You ain’t holy, he says.
No, she replies quiet. I ain’t.
Are you a whore?
I’ve been a whore, she says without flinching. I’ve been lots of things. For a while I just wandered. When you ain’t got a destination, you find yourself going down all kinds of different roads.
How come you talk like you do? Different ways.
I picked it up. I been high and I been low. You learn things when you travel around a lot.
Me, I travelled around a lot more than you, and I ain’t learned any mannered speech.
She shrugs again.
I’m a people pleaser, she says. I like to fit in. It’s different when you’re a woman and you ain’t got a gun. Sometimes your only weapon is a ticklish subterfuge. You, now you’re like a grizzly walking on two feet – I guess you never had to subtle your way through anything.
I guess not. Subtlety ain’t my strong point.
I recognized that.
She laughs, and Moses chuckles along with her. Then they sit in silence for a while longer. The Vestal leans back on her hands and looks up at the night-time stars. Ever since the world has gone awry there are many more of them, and they are brighter – like the shimmering dust left behind after some levelling destruction.
Then Moses begins to talk again.
So, he says slowly, if you ain’t a stranger to whoredom—
Among other things, she reminds him.
I mean, I never had any whore business cards made up.
Understood, he concedes. Among other things. If you ain’t a stranger to it, how come you were so intent on keepin me from the girls back there?
She smiles up at the stars.
It’s pretty out here, she says. You do find it sometimes, don’t you – even in a world of death?
That ain’t an answer.
The good thing about being a tricksy bitch, she says, is that you don’t have to tell all your secrets.
True enough, Moses nods. Everyone’s entitled to their secrets, tricksy bitch or otherwise.
She seems content not to answer for a few minutes, but the question still lingers in the air between them. After a while, she sits forward and brushes the icy dirt from her palms.
If you want to know the truth, she says, it wasn’t anything in particular. It just seemed wrong. I don’t mean wrong wrong, not wrong for the world at large. Just wrong for you. Does that make sense?
He nods slowly.
I reckon it does. Your life ain’t a target for the world to shoot at. The world is a target for your life to shoot at.
She looks at him and smiles.
Somethin like that, she says.
Again they gaze into the face of the dead man beneath the ice. His clouded eyes blink peacefully.
So then how come? Moses says. How come the dead don’t want you?
The Vestal shakes her head.
I don’t know, she says. Honest to God. All I know is it ain’t my pure soul shining so bright it blinds em.
Moses narrows his eyes at this mystery. They are quiet. The Vestal Amata leans her head on his shoulder, and they sit for a while without saying anything. He can feel her small body shivering.
Go on back to the cabin, he says. Get warm.
Okay, she says. You coming?
In a little while. I ain’t quite done stargazing yet.
So she returns to the cabin, and he remains out there in the frozen wild, his only real companion the trapped and pathetic dead.
They stay the next five days in the shelter of the cabin in the woods. They scrawl a sign on a wooden plank and nail it to a tree down by the main road. It says:
SURVIVORS IN NEED OF RIDE
And it has an arrow pointing up the path. It is the Vestal’s idea, but Moses knows that bandits frequently use such signs to trap the unwary and that no experienced traveller would ever follow one. Still, the days are long, and it is something.
Moses hunts squirrels for food, and Abraham cooks them in the fireplace, boiling snow for water. They do not speak of what is to come, because it feels as though time has stopped dead, as though they have stumbled into some grand hiatus, a still centre around which the rest of the world rotates.
Abraham tends to the wound in his thigh. He limps around, teeth grit, and sweats at night despite the cold.
Once, while he sits on the floor by the firelight, pouring water over the wound to clean it, the Vestal looks down at him.
That leg of yours is in bad shape, she says. It stinks.
How do you know that’s my leg and not just me? Abraham replies. I ain’t exactly known for my ambrosial odours.
I know the difference between regular man stink and the stink of flesh rot. You don’t get that taken care of you’re gonna lose that leg. And out here, you lose that leg and the rest of you won’t be far behind.
It ain’t nothing, he says. Then he leers up at her and says, It ain’t nothing a quick mouth job couldn’t fix.
She does not flinch nor even give any indication of noticing his lewd suggestion.
I’m serious now, she says. Infection like that spreads.
He waves her away with his hand.
It ain’t nothing, he repeats. I’ll sweat it out.
Then he goes back to tending to the wound. But he can’t let the girl alone, and that very night Moses hears him hobbling across the creaky floor of the cabin not long after they have settled in for sleep. Perhaps he believes that Moses is asleep, or perhaps he does not care – but he leans down over where the Vestal lies on the couch.
Hey, he says to her in a soft voice. How bout a little touch? Just a quick poke like – what do you say?
Shoo, Abraham, she says. Get back to bed.
Come on, he says. You had worse than me, I know it. Me, I’m like a bunny rabbit – quicky dicky. Sweet and simple.
I don’t let stinky dying men poke me, she says. Go to bed.
All the more reason, he says. A dying man’s last wish – would you begrudge him it?
Shoo, Abraham. Go shish-kebab a squirrel. This pu**y just ain’t got your name on it.
Moses sees her turning her back on him, burrowing herself into the couch.
Abraham stands appalled for a moment, balancing on his one good leg.
Well, I’ll be goddamned if it ain’t the only name not on it, he says to her, his voice hissing with vitriol. You got the whole phone book down your pants, girl.
Pretending to sleep, Moses waits to see if his brother will take more action. He is a man who does not react well to rejection of the womanly sort. But Abraham is too aware of his brother’s presence in the room, so he turns and stumbles with great noise back to the bed he shares with Moses. Moses can hear him cursing a litany in a whisper under his breath.