Page 24 of Dreadful Skin

"Of course not. Think of it instead as being a. . .as being a spectator. Think of yourself as a scientist, watching the birth and evolution of a spectacular new creature, destined to change the course of history, the paths of nations, and the very nature of humanity itself! How can you consider these things and not find them thrilling?"


He sat up, clapped his hands together, and said, "That's it. That's what I'll do. I'll bring you paper—I'll go to town, to the nearest one, whatever it is—and I'll buy you a blank book if I can find one. I want you to write about us. I want you to chronicle this beginning of an era. I want you to record this for the future."


"All right," I told him. Yes, I was learning. Tell him what he wants. Give him what he wants. Treat him how he wants. Whatever it takes for him to leave as quickly as possible, in as good a mood as I can conjure for him. Whatever it takes to keep him away from me. "Get it. I'll do it."


"Excellent!" He climbed over me and off the cot—which was surely going to fail me one day soon. How the poor contraption has held together this long, I have no idea. "I'll go into town myself. I'll get it for you, and I'll give it to you, and it will be a wondrous exchange of gifts."


"Hm?" I said, not a question, really.


"Yes, an exchange. I'll give you the supplies, and you give me a history of our people. And if I like what I read—and there's no reason to think I won't—perhaps we'll lift you up into our ranks. Another three or four experimental volunteers, and I'll have the process down pat. We can, we can—I know! It will be the first and holiest sacrament in our own church!"


He was dancing now, naked there in my tent. "Oh, there will be ritual and beauty—same as the churches now. The blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the church, oh yes. And my blood, or our blood, it will feed the priests and ministers! It will bind them all to us, to me."


And then, he stopped. His feet settled into the dust and a pensive, almost fond mood overtook him. "Though we have no priestesses yet. No holy sisters. It isn't that I haven't tried, my dear. I don't want this to become some dull old collection of monks, but I do suspect that it might become more of a hive, in some respects. One queen. One woman to rule and to serve. But as of yet, there have been no sisters strong enough in constitution to survive the infection—God, I want a better term for it. The sacrament, then. It frustrates me, honestly it does."


"I believe you," I said.


"As well you should. And it's another reason, I must confess, that we've left you this long. I want to turn you, even as I want to preserve you forever, just like this! But nothing so mortal lasts, and if I cannot discover a way to pass this along to you, you're worthless to us, my love."


I tried not to cringe at the endearment. His love. He loved nothing, and no one, and not me. Nothing but himself.


"You're tougher than they were—the other girls, and the older women who were here before. You're stronger, you've survived more. You can. . .." The wheels in his brain were turning like the insides of a wound-up watch. I could almost see the gears clicking on the other side of his eyes.


He reached for his pants and idly pulled them on. "Would you like that?"


"What?" I didn't believe for a second that he cared one way or the other what I would, or would not, like.


"Would you like that? To be the queen of our kind? Our mother and wife, empress. Maybe that's the way it's meant to be, after all. One woman. One muse, one divine feminine. Isn't that the way the church already tells it? One woman in a story at a time. It seems to be all the public can bear."


"You're talking in circles."


"And why not? It's all circles, anyway." He waved his hands like he was flicking flies away from himself.


If he'd been an ordinary man I would have called him crazed and dismissed him, but I could only shrug. Any enthusiasm for anything, even feigned, would be misinterpreted and used against me. "As you like, then. You're going to do what you're going to do."


He wanted something else from me. His mood shifted, and grew instantly darker. "I'm offering you greatness. You might show something other than disdain."


"It's exhaustion," I corrected him with a lie that was half true. I watched him consider this, and decide that it was possible. He'd believe anything that flattered him, in even the most round-about way. "I'm tired, Jack. That's all."


The absent stare he flashed over my head told me he was already thinking about something else. His addled brain went from one subject to the next like a skipping stone. It made him hard to follow, and tricky to read.


I was afraid, for a moment, that I'd invited some new assault or injustice with my protests, but his attention had left me and he followed it close behind—out the flap and into the early night. I sighed with relief and remained on the cot, too tired and miserable to move. Who would wish for such royalty? Who would ask to be queen of all she surveyed, if this was all she could see?


I didn't think he'd try it, anyway. Or if he did, I did not think I'd survive it. I'd noticed before what he'd complained about—that women were difficult to come by with their condition. He gave me too much credit. God willing I'd bleed to death first, or else become so strong and wicked that I could slay them all. Anyway, isn't that what a queen does? Doesn't she hold power of life or death over her subjects?


It's a thought, isn't it—something to sustain me, or entertain me if it all comes down to the worst. Change me then, you bastard, if you can. Give me that power, and I'll use it against you. I'll be your Madonna. I'll be your queen.


And I'll have your head if it's the last thing I ever do.


IX.


Leonard, July 7, 1881


Mescalero. A freak rainstorm washed me into town last night. There was lightning to stretch across the sky, and water falling in curtains. This is what people mean when they talk about gully-washers. Now, come morning, the land is scarred. The water has cut trails through the dirt, small canyons worn into the packed earth.


I didn't see much of the town when I arrived. The rain fell down with animosity, as if it wanted to strike and harm everyone and everything beneath it. I ran from it, like everyone else. Everything was boarded, and the street was empty.


The stage driver was a soaked mass without eyes or a face. He hollered, lifting a sopping arm and pointing towards a hulking shadow that must have been a building, there on the other side of the angry rain.


"The Primrose," he said.


I nodded, but he wasn't looking at me anymore, and I was standing there getting wet. I ducked my head and dashed for the shadow, which had a porch for me to stumble up, and a door for me to fumble with. I pushed it and it gave, and I staggered inside.


The manager at the desk was a small fellow. He was older than me by thirty years, and he wore round spectacles pushed up on his forehead—instead of over his eyes. "Come on in, son," he told me.


I tried to dry myself off, there in the doorway, but the desk man shook his head. "Don't do it. It's worse with you leaving the door open. Just come on in and drip. Nobody here cares."


I winced at the suggestion, but accepted his offer. This was his property—or so I assumed. I adjusted my grip on the wet carpet bag I carried, and approached the desk while he looked me up and down.


"I'd like to ask a room for the night," I told him.


"Sure. We got plenty. You're here for those meetings, aren't you? The church folk camped outside town?"


"Yes," I confessed, because it was as true as anything.


He reached behind the desk for a ledger and offered me a quill with a half-dry ink pot. "I'm not sure how I feel about it. The whole thing smells funny to me."


"The meetings?" I tried to keep my voice disinterested, but polite.


"It's a bunch of men, so far as I can see. And that one woman, who always looks so tired. And this rain—we don't have rain like this here. Once every couple of years, maybe, it'll fall so hard and so mean like this. It's a bad sign."


"You believe in such signs then, sir?"


"Maybe God's trying to tell us something."


"God is always speaking," I agreed, though I don't think he and I were talking about the same thing. I was deliberately being evasive, or deliberately misunderstanding. I didn't like the way the conversation was turning. I didn't like having company for my concern, although it should have relieved me.


"Number six," the man said, handing me a key.


I thanked him, took the key, and said, "There is someone who will likely seek me out here. Could I leave a message here, at the desk?"


He produced some paper and I wrote quickly.


Sister C.—I've arrived, and I await you. I've been given room number 6. I'll remain here in hopes that you'll join me soon, but I won't wait more than another day. I must see Melissa. I must bring her out of this.


I folded the note and addressed it simply, with a first name.


The desk man put it under the counter. "Number six is upstairs. First on the left."


I thanked him yet again, lifted my drenched luggage, and stepped down the hall with a squish in my shoes.


My room was simply but comfortably furnished. The linens were clean, if not new; and the basin was filled with fresh water. Beside it was a bar of white soap and a gray towel. I disrobed and spent the next half hour hanging my things around the room, hoping that by morning they might dry.


By the time I finished, the rain had slowed to a trickle.


I thought of Melissa, alone at the camp—surrounded by the devils and the deep blue sea. I prayed for her, before I slept. I prayed myself to sleep, praying for her strength and praying for the protection of the Almighty.


* * *


I thought surely I would dream of her, but I did not. I dreamed instead of Eileen, small and self-possessed in her dark dress and modestly covered hair.

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