We fled the elders. When the guns had been once again taken up and embraced with the touch of a dancer taking up a partner’s hand and placing it into position, here, there, there was no choice but for us both to walk away. Walk where we came up here in the days when walking was a joy for us, though there were joys we would know less of soon enough. We had held hands when it was permitted, by the narrow trail and by the narrow ways which we were taught to walk before the Lord of locusts swarmed. He was God, Lord, Load of Hocus Pocus. And we believed.
They were his ministers, though they had squared off toe-to-toe amongst themselves, pulled whiskers from each Elder’s underbeard, swore names and oaths not heard outside of scriptures heard in church, thrown punches, broken oaths and shattered bones.
Those were the leaders of us all up on the mountain. Greater men none of us had known to breathe. Nor greater names. Greater lengths we might have walked or sailed to see them, to be with them, or be with their whispered words at least. But it was not the distance which seemed biblical, the burden of days to make our way. It was the burning of the sun, which was worse on us than working in the tannery with comical masters looking down on our stained hands. They always laughed. But the guns had been lifted, only once, against us.
This once was fusillade enough. I would have stood it, notwithstanding my weakness in the guts when I saw blood. I had mastered it while still a tanner, measured myself in terms of what was too much for my eyes to burden themselves to bear witness. Each time I pushed them farther from the sockets they turned in. Each time I looked longer at the skins, stared, my hard-earned concentration came from the hair, from the hooves, from the ears that were burned by me. For that was the job I had. I was the burner of lumber-bearing beasts, taken from the hills and fields, just as I had been, and set down in a frigorific yard. I was given a task. I performed it with exactness, I declare this.
Over the body of the bruised when beaten at the hour of sunup, where the scalp hair meets the nooking of the neck, there hair had flowed or fallen, as blood would, and by the handful. Hair, the Dealer is the only man I ever saw take care of. He kept pots and tins of wax pomades, some scented with gold unguents of tropical bruteshow origin, some with essences boiled up from petals of such flowers as can be picked only in climates I have never felt upon my skin, some with extracts used to make confectionary wafers. But now his West was won.
Each fragrance in the Dealer’s hair had been a March day on my calendar, the journal of his appearances to me turned the world itself. These meetings, for me, and God’s gracious time, have taken lonely scents. I inhale my full expanse of years, and writing them all out, for me always the evening air wafts of soot China ink, a liquid also brought me by the Dealer. How could it not? These frigorific hands write down the center and the navigation of my knowledge, the undertaking of an act by which to understand my brainpan’s corrugations, my exile of myself off from the Elders, my plan to take Samantha with me to a city we had never seen but heard in narratives which drifted through the oil ooze of smoke from within hot tanning fires, the oil steam from over tanning vats.
Always we were told there was a royal city where the Elders once had gathered, Elders even older than those men to whom I had entrusted care of my Samantha. She came back to me from them with stories of their cross examinations. And she bore sores the Elders used to manage me, pressed me almost as a wad of cotton, woolen in one ear, is used to cure infection. The sick ear tighter for the fist of it, and deafer to all milder enticings.
Samantha harkened to Elders entire, as if their dim recitals and fair tales of distant granaries were worth more to her, and rang truer, than the battle hymns we sang before breaking open loaves as big as heads of cabbage, before pouring water as fragrant as the mountain flowers from which snow water ran, and as brilliant as the Dealer’s hair, pomaded and new flattened.
Samantha had heard these wizardly descriptions and had trespassed them on to me, had wiggled them in through the slats of me, those piercings in the wickerwork of speech, where light comes streaming, burning barley, in. Her words came slinking, truth like the very truth when it is written as a serpent hieroglyph.
How could I not believe God’s city to be more real than the tanner’s hands I used to cut through bones and thews with my own broke-tip jointing knife? It seemed I saw through bridal veils to it, the square dimensions of the city and its very set of stones. This vision, insinuated, laid serpent’s eggs within my head, left surface patterns sidewinding to biforked fruited trees.
When Samantha spoke it was to behold a hieroglyphus wriggle free of its grown ancient carapace, just dead scale and death skin from which to shrug. It was a living illustration, emboldened ink, tar from a lake turned over, black mud so prime ordained that knowing nothing whatsoever was already knowing more than seeing this. So were her words exposed to my fool ear, so cool and quenching to the fires of doubt that scorched my testimony, so blistering upon the summer rock. Her words worked up a chain of blossoms, worried at a woodbine fruit, stirred up a nest of snakes newborn unto my enemies, now gleaming brass, now hissing on the brazen stick.
So blinding God’s true city seemed to me, no difference the distances Samantha would describe to me as we lay bare and parted in the darkness of our bed, which never ceased to feel to me as it had on that night Samantha would become God’s bride through me entwined in mortal arms. I glimpsed God’s city as if my own grown and vital organs. I had heard but never seen them. And yet I envisioned it, figured red and bright before my eyes, in the carcasses I worked. Almost bejeweled they seemed to me, thick encrusted and openly revealed under my knife.
It was farther inland we must travel, this is what Samantha said to me.
Farther into the ice, hard sea it would be to me, deeper under the crust. Farther down to a sphere of crystal rock. No man dare look at his two feet for fear of being struck snow-blind by God Lord’s paving stones. This was the place to which we would repair, Samantha made known to me in tones partook of overtures of operas I had heard only in a dream so many years ago of sleeping I remembered it only in sudden crowbursts of night birds which shook me from my slumbers, nocturnes I must have heard – I could swear it – though I had scarcely known piano and had barely undertook such music from the teachings of the Dealer.
Notes by night, he would poem them to me, as he had heard them played in parlors into which he had received admittance.
These were gatherings, he told me, where women would be seated on round chairs with legs no thicker than a flower stem. So lightly did the sitters rest upon their cushions that almost one suspected ghost forces playing secret roles, lifecraft of buoyancy which turned the music room into one lily pond. Dense and heaped with pads, at once it was, trailers choking sight from overwatered eyes. But what man could look away? For to see was to be dipped into lagoons, to be wrapped in pink and patterned Paris blankets, to be shuttled naked through Arabic looms, piled deep with carpets that in raree tales can be ridden and then brought to land atop the domes of castles behind breachless sparkling walls shard-tipped with gold and ivory spears.
Those were the tomes the Dealer spoke to me, his words merging into those of my Samantha. There was, one instance, no telling one throat from the other, and now no norm to square them with my own. Their tales so tightly intertwixted, they became a single staff of healing, round bell ringing in my ear.
By day, I worked over my cauldrons and my cutting block. By night, I let Samantha’s hair pour over me as would a nostrum purchased with assurances my faith in it would make me healthier than man had hoof to cleave. Samantha’s fingers found my chest, felt it, tested where I would allow their tips to tap and pressure me. They tempted my capacity for imagining which divinations of my innards Samantha was conducting as she stirred beside me in the night. It seemed she was erasing maps, blurring regions and formations that cut through me and had been charted with brass instruments and read in tight-rigged tents. Samantha spread open the compass of my soul, I thought, there, or the measure of my mystery, here. She blew onto my birthmark, deciphered my born hour of ultimate demise. What angels or demons watched over me, she also seemed to read, there, too, there, here. Here, her hand felt guided by their kiting all about me, immaterial but paper-winged, and brighter to Samantha than the candlelight which shook the room before I pinched the flame with blackened fingers.
If ever there had been a nurselorn language, one whelped among tribes of sightless almost-creatures without tooth or tongue, then these were the alien utterings, the acrostic verse Samantha spoke over my nape and neck, along my ribs and loams, up to the broadleaf tree, over the mountain. I knew no other way to listen than to lay as still as all my senses could be kept and hear this wisdom as it came to me from my own ailing spoken plain to me. Still, I quivered underneath Samantha’s hand.
As a boy, I had bow hunted after birds, pulled taut the ligament while bunching up the horns of it. I would let the bull expand back to its unstrung far extremes, and I would place the arrow’s notch over the string. I pulled back, my fingers at the fletching. One hand squeezed tight fist over arching stick. I stood that way, straight-backed, poised and waiting for the demisemiquaver. But there came nothing. I aimed at every precious anything at hand. And I prayed to God that all would take swift flight, or be blown instantly away, before my strength would fail me and I would become a killer.
How soon my arms would shake the open frame of me. How quickly my fingers would burn as if gripping tongs just taken from the fire. Yet I would not yield, would not allow the arrow to release. It was an exercise of spirit I repeated every sunup, first aiming at small creatures other than were pets to me, later aiming at the neutered animals I had been given. I had named them friends. Finally, when my arms and chest had grown so broad they could withstand the furnace heat, could absorb it, almost leech strength in the more the tension built to torment me, finally, I learned the double wisdom of the bow. Though it aimed into the distance, it was ever drawn on me. Of my own soul the bow became divining rod. The very quaking spoke full gospel of my heart. These were the revelations I could never pen, for they came to me only when my hands were shaking with the power of an inner choir the bow could no more silence, for I had mastered it. Bow had become a singing sword to me, and I the song it formed of chords drawn up from dooms below.
But now this wellspring was struck forth by my Samantha’s hand. It was the old familiar treble, that ever-troubling moan. A terror almost I had felt at the power of my boyish health, as if the tinctures brought me by the Dealer – made of lymph or liver of cooked rattlesnakes – had indeed lived up to his predictions, even the least potable. Though I had tried as many as were within reach of the blanket of resources I had spread before him on those autumn days or summer nights when he came walking up. One more time around the mountainside he would come, up to where wagons were loaded with munitions to be sent up to the Elders, or with shipments to be set apart for mission storehouses before they were presented to Samantha for cutting into cakes and kidney pies.
I felt this thrill of fear from which I wanted to retreat but I could not, too trained its grip on me, my whole anatomy one more lamb to strangle. These nights were worship of a sort that I had never known before. Even in the Elders’ meetings, even when they first laid open their Good Books before me and plew shirts, and showed me the tokens scarred into their skin, signs that had convinced how many souls before me that had sold all that they had.
The hands Samantha placed on me became Orion moths, winged correlates of light invisible to eyes not spiritual, though spirit eyes were what Samantha had. Eyes that could pierce the midnight lampless caverns where the Elders kept the almacens of dry provisions we would need for the long trip away from this land island of shotguns, hides, desert and old church discipline, long years of kneeling shriven before a forger’s fire, or shivering within the only quilts which were permitted, or sleeping single on those nights the Elders had demanded of the company of my Samantha, and it was understood I would commit her fully to their trust, which was the safest place for any girl to sleep. Did I not see?
And if I didn’t, I would know the engines of their wrath, the swung bell of trumpet they would bruise with, blare to wake the dead if this was what it took to put the fear of God upon our backs. Nor were these treatments less convincing than the murder and the outbreak laid together, hatched and written, one more commandment from the mount of God, there, in the bed where I had sheltered with Samantha.
I would have stayed there on the mountain, never left, so straight the ways, so strict the sleeves, so blistered the backs of hands and feet described to me. And I had seen their handling of the Dealer. Just as they had shouldered their shotguns, once was enough, no reason now to doubt they would release me from this life into a longer one to come.
But the face Samantha turned to me in dreams, just as it rose over me in the morning, once more each day as the seasons shifted with a restlessness that soon enough became a breaking from my bones, a kind of aching case of rheum, sharp as Paul’s own pricking thorn impinging newer covenants on me, a graver form of marriage. It seared me night and day, the crystal sphere of it. Shimmering orb so charged with holy might that all who see it grow Mosaic horns.
Then would meat bones be full cleaned. Then would meat skins be taken and exchanged for coats of many flames. Only to see God’s city would be joy enough for me. Only to see it once and then what happened to me mattered to me no more than what happened to the parents I had left behind me on the prairie, all those mortal years ago. Where had God driven the days off? Where had God damned children of the Dealer? Where had they gone, the tonics and horse powders he had brought me on the mountain? Where had gone everything but love of my Samantha?
That night, the one I still recite each morning, that final night, is, like all other nights, not anymore. We drove our horses to the edge of the great precipice beyond which plains appear, the basin where the Dealer worked his business. And we smacked the horses with twin flaming brands as if to make them carry us full gallop. But we had never mounted. We listened to death whinnies and the wind that filled the wide abyss, listened for the beat of horses touching desert floor, the noise of horses bursting, as sure as horses roar when forced into night sky.
And we heard nothing.
But gone they were, and for that trespass, sin against the Elders, there could be no forgiveness. As there could be no other form of travel for us now but walk over the mountain.
Surely, guns were taken up once more. Surely, pains prepared for our redeeming. Surely hands of cards were dealt to choose the fates we each would meet once we had taken on their chains. But God, Lord, Load of Hocus Pocus, had one final trick for me, after the many tender acts of magic I had seen. Greater things has God Lord shown to lesser men, I do not mind it. But never greater grace to me. Great lengths I walked, Samantha right behind me. We held hands.
So many stars hung overhead that night it seemed the sky might smother us. Then came the day of my deliverance, which is still miracle to me, and causes me to think this pen will shatter in my hand. But I must write. The pen bear witness, this last once, and for all time.
There came a sudden cloud of rain, storm up from God knew where, then an ice volley of grape hail. Never such a downpour have I seen, never such a hurling forth of wrath upon a woman and a man since angel first stretched flaming hand and forbid Adam’s swift damnation, though he thought it paradise.
Shot fell about us with a sound of beating hooves, a bursting heart each almost sounded, rocks by thousands falling from the skies. Yet not a feather struck us. We walked tall, free of fear, the mountain now behind, our clothes soaked only, and our skins now clean and bright. I had become as Job, though without sores. I had become as Lot, though without wife. For when I turned back there was no Samantha on the trail with me. Only a fruit tree bearing woodbine out of season. The sun had risen up. All rain and clouds were gone, as was all hail to see. I stood looking at the lone invasive tree. I touched fruit skin. I dared to pick it. All seemed given to be God Lord’s final gift to me, the final words of love breathed from the Dealer.
I did not want.