Say, he says and turns to her where she sits next to him on the couch. Back there. The thing I said about you – your soul.
Forget it, she says. She leans her head on the back of the couch and gazes at him. Her eyes sparkle like embers popped from the fire.
Mose, she goes on. Did you ever have a woman? You know, a real woman of your own? A wife?
He opens his mouth to respond and then closes it again, as though something is short-circuiting in him. He opens his mouth again, and this time the words come out.
A wife, he says. Yeah, a wife. And a kid, too. A daughter. I was supposed to meet em in Jacksonville. The caravan they were in, it never showed. Could be they’re still out there, but I reckon not.
He feels something in his throat, his chest. He coughs and bites down hard as though to keep something from erupting inside him.
I would of took care of them, he says, raising his finger and pointing it hard at the Vestal, angry even. I would of killed anything – anything to come near them with malign intent. I would of – I would of been a good – I swear I would of killed—
His words stumble over each other, and he has no control of them any more. They are spilling out of him, and he is embarrassed. But then the Vestal stops him, perhaps in an act of glorious pity – rises suddenly and climbs onto his lap and closes his mouth with her own so that the words stop coming. Because it is the words that are most treacherous, the words that spread like ripe contagion, the utterance that makes things true – calamitously and inexorably true.
Wait, he says, because the words keep coming – out of spite they keep coming.
Wait for what? she asks.
Just a thing I got to know, he says. How come you ran away? There’s somethin in you. You could help people. How come you don’t want to go to that citadel?
She shrugs and shifts on top of him, her loins pushing down on his lap.
I don’t know, she says. Everybody’s lookin for answers. I don’t want to be anybody’s answer.
She moves to kiss him again, but he pushes her away a second time.
And this? he says. Ain’t this an answer?
You big dope, she says and takes his face in her hands. This ain’t even a question.
Then she kisses him again, stops the words dead. Dams up the unceasing stream of language. Moses takes her little body in his hands, such a small powerful thing.
And the Vestal, her red hair falling around his shoulders – she stops the words, stops his mouth, both their bodies caught in a sudden seizure, gripped to blissful stillness, swaddled and safe in the cool, hard limits of human contact. He sees again the pendant she wears between her pale br**sts, the small wooden cross – and it is a sign for him of something true, some honest faith in this wild thing of a woman. They are together, and what they create in their union is not a new something but rather a whole and complete nothing, a void that sits quiet and calm on his heart, that makes his breathing shallow and at peace, that gives erasure to many scripts of tragedy that have palimpsested themselves over the vellum of his greying mind.
To stop. To cease, just for a moment. To turn your back on the world, to close your eyes – to see the nothing that is not rather than the nothing that is everywhere around you. To just be quiet in your mind for a little minute.
There are paradises even yet on the abandoned plains of the earth – and they are not filled with fecund flowering Edens but rather just with sweet unerring silences.
The Vestal’s flesh is white as a lily, but she is un breakable – even for hands as worn and brute as his. He is safe in his inability to hurt her. She is empty, and beautiful as one of those ancient urns that tell stories – and she is unblemishable.
That’s right, Moses says to the caravaners. I had a wife once. You heard it true enough. You’ll ask how come I ain’t mentioned it yet – so cardinal it is to the understanding of who I was, who I am still.
It is full dark now, the fire down to mere embers. It is no longer possible to tell who is listening and who has been taken by sleep. No other person has said anything for a great while. They are caught in the sickly dark hours between late night and dawn. The great one-eyed man continues to speak without recourse to the number who either hear or don’t hear him – as though his story were a fated thing, a toy machine that, once wound, must keep spinning wild on its metal wheels until it finds its own still end.
You’ll say, maybe, that I’ve misled, Moses goes on. If so, I apologize. To you. To her. It ain’t nothing, an apology. Just a notion, like any other. You can utter it like an incantation, but if it brings somethin to bear you’ve got more out of it than I ever have. I’m sorry. I declare it with every step I take on this earth. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I had a wife once. And a kid, too, a daughter. It was a long time ago – half a life ago. My wife, well she was a beauty too, don’t doubt it – but in a different way. She wasn’t fancy – not spectacular with herself or nothin like that. She was just pretty in a plain way. And nice. She was pretty and nice. You miss things like that now – you, me, the whole world. She – my wife – she wore her hair tied up in a ribbon. It was a pink ribbon, if you want to know. Simple, pink. It was nice.
The silence draws itself out, a breath held in anticipation of falling.
The truth is, he goes on, I don’t like to think about it. You try to let dead things lie – try to look things in the face for the present fact of what they are. You try.
He pauses again.
And for the redhead, too, he continues. The Vestal. I had no business messing with her. But you ain’t always able to see. Sometimes you bumble around in the dark. Sometimes you reach out and there’s someone there, and you grab them. It may be instinct, but it ain’t pure – it don’t bear on goodness. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
He shakes his head, gazes into the dying embers.
She smelled salty, he says. Like oceans.
But she is practised in the ways of witchery – a transmogrifant who in the light of morning wears a face different from the one you see by the moon and stars. She is so many things. She is an impossibility with an unperturbed face.
She is not beside Moses when he wakes in the morning. He goes hunting for her and finds her in the kitchen, sitting at the linoleum table and cackling like a hag. She has found a pair of kitchen shears and she is in the process of cutting off her long locks of red hair. They fall to the ground around her as though she were an autumn tree shedding its riotous leaves. And her laugh – it is not hysterical but cruel, diabolical rather than panicky.