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Devil Take the Hindmost

by Rosalie Morales Kearns
  

I.

Whoever takes his place in the beginning will know the end, and will not taste death.
          — Gospel of Thomas (1st-century Christian gospel, banned as heretical in the 4th century)

A Lime-Green Shelter Door

God damn it, you’d think she’d get it right by now. They’d had the bio-chem drills since grade school: you hear the alarm, drop everything, run like hell. Somehow Pilar was always the last to show up.

Twenty years later wouldn’t you know it, grade school all over again.

From the ridge on White Mountain it takes an hour to scramble down to where her car’s parked, and then for miles she bounces along the dirt-and-gravel ribbon that’s labeled a “drivable trail” on the State Forest map. “It’s a drill,” she says out loud. But they stopped the drills years ago. Or it’s a mistake. Or something local, a toxic spill on the interstate. Gravel turns into blacktop and she’s on the access road, then Rt. 235, still not another car in sight.

She tries to remember the protocol for the alarms. After so many hours the alarm sound gets shorter, intervals between, longer. The lime-green posters were meant to be soothing: Proceed in a calm, orderly fashion to the designated meeting place. Right.

She brakes and pulls up in front of the smallest bio-chem shelter sign she’s ever seen. Nasty-looking place, electrified fence with razor wire on top.

The gates are still ajar, someone must have tried to close them and then stopped, like the power went out just then. She throws a stick against the wire to make sure the juice isn’t still on, squeezes between the gates and runs down a gravel path toward the regulation lime-green shelter door. Presses the intercom buzzer. Nothing.

Come on, come on, answer. If it’s not a drill what is it--biological, chemical, localized, airborne, ingested epidermally, inhaled? Is she breathing it in right now?

She’d be safe back in D.C., working quietly in her lab. Reading news reports about some minor incident in the middle of nowhere.

She presses the buzzer again, slaps at it with her open palm. She’s about to kick at the door when the intercom erupts in static. A blurry face swims out of the darkness, presses itself against the high-density plastic window. Other faces crowd in, then recede.

The intercom spits out: “Password!”

She can’t be hearing right. She’s hit with a wave of dizziness and nausea and, what’s worse, what’s much worse, an overwhelming sense that she’s been through all of this before.

Washington, D.C.

The Reassignment Memo lists no phone number, no name of a human person amid the small-print instructions on filing an appeal.
 
“A lateral move,” a supervisor tells her. “An opportunity.”

Pilar grips the memo tight as she reads. And rereads. As if maybe she’ll discover the tiny print, faint as a watermark, that explains how the U.S. Budget Office could have jurisdiction over the National Academy of Sciences.

“Bald Eagle State Forest,” she reads in a monotone.

“Pretty countryside,” someone else says. “Or used to be. Pennsylvania. Lots of farms way back when.”

There are meetings with middle managers. They’re indistinguishable to Pilar, they look alike, they say the same things:

“You brought this on yourself, Pilar.”’

“That last little stunt, nothing but a provocation.”

“I’m a scientist,” she says. “I do research. I make my findings available to the public.”

“You should have known better.”

“I should have known better coming in here. I was  hoping to speak to a live human.”

“This is what we mean, Pilar. You need to work on your interpersonal skills.”

Reassignment. Take one geochemist specializing in erosion control. Turn her into a fire safety officer in the U.S. Forest Service. What do you get? I work in a state-of-the-art lab, she writes in her appeal. I go to conferences all over the world, the only fieldwork I do is in agricultural extensions and botanical gardens. In case that isn’t clear enough, she adds, What do I know from forests?

Her only other such correspondence has been forever unanswered. Dear Government, she’d written when she was ten, if you keep using lime green paint for the bioterror shelter doors, people will start to hate limes.

“U.S. Budget Office” is etched into the bronze plaque but the burnished metal doors are locked. A small sign in fluorescent yellow cardboard directs Pilar to the east entrance, where smoked glass doors are also locked, this time no sign, no buzzer, no guard. Is it even the same building, maybe she’s walked past the right entrance, but she goes around to another side, then a fourth, then what seems to be a fifth because the metal doors aren’t there but how could the unimaginative granite blocks that make up the Budget Office be in anything but rectangular form?

She asks for so little: an office, a desk, a name with a person attached to it and she’ll hand over her appeal letter and all of this will be cleared up. The Reassignment Memo listed only a P.O. box and she’s received no answer, she’s had to pack up her office at the academy, turn over her lab space, reassign her research assistants, store her samples, her data. They must not have read the letter yet. Tomorrow she’ll put her belongings in storage. This is all a silly mistake, she’ll laugh about it someday.

She looks up at the granite-faced cube, seven stories she counts. There must be people in there, bureaucrats making their calculations, inputs and yields, cost-benefit, risk assessment, and the corresponding Reassignment Memos that will make the numbers jump back into the right columns. She thinks she sees their small pale faces looking out, she steps back for a better look but the tall narrow windows reflect back only gray sky.

Bald Eagle State Forest

A forest ranger with a face as impassive as stone gives Pilar her new assignment:

Fire safety.

Could he elaborate? He shrugs. Why do they need someone from federal for a state-level agency? He shrugs. Where are Pilar’s quarters? He digs out a sheet of paper, points to a yellow X. Can she read a trail map?

She can, but the map, it turns out, is inaccurate. By the time she finds the ranger substation it’s almost dark. She feels her way into the cabin, finds a table, sets up the battery-powered camp lantern that brilliantly illuminates layers of dust, cobwebs, dead bodies of insects, dried leaves blown in under doors and through window cracks.

She spends hours cleaning and by the time she’s finished she’s too tired and grimy to fall asleep. She steps out into the night-time forest.

You can do this, Pilar.

She’ll keep writing letters of appeal. She’s going to get out of here. And in the meantime, why should she care whether the damn place catches fire?

She has the sense that the forest hears her, fingers wagging, murmurs of disapproval. “OK,” she says out loud. “I’ll be a damn fire safety officer.”

Not a good sign. Here one day and she’s talking to the forest.

She looks at the trail map showing nonexistent paths, logical impossibilities like a creek running along the top of a ridge.

She’ll make an accurate map. It’ll give her something to do.

Breathing hard already, not even a steep incline but it’s humid and she’s out of shape, yet another reason she’s unsuited for this damn job.

(“Transfer,” they called it.)

(Demotion. Banishment.)

(“And consider yourself lucky.”)

Every few yards another enormous fallen hemlock or beech in the way. Pilar has to hoist herself over or slither under. When a new path veers off to the left she squats down to read the fallen trail sign, faded letters barely visible: Tower Trail.

She takes out one of the maps, creased and sweaty and it was a blurry photocopy to begin with. No trail.

The page torn from a road atlas is the closest she’s got to a topographical map now that they disbanded the U.S. Geological Survey, no need to show the enemy our terrain, they said. That one shows the trail, so does the State Forest brochure, but never with a name. Shouldn’t someone have told her there were still firetowers here?

Tower Trail takes her down the steep slope of Strong Mountain and across the stream. She knows it’s Swift Run but at this point it’s covered with slabs of rock. She hears the water rushing beneath her, and an odd echoing sound as if someone nearby is stomping on it, a rock-and-water drum, but she can see up and down the stream and the only living creatures in sight are birds, spiders, slugs.

The path on the other side turns sharply up. It must zigzag further up, she decides, or veer through some gap she can’t see from here. Can’t be that steep anyway, these mountains are low, old, smoothed down by weather and trees and time.

She starts up the path. Her calves hurt intensely for five minutes and then the pain disappears but her heart is knocking against her rib cage. She has to stop every few minutes, tries to recall the heights shown on the park district map in faint gray ink. No more than a thousand feet, was it?

Possibly two thousand. She tries to get her mind around that number, it’s like walking up twenty flights of stairs which she’s never done in her life, and that could explain why she’s dry-heaving, staggering at the top, and of course there’s no firetower here. Of course.

Whatever it was made of, wood, brick, it’s gone now, except for a crumbling cement foundation.

She lies face up, looking at the patch of sky fringed by trees all round. She is unconcerned about all the dangers of bare skin against forest floor. Ant bites, poison ivy, Lyme disease. Skinned elbows. Tetanus. She remembers learning about the presence of bacteria in soil and rocks, it made her laugh, how anyone could think innocent rocks were so dangerous. She picks up a small stone and nuzzles it against her cheek. There, there. What?

Not so different, flesh and stone, same elements, carbon, iron, oxygen. Skeleton turns to stone in the right conditions, perfect fate for a geologist. This is the worst place for fossilization, though, moist forest soil. The whole mountain would have to slide on top of her, and stay on top, for Pilar to ever end up in the fossil record.

She stands up, brushes herself off. She has a schedule to stick to, every morning she makes a plan for the day and she knows that if she can hold on to that, she can hold on.

She pulls up to the Smokey Bear sign at the entrance to Hairy John’s Picnic Area. Written across Smokey’s chest in large white letters is

Risk of Forest Fires Today:

Beneath is a space for a sliding panel. She slides out yesterday’s sign, High, and considers her options.

High.
Low.

She looks around, senses the wind direction, weighs the variables: (1) it’s going to be over 90 degrees today, but (2) there’s been plenty of rainfall, and furthermore, (3) the humidity can plaster you to the floor, moreover, (4) she has no idea how to determine the risk of forest fires. She slides in High.

Of course she can’t do this every day of the year. Some random hunter could come across it on a cold snowy morning, it could breed cynicism.

Seems like someone’s watching her, but there’s no other car around, and besides she doesn’t have that crawly feeling at the back of her neck. Hairy John, she feels like saying, is that you? only because the name sounds pornographic and she still finds it funny, and she knows she’s being immature because no one else around here seems to find it odd at all. A legend is attached to him, he must have done something impressive to merit a picnic area. She could get like that herself someday, if she stays away from civilization long enough. Grumpy Pilar. A shaggy woman who lived in a hut in the mountains all by herself. They’ll name a trail after her.

At the post office she checks her mailbox for a response to her latest letter of appeal. Nothing.

Pilar is prepared for this, she has another letter ready to go. But instead of putting it in the mail slot, she walks round to the counter. She needs human contact even if she doesn’t want it. The fact that she doesn’t want it is already cause for alarm.

The postmistress takes the envelope Pilar hands her.

“Any anthrax in here?” she rasps.

Above her a sign says it’s a violation of federal regulations to joke about mail tampering.

Pilar hasn’t spoken all day and her voice comes out in squeaks.

“Couldn’t get my hands on any this time,” she says, and the postmistress cackles.

In her cabin Pilar lights the kerosene lamp and begins the next appeal letter.

It has come to my attention, she writes, that fire prevention may not be the best method of forest management.

The things she’s learning.

Fire rids the forest of weaker trees, slows the growth of certain less-desired understory plants, and promotes forest diversity.

Someone, one of her predecessors in this ranger substation, has left an old issue of the Journal of Forestry. She had almost thrown it out, in the cleaning frenzy when she first got here. The journal and a few other books, dust-covered and brittle, had almost gone into the woodburning stove.

Now she’s glad she spared them. She reads them slowly, to make them last--who else keeps her company every evening? From the Annals of Snyder County she’s learned that Hairy John was a recluse in these mountains, no human contact except in a diphtheria epidemic when he showed up carrying fresh water to people and they remember him for that, the hundred-year-old book says, even to this day. The Forest Service manual was written back when the ruined firetower on Thick Mountain was new and whole. She has learned how often she is supposed to go there, how often to turn to face different parts of the compass. Scan the horizon for smoke, it tells her. If you see flames, the conflagration is already in full force. You have failed, in other words. The mountain is on fire.

In short, the duties to which I have been arbitrarily reassigned by your office are not only outside the purview of my expertise, they are counterproductive to optimal forest health.

She looks at what she’s written, crosses out the last sentence.

Fire cleans, she writes. Fire heals.

A spider dangles from a ceiling beam, climbs back up and Pilar notices the webs in the corners but she’s given up on trying to oust the spiders. They are quiet, nonjudgmental. Pilar appreciates their company.

She tries to recall a law, simple and elegant, from college physics, something that would be easily understandable to whatever person in the Budget Office opens her letters and tosses them in the trash.

For every destruction, she writes, there is an equal and opposite creation.

The path up White Mountain narrows and Pilar stubs her toe on a tree root that she can’t even see, mountain laurel bushes are waist high and she’s wading through and I swear to God a branch is grabbing at her ankle. She has to stop and disentangle her foot and once she gets to a clear part of the path she sits down. Forest up here mostly hemlock and white pine, the soil hard and dry and the small stones along the path are pinkish white, silicate tinged with iron. She picks up a chunk and sniffs it, what am I doing?

Tiny flurry of movement on the path and she sees a toad skitter away, which makes her smile but then she stands up, gets her face smacked by a low-hanging hemlock branch, god damn it. A wind shakes the tops of the trees, she smells leaf rot and pine needles on the air currents.

She hears something rustling nearby, maybe a deer. She can’t remember which wolves they used to have here, gray or timber, but they’re extinct now, same with the mountain lions, though the locals insist they still see them, and she knows for sure there’s black bears around. No time for any of that because just ahead off the path a diamondback rattlesnake is sunning itself on flat rocks and it’s so beautiful she can only stand and stare. The snake uncoils itself, esses away in sidewinding curves, and here she is at the edge of a steep drop, she knew it was here no matter what the map said.

She sits down on the rock ledge, puts out one foot to test her weight on the part where it juts out into space, yes, it’ll hold, she lies on her belly and looks down, thirteen hundred feet to Penns Creek below, and out to ridge after forest-covered ridge. Formed by plate tectonics 300 million years ago, it makes her giddy to imagine herself there, witnessing.

And the thing about trees that grow on craggy mountains: loggers can’t get at them, plus hemlock’s no good for timbering, shatters when you try to cut it. She’s been wandering all over the last undisturbed soil in the whole mid-Atlantic.

From far off a sound wafts in, a throaty wailing bull horn sound that ends on high sharp notes like brakes squealing. She waits, she can’t believe, doesn’t want to believe, hasn’t heard the sound in a long time since they gave up on the mandatory drills.

And here again. The bioterror siren.

The Lime-Green Shelter Door

She presses the buzzer again, slaps at it with her open palm. She’s about to kick at the door when the intercom erupts in static. A blurry face swims out of the darkness, presses itself against the high-density plastic window. Other faces crowd in, then recede. The intercom spits out: “Password!”

“What the fuck?” No, Pilar, this is not the right approach.

She holds up her Forest Service I.D. “My radio’s not working. Have you heard yet whether it’s a drill?”

The answer makes no sense, something about President Ashfield, and end times.

“I don’t know what kind of research you’re doing here, I’m not trying to spy on you. Can you just let me in?”

The intercom gets staticy and then erupts in fragments of voices: “back to the reservation!” “back to Mexico!” (“I’m from Wilmington, Delaware,” she says. Fucking rednecks, she’s about to say—Keep your mouth shut, Pilar.) “Look at that short hair--she’s one of those…” “That’s what’s wrong with this country.”

Pilar is getting more and more nervous. What’s beyond this door has become everything she could ever imagine wanting. She stares in horror at the intercom, like it’s a grisly accident she can’t look away from.

Faintly, almost at the bottom of this pile of voices: “We should help her…” “Help one of those?” “Enough with your nonsense about Mud People. There’s no Mud People in the Bible.” “My point exactly.”

Finally Pilar looks, really looks, at the sign that she’d taken to be just an abbreviation for some organization or research lab. SOLS, the sign says in large letters, then, in smaller letters along the bottom:

Soldiers of Our Lord and Savior.

“Oh, Jesus,” she says.

“Is she praying?”

“That didn’t sound like a prayer.”

One last try. “If you were true Christians,” she shouts, “you’d let me in.”

She doesn’t wait for the answer, but hears it anyway as she runs back up the gravel path.

“If the Lord chose you to be saved, you’d be in here already.”

The car won’t start, solar capacity disrupted somehow, she has to switch to ethanol backup, but that should be enough to get her to the Agro-Chem Biosphere. They know her there.

A haze of reddish dust hangs in the air. Pilar coughs once, a deep-down spasm that seems to rip through her lungs. Power of suggestion, she tells herself. It’s only a drill.

Washington, D.C.

The breeze off the Potomac makes her shiver, riffles the pages of the report she’s holding.

“Part One,” she reads, but her voice comes out hoarse. She clears her throat. “Soil Depletion.”

Behind her the flags surrounding the Washington Monument snap and strain at their moorings. A few people stop to listen, but the section on erosion statistics makes their eyes glaze over, and they move on. Someone else wants directions to the Natural History Museum. Pilar points west, loses her place in the report and starts over again. New people show up and she has to recap quickly:

“That big panel, you’ve heard about it probably, on soil regeneration? The Agriculture Division? Their final report came out last week.”

She holds up one of her visual aids, a large square of posterboard on which she’s drawn a map of the East Coast, using red marker to indicate the abandoned farmland all along the Atlantic seaboard.

“First they talked about terraforming the soil,” she says. “It was all hush-hush that plan, but they were ignoring the kind of ecosystem damage you can get when you introduce Amazonian microbes into a completely different context. So, well, when the environmentalists heard about it . . .” She never did admit to being the leak, but the higher-ups figured it out and she was kicked off the panel.

“And then the final report, it’s everything agro-biz wants to hear.”

She holds up chart #2, she’s used black marker to scrawl a picture of the final report with a cartoon balloon issuing from where its mouth might be: Apply petrochemicals liberally.

She’s especially proud of visual aid #3, an organizational chart showing Ag shrinking and then whooshing into the gaping maw of Homeland Security. “Agriculture used to be its own department. Of course, if these were planets it would make sense--larger bodies with stronger gravity pull smaller bodies into their orbit.” You’re off on a tangent, Pilar, you need to focus. “But we’re not talking about planets here, these are government agencies, and it’s like, animals on the food chain, a whale gobbling up plankton. Not that the Agriculture Department is like plankton . . .”

People think her Five-Hundred-Year Plan is performance art. The Washington Post calls her “wittily subversive.”

And then comes the Reassignment Memo, the blank-faced bureaucrats, the hulking granite Budget Office with no doors that she can discover, no windows. The exile to Bald Eagle, the forest with its muddy paths and slugs and unmarked trails and she gets to the top of White Mountain, she is lying on the rock outcrops looking down and it’s a moment of grace so beautiful and dangerous and fragile. And then the siren.

Wilmington, Delaware

She’s out by the football field smoking a cigarette, she’s cut study hall, she wants to look mysterious and daring but the older boys, football players, are standing in a clump smoking pot and sneering at her.

They start running when the alarm sounds, she can’t believe how fast a muscle-bound guy can move and she’s out of breath by the time she makes it to the side door. Damn drills. The vice principal ignores the star athletes filing past her and focuses on Pilar. “You’re tempting fate, young lady. Do you know what happens to stragglers?”

It’s recess and she’s bored with the jump rope games the other girls are playing. She wanders three blocks down the street to their old elementary school, condemned for safety violations. In a few weeks it’ll be torn down. Pilar looks up at the worn yellow-brick building, feels sorry for it. She’s in the presence of something that’s going to die, something that was part of her life.

She climbs the rickety metal jungle gym, wraps her knees around the rusty top bar and hangs deliciously suspended high above concrete pavement, everything hard and dangerous, you slip and you have broken bones, a cracked skull.

The alarm starts up.

Another Shelter Door

She thinks about her parents, her nieces, everyone else. They must be safe. Focus, Pilar. Compartmentalize. Deny. Useful skills. She’ll believe they’re safe, and that’s it. They were with a whole crowd of people when the alarm started. They weren’t off somewhere daydreaming, they didn’t straggle.

The ethanol tank is empty but the last quarter-mile is on a gentle downhill slope, she coasts past abandoned farmland bought up by Agro-Chem and into the driveway of the Agro-Chem compound.
It isn’t a drill. That much she learns at the lime-green shelter door.

A droning voice at the intercom informs her about regulations and threat levels and she realizes he isn’t going to open the door. A wind is kicking up the red dust. She wonders if it’s clinging to her hair, her eyebrows.

“The regulations are clear.”

“Guidelines,” Pilar says, “not regulations.”

“The risk is too great.”

“Based on what? What data? What calculus?”

“Precisely. The risk is unknown.”

She keeps her voice calm. “Follow my logic here. I’m obviously still alive.” She winces, doubles over as a coughing spasm hits. She straightens up, bracing herself against the door. “OK, I grant you there’s some kind of airborne irritant I’m reacting to. That’s no reason for hysteria. I’m still alive, therefore—are you following me?—whatever toxins are in the air haven’t reached a lethal—”

“The regulations are clear.”

“You’re not making any sense! You’ve decided on some arbitrary time frame, whoever hears the alarm within that time is safe, and to hell with everyone else.”

“The risk is too great.”

“I’d like to speak to a live human.”

“You know, you need to work on your interpersonal skills.”

She stomps back up to the main road and starts walking, no idea of a destination, just away. Any kind of shelter is better than nothing, there has to be some farmhouse or barn not yet torn down by Agro-Chem wrecking crews.

She breaks into a run. Not because there’s any building in sight, but for the sake of running, while her body still works, while her muscles are still strong. If death is going to get her it will have to tackle her at a full gallop, not find her cringing by a locked door, begging to be let in.

And what if someone had opened the door? Hell of a choice, redneck fundamentalists or rule-abiding cowards, and she’d have been stuck with them for who knows how long, years, maybe decades. She would have gone insane.

What the hell, Pilar, there’s a bright side.

She laughs.

She runs faster, pumping her arms, lowering her head against the wind that keeps getting stronger, the dust stings her skin and flies in her eyes. Soon it’s so thick she can hardly see the road, but she keeps running, long, fast strides that start to seem like leaps, until she takes a leap and doesn’t land, she’s in the air, and she feels hands reaching for her, strong, kind hands, many hands, breaking her fall, cradling her to the warm, soft earth.

II.

The name of the Devil . . . is nothing else than a corruption of deva, the Sanskrit name for God.
      — John Fiske, Myths and Myth-Makers

She wakes up hearing the voice. A low, rumbling sound that seems like her own blood pulsing through her veins. Slowly she realizes the voice is forming words.

“So,” it says, “you must have done something pretty bad to get shut out like that.”

“My hair’s too short.”

Laughter, almost below hearing, like the ground trembling when trains pass.

She falls asleep, smiling at the voice.


III.

Whoever dances belongs to the whole.
      — Round Dance of the Cross (2nd-century Christian gospel, banned as heretical in the 4th century)

They dance in the clearing. Sun filters through lacy hemlock branches and in the shafts of light they shuffle and hop, they sway, they spin around, giggle when they bump together. No one minds that Pilar looks dazed, red dust clinging to her fine black hair, her thick eyebrows. She’ll snap out of it.
 
They move faster and laugh more, they bounce, they leap and fling their arms out.

The red-tailed hawk riding the air currents far above them sees shapes and colors, jerky elbows and knees in faded velvet, deerskin, soccer jersey and jeans, shimmy and bop, nothing that looks like plump pheasant or juicy chipmunk. She flies on.

The dance breaks apart as easily as it comes together. People scramble up the rock face on the other side of Swift Run, they scale a flank of the mountain grabbing on to witch hazel branches and knobby roots of white pine. Or they run downstream to where Rock Springs plunges down over sandstone slabs and a cool mist rises on the hottest summer day. Or they scurry upstream where Swift Run goes underground and you can stomp out a drumbeat, hear your feet echo on hollow rock and rushing water while far off a bull elk in a frisky mood is grunting and bugling.

On the bank of Swift Run a giant hairy naked man stands still and lets Pilar walk slowly around him, looking at him from all angles.

He can tell she’s confused, she’s been out there again, the siren, the road, blah de blah. Poor child, all those locked doors.

The more she scowls the wider he grins. He takes a slow step forward, lunge, then a leap back.

“You don’t have horns and a tail,” she says.

“I don’t torment souls either, but who can control the rumor mill?”

Hands on hips, he squats deeply, kicks up one foot and then the other. He raises a hand and does the squat-kick while spinning around.

“You can call me Dev,” he says.

The answer to every question:

Why is there a wide blue sky?

What’s the reason for grass?

Why do we sing?

To dance under. To dance on. So that we can dance.

The Devil’s Catechism, Pilar calls it.

She climbs a tall pine tree and no matter how high she climbs and how delicate the branches, they still hold her weight. Dev’s there ahead of her, on an impossibly tiny branch, hanging upside down by his knees the way she used to do on jungle gyms when she was a kid.

“It’s an arrangement we have, he and I,” Dev says. “The other guy—some people like to think of him as my rival—” he wants to point at the sky, but he’s upside down and his finger points to the ground. “Oops,” he says, “other way around.” He swings up and sits cross-legged on the branch. “He gets the winners, I get—well, you all.”

Pilar clings to the top of the pine as it sways in the breeze. “I  never paid attention to churchy stuff,” she says, “but this isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard about.”

“I hate to criticize a colleague, but he’s a bit harsh. You hear all this lip service about blessed are the poor, the meek are slated to inherit the earth someday, but in the meantime—well, anyone who watches the way things go can tell you, it’s clear who he prefers. He doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for life’s losers.”

“So I’m a loser. Thanks a lot.”

“Let’s dance.”

She presses the buzzer again, slaps at it. They want a password, they talk about the Bible, tell her go back to Mexico.

She kicks at the lime-green door, shakes her fist at the high-density plastic window.

“Listen, you stupid rednecks—”

I’ll never get this right.

She sits by a forest stream, water rushing over her bare feet. Kneeling before her on a rock is a white man wearing yards of burlap, belted around with a frayed rope. He has light brown hair and a short beard, his skin is pitted and weathered, his eyes have a hint of blue or green, but are mostly glittering gray. At one time she knew his kind, knew what the robe meant, the rope belt, the sandals.

He cradles Pilar’s foot in his hand, caresses her arch with his thumb.

“That’s much better now, isn’t it?” he says. “Those things you wore, like hobnail boots....”

He speaks a language she doesn’t know, German-sounding, yet she understands him. His voice soothes her.

He looks up at her and his eyes cloud over.

“I’m Brother Wulfstan,” he says gently. “You’ve been out there, haven’t you, alone on that road. Dear heart, you must forget it. You’re here with us now.”

“He’s coaxed you out of socks and shoes again,” Dev says. “Wulfstan’s afraid you’ll stomp him with your boots. He’s the least wolf-like man I know.”

She laughs. Wulfstan smiles as she leans toward him and cups his chin in her hand.

You could get lost in that other life, your life before, there’s a jump in time and suddenly you’re there, pounding on a locked door and you turn around and face soldiers with bayonets raised, or airborne plague, slave traders, armed mercenaries, radiation, villagers with torches and pitchforks. But then you hear laughter, someone touches your arm and calls you back to now:

What do we believe in?

The dance.

How did we come into being?

We danced ourselves into existence.

Why are we here?

To dance.

Elemental cloud swirling, our atoms, our molecules. Gases and dust, yes, the same soft motes that float onto your desk, the same stuff to which you will return, turn, we swirl, we collide, explode and rejoin, we cling together and our molten iron heart shouts and throbs. Molecules grip molecules, form lattice of crystals, yes, connection, jump, grab hands. Rockmelt, call it rock broth, bubbles and steams. Chunks of the rock puree cool and it’s a stew, then all of it crusts over. Rock islands float on rock sea, collide and rift apart, mountains push up, crumble, rain drizzles through soil and gushes out in streams, callused feet stomp and skip and kick up clouds of dust.

Look at her, disgruntled geologist in a virgin forest, she comes huffing and puffing, clomps along in her hiking books, that nonstop interior monologue, I’ve been wronged, I’ve been wronged. The trees are exhaling oxygen for her, she’s not even grateful. This is one angry public servant. We swat her in the face and laugh when she curses.

Pilar lies face down sniffing the soil, laughing, iron ore’s like perfume, silicon and potassium have a bitter tang, magnesium’s spicy-sweet. The magnetic field reverberates up her legs, out the top of her head.

She and the others watch the stars, or sit around bonfires, or gather to watch a sunset like a crowd at a sporting event, finding the perfect word, carmine? vermillion? Anything you think would be good to eat, is: honeysuckle blossoms, pinecones, hay. No thirst of any kind goes unsatisfied.

Wulfstan hardly ever talks about himself. Pilar gathers his story from stray comments. She guesses thirteenth century, central Europe, though he has no sense of years, of places.

He didn’t read or write, wasn’t interested in that. Learning was for the monks of noble birth, the beautiful illuminated manuscripts he wouldn’t have dared touch. He swept out the barns, milked the cows and made butter and cheese. He didn’t begrudge the others their refusal to help when he set up a hospital, a few straw pallets in an outlying grain barn, for the villagers who were showing up with symptoms of an unknown disease that was soon becoming a plague. The abbot fretted over the declining tribute from bedridden peasants while Wulfstan tried to ease their last days, holding their hands, wiping their feverish skin and murmuring prayers. The monks turned him out when he started showing symptoms himself.

Pilar craves a cigarette. She finds a tobacco plant, hangs some leaves up to dry for a few days and then lights them on a campfire. The smell reminds her of cigars.

“It’s a stress reliever,” she tells an old wreck of a white man. He nods.

People’s symptoms reappear sometimes, a rash, sores from bubonic plague or hemorrhagic fever, Pilar’s lung-ripping cough.

The old man, Marlin, sits next to her on a log, breathing in the cigar-tinged air.

“Who is Dev?” Pilar says, and Marlin thinks about it for a while.

“He knows a lot. I think he’s the mayor.”

Marlin tells her how he used to spend his days sitting by the railroad tracks, how the metal in the sun gives off a shiny smell. “The railway cars, you know, in the old days, they used to hook one up with another like this—” and he holds up his index finger and with the other hand makes a loop around it. “So I gets to thinking, wouldn’t they be stronger if they linked up like this—” and he holds up one hand, palm down, fingers gripping the upturned fingers of the other hand—“and wouldn’t you know them railroad people did what I said. Do you remember railroads? Do y’know what I mean?”

“Sounds familiar,” Pilar says. “I’m not sure.”

He looks around for something he can compare to steel. He hardly remembers either, he has flashes of people somewhere laughing at him and calling him simple. Nights spent sleeping in the county jail when the winter wind blew through the gaps in his cabin walls. “What was I saying?”

Pilar shrugs.

“Patents,” he says, “ever hear of them? I’m waiting on the paperwork.”

Paperwork. Pilar sits at her desk reading a memo and she’s aware of her cells, the way they vibrate, metabolize energy. Her blood is pumping and her cells are soft and squashy, no protective bark, and what are these vertical things all around her, like cliff faces but naked and soft, and this thing that stretches above her head, not a rock ledge, no. What? What?

Words like past and future lose their meaning. She’ll be in what she thinks is the present, and then realizes it’s the past, and then fast forward to a later time that still feels like the present. One moment she’s waking up under the trees after a night of dancing, cushioned by pine needles. Another moment she’s with the others, a crowd of them, running quickly, bearing down on Wulfstan as he stumbles around dazed and feverish, they grab him, carry him off without slowing down or breaking stride.

Time is circular.

“I think it’s spiral,” Wulfstan says, tracing the whorls of her earlobe with his finger.

“Like the dance,” she says, or maybe he says it, or they both think it at the same time.

“Who do you think he is?” Pilar asks Dorothea, a black woman with neatly braided graying hair and eyes that are bright and severe until she smiles. She wears an old-fashioned button-up dress of some iridescent dark material that reminds Pilar of feathers.

“A circuit preacher,” Dorothea says. Pilar always asks this question. She gives her a different answer each time.

“To everything there is a season,” Dev says, “A time to dance, a time to embrace, a time to love.”

“You’re leaving out entire sentences,” Dorothea tells him. At one time she knew the whole book by heart. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her memory.

“Did I mention a time to dance?” He grips Dorothea’s waist, lifts her till she’s eye-level with him. “You’re priceless,” he says.

A pearl of great price. People with a price on their heads, sad dark people showing up at Dorothea’s house for food and money and shelter on their way—where? North? God bless you, they told her. She made speeches, raised money. You’re an angel, they told her. May the Lord bless and keep you, but she’s not sure anymore what “bless” means, or who the Lord is, sounds too much like a boss-man.

“Go thy way,” Dev says, “eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart.”

They dance in the clearing, crowded around Dev, a jumble of movements and rhythms. Pilar sways, waves her arms above her head, dodges out of the way of elbows and knees. Wulfstan spins around, face tilted up, eyes closed, arms flung out like he’s about to hug them all. Slowly the dancers move outward away from Dev, he’s in the middle and they’re circling round him. They speed up, slow down, speed up, crash into each other and jump away. Dev is heat and light at the center, someday he’ll swell up and engulf them and that’s another turn of the dance. “Truly the light is sweet,” he says, “and a pleasant thing it is to behold the sun. So behold the sun!”

Sunny day, Pilar can get out of the office, have lunch in the park. She sits on a rock and it looks delicious, her fingers reach greedily, she’ll break it up and eat the little pieces through her skin. What?

“Lots of things you’re forgetting,” Dev says as they sit under a pine tree. Pilar digs her toes into loose soil and pine needles and leans against him while he massages her neck. “Remember all those rules you people used to have for coupling,” he says. “Contracts to sign, vows to take.”

“What were we thinking?”

He kisses the back of her neck, lets his breath cascade along her skin. “It’s beautifully simple,” he says. “When you’re thirsty, drink from the stream.”

“Do you remember,” Wulfstan says, “those troupes that travel around the countryside, they sing, do performances. I think that’s what we are, though we never do any plays, do we, and I’ve never seen our horse and caravan.”

Pilar considers organizing a performance of Godspell.  “Excellent suggestion,” Dev says, and launches into “All Good Gifts” in a fine bass-baritone.

“I don’t know,” Pilar says, “it might confuse people.” The cast of characters, the whole story line are things she no longer understands.

She stands still, watching wild turkey pick their way through beech and hickory trees. A young black bear walks up to her, puts a forepaw on her shoulder and with a hind paw tries to find a foothold on her knee. Pilar topples over and he walks off, disappointed. She looks up at the sky, she is not magnificent like the bear, even a small one, with its thick fur and lumbering rolling walk, in fact she’s the opposite, she gets more shambly by the minute. She sees Dev’s face loom over her.

“Pilar Quiñones?” he gasps. “The Pilar Quiñones, author of the Five-Hundred-Year Plan for Soil Regeneration?” Yes, she starts to say, flattered, and then she’s confused, he’s said this before, right, or is this the first time again?

The breeze off the Potomac makes her shiver, riffles the pages of the report she’s holding. Behind her the flags surrounding the Washington Monument snap and strain at their moorings.

 “Part One,” she reads, but her voice comes out hoarse. She clears her throat. “Soil Depletion.”

The controversy, the banishment: just a way to get to the forest.

In the cabin she uses an old-fashioned, fire-heated iron to press her Forest Service uniform, it’s a way to keep up her morale, but why would she think this, she loves it here, what more could she ask than to be in service to the forest?

“Who do you think he is?” she asks Wulfstan, and it makes him sad, he’s heard this question before. Who do they say that I am? Voices of his brother monks resound around him, they used to sing to greet the morning, sing to the evening, where are they now?

“Are you a heathen?” he asks Pilar hopefully. He’s never seen one.

“Just like you now,” she says, “you old sinner, you,” and he laughs even though she hasn’t answered his question.

People sit by the campfire and listen to Pilar try to explain where mountains come from. “You’ve got your basic sandstone,” she says. “It metamorphizes, changes, into quartzite. What we’ve got here. The hardest mineral on earth.”

“Why?”

“Why does it change? From pressure and heat in the mantle.”

“Why?”

“Okay,” she says. “Think of a core. Down in the middle of a ball, and layers over it. Those layers are always on the move, like vegetables in a broth.”

“I think you’re mixing your metaphors,” Dorothea says.

“Good point. So this stuff churns around, some stuff sinks, some rises to the surface. These mountains here, they’re hundreds of millions of years old. The glaciers are just yesterday, in comparison, they receded only ten thousand years ago.”

Marlin raises his hand. “Ten thousand years before what?”

“Good question,” Pilar says.

Dev hugs him.

“You’ve got my vote, sir,” Marlin says.

Ten thousand years before the lime-green shelter door, of course, because time is anchored to place, doesn’t everyone know that?

She’s lying under a pine tree, head cradled on Dev’s lap. She digs her toes into loose soil and pine needles.

“You have to forget it,” Dev says, “if you want to move on.”

“Forget the shelter door? My memories make me who I am. What would I be if not for that?”

“What would you like to be?”

She pounds her fist against the lime-green door, kicks at it. “Fanatics! Fucking cowards!”

One day, she knows, she’ll knock on that door and just laugh, just lean on it and laugh and go straight to the dancing in the clearing and then hum and quiver her branches at the memory of it all.

“Blessed are those who tell the truth,” Dev says. “They shall dance.”

“Blessed are those who laugh in the face of death. They shall have their heart’s desire.”

Wulfstan hardly remembers the monastery, the whole drama of the plague time, being turned out by the monks when he fell ill. What stands out in his memory is the beauty of that last night wandering in the forest. The moon was just past full but still bright enough to cast shadows. He had the sense that wild animals were nearby, out of pity they were keeping him company, their breathing timed to his own labored breaths, in, out, in.

“After intense suffering,” Dev says, “intense joy.”

They give each other looks: Dev. Inscrutable as always.

“What does ‘after’ mean?” they say.

“Breath of breaths,” Wulfstan says, “everything is breath.”

He grows more and more distant from his old life. “Long ago,” he says, “I was with . . . others . . . another troupe, maybe. They thought the act of love was, I don’t remember the word . . . wrong, somehow.”

He struggles to think of the term. The woman he’s with, she can’t remember it either.

Dev’s mistaken about Wulfstan, she thinks. She can see the graceful, intelligent wolf he’s in the process of becoming. One day he’ll leave altogether, he’ll drop down on all fours and go loping away up the mountain, and the Pilar of the before time will be there with clipboard and backpack and neatly pressed Forest Service uniform, and she’ll catch a glimpse of him, there’ll be a whiff of cigar smoke, she’ll see a flurry of movement out of the corner of her eye, a ragged sleeve, a wisp of uncombed hair, her own self dancing past.

  

Rosalie Morales Kearns is a fiction writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. She teaches at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and has short stories published or forthcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly, Fringe, Kalliope, Specs, Natural Bridge, and other journals. She’s hoping to spend the afterlife in a hemlock forest.
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