They drive. Abraham sleeps in the passenger seat. Moses keeps his eyes wide, his fingers clenched on the wheel.
On another occasion, Abraham raises the topic again but only indirectly. He asks Moses if he thinks much any more about his wife who went missing. He liked Moses’ wife, he says. She was an okay woman. Women for the most part, he says, are a dodgy bunch – but he guesses he can’t blame them what with all the men taking aim at them.
Moses says nothing. He agrees that women are dodgy, but his mind is so full of lost ones now that he wishes his memories could take refuge elsewhere than in his sleepless head. He looks deep into the tree trunks, hoping to see there another vision of the naked girl darting back and forth behind them.
But there is nothing, and they drive on. At night, when they stop to rest, Moses hears his brother’s snoring and hopes he is dreaming among his dolphins.
They return to the town of Dolores where the whorehouse is, but the inhabitants have not seen hide nor hair of the Vestal.
They drive south, out of the snow, over the mountains and down into the valley, where the arid desert lays claim to the land.
It is just after dawn when they arrive at the Mission San Xavier del Bac and ring the bell at the gate. The mute woman who opens the door recognizes the brothers from the last time they were here, and she ushers them inside. The monk Ignatius greets them in the chapel and feeds them eggs gathered from their own coops in the rear of the community.
The brothers know they must not speak, not here among the parishioners, and so they eat silently. Moses and Ignatius gaze at each other, and Moses tries to tell the man the entire story with his eyes – for maybe that mode of communication is less treacherous. But soon Moses realizes there are untruths even in looks, so he stops trying and sits meditatively at the table.
Later, while Abraham plays some version of soccer with the children of the place, the children trying to teach him without words, making wide explanatory gestures with their hands – Moses and the monk leave through the front gate and climb the hill behind the mission and sit on an outcropping of stones, squinting their eyes against the desert sun.
Did you make it to the citadel? Ignatius asks.
We did. We got her there.
Did they examine her?
They did. You ain’t gonna like it, friar.
My liking it is beside the point.
She’s got a disease. A hereditary one. It’s in her blood. That’s why the slugs don’t bother with her. She’s already half dead.
Ignatius nods and smiles benignly at the horizon.
So what’s bestowed on her, Moses continues, it ain’t a blessing.
Disease or blessing, who can say? he asks. If a disease helps you survive in the world, then it’s no longer a disease but an adaptation. Evolution would tell you as much.
But it’s more than that, friar. The girl, she ain’t a holy woman. She put on pretences.
I know that, too. I never saw her other pretences – but the one she put on here was a righteous one, so I pretended along with her. Sometimes a thing becomes true through enacting it. Sometimes you perform faith in order to gain faith. Do you believe that?
I don’t know. I don’t believe in nothin right now.
See, now there’s a pretence you just uttered. Do you say it because you wish it were true? Because you would try to incant it?
I won’t spar with you, says Moses as he raises his hands in surrender and smiles gently, on the field of philosophy.
I would be a fool, my friend, to spar with you on any other.
They are quiet for a time. Then sun is low on the horizon now, the sky lit up all shock red and streaky white.
Then Moses speaks, this time very quiet, as though his words were really meant for the wind to carry them away.
She sacrificed herself, friar. Not her life, but in another way. She said it was for me.
Do you believe her?
I didn’t, not when she told me.
Now I think I do. We got separated. I thought – I thought she might be here. Now I don’t know what . . .
You suspect she was in love with you?
Moses does not respond. His eyes are gone far out over the horizon.
You suspect, maybe, you are in love with her?
I’m lost, friar, Moses says, his eyes gone suddenly wet. I can’t – I can’t see the colours of anything any more. It used to be I was a man, but what am I now? I lost my way somewhere.
Moses Todd looks into the face of the monk Ignatius, and the holy man smiles back. It is a smile full of blustery optimism.
Look, he says to Moses and points to the sunset. Look out there. What do you see?
The desert, Moses says.
No, you have to look wider. Open your eyes more. Do you see that? It’s America. No one’s ever lost in America. It’s all destination. Every corner of it. Even right here, on this rock, with me. You’ve arrived. Do you see it?
And then, suddenly, Moses can see it. America. The fertile fields of the republic stretched taut from ocean to ocean, populated with ambling souls, dead or alive, it makes no difference as long as they are moving, as long as their hands still work to grasp and pull and reach and tear. A destiny manifest in every rock and ruin, a loamy soil of faith where God’s work is done one way or the other – because every creation winds its way towards destruction and every destruction wipes clean a canvas for creation.
A place, indeed, poxed by calamitous treasures like Abraham’s blue-roofed pancake houses – gigging itself forward in a frenzy of speed (yes, this is what Moses hasn’t seen before – the country, not stopped dead, but spinning in such mazy motion the blur might be taken for stasis), galloping ahead of life and ahead of death too, and back into life, the two masquerading as each other, unable to keep up, as though time were a circuit rather than a line.
And if time is a circuit – if our paths only bring us back to where we begun, well then proclaim it holy, holy, because the friar is right – ain’t nothing is ever lost but it’s just on a different road, and it’s all of it, the whole country, just one big road attached to itself in different ways – and so are all travellers kin, and so are all people travellers through life.
And, yes, he can see her dancing again, naked, that white body on the sunset plain, a vision if ever there was one, holy woman and whore, never lost but she dances America to its sleep every night – and you can hear her laughter, that voice both tricksy and true, clamouring America in all its broken bells. And you are glad.
Was her name really Mattie? Moses says now to the caravaners, those who remain awake.