But the old man seems kindly, and he offers them coffee, which Moses hasn’t had the delight of in a long time, and he loans them coats to wear as they cross the wide expanse of the snowy courtyard again. And so he follows the man, and the Vestal, still skittish, follows Moses. And when they are inside the buildings of the compound it is almost possible to forget that the world ever became the wilderness it did.
It is a community. A whole functional community, clean and calm behind guarded electrical fences and concrete walls. There are soldiers, yes, marching with neat precision, but there are others, too. Civilians to be observed in the glowing windows of bunkhouses, even children. Technicians tinkering with machines, sitting in front of computer monitors. And scientists and doctors walking busily to and fro in white lab coats.
Moses wonders if this is the order he has been craving – if this is what order looks like. It has been so long. So long. He keeps a hand near a pistol on his belt in case of a trap. He looks warily around corners before he turns them so that he won’t be taken by surprise. The Vestal, too, seems to wither under the fluorescent lamps lining the ceilings of the compound. She cowers against Moses’ chest.
Strange, he thinks. The girl has been through so much. She has been beaten and lost and whored and imprisoned and broken and put back together – but she has never been simply safe. It must taste sour to her. Unnatural.
Yes, Moses thinks, that is what the girl must feel.
They are led by the pastor to a research wing of the compound and introduced to men and women who are cordial and businesslike. They smile politely and disbelievingly when Moses tells them about the Vestal. But then the Vestal does give a demonstration, three soldiers standing by ready to shoot the female slug in the head when she goes for the girl. But she doesn’t. The Vestal walks right up to the slug and stands before her. In the bright lights of the lab, everyone watches as the two lock curious, pitying and befuddled eyes. A long string of drool falls from the lip of the dead woman but she makes no move to wipe it away. Then Moses sees the Vestal’s lips move, as though she were speaking to the slug – just briefly, a phrase. But he is standing behind glass with the scientists and cannot hear what she says. Later he asks one of the soldiers who was in the room with the Vestal.
What did she say? Moses asks. To the slug, I mean.
The soldier shrugs, still stunned by the demonstration.
She said it soft, the soldier says. I couldn’t really hear it. But it sounded like, Where are you?
After the demonstration, the scientists sit the Vestal down and proceed to ask her a series of questions, many of which have to do with the things she has eaten or the drugs she has taken or the places she has been.
While the interview is taking place, the Vestal keeps glancing over at Moses, who nods seriously. It is a reassuring nod, but also one that says she is obliged to continue.
After a while, Pastor Whitfield himself approaches the desk where the scientists are talking with the Vestal, and he suggests that they give the girl a break.
She’s travelled a long way to be here, he says to the others. Let’s give her some supper and some time to herself. Can we resume at another time?
The scientists agree and begin to discuss their notes among themselves. Whitfield takes Moses and the Vestal to a dining hall, where they eat hungrily. Around them, at other tables, are civilians who do not even notice the newcomers. This place, it must host many travellers. Children run around the tables, screaming happily, their cries echoing from the raftered ceiling. It is nice, this place, and yet Moses winces as though prickled by the sounds of joy.
How do you enjoy our food, my dear? Whitfield asks the Vestal.
It’s lovely, thank you, says the Vestal in her most formal and subservient voice.
Then she excuses herself to the restroom.
Pastor, Moses asks when she has gone. You’re a man of God.
A true man of God?
The pastor smiles gently.
I am a man of a true God, he says. We all endeavour to be true men, but our successes on that front aren’t to be measured here in this place.
Moses considers this and finds it a fair response.
And this place, he says to the old man. It’s safe?
As safe as any I’ve—
For her, I mean.
I see. You wish to be reassured that we will not hurt her. Because the girl has been hurt enough, yes? For someone who identifies himself simply as her delivery man, you are generous to be concerned about her. I assure you, Mr Todd, we are not in the business of hurting people. We are a sanctuary here. There are still some of those left, you will be happy to hear.
One more thing, he says.
Whitfield opens his hands palms up as if to offer himself for service.
When I told you about her, Moses says, you took her straight to the doctors.
The pastor nods.
Is that cause—
Moses starts to ask his question but stops short and looks around as though someone were spying on them. He shifts and leans in closer to the pastor and continues.
Is that cause you don’t believe she’s holy? Cause you believe it’s just a thing with her body rather than her soul?
The pastor smiles, folds his hands and leans forward as if he would meet Moses in conspiracy over the tabletop.
I’m a man of God, says Whitfield. You said so yourself. It’s my business to believe that God has a hand in everything. It’s an article of my faith that things are the way they are because they are supposed to be that way. Is the girl divine? Absolutely. And so are we all.
But the two things are not mutually exclusive, the pastor continues. Her body may have some divinity it can share with the rest of us. The soul, the body . . .
Whitfield waves a hand as if to dismiss them.
. . . Our desire to distil one from the other is a child’s game. For good or bad, you are your appetites as well as your expiations. You are just as much what you would eat as what you do eat. Look around you. The dead risen. The body has its harmony, too. Where is the soul?
Whitfield knocks against his own sternum.
Right here, he says. In our playful and meagre guts.
The pastor sits back, and so does Moses, considering what Whitfield has said. After a few moments of silence, Moses speaks.
Faith sure has changed, he says and shakes his head.
Not much, Whitfield says and smiles. It’s just got a little bigger. Things tend to do that when you open your eyes to them.
We have rooms for you, says Pastor Whitfield after they have eaten. He shows them into what looks like a dormitory wing of the compound, but there don’t seem to be civilians living there. Moses wonders if they will try to keep them locked up, but the rooms they are shown are snug and clean and have unbarred windows opening onto the courtyard.