A bizarre and horrible exhibition of distorted humanity indeed – an antic and fleshy rococo delivered in metal boxes roving across the country. And she was one of them, the redhead, shut up in one of the vans with an emaciated slug who showed no interest at all in eating her. They had been wretched cohabitants for nine weeks before the troupe stopped at the mission and Ignatius found there his holy woman.
It was immediately clear to me, he says, that she is an offering from God Himself. The incarnation of His grace. A breathing, walking end to our suffering.
So he attempted to barter for her, trying to convince the leader of the troupe, a man named Fletcher, to trade her for supplies, shelter, meals, blessings, even some of his congregation willing to sacrifice themselves for the exchange of this imprisoned seraph. But Fletcher would not have it. The redhead was his prime attraction.
He was a greasy, spotted man with scabs and scars all over his body. He chewed on his own fingers as though he were himself part slug. But even though he smelled of foulness and pestilence, and even though he was oozing with abomination, he was among the horrid crew of the living.
She ain’t for sale, padre, Fletcher said. But you can take another glance at her on the house. Or for a sift through your medicine cabinet, I could arrange you a quick wick-dip in her. I know you’re a holy man and whatnot, but holy bangin holy’s gotta be a lawful act, don’t it?
So Ignatius cast them out of the mission and told them to move on. But he followed them and, three nights later, when Fletcher and his men were drunk and whoring in a compound near Yuma, he stole the woman away and brought her back here to stay in the mission with them.
Three days I waited, Ignatius says. Three days I followed. And when I acted, I left it to look as if she had managed to escape herself. I even had her run for a mile in the opposite direction in case they followed her tracks, though I don’t think they are hunters by nature. I didn’t want them to trace her back here.
They’ll come back, Moses says. Sooner or later. She’s too valuable to them. Even if they believe she’s run off, they’ll try this as a place for her to run to.
It’s been four weeks, Ignatius says, and they haven’t come back yet.
Could be they’re tryin other places first. Could be they know that if she’s here she’ll be easy to get. But they’ll be back.
It makes no difference. She won’t be here.
Where’s she gonna be?
What Ignatius wants is for Moses to take the Vestal to someone he knows, someone who will know what to do with her, a high priest who oversees the largest citadel still operating in the country – a haven for the devout, and the devout are populous in these times.
I ain’t an escort by trade, Moses says. You don’t got enough to endow my bounty for that kind of work.
I’m not offering to pay you, Ignatius says.
I’m asking for your service.
Not a favour. A duty. An obligation has befallen you. These are the things a man of honour does, and I know you to be a man of honour.
You got it wrong. A man of honour I ain’t.
A man with a code then. They are much the same thing when there’s no one around to say which creed is honourable and which isn’t.
It occurs to Moses that just two days before he was seeking some purpose, some direction to their travel – a simple reason to be going one place as another. In these times, when all places and people seem distinguished only by the most ephemeral and muzzy of boundaries, when the peaceful walking dead begin to look like the salvationed and the huddled living the damned – then does a man seek for something beyond pills and shelter and woman comfort, then does he seek for objective, for vocation.
But my brother, Moses says, holding up the last weak barrier to what he already sees as his given mission.
Your brother isn’t taking her, Ignatius says. You are. You have the capacity to protect her – even from your own blood.
Moses felt himself steeped in blood, all kinds of blood, the family kind and otherwise.
Where is this citadel? he asks.
And the monk Ignatius responds:
That night, lodged in the stable crib, Moses sees his brother Abraham lying back on his straw bed, scraping at his teeth with a wood splinter. Abraham hums a tune Moses doesn’t recognize, and Moses wonders how much of his brother’s music is just the creeping harmonic wastage of his own poxy mind.
We’re leavin tomorrow, Moses says.
That’s fine by me, Abraham says. I had just about enough of the silent life.
You seemed to get along just fine.
I been on my best behaviour.
You done all right.
Anyway, I don’t much care for the witchy shit they got goin on. I ain’t in all my life seen a slug pass up a meal. That girl’s cursed.
Cursed? Moses says. The friar thinks she’s blessed.
These religious types think everything’s blessed. Dump a bucket of shit on their head, and they’ll thank God for it not being two buckets. But I’ll tell you something.
Abraham points the toothpick at his brother to make his point.
I’ll tell you this, he goes on. Whatever hell those walking dead came out of, I ain’t interested in gettin cozy with the girl they’re afraid of.
You got a vision, Abe. There’s no denyin it. The way you see the world – those eyes of yours ought to be enshrined somewhere important.
Abraham casts a suspicious gaze at his brother, as if unsure of the true thrust of the remark – but he grins proudly despite himself.
But it don’t make any difference, Moses says. Because tomorrow when we leave, we’re takin her with us.
What in the hell would we do that for? If you want to steal some holy bride, why not go for one of the other ones? Maybe one that knows how to cook.
We ain’t stealin her.
That Ignatius ain’t gonna be very happy with you stealing his cannongirl.
I said we ain’t stealing her. The friar asked us to take her somewhere, and we’re gonna take her.
How far north?
Colorado? Shit. Is it gonna be snow on the ground?
It’s a likelihood.
You know I ain’t good with the inclement weather. I got bad circulation in my legs.
What’s in Colorado anyway?
A what now?
Jesus, we’re spendin a lot of time with the gospel. What happens if I come out the other end all godified and priesty? What happens if I want to take the vow?