Shrapnel stuck in tongues
flung from history’s clashes—
the words we all use.
Shrapnel stuck in tongues
Shrapnel stuck in tongues
flung from history’s clashes—
the words we all use.
No gender studies for this warrior queen,
but studies of war, of spear and shield and blade,
and the tactics of her foes, pitted between
patricians, patriarchy, those who invade.
A lioness, she set out after the hare,
becoming, in time, both leader and hero,
seeking the eagle and its bronzed raptor’s glare,
roaring so loud as to scare distant Nero.
Lineage is, at its core, a bloodline
bleeding onward from the ancient ages,
and blood, they oft say, is thicker than wine
delineating history ’s stages;
and to know what oceans of blood were spilled
so we, Modern Men, could live on this day,
is to know all whom our ancestors killed —
sacrifices we may never repay;
sacrifices of countless men, dead men
whose hearts were pierced and whose guts were torn out,
their loins castrated and their heads smashed in
as they screamed and moaned and thrashed all about,
meanwhile, the women were raped, forced to bear
the seed of invaders whom they abhorred,
men who raped while black smoke still filled the air
from the fires and pyres after armies warred.
And those children who were often captured
to be fed to dogs, or gods, for a laugh,
or enslaved to serve ever afterward
as bound wombs for breeding yet more distaff.
What horrors, bloodshed, and living nightmares
bleed through today, swelling Time ’s crimson flood
so we may live in our complacent airs,
thinking ourselves ripe with innocent blood.
I have the answer,
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Just trust me with your
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Are you ready?
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I believe in you.
I believe you can change
(my bank account).
You have to trust me, though
You have to let me help you
by helping me with
my six-figure per annum.
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You believe me, don ’t you? If you
then you will never get any better.
You will remain a victim and a
for your entire life.
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make you the arbiter of your own life.
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Look, your life is a
It is not condemned.
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I have the blueprints right here.
When I tell you the answer you will
be amazed. You will say that it is so simple, it must be a fresh coat of paint, and that ’s it. But it isn ’t. It is a transformation of the whole neighborhood. Gentrification of your life. The floor plan is a godsend. You only need to pay me a little more and then I will give you the answer. Yes, that is enough. For now. So what ’s the answer? Well, it is so easy. So simple. Did I tell you of all of the people I have helped with my self-help answer? So many testimonials. (Not a single refund). It is so self-evident, too. So natural, like folk wisdom. When I tell you, you will say, “How could I not see it before? It is so obvious now! ” And it is. Like staring at the sun, the answer is bright and enlightening and blinding. It illuminates all things with its central role in the universe. It illuminates the self. Yourself. It will help you help yourself. For a few dollars more I will tell you more. Just a few dollars. What is a handful of cash compared to a life full of dreams realized? The answer is like a religion, and yet more practical than a religion. It is the dais and the temple and the priest and the congregation. It is God. It delivers, too. It is salvation. It offers sanctuary and hope and love, saving you from despair and fear and loneliness and meaninglessness. And yet so easy to understand! Yet so profound! The layman nods at it in comprehension, appreciating its simplicity. The philosopher gasps in awe at its profundity. It is a humble answer, and yet it answers all prides without balking. There is a poetry in its brevity, yet it enumerates all possibilities with its exponential mathematical applications. It is recursive, yet self-contained. Science aspires to its truths while the humanities admire it. For a few more dollars I can tell you more. Just a few dollars and your life will transform. It will enliven your life, and enrich it; imbue it like a celestial song upon profane drudgery. Supple as melody and uncompromising as arithmetic, it is personal and universal. As below so above, and it applies its miraculous nature in all things. Want to become a mechanic? It can help you. Want to save your marriage? It can help you. All is done easily through it. You just need to give me a few more dollars and the answer will be yours. I am so generous with it because it is a gift that gives by the sharing of it, too. For just a few dollars more. Just to help me spread its transformative insight and better the world. It is a paradox and a riddle and an enigma. It is a method and a process and a natural propensity we all share. It is the answer. But you need this answer, and to have this answer I need money.
Yes, that ’ll do it.
So, the answer is…very straightforward. Did I tell you about the time the answer helped a man pull himself up by his bootstraps and become a billionaire? It is a skill, but it is an instinct before that. You must hone it, and it will in turn hone you. Christ knew it, and Buddha, and Churchill, and Roosevelt. Both Roosevelts.
It is an essence. It is integral
to the whole cosmos. And
it can transform you
into your own self-help guru.
You first need to give me
a few dollars, though, and
I will give you the
It will change
They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people. Being a slave, I dare not contradict them. By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano. Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit. I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.
My new tongue has not improved much. I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue. And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues. Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak. If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence. The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size. And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.
By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.
Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin. He thought it some sort of trickery at first. He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest. In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased. The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God. I was not sad to see the coins go. It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate. Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels. But as Allah sees fit, I abide.
Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road. Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai. This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty. The plum trees are especially pretty. Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor. Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people. More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.
Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.
We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire. I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers. We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me. I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri. My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring. The samurai, too, sleep well. I cannot sleep. This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels. The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.
I pray in the direction of Mecca. I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour. I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice. He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha. Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not. Perhaps he wishes to protect me. But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah. And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.
Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering. It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness. The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.
Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face. Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.
“Hello, brother,” a voice growls. It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone. “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures? Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”
The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn. I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.
“Speak, little brother,” he growls. “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”
His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.
“I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature. I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni. “I am a man. But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”
The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead. “Yes,” he says. “I see my mistake now. Far too small to be my kin. And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”
“I am a Moor,” I say. “From faraway.”
“A rare meat, then,” the oni says. “I shall savor you.”
He reaches for me with clawed fingers. I unsheathe my sword, clumsily. I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand. But not because of my blade. He sniffs and frowns.
“You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.
“Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue. “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”
The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.
“A foul stench,” he says. “I do not care for it. It fouls your soul, little black man. A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”
I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy. “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say. “For he made all, including you, demon.”
The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.
“But he smells of other winds and other waters. I do not like his smell. It is arid. Stagnant. It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it. Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.” He pointed to the Jesuits. “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.” He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me. “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you. A smell of many other gods. Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be. Gods grown in more interesting lands. Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home. Better gods. Truer gods. Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”
“You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.
The oni turns away, indifferently. He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.
“I will not partake of this feast,” he says. “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them. What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”
Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day. His voice growls faintly one last time.
“All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known. By nothing else…”
I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken. After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly. The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.
“Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me. “Make no more noise, for the sake of God! Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”
“My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.
Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side. “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.
My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would. But I let the spark extinguish. Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.
On curtains, corners, chairs, and table cloth,
amassed together in piles, or diffuse,
powdery like the wings of a white moth,
the dust is swept; a sad thing of disuse.
I dreamt, last night, that I met John McCain
in the Oval Office, a dismayed ghost,
and though dead, the man was also in pain;
I tried to calm him, like a concerned host,
for there was a tyrant in those great halls
that pushed about the men who had served us,
commanding them all like impotent thralls,
however small or great, with idle fuss—
it was the bristles of a careless broom
that went sweep, sweep, sweep, left, right, to and fro,
apathetic as it cleared that proud room
of history’s fallen, as the winds blow.
“I voted for Barack,” I told him, then,
and he did not seem to mind much, for I said
that I admired him for all the times when
he put America in his own stead.
He nodded sadly and vanished as dust,
and I woke to tears trickling down my cheeks,
for the tyrant sweeps aside what it must
to make space when the vox populi speaks.
Personal Note: I have not always agreed with John McCain in the past, whether it was in pursuit of war in the Middle East or his desire to engage Russia in a war for Ukraine. He was always too much a War Hawk for my inclination. That said, he had principles, and he was a man who thought the greatest honor was to serve. I am still grateful for his attempts with John Kerry at passing Campaign Finance Reform in the United States. Alas, Mitch McConnell would not allow the bipartisan bill to reach the Senate floor and so we have, in this country, legislation that is written by Corporations rather than by legislators who are premised in looking after the best interests of the United States. Even so, principles matter. Morals matter, even if they amount to no more than dust in a corner of a once-proud office now brought to ruin. And when I saw John McCain give the Senate the crippling down-vote against the Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, I had never felt so proud of a man who I had, shamefully, vehemently disliked during his campaign against Barack Obama. Tribalism is destroying the United States. Trump is destroying the United States, also, by sullying its reputation and demonizing its diverse demographics, just as he demeaned John McCain as a human being. And, yes, I did, in fact, have this dream as recorded above. Naturally, it was not in meter, and was much sadder than mere words could ever express. And I admit, without shame, that I did wake up with tears in my eyes, for not only John McCain, but for the United States and for humanity as a whole. Tribalism—being a sin of my own—will destroy our species someday, unless principles guide us upon a better path.
They attack your tact
to attack the truth.
They stab you in the back
to undercut the proof.
They tar and feather
to demean the science.
They rally together
in stubborn defiance.
Tribal to the core
as their voices heighten,
crowding your front door
as the nooses tighten.
Clannish, deaf, beastly, blind,
they burn all labs and books,
lobotomize the mind
with sneering, snaring hooks.
and humanity lost
much of what it had learned,
because such is the cost—
an attack on the Truth
is an attack on us all,
and on themselves, forsooth:
part and parcel the Fall.
To shroud yourself in the flayed skin
of your ancestors, your past kin
who bore the harsh kiss of the whips,
and now to flap your sneering lips
as if you were, yourself, a victim
to the woes that did inflict them,
and to steal their woes for your own
like a thief on Agony’s throne
so you might claim with the blood shed
their rights, (rather than mere blood bred)
is just as bad as feeling guilt
for ancient sins, to drive to hilt
the hate-bloodied warblade which flayed
the kin of others, a sword made
among countless other heirlooms
which all peoples have to bear, blooms
of crimson buds, vines thus amassed
and rooted in yesterdays past.
We should not take pride in the rust
on such heirlooms, nor should we trust
in skins which were taken by force
or else we belittle the source,
nor should we supplement the toil
in such gardens with “blood and soil”.
Sheathe the rust, bury the old skin:
do not presume to be your kin.
The stagecoach had been overturned on its side, laying like a dead beast with its gut split open at the door. The driver lay dead, next to the yet-dying horses. Hopping down from his own horse, the Highwayman approached the dying horses on foot, noting the whinnying and the spittle on their mottled lips. Their legs had been broken from the crash, and maybe even their backs. He lowered the muzzle of his revolver to one horse’s head, just above the bulging eye. The gunshot cracked the sky, echoing up through the ravine. That sandy depression was strewn with the garments and suitcases that had been bucked and battered in the chase and the ensuant crash. The horse was silenced at once. He did the same for the other horse, and the ravine was a dead quiet thereafter.
“Ain’t nothin’ I hate more than creatures sufferin’,” the Highwayman said. His eyes were shaded by his black cowboy hat, eclipsing the hot Nevada sun, yet the perpetual squint never left his gaze. As a consequence, the Highwayman always appeared angry, or in pain, his dark eyebrows like black wisps of fire beneath his crinkled brow.
He turned his attention, now, to the dusty cab. Its single occupant had not yet emerged. So, taking both revolvers from their holsters, the Highwayman approached the cab slowly, guns raised. He should have known he had nothing to fear, for his horse was absently grazing on some patchy tufts of grass. And the piebald never relaxed so much when there was danger lurking nearby. She had an instinct for such things.
Looking over the stagecoach, and peering over the sights of his revolver, the Highwayman saw a young woman crumpled in among the cab like a baby in its broken crib. She was a fair-haired comely little thing in a blue dress, flecked here and there with blood. A golden cross lay upon her chest, the latter of which rose and fell with her breath. So she was still alive; only scraped and bruised. He put the revolver to her gashed forehead and readied to pull the trigger.
Her eyes flashed open, full of terror. He withdrew his gun.
“Get yourself on up outta’ there,” he told her.
The woman glanced around, her eyes scuttling every which way as if they meant to flee from their sockets. Otherwise, she did not move.
“Come on, now,” the Highwayman said, not unkindly. “Get yourself out.”
Grimacing, the young woman tried to rise, and then gasped in pain.
“I believe my arm is broken,” she said. Her voice was high, and not only from the pain. Had she been a singer, she would have been tenor. It was more a girl’s voice than the voice of a woman more mature in worldly matters.
“All right then,” the Highwayman said.
He holstered his revolvers, then climbed atop the stagecoach, standing with his boots to either side of the open door, stooping down to offer her his hand. She took his leather glove with a blue satin glove. He groaned, and she winced and gasped, but gradually he pulled her to her feet within the toppled compartment. He then lifted her out, carrying her as a groom would his bride across the threshold. He set her under a bristlecone pine tree, the twisted specimen offering some shade with its smoky clouds of green needles. He then pillaged the body of the coachman and gathered up whatever things he thought worth saving from the disarrayed contents of the young woman’s suitcases. There were silken gowns and makeup bottles and various jewelry of silver and gems. When he returned to her, he demanded her earrings and the coins in her purse. He did not take the golden cross hanging from her neck.
Meanwhile, she stared at him hatefully with her blue eyes.
“You’ve killed a good man,” she said.
“You’ve a city accent,” he returned. “New England, I’ll bet.”
“You’ve killed a good man and robbed a woman who has never harmed you,” she said.
“God giveth and taketh away,” he said, crouching down in the shade next to her. She shifted uncomfortably, and winced when she attempted to lean on her arm. He shook his head.
“It ain’t broken,” he said. “You just banged it good.”
The young woman looked away, toward the piebald. The Highwayman followed her gaze, and snorted, or laughed, or both.
“You were going to kill me,” she said, warily. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you were sufferin’,” he said. “Like ‘em poor creatures over there.” He tipped his head toward the dead horses.
“Suffering is a part of life,” she said, absently clasping her cross. “But you seek it out for others. This is not right, sir.” She scowled at him beneath her crumpled bonnet. “This is not becoming of a Christian!”
“Well then,” he said, standing. “That’s how it oughta’ be.”
He went to his horse and took a sack from aside the saddle, returning to the shade of the bristlecone. It was well into the evening, and the shade was stretching across the ravine like a dark hand.
Opening the sack, the Highwayman began to stuff all of the woman’s belongings into its gaping burlap mouth. When he had finished, he tied the sack tightly with twine and set it beside the twisted trunk of the tree.
“Are you now satisfied, sir?” the young woman asked bitterly.
The Highwayman regarded her now silently, his eyes dead in the shade of his leather-brimmed hat. He slipped his rifle off his back, doffed his leather duster, and then took off his holstered revolvers. Putting them aside, he approached the woman as she shrank against the tree.
“What do you want?” she gasped, her blue eyes agog with terror.
He said nothing, but knelt down in front of her. She pressed herself against the tree, turning her face away and trembling, holding her one good arm out against his chest. His denim shirt was unbuttoned to the navel.
“Are you not a Christian man?” she wept. Her arm bent and buckled beneath his urgent weight.
He paused, staring at her cross grimly.
“What good would that be?” he asked. “It ain’t of any good to you, is it? Not now. Not ever. I could take you as I want and nobody’d do anything to stop me. How’s it any good, then?”
She began to sob. “God will protect my soul, if nothing else.”
The Highwayman snorted in contempt, then sat down beside her, leaning against the tree.
“He’s a helluva devil, ain’t he?” he said. “Making us the way we are and then blaming us for it.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What do you mean?” she said between sobs.
“The Engineer,” he said. “That’s what he is, ain’t he? I mean, when you got yourself a locomotive and it runs off the tracks, you could blame the tracks or you could blame the workers in the locomotive. But only sometimes. Sometimes there’s something wrong with the locomotive itself. Wrong from the get-go. Innate’s the word. And then you gotta’ wonder why nobody’s blamin’ the Engineer. He’s the one that designed the locomotive. And sometimes the only thing that goes wrong started long before the train was ever put to tracks.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Course you don’t,” he said, appraising her balefully. “You never stopped to think none about it. Like this trip of yours through hostile territory. Somebody told you everything would be just fine, and then it weren’t, and now you can’t believe that it’s gone all awry on you.” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “But things have been goin’ wrong since forever.”
“You are speaking like a soul willfully damned,” she said. She traded her tears for anger. “And I bet you blame God for everything wrong in your life. But look at you! You kill innocent men and threaten innocent women! Steal and kill and your bounty is an eternity in the Lake of Fire!”
Again, the Highwayman snorted, or laughed, or both. It was a contemptuous sound. He took off his hat, revealing hair that was as black as an Apache’s.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about you sheep,” he said. “You’re always blind to the knife that’s comin’ for you. That’s how you die happy. It’s the only way you can die happy. Bein’ blind. Me, I can see. I see it all.”
His eyes squinted more tightly, as if he was suffering a great hatred, or pain.
“I had me a brother long ago. Fifteen years dead now, I think. Back then, when Daniel was alive, he was like you, Ma’am. Believed in God and Angels and Devils and Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. He went to church every Sunday, prayed in the morning and at night before bed, and never spoke a cross word against nobody, no matter how much they might of deserved it. And daddy, well he deserved a cross word or two. Hell, I knocked some of his teeth out before I left home forever. He was a mean ol’ drunk and he’d beat us something fierce when he was divin’ in the bottle. But Daniel only ever prayed for daddy’s soul, and mine, and momma’s, whose death came shortly after Daniel’s birth. Anyhow, Daniel’d get these fits sometimes. Like the Holy Spirit ragin’ through him. Like a Holy Roller, you know? Just dropped to the floor and would shake all over as if struck by lightning. He liked to think it was God humblin’ him, or givin’ him visions, or whatever which way he liked to fancy it. Me, I thought it was something wrong in his brains. He was a good boy, and a kind boy, but he wasn’t the smartest of boys. Met a man who was, by all accounts, a decent man till he took a donkey’s hoof to the head. Afterwards he was a cruel sonnabitch. The brains are the key, I think, and we don’t really have no say-so in how they’re made. That’s up to the Engineer, see?”
He nodded at his own words when she refused to, then placed his hat atop his head again.
“Well, one day Daniel was out mindin’ the chickens, just like he was supposed to. Daddy and I was digging a hole for a new shitter. Pardon my language, ma’am, but that’s what we was doin’. What happened was Daniel was doin’ as he should and the next thing you know he went all limp and fell down with one of his fits. It happened once a week, mind, so it shouldn’t have been such a bother, but the problem was when he fell down, shakin’ and talkin’ in tongues, he struck his head on a rock. Now, this was through no fault of his own. The Engineer had seen it fit to give him a jolt, and that jolt did him in. He weren’t the same after that. He was lazy, and tired all the time, and was downright mean. Like he was drunk, though he never drank nothin’. Daddy got tired of it quick, bein’ now more alike than ever they was, and so daddy beat the piss out of Daniel. I beat the piss out of daddy, then took off with Daniel, lookin’ for a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with ‘im. But I was told was I already suspected. Daniel was gone. Only the shade remained, cold and without substance. And so I ended his sufferin’, too. Sent that shade on ward into whatever dawn might await it.”
The Highwayman was silent now, staring inwardly at some far-flung shadows that the young woman could not see except in the black pupils of his eyes.
“But the Lord gave us Free Will,” she said. “He let’s us choose for ourselves if we are Good or Evil.”
“Did you not hear a damn word I just said?” he snapped. “Daniel never got to choose nothin’! Got knocked over because of something wrong in his head, and then knocked his head worse than before. He didn’t choose none of ‘em things!” He struck at the tree with a fist. “No more than this here tree chose to be planted here. The Engineer designs, if he designs at all, and when things go off the tracks…well, you are the mess that’s left over afterwards. And so I thought to myself, ‘Well Hell, what good’s there in bein’ Good if it just gets you dead or worse anyhow?’ None of it matters. Not you. Not me. Nothin’. We ain’t got no say-so in anything.”
“But you can choose to be Good,” the young woman said, pleadingly.
“No more than the train can choose its own tracks,” the Highwayman said. “Or this here tree can choose to go plant itself somewhere else. Ain’t that somethin’, though? To know that you got as much freedom of choice as a goddamn tree?”
“You’re crazy,” she said, clutching at her cross again.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I know it. But knowin’ it don’t change nothin’.”
He began to look at her again in that intense, urgent way, and leaned toward her.
“But what about Christ?!” she shrieked. “He died for our sins! He made a choice to save us!”
He tilted his head to the side, bemused. “Yes, ma’am, I once was a Christian, too. But then I reckoned that the Christian faith was just another one of the Engineer’s jokes. He is a notorious jokester, ya know? Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another. High and low, everything in this world is contrary to the Word. I saw it in his dealings with Daniel, and I see it every day in his dealings with the world. The hare is taken up by the eagle. The mouse is eaten by the snake. Ain’t no mercy or love in it, except if it happens to be a swift death. And even that’s a matter of chance.”
“But you can choose better!” she said, as if to convince herself as much as himself. “You can! Please! Let me go!”
The Highwayman considered her for a long time, his gaze steady and unblinking. At length, he stood up and put on his holstered guns, his duster, and his rifle. He gazed to the West, where the sun was setting, stretching the shadow from the lip of the ravine over the hollow groove below it. He and she were standing in what was once a river, now long dried to dust. The Highwayman grumbled to himself for a few moments, as if thinking aloud,. He then addressed the young woman.
“If you go five miles South from here,” he said, “then you might make it to a small military outpost by sundown. They’ll take good care of you. They’re gentlemen there. Christian men. They’ll see that you get food and will tend to your hurts.”
The young woman stood up with her blue eyes gleaming brighter than the rarest of diamonds. She clasped the golden cross as if in prayer.
“Oh thank you, sir!” she said. “God bless you! I knew you couldn’t be too eager a Devil’s foreman!”
“You can take my horse,” he said, nodding toward the piebald. “She’s a good-tempered thing. She never bucks, even when bullets are flyin’ like gadflies.”
The young woman nodded, then hurried toward the horse. She could not get up in the saddle by herself, her arm too injured. The Highwayman helped her up, then, and then led the horse out of the ravine. Dusk flared beyond the ravine. It was an apocalyptic war of red fire and dark clouds beyond the horizon. The mesas looked like the gigantic headstones of dead gods long forgotten.
“Keep goin’ South,” the Highwayman said. “And you will find your Salvation.”
“Bless you, sir!” she said again, weeping with joy. “Bless you, and may you find peace and Christ in this life!”
He wacked the piebald on her rump, sending her in an easy gallop across the wasteland. After a few moments, he unslung his Remington rifle from his back. He aimed with a slow, aquiline regard at the blue figure on horseback.
“Let her die with hope in her heart,” he muttered. “It’s all any of us can aspire to.”
The aim of his eye, like the aim of his mind, was given to him by his Engineer, and it never hit amiss of its mark. He pulled the trigger and the crackling was as of lightning promising rains for the desert. And it was not a false promise. The Highwayman returned to the bristlecone tree for his burlap sack. He then went to fetch his horse back to him.
It was low tide and Jacob stumbled down the white dune, staggering stiffly toward the lapping surf on the New England coast. Bubbly froth lazed forward and withdrew, then lazed forward again, tumbling planks and splinters of wood and other flotsam in its playful foam. Jacob hobbled with his arms raised for balance as the dune finally plateaued onto the white beach. His backside still stung from yesterday, when his father had whipped him so hard with a leather strap that he could not sleep all night long. He had shoved his little sister. As atonement— in the eyes of his parents and of his God—he was to collect mussels from their clusters among the seaside stones on the beach, or catch crabs, or harvest whatever else God would provide since the Natives had retreated further inland with the advent of Autumn. His father said that the Natives helped the previous Winter only because God had inspired in them His love, but that the pilgrims could not rely on the Natives now. There would be no more help from the heathens, he said. Jacob wondered why.
Jacob was grateful to be away from his family. He was angry, but was too young to understand much more than he was tired of his sister following him incessantly and betraying him whenever he attempted to do anything besides chores. Susan was a little Judas, he thought, and he wished for no more flagellations on her behalf. He had only wanted to walk by the creek, alone, and catch frogs, perhaps, or skip stones. But Susan was stubborn as his shadow, and clung to his trail as steadfastly on her short little legs. Losing his temper, he baptized her in the creek with an abrupt shove of his hands. Yes, she almost drowned, but he saved her, drawing her small body up from the hole he had not seen in the creek. Weeping, but still breathing, she clung to him as he carried her back to their village. Her dress was drenched through and she had nearly drowned herself again in tears by their arrival in their drab stick-and-wattle house.
Jacob hated Susan as he walked along the shore, aching at the seam of his britches. It was his tenth Autumn and the seventh since crossing the Atlantic to the New World. He could not remember the voyage except vaguely— impressions of dark, dank cabins cramped with other pilgrims seeking new lives away from England. Within the shadowy, fetid ship he had felt it sway back and forth upon the grumbling sea and it seemed as if they were in the belly of the Leviathan. His sister had not known the Hell of floating upon the sea. His mother had tried to comfort him with kisses and caresses, and his father had tried to comfort his mother with the Word. But a toddler knows when his parents are lying to themselves. It was evident upon their faces, which he remembered most vividly of all. Their faces were like the damned, and they shuddered as he did at the endless roar of the godless sea.
Seagulls cawed shrilly above, drifting sideways with their white wings lifted aloft, suspended almost magically on the salty winds. Jacob wondered if angels possessed such wings, and if they flew in the same manner in the firmament. The seagulls’ voices reminded him of Susan’s as she cried, and so they infuriated him. He stooped down to pick up a shell or pebble to throw at the birds, but his hand happened upon something strange on the shore. Brushing aside the sand, he found a little doll made of withe and decorated with a pale blue ribbon. Picking it up, he dusted it off. The face of the doll had been painted, but the smile was erased by brine and sand. It reminded him of his sister. He glanced about, and saw more things upon the beach, tumbling languidly to and fro in the lethargic waves. They were remnants of what had been a ship. It had been a large ship, he knew; not unlike the ship which he and his mother and father boarded years ago to come to this wondrous and terrifying world.
The pain in his backside had kept Jacob from sleeping last night, but so, too, did the storm that raged distantly at sea. The winds bellowed like demons and the thunder boomed like pagan gods in a terrible war. Rain leaked in through the roof of their house and pooled in the village square. Not even the stone church was spared flooding. Now that the storm had passed, the sky was crowded with pillars of white clouds through which the sun gazed wanly. The sea had calmed itself, though the wind still hissed uneasily, as if resentful; its grudges not yet relinquished.
It was easier to believe in pagan gods than his father’s God in this New World. His father had said that the New World would be a new Jerusalem; a paradise on earth, born in the belief and the devotion to their God. It would be different than the Old World and all of its iniquities.
The seagulls cried overhead, like angels in agony, and Jacob felt a deep sadness. He untied the blue ribbon from the doll, then hobbled up the dunes and onto the wind-blasted, rain-flooded New England grass. Using a stone, he dug a small hole in the muddy earth and set the doll within it, covering it over. He then used the ribbon to bind two sticks together and propped them up above the small grave. He tried to say a little prayer, but it died on his lips. His eyes burned, but not from the chill, briny wind.
Collecting up an armful of mussels, Jacob hobbled home and gave them to his father. He then apologized to his sister and spent time with her, watching her as if she was the most precious miracle in the world. All throughout the week he never spoke a cross word to her, nor lost his temper with her. And if he became angry, he remembered the drowned doll that had washed ashore.
Susan saw him cry only once—a few tears while he fed the chickens—and asked him what was wrong.
“The world,” he said. “Old and New, it’s all wrong.”