The night falls, and he stays among the ruins. He lies on the ground and lets the snow fall onto his beard and his eyelids and his lips. Finally, in this place of devastation, this graveyard of man and industry, this broken toe of civilization, finally, he sleeps.

*

When he wakes, it is full dark, and he realizes he has slept many hours there on the ground. He stands and sheds a thin layer of snow that has fallen and wed him to the ground on which he lay. He shakes it off, and he is not cold though he can see his breath.

The moon is out and casts mangled shadows over the valley, and in the dark he believes he sees a figure darting through the trees. A naked girl, skin pale and shimmering, almost translucent, red hair chopped short – and there she dashes from tree trunk to tree trunk, disappearing into the shadows and reappearing elsewhere in unexpected places, like a capricious sprite or a trick of the eye. He would call to her if he believed she would be held by his voice. Instead, he finds himself running, bursting into the trees, crashing through them in pursuit of the ghostly shape of the girl. The branches whip and slash at his face, and he can feel the blood trickling on his skin. Or it could be tears, it makes no difference – the salt and aluminium we shed as a result of our stinging contact with the world.

I’m sorry! he calls into the shadows. I’m sorry. I should of believed you. I should of. Faith and love, they ain’t the same thing. Are they? Are they the same thing? I’m sorry. Come back now. You can come back!

He runs until his body collapses beneath him, his breath gone. He falls to his hands and knees, truly ursine now, a beast of the wilderness huffing and panting his way through the night. His lungs are scorching, and he scoops up a handful of snow and swallows it to cool his insides. When his gasping breath slows, he looks around him. There is no sign of the naked girl anywhere.

She is a beguiling ghost.

She has ever been.

Twelve

A Map " Three Conversations about One Thing " A Return " A Confession " Another Vision " How Things Endure

Three days later, Abraham’s fever has broken and he is up and walking around the compound, whistling lewdly at female passers-by.

Stow it, Abe, Moses says. Let’s try to get out of here without rilin the citizenry. I seen em riled – it ain’t pretty.

Wait, Abraham says. We can’t go yet. What about my yewess bee?

Moses has forgotten about it. He finds Whitfield, and the two brothers are led to a room with two banks of computers against opposite walls, facing each other like parallel rows of guardians.

One of the operators is reminded about the yewess bee.

Oh yeah, he says. It’s around here somewhere. It was easy – but there’s nothing on it really. I was going to tell somebody, but – here it is.

The operator is a young man wearing a t-shirt. He is a poor arbiter of grand mysteries such as this, Moses thinks.

The operator plugs Abraham’s talisman into a port in one of the computers and then brings up something on screen that Moses recognizes as the shape of the United States. There are red dots all over it, as though the entire country has succumbed to some kind of pox.

It’s a map, Moses says.

A map! Abraham repeats.

Of what? Moses asks.

A treasure map, I bet, says Abraham.

Actually, says the operator, it’s a corporate map. It shows all the locations all over the country of a particular business. I guess it was a franchise. There are, like, twelve hundred of them.

What business? Moses asks.

National Waffle or something like that? Hold on, here it is – it was something called the International House of Pancakes.

The pastor, who is the only other one present, besides Moses, old enough to remember such predominant American wonders, laughs. It is a sad laugh, full of empty spaces that used to be filled with something. Moses laughs much the same laugh, and together, unspoken, the two men try to make of the moment something less dire.

What? Abraham asks for the two chuckling men. What is it?

It’s your treasure map, all right, his brother replies.

What some mysteries reveal are truths so mundane they blast wide our own ludicrous vanities.

*

They say farewell to the pastor and leave the citadel behind them. For his service against the raiders, Moses is given a good car with two extra jugs of gasoline packed in the trunk. He is also given some rifles, some ammunition. The citadel’s stores are vast – they can afford such things.

They drive, first north a little ways, then south again. They are directionless as far as Abraham is concerned, though wherever he goes Moses is looking for the girl he turned his back on.

Once, Abraham discovers Moses clutching the wooden cross pendant while he drives – but he does not recognize it as the one the Vestal wore around her neck.

You got religious all the sudden? he asks.

It’s a symbol, Moses replies. What it signifies ain’t simple.

Who said it was simple?

Abraham has his own symbol – the yewess bee. He believes it to be more than just a map of a national chain of restaurants, but instead an elaborate code disguised as a restaurant map. He believes that if they travel to each of the locations, they will piece together some megalithic conspiracy. So every time they pass one of the pancake houses with its blue roof, Moses points it out and Abraham notates it with a pencil in his notebook. It is good for him to have something to follow.

Abraham does not very frequently bring up the topic of the Vestal, having seemed to identify it as out of bounds. The first time is while they are still at the citadel.

So the girl’s lost? he says.

Yep, says Moses.

Not dead?

Could be. Moses shrugs. Dead’s a kind of lost. But last I saw her she was amongst the livin.

I reckon we should look for her.

I reckon so.

I would of thought she’d come back here.

Girl like that, Moses says with a wave of his hand, you can’t figure her. You can’t project what she’ll do.

The next time the topic arises they are on the road. It is night, and the headlights illuminate the tall trees between which they drive.

We could trace our path back, Abraham says. To look for her, the Vestal, you know.

We could do that.

Abraham does not seem to be aware that this is exactly what they are already doing.

What happened, Mose? Between the two of you, I mean.

I just lost her is all.

So it’s guilty feelins that’ve got you all puckered up about it?

I ain’t puckered. I just lost her. She was lookin to be lost anyway – you and me, we were just fightin it from the very beginning. Nature takes its course is what happens.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com