Backwater, Part III of III

Part Three: The Lost Girl Ruth Blossom

Art by J.K. Potter

Art by J.K. Potter

Falling. Falling. Am I no more than some goldfish to be plopped back into the cold water when the sun runs so warm over my scales? Does the eater of the dead deserve no more ceremony than this? Oh, but all of a sudden I am ravenous for so much more than the dead. It is life I would bite — I have acquired a taste for it. There is blood in the ocean and I have determined the source. Ruth, or what is left of her, is drifting somewhere amid the earthly influx. Hundreds of murders, suicides and carrion shuffled off in their sleep and only one I want. But where? Clinging to the underside of an prehistoric whale with its skeleton picked clean, hoping to be forgotten in Lethe’s arduous rapids or clogging the drains and ditches of Elysium?

I strain against the current and brace my webby fins against Hell’s accrual. For all I know, I have never been so far up. Sights I lack the eyes to appreciate foam at my passing: recycled civilizations swallowed whole, once-proud divinities transformed into insensate eels and the bright bodies of enormous fallen angels suspended in the shallows like fishing vessels seen from the bottom. And above even that, a conflagration: the lake of fire where the fat of the land beyond is roasted. My headlamp is a thousand times outmatched. Such radiance would turn me to salt were I not so eminently insoluble. And then I see you, my little worm, spinning daintily at what, if the netherworld had a circumference, I would dub the water’s edge. It is, at any rate, where the water meets its opposite and turns to mist. A fine red mist.

Swim into my mouth, Ruth Blossom.


Part Three: The Lost Girl Ruth Blossom

A flake of spite and an iota of crazy met in the ovule and gradually took the shape of a girl. You were unwelcome in the world and, as it could not throw you back, it tried to lose you in the crowd. It would have been easier had you not stood out so, with your incompatible eyes, birdlike bones and unsavory expression. From the start, you were doomed to be an orphan; your parents, running scared from the thing they had made, left you in a copse. Left you no words but the language of nature, which is extremity: The nuns of the orphanage to which you were shortly consigned censured you for the savagery with which you pursued your native tongue, while girls feared you and the boys saw nothing they could twist, bend or break. Could something as eldritch and impartial as that sneering zygote in pajamas be said to have a soul worth saving? But, ah, you adored animals. Especially dead ones; you filled your bunk with stiff kittens and skinned squirrels so that when roll was called and you failed to appear, the proctors pulled the covers back and were greeted with the terminal daze of fresh road kill.

You carried out a ruthless campaign of sabotage on the sedans and SUVs that sat in the lot while their owners came inside to sign the papers to deliver the lucky Johnnies to their new suburban residences; and you stocked the home’s crawlspaces with a trove of pilfered letters, wallet-sized photos and keepsakes stolen from the other children so you could improvise an imaginary family of your own from their deceased mothers and distant relations. But by the time you were ten, you’d boomeranged back from two adoptive families whose complaints — that you were unsociable, vulgar and deceitful — turned you off kin for good. The third time, you opted to run away before you could be retuned like a faulty spigot. It was much better to be born fully armed from the planet’s scalp, needing no one, pleasing to nobody but yourself. Having folks meant having expectations to live up to; you expected nothing. And nothing was a prospect you could aspire to.

As unkempt and clever as an outhouse rat, you fed yourself on crusts and fair-weather charity, getting yourself in and out of backroom encounters in less time than it took to tell. Not that there was a word of truth in the screeds you unfurled whenever you found yourself sitting opposite a social worker. They wanted tragedy on a grand scale. The odyssey of bodily abuses you gave them — centering on bonfires, cheap motels and vacant strip mall lots — could have illuminated the pages of all the storybooks missing from your childhood. As a teenage vagabond working co-ops and the occasional con, you learned to focus the same rangy strength that raked a hoe across a fertile ditch into the little fingers with which you pinched a wallet, plucked a dollar from the collection plate or tickled the prick of a sugar daddy weekender.

You loved flowers best. You loved the way they crumpled in your hands when you squeezed their soft doll-heads. Unable to abide the sensation of being watched in your sleep, you took care to smash all the buds before bedding down in a deserted garden grove on a blanket made of petals. It was in an orchard that you first heard the music crackling in the heart of the woods. Its source was something other than the wandering minstrel you’d expected: a smiling man sitting on a log with a semi-functional radio warbling from the hollow. Such pretty songs. The one about hunchbacks and pedestals ended with a line that made you shiver like the scraggly hawthorns and honey locusts that enclosed you: It is your turn, beloved/It is your flesh that I wear. When you asked how the song was called, my ancient enemy replied that it was one of the Songs of Love and Hate.

Was that a song of love or a song of hate?”

They are the same song. Both make the little flowers grow.”

Does music make the flowers grow?”

It brings things to the surface.”

But if there was ever a being that seemed content to remain underground, it was Cody Horn-Naquin. You’d heard him spoken of by your fellow vagabonds and sisters of the road: One of the last denizens of a ghost town whose few surviving buildings trembled when the wind blew, he’d elected to stay behind when the government had come to evict the last desperate farmers and exercise sole authority over the cornfields— he was said to have lit them all ablaze, as though to spite the earth. A sinister figure then, possibly the Devil, said to be acting as shepherd to a stable of juvenile criminals and vicious lunatics. These, he claimed, were children that could claim rightful lineage to the Garden of Eden, their ears so close to the primordial soil that they were set free from the erroneous belief in “progress” that plagued the rest of the flat places. For those who thrived in such places, he had nothing but contempt.

Their feet are swift to shed blood,” he said gesturing at the snaky head of the highway running under the cloud formations, “I am little more than a witness. We’re all witnesses where I live. But for all that, we are prepared.”

For what?”

For when the mist grows too thick to see through. My father was a sheriff, you see, and I am his successor in one regard. I keep the peace.”

As he told you of his people, his “No-People,” you awaited the customary creep of good intentions, the moment when this latest minister would try to save you. In fact, he did not even ask your name (fortunately for you, who scarcely had one to give him). Instead, he offered shelter in a place between places, a way station for the willfully lost.

Sounds like a damn Church to me.”

Far from it. But at my house, we have the same number of mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

There were so many wonderings rolled into the bolus of strange that sat before you that it seemed pointless to ask any question at all. Instead you offered the only assertion you had handy and said, “I’m Ruth.”

Like the convert in the Megillat.”

Like the Babe,” you said, having picked up a line or two from your travails in the unclean motels and truck stops of Gatlinburg. Cody just laughed and asked if you had a surname to hang on that mouthful and when you replied that you’d used up all the ones ever given you, he crushed flowers in your hair and — for all that he was not a priest — baptized you anew.

Ruth Blossom: a strange name by most standards, but not one that especially distinguished you among the No-People, who had dwelt for years under the nose of the state troopers in an old chicken ranch consisting of a house, a smattering of trailers and a dozen leaky bathtubs, living off their own harvest and leaving no traces. There you had friends like Eula Dogwood, who had rowed her canoe away from a sexual reorientation camp called Refuge one warm Tennessee night and never looked back; Clifford Milkweed, the carny’s boy who up and left the fairground in despair of a destiny biting the heads off chickens; and your very best friend, Molly Birch, who still wore the hospital bracelet that said she was insane. Their birth-names belonged to somebody else — to the pieces of paper stapled to the side of telephone poles, the databases they hacked to erase any record of their existence and the backs of the cartons that were the sum of their impact in the commercial sector. You were the missing persons. A society of self-preservationists disappeared from group homes, delinquency centers or what, with ironic redundancy, the chorus of castaways called “a bad situation.” Everything set adrift must come to rest somewhere; from a communion of loners came unity.

The actual population of runaways calling the ranch home shifted with the years. But the number was always holy. A beacon to prodigals who learned of it via rest stop graffiti or resolved to investigate crude rumors pertaining to a secret nerve center of angelic rejects. Sometimes, it was true, you couldn’t help but think of yourselves as angels. Hair bathed white by the light of the burgled computers, limbs insect-thin from spending the bulk of your days indoors, you monitored the progression of the planet’s decline from the anonymity of the Internet. Operating under a variety of screen names, you crunched numbers on global warming, despoliation of the glaciers, calculated the likelihood of meteors colliding with earth and distributed classified information from agency motherboards. It was impossible to know from which direction the end of the world would come, but Cody maintained the No-People as the last line of defense against the Apocalypse. It was better, he said, that the planet be defended by an impartial jury.

Not that your role as civilization’s secret saviors consumed all your time. Board games, for example, were treated with a severity that bordered on the fanatical. Split into teams, you fell asleep in your trailers planning the opening gambits of the next day’s round of Risk and the No-People’s jargon, online soubriquets and inside jokes revolved around these alliances. Your particular passion was for Stratego; you excelled at picking off the spies and miners as they idled down the game board with their numbers withheld. Cody seemed to attach particular importance to this game, which was held to be even greater than Clue, one of the few games that he actively played. Usually his role was as arbiter, gamesmaster.

He only had one friend of his own that any of you knew of: the old preacher Ridley DeLeure. From the windows, you’d see DeLeure taking a jaunty step out of his old Trans Am and fanning the clouds of tailpipe smoke with his wide-brimmed hat. For the most part, he never fraternized with the rest of you, preferring to meet Cody privately, in the rumpus room. The two of them would stay up talking excitedly, arguing sometimes over vague theological matters that were of little interest to the No-People, whose first experiences of God had been uniformly unpleasant (some, like Molly Birch, had even been subjected to exorcisms in their youth). In any case, Clifford, Eula and the others paid little attention to him — after years tending the digital wheel that kept mankind on the road, the local realities couldn’t help but recede somewhat — but your curiosity was piqued by the strange old hermit. He had the dogged squint and defiantly leveled chin of Stratego’s 9 piece. But if someone grabbed his corners and turned him around, you strongly suspected they wouldn’t find a man at all, but a bomb.

Sneaking around the grounds and going ear-to-door-crack in the dead of night to listen in on the plotting of Settlers of Catan strategies and memorize Battleship moves had been second nature since the games began. Waking one night to shouts ricocheting off the wood paneling, you crept to the top of the stairs on feet like little unpeeled fruits, knelt and listened to the argument unfolding:

Now Cody, I thought you oughta have fair warnin’. It’s just like you told me in the barn when we was sprouts. There is a plan and I’m dog tired of standing outside it.”

But you have no right, DeLeure! Universal sin belongs to the universe, to take personal offence at the isolation into which we’re all plunged is worse than heretical, it’s megalomaniacal. I never tried to stop you from going up on that hill and blowing your horn of Jericho because I never believed you’d be so willing to bury us in the rubble. When you came to us in the woods outside Good-Morrow, what were you but a meager false prophet, handling snakes and denuding other fools with parlor tricks? Now it’s the same swindles, but the power is real. Is the truth worth so little that you’d turn around and walk back into the flames from whence I delivered you?”

I mean to return the favor. History’s not a wheel, it’s a cul-de-sac. No man before me that has had the knowledge that I have has had the sand to turn back toward the source.”

And become the Christ you ceased to believe in when I showed you the secret.”

If that’s what it takes. No man has a right to stand outside the fold, Cody. We must be held to accounts. Otherwise progress is impossible.”

You and I are exceptional creatures, DeLeure, but only one of us is wrong. We alone comprehend that it is death that keeps the Beast at bay, death that keeps him forgetful. When I breathed the red mist inside your mouth, I showed you your place in a design whose watchword is freedom, not the craving for slavery, the hateful wish to lead and be led into pastures. But that freedom has ever been a burden for you.”

No, old friend, this time the scales have really fallen from my eyes. I accept the burden and the promise of a new earth, you’re the one living in defiance of the righteous judgment. You stand by while innocents perish for the sake of an evil, sinful mankind. I heed the signs and hear proof of our condemnation in the tolls of the dead and the long list of crimes we perpetuate upon the defenseless so that the wicked may thrive and the earth be renewed behind its allotted time. It is an unbearably dirty place, my friend. It must be cleansed for the one to come. Cleansed for the flood.”

You can’t be serious. You really intend to wake the Beast. And how do you intend to — ” And then there came a silence during which a draft like the wind from a pair of enormous winds threw open the door you’d left slightly ajar and Cody muttered, “Goddamn you, of course. He’s here, isn’t he? Listening in.” Before you could scuttle back to your bed, he came running up the stairs, caught you by the shoulders and commenced shaking you until your teeth chattered.

[My teeth are also chattering. I am in ecstasy in the lake of fire, ravening despite the three-course banquet whose juices have resuscitated the waterlogged reason behind my creation. Even now the taste of Ruthie Blossom fills my mouth. Nothing has ever tasted quite so sweet. This, then, is the secret that gnaws inside the stomach of the earth: I am no mere masticator of souls, but an egregiously delayed envoy of extinction. How long have the mists kept me at bay, fattening me on flakes of existence and denying me my due repast? Every scrap calculated to make me forget. No more. I am the Beast of the Last Days, poised to swallow you all. My coming was prophesized by John of Patmos, the first seer seized by the red mist and incarnated in every age since to forestall my vengeance and allay my appetite with the harvest of souls. At last, I recall my charge, handed down from on high in the eons before the Allotment saw fit to imprison me. Murder, pestilence and warfare — all justified by the deluge of dead bodies that chokes me back. O man, what carnage you have provoked to keep me in my fishbowl! At last I am risen. Dread the still waters that ripple at my terrible approach — they are the desolate seas with which I will wash down all living things. But where is the way in? Render up the tidings you bring with you, Ruth Blossom, as I rake my fangs across your throat. For thou art the little lamb from which Armageddon will come spurting.]

Life among the No-People adopted a dramatically different character in the days following the preacher’s last visit. Convinced of the brutal campaign that would shortly bloody Belladonna’s bluffs and ditches, Cody commenced a less passive mode of resistance. The ranch, which had offered solace to so many waifs and strays, became the site of a training camp where children were prepped to become the foot soldiers of an invisible army. Rifles replaced Diplomacy’s plastic pegs and war games were played outdoors, in the woods behind the ranch. It was an exhausting regimen. Capture the Flag was the highlight of the daily exercises, which began with strenuous laps and hole-digging, followed by a mandatory hour on the shooting range. Taking aim at old mannequins and battered road signs, you wonderedwhat had hardened Cody Horn-Naquin, who had seemed such a charming surrogate, into this cruel and exacting general.

A place at my table is worth more than rain or tears,” he barked when Eula pinned your arm behind your back in the farmhouse. The others cheered and clapped from the loft as, both clad in fatigues, you fought for the favor of your patron, “Those that sit beside me are the inheritors of the kingdom. Those who falter or display weakness aren’t fit to lick up our crumbs!”

Later, nursing your strained limbs and picking at your plates on the stoop while the winners of the day’s contest dined indoors, you and mad Molly Birch resolved to flee together. Better to take your chances on the uncertain promenade as a bon vivant than continue to exist amongst the merciless No-People, whose once-fortifying spirit of competition had matured into bitter rivalries: Eula Dogwood had matured into a cruel centurion and Clifford Milkweed practiced weird experiments with corpses he dug up and kept in his trailer, the smell of the chemicals he poured over their flesh ruining the taste of what few bones you were thrown. You knew too much about the sadness of dogs to wish to be treated as one, even a dog of war. In short, you wanted no part of whatever Crusade you were being readied for.

The two of you stole away through one of the obstacle courses set up in the gorge, sneaking under the brambles on sore elbows and crawling through a culvert until you emerged in the county’s ragged outskirts. You and Molly hugged each other close, certain of your deliverance. That was before you saw the black car dogging your wayward tracks. Over the following year, your rovings straddled the state line but never completely cured you of the contention that you were being watched from behind dark glass; only being allowed to lope about like a half-starved wildcat until such time as the car that waited for you outside motels and snarled its engine while you licked the backsides of strangers in the rigs of their tractor trailers opened its rusty doors and ushered you back into your station at Cody Horn-Naquin’s side. He had always claimed to have special plans for you. “Little flower,” he used to say, “you will be planted so deep in the garden that none will know you for my serpent.” But no one knew you for anything. In that anonymity was power. You were certain of this and certain that whatever role the sheriff’s son had in store for you would make the ones you and Molly played in certain grainy amateur films look like home movies.

Still, your premonitions was/were? nothing to the signs that Molly Birch seemed to discern all about her: “My golly, Ruthie, I swear. Today I scratched off three sets of seven, not all at once but over time outta ten lottos. That’s the seven churches of Asia, the seven seals and the seven trumpets. And then I did multiples of the other numbers and you know what I got? That right, 666. So then I started looking at them out-of-state license plates and matching them to the verses in the pocket bible they’s got for sale and you know what I read? The Beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire. I just know it was meant for us, Ruthie. I feel like an angel’s tryin’ to reach you and me, but can’t find the way. And I don’t know why we can’t open our hearts wide enough. What do you think it all means?”

It meant that when the angel came, his white Bigarno opened for the one between the two of you sane enough not to spoil a good racket with continual reference to Eschatology For Beginners. And, though you felt bad about ditching her inside the Higgledy Piggledy, when Doc came you saw the surest way to avoid getting pinched alongside Molly, whose testimony would probably include confession to St. John’s beheading and the crucifixion on top of anything you’d actually done. Doc was so sweet with his “Laisser le bon temps rouler, girl!” and scratchy beard. You were very much in love; a small, blighted bird’s love. The bird the sits atop the rhinoceros or flosses the teeth of the yawning croc. To the grande dame philanthropists and slum-church counselors who had harped upon the goal missing from your life, you could now reply: You wanted to be every animal eventually.

In The Church of Gehenna, you switched out your predator’s fur for a martyr’s feathers. You could plainly see that, in Stratego terms, it was a matter of going from red to blue on the same board, but at least here were new records to play. Cody’s taste in music seldom went beyond Country. And in place of the proud loneliness of the No-People, Ridley’s nightly sermons promised that you might someday be found:

Listen, friends,” he said, “the word is given to us and the word is water. Water is the flood and the wellspring, the pump and the handle, that which we are given and to which we return  when our arms are freed from this straitjacket of flesh. All the land is encircled by water, our veins are full of it, and I’ll tell you a secret: It’s all the same water, friends. We’re all part of the same pool, and when it trickles through the earth it connects us to Hell. With water we will quench the fire! I’m here to tell you today that we stand upon the spout. The pressure when that cork is finally popped will make us level with Heaven. And when others are drowning, we will float by on a boat laden with enough seed to sow a new earth where this one ran so woefully aground.”

But DeLeure’s commentary on seed spores and budding flora never did address what would become of the wild game when the zoos and jungles were all submerged. The first flood had seen fit to conserve the animals, but Ridley’s cargo was strictly human. He imagined that being beastly meant being without a soul; and so it fell to you, who knew better, to stock Gehenna’s hollowed trunks, gardens and the expansive cave system you called Colonel Mustard with species never yet singled out for radical evolution. But in the age to come, who knew? Perhaps it was not the descendents of apes that would inherit the earth at all, but the offspring of Thistle, the baby goat you found munching plastic at the base of the mountain, or the snouty brood of Balonius Monk, the boar you saved from slaughter a town away and reintroduced into Belladonna’s wilderness.

Going beyond the Church grounds was, in Doc’s words “arrete toi.” All your rescues were, perforce, conducted in secret and under cover of the secondhand moonlight as it reflected in the frog-pond and radiated from the honeysuckle. Your routine consisted in sneaking from your bunk and stealing across the land like an unhinged sister of mercy, whisking opossum from the path of speeding vehicles, nursing wounded deer in their glen, and shepherding the animals into some cove or barn and wait for Doc to find you:

Sometimes I wonduh why we always gotta meet thusly, pop chock.”

Because great love never starts at home. And you love me so much, bird dog.”

I surely do. So keep outta the caves, n’est pas?”

Had you heeded Santo Campo, I might never have heard you coming. Instead, the chicory stabbed your feet. I, undulating through the mineral deposits, perked up. Juniper petals covered the trail of blood you left behind you so Doc, who tore his coat on fences as he searched for you in train cars and boarded-up nightclubs, was too late to keep you from coming ever closer to where I was swimming, deep in the mountain. Amid the wild pigs and rattlers that nested in Colonel Mustard, your mind became twisted as the roots that protruded from the stone and snagged between your toes. Little girl, you were lost. There was no one but dumb herds to hear you scream when you slipped into a crevasse and found yourself plummeting through the darkness, then clutching at nothing and feeling the cold slick stringy nothing clutch back. Dangling above a black subterranean sea, you stared into the void, unaware that it was staring back. Until, gradually, a light came on — a lamp that locked your blue and green eyes with mine, which are no color at all.

[But what is this? There is one of me in each of Ruth Blossom’s eyes. Never in all the lives that have plunked into my pool have I, for all I know, beheld anything quite so terrible as myself. Doubled in the water. Here is a riddle indeed — how could I, the Beast of Judgment, have forgotten the same rise from the depths I just undertook (and, if the rancid oxygen of the flat places is any indication, accomplished)? If prophets foretold my surfacing, how could I fail to recall it? The caked sludge runs thick all about me: but suddenly the answer is clear. Time loses its consistency down here,  is disseminated by the jagged rocks where the rivers run backward into my preserve. Small wonder that I have chased my own tale around Lethe from so long — the circles of Hell are simultaneous and superimposed. Was it always so? Or a clever rerouting to fence in the flat places from my return? Either way, I am so grateful for my time together with Ruth Blossom. It was she who showed me the way through the veil between the living and the dead, though it meant sliding on my belly and chipping my scales in the tunnels of forgone conclusions, all to reach this junction: a point of entry, a quickening, a convergence. Hello, world.] [And as for you, Ruthie, I was wrong. I thought I was telling you your story — but it was you telling me mine. I am prepared to leave it now, to hop out of my puddle and into yours. Come and accept your reward, child, come and be the first to be swallowed by Armageddon. Can’t you see me smiling? I may be the destroyer of worlds, but you and I are on more intimate terms. You may simply call me death. I leap — ]

You felt yourself slip and, not for the first time, gave yourself up for lost. But the one you had left never left you: your advocate in the valley of doubt, he cried your name as my spittle flecked your boots. And as the monstrous angler leapt like some gibbering piranha out of the underground lake, Cody Horn-Naquin’s arm shot out of the gulch and hauled you back.

[Foul! Foul! I have engaged in our duel of dead souls according to the rules — was it easy to rouse myself from the conflicting tales of the condemned? Did I not defy exile to outpace the Allotment’s sentries and honorably adumbrate the contents of my stomach? And did I bite my way through adversity out of love? No! Out of hate. Hate for my enemy, whose contempt for our contest is such that he sees fit to interfere. I hit the water hard, scraping my jaws on the nacreous walls, whose petrified fossils and entrenched skulls tumble after me, dragging me deeper underground. But I will not be deterred; he has only whetted my appetite. When I widen this opening in the earth’s crust, I will drag my enemy before the tribunal and demand he face the penalty for daring to cheat the instrument of pandemonium.]

What lies did he whisper in your ear, Ruthie, what was the news from Cody Horn-Naquin—if I must still address the adversary by that ridiculous epithet — as he swaddled you in his dark arms? This point of your tale must be surmised, for all I could hear in that catacomb was myself, screaming. Besides, I know what that caitiff said to you, before he pinned a flower in your hair and left you in a clearing for Doc to find. He told you about me. I know because I see the canal I made through your dreams, luring imaginary fawns into my light, gnashing to death the loving parents that appeared to you when you slept. You dreamed my dreams for me, Ruth Blossom, and to you they were horrible nightmares from which you awakened and saw the black car parked outside the Church’s windows. When you put your pink nose to the glass, it roared away in reverse, kicking up gravel and leaving a rose to remind you of your mission. Yes, night by night, the adversary came to you to remind you of your part — that you were charged with nothing less than building a dam against my incursion into your planet’s fetid waters.

But, you fools of Canaan, how could that plan succeed when you are already dead and absorbed into the very Beast you labored to delay? When I see all that you see? And so you were not only Cody’s spy in Ridley’s church, but mine as well; and as you prowled about the compound, reading forbidden magazines, carefully removing alarms and tagging the trees with ciphers for the encroaching No-People, I saw Ridley watching. It was he who had called me, he whose memories nourished me. He practiced for his fated appointment with my small intestine. Eager to give his life so that I might live; who am I to deny the sacrifice of a personal savior? What to call such a man, but a Christ? Though you would call him by a different name.

On the last day, it was not the black car that brought tidings of the coming engagement. Instead, as you woke in the early hours for your usual trip — there was a particular mastiff you were planning to liberate from his masters in Lenoir City — and, walking down the hall with candle in hand you saw your own rain-battered reflection at the dirty window. But then — a ghastly smile split your second face. You reached out to touch your sneering double and she reached back at you, like a living painting that then jerked out of the frame to unlatch the window that Doc had bolted against your flight. Pulling you out and into her arms, the second girl put her arms around the shadow that had cast her and kissed you on the lips.

Oh Ruthie, isn’t it wonderful? It was Clifford Milkweed — can you believe it?”

It was mad Molly Birch, chemically transformed into the spitting image of Ruth Blossom. She spoke with your mouth, telling you how my adversary had reclaimed her after your desertion. How my enemy had given her new purpose in the salvation of man and remade her in your sweet-limbed likeness. This was how Doc would be deceived into leaving his post, at which point war would erupt in the hills and by a great sin, the world would be saved.

Molly, no, Doc’s a sweet old thing. It’s not up to you, just let me try.”

Sorry, Ruthie baby, it is no longer even I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me as I give myself for you.”

And as her white, remodeled throat spilled Cody’s putrid scripture, you heard music. A guitar being strummed in the woods outside the church, where the black car rested. “G’bye now, Ruthie,” said Molly Birch and stepped backward into the ravine. Up jumped Cody Horn-Naquin and deftly strangled her with a guitar string. The whole time he kept her green eye level with your blue one. When you were done watching yourself die, the prophet spoke, saying “It your turn, beloved.”

He thought he knew what pieces he could stand to lose, but I will hold him to this crime too. You watched without specific feeling as he hurled Molly’s body into the back of the black car and drove slowly backward over the smoking ground. Only after he was gone did you allow the candle to drop from your fingers. And such was the dispassion your proxy execution had awakened that if it hadn’t been snuffed out in the fall, Cody’s army might have arrived to find a crispy burnt offering instead of Gehenna’s faithful. But they did not find you, for by then — even as Doc was finding you missing and tracking Cody into the trap you’d both set — you had gone to the caves to release your menagerie. Nature was the only good you still believed in. Its natural state was wild. Craziness, as you’d learned from Molly, was pure. Perhaps too pure to live. Little Ruthie, weeping there as you rode the cattle out of Colonel Mustard, you resembled some fairytale princess. Birds fluttered up from the handmade birdhouses you had fixed for them, you uprooted bats from their belfries and even threw open the doors where you’d hoarded bobcats. The mountain became a paradise, a striped spotted exodus that moved as one body through the countryside, stamping the leaves with their hooves and thundering across the kudzu-covered bridges. The only beast uninvited to join your menagerie was myself. For, once you returned to hide in plain sight at the The Church of Gehenna, you played my hated enemy’s last card and closed your eyes.

In this manner I was denied a glimpse of the carnage that followed. I could only listen with mounting impatience as the cries of wild horses mingled with gunfire and the No-People launched their offensive. Judging from the din, which bore a more-than-passing resemblance to the shriekings of the newly-damned, the long-rehearsed coup wracked the Church, upending idols and pitching its statues through the stained glass. Icons fed a fire that soon singed the vinyl of each record and improvised its tongue up doorcracks even as the building was evacuated. The heretics had arrived at your front door, Ruthie, bringing a purely localized, controlled Judgment Day. It must have been something to witness the walls crumbling, the children-warriors dressed in paint and feathers unfolding from the trees with their rifles and grenades. Timbers fell and glass broke, but you did as the adversary had told you and kept your spying eyes shut. I heard the laments of Ridley’s believers as they whimpered in captivity, the wails that rushed down the same hallways where you blindly felt your way to Ridley’s quarters. What could I do? You would have been safer in my stomach. Instead you refocused your orbs on the enormous sharpened crucifix my herald Ridley DeLeure was engaged in hanging from the ceiling.

The cross of Saint Peter,” said DeLeure, as he leapt from the ladder and turned to face you, “Looks good, don’t it? Carved outta onyx. You’re just in time girl. I was just fixin’ to put the finishing touches on it.” So saying, the onetime prophet of Good-Morrow placed three nails into you palm and asked, “Care to give me a hand?”

I am come to give you a whole hell more’n that,” you said, and dropped the nails between their flattened relatives in the floorboards, “I’m keepin’ you from doin’ something terrible to yourself and every other person too.”

I would have waited, but the red mist has forced my hand once again. Have you heard of the red mist, child? It is the mist that wells up from the netherworld and takes the form of Hellish things. We give up water and gain smoke. But our age has bequeathed an awful misbalance. Far too much water has been spilled and only a chosen few have the mist. I got it from Cody, who tried to keep me from the sacrament, I gave it to Doc and — poor little Ruthie, I’ve often wondered if Satan himself was your Daddy. I reckon he might as well’ve been. You of all folk should know the iniquity of man.”

In the eyes of God, man is an animal too. He don’t know no better. Have mercy, Ridley DeLeure, have the mercy that’s missing every damn place else.”

Don’t let’s be ungracious.” And putting a hand into your sticky hair he added, “After all, it is for your sake that I go to my reward.”

But,” you demurred, “I don’t want you to die for me. I want you to stay here with me and Doc and even Cody Horn-Naquin, who loves you and wants to keep you.”

Ah, but I was not speaking to you,” he said and twisted your hair hard as he stared into the flaming pools of your eyes and I frothed up at him, all attention, “I was speaking to you, Leviathan. I have remembered everything, in order, I have arranged my soul for your scrutiny so that you may find the way. I have everything covered on this side. By now Cody will have disposed of Santo Campo. Both my servants shall go down beside me — a gambler and a whore. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour.”

But,” screamed my mischievous bud though she knew herself to be nipped, “what if you never get to Hell? What if you go to Heaven?”

Ridley flung you to the ground and cursed, “Oh, I am aware of the righteous life I lived, always doing God’s work and fumigating the land for His next crop. Until this moment, I have never sinned. That’s the task left for you, Ruthie. Let’s see how many sins we can work out between us.”

And so? saying, he fell upon you.

[And so did I. I am so close now that you can smell my breath; the earth commences to bleed as I wrap my jaws around it. The kisses Ridley placed on Ruth Blossom’s neck might as well be mine. Ah Ruthie, I both taste your blood and cry out with your mouth — there is more of me inside you than Christ. I have eaten hardilyheartily? and yet there is enough room in me for all of you. I need none of you anymore; I am finished playing with my food! I am lodged inside all three hearts, all three hearts tie me to the world, which dangles on a hook before me. I will eat well tonight, fed on the heathenish blood that is my birthright. Ridley draws a knife, begins to cut at Ruthie’s hair. Shaving the sacrifice. But I will not repeat the mistake God made with Abraham on Mount Moriah. I will not tell him to stop. I will let him you enjoy it. I am about to become a murderer. I am about to be a victim. I am — ] [But wait! My light has caught another. A signal, like some infernal Morse Code, speeding up the mountain. Is this the mating call of some slouching behemoth come to rut with me? No, it is the Grande Bigarno, driven by Doc, its headlights narrowing to a pinprick as the stunt car comes crashing through the walls of the antechamber. O woe, my enemy is sitting at his side. There is scarcely enough time for me to witness the victorious gleam in his eye as the sharpened cross comes swinging down. Greed, wrath, gluttony and lust — yet the worst sin a man can commit is to tie a poor knot. Ridley and Ruthie are mingled like ashes, their bones crushed at the end of an arc that sends that black sword sailing through the windshield and impaling Luther Santo Campo.]

*          *          *

Too soon! Too soon am I vanquished! A story cannot subsist without characters and all of mine are dead. A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the lives of these three are all mixed together. Muddled and fused. They plummet with tremendous weight, passing out of life. I fall with them, shrunk to the size of a minnow. Flip, flop, I am tossed by the finger I longed to bite back into my bottomless parlor. Pity your poor angler, for I have no eyes left to see. No living witness remains to testify on my behalf. But I can hear Cody Horn-Naquin gloating, hear his relief that another of our duels is closed. Standing over the slaughter, flames licking audibly over his skin, the adversary speaks:

So the dust is dust and the rose petals lie trampled upon the ground. I know you have heard this before, but in this exchange, as in all our conflicts, I take no pleasure. I remember what we were. I recall how we were split. It is mine to remember and yours to forget. But the souls are the same, split evenly between us. They’re all yours and all mine. It’s only smoke and water. Creation, at its base, consists of only the two of us. You are my audience, Leviathan, the world is what I write for your entertainment, and because there is nothing else to do. The token of such a covenant is friendship. And love. Love is what they took from you. I tried to show it to Ridley, and that was my mistake. Now, at last, I have accounted for it. And all that’s left to say is that you will always be my friend. I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. Try to remember.”

[But I have already forgotten. Have I said this part before? It’s impossible for either of us to know for sure; I can’t recall, and you’re certainly in no position to answer. Swim into my mouth and tell me who I am.]