opinions and eventualities. Billy Don, for example, had watched her descend the hill until she reached the bottom, so she didn’t really “vanish,” not in his eyes, though he has to admit that what he witnessed may have been a diabolical phantasm since no one else shared in his witnessing.

On the original Night of the Sign, the Brunist Evangelical Leader and Organizer, Clara Collins, now Clara Collins-Wosznik, still distraught at the time over the recent loss in the mine accident of her husband Ely, was utterly undone by the sudden death of the Prophet’s aged father in front of the TV set, and she fell to the floor sobbing and praying in the manner of many of those in and around the food tent now. But this afternoon her emotions are held in check by a more practical concern. To wit: What is to be done with the remains? What might be the ordinary passing of an old woman elsewhere is an extraordinary event here on the Mount of Redemption today, open to a variety of unwelcome interpretations by the civil authorities. The church has, in the past, been maliciously and unjustifiably accused of bizarre Satanic practices, and it could be again. Had she been privy to the notebook entry of the Elliott girl (she does not think that child is the Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, or any other otherworldly creature — just a spoiled unkempt brat with more book learning than is good for her) about a city set upon a slippery hill, she would have understood it as an almost literal expression of her present anxieties. Sister Clara is tempted at first to conceal the death and, as Brother Hiram suggests, to try and get the body back to the motel, somehow, to be discovered there under less problematic circumstances. But one glance down at the foot of the hill, where reporters and gawkers still mill about in threatening numbers, tells her this would be impossible, even dangerous. Nor, as it’s God’s will, would it be right. She and Hiram and Ben talk it over with Mr. John P. Suggs, and together with the mayor of Randolph Junction, they inform Sheriff Puller. The sheriff, conscious of possible crowd trouble, says that he will call an ambulance and have her removed, announcing simply, if asked (of course he will be asked) that she has fallen ill and is being taken to hospital. They will take her to the Randolph Junction municipal hospital, not the nearby one in West Condon, but he will not say so. He will arrange for the usual county coroner’s cause-of-death report and will not announce her passing until after the Brunists have safely left the hill. Or whatever, he adds, aware of the expectations of some. Meanwhile, they are to keep her out of sight and to turn off the public mourning and do something about that hysterical boy. The Randolph Junction mayor adds that, if her surviving husband agrees, she can be quietly buried in their city cemetery. “I am afraid,” says Brother Hiram, “that the gentleman’s youthful alacrity has abandoned him. He lacks the mental competence to understand even that she has died. With your permission, as the official leader and pastor of this pilgrimage, I shall, with the assistance of a lawyer in my congregation, secure power of attorney and sign the necessary papers on his behalf.” And thus, thanks to her wise friends, a crisis is avoided.

Who is John Patrick Suggs, and what has led the wealthy coal baron and property developer, never known for his largesse, to become the Brunist movement’s chief benefactor? Well, his hatred of the local old-family power elite with whom he has been at war all his life, for one thing. The movement’s enemies are his enemies. For another: His view of redemption as a straightforward negotiation in the soul market. He is, as he thinks of it, buying into after-death shares. Does he believe that the End is imminent? It might best be said that, near the end of his own life and without heirs, he is betting on it. But above all, he is motivated by his loyalty to the late Reverend Ely Collins, who effected his conversion, and whose last prophetic message to the world as he lay dying in the scorched depths of the earth here below their feet launched this new evangelical movement. In his early days, Pat Suggs was known as a hard-living, hard-drinking, two-fisted hell-raiser. He has injured and known injury. Existence as a bruising contact sport: when young he lived such a life. Though his family traces its roots to Northern Ireland, he has always spoken of himself as an American patriot, a Calvinist, and a libertarian, and it was the Calvinist side of his nature that emerged as a consequence of a tent-meeting conversion upon hearing Ely Collins preach, he himself being the landlord of the field rented for the occasion. Though the pastor of a church with pentecostal tendencies, Collins himself was not an overtly emotional man, nor is John P. Suggs. Ely simply spoke from the heart and made good sense and Suggs felt an immediate rapport with the man and thought of him as wise and holy. He supported the Church of the Nazarene liberally while Ely was its minister, but loathed that smug hothead Abner Baxter who succeeded him after the mine disaster (he can see the man, standing not far off in his ill-fitting tunic, barefoot, glowering like the devil himself), a former communist labor organizer and unprincipled rabble rouser, a man who deserved to be shot for his radical anti-Americanism alone, and he abandoned that house of fools. He found no other church that suited him and eventually sought out the widow of Ely Collins who was, as he’d heard, carrying her husband’s torch and had important tidings to tell. Clara Collins is no Ely (she is a woman, to begin with), but she is honest and forthright and devoted to the memory of her husband and the movement his vision has fostered. Sometimes Ely seems almost to be speaking through her, and perhaps he is. John P. Suggs did not think he would like this fellow Wosznik, with whom she took up so soon after Ely’s death, but he has come to respect him, a simple man but arrow-straight, a true believer, hardworking, beholden to Ely Collins in the same manner as himself, and a valuable helpmeet to Ely’s widow in the task of spreading, on what may be the very eve of the Apocalypse, this urgent new gospel. As he gazes about upon the activity on the hill (that stupid boy has thankfully been collared and removed from view), he feels good about what he has done and knows that Ely would be pleased.

The town banker, arriving now at the foot of the mine hill with the West Condon mayor, the police chief and officers, the Chamber of Commerce secretary, his own bank lawyer and other official personnel and civic leaders, speaks of Pat Suggs, often his business adversary, as an own-bootstraps sort of fellow, ruthless, decisive, shrewd, frank, unfriendly, an aggressive loner who accumulates all he can while contributing nothing to the community he is exploiting, a man he opposes on just about all issues: his countryside-destroying strip mining, his divisive anti-unionism, his unorthodox banking and investment procedures, his inflammatory white supremacist rhetoric, his simplistic but vicious anti-communism, his militant Puritanism. The feelings are mutual. To John P. Suggs, Ted Cavanaugh is an immoral liberal humanist, a country-clubbing hypocrite who uses religion cynically as a power tool, a legalistic destroyer of basic civil liberties who makes the rules convenient to himself that others have to play by, an unrepentant sinner and unscrupulous manipulator and usurer — in short, a damned banker like all bankers. He associates the persecution of the Brunists with atheists, Jews, Romanists, lawyers, politicians, and humanists like the banker, and would have needed no further reason to take up the Brunists’ cause than to do battle with him, even were he not motivated by his faith.

What the banker has come now with his team of city authorities and legal advisors to announce, is that the city is purchasing the mine property, including this hill, and that all these people are therefore trespassing on private property. He presents various documents and demands that the sheriff ask everyone to leave. Immediately. The sheriff glances poker-faced at the sheaf of legal-sized documents while the strip mine operator produces documents of his own: a written permit from the sheriff’s office and a limited but binding two-day lease agreement from the absentee mine owners. The banker insists that, with the purchase, the circumstances have changed and the agreement is no longer valid, but John P. Suggs, whose own bid, unbeknownst to the banker, is also still on the table, only smiles icily, his thumbs hooked in his suspenders. He’d thought, from the astonishing earlier news, that the banker might have had an inexplicable change of heart, but he sees now that the reality is more amusing than that. The sheriff notes that he sees no deeds or purchase agreements amid the paperwork, and as the registry office is closed on Sunday, they will have to wait until tomorrow to present their case. Meanwhile, this is unincorporated county land under his jurisdiction. With a sneer aimed at the police chief, whom he regards as an ignorant foreigner, he suggests they not complicate his crowd control problems with their further presence, and some of his uniformed men arrive to back him up.

“What do you mean?” the outraged banker demands, jutting the jaw that intimidated a generation of state high school football players. There are news cameras focused on them now, and the crowds are pressing round, drawn here in hopes of a repeat of the entertaining events of five years ago. “If we don’t leave, you’re going to arrest us?” His demand is met by strategic silence.

“Well, I think this is absolutely ridiculous,” says the Chamber of Commerce secretary.

The West Condon chief of police, one of the more flourishing members of the extensive Romano clan, and the principal supporter on his meager salary (and whatever else comes along) of eleven of them, had never thought that this would work and said so before reluctantly agreeing to haul his sad ass out here, dragging all these others with him. Chief Romano is uncomfortable around overheated evangelical types, so arrogantly full of false certitude, every man his own prophet and pope, and he is fully aware of the racist anti-Catholic biases of the likes of Puller and Suggs and that vicious firebrand Baxter, desecrater of St. Stephen’s Church, who is standing off to one side and seems about to explode, damn his tormented soul. But, though he has no authority here, he had no choice. He likes to say that all the people of West Condon are his boss, but Dee knows from whose imperious hands comes his paycheck, and he knows the kinds of games they play, the cunning and meanness in their hearts. If truth be told, there’s not a person in their party here not deserving of imprisonment if not hanging, himself included. But what can you do? Life is a crap shoot. He had one throw and this is what he got. “There won’t be no arrests,” he says flatly, fixing his gaze not on the sheriff but on his troops. Who are not, he knows, completely legal. Tub Puller’s ambitious little warlord fantasies. The way Monk Wallace explained it to him down at the station, Puller is amassing this vigilante army and hoping for disturbances — even if he has to create them himself — that will justify this unit enough to draw state money to finance and arm it. For the present, the volunteers — no Italians among them — are not only unpaid, they even have to supply their own uniforms and weapons. In it for the action. They can’t arrest anybody, though of course neither can he. John P. Suggs catches his drift. “If you want to stay,” he says finally, “be our guests. Just don’t stir up trouble. Last time, you let a mess happen. People got hurt. We’re not going to let one happen today.”

The West Condon mayor puffs out his fat cheeks and says in his booming voice, “We been told a woman was took to hospital. What’sa particulars?”

“She is Mrs. Harriet McCardle from Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” Puller says, consulting his notes.

“But what’s her problem?”

“Like I say, Mrs. Harriet McCardle from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”

There are hoots from the crowd. “That ain’t what the man ast you, Tub baby,” yells one of them. The sheriff knows him. A scrawny loudmouth coalminer named Cheese Johnson who sometimes worked his shift in the sheriff’s own mining days, if what that ugly fuckoff did could be called work. The strip mine operator knows him as Chester K. Johnson, a ne’er-do-well whom he hired at one of his mines after Deepwater but who lasted only a week. Chief Romano as a drunken jawbox he has picked up off the street from time to time, a regular client in the free flophouse he runs at the city jail. The banker as the uncontrollable wiseass who horned in on his original Common Sense Committee and nearly wrecked it, beating up old Ben Wosznik in his own house. No one’s happy that he and his shiftless pals are here. “No more stonewallin’, my man,” Johnson shouts in his nasal twang. “The ole girl’s gone tits up, ain’t it so?”

Clara Collins is watching apprehensively from a discreet distance. It was just such trouble that thwarted their gathering here five years ago, when it seemed certain that the Rapture was really going to happen, and she is afraid something like it might ruin her plans today. She tells Ben and Wayne to go get on the public address system with some good old-time gospel singing. “Let’s loose the Holy Spirit on them and drown out all this ungodly bickering!”

Reverend Abner Baxter, seething with injured pride at having been excluded from all these exchanges and emboldened by the return today of some of his closest followers — including Jewell Cox and Roy Coates, standing beside him like stone pillars — now lets go his daughter’s hand and, striding toward the banker and his minions, cries out: “Enough of these puffed-up babblings! Your deceitful words are a loathsome abomination!” Is he referring to the banker or to all parties present? Let them read it as they will. “There is no truth in your mouth, your soul is destruction, your throat is an open sepulcher! Do you hear? Look around you! Your land has become a desolation and a waste and a curse, your town an unholy emptiness! Do you not see? You have brought this evil upon yourself through your own sinfulness, and your unlawful persecutions of the just, and now nothing shall never live here again!” Old boss Suggs is looking unhappy. Good. Let the old sinner have ears. “Even him who led us to the Coming of the Light through his foreknowledge of God ye have taken away and by evil hands have ye slain him! Ye are viler than the earth!” “Amen!” calls out Jewell Cox, and Roy and Roy’s boys and Ezra Gray and his own son, Young Abner, echo him, and others, too. It is spreading. The hillside is becoming his hillside, and the cameras are watching.

“That’s enough now,” says Tub Puller, hands on his gunbelt. But it is not enough. The Brunist bishop of West Condon is rediscovering his own lost self. The long, hard years on the road have taken their toll, but he is home again. He can feel within him once more the power of God, and that power, he knows, is of indignation and wrath. He brushes past the sheriff, raising his fist at the town dignitaries, just as Reverend Konrad Dreyer of the Trinity Lutheran Church, perhaps having hesitated a moment too long, touches the brim of his straw and steps forward to attempt to speak on behalf of the West Condon Ministerial Association.

“But WOE unto the wicked! Your day of reckoning is come! That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of ruin and desolation! Your blood shall be poured out like dust, and your flesh like DUNG!” Reverend Dreyer, who fully understands these apocalyptic yearnings and is eager to reassure the cult of the Association’s basic support for the freedom of all Christian religion, and indeed other religions as well — the Jewish faith, for example — nevertheless finds himself somewhat overawed by Reverend Baxter’s fiery passion and clenched fist (good Heavens, does he mean to strike someone?), and he staggers back into his own footsteps, banging into a cursing cameraman. It might have been better, he thinks, to have expressed the Association’s views in a written letter. “In the fire of His jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed, for a full, yea, sudden end He will make of all the inhabitants of the earth! As the whirlwind passes, so will the house of the wicked be no more! But the tabernacle off the upright shall flourish!” Reverend Baxter gestures up the hill behind him, hearing the murmured “Amens” roll like ripples of subdued thunder as several drop to their knees. There are many new people here today, they have large expectations, he is speaking to them, telling them what they have been waiting to hear, he is of them, and they of him. He raises both arms like a conductor, whereupon strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” can be heard, as if on cue, like a call to arms — though it is not “The Battle Hymn,” it is one of the Brunist songs: “O the Sons of Light are marching…” Reverend Dreyer, who has been called here by his banker friend as a Christian leader, understands much of the present moment’s dynamics, at least all that regarding religion, for he has made a study of sectarian conflict, which he believes to be due, at root, to a small but specific set of irresolvable philosophical paradoxes that need to be accepted as conundrums and not be allowed to divide men on the basis of what cannot be differing truths but only differing opinions — or, rather, like most seeming paradoxes, single truths identified by the very contraries they contain. This does not seem to be the right moment to explain this, however. “For, verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall LIVE! All that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of DAMNATION!”

“Sounds as how Red here is fixin’ to dump us all down the bottomless pit!” declares Johnson. The volume on the P.A. system has been cranked up too high and he has to shout over the screeching feedback.

“I done worked that shithole,” calls out one of his companions, the ex-miner Steve Lawson, weaving about on his big feet. “We shall see the cities crumble and the earth give up its dead!” the Brunists are singing over the shrieking P.A. “For the end of time has come!” A state police helicopter, which has been coming and going all day, is back again, clattering overhead. The banker points up at it and speaks in the mayor’s ear. “And, hell with it, boys,” Lawson shouts. “I ain’t a-goin’ back down!”

That draws whoops and loud ay-mens from the drunken hecklers, but these fools are of no concern to Abner Baxter. Soon enough they will grovel. Nor does he have time for paradox or conundrums, did he know of such speculations; in fact, he has never used either word in all his long life, rich in high-minded rhetoric as it has been. His eye is fixed firmly on the end time, on the coming day of glory and of retribution, and thus on eternity. Has been since the day he abandoned godless communism — redemption not displacing justice, but simply redefining it. “Hark ye to the White Bird of Glory!” the Brunists are singing. Those who know the words are shouting along. “Hark ye to the White Bird of Grace!” There is less feedback now, but the helicopter is swooping lower, chopping up the sung words. Mouth-filling “glory” gets through the racket, “grace” does not. Abner does not have Hiram Clegg’s silver tongue or Ely Collins’ quiet persuasiveness, but he does have power. He has exhorted the multitude in vast open spaces and has been heard. He knows what they want to hear, because it is what he wants to hear: Blessed are the true believers for they shall enter straightways through the gates into the holy city, while outside the gates are dogs, and sorcerers, whoremongers, murderers, idolaters, and blasphemous foulmouthed imbeciles such as these, and do not doubt it, they shall know eternal torment! He raises his fist and cries out: “And I heard a great voice outa Heaven, saying—“ but he is interrupted by another loud roar, this time on the mine road: it is his banished son and leather-jacketed friends, and little Paulie, too, and they stop him cold.

The motorcyclists, led by the redhead, leave the road and, heads down over their handlebars, dip into the ditch and up again as if rising from the bowels of the earth, then come gunning straight up at them over the patchy grass, as though to plow suicidally into their midst. None of them wears a helmet, except for the wildly grinning boy on the back of one of the bikes, his arms locked tight around the driver, an older man with a gray braid. The panicking crowds at the foot of the hill scatter in all directions, believers and nonbelievers and those who don’t know what to think. Abner’s daughter Amanda, squeaking in fear, has squeezed up behind him and is clutching his hand again. “Is that your son?” demands John P. Suggs. “Whoopee!” howls Cheese Johnson, grinning his wide gap-toothed grin, as his pals abandon him at full boozy lope, Steve Lawson confusedly on his hands and knees. “Hammer down, boys!” And Cheese extends his arms to one side as though dangling a bullfighter’s cape. “Those are the bastards who attacked me!” shouts the banker to the sheriff and police chief, pointing, while backing away and bracing himself. “Hang on, Runt!” shouts the biker with the gray braid, and all five hit their brakes simultaneously and skid into a screaming two-wheel slide, kicking up clouds of dirt, spraying the fleeing onlookers with shrapnel of slate and cinder, the short hairy one with the tiny face stopping just inches from Johnson’s planted feet. “Fucken A!” Johnson laughs, and pumps his fist in front of his crotch, and the hairy biker returns the grin, but as if in miniature. The redhead rights his motorcycle and with a wide swing of his arm flings the head of a dog at Abner Baxter’s feet. They all scramble out of the way as though the ghastly thing might explode — all but the impassive John P. Suggs and Abner himself, who is frozen to the spot, staring in horror at the bloody head his son has hurled at him. Ezra Gray, nose down, screaming at his wife to push faster, is being wheeled uphill, where the mayor and fire chief, wheezing heavily, are already standing amid the Brunist faithful in a state of dumb amazement. Two of the other bikers take aim and throw the decapitated carcasses of a pair of white doves like fluttery little footballs. Their wings open in flight and they come more to resemble tattered paper airplanes. “Help!” squeaks the Chamber of Commerce secretary, ducking, though ducking the wrong way and, as he falls, he catches one of the headless birds square in the face. “Gosh Almighty! What the heck is happening?!” The other dove lands in Ezra Gray’s lap, a perfect throw. “Touchdown!” whoops the wild-eyed biker with the blue headband and the haloed skull tattoo on his bare shoulder. “Oh dang it to shoot!” Ezra cries and starts yelping hysterically, his wife Mildred plucking the dead bird from his lap and calming him down while he curses her bitterly. The Lutheran president of the West Condon Ministerial Association, who finds himself already some distance away from all these happenings and still moving at some speed across the open field, decides that, though he has contributed little to the day’s proceedings, he will contribute no more, while behind him, back at the hill, the banker is yelling: “These are the sorts of people you have brought here, Suggs!” “They are not of us,” replies the mine owner coldly. And then, with diabolical howls and raised fingers, the bikers roar away, Chief Dee Romano firing over their heads, to what purpose he does not know. Not to stop them, to be sure, maybe just to make them go faster. And as quickly as they came, they are gone, just a distant hollow rumble lost in all the other noise. John P. Suggs, turning to the sheriff, growls, “I don’t care how you do it, Puller, but I want those hoodlums locked up or run out of here. And I want this hill secured. Now.”

The loudspeakers are screeching and the helicopter, lifting away to follow the bikers, is still blanketing the hillside with its thuppety-thup rattle, but the songs and shouting have ceased. All are staring at the dog’s head. Graybearded Ben Wosznik walks slowly down the hill, his somber wife following a few paces behind. He picks the head up and cradles it. He stands there a moment, gazing out on the distance into which the bikers have just disappeared, and the helicopter as well, his fingers absently scrubbing the dog’s skull behind the ears. Someone turns off the squealing P.A. system and a sudden hush descends. People emerge quietly from the tents to gaze down upon the scene at the foot of the hill. Muttered prayers can be heard. A boy’s hysterical whimpering. The mayor and fire chief, surprised to find themselves up among the believers, step gingerly back down the hill. The cameramen, their fallen equipment recovered, are filming the dog’s head in Ben Wosznik’s arms. “Rocky,” someone whispers in answer to a reporter’s question. “Oh, him, you mean? Wosznik. W-O-Z…” “Man, oh man,” groans the Chamber of Commerce secretary, wiping at the blood on his face. “This is really crazy!” Which will be that night’s area TV sound bite. “I don’t think this is legal,” the bank lawyer is saying to the sheriff. “See me about it tomorrow, mister. Right now, I got a job to do. You got thirty minutes and then we are gonna seal off the access road and arrest anyone who don’t belong here.”

Angela Bonali wants advice about giving in. “How much have you given in already?” her friend asks. They have decided to drive past the mine hill on the way home from the park to see what’s happening. “Well, just about everything.” “You might want to hold something back.” The hill is still full of tents and little white spots all over it like cotton tufts, but they can see crowds streaming away from the bottom. Maybe everything is already over. Police car lights are flashing. Maybe not. Angie doesn’t care. Tommy really does like to try everything, but she always just wants one thing: Tommy on top of her and inside her, his weight falling on her softly. She loses herself then, and it’s magic. Everything else requires a kind of skill, and that means having to think too much. “Do you? Hold back, I mean?” “No, but I’m not trying to keep a man.”

Angela had just had her second bath of the day and was applying blush and mascara for at least the third time when her friend from the bank called and invited her for a Sunday drive. “I had a date and got stood up,” she said. Her friend is older, nearly twenty-five, but very sexy for her age, and Angela can’t believe anyone would stand her up. But she could think of nothing else to do except have a third bath, and she had a whole afternoon to kill before her big date tonight, so she happily accepted, changing into jeans, sweatshirt, sneakers, and head scarf to protect her new hairdo and bouncing out to the car when it pulled up at the curb. Floating on air, she is. They drove over to the park on the river with the giant rocks. Angela felt like climbing up on them all and rubbing herself against them, especially after her friend pointed out one with a little bump on top that looked like a gigantic circumcised peter. “It’s divine!” she said (a sinful thought about the founding of the Church occurred to her and made her giggle and cross herself), and her friend said, “Well, yes, I guess it is.” Angela was just so madly, hopelessly, deliriously in love, and she couldn’t stop talking about it. “It’s just the greatest thing!”

Her friend smiled but did not seem convinced (well, she was having a bad day), so Angie changed the subject and told her the gossip going around that their boss has taken a lover. “I don’t really blame him. His wife is in awful shape.”

“But what if you were not at your best, and Tommy took a lover?”

“I hope I’m always at my best.”

“Speaking of the devil,” Angela says now, though it has been a while since they have done so, and points toward what her friend has just called “that sad little furor” over by the mine hill, where their boss can be seen walking away with the mayor and the police chief. He is very important. The most important person she knows. And he is also Tommy’s daddy, which makes him nearly the most important man in the world. But he does not seem happy. Her friend decides it’s time to drive on, not wanting to get mixed up in all that. “Can you imagine?” Angie says. “Those crazy people want the world to end!”

“I’m sorry,” her friend says.


“Oh, nothing. Talking to myself. I’ve been angry. I’m not angry anymore.” She sighs, winks somewhat sadly at Angela. “I just wish the world were other than it is.”

“Oh, not me! I love it and I never want it to change!”

Priscilla Tindle stops the car at the edge — herself also at the edge of something — of an open field across the way from the mine hill. She has so dreaded this trip, is full of dread still. Distantly, through the trees bordering the field on the other side, they can see crowds pouring away, police lights flashing, can hear the sirens. “Look, Wesley! Something bad has happened! We could get arrested!”

“Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

Jesus speaking. “Whithersoever” is a favorite of his. He likes to show off all that King James lingo, Wesley preferring the Revised Standard. She knows why Wesley wants to go there. He has been ask ing over and over and she has always found an excuse, afraid of those horrible people and of Wesley’s horrible wife. He doesn’t know yet about the money, but he wants to get his car back, and his ruined golf clubs, which were in the trunk. He wants to stop the woman from signing anything that would put him in danger. And when that grabby pig cleaned out the manse, she took the orange juice squeezer, and some of Wesley’s favorite old shirts, which that crazy boy has probably inherited, and his hot water bottle, which he needs for his lower back pain, not being quite up to some of Prissy’s routines. Prissy is helping him work that pain away with stretching exercises, but she has pushed him a little too hard and he could really use that hot water bottle now. For the past couple of days, he has been walking around in the sitting position. Her poor dear lamb. Lambs. But as to why his indwelling Christ wants to go to the hill, it’s something of a mystery to her. He says he wants to tell everyone the Apocalypse has already happened, just as he said it would, and this is it, so they should all just go home.

There is a man hurrying toward them across the weedy field. It is the Lutheran minister Reverend Konrad Dreyer. He looks rattled and disheveled and is without the straw boater he always wears. “They’re throwing dead animals around over there,” he gasps. “It’s getting pretty ugly.” This is what she wanted to hear. She offers Reverend Dreyer a lift into town, Wesley thankfully not objecting, and on the ride the minister describes the wild scene he had just witnessed, Wesley listening with a wily, knowing, yet impatient look on his face, a look she has come to dread. “I must say, Wes, it does cause one to reconsider the whole ecumenical movement.”

“Does it? I suppose, Connie, that you believe in the usual Christian notion of a benevolent God working His unfathomable will in Heaven and on earth, with worldly self-sacrifice the path to the Heavenly kingdom, spiritual peace lying on the other side of suffering, the whole idea of immortality being validated by our desire for it, like our desire for food and water.” Prissy is impressed. She hasn’t heard Wesley speak so sensibly since that memorable night she joined him in the bathtub. “That, and the redemptive power of my sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice. Am I right?”

“Well, that’s a simple way of putting it, but, sure, something like that.”

“Well, all that’s completely stupid. It’s nothing like that. If that’s what you think, you’re as crazy as those people back there.” Oh oh, thinks Prissy. “God’s one tough hardballing cookie, my friend — about as benevolent as cancer. Just look what He put me through. His son, I mean.”

Reverend Dreyer in the rearview mirror looks nonplussed. “Wes, is everything all right?”

“All right? Well, I’ve been driven out of my church and home and made more or less unemployable, they’re trying to get me locked up, my wife has run off with a sick boy to live with those lunatic zealots and has taken our car and everything we owned, I’m reduced to sleeping on the floor in somebody else’s garage, but other than that, sure, everything’s fine. How about yourself, Connie?”

“I’m sorry, Wes…”

“If you guys in the Association had been doing your job, you wouldn’t have let this happen. You would have protected my rights. You’ve let me down.”

“Well, I’d heard…”

“You heard what those pharisaical church trustees, that brood of vipers, wanted you to hear. You have betrayed me to mine enemies, as the Good Book says. You’ve — no, I’m not going to tell him that.”


“I’m not talking to you, Connie.”

“Who are you talking to, Wes?”

Oh oh. Here it comes. They are still three blocks from the Lutheran church. Prissy grips the wheel and tries desperately to think how to change the subject, but she’s never good at that. Wesley has hesitated. He’s probably thinking the same thing. “I’m talking to Jesus Christ,” he says finally. “He…has moved in.”

Franny Baxter has been scouting the crowds at the bottom of the hill for purposes of her own. She is, plain and simple, looking for a man. Also plain and simple. She wants out of all this. What will her family do without her? She doesn’t care. She knows she has little to offer. She’s homely, scrawny on top and hippy below, has nothing to wear but her mother’s faded hand-me-downs, has pimples and hair where she shouldn’t, has never read a book she hasn’t had to, has a tin ear and is blind to beauty, both artificial and natural, has no interests she can think of, can’t carry a conversation past hello and goodbye (look how she chased off that Elliott girl who was only trying to be friendly), has few job prospects other than housecleaning, laundering, diner waitressing, and dishwashing. She has pretty much taken over all the womanly family functions with the baggy collapse of her mother, but that doesn’t mean she’s much of a cook or has any talent as a housekeeper. The minimum does it for Franny. But she’s also happy with little and can put up with anything except beatings and religion. She’s had enough of both for one lifetime. But a jobless drunk? A lazy foul-mouthed atheistic womanizer who’s never home? No problem. A dumb ugly cluck who doesn’t know what his thingie is for? All the better. She had spotted a couple of promising candidates among the hecklers before they got chased off. One in particular — a guy she knows, if barely. The kid brother of the dead husband of a friend of the family, the widow a former Nazarene who used to be in her father’s congregation, and now, if what she’s heard today from gossip queen Linda Catter is true, not much of anything. Like Franny herself. Fed up. Tess Lawson was always nice to her and she figures now she’ll try to get in touch with her and lay out her hopes and wishes and tell her she’s more or less in love with her brother-in-law Steve, so what should she do next? In love? Sure, she is. Why not? Clumsy lunks with big feet who scare easy and fall down when they get drunk? Just her style. She knows most everything about boys, leastways their backsides, and what she doesn’t know she’ll ask that woman Ludie Belle they’re all talking about.

“Well, I just don’t know what to think, Duke. Those ladies want to hear a voice talk to them. Hel — lo — I—am — speak — ing — to — you — from — the — other — side…!”

“Oh yeah, honey! Hah! I believe! The growl’s awesome!”

“Or else they want to see something weird, like something moving by itself, a card or a spoon, you know. Spookshow stuff. But it’s not like that. I’m not reaching across any life-and-death divide or nothing. I don’t hear any voices. Not like the way you’re hearing me. I only sorta know what Marcella’s thinking. I’m just, like, tuned in.”

“Still, you musta blowed their minds, Patti Jo, callin’ the shot on that ole lady expirin’ like that.”

“Yeah, well, but I didn’t exactly, that’s just how they want to think of it. It’s that Mabel lady. She’s the smart one, reads the cards and suchlike, has a kinda gypsy knowhow. She’s the one who connects all the dots. I only just had the feeling all day yesterday, Marcella and me, that something worrying was gonna happen like it done before, that’s all, and I told them that. Coulda been most anything. Like what just happened down there at the foot of the hill.”

“They are sudden to read a lot in a little…”

“But you know, what if they’re right, Duke? I thought it was kinda scary before, now I don’t know what’s happening. Why did I feel like I had to come here just now when all these other people were coming here, too? It was like we were all in touch with something, or something was in touch with us. I mean, what do you think, Duke? What’s happening? What do you think I oughta do?”

“Well, it ain’t my home ballpark, Patti Jo, but if I was your hittin’ coach, I’d say you should jist hang in fer a pitch or two, swing easy, and see what they throw at you next. We’re havin’ some good innings, we got us a live audience, Will Henry’s takin’ us on his radio show, I’m cookin’ up some new tunes to try out on the fans in the bleachers — and hey, I kinda like teamin’ up with you, little darlin’. Wherever.”

“You’re really a sweet guy, Duke. And I’m so damned crazy. I don’t deserve it.”

Over at the Wilderness Camp up on Inspiration Point, Ben Wosznik is sitting beside his dead dog, a shovel and shotgun across his lap. He gazes across at the Mount of Redemption, where, distantly, under late-afternoon overcast skies, the Brunist Followers mill about, waiting for the evening’s dedication ceremonies or else for the End. If the Rapture should happen now, he’d be a front-row witness to this spectacle, so inevitable yet so hard to imagine, but he might get overlooked in the gathering in of Christian souls. He should be getting back. He had set about to bury Rocky up here, where the old boy so loved to come when he and Clara used it as their own private chapel and talking-out place, but it still feels too polluted by the bikers’ recent presence. He’ll clean the area up tomorrow, but it will never be the same. Those cruel boys have probably spoiled it forever. Whatever forever is now in these last days. The scene up here at dawn this morning is still fixed in his mind, and he is only slowly coming to make sense of things. Abner’s boy seemed genuinely surprised when they found the gun in his backpack, Ben saw that. So if the kid didn’t steal it, how did it get there? “Why’d they do that to you, old fella? Must of been me they was after.” That was probably it. They’d supposed he’d planted the gun on them to get them thrown out of the camp, maybe after he caught them in the camp kitchen, and they took their revenge. “But who really done it, then?” Who stole the gun in the first place? And the money? But left the shotgun? Somebody in a hurry. He may want to ask Abner about what happened when he first arrived yesterday, though that’s apt only to put the man on the defensive again and stir up old feelings, never far from the surface, that the world is against him. Well, he’s been going through a lot, that man. He only just gets his feet on the ground and his boys trip him up again. There was a tearful moment early this morning, standing up here, when, just for a second, Abner’s vulnerability showed through, and his pain. A sympathy grew up between them — Ben felt it, too — but it hasn’t lasted. Abner is no longer so alone, his old buds Roy and Jewell having turned up today to egg him on, so he’s recovering some of his contentious nature, and now, after what all else has happened, Ben’s own forgiving nature is being sorely tested. Down below, the camp has been plundered. Cabin doors left gaping. Much of the food gone, medications. The lodge vandalized. Windows smashed. Vehicles in the parking lot and down at the trailer park broken into, though he’d hid his shotgun well and they never discovered it. But: Rocky’s headless body on his kitchenette table. He found the doves’ heads in the empty camp kitchen refrigerator, blindly staring out, beaks open as though begging for food or water. He tossed them down the hole in the men’s privy. No need for people to have to see that. But he will have to tell them what has happened. Far across the way, the old tipple and water tower, silhouetted against the soft gray sky, stand like tomb markers over an old Indian burial mound. Which helps him think what it is he’ll do.

“When I was a lad

N old Rocky a pup

Over hills’n meadows we’d stray,

Jist a boy and his dog,

We was both fulla fun,

We grew up together that way…”

The sun, hidden all day, peeks out through a break in the clouds and casts a soft tender farewell ray on the back slope of the old mine hill. Ben Wosznik’s beloved dog Rockdust is being laid to rest in a freshly dug hole there, wrapped in his own blanket, while Brother Duke L’Heureux, the famous Nashville singer, guitar around his neck, sings a special version of the classic “Old Shep” in Rocky’s memory, bringing tears to the eyes of the mourners. For mourners they are, though it be but a dog. When that poor animal’s head tumbled into their midst today, following so close upon the shocking passing of Sister Harriet Mc-Cardle, something of their past lives suddenly ended and they found themselves face to face with that which they have so often prayed for, yet cannot help but dread: the imminent end of time. This is what the horror of Rocky’s severed head said to them, and it left them full of hope, and it left them full of fear.

“When I come home from the mines

Or from workin’ the land,

Old Rocky would be by the door,

Now them boys took a knife,

And ended his life,

I cain’t believe he won’t be there no more…”

Many are kneeling, murmuring their own prayers, many more are crying, caught up in a grief that embraces not only Brother Ben and his martyred dog, but also themselves and the whole wide world. They can’t believe it won’t be there no more. But they do believe it. That is why they are here. As the lone ray of sun fades away, sucked back into the western sky like a withdrawn promise, and the song moves into the final verse, several others join in: Sister Patti Jo Glover, Sister Betty Wilson Clegg, Brother Will Henry in his fine white hat, those young folks from Florida, and then, invited by Brother Duke, just about everybody, even Brother Ben, the tears rolling down his craggy cheeks into his thick gray beard…

“Dear old Rocky has gone

Where the good doggies go,

And no more with old Rocky I’ll roam,

But if dogs have a Heaven,

There’s one thing I know,

Old Rocky has a wonderful home!”

A sad chorus of “amens” echoes up and down the hillside as people rise to their feet and wipe their eyes and dirt is thrown on the shallow grave. Before returning to the other side of the hill, Brother Hiram Clegg remembers to say a word in remembrance of Sister Harriet McCardle, and then Brother Duke and Brother Will and Sister Patti Jo lead them all in the singing of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand…”

“Lead me on, let me stand,

I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone,

Through the storm, through the night,

Lead me on to the light,

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home…”

Yea, lead me on to the light: This is their fervent prayer. It is the Brunist message of the new dispensation, the new covenant — the Coming of Light — and so they baptize by light as well, for that is who they are. The Army of the Sons and Daughters of Light. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light, for God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. How often have they heard that today! But when they return to the dusky eastern slope where all the tents are and where so much has happened on this momentous day, it is like stepping into the onrushing night, as if the burial has somehow brought the day to an abrupt end and plunged them all into what may be the final hours. Campfires are being built and lit against the encroaching dark and the apprehensive Followers are gathering around them, talking, praying, recounting the movement’s origins and years of persecution, reading from the Bible, reciting the words of the Prophet, confessing, preaching, singing, trying to find their place in this epochal event that has never happened before and will only happen once in human history — and perhaps at any moment. A great cosmic drama, promised since the beginning of time, is being enacted, the hill whereon they stand its stage and they its chosen actors, all caught up in the fulfillment of prophecy in the way that Simon the Zealot or Thomas the Twin, Mary the wife of Clopas, the tax collectors Zacchaeus and Matthew, the Samaritan leper or the woman from Canaan, ordinary folk one and all, were caught up in the First Coming of Christ Jesus the Messiah, also anciently prophesied and glorious in its fulfillment. And did those feel something of the same rush of awe and anticipation and even something like stage fright felt by these here tonight, as history dissolves into eternity?

Throughout the day they have stood together in vast numbers against the enemies of the faith, spreading out over the hillside in their white garments of purity as though taking command of the earth itself, claiming it for Christ Jesus, and they felt great comfort in these numbers, which seemed to confirm the decisions they have taken and which gave them the sense, often verging on ecstasy, of participating in something far larger than themselves; this evening, in the dimming of the light, it is their aloneness that they feel, their smallness in the universe, and the strangeness of that universe, and, whatever their other differences, their shared courage in the face of that strangeness and that smallness, and their shared faith in God’s goodness and His care and protection of His chosen ones, for the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and he pondereth all his goings. God feels close by and people are talking to Him directly, like He’s there in the air about ten feet over their heads, and sometimes passing right through them in the way that light flows through a window, say, or the way, as a Wisconsin schoolteacher in their midst puts it, that thought passes from neuron to neuron over the intervening synapses, or, to put it in words better understood by most (as she does), the way that thoughts go from head to head, and sometimes without a word being spoken. Oh yes, their heads are full of strange new thoughts that have reached them from who knows where.

Though for most, leaving the Mount of Redemption on this day is inconceivable (the Rapture — which is silent and sudden — can happen at any second), some have done so. Mr. John P. Suggs has been gone for several hours, though it is said he will be back for the tabernacle dedication service, and that his purpose was to deal with the threat posed by the banker. Will Henry returned to the radio station after the funeral service for all the evening programs, taking Brother Duke L’Heureux and Sister Patti Jo Glover with him. She is said to be in contact with the spirit of the Prophet’s sister, and agreed to go only if she was back here by ten o’clock; meaning, the dead girl’s spirit must have told her something, so they should be safe until ten. The sheriff also left the hill, though he is not a believer and once access was sealed off and troops posted, had no official reason to stay, though many have prayed for his conversion. But then he had to be called back when Brother Ben returned from the Wilderness Camp (another who seems to be coming and going incautiously) to report the raid on the camp by the biker boys. He and the sheriff went over there together, the sheriff angry with himself for not having left somebody to guard it, and he did so immediately. For most, the assault on the camp is yet another alarming sign that the end might be at hand, though for some it is also seen as retribution for the selfishness of their leaders, thinking too little about the plight of their most committed Followers.

For there are many here among the Followers who, fearful of the fate of Ananias and his wife, have sold or given away all they have, following the call of Jesus and of the Prophet himself to “Leave everything and follow me!” and “Come to the Mount of Redemption!” and for them, should God not rapture his church tonight, there is no clearly defined tomorrow. They have no place to go and nothing to do when they get there, as the saying goes. So, in spite of the general opinion that today is only the anniversary of a great historic moment, the true Coming not likely to occur for at least another two years, these Followers still believe strongly (they are scanning the darkening sky for the lights of spaceships or other unnatural and cataclysmic events, the children especially finding this an exciting adventure) that the Rapture will come tonight and must come, for tomorrow is unimaginable. Some are now camping out, often several families to a house, in the Chestnut Hills prefab development, thanks to Brother John P. Suggs, who built and owns much of it. But, being penniless by faith, they cannot pay the rents that begin tomorrow. Others are living like refugees in the homes of locals or in tents in the fields around, and this cannot go on. So, although they love and admire Sister Clara, they cannot agree with her (it’s easier for her and her friends — they have reserved all the best places at the camp for themselves and won’t let others in), and are drawn rather to those with a more urgent and immediate message, like Reverend Abner Baxter and his son Young Abner and all their followers. Though Brother Abner has largely been shunned by the official leaders and silenced by the gruesome acts earlier today of his wild younger sons (has Brother Ben Wosznik, as is rumored, done something unpardonable for which the killing of his dog was retribution?), he is attuned to their needs and convictions. He is not so lovable as Sister Clara or Brother Ben, but he is of one mind with them. He believes that the Tribulation has already begun, and they do too. He speaks boldly about the imminence of the Second Coming, interprets for them the mystery of the seven seals, the seven trumpets and the seven bowls (he is especially vivid on the topics of hailstorms, rivers of blood, mountains of fire, and loathsome sores), honors the Prophet more than any other, and preaches, as did the Evangelist Luke, that all in the movement are of one heart and soul and no one possesses anything of his own, but they all have everything in common; nor should there be a needy person among them, for those who have possessions must sell them and share the proceeds with all.

Others, though they too profess an eagerness for the Coming of the Kingdom of Light and look forward to flying into Heaven or embracing Christ Jesus here on the Mount of Redemption or whatever, are secretly relieved that this might not happen tonight, for the end of time is a frightening thought. It’s like knowing you have to jump off the high diving board but are glad to learn that today the pool is closed. But if not tonight, when? This is a question that has perplexed millions before them, from St. Clement and his followers in the first century after Christ through all the centuries of millennial visionaries who followed right up to the likes of the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Latter-Day Saints of their own day. Even Jesus and Paul spoke of the imminent end of time within the lifetimes of their hearers. Everything in the Bible is directly inspired by God. There can be no errors, they could not have been mistaken. But it did not happen. They were not raptured, the early church was not. So they clearly had something else in mind, something subtler and more obscure, as did the Gospel writers and John the Seer (“Behold, I come quickly!”…but He did not), a latent meaning waiting to be revealed perhaps centuries later. Perhaps tonight.

It is the revealing of that hidden intent that the two young Bible scholars and Brunist office managers, Brothers Darren and Billy Don, are attempting, and they believe they may find it in the accumulated patterns of the many prophesyings, interestingly sequenced through the centuries. Darren is an analyzer of texts, Billy Don is a mathematician, and together they have catalogued the origin of their own movement in detail, have examined all the contemporary newspaper accounts and photographs, have studied the life of Giovanni Bruno and that of his visionary predecessor, Ely Collins, have read Dr. Eleanor Norton’s Sayings of Domiron, as well as secondary texts like the Sibylline Oracles and the Scofield Reference Bible, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and The Great Pyramid, Its Divine Message (the Bible in stone!); they have analyzed all Biblical descriptions of the Last Times in both Testaments and all available interpretations of those descriptions, holding, as do all Brunist Followers, that Biblical prophecy is history written in advance and must be read as such, and they have prepared an intricate chart, entitled “Breaking the Code,” showing the parallels and linkages with the Brunist chronology. Convinced that an important key lies hidden in this strangely resonant day, they have taped and photographed everything from the earliest sunrise service on the Mount when Brother Colin Meredith fell prostrate alongside the lawnchair bier, crying out that he could see Marcella Bruno lying on it, cold and blue and unmoving, except for her eyes which were looking straight at him in desperate appeal as she blew a horrible red bubble, through all the day’s joys and outrages that have followed, all the comings and goings and declarations and disputations and confrontations, right up to the burial of the beheaded dog Rocky (they are well aware of Matthew 16.18, which some would see as ironic, but they do not) and the present anxious moment. Assuming there will be a tomorrow, as is their cautious but studied belief, they will need thorough documentation to pore over during the weeks to come in order to understand fully what has happened on this crucial full-circle day, and more importantly, what is likely to happen in the future and just when.

They are even willing to examine profane and scurrilous materials such as the book of photographs taken out here on the stormy hill five years ago by a local reporter and others by who-knows-whom in the dimly lit newspaper office in West Condon, photos now kept under lock and key in the church office and not for general distribution. The two young men have earlier questioned Reverend Clegg about the painting of Marcella Bruno dying in the ditch, pointing to Heaven, that they have seen hanging in his church in Florida. Since the painter was not present at this historic moment, who or what can he have used as his model? Is it possible he had access to the photo of the poor terrified girl on the newspaper office sofa? Reverend Clegg did not think so and he did not like the question; perhaps they pushed their inquiries too far. But there is nothing prurient about their close examination of these photographs, disturbing as they are if gazed at idly rather than searching them for purposes of historical veracity and for omens and portents of prophetic significance. The thrust of their question had to do with God’s use of profane materials for divine purposes, and thus amounted to further praise of the painting, not a criticism. Even evil men serve God’s purposes, must do so, in this world of God’s invention. Above all, in the search for ultimate truth, no detail can be censored or overlooked. That uncanny image in Colin’s vision this morning, for example, of the red bubble. It seemed to shock many, but so far no one will say more about it. Is there something missing from the painting in Reverend Clegg’s church?

If nothing else, just as the growing worldwide power of the Christian faith is living proof of its undeniable truth (God Himself moving through human thought), so do all these apocalyptic expectations — even when seeming failures — participate in mankind’s abiding, divinely inspired quest for truth and salvation, for oneness with God and His universe, and so are therefore true in some deeper, perhaps ahistorical — there is no history in eternity — sense. In eternity, as Dar ren likes to say, seeking is finding. The nobility of this inquiry into last things is best shown by those who have pursued it: all the great political and religious leaders through the centuries to the present day, the wise men, the holy men, the artists and the scholars, even the finest scientists who have tried and are trying to grasp the world’s doom in their own limited ways. Christopher Columbus, who discovered what many hold to be the New Jerusalem, also authored a Book of Prophecies and predicted the impending Apocalypse, and Martin Luther, Cotton Mather, John Wesley, and Joseph Smith all envisioned specific end dates. Henry Adams did. It has to be assumed that the spirit of God spoke through them. As, they hope and believe, He is now speaking through those here tonight.

As the sky darkens, the baptismal lamps and flashlights come out, and those who have not yet done so, and many who have, now repent of their sins and pass through the signature Brunist ritual of baptism by light. Clara Collins uses a battered miner’s lamp, said to be that of her first husband Ely, given to her at the time of his memorial service, but the flashlight made famous by the Prophet Giovanni Bruno, or one very much like it, is also used and by many preferred. The ancient issue of “sprinkling” versus “total immersion” arises with advocates for each, depending on the previous Christian denomination of the Follower, and there are some who, against Sister Clara’s firmly expressed wishes, insist on being completely bathed in light, free of all garments (clothing casts shadows!), including the young musicians from Florida, who draw others, many squealing small children among them, into their immersive group baptism near the big bonfire. They sing “I’ll Fly Away,” and “There’s a Light upon the Mountain,” and some who surround them, in their holy fervor, forget they are naked, and some don’t. “Let the Holy Ghost come in!” they are singing. Darren finds their heretical behavior disgusting, but Billy Don strips off to his sunglasses and joins them, as does pale, scrawny, wild-eyed Colin Meredith, his mother unable to hold him back as he flings himself ecstatically into their midst, crying out: “Oh Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I love you!”

All of which infuriates Abner Baxter and his followers, Abner shielding his wide-eyed daughter from the sight and demanding that this sinful abomination cease immediately. Clara agrees (never mind the argument that this is how the Rapture will happen when they fly to Heaven leaving all behind, including of course their clothing) and, in the firm and commanding way she has, asks everyone to please put their clothes back on, the baptism ceremony is concluded. Reverend Hiram Clegg, though he had been singing along with them, arm in arm, joins her in her appeal, speaking directly to the young people in his fatherly fashion and helping them to find their scattered clothing. Reverend Baxter of course has his own rituals of baptism by light, which saying of the Prophet he interprets as baptism by fire, as first announced by John the Baptist—“I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!”—and as experienced by Christ’s disciples at Pentecost when they were lapped by tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit descended upon them, but though pain is not excluded from these rites, nakedness — or any other form of frivolous personal exhibitionism, including excessive gaiety — certainly is.

Clara, aware of the feverish expectations of many tonight and sharing their desires but not their convictions (she cannot explain this entirely, but perhaps Ely’s calm sorrowful distance much of the day has been part of it), and consequently fearful of too great a disappointment at the end of the day’s last hour, has wanted to finish on a cheering note, so she has delayed the official camp dedication and tabernacle announcement until later in the evening. The rising passions, however, and the risk of further disputes (altogether too much is being said about opening the Wilderness Camp freely to all believers; she knows this cannot happen though she has not yet thought how to stop it) compel her to get on with the ceremony now. Darren and Billy Don — with fourteen little white crosses, much smaller and whiter than those that support the lawnchair bier — set about mysteriously decorating the hillside, encircling the main meeting tent near the top of the hill. Then lighted candles are passed about and all are called upon to follow their Evangelical Leader as she parades them from cross to cross as if on a via dolorosa, as many of those present take it to be, singing and praying fervently at each station, led by the various preachers and ecstatics among them. There are so many little crosses, this takes a good time. Meanwhile Ben and Wayne light the kerosene lanterns in the meeting tent, setting it aglow like a beacon, calling all toward it. The tent is too small for this vast crowd of Followers, but Wayne has moved the tent-meeting microphones to the podium inside the tent with speakers outside to reach the overflow, as they have so often done on their missionary travels, and the side flaps of the tent are opened. After the Florida youngsters, their earlier excessive zeal forgiven, lead everyone in singing “Asleep in Jesus” and “The Ninety and Nine” and the melodious “Jesus Is Coming”—“Jesus is coming! The dead shall arise! Loved ones shall meet in a joyful surprise! Caught up together to Him in the skies! Jesus is coming again!”—Brother Hiram Clegg is asked to give the invocation, and at Clara’s personal request, to say a few words to soothe, in his silvery tongue, the anxieties of the Followers and to prepare them, as it were, should the day pass without the hoped-for Rapture. Also, it will take a while as it always does with Brother Hiram, and perhaps it will allow Mr. John P. Suggs time to return.

“And I heard a great voice out of Heaven,” cries Brother Hiram, his amplified voice carrying out past the tent and past the Mount into the night beyond, “saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain! Oh my brothers! Oh my sisters! No more death, neither sorrow, nor crying! No more pain!”

When he is finished, Clara will officially declare the International Brunist Headquarters and Wilderness Camp Meeting Ground open and present the architectural plans of what they are now calling the Brunist Coming of Light Tabernacle Church, sometimes the Brunist Tabernacle of Light, explaining that twelve of the little crosses they have just visited represent the actual twelve corners of the planned church which is in the shape of a cross, sitting on a large encompassing circle carved out of the top of the hill, thus imitating the cross-in-the-circle stitched on all their tunics and viewable as such when seen from on high (God will know who is here!). The other two crosses stitch the longer space between the arms and foot of the cross, the dimensions of which are seven units each for the arms and head, twelve units for the post, totaling thirty-three, the life in years of Christ and of their Prophet — which explains why she insisted on erecting the meeting tent just where it is, at the very altar of the tabernacle-to-be. She will then make the exciting announcement, which has floated up and down the hillside all day as rumor, that an extraordinarily generous gift from an anonymous donor has made it possible to get started immediately, so that the church will be built well before the seventh anniversary of the Day of Redemption, when all prophecies may well be fulfilled. The donor, she will be careful to point out, has specified that the gift is to be used for the new tabernacle and not for any other purpose, else they shall not receive it.

Meanwhile, Reverend Clegg has now launched into a lyrical evocation of the Seven Words or Sayings of Giovanni Bruno (“A humble man of the people, my friends! But spiritually pure and majestic of stature! A saintly man with riveting eyes, inhabited by the spirit of God!”) in which the Prophet (“I am the One to Come”) acknowledged the Forerunner Ely Collins and his vision of the White Bird (“Hark ye to the White Bird!”), and above all pointed to the prophetic message found in Brother Ely’s hand upon his death (“The tomb is its message!”), announced the Coming of the Light on the Mount of Redemption involving time spans of a “Sunday Week” and “A Circle of Evenings,” which led them to this hillside on the nineteenth of April five years ago today, and commanded that his Followers “Baptize with Light.”

“Bru-no! Bru-no! Bru-no!” some in the back of the tent chant, and others on the hillside outside join in.

“Let us pray!”

In his prayer, Brother Hiram speaks once more of the decapitated doves and dog, assuring all present that animals do have souls and God loves them and there will be animals in Heaven for God, who watches over even the birds of the air, created them and loves them. “Dear Lord, we think of that song we have all just sung, ‘The Ninety and Nine,’ with its sorrowful resonances with the number who died beneath our feet in that terrible disaster. It expresses Your undying love of all living creatures, and not only for Your flock but also for Your strays. Even smelly dirty sheep are loved by You, their creator, and Your Son Himself became the sacrificial Lamb for us all. A homeless man brought hope and salvation to this world by becoming a lamb. All animals have a soul and are going to be with their maker and cared for in Heaven by those who loved them on earth — to say that animals don’t go to Heaven when they die has no foundation in Scripture! The beloved Rockdust is in Heaven, wagging his tail, we know this and thank Thee for it!” He also says a prayer for Sister Harriet McCardle, whose death today has reminded them all of the need for a burial ground of their own, and after he is done, Sister Clara will be able to tell them that they have decided to consecrate the western slope of the Mount, facing the setting sun, for that purpose, so that the Brunist souls in repose will be easy for God to gather to his bosom. They will attempt to bring the bodies of all past martyrs and Followers to be buried here, along with those of the Prophet and his sister, even though, as she knows, there is some uncertainty among the believers as to whether such bodies even still exist, or whether they were both translated straight up to Heaven. Finally, she will take up a collection, not only for the new church, but also for the needy among them, for she agrees that all available unmarked resources should be used to help one another, and she knows that Brother Hiram’s congregation will lead the way in this.

“Our movement has been blessed with many great visionaries,” he declares after the chorus of amens, “and none less so than our inspiring Evangelical Leader and Organizer, Sister Clara Collins-Wosznik, to whom came one day, unbidden, as if the Lord were speaking to her directly, the glorious vision of a magnificent House of God to be built here on this site, about which you have all by now heard. Sister Clara will soon be telling you all about it and bringing new tidings of especial joy. We cannot say when the bridegroom cometh for, as Jesus said, such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh, but if Jesus should come tonight and welcome us all to Heaven, my friends, we are ready! And yet if he should wait for a time and come a year from now or two years from now, we shall be ever more ready! We shall gather here then in a great new tabernacle church to receive him in all his glory and like the master of the house in Jesus’ beautiful parable, we will be able to say: Come, for all things are now—!”

“We seen it! We seen it!” cries a child rushing into the tent, interrupting Brother Hiram at the height of his oratory.” A light! Over on the other side! A light in the sky! We seen a burning light in the sky! He’s coming!” Oh sweet Jesus! It is happening! All thoughts of parables and tabernacles vanish and, with a communal cry, they all rush out to the top of the hill to await the coming of the Lord.

I.12 Monday 20 April

The new day dawns brightly, as if in mockery of last night’s awesome imaginings, everything cheerfully aglitter from the light rain that has fallen in the early hours. Yet again, the world has not ended. This circumstance is met variously with disappointment, fear, relief, anxiety, indifference. Atop Inspiration Point, Ben Wosznik greets it with that grave equanimity for which he is known — whatever the Lord wills — and picks up empty beer and whiskey bottles, filthy rags, crumpled cigarette packs. In spite of all the exhausting events of yesterday and last night, Ben, who both as coalminer and farmer was always an early riser, has chosen the hushed predawn moment to climb up here with a trash bag to police the area, erasing as best he can all signs of the bikers’ recent occupation. Those boys do some pretty heavy drinking. Across the way, the rising sun casts its first warming glow on the crest of the Mount of Redemption, where, just below it, the tents remain, containing many people in blankets and sleeping bags. Not just a new day for some of them. A whole new life. Ben remembers this feeling from five years ago, when he and Clara and the others had the same expectations many of these folks had last night, and how strange and dreamlike the next day seemed, like an imitation day hiding the real one. To keep their minds off their disappointment, Ben will try to busy them today with clearing the Mount — they must have everything removed by noon — and cleaning up the camp after yesterday’s raid by the motorcycle gang. A lot of damage was done down below, but little that can’t be fixed.

After a long hard day, once the troublemakers at the foot of the Mount were chased away and poor Rocky buried, things seemed to be going well enough last night, with Clara about to reveal to everyone the Brunist Tabernacle of Light plans (if his eyesight were better, he could probably see from here some of those little white crosses that pegged the corners) and to confirm the miraculous news about the large gift they have received, when those pesky Blaurock kids ran in shouting about lights in the sky and everybody rushed out. Probably just sparks from the fire on the front side of the hill, but it brought an end to the rest of the night’s scheduled events. In fact, some blamed the distractions in the meeting tent and all the proud talk about a new church for the disappearance of the lights. Mr. Suggs arrived an hour or so before midnight and got an earful about that, which clearly did not please him.

Before joining the others on the top of the hill, the three of them, along with Hiram, gathered in the tent so hastily abandoned. Mr. Suggs told them he had been unable to close the deal on the old mine property as he’d hoped, one of the owners being away on a weekend fishing trip, but he was certain that would happen within the week. Meanwhile, he showed them a rough sketch of a new expanded architectural layout that incorporates the tabernacle and burial ground on the Mount, the Wilderness camp, his projected motel, and an additional adjacent trailer camp as part of a single Brunist headquarters and religious center complex, all connected by tree-lined access roads and camp meeting ground spaces, with living areas clearly designated, none at the camp itself. Ben was deeply impressed and said it looked almost like Heaven, and Mr. Suggs said, except there’s no free admission. Those living in the camp buildings now would have to move, including Mrs. Edwards and the two young office managers, so as to give no one any justifiable claim to the right to live there, though the small trailer camp on the old athletic field down from the main buildings would remain for now, its available slots allocated to those already parked there, and those forced to move out of the official camp buildings, for whom small campers could be purchased with their new gift money. The front gates and the barbed-wire fence being erected around the camp to protect it from intruders will be completed at his expense, he said, reminding them that there should be someone manning the gates from sunrise to sunset as well as assigned night watchmen until an alarm system can be installed. Clara said she was worried about those who have given away all they have to be here and now have nowhere to go, but Mr. Suggs pointed out that most of those who have done so and now expect to be cared for by the community did not actually have all that much to give away in the first place, if their meager contributions were any indication, and the three of them, though perhaps more charitable than Mr. Suggs, had to agree that this was probably so. There were many ways, he said, they could earn their rent money, and meanwhile he’d begin developing the new trailer camp area this week, bringing in water and electricity, which will be metered.

The sun’s rays are creeping steadily down the eastern slope of the distant Mount, falling now upon the tents, from which people start to emerge, scattering in various directions like ants from a disturbed anthill, some making their way over to the latrines at the mine buildings, others down to their cars on the mine road or coming this way on foot for the sunrise service or to use the communal showers. Still thirty minutes or so before the sun reaches the dogwood tree where this morning’s service is to be held and many of the out-of-town buses have not yet arrived, though Ben can see folks beginning to mill about down below. Many more are coming, more really than the little camp can bear. After the service, he will visit Rocky’s grave and help with the striking of the tents and the cleanup of the hillside over there, which has, even at this distance, a littered look, like after a church picnic. He wants to leave something at the grave. Flowers don’t seem right. Then he remembers the brass dog tag Rocky used to wear when he was younger and running loose. Probably still back at the old farm house somewhere. Just the thing. He’ll drop by when he makes his morning run to the rubbish dump. The bikers stole or ruined most everything edible, so he’ll have to restock all that as well and pick up again the makings for a communal farewell lunch today for the busloads of visitors. Also some replacement window panes and more sacks of lime; the outdoor necessaries have suffered a lot of traffic and there will be a heap more today.

Billy Don Tebbett greets the first day after the last one with a vague but aching longing, having lain the night through, unable to sleep, almost unable to breathe, beside a beautiful young woman, herself asleep in her fellow’s arms, the three of them huddled beneath the stars — though there were no stars, not until nearly dawn, and then there was a moon, too, a big one, that seemed itself like a revelation, even as viewed through his prescription sunglasses. Neither he nor Darren were of the opinion anything like the Rapture would happen last night, yet both had found themselves staring at the overcast night sky, almost afraid to look away, until well past midnight. Billy Don, lonely for friends his own age, had drawn close to the young people from Florida with whom earlier in the night he had danced in the altogether at the bonfire, immersed in light, and who were during the midnight vigil gently singing songs like “I’m Going Home” (“I’m glad that I am born to die…”) and “Kum Ba Yah” and “Love Lifted Me.” When the likelihood of any further drama in the sky faded away, they fell into a deep conversation about love and sin, deciding that the only true sin was unkindness, like what those mean boys did to that unfortunate dog — Darren disagreeing, as always, and insisting they had to return to the camp immediately to see what damage the bikers had done. Billy Don said that what was done was done and they should stay on the Mount to guard it until dawn, and Darren said that’s what the sheriff’s troops were for and anyway there was no longer any danger, and they had to get back. Right now. Billy Don was about to hand Darren the car keys when he was rescued by Mrs. Edwards, who was returning to the camp with Colin and offered Darren a ride, saying Colin was overexcited and she needed Darren’s help to coax Colin into the car, and he stalked off with her in a wordless fury. Billy Don was rather hoping for a sleepy cuddle with someone through the night, but he could see that the young people had already paired off in various ways, and as there were anyway more boys than girls, there was nobody left for him. But then a young couple near the fire offered to share their blanket with him and he figured that was better than nothing and he was still wide awake, and so they crawled under together in their tunics, the girl between them, and continued their conversation about the meaning of life and the body’s part in it, while they still have bodies, and about God’s kingdom, to which they would all fly away by and by, as a kingdom of love and happiness and beautiful music. “Metaphorically speaking,” the boy added, and the girl said, “No, really.” As the fire died down and the temperature dropped, the blanket wasn’t really enough, so Billy Don made a trip to the car for a quick pee (whoo, he was pretty excited) and his old sleeping bag, which they opened up and used as a comforter. The couple rolled into a sleepy hug, he lying beside them on his back, the girl’s warm backside snuggled against his hipbone, and he supposed if you were asleep you wouldn’t really be able to tell a hipbone from a hand, so, as they dropped off, or seemed to, he let his fall there as if by accident, full of wonder at the natural fit of those two parts. God is great. Until his hand was brushed by the boy’s hand and he snatched it away and rolled over, faking a soft snore as though sound asleep and therefore not responsible for what his hand might have been doing. He and the girl were now bottom to bottom and it wasn’t as good as before but it was enough to keep him awake all night, especially given his memory of it, unclothed, rosy, in front of the fire. It began to rain slightly, so they pulled the sleeping bag over their heads and curled up all the tighter, and he could feel the softness of her pressing against him as if trying to hug him back there, as he was trying to hug her. Whenever she shifted in her sleep, it felt like a tender caress, innocent as hand-holding, a caress that amounted, given the girl’s interpretation of such things and increasingly his own, to a kind of communion with God. Now, as he pauses to pick up some morning stragglers on the road, headed for the camp, he is reflecting groggily (it will be a long day, and even if he finds a moment for a quick nap, he knows Darren in his spite will not let him have it) upon this divine caress, feeling even yet a kind of tingle down there like the way your lips sometimes feel after you’ve been kissing someone, and he realizes that that vague ache in his heart he awoke to is the ache of love. He is head over heels. But not with anybody.

For Lucy Smith, the new day, as every other day, brings with its arrival a certain wistfulness tinged with bittersweet regret at the way time keeps getting on, and like Billy Don, a vague longing for she knows not what. Something missed along the way or missing now. She did not spend the night on the Mount of Redemption or anywhere near it, for her husband Calvin, who has a paying job as many in town do not and who has a family to care for, as he often says, when he says anything at all, could not as a public official take the risk — in fact, he has already received a telephone call from a city lawyer asking about his three brief days as a Brunist five years ago. But what if? she asked when one of his officers came to drive her home, and Calvin simply shrugged and looked the other way. Everyone seemed so afraid; she was afraid. The dead white birds spooked everybody. A sign from above. She hardly slept all night, worrying about what might happen, but she assumes nothing did because she has risen at first light and found the world unchanged, no sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, and nothing about it on TV either, though they did show Susanna Friskin’s husband sitting on the ground with blood on his face and looking amazed. Now, until it is time to wake the children, she busies herself with folding laundry and fixing the children’s breakfasts and praying silently that she be allowed to understand the world before she dies.

She felt truly left behind yesterday when it started to get dark and all the others, feeling expectant and apprehensive, stepped out of Mabel’s caravan to climb the Mount together and she had to go home alone. But at least there were the hours before with all her friends from church, some not seen in years. Betty Wilson had come all the way from Florida (Calvin promised before they got married that they would go there someday, but he has probably forgotten) and Mildred Gray peeked in, too, though she could only stop in for a quick hello because of her crippled husband, about whom they all talked after she left, and less than favorably. He’s driving poor Mildred into an early grave, they said. The way Mildred put it was that she hoped the Rapture would come that night because at least Ezra could fly up out of his wheelchair and she wouldn’t have to push it anymore. Lucy had hoped to see again her old high school friend Wanda Cravens, but she was tending her youngsters up on the Mount, Mabel said, adding that there were several now, all about a year apart, no two looking alike. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe, said a lady named Ludie Belle, one of the many new people traveling with Clara’s group. She had so many children because she didn’t know what to do. Everyone chuckled at that, though in a loving and accepting way. They described Wanda Craven’s new man and Lucy thought they were exaggerating until, later, she actually saw him.

The talk in Mabel’s caravan, which had been going on before Lucy arrived, was about something mysterious that had just happened and what it might mean. Mabel had that look on her face with her head reared back that always signifies something very dramatic is about to take place, or else something she predicted has just occurred, but they didn’t seem to want to tell Lucy what it was. It was because of Calvin’s job, she knew, and she could understand that, but still she felt hurt. It was Florrie Cox who finally let the cat out, whether because she felt sorry for her or just because Florrie is always apt to blurt out things. It seems that some young female-like person, who may not have been a real person at all, had appeared and vanished all in a whisker, leaving a dead old lady in her wake, all of which signified many different possible things, depending in part on whether the phantasm, if it was a phantasm, was a godly spirit or a diabolical one, the prevailing opinion being the latter and generally supported by Mabel’s cards. Bernice Filbert said that when she first witnessed the creature in her filthy garments hovering over the lawnchair that once held the cadaver of the Prophet’s sister, she saw that while she — or it — was looking down at the chair, it also had a face on the back of its head which was staring straight at her. She said she did not think she was being singled out, but that the face was one of those, like in some paintings, in which the eyes follow you wherever you go, so in effect it was looking at everyone at the same time. Of course no one else saw this and Bernice has a very active imagination, but her stories are always interesting and you can’t help listening to them. The amazing thing, they were all saying, is that a woman named Patti Jo, who is in communication with the dead, predicted exactly all this would happen, right there in Mabel’s caravan the day before. It’s true, many of them were here and heard it, and now Mabel’s cards were saying there was more to come — maybe even the Rapture, or something like it. They were hoping Patti Jo would join them in case she had any new messages, but she didn’t make it before everyone had to leave, though you could hear her singing religious songs on the loudspeakers.

Through the caravan window, Lucy could see her husband’s boss, who appointed Calvin his deputy right after he got elected sheriff. His old partner in the mine. The man’s thick shaved neck bulging out over his collar under his cap is what you saw. He was having an argument with some other people there at the foot of the hill, many of them wearing hats and looking important, but unknown to her. One she did recognize, even in one of those Brunist tunics, was Abner Baxter; she could tell him by his big mouth and his thick jowls, though his red hair had grayed and he was more sunk into himself. But he was carrying on in the old way, shaking his pudgy fist and looking as threatening as ever. Calvin has always been a little bit afraid of him, though he looks up to him, too, even if Abner is a foot shorter. He was Calvin’s faceboss on night shifts. They all came up out of the mine together the night it blew up, Lucy waiting at the main hoisting shaft with the children, the two they had then, and her parents and Calvin’s parents and his sister from Wilmer, and almost as soon as he reached fresh air and could catch his breath, Abner, his face all streaked with black, started preaching against the mine owners. She and the children and all of Calvin’s family were just eager to get home and give thanks to the Lord and relax from all the tension, but Calvin wanted to stay and listen, so they had no choice. Later, poor Ely was found dead and Abner became their preacher at the church. His sermons were pretty scary and she wasn’t sure her children should hear the things he said and some people left the church, but Calvin believed in him, and so she did, too. He’s a good union man is what Calvin always said, and a fierce man of God, and when Abner Baxter told him to do something he usually did it. It was why he was out on the mine road that night the Bruno girl was killed and why they both marched out in the rain with the Brunists the next day. Sitting there in Mabel’s caravan, looking out the window, which was like looking at a big television screen, brought it all back. That one night was as far as it went, though. She and Calvin knew Giovanni Bruno in high school, a peculiar Italian boy who seemed not to have any friends or want any and who stared at everyone like he hated them or was afraid of them. He looked like somebody who might get a gun and shoot everyone — that was what Cal and the other boys said — though they also sometimes teased him as if to see if he would. So when the state police started up the hill that day, they just ran like crazy and they threw away the tunics when they got home and went back to the Church of the Nazarene and never spoke of that weekend again, hoping that as few people as possible saw them there.

And then, while she was sitting there in the caravan, letting her memories roll over her, the most astonishing thing happened. Maybe it was what Mabel’s cards had predicted. A bunch of men in black leather jackets came roaring right past on motorcycles. It was like they just popped up out of nowhere or came flying down from the sky. Several of the women screamed. Maybe she did. They went right down in the ditch and up again and straight at the people standing over there, many of whom started running away while others just seemed frozen to the spot. The riders skidded to a stop all at once and threw some things at the crowd, one of which Bernice said looked like an animal head, though Lucy could hardly believe that. One of the things struck Susanna Friskin’s husband right in the face, and that’s when he sat down. And then the men on the motorbikes came roaring straight back at the caravan, and someone was shooting, and she was so frightened, she ducked and fell right over onto the linoleum, clutching at the doilies on the armrests and dragging them down with her, and there was screaming and praying and crying and a terrifying rattle overhead, but Mabel and Bernice just stood at the window and stared out until they had gone past. Demons from hell. Everyone said so. Mabel said they had red eyes. Without pupils. And Bernice Filbert arched her penciled eyebrows and said in a whisper: You saw that, too! Betty Wilson whimpered she was having palpitations and had to lie down and she did, Linda making room for her on the sofa bed. After that, there was a lot of commotion on the hill and they were all drying their eyes and staring out of the caravan windows, trying to see what was happening, and that’s when she saw Wanda’s new man. It was true, he was everything they’d said he was. A television cameraman had apparently snuck up the hill to poke his camera into one of the tents, and he just picked him up like a rag doll and threw him into the ravine there! A giant!

She can hear the children squabbling. Her private silent time is over. Spats and tears, arguments about what to wear, fever blisters and runny noses. Couldn’t be less like the Heavenly Kingdom. But she’s grateful for it and thanks God and Jesus and sets out the cereal bowls.

Another who, like Billy Don, found himself last night enjoying the fit of palm to palmed — though in his case the cheek cupped was plumper and of a certain age — was the master plumber Welford Oakes. They were pressed together amid the crowds atop the Mount of Redemption, all eyes cast upon the Heavens in anticipation of the descent of Our Lord Jesus Christ in all His glory to establish Heaven on earth, and given the excited jostle, that his hand landed where it did could be seen as an accident, but not that it, without apology, remained there. She turned to frown up at him questioningly, and he smiled and murmured, “I thought y’might care to read my palm,” figuring she’d either knee him where it hurts and walk away, or she’d stay and then something different would happen. What she said was: “I ain’t never studied a palm before whose fate line cut clean acrost the life line like that.” He grinned, gave her a gentle pinch. “That’s what one a them other lines has to say about that,” he said, and moved away. Now, at the sunrise service down by the flowering dogwood tree, they are exchanging frequent glances, trying not to. He understands the risks, but, like it goes in “Amazing Grace,” “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine,” and that being so, one has to make the best of whatever’s left. Now the worshippers are burying those two headless birds and singing “Wings of a Dove,” and when they reach the love line, he casts a meaningful glance her way. But she is staring fixedly up over her shoulder as if still looking to the sky for a sign of the Coming. He turns to look up through the trees at what she’s peering at: Inspiration Point. When he looks back, she’s already gone.

Hovis and Uriah have walked back to the camp for the sunrise service to find their camper gone. “Them bikers must of stole it,” Hovis says with alarm. They are both alarmed. It’s all they own. How can they get back to West Virginia without it? They search behind all the other trailers and caravans in the lot just in case it somehow got hidden. Uriah pauses, turns to look off toward the mine hill. “How did we git over there in the first place, Hovis? We must of drove.” They both think about this. “Yup, we must of forgot. I’ll go git it, Uriah. You’re tuckered out. You go lie down.” “How can I lie down if we ain’t got our camper?” Hovis scratches his head, looks around again. No, it’s not there. “Didn’t think of that.”

Debra Edwards knows more of the words of the Brunist songs now and can sing along when Ben selects numbers like “The Wings of a Dove.” They are singing it in memory of their pair of nesting white doves so senselessly and barbarously slain yesterday. Ludie Belle Shawcross picked up the decapitated birds after they were thrown by the motorcycle gang and saved them for burial at this morning’s sunrise service here at the foot of the budding dogwood tree. The heads could not be found. The camp is not yet in full flower, but it is already bursting with color and it is alive now with birdsong as if all the birds were participating in the honoring of the doves: lots of sparrows trilling away, and the newly arrived orioles and warblers with their pretty voices, the chats, buntings, and chirping dickcissels all joining in as they celebrate God’s pure sweet love, sent down on the wings of a snow-white dove. Everyone had come to associate the doves with the “white birds” of Ely Collins’ and Giovanni Bruno’s visions, and the launching of their headless bodies into their midst on the Mount of Redemption produced a surge of fear among the Followers and prompted terrified predictions of dire events. Though Debra was not inclined to think of the bikers as demons, as many did, she herself felt this fear, and even more so on their return to their camp, which they found half-wrecked, her own home and Colin’s cruelly trashed. The front screen door was torn off its hinges, two windows were smashed and the plastic insulation ripped away, their beds were overturned and urinated upon, their cookies and chocolates were stolen, the hot water bottle from the manse had been beheaded just like the dog and doves were, and her nursing chair, rescued from the manse, had had its pretty velvet seat slashed. Poor Colin, overwrought by all the day’s excitements, went crazy on seeing it and ran out onto the camp road, screaming hysterically at the bikers, though by then they were miles away. Fortunately, she had brought Darren back to camp with her. He was the one person who could settle Colin down, and with a lot of coaxing he did so and, gratefully, took him to stay with him in the church office in the lodge, which, being locked and innocuous-looking, had escaped the gang’s depredations; she was exhausted and could not have stayed awake another minute to comfort a distraught boy. She dropped, fully dressed, like a lead plummet onto the pungent mattress and did not regain consciousness until she awoke, startled and afraid, unsure of where she was until the early dawn light and birdsong relocated her, Abner Baxter next door, berating his wife and daughters.

Debra felt quite charitable toward the Baxters before she actually knew them, and agreed with Clara that they should be welcomed back, but they have been like a flock of predatory cowbirds descending upon a garden of songbirds. Nest robbers. And their followers are no better, demanding and bad-tempered and unappreciative and disruptive. As the beekeeper Corinne Appleby said, “Nary a one of them knows how to smile.” Without any right, the Baxters have taken over the cabin next door, the one meant for Darren and Billy Don, and even though repairs on it have barely begun — it doesn’t even have a front door — they don’t seem inclined to leave it any time soon, which worries Clara and Ben. They put a tent up at the back to sleep the mother and daughters, Reverend Baxter and his three sons using the cabin proper, though now there’s only the oldest son after the younger two were expelled. Already, they look like they’ve been living over there forever. Unloading their clunky old car was like emptying a moving van and they’ve taken whatever they wanted from around the camp. What’s left of their family is here at the sunrise service, looking sullen and defensive, completely out of character with the beautiful day. Well, maybe they can’t help it. Debra was born with a smile on her face, they were not. She has to try to understand them.

What’s going on between Elaine and Young Abner is also worrying Clara, and if she’d seen what Debra has seen, she’d be even more upset. Clara has asked her, as a counselor for troubled young people, to have a talk with Elaine, but the girl has shied away from her, and now, after all she has witnessed in the garden, Debra might not know where to begin. Should she tell Clara what she saw? She should. But how? Clara would want to know why she didn’t interfere, and she doesn’t know the answer to that. Really, it’s all too embarrassing.

“They have rejected God, creation, and morality! Oh, they don’t call it humanism, they call it democracy, but they mean humanism, in all its atheistic, amoral, scientistic depravity!” The handsome bishop from Wyoming, invited to read from the Scriptures, is prefacing his reading with an attack on what he calls the devil’s religion and “the most serious threat to our nation in its entire history! You can’t be both a humanist and a true believer!” There are shouted replies and admiring gazes and soft “Bru-no! Bru-no!” chants from many of the gathered worshippers. The principal target of his denunciation is the false belief in evolution, one of the fables of her own upbringing, and one that has deprived her of the opportunity to help with the camp’s home schooling, so she feels somewhat targeted as well. She’s trying to unlearn all that to break down their distrust, so she also calls out an “amen!” or two, though she’s probably not convincing anyone. But humanism, she has come to realize, is what’s wrong with Wesley and all his stupid sermons, and that helps her to hate it as they hate it. The bishop puts on his spectacles and picks up the Bible, looking around at them all. “What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?” he asks. “We come from the dark, brother! Lead us to light!” “And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!” “Washed in the blood of the Lamb!” they cry. And the “Bru-no! Bru-no!” chant begins again.

She knows that many of these people are feeling desperate today, having walked away from their livelihoods and given away all they own, and she knows what that’s like. She too has impoverished herself to help their cause, abandoning the security of the life of a minister’s wife to commit herself heart and soul to the Brunists. But though she feels for their plight, she wants them all to go away. Reverend Hiram Clegg, now preaching his last sermon before returning with his congregation to Florida — she will miss him and his warm kindly eloquence; like her, he always seems to see the bright side of things — is talking about those who have accepted voluntary poverty and the great sacrifices they have made and their need now to find further ways to support the community of Followers as it awaits the last days, quoting beautifully from the Bible and from the sayings of Giovanni Bruno as he always does, and she feels that though he is addressing the newly arrived multitudes, he is also talking to her. Well, she will work hard and continue to play her part and have faith and God will be pleased. She can sell things from the vegetable garden. Everything will be all right. It has to be.

Ludie Belle Shawcross has told her bluntly that she is out of her water here and should leave, but she could never do that, not so long as Colin stays, and now, like a lot of these poor people, she really wouldn’t have anywhere to go anyway. The Wilderness Camp is now her home; she has and will have no other. Debra has always admired Ludie Belle’s forthrightness in confessing her sins and has tried to emulate her, but yesterday, up on the Mount of Redemption, Ludie Belle shocked her by saying she makes most everything up when repenting. “I lean on history like a preacher leans on the Bible, sweetie. I select out a few juicy licks and stitch ’em together into a up-liftin’ story, if you know what I mean.” She said this after advising Debra she was getting too personal in her confessions, and she should learn not to give away so much. It’s nobody’s business, and they tend to hold it over you afterwards. “Anyways, it’s more entertainin’ with a little judicious resortin’.” Just then Colin came by, sweaty and excited from all that had happened, and buoyed up by his new friendships with the young people from Florida — he had been bouncing about all afternoon as if the ground were hot and burning his feet — and he paused a moment to lay his head on her shoulder and catch his breath. And then, as quickly, he was off again. “Be careful, honey. You’re playin’ with fire,” Ludie Belle said, and Debra, knowing she was red to the roots, could only walk away, not wanting to see that woman again.

Instead of hovering behind her back as usual, Colin is standing this morning with the cheerful youngsters from Florida, who have been so nice to him. Reverend Clegg uses the word “radiance,” stretching it out in his resonant style (he is talking about the birds they are burying), and she thinks, yes, that’s exactly what she sees in Colin, an inherent childlike purity, glowing innocence. Radiance. He is a receptor. She used to have to shave him, not wanting him near anything sharp, but he has taken to letting the hairs on his chin grow. There aren’t many of them, no more than a dozen or so, and they are so blond they are almost like silver. It gives him a strange otherworldly look. Among his new friends, he has been tensely smiling, so rare for him, but they are leaving after lunch, so later he will cry again.

When Ben Wosznik hands out morning work assignments for cleaning and repairing the camp, Franny Baxter volunteers to help load the collected trash into his pickup. Ben has asked everyone to bag and drop all garbage and rubbish at the front gate of the camp where his pickup is parked and he will take it to the rubbish dump, and she posts herself there to receive it and toss it in the truckbed. When he starts up the motor, she gets in beside him on the hard bench seat and asks him if he could drop her off somewhere near the edge of town on the north side; she wants to have a talk with Tess Lawson. He says he’s not going directly towards town, he’s stopping off at his old farmhouse to pick up Rocky’s dog tag and then proceeding on to the town dump. She can help him unload the truck and then he’ll take her where she wants to go, and she says that’ll do fine. He asks if she has asked her father and she says no, and don’t tell him, but she’s a woman now and doesn’t need his permission for every little thing. If he finds out…? “All he can do is give me a larruping, and I’m plenty used to that.”

“He beats you a lot?”

“Not like before. Nat sorta tamed him.”

“Your father’s skeereda Nat?”

“Everbody is. Junior’s setting hisself up to take over, but Nat’s the one with our father’s fire.” Ben doesn’t say anything, so she says, “I think it’s awful what they done to your dog. Junior is telling everyone you must of hid your gun in Nat’s backpack to make us all look bad and get us moved out, and that made Nat mad.”

“Well, it ain’t so. Maybe Junior’s trying to hide something.”

“That’s what I reckon.” Pulling out of the camp gates, they had to thread their way through the crowds of people milling about, coming or going, and the fields they are passing now are littered with tents and trailers. The mine hill, too, only partially cleared, new smaller tents popping up there. The life she has known, wants to know no more.

“Your ma’s looking poorly. She was crying a lot yesterday.”

“This place gives her the creeps. After what happened, having a dead baby out there in the storm with nobody to help her but me, she didn’t never want to come back. She should of stayed home in bed that day or gone to hospital, but my father drug her out there, saying if they was all transcended she would not wanta miss out, nor not the unborn baby neither. She was sick for a long spell after that, really sick, and she just never exactly got well again.”

“That’s too bad, Franny. Must be a burden to you.”

“It can be.”

“So why is it y’mean to go see Tess? Y’reckon they’s a chance she’ll come back to us?”


“She knows you’re coming?”


They are passing an old derelict farmhouse that would seem to be Ben’s, but, after slowing down, they roll on by. Ben doesn’t say anything, except a soft little grunt, but she saw what he saw: the wheel of a motorcycle sticking out at the back.

“We baptized it and raptured it, Mom, all at once,” says Mark. “You ain’t God, kid,” Dot says, cuffing his big stuck-out ears. “I’ll rapture your little britches if you try anything like that again. Now you and Matty get down on your knees over in that corner and pray for an hour that you don’t get sent to hell for putting on airs and messing like that with God’s handiwork.” “Oh Mom, that’s where the sandbox was!” “We didn’t mean to rapture the cat, Mom,” Matthew wheedles. “We was only wanting to baptize it.” “I told you not to put gasoline on it,” says Luke, and Dot sends her to the corner, too. They have been sharing this unfurnished prefab in Chestnut Hills with a family from Alabama, who left in a huff when her kids burned their cat, no doubt heading straight out to the camp to tattle on them. Well, good riddance, she couldn’t stand the stink of their homemade kitty litter dug up out of the back yard and the Blaurocks now have the place to themselves, though they don’t plan on staying long. That family was just a bunch of ignorant, drawling rednecks who knew nothing about the latter days and were always complaining about keeping the place clean and about her kids bullying their kids and about little Johnny’s dirty diapers and his whiny crying and about her loud snoring and Isaiah always hogging the bathroom. Well, her husband can’t help it. He has a nervous stomach, and did they think they didn’t snore, too? If God wanted her to snore, what could she or anyone else do about it? Not sleep? Get serious.

Dot and Isaiah Blaurock know everything there is to know about the Rapture and the Tribulation and the Last Days. They have been members of at least a dozen different churches and have been through what they went through yesterday any number of times. They believe in the general prophecy and whenever they hear about another specific end date, they try to be there. They find that they always cheer the other people up just by turning up and they get a lot of hugs, and that always makes them feel good. They first heard Clara Collins preach and Ben Wosznik sing in North Carolina, where Isaiah was working as an itinerant house painter, and they’ve been following them around, off and on, ever since. Not much Isaiah can’t do. He has been a farmer, a blacksmith, a roofer, a factory worker, a ditch and grave digger, a miner, a garbage collector, a construction worker, a cook, and, even silent as he mostly is, a sometime faith healer. Other things, too, probably. Hard to keep track. He doesn’t do any of these things particularly well, though his ability to keep their old Dodge on the road is a miracle by itself, but he’s done a bit of everything and so he’s valuable to any community like this one. Doesn’t have much to say, her Isaiah, but God gave him a mighty engine and she’s grateful. Clara has expressed her personal gratitude that they have come here to help out and she says there is a lot for them to do; Isaiah has lent a hand in putting the tents up on the mine hill and Dot has already showed that jellybean preacher’s wife a few things about gardening. Dot grew up on a farm in upstate New York; she knows what she’s talking about. They will be moving out to the camp this noon during the farewell luncheon for the busloads of old bluehairs from around the country, knowing they cannot be refused. They are penniless, and except for essentials, without possessions, having given up all for Christ, and they will be needed out there. This little house is something of a mess and doesn’t smell good, but that’s at least half the fault of the rednecks and no reason they should have to clean up after them, so they will just gather up their things and leave it as is, glad to get out of it. It’s owned by some rich guy named Suggs who has bought the Brunists their camp and is building them a new church, so it’s just pennies out of his pocket to get the place spruced up. In fact, maybe Isaiah can get the job.

Ben asked them to come out early this morning and help strike the tents and clean up the camp after what the bikers did to it, but you can’t do everything, not when you have four excitable kids and a husband who can’t get off the can until noon. Dot understands the rednecks’ complaints — Isaiah is sometimes a nuisance to her, too. At least the camp has separate outdoor privies for ladies and gents, though she has trouble getting through the skinny wooden door. She and Isaiah like Ben better than Clara, who is a bit bossy for their taste, though she has a big church to run, so you have to give her credit, and both of them are two of the flat-out sincerest people she’s ever known. They believe. You can feel it in everything they say and do. It was what most drew her and Isaiah to them. But they’re both missing something, too, something that lets you know they are in touch with final things. They are, to put it plain, too down-to-earth. They are not possessed. That’s what this group is mostly, a lot of sincere dedicated people, full of conviction, but without much pentecostal fire. They can do things like build camps, but they can’t lift off. They’ve assembled a good team, though, with singers and preachers and bookkeepers, plenty of hard workers and even some prophets — those two boys don’t look much like prophets, but that’s probably what they are, and they’re smart as a whip. Or two whips. Dot always thought there must be a scientific way to get at this mystery-of-all-mysteries, God being the master scientist after all, and if anyone can puzzle out when the Rapture is like to strike, it’s those two, whatever might be their private ways. Dot looks forward to being interviewed by them as she figures she can set them straight on a few matters. That woman Mabel Hall seems like she’s on to something, too, though it’s not completely Christian. More gypsylike. Old Goldenthroat from Florida has a great gift of the tongue and can really wind up the faithful, but he is something of a smoothie, you can’t quite trust him. He was trying to do some faith healing out on the Mount yesterday but it was a complete washout. Isaiah has had better luck at that, and he can hardly string three intelligent words together. Still, old Hiram has gathered a real churchful around him and they pay their own way, so you can’t complain. As for the rich man Suggs, he is like a kind of Joseph of Arimathea, more just part of the background plot than a main actor. He won’t even wear the tunic. He might or might not get taken aboard when the Rapture happens.

The nearest thing to a man possessed she has seen is that short, jowly preacher, Abner Baxter. The women around him are pathetic and Young Abner is a spongy dimwit, but Abner Senior is full of beans; or, better said, full of fire. Holy fire. He knows the Bible forwards and backwards and has a voice that could knock down the walls of Jericho. His commie background is worrying to some, but it only shows he has always been on the side of the poor, even before his Christian conversion. He has raised some hard questions out there, questions that still need answering. Just why they are spending all that money on building a church, for example, when the end is coming anyway and there are needy persons who must be fed while they wait for it. He gets people’s backs up with his rage and bluster and his biker boys are an embarrassment (Dot understands wild kids, he shouldn’t be blamed for them), but he’s a man driven by his calling and someone you have to listen to. That’s what she and Isaiah think, and a lot of other people are thinking the same way.

Abner Baxter is also the one, even more than Ben and Clara, who seems most set on keeping Bruno in Brunism. His last conversion was a hard one and it has stuck. It’s the words of their Prophet that makes these people different, but they don’t all get it. Brunism is otherwise like a lot of the evangelical churches Dot and Isaiah have been members of: the Bible as the infallible word of God and its prophecies as future history, the creation of the world in a day by the hand of God, the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ with direct access to Him through prayer, the fall and salvation of man through adult baptism following the repenting of sins, speaking in tongues, faith healing, all that sort of thing that no one can argue with, plus of course a focus on the Rapture, the Tribulation, the millennial reign of Christ, and the Final Judgment, all announced by God in the Bible, all imminent. What Bruno delivers is a step past that. He has announced a whole new era, betokened by baptism by light (Isaiah and Dot favor Abner Baxter’s reading of this as baptism by fire and have signed up for it), as though to say, this is it, it’s coming now, get ready. And he has opened up a new window onto exactly when and where it’s going to happen. You have to believe God is going to get some advance word out to the faithful, and that’s what seems to have happened here. It’s what the Mount of Redemption and all these dates they’ve been learning are all about and it’s why Dot and Isaiah have come here. Jesus may turn up any minute.

Just who or what Giovanni Bruno was is more of a mystery. A man of the people, yes, from a humble family, who fought his own priests as Jesus did his, and was martyred. Above all, a man filled with a messianic fever — you can see it in the eyes of the pictures of him. But it seems like the real father of this movement was Clara’s first husband. Ely Collins had the Holy Spirit in him, saw visions, converted a lot of these people, and was about to prophesy the end of the world, when he suddenly got killed in the mine as if the Antichrist were after him to shut him up. Before he died, though, he apparently passed the Spirit on, or God did, to his younger partner, who people said was like a son to him, so Johnny Brown, as many are calling him, wasn’t really Johnny Brown, or Giovanni Bruno either, but more like a living transmitter for the voice of Ely Collins, and through him, of the Almighty Himself. Some say, especially those around Abner Baxter, that their Prophet, whom they call simply Bruno—Bru-no—actually died in the mine, too, but that his body, which still had both legs, was allowed to stagger on long enough like a kind of holy zombie to carry Ely Collins’ spirit and message to the world. They say there was a bird did all this. Pretty weird, but Dot has known weirder and she likes the story. It adds up, and right now, it suits her.

It’s time to get ready to move out to the camp. They’ll be doing lunch out there in a couple of hours and there’s nothing to eat here, all the food they hauled back from the buffet yesterday having long since vanished, so they can’t be late. There will be crowds of hungry people; they’ll have to fight for a place at table. No problem. She’s good at that. The three kids have left the corner when she wasn’t looking and are probably out terrorizing the neighbors’ brats again. There aren’t many toys in this slummy neighborhood, but they have managed to break or steal just about every one there is, what can you do. There’s no tub out at the camp. She’ll have one last hot bath and then pop all four in her bathwater for a quick scrubdown before leaving. Maybe she can get Isaiah to take a bath, too, though he doesn’t often. She sniffs the air. Little Johnny’s filled his pants again. The kid eats like a horse and poops like one, too. At least, when they get raptured, praise the Lord, there’ll be no more dirty diapers.

While loading the food they have bought — for the second time — for today’s big farewell luncheon into the trunk of Mrs. Edwards’ car in the highway supermarket parking lot, the woman asks Clara if she’s aware that her daughter may be practicing some form of flagellation. Clara knows what the word means and what this is all about, but the question has caught her by surprise and she asks anyway, and the minister’s wife says it was the ancient religious practice of being whipped or whipping oneself as a purification rite. Clara has read about it and heard preachers preach about it. Punishment of the flesh as the corrupt prison of the spirit, the imitation of Christ’s own sufferings, the flogging He took from Pontius Pilate, and so on, a kind of extreme penance. Sometimes not just to purge one’s own sins, but those of the entire world. But she is skeptical. For the poor, Ely used to say, life is penance enough; we don’t need to heap more pain on it. And there’s something downright unhealthy about it. It’s supposed to be an act of humility, a rejection of the body, but it’s mostly just the opposite. And it can be something nastier. Ludie Belle Shawcross has stories. “How do you know about this?” she asks.

“Well, you asked me to speak with her and…”

“Yesterday morning Ben seen her coming from out the woods with Junior Baxter in their tunics and they was blood on them.” There. It’s out. Since Ben told her about it, she has been trying not to think about it, and therefore thinking about nothing else. She found the tunic before the girl could wash it and it was true. She has tried to talk to Elaine about it, but the child just ducks her head and says nothing. Clara felt herself growing angry — angry and fearful — and she had to back away and try to figure things out, but there was no time to do that; this weekend has taken all her time. Which has been true for too long. She is not the mother she used to be or ought to be. She has become instead the mother of a whole movement, something more important than just any one person, though she never asked for that, and her life is full up to the brim, often leaving her at the outer edge of her energy and abilities. “She sometimes does it to herself. In her room. A belt, I think.” Clara is finding it very difficult to talk about this. Her chest feels like there’s a big stone in it. She had not meant to tell anyone, but if it has to happen, it’s probably best it’s Mrs. Edwards. She has experience with young people’s problems and maybe can help. “Do you…do you think they’re doing anything they shouldn’t oughta? I mean, taking their clothes off or…?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve been watching them around the camp and up on the Mount. They never touch each other or even look at each other. It’s more like a kind of serious compact between them, not anything romantic. That’s my impression. But they are very cruel to each other.”


“I mean, you know, if you saw blood…”

“Yes.” Of course she has known all along, ever since that day on the Mount, what happened there, and then the letters Elaine and Junior have been exchanging and those sounds coming from Elaine’s bedroom, often just after a new letter arrived. Knew but didn’t want to know, and so kept on not knowing what she knew. She is standing in front of the open trunk, a package of chicken legs in her hands. Soft. Like a baby’s thighs. She feels close to tears. “I am so afraid.” Ben always says Elaine is a saintly little creature and he trusts God to take care of her, and that may be so, but it doesn’t help in figuring what to do. Clara, who has lost her husband and her son, feels like she is losing her daughter, too, and it is tearing at her heart. Since Ely died and all this began, Elaine has been her close companion. They have been approaching the Rapture together hand in hand, prepared to spend an eternity together, but she has also been her anchor to the earth. She is all she has in this world, even if this world soon will be no more, more precious than life itself. “If anything’d happen to Elaine, I don’t know as how I could bear it.” She can hardly speak. That little Catholic statue that Elaine gave her of Mother Mary with her bleeding heart on her chest, that’s what she feels like. What did Mary think when she held her dead son? What was the whole world to her then, and did she care if it was saved or not? “But what can I do?”

“I don’t know. But maybe you could take the boy out of it by offering to take his place.”

“What?” Clara is so startled by this suggestion she drops the chicken she’s been squeezing. “You mean, get whupped half-nekkid by my own daughter?”

She has made a grave mistake talking with this woman.

“Well, I don’t think she’ll actually want to do that. But letting her think about it might show her what’s wrong about doing this with Junior.”

“Oh. I see.” But she could never do this. Elaine would think she’d gone crazy. She picks up the chicken, packs it in, and slams the trunk closed. “I’ll think on it.”

Ben is going east soon to sing in some of the churches and maybe, she reasons on the ride back to the camp, she should go along and take Elaine with her. But can she leave the camp with all its problems? And she’s worried about Ben, too. When he came back from his rubbish dump run, instead of taking over the cleaning up of the camp and starting on the repairs as he was meant to do, he got his shotgun and left again, looking moody. He’d also forgotten to pick up the day’s groceries and replenish the supplies stolen by the biker boys, making it necessary for Clara to call on Mrs. Edwards for this emergency trip. That’s so unlike him. And now she has the problem of the Baxters and all the people here with no place to go, and Hiram, who has been so much help, leaving her to solve all these problems herself. “We got a new plan for the camp and all the rest,” she says suddenly, not sure just how she’s gotten to this matter, though she’s been meaning to bring it up since they left the camp, and she feels the minister’s wife stiffen at the wheel, “including the new motel Mr. Suggs wants to build, like he showed us last night.”

Mrs. Edwards turns the car radio on. “Will Henry said he was going to play some of the songs he recorded yesterday.”

Clara feels irritated with the woman but knows there’s no reason in it, and at the same time she feels beholden to her and sorry about what she has to say. “It means you and Colin and the boys will have to leave the camp buildings and move on down to the trailer park. We’ll be buying campers for you.”

“I had so hoped…” Mrs. Edwards says, looking stricken. “My halfway house…” She pulls over on the shoulder and stops for a minute. It’s like she’s having a hard time getting her breath. Clara wishes now she hadn’t told her and wonders if there might be some other way. The poor woman has worked so hard, given so much. She put that cabin together near all by herself, and she has always been so cheerful and caring and only just now she was trying to help with Elaine. “Colin will be…just shattered…” She is sobbing into her sleeve. And now Clara is crying, too. She has tried to hold it back, but she can’t. It’s just too hard. On the radio Duke L’Heureux, Patti Jo Glover, and the Florida youngsters are singing “Let a Little Sunshine In.” Clara is praying to Ely for guidance.

The Warrior Apostles are holed up in an old abandoned one-room farm shack, plotting their next move. In the comicbook Nat and Littleface have been reading, the villain is breaking into the U.S. Mint on the Fourth of July, while everybody’s off watching the parade, and stealing all the gold. Nat wants to see what’s behind the padlocked doors of the Deepwater mine buildings. He can’t wait until the Fourth of July, but all those people will be off the hill today, may be off already. Nat figures it’s best to hit the buildings after dark. Everyone will be exhausted and figuring all the excitement is over and they should be easy pickings. They’ll approach them by the back route off an overgrown dirt road running alongside the old train rails scouted out Saturday by Juice and Cubano. Meanwhile, if possible, they should not turn over their motors today, draw attention to themselves. Until the job’s done, let them think they’ve left the area. The shack is nearly falling down and is mostly stripped out, the front porch is gone and you can see through two of the walls, but it still has an old wood cookstove. Houndawg has brewed coffee on it, stoking the stove with part of the floor, and now he’s frying up a breakfast made out of some of the food they took last night from the camp. Tons of stuff — more than they’ll ever finish — including a quart of milk, which Littleface is chugging to the disgust of all, when Ben Wosznik turns up at the back door with a shotgun aimed at Nat’s head. “Don’t move,” the old bird says quietly. “Don’t even dare twitch or Nathan Baxter is history.” They all have blades and Littleface found two guns at the camp yesterday, though they’re probably in his saddlebag. Nat knows Littleface is prepared to die for him, but he shakes his head, staring straight at the old graybeard with the gun. “Though I’m dreadful sorry about what you boys done to poor old Rocky, who never hurt nobody,” he says, “I don’t aim to do you no harm. But I won’t hesitate to shoot y’all dead if need be, and y’know that. You’re trespassing on my proppity, and you got a bad reppatation round here, so no one’ll blame me.” “No shit,” snorts Houndawg, grinning. “This your crib?” “I just wanta make one thing clear, Nat Baxter. If you didn’t take that gun, and I don’t think you did, I don’t know how it got in your bag. I didn’t put it there, even if that’s what your brother’s whispering round. Somebody else hadta done it. That’s all.” Paulie suddenly starts leaping about like he’s trying to protest or dance or launch an attack and Ben swings the shotgun onto him. The knives are out. “Don’t shoot him,” Nat says. “My brother has fits.” He goes over to put a knife handle in Paulie’s frothing mouth for him to bite down on, and while he’s doing that, the old guy quietly backs out the door. Littleface has a gun in each hand and is headed after him, but Nat says, “No, leave the old man be, Face. It’s weird how you sometimes have to have somebody tell you what you already know.”

Reverend Hiram Clegg, when called upon at the farewell luncheon in the vandalized Meeting Hall, expresses his heartfelt gratitude for the warm hospitality the members of his congregation and those of all the other congregations present have received at the beautiful Brunist Wilderness Camp this past week, shares with Brother Ben the sorrow of all for the tragic death of the noble Rockdust, and announces his congregation’s substantial gift for the Brunist Coming of Light Tabernacle Church, a portion of which is to be employed for a memorial stained-glass window honoring Ely Collins, Giovanni Bruno, and Marcella Bruno. Though some might have hoped for prophecy’s grand fulfillment on the stirring occasion of this great Brunist family ingathering, they have been witnesses, by way of the miraculous coincidence of the repeated calendar, of the fulfillment of Giovanni Bruno’s prophecy of a “Circle of Evenings.” He and all his fellow Followers will be returning to Florida with renewed commitment to the faith and hope for the future as designed by God, and, oh yes, they will be back, for their hearts are here with this great movement and its resplendent new home. Here where, one day soon, make no mistake, they shall all meet their dear Lord face to face. “Face to face, we will behold him, far beyond the starry sky; face to face in all His glory, we shall see Him by and by!” He leads them in prayer and in song and feels tears spring to his eyes at the thought of leaving, though in truth he is weary of the bus and motel life and is eager to be home again and away from the camp’s problems and its gathering discord.

Hiram feels that Sister Clara has fumbled from time to time through the long hard week just passed, but today she has addressed those problems calmly and clearly, a true leader, and he has been reminded of Brother Ely Collins and his gentle force, which he himself has always tried to emulate but cannot quite. Clara has spoken of the work accomplished and that yet to be done, starting with the repairing and rebuilding of all the camp structures, which means, she said firmly yet kindly, that they will all have to be vacated immediately so that work can start up again tomorrow, the temporary exception being Sister Debra’s cabin, which is more or less finished, thanks to her own money and labors, though she too will be moving to a caravan in due time. She has posted the new architectural sketches of the Brunist religious center complex next to the fireplace chimney, pointing out that none of the areas except for the motel and the trailer campsites are to be used for residential purposes. They are beautifully drawn and everyone is impressed. The golden-haired preacher from Lynchburg declares them to be divinely inspired, and this thought is amenned by many, though not by all. Brother John P. Suggs, who is present, announces that he has begun work today on a new campsite about two miles down the road, which should have water and electricity by the end of the week. Meanwhile he has extended by one week the free use of the designated houses in Chestnut Hills, with the stipulation that they be properly cleaned before departure, unless the occupants wish to stay, paying the modest rent. Brother Suggs is applauded. All who remain in the area are expected to help with the camp work at least six hours every day if not otherwise employed and they should let them know their construction and homemaking skills. One midday meal will be provided each day for the workers, Clara explains, but the church’s resources have been drained by the week’s events, so Followers will have to find their own means of further support.

Will some resist these directives? No doubt, for many who have stayed are helplessly indigent or inclined to radical views, but Hunk Rumpel is seated beside Clara like an unspoken modifier; no one argues with Brother Hunk. Only Abner Baxter cannot hold himself back, it not being in his nature. He speaks without his usual fire and after a generous encomium and an apology for his miscreant sons, but, with a low insistent chant of “Bru-no! Bru-no! Bru-no!” behind him, he goes on to observe that the church has not distributed to all what has been given to all. Clara replies calmly that the church has always shared its modest resources with everyone — indeed, though he himself has contributed nothing over the intervening years, she has often sent him support for his own mission — but now they must be careful to husband what limited funds remain, for they are faced with many serious expenses. If he is referring to the money earmarked for the Coming of Light Tabernacle Church, they are not free to use that for any other purpose or it will be taken back, a claim that Hiram supports though he is not certain that it is true. The bishop of the Eastern Seaboard and newly appointed director of the National Brunist Media Organization rises to quote from First Corinthians: “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you,” and he too is applauded. What with that large gift they have received, Hiram’s own collection on behalf of the temple can be used partly, he feels, for his own church expenses and those associated with his duties as the president of the International Council of Brunist Bishops; consequently, he has turned over a little less than half of the sum to Clara, with the intention of forwarding all of it to her should it be needed. This morning he has seen to the temporary burial of Harriet McCardle in Randolph Junction and all the legal paperwork that it required; thanks to those documents, her own wealth and that of her husband will also reach the church in various installments, based on the health and longevity of the surviving spouse, though Hiram has not spelled this out yet to Ben and Clara. Mrs. McCardle has been buried in a simple grave with plans to move her eventually to the Brunist burial ground on the Mount of Redemption, for which Hiram has promised to cover the expenses. A three-line notice of her death in hospital by natural causes (“an elderly visitor to our area”) has been discreetly announced in the Randolph Junction newspaper, placed there by the town mayor.

Now, Clara rings her water glass with her spoon and once more thanks all the brothers and sisters from around the country for making the long and arduous journey to join them here this week. She wishes them well on their homeward journeys, and she asks that the young people come forward and join Brother Ben and Brother Duke and Sister Betty and Sister Patti Jo in leading them all in singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and they all stand because it feels right to stand and take one another’s hand or put one’s arm around a shoulder: “Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by,” they sing, and Hiram’s heart is full and his cheeks are running with joyous tears…

“One by one the seats were empty,

One by one they went away,

Now my family, they are parted,

Will they meet again someday?”

“Will the circle be unbroken,

By and by, Lord, by and by?

There’s a better home a-waitin’,

In the sky, Lord, in the sky!”


And when he had opened the second seal,

I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

And there went out another horse that was red:

and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth,

and that they should kill one another:

and there was given unto him a great sword.

— The Book of Revelation 6.3-4

II.1 Thursday 23 April — Saturday 25 April

“It don’t make none a your common sense, Ted, and you know it. This penny ante town can’t afford to fix the potholes or pick up the garbage — how we gonna get into a high stakes headbutt with old man Suggs over a useless goddamned artificial bump in the ground that ain’t even genuine real estate?”

“Land is only useless, Maury, when it’s not being used. It has electric and phone lines already in place, train rails and usable structures. With the flat land the town owns below it, it has industrial park potential, could be developed for housing or for a coal-burning power plant. Might even be turned into a profitable recreational facility.” It angers him to have to wheedle with this irresponsible third-rate shoe salesman who is only the mayor because Ted has made him so. It angers him even more to think about spending so much money on that worthless piece of land, for which he is only inventing improbable uses. But he hates to get beat. If they lose the mine land and hill to Pat Suggs and those religious fanatics, they’ll never be rid of them. He has heard rumors they plan to build on it and that Suggs may be buying up other property nearby. Creating a complex. His voluptuous doodles show signs of anxiety and irritation. Swirly lines flying off in all directions. Ted glances out onto the bank floor, catches her watching him; she looks away. “And the city doesn’t have to pay a nickel up front. You can float a bond and meanwhile the bank will loan the city the entire amount at bank rate.”

“Nah, I’ll never be able to sell this to the council. Let them fundamentalist loonies have their hill, Ted. Who the fuck cares? They’re even bringing in a bit of business. If they turn up in town, we’ll simply shoot ’em.”

“They’re already in town, Maury. Suggs is letting them occupy some of his prefabs in Chestnut Hills.”

“Don’t I know it. The handful of neighbors who still live out there are bellyaching about the filth and noise and overcrowding. It ain’t clear who’s paying the electricity and fuel bills. There are health and fire hazards. I’ve asked the chief to shut that operation down this week. By the way, Dee mentioned this morning there’d been a break-in in some of the mine buildings out there.”

“Really? What got taken?”

“Dee don’t know, says it ain’t his jurisdiction, but figures it was more like vandalism than theft. Someone heard motorcycles, so it’s probably them same shits who was throwing body parts around last Sunday. Unless the mine owners robbed theirselves to collect the fucking insurance.”

“I’ll see what I can find out.”

“I am disappointed, Mr. Puller. I had supposed this matter would have been taken care of by now.”

“Well, they been laying low, Mr. Suggs. And until now we never really had nothing on them to take them in.”

“Was the slaughter of Mr. Wosznik’s dog nothing? Their outrageous behavior Sunday at the hill? The attack on Cavanaugh’s car? They probably do not even have proper licenses. I know for certain that at least one of them is too young. And some of their motorcycles may have been stolen. Have you checked into that? No, you have waited too long, Mr. Puller, and now we have a serious problem. The theft is undermining my negotiations with the owners for the purchase of the mine. They refer to those bikers as ‘my people.’ This will not do.” “They’re at the top of our agenda now.”

“I should very much hope so, Mr. Puller. We also need your assistance at the church camp. I promised them protection against threatened assaults until they could organize their own security, and I expect you to provide that. Our Patriots organization will be loaning them arms, and perhaps you can make the proper arrangements. You and Mr. McDaniel can provide training. But we have to be cautious. We don’t want to put guns in the hands of unreliable people. And there is no need for powerful weapons, just enough to serve as a deterrent and protect the periphery.”

“I can do that.”

“And we have a possible problem of trespass. The rules of the campsite prohibit use of the main buildings for personal residences, but some of the persons who have come here from elsewhere are presently occupying them. If they do not leave voluntarily, they may have to be removed forcibly.”

“My old faceboss, you mean. Just let me know.”

“I will do so. Now either lock that motorcycle gang up or run them out of here. They are a dangerous threat to law and order. I expect results, Mr. Puller.”

“Dave Osborne?”

“You got him.”

“Dave, this is Ted Cavanaugh over at the bank. How’s it going over there at the old footwear emporium?”

“I’m having a hard time beating away the traffic. Sold a pair of shoelaces just yesterday. Or maybe the day before. You calling for a look at the books?”

“No, this is something else, Dave. There’s been a break-in out at Deepwater. From your time out there as night mine manager, what do you figure might have got taken?”

“Can’t imagine anything worthwhile left behind.”

“What was usually kept there?”

“Tools. Lamps and helmets. Tags. Electrical gear, that sort of thing.”

“Any weapons?”

“I don’t think so. Unless you call old mine picks a weapon. The mine managers on duty got issued a pistol, but I don’t think it’s there anymore.”

Meaning, he took it home with him. “That’s it?”

“Far as I can remember. Maybe some dynamite.”


“Yeah. For shot firing in the old days. It was how coal was loosened from the face. A few years back, we switched to compressed air. A lot safer. We probably got rid of the dynamite, though I remember seeing it on inventories.”

“Dynamite. Holy mackerel.”

“And then Jim got hit by a dead bird and ended up on TV. They’re calling it the Headless Annunciation. God help us if he’s pregnant.” It is Sally’s mother, spreading her daily evangel. “Well, you know Jim, Em. Always in the wrong place at the right time.”

Em does know Jim. Back in high school her mom and dad and the couple who are now the Wetherwaxes used to double date. Only, with each other’s present mates. Who came out best? It’s a draw. Though Archie at least has a real job working for the phone company. They used to park out at the lakes and go for a moonlight swim together. Or anyway they did that once. The family legend. Now the two women talk about their men like pets they keep and clean up after. Sally writes: They were just having fun playing around in offbeat short stories, when suddenly they found themselves in the middle of a hackneyed genre novel. Written by the dim-witted little town whose covers they’re clapped in.

“Jim doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, especially if it’s past eleven in the morning and he’s had a couple. And Ted’s got no sense of humor. Have I said that before?” Will she be able to write her own story? Will it be any better? She thumbs through the notebook to find her drawing of the sleeping prince, sketches in a black phone receiver by his ear, and above it writes: Hello? Hello…? “I suppose you heard about those bikers attacking Ted’s car? He was coming back from a business meeting, and when he told Jim about it, Jim said it sounded like a gang of typical wildhair bankers to him and asked whether Ted noticed if anyone he’d been meeting with had any tattoos, and Ted blew up at him, called him a stupid goddamned you-know-what. Jim still doesn’t know why, but since then he’s started drinking at ten instead of eleven.”

Telephones, she writes. The disembodied self as sown voice. Which is more real, speaker or spoken? The spoken can remain, the speaker cannot. Thus: back to gestures, foreskins.

“Yes, I know, Em, Archie can put it away, too. But at least he has to wait until after he’s stopped climbing telephone poles.” Once, when she had scarlet fever, Sally had to lie all day in the dark, her only entertainment the radio. The voices she heard seemed to hover in the dark like real presences. It’s like that sometimes reading a novel. That weird thing called voice. There but not there, hovering over the text. But nothing is disembodied. That’s a religious idea. Writing, radio, telephony: It’s all just a vaudeville act. Like the first phone conversation. Come here. I want you. A novel in five words. “Yes, I heard that. She’s got Wes penned up in her garage. What do you think’s going on there? Oh yeah? Tell me, I’m all ears…” As an image would that be two big ears or a cluster of them, like that fire god who her anthro prof said was called “the thousand-testicled one”? Sitting bored in class, she tried to draw that, couldn’t. A hundred maybe, max. Small ones.

“It has been a long time since the last inventory, Ted, but the mine owners promised to check it. They are probably nervous about it and may try to cover it up.”


“Well, they still own the mine and could be held responsible for leaving such hazardous material unsecured. Especially if it were to be employed in a crime.”

“That could be useful, Nick. The city is backing out of the purchase of the hill, at least at the current asking price, so we may have to try to stop this sale some other way.”

“We have grounds for any number of temporary injunctions. I think we can keep them from taking the hill over for a year at least. Don’t know, though, if we can keep them off it at the same time.”

“And what about the sources of the cult’s money? Where is it all coming from? Have you looked into our own church accounts?”

“I have. Mrs. Edwards seems to have funneled most of the church’s income from the sale back into the camp. Presumably for a Presbyterian halfway house for troubled teenagers, which she’s allegedly building out there. Should be easy to go after her. Getting the money back is another matter. She has also cleaned out her husband’s accounts. Completely illegal. He could sue her.”

“Wes is not part of the real world, Nick. I’m still working on getting him committed. For his own good as much as ours. But there’s talk about their having the wherewithal to build a church on top of that hill. Where the hell did they get it? Can’t be from the camp sale. Suggs again?”

“Well, I’ve hesitated to tell you, but you may be buying it for them.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was asking myself the same question: How can they pay for this? So I went scouting around through accounts, looking for large withdrawals and I think I found what I was looking for. It’s bad news, Ted. It’s your wife.”

“What? Irene?”

“Over the past few months she has been moving her funds into a separate account in a bank up in the city. And from there it has almost certainly gone straight into the cult account.”

“But she’s bedridden! How—?”

“Well, she has a telephone. Gave a corporate tax lawyer up in the city power of attorney, and he set it up for her. Know a guy named Thornton? Edgar Thornton?”

“Yeah, I know him. Thorny. Irene’s old college beau before she met me. A Deke.”

“A what?”

“Fraternity guy. Different fraternity. Jesus. I can’t believe this. Can we put a restraining order on the transfer? Non compos mentis, and all that?”

“Probably too late. It’s already gone. Some of it may have been handed over in cash.”

“Or freeze the Brunist accounts?”

“We can try. It’ll be a painful thing, you know.”

“It’s already painful, Nick. Right this minute, I’m having trouble breathing.”

“Eh, ciao, bello. Howza lawr’n-order racket?”

“Had to shoot a stray dog week before last. How’s things up in the big city?”

“Ah, you know, Demetrio, wine, women, and song, the usual stronzata. I miss the old neighborhood.”

“Sure you do.”

“Ascolta, cugino, I’m calling about a hometown boy there, see if I can’t do him a favor since I owe him one. Un buon ragazzo, Charlie Bonali, Vince’s boy — you know him?”

“I know him.”

“He’s a little hard up just now and could use a job. I thought you might have something there for him.”

“Well, there is a police job opening up here, I think, but—”

“Now ain’t that amazing! I thought there might be. And you got problems. You got some lunatic Jesus freaks down there.”

“They’re outside town and so far they mostly been only bothering each other. But—”

“But you never know, right? Those people are completely pazzo!”

“They’re a bit weird.”

“I know, I gotta deal every day here with spics and sambos and dumb hillbillies, all of ’em mostly bombed outa their dim little melons, either with dope or that yelling they call praying. Count yourself lucky! But you’ll like Charlie. He’s big and he’s brave and he takes no shit from nobody.”

“Well, he can come in for a—”

“Except you’n me, right? Shit from you’n me he takes like ice cream.”

“There are other guys running this town. I don’t have the final say who—”

“Right, you got that tinhorn ex-shoe salesman down there, what’s his name, Cass-hole?”

“Yeah, the mayor.”

“I hear he’s been muscling in on our neighborhood, squeezing our people with some kinda fucking protection racket.”

“He’s been campaigning.”

“Well, he won’t be doing that no more, capitano. And you just tell him who you want. I got a feeling he’ll be open to suggestion.”

“I don’t know. The mayor’s got some powerful backers. The bank, for example. And the bank has recently hired a sharp new lawyer who seems to have his eye on just about everything.”

“Nicky Minicozzi, you mean. Yeah, we call him Mini-cazzo. Nicky does what we tell him. Hang loose, cugino. Go to Mass. Pray for our souls.”

“Sure, Dad. If it’s important. I was hoping to stay up here at the fraternity house through graduation. There are a lot of parties going on this weekend. People I may never see again.”

“I know, Tommy. But I do need your help.”

“Is Mom worse?”

“Well, yes and no. But I’ve had to fire the home care nurse and the new one can’t start until next week, so I’m all alone here.”

“What did she do? Steal something?”

“I… I guess you could say so.”

“Dad, you don’t sound good. Are you all right? Dad?”

“I know. It’s all right. Angela told me. She said she’d helped you find the new person.” All week long she has been thinking about leaving. Ever since the night his car was attacked and he got home and found his wife so ill. It was her fault, really, and she has the feeling others think so, too. There is a scandal of some sort brewing and she is afraid of it. But now, just hearing his voice (he is apologizing for missing their traditional Thursday night together; he seems quite shaken and says he needs her more than ever, and she can hear the need and how much older his voice sounds, and it tugs at her), she knows she can’t go. Not yet. Night of a full moon. She’ll eat alone in her room, unable to bear the smirks of the motel staff. “Tomorrow’s out, too, damn it,” he says. “But Tommy’s coming down from university, so Saturday looks good. We can take that drive we talked about.” He looked absolutely stricken while talking on the phone in his office today, and when she brought in some documents for him to initial, she asked if something was wrong. He nodded, then shook his head sadly, as if it were all beyond him. Her heart was racing but he assured her it had nothing to do with her. He has asked her, more than once, about becoming the new Chamber of Commerce executive director, saying that he needed her business and personal relations skills in that job, her youthful enthusiasm, and, well, yes, her beauty, and though they might see a little less of each other, it would spare them the awkwardness of working together at the bank, but she has always made it clear that when her internship at the bank is over she is leaving. And then they both are sad for a while. “Hello? Stacy? Is Saturday okay?” She felt guilty about keeping him late that night, but she just couldn’t let him go. Somehow it seemed like the last night, and at the door, when he was kissing her good night, she knelt and pulled his pants and shorts down and there went another half hour, and he probably didn’t even know as he pressed his fingers into her hair that she was crying a little. She felt so awful the next day when she heard, she even packed her bags. But then just sat staring at them. The only god she has left from her Quaker childhood is love and he’s not always a friendly god, sometimes even kind of scary, more like a demon, really. When little Angela asked her what she believed in, she joked that she was a holyroller for love, but what she didn’t say was that if religious faith was a kind of dangerous madness, so too was love. “Hello? Are you there…? Stacy…?” “Yes. All right. Saturday then.” “I’m doing all I can.” “I know. I love you. And thanks for the flowers. They’re beautiful.”

“Mom? I’ve decided to come home for the weekend to see you. We’re having a special Friday night supper tonight at the fraternity. One of my profs is a guest. I’ll start down right after. How are you doing?”

“Well, I’m dying, my dear. Other than that I’m just fine.”

“I tried to call last night, but the phone was busy or else just disconnected. I suppose you were asleep?”

“Yes, I am at peace in the Lord, Tommy. My soul has been saved and I rest easy.”

“Where’d you learn to talk like that, Mom? It doesn’t sound like you.”

“It is not me, Tommy, not the me you knew. I have been born again. I didn’t know what that meant. Now I do. I am someone new. I surprise even myself.”

“Mom, what’s going on? Dad seems very upset about something.”

“Oh, you know your father, Tommy. If the world doesn’t go according to plan, his plan, he gets all hot under the collar.”

“Why did the home care nurse get fired?”

“Mrs. Filbert is a pious kind-hearted Christian woman. She has helped me through dreadful times in a way that no one else has and I miss her horribly. He has sent some silly little girl over here today in her place who talks to me like I’m three years old. I think your father did it for spite.”

“He said you did something bad.”

“I followed my own lights, as he likes to say and has done for over thirty years, without concern for me or anyone else. I am preparing to meet my Maker, Tommy, and He spoke to me and directed me to free myself of all earthly encumbrances, and I have been doing so.”

“And me, Mom? Am I an earthly encumbrance, too?”

“All that is body is, Tommy. Not your spirit. Which I love more than you can know and hope to have near me through all eternity. The world isn’t going to last much longer, which means at least you may not have to suffer what I am suffering. But you may not have much time. You must always keep Jesus in your heart, Tommy, and…(No, dear. Not now.)”

“Who’s there with you now, Mom?”

“Groovy, Angie! But, hey, wasn’t Tommy here just last week?”

“He says he simply can’t stay away from me! He’s just crazy about me, Ramona!” Angela knows this because of the way he looks at her, especially when gazing down upon her just before That Moment, his eyes ablaze then with adoration and awe (she is so beautiful! she knows this!) and tenderness and passionate desire. Tommy! She’s so madly in love she’s just wet all the time! “He told me so!”

“Oh, Angie, you’re so lucky! Tommy’s a fabulous hunk! And rich! And you mean you’re really calling from his house?”

“Call me back if you like, and see for yourself. And I’ll be here tomorrow, too.” Tomorrow — Ramona knows this, but she is too stupid and shallow and jealous ever to understand the true deep meaning — she and Tommy will make love in this beautiful house (probably even under this very ceiling: she is calling from the phone in his bedroom, poking about, sniffing at things) which may one day be hers. April 25: She has already marked it on her sacred calendar. She’s desperately close to her period, and that’s scary, but hopefully it will not come until Monday. “Poor Tommy! He’s hurting so! He needs me now.” He’s such a bad boy, though. Last weekend on the way to the motel, a used tampon dropped out on her lap. He made up some wild excuse, saying he’d loaned his car to a fraternity brother up at university who must have put it there as a joke, and he became very sweet in his embarrassment, but all Angela could think was: Did he have sex with a girl during her period? That sounds pretty gross, but if things go wrong this weekend, well, if he likes that, she might give it a try. “I still haven’t got over my own mom passing away, so I know what Tommy’s going through.” Even if Mrs. Cavanaugh is really cranky and always complaining — nothing like her own mom who, even when she was dying, kept wanting to help somehow, and never said a word about her pain or fear, just how much she loved her. Thank goodness the old lady is asleep most of the time, lying there in her wrinkly old gown and plastic shower cap, or else looking through her photo albums with her little wire-framed glasses on the end of her skinny white nose. “When Tommy’s father came to ask me yesterday to help out, it was just such a thrill! Especially when he said he specifically wanted a Catholic home care person. It was like he was reaching out to me, you know? I suddenly felt so much closer to him. He’s a wonderful man, so kind, who has suffered so much, and he’s the best employer in the world. I just love him!” On Tommy’s shelves are his trophies and a personalized bowling ball and some framed photos, including a delicious one in his high school basketball uniform, holding a ball at his hip, which must have been taken about the same time they first did it. “Tommy’s mother keeps asking for the other woman who was here. A Baptist-type nurse who did something bad, I don’t know what.”

“I bet she stole something. Those people are like that.” Angela wants to steal that photo. Maybe tomorrow she’ll ask him for it. He’s so cute! She was just a dumb little kid then, but so was he. They are both so much more mature now. At the bottom of his socks drawer, she finds a stack of men’s magazines and, while Ramona rattles on about the stupidity and immorality of Baptist hillbillies and all the craziness out on the mine hill last weekend, she thumbs through them. She recognizes the poses: Tommy asked her to pose the same way for his Polaroid. She loves him, so how could she say no? It made her feel funny, though, like her skin was not her skin but something she was actually wearing. But she could see it made him awfully excited, and it excited her, too, and she took pictures of him (he is so gorgeous!) and he used a timer to take pictures of them together, making love—“I know one should always keep one’s dignity,” her older friend Stacy Ryder once told her, “but really it’s not much use in a love affair…”—and then he let her tear them all up and burn them after, all except one of them together, just kissing (you can’t see the hands), which she let him keep to remember her by when he was away at college. “My dad said there’s some really sick things going on out there, stuff you wouldn’t believe! And those people are everywhere, the fields are full of them like herds of animals! I even saw somebody this morning who looked just like your brother Charlie, only he was ten years older.”

“That probably was Charlie. He’s back. He’s going bald. He made some bad friends up in the city and I think he got into trouble, but you’d never know it. Swaggering around, snapping his fingers, acting the big cheese. He’s already got into a fight with Dad and eaten up all the food in the house.” She is, she knows, as beautiful as any of these women in the magazines, though she sees that her pubic hair is thicker than most of theirs; she will trim it, maybe make a little design. Tommy would like that.

“Angie, now that things are so cool for you and Tommy, can I have Joey Castiglione?”

“Sure, Ramona. He means nothing to me.” She can be generous; she’s not throwing anything away. Joey would never go for fat Ramona Testatonda. Ramona thinks she’s such a big deal just because her dad is a town cop, but Joey Castiglione will still be waiting for his Angela a hundred years from now. She didn’t let Tommy have his way in everything. She knew how to be both firm and gentle when she had to draw the line, like when he wanted to take a picture of her using the bathroom, for example. Absolutely not, Tommy Cavanaugh. Though he did take a picture of himself up close when he was in her other place and she wasn’t looking — how could she be, on her hands and knees? — which was just too gross. No picture like that in these magazines. She asked her older friend at the bank if she ever let people take pictures when they’re intimate like that, and Stacy said no, so maybe she has gone too far, though Stacy smiled and said anything really is all right when you’re in love. And oh yes, she is! Her whole body is shaking and oozing with it.

“Bernice said he just stormed in last night and throwed her and Florrie out, Mr. Suggs. Said they weren’t nothing but common thieves and they’d end up in jail. Bernice is a storyfier, but I credit her account. And his dying wife there in the room, Bernice said, whilst he was throwing his wrath around. She said the poor lady was brave and kept right on smiling, but her lip was a-quivering like a shook rag, and Bernice said she felt like her heart would break. I hope we done the right thing.”

“Of course we have, Clara. The two women have saved another soul and found a way to do God’s will in spite of that evil man. He will try to get the money back now, but I think we have made it safe for the Lord. Are you calling from the new office phone?”

“Yes, and we bless you for that, Mr. Suggs. It is so important to our work. I have used it to call other preachers and let them know we wish to live in peace among them like fellow Christians and I have invited them all to visit us and share in our services.”

“It is good what you are doing, for we must, as they say, keep the dogs at bay. Which reminds me to ask: Has Abner Baxter left the camp premises yet?”

“No, they’re all still here. And some others have been moving in. Using cabins that ain’t even got electricity yet nor roofs nor windows neither, and setting their tents up in the empty spaces and out around the old fire grills. Folks are camped out in the Meeting Hall, too. And there are more tents over on the Mount of Redemption. Ben keeps making them move, but soon as he’s gone, they pop up again. Mostly, though, they been behaving in a helpful and friendly if somewhat stubborn manner. The camp is still a dreadful sight from what them bad boys done to it, and most everbody’s pitching in to fix it up again — even Abner.”

“This won’t do, Clara. If you need workers, I can send you some. Those people were all to have been gone by Tuesday. It is already Friday.”

“Well, they ain’t no place for them to go. They are waiting for the new campsite.”

“They will find a place if you are firm enough. When the new campsite is ready, they will have no choice. I have spoken with Sheriff Puller. But for their own good and the good of the community, they must leave now. You will regret this delay.”

“That may be, but it is a hard thing to do.”

“That’s a laughable offer, Ted.”

“Well, think about it. We have some new problems here. Questions about the sources of the cult’s money, whether or not there might be fraud and embezzlement involved. The mine’s responsibility in leaving dangerous material unguarded—”

“Our inspectors are on the way. We’re sure that stuff was removed years ago. And even if it wasn’t, it has probably deteriorated over time.”

“And if it hasn’t? It’s the sheriff’s belief that the break-in was done by some of Suggs’ people—”

“The sheriff said some renegade bikers.”

“For all I know they are part of Sheriff” Puller’s illegal vigilantes. But there’s also a rumor going around that the owners might have robbed themselves to collect on the insurance. I understand an insurance agent has been around asking.”

“We didn’t do that, Ted.”

“All I’m saying is there’s a rumor. It will have to be investigated.”

“It won’t go anywhere.”

“It will take time.”

John P. Suggs rocks back in his swivel chair in his South County Coal Company office, his thumb hooked in his suspenders, staring out upon the monumental landscape of narrow mounds and deep furrows that he has created. The spokesman for the Deepwater Number Nine owners has just told him that the city has raised its offer. There are some provisos, but they’re tempted to go with it. Pat suspects a bluff. They’re in trouble on the theft. He has had Puller call the company about it, asking difficult questions. He decides to take a chance and lower his offer by a third. The spokesman says that makes no sense in the face of the city’s improved bid, and adds that there are rumors of fraud and embezzlement behind the Brunists’ funds. “This is my money,” John P. Suggs says, “and you know my money is good. What I’m offering you is still a lot more than the mine is worth. You’d better grab it while you can.” There is a long pregnant pause. John P. Suggs smiles out upon his domain. He was right.

“Well, let us talk with your lawyers.”

“I don’t have any lawyers. You talk to me.”

“Hi, Sally? This is Billy Don, you know, out here at the camp and all that? We just got a new phone line into the office and I’m, like, testing it out.”

“Well, hey, Billy Don, it works.”

“Yes, well, hah, I thought I’d give you a call, see if we could maybe sort of get together for a minute. There’s something I need to…”

“Sure. Beautiful day. You want me to come out—?”

“No! No, I have to make a Randolph Junction mail run and pick up some, you know, typing ribbons in Tucker City. Can you meet at the drugstore there in about, like, an hour?”

On this beautiful day, the beautiful man, sitting all alone in his dingy bank office and feeling old and ugly, hangs up the phone, crumples his squiggly doodles and baskets them. Stacy has checked out of the motel. No forwarding address. Somehow, inexplicably, he has lost her, even as he has lost his wife, who has turned against him, betrayed him, and his town, which is abandoning him. As though the switchboard were fused, connections severed. A couple of nights ago, in the still of the night, he heard the bikers, or thought he did, and their distant grumble seemed to presage a nightmare, and that nightmare has come to pass. He decides to call home and check on the young Bonali girl, who is staying with Irene for the day, but the phone is busy. He imagines that Irene must be talking to that damned butt-in Edgar Thornton, so he calls him up in the city to see if his line is busy too. It is not. The secretary hooks him up immediately.

“Ah… Thorny, you’re there. How are you? Ted Cavanaugh here, voice out of the past.”

“Hello, Teddy. I thought you might be calling.”

“Thorny, Irene is dying.”

“She told me she was not well. She is a lovely lady. I am very sorry to hear it.”

“I mean, she’s not herself, goddamn it. You’ve helped her to do a very bad thing, Thorny.”

“You mean give her money to a church? In my book, Teddy, that’s a beautiful and virtuous act.”

“Yeah, well, all right, to her own church maybe. But these people are not her people.”

“Evidently they are now. I believe she has found a peace with them she did not find with her people, as you call them. No doubt meaning your—”

“Thorny, you have gone behind my back and taken advantage of a sick woman who is on a lot of drugs and mostly out of it, damn it. That was our money, not hers alone. I will hit you for your fees and all that you siphoned away, and goddamn it, I’ll strip you of your license as well.”

“I have spoken at length with Irene. She is a relatively young woman and plainly in command of her faculties. The accounts, perhaps for evasive tax reasons, were solely in her name so the transfers were legal. And I did not charge a fee. I did it as an old friend.”

“Oh hell. But, hey, Thorny, aren’t I an old friend, too?”

“Teddy, you were never a friend. Take care. I suggest you open your heart to Jesus and prepare for His imminent return and the final judgment which will follow.”


“Well, that’s a start, I guess.”

“I am mighty beholden to you, Bernice, for gittin’ summa that penny-silly for my boy to cure his nasty infliction. If Jewell’d found out, he’da got a awful whuppin’.”

“Well, boys’ll be boys, Florrie, and they’s scads a wicked ladies ready to prey upon them. And upon older men, too, who should oughta know better, like that disgraceful reprobate we useta work for. You just know there’s a woman somewheres.

“You mean, Mr. Cavanaugh?”

“Nobody else. Every week, come Thursday night, he’s off and away, you seen that, and some other nights, too, when he gets a surge. He says he’s on business, but there’s only one sorta business gets done that time of day. You can smell it on him when he gets back worse than Ahasuerus’s harem. His tie hanging like something used up and strange hairs all over him. And that poor knotty thing a-dying away in there in plain sight, her angel wings already half sprouted — you can see them poking out her shoulder blades.”

“Who y’reckon—?”

“Not who, Florrie, but how many? Men like that, there’s never only one. If he does get contentious, I figure we got something to bemean him with, though I misdoubt he’s the sort who’d give a care.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t wanta cause no trouble, Bernice.”

“Well, Florrie, sometimes like Judith, we just got to take history in our own hands.”

“Oh no! You don’t reckon on cuttin’ off his head!”

“Oh, Florrie, course not! Why do you always take things so literal? Judith was maybe a smidge harsh, but the point is when she and her people were being persecuted by this rich powerful enemy, she just didn’t set back and let it happen. She knew how to be a hero and save her people, and we have to try and do the same!”

“We want to thank you for joining us at the Mount of Redemption last Sunday, Mr. Castle, even if your purposes was not entirely friendly. But, as I’m sure you witnessed, we are peaceful folk; it’s them others who’s acting badly. We don’t ask for your pertection, but we do ask for your understanding.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll do what we can, Mrs. Collins. Thank you for your call. (Hey, sweetheart, next time ask who’s calling before you hand me the fucking phone, awright?)” Click.

“Hey, Nick. Wanted to catch you before you left for the afternoon.”

“Beautiful day out there, Ted. You should be out on the course.”

“I’d probably just ram my wedge up the butt of the first guy who told me it was a beautiful day. Right now, I have to head home to relieve the kid from the bank who’s saint-sitting. I got nowhere with Thornton, Nick. What have you learned?”

“Well, the Brunist bank accounts are pretty fat but don’t show large recent deposits. They’ve probably opened up another account somewhere for your wife’s money. They’ve got phones out at the camp now. We can keep closer tabs.”

“What? You mean tap them?”

“I think I can arrange it. I understand they have also instituted armed guards. And the rumor is that Suggs has closed a deal on the mine.”

“Damn. Can we do anything about slowing that down?”

“Already in the works. One weakness Suggs has: he doesn’t trust lawyers. We can run circles around him.”

“And that motorcycle gang?”

“They’ve either left the area or are lying low. Not much we can do until they’re caught, and that’s something the county or the state will have to do.”

“I’ve talked with the governor. Not very helpful. Says the sheriff seems to be doing his job. Maybe the possibility of stolen dynamite will wake him up.” Not much hope of that. The mine owners will have got to the gutless bullshitter with their own soporific story. Elections are won, he once said, not by what you do, but by what you don’t do. “Speaking of sleepwalkers, I ran into Jim Elliott on the street. Maybe he said something about a beautiful day, too. I’m afraid I really leaned into him. I may even have fired him.”

“I know you’ve got a problem there.”

“I was hoping to find some young blood for that Chamber of Commerce job, try to get this town moving again, but so far no candidates.”

“The young woman here at the bank?”

“Doesn’t want it.” He stands, relieving the constriction in his chest. “You once mentioned the notion of a city manager instead of what we have now. I’ve been thinking about that. Of course, we couldn’t dump the mayor without a lot of citywide restructuring. But I think the city council is fed up with him. There’s even talk of an investigation. We might start with a job that relieved him of a lot of his day-to-day operational duties — taking care of the finances, for example — and adding in the duties of the Chamber executive director under some new title. A kind of take-over, make-over role. Would you be interested in that, Nick?”

“You mean as a job? I don’t know…”

“Well, think about it. And what you’d need to make it worth your while. Meanwhile, I’d like to try to revive the old Common Sense Committee somehow. This was something we used back when the Brunist cult started up here. Involved the whole community. We need something like it again. Needs a new name, though. West Condoners for a Better Future, or something.”

“Out of the Past and Into the Future.”

“Something like that.”

“A New Order for West Condon.”


“The acronym would be NOWC. Like Now West Condon.”

“Hey, I like it. Maybe a New Outlook.”

“Or New Opportunities.”

“I think you have it, Nick. Let’s call it that. New Opportunities for West Condon. NOW West Condon. Brilliant. I was going to be out of town tomorrow, but it looks like I’ll be staying around. I’ll get started on it.”

“Don’t call it that, Tommy. It sounds more like merchandise or something.”

“What should I call it?”

“It doesn’t have to have a name, Tommy. Just think about it.”

“I do all the time. It drives me crazy. What do you call mine?”

“I’ve never called it anything.”

“Do you like it?”

“Of course I do. I love it. I love everything about you, Tommy.”

“Sure, but what about my ass? Go ahead, I can take it. Tell me what you really think.”

“Your mom might be listening in, Tommy!”

“Oh yeah. How’s she doing?”

“Well, it’s very difficult for her, but your mom’s the sweetest person. I just love her. It’s so sad she’s so ill.”

“She’s sounding pretty weird to me.”

“Your dad says that’s because of the people who were taking care of her before. That’s why he asked me for a Catholic person and I found Concetta for him.”

“I wish she could make it this weekend. I’m going to be missing a lot of good parties up here.”

“Well, but you have me.”

“Right. I know. You and your beautiful ass! I can hardly wait!”

“Please, Tommy…”

“In fact I’m looking at it right now. Gorgeous!”

“In your imagination, you mean?”

“No, in a photo. You know those Polaroids we took in the motel on that crazy end-of-the-world night?”

“Yes, but we tore all those up and burned them.”

“All except one.”

“The one of us kissing.”

“Yeah, well, I switched. I kept the one where I asked you to say cheese upside down.”

“Oh no! Not the one on my hands and knees!”

“Right! End of the world!”

“Tommy Cavanaugh, you bring that photo with you when you come and we’ll tear it up while I watch!”

“I don’t know if I can. My fraternity brothers asked for it for their meeting room, something to, you know, bow down to, and since I’m the chapter chaplain, how could I refuse?”

“Oh Tommy. You’re such a tease. Do you love me?”

“Yeah, sure. You know that.”

“Come home, Tommy. Skip the party. Come quickly.”

Somewhere a phone is ringing, beckoning her from afar. A voice like that of Jesus. She wishes to answer the call — for eternity may depend upon it — but she cannot. She has been rendered immobile, her body existing in a different dimension, she rising from it, but inertly afloat, unseen. There is a problem. What’s the matter? Something to do with her ability to transmit and receive. The lines are crossed, and there is nothing she can do. The Bible in her hands is like a phone book, its verses alphabetized and scattered among the white and yellow pages, hiding the destination she seeks. You know the father, someone says. She does, but even so she cannot find his name. How could she? Her eyes are closed. If, disembodied, she has eyes. She wants only to rise into the light. There must be an opening. If only she could reach the switchboard. But the switchboard has melted. Did she say goodbye? It doesn’t matter.

“Resign? What do you mean ‘resign’? Damn it, you can’t do that, Maury.” Ted doesn’t like to be called at home. The ring can awaken Irene, doped up as she is, and set off a bad night. “I’m going to try to get you some help, but we can’t have any instability while we have all these problems. What’s the matter?”

“Well, for starters, some asshole up in the city with a scary accent is trying to stop me from campaigning in Dagotown.”

“You get his name?”

“Are you kidding? I don’t even wanta know it.” When Castle speaks, the phone can be set down in one room and heard in the next. “And wait till you see our likely next cop. Know Charlie Bonali?”

“I know his father. Should be all right.” He’s had too much to drink and dozed off in front of the television, this jarring intrusion further souring his sour mood. It’s a good thing the telephone separates them, else he might do serious damage to the stupid ass. Lem Filbert has been blunt about him. A crook. It’s something he should get on top of. Soon. Outside, a fat moon is rising. Another sort of call. “His sister works for me in the bank.”

“Yeah? How’d she get that job, Ted?”

“If you mean, did she have big-city sponsors, the answer is no. There was an opening, she was the most qualified applicant.”

“Yeah, well, I got a feeling that’s gonna be her badass brother’s case, too.”

“Hey, Tommy. Saw your mom’s wagon in the drive this morning and knew you were back. Is everything okay?”

“I shouldn’t even be talking to you. I don’t want you ever in my car again. You are totally weird.”

“I know it.” Sally grins, thinking about the surprise that butter-bags must have got when Riding the Hood’s ruby bullet landed in her lap, and writes: Another first in the history of armed warfare. “Those religious people out on the hill apparently think I’m some kind of diabolical fiend in league with Satan.”

“They’re damn right.”

“If they weren’t all so stuck in their beefcake fantasies, they’d say I was the Antichrist, but that’s too big a deal for a woman. You remember that wall-eyed kid out there with the pilot shades and cute hangdog look?”

“Sure. What awful thing did you do to him?”

“I bought him an ice cream sundae. He snuck away from the camp and met me over in Tucker City. At first he just wanted to warn me that I’d been demonized by the cult and that I should stay away from the camp for my own health, while at the same time trying to talk me into pulling on one of those nighties and becoming a member.”

“What did you do to get so famous?”

“After you left Sunday, I got those two boys to invite me up the hill. Research for Professor Cavanaugh, you know. I got lots of notes for you, but I never quite fit in, I don’t know why.” She pauses to let him make a wisecrack about that, thumbing through her notebook and coming on that cartoon of Sleeping Beauty with the beard and boner and inked-in phone receiver. When he passes (he’s probably scratching himself and yawning, pissed off by the call), she says, “And then a really creepy thing happened. While I was still talking to an old lady there at the tent, she winked at me and died. I freaked out and took off down the hill, and now they all think I sucked the life out of her.” She liked that old lady. She’d felt blessed by her.

“And after that they still want you to join up? I thought it was that kind of outfit. Bunch of whacked-out vampires. You should fit right in.”

“Poor Billy Don is pretty mixed up.” Well, that hangdog look: he fancies her, give the boy his due.

“Billy Don?”

“That’s the boy’s name. When I said no thanks, he switched and made it clear he wanted out himself. It was getting too intense, he said, too unreal. His buddy Darren, that’s the other one, apparently obsesses over the end of the world day and night, and it’s beginning to drive Billy Don nuts.” She understands that — it’s hard to live around crazy people, especially when they don’t know they’re crazy — yet she almost envies this fascination with cosmic mysteries and wishes it didn’t all seem so ordinary to her. She stubs out her cigarette. Maybe she should take up astronomy. She adds sunglasses to the bearded sleeper, and while Tommy makes what might be nose-blowing noises on the other end, writes: Beauty comes on a sleeping Prince Charming, lance in hand, and wonders whether or not she should wake him up. How will he behave when he has to give up his wet dreams? It might leave him with nothing to hold on to, so to speak. “He said he really wanted to get on that bus to Florida — you know, the one all those kids with guitars came on — but things are a mess at the camp after the bikers trashed it, and he couldn’t let his pal and Mrs. Collins down just when they needed him.” Beauty’s own life in the world has been something of a mixed bag, as they say out in the briars. Why drag poor Charming into it? Like her father, he’d just be completely baffled and get drunk all the time. “Also, I think Darren made a play for him and he wasn’t ready for that.”

“Oh yeah?” Tommy perks up at that. “What’d he say?”

“One night he woke up and Darren was touching him.”

“Yeah, well, did he like it?”

“I don’t think he did. I think it scared him a little.”

“But what did he do?”

“He didn’t say.”

“He liked it.”

The telephone table is full of tiny black burn marks where her father — in one stupor or another, or maybe in a pique because of phoned abuse — missed the ashtray. He’s in deep trouble, she knows, with Tommy’s dad. He’s going to lose his job, and then what will they do? It’s not fair. He can’t help it if he’s about as clever as a broken pump handle and can only mimic the world in his friendly stupidity. He’s the sort of guy who uses a whiskey-flavored toothpaste, a Christmas gift from his friend Archie Wetherwax, and has a cigarette lighter that plays “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which is his idea of high culture. Her mom is smarter — she’s been known to read a bestseller or two and professes to adore Chopin’s “Moonlight Sonata”—but she has been completely warped by this dumb town. “So how’s your mom doing, Tommy?”

“About the same. If anything, when she’s lucid, she seems better. More feisty. I’m home because dad had to fire the home care nurse and needs a break. Bad fucking story.”

“What happened?”

“Can’t say exactly. But it seems the woman stripped her out. All Mom’s savings. The woman is one of those crazy cultists, it turns out, and I think they got it all. Dad’s shattered by it. But it’s also fired him up. He’s getting up some kind of community action committee again, and he says he’s going to throw the book at those freaks. That’s what he’s working on now down at the bank. Mom is teed off about all of this, of course, and not easy to get on with.”

Growing up, Sally saw a lot of Tommy’s mother. Their mothers often took them to the park or pool together. Back when the brain was just warm mud and didn’t hold on to much, so it’s all pretty dim. But she always remembered his mother as a sweet, passive creature, very quiet and unassuming. Pretty, even when she got older. Sally’s mom always did all the talking. “It’s sad, Tommy. Getting old is sad. How about if I drop by for a Saturday morning toke? I can say hello to your mom and give you my notes from last Sunday.”

“Not today, Sal. I’m about to take a shower, get the day going. And then I’ve got company this afternoon.”

For some reason, doodling, thinking about Christ’s multitude of foreskins maybe, she has given the sleeping prince a second dick. Give Beauty a kind of kisser’s on-off switch. And if she gets mad, she can bite one off and still have one to play with. Tommy’s, if memory serves, is circumcised. This memory comes not from the ice plant — she went blind that night — but from hairless childhood. To play it safe, she draws one with a foreskin, the other without. That way he’ll be good to go, no matter which way it swings in the afterlife. “Well, let me know, professor,” she says, trying not to sound hurt or angry, but no doubt sounding hurt and angry. “I’m only a phone call away.”

“That’s right. New Opportunities. You know, for West Condon. What do you think?” Ted’s tenth or twelfth call of the morning. He can’t even remember who he’s talking to now. Probably someone on the city council. The voice on the other end sounds like it’s coming out of a windy cave. Archie Wetherwax up a phone pole, maybe. Who will beg off so that he can stay home and play with his model train set. Nothing happening out on the bank floor this Saturday morning. Nothing at all. “We hope to acquire some new properties, see if we can lure some corporate and industrial investment to the area.” He’s still making swirly shapes with his penciled doodles like some kind of weird flowers, but now, whenever lines cross to create closed spaces, he finds himself blacking them in. Well, he’s an old guy with a lot of history, and she’s just a kid. He’s known all along there’d be no long-term gain. It was more like a casino night: fast, fun, full of calculated risk, empty-handed at the end. But he hadn’t realized her leaving, though it had to happen, would hit him so hard. “Yes, those fanatics are part of our concern, too.” It’s the priest he’s talking to now. Key ally. So wake up. “They’re responsible for a lot of our troubles here, Father Baglione, and we want them to move on before things get out of hand again.” He’s had his fair share of casino nights, but mostly out of town, while attending board meetings or sales conferences, pursuing investments, and the returns have been minimal but no debts or regrets, no troublesome residue. As a reliable donor to Republican party campaigns and a local organizer and counselor, he also gets invited from time to time to Governor Kirkpatrick’s hunting parties (have to call him), and there are always lots of women around there, too. Short-term investments with little or no payback, just a pleasurable way to get rid of excess capital. That of the pocket, that of the loins. One of his upstate partners has shown him how to make most of it tax deductible. He even includes condoms among his promotional supply expenses, buys them by the carton. “You saw last Sunday the problems we face, Connie.” The Lutheran minister has agreed to replace Wes Edwards at the Rotary Club and Ted wants him to focus his introductory remarks on the new action committee and its challenges. “We have to come together as a united citizenry, and we might as well start praying for it at the Wednesday luncheon.” In all his previous affairs, it has always been easy come and easy come again. So what’s different this time? Well, he has fucking fallen in love, that’s what. “Goddamn it, Jim, that’s stupid! I ask you what you think of our New Opportunities for West Condon idea and you can only make a lame joke about nude opportunities?” He hangs up on the drunken sonuvabitch with a bang, which causes the little Bonali girl out on the bank floor to start and glance his way. He shrugs and winks solemnly, turns away, recalling Stacy’s mimicry. He’d brought up the idea of her taking over Jim Elliott’s job, but she only laughed and then did an exact imitation of Elliott’s stupid look, his dumb remarks. To prove, she said, she’d be perfect for the job. He’s crazy about her. Never thought it could happen again, never wanted it to happen, and it did. She has brought something magical into his life. It’s as though he’s been spared from following poor Irene into the grave. An illusion, of course. Like religion, as Stacy would say. Though she believes in love like others believe in Jesus. He called his old fraternity brother up at the business school to ask if he’d seen her or heard from her. No, but he had another sharp student he might like. He was sorry he’d called. “Nick works for the bank, Burt. Guy I met at a business meeting up in the city. I don’t think he even goes to church.” It’s nickel-and-dime Burt Robbins he’s talking to. He’s telling him about his city manager idea and Burt has asked him if he thinks it’s smart to hand over that much power to the Italians. He says the mayor won’t like it. “The mayor told me he wanted to quit.” That surprises Burt, but Ted doesn’t say more, changes the subject, says he has been on the phone to a couple of old profs and may have found a good candidate to replace Edwards at the church. “Young fellow named Jenkins. Something of a scholarly type, like Connie Dreyer, but said to be good at reaching out to the community and building consensus.” Got the impression talking with him that he was something of a naïve ditherer and probably not even a golfer, but they’ve got to get a body in the pulpit soon, reopen the church before the doors rust shut. Ted has chewed his pencil through to the lead. He snaps it in two. Relax. She’ll be back, she needs him, she can’t stay away. He’s arrogant enough to believe that. Meanwhile, the break is a good thing. Instead of an idle drive in the country, he’s getting a lot of work done. He calls Lem Filbert to apologize for having to let his sister-in-law go, but it was a very serious matter. “She took advantage of my wife’s incapacities.” Lem says he hopes the crazy bitch ends up in the fucking clink and stays there, he’s fed up with her religious wackiness and she needs to have her ass kicked. Lem’s a good man and Ted tells him so while thinking about Stacy’s sweet little behind, so arousing when she turns it toward him. Lit softly by the fading light coming through the motel window. To be kissed, not kicked. He asks when his car will be ready and Lem says he plans to finish the painting this afternoon. Should be dry by Monday, looking like new. “No hurry, Lem. No use for it until then.” But, no, it’s not a good thing. He’s in pain. He imagines the drive. The sun. Her smile. Her hand in his lap. It’s a long long way from May to December… He’s not a hummer, but now he’s humming. There you go. Though that one’s about growing old. The days dwindle down to a precious few… He takes a deep breath and presses on with his NOWC calls (ah, damn the world and the way time fucks us!), trying to get his mind off her, and while he’s got Judge Altoviti on the phone, he inquires about Concetta Moroni, the woman he has just hired, sight unseen, as a home care worker. Altoviti says she’s a strong, reliable, big-hearted woman who was widowed by the Deepwater blast and could use the work; so, good, he’ll stick with her. Not all news is bad. Irene has become an evangelical; now she can become a Catholic. Just to be sure, he calls Nick Minicozzi upstairs and asks him to do a background check. “And while you’re at it, you might try to get me a rundown on the bank’s investments in Deepwater or in any of its managers, outstanding loans, that kind of thing. I think we put some money into a gasification project of theirs. Bad field position, but until that deal is signed and sealed, we still might have a play or two left in our locker.” September… November… When Nick asks, he says, “I may come out for a late nine.” Vince Bonali’s daughter, who gave him the Moroni connection, is doing some quiet housekeeping behind the counter, filling the time until they close at one. Then she’s off to the house to help out with Irene. Ted’s well aware he has set Tommy up with an in-house lay today, though he apparently needs no help. Consolation for dragging him back from university. The girl is cute, though far beneath Tommy. Should he call her father about NOWC? No. Lesson learned. He has just taken a grip on the phone to call Dave Os-borne at the shoe store, thinking about Stacy showing him the shoes she’d bought there (even her feet he loves, and the way she stands and walks on them, the way she turns the soles up when—), when it rings. Almost as if by grasping it he has triggered it. If you hold the blackened doodles to the light just right, they shine like silver. He hangs up with a whispered I-love-you and calls the garage. “Listen, Lem, if its drivable, I might take the Lincoln out for the weekend after all and bring it back Monday. Yeah? Great.” He signals to the staff to lock up. To fall so hard. And feel so good.

II.2 Saturday 25 April

On a slight rise on the way into what he knew when a boy as the Presbyterian No-Name Wilderness camp, within view of the artificial bump of land their little movement grandly called the “Mount of Redemption,” Pach’ Palmers stops to take a leak beside the panel truck that is his present home. It’s his first time to see that goddamned mine hill since the day he got arrested on it. When he came back to West Condon after his release a couple of years ago, looking in vain for Elaine, he was able to pick up the old Chronicle delivery van, and once he got it running, he headed out here. But he turned back at the edge of town. He was starting up a new life. It seemed like bad karma, as Sissy would say. What a crazy time, what a crazy day. Life does throw up some fucking doozies. That one cost him a stretch in the slammer. Pach’ lifts his cock and aims his stream toward the Mount, wishing he could piss away that awful day, the worst day of his life.

What was he really thinking that day? Did he think the end of the world was coming? That Jesus was going to come flying down out of the storm, superhero cape flapping, and whisk them all off to Paradise? He was so hot for Elaine’s body, he didn’t know what he was thinking. He was holding on to her hand, hoping to find some place they could at least kiss, last chance and all that, but they were on a barren hillside with one sick rickety tree, surrounded by freaked-out Jesus worshippers, the whole world watching, and nowhere to go. And, anyway, there was no budging her. Elaine was completely lost to the insane moment and stood there in the rain, her tunic pasted to her skinny body, rain and tears streaming down her face, looking out on the crowds or else up into the sky. Down at the foot of the hill, those they called the powers of darkness were massing up, including all the reporters and photographers and state cops, and overhead: the mind-rattling yak yak yak of police helicopters. All their own people, showing off all they had in their wet flimsy tunics, were praying, singing, crying, and flinging themselves about in holy fits, their tunics turning black and brown in the mud. It was pretty arousing. He had a massive hard-on impossible to hide under his soaked tunic, which not even fear of the impending apocalypse could shrink. He was able to bend his underwear elastic band down over the head, and belt it in somewhat with the rope they all wore at the waist, but it kept slipping, and when it did it stuck out a mile. He thought: Well, Jesus, here I am, take me, sins and all. Then the town newspaper editor showed up. Mr. Miller. The guy who’d pretended to be a friend and fellow believer, but who’d turned on them like Judas. Exposed them. Made them look like dumbass jerks. Everybody said he was why Bruno’s sister went crazy, why she’d died in the end. So he was a killer, too. They were all charging down on him. The Antichrist. Or the Antichrist of the moment, anyway. He let go of Elaine’s hand and joined them. It was something he had to do. He remembered pummeling the guy there in the pouring rain, hitting him over and over, wishing he could kill him, the girl’s corpse somehow bouncing around in the middle of it all, pointing her blue arm at everybody. The guy’s clothes got torn off, and in the end Pach’ was pounding a lifeless naked body dressed in mud and blood. People were jumping on it. Somebody had an ax. Pach’ thought they had killed him. Only some time later did he learn the poor sonuvabitch had somehow survived. Elaine’s mother had had something to do with it. He was grateful for that. He was sorry about what he’d done. Doubly sorry, because when he went looking for Elaine again, he found Junior Baxter whipping her with a switch, and he laid into the spongy tub of shit — second time that spring, throwing him into the mud and punching him with both fists — only to have Elaine start clawing him and scratching him and throwing her nearly naked body down on Junior to shield him and screaming at Carl Dean to go away, go away. And with that, he lost it. He turned and pitched himself like a howling maniac at the advancing state troopers, taking down a couple of them before they all piled onto him. He was sent up to detention for six months for that, though he doesn’t remember anything after seeing Elaine’s little body on top of fat Junior with blood all over his stupid face.

Anniversary last Sunday. The nineteenth of April. He might have made it here in time had it not been for a leaky radiator. Just as well not. They were probably all over on that hill again and he would only have repeated the whole mess or made it worse. Five years. Long time ago. Seems like a different lifetime. Fuck, it was a different lifetime. Pach’—he wasn’t called Pach’ then — was an ignorant young dickhead with a susceptibility for big total answers. He was president of the Baptist Youth Group and full of furious opinions (how easy it was to speak of God and Jesus then; they were like pals on the track team, and he was elbow to elbow with them, slapping butts) when his high school reading and writing teacher Mrs. Norton drew him and his friend Colin into her goofball Seventh Aspect fantasies, and then, after the coalmine disaster, they followed her when she got mixed up with the lone survivor, Giovanni Bruno, a weird lunatic like all so-called prophets, one thing following another with a kind of mad irresistible logic. Religion’s appeal, no matter how nutty, to the down-and-out. He knows all about that, having been there all his life. The need for divine intervention to serve up just desserts, give the loveless something to love, cure the incurable, take revenge upon the wicked. Focused, God-sanctioned hatred. Oh yes, he felt all that, sometimes still does. He has an explosive nature; he knows that. He has learned to keep things in check, but as a kid he was just so damned angry all the time. He might have killed somebody and often wanted to. It was what made him let go of Elaine’s hand. He let go of everything when he let go of that hand. Everything. He hated Miller at the time. Now he thinks of him as pretty much the smartest guy he ever knew. Sure dumb of him to turn up out there, though, after all he’d done. Must have been Bruno’s sister who dragged him out. It was her body he was trying to reach when he got set upon. Pach’ can understand that. Same with Elaine now. Why he’s here. Except at least Elaine’s still kicking.

Trying to track Elaine Collins down is mostly what he’s done ever since they uncaged him. The six-month rap became a year for mouthing off and throwing his food on the floor and getting into fights with the other punks in detention, and they gave him another five in the state pen after he blew up and punched a sado guard. Laid the sick asshole out cold, sorry only that he hadn’t broken his neck. They might not have let him go anyway. His fucked-up parents had split and left the cheap development at the edge of town and he had no idea where they were, nor wanted to know, so as a juvenile there was no one he could be sent home to. No other relatives wanted him. He was too ugly. After a row or two in the pen, he settled down into his old camp counselor ways and they finally let him go after a couple of years. He was supposed to keep in touch with a parole officer, but he never did. He boarded a bus and came back here. He couldn’t have afforded the train, were it still running, but it wasn’t. The closing of the coalmines had also meant the closing of the railroads. West Condon itself was like it had always been only more run down, needing a fresh coat of paint. He wasn’t shopping, he was looking for Elaine, but she and her mother had left town along with most everyone else he knew, and, except for vague rumors of Brunist doings around the country, there was not much local news about them, so what he got out of the trip instead was his panel truck. He had wanted to apologize to Miller — tell him he was fucking right, they were all dumbass jerks, right on, man — but the Chronicle was closed. Miller had flown the coop, nothing left on the newspaper premises but a print shop run by an old schoolteacher and track coach he once had. Miller, the coach said, was reporting for network TV, something Pach’ never saw except sometimes in bars. Where no one was looking at the news. The paper’s rural delivery van sat out in the parking lot, its tires flat, battery dead, lights busted out, muffler falling off, hoses and fan belt shot, no shocks at all, but the body was not too rust-eaten and the engine looked repairable. The coach let him have it for a token dollar. A tall, sour ex-coalminer named Lem Filbert had a garage at the edge of town and he hired himself out to him in exchange for a tow, some used parts, a set of retreads, a meal a day, and Lem’s mechanical know-how, serving as night watchman on the side for he was already sleeping in the thing, Lem’s widowed sister-in-law providing him some old bedding. A part-time nurse of some kind who had plucked eyebrows and was so religious she dressed like women in Bible pictures. She joined their group around Bruno at the end, but he didn’t remember seeing her out on the hill that day. Maybe she didn’t want to get her clothes wet. She was the one who told him Elaine’s mother was now married to the singer Ben Wosznik and was doing missionary work somewhere over near the Carolinas, and yes, far as she knew, her daughter was still with them. When he had the van rolling again, he headed east. Lem worked hard and demanded hard work, but he was good to him in the end, filling his tank and stuffing a few bucks Pach’ knew he could not afford into his pocket.

The Brunists, he discovered when chasing around after them, had gone big time while he’d been locked up. They had churches all through that part of the country, radio and television programs, billboards and piles of pamphlet handouts, songs on the hillbilly stations, tent meetings said to draw thousands. Hundreds certainly. He saw them, looking for Elaine. The end of the world? Still on. Sometime. Soon. Patience, jackass, patience — that old church camp skit. Back in West Condon, nobody had seemed to know much about any of this. So much happens in this country that no one ever hears about. On their home turf, except maybe for Lem’s sister-in-law, the Brunists were a joke. They’d all made fools of themselves, dancing around half-naked in the rain, waiting for a Rapture, as they called it, that never happened. It was embarrassing. They should have disappeared into jokes the next day, but instead they’re a big religion. Hard to figure. Of course, Jesus Christ: same story. People are weird. Key apparently has been Elaine’s mother. Old lady Collins is a powerhouse and an organizational genius and a saint. Everybody says so. He remembers her as a big, horsey lady with raw red hands, nearly six feet tall, dressed in print dresses and wide white pumps. She had a way of belting out battle cries like some kind of general or football coach and was at the same time given to throwing herself around and bawling like a stuck pig and talking to her dead husband like he was in the same room with her. Pach’ was always afraid of her and knew she didn’t like him very much.

The search for Elaine was mostly fruitless, but he didn’t work all that hard at it either, even obsessed as he was. Something in him kept holding him back. Afraid of what he might say or do, maybe. Especially if she didn’t want to see him, and why should she? So he took odd jobs slinging hash, working on the roads, making deliveries, and wandered about, following their trail, but fell into a funk and backed off whenever it looked like he might be getting close. Went to country bars instead. Got sloshed. Man of constant sorrow. He hadn’t forgotten Elaine’s Day of Redemption betrayal. How could he after what it cost him? But his sweeter memories of her and his hopes of winning her back were what had gotten him through these bad years, so he has kept chasing her even while shying away, fantasizing some kind of future with her and whacking off to the memory of her little body, just as he’d done all through his prison days, just as he is doing now, standing at the edge of a gravel road under the warm April sun, his fist pumping.

He especially liked to think back on that night on the way home from the mine hill with a carload of chicken feathers when he kissed her and grabbed her leg and more besides — and she wasn’t mad after. It was Easter Sunday, a week before the day when the world was supposed to end, though it felt more like the world was just beginning. Wasn’t that the point of Easter? He has had a good feeling about that day ever since, in spite of the stupid Jesus story that goes with it. Colin Meredith was along that night, and they parked on a side street, and by agreement, Colin got out to take a walk. They were coming from a service on the Mount and dressed only in their Brunist tunics and white underwear, and the feel of her flesh through the thin tunic is what he remembers, first her shoulder and armpit (the knotty edge of her little bra), then her leg, then her whole body as he pulled her hard against him, grabbing her tight little bottom through the tunic and cotton panties, her tummy against his, everything twisting and leaping and shivering, the gearshift somewhere in the middle of it all like an extra dick. He scared her, and he was scared too as she began to bawl and get hysterical, and he backed off, apologizing, starting to cry himself and cursing himself for his rough ways. He kissed her cheek softly, whispering his sorries to her, and blinked the lights for Colin to come back, and then, later, as they were walking from the car toward Giovanni Bruno’s house, he told her he loved her, really loved her, and she smiled a trembly little smile — there was a chicken feather in her hair, like a pale flower petal — and his heart lifted. The next day at school, Elaine, tears running down her face, told him Junior Baxter had called her a whore, and he dragged Junior out of history class and thrashed him right there in the hallway in front of everyone and the principal threw him out of school, but Elaine took his hand and said if he had to go, then she was going too, and they walked out of there together, achingly in love, the only time he’d ever loved so hard or felt so loved in all his life.

Well, love. He doesn’t know what it is, only what it isn’t, and what it sometimes feels like. Back then, he was just trying to get into her pants, because he thought that was what guys were supposed to do. Now he knows that’s the least important thing. Everyone and everything fucks. Can’t help it, really. But, love: that’s the rare thing. The hard thing. And not God love, which is just a fake way of loving yourself. Human love. For someone else. Like he loves Elaine, without knowing what it is or even needing to know. Only kind of redemption he knows now, all he can hope for. He pulls over again, gets out, stretches, combs his fingers through his beard, climbs back in, touches his “Elaine” tattoo through his T-shirt for luck, tunes the radio to the local country music station. Why all these highfalutin thoughts? Be cause he is closing in on her once more and all the old anxieties are back. The urge to stop, turn around, and forget it. All along, he knows, it has been like the going was more important than getting there, with the where of the “there” being uncertain enough to give him an excuse always to change direction. Kidding himself. But not this time. For once he knows exactly where she is and knows she’s staying put. He has seen the fresh new sign pointing the way: “International Brunist Headquarters and Wilderness Camp Meeting Ground.” He either goes there now or throws his life away again. “No Trespassing”: that sign, too. Well, forgive us our trespasses, goddamn it to hell. He tosses his leather jacket in the back, takes down the plastic naked woman dangling from his rearview mirror and stows it in the glove compartment, starts up the truck again. Sniffs his armpits — fuck it, have to do. Pops some minty chewing gum in his mouth, which is mostly his way of brushing his teeth. The song on the scratchy old car radio is a religious one, sung by a bunch of young people. Sounds like a live recording not made in a studio. “Wings of a Dove.” He thought he heard the radio announcer, old Will Henry (that dumb rube still there — some things never change), say something about the Brunists, but he may not have heard right through the static.

Elaine is always most on his mind during Easter, and it was Easter morning about a month ago (he would have blamed the coincidence on God, if he still believed in God; instead he attributed it to luck and the way wanting something badly keeps you tuned in to the world) that his trek back here began. He had picked up a kitchen job in a fancy eatery just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in southern Virginia, the trail having gone cold somewhere east of the Smokies, and at work on Easter morning he’d spun the dial looking for some good music. Something about heartbreak and rough traveling, for he’d awakened feeling melancholic, adrift in an indifferent world, going nowhere. Nothing on the radio, however, except fucking church services, one after the other. It was that part of the country. He was about to turn it off when he heard a congregation singing Ben Wosznik’s old tune, “The White Bird of Glory,” the one that starts with the mine disaster. It was a live broadcast coming from a Brunist church in Lynchburg, and when the song was over, the preacher sent around the collection plate, asking for contributions to what he called the new Brunist Wilderness Camp and Headquarters. He gave their local church address for mailed-in contributions. “We shall gather at the Mount of Redemption to meet our dear Lord there face to face!” he declared, quoting the lines of the song, and apparently that was exactly what they meant to do. On the nineteenth of April. Buses were being chartered. Pach’ took off his apron and quit his job on the spot, thoroughly pissing off his employers, who were gearing up for their annual Easter buffet brunch. He headed to Lynchburg, intent on getting there before the service was over so he could talk to the preacher, that radio station tuned in the whole way. He made it in time to see a handful of fresh converts in Brunist tunics getting baptized by light and was able to corner the preacher after, but it wasn’t easy to get anything out of him. He was one of those smug greasy fucks with peroxide blond hair and a smarmy style, and Pach’ couldn’t hide his loathing of him. His own beardy unkempt appearance also put the preacher off; he could tell by the way his eyes narrowed when he took him in. Probably didn’t even smell all that good. It might have speeded things up to let it out that he was one of those twelve First Followers the preacher had blathered about in his sermon, but it would have taken too long to explain and he didn’t want to risk having Elaine alerted. Luckily, he had a few bucks in his pocket, so he took them out and said he’d heard what the preacher had said about the Brunist camp and he wanted to contribute to it, and that softened Blondie up enough to get what he wanted out of him. He’d have made it here sooner, but he had to earn gas money along the way and he had a lot of breakdowns. And, well, maybe, also, sure, the usual cold feet.

Not cured yet. At the turnoff into the camp, he nearly drives right on by. As if distracted. Thinking about tomorrow. Feeling hungry. Needing to clean up first. Wash the van. Whatever. But he brakes (more tents over there in a field, beat-up cars, a camper or two) and makes the turn. The gravel access road dips down slightly into a fresh-smelling leafy space. The camp is located in a wet bottomland fed by the No-Name Creek, which gave the camp its original name. They sometimes had problems in wet summers. The Baptists rented this campground from the Presbyterians each summer for four weeks in August, and he was a regular, rising eventually to camp counselor by the time he was a high school junior. The best four weeks he had each year. He was somebody, then. Ugliness was good. It was strong and knew the ropes. He was good with the younger kids, took them on hikes, showed them how to do things. He could probably still walk the whole camp blindfolded. There are wildflowers along the side of the road, patches of daffodils, bluebells deeper in. It’s a rich beautiful day. One of those days that makes you feel like you’re going to live forever. A T-shirt day. He has rarely seen the camp this time of year, though they used to hold the Easter sunrise services out here on Inspiration Point when all the churches joined in, and he turned up at a few, mainly to check out the girls of the other denominations.

He is stopped at the gate by some burly guy with a gun. Didn’t have those in his day. Didn’t have those barbed-wire fences with the “Keep Out” signs either. All along, he’s been afraid of being rejected. Or hoped to be. Now here it comes. In bib overalls, plaid shirt, and muddy boots. The guy wants to know his business and he knows he should say he is a believer and has made a kind of pilgrimage here, but he can’t get it out. Feels too phony. Instead, figuring Ben Wosznik would probably be the most friendly, he asks for him.

“Yeah? Who should I say…?”

“Tell him the name’s Palmers.”

“Palmers? Hey. Not Carl Dean Palmers?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ll be durned!” The guy rests his shotgun on its stock and a grin breaks across his weathered face. “Well, praise God, brother. Welcome home. We been praying for you. This is some surprise. C’mon, I’ll take you to Brother Ben.”

He leaves the van by the gate, follows overalls into the camp on foot. There are other changes. Telephone poles and electric streetlamps. Phone box in front of the old stone lodge. Which looks spiffed up. The weeds have been beaten back. There’s a flower garden or two, bird feeders. The cedar cabins are under various stages of reconstruction. Some are missing, including the one he used to stay in as a camp counselor. Just the little cement support blocks left standing like miniature tombstones. Crowds of people milling about, busy with one thing or another. Lots of kids running around. Almost like a small town. They stare at him curiously, and his guide shouts out who he is and some smile and wave or come over to shake his hand, others frown or look confused or mutter amongst themselves. No one familiar, though five years is a long time. People change. He has. Elaine? He’d know her, no matter what, but no one like her in sight. Ben is working with a crew on one of the cabins. At first Ben doesn’t recognize him (Ben’s changed, too: thick gray beard now, fulltime spectacles, more of an old man’s shape), and then he does, and he gives him a warm, firm handshake. “Mighty glad to see you, Carl Dean. We thought you was still in the penitentiary.”

“Been out for a while. Heard you were back here and decided to stop by, say hello.”

“Well, I’m glad you did, son. Can you stay?”

“Got no special plans for right now. Could you use a hand there?”

“You bet. First, lemme take you to Clara.”

Walking alongside Ben toward the lodge, Pach’ finds himself feeling like a kid again. Almost like he ought to take Ben’s hand. Something about the old man. A kind of inner power. Certainty. Good guy to have at your side when trouble strikes. Serve time with. He can call you “son” and you don’t feel offended. The sort of dad he wishes he’d had.

The old lodge and dining hall has been done up on the inside, too. Still smells of fresh varnish. Used to have dangling yellow bulbs powered by a generator at the back; now it has proper lighting but also gas lanterns hanging from the beams. There’s a new coal stove at the back where some cots are stacked, piles of bedding. What most catches the eye, though, is a blown-up photograph hanging by the fireplace of Giovanni Bruno himself, standing out on the Mount in the rain, holding a coal pick like a mean cross, doing his ancient prophet act. Gives him a chill. Next to it is Ely Collins’ framed death note, the one that started it all. The trigger. Rocketed him straight into the fucking pen. Pach’ used to build the log fires in that big fireplace for their Baptist camp revival meetings, set out the folding chairs and put them back, clean up in the kitchen. Which, he can see at a glance, has also been modernized. Women are working in there. Large folding tables are being laid out for a meal. Ben explains that it’s a luncheon for the workers and invites him to join them. Pach’ tucks his ball cap in his back pocket, combs his fingers through his tangled hair.

Elaine’s mother seems less happy to see him. “We thought you was still in prison in solitary confinement, Carl Dean.” They are standing in a room off the main hall that has been fitted out with filing cabinets, desk, chairs, wire baskets full of paper, even a patterned red carpet. There are two young guys in there helping out. They seem excited he has turned up. “It’s what Colin said.”

“Colin likes to make things up, Mrs. Collins. I’ve been out for over two years.”

“Do tell.” Clara Collins seems hardly to have changed at all. A little bonier maybe, hair shorter and grayer, more business-like. Pants and sneakers instead of dress and heels. She casts a searching gaze over him, peering over her spectacles at his rags, his beard, his thinning but unruly hair. “Are you still a Christian, Carl Dean?”

“Well, I don’t know what else to call myself, ma’am. But I don’t have the same feeling anymore. It’s one reason I came back here.”

“What other reasons did you have?”

He knows he is turning red. He’s afraid if he opens his mouth he’ll just stammer something stupid. Finally, he says, “I wanted to see everybody again. I was lonely.”

That softens her up enough to bring a faint smile to her face and she pushes her glasses up on her nose and says, “Looks like you could use a good clean-up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have room here at the camp to put you up.”

“That’s okay. I sleep in my panel truck.”

“He’s just passing through,” Ben says. “He might could park down at the ballfield with us for a week or so while he thinks about staying on. Remember the parable of the hunderd sheep, Clara. It’s a honor to have the boy back with us.”

Mrs. Collins hesitates. Pach’ can read her mind: That’s too close to Elaine. But she sighs and nods. “Meanwhile, Darren and Billy Don here can show him about…”

Pach’ remembers Inspiration Point as higher than this. Back in his days as a camp counselor it seemed to him that you could see the whole universe from up here, and then he felt like part of it, it part of him. Now the universe makes him feel like a spot of birdshit. Far across the way, he can see the Deepwater tipple and hoist, poking into the blue sky like a fairground ride, the water tower glinting in the sun. Also the Mount of Redemption, off to one side of it. Doesn’t recall ever seeing that hill from up here but it must have been there. Goes to show that you see only what you’re ready to see. Or want to see. It’s the trouble with religious people.

He has managed to ditch Clara’s two helpers, telling them he needed some thinking time on his own; they seemed to appreciate that, being heavy thinkers themselves. Bible school dropouts named Darren Rector and Billy Don-something. Or maybe they were thrown out; their story is ambiguous. They want to interview him for the Brunist church history they’re assembling, a history they seem to think is going to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Something Pach’ hopes to avoid; he’d have to tell them what he really thinks and blow what little cover he has. But it seems important to them, so he said maybe, after he’s been here a while. This is his one shot at Elaine and he doesn’t want to ruin it with his big mouth, but if he can get her to leave with him, maybe he’ll let them have it just before he takes off.

The first thing they did was move his panel truck down to the trailer parking lot. The old softball field. He was sorry to see it being used like that, but he didn’t say so. He asked who else was parked there, learned a few new names. Mobile homes with coming-of-light bumper stickers. He wondered if Elaine was in the Collins’ house trailer but tried not to stare at it. Old bucktoothed Willie Hall came out to say hello and unleash a few welcoming Bible passages on him. He said his old mining injuries were plaguing him, which was why he couldn’t help out with the construction work. He was just waiting for God to take him up into Heaven, that’s all he had left now, and he held up his dogeared Bible to show him the weight of it. His big spooky wife did not come out. He saw her staring out their caravan window at him. He touched the bill of his cap to her, but no response. A filthy little kid who looked retarded stood a few yards away, not far from the Collins trailer, giving him a long dim look, snot running down his upper lip. Turned out to be Mrs. Cravens’ kid Davey, and he learned something more from the two boys about that sadsack woman and her current fellow. He went over and squatted down in front of Davey to say hello, remember me? Smelled like he might have filled his britches. “I’m Pach’, Davey. Let’s be friends, okay?” The kid nodded and licked his lip. He could see the Collins trailer steps and door over Davey’s shoulder. Should he go over and knock? No, he shouldn’t. Patience, jackass. Later.

Does she know he is here? Probably. Scuttlebutt gets around quickly in shut-up places like this. A lot like a prison, he has been thinking since he was led in through that barbed-wire fence. Maybe she’s hiding from him. Well, he can wait. He learned from the two boys that she and Junior Baxter still have something going, though they have only just got together again for the first time this past week, when the whole Baxter clan turned up for the anniversary celebrations over on the mine hill. Elaine is a very private person, they said. She and Young Abner, as he’s called now, are often seen together, but they never hold hands or even talk to each other. It’s more like a religious thing. It was the one called Billy Don who told him that, a talkative guy with dark shades, a ponytail, and handlebars; Darren is the more cautious one, a smart kid with blond curls and the bespectacled bright-eyed intensity of a zealot. The Baxter family are living in an unfinished cabin and were supposed to have left several days ago but haven’t. They passed it on the path leading up here. A tent up at the back. Two of the Baxter boys have already been kicked out of the camp, he learned. Something about a motorcycle gang, a robbery, a gun. In retaliation, they came back and vandalized the camp when everyone was over on the mine hill praying, which explains the beat-up look of some of the cabins. But Junior and his two sisters are still here. One of the girls was pointed out to him as they passed the cabin. Cute. She was staring at him, and when he glanced back a couple of minutes later, beginning the climb up here, he saw she was still staring at him.

On the walk up to the Point, the boys filled him in on the years of the Persecution, the international following they now have, Mrs. Collins’ plans for a tabernacle temple to be built on the Mount of Redemption. There was a lot of money being spent here, much of it apparently coming from a local rich guy named Suggs. But they were able to acquire the camp in the first place, they said, thanks to the Presbyterian minister’s wife, Mrs. Edwards, who arranged for the sale and then became a Brunist Follower. This was unexpected news. Reverend Edwards was the guy who helped kidnap his friend Colin Meredith and kept him away from the Mount on the Day of Redemption. Pach’ remembers him as a klutz in a porkpie. With a nervous smirk. All day on the hill, Pach’ kept worrying that Colin would miss the Rapture. He learned later that Colin tried to kill himself in their house. “Mrs. Edwards is one of our most important converts,” the boys said. “She’s now the camp director.” He remembers Mrs. Edwards very well. Nature girl. Fantasy stuff. When he asked, they told him she was probably working down at her vegetable garden with Colin. So Colin’s here, too: also news. They offered to walk him over there, but he told them he knew the way.

Pach’ once tried to kiss a girl up here on the Point when he was about ten, but she didn’t like it and didn’t kiss him back and told the camp counselor. Which ended his summer camp that year. He hasn’t had a lot of luck with kissing. Elaine was always more a hugger than a kisser, being self-conscious about her bad teeth. But she’s a good hugger. The most intense hug he ever got was over there on the mine road at the foot of the hill the night before the supposed end of the world — the night Bruno’s sister was killed. He’d got turned on watching people in front of the bonfires they’d built to sing and pray around, the way their bodies were silhouetted inside the thin flut-tery tunics when they passed in front of the flames. He was jealous of Elaine and hated it when she walked in front of the fires so others could see, but it excited him, too. Those were sinful thoughts, and on the very eve of what might well be the Last Judgment, so he tried not to look, but he couldn’t stop himself. Not until Elaine’s mother stood in front of the flames and he found himself staring at something he knew he shouldn’t see. He turned away feeling hot and confused, as if his acne were erupting all over his body. Then the lights on the mine road, the rush to the cars, the awful thing that happened. He stood at the lip of the ditch, hugging Elaine, watching that poor girl die. Her smallness, her lips slightly parted, eyes closed, her fragile broken worried look. How many had hit her? Had he? Wrecked cars everywhere, lights pointed in all directions, some straight up into the sky as if trying to get someone’s attention up there, his own car ditched somewhere behind him. Where it stayed until the county hauled it out weeks later and sent him a towing bill up in detention. Seeing his schoolteacher Mrs. Norton lying in the roadway as though dead, her fat-kneed husband fanning her face with his tunic hem, scared him even more than the struck girl. Was everybody suddenly dying? Was it really happening? Elaine was sobbing in his arms, her back to the ditch, and while he was staring down at Marcella over her shoulder, the poor girl’s eyes suddenly opened and a red bubble ballooned out of her mouth, popped, dribbled down her chin. And that was it. His knees began to shake. Her brother stooped to kiss her lips and rose up with blood on his mouth, that’s what he remembers, though his vision was pretty blurry, his head may have been playing tricks on him. Elaine wrapped her arms around him tight and held him close, close, dressed in almost nothing as they were, and whispered in his ear that she wanted to be in Heaven with him forever. Brought tears to his eyes as he, chastely, except for the club pressed against her tummy, couldn’t do anything about that, hugged her back. Forever turned out to be less than a day.

He turns his back on all that shitty history and takes the path down to where he supposes Mrs. Edwards’ vegetable garden to be, a trail somewhat overgrown, evidently not much used, in spite of the heavy traffic in the camp. Still a beautiful walk. Flowers, birds, trees, all kinds of sedges and grasses. Some of them pink now, this time of year. They all have names; he’ll never learn them. Though, if he stays here, maybe he’ll try. Mrs. Edwards had a thing for nature, as he recalls, she could teach him. She was a frequent visitor to the camp when the Baptists rented it. Came to see if they were taking proper care of it, he supposed, but always in a nice way. She was slim and pretty and dressed casually and he had fantasies about her, wishing for a mother like her, and sometimes he followed her around. One day, down in the wild place on the other side of the creek, she took her shirt off to sun her tits. He scrunched down in the weeds, stunned by the amazing sight, waiting and praying (yes, he was praying) for her to take the rest off. She never did, though over the years he saw other things. He used to wonder: What if he made himself known? Couldn’t be done. She was from another world. It was like trying to step into a movie. There was only the watching.

The vegetable garden is amazing. A little farm. Mrs. Edwards is seeding a newly hoed patch when he arrives and introduces himself. She’s older now, has a baggier look and a double chin, but there’s still something fresh and girlish about her. She seems glad to see him, lights up with a cheerful smile. “Colin! Look who’s here!” she calls out. Colin comes over from where he has been setting out stakes alongside a small freckle-faced woman. Colin was always odd looking, but now he’s weirder than ever. Sickly pale and skinny with a wispy Chinaman’s beard, wearing a floppy straw sun hat and rose-colored shorts, his silvery blond hair fluttering about his shoulders like a mad woman’s. The way he moves reminds him of Sissy. Of course. Why hadn’t he realized that before? Didn’t understand any of this back then. A complete greenass. “It’s Carl Dean, Colin!” Colin stops dead in his tracks, his eyes popping, his face twisting up like he’s about to have a fit. “No! It isn’t!” he cries and then runs away, screaming wildly for help. Mrs. Edwards throws down her garden gloves and starts after him, turning back just for a moment to cast Pach’ a dark scowl. “Who are you really?” she demands, then returns to the chase. He shrugs at the freckle-faced woman, who only stares back at him. Well. There went his gardening career.

His building career shows more promise. With help from Ben and the others, all strangers to him, Pach’ has been able to step right in with the crew this afternoon and work beside them. The cabin they are working on, which used to house eight kids in bunk beds, is being remodeled for use as a medical treatment room and two-bed sick bay. There are scores of people hanging about, most of whom seem to have come for last Sunday’s ceremonies and just haven’t gone home again. When they offer to help, Ben sizes them up quickly, assigns tasks to those who seem they might actually contribute something and sends the others off on pointless errands to get them out of the way. Even unskilled as he is, there’s a lot Pach’ can do. The cabin has already been wired up for electricity, and Wayne Shawcross, the overalled guy who let him in here, is showing him how to install wall plugs and light fixtures. Ben has also taken him on as a kind of apprentice carpenter. He’s strong, and that’s appreciated, too. He’s enjoying it, more than any other work he’s done since he got out, and in spite of the luncheon blow-up, he can already feel the urge to want to stay and work with all these guys whom he’s quickly come to like. Get the job done. Be part of something bigger than himself. How much of religion, he wonders, is about this feeling?

At the luncheon earlier, over baloney sandwiches and potato salad, they made a big fuss over him, treating him as a kind of returning hero. It was embarrassing, given his intentions, and he only wanted out of there. Clara made a welcoming introduction and led them in prayer, thanking God for Carl Dean’s safe return, and then prayed for all the other things they wanted. Darren Rector, reciting a little church history, praised him for his brave attack on the powers of darkness, which he said helped many others to escape arrest and carry on with their evangelical work (he didn’t know that), and expressed everyone’s sympathy for his suffering on behalf of them all. Which Rector compared to the ordeals of Daniel and Samson and Paul. Not at all how it was, of course. He supposed Rector was just buttering him up for the interview. Elaine wasn’t there — still avoiding him, maybe — but just as well. He was glad she didn’t have to listen to all that horseshit. Mrs. Edwards wasn’t there either, nor Colin. The word about what had happened in the garden had evidently gotten around; the hero worship was not unanimous. There were surly mutterings here and there, and Junior’s glare was so fierce it could have cut through steel plate, his short-cropped red head looking like it was on fire from inner rage. He’s younger than Pach’, but he’s already getting an old man’s soft heaviness in the jowls and belly and now wears a little red tuft on his upper lip. His kid sister, on the other hand, gave Pach’ a sweet lingering smile. Somewhat vague. It just sort of stayed on her face. Her food had to be cut for her. Not all there.

Then an old fart in a wheelchair rolled away from the Baxter table and wanted to know in a loud voice if he really was Carl Dean Palmers like he said he was. His friend had not only not recognized him, he’d screamed like he’d seen the devil, scaring the whole camp. They’d all seen pictures. He didn’t look like the pictures. So who was he really? Ben said he was Carl Dean, all right. They’d had a long conversation, talking about the last time they were together, couldn’t be anyone else. “The devil is a great dissembler, Brother Ben!” Then Bernice Filbert, the widowed sister-in-law of the guy who owns the garage where he fixed up his van, the lady with the penciled eyebrows and the fancy way of talking who dresses up like Bible characters, vouched for him as well. “He has put on more beard and forehead since he stayed with us, but you can tell by his appetite he is who he is,” she said, trying to lighten things up. “He has just put away his lunch quicker than Ezekiel could eat a scroll, as like I told him then.” She’s the camp nurse and is something of a celebrity today for having got fired a couple of nights ago as the home care nurse for the town banker’s wife. All in some cause or other. Whatever, Pach’ is on her side. It’s enough just because the chump’s a banker. Bastards who rule the world by making money off other people’s money, a kind of legalized theft. They ought to be hung. Or sent to work in the mines. But also because the banker’s dickhead son and his fatcat pals were the ones who laid the nickname of Ugly on him back in high school, getting rid of it being one of the few positives of his prison stretch. “That woman cain’t talk ’thout lyin’,” someone said, and someone else mumbled something about his driving the “devil’s van.” “What I’m asking,” the guy in the wheelchair insisted, “is can he prove it?” Pach’ tossed his driver’s license out on the table and the cripple said that didn’t prove anything, and then everyone started shouting, accusing the geezer of spoiling Carl Dean’s homecoming and trying to sow discord in the camp. On the one hand, Pach’ agreed with the old fossil; he sure as hell wasn’t Carl Dean Palmers anymore, hadn’t been for a long time. On the other, if the cantankerous sonuvabitch hadn’t been in a wheelchair, he’d have popped him. He got up to leave, but Ben put a hand on his shoulder and reminded everyone of their Christian obligations to one another and then put his guitar around his neck and led them all in singing “Shall We Gather at the River?” After a moment, Abner Baxter stood up and joined in, and then, reluctantly, so too did the others at his table. All except the guy in the wheelchair, who spun it around, turning his crooked back on them.

Now, while Pach’ works with Ben on the new sick bay, Baxter and his pals across the way are trying to hang a front door on their cabin, and neither crew is talking much to the other. People aren’t getting along, just like before, and trouble is brewing. Ben sees him watching them with a frown on his face and says, “Let them be, Carl Dean. They ain’t much good to us anyhow, so we at least get some work out of them for the time being. But that cabin has got other purposes. They ain’t staying there.”

Could he, he wonders? Stay here? Stay in this camp where he’s always felt most at home, here with all these friends, more like family than his own family? Could he go all the way, put a tunic on again, win Elaine, help defend Ben and Mrs. Collins against the abominable Baxters and the local establishment, build something that will last? While he’s asking himself that, Clara Collins comes rushing out of the lodge with big news: Mr. Suggs just called. The mine owners have accepted their offer for the Mount of Redemption. Papers are being drawn up. There are whoops and cheers and Wayne throws his painter’s cap in the air. Time to bring out the beers! But, no, not here. Mrs. Collins falls to her knees there in the woodchips and closes her eyes and lifts her hands and launches into her full-throated God howl and all the others drop to their knees too and join in, waving their arms about and praying to beat the band. An old coalminer from out east declares it’s a miracle, and that is noisily amenned. Mr. Suggs is grandly Godblessed. Nothing Pach’ can do but follow suit, get down on his knees, take off his cap, and tuck his chin in, anything else would be an insult to these people, but he’s feeling awkward as hell, a total hypocrite, the devilish reprobate they have taken him to be. Fuck. He could never do this.

When Pach’ reaches the flowering dogwood tree a little before sundown for Saturday evening prayers, she is already there. Standing beside her mother. All these years gone past, mostly thinking about her, and suddenly here she is. He’d thought, after so much buildup, he’d probably be disappointed, and he’d arrived, hands in pockets, talking to others, trying not to look her way, staying cool. That lasted about a minute. She has grown up some. Taller now than he is. Gangly, but not big-boned like her mother. She’s staring straight at him in a forthright way he has not seen before. He doesn’t know what that stare means, but it cheers him to see her there beside her mother and not by Junior Baxter. He nods to her as though in recognition, and when she doesn’t nod back, he looks away.

“Looks like you brung us luck, Pach’,” Wayne Shawcross says with a grin, passing by with his wife, Ludie Belle, and Pach’ grins back, feeling a kind of twitch in his cheek (the grin’s too wide, it’s not something he does often), and says, “I can give it to others but I never keep none for myself.” Ben and Clara still speak of him as Carl Dean, but he introduces himself to people as Pach’, which is his name for his new life. “You mean like what you got there on the knees of your jeans?” Wayne asked this afternoon when told his name. “No. Like Apache.” “You part injun?” “That’s what they told me.” “I think my granmaw was probly half Choctaw, but she wouldn’t never admit it. It was like being half nigger back then.” He’d got the new handle in prison. He’d lied and told them he had Indian blood, partly just to set himself off from the others, partly to shuck off the old life, be someone other than the self he’d come to hate. And who knows, given his old lady’s careless habits, maybe it was true — didn’t she like to claim when she was drunk that she’d got pregnant with him off a toilet seat? He was the only virgin in the men’s prison, where rape was part of the new-boys break-in rituals, and he meant to stay that way (didn’t quite), but he had to fight for it. Five guys, including a couple of trusties, grabbed him and ripped his pants down and the biggest of them said, “Bend over, Tonto, I’m gonna stick it to your holy huntin’ ground.” He was able to tear himself free and laid into the lot of them, starting with the fat asshole who called him Tonto, leaving him with less teeth in his mouth than he had before, and he was still holding his own against all five, even with his pants around his ankles, when the bulls finally showed up and broke it up with chains and truncheons. Lost him any hope for parole that year, but it earned him the nickname of the Crazy Apache, which over time got shortened to Pach’, which most people hear as Patch. Whatever. Just so it’s not Carl Dean. Or Ugly.

Elaine is still staring at him. He tries a smile this time. Same result. He has showered and laundered his rags in the new camp laundry, trimmed his beard, put on a T-shirt with only a couple of holes, and a denim vest. Combed his hair, even. Ben dropped a Brunist tunic by for him, but he decided not to wear it. There are others without tunics, so apparently it’s okay. Two of those are a country singer and his woman, who are said to be famous singers from Nashville, though he hasn’t heard of them. They’re first on the program, because they have a gig after. At the bar in the old Blue Moon Motel at the edge of town. Can’t be too famous. But a place to escape to maybe for a beer. What he misses most this time of day. They seem cool. The guy, anyway. The woman is mixed up with the fortuneteller, Mrs. Hall, and her flock of gossipy widows. Came to the prayer meeting in their company. She’s said to be in touch with the dead.

The days are lengthening and the sun is probably still shining on Inspiration Point above them, but twilight has already settled on this little grove down here in the valley behind the lodge, oddly making the dogwood flowers seem to glow, and Elaine, standing under them, seems to glow as well. How beautiful she is in this strange pale light. Now he’s the one staring and she’s the one to look away. He can feel Junior Baxter’s seething fury off to one side, but it means nothing to him. She’s here and he’s here. That’s all that matters. On his way from lunch to the work site, Ben saw him craning about and said, “I s’pose you’re looking for Elaine. She ain’t feeling all that sociable today. Be careful, son. I think your coming here has gave her a fright. She’ll be at the prayer meeting tonight. You’ll see her there.” All afternoon he has been plotting out what he’d say to her when they finally met, how he loves her, needs her, or else how he just wants to be friends again, have someone to talk to, whatever seems most likely to work, but all that has vanished from his head, and he knows it will all happen without a word or it won’t happen at all.

There is apparently something sacred about the tree, which is why they are meeting here. The two country singers do a song about it. “All who see it will think of Me / Nailed to a cross from a dogwood tree…” The easy familiar singing mellows Pach’ out (it was right to come here), and when they follow that with a singalong version of “In the Garden,” he joins in. Old campfire standby. And the joy we share as we tarry there (he is watching Elaine, who is not singing; her head is down and she looks thin and fragile and he longs to gather her into his arms and take care of her), none other has ever known…

“Now, my son, the Lord be with thee, and prosper thou, and build the house of the Lord thy God, as he hath said of thee.” This is Wayne Shawcross reading from the Old Testament, somewhat laboriously, his finger tracing the lines in the dim light, about somebody building a church. Could be referring to building the camp, but, after the news today, it’s the tabernacle idea that has them buzzing. “Moreover there are workmen with thee in abundance, hewers and workers of stone and timber, and all manner of cunning men for ever manner of work.” Sure. Cunning. Count me in. Wayne plows on in his wooden monotone: “Arise therefore, and build ye the sanctuary of the Lord God, to bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and the holy vessels of God, into the house that is to be built to the name of the Lord.” There are a lot of amens and praise Gods now, people are getting excited, even though they probably don’t know what arks and vessels Wayne is talking about. Elaine’s head is up, a kind of startled expression on her face, but she is not joining in. A woman with a glass eye and gold tooth is watching her, head cocked, as if trying to decipher the expression. “The Lord hath chosen thee to build a house for the sanctuary: be strong, and do it!”

As Wayne looks up from his reading, pocketing his spectacles, the amens raining down, Elaine’s mother steps into the ruckus and in her sharp clear voice starts to spell out what she calls the glad tidings about acquiring the Deepwater mining property and what that means to them. She gets about two lines out. “And I heerd a great voice outa Heaven saying, behold!” That’s little Willie Hall interrupting. Can’t hold him back, never could. “The tabernacle a God is with men, and he will dwell with ’em and they shall be his people, and God hisself shall be with ’em and be their God! Ay-men! Revelation 21:3!” People are shouting at him, goading him on. Clara can’t get a word in edgewise. It’s already turning into another one of those nights, just like old times, though now Pach’ feels more like a self-conscious tourist. “Tell it like it is, Brother Willie!” “Let ’em bring me up onto thy holy hill,” he cries, pointing, his big ears standing out like signal flags, “and to thy tabernacle! Psalms 43:3!” Abner Baxter raises his fist to speak, evidently keen to unload a few verses of his own, but the two singers take it as a cue to do another number: “The Sons of Light Are Marching.” The song they sang on the march out to the hill that terrible morning. Pach’ led the parade, walking backwards, bellowing at the top of his lungs so they could hear him all the way to the back. Hammering the ruts and gravel of the mine road with his bare feet as though to say goodbye to both road and feet. Must have hurt. Doesn’t remember. Remembers Elaine marching right there at the front, watching him, almost desperately, singing with him in her timid little voice, the dead body they were carrying in the folded lawnchair rocking along above and behind her like a kind of canopy, the Prophet’s gaga mother beside her being pulled over the bumps in a little red wagon, helicopters rattling in the sky overhead, photographers and newsmen and the curious trailing along beside them, the whole mad procession watched by state troopers in black uniforms and white visored helmets. “O the sons of light are marching since the coming of the dawn,” Pach’ sings now, joining in. “Led by Giovanni Bruno and the voice of Domiron!” But he’s the only one who does it that way. The others sing: “Led by Giovanni Bruno, we shall go marching on!” So Domiron’s out. The rest of Mrs. Norton’s contributions as well, probably. He decides to shut up until he gets the whole picture. “So come and march with us to Glory!” Their own battle hymn. Not a song to tamp down the emotions, but it brings a certain order to them, makes them less dangerous, even as it stirs them up. Somehow it’s the rhymes that do that, like little fasteners. Buttons. “For the end of time has come!”

When the song is over, Duke and his woman wave their goodbyes. “Peace!” Duke says. Pach’ wants to leave with them, needs a beer, relief from all this shit, but he can’t, wouldn’t look right, and he still has hopes of connecting with Elaine. Runny-nosed Davey Cravens comes over and stands beside him, takes his hand. “You’re my friend,” he says, looking up at him. Big Hunk Rumpel, Mrs. Cravens’ current man, rumbles forward in his split tunic and takes Davey up by the scruff. “It’s okay,” Pach’ says, but Hunk just turns away and hauls the kid on up the path toward the lodge, the boy yelping and bawling all the way. Hunk never seems to say much, but at work today he took to Pach’ right away and Pach’ felt adopted by him. Respect of strength for strength. The old prison code. Maybe Hunk’s done time too. Seeing what just happened to Davey, Hunk is not much improvement on the old man Pach’ got stuck with, but he’s someone you might want to have in your corner when things get tough.

Before Mrs. Collins can pick up where she got cut off, Abner Baxter starts up a rant of his own, like he’s been threatening to do all along. He doesn’t say so, but his Bible quotes seem to equate the temple idea with idol worship. That’s how Pach’ reads them anyway, and the look on Clara’s face suggests it’s how she reads them too. Elaine watches her mother with some alarm, her hand at her mouth, her shoulders hunched, while Baxter rails against pride and vanity and speaks up for the poor. “And therefore I command you, saith the Lord, thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land!” He is getting a lot of shouted amens and some people start clapping in rhythm to all his “thy’s.” This probably has something to do with how their money is to be spent. It came up at lunch, too. People who want a place to stay, not another church. Pach’ can only watch. He’s on the other side of the world from these people now. Baxter turns toward his constituents, raising both arms. He is angry about the use of sheriff’s troops to clear the tents off the Mount of Redemption and sealing it off and he thunderously says so. Pach’ only wishes he could go take Elaine’s hand and lead her out of here.

Who comes to take his hand, walking over in front of everyone, is Baxter’s daughter, Amanda. She presses up beside him and says she wants to be his friend, too. In this half-light they may not notice how red his face is, must be, and how his acne’s flaring up. He looks around in the sudden silence for help. He’s afraid Elaine might get the wrong idea. Certainly Amanda’s father seems to have got the wrong idea; he’s sputtering and his face is puffed up like he’s about to have a fit, his stupid son boiling up beside him. Luckily, the other Baxter girl, the older frumpy one, quietly takes charge. “She’s kinda simple,” she mutters by way of apology, and leads the girl away, and Pach’ thanks her. All these crazy kids. Pach’ is beginning to feel like the Pied Piper. Of course, people didn’t like the Pied Piper either, did they?

Elaine puts her arms around him and hugs him close. She tells him tearfully how much she loves him, how she’s missed him. Don’t ever leave me again, Carl Dean. She calls him Carl Dean? Probably. Pach’ doesn’t seem right. She’s such a tender fragile person, she can’t even imagine savage Indians. When he slides his hand down to hold her little bottom, she doesn’t complain. She presses closer to him and releases a little gasp, a kind of sob. He can feel her tummy pushing against him. “I love you, Elaine,” he whispers, and she trembles and grips him tightly as the sweet night closes down around them. He tugs gently at her bottom to rub her tummy against his hard-on. He desperately wants her to take it in her mouth. But would she, could she? No, but Sissy does, lapping lovingly at it with his little puppy tongue. Pach’ is somewhat alarmed by this, and he pauses to worry about it. He spent a lot of time and spunk jerking off in prison, but otherwise he stayed clean. Except for little Sissy, as they called him. Her. Sissy was more girl than guy and the men called him “she” and “her,” and eventually Pach’ did, too, but never in ridicule. Sissy had a little dick and it got hard like a pencil stub when he was excited, but he was curvy and cuddly with innocent blue eyes and puckery lips and a snow-white bottom, soft and round as a girl’s. “Sissy” was for “Sister,” both as in family and in nun: he liked to dress up like one, using prison blankets. Even the screws thought this was funny, and several of them were probably serviced by Sissy in that costume. He was in for drugs and as an accessory to murder, a murder committed by his boyfriend, whom he then tried to hide. His boyfriend died in a drug-crazed shootout with the cops, and Sissy was taken in. And one sad and lonely night when Pach’ could not stop thinking about Elaine, Sissy took him in his mouth and he let him do that. Sissy said he’d never seen one that big and it almost frightened him. Eventually he had Sissy in other ways, too, but always while thinking about Elaine. And now, lying in the back of his van only yards away from her (he has been unable to take his gaze away from the lighted windows of their trailer, even though the blinds are pulled) and humping his pillow while fantasizing about her, it is Sissy who has taken her place. That’s weird, and he doesn’t think he likes it. Sissy eventually got a tattoo of a little heart with a large Indian arrow through it and the words CRAZY APACHE — not over his heart, but on his little white left cheek, otherwise without a blemish. Sissy cried when Pach’ left prison and Pach’ felt bad, too. Poor little Sissy. Oh, what the hell. Out of affection, Pach’ lets him finish up.

The first time he blew his wad it was like an accident and he didn’t know what was happening. He thought he’d been visited by angels. His old lady, who was not otherwise very religious, had a thing about angels and other supernatural creatures, and he was still pretty susceptible to all that. He sometimes thought he heard angels in his room, flying around like bats. Maybe they were bats. When he started getting serious about Christianity at the Baptist Church, it felt like growing up, and he looked down on his superstitious mother after that, though actually all he’d done was stop believing in Rudolph while sticking with Santa Claus. Then along came Mrs. Norton, who introduced him to Santa’s big daddy Domiron off in some other dimension, therewith offering him access to possibilities beyond his pathetic fucked-up smalltown life and making him feel like some kind of privileged highbrow. He finally got rid of all that crap in prison. Reading the Bible helped. One of the few books you could have in stir. He decided to plow straight through it, beginning to end. He read first with a certain awe (this has been the book for twenty centuries!), then with increasing irritation (who wrote this stupid thing?), finally with disgust and anger. A total swindle. Blaming God for writing it is a fucking sacrilege. Got interested in troublemakers instead. Which was just about anybody who got anything done. Jesus, for example, the wildass bastard. Before checking out, he got a pep talk in his cell from the prison chaplain, who interrupted him while he was saying goodbye to Sissy, and he let the bastard have it. “Jesus was all right,” he said, “but Christ sucks.” When the chaplain left, shaking his head, Sissy started giggling and bawling hysterically at the same time and told him he was completely crazy. His Crazy Apache.

Should he open another beer? He shouldn’t. Only half a six-pack left and no easy way to get more. Not much money for buying it even if he should break out of this place for a time, and as long as he helps out here with the building, no way to earn more. He has at least been well fed. Wayne Shawcross and Ludie Belle invited him to stop by their house trailer after the prayer meeting for something extra to eat. She’s in charge of the camp kitchen and has a well-stocked fridge. She probably keeps a bottle somewhere, too, but he didn’t want to ask. Not yet. Same with telling them about Elaine. They are good people, and he wanted to talk with them straight out about his feelings — they’d seen what he did after the prayer meeting — and he even thought he might show them his tattoo, but when they asked him what he was doing here, he told them what he’d told Elaine’s mother. Which is also true. He has been lonely. And both of them seem like pretty serious believers, Wayne especially, so he has to be careful.

The lights have gone out in the Collins trailer, which looms imperiously over him, aglow in the light of the full moon. In his imagination she sleeps in her Brunist tunic. The one she was wearing on Easter night all those years ago. When he thinks of her, that cotton fabric is what his fingers feel. Tonight, when the prayer meeting ended, he got up his nerve and walked over to her, his hands in his pockets, to say hello. It was an awkward moment with everyone watching and he knew his acne was flaring up. When he was actually in front of her, he couldn’t think of what to say. He found it difficult to look into her eyes, but when he dropped his eyes, there was her body draped in the thin tunic, and that confused him all the more. Finally he just nodded and said, “Hi, it’s me.” Elaine only stared at him as if he’d just threatened to kill her, and without saying a word, left immediately with her mother. Well, he thought, at least she didn’t tell him to go away. It’s only his first day. He can be patient. Meanwhile, he has opened another beer. It’s Easter night, the moon’s filling up the sky, and they’re in his car again. She’s trembling, but she has been through this before, and is ready now. “Stay the fuck out of this,” he says to Sissy. “Go take a walk and don’t come back until I blink the lights.”

II.3 Sunday 26 April — Wednesday 29 April

“Come on, Billy Don, how can you not hear it? It’s right there, clear as a bell!”

“Well, that bell is just not ringing for me.” Yet again, for the umpteenth time, Brother Abner Baxter says: “…cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” “Honest, Darren, all I hear is a kind of hissing sound.”


“But it’s not anybody saying anything. It’s just a kind of noise. Might even be part of how Reverend Baxter is saying ‘darkness.’”

“No, it comes after, Billy Don. It’s her! I’m telling you!”

“Maybe you got better ears than me.”

“Maybe I have.” Sometimes Billy Don seems plain stupid. “But there’s more! Listen!”

Listen! That’s the whispered word Darren hears behind the powerful bass tones of the preacher: Listen! It is she. He knows it. The voice in the ditch. Marcella. They both have trouble saying her name. It is as though she has passed beyond the nominal, is mysteriously just “she.” Less than she. Or more. An aura. The displaced voice of the mystical figure pointing to Heaven in the painting in Reverend Clegg’s Florida church. A voice in pain. The recording, dated and catalogued, as are all their tapes, is the one from a week ago down at the foot of the mine hill during the arrival on the Day of the Sacrifice of Reverend Baxter and his family. Billy Don was holding the microphone, his own flat, ugly voice blocking out the others until Darren shushed him (maybe that’s the sound Darren keeps hearing, Billy Don thinks: his own shushing). “Do ye likewise, my friends, while there is still time for your souls to be saved!” Abner Baxter is urging on the tape. There’s a tiny pause between “friends” and “while,” and Darren backs it up and plays it again. “Do you hear it, Billy Don?”

“Sure. Reverend Baxter wants everybody to put on the armor of light.”

“No, I don’t mean that. Pay attention!” He plays it again, growing impatient with Billy Don. He’s doing this on purpose. It’s that evil girl. She’s corrupting his soul. “Between those two words, that girl’s voice, saying ‘to me.’ It’s just a whisper, but you can’t miss it!”

“Yeah, okay, I hear it now.” On the table between them is a blurry photograph of all the people on the mine road taken from the top of the hill, Darren having appropriated the dead woman’s box camera before anyone noticed. The old lady’s lens had been amateurishly aimed toward the sun and Darren presumably sees a ghostly presence in the consequent flare of light. “But why do you think it’s a girl’s voice? It’s most likely one of those old women standing around, but you can’t hear her except when Reverend Baxter stops to catch his breath.”

“No, listen again. No one at the camp has a weird breathy voice like that. No one alive, anyway.”

“‘Do ye likewise, my friends…’ (…to me…) ‘while there is…’”

Okay, it’s there. But so what? Ever since they met, Billy Don has shared Darren’s scientific quest for eschatological truth, and he was just as curious as Darren was when Patti Jo said she could hear the dead girl speaking to her from the ditch that day, but Darren is losing him on this one. Darren has played and replayed these mine road tapes all week, hoping he might have picked up her voice, pressing on long after Billy Don had given up. At the Sunday service this morning, after Brother John P. Suggs had confirmed for everybody the final acquisition of the Mount of Redemption and the anonymous gift that will make possible the building of their temple on it, setting off a burst of rapturous praise-giving, Patti Jo got up with her friend Duke to lead everyone in singing “Higher Ground,” and Billy Don, humming along in his tuneless fashion, found himself thinking about the way Patti Jo said she communicated with Marcella’s spirit. “Marcella doesn’t use words exactly. It’s more like she’s just thinking and I can sort of sense what she’s thinking. I know that sounds weird, but it feels completely natural.” So nothing really said, just a kind of shared thereness, and if that’s so, he wondered, watching Patti Jo’s breasts bob about under her white blouse (when they interviewed her, the poor woman had a lot of sad stories to tell — she’s had a tough life and it shows on her face — but she still has a lot of bounce and it’s fun to watch her sing), why did Darren think they would hear a voice when she didn’t? We’re not all mediums, Darren said. If it’s important, like Patti Jo says the voice says it is, then the spirit has to get through however it can.

It’s how he thinks. There’s no answer, just belief or damnation. Like now, when Darren replays the “still time for your souls” bit and says, “If you listen close, you can hear her struggling to be heard while the others are carrying on, like a kind of strangled squeaky sound.”

“I think that might be the little Baxter kid. He was having a fit or something.”

“I don’t think so, but even if it were, as I’ve tried to explain, Billy Don, that would only mean she might have been trying to reach us through him and it wasn’t quite working.”

“You mean like he was sorta possessed.”

Darren sighs irritably.

Billy Don gazes out the window of their church office, which is still also their bedroom, the Baxters having commandeered their designated cabin with no signs of giving it up. No matter. Mr. Suggs has promised them a camper, which is a better deal anyway. It’s woodsy and late-April green out there, a jean-jacket getup-a-ballgame day, not a day to be stuck in here. Darren is growing exasperated with him, he knows, but though Darren is smarter than he is and he’s usually right, he’s trying too hard to make something out of nothing. It’s not just these mine road tapes. Darren has been puzzling through all their interviews and their field recordings of conversations picked up on the Mount and around the dogwood tree and everything else he thinks might contain secret messages. He had Billy Don set up the tape recorder in the ditch, where they left it overnight, hoping to pick up the ghostly whispering they could not hear by day, but the tape ran out and the battery died before they got anything. Darren claimed to hear strange rustlings, but when Billy Don said, “Rabbits probably,” Darren just got mad. Darren has also been counting all the words and letters in the original sayings of the Prophet, as well as those in the slightly different versions preached by Sister Clara and the others, subtracting one from the other to see if there is any pattern in what he is calling “the residue of corruption.” Darren is not as hot on Sister Clara as he once was. He has turned all the letters of each of the seven prophecies in both versions into numbers, has asked Billy Don to do a lot of adding and subtracting and averaging and figuring out ratios and square roots, then converted the numerical values of the differences back into letters again, and he has performed the same kinds of operations on Ely Collins’ final death note, focusing especially on the words with improper capitals and misspellings. “If this message comes from God, Billy Don, and I believe that it truly does, for a great religion has been born from it, then we have to assume God makes spelling mistakes only on purpose!” Darren calls it the ancient Greek science of isopsephia, dating clear back to the Sibylline Oracles, which exactly predicted the birth of Jesus Christ centuries before it happened. This was amazing; Billy Don was impressed.

Now Darren is replaying “while there is still time for your souls to be saved,” and at the end there is just enough of a pause to hear the word “week” or something like it. Billy Don has less trouble with this one, he just isn’t so sure where it’s coming from. Before he can say so, though, Darren has already moved ahead to the next break. Oh oh. Billy Don gets it now. “You hear it, Billy Don?”


“‘Of Sundays!’” There’s a kind of glow about Darren when he gets excited. His blue eyes seem to grow bigger behind his little round spectacles and it’s like you can look right through them into the sparkly cavern of his head. He backs up the tape and plays it again. “‘Listen… to me! …A week…of Sundays!”’ Darren whispers, imitating the voice. “That’s what she was trying to tell us, Billy Don! Just like the Prophet!”

“Wait. Let me hear that again. Are you sure it’s Sundays? Sounds more like it’s got an ‘m.’ Like ‘some days.’”

“Don’t be dumb, Billy Don! What could that possibly mean? This makes complete sense. You can even hear her say ‘again’ a moment later. ‘Listen to me!A week of Sundays…again!’ Hear it?”

“But, well, that’s not exactly what her brother said. He said, ‘Sunday week.’”

“That’s right. ‘Coming of Light, Sunday week.’ But it turned out to be a week of Sundays, or seven weeks after the Day of Redemption.”

“June the seventh.”

“June the seventh. The Midnight Coming. When everybody gathered together five years ago all around the world. It was even bigger in terms of numbers than the Day of Redemption.” Darren’s voice has begun to sound like the wheezy voice in the ditch.

“Six weeks from today.” Billy Don tugs on the end of his moustache. Could it be? Was the spirit of the dead girl really trying to reach them? It’s possible. And scary. It means the Rapture might be even closer than they have been supposing. Nothing was to have happened for another couple of years at least. If it’s true and not just something Darren is making up, he doesn’t have much time to acquaint himself fully with the ways of the world and find a partner for eternity. It’s like he’s aged suddenly from twenty-two to eighty-two overnight. He pushes these doomsday thoughts aside and concentrates on the Prophet’s sister instead. Though they never knew her, and she’s a saint and completely dead, whenever Billy Don thinks about Marcella Bruno it is not her spirit that comes foremost to mind, or even the beautiful painting in the Florida church, but her radiant nude body in their secreted photos of her on the leather couch, photos he peeks at ev ery chance he gets — as God’s disciple and exegete, of course, seeking truth and understanding. As soon as Darren leaves, he’ll get them out again, examine them for further revelations. And use the new office phone, give Sally Elliott another call. He wants to ask her about all this. And thinking about the end makes him feel bad (he’s not eighty-two, darn it), and she always has something funny or smart to say that cheers him up. “So what do you think? Something’s gonna happen that day?”

“I don’t know, Billy Don. I’m kind of scared. I need your help.”

When Darren asked Clara what happened to Marcella’s body, she didn’t know. “When things settle down here, we can maybe ask.” Though some believe the Day of Redemption was the beginning of the Rapture and Marcella was transported directly to the Kingdom of Light, Clara, while allowing that it could be so, doubts it would have happened unwitnessed. Well, she is a good woman but she has a more naïve view of God’s transparency than they do. “But why was the girl out there on the mine road all alone in the first place?” Billy Don wanted to know. “Why wasn’t she with everybody else?” “She’d took sick, bless her soul. We was planning to take her out there the next day with us, but it was only the day before and we didn’t want her to worsen. We probly oughter left somebody to watch over her, but I guess they was too much else to think on.” “What kind of sick?” Darren asked. They didn’t get an answer to that, though before she went back to Florida they overheard Betty Wilson Clegg say she believed the poor child really died of heartbreak. They feel fairly certain, after seeing the forbidden photos, what she meant by that, but they also think that Mrs. Clegg is something of a simpleton, and Darren in particular believes that such banalities trivialize God’s operations among humankind. God is not a ladies’ romance writer. They have conducted sit-down interviews with many of the Brunists in their effort to capture the early history of the movement, but Sister Clara is always too busy for long conversations, so Darren has made a habit of simply leaving the recorder running whenever she’s in the office, and maybe she knows that and maybe she doesn’t. She has said some things about Abner Baxter that suggest she doesn’t, or else she forgets.

Reverend Baxter is one of those who believe the Prophet’s sister and First Martyr was taken up bodily into Heaven. Billy Don has speculated that’s because it relieves his guilt about the accident, but that just shows how earthbound Billy Don still is. The plain fact is that Brother Abner is a pre-Tribulation dispensationalist and Clara Collins is more post-Trib, so he would naturally expect Marcella to be taken immediately into the presence of the Lord, whereas Clara would suppose she’d have to wait for everybody else. It’s as simple as that. Darren doesn’t like Abner Baxter any more than Billy Don does, but he never lets personal feelings interfere with his pursuit of absolute truth, an attitude much like Reverend Baxter’s, though Darren is more of a searcher, while Reverend Baxter is, well, a preacher. Darren and Billy Don are, as they like to say, dialoguing with history, but Billy Don believes there are as many histories as there are people and all of them are true, history being made up of memories and the recording of memories, which is why he is enthusiastic about their project. It also means the real truth will always elude him. Darren knows that they live in two kinds of time at once: human clock time and cosmic eternity. And though any understanding of the mysteries of eternity demands an accurate knowledge of clock time — history being a kind of obscure reflection of metahistory, as he likes to call it, having learned the word in Bible School — the seeming paradoxes of clock time are resolved only when absorbed as unities within timeless eternity. Reverend Baxter, in his blustery way, seems tuned in to that. He also adheres strictly to the original sayings of the Prophet, to the extent that they were written down or could be remembered. Darren is impressed by this faithfulness to prophetic utterance. Sister Clara has freely reinterpreted them, which is, frankly, disrespectful and a kind of corruption. Thus, Giovanni Bruno’s “Circle of Evenings” is no longer even a prophecy but only a kind of blessing upon her Evening Circle church group. Sister Clara is thoughtful and caring, a deep believer utterly devoted to evangelism and the Brunist vision, and the sincerest person Darren has ever known, but she is also a stubborn pragmatist, a compromiser and a builder, her apocalyptic message watered down by personal beliefs in charity and brotherhood and the establishment of a new faith. He understands her motivations but finds something impure about them. Well, he is not himself a proselytizer. The truth is the truth. If only one person grasps it and is saved, that is enough. Brother Abner, contrarily, is more of a revolutionary, radically committed to the truth as it has been revealed to him, even if it is a terrible truth. Sins not expurgated by fire, he has preached, will be punished by fire in the life to come. If the Brunists are, as they call themselves, “the Army of the Sons of Light,” Abner Baxter is the Army, Clara the Light. Darren is afraid of Brother Abner and loves Sister Clara but knows in his heart he belongs in Abner’s Army.

Clara and Ben have also talked in a frank way on the tapes about First Follower Carl Dean Palmers, who turned up at the camp unexpectedly last Friday, calling himself Pach’, or Apache. A strange, beardy, tattooed fellow in a tattered ball cap and engraved red boots who keeps to himself but is not afraid of hard work and who may or may not still be a Brunist believer. Ben mostly argues for him, but Clara seems full of doubts. Because of her daughter probably. Pach’ seems to have his eye on Elaine, who is homely and spindly and a half foot taller than he is. Hard to figure, though he’s no beauty either. He has been a wild and disturbing presence for many, seen as an apostate and a dangerous interloper, an ex-con with criminal ways, but Darren and Billy Don have found him something of a godsend — Darren because he is potentially a fount of information about the earliest days, Billy Don simply because he has needed someone like him at the camp his own age to talk to. They have seen his dark side in the somewhat obscene photos taken on the Day of Redemption, but Darren argues that his frenzy was a kind of divine frenzy. A hero who took a lot of punishment for others. And his arrival proved a good omen. The very same day he entered the camp, they received the amazing news that they were suddenly the new possessors of the Mount of Redemption and other lands about, and many credited Pach’ with bringing them this miraculous good fortune by his return to the fold. He has been slow to open up and says he can’t remember what the Prophet actually said, but he has told them some very vivid prison stories and what it was like down at the city jail the night after the Day of Redemption, and Darren is eager to learn more.

When Billy Don attempts to explain the Marcella tapes to Sally Elliott over a cherry-chocolate sundae in the Tucker City drugstore (she’s buying as usual, knowing he’s penniless), he is a bit disturbed by how funny she thinks it all is, but he appreciates the relief from Darren’s fierce humorlessness, so he smiles his embarrassed smile and goes along. They are sitting at one of those old-fashioned wrought-iron marble-topped ice cream tables that he associates with the town he grew up in. He feels at home in here and is happy to be with this girl again. Sally wants to know how the voice ended up in the ditch, so he tells her the story of how the girl got left behind when the Brunists gathered on the Mount with box suppers the night before the Day of Redemption and how she came running out there all alone just at the same time that the Brunists’ worst enemies, the followers of Reverend Abner Baxter, came driving out there to attack them, and how the Brunists, seeing the lights on the mine road and hoping to avoid the confrontation, jumped into their cars and with their lights off went charging down the hill toward the Baxterites, hoping to get past them before they could get turned around, and how there was a terrible pile-up (Sally is laughing again, but this is serious) and the poor girl got struck by six or seven different cars and died there in the ditch.

“That’s terrible, Billy Don!” says Sally, still giggling. “And her voice just got stuck there and can’t get out?”

“No, it’s not like that. If she’s God’s messenger, she might be heard anywhere, any time, and even by different people in different places at the same time. But it was such a key moment. Reverend Baxter was converted and became a Brunist that night at the ditch, and there was a great reconciliation and they all marched together the next day to the Mount of Redemption, and that’s really how the church was born. Right after that came the Persecution and everyone got split up and wandered about. And that Saturday last week was exactly five years after the Night of the Sacrifice, and it was when Reverend Baxter and Mrs.