Tuesday, May 26, 2009
What a difference a year can make. About this time in 08, I was working through my first story, Guns and Gold and havin’ a hell of a time with it. I had figured out the beats of the story and was writing most of the dialogue as I was drawing the thing and it showed. The story is less than cohesive and the drawing is sub par. It was a painful, tedious process, and by the end of it I wasn’t all that proud of the product, I was only proud of myself for having powered through it and not given up.
I learned several things from it. One, I need to have the script on lock down by the time I start drawing. Figuring this shit out as I go is a horrible idea that leads to frustration and less than superior work. I also realized that when the script is written like a screenplay, with shot descriptions, framing, etc, my penciling time is cut almost in half. It becomes more like telegraphing what I see in my head.
The most important thing that I learned though was that I was a cartoonist. I dabbled with terms and titles borrowed from friends and those I looked up to, but I could never call myself a cartoonist. I felt like it didn’t describe what I was doing and that I was above it somehow. The truth is, I wasn’t cartooning, and that is why I failed. Unconsciously I sought a style that was sharp and messy, when what was natural was smooth and simple. If art really is a selective recreation of reality, I was unable to objectively see how my mind wanted to recreate it. Like a boat fighting against the current, I got nowhere and found myself stagnant and frustrated.
Then I decided I was going to draw a fight scene one day, something I had never done before. I selected my combatants without much deliberation, settling on a giant robot and a circus strongman, the strongman being the most basic archetypal hero I could think of. For days I worked through thumbnails, trying to wrangle the shapes and movements I felt in my mind’s eye, until one night at a coffee shop I stumbled upon it. It was shapes, shapes and three-dimensional space. I started drawing like a mad man, working through poses and movements just nailing them. THIS WAS IT, I thought to myself. This was what I had been looking for. It felt right and looked right. Then I looked at it and I realized what had happened. Everything was stripped down to its bare essentials. My lines showed only the detail that was necessary and I was relying on shape to show movement and girth. They were cartoons. As blatant as they could be, I had drawn cartoons and that was what I was marveling at.
This story is the result of that night; I am paying my respects to the creation that made believe I could be the creator, or more specifically, the cartoonist.
Friday, May 8, 2009
The folks of
Then high above the town, some miles away, the town’s reservoir began swirling; then a waterspout, swirling backwards, lifted from the reservoir and drained its waters into the nighttime sky. The length of river beyond the dam waned to a trickle, as though the terrestrial faucet had been turned, and by dawn all water in and around
Some have heard of God in darker times flooding our ignoble earth, letting it pour, pour, pour for days and days and days to bury a world of ugly acts. But a spell to whisk our waters away? Who put such a thing to work? Perhaps it was the star, or someone wishing on the star, or perhaps it was someone resentful of the stars trickery. Perhaps it was a man named Judson, who lived in
Nicolai did not know that this day was different, that the waters had withdrawn and recovered things best left lost. The sun rose and Nicolai rose merrily with it; it wandered westward and Nicolai followed, concertina in tow.
He walked beneath eucalyptus trees from his home toward the park where the avenue emptied into a bustling scene: the weekend market. The sun basked the field in warmth. Watery blades of grass tickled Nicolai’s ankles, and he smelled their scent and the scents of marigolds and Easter lilies, and rich coffees, pecan pies, and pigs and chickens hanging sumptuously from wires, all released by the sun’s rays, all blended in a chilly breeze. He made hastily for the fruit stands where he bought his apricots.
There were five that day, firm and puny, and sold bundled. Pleased with their textures, he left the stand to return to the park’s outer edge, to find an open refuge near the riverbank, and practice his instrument. He walked just beyond a table of colored yarns and fake antiques before he was stopped by a puppet and its mistress: the puppet, a proboscis monkey in a suit; its mistress, a young woman in a white dress.
“Kiss for a quarter,” said the monkey. Nicolai staggered back, abashed by the strange thing’s candor.
“Shame on you, Count Dashby,” rebuked its mistress. “On days like this affection should be free.”
“I’m sorry, my love. But we’re so hungry. I thought I might buy you a pastry.” The Count dropped its head in shame and with its sole operative arm covered its face. The woman nuzzled its neck and whispered something into its ear. “But we’re so hungry.”
“Stop it, you,” said Nicolai, slapping the puppet’s arm-rod from the woman’s hand. “Stop it. If you’re wanting to panhandle, have the sense to do it right.”
“This is not begging,” she said, “it’s theater.” She shook her pockets: a clanging of coins. “Most people play along and think the laugh’s worth a quarter.” She moved in close to Nicolai, whispered, “Sorry to bother, love,” and slid slowly past. But before wandering too far, Count Dashby kissed Nicolai on his wrinkly cheek and said, “I love you.”
“It’s cruel to make him do that,” Nicolai said to the woman. “He must hate you for it.”
But not another word was said by the woman in white.
Nicolai took time to sort his thoughts—at his age so fragile—then made hastily for the river. Speckled along its shores were bystanders gazing into its depths, some pointing upstream, others to the sky, some climbing into it, others climbing out. The people were quiet; the river, too, was quiet. Nicolai walked on, nearly a quarter mile, past cattails and buddleia bushes, to a clearing. Here he found a wooden footbridge and, from there, gazed out over the river. All he found was the pebbly tract of an emptied riverbed.
He nearly worried. Nearly, but his brains were broken, their wires frayed with age. Instead, he went to survey. He set his concertina on the bridge and walked across to a subtle slope where he could wander into the wasteland.
His shins ached but he trudged along, nibbling one of the apricots. He came across an old soppy pair of denim jeans caught for decades beneath a boulder and rummaged through its pockets. Nothing save collected sediments. He knelt to wash away the dirt in a puddle. It was here he found a molten thing—a golden ring!—set with stones of green and indigo. He snatched it up and examined it close. It sparkled brilliantly: lustrous and divine like the embryonic cluster of stars and dust from which the cosmos was cast. He dropped it in his pocket.
“To hell with you,” he said to the apricots, taking one last bite of that in his hand and discarding all the rest. He wiped a few meager drops of juice from his mouth and started back for the bridge. Every few yards he traced the ring’s outline with his thumb through the denim fabric. It was, he thought, the most perfect thing found on earth.
* * *
Let’s briefly go back twenty years to Judson’s story. It was late May. The reservoir had been filled near the dam’s brim; daring townsfolk dived into its waters from the surrounding cliffs rising twenty, forty, frightening feet up; high schools were letting out, seniors awaiting only graduation before either fleeing the town or seeking work at the grain mill or coal mine. Judson was eighteen. Graduation was four days away. He started work at the mill the day after. His best friend, Dana, left for school a week later.
It was late; the night was overcast, the clouds fractured, letting occasional glints of moonlight to seep through their charcoal silhouettes. Judson had been shooting pool in town with Dana and two girls from school. Dana made a joke about the shirt Judson was wearing, one Catherine bought him and hoped he liked, and so Judson left the pool hall saying he was going home to change. Instead he hiked up to the reservoir with a case of beer to be alone. He went to the bridge that spanned the narrowest portion of the reservoir. He climbed its trusses, a hundred feet up, and sat on the beams of the bridge’s substructure, just below the deck. Hidden behind spandrels, he could not see the sky or the docks or the cliffs—just the water and, for a few seconds every few minutes, crystalline reflections of the moon. His space was lit by a sliver of lamplight falling through the expansion joint above.
Judson did hate his shirt. His mother bought it for him at a mall in
Within two hours he had, he guessed, tossed nine cans of beer into the water below. He tossed a full can and spit after it. He watched it for a while, certain he heard it ping against the water. He leaned forward gleefully.
He saw the grid of trusses whirling below his feet. Then his beer cans, buoying a hundred feet below, lit up—little floating speckles. He laughed. A boat’s headlamp illuminated the water. He heard the boat’s motor and loud laughs and hollers. “Damn kids,” he said. He grabbed an unopened can and stepped out onto another beam, ready to pitch. But that beam, the collector of the night’s ceaseless spitting and spilt beer and condensation, refused to hold tight.
He slipped and hit his head against the beam. A heavy clanging, like a vesper bell, filled the space beneath the bridge. He heard this and heard it grow distant as he descended. He fell and hit the surface and clutched at the water, desperate for a hold, inhaling it, hacking it up, his yells drowned out by the sputter of fluid—and all the while that awful clanging.
At once it was dark and quiet. The boat struck Judson from behind; all air withdrew from his lungs, all light from his eyes; the propeller blades sliced his ankle then, farther up, cut through his chest; he sank, in shock, and breathed in water. He descended lightly into the murky depths, past fish suspended like clouds, past the reach of the moon’s beams, past the rocky walls of the reservoir’s tapering bottom. The deep current dragged him across the floor until he came to rest in a field of boulders.
A fish drifted past. It heard the boat cut its motor. It heard panicked bodies diving into the water. It saw the bleak light of a spotlight searching the depths. Dreary and indifferent, the fish settled into Judson’s shirt and went to sleep.
* * *
Catherine felt no sorrow, no remorse in the days and years after Judson’s death. Resentment she felt the night after his fall, knowing she’d raised him better than to get drunk and cause trouble; pride she felt at his posthumous graduation when she learned that his GPA was higher than she’d believed and warranted a special mention. She even leaned across her husband at the ceremony to tell a man sitting nearby, “That’s my son they’re talking about. I’m his mom.” The man nodded and she smiled sheepishly.
In the weeks following his death, she unpacked Judson’s things (he was to move closer to the mill soon after graduation) and remade his room. Some mornings, before breakfast, she went into Judson’s bathroom and wetted the washcloth near the sink; when she went in to clean after breakfast, she’d find it used and perhaps convince herself that she merely missed him getting up that morning.
Later that year, on September 29th—Michaelmas, the day of both Judson’s baptism and confirmation—she brought her priest, Father Reyes, to the reservoir. God, it seemed, was mourning that day. The world was austere, overcast and solemn, with tufts of chilly air moving through the town. The surrounding mountains were visible only a few hundred feet from their bases; above that they were veiled in mist. Timid little raindrops fell on occasion—one was felt maybe every other minute.
The marina was closed for the season. The two boarded the priest’s fishing boat and sailed toward the bridge, stopping where Catherine had stopped months earlier with the coroner who tried to find Judson’s body on radar but explained that her son was lost, that it was too dangerous to retrieve him, and they’d have to wait till he floated up on his own to have a burial.
“A psalm, father?” she said. Father Reyes smiled and thumbed through his bible. She plunged her hand into the water and brought up a scoop, drank it and grimaced. Grit settled on her teeth and beneath her tongue, and she tasted in the water the diluted slime-coats of fish and a hint of something like rust. Her hand hurt in the icy air. She set it in her dress and clasped it between her legs. Father Reyes, stopping on the page where a raindrop pelted his bible, ran the course of Psalm 51.
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
Catherine glanced at the bridge. She saw the spot where the cooler was found; she traced the line of descent the coroner said Judson had taken and the path his body might have been dragged. Father Reyes continued his psalm without an audience, until he spoke a line that struck Catherine: “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice.”
Let them rejoice. Let the son you have drowned find solace; let the woman you have battered find peace. There is no word for this: no word for the intrepid embrace of tough love, so horrid and base it seems like punishment but which we celebrate anyway. Catherine mumbled the line several times. Father Reyes finished his psalm. He closed his book and said a silent prayer and hummed the refrain of Allegri’s Miserere. Catherine plunged her hand into the water again and let it sit. She wanted to reach through the sooty depths and, one last time, grace her son’s face with her fingertips.
“I wonder how far we fall,” said Catherine, “when we choose to fall.”
“Judson, I mean. Would he have fallen further if he fell on purpose. Would his body have stopped here,”—she pulled her hand up and thrust it again into the water—“but his soul have fallen farther?”
“That is an evil suspicion, Catherine, and it has overthrown your judgment. Nobody can fall that far. It is a divine mystery—aren’t we agreed?—that God is as near to those who keep him close as to those who wander away.”
“They never did find him, you know. Not on the radar. Not with the divers, neither. There can be only two reasons for that. Perhaps he did not fall too far at all and God has already recovered him, risen him on up to Heaven. Or perhaps he fell deep—too deep even for the Lord’s grace to find him.”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
Father Reyes abruptly ended this exchange and took a plastic bag filled with salt from his pocket. He took a handful, said something in Latin, and tossed it over Catherine, toward the bow. The wind whisked some from its path, pelting Catherine’s face and burning her eyes. She heard the rest fizzle as it dissolved in the water. Father Reyes took another handful, tossed it starboard; then another, port; and the final one behind him, over the motor, as far as he could. He prayed:
“Preserve this place. God, do this before anything. Bless this woman. Burn her son. Burn his body, his vile body. That is lost. Let it be lost. It is best for lost things to be left lost. Let his soul find you. Her and you. That is good.”
* * *
During this holy ritual Nicolai was forty miles out of town, driving north to
The lake’s face was black and glassy and a mile across, made apparent by the charming green glow of fireflies at the lakeshore. The fireflies were dwarfed by towering redwoods which in turn were dwarfed by towering mountains. A shack stood at the water’s edge near a dock. At the end of the dock was a hot air balloon, its dark blue envelope wired with little white lights to blend into the nighttime sky. Nicolai walked to the shack to rent the balloon and was soon drifting over the lake.
Moonfish are stubborn and reclusive things, and so moonfishing is a precarious sport. They would hide forever in the muddy depths of their lake were it not for something brilliant and beautiful to lure them to the surface: the moon. When the moon shone bright one could see just beneath the lake’s surface little blurry bursts of silvery light—hundreds of them!—floating all around the lake. A boat would spook these creatures away, so a hot air balloon is used instead.
There was no wind that night. Nicolai’s pace was glacial. The balloon’s basket creaked beneath his feet and the propane cylinders tilted the vessel slightly, but these aside Nicolai felt safe and secure in his flight. He felt also melancholic—that rare sadness one nearly delights in.
This night was like a night many years earlier when Judson was three and Catherine was making an Easter wreath of forsythia branches and wooden plums and Nicolai was to go moonfishing. Catherine asked him to take Judson along, but he knew Judson was too excitable to be quiet. Nicolai instead left him at home to sulk inside the toybox in his room.
Moonfishing takes two folks to make a catch, but Nicolai figured a way to make one alone. Making a catch requires a net, a jar of fireflies, and a stick with a glass bulb attached to its end. A firefly is put into the bulb and the bulb is hoisted down to hover lightly over the water. The moonfish gather beneath the glowing bulb, mesmerized by the spectacle. The net is lowered near the bulb. The bulb is then pulled abruptly upward, and one or more intrepid fish shoot up to catch it but are caught instead. Timing must be perfect, the air must be still, the balloon’s lights must blend seamlessly with the stars, and all aboard must be quiet. Judson could never be quiet. Catherine never offered or asked to come; she thought it detestable to entice the lonely creatures with trickery, to offer them an insect when what they wanted above all else was the moon.
Nicolai lowered his bulb and waited for it to catch the fancy of the fish. As he waited his melancholy ate deeper. It was that night all those years ago when he asked Judson to stay home and Catherine gave him a look that tore into him; it was this night that he remembered the awful sincerity of it. When Nicolai asked Father Reyes to take Catherine alone to the reservoir and bless it, and when Father Reyes begged and cursed Nicolai to go with them, and when he told Nicolai that Catherine would never forgive him if he didn’t, Nicolai recalled Catherine’s awful stare, which explained the profane state that Nicolai’s love for Judson was and always would be in.
“She made me feel disgusting. She stooped down hugging that boy and peered up at me over his shoulder. I’ve never felt so shameful in my life. I hurt Judson and I hurt Catherine all the same. The only woman I’ve ever wanted to make myself better for, and he made me ugly to her. I couldn’t ever forgive him for that.”
Father Reyes quickly countered.
“Know above all else, Nicolai, that your boy is the fruit of yours and Catherine’s love. Without him you’re nothing. If you bury him without reconciliation, you will be ugly to her forever.”
* * *
Let’s return to the present and for now forget the sad notions of Judson’s story. Let’s remember what joyous sentiment swelled in the perfect ring that Nicolai held. So eager was he to get his discovery to Catherine that he’d forgotten his concertina on the bridge. He hurried, quick as he could with hurting shins and frail bones, to their home two miles away. When he was a half-dozen houses away he heard her whistling. He followed the barrier of dogwoods that lined each yard, dragging his hands across their playful and springy foliage, until her whistling flowed through the bushes, and he stood opposite her.
There was a hole in one of Catherine’s dogwoods, burrowed by a broken sprinkler that shot water in a stationary jet. Nicolai peered through it and saw Catherine’s plump, vein-laced legs lying in the grass, leading to her torso in the flowerbed.
“Hullo,” he said, seizing the bush’s broadest branch and shaking it heartily. A shower of dead leaves fell onto Catherine.
“I am going to shoot you,” she said.
Nicolai grinned at her legs. Her hand shot up through the bush. She held a handful of rotted bulbs and shook them.
“Hold these,” she said. “No wonder they weren’t growing. You neglected to water, then I overwatered.”
Nicolai slapped the bulbs from her hand.
“Who cares?” he said. “Hold this.” He took the ring from his pocket and pushed it into her palm. She clasped her pudgy fingers around it, dragged it down to eye-level. She then stood up, smiling broadly, dirt smeared across her cheeks, her chin, her flowery apron, and on her hands.
“I think it’s lovely,” she said. “But it’s too much.”
“It didn’t cost me a thing.”
“Not what I meant, dear. Not at all. But that’s good. I meant I’m too old for junk like this.” She put the ring in her apron pocket; Nicolai grimaced, hurt and embarrassed by Catherine’s disinterest. “Where is your squeezebox?” she asked.
“Ah, damn. Must have left it at the park. I never leave it there.”
“I would have liked to hear it. Oh well. Have you brought apricots?”
“I forgot those too. I mean, I bought them but left them elsewhere.”
“You’re not getting nothing right today.”
“Guess not. I thought you’d have liked the ring more.”
“It’s a lovely thing,” she said. “Lovely for what it is. But what it is is rather silly, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.”
“Wait here. I’m going to put your ring on the mantle right now.”
“It’s your ring. But wait. It can wait.”
Silence followed. Several minutes of it. Catherine thought of a better arrangement for hyacinths in the flowerbed, and maybe a fountain in the corner near the mailbox. Nicolai thought of his blunders that day and regretted tossing the apricots.
“I’ll go buy some more,” he said at last.
“Where did you get it?” she asked, inattentive to his offer.
“I found it.”
Catherine considered this with a few sips of tea. She asked question about his story; he clarified what he could about the dried riverbed. She asked how far the damage went. Nicolai said he did not know.
“I think,” she said listlessly, “I’ll put a gazebo in the yard, and a fountain inside it. On the corners I’ll have bird feeders and maybe daffodils lining the path running ‘round to it.” She turned and walked away and disappeared indoors. She came out again, purse dangling from her elbow. “I think we’ll take a walk.”
* * *
“I think I’d like to” was the response Catherine gave Nicolai several decades ago when both were eight years old. He had asked her to be his square-dancing partner for the final night of the Spring Fair. She was the last choice of all the other boys, but was Nicolai’s first and only.
He knew who she was before then but only vaguely. She was the girl the other children made fun of because she was pudgy and freckle-faced and bucktoothed. And she was often found alone with her face buried inside a rabbit hole at the far end of the playground.
The day they met was a pristine day: warm and sunny with weather inviting of circuses. The clouds, clumped like balloons, sailed across the sky. Nicolai was squishing stinkbugs at the far end of the field, evoking squeals of delight from the other kids, when Catherine approached him with a fishing lure, offered it to him, then waddled awkwardly away once he accepted. He waited till the bell rang before chasing after her. He found her at the far end of the schoolyard where there was a clearing in the trees and shrubs. Her face was in the rabbit hole.
“Who are you talking to?” he asked.
“I—” she paused a moment. “I don’t know. But he wants to talk to you.” She got up and moved aside for Nicolai.
“What? You’re lying.”
“Talk to him.”
“That’s stupid. Nobody’s down there.”
Nicolai looked at the strange little girl at his feet. He suspected that whatever make-believe man was in the rabbit hole was Catherine’s only friend. He retrieved a piece of candy from his pocket and tossed it into the hole.
“Do you go to church?” she asked. He nodded. “Do they talk about the Devil at your church?”
“No,” he rejoined, “we’re Catholic. We only talk about ourselves.”
“Oh. We talk of the Devil a lot, and of hell. You don’t meet the Devil in hell. You don’t meet no-one. That’s the point of it. You’re alone.”
“Is it the Devil in that hole?”
“Sometimes I hope. It don’t seem so lonely at recess then.”
Far off at the school their teacher was calling their names. Nicolai took Catherine’s arm, pulled her up, and walked with her back to class. He told her he liked the lure, that it was the nicest he’d ever seen, and then he asked what they’d do if he invited her to the Spring Fair to be his dancing partner.
“I guess I’d meet you at the dancehall looking real pretty. I ain’t spending the day with you. I got my own things to do, you see.”
He looked forward smiling and told her he was glad to find a girl can keep her distance. All the other girls, he said, would want to get all nice-looking, then get him all nice-looking, then want spend all day at the fair together. He told her he wouldn’t do that, that he hates people telling him what to do, then asked Catherine if he looked like a good-for-nothing puppet. Catherine assured him he did not.
* * *
They walked, and walked, for a while. Nicolai’s legs hurt awful. Catherine walked briskly, breathing heavy, offering intricate details of her landscaping plans. Once, near the elementary school, Nicolai asked where they were going even though he knew. She offered him a mint and no answer. “Stop here a minute,” she said later, near a fenced-off dirt lot. She tied her shoe; Nicolai clenched the fence links, arms outstretched, feeling crucified, and rested. “Let’s go,” she said, and they went on.
It was late afternoon when they reached the marina. They departed the main road some miles back and emerged from a dirt path between two small hills. The sun floated behind them, smearing their shadows along the rocky and watery ground. The marina was in ruin. Boats were sunk, capsized, fallen upon each other, their masts interlocked, bent, broken. Floating docks laid scattered across the emptied canyon, splintered. The rest was nature: boulders, pebbles, organic debris, the sad, sad bodies of elk and fish, the black and moldy spires of century-old trees. Nicolai and Catherine walked to a loading ramp—a descending cement slab—and from there ventured into the reservoir.
They walked through the ghostly landscape, through a familiar world made strange by water and water withdrawn. Neither noticed, but Nicolai was leaning on Catherine, hobbling awkwardly. They passed between the canyon walls, under the orange and purple canopy of heaven littered with white cloudy wisps, feeling forgotten where they stood. They happened upon a series of concrete squares outlined with warped and fractured wood. From some squares little soppy walls stuck out. Faint outlines of flattened earth ran between and along them. This was a lost town, settled once along the banks of the river and wiped out when the dam was built.
“Some things are best left lost, you know,” Nicolai said. “I’m cold.”
Catherine fetched some gloves, white and quaint, from her purse and gave them to Nicolai. He put them on his hands and his hands in his pockets. He kicked a stone—one of millions—then put his shoe in a pile of moss, shifting his weight onto it, smiling at the noises and the little insects crawling from it.
He looked up to see Catherine running away. He went after her. She stopped and whirled around, facing Nicolai, who reached her breathless, his face red from the pain in his legs. She was crying. From her lips passed sputtered words, incomprehensible; tones of apology and joy. She fixed Nicolai’s hair, straightened the collar of his flannel shirt, told him to stand, stand up-right, please. “Why?” he asked. “What is it?”
Then Nicolai saw him, like a stranger snuck up, and staggered back. Not a few yards from the grieving woman laid a person. Its skin was white and puffy in places all along its skeletal frame, tinged with hues of blue and spattered with wide pores; and its face—God, its face, vile and monstrous—was sunken, decayed, rotted. Its lips had been nibbled away into a despondent grin. What hair remained fell in colorless wisps across its forehead.
“It’s my baby,” Catherine said, rushing toward him. “It’s Jud!” She fell on him and buried her face in his lithe ribcage. His bones creaked, rejoiced, and the remnants of his organs shifted.
One thing kept Nicolai from running; he collapsed, weeping, terrified, and crawled to a log to hide behind. He rubbed his legs and prayed for the water to come back, even if it took him, too. He regretted tossing the apricots; regretted letting Catherine know that their son might be waiting; regretted that the thing lying on the ground was once a person, a person he created and perhaps coerced
Nicolai thought, thought, thought: shrapnel of thoughts everywhere. It was all nonsense. He was weeping when Catherine found him behind the log and sat beside him. She stroked his hair; her hands were shaking.
“Go to your son. Tell him you love him.”
Nicolai’s throat burned: sorrow and stomach acid.
“I won’t,” he said, not more than a tremoring breath. “Don’t make me do that. You never made me feel like a dope. Don’t start now.”
“But look at him,” she said. He climbed to his knees to peer over the log. Catherine walked back to Judson and sat beside him. “Look,” she said again, severely, “at him. Look how far he fell: not too far at all. He’s here, on earth, and it there aren’t many things it can mean.”
He shook his head. Catherine stroked Judson’s face, chilly and wet. A spot of algae was forming on his cheek. She rubbed at it with her thumb. A bit of skin came off. She looked at her hand, and at his, and thought of Father Reyes decades earlier, and hummed the Miserere. She placed his skin in her mouth and let it sit on her tongue. A trickle of cold water crept down her throat.
Some time passed. Catherine talked the entire time to Judson. Of what, Nicolai didn’t know. Her voice was both carried and fractured by the wind. Nicolai’s legs hurt less now. He poked the coarse and grainy ground with a stick. He was only waiting for Catherine to finish so he could say goodbye and leave Judson alone.
Daylight dripped from the sky. The world was losing color and growing dimmer. The stars were peering out from their heavenly veil. At last, when the moon cast more light than the sun, she returned to Nicolai.
“Answer me honest, and speak soft if you don’t want Judson to hear. Did you love him?”
“I don’t know. I could say I did, and I know that’s what you want to hear, but that isn’t what’ll bring peace. It won’t make sense of this.”
“But I need to know!”
She will have to wait. Nicolai does not know the answer tonight, the night it would matter most. In a few years when Catherine and Nicolai are holding hands beneath a shower of shooting stars, Nicolai will say to her how love seems an open-ended riddle yet to be solved and he needs only one more piece for it to make sense. He will say how perfect she is and how he could only ever love what is perfect. And she will laugh and say how silly he speaks. She will say how perfectly imperfect people are and how they grow more perfect the more imperfect they become. This is the final piece; this is what collapses a wall inside Nicolai’s heart; this is what prompts him a few years later to admit at last that he loved Judson, loved every sublime and monstrous emotion Judson ever evoked. And at last—at last!—Catherine’s suspicions will be quelled and she will know how far Judson fell. Not too far at all.
But she will have to wait. Tonight, the most important night, the crushed bones stay silent.
“I don’t want him out here,” said Catherine, “all exposed like this. I want him in the ground. I think I’ll move him. Will you help me dig? That’s all I need.”And he did. Catherine went back to the lost little town and found half a wagon wheel. Nicolai broke a spoke from it and used it to pry the largest rocks from the ground. They worked all night, pebble by pebble and stone by stone, until a hole was made big enough to fit Judson’s body. Nicolai started back for the ramp as Catherine said farewell and dragged her son home. Nicolai looked up as he walked, into the starry night, listening to the body sliding across rocks, and wondered what Judson’s eyes eternally peering would see if not a final image of Catherine kissing his forehead. He would see stars, then stones, then stars of stones.