Here were the very seeds of forsaken civilization, scattered along the prairie and waiting for us to sow them into a promised land. Or so much as Preacher-father said. The place was settled by no more worthless a pack of dirt-daubers than you will find in all this awful world. They were ten or so families, with names like Shoelick and Backscratch and Auger, and we were met at the door of each one's hole, which opened like a cellar, by bewildered and mistrustful faces. Their thin, dirt-caked children slept in biers carved into the mud walls of the dugouts and watched like rats as I stood beside my father at their family tables, if they had any. It wasn't rare for me to sit upon the floor and look up to see insects struggling in the ceiling or for an earthworm to drop into your coffee cup.
They had become like moles or rabbits and would hear our footfalls on the sod before our voices. When Preacher-father spoke, they came out, if they did at all, holding guns or farm tools, and their voices rasped with wonder for having gone so long speaking to no one but their own poor blood. When he asked them about Jesus or being saved, they stared and grew more awestruck with whatever next he said. Poverty of soul, he called it, but God knows we were bizarre, this growling man and little blond-haired boy, traveling with supplies so lacking that the holediggers all said we should have been dead. Maybe that was what first made them all believe in him. They warned against pitching camp aboveground for the wind and the Indian to level. When they were made aware of the disease which had recently befallen the savages, the Chitites shook their heads and said that nothing could kill the devils. Dig, they said, and bury yourself for the empty horror of this land. But Preacher-father refused to huddle in the dark, hiding from the eye of the Lord and increasing his proximity to Hell. He said this was the place and these were the people he would lead to Heaven.
They were, he said, sore in need of his preaching.
Once we visited a dugout that was viciously armed. Sharpened branches stuck like pikes from around its door and there were holes cut in the boards for gun-barrels. It was early yet in our ministry of Chit, and our first time at this particular hole. I couldn't know that what awaited me within that dank burrow was my first great sin.
When a man's voice called for our names my father answered for us both. Leather hinges creaked and the door cracked open but an inch. Come here, said the man. Show me your hand.
Preacher-father went and did as he'd been asked, then through the door-crack shot a hand that took his up and felt it, as if to see that he was real.
I'm a man of God, he said, and white.
So you are, said the holedigger, and let go his hand.
Inside the smell was not of dirt as you'd expect, but of people close and filthy. I was used to life in the open air and the dugouts seemed an awful, grave-like thing. They were the Fladeboes: father Conny, mother Fay, andGod forgive medaughter Emily sitting there in the dark in a dingy sackcloth dress. The father led us to a short table with seats only on one side, already occupied by mother and daughter hunching over steaming bowls.
You can eat, the mother said, if you don't mind to share bowls and spoons with us. All we got is three.
They could eat off knives, the daughter offered, with a glance that in the tallow-light looked wild.
Good girl, said her mother. Go and get them.
The daughter huffed up from her place and disappeared into a darkened corner of the hole, returning, after a brief scratch and scrabble, with a pair of smooth-edged knives.
Emily, you'll share your bowl with this boy, said her mother.
THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN © 2013 by Kent Wascom; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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