Unfelt Rains

What is human grief
but rain on stone?
Whether long or brief,
it dries where strewn
without scarring rock,
or carving rune—
no such stain or pock
outlast the moon.
The tears always dry
and stones remain,
the years pass us by:
the cosmos reign—
they reign, unfeeling,
forgetting all,
the cold stones wheeling
while hot tears fall.

The Imposter: Chapter IV

The following is a sample chapter from a Southern Gothic horror novel I am currently revising for a final draft before sending it to a publisher.  It is written from the perspective of a Welshman invited to a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana to court the heiress (alongside several other potential suitors).  Things go awry, and things go bump in the night, and horror soon ensues.

Chapter IV. Prisoner

A violent storm batters Louisiana for three days and three nights. We remain indoors as the rain and the winds blind every window of the Sugar Palace and make a swamp of the surrounding grounds. The thunder is a deafening cannonade. The lightning is a crackling, epileptic sunrise at midnight. Miss Arabella sobs inconsolably as the elements boom and bang in their clamorous uproar. Miss Lucille mocks her, although her own voice is lost in the tumult beyond the walls. Even I feel the effects of the protracted storm. It is like a madness outside myself that soon takes residence within my own skull. I think of the Choctaw shaman and the two entities he spoke of and their marital quarrel in the sky. I should never wish to be a prisoner of a marriage so beset with such intense conflicts. I would rather remain a bachelor.
Or so I deceive myself.
There is a certain tyranny in the storm, and within the Sugar Palace. The torrential rains deafen everyone. I do not mind, but it chafes on the others. They cannot hear themselves speak, and that is what vexes them most, I believe. While the howling winds and the crackling tumult can distract with their baffling bombardment, it is all a welcome diversion. Often I sit in my room and read. At times when the storm abates briefly, I walk out of the French doors of my room and stand on the porch, watching the rain fall like a gigantic cataract from the sky, pouring down the overhangs of the Sugar Palace. The grounds are nigh a swamp, or at least they are wherever visible through the darkening deluge. Sometimes I think the Sugar Palace will be swept away, or will melt like a sugar cone in frothy tides.
Yet, no matter how violent the storm, it may not endure forever. When the sky calms, at last, and the blackest clouds disperse like a murder of crows, we venture outdoors to survey the carnage. The Sugar Palace has sustained only superficial damage. A handful of the ancient trees have been felled by the storm and the pond has swollen, bursting to bleed amidst the garden hedges. The gardens are a mess of leaves and petals in disarray. Worst of all are the slave cabins. Three collapsed during the storm, killing thirty-seven slaves. The slaves that survived sought shelter within the other crowded cabins. Mr. Doucette would hear nothing of funeral arrangements, however, and has ordered the slaves to begin at once on the repairs to the estate. But he needs materials to repair the Sugar Palace and its grounds. Thus, Mr. Doucette sends Mr. Boucher, a team of men, several horses and wagons to the plantation’s lumber mill to process the fallen trees for repairs.
In the meantime, Mr. Doucette dispatches a White rider to survey the road leading to the seaside dock. He returns to report that trees have been toppled all along the road, making traversal nigh impossible without first clearing the trees. Worse, the Mississippi River has risen, distending and becoming wroth with whitewater rapids. It cannot be floated or forded safely. Thus, I am a prisoner of Fate and must remain in the Sugar Palace for the time being.

The storm now gone, the stifling Louisiana heat returns with a sweltering wrath. While the White labourers and the Negro slaves see to repairs, the more privileged among us retreat to the cooler rooms on the West side of the Sugar Palace. It is a comfortably furnished parlour with oak furniture sufficient to seat the guests, the hosts, and whatever ghosts cling to the Doucette edifice. Reluctant though I am to be among this company once more, I take a leather chair near the window. The walls of this particular room are quite peculiar. Rather than wallpaper, they are painted with a mural of Louisiana itself: trees hung with Spanish moss, cranes and herons, swamp pools crowded with fish, turtles, alligators, and such, and plants of diverse varieties all springing up from along the top of the wainscoting. It is both garish and strangely alluring. The room seems dark, despite the daylight, and it feels as if I am wandering along the swamp’s edge, soon to meet the Choctaw shaman once again. I henceforth refer to this room as the Swamp Room.
Yet, while I am quite keen to understand the origins of the murals, I am not so keen as to inquire. No one is of a particularly jolly mood, except, perhaps, Miss Arabella. She sits beside her sister, on the sofa, singing.
“A frog went a-courting, away did ride. A frog went a-courting, sword and pistol by his side…”
“Be quiet, you ruinous child!” Miss Lucille snaps, swatting her sister’s shoulder with her fan. “It is enough torment to suffer storms and then heat without having to endure your abhorrent voice!”
Miss Arabella—cut to the quick—looks to her father to champion her.
“Daddy!” she mewls.
Her father sits in a wide-lapped leather chair near the fireplace, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.
“Bella, my dear,” he says, “no one may speak while you are singing. And we must think of our guests after so long a storm spent with nothing to do but listen to the rain and thunder.”
Miss Arabella pouts, folding her arms across her green French dress. Her elder sister smiles briefly, pleased by her small victory, but soon tires of the stagnant air…and the stagnating conversation.
“Where is that wretched girl?!” Miss Lucille demands. “Caroline? Caroline?! My God, we are melting and that lazy girl has yet to bring us our morning refreshments! I am of a mind to have her tied to stones and thrown into the swamp!”
“It will get hotter by the hour,” Mr. Lutz says, doffing his cravat and loosening the collar of his white undershirt. “Our Lady Louisiana has yet to make her dazzling debut. She is only now preparing in front of her vanity mirror.”
“Very droll, William,” Miss Arabella says, sighing and laying longwise on the sofa, nearly kicking her sister. She looks like Cleopatra after the asp has kissed her heart. “I should like to die.”
“Hush, you diminutive imp,” Miss Lucille snaps. “No one wishes to hear your complaints!”
“You were complaining yourself!” Miss Arabella says.
“Yes, about that stupid slave girl,” Miss Lucille says. “Not the weather. The weather is a fool’s complaint, whereas criticizing servants can, and will, lead to reform. You are merely whining at the sun. Do you believe whining at the sun will change its course?”
Miss Arabella leaps up from the sofa, glowering at her sister.
“I wish you were never born!” Miss Arabella yells.
“And I wish you were never born,” Miss Lucille says quietly. “Mother would still be among us, were it so.”
Miss Arabella’s green eyes brim with tears and she flees from the Swamp Room, sobbing loudly. Miss Lucille sighs in aggravation, looking again to the door in anticipation of refreshments.
“I will have her tied to stones and thrown into the river,” she says to herself.
Mr. Beaux—erstwhile fanning himself with his wig—suddenly rises to his feet. He goes to the pianoforte near the ash-mouthed fireplace.
“Let us have some music,” Mr. Beaux says, looking expectantly at Miss Lucille. “It would be a welcome diversion to this heat.”
Lucille rolls her eyes and affects a smile. “If only it were possible, sir. But you see that neither myself nor my sister has learned to play. We are wanting in our discipline.”
“And yet you have such a fine pianoforte!” Mr. Lutz says, also inspecting the piano. He runs his hand across the polished dark wood. “My sister, Isabelle, plays, and quite well at that.”
“Praiseworthy as your sister must be,” Miss Lucille says with some irritation, “I am not disposed to believe a lady’s life to be one dedicated to the entertainment of others. Rather, it is a life she must conduct as her whims command.”
“It is still a shame about the music,” Mr. Beaux says. “I would have delighted in it!”
Fanning herself furiously, Miss Lucille sneers. “Then perhaps, gentlemen, one among you should benefit from lessons!”
She stands up from the sofa and leaves, her petticoats sweeping angrily along the Turkish rug and the black tile. Her father follows after her, breathlessly pleading.
“Lucy, you mustn’t belittle your suitors…”
Meanwhile, the General snorts in contempt.
“Men taking piano lessons?” he remarks. “Preposterous! It is a womanly diversion. The only music proper for a man of dignity is the marching drum! Anything else is fanciful nonsense!”
“On this, sir, we must disagree,” Mr. Beaux says with all the ire of a peacock. “The finer arts can be pursued by man and woman alike. Moreover, I believe it incumbent upon all men to pursue the arts, otherwise we are mere animals sporting tailored clothing. Nothing more!”
“Naturally you would think so” General Davis retorts, his bullish face hardening. “But a French dandy such as yourself is as removed from manhood as any cloistered nun. Have you ever killed an animal before? I doubt it!”
“Any beast may kill another beast,” Mr. Beaux says, one gloved hand on his hip as if there is a dagger beneath his frock coat. “But not all men may recite Moliere to kill the hypocrisies of the world!”
The General’s eyes narrow above his hawkish nose. “No one cares what you have to say, you pasty-faced fop!”
The General turns on his heel and leaves, his boots clacking on the tiled floor with a war march of their own.
“Mon Dieu!” Mr. Beaux exclaims. “Le Philistin!”
He leaves as well, but leaves through the same door through which Miss Arabella left. It suddenly seems to me that the Sugar Palace was designed so as to separate strong egos from one another when at an antagonistic impasse. Quite considerate of the architect. He must have been a man of perspicacious forethought.
Now only myself and Mr. Lutz remain. Mr. Lutz walks to one of the many windows arraying the room. He peers out the pane with a slight smirk playing about his lips, his arms clasped behind his back. He speaks aloud, though whether for the benefit of myself or himself, I do not know.
“There is bait for every kind of fish,” he says, “but only a master fisherman knows which, when, and where to use it.” His fair eyebrows hop with complacent pleasure. “And a master fisherman can play with his catch at his leisure.”
Mr. Lutz heads to the door, pausing at the threshold.
“There is no pleasure in an easy catch,” he says. “You could at least attempt to ingratiate yourself with our Lovely Lucy. The boorish General and the powdery dandy are but little competition, and I am at my best only when there is competition to be had.”
He exits.
Now alone, I preoccupy myself with a poetry book, though truthfully it is too hot to retain any of the words my eyes pass over. The greater preoccupation is the sweat of my brow, which I dab vigorously with a handkerchief in intermittent intervals. Defeated, I set aside my book and take a turn about the room. There is a gaudy chandelier overtopping the room, as there seems to be in every room and hallway throughout the Sugar Palace. Its ostentatious crystals would embarrass a Mogul’s harem. It is so heavily laden with crystals that it inspires in me a certain paranoia, and so I avoid walking directly beneath it, lest its fastener succumb to its weight and drop the whole upon my head.
I inhale deeply, and exhale. The air is thick and stifling, like wool in the lungs. The Louisiana heat invades the body like a djinn, and one’s temper rises alongside one’s temperature. The sun has yet to gaze into the Swamp room’s windows, and there are trees aplenty pooling their shadows all around—yet the heat reaches in here like the breath of a demon. It is inescapable, and thus all the more infuriating.
Determined to distract myself, I go to the pianoforte and sit down. I can play the piano, albeit not so well as I should like. Yet, despite my lack of proficiency, I do so thrill in the cascading notes and melodies, the pitching vales of trickling notes, and the crescendoing uplands of jangling highs. Indeed, piano music reminds me of my Welsh romps when still a youth. There is nothing so mesmerizing as the notes of a piano floating through an open window and out to a passing lad as he heads into the wilderness. At such times he thinks he is on the trail of the Sidhe. If he only runs swiftly enough he may find them just around the bend of a woods or over the crest of a hill; perhaps swerving between the standing stones atop a mountain.
I am reminded of the fairy woman on the island in the center of the tarn. I cannot recall her face, and it wounds me. All that remains of her are words and feelings. The image of her has vanished like a dream. She is no more solid now than an abstracted emotion, like restlessness or nostalgia.
Now I am truly and utterly upset. Seeking diversion, I settle my nervous fingers among the piano’s ivory. After a few trepid taps of my fingertips, my anxiety loosens, alongside the ligaments of my hands, and I begin to play a scrap of improvisation. It is unwieldy at first, but soon smooths itself into a melancholy little memory that commiserates with me and my present circumstances. I am so taken with its consolation that I do not hear Caroline approach. She stands nearby, patiently waiting—or so I imagine—with a tray of tea and biscuits in her hands. At length, I stop.
“That is beautiful, Mr. Machen, sir,” Caroline says.
“Thank you,” I say. I continue to play, but speak to Caroline over the softly rambling melody. “By the way, Caroline, why is it that you do not refer to me as Lord Machen? It is no matter to me, truly, for I have told you once before that you may call me Bram, if you like, but I am curious why only you, among all others, refer to me as Mr. Machen.”
“There is only one Lord in my life, Mr. Machen,” she says. “And that is the Lord, our God.”
“I see,” I say. “Fair enough.”
There is a long moment when she simply watches me run my fingers across the keys like scuttling crabs. The moment passes and Caroline glances about, flustered.
“Where have Miss Doucette and her other guests gone to?” she asks.
“To the four winds, I am afraid,” I say. “But I will gladly take tea, if you do not mind.”
Caroline nods and sets the tray upon a small table nearby. She hands me a glass of tea, in the Southern American style. Cold and sweet. I take a sip. By the look on my face Caroline intimates my misgivings.
“Is the tea not good, sir?”
“I am sure it is an excellent tea for the Louisiana heat,” I say, staring at the sweetened liquid. “And I did very much like the ginger tea you have made for me beforehand. But this…saccharine water. Forgive me, Caroline, and do not take offense. It is just that I am accustomed to the tea of my native land. Hot and bitter, or else spicy, you see, to help cope with the cold rain.”
“Sounds miserable, sir,” Caroline says.
“It can be,” I say, sighing as the heat builds within my collar. “Just as this heat can be miserable here. But there is beauty in everything, if you can only study it long enough to see it.”
A long pause passes again, and I preoccupy myself with another sip of the saccharine tea. Caroline remains standing by the piano, shuffling a little and fidgeting with her white apron. Her hands are so dark, and yet not uncomely. They are merely different than my habituated experience.
“Is that sad music also from your country?” she asks.
I tap at the keys a little. “Perhaps. I do not know. I play, and not all too well, but whatever it is that comes seems to mete my mood accurately enough.”
“It is a fine thing,” she says, “to hear the piano played. I dust it, you know, and it always seems so lonely. The mistress played this piano, but it has not been touched since she passed on.”
“And what do you know of the late Mrs. Doucette?”
Caroline’s fidgeting increases. She wrings her hands in the manner of Lady Macbeth, though I doubt she has any such sins on her hands.
“I really shouldn’t say, sir. It is not good to speak ill of the dead.”
“That tells me enough,” I say. “But it seems that the Doucettes miss her.”
“Yes, sir, they do.”
“We all have mistresses whom we miss very much.”
A brief spasm of confusion twists Caroline’s eyebrows.
“Sir?”
“That is all, Caroline,” I say. “Thank you.”
Caroline nods again, then lifts the tray from the table. “Is there anything else you need, Mr. Machen?”
“No, Caroline.”
I tap at the keys once again and Caroline heads toward the door.
“Caroline,” I call after her.
She pauses, looking back. “Yes, Mr. Machen?”
“I should warn you that Miss Lucille is in a terrible mood. She was unhappy that the tea was not brought more quickly.”
“Course she would be,” Caroline says. “And she will be angrier when she learns that Martha has gone missing. That’s why I was so late bringing the tea. I was looking for Martha.”
“Martha?” I say, trying to recall the woman. I remember, vaguely, a large black woman with a dimpled smile who brought food to the dining hall. “Oh yes. I remember her. I hope nothing untoward has come of her.”
“She’s likely fine, sir,” Caroline says, though the look on her face contradicts her words. “Just got into some rum and fell asleep in the woods again. She has a bad habit of it.”
Caroline nods to me once more and leaves the Swamp Room. I play at the piano for quarter of an hour longer, then go to the window through which Mr. Lutz had been staring. Beyond the pane—and beyond the porch and colonnade and down on the ground level—the damaged gazebo sits amidst the damaged garden. Miss Lucille, her father, and Mr. Lutz all sit together in easy camaraderie. Seeing them thus, I wonder what Miss Lucille’s aim is in having invited so many suitors to pursue her attachment when the obvious choice is set before her. Her vanity, likely. Perhaps her father believes his “empire” will retain such cordial connections even after she has married one at loss to the others. Surely she would not invite more. Would she?

I leave the Swamp Room and walk the halls, looking upon the portraits lining the walls in gilded frames. The Doucette family tree spends much of its time honouring its own roots. Patriarchs abound through the halls, their scheming stares always anticipating and following your approach. If I were to marry Miss Lucille—and I should never do so—I would have the portraits taken down and hidden away in some attic or basement. Let the ghosts take to the cellar, perhaps, and so better befit their surroundings. There are other paintings which I might keep affixed for my leisurely appraisals. The maritime paintings are pleasant enough, and so, too, the Louisiana landscapes. There are a few paintings from European artists which I would keep, depicting either ancient Athens or Rome or their shared mythological figures. Still-lifes have never appealed to me and I would add them to the cellar, letting the painted grapes ferment to moldy wine.
As I walk I overhear two voices speaking in French. I am not fluent and do not pretend to understand the import of the conversation. However, I recognize one of the voices, and I can deduce what its tone indicates. It is Miss Arabella and she speaks from great pleasure while suffering a raucous fit of laughter. The other voice I cannot identify, and would find difficult to identify were he speaking English. It is unlike any voice I have heard within the walls of the Sugar Palace. Whoever he is, he pleases Miss Arabella much more than any other person in the house, including her father. She laughs with such abandon that I almost feel that it is inappropriate. She is young, and the man— whoever he may be—is of equal age to myself, or greater, and speaks firmly with a masculine baritone.
I do not know where they are, and cannot seem to locate them. The halls and corridors of the Sugar Palace play with voices, deceiving a listener as if fairies are flitting about, mimicking voices from various directions. One might as well chase a will o’ the wisp in the swamp. One would be all headlong and head-wrong with the needless bother of it.
Tired of being indoors, I go outside to survey the damage suffered from the storm. Mr. Boucher and the other White labourers oversee many groups of Negroes as the latter work hard in the terrible heat to repair the grounds. The Doucette plantation has hundreds of Negroes, if not thousands. Thus, there is much sawing and chopping of wood, much loading of debris and detritus onto horse-drawn wagons, and much swearing against the workers.
“Don’t you dare dawdle, you lazy niggers!” Mr. Boucher yells. “Or I will whip your hides red!”
Finding this all unpleasant, I retreat to the far side of the Sugar Palace; a side where no one is working or yelling or blaspheming the quietude of a man in desperate need of its sacred sermons. There are trees fallen here, at the edge of the swamp, and the ruin of a shed smashed beneath an old oak. Much work lays ahead before this area is rectified. In the meantime, it is relatively quiet and I find myself in easy, albeit balmy, solitude. The grass—previously flooded with torrential rain—is now mostly dry. The Louisiana heat is efficient at drying the verdure, and the tongue. That said, the swamp is still swollen with the previous rains and intrudes upon the grounds more than ever before. Its dark waters lap between the fallen oaks. It is a surreptitious, insidious conqueror indeed.
Feeling somewhat adventurous, I climb atop a fallen oak and stand on its trunk, looking out toward the storm-bloated swamp. Even in midday the swamp is shadowy. The cypress trees stand like ancient, solemn titans guarding the hallway to heathen gods and forgotten rites. I wonder if on cloudy days there might be an island that appears somewhere in that expanse of tree-columned wetland and, perhaps, on that island there is a ring of trees, and within those trees a standing stone, and within that standing stone a door. The wild fancy of it nearly sends me into the water to seek her. But I refrain. I am not so much an impetuous fool as I sometimes fear I am.
There are no animals in the swamp. No insects, no birds, no lizards or mammals. True, they fled inland only days ago to escape the storm, but I would think that the birds, at least, would have returned by now. Yet they have not. The swamp is bereft of life. Even so, the vacancy seems one of deception rather than genuine emptiness. A presence lurks beneath the stillness and the silence, waiting to spring forth when least expected. Or so I divine.
Sweating now, I climb down from the tree and walk a little farther along the distended swamp. I wish I was a youth again. How delighted I would be on such a day as this! And yet I feel the heat keenly. This black frock coat lends no shelter from the balmy day. Instead, it traps and accumulates the heat like a dragon accumulating fire, soon to belch or else burst. I am tempted to shed everything—frock to trousers to boots—and lounge in the shade of a tree like a naked beast until society demands my conformity once again. I am wholly envious of the American Indian and his more practical attire. I would gladly give away a wardrobe brimming with London fashion for the comfort of a loincloth at this moment. Alas, my present attire is all I have to my name. All other comforts have been sold in the desperate attempts my parents have made to conserve the Machen estate.
And all for naught.
A diversion comes along to distract from the heat and my family’s ruination. At last I find life! Amphibious life at the threshold of the swamp and the Doucette grounds. I see two frogs in the grass. They are bullfrogs, judging by their size. They are olive green along their backs and heads, and pale gray along their underbellies. I have read of the bullfrogs in America. The smaller frog is male, denoted by the yellow patch of skin beneath his mouth, and the larger frog is female. These two are, as I understand it, engaged in courtship.
I am, of course, wrong. The smaller frog begins to move away from the larger frog, moving in that squat-legged crawl of caution that frogs use when not leaping away in excited fright. It seems that the courtship is over before it has begun. Or so I think.
I am, again, wrong.
The larger frog suddenly springs for the smaller frog, mouth wide as she propels her broad body with surprising speed at her suitor. Her mouth and her pudgy hands clamp onto the smaller frog, shoving him into her gaping maw without hesitation or remorse. I lean forward, both horrified and fascinated. Gulp by gulp the larger female swallows the smaller male. She sits in complacent idiocy, beady black eyes atop a wide mouth. Her eyes are unfeeling, almost imbecilic, and her bump-riddled corpulence swells. She is a swollen-flanked cannibal, her throat engorged with her yet-struggling victim, the male’s strangely manlike legs still kicking desperately as he is drawn—one violent gulp at a time—down her voracious gullet.
The betrayal is done. Lady Ragnell has devoured her suitor. A Loathly Lady, indeed, and with warty skin not unlike the cursed hag of the story. By daylight or night, she is a monstrous thing to behold. I suppress an urge to step upon the foul creature and snuff it out. But then I wonder: should I truly begrudge a creature for its natural behaviours, however abhorrent? One might as well question the colour of the sky or the warmth of the sun or the love of a mother for her child. Things are as they are, and no amount of questioning will alter them. To blame the world is amiss of the matter. One must place blame elsewhere; upon gods, for instance.
Deus vult.
Nonetheless— despite my reasoning—Nature may abhor us all. Feeling nauseated, I look away before the utter finality of the encounter. I take a deep breath and try to regain my composure. This does not help, so I go walking for a time, trying to escape the image of the legs kicking in futility. But I can no more escape the image of the cannibalism than the smaller frog could escape his death. It haunts me for the remainder of the day. I wonder if the imps of Hell resemble frogs. Perhaps they do. Perhaps lost souls grow bloated on sin until they are malformed and gluttonous like frogs.

Slapdash

Far overhead,
the squirrel’s bed,
a slapdash nest
at the behest
of innate need
to feed and breed
in the oak tree,
precariously
thrown together
to withstand the weather,
just leaves and sticks,
not stones or bricks,
plotted by instinct,
twigs interlinked
in frenzied haste
before Winter’s waste.
To and fro
stop and go,
reddish squirrels
along limbs and burls,
ceaseless chatter,
pitter-patter
as acorns fall
in Autumn’s hall.

Tynged

The snake-eyed die is cast,
unfurled like the ship’s sail
from the creaking oak mast,
while the Westward winds wail.
The man in the crow’s nest
cries out, “Crags down below!”
but the waves surge to crest,
churning, blow upon blow.
The crew shouts to their gods,
clinging as the hull slams
into reef, and then nods
toward the fish and clams.
The die is cast—a loss
for Man against the Fates;
the waves renew and toss,
heaving like strong shipmates.
The ship tips over, now,
as a horse reined to fall,
pitching to starboard bow
as at the siren’s call.
The men abandon ship,
leaping from larboard side
like die cast with a slip
of the hand—they still died.

Washed Away

The tall preacher lays his palm upon the man’s forehead. With his other hand the preacher cradles the man’s nape. All around them the Snake River flows easily, aglitter in the dawn. The preacher speaks loudly, clearly, so that the rest of his followers may hear as they watch from the bank of the river.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The man takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The preacher lowers the man backwards into the gilded water, pausing a moment as the man disappears into the sky on the water, and then raises him, holding him steadily as the man breathes out and blinks rapidly into the bright light of a new day. His white long-johns are soaked through. Droplets of water stud him like diamonds.
“Thank you, preacher,” the man says.
“Thank the Lord, Billy,” the preacher says. His black robe is like a raven perched amidst the river. “Forgiveness is His alone.”
Billy nods and then crosses himself, trudging now to the bank of the river to join with the others, drying in the sun. He sits down, his mousy hair wet and lank. He smiles through his wet beard as if a boy again, and the rest of the followers return his smile with childlike joy.
The preacher looks upon them with the look of a shepherd for his sheep. Then, with a gesture, he invites the next member of his flock forward into the waters to be baptized for the new day of pious devotion.

The sun rises higher and the day grows hotter, dustier. The flock harvests the crops they grow near their settlement of tents and wagons and palisades. Some men go fishing for trout in the river to add to the evening’s meal. The preacher stands solemnly nearby, a bible in his hand and his cool gray eyes watchful of his flock. The sun bakes skin and earth unto a clay. The preacher vows that he will mold the clay as God molded Adam.
Billy approaches the preacher, his breeches and hat dusty with the work of the day. The young man’s eyes squint perpetually, the sun having cracked wrinkles prematurely beneath them. The young man’s bare torso is as gaunt as Christ on a Catholic crucifix.
“Preacher,” Billy says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh?” the preacher says. “There is no need. That is why I baptize you every morning. Your sins are washed away.”
Billy lets his eyes drop to the sagebrush and other shrubs scattered across the expanse between himself and the mountain-hemmed horizon. The preacher seems taller than the mountains themselves, and looms over all things.
“It’s not my sins I’m worried about, preacher. It’s those of…of my wife.”
The preacher gazes toward the womenfolk as they busily pick green beans. Sarah stoops among them, her red hair ablaze in the afternoon sun.
“And how has Sarah trespassed against God?”
“Sarah avoids you, preacher,” Billy says. “She doesn’t take baptism every morning. And for that, I am sorry.”
“She will see the light,” the preacher says. “With time. She will make a goodly wife.”
Billy sighs and looks away. His voice is despondent. “I like to believe so, preacher. But…”
He falls to silence.
“But?” the preacher says.
“But I fear she is going astray,” Billy says, his voice trembling. “She…disappears sometimes. Goes missing. At night…”
“And you believe she is meeting with someone else among my flock?” the preacher says, his gray eyes grim.
“No, no!” Billy says, hastily. “I would never doubt my neighbor. I know we are all Faithful here.”
The preacher turns his gray eyes upon the young man, his gaze burnishing and unblinking; steadfast as the sun itself. “Then what do you suspect?”
Billy looks to his wife kneeling among the green beans, then lets his eyes drift away in defeated silence.
The preacher’s voice is softer.
“Billy? If you suspect something, you must speak it, if not to unburden yourself, then at least to unburden the air. Unspoken suspicions are phantoms that grow in power and darken all that they touch with their shadows.”
“I don’t know, preacher,” Billy says, heavily. “Maybe it is just a phantom in my head.”
The preacher nods. “Do you know what dispels phantoms?”
“What?” Billy says, looking up with expectant hope at the preacher.
“The sun,” the preacher says. “And honest labor beneath the sun.”
“You’re right, preacher,” Billy says. “I need to work off this restlessness.”
Billy returns to the crops, taking up a hoe and weeding alongside the other members of the flock. The preacher watches him for a long moment, then turns his eyes elsewhere. Like bloated deerflies his black pupils wander about slowly, restlessly, from person to person, coming, at length, to Billy’s wife, Sarah. Her hair is as blood among the beans. She glances up, notices the preacher’s gaze, and turns quickly away.

After dinner—when the long day has settled its ashes on the horizon—the preacher reads to his flock passages from his bible. He stands tall while they sit low before him, wet with the sweat of their labors as if they have only recently emerged from their baptism in the river.
“You will know them by their fruits,” the preacher reads. “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruits…”
Billy listens attentively, but is clearly distressed. His wife is not beside him, nor among the congregation. The preacher notices this, too, but says nothing. He reads until the fire dies out in the West, then wishes his flock a good evening and the sleep of the righteous. His flock scatters to their various concerns; some to chores, others to conversation and innocent pastimes.
As the preacher walks toward his tent he is intercepted by the wife of one of his followers.
“Preacher, that was a fine sermon,” she says.
“The Lord saw fit to make it so,” the preacher says.
She follows him for some time, quietly.
“I was curious,” she says as he reaches his tent. “Why not baptize your flock at dusk, too, preacher? Why let their sins follow them into their dreams?”
The preacher does not face her. His tent is as tall as he is, and is arranged on tall wooden posts. He does not look at the young woman, even as she peers boldly up at him. He parts the flap of his tent, holding it with one hand while he stands erect, tall, like a dark sentinel whose dark hair reaches the darkening sky and its nebulous stars. His eyes do not meet her, even still.
“So you may see the fruits of your sins bloom in the night,” the preacher says. “So you may dream the guilt that you harvest from sins and learn from them the lessons upon waking, otherwise you will waken in the next life not to Heaven, but to the flaming orchard that is Hell.”
She snorts, then leaves. The preacher retires inside his tent.

The moon is pale as a salmon’s belly. The wolves howl in the distant mountains to welcome the moon. The fires die around the settlement and the flock retires to bed.
A voice calls faintly to the preacher from beyond his tent.
“Preacher? Preacher, can I have a word? Please?”
The preacher rises from bed, then goes quickly to the flap.
“Billy?” he says.
“Yes, preacher,” Billy says, glumly. “I am sorry, preacher.”
“Give me a moment, Billy, and I will be out.”
The preacher pulls on his long-johns and then his black robe. He regards his bed for a moment, in regret, then opens the flap and exits his tent. Billy’s face is distraught in the moonlight.
“Sarah has gone missing,” he says. “Preacher, you have to help me convince her to take to the Lord’s path again.”
“She is likely making night-soil,” the preacher says.
“I’d like to believe that, preacher,” Billy says. “But she has been gone for so long now.” His eyes are as wide as a salmon’s with distress. “I’m afraid she is lost to me.”
“You must believe in the Lord’s guidance,” the preacher says, sternly. “In all things His hand works His will.”
Billy hangs his head. “I know, preacher…I know…but…”
“Do not persist in this mistaken belief,” the preacher warns him. “Or it will unmake you and all of the hard work you have done for this refuge of souls.”
“I know…preacher…but Sarah…she’s been acting strange for so long now…”
The preacher’s tone is curt. “Do you not think the Lord capable of changing hearts?”
Tears glisten on Billy’s cheeks. He trembles with indecision and doubt. His voice cracks as he speaks. “I know, preacher, but what if she has turned her back on the Lord?”
“Your doubt in the Lord’s influence is a sin,” the preacher says. He shakes his head angrily, looking from Billy back to his tent. At length, he sighs in resignation. “Come. I will baptize you again. This time, perhaps, you will feel the power of Jesus Christ and, then, the truth of these petty frets will be laid bare before you.”
“Yes, preacher.”
The preacher leads Billy to the river, his shadowy figure seemingly as tall as an onyx steeple in the moonlight. The preacher steps into the shoals, gesturing for Billy to follow. Billy hesitates but a moment, but then, too, steps into the shoals, feeling the steady flow pull at his sorrow-stricken knees. He stumbles as if burdened beneath a great weight, but the preacher steadies him.
“Billy,” the preacher says. “Doubt in your wife is doubt in the love of the Lord. Do you ask forgiveness for this human failing?”
Billy, sobbing, nods. “Yes. Please, God, I ask for forgiveness!”
The preacher puts his large palm upon Billy’s forehead, and cradles his nape gently with his other hand. The preacher pauses, hearing two wolves howl together in the distance. He then continues.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The preacher dips Billy backwards into the river. He waits a moment, says a short prayer, and twists his hands in opposite directions. This done, he trudges back to the bank and—robe weighed down with water—emerges from the river. Returning to his tent, he enters and takes off his wet robe, long-johns, and lays down next to the figure awaiting his return.
A new day dawns and Billy’s limp body is washed away by the river, his arms outspread as he floats along an easy flow mirroring the sky.