Preacher-father waited till the man had set himself down at one end of the bench, then went and stood beside him, dipping now and then from the bowl with his knife, talking between swallows of our mission in this place.
I couldn't be as deft, crouching next to Emily and examining her hard enough to lose my food a dozen times down the front of my shirt. She had an eye that wandered: her left, a mud-colored marble rolling untethered in her skull. And she might have been ugly, my little starveling girl, but she was of age and I grew in her presence then, counting the ringworms in her neck and numbering them like pearls. She was gaunt as me and greedily we watched each other eat. So while Preacherfather awed the Fladeboes with our plans for ministry, I went slopping up the corn-shuck gruel and lurching after Emily in my mind.
The mother and father kept still and silent for his talk, and it was Emily who finally spoke, leaning over to whisper in her mother's ear and rocking back and forth a little on her end of the bench. The mother frowned and gave her husband, who was rapt, a good jab with a crooked finger.
She's got to pass, said the mother.
She can wait, he said.
At that, Emily gave a little whine.
Dirt or water? asked her father.
Just let her bring the gun, the mother said. She'll be all right.
Damn it, said the man. Boy, why don't you take that rifle from the door and go watch for her out there.
It hadn't struck me yet full on what he was asking. And before it did, Preacher-father was pointing me to the steps and I was taking up the rifle when Emily came hustling by, pushing out the door. I followed after her and let the door come closed. She was clutching at her lap with both hands. Wincing, she hurried off saying, Come on, it's over here.
I followed her past a pen of sickly-looking hogs, over to a patch of high grass which, when she parted herself a place to squat, I saw hid a trough of shit and piss. Soldierly I clutched the rifle to me as she got down on her heels, flipped up the backside of her dress, and started singing. I glimpsed her squatting, skirts bundled up and the grass-stalks blooming all around the white of her knees. Before I could turn, with a gyre of her wild eye Emily caught me in a glance.
I'm not looking, I said.
Good, she sang. Or else you might find that you've gone blind.
Devil-worms lit into me like magpies to a lamb's eyes as I stood out there with Emily and kept watch over her corruption. She sang on, whatever song it was, and I was busily recomposing Solomon's for her: Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like a pillar of blond smoke, perfumed with black powder and campfire ash? We have a little sister who is mousy and flat-chested, she is covered in dirt and the blades of her hips show through her dresses; what shall we do for our little sister?
The answer in my young and foolish mind was Anything. A multitude of sins rose up but I could tell her none and only manage to hide the shame which grew prodigious in my lap when she hitched up, left the ditch, and, whistling, passed me by.
The Conversion of the Chitites
My father preferred solitude for the preparation of his sermons. He'd go off, sometimes late Friday or even early Saturday, carrying only his hatchet and Biblea copy scarred and bitten as any barroom brawlerand return sometime before Sunday morning when he would gather me up in the dark and we would head to meeting. He always left me with a good fire going while I slept beneath the lean-to we'd built against the foot of the ridge that marked the eastward end of the valley. Really, I can't say whether it was even Sundays when he preached, for all the holediggers had forgotten days, dates, and names. It didn't matter; he made whatever day he wished the Sabbath.
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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