Far from here, there’s a church. Inside the church, there’s a box. Inside the box is Judas’s hand.” Nat is slight and striking as a birch branch.
“Who cut it off?” Ruth asks. “How?”
But Nat’s a preacher in a fever. His lesson continues with a new topic. “Baby deer have no scent when they are born.” Nat conducts the air. “Keeps those babies safe as long as their stinking mothers stay far away.” This is how Nat loves Ruth. He fills her head with his wisdom.
“My mom doesn’t stink.”
“You don’t even know who your mom is, Ru.”
“Of course I do. She’s a veterinarian. She already had too many animals when I was born.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Ruth looks left, then right. “OK. She’s a bank robber. When you’re asleep, she brings me money.”
“Where’s all the cash, then? Are you hiding it in some big cardboard box?”
So Ruth swerves again, returning to the version of a mother she uses most often. “I mean my mom’s a bird, a red cardinal.”
“A male? Your mom’s a boy?”
“No, she isn’t. She’s a stone. Bones. I spit on her.” Nat steals confidence from thin air.
Ruth pulls her long dress tight across bent knees. She doesn’t even know enough about mothers to fabricate a good one. Her idea of a mother is like a non-dead person’s idea of heaven. It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she’s got now. “I’m just saying, wherever she is, she doesn’t stink.”
Nat flips the feathers of his hair. “Wherever she is. Exactly.” He holds his hand in a ray of sunlight. “I’m here now.” He lifts the hand that touched light up to her ear, squeezing the lobe, an odd, familiar affection between their bodies. Nat touches the scar on her face, tangled knots of tissue, keloids dots on her nose and cheeks. “Do you know how they deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?”
“I taught you this before. Please.” Nat is cruel or Nat is gentle. Nat hates/loves Ruth as much as he hates/loves himself. He’ll say, “Sleep on the floor tonight” or “I’m taking your blue coat. I like it” or “Stop crying right now.” But he’ll also say, “Eat this” and “You can dance, girl” and “Stay the fuck away from Ruth, or I’ll slice your ear cartilage off and give it to a dog to chew on.” When the Father raises a switch, Nat gives his back. “Are you just someone who wants to stay stupid?”
“No. Tell me.”
She wrinkles her nose.
“Don’t believe me? You’re welcome to shop elsewhere.”
“I believe you. You’re the only shop in town.”
They are alone in Love of Christ!’s bright living room. They are happiest when they are alone together. “Tell me what you know about light.”
“It’s the fastest thing in the world.”
“Faster than Jesus?”
“Way faster than Jesus.”
Dust turns before her eyes. “OK. I believe you.”
Nat looks right at her, smiles. “What killed Uncle Sam?”
She imagines a forgotten relative, an inheritance, a home. “Who’s that?”
“Samuel Wilson, the meatpacking man once called Uncle Sam. Symbol of our nation? He’s buried just down the road apiece. You didn’t even know Uncle Sam was dead.”
“I didn’t know Uncle Sam was a real person. What killed him?”
“Stupidity, girl. Stupidity.”
His, she wonders, or mine?
Nothing is near here, upstate New York. The scope of the galaxy seems reasonable. Light, traveling ten thousand years to reach Earth, makes sense because from here even the city of Troy, three miles away, is as distant as Venus. What difference could ten thousand light years make? Nat and Ruth have never been to Manhattan.
The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission is a brick bear spotted with mange. Handiwork from days past? — ?ledge and brace doors, finger-joint chair rails, and hardwood floors? — ?is being terrorized by state-provided, institutional, indestructible furniture common to dormitories and religious organizations. The house’s wooden floors are smooth as a gun butt. In summer Drosophila melanogaster breed in the compost pile. Each snaggletooth of a homestead constructed during the Civil War pleases Father Arthur, lord of the domain, founder of Love of Christ! “Hand of the creator,” he says. Clapboards that keep out only some of the wind; sills that have slipped off square; splinters as long as fingers. The house is always cold with a useless hearth since the State frowns on foster home fireplaces. “Meddlers!” Father Arthur unleashed his rage against bureaucracy, using a sledge on the innocent, elderly chimney. Now once a day when the sun reaches alignment, a sliver of light shines into the house through the busted-up flue, a precise astronomical calendar if anyone knew how to read it.
At Love of Christ! children feel the Lord, and the Lord is often furious and unpredictable, so Father Arthur cowers from corrupting influences. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women’s slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they’ve kept alive for years. Blessed be the bacteria. The children remain ignorant of the bountiful mysteries filling the nearby Price Chopper.
Boys at Love of Christ! wear black cotton pants and solid tops from a limited palette of white, tan, or brown. The girls wear plain dresses last seen on Little House on the Prairie reruns. Simple fabric, a few pale flowers, a modest length for working. Fingernails are clean and rounded. Teeth are scrubbed with baking soda. The old ways survive, and seasonal orders dictate.
But? — ?like the olivine-bronzite chondrite meteor that surprised a Tomhannock Creek farmer back in 1863? — ?corruption has a way of breaking through. New charges arrive with words from the outside: mad cow disease, La-Z-Boy recliner, Barbie doll.
“You know what Myst is?” Ruth asks Nat.
“M.I.S.T. Yes. A secretive branch of the Marines. Surprised you’ve heard of it.” He works with more confidence than facts.
“I thought it was a video game.”
“Video game? What’s that?”
When they had mothers, Nat’s read him books and fed him vitamins until a bad man bit off the tip of her right breast and told her he’d be back for the left one. She didn’t stop driving unti...