They were a real family once. Meaning real more than family: money in the bank, names on signposts, a great house that reached to the sky. And like all such families, the reality’s lost when they aren’t looking: the town fades, the flowers fall from their tree, and the name goes threadbare.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t remember what they’re meant to be, or that the sons don’t shine. Bob’s football captain, until he was football captain, but that still means something long as he stays in town, that captaincy following him around and his strong shoulders bearing heavy legacies. Ray’s marking summertime until he can leave again, until he can kick up dust behind him and run back into the wide-open arms of UNC or Duke or whatever law school will pull him in, our boy’s getting a degree weighted down with names, proud and alienating and shining with genius. Stan, too. Stan’s got a degree. Gonna go be something else highfalutin once things start going right again, right after Ray. No offers for him, but he’s bright enough, an arm and a leg of bright, no matter if no girl ever dances with him or no fellow ever buys him a beer. He’ll make something of himself. The parents of those boys had so much to be proud of, have, even now (they put their folks into the ground so nice, came back and everything). One of them’s gonna be president, sure as sand, or at least senator and the face of the whole state. Don’t matter that the town is still as nails and as empty as tombs. They’re the Baratheons of the town called Baratheon, coal-headed as the town mines, their potential bright as diamonds. They can call it back to life, or it’ll die and leave them empty down to the marrow, shaking out the pockets of their souls.
Or that’s the thought. That’s the myth of the town, made for obligation.
I. THE MAGICIAN
“You wanna see a trick?”
Ray looks up from the wheel. The car’s stopped in the driveway, only so’s he. “I don’t wanna see anything until we’re back outta here. Jesus, this place hangs on you.”
“Yeah, I’m not too excited myself. I’m trying to mark the time.”
“Put down the coin.” He takes Loras’s hand. “We can’t talk. Not about anything that matters, not out in the open here. You get that, right?”
“That’s what I’m trying to show you.” Loras grins a cat’s grin. “I’m showing you my sleight of hand, Ray. Now you see it—” He folds the coin away. Ray watches his sleeve and still he misses the trick. Probably he wants to. Wants to leave the grace of Loras’s wrists untouched and magical. The coin is gone and Loras opens his palms, showing off, and Ray takes him by the wrist in the empty parking lot of the Motel 6 and for a moment his love is stronger than his fear, bolstered by invisible things. The windows are down, the air at the back of his neck reminds him to have a care, but he lets himself touch skin to skin if nothing else, hand on elegant hand.
“It’s gonna be fine. Magic.”
“C’mon, boys.” The door to the motel room swings open and shut, and Margery swings her hips around the front of the car, rapping her dainty little knuckles on the hood. “I got the key, now help a lady out with the suitcases. I can’t do it alone, and I won’t.”
Loras follows his sister, falling into step with her like an accidental dance, like his fingers dancing with the coin in sunlight. Ray blinks against the sun as he shuts the door behind him, can only see the pair of them when he squints and shades his eyes. For a moment they’re too bright to be seen. Invisible, sure. Call that magic too, as long as they need it.
The coin disappears, but it’s not gone. Just waiting.
II. THE HIGH PRIESTESS
She comes into town like she was never not there. One minute it’s a thin threadbare town with flowers that crush themselves in the hot night air and dust underfoot that turns everyone a pale shade of brown like they’re in a sepia photograph, next it’s her town. She’s there first time at sundown, the sky seared orange, eating an apple on the steps of the Apostolic Tabernacle, getting splinters in her bare thighs and eating an apple, like Eve. Yes, just like Eve, and she knows it. A woman like that knows it, both knows her temptation and her gospels.
It’s three weeks after their father’s funeral, the last of the grave dirt swept off the church floor. Grass has started to grow back onto the plot.
The three of them take her in with unholy clarity. Bob sees those thighs, white under the hitching red of her skirt, thinks about parting them for a second until the next woman walks by; Ray sees the sharp watchful glint in her eyes; Stan sees—
Stan looks straight ahead. But she’s watching him.
They go to the AT every Sunday morning because you go to church when you’re feeling obliged to the ones that bore you, and there’s no obligation like when they’re dead. That means her, more of her. Next time, she falls to the floor, slain by the spirit, teeth locked against her tongue inside her mouth. The congregation would have scolded her for wearing lipstick, maybe, if she’d been any other woman and if she hadn’t pitched herself flat to the floor, hadn’t arched under the hands of the Lord and given the onlookers everything they ever wanted out of their faith. Yes, this is faith. Who knows if she’s wearing lipstick at all? Maybe when you’re (whisper it) touched, your blood just runs higher, trying to push itself out of your skin. Every part of her calls to Heaven.
It’s Stan who’s told to bring water because it’s Stan who’s willing to leave the spectacle behind, and what no one says is there’s nothing in Stan’s head when he folds his hands, nothing in his heart when he looks at the Scriptures. Stan don’t believe. Grits his teeth and bears the prayer, but he don’t believe, not one word. There’s a reason nobody’ll spend too long in his company. Fact, there’s a list of reasons as long as your arm, but calling him God-forsaken makes it polite in its way. Lets you save your own skin.
Funny thing, that a woman touched by the Holy Spirit his own self don’t mind the company of one so adamantly in his shadow, but maybe she’s got enough spirit for the both of them. After the service, she takes his arm. “You’re a gentleman,” she says to him, and he nods, looks down at the ground. She presses in closer. “I mean it. You’re a gentlemen of rare quality. Some of those souls don’t know how to look to the flesh and make it godly. I mean, I’m all for self-abnegation, but we are flesh and He made us the way we are. We might as well use it and tend to it and make it into the best instrument we can.”
“All I had to do was go to the sink,” he says. His voice comes rough in his throat, maybe from keeping quiet all service, maybe from the unfamiliar excess of her body up on his arm. “Guess you were thirsty.”
Her name’s Mel, turns out. It won’t be the last time he walks her home.
III. THE EMPRESS
Nobody’s gonna talk about Bob’s new girlfriend, the girl he says he’s gonna marry, nobody knows how to do it without starting out with How— and that’s apt as not to get you a punch in the jaw from those big square fists. It’s not that they don’t see how Bob gets girls, because that part’s plain as eyes. It’s this girl that’s baffling, her cold voice and neat vowels and the way she curves just out of reach of Bob’s big hungry hands every now and again. How to find a girl like that at WVU at all, and how to get her when you’re a blunt instrument like Bob, who’s good at what he’s good at but you can tell. He’s gonna marry her, he claims, you do what you gotta do to keep a girl like that. He ain’t been the same since Leah, but this is different, driving somewhere else than his heart but above the prick: Cecy Lannister’s a punch to the gut if she’s anything.
Bob over a beer tells it so plainly:
Look, I saw her at a party like I see ‘em all but she wouldn’t fuck me there, wouldn’t do nothing but pull her hands through my hair like a promise of what she could do with her hands and smile in little flashes like a promise of what her smile would look like when I earned it and I walked her home and didn’t get shit only left me there hard as a rock so I went back or maybe someplace else anyway I got a keg and fucked a blond that night and a blond the next night and they giggled and went down easy and all I could think about was the way she wouldn’t smile even when she asked me about the game she said You’re a real hero huh and I remembered the way she said hero as I came in another girl’s mouth and I’d told her about the game and she was there all right I didn’t know if she would be until I saw her there with her brother I don’t know if she has many girl friends a girl like that doesn’t have many girl friends she ain’t soft like girls and I would’ve been jealous when I saw her with him he’s a big motherfucker and her hand was on his arm but he had her face spot-on so what’s there to be jealous of? Anyway I threw that pass that night that was the time I ended up in the papers front page and the stands stood and she stood and she smiled big and wide and I coulda come right there but I waited and took her out and yeah maybe she called me a hero then or maybe it was some other word I don’t know I just felt like fuckin Thunderbolts, what’s his name, Greek god, king of ‘em. That was a month ago and of course it’s happy she tells me to be grateful and I don’t know what I wouldn’t fucking be grateful for, the bitch, she doesn’t need to tell me a thing.
A girl like that doesn’t have many girl friends, or maybe many friends period. Just that brother of hers, and maybe that’s why her mouth’s so hard and her eyes are so secretive, because she’s tied to her brother, wrist to hip, and she ain’t going nowhere until he does. Her brother got thrown out of the Ivy League for something big and bloody, ain’t nobody going to tell you what but ain’t no way he’s going to be able to get back. And she followed him. By someone’s will, who knows if it was hers, but now that she’s here where she is, nobody’ll be wresting that will from her for love nor money.
Her brother drove down with her, a week after Bob got back. Big kid, blond, face just like hers. It’s like they’ve been painted that way by a master, there’s nobody on Earth should look that good, least of all two of them looking the same that way. Of course she’s going to stay with him, she said to Bob, you can’t leave family alone in a strange town. She kissed him on his closed frowning mouth and darted back before he could open it. It’s the right thing to do, you understand. The only right thing.
Means she can slip outta the house whenever she needs to, out of reach of the ghosts that fill up all its empty space. There’s old blood in the floorboards, old ghosts summoned every time they creak, and what’s more there ain’t enough people to fill it now—the dining room still echoes the voices of the wake. Them ghosts don’t belong to her. She leaves unsmiling and often, visiting a brother they both insists stays in the Motel 6, and every time she goes, he hates her a little, and every time she comes back, she hates him a little more.
IV. THE EMPEROR
The house is all of theirs now, now that their daddy’s dead, but there’s no one gonna claim it but Bob. It’s his in the will, Daddy’d made sure of that. Bob was gonna be mayor one day. Someday will. Ain’t enough to just own the town, but there’s more than enough titles to go around. Titles gone borderline hereditary, what else for the skeleton of a town that wears their name and calls to their blood. Bob for mayor, strong shoulders and bright teeth. They say a boy like that could be President if he makes enough friends. Stan for sheriff, a badge and a gun and a sure hand. Ray for getting away unscathed.
Stan’s a queer kind of sheriff, but the way old Stephen told it he made all the sense in the world. A sheriff don’t need to sleep much, don’t ask much but good brass for his badge and stale coffee in the pot. A sheriff marries his gun. Don’t deny your brother, he’d warned Bob back when Bob was young and wanting for a gun. Damn sure he ain’t never gonna marry a woman. So Stan’s tireless even when the town’s quiet. Shoots at the target out back every night and hits it straight to the heart. His draw’s gotten snake-quick over the years, and his boots have always been quiet where they tread, and if Bob envies him, he can’t call him ill-fit to his iron bride.
Meanwhile, Bob reads the paper in the morning even when it bores him and calls that training all on his own. Current events are one of the thin threads that keep Cecy wrapped to him; whenever he makes a comment about the state of the world (what a fuckin’ state, he knows enough to be unhappy, whatever the story) her lush mouth gets a faint curve and she kisses him on the cheek, nowhere near the mouth, her lips slightly cool. A man more up with the Lord might call it penance, might call her heaven, but Cecy ain’t religious. A blind man could see that; he wouldn’t even have to prophesy. She stays home from the AT. He’d join her (come by in the morning, he said to her, we’ll have breakfast, he swears she was victim to this grin once, she must’ve been) but she pushes him out the door: no, no, you want to run this town or not? You’ve got to show your face. Her lips curl around her teeth, viper sharp. Bow your head when you’re bored and maybe you can sleep.
Now that’s a good woman, his father would say, his mother would nod. On the money: every Sunday, he leaves and shakes a man’s hand, tips his forehead to a woman, and they smile and call him a good boy and he’ll be back at the house in two shakes and Cecy’ll come by later with Jamie in the passenger seat and they’ll eat. Cecy’s no good in the kitchen on her own, but she can boss her brother into helping herself make something presentable.
And Stan, well. He comes in later, long enough that he’s got to duck his head in the doorway, but he sits with them and you feed a brother whether he’s a decent conversationalist or not.
His shot gets quicker day by day out back, right where nobody’s watching. Nobody thinks to ask what kind of heart Stan dreams of shooting at. A criminal one, of course.
V. THE HIEROPHANT
“Don’t it get exhausting?”
Mel’s arm is in his. The sun is going down; she walks with him in sunset hours, when the world is lit on fire and her skin is pale paper that soaks up the sun. Her hair dyes the sky behind it and she walks alongside him without a breath between their bodies. She gave him a photograph of hers to remember her by: a beauty shot, she’s wearing a crown and sash, but pale, he’d call it sepia if that wasn’t too antiquated. It’s leached, in any case, of the color that sears through her in person. Keeps it in the top drawer of his bureau. Don’t want to explain it to anyone else. It lies there next to a neglected Virgin Mary his mother gave him on thin Easter paper, papering the bottom of the drawer. Should throw them both away. Hasn’t yet.
She licks her lips, thinking. “Keeping crime down in such a quiet place.”
“It’s the quietest places are the most dangerous. Out round the edges—”
“Oh, please, I know the criminal history of this town. I just want to know how a college boy like you came back to be Quick Draw McGraw. Don’t it get tiring?”
He clips his words like he’s cleaning a gun. “No.”
“Gun work wouldn’t be tiring, course not.” She has the nicest laugh. No one else laughs like that around him. “But the same thing every day, day in, day out. You grit your teeth all through the church service, I see you. Ease your heart.”
He won’t talk on the road. Says God’s watching because that’s the kind of thing she understands. She smiles and draws a finger over her lips and says let me drive you home. No, he says, he’s got his own car, own keys. Then drive her home with him, she offers. Fine thought, that. To eat with his brother, his brother’s wife, his brother’s wife’s husband?
“Brother, I said brother. The words get all twisted around at the end of the day. Too many brothers. Too many husbands.”
“Too many brothers.” Her hand strokes his arm. “Of course.”
In the end he drives her out to the edge of the woods at the edge of town, sets the car to idling while the bullfrogs sing the evening in. Should ask her where she lives—that’d be polite. The words choke in his throat.
Her hand slips up the back of his neck. “Why don’t you want to look into the face of God?”
“You think I’m gonna find him at the AT?”
Not God, not his Son, not the Spirit. Stan’s dad went to that church and his dad before, his mother wore a hat just like her mother before her. Its steps creak with the weight of all the footsteps stepped before. The only ghosts there are anything but holy.
“No.” Her head tilts, spilling red hair over her shoulder. “Then why do you go?”
“My father went. My mother went. My brother goes.”
“They had nowhere else to look.”
“My brother can look wherever he likes.” Truth, sure, but it tastes like rock salt on his tongue. Mel at his elbow shifts her body, listens close.
“He’d be a better sheriff,” she says, and he turns to iron. “Just give him a gun. Leave the town for you.”
The town is his name, his name is the town, just like anyone else, but the church crowd doesn’t clamor around him like they do his brother, and he leaves with empty unshook palms. Better for prayer, maybe, but what’s God ever done for him? The town don’t want his running, he tells her, you can see it where they come from. You’ve seen the church, Mel. She shakes her head. She won’t have it.
“The church isn’t the only place God’s watching. You said so yourself.”
He’s never been one willing to take back his own words. Her hands close over his like a lesson in prayer. If her skin’s a book, that makes it easier to touch, so long as touching is a kind of reading. Enough space on her body to carry a whole Scripture, built in long fingers and crossed legs.
Time enough for that. There is warmth inside his body like God’s reached down and tapped at his heart. She means what she says: she can get Him to listen. The fact that she’s there at all, that she’s brought him with her, means He’s turning an ear.
It ain’t that he has anything against prayer, after all. Just needs an ear to shout into. No sense in wasting breath.
“Where do you live?” he finally asks.
“Right now? The motel.” Her smile is an apple slice. “Take me there.”
VI. THE LOVERS
Three motel rooms in a row, walls thin as parchment but the souls inside drown each other out.
Room one: a man touches another man on the hollow of his hip, where a red rose is drawn up against the skin. Loras hisses as Ray’s hand moves in from behind, waiting for it to slip on down further, and it does all right, but his fingertips linger on the shape of the rose, burning it into flesh-memory between them.
“You gonna get one yourself?” he asks, biting the words through a smile whose ease tightens away into need as Ray’s hand wraps around his shaft.
“Maybe.” Ray moves his hand, lazy as can be, palm slick with spit against the soft hot skin. “Soon as I get outta here to someplace my brothers can’t get a look.”
“Your brothers spend a lotta time looking at you naked?” Loras turns his head over his shoulder and grins. Ray bites at that grin, clenches his fingers around Loras’s cock and catches the moan on his tongue. Moves his mouth lower, to his shoulder, down his back. Summer-hot skin like salt under Ray’s tongue. The top sheet’s in a knot on the floor already. He’s got his own dick in his hand as he spreads Loras’s legs, tongue on the rim of his ass. Thinking about the rose as he does. He’s never wanted to burn anything onto his body so permanently, never thought he’d love anything enough to mark it forever, but this, this he’d take to eternity.
In the parking lot, there’s a car with the same rose stuck on the bumper. It circles and pulls away into the night, Margery’s fingertips trailing a Virginia Slim out the window. Her cell phone’s in the passenger seat, but she’s not in a hurry for it to buzz. She’ll get a milkshake, sit at the diner until the sky pales all the way into morning if she needs to: she’s used to marking the time.
Room two: two pale bodies melting into each other like tallow in the heat, hair tangled up in bright sweaty knots of gold. Cecy curls her knees up and does not think of her husband. Locks her thighs around Jamie’s hips and sighs herself blind. She’s willing to pray here and curse here like she does nowhere else: jesus, Jamie, fuck.
Jamie says Cecy or sometimes he says sister, swallowing the sibilants until they slide into the back of his throat and stay there. She licks his Adam’s apple, the rise and fall of it, arching up against him, and he cups her breasts, presses a hand to the small of her back, fills in the places where she curves with the hard lines of his body. He is hard between her legs and she is aware, always, of how empty her body feels without him inside it.
There is a part of her that longs to be the one that fucks and fills, to be the one that leaves him empty when they’re done. She doesn’t like being empty, doesn’t like the reminder that there’s a space inside her that calls to him, always. Once she tried to tell him—drunk, of course, or she would’ve known better, drunk on roadside margaritas at a truck stop on the road to Baratheon, and he laughed and reached across the table, hand on her face and fingers tracing the salt-lined rim of her lip.
“You think I don’t starve for you while you’re gone? Sister, think again.” She’d cast her eyes around, frantic with fear, but they say sister like a term of endearment, baby, honey, sweetness, sister, anything that might mean woman, and her open wary mouth had been pulled in all unawares against his. He’d kissed her with lime and salt on their tongue and he bathed his tongue between her legs, later, licking at her clit until she writhed.
“Don’t call me sister in public,” she’d said when she could speak.
“What d’you want, wife?” he’d asked, eyebrows up, and she’d pulled his hair until he shut up. Still, sister stays in private, whispered like a twin to her name and a reminder that she is no one to be claimed by a husband.
Room three: nobody’s husband and nobody’s wife. God’s wife, maybe. Mel’s kissed by something holy, sure as sacrament, and that implies a marriage. There’s no adultery in heaven, after all.
She takes Stan’s jacket, smooths her hand over his shoulders. “Have a drink” she says. “I got a bottle of bourbon somewhere around here. You just sit.”
“I just drove you home—”
“And now you’re here. Just sit.”
She walks around the little room and it seems to grow larger around her, walls pushing back as she gets close, wallpaper peeling in her proximity. She’s got a knack for making the world peel itself bare. Pulls the top drawer of the little bureau open, it shakes and a bottle comes clanging into her hands, liquor red-brown and fire-sweet inside. She stands it up on the top of the dresser and unbuttons the top button of her red dress, the sweet curved collar falling open. Her slip underneath is red, and then it is all she is wearing, her dress around her ankles and left behind when she takes a step. She sits next to him, red sateen pushing up on his forearm, offering the bottle, opened, in one hand. Her eyes are big, watchfully sober. He’ll be drinking first, then.
“I’m gonna drive home.”
“Your blood alcohol can take it.” Her head tilts, her smile trapping her tongue behind her teeth. “You know exactly what your limits are.
He drinks and it’s straight sweet fire on his tongue. “You gotta take a minute every now and again,” she is saying. “A minute just for you. God talks in the distribution of minutes, and you spend your life so silent, Stan, so silent and small. Stop pretending to occupy the minutes and the world will crack itself open for you, will bare up its purpose. You deserve a purpose, a man like you who makes purpose out of nothing else. You deserve to be gifted with it.”
Her nails brace herself against the back of his neck. This is not the gift. The bottle is not the gift. The world doesn’t waste its gifts, not to him: if revelation is coming as a present, it’s not going to be just a woman or just a bottle. He’s not holding his breath, not even when her nails scrape patterns against his skin. She pulls forth her other hand from behind her back. There is a little piece of paper on her palm.
“God speaks. He doesn’t whisper. We have His words, and they promise that when he calls, he will shout, he will blaze. I understand your impatience, your disbelief, but you’ve got to take this moment and listen. You won’t believe until you do.”
“What’s to be gained in belief?” he asks, voice coming out liquor-burned and rough.
“Everything,” she says. “Stan, who else is going to give you all that you want? You know the answer ain’t a person. The answer’s the shape of things that haven’t come yet. You’ve got to invite them in, and you’ll get everything you want.”
He looks down at the palm of her hand. A tiny, near-transparent square of paper, inscribed in tiny runelike ink. He squints, reads the fragment: And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.
Her smile is a knife, stained redder in the flickering motel light.
Her hand slips into his mouth, fingertip placing the paper on his tongue, and she kisses that mouth closed, slides into his lap. The gift is not a woman. The gift is not just a woman. She is not just a woman: there is fire searing out of her skull, and her hands are psalms on his skin, burning away the cold solitude that’s worn its way into his skin.
The flames, reflecting light behind his eyes, consume them both. His head tips back under her hand and he screams into the nothing that surrounds them.
The motel’s paper walls shiver, the three rooms’ cries chording out into the forest. The orchestra seats are empty and no one is listening.
VII. THE CHARIOT
In the front seat of the blue car with the rose stuck to the bumper, deep in the forest, Margery kicks her heels up on the dashboard and takes a cigarette from her brother’s hand. Ray sprawls in the back, feet out the window. The town’s only nice when you’re a mile outside.
“When’re you gonna take us home with you, kid?” Margery asks, reaching back to idly hold his hand, skin cool, touch affectionate.
“Shit, I’m planning to go back with you. Soon as possible.”
The front seat exchanges a look.
“You rushing us out?”
“Why, do you actually want to stick around?” he asks, and Margery’s lips thin, thoughtful. Shit, he thinks, that wasn’t meant as a challenge—but he’s always forgetting what she’s willing to make into one, quiet about her gamesmanship until you realize you’re playing on her side. The Tyrells play half out of habit, winning of a different nature as deep in their blood as anything.
At the dinner table of the home into which Ray hasn’t stepped yet, the woman who’ll be Bob’s wife sits at the table and reads the newspaper with a bag of ice under her jaw. Her fingers draw contemplatively along the flesh. Walked into the door, she’ll say. Nothing to fear from plain wood and metal; no one bests Cecy Lannister, but they won’t blame her for being a dainty lady who don’t know where to put her feet. One foot in front of the other. She kicks the varnished old table leg and feels the pain sear up her toes, kicks off her heels and wishes she could run to the border. But then none of the land she left behind would belong to her, and if nothing else, this pain needs to belong to her, to pay off in hard blood-gold-ink dividends. Some kind of power that justifies the handprints on her body under her clothes.
Where were you last night?
I came back, didn’t I?
The front page reads: tempest coming. There is always a tempest coming, like the world wants to blow these shithouses right off its surface. Skips the cartoons and there’s no entertainment worth writing about. Obits are in the back of the front section. She reads them with special care. The town is so small they list names from several counties over, starved for death. The desperation of small spaces, the hunger for everything they’re short on, even the terrible things, maybe especially the terrible things. Small spaces call the devil even louder than cities. Put him on display, belly-up. Citizens so starved for sin that they invent it, call it out of themselves. The minute she and Jamie drove into this town, she sensed the line she had to walk, and she’s walked it front to back. Left her pants at home, buttons her blouses to the neck. Choking herself in increments. She wouldn’t survive a disaster like this; she’d die screaming, feminine-helpless. But looking like this, she can bring disaster down on anyone else she likes. Butter wouldn’t fucking melt. She touches the underside of her jaw.
Why don’t I give Jamie the extra room? Your brother isn’t gonna stay and your parents sure as hell aren’t coming back.
Why don’t your brother go home? This ain’t his town. Don’t he have somewhere else to go?
He doesn’t want to go anywhere else.
And I don’t want you to go anywhere.
I don’t want to marry a man, she said as a child. So much the better, her father told her. Marry things, bank accounts, puppets and ties and routines. Marry a place. Make it shine when it’s yours—but how else d’you think you’re going to get it?
The newspaper crumples, thin under her fingers. Only news that’s fit to print makes a thin, thin periodical here.
A man dreams of fire and can’t come back from that.
Mel says trust me, and he’s seen her skin lit up and burning and he can’t come back from that.
Mel was the first gift from a world that’s promised to make up for a barren lifetime, and he can’t give that back.
Mel says only now that you’ve seen the true God do you understand the danger of the false one, and he is silent, for all he saw was her, burning and shining and wrapping herself around him, still holier than anything he’s ever seen in church. He knows just enough to trust his eyes and ears and the coiled pit of his stomach and his eyes and ears and the coiled pit of his stomach understand her. She speaks his language now, too. Iron, powder, nitroglycerine.
Fire’s the first thing we worshiped. It will be the last thing. It’s the light of God, his tongue on the ravaged earth.
He gave us floods and after that gave us the responsibility to make our own floods.
He doesn’t know responsibility from God, he knows it from paperwork and ticking clocks and the reach and aim of his gun. But he knows it. God is justice, and she feels just.
Don’t wait for a whisper. Call and he’ll call back.
I didn’t see him, he confesses.
Then stay blind. There is holiness in that as well, and I will guide you through the kingdom as we remake it.
No one needs the paper to tell them how the church burns; it’s a day late after they all saw it at night, the flames licking luminously into the sky, blotting out the stars with their light, baking the dust in the air. The scent of burning is in the air, of destruction and change and the Devil himself.
It’s Cecy who scents it first, pushing up the windows and sliding half-out into the night, the pink satin robe around her body crumpling against the old wood sill. Bob?—she calls until her voice is harsh and he stirs from his sleep, hog-heavy, beer-drowned. Bob, look at this, she says, and he sees it first reflected in her eyes, bright as little stars against those ice-green irises.
Upstairs, Ray watches the pale light burn up to the sky from afar: good he thinks before the good turns into good God and he runs down the stairs.
Stan is there when they put the fire out. He’s there at the wheel, watching as his men bring out coils of hose, water fireworking toward the sky.
“D’you have any idea—” the reporters are asking and he shakes his head, clenches his teeth tight to stop back undeserving words. Swallows every breath like it comes extra tight to the throat.
They say the Lord’s body was intermittent within these walls, but the citizens are more concerned with the earthly bodies within: no one inside, not then, but the bodies over the years, cradle to coffin. The church is a wood skeleton, splintering before their eyes; there is nothing inside, nothing worth trying to save. Inside, the memories of the town are so much tinder, and outside, all the tears in the world won’t save what they want back.
Mel is on the steps, so close to the flame that her dress is almost a part of it, arms white as where the heat is fiercest. She stretches her hands into the parched air.
“Don’t despair,” she says, quiet, just as loud as the woman beside her can make out. Celie Florent, whose brother was the rector. Her eyes are red. “You can’t make a god of memory.”
“Then what?” Those wide smoke-watered eyes blink.
“God alone. Earthly seats like this are just stamps in his image, false and assuaging. There’s nothing assuaging about God if you look him in the face. Is that what you want?”
Her voice is sweet. Her smile once won her a sash. Her hand cups the other woman’s face, and that face is nodding.
“Sheriff, d’you have any idea—”
Stan’s eyes squint near to shut. Against the smoke, of course.
“None. Accident.” Heaves a sigh: “Act of God, maybe.”
And Mel, where she stands, arms wrapped round Celie Florent’s shoulders, smiles and looks to the sky. Prayer is not a comfort but a cleanse; prayer is like this.
IX. THE HERMIT
“Son,” Davis asks, “what’s eatin’ you?”
It’s the third day Stan has come into the diner and not left, has nosed at a cup of stale cool coffee for well on three hours. No newspaper, no nothing, just staring down into the weak-watered black in his cup. Everyone knows he’s the circumspect one, has been ever since they were tykes all three of them, but there’s circumspection and then there’s crazy. Now Davis ain’t about to call the Sheriff gone out of his mind, but that’s on account of he’s learned better. You don’t say those things to a man with a gun. Davis likes to think Stan can keep a handle on his trigger, but he likes to think a lot of things. Say he’s looking for the glass half full. Still, it’s the quiet ones you got to keep a special watch on.
He don’t mind keeping a special watch on Stan. At least the kid never puked on his doorstep, like that godforsaken brother of his. He’s here, he’s quiet, and now he’s festering. Davis sits. Says he’ll listen. Stan lifts his head, those eyes heavy. Can’t say if more than usual—he’s a somber kid, and sleep ain’t in the sheriff’s regimen even among the most lighthearted takers of the job.
There’s men that time clings to, and Stan smells like ash if you take a strong whiff. Like the church is always burning down around him. But that’s a superstition. Keep alive thoughts like that and you’ll leave the door open to the Devil. Now there’s a real fire to sniff out.
“You been smoking?” he asks. Things happen for a reason. Simpler’s better than not.
“Bad for you.”
Stan raises a pair of eyebrows toward the tin in Davis’s pocket. Davis shrugs. “I’m far gone, son.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“No, but it means my sins take up less time.”
A nod again, like, fair.
“Y’all okay in that house of yours? Miss your pa?”
“It’s my brother’s,” Stan says. “Not my pa’s, not anymore. Course it’s okay.”
A man like Stan says course, that means nothing’s certain. A man like that don’t trust anything as a given. Davis knows better, Davis has listened to cowboys, Davis got his hand sliced and didn’t scream because that, then, would have been weak, was asked how it felt and said “I’ll live.” He did, and he did because he’d said it. A man bites his words off into certainties, no matter how he feels about the things he says, or he thinks himself less a man.
Davis sits in the booth in perfect silence with him, long enough that there’s customers getting annoyed at him, waiting on grilled onion burgers and slices of pie. They can wait. Nothing to rush after, except maybe death.
For his own part, he takes time. Day by day until it turns to another piece of routine, he scrapes out Stan’s unease, the way he sleeps more and more at his office. “Unburden,” he says easy as pouring coffee with his good hand, and sometimes Stan’s clam-silent and sometimes he’ll make concessions.
“Bad dreams,” he says, once, and Davis shakes his head.
“Now that ain’t a thing to be worried over.”
“It disturbs,” Stan says in cold partitioned words, “my sleep.”
They’re shrouded in silence. It’s comfortable enough that way. Beats jawing on and covering up. “It’s hard without the AT,” Davis says at last, breaking it. “You can pray where you like, God don’t trouble himself over the wheres of it all, but it’s nice to have a Bible in hand and a pew to rest your body.”
Something sharp kicks up in Stan’s eyes. “God ain’t about rest.”
“No?” Davis raises his eyebrows. Time was, Stan wouldn’t have said boo over God and His grace. “I thought you were a man to take God as he came.”
“He came, all right. And he ain’t about rest.” Stan puts a hand down hard on the table. The coffee mugs dance, threatening to spill. “He’s vigilant and he demands vigilance. I’ve been corrected, but let no man say I’ve been lazy since.”
“No man’s saying a thing.” Davis drains his coffee, as a precaution. “Where d’you worship, then?”
Stan don’t look away. A vein ticks in his jaw, like he’s biting back anger, or shame. Biting it back hard. “Mel’s been preaching out at the church ruin.”
Davis doesn’t have to ask who Mel is—he can put a face to the name, and a body. The red woman, the only body in town that’ll come near Stan’s. He’s seen them walking, far away enough at first that it seemed sweet in its way, at least until they got closer and he saw her face. He hadn’t known her name when she’d fainted in the Tabernacle service either, but still she’d impressed herself in his mind. In everyone’s. A preacher? He doubted. He’d never seen a soul faint in earnest, not out of concourse with the Spirit, and when she’d risen, she hadn’t looked like she’d been visiting the side of the angels. Those eyes were too sharp, and they’d twitched under the lids.
On his own, he wondered about a God that’d drive his people to his knees. Might was good enough for awe, but he worshiped quiet and never thought himself much the lesser. When he’d hung up his gun, once, and prayed it stayed still forever after, he realized he might have been praying all the while, filling in silences with faith. It’d been an accident, and damn sure it’d never knocked his head out. It was men knocked on his head, tried to drive him to his knees. He suspected God had better things to do.
“D’you think that’s wise?”
“She says we can only rebuild true faith out of the ashes of the false kind. She makes a home of it, and people believe her. That’s all we can ask.”
They lapse back into silence, the pair of them. What else is there to say? Davis wills faith into this silence, but you can’t force that on another man. Can’t force prayer into another man’s jaws, and it was the knowledge of this that hushed the disquiet in his soul, at least for then. Nothing the red woman could do against the people’s will. People picked their God, whether they thought about it or not.
X. WHEEL OF FORTUNE
Listen to me, Mel says. Her feet are bare. There is still ash heaped within the wood-and-iron skeleton of the church, and the first thing she did when she got here was to take off her red heels and slip them into her red purse. She has ash on her soles, her white calves.
The town—her congregation, now—watches from a while off. There’s a precarious look about the charry half-building; pieces fall and a soul could get his brains knocked out if he stood in the wrong place. She doesn’t begrudge them their fear. Fear comes with distance and distance only breeds more of itself. God’s got his hand on her shoulder, she has no fear of falling splinters or old metal spokes, but they cannot say the same. There is nothing to hold against them. They have never traveled outside the confines of their bodies, never offered their body to the Great War, never stared into the infinite spoking eyes of the seraphs, and there is nothing for her to do with these soft, fearful people but bring them in closer to her so she can pass the great fearless knowledge off secondhand. Angels burn, she could tell them, but they don’t want to burn you. All holy things burn. No way to be clean otherwise.
She kneels, scoops a pile of ash into her hand.
The only way to build is out of ashes. She lifts her hands, ash-filled. The world burns, and we are put here to build it back up, each time getting better, closer to God’s image. It will never be a true likeness, and we will always have to burn it the minute we spot the lies. The fire will never go out. We must look directly into the flames to see His face. There is no other way on Earth.
Come to me, she says. Here are your prayers turned into dust. This is what you must strive to become: both the dust and the burning. You are dust already and prayer is just setting yourself on fire again and again.
It’s only when she steps forward, out a foot away from what used to be the church steps and are now just an angular black memory in the ground, that they come forward, but she touches their hot bowed foreheads as they come and knows that they’ll follow her now that her hands have been on them. Little by little, they file in toward her. She offers them her greyed palms with a sweet shining smile.
They named her several states for that smile once. She still has the sashes in the trunk of her car. That was another girl, but Mel holds onto her ghost, holds onto all of her ghosts. Ghosts are safest when you can lock them in your trunk. (She’s learned better ways to make herself the size of a country by now.)
Back at the house, Bob’s watching football. Can’t stand the sound of it, Cecy told him, the roar, the clamor in the other room. How dull to watch men slam into each other like slabs of muscle only to get back up again and again, down a yard, up a yard. The sports channel makes her nails itch.
You liked it okay back at school, Cee.
Well, you were on the field, honey, weren’t you?
She’d give anything to see him back on the field now, true enough. Would listen with every cell in her body for his bones crunching under the weight of someone larger.
The motel is quiet now, by compare. Her brother’s head is in her lap, heavy, leonine. Her dress is on the floor, the pale gold satin of her slip sneaking up over her thighs. He traces the hem of it, turns round so his mouth is on her skin. Draws a finger over a pale lavender shadow under the skin. “Did I do that?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Don’t be fucking stupid,” she says again. Of all places where she doesn’t want to talk about Bob’s heavy hands where her brother’s have been. She came here to let him wipe that away, to reshape herself around the contours of his body and carry that shape away. It’s her birth’s right, loving him like this, like a memory of her own body given flesh of its own.
“It’s him, isn’t it?”
“Who else d’you think is touching me there?” she snaps and watches it sting. He lifts his head, eyes dark.
“I’ll kill him.”
“I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”
“I’m not questioning your bravery.” Her fingers skim over his cheek, light, so light. She’d know it blind, the shape of these bones. “I’m telling you, you can’t kill him. Not before me.”
“I ain’t gonna let your hands get dirty like that.”
“No?” She smiles, now. The slip, when she shifts up to sitting, pushes down over the bruise. Out of sight, out of mind. The anger is its own force in her brother now, and it has nothing to do with the bruises, this thing he thinks he understands. This anger is its own entity, hers to partition out, to deal fairly with. Her body, her partitioning. “I want them dirty, Jamie. Blood up to here.” She draws a finger up to the crook of her elbow, like she’s putting on a glove. She used to have gloves like that for the season, but they were never as red as she’s imagining now. “Don’t you worry. I won’t be selfish. I won’t let you keep too clean without me.”
She pulls him to her, hands clutching at his bare shoulders hard enough to leave marks. It’s a comfort, to talk like this, words unblunted even if everything else is. Just fantasy, a fantasy with a kitchen-blade keenness to it. His blood sears under his skin, under her fingers, and she draws up her knees and gives herself into the red. Doesn’t feel like waiting when there’s this to pass the time.
XII. THE HANGED MAN
He’s a man of the law.
He keeps saying this now. Reminding himself.
“The ghosts of that house will hang on your shoulders if you keep staying there,” Mel said to him, so he slept in the office and his body built itself stiffly into a piece of its furniture. He woke up with ink on his hands, neck cracking hard when he turned his head. Her words echoing in his head: Ghosts are false idols in their way. The more power you give the past, the less God can touch your future.
So the office was an altar for a night, where he could wring himself dry of ghosts. There was nothing selfless about it. It was quieter, was all, without his brother mouthing speeches down the stairs, the TV on in the background. The Lannister woman’s speeches: his brother didn’t have words like that on his own, but when he spoke to the town, they wouldn’t be listening to the words. They’d hear his smile like a sound, drowning out the words underneath. Politics, back-slapped into shape. And here he was, right where he’d always been, kneeling at the methodical foot of the law.
But she’d come to him and touched him in the heavy, tender hollows beneath his eyes and said no, no, this isn’t what I meant at all. I don’t sleep in my church, she’d said, and she’d smiled, and how silly he’d been, she’d said, to think that she meant he should give everything up. You must take first, she said, her hand on his.
He doesn’t sleep in her bed. There are limits.
Instead he sleeps in a spare room above the Seaworth Diner, keeping hours earlier than it, slipping in and out and draining the pot’s stale coffee. Never sees the wife, nor the kids. They live on their own. You keep your life out of your church, he thinks: whether you listen to Mel or not, she’s right. There’s power in habit, the creation of coming and going.
So Mel comes to him, once he’s settled in, when he’s lying on his back on the mattress, memorizing the ceiling. Lies over him, ear to his heart. He tries not to move. She’s heavy for a small thing, and paralyzing no matter her size. The breath doesn’t want to make its way out of his mouth: if he just keeps still, keeps every aspect of his body still, he won’t have to rationalize her. When he wakes up, he’ll have dreamed her. This is the only way this makes sense.
“They want to see you at the service,” she says.
“You’re the man who helped save what little we have. I tell them that I saw you come from the night and watch the fire and it quieted before you, tame and waiting to be quelled at your behest.”
“I had my men put it out.”
“The fire remembers you. The ash. You deserve commemoration.”
Her eyes are bright even without any light to reflect. He thinks, he lit that fire, as much as anything. “I didn’t help anyone with anything,” he says, stubborn, and she is smiling, her hands and voice soft.
“The fire only responds to its bringers. You can bring relief only if there’s something that needs relieving. Bring hope.” Her fingers find his. “Help me. I close my eyes and His voice reminds me, reminds me how much I need you.”
He doesn’t ask why him. The words stick in his throat. She spreads his arms slowly and he feels the weight of being positioned by her, stretched onto the makeshift cross of her bed. The night is very, very quiet. He does only what he must. He has nothing worth giving anyone on his own, but he has a straight arm and a mortal body and if God and the God-beloved are speaking to him directly, he has nothing to weigh him against their will. Truth, he understands bone-deep, and she swears that’s all she needs from him. True heart, straight aim, whole body. Her bony wrists push his into place and keep them there.
Mel feeds him the Word with her own mouth, the paper thin between her teeth. It’s late enough that if he was to cry out in revelation, he’d only be chorusing with the cats. Not too strict a precaution. He never wastes a sound he can bite back.
It’s late enough that the diner’s closed, that Davis’s slipped away for his requisite four-hour’s sleep beside his wife. Still less tonight, maybe. There were lost souls sipping charred coffee until just an hour ago, and Maria’d come to collect him, had put down a hand of poker with her and Stan. Kills the time. They don’t play for stakes: that comes later. It’s gotten so that Davis lets her smoke inside when the time’s late and careless enough. The time burned down into smoke in her lungs.
Maria’d offered her own set of cards, and Davis had looked at Mel when she took them away, but he hadn’t said a word against it. She’s starting to like him.
Last smoke in the chain still in her mouth, she tosses it into the metal paper bin, watches its contents ignite. The Word sings through her, deliberate. She is the Instrument, not a body, not weak. She’s a piece of the Flesh walking, and the dust of the town sings in her blood. She’s walked it into her shape for centuries, in search of a messiah. Now she feeds him the Word and whispers his rights through her clenched teeth: how these words belong to him. She must teach him belonging first.
“Put your hand in the flame,” she says, and he doesn’t blink, puts out his hand. Her own fingers grip over his. The flame burns only itself, not its reverents. Knows its own: she could put her lips to Stan’s skin and taste a future in ash.
There in the flame, the eldest son burns in his own home, his wife’s knife in his gut.
There in the flame, the youngest son bleeds out onto green velvet carpet.
There in the flame, Stan—
She pulls back, turns his face to her; he blinks and readjusts to scrying the reflection in her eye, where the story becomes conformable to her will. They’re looking at endings from the beginning. There’s still so much left to tell.
One town over, Ray sees the Welcome sign with a new name on it and exhales for the first time in what feels like all the drive. “Motherfucker,” he says, laughing at himself, and Loras leans in from the backseat and puts a hand on the back of his neck. He relaxes into it. They’re in safe, solitary territory, and he pulls into a gas station, tells Margery to go in and get some soda, and when she’s inside, he lets himself turn around to kiss Loras in the car, seat knocking into his shoulder.
The town’ll pull back, the cord stretches long and durable, the fire licks at images of his future, the rooms in town will wait to hold his ghost, but it’ll bide for a time.
Bob’s time is a calendar written in the ink-shapes under Cecy’s skin. She itches at the marks as she sleeps, brightening the formless purples into reds. Dreams of knives, of lighting her cigarette in the Baratheon Manor fire, of her brother’s hand in hers and a steering wheel handprinted red and sticky.
Cecy’s not a prophet. She sighs in her sleep and turns over against Bob’s solid body in her bed, deep-asleep enough to touch it like it’s a piece of her wish. Her hands still remember her brother. Her will waits in her jaw, her white knuckles that don’t unclench even in her sleep. It’s silent, and that means this is peace.
Stan falls asleep in the rictus of adoration beneath her, body in the contours of her hands. Wrists out, heart up, waiting for one of God’s own swords.
“See,” she’d said to him. “He loves you best of all. When you fall, you get back up.”
There’d been a sound of protest on his lips. She rolled her head, drowned him in her bright hair. “Well, it wouldn’t be special if everyone could.”
They’re each of them waiting under their very own hanging blade. The town lives off its myth, drinks its blood, eats its own, and survives. Narrative tempered by time until the sacrifice is beautiful and the knife is sharp. A story needs blood to become immortal, same as it needs fire to become holy.
She takes Maria’s cards off the mantel, where she left them. The fire is not yet out, not while she lives and breathes in its presence. She blows soft into the bin and it licks right back up.
She was right when she called them idolatrous, of course; even Davis didn’t have a protest in him against that. But there’s a thousand ways to make God listen, to let him talk back.
She burns the cards one by one, methodically, watching the edges turn black. No sense in giving up the story now.