"I've been thinking about the Holy Blood," Sally says. Is she just killing time or impatiently pressing her luck? She has talked Tommy Cavanaugh into bringing his cameras and tape recorder and joining her on a "research project" out here at the Deepwater mine hill in preparation for his new Ph.D. career, doing her Girl Scout good deed of the day by luring him away from the bloodless banking life—"I'll be your R.A. and take notes," she said—and they are now mingling with the media folk and the crowds of the curious at the foot of the hill, watching the Brunists wander around up on top, about half of them in those white choir gowns. God's little lambs. His white corpuscles. The hill is aswarm with them, and there's a lot of coming and going and cheerful heavenward gestures, but not much is happening, and Tommy is getting bored. Certainly no sign of the End of the World—though, who knows, maybe this is what it is like. The sheriff and his boys are out here, rocking around wide-legged like cowboys who just got off their horses and are trying to air out their crotches, but they seem intent only on keeping the townsfolk and reporters from pestering the cultists. She'd like to get closer, but there's no way up unless invited by a Brunist. "The Holy Blood was the blood that came spouting out of Jesus' side when that Roman soldier porked him with his spear. Later it got passed around to all the churches as a relic to work wonders with. Also whatever leaked out when he was scourged or squirted out from the nail holes. Like, you know, they had somebody there collecting it in little cups like you do when you kill a pig. It cured everything. Miraculous effluvia, they called it." She liked this phrase. Miraculous effluvia. It has gone into her notebook. Which today she is pretending is her steno pad for Tommy the Scholar. "It was a hot pharmaceutical product. There was a lot of money to be made and there were several enterprising bagmen trafficking in it, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cartel in Jerusalem cornered most of the market since they claimed to have all this stuff on the premises, the place being a kind of dead meat mine. They also sold his sweat, tears, hair, nail clippings, and foreskin, not to mention everything he ever touched, like rocks he stepped or sat on, raggy scraps from his loincloths and winding sheets, and even shards of the basin he used to wash the disciples' feet."
"His foreskin? C'mon, you're making this up, Sal."
"No, he apparently had several, actually. They're scattered all over Europe and displayed in jewel cases like little wedding rings. More than a dozen of them. Does that mean he had several dicks? I don't know. It's one of the unrevealed mysteries of the Christian faith." There is a festive atmosphere up on the hill, but also an undercurrent of fear. The cultists are spending a lot of time peering up at the sky, and the onlookers down here can't help following their gaze; when someone yawns, everyone yawns. She looks up, too. After a sexy, summery week, it has turned cooler and the sky today has a dark woolly look, uncombed and knotted (she is thinking about her own neglect in this respect; epic ratsnest, as her mother calls her hair), and maybe it reminds everyone of the apocalyptic storm that pounded the hill five years ago. She remembers it. She was here. A giggler with other gigglers. Pathetic. "One big collectors' item for a while was a farewell note he supposedly left his disciples, writing with the nails he got tacked up with, using his blood as ink and his own skin as parchment. But, of course, as we all know, his skin went to heaven with the rest of him, even if he left his blood and other exudations behind, so that article got remaindered."
"I can see it coming. Next you'll be telling me they collected his shit."
"Well, there are rumors. I mean, if sweat, why not snot or vomit or ear wax, right? And what-all else. Dandruff? Dingleberries? That stuff under your toenails? I can just see all those guys chasing around after him, trying to grab up anything that fell off or out of him." Idea for a story: Jesus Has a Wet Dream. Sacramental consequences. "They also sold off all of Mary's bits and pieces, though her big item was her milk, which must have been more like cheese by the time it reached the customers."
"Oh my God! Spare me, please!" Tommy turns away with a pained grimace (she has grossed him out again, the tender little thing; why does she do this?) and, handing her his Polaroid, busies himself with his Nikon. The Brunists are a colorful lot, animated and emotional, lots of hugs and tears and emphatic declamations and occasional convulsions, and they dress funny, so there are plenty of great shots to be had—the amateur yodeler from the radio station, for example, in his matching white Stetson and white boots with red flames at the pointed toes and on the crown of the Stetson, a white jacket with fringes on the sleeves and tight white pants, blood-red tie like his throat has been cut, guitar over one shoulder and tape recorder over the other, picking up field recordings. Or that cluster of wailing worshipers in white tunics gathered around the pudgy silver-haired faith healer with the sparkling teeth, praying for the grumpy broken-backed man in the wheelchair to get up and walk. But Tommy ignores them (she has not; this has all gone into her notebook) and, shifting the bill of his baseball cap out of the way, points his lens at some young moonfaced kids with guitars wearing Brunist tunics. Well, one of the girls is cute, bare-legged and bosomy and wearing her shortened tunic like a loose nightie, the hypocritical little bitch, he probably has his eye on her. Or, more precisely, on what she's showing off between her legs. Come and see. Sally drops her cigarette and grinds it out. Fiercely. On edge. Can't help it. A lot of young kids out here, buying this craziness. It's scary.
"What I can't figure out, though," she says, hanging his camera over her shoulder and shoving her hands into her trenchcoat pockets, trying to stop herself from lighting up again, "is that, with all this emphasis on magical blood, there's no mention of hawking Mary's menses. I mean, hey, talk about miraculous effluvia."
"I suppose they figured it'd make you sick instead of better. The curse of Eve, right?" This said over his shoulder while clicking away. The little twit, knees still raised, is smiling at him.
"That's what the guys in charge called it. They used to chase menstruating women out of town and lock them up in a shed because they thought they'd ruin the crops or mess up the hunt—I mean, you could smell them from a mile off, couldn't you?—and they got blamed for everything from causing the milk to sour and the clocks to stop, to bringing on earthquakes and hailstorms and curdling the mayonnaise." That one about curdling the mayo she got from her Grandma Friskin. Who said it backwards a decade or so ago: "Well, at least I won't curdle the mayonnaise anymore." "But the magic sauce was also used to fertilize the veggies and fruit trees and chase off evil spirits, and they fed it to their pigs and chickens to spice up their bacon and eggs, so its rep was mixed. People even blended it with wine and drank it themselves for a longer life and for more kids and to pump up their spiritual powers and their dingdongs, which in guys are more or less the same thing. I mean, you know, good or bad, whatever the Ineffable touches, whammo. They believed the gunk could cure gout, warts, worms, the bubonic plague, epilepsy, and leprosy, not to mention fever blisters, buboes, and the whooping cough. Ragtime is a cosmic event, Tommy. It swings with the moon and flows with the tides. The big red monster. Powerful stuff." Not that she believes any of this. It's a literal pain in the gut. "So you can imagine the market potential of Mary's monthlies, right? The real Holy Blood. In fact, the Blood of Christ is probably just a euphemism for it. Men are always trying to get in on the act. Take that wound Jesus got from the Roman dogface. Ever look at the paintings of it? It looks just like a bloody you-know-what."
"No, it doesn't."
"No pubic hair."
She grins at that. He's listening. "Well, but he was still just a virgin, wasn't he? In that respect at least, with his little loincloth like a sanitary napkin."
"What's with you?" Tommy asks, a bit exasperated. "Are you on the rag or something?"
"How'd you guess?" What did she think? He'd feel sorry for her? Probably just makes him want to throw up. It always infuriates her when it comes on and it makes her lose her cool. Today it seems worse than usual. It feels like her ovaries are eating her intestines. Like maybe her uterus knows she is excited and is trying to claw the egg back in case something happens. Is she excited? Sure. Damn it. She takes a drag on her cigarette. (Another one. When did she light up? Doesn't remember.) "Cousin Tom, my roommate calls the Big M."
"How did I get this honor?"
"Time. Of. Month."
"Oh. Very funny. Well, I'm just glad I don't have to deal with that."
"Too bad you don't. The world might be a better place if men had their turn. Monthlies keep you pegged to the earth. Men get lost in their own spacey heads and fly off somewhere, and that's how we got all this religious idiocy." She gestures up at the middle of the hill, where a huge theatrical fat woman with arms as big around as phone poles and stiff hair poking up like straw ticking out of an old mattress, her tunic riding up over her bulbous rump like a wrinkled slip cover, has knelt and started to moan beside an unfolded aluminum lawn chair with plastic webbing raised up on four cross-like stakes, which seems like some kind of weird altar or shrine. Others fall to their knees around her. The woman points up at the sky and shakes her head violently and all the others do the same. Some of them seem to have red crosses painted on their foreheads. "I mean, just look at all those wacky Christians! Looney tunes, man!"
"But that isn't real Christianity."
"Yes, it is."
He sighs impatiently, as though to say, oh shut up, and stares absently down at her tee shirt. She had tried this morning to pull on her old No-Name Wilderness Camp shirt from when she was eleven, imagining it might be like a cool skin-tight top leaving a bare midriff, maybe tease out a romantic joke or two (hah), but she couldn't get her head through the neck of it. She decided it was not smart to wear anything too provocative, so she left her perversely illustrated JESUS LOVES ME tee at home and chose instead one of her noncommittal holiday shirts, the one from Yellowstone showing Old Faithful geysering. Figured it might give Tommy ideas. It does. "Reminds me. I need to pee. Time to go anyway. Dad will be waiting for me." See Sally smile. See Tom run. Off to feed the dummy. It's like her presence has somehow created her own absence…
"Here, Sal. Why don't you take the cameras, get us some more pix?"
"Nah. I'd just lose them. Before you go, though, could you let me use your car a minute?"
"Sure. What for?"
"I'm about to blow a fuse, Tommy. I need to change ponies." Is that a mixed metaphor, or what? I gotta sandbag the flood. Reload the rocket chamber. Feed the kitty. Diaper up. Ram a tam.
Make a list.
"Well, all right. But don't leave the old one in the ashtray, please."
"Don't worry. It's what trenchcoat pockets are for. Keeps the sniffer dogs away from the grass."
In his car, after making the change, she takes out her notebook and writes down that phrase about presence and absence. What does it mean? And what will she do with the spent bullet? Dracula's tea bag, as her roomie calls it. Where will Angela most likely poke around and find it?
Gods fucking mortals, whether as birds, bulls, dragons, or rain, are always stories of rape. Mary got bonked in the ear, so it was a kind of mind-rape. The Annunciation as an act of conceptual violence.
Words as random ejaculate. Potent. Diseased. Syphilitic. Mind rot.
Virtuosity alone is not satisfying, she writes. What is needed is the unmistakable crack of a hammer against glass.
Riding the Hood. Story about a chick who comes of age, dons the rag, and heads out into the world to make her fortune, delivering the goods to grandma. Who is juiced beyond redemption. A wolf tries to cut in on her territory, but he gets stoned on grandma. Red rules.
A woman's biological liquidity—blood, milk, tears: the emergence of life from a fluid medium.
There's a chinless little guy with big ears and buckteeth who passes through the food tent at regular intervals, spouting Bible verses. Mostly about last times. Death and destruction and the tortures of hell. God's playground delights. The verse-spouter doesn't look at anyone or speak to anyone. He is speaking to the world. Or some world. He reminds Sally of a sick polar bear she once saw in a zoo, striding compulsively back and forth between two fixed points. She draws a cartoon of him. "A city on a hill cannot be hid!" the little fellow cries out. For at least the fifth or sixth time. A line from the Sermon on the Mount. Most loathsome text in that loathsome book. He's probably talking about the plans for a temple up here. If he knows what he's talking about at all. "Sweet Jesus!" he exclaims.
City on a hill. Imagine. A wandering hill. A soft hill. A slippery hill: The city loses its footing. Woops. As the city slides toward the darkness below, the city fathers enact desperate ordinances against the decline. They float away like comicstrip balloons as the slide accelerates. This tent is perched on a hillside. Made of what? Coal slag maybe. She has to sit facing downslope for fear of tipping over, holding her place by gripping it with her butt. Facing upslope would be easier, but she might fall backwards.
Story idea: Struggling against invisible resistance up a hillside or mountain, like in a dream. What is on the other side? A destroyed town? Pleasure? The abyss? The feeling of persisting inside a negative force for no reason other than the need to persist. Ipsey Wipsyphus.
Sweet Jesus: a killer, dangerously criminal but given to endearing eccentricities. Pissed off at what they've done to him and out for revenge: Listen, you think I can forgive this? He shows his scars. When I think about them they still sting. I'm going to rapture the shit out of those dickheads! Dirty Pete as his enforcer. His ma: Big Mary. I Love to Tell the Story…
Maybe the easiest thing to do is found another church. She writes that, turns the page over, hoping no one demands to see what she has written. She tries to look like she might be praying. Her scribbling has drawn scowls, questions. But also beatific smiles. She's more comfortable with the scowls. To be sitting here among them is no doubt dangerous, but here she is. On one tagged page, which she can quickly flip to if someone comes to peer over her shoulder, she has written: The Brunists: an amazing movement! And it is. Almost like a magic act: something conjured out of nothing.
Two homely kids in tunics come into the tent, go out, one skinny, the other fat, looking stoned, careful not to touch, but never more than a foot or so apart. They seem to share some dreadful knowledge. Or wrongful expectation.
One is deprived of full contact with reality by the flaw of hope.
Write about that. The woefullest thing. Hope.
As best she can understand these people, they hope the world is about to end, maybe even today, but are also afraid it might. Meanwhile, even as they get ready to fly away, they are building themselves a big spread for their headquarters and maybe even a temple up here on the mine hill. Part of what that "city on a hill" cry is all about. The cathedral impulse: Is it an admission of failure?
There's a sad sack of a woman who can't stop eating. She picks up a sandwich, leaves the tent, tugging her tunic down at the back. A few minutes pass, she returns, picks up another sandwich, leaves, tugging her tunic down. She's not wearing any shoes. Chin sunk in her cleavage, mouth stuffed with sandwich. Often, she seems to be crying. She must have put away at least twenty sandwiches since Sally has been sitting here.
Time. Back to that. The shriveling of those foreskin relics. What time does. But: Christ preaching, riding a donkey, posing on the cross. Acting. In Time, objects dissolve, but gesture is frozen forever. Sally Elliott's molecular law.
Words: somewhere in between. Their excessive superfluity. Like sperm. Now and then, after millions swim past and die, one sticks. Makes everyone sick for a while.
At first, people came over to speak to her, introduce themselves, invite her to come pray or sing or just walk about with them and she was able to put them off by saying she was waiting for someone, thanks; now they mostly leave her alone. Some asked what she was writing. "My thoughts," she said.
Her discomfort. Her stupidity. Her ugliness. Her blood sacrifice.
There's an old lady in the doorway, sitting upright in her chair as though bracing herself for an immediate ascent. Must be nearly a hundred. Can't come too soon for her, else she'll have to go through the burial, decomposition, and resurrection drill.
Idea for a story: The dead rise from their graves. Billions of them. Brief elation. And then they fall over and die again. A mess.
Now and then a helicopter rattles overhead. Five years ago, there were a lot of them. She thought of them then as pestilential, locust-like emblems of the last days. Today's loner is a distant melancholic echo of that day, like a marker on the grave of that lost time, of all lost time. But what time is not lost? Even future time is lost. What is different about the end when it comes: it cannot be remembered.
There are some snotnosed brats running around in the tent and a huge bald redfaced man in a split tunic gives one of them a sullen clout that sends him sprawling. Bawling. A lit cigarette dangles between the fat man's thick lips like a pea shooter. Darren and Billy Don said no smoking in the tent, but nobody is going to argue with that guy. A thin little woman with coarse sandy hair, a pooched belly, and a sad martyred look comes in and leads the yowling kid out. The big man takes up a fistful of sandwiches and follows them, brushing the tent flaps, making everything tremble. So much of him.
Flesh generates melancholy.
Everything generates melancholy.
That night in the back seat of his dad's car all that time ago. Boy Blue. His boner poking at her side like the legionnaire's spear. Knocking on the door. That she was ready to open but didn't know it.
Where is the little girl afraid to peep? She's behind the ice plant, getting in deep.
A pastoral romance.
She sighs irritably, folds up her notebook, stuffs it back in her trenchcoat pocket. She aches for a smoke, but if she leaves the tent she'll just have to walk on down the hill and home again. Her thirty minutes were up half an hour ago.
After Tommy split (when Angela tips down the sun visor to admire herself in the makeup mirror tonight: sur-prise!), she decided to try for an invitation up the hill. Fellow believers were recognized and led up past the sheriff's barriers, but she could never fake that. The reporters and camera crews, like the tourists, were restricted to the bottom of the hill, but cultists sometimes came down to talk to them. Two guys in particular seemed to be acting as spokesmen for the group; a tall slouching boy with handlebars covering an overbite, shaded pilot specs, burns and a hairknot, and his shorter friend, a more earnest and scholarly sort with a round face, granny glasses, and curly blond hair (she'd die for hair like that, she'd even brush it). She wandered over to tune in and it was clear they knew, in the way that baseball nuts know their stats, what they were talking about. They had the cult history down pat. Christian history, too. All the schisms and theories and prophecies and interpretations. Or at least they seemed to, what did she know? They had the Bible mapped in their heads as well. They could jump around in it at will, whip off quotes, name chapter and verse, draw parallels and morals. When some guy behind a camera asked if the Brunist movement wasn't heretical, they coolly said they didn't believe in the concept of heresy. All human efforts to grasp God's purposes have value. No one has a monopoly on the truth.
"Right on," she said over the reporter's shoulder, and the boys smiled benignly.
"The truth," said the blond one, "is more like something that exists apart in the intellectual space shared by everyone, not something bottled up inside this or that individual. All voices have to be listened to closely in order to catch a whisper of God's voice behind them." Whisper. Nice.
"The truth's more like the air we share," said the mustachioed one. "Not what you or I happen to have in our lungs at any moment. And like air, we can't see truth, but we know it's there and we can't do without it."
She could see problems with that metaphor, but she didn't say so. Instead, she waited until the reporters were out of the way, and then she said, "Hi. I'm Sally Elliott. You guys really know your stuff. I'm impressed." She knew she had a genuine expression of angst on her face because of the cramps. "I don't think I'm going to become a member or anything, but I'm really curious and I wondered if maybe you could give me, like, a kind of guided tour and tell me what's going on?"
"Are you a Christian?"
"Well, a Presbyterian."
"Really? Here in town? The minister's wife is a member now."
"I know. Auntie Debra." Not really her aunt, of course. Was that cheating?
They looked at each other and nodded and introduced themselves and invited her up. Maybe her scruffiness helped. From what she could see under the tunics, or by those who lacked them, she fit right in. Probably a good thing she didn't have the cameras, though. Billy Don, the taller one, said this was hallowed ground and she could only stay for thirty minutes, unless she wanted to confess and become a member. There was still time. They were watching her uneasily (behind Billy Don's shades, she could see, one eye was askew), but they also seemed hopeful for a new adherent. Probably gave them status. Banking another soul.
The tour didn't take long. There wasn't much to see, but that wasn't the point. "Hallowed ground" was the point, and she its inquisitive intruder. When she asked, Darren and Billy Don explained that the lawn chair perched on the four waist-high roughhewn wooden crosses was like the one on which the dead girl (they said: "first martyr") was laid out on the Day of Redemption five years ago. Others passed by, pointing at the sky. She remembered the thin bluish corpse, whipped by wind and rain, only the second dead body she had ever seen. But she had forgotten the lawn chair. Probably too freaked out to notice. On the day, even while she laughed with her friends, she worried the Brunists might be right and she'd get left behind. She could still think that way. She'd been poised for a sprint up the hill if things started to happen. At the same time, she was afraid of getting struck by lightning. Billy Don asked her if she'd like to stop and pray, and she said she would like to meditate for a moment, and she assumed a grave expression and stared down at the lawn chair and had a rather ghoulish thought about Sleeping Beauty.
They walked her around behind the reception tent, as they called it, to the lone tree there, which had something to do with the invention of their new baptism ceremony with light instead of water. "It's like a new covenant—not replacing the old, but transcending it in the way that light transcends water." This ceremony awaited her if God granted her grace and understanding and she became a True Follower. They pointed to a large tent further up the hillside, whose open flaps revealed rows of folding chairs and said this could happen tonight if she were ready to confess her sins and give herself to Jesus. She asked more about this. Apparently there is a special "liturgical" flashlight they use just like the one from the first time. Or maybe it's the same one. The tree had a frail shaggy martyred look of its own, gaunt, leafy but without real branches, a wounded pole. Not unlike that of their leader Giovanni Bruno, as she remembers him from the day and from photos of the day. She asked about him and learned that he is dead. Not, apparently, from natural causes. Unless all causes are God's causes and therefore natural, she reminded them, hoping they didn't hear the irony, and they nodded solemnly at that, and seemed to relax just a little. They pointed out the place down on the mine road where the girl was killed and the area just below them where the Powers of Darkness gathered five years ago with their ominous yellow school buses. Where she herself had stood. Full of darkness, to be sure. By the time things really got hairy, though, the Powers had to do without her and her friends. They'd earlier started for the bingo tent to get out of the storm when they heard a lot of screaming in there and that scared the pants off them and they ran all the way home and had to watch the rest on television.
Though some of the scowls she got suggested she was still oozing an aura of darkness, for the most part she was welcomed with smiles and praise-the-lord greetings, the two boys her ambassadors. The kids from Florida all gave her loving hugs, including the cute one (who, Sally was happy to note, had gapped front teeth and a lisp), and introduced her to others from their bus and people they'd come to know here. There were apparently over a dozen buses parked at the camp, and more down below here on the mine road. It was like being at a big school pep rally. On Homecoming weekend. She learned from the boys that the cult was hundreds of times bigger than it was five years ago. Something was happening. It was almost elbow to elbow up here. She met the radio announcer in the white cowboy togs, who was talking with a tall skinny dude with a guitar and his girlfriend about a gig at the station. She might have been part Mexican. When Sally asked her why she was here, she said she'd got called. Like someone called her on the phone. A lot of these people talked that way. Voices in their heads. In the wilderness of their heads. A dingbat with a rigid grimace and steely blue eyes under a peroxide blond toupee wandered past, trailed by admiring ladies in bouffants. He was lecturing them at full throttle on the meaning of the cross in the circle they were wearing on their tunics. Some numbers game involved, having to do with Christ's thirty-three years. "And, yea, there was give them to each one a white robe," he cried out. "Cause the spirit has took on flesh, a new day is come, brung by the White Bird, the Holy Spirit, and you are in it, my friends, a new day what will last to the end a the world!" There were people falling about in what her comparative religion textbooks used to call fits of divine madness, and other people strolling about with cups of coffee and beatific expressions, calmly watching the ecstatics as they might watch children playing in a sandbox. Weird. Tom and Sally at the Reality Border. "Do you guys ever do stuff like that?" she asked, and got only smiles in return, though Darren added, "God speaks with many voices."
After consulting with each other, the boys showed her roughly where the new Brunist tabernacle temple is going to be built and said in a secretive voice that the great news of the day was that they had just received a really fantastic gift, nearly enough to build the whole thing. She asked them if there wasn't something paradoxical about building a new church when they were expecting the end of the world. Well, the Rapture could come any time, but they didn't think it would happen for at least two years ("Me and Darren are working on that," Billy Don said), and this gives them time to build a proper tabernacle wherein to receive the Lord, wherefrom to fly to Heaven. A kind of launch platform, as she later wrote in her notebook. A docking station.
Though they'd told her that the main events in the meeting tent wouldn't be starting until later in the afternoon, there was already a lot of preaching and singing going on all over the hillside, some of it broadcast over loudspeakers. That was to encourage anyone who wished to join them, Billy Don said, and he added that he sincerely hoped she would make such a decision. They accepted her thoughtful silence. These guys were easy. Their evangelical leader Clara Collins was a different story. A horsey, strong-jawed woman, sure of herself. She didn't walk, she strode, and wherever she went, there were people around her. When Sally was introduced to her, she asked bluntly, "Are you here as a believer, child?" "I am here as a seeker after truth, Mrs. Collins." "Well, so are them reporters down there." "No, ma'am. They only know their own truth and want you to confirm it. I don't know the truth and am on a quest for it." Got that right out of her medieval lit course. "Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and in the resurrection of the body, and in the Bible as God's holy word?" "I wish to believe, but I am full of doubts. I am trying to resolve those doubts." "She's the niece of Sister Debra, Sister Clara." Clara gave her a stern look-over, gazing into her thicket of hair as though to search out there the demons who possessed her. "All right, child. But don't abuse your welcome."
An invitation to leave. But she wasn't feeling so great. She needed to sit down. The boys asked her if she'd eaten and she said she hadn't, so they led her in here under a tent where they had tables of food set out, found a folding chair in a corner, and brought her a white-bread lunch-meat sandwich and a cream soda, and that helped. Sometimes, it's true, it seems to her that she grasps or is embraced by a great cosmic mystery, and for a moment she enjoys a certain rapt serenity. But usually the mystery eludes her or it evolves into some familiar banality, like the cream soda burp she burped then, and it never comes close to happening when she's bummed out with the blahs.
A guy walks into the tent now wearing a chocolate Stetson and an unbelted white gown over jeans and dusty high-heeled boots. Looks like some kind of cowboy cross-dresser. Said to be a honcho politician and rich rancher from Wyoming and a bishop from there. She takes out her notebook again and commences a sketch. He grabs up half a sandwich, stuffs it whole into his jowls, and wallows it around in there like a chaw of tobacco. Suddenly, he topples over, knocking his hat off, and starts twitching and yelping out unintelligible noises, spewing half-chewed sandwich. When his tunic falls back, you can see that he's wearing holstered pistols—he is a cowboy! A crowd gathers. A woman with one dead eye and a gold tooth claims to be able to translate his gibberish. She says the Prophet is inside him and speaking through him. The Prophet says: Prepare! Christ is coming! They all know this, but they gasp and cry out all the same. A whispered chant: Bru-no! Bru-no! Bru-no! All this ecstatic communion: how the fantasy of soul gets made. After a while, the gunslinger gets up, dribbling chewed bread, looking dazed. He doesn't acknowledge those gathered around him. He straightens his tunic, brushes off his hat and leaves the tent. Singing ensues.
The Great Myth of the Rapture. She's sitting in it.
Nothing more certain, said Darren solemnly. "The Second Coming of Jesus Christ, his literal physical return and all that means, is referred to 1845 times in the Bible." She wrote the number down and factors it now just for fun. Three and five and one-two-three.
Another thing Darren said. About the religious calling. She flips back a few pages: An invisible form calling out for substance. One is conscious of this summons and its attraction, without knowing what it is that is calling. Something he read somewhere probably. Now she writes: The writer's vocation: An invisible form calling out for substance. One is conscious of this summons and its attraction, without knowing what it is that is calling. When she looks up Aunt Debra is standing there, frowning down at the notebook in her lap.
"I'm surprised to see you here, Sally. I didn't think you were a believer in much of anything anymore."
"You know me, Auntie Debra. I always have to know it all. How about yourself? I never thought of you as an evangelical sort."
"Well, I have changed." Certainly she seems to have lost some weight. In fact, like her mom said, she's looking pretty good. Settled into herself, at home in her tunic. Tanned and strong. But maybe not so soft and loving as before. "These are good people who have suffered so much for their simple faith. I love them and have become one of them."
"But you seem so different from them, Auntie Debra. They're all so—well—so emotional."
"I know. I resisted that at first. Afraid of direct communion with God. All buttoned up like a good Presbyterian. I'm past that now. For the first time, I feel like I really have a personal relationship with God and belong in His world and am at last living a truly meaningful life. Everything is suddenly so real."
"Well, that's great, Auntie Debra. I mean, I guess it is. You're sure looking good. But Mom says your husband has turned kind of weird."
"I was slow to wake up, Sally. He was always kind of weird. And he knows nothing at all about true religion. He's a showoff without substance or faith or beauty. Like a strutting jay among meadowlarks." Do jays strut? Maybe. She knows nothing at all about birds. "But," Aunt Debra adds, glancing skeptically at the tee and trenchcoat, into which she has hastily buried the notebook, "these people are very serious about their beliefs. You must be careful not to offend them."
Billy Don joins them, slouching up, hands in pockets. There's a red patch on the side of his face where he's been catnapping on it. "Are you staying?" he asks cheerfully.
"I think she needs more time, Billy Don," Debra says. "She was just leaving." Well, she's ready to go. The cramps have subsided, but she desperately requires a cigarette, and she has had about all of this holy mania she can take in one go. Debra gives Sally a brief but affectionate hug. "I love you, Sally. Come see me any time," she says, and hurries away, holding up the hem of her tunic, slapping along in her sandals.
"I better go help the others," Billy Don says. "Do you want me to walk you down first…?"
"No, downhill's easy, Billy Don. Like sin."
"Listen, if you change your mind…" He takes her hand in both of his and gives her a deep gaze through his sunglasses, at least with one of his eyes.
"Thanks, Billy Don. You never know. I may come out to the camp to see Auntie Debra and we can talk more about it."
"That'd be great." He squeezes her hand tenderly and leaves, pausing at the tent opening to toss her a wave.
At the tent portal, she pauses to add a note. Life's a story, she writes, and you either write it or get written. Accept somebody else's story and you're the written, not the writer. She smiles at that. That's me, she thinks.
"Pardon me, my child. Could you please hand me my cane?" It's the old lady sitting stiffly just outside the opening. Mrs. Mc-something. On the Florida bus with those cute Jesus children. Sally shook her frail blue-veined hand on coming in here. "It seems to have fallen."
"Sure. Are you all right?"
"All right? Well, for my age, I suppose I am." There's a mischievous knowing look on the old lady's face. "That boy's sweet on you, I do believe."
"Maybe. But I think it's only my soul he's after."
"You've been writing. Are you a writer?"
"Well, not yet. I want to be."
"What sort of writer? Love stories? Whodunnits?"
"Sort of both, I guess. I mean, I want whatever I write to be about finding out about things, you know, the way a detective solves a case. And love, well, everything's about love, isn't it?"
The old lady smiles at this, showing a pretty good set of teeth, assuming they're her own. Her skin is mottled, loose on her bones, her jaws are sinking inward, hands trembling slightly, but she's still clear-eyed and sitting up primly, straight as an arrow.
"Yes, it is. Even when 'love' means zero."
Sally smiles back, imagining a tall trim debutante with bobbed auburn hair in white tennis clothes. A classic beauty. "I bet you were really something in your time," she says. "You're really something now."
"I was a bit wild."
"I'm a bit wild."
"But then, after a while, it all became something else. I started playing bridge."
"I don't want to do that. I want to stay wild."
"I think you probably will," says the old lady, and blesses her with a sly wink. And then she sort of blanks out, her expression goes flat, her eyes dull. Ma'am? There's a little windy sound. Oh my god. Time to go.
In addition to The Origin of the Brunists, to which The Brunist Day of Wrath is sequel, Robert Coover's many works of fiction include The Public Burning, John's Wife, Pinocchio in Venice, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors' Cut, and Pricksongs & Descants, to mention only his most notorious. He is also the star of FlashPøint #15.