Goddamn high-falutin whores, he says. What’s everybody keepin themselves so pure for anyway? Armageddon everywhere you look, and everybody’s still so uppity about a little bump. Like a goddamn piss in the woods. Who cares? You do it and then you go back to the business of not bein dead. Instead we got ourselves a world of princes and princesses and dukes and dukettes – and everybody’s wearin white robes and readin bibles and puttin flowers in each other’s hair. Just once I’d like to meet somebody without such a goddamn fine-tuned moral compass.
When he gets into the bed beside his brother, Abraham tugs the bristly blanket off Moses and curls up in a sweating ball of curses.
Moses waits. He does not sleep much. The embers in the fireplace pop and glow.
Five days they stay in the cabin. Five days in the woods where, at night, they can hear the flakes of snow tapping light on the windowpanes, they can hear the branches of the trees cracking under the weight of the fall. If it snows at night, in the morning Moses clears again the ice from behind which the dead man gazes. Moses hunts, the Vestal cooks, Abraham stumbles around the clearing and tends to his wound.
What is it if it ain’t a miniature family we’ve gone and built here? Abraham says.
Five days, Moses thinks. And goddamned if it doesn’t feel, in fact, like they have built something. A something out of nothing. Like a building on an empty lot. A thing that wasn’t there before but now stands undeniable and true.
Nights, when he can’t sleep, Moses goes and sits by the pond and looks up at the sky along with the dead man. Sometimes the Vestal Amata joins him, and sometimes she doesn’t. They talk, and she picks at the ends of her long red hair. She tells him about herself. She was born in Oklahoma City, she was raised by her mother. Her father she doesn’t have much memory of. He went his own way when things went bad. She was five years old, and for a long time it was her and her mother, finding places to hide from the hordes of the dead. Then her mother died when she was nine. Not eaten. She just got sick and kind of faded away. Some stories end that way, the girl explains. After her mother died, she was taken in by a whole lot of different people. Some were okay and others weren’t. Now she’s twenty-five – which is exactly the same age as Abraham.
For brothers, she says, you two got some age between you.
Fifteen years, Moses confirms.
That’s a big difference, she says. And it ain’t the only thing different between you.
We got different mothers, he says.
I’d listen to a story, if you’d recount it.
It ain’t much of a story, but I don’t feel like tellin it at the moment. Maybe a different night under different stars. These ones are too hopeful.
Okay, she says.
He can feel her gaze on him. She does not look away for a long time. He sits up and leans over the ice of the pond.
Everybody’s lookin for their own personal entrance to heaven, Moses says. Mine looks different from my brother’s – and yours different from both.
Moses reaches out a finger and taps on the ice over the dead man’s face.
Him too, he says. Look at him there, nose pressed up against the window of heaven.
The Vestal Amata leans forward to look. She brushes her palm gently across the surface of the ice. Then she looks up into the night sky as if to see what heaven he might be trying to get into.
Everyone’s always tryin to find an entrance to the kingdom of heaven, she says. Me, I ain’t so interested in entrances. All I want’s a kingdom of exits.
Moses wonders what she means, and then he thinks he understands. He too has looked this way upon the world at times. He eyes her, the curve of her neck craned upwards, the moonlight catching it pale as the snow, the auburn of her hair like a tangle of nightwood. And then a smile cracks the cool reflection of her face, and she laughs high and tinkling like a Christmas chime. Suddenly he is suspicious of the sincerity of her words – as though she is accustomed to being the awed audience of her own performances. He wonders how much, in fact, she believes her own stories.
But she smiles brightly. So, so bright.
She looks down at the dead man in the ice again.
How long do you think he’s been down there? she asks.
Too long, Moses says and rises to his feet.
Where are you going?
I’ll be back.
He goes to the broken-down porch of the cabin and returns with a rusted red fireman’s pick-axe.
Watch out, he says to the Vestal.
Then he raises the axe over his head and brings the blade down on the ice to the left of the dead man. A crack extends through the surface of the pond, and water splashes out. Then he hefts the axe twice more – once on the other side of the dead man and once beyond where the head is. Then he sets the axe down and slides the loosened sheet of ice away leaving a rectangular patch of water where the dead man is.
Moses kneels in the water at the edge of the pond, before the floating slug. The ripples in the water diminish until the surface is flat and unmoving. Then the dead man begins to rise.
But he has been underwater for too long. The face, as it rises out of the water, melts away, the loosened flesh slipping off bone, the mush of his features splashing into the water, scalp and ear floating mildly on the surface like lily pads. The jaw seems to open, too, but it does so by gravity rather than hunger, because the muscles are rotted away as well. The man cannot hold himself above water, and as soon as his shoulders clear the surface he falls back again. Again he rises, and again he falls back.
Moses doesn’t know what he expected to happen. Perhaps he thought the man would rise like the body of a saint, held aloft on columns of light, lifted to cloudy heaven. Maybe he thought the man would emerge dripping, cleansed, baptized, and steal away into the wilderness to encounter fully his final communion with the earth.
What Moses had wanted was to free the man. But this horror does not look anything like freedom.
He bows his head and sighs as the slug rises again and falls back, the wrinkled flesh of his fingers sloughing off as he reaches for purchase at the edges of the ice.
Then Moses stands and picks up the axe again. He turns it over and uses one hand only to bring the pick end down and bury it in the dead man’s skull.
The pick slips out as easily as it went in, and then the body sinks again for the last time.
Moses looks to the sky again, but nothing has changed. The stars are the same ones he saw before. They are the same hoot owls that once again commence their haunted calls. He is still thigh deep in the pond, but he cannot feel the cold.