FICTION April 25, 2014

The Cultivationists

Link’s eyes flickered so brightly between the blinks that Obie figured thrilling things were happening inside. If they could harness the phenomenon, it might unlock his covenant’s secret. He didn’t know where to start. “I’m confused,” said Link again, so vulnerably this time that Obie wanted to hug him; still, Link had wounded him by calling him names. He held back. There was an exhausting fifteen minutes of confusion. Sipping whiskey, he answered his son’s same questions over and over until Link finally agreed to go to bed.

On the way to his room, he paused again, seeming too puzzled to go on. Now Obie knelt before his son. “Link, you’re confused because you’re sleepy,” he said, full of guilt. What if he learned that Kermit Gant had done a thing like this to Link? He’d kill Kermit, that’s what. “I love you, Link,” he said, crying a tear, which seemed to reassure Link, because Link finally continued the rest of the way to bed.

Obie checked that his safe was locked, drank some whiskey, and took his flashlight out back. He got on the lighthouse trail. The moon was bright enough that he was wasting the light beam on the bed of leaves below as it bounced over rocks, logs, and then a heap of muscle and brindle-striped fur, Bonnie, lying dead by a forsythia bush.

Bonnie’s skin was mottled by blood, and her knee joints pointed the wrong way. “Good Christ,” he said aloud again, bending to touch her wet neck. He felt a fast pulse, about 175. He realized it was his own. For all he’d joked, he’d never dreamed he would one day kneel here and whisper to the stars, “Lord, tell this dog I’m sorry and that I loved her.”

Drinking from his flask, he stood and made his slow way forward. Shining his light ahead now at a path whose leaves all shared the unkind sheen of the flashlight beam, he thought, Fall is a stupid metaphor. Of course he knew that men called things stupid that they didn’t understand, and what he didn’t get was why fall made him feel so empty and despondent. He tried to expel the feeling by meditating with his initials, one om per step. Every ten steps he had a heart attack in miniature. He thought, Link’s blank spells are miniature strokes. He and Link were dying and Bonnie too, Bonnie too. Everything was horrible. When his face hit the sticky glue of a spider web, he didn’t even bother to brush it off; he just held a hand in front of himself like a fascist salute from then on, guarding against other webs until the closed-in dark gave way to the open, starlit dark of the meadow.

The lighthouse door hung delicately from its upper hinges, creaking as Obie crossed its threshold. It should have been latched shut. Had he forgotten to secure the latch? In the stairwell he coughed in musty air that smelled like a pioneer cabin. He shone the light above but the beam weakened on its way up and revealed nothing.

Climbing, he knew the quirks of each uneven stair: number eleven was brick instead of cinder block; the railing had a gap at seventeen. He wondered if God was dying by half-life. The covenant of works had lasted four thousand years; the covenant of grace two thousand. His own would last a thousand and so on until covenants grew chaotically brief. Around stair thirty-four he saw something emerging from the spiral bend above. He turned off the light and switched it back on, thinking maybe the shape would be gone. It had grown more prominent. By thirty-eight he knew that the shadow was a man, and on forty-three he understood, and staggered back. The flashlight slipped from his hand and fell downstairs, echoing as it bounced away to leave Obie and Kermit Gant together in the pitch black.

“Insane!” he heard Link’s voice echo as he sank to his knees in ruin before Kermit, who was bound at the ankles and bleeding out of his ears.

Obie retreated back against the cinder blocks. Even in this dark he had to shut his eyes before he reached out to put his palmprints on Kermit’s shorts. He pressed hard against fiercely strong quad muscles, rubbing his fingers in. It was the only way to save Link. In this manner he touched Kermit’s smooth legs, his lycra jersey, his bloody head, until each fingertip marked the corpse a dozen times. He put prints on Kermit’s arms, his palms. He stifled a cry. He drank the remaining contents of his flask. He saw himself stealing out of the valley, but to where? This was his only place. Link had destroyed everything for them both. It was all over. Shaking with spasms of bright hate, he stood and dragged Kermit down a few stairs, praying the dead man’s brothers were competent enough to take a fingerprint.

When your kid asked if he could keep some slobbery puppy, you said no.

Feeling his slow way down, Obie could smell bloody sweat on his hands. Trying to wipe it off, he dropped the flashlight. He reached for it as it fell, tripped, and caught himself before falling too. He’d have wound up like Kermit. He paused, out of breath, as scared as in the desert. Violence begat violence. At school Link was known as a troubled boy, and his grades were Fs: not a pretty picture for the courts.

It had been a misstep, he told himself, to fake Link’s mother’s letters with such extravagant prose, using a typewriter that he hid in the kiln.

Back at the house Delilah was still passed out, rocking with her left foot as she snored. As Obie gulped whiskey, he imagined sedating her more, dragging her to the lighthouse and placing her hands on the body, but instead he felt in her pocket for a cell phone. He took it out, drank the last of the whiskey, and dialed 911. “Emergency,” answered a woman operator before he could change his impulsive mind. “Fire, police, or ambulance?”

“Get me Sheriff Minks,” said Obie, swallowing a knot of fear that rose like acid through him. He was too sober to handle any of this.

“Nature of your emergency?”

“I’ve killed a man,” he told her, as Delilah rocked in sleep.

“Let me transfer you,” she said carefully, as if worried that Obie would change his mind. There was a click and then two rings. “Echota County Sheriff,” said a young male voice.

“This is Obie Mantooth. Who’s this?”

“Hey Obie. Billy Snoderly.”

“Who are you? I want Minks.”

“He’s on his way.”

“Say that again?”

“Looking for Kermit Gant.”

“I can offer some help.”

Suddenly as confused as Link had been during his spell, Obie hung up. He paced the porch. I’m fucked, he thought, wondering if he was dying. His heart felt the size of a horse’s. He went in for more whiskey and found a bottle sitting on his desk, a quarter full. I’ll drink it all that, he thought, and so he did, in four large gulps with nary a grimace, because he had to keep his heart from galloping this way.

Still feeling sober, feeling in fact inspired, Obie opened his safe by means of the combination 10-03-42, Link’s fiftieth birthday. The number 92 hadn’t been a choice. Bending down, he noticed the ink had dried on the desk. In prison there would be time to reconstruct the ruined pages. No Indian gangs: you were either white black or Mexican in there. They would rape him, he thought, and he looked around for more whiskey, because even the cowardly could muster courage to drink themselves to death.

Christians believed God hadn’t wanted to remain a man, thought Obie as a distant siren wailed; their religion was thus built from man’s point of view. It was a dream of God, thought man, to descend to earth for proof of fleshly pain. Movement into future was the becoming-God of God, or His forgetting that He’d been a man. Obie was teaching people to worship God from God’s point of view. He alone knew what a brat God was.

There was a chance he was being brought to justice just so Judge Breeden could hear him preach sooner.