Beautiful, he says again. That’s what you ain’t able to see. Her face. Her hair. Her body. These things, too, these images – they’re the prisoners of language, and I ain’t speaker artistic enough to set them free.
He is silent for a while. A coyote howls somewhere on the plain, and it is a reminder of the wild things that roam everywhere around them. But the man seems not to hear the creature – in fact, seems to hear nothing save the voice of his own speaking, constant, inexhaustible, evened to a single level as if it were a thing forged in fire and hammered over time into something long and flat and unbendable. It is a voice that continues even when he has stopped speaking – for him and for the listeners too – a voice of mortar and steel, like the framework that remains when a building crumbles. It is a structural element that endures, even though it holds up nothing at all.
Don’t get me wrong, he continues finally. I knew women in my time. Them and their flowery effulgence dropping like pollen on all the world. It’s a powerful dust – like fairies – it gets in your eyes and blinds you from things. And why have we always got to see anyway? Aren’t there times where we shut our eyes full willingly? The truth. They used to say that beauty and truth were the same thing. But from what I seen, the two are at deep odds. You try for the truth, try to fill your heart up with it. It’s the action of an honourable man, ain’t it?
He is quiet again for a moment, and no one moves.
But this other woman, he says, this redhead, this priestess, this Vestal, whatever she was – she was beautiful in a different way, like she lived in that beauty the way other people live in houses. Did the beauty belong to her or did she belong to it? You can’t tell such things. She was all of a beauty, and there was no name invented by human tongue could check her. But she was other things too.
He pauses as if to line up his words in proper order.
It ain’t exactly right to say she was a trickster, ain’t exactly right to say she wore masks. Instead it was like one single mask handed off to a whole host of people for each of them to wear it for a little while. You spoke to her, and you weren’t never sure who it was behind that face. Not that it mattered none. The face itself was the thing. The face was the thing in the end. It made you love it – and whatever shams it perpetrated, well, you loved them too.
They drive on. In a place called Shiprock, they see signs for the Four Corners Monument where the miracle is that four states meet at a single point.
Let’s go there, says the Vestal Amata.
You’re just tryin to delay our trip, Moses says.
Maybe I am and maybe I ain’t, but don’t you want to see it?
Moses considers. Eventually, he says:
I reckon I do.
So they drive fifteen miles west and find the monument, which is just a big granite platform in the middle of the desert covered over almost entirely by years of collected dirt and weed. There’s a corpse half buried in the dirt, in the middle of the platform, its skin mummified black and leathery by the sun. Moses drags the corpse away.
At first they aren’t sure what they’re looking for, and then Moses kicks away the layers of dirt on the platform where the corpse was until he finds a bronze disc the size of a saucer embedded in the middle of it. What the disc says is:
US DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
And in the middle of the disc is something that looks like an addition sign with the names of the four states in each of the quadrants: Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico.
Here we are, says Moses Todd.
Yep, says his brother.
Sort of makes you feel like you’re at the centre of things, doesn’t it? says the Vestal Amata.
It does at that, says Moses Todd.
Someone went to all that trouble, says the Vestal, to locate that exact point in the dirt.
And for what? says Abraham. Now it don’t mean anything.
But Moses thinks differently.
It never meant anything, Moses says. Not to the god above it and not to the earth below it. It never did. Not even when they first did it. But it’s the doin it that counts. It’s something. You draw imaginary lines. That’s what you do.
The Vestal looks at him kindly, a smile on her lips that seems affectionate – even maybe admiring.
Then what do you do with the lines? she asks.
And Moses looks at her straight and true. He says:
Then you pick one side or the other and you stand there.
Snow " Dolores " Historic Rio Grande Southern " USB " The Trials of Bitchery " Breakdown " A Clearing, a Cabin " A Face from Below " A Conversation by Starlight " The Ministration of Wounds " ‘Everybody’s Looking for an Entrance’ " A Midnight Baptism
The air grows colder, and soon they begin to see snow on the ground.
I’ll be damned, Abraham says. I ain’t been north in ages. Does that mean it’s winter then?
January, Moses confirms.
We missed Christmas?
I guess we did.
Abraham looks sincerely disappointed.
Don’t worry, Moses says. It’ll come around again. It always does.
A snow flurry stirs up, and the flakes whip around them as they drive. Moses pulls the car over, and they all get out. Abraham opens his palms to catch the flakes as they fall. He watches them melt immediately into his hands, fascinated, perhaps, by the ephemera of nature that shimmer away on contact with humanity.
The Vestal Amata opens her mouth wide to catch the flakes on her tongue, as though she would consume greedily the falling sky itself.
Moses himself remembers the snow from his youth, when he travelled many places. He is and has always been a traveller, for longing rather than necessity – even before things changed. With the agitation of the dead the world changed, and what it became suited Moses even more than what it was before. But he does recall a year he spent in the mountains of California, the heavy blades hitched to the fronts of trucks to push the snow out of the way, the mounds of sooty ice collected by the sides of the road. Back then, snow was a nuisance, an obstacle, something to be got around or over. Now the world has slowed down, there is no hurry. You watch the snowflakes fall lazily on their way, and you are reminded of your own floating, your own speedless descent through life.
From a ditch by the roadside, they see a dead man stir. He, too, is blanketed with snow, which fissures and sloughs off as he rises slowly. He moves with exquisite languor, as though his very joints are frozen stiff. It takes him many minutes just to climb to his hands and knees and then to his feet. Then, for a moment, he simply stands there and looks around, his head turning on the creaky hinge of his neck. Who knows how long he has been lying in the ditch, and now what a wonder the world must look from this new altitude.