I killed Jacob Finley. I broke his head open with a hammer and kicked his chest in until his ribs split. Then I took his woman and his mule and left town. That was six years ago.
I did it for Cate. I had been laying Catherine Finley for a few months by then, and when her mean‑drunk husband finally found out, he sent her back to me with a broken jaw. I went to him planning to return the favor, and I guess I got carried away. Afterwards Cate and I took refuge up in Silver Falls, thinking we’d have a good many years before the Judge came around to such a godforsaken mountain hamlet.
I guess we did have a decent run of years. Just wish they were more.
♦ ♦ ♦
Taylor says to me while we’re cutting hay, “You see those crows up there in the north meadow?”
I lower my scythe and look up. A swarm of birds as small and dirty as flies is rising from the gold‑touched aspens that border the field. “Yep,” I say. “Something spooked them.”
“Odd,” he says. “Not much up there.”
Now Taylor is an earthy man whose mind doesn’t run off much. He doesn’t have any brand more serious than Envy, and he keeps me on even though I’m scarred with every brand from Theft to Lechery, so I always consider myself in his debt. But the way he looks at those crows makes me nervous, for no reason I can say at the moment. We keep on cutting hay till the sun gets down towards the tops of the mountains in the west, myself feeling troubled without having much cause to say why, and then he touches my hand. He’s looking up towards the north end of the field.
It takes me a second to see the blue‑winged Seraph in the shadow of the poplars, watching us with his still silver face. Neither of us says nothing, but Taylor sees my hands shaking.
“Why don’t you go on home,” he says to me. “I think we cut enough hay for today. I’ll take the wagon in.”
“Sure,” I say. “I gotta let Cate know.”
I get home just in time to hear the Judgment Bell toll.
Cate’s on the porch holding Loren’s hand and looking towards town. The iron peals of the Bell are still rumbling back at us from the mountains, and her face is pale and nervous. But when she looks at me all she says is, “You’re home early.”
“Taylor let me off,” I say.
Loren starts to bawl, and I see his mother is squeezing his hand so hard it’s turning white. “Let the boy go,” I say. “You ain’t gonna help him by breaking his fingers.”
“That was the Bell, Henry.”
I crouch down and scoop Loren into my arms. “Did Momma hurt you? She’s mighty distracted.”
Cate tisks. “Didn’t you hear me? That was the Judgment Bell. We gotta go into town. Loren hasn’t never been judged before. And us—”
“Quiet, Cate,” I say. “Let’s just eat supper first.”
Cate has porridge on the stove and crusty bread in the pantry, and we sit down to a quiet meal. Loren is only four and he normally chatters like a blue jay when we sit to eat, but I think he’s picked up on his mother’s mood, because he sits quiet as a hare. As soon as we’re done Cate stacks the dirty plates and says, “We really gotta go, now. It’s only gonna be worse if we try to avoid it.”
“Yep,” I say. My veins feel like they got lead in them. “Loren, you stay close to me. We’ll register after Momma.”
“Yes, sir,” he says. “What’s all this for?”
I hesitate. We haven’t talked to him much about the Judge, since he’s small and it’s a subject Cate and I prefer to avoid. “We’re gonna go talk to someone,” I say. “And then it’s probably gonna hurt. But there ain’t no avoiding it.”
Silver Falls doesn’t have but one street, and when we get there just about everyone in town is crowded around the Judgment Bell. The scarred, cast‑iron bell casts a shadow like spilled pitch across the boardwalk. Loren shouts and points, and I can hardly blame him ‘cause the Judge is there on a chair carried by four Seraphim. The Bailiff is standing underneath the Bell taking registrations, and me and Cate and Loren get in line. It don’t take long to get to the front. People don’t want to stand around talking to the Bailiff any more than they have to, to say nothing of the Judge.
Taylor comes up behind us and greets me with a short nod. He must have just got here from the ranch, and he pats Loren on the cheek. Normally Loren kisses Taylor like an uncle, but now we’re real close to the Bailiff and the Judge, and he’s got eyes only for them. He wraps himself around my leg and shrinks away.
The Bailiff is the only one of them that looks like ordinary folks. He’s got black leather boots and dusty trousers, a wide‑brimmed felt hat and a short, peppered moustache. A wood‑bound ledger balances on the table underneath the Judgment Bell, where he’s writing down registrations with a common ink pen. If it weren’t for his company, you’d take him for a banker or a doctor. But he’s guarded by two Seraphim.
Their faces are living silver, with shining breastplates and metallic gloves that ripple as quick as river water, and from their shoulders rise wings with feathers of thin blue stone that sparkle like fish scales. They don’t hold any weapon you can see, but men talk of their gloves lit up with fire.
And behind them, on a palanquin of ivory and emerald, sits the Judge himself. Like the Seraphim his face and breast and hands are liquid metal, gold to the Seraph’s silver, but six wings float around him like spider’s silk, shadowing his face and hands and feet. The eyes in his mask are black and sparkle with flashes of lightning.
If I was a boy like Loren, I’d hide, too. But I’m a man now, and I’ll face my judgment standing up.
Cate goes to the Bailiff first. “Name?” he asks.
“Catherine.” She pauses for a moment. “Catherine Finley.”
“When and where were you last judged?”
“Eight years ago, in Dunville.”
The Bailiff nods and scribbles in his ledger. “Judgment begins tomorrow. Come as soon or as late as you want, but if you take too long the Seraphim will be out to drag you in, which you won’t like. And don’t try to run away.”
He gives the same warning to everyone at every judgment. I’ve heard it six times.
Loren and I follow. I give my name as Henry Dodge, last judged eight years ago in Dunville, and then I present Loren for his first judgment. “What’s gonna happen?” he asks with pitiable innocence.
“The Judge will hear you confess all of your sins,” the Bailiff says. “If he gives you justice, he will show you his left hand and you will be branded for your sins. But if he gives you mercy, he will show you his right hand and you will go away unblemished.”
This is a lie. The Judge’s right hand is bound behind his back by an iron chain, and he don’t give mercy to nobody.
Cate and I squeeze Loren’s hands and pull him away from the Bailiff, back towards our home at the north end of town. Neither of us says nothing. A moment later I hear boots kicking up the dirt behind us and Taylor says, “Henry, wait up. I’d like to have a word with you privately, if I may.”
He nods apologetically to Cate, who hushes Loren into her skirts and continues without a word. Taylor leans close to me and asks in a low voice, “Cate gave her name as Catherine Finley?”
“That’s her name,” I say.
“So you and her are not properly married?”
“No.” The brand Adultery will scar her pretty cheeks, and Loren will wear the Bastard brand his whole life. But those aren’t the brands I’m worried about.
Taylor takes off his hat and runs a hand through his ruddy hair. “Well. Folks won’t like that when they find out.”
“I reckon they won’t. Not a lot I can do about it, though.”
“Did she have a husband before?”
“He died.” That’s all I’m inclined to say.
Taylor goes quiet for a minute, looking back towards the center of town. In the meadow behind the Judgment Bell men are rigging up a great canvas tent to cover the Judge’s Tabernacle. “You’ve still got a job with me,” he says after a minute. “No use leaving Cate and Loren to beg.”
I almost tell him that there’s no need for that, since I won’t be around to work after the judgment. But I hold my tongue and just say, “Thanks.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The sun is hidden behind the hills by the time I get home, and Cate is putting Loren to bed in the corner of the room. I sit down next to him and hold his hand until he falls asleep. I figure I’ve got one, maybe two days left to do that.
When Loren’s asleep I take Cate to our bed and we make love, quiet and hard. In the dark she holds me and says, “Henry, what are we gonna do?”
“We always knew this day was coming,” I say.
“But what am I gonna do without you? I got no way to raise Loren by myself. I ain’t got nothing to work at other than mending, which don’t pay much. I’ll be reduced to whoring in a month.”
“Maybe Taylor will take you in. Loren can start doing chores to make it worth his while.”
“We could run.”
I shake my head. “Don’t be silly, Cate. The Seraphim got the village surrounded.”
“Oh, Henry.” She begins to sob. I pull her close to me and we fall asleep like that, arms and legs tangled up beneath the heavy wool blanket, our bodies warming the one‑room cabin.
I wake up before dawn and dress without waking Cate. I want to get this over with.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Bailiff is already awake when I get to the tent—I don’t think that the Bailiff ever really sleeps—and he takes me through the tent to the curtains of the Tabernacle. Though every town’s got its own spot to host the judgment, the Judge carries the Tabernacle from place to place. Its walls of gauzy silk tinkle with tiny chains when I pass through.
Inside, there is no light other than a soft glow that comes from the Judge’s face and wings, and the bank of coals where the brands await. Seraphim in the four corners hold thuribles that fill the room with sweet, smoky incense. The incense loosens your tongue and your mind and makes you want to tell all your secrets. I breathe deep.
“Tell me your sins,” the Judge says with a voice like a waterfall.
I feel like I’m floating. I can’t feel my feet or my hands. The Judge’s seat seems to grow before me, turning mountainous and hot, and the Judge towers like a giant born out of a lightning bolt. I start to talk. I tell the Judge how I fell in love with Catherine Finley and killed her husband, how we came to Silver Falls and had a son. I confess every lie and curse I uttered since my last judgment, every time I got drunk and fought fools at the bar and the time I stole ten dollars from Taylor though he never done me wrong. Then I roll up my sleeves and wait for the Judge’s response.
Voices patter around me like the muttering of distant thunder. The Judge is speaking to the Seraphim. I catch only words and phrases:
“...but the child...”
“...consented to murder...”
“...already carries the brand...”
“...she, too, is guilty.”
With a crack the voices cease. The Judge extends his left hand and gestures to the Seraphim. “You will receive justice.”
A Seraph approaches with two brands, red‑hot from the coals. The first is Adultery, and it blackens my right cheek. I bite my tongue to swallow the scream. The second is Death, and it sears my forehead. This time I do scream.
“Life for life, death for death,” the Judge says. “Your sentence will be carried out when judgment is complete.” The Seraphim push me out of the Tabernacle, though the door of the tent, and into the morning light.
I take a breath of clean air. Two women awaiting their judgment outside the tent scream and cower. For a moment I’m confused, then I remember that Death is on my forehead. I ignore them and stumble towards the cabin as quickly as the pain allows me. Those who see me gasp and turn their faces away. No one greets me. The living do not speak to the dead.
♦ ♦ ♦
There is smoke rising from the stovepipe of our cabin. I fumble with the door and come through to the smell of coffee and frying bacon. Loren screams. For a moment I think he’s screaming ‘cause a dead man has come through the door, but I realize he don’t know the meaning of the mark on my forehead. He sees only his father scarred.
My vision still swims. A tin cup of coffee and a plate of bacon appear before me. The coffee boils the incense from my mind at last, and I see Cate is crying silently. I chew the bacon and consider whether to speak. But what do the dead care for the laws of the living?
“I have until judgment is complete,” I say. “A day or two.”
She pours the bacon grease from the skillet into the grease can. “Loren, we’re gonna go into town today,” she says. She don’t look at me.
I picture her soft, freckled cheeks branded with Adultery. Hard to get work even whoring with that kind of scar. Taylor will take her in, I think. He’s a good man. My fingers wander to the Death brand on my forehead, still hot and blistering at the edges. The brush of my fingers is a needle of pain, and I suddenly remember the Judge’s words: She, too, is guilty.
I bolt to my feet and send the chair clattering to the ground behind me. “Cate, we have to go.”
She won’t look at me. I go on, “The Judge said they’d kill you, too. For Jacob’s murder.”
She pauses. For a long time she just looks at the rag in her hand, then she answers in a voice barely loud enough to hear. “Where did you hear that?”
“The Judge said it—at my judgment.”
“You sure you weren’t just hearing things? Strange things happen under the Seraphim’s smoke.”
“I swear, Cate. And I ain’t leaving Loren without neither mother nor father.”
“The Seraphim have the town surrounded. You said so last night.”
“Maybe we can get out.” My heart is racing now. “Over on the east edge of Taylor’s ranch there’s a ravine where Crooked Snake Creek runs out. The top is so thick with juniper that you can’t see to the bottom unless you’re in the ravine itself. We could maybe sneak through, I think, if we were real quiet.”
Loren is in the corner of the room spinning a top Cate made from an old spool of thread. The clattering of the top is the only sound in the room.
“Please,” I say.
She throws the rag to the ground. “Loren, baby, get out your spare set of clothes and put them here in the sheet. We’re not going to town. We’re leaving.”
It only takes us a few minutes to get our extra clothes and the fifty dollars I got hid under the mattress wrapped up in the sheet and tied into a bundle. It’s a good thing that we live on the edge of town, ‘cause it’s pretty clear we ain’t just going out for the day, and anyone that saw us was likely to raise alarm.
As it is, we don’t see no one all the way out to Taylor’s ranch, where the road splits north towards his homestead and east towards the pastures. I ponder for a moment whether to go and tell him why I’m going, and maybe to beg a little extra money—but an honest fellow like him might feel obliged to stop me, if he’d even talk to a dead man. We take the east fork and skirt the pastures towards the ravine.
Crooked Snake Creek comes crawling out of the woods there at the edge of the field, and to get into the ravine you gotta walk right up the creek bed itself. I carry Loren, who squeezes my neck and hides his face in my shoulder, while Cate carries our belongings. Just as soon as we get into the wood, the mossy walls of the ravine rise on either side and the sun gets lost in the thicket that brambles up the top walls. The creek gurgles around our feet, and we step from stone to stone to avoid splashing in the water. There’s no telling how far out the Seraphim have made their cordon. We move real slow. My heart beats as fast as the woodpecker drilling overhead.
We come to the place where the trees over the ravine change from pine to aspen, and the air goes golden from the light in their autumn leaves. And a voice like a bell at night says, “Halt.”
The Seraph is at the lip of the ravine, his silver mask shining like the moon. The brambles in front of him spark into brief white flame and wither away at his touch. He begins to descend the rocky slope.
“Go!” I shout. We forget caution. Loren clasps my neck in terror, I scramble over the mossy river rocks, and Cate’s heavy breath follows us. The sound of our splashing in the water mingles with the horrible crackle of brush burning in the Seraph’s wake.
A cry of pain stops me. Behind me Cate has sprawled on all fours, our knotted sheet fallen into the creek bed. Her hands are bloodied where she caught herself on the stones. The Seraph is a step behind her, reaching out to seize her neck, and his hand is white with power. I drop Loren and stumble to Cate’s side.
“Stop,” I say. I try to grab his wrist, but the touch of his glove scalds me like a brand. He pauses. The silver gaze turns to me.
“Let her go,” I say. My voice cracks. “I ain’t too proud to beg. Let her go. I’m already a dead man, but she don’t deserve what I’m getting. And the boy ain’t done nothing. I’ll go with you if you let her go.”
The Seraph watches me, and I imagine he’s looking at Death on my forehead. “This is your wife and child?” he asks, and all the trees quiver at the tolling of his voice.
I don’t know what to say. I ain’t never heard of the Seraphim giving ear to the pleas of those under judgment, and he knows I’m a dead man. But there ain’t nothing more for me to lose, except hope for Cate and Loren. So I gotta try.
I tell it to him straight. “She ain’t my wife, not proper, but she’s been my woman, and that’s my boy. If they go to judgment, she’s gonna get Death on her forehead, too, and then my boy’s gonna be orphaned. They don’t deserve none of that. It’s all my fault, and I don’t want no one to suffer no more on account of me.”
The Seraph is still for a moment. Then, as quick as lightning, he seizes me by the shoulders and begins to carry me away. He don’t look back at Cate and Loren. His footsteps make no sound, so I can hear real well when Cate gathers up the bundle and quiets Loren’s sobs and continues on up the ravine.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Seraphim guard me all that day and the next, until everyone in Silver Falls has been judged. The whole town gathers to see them plunge their silver hands into my chest and crush my beating heart.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Judge calls out: Arise.
His voice crashes down like a mountain falling into water. There ain’t nothing you can say to a voice like that except you do what it says, not even to wonder what in Hell is going on and why you ain’t dead.
I’m wrapped in a soft cloth that feels flimsy and wet like old leaves, which I tear away like rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. There’s a stone in my mouth that I spit onto the ground. And that’s when I get my first thought that something else ain’t right, because the shreds of cloth that I tore through are lying all around me, and they ain’t rotten burlap like I thought, but heavy canvas you’d be hard up to tear with a knife. The stone from my mouth smokes like a coal on the ground.
And then I see my hands are silver and ripple like water under moonlight, and I touch my face, which is hard as steel and hot as fire. I start to scream. At first I scream from terror. Then I scream from pain.
Stone knives are splitting open my back. My shoulder blades are broke and reformed. My ribs groan. My spine is hot as a blacksmith’s fire. Soft, human hands lift me off the ground where I’m writhing, and I hear whispers of help, encouragement. And with a blast of blue something breaks free: wings, my wings, beating the air like a hawk taking flight.
I am lying in the Tabernacle, held off the ground by a crowd of Seraphim. Their hands are human and kind, and when I look at them I don’t see silver masks, but men and women. Every one of them has Death on their forehead.
The ones holding me aloft help me stand on my own feet, and I turn to see the Judge.
“Welcome to my host,” he says. He has a face like a man, but where his eyes would be there is darkness filled with lightning.
I waver on my feet like I’m drunk, but I find my voice to ask, “What’s going on here?”
“You sought mercy for your family,” he thunders, “and you received it. Now show mercy to others.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Seraphim are my right hand.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Judge don’t explain. He turns and walks away, and when I try to run after him the Seraphim crowd forward and seize me, and take me back to their barracks, and hold me until I stop struggling.
♦ ♦ ♦
After a few weeks I stop fighting, and things get a little easier. I learn my place in the rituals of judgment. People confess their sins to the Judge, and I give them their brands as sentenced.
One day I’m holding the brands in the Tabernacle when a faithless woman comes through, one who’s run off from her husband to take up with a man that don’t slap her around so much. By rights she ought to get Adultery on her cheek, and the Judge shows his left hand to say just that. I’m supposed to carry out the sentence, but when the woman comes to me I realize what I’m really supposed to do.
I am the Judge’s right hand.
I let her go.