He points up to a cavity higher in the rockface, and inside there’s a small statue of the Virgin Mary like the one in the mission church below.
As they approach the grotto, Moses sees two other recumbent figures behind the gate. One is another virgin statue – this one broken at the base and knocked to the ground. The other is the body of a man, prostrate and half hidden by the marble shrine. It is only when they are at the gate, Abraham gripping the bars, that the body of the man begins to move, slowly and with great effort using the shrine to hoist itself first to its knees and then to its feet.
Who is that? Moses asks.
His name is Perry. Douglas Perry. He died five months ago.
What’re you keepin him penned up for? Abraham asks.
We’re not keeping him. When he got sick and knew his end was near, he came out here to die. We didn’t think it was our right to question his final resting place.
As they watch, the dead man lumbers over to the gates and reaches his arm through to the watchers, who back away just out of his grasp. His skin is dark and leathered, burned from the sun, his eyes milky white, his hair pebbly with blown dirt. Otherwise his body is intact – as though he will simply shrivel up and blow away as a dried husk or as the petals of the dead flowers wound through the gate.
Maybe he has obligated himself as the custodian of our shrine, Ignatius says. I like to think so.
What do you want to show us? Moses asks. He is made uneasy by the odd assortment of things – the broken Virgin, the raisin-headed slug, the maw-like cavern, the redheaded Vestal. He wishes to be away from this place.
Without responding, the monk Ignatius moves to the right end of the gate, where there is a hinged door shut with a chain and lock. He uses a key to undo the lock and slides the chain away.
Both Todd brothers ready their weapons and aim them at Douglas Perry, who begins to move slowly towards the door in the gate, clutching at each metal bar as he goes.
What’re you doin? Abraham says.
But Ignatius ignores him and turns instead to the Vestal.
Amata, if you please, he says and gestures with an open palm for her to step into the gated grotto.
No, huh-uh, Abraham says. I ain’t here for no perverted sacrifices.
Moses rushes forwards and gets between the girl and the door in the gate. Meanwhile, Douglas Perry moves closer.
Wait, Ignatius says.
I’m gonna kill this thing, Abraham says and aims his rifle at the slug’s head.
Please wait, Ignatius says. He won’t hurt her.
That thing ain’t your parishioner any more, friar, Moses says. It don’t discriminate between holy and un.
I promise you, he says. He won’t hurt her. Amata, please.
He turns to the redhead with a look of longing.
Then she, the Vestal, produces a look of utmost peacefulness and brilliance – like a stage angel backlit with spotlights.
It’s all right, she says to Moses, putting her hand on the hand that holds the pistol and lowering it for him. He won’t hurt me. It’s all right. I’ll show you.
Moses does not trust her – trust isn’t what’s behind it. But the strange woman has a desire to prove herself at the mouth of death, and that’s something Moses respects. He will come between her and him who would make her a victim, but he is not one to come between any woman and the mode of life or of death she chooses for herself. He will not be held arbiter of such things, and he steps aside.
What’re you doin, Mose? Abraham asks, the rifle still aimed at the slug’s head.
Let it happen, Moses says. It’s her own say-so.
So Abraham follows his brother’s lead. The Vestal Amata steps into the grotto, and Ignatius closes the door behind her and locks it again.
And that’s when Moses Todd sees something he has never seen before in all his travels across the wide and fissured country.
The Vestal Amata steps towards the dead man Douglas Perry. She comes within two feet of him and offers herself to him, spreading her arms wide, palms up to the sky, head lowered in submission. The slug turns his gaze upon her, and for a moment everything stops. The two stand together, a wretched tableau, ancient beast and virgin sacrifice, devil and canoness, displayed behind black bars strung through with dead flowers, under the stony proscenium of the grotto. There they stand, like statues in a museum diorama – or a new station of the cross: holy horror rendered paralysed and dumb.
The slug looks at the Vestal, his eyes cloudy and curious. He seems confused by her presence, by the aggression with which she offers herself up to him. An embarrassment of riches for the cannibal dead. But his confusion quickly transforms to something else – and something else besides hunger too. For a moment it looks like deference – Moses believes for a second that he sees obeisance in the way Douglas Perry’s eyes drop to the hard-packed earth at the feet of the redheaded woman. But then Moses realizes it’s not even that, not even awed respect or fear but rather just indifference. The slug loses interest. The dead man Douglas Perry looks at the woman as he would with faint curiosity at empty clothes fluttering their sleeves on a clothesline in the middle of an abandoned yard. A momentary distraction before the resumption of a purposeless wandering.
And so the slug drops his eyes, turns away from the Vestal and takes a few shambling steps in the opposite direction.
What in the holy hell, Abraham exclaims.
What’s the matter with him? Moses asks Ignatius. You trained him? Is that what you did?
Moses has never heard of such a thing being done, but maybe the monk Ignatius has found a way.
Did you blind him? Moses asks of Ignatius, who stands, smiling proudly. He can’t see her? What did you do?
It isn’t him, Ignatius says finally.
What? What do you mean it ain’t him?
And then, as if illustrating the friar’s point, the slug Douglas Perry takes an interest in Moses himself, reaching at him with clawing fingers, stretching out one arm in desperate hunger through the bars.
It isn’t him, Ignatius says again. It’s her.
It was in a travelling sideshow that Ignatius discovered her. It was a mangy troupe of men who passed from place to place, seeking shelter and services in exchange for an opportunity to view their menagerie of freaks. The troupe travelled in a convoy of caged vans. They would park the vans in a row and open the back doors of each to reveal a slug or two behind welded metal bars. These slugs were monstrously transformed – some just remnants of animated bodies, and others surgically altered as if by a mad Frankenstein. There was one creature that was just a head, suspended in a large fishbowl and swaying back and forth from a harness made of belts, its mouth opening and closing like a Venus flytrap waiting for something edible to fly into it. There was a dead woman whose body was gone just below her shoulders, just a head, neck and a pair of arms to drag herself about. Another had an additional head stitched on the shoulder of a body that had had its arms removed. The two heads gnawed at each other, chewing away the flesh of the cheeks not in animosity so much as boredom. The arms had been removed, presumably so that the creature couldn’t simply rip off the added head. One playful van contained a dead child, a young boy dressed in a sailor suit. His cage was filled with severed hands which he chewed like a dog or gathered into piles or tossed about. One dead woman had multiple rotting br**sts sewn all over her torso in imitation of a nursing sow and, in the same cage, there was a man with multiple penis lengths sewn together in a row so that he dragged around his penis like a tail, tripping over it with cartoon absurdity.