The god of remembrance was dying, and I didn’t yet know it. Just a lick past thirteen, I’d been his apprentice for going on a year, him dragging me through pine forests and up rivers and over prairies and now up into hills and mountains, and I didn’t have the sense to spit downwind. In all that time with him, I’d never seen him so rattled as that cold morning.
It was the third time the old man, as I called him then, had yelled to stop the cart. Usually, after he gave me a direction, he slept in the back, his snoring so loud I feared the wheels would fall off, while I led the mules along the trail.
Now, though, he was mighty rattled. We were chasing a dark column of smoke on the horizon that hadn’t been there the night before.
I jerked the reins of Bess and Coats and patted their spotted gray necks. Beautiful creatures, but cajoling them to do anything was worse than bagging flies. They never wanted to go where the old man pointed.
He stepped carefully from the cart, leaned down, picked up a handful of dirt, and sniffed it like a hound on a hunt. He looked a beast of a man, his long gray hair and ragged beard as wild as the prairie itself, his tan robes crumpled and stained.
I sure was a sorry apprentice, letting him look like that.
His proper name was Bartley. And the fact that he was a god, no matter that he was only the god of remembrance, had been enough for my parents to send their youngest son off with him.
And who wouldn’t want to go with a god, any god, at that age? All I had in front of me was a life in Mobile, breaking my back against the soil like my two older brothers. And, in my child’s mind, I believed that maybe, one day, something of the god and his world might rub off on me.
“Apprentice” meant cooking and cleaning up after an old man who spent most of his time drunk. No learning his magic or his ways as we traveled on the outskirts of the ever-expanding Caddo Nation, visiting town after town. He’d take little offerings from people—a jar of preserves, a rasher of bacon, a loaf of salt bread. He’d hold his talisman in his left hand, grab the person’s hand with his right, and clasp talisman and hand together. A lost look would come over the person, then they’d begin to cry or smile at some type of dream or memory or whatever it was they came for, thank the old man with an embrace, and go on their way. It seemed a piss-poor trade on both sides.
But how would I have known? He hadn’t used that magic on me.
He pulled his runes from the pouch that dangled around his neck and cast them down.
Direction runes, four of them, blank on one side, a cardinal direction on the other. Toss them up, tinkling as they jostled each other, landing on the ground with soft thuds, and they’d tell the old man where to go. All blank, and we’d rest for a day. Never seen any contradiction, like east and west at the same time.
Past weeks, all they’d done was direct him first north into the Kansas Territory, now west into the Colorado.
They told him what they had the last time he cast them: due north, toward that smoke.
He did next what I suspected he’d do, what he always did. He tossed them two more times, but they would point no other way.
“This ain’t good, Eli.”
If I hadn’t already been nervous by him being rattled, the tone in his voice didn’t calm me any.
The ways of the gods are mysterious, and the god of remembrance didn’t like questions, at least not from me. So I didn’t dare ask why.
My mouth and nose filled with ash, and spitting didn’t get the taste out.
What town had been there—Jasper, the old man called it—was now a smoldering field. A part of a charred wall here, an odd unscathed post there.
“Well, this is something new. Stop the mules.”
The mules weren’t the only ones glad not to press ahead.
He climbed down from the cart and stretched, looked at what remained of the town, then scanned the horizon on the other side. “We’ve been on the road a while now. Why haven’t we seen anyone on the way here?”
“They all died in the fire?”
He muttered something I couldn’t hear and drank from a leather flask I hadn’t ever seen him fill, not once. “No, they didn’t all die in the fire. That’s a different smell. Plus, hard to trap a whole town full of people like this, even with magic. Least the magic I know.” He looked around again. “Just one woman died here.”
That hit me hard, hearing that. Made me think of what happened to my Aunt Hazel. Daddy said she had it coming, leaving Mobile as she did, but even young as I was, I had my doubts.
“Then they all left in a direction other than the one we came?”
“A drought usually ends in a flood,” he said. That wasn’t the first time he’d commented on how slow I was to catch the obvious.
He knelt, picked up a bit of dirt and brought it to his lips, looked up at the sky. He coughed again. That smoke couldn’t have been good for him, even being a god. It was giving my chest a helluva burn.
I followed him as he skirted the ruins. In his hands was his talisman, a little piece of worn wood that he called an owl, but if so, it’d been that shape a long time before he put me into his service.
I shivered, too spooked to be with him and too spooked to not be, my mind unable to figure out what could have done this.
When we got to the other side, he looked at the two roads that led away, one roughly northwest and the other northeast, then knelt again.
“Which road they take, Eli?”
“They’re all bound together.” The old man stroked his beard absently. “Took only one.”
I laugh now to think of my thirteen-year old self imagining a whole town’s worth of people tied with rope.
“Not literally, boy.” He couldn’t read my mind; otherwise, he’d have left me behind miles ago. But he knew how simple it worked. “With magic.”
“Is that why you keep pawing at the dirt?”
He sniffed again. “Anything seem unexpected here?”
A town burned down seemed plenty unexpected, but he didn’t wait for me to find a better answer.
“A fire like this should have caught the prairie grass around it, quicker than a stitch of the god of thunder’s lightning. A spell kept it contained. Someone wanted the town gone without the risk of anything else going with it.”
“Who’d do that?”
He shook his head. “Good question. Someone I don’t know. Or maybe I do, but I’ve forgotten what their magic tastes like.”
That wasn’t funny, the god of remembrance forgetting. Between that, and a burned-out town, and a whole town of people wandering off together, I didn’t want to dig up more snakes than we could kill.
He, though, seemed determined to chase it down. He surveyed the town again. “Go get the cart.”
As we traveled, he sat beside me and talked and talked, saying more than all the other days I’d been with him combined.
How the Spanish’d built the road we’d been on a few weeks past, to connect missions that stretched north from New Spain, and despite his warnings to them, they didn’t keep enough to themselves and the Caddo Nation razed those missions in no time.
How he obtained his runes, forged in an African city called Entoto. Won them gambling with a cleric of a now-dead religion, and he was both puzzled and assured that their magic remained strong.
A lot of chatter about his time in the recent war, which he said was the one time in all his years he and the other gods had tried, really tried, to stop the fighting, not that they thought they’d be successful but because it seemed so foolish, as all wars, in the end, were.
Another story about him in a Brooklyn hotel with the gods of beauty and pestilence and small blessings, details of which escape me. (Later, when I met the god of pestilence and asked her about it, she laughed at me and tweaked my beard. “If he really told you, you’d never forget.”)
All that time, he turned and twisted his worn wooden talisman in his left hand and sometimes muttered to the mules in his mumbly god language, to keep them moving. Horses would have been faster, but he refused to get them. Something about losing a bet with a half-brother, and I wondered if he wished for them now.
We plodded along, him now silent, until we came upon a large encampment sprawled in front of a spit of a town, all spread out under the mid-day sun.
He leaned out over the cart. “That didn’t take as long as I feared.”
“Looks like an army.”
“Sometimes, I don’t think you’re paying any attention at all. Other times...” He waved a finger at me. He looked almost joyful.
We followed the trail, threading our way ahead and into what must have been a hundred people sitting about tending to fires and cooking and such. I caught the eye of a boy not much younger than me, an awful hollow, hungry look to him, and had to turn away.
“What are they waiting on?” I asked.
“You think they’re waiting?”
“What else would they be doing?”
“Preparing. Dying. Plotting. Living. Killing. Loving. Lot of options other than waiting. But you’re missing something.”
There was the town on the other side of the camp. An awful dustiness from the trail clung to my tongue. No sounds other than Bess and Coats clomping along and the cartwheels grinding on the road.
I couldn’t figure out what it was.
“If it was a snake, it would’ve bit you by now,” he said, impatient with the thickness of my skull. “No one’s approaching us.”
He was right. Every time we’d come into a town, at least one or two people would recognize him, ask for favors, for remembrances.
Here, not a single man, woman, or child came up.
“Strong magic,” he said. “Let’s get out and walk.”
I didn’t want to. It felt safer in that old cart. But I did what I was told and stopped the mules, and we climbed down. I hurried to catch him, slowed by leading the mules and the cart.
“Anyone here from Jasper?” he called.
No one responded.
He whispered to me, “You see that glaze to them?”
I didn’t know that I did. To me, they just looked wrung out. “Can you break it?”
“Maybe. Once I know the cause.”
What was the point of being a god if you didn’t know things like that?
We passed through those people and entered the town. A single church sat smack between two saloons, with a dozen other buildings scattered among them, including a general store emblazoned with the words “Little Falls Dry Goods.” Townspeople moved amongst them, going about their business, not one paying a bit of attention to us.
“Well, there’s a different bucket of possums,” the old man said. He stopped and raised a hand to stop me.
Coming straight toward us, in the middle of the street, was a young couple, a man with long moon-white hair and a woman whose hair was shadow black, in matching black Stetsons and dusters. They looked all sweetness and light, different than everything else in that town.
There was no way they couldn’t be gods, and I hate to admit it now, but seeing them made me ashamed to be an apprentice to the god of remembrance, and I wanted nothing more than to be theirs.
“That’s why I couldn’t sense you,” the old man muttered. “You made two out of one.” He shook his head, as if disbelieving. “Guess it’s been done before.”
“Bartley,” the woman called. “You been too long in that body.”
“It’s Mister Bartley to you,” I blurted, not meaning to. I don’t know where I got the gumption.
“Mister Bartley,” the man said, drawing out the word mister...
“What names you have people calling you?” the old man said.
“Jack—” the woman pointed to her brother, “—and Jackie.”
“Twins,” the old man said. “The twin gods of progress. Isn’t that something? I hadn’t heard.”
“News travels real slow out here,” Jack said.
“You two responsible for burning that town?”
“A sacrifice,” Jackie said.
The old man shivered. “There’s no call for that.”
Jackie smiled, the way a snake might. “Future’s always coming. Can’t stop it, even by killing us. And that town, it wasn’t going to last anyway.”
“You don’t listen to reason,” the old man said.
“We don’t need your reason,” Jackie said.
“Progress without the past—” the old man started.
“Is boring,” Jack interrupted. “Boring and stale. New world’s here, Mr. Bartley,” drawing out mister... again and eyeing me. “Train lines are coming through, tying these different nations together. America. Caddo. New Spain. California Republic. Where we’re standing is opportunity, and lots of it. And those trains’ll be fast, unlike your ol’ mules.”
“Bess and Coats get us everywhere we need,” I said, holding up the reins. The mules lacked any interest, heads down searching for food.
“Like I said, Mr. Bartley lacks vision,” Jack said.
“You’re not needed here,” Jackie said. She reached for something that hung around her neck—a long thin clocktower carved from dark wood. Her talisman.
The old man recoiled. “You wouldn’t dare.” He looked bigger in that moment—vital, luminous.
A real god.
“As you didn’t? Twice now, you’ve destroyed me. Us.” Jack pointed to his sister. “We’re back. Stronger now. Your time’s running out.”
“You’ve no mercy in you,” the old man said, like a pronouncement from on high, “no kindness, no regard for people. We’re to help them, not abuse them.”
“Where’s your steel, your resolve?” Jack said. “People don’t respect you. The other gods don’t care for you.”
At that point, the townspeople began to stop and watch.
“You don’t need to sacrifice a town to get what you need. You think too highly of yourselves. You’re not love or fear or war.”
“Not yet. But ‘love and fear and war and progress,’ that rings nice, don’t it?” Jackie said.
I felt it there all right, the essence of what the twins were about. They were in it for themselves; not for people, not like the old man was. It sucked the breath right out of me and broke the shine I’d had for them.
“You don’t need any sacrifices,” the old man said.
Jackie looked the old man over. “We’ve got a different plan than what we used to, Bartley. You’re not what you were. And your acolyte looks like he couldn’t bite a biscuit.”
That burned me up, being dismissed like that.
The old man took a step toward them, his right hand clenched and slightly raised.
The twins moved away from each other, their bodies tensing.
“Where’s the respect?!” Jack thundered, more to the gawking townspeople that had crowded around than to the old man.
“I’ve always told you, there’s much we can do together,” the old man said. “Like we used to do.”
“There’s more we’ll do without you,” Jackie said.
Jack held his talisman, the same as his sister’s.
The old man charged.
I’d never seen him do anything like that, and I’d never been prouder of him.
Jack stepped right to him.
The two of them stopped a horse length apart and circled each other, the old man wild and beast-like and furious; Jack calm, settled, a wolf satisfied that his prey couldn’t escape. Both had one hand on their talismans and the other high in the air, as if pulling something from the sky.
The whole wide world silenced as an energy just shy of lightning engulfed them.
Anything could have happened in there. They could have burned up, or fused into one, or only one come out alive, or neither.
I feared that Jackie would rush in there, but she looked at me and grinned. “First time?”
The lightning fizzled with a crack, and the two of them dropped so hard the ground trembled.
Jack bounded up in one-half less than no time while the old man just lay there.
“Bless your heart,” Jackie said, and I hated her for it. “Mister Bartley, I do apologize for your attack on us. Shall I help you up?”
The old man swiped at her extended hand, holding his chest.
“Well,” Jack said, grabbing his Stetson from the ground and dusting it off, “we gotta get on. Good to see you again.” He set it on his head and tipped it at me. “Acolyte.”
The twins turned and left.
I ran to the old man and knelt beside him. The gawkers moved on, not one offering to help.
The old man struggled to sit up and cursed something so foul, even now I dare not repeat the words.
I strained to pick him up and roll him into the back of the cart. He was so spent, he didn’t ask for his flask. I gave it to him anyway.
“Follow ‘em,” he whispered.
Why? If that’s what they did to him once, what would happen next time?
He coughed, and the cart shook mightily.
He instructed me again.
I did as he said, as an apprentice should.
For two days, we headed west before I stopped for the old man to rest proper, feverish as he was. It had started right after his bout with Jack and hadn’t let up.
It was nothing but grasslands there. A scattering of scrappy trees and scrub brush, barely holding on against a wind that never stopped, and a spit of a stream carving its way downhill. I would have given my right eye for a trading post or even a sod house, someplace to get the old man help.
The mules woke me, and my first thought was that the sun was too high and I should’ve been up long before, taking care of the old man and getting us back on the trail.
Then I heard horses in the distance.
I scrambled from my bedroll. Two riders approached from the southeast road, too far to make out. Seeing them, I was hopeful. My prayers for help with the old man had been answered.
As they got closer, I knew it wasn’t help coming our way.
It was the twins. They’d double-backed on us.
“Bartley,” I said and shook him.
He mumbled. His forehead felt hotter than it’d been the night before.
I was terrified what they’d do to the old man in the condition he was in.
I pushed on the old man again. “The twins are here, Bartley. You gotta get up.”
He didn’t move.
I grabbed my walking stick, the only weapon at hand and a pathetic one at that.
They rode up and stopped.
“Sad situation,” Jackie called out.
“No sadder than the day before and the day before that,” Jack said.
“You all head on,” I said, standing between them and the old man. “You got no business here.”
Jackie slid off her horse in a slow, fluid motion. “You have a lot of heart, kid. But no history. When he kicks it—” and I bridled when she said that, “—come find us. We could use a devoted lad like you.”
Jack gave a half-snort. “And you could use someone like us.”
When Jackie came toward me, I took one step with my stick, then froze before I could take a second. All my muscles seized up, leaving me helpless in my rage.
Jack’s eyes took me in without a touch of concern or malice.
I was no threat.
I prayed to the old man, prayed to the gods of justice and vengeance.
I could hear Jackie kneeling behind me.
“Don’t you take nothing from him.” I still had my voice, at least.
“Can’t,” she said. “Rules and all. Hasn’t taught you much, has he?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Can’t recall him ever having an acolyte. Must not know how to take care of one.”
Jackie walked back around me, patted my shoulder like I was an old hound, and got back on her horse.
Her spell lifted, and I shot forward and stumbled, weakly waving my stick. What could I possibly have done with it?
Nothing. That’s what.
“He’s not long for that body, kid,” Jackie said. “We take on forms, use them up, come back. Don’t take it hard. It’s his time, is all.”
It was a kindness she was offering, that explanation, though I couldn’t see it then.
She wished me well and remounted, and they trotted back the way they had come.
The old man didn’t stir that day. I didn’t dare put him back in the cart, though it was tempting to either go back the way we came or head further up the trail in hopes of a doctor. I brought him water to drink and cool his brow, shaded him from the sun’s heat.
That was all I could do, that and cook the last of our beans and curse the twins.
The beans were in dire need of salt. It’d been too long since we’d bought provisions, and we’d eaten the last of the gifts the old man had earned.
Night came and I kept watch, trying not to worry as the stars shifted across that huge sky, when he startled me with his dry, gravelly voice.
“Build a fire, boy. A big one.”
“The twins were here. That woman, she did something to you.”
He waited so long, I suspected he didn’t hear me and I near repeated myself. “She didn’t do nothing that hadn’t already been done. Now build that fire.”
I gathered everything that would burn and made the biggest fire I could.
The old man looked rough in the firelight, the way the shadows danced on his face. One foot already in the grave.
“They sacrificed another,” he said.
Had to have been Little Falls, after we’d left. “I’m sorry.”
“The twins want to bring in a new era. It’ll come, no matter what I do.” His breathing was shallow. “It’s all a part of things, boy. No need to be angry.”
Heavy smoke rose.
“You gotta eat,” I said.
When he grunted, I knew he wasn’t going to.
We sat together, me adding fuel when he motioned for more, the sour burn of grass and buffalo patties almost too much to abide.
He muttered, out of nowhere, words I couldn’t make out. Then he was clear. “Me and progress, we’re a pair. All gods are paired, balanced. Can’t have one without the other. The twins are furious, have been for centuries, and I can’t figure out why.”
Suddenly, he bent over and coughed, poorly at first, but it built up in him until I wondered if all his insides would come out.
I feared for him.
I feared for me, too. What was I going to do without him?
He opened his hand. An orange stone glowed. He looked at it, then tossed it in the fire.
“That’s the end of me, boy. Get my wine.”
I handed him his flask. He drank deep, coughed again, weaker. Drank again and looked at me.
Then he laid back down.
For a day and a night, I couldn’t raise him. He was so far gone, he didn’t stir, didn’t even moan.
I kept a small fire going, in case he needed it, put water on his brow to cool his fever like Momma’d taught me, watched the hawks and the buzzards fly overhead. Ain’t no one come down that road, either direction, despite my prayers.
My sleep was fitful, hoping he’d wake up, call out, but he didn’t.
With the first of the day’s light, I feared he wasn’t breathing, so I nudged him.
“Boy,” he whispered.
Relief filled me when he spoke. “I’m here.”
He held up his hand. I grabbed it tight.
“You worry too much about that woman who passed in the fire.”
In truth, I hadn’t thought much about that woman in Jasper these past days. “I guess.”
“You got a good heart.” He grabbed his talisman with his left hand and held it up weakly, like he’d do when people came to him with their asks. I took hold of it.
Immediately, my mind fell away and I saw my aunt, hair pulled up in a bun, making a pie. I watched her work, listened to her humming a hymn. It was more than seeing her, though. I was there, right back in her kitchen, that week before she’d gone off to New Orleans. My brother yelled something from outside, which I ignored. I just wanted to watch my aunt cut those peaches and savor the sliver of sweet ripe fruit she passed to me.
Then it was all gone.
The god had never done that with me before.
“You’re free to go,” he whispered, “like you’ve wanted. You’ve been a good ‘prentice. And the gods of progress, they ain’t all bad, despite what you think. No more than I’m all good. Misguided, is all.”
I waited for his next words, afraid that they wouldn’t come, afraid that they would and would tell me something I didn’t want to know. Afraid that he’d give me his god power.
“Eli, don’t you ever go back to Mobile.”
And with that, the god of remembrance passed on.
What happens when a god dies? Here was somebody who helped people. No matter how he treated himself or me, he helped people. I thought of those who came looking for their memories refreshed, as he’d done for me. I hadn’t understood before what they’d come for, what they got. Old loves and lost children and long-dead grandparents. Words of wisdom they’d been offered but forgot. Sermons and trips and Saturday afternoons. He gave people a bit of what they sought, and never refused anyone.
People would miss him until he returned in his next form.
I took stock of the old man’s effects. Out of his pouch, I poured out the four direction runes, three divination runes that I couldn’t read, and none of the coins he always seemed to fish out when needed. There was the orange stone he’d coughed up, still glowing among the ashes, a scary kind of magic in it. I touched the talisman that hung around his neck. No piece of wood, I’d wager, had ever been that cold.
I put them in the pouch, took them all without a clue as to what they meant or what to do with them.
I dragged his body—much heavier than I expected—to a shallow and spent the day covering it with dirt and rocks, my fingers raw and sore from the effort.
Wasn’t much, but it was what I could do, and when I was done, all the tears were cried out of me.
The moon came up, and I knelt beneath it, a lone griever. Who in the world knew that the god of remembrance was dead? Who cared? How old had he been? He hadn’t been that age forever.
Why didn’t I ask him what it was like when he was my age? What had he been like?
I set his soft leather flask, not a drop left in it, on top of his grave as a marker.
The sun rose over the prairie, too bright, too early. His grave was a sorry sight, and I doubted he’d stay covered long, what with the spring rains coming and coyotes running about.
I was free, like he said. Whole world ahead of me.
I pulled the old man’s runes out and cast them three times.
To my surprise, every throw pointed the same direction.
There was a quiet as me and the mules made our way west and north. Middle-of-the-night quiet, despite it being late afternoon. A sign on a post a mile back gave this town’s name as Misery. What could possibly earn a town a name like that?
A mass of people were camped on the outskirts, more than we had seen at Little Falls. Strange to see this again, twice in a week’s time.
I tied up the mules and walked through the camp into the town. The people had that glaze to them, same as in Little Falls, and it made me sick to see it.
I feared I’d come across the twins, and right when I thought it, there they were.
“It’s our new acolyte,” came a voice from behind.
Even without seeing her, Jackie’s voice frightened me. I felt my face get flushed. I couldn’t turn and face them.
“Got any news for us?” Jack asked.
“He’s dead, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You lying?” he said. “Wouldn’t be nice, if so.”
“I told you I felt it,” Jackie said to him.
“You got his body in that cart of yours?”
That lit a fire in my chest. I turned, and there they stood, all pretty and proud. Not smiling, but might as well have.
“Buried him best I could, back where you let him die.”
“There’s nothing we could have done,” Jack said, adjusting his hat to sit lower on his head. “He was already dying. Likely was dying when he picked you up, but he didn’t bother to mention it.”
That was the truth of it, I suppose. Hadn’t admitted it to myself up to then.
“I understand, kid. But you’ll get over it. Meet us in Denver City in a few days—” and Jackie pointed vaguely behind her. “You can find us at the Tremont. Best place in town.”
“My apprenticing days are over.”
“Didn’t say they weren’t. Just join us for a visit. We’ll have a meal, talk a bit about the long view of life. In the meantime, stand aside and watch what real gods do.”
They moved on through the town, chatting with people, friendly-like, and I lost sight of them.
I kept wandering the side streets, looking at people, not knowing what I was there for or what I was supposed to do. Then I heard a murmuring and saw the twins at the center of town standing on a balcony. People filled the street below them, townsfolk and those who had camped outside of town.
I pushed through the crowd. As I did, I felt a heat rising, like stepping into a stew pot, the fever of the people crushing me. And that fever put me in mind of the old man and how he deserved more than he got.
Some of the twins’ words fell from the balcony, so buttery they must have thought the sun’d rose just to hear them crow: “...rights to your share of riches... progress on this new frontier... no longer be oppressed or poor...”
It wasn’t for the people at all.
It was about the twins, and what they wanted.
The twins were out to sacrifice this town, too.
“Lies!” I cried out. I was almost underneath the balcony. “You’re liars! And killers.”
My voice reached them. They stopped their speeching and searched the crowd until they spotted me.
“You aren’t helping them!” I raised my voice as loud as I could. “You’re leading buffalo over a cliff, tricking them.”
The people nearest me stepped away, and the twins looked right down at me, their hands gripping the railing. I didn’t know what they could do to me from there, and nervous as I was, I couldn’t back down. “You killed Mr. Bartley, and the fire you set burned that woman in Jasper. And you’ll burn this town down too.”
I had the crowd’s attention. For a moment, I thought I’d done it, that my words had broken their spell.
I had forgotten I was dealing with gods. The twins laughed, and the crowd laughed with them, and that was that. Jackie started back to speeching, and I was forgotten.
I turned away from the twins to the people in the crowd. Their faces were so hard, so focused.
“Stop yourselves,” I begged the people, and somebody kicked me from behind and I landed face first on the ground with a mouthful of grit. I spat it out, almost ready to cry. How foolish to think I could do anything the old man hadn’t done.
The crowd was in a roar, cheering the twin gods of progress. I scrambled to my feet and found that I’d been pressed to the back of the crowd.
It’d been a mistake to try and stop the twins. I didn’t have any power. I was just a boy.
I left to grab my mules and get on. Behind me, I heard the crowd’s cheers swell each time the twins urged them on.
As I passed back through the camp, I spied a lone motherly-looking woman sitting alone by a fire, tending a bubbling pot.
The old man’s pouch around my neck hung heavy.
“You’re not with the others?” I asked
“I’m tired of listening to those two prattle on about nothing,” she said, “even if they are gods.”
“So you know about them?”
“We all know,” the woman said, her voice tinged with despair. “Nothing to do about it, and nowhere else to go.”
She nodded and stroked the hound dog lying beside her. I was about to excuse myself and continue on when she said, “You look like you lost someone.”
I couldn’t say yes.
“Sit a spell. Before you can’t.”
Fatigue hit me, an ache deep in my bones. I’d come from Mobile to Misery and didn’t understand a lick of it. I clutched at the old man’s pouch, felt a heat from something inside.
I accepted her kindness.
She dipped a ladle into the pot, poured some of her stew into a bowl, and handed it to me. I thanked her. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I smelled that stew and felt its warmth in my hands.
“Grew up on the Georgia coast,” she said. “My pa and me, we’d take a boat sometimes and fish, on the days when he didn’t need to work the farm as much. Then I fell in love with a boy who carried me out west to avoid the war. We picked up and moved, time and again, on the promise of better, always hoping for more than what we had. Five years he’s been lost to me, and here I am, still chasing a life I don’t know what it is. But I can’t stand to see something else burn like Little Falls did.”
“That the town you’re from?”
She nodded. “A chunk of us is from there, or Jasper, or Carthage. All newly arrived here in Misery.” She stirred the pot, tapped the ladle against it.
So the twins were burning a town and taking the people to another one, then burning that and moving on again. Gathering power each time, to do whatever it was they were intent on doing. Progress.
Why hadn’t the old man told me?
I like to think he knew I’d figure it out on my own, but it might have been because he’d thought it wouldn’t matter, one way or another, after he’d passed.
“You know, I’d give near anything to be back in Georgia, be that little girl with my pa in a boat, surrounded by water instead of all this. I cherish those memories. The past is all that keeps me upright, some days.”
I felt the weight of the pouch around my neck. The old man’s magic was pulling her story out of her. If he were there, he’d have taken her hand and wrapped it around his own, talisman grasped tight, and given her some peace.
Ever the fool, I started to pull that talisman out and try it myself when voices from the crowd back in the town roared with laughter, a few words of the twins’ speeching echoing among the buildings and finding their way to where we sat.
“I suspect this is it,” the woman said. “So much for my stew.”
Something inside stretched me, and I took the talisman out of the pouch. I held it tight in my left hand, then fished out the orange stone the old man had coughed up and tossed into that last fire I’d made him. If there was any of his magic left, maybe the heat would release it. I dropped it into the woman’s fire.
Sparks flew up, then the fire settled back.
I stood up. “Remember Little Falls,” I said, uncertain, then a little louder, “Remember Little Falls.”
She eyed the talisman close, and I wondered if she’d seen the old man before. “You a god, too?”
“Just an apprentice.”
“I remember,” she said.
I hurried back into the town and threaded my way through the crowd, bumping into people, unintentionally at first, then on purpose. “Remember Little Falls. Remember Carthage. Remember Jasper.”
I didn’t shout this time.
The old man wasn’t around, but maybe I could use the magic that remained in what he’d left behind. I’d pull out every drop I could.
“Remember your mothers, your fathers, your grandmothers and grandfathers, your friends, your children.” I moved through the crowd, mumbling remembrances, recalling words the old man had used, but I found myself coming back to the towns.
“Remember Little Falls, Carthage, Jasper.”
And all that you left behind.
There shouldn’t be progress without remembrance.
I forced my way closer to the front of the crowd, closer to the twins.
At the same time that I pushed others to remember, I recalled my own memories. Grieved, really. It hadn’t been time for the old man to die, as much as the twins might have thought. People still needed him, even if they didn’t know it. I thought of my parents, who’d pushed me out as much as I left them behind, and my brothers, and my baby sister who died a day after she was born. And Aunt Hazel.
Powerful stuff ran through me and into the crowd, and the people’s cheering seemed less fierce even as the twins’ talking got more forceful. I couldn’t hear their words, lost as I was on getting people to remember.
I like to think that the god of remembrance, wherever he was, flowed into me, though I know he didn’t. I whispered the names of the towns, clutching the old man’s talisman, warm in my hand.
The crowd’s fever broke.
People shouted, fists raised not with the twins but against them.
“You told us it’d be better, and it’s not.”
“You burned everything we’d built in Jasper.”
“You made us leave Mary behind!”
The twins were losing their hold.
“We’re moving onward!” Jack yelled from balcony.
“They been saying that,” a man called, “and they’ll keep saying it. For what? When will it end?”
“We’ve come so far, and we’re almost ready to build something better,” Jackie pleaded. “Just wait!”
But the crowd was no longer listening to them.
I didn’t dare stop encouraging people to remember who they were, where they’d been.
The twins disappeared from the balcony, then scrambled out of the hotel front door, desperate, confused. I have to admit, I was more than a bit satisfied to finally see them like that.
Then they caught sight of me.
I held up the talisman of the god of remembrance, to make sure they knew it was me who’d done this.
They bolted toward me.
I stood my ground.
People, their shouts thick and angry, filled the gap between us, surrounding me, protecting me. Why, I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to think it was because they’d come to their senses.
The old man’s magic that I’d channeled held. The chaos of the crowd was too much for the twins to regain their hold. Jack and Jackie ran from the crowd they’d gathered, stirred.
And then the twins Misery, riding their horses west.
“Remember,” I whispered.
I camped that night with the woman and her dog and her friends.
Amid their confusion and wondering about what they’d done with following the gods of progress and where to go next, I heard laughing and crying and cursing and fighting, and all the normal things you’d expect in a camp of people that hadn’t been there before.
Next morning, I fished the old man’s stone out of the fire’s embers, then traded the mules and cart for a roan horse and saddle. Not the best horse, but they hadn’t been the best mules, either.
I cast the runes, already knowing the direction they’d point: to the twins.
Until the god of remembrance returned, in whatever form, I swore to undo whatever the twins were doing as best I could—by helping people to remember.