I. The Rider

The rider sees the cabin; he sees the creak of its door; he sees the shadows that pour in from the lightless house astride the evening star that sets across the field.

Cotton, he thinks of home and weevils, sprawls like swollen fingertips or the alien reach of the Earth in the backdrop. He hears nothing, so he dismounts. A place unmarked by his map, so left abandoned by civilization and the great web of humanity that came with the telegraph wires and would leave with the atomic bombs he knows nothing about . . . save what was read in Revelations.

The kitchen is cold and the stove never touched before the morning hit some time ago.

From the corner he sees a beam of light; it slips through the wound in the wall and directs its red attention to the dead husbandman, relieved of his clothes and his scalp.

He is crucified by arrows beneath his Christ figure on the mantle; both share agony and both are much gone. At his feet lay the pistol fired once, perhaps to banish the invaders with the light from outside; it must have been night, he wagers, and carries on to the bedroom.

Above the peaceful bed dangles a naked Mary; her violations shy away the rider’s eyes and he looks to his deformed shadow on the wall, to the long fingers that sought what loot he could acquire from the dresser. Shame hunches him but poverty compels him.

A voice turns him around and the rider takes note of the cradle: a babe. She lives, despite the horror, protected by innocence or savagery’s neglect. The rider reaches for the child and feels tiny hands grasp him and tiny fingers pressing into his calloused palm. He smiles.

He fashions a cradle from cloth and lays the babe against his chest; she sleeps soundly in the presence of the rider and does not stir as the appaloosa carries them.

A nunnery some place away would be her home — for the rider is meant to give passage, as cursed men are wise to surrender joy. It’s a white sheet and their fingers have been marked by black ink. He would give this gift, afforded to her out of envy for he, the rider, was only half alive.

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