The Good Deaths, Part II

Issue #156

The day Augustus died, I heard the voice of the Lord Up Above telling me to take my smashers and destroy the saloon in Kiowa, Kansas.

Now, I had never been to Kiowa before, but I—a meek human woman, a simple, plain-spoken woman and widow and sufferer—would never think to question Our Lord and Savior.

I went to Kiowa. I stood in the streets of Kiowa. I found some rocks and weighed them in my hands.

They felt like shards of the Holy Lord’s righteousness itself, firm and unconditional, and they crashed into the glass windows with a satisfying commotion. Of course, the men—those drunkards and louts—came screaming outside, brandishing weapons and their johns and all sorts of foul language. What can you expect from such types?

When they saw what I was—and I am a woman who tends to be noticed—some laughed, some continued hollering, but none dared stop me. I am big, and I am powerful. Augustus once said I must have been a bulldog in a previous life, and indeed I welcomed that supposition.

I towered above those men, and—by the Lord—I threw the Hell Realm out of those stones.

After ten minutes of work, all the windows were smashed wide open, bits of glass lying like glittering teeth scattered in the muck, and I had sweated through my undergarments and bodice. The men stood around me, quiet now and staring.

“There!” I said. “You wet-brained fools! There’s your fun and there’s your damnation for the day. Now get the hell out and get on home to your poor wives and little ones! And don’t you dare try to clean anything up!”

“At least grace us with a name, fair lady!” one grime-marinated idiot yelled from a safe distance. “Or tell us who sent you!”

“Gentlemen—and I am funning you in calling you that—the Almighty Savior of mankind sent me: His Holy Gloriousness, the Buddha Himself. Now who’s gonna argue with that?”

“He speak to you personal, did He?”

“Every day! Every damn day!”

Every day through the grass and the soil and the sky, there He’d be. I saw His righteous face in the tumbling clouds, and I heard His laughter in the brook. I knew it sounded insane, but I had seen Him everywhere in Kansas—and in parts of Texas and Missouri, too—and I was sure He disapproved of all this drinking. Just like He disapproved of the war, and of the slaves, and of all our damn human stupidity.

I was mending my bodice the day the man came.

I smelled him before he knocked; an earthy, unwashed scent, layered with old booze. He came to the window, peeked in, and then gave a polite rap. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, felt his shadow on my back, and pretended not to notice him. He rapped again.

Muted: “Ma’am?”

“You go on back where you came from!” I yelled over my shoulder. “We don’t take in tramps here.”

He tapped his fingers against the window, drumming. “Ain’t a tramp, ma’am. Doctor Leonidas Lazarus Suttner. A professional. I’m a physician. Been called out to one of the mining towns, up in Indian territory. Was wondering if I could stay a night or two to get my bearings and some rest. Been traveling for weeks, you see.”

My Augustus had been a doctor. The Lord Buddha said coincidences were a sacred thing.

Reluctantly, I turned around.

A uniform gray color, his hair was wild and his eyes were wild, and he looked half-dead to me, all pale and rheumy as he was. He also looked like he had lost his mustache comb, and his shaving blade, and his soap. A yellowy white shirt could be seen poking through patches on his army jacket; a jacket, I noticed, which had been turned inside out.

“Do you drink liquor?” I asked.

He stared at me hard. “No, ma’am.”

I squinted, transmitting my acknowledgement that he was a damn filthy liar. A fog, that’s what the Lord said lies were. Especially intensely lied lies.

I turned back to my needlework.

“You can stay in the barn then. There’s a stream about a mile off. I expect you saw it when you arrived. If you leave now, you might have enough light to do some washing and come back. There is a stink about you, sir. It is permeating my window.”

I heard him walk away; boots crunching in the grass. The footsteps faded, returned. “I can’t seem to locate the barn, ma’am.”

“It’s the stall with the half-starved cow in it, you cock-eyed fool! Don’t get smart!”

“Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

So now we were two fools. Me and good ol’ Leonidas Lazarus.

He seemed to cringe at being called ‘Leonidas’, so I stuck to ‘Suttner’ or ‘you there’. He told me his friends called him ‘Len’ or ‘Leo’, but I thought that was just an undignified thing to call any man. The Lord gave us our names, as they were. Why did we need to go infantilizing ourselves, clinging to a childhood softness we no longer had any right to?

My house—a plain soddy in a field’s depression—didn’t allow much air in or out, and so I kept the door open when I did my cooking. Leo Suttner hovered in the doorway. The sun was bright; blinding me to anything but a silhouette. I worked on, pushing the grits around the pot and getting a slab of dough ready and refusing to acknowledge him or the muffled growl in his stomach.

Augustus said you never let a man come into your home like that—men and women being unattended, and the third present was the demon Mara!—but I didn’t abide by that no more. Not when I had to tend to the labor and the farm and the selling of our measly crop, or else die by starvation. Furthermore, I was taller and bulkier than every man I had ever met. Furthest most, upon dying, Augustus had turned into a Hungry Ghost, of all things. A damn thin-necked, fat-bodied Ghost that I had had to chase off the farm just two days after the funeral. That alone permanently proscribed him from giving me any advice from beyond the grave ever again.

Suttner, though. Suttner was a sly, small thing. I didn’t worry about my ability to overpower him or chase him away, should it have come to that.

“Beautiful country, ‘round here,” he said.

“Where you from?” I packed the dough together, punched it, pulled it apart.

“Back east.”

“Oh, no kidding. You mean you wasn’t raised on Indian lands?”

He pursed his lips. “May I come in?”

I gave him a long look. Finally: “If you must.”

The stove was smoking up the house, and he coughed and waved his hat in front of his face as he approached. I watched him enter, tracking him with what folks called my bulldog glare.

He sat himself at the table—dragging the chair against the swept dirt floor—then he placed his hands on the tabletop, kneading his knuckles. Trying to hide the trembling in his fingers. I wondered what this one would turn into when he died. Probably a garbanzo bean, all pale and slimy and useless.

“So, you fought in the war then, Mister Inside-Out Coat?”

He rolled his shoulders with a wince. “You have seen past my disguise, I guess.”

“Is that thing blue or gray? For the life of me, I cannot tell beyond the muck.”

“I was an army physician, and now I practice to the civilians. Just a physician. As I was back East, and as I shall be out West. I request no more historical questions.”

He was kneading his knuckles hard, so I let it be. After a moment’s silence, he cleared his throat.

“Ma’am, you never told me your name.”

“You can call me Carrie Amelia Nation.”

“Like ‘Hold A. Country’?”

I said nothing but kept working the dough. My old friend, the fury deep within me, my angry heart, loomed distantly on the horizon—hurtling towards me like a tornado on the plains, dancing in its happy rage.

“How do you spell that?” he asked.

“Any damn way I please, is how!”

Oh, Earth. Oh, Kansas. Oh, soil.

There were days—most days—that I hated my life, this burden that Augustus had left me. This filthy farm. This pitiful crop. But still I pulled up my skirts and pushed down the hoe and got yelling after those lazy sons of bitches calling themselves day-workers.

And, in the blazing heat and dust, rare moments of clarity.

I could feel the Lord Buddha’s holy presence pushing against my forearms and hands as I dug into the earth. I could sense His happiness at what I was doing; expanding my plot, setting down the seeds and digging my roots into the ground. He said to seek no attachment. And what better detachment than uprooting yourself from hundreds of miles away, dragging your sorry items halfway across America (discarding many of them along the way), and then planting yourself down in some new, wild, godforsaken territory. A tumbling weed to Nirvana.

Anyway, sometimes the soil on my so-called farm was so dry you could inhale half of it. But by the brook, little patches glistened wet and moist with promise.

The Holy Lord Himself had had bad soil too, I reckoned. I didn’t know much about far-off Lumbini, Holy Land of His Magnificent Birth, but I had heard preachers tell of its hard, clay-like soil and shrubby flora and pathetic little patches of grass. The Lord Up Above may have been born an Earthly prince, but His kingdom sure sounded dry to me.

What a nice feeling, when the shared cosmic suffering of His teachings felt so true.

The second night, Leonidas Lazarus Suttner did not appear to be readying himself to continue on his ‘travel’ to the ‘mining town’ in ‘Indian territory’, nor did he appear to be sleeping.

Instead, I heard his muffled voice and low thumps in the barn, and then I saw his shadow moving across each window in succession: north side, east side, south side. Flit, flit, flit. He paced a perimeter around the house before stepping through the tall grassy field to the south, where he walked and walked out into the darkness until I finally lost sight of him.

I wondered if he had gone away forever, but, some time later, he reappeared for another few loops around the cow, the soddy, the edge of the field. By then, it was two in the morning.

Drumming on the window.

I had the single candle burning, just enough light to let me work on my mending, and my eyes couldn’t adjust to the darkness so soon. But I pointed my face in his direction and growled, “What?”

“Acknowledging the inappropriateness, hoping you feel trustful and generous, can I come in?”

“Now? You want to come in? Now?”

“Well. We’re both obviously up, Miss Nation.”

Missus Nation.”

“My apologies.” I could see him clearly now, fading into view, wide-eyed and fidgety. “So, can I come in?”

I shrugged. “If you must.”

He bustled inside, closing the door quickly. He was hunched over, stomping both feet, keeping his hands jammed under his armpits and glancing periodically back at the black.

“You afraid of the night, then?” I squinted, trying to poke the thread through the needle.

“A touch.” He pulled the chair from the table—his chair, it was becoming—and sat a distance from me. “I renew my apologies, ma’am. I’ll just be a few moments.”

“Bet you could use a drink now, huh?”

He stared.

“Oh, don’t think you’ve fooled me, Suttner. I smelled the stink on you when you were just coming up to my porch.”

He rolled his eyes and readjusted himself, trying to get warmer. He seemed to be fetching around for an appropriate response, eventually smiling a little. “So you call that a ‘porch’ then?”

I put down my mending. “Why do you mock poor ladies thus? All right, I’m humble. And if you haven’t noticed, I am running this entire operation alone.”

“I concede. Very admirable. And Mister Nation’s....”

“Dead.”

He shifted in his seat. “The war?”

“Liquor!”

“I see.”

“But, yes, he was also in that chaotic operation. A sawbones. Much like yourself, I imagine. Came out here not nine months ago. Came out here to chase the devil, it looks like!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing?”

“The freshness of it, I suppose.” Suttner shrugged. “Nine months.”

“Yeah. Well. We all got our wheels to break.”

“Amen, amen.”

The Lord spoke to me that night. He said to take my hatchet, dust it off, and get to those towns and saloons out there. Those damnable pits of damnation.

“HATCHET THEM, CARRIE NATION!” the Lord’s voice thundered in my ears. “HATCHETATE IT ALL, IN MY NAME! I WILL STAND BY YOU!”

No human—no animal, no Hungry Ghost, no Demi-God, no particle of disease roasting in the sunlight—could have resisted that call.

I pulled my bodice tighter. I tied up my boots. I smoothed down my skirts and tucked strands of hair behind my ears. And then I opened the door, stepped out into the chilled night, and took the hatchet from beside the door.

I set out for town.

Protection, Kansas. Four miles away.

When I arrived, the first glimmers of dawn were just poking over the eastern horizon. It was a red dawn: pure and angry.

Protection itself was quiet. The saloon’s door was closed. No one in sight.

I began to smash.

I don’t recall exactly when, or how, or why it all went wrong. Some confusion transpired between the friendly Fury inside myself and the Lord’s natural fury, external to me; the rage in the sun and the dust and the winds.

First: a fire started in the saloon. I had smashed my way inside, and I had struck a keg, knocking over a stove. Liquid and fire had come pouring out, a river of fiery booze all the way back up to the bar.

I fled.

Now, outside, the air was picking up, and licks of flame were stretching higher and higher into the sky. I let my hatchet fall to the ground. More flames; the next house went alight. And another.

Beyond the edge of the town, a gyrating tower of brown-white air was pulling itself together, upright, belly dancing like a harlot. And it was hurtling towards Protection, lurching towards the town as if consciously intending to strike.

Air that whipped my hair around; that took my glasses and threw them off my face. Air that bit at me like the demons of the Hell Realm, tugging at my skirts and kicking up sand in my face.

Heat from the saloon: sparks flying faster than I had ever seen, shooting through the street and lighting up the post office, the barber shop, the homes of these people that I did not know. It was a fight between the fire and the wind, and I was in the middle.

“Get into the cellar!” someone yelled.

What cellar? Fire was blowing through the town, gutting its buildings, smoking up any protective shelters we might have had. People were running out of their homes, coming to expose themselves to the elements just as the tornado was laying into town. I considered stealing a horse and running back to the farm, where I could fall to my knees and pray to the Lord Buddha to forgive me, forgive me—

“Everyone get into the bank vault!” a man cried. His stiff collar was flapping away from him. “It ain’t gonna go up in the fire—it’s the safest we’ll be! Frank, round everyone up that you can find and get them to the vault!”

The vault.

It was crowded, dimly lit. Huddled children. A girl in tears. I rubbed my forehead with both hands, scraping sooty grime away with my fingernails. If I pinched my nose, I could smell ash in the mucus.

“What in the hell is happening out there?” a man asked. “How did that fire get started?”

“Damned lightning, I guess.” Another: fat, red nose. “Oh, sorry, Ruth.”

Damned!”

“Shh! Ruth! Proper folk don’t use that word.”

“Well, the Lord Buddha Himself must be angry about something.”

“Ha! Sure.”

I held my hands together, pressing hard. Beyond the vault, we could hear crashes, booms, and the high wail of the wind.

“All those folk out there....”

“If they’re smart, they went into their cellars. Wind probably blew the fire out.”

“Yeah. Probably.”

“Hell of a coincidence.”

“What?”

“The fire. Right, ma’am?”

I looked up. The man’s eyes were watery, his white beard yellowed at the tips. He was looking straight at me. The others in the vault noticed and turned as well, curious. Suddenly I was noticeable again. Suddenly, I was the six-foot monster again. I heard a child’s laugh.

“I reckon you know something about that fire,” the old man said. “Don’t you, Miss?”

“My name is Missus Carrie Nation, and I do indeed know about that fire.” I fixed him with my glare. “So what is it to you?”

“Wait, what do you mean, you know about it?” The bank man looked back and forth between us. “Jeremiah, what are you talking about?”

“I don’t know, sir.” He looked at me. “What am I talking about, Missus Nation?”

I inhaled. “I suppose you could say the fire is my fault.” Movement, murmurs. “But I don’t regret what I have done, nor do I despair at the tornado. Why not? Well, because they are both a punishment of the Lord Buddha for our sins, for all our fighting and money-making and boozing, and I say we should be happy to receive them!”

I puffed up my chest, swelling it nice and big. But, in their wide eyes staring back at me, I saw the great abyss opening up—and heard the silence in our tomb, and in the town outside.

When the vault opened, Protection was gone.

Milky sunlight gleamed through the dust-colored cloud cover, and suddenly the world was completely flat again. Most of the buildings had been reduced to blackened cinders or blown-apart shells lying in sad little heaps. A few had survived; maroon skeletons with their windows blown out. Dead animals, rubbish, pieces of someone’s wardrobe, and a broken wheel were lying strewn about the thoroughfare. I saw human legs poking out from under an overturned cart, and my jaw ached something fierce.

“Frank!” someone cried.

A horse approached.

“Mr. Gibson, I found a doc!”

The young man, Frank, advanced; Leonidas Lazarus Suttner bouncing in the saddle behind him. Suttner saw me and gave me a look.

Then he addressed the bank man, Gibson, standing behind me. “Doctor Leo Suttner.”

“Thank the Lord Almighty you’re here, Doc. I’m W.P. Gibson, chief officer of Protection Town Company and Bank. Our regular physician’s out doing the rounds in the rest of the county, so it is a blessing indeed to have found you.”

Suttner clambered off the horse, landing on unsteady feet. He had his bag with him; a medical kit. Just like Augustus. I meditated on this comparison while tonguing my loose tooth.

“Point me in the direction where my services are needed.”

And so we spent the rest of the day, accounting for the destruction. I shied away from the townsfolk, sitting on an uprooted plank of wood, waiting my turn. Or waiting for what, I don’t know. I just watched Suttner work, listened to the things he told people.

“Don’t move it or try to raise it. I’ll check it again in a day or two, but, so long as the bone knits properly, it’ll be just fine.”

A family was standing over the body of a young boy. The mother cried into her handkerchief. The father tugged at Suttner’s elbow.

“Doc?” the man said. “Doc.”

“His name?” Suttner kneeled.

“Romulus.”

“Hi, Romulus. How are you doing?” Suttner kept speaking to the child, as if he could hear him. But I didn’t see no movement. “Mind if I check this, son? Don’t worry about nothing, you’ll be fine. Just fine.”

“Doc, I don’t think—” the father began.

“Can you hold this for me?” Suttner asked, shifting his bag over. He sat back on his heels, heavily. “Oh, Romulus. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ....”

“What is it?” the father asked. “What’s wrong? You reckon we should take him to Greensburg?”

Suttner looked up. “Can I speak to you, sir?” He glanced at the mother. “Private?”

“Tell us both, Doc,” the mother said.

“All right. His back’s broken.”

“Romulus! Oh Lord, no, no—please!”

“Martha, please....” The father looked at Suttner, all shaky and pale. “Does that mean he’s—?”

“It won’t be long.” Suttner shook his head. “Jesus, I’m sorry. You should sit with him. Sit with him while he’s still around. I’m so sorry.”

The woman crumpled downwards, sinking into her hoop skirt like a deflating balloon. Her husband tumbled with her, knees giving out. They knelt over the boy, sobbing.

Suttner stood back up. I watched him. Our eyes met.

Others were running up to the family now, coming to console, or ask questions, or I don’t know what. Curious, sympathetic, goddamned vultures.

The final tally: three people dead. Fifteen wounded.

Suttner came to crouch in front of me, eyes red, hands wavering like leaves. Gently, he reached out and touched the bruise on my cheek. I tried not to fidget under his examination. He laid a knuckle against my swollen jaw. I hissed.

From this close, I could see the gray stubble, the grease in his hair, each oily smudge on his spectacles. He looked drab and sorrowful, like the rest of Protection.

I started breathing fast. “I didn’t mean for none of this to happen.”

“I know you didn’t,” he murmured. “No one’s saying you did.”

“That’s not true. They’re all saying I did. Why’d you think I got my face near broken for? They’re gonna try to tell you this was all my fault. I bet they’ve already told you, haven’t they? But I didn’t bring no tornado to this town. I didn’t mean for no one to die.”

He stopped working and looked me in the eye. “Carrie, it ain’t your fault. And what those men did to you was wrong.”

“I did burn down the saloon though,” I kept blabbering. “But it was something of an accident. And all I said was that this was just the karma, coming back around. That ain’t so cruel, is it? It’s just the Teachings, is all!”

Suttner worked quietly. Without looking at me, he dug around in his bag, muttering under his breath. My scalp was still sore from when that old Jeremiah had pulled at my hair, jerking my head around.

Suttner pulled a bottle out and poured something into a handkerchief. “Well, you won’t be losing any teeth.” He dabbed at my lip. “Sorry if it stings.”

I snorted, sucking up snot, embarrassed that my nose was running all over my lip and mouth. Embarrassed that I was suddenly falling apart, like the Protection houses, or that mother over there. I hadn’t lost anyone, so what did I care? And it was all law of the Lord, so what was I getting so tender for?

My tears burned hot, cutting into the scrapes on my cheeks.

“It’s all right, dear. Shh. It’s all right.” Suttner stared at my chin, saying it to me, or himself.

I grabbed the handkerchief from him and pressed it against my trembling lips, wanting to hide my whole face.

“Should we find someone to help that boy with his bardo?” I asked.

“No. No. We can leave them to it.”

“Suttner. Look at me.”

He did.

“You think I did wrong, don’t you? Say it. Say that you do.”

“I don’t, Carrie. I really don’t.”

I was shaking now with the sobs. “Why you got to lie like that? Why can’t you be straight? I’m always straight with you! No one’s straighter than I am!”

“I don’t disagree with that. Come on, hush now. It’ll be fine.”

A third voice: “What’s that elephant blubbering about?”

It was the old man from the bank vault: Jeremiah. My enemy. My Devadatta. He stood away from us, glaring, hands on hips.

“Ain’t this all what we should be ‘happy’ for?” he said. “Ain’t that what you said in there? That we ‘deserve’ it and all?”

“Oh, leave it alone, Mister Huxley,” a young woman said.

“Yeah, come on, Jeremiah.”

Jeremiah started gearing up for another insult, walking forward with mouth open, when Suttner spoke abruptly, turning around. “You leave off now.”

“What?”

“You are being foolishly provocative. If you keep goading her and she hits you, I will not provide you with my services. And she just might, given it’s one-on-one now. So go away, and good riddance to you.”

“Who the hell—? You ain’t even from around here!”

“Mister Huxley,” Gibson called from further off. “Would you just shut the hell up for a moment? And Doc, we need you over here, please.”

I cowered down into myself, searching for the Lord’s holy light, for His voice, wanting to get from Him some meaning, some explanation or, at least, some powerfully offensive rebuke to use against that old goat, Jeremiah. Instead, I found nothing: I found the abyss, a gaping maw, a mouth like a Hungry Ghost, begging me into it. I squeezed my eyes shut and chanted the Lord’s Prayer: Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, oh om shanti shanti....

I didn’t sleep that night, and I didn’t hear no voices.

The Lord was quiet, maybe ashamed about what we had done. I laid awake in bed, still in my tornado clothes, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Augustus. Augustus who had been ten years older than me and grimy and sour-faced and had smelled like rancid butter. Augustus with his judgments and opinions and never-good-enough-ness. I had been too poor to re-do my entire wardrobe according to the proper full-, heavy-, and half-mourning periods, but I had tied the white armband every day for the past six months.

I had used to think that had been real grief, but now I felt different.

Sounds from outside: the peaceful buzz of a sleeping countryside. Still air. Kansas. Damned void-of-the-cosmos Kansas!

Every time I shut my eyes, I saw burnt buildings and broken-backed boys, and so I kept them open, and thought about how badly Augustus had smelled. And how strangely he had looked after his bardo: his Adam’s apple shrinking inward, his neck elongating and his gut expanding like a newspaper cartoon about overly fat politicians.

What a shame it had been, to have Augustus turn Hungry Ghost on me like that. And in front of the Reverend, even.

I wondered when dawn would come.

Lord. Oh, Lord.

Outside, the sounds of a horse clopping, snorts, men’s voices. I sat up and saw the shadow of Suttner pass.

“Suttner!” I whispered.

He heard me and stopped, glancing in the window. I motioned for him to enter.

He looked dizzy when he came in, and he leaned hard against the door when closing it. I saw him press his forehead against the wall, to rest or to push something into his brains, I don’t know, and I heard his heavy breathing.

“Everyone,” he slurred, “seen to. At least until tomorrow.”

“Good,” I said.

“How’s your jaw?”

“Not as sore as earlier,” I lied.

“Well, keep something cold on it. And don’t lean back too much.”

“I won’t. I’m not tired anyway.”

“You’ll have a rainbow of colors to go through before it heals.”

“I don’t care none about how I look. Never have.”

“Good mentality.” He sat heavily in the chair, burrowing his head in his arms. “Missus Nation, do you mind if I sleep inside tonight? Your cow tends to urinate on me.”

I didn’t mean to, but I laughed. Suttner smiled.

“Everyone’s all right then?” I asked.

“With some rest and some prayers against infection, they should be.”

“The Lord is merciful.”

Suttner just exhaled onto the table.

I stood. “I’ll make coffee.”

With the lamp and stove going, and the smell of coffee grounds bubbling murkily in the water, and another warm body in the room with me, the soddy felt almost home-like.

Suttner sat obediently and cradled the tin cup in both hands. I sipped my coffee, leaning against the counter, feeling massive and completely unwomanly. I wondered why I had been born so big, as if the Earth wasn’t made to my size. Then I speculated as to what damned fool decided what size women should be anyway.

Suttner indicated a picture on the wall. “You pray to the Saint Christ too?”

The saint had rosy cheeks and rosy lips; his head was cocked to one side. He looked gentle, healer-ish, clean and foreign.

“No. That’s Mister Nation’s. My faith don’t include the saints. I don’t reckon even Mister Nation cared for him, but it was supposed to bring luck to physicians, so we kept it in the house.”

“And did it bring him that? Luck?”

I sipped. “None.”

Suttner rolled the cup around in his hands, drawing his fingers over the rim. “The Finches asked me to see their son through his bardo,” he said.

“The Finches?”

“Romulus.”

“Oh.”

“I said no, initially. That’s preacher work, after all. Not my specialty. Not my work at all, to be blunt. I wouldn’t know what....”—he rolled the cup, his voice falling—“wouldn’t know what to do, really.”

“Ain’t they got a preacher in town?”

“Don’t look like it.”

I sat in the other chair. “So are you gonna do it anyways?”

“I suppose I have to. I mean, I did some during the war. It was never very pleasant. The things... men turn into, what when they’ve seen what they’ve seen. Done what they’ve done....” He snapped his fingers. “Sometimes it’d happen like that. Fast as lightning. One second, alive. Then, dead. Then—like that!—into the bardo. And it was never a pleasant experience. Good bardos were rare there, as you can imagine. And those fast bardos. Well.” He was blinking fast; all agitated tics. “I suppose—I mean, I suppose a child like Romulus Finch would never bardo like that, of course. He’d—pass peaceably from this life to the next. Isn’t that what the Teachings say we should expect?”

I nodded mutely.

“’State of mind in the final moments’ and all that bull.” He laughed humorlessly. “Though how in the hell am I to know what state of mind Romulus Finch found himself in when—when he passed on? He was probably shitting his pants with fright, for all I know. Pardon me. Or he probably had no idea what the hell was going on, if he was lucky.”

“Well, it ain’t just the last moments. It’s all the moments of the whole life. That, and some prayers from the family. So if Romulus was a good boy, and his parents....”

Suttner was staring at me witheringly, so I stopped.

“So are you gonna do it or not?” I asked again.

“Yes,” he said. “I did eventually say I would. I’ll need your help, though.”

“Me? What? No—I mean, why would—? That wouldn’t be right.”

“You’ve got to. You know the prayers and all. I don’t. Ain’t you always going on about religion?”

I shook my head. “No, no. Half the town hates me. I ain’t going there to hold their hands now.”

“Do not,” Suttner suddenly raised his voice, “let ignorant old fools like Jeremiah Huxley prevent you from doing a good deed!”

I stared. Suttner was red in the face. He was breathing hard out of his nose, like a starved, scrawny wolf, spooked and in the corner. Fast air, tornado gusts.

“You are coming with me! You are helping me with this!”

I opened my mouth to say something—and said nothing.

The Finches were Orthodox, but we didn’t have no white clothes.

Suttner found a strip of old gauze in his medical kit, and he tied that around his jacket sleeve a few times, making an armband. I found an off-white lace tea cozy and folded it into my dress’s pocket.

“That’s as white as we gonna get.”

I grabbed a copy of the Canon and we set off for the Finch farm.

They had laid Romulus Finch in a patch of grass under an apple tree. The Finches had a tiny orchard that they tended to, and they told us that Romulus had always played in that orchard, inventing games about cowboys and Indians, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, magicians from the Orient. The tree had his initials carved into the bark.

“We want him to wake up here. We want this to be the first thing he sees.”

I didn’t mention that even I knew Orthodox law said you should never bardo a body so close to its original home. That the whole point was that this life was over, and a new one was beginning, stripped of all its previous entanglements. I didn’t mention that when I had held Augustus’ bardo on the farm, he had plagued me with his ravenous Hungry Ghosting—eating up the crop, puking out cow shit, draining the stream—and I had been too embarrassed to call for a proper exorcizing, having instead to do it all myself.

Suttner knelt by the boy—who was porcelain pale now, looking cold and peaceful in the dappled sunlight—and placed a finger under the boy’s nose. I cracked open my Canon and started to read.

“’Hark ye, all the winds do dissolve in the seventh cycle of mind dissolution, and, when this is observed, prepare ye for the clear light of death.’”

We sang a couple verses of ‘Follow the Deer Into the King’s Arrow’ followed by ‘Another Turn of the Wheel’, droning and off-key, and then began the wait.

Now, professional preachers and holy men can pinpoint a bardo’s proper commencement down to the minute, but Suttner and myself only had a vague idea that Romulus Finch, since he had been young and generally a good boy, would probably start transfiguring about a day or two after his death.

But it was real embarrassing waiting there, waiting for any change in the boy, while his parents snorted and sniffled and cried fresh tears. Suttner eventually stopped kneeling, and sat back in the grass, keeping his hand on the boy’s forehead and pushing the hair back, rhythmic. As if he could comfort him alive. I cleared my throat. The day got hot.

Romulus Finch didn’t start changing until well into the afternoon.

In the golden sunlight, we heard movement. Shifting in the grass. Suttner looked up. I opened up the Canon again.
“And the Lord Buddha said, ‘Hark, for the journey of life is long, and faith is your best companion. It is your best refreshment,’” I read, exchanging a look with Suttner, “’and it is your best property.’”

“Amen.”

“And the Lord Buddha said, ‘Neither fire nor death....’”

Romulus Finch was shivering all over now; his body jolted like someone was feeding it lightning.

“...‘nor birth nor death can erase our good deeds.’”

“Amen,” Suttner and the family muttered in unison.

Romulus was making noise now too: yelps, little whimpers, ungodly gasps. I prayed hard he wouldn’t turn into something from the Hell Realm.

“Now, it’s customary for the preacher to talk about the particular transfiguration currently occurring,” I said. “But I ain’t no preacher, and I can’t really tell what’s going on, to be honest. Do you wanna say something instead?”

The mother was crying into her handkerchief too hard to answer, and the father, holding her shoulder, was staring transfixed as Romulus flopped around in the dirt. Suttner kept both his hands on the boy’s shoulders, trying to stop him from jumping away from us altogether.

“What?” Mr. Finch asked. He looked back at me, eyes glimmering. “Oh. Right. Well, Romulus was a good boy. A real good boy.”

“He never did nothing!” Mrs. Finch sobbed.

“That don’t help,” I said. “You gotta be specific.”

“He—he liked swimming,” Mr. Finch managed. “He’d go down to the stream—I think it runs through your property, Mrs. Nation—and he’d play in that water for whole days if the weather was hot.”

“He liked pumpkin seeds,” Mrs. Finch added. “He helped his little cousin study her letters, but he wasn’t no good at it himself. He just encouraged her, trying to be nice.”

Romulus Finch howled, a straining keen that interrupted us. Suttner tried to use one hand to adjust his spectacles, but the boy nearly bucked out from under him. Suttner struggled against the thrashing, using both hands, his knee, an elbow—anything—to keep the boy on the ground. His spectacles fell off.

“He said, when he grew up,” Mr. Finch said, weeping, “that he wanted to go to Missouri to be a newspaperman.”

“We have family in Missouri,” Mrs. Finch explained.

“But I told him he can’t get no newspaper job if he don’t do well in his schooling!”

The change was well underway now. I flipped through the Canon frantically, trying to find the chart that told you how to detect which Realm a human death was flying into. Where was that chart? I used to know its page number and contents off the top of my head.

“Someone get a bowl and fill it with water!” Suttner cried. “Quick!”

I looked down. Three rubbery slits were forming on each side of Romulus Finch’s neck. His eyes flew open: filmy and opaque. And his mouth gaped. Struggling for air.

Mr. Finch ran into the house.

Moments later, Romulus Finch was a fish, slipping out of our hands, shiny and wriggling. We wrestled him into the bowl. He expanded though, kept growing larger. Oh Lord, I thought, this one’s turning into a whale!

“A bucket!” Mrs. Finch said. “I’ll get a bucket! It’s bigger!”

“No!” Suttner said. “Where’s the stream? The stream you mentioned?”

Half-in, half-out, the Romulus fish splashed around in the too-small bowl. We hoisted it aloft, everyone holding the rim, and ran together down the hill and towards the stream. Romulus kept struggling to get out, and Suttner used his free hand to push the fish-head back in, dunking it underwater and keeping it there.

We dumped Romulus into the stream as soon as we found a suitable depth. The cold water rushed past our knees, and Romulus crashed in with a sploosh. We caught sight of his wavering, still-expanding form in the clear water for only a moment before he disappeared, darting downstream.

Heavy breathing. Birds. The sound of rushing water.

Mr. Finch and Mrs. Finch hugged, crying and smiling and whispering to each other. I felt happy too. Strange. Before, I never would have tolerated an Animal Realm transformation in one of my own loved ones. But today, it seemed natural and pure and right.

After looking for his spectacles and eventually giving up, Suttner and I trudged back to my farm.

The fields—the world—smelled like shit. It was not unpleasant. Suttner was wiping at his eyes. I looked down at him.

“Are you crying?”

“Dust. A lotta dust here.”

“Sure.”

He coughed, made a pretext of wandering further away from me, returned. I pushed my hands into my skirt pockets.

“So are you gonna move on then?”

“Can’t yet. Still got some injuries in town to tend to.”

“And after that?”

Suttner smiled. I could see the trails of tears on his cheeks, shining clean in the dirt. “I reckon I could help build Protection back up. For now. See to your cow, too.”

“As long as you don’t touch any of the Devil’s brew, Doc, you are more than welcome.”

He didn’t say anything.

Ahead, I saw the unattractive lump that was my home.

A prayer from Carrie Amelia Nation to Our Lord, the Holy Prince Siddhartha, Most Enlightened Being, Buddha, Liberator and Emancipator and Most Awakened Of All Creatures Ever.

Dear Lord,

Forgive me for my sins. I am a murderer and a widow and a sufferer, and I have done You wrong. I have tried to break out of the wheel, and I have failed, and I’ll probably fail forever. But by the laws of karma, I await Your true and pure punishment with a happy, open heart. Just don’t let me be born back east and don’t let me love a drunk and don’t let the crop fail, and Heaven help Kansas. These things I beg you, and that’s all. Thanks.

Amen.


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Angela Ambroz works at a civil society organization in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She has been previously published in Strange Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, and Redstone Science Fiction. Her website is www.angelaambroz.com.

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