The Ashes of Around Twenty-Three Strangers

The world doesn’t make sense. All rain has moved indoors, wrecking houses from the inside out while the skies remain cloudless. With ever greater devotion, people worship giant, inert, humanoid bodies as gods as civilization falls apart.

Lucy, who has never been religious, has no way to properly mourn her brother after his untimely death. Now, a year later, she will travel south on a makeshift pilgrimage with the help of her best friend Carve, who was once himself a believer, trying to find peace and some better means of understanding the world.

 

 

At breakfast, Lucy decides she is ready to bury the ashes at the base of the god. “I think I have enough now,” she tells Carve.

“Godspeed,” Carve says. He sits across from her, nose wrinkled at the substitute eggs. The silver contours of his wheelchair shine bright beneath the kitchen’s bare forty-watt bulb.

“I need you to come,” Lucy says. “You know I can’t drive your car.” It had been modified, on account of Carve’s legs.  He lost them before the world fell apart, in an accident with a city bus. The settlement money had paid for this house, the car. These days it does less and less good.

The ashes belong to nearly two dozen dead strangers—a substitute for the body of her brother, Noel. It is, more or less, what he would have wanted.

“If you’d grown up going, you wouldn’t think it was anything much.”

“The end’s coming, Carve. How will you find your legs if you don’t remember the way?” She does not want to seem desperate. Does not want him to know—though of course he already knows—how badly she needs this.

He bites his lip and looks at everything but her. Lucy spoons the last of their canned tomatoes onto the mealy egg product. Carve’s house, all around them, holds steady.

“Okay,” Carve said. “Fine. We’ll go.”

 

The landscape out the window is ill-formed. Trees snarl in on themselves, each new year recorded by thinner rings. The grass is a jigsaw puzzle turned over, what was once bright now flat and cardboard. Carve adjusts his hands on the grips that jut from the steering wheel, accelerating slowly as he can. The road is otherwise empty.

He seems calmer, more at home behind the wheel of the car than anywhere else. “You haven’t been down here once in all the time I’ve known you,” Lucy says.

“No.”

They pass old billboard PSAs reminding people that interior rain can come at any moment, advising them to get their houses in order. Clouds might form above their beds in the middle of the night; they might wake gasping, half-drowning. Lucy can attest that no one ever believes the rains will hit their home. How could you believe such a thing? How would you live your life?

But this is the way the world is: all the storms have moved inside. A cloud hasn’t touched the sky for over two years.

People abandon their homes when the storms come, hastened off by imminent collapse. They leave behind old jewelry, copper wiring, the ashes of cremated relatives. Lucy goes in and salvages—a little here, a little there, in case anyone comes back for what’s theirs. It’s taken her a year to get a brother’s worth of ashes. The devout are burned and buried by the gods so that they might be reassembled on the day the world ends, but she never recovered Noel’s body from their storm-wrecked house. She was not able to cremate him, to bury him properly. Instead, she has a clear plastic peanut butter jar; a sky-blue lid above waves of ash and fragments of greasy, unfamiliar bone. She hopes it’s the right thing for Noel. She’s never believed in the gods, the rituals around them.

Carve has tested every argument against salvage—it’s illegal, it’s gross, it’s not a solution to anything. But she knows his real worry: that she will die in a rain-ravaged house and he will be left alone, again, in this collapsing world.

The ashes sit between her knees, shaken into dunes by the slow motion of the car. Carve has been uncharacteristically quiet. Lucy flips through her eighty-slot CD binder. “What do they look like?” she asks. “The gods?”

“Haven’t you seen photos?”

“Yeah, but you know they’re impossible to photograph. They’re all out of focus, like a hoax.”

Carve shrugs, studies the speedometer. “They vary,” he says. “The ones out west tend to be bigger—people say it’s so they’re not dwarfed by the mountains. But they’re all the same shade of gray, and scaly. If you had the right shoes you could climb them.” His eyes flit to the rearview mirror, the shining bulk of his wheelchair in the back seat. “Our church used to take trips down there every summer. We sang songs around the fire and made yarn art and studied their bodies, half-sunk into the earth like it’s memory foam. We were reminded daily that these beings once walked the world, that all existence sprung from their will.”

To their right is a relo camp: tents and temporary houses and long lines for the bathroom. Soldiers with small guns and ill-fitting jackets patrol the fenceless border, while men and women dressed in white pile onto a bus. Painted on the side is FOR THE GLORY OF GODS AND MAN. Lucy is glad to live with Carve, to have avoided such a camp when her old house fell; glad that she, in the middle of her loss, did not have to sit and wait for a new, empty, government-issued house.

“It isn’t hard to imagine that paradise surrounds them, the gods. All the lush grass, the fruit trees sprouting as if by some hidden engine.” Carve gestures at the world. “It must be something about the weather, the way the wind moves.”

Lucy tries to remember the last time she saw rain that wasn’t spilling from a house’s open door. Channeled through tubes to reservoirs and fields. She can understand how, with the gods’ landscapes so lush, the interior rain would seem to be their doing—as if all the world’s water was theirs to command.

Carve continues. “You go back year after year, though, and you see that nothing changes. Nothing rots. Nothing covers their enormous bodies.” He shakes his head. “You start to think: Is this really divinity? Or the epitome of what it means to be human?”

 

After Lucy and Noel’s parents died, she did her best to take care of her brother. She sent him money at college. She called him on his birthday and sent him another volume of a Great Books course. Perhaps it was the Great Books that pushed him over the edge—all those thirteenth-century mystics. She didn’t see his slide into zealotry, only the abstract religious icons, the theological tomes he brought when he moved back into their childhood home. As the interior rains poxed the world, Noel fled deeper into his obsession.

And so it was that, on the day she met Carve, Lucy found herself outside a pharmacy, watching her brother ring a bell and hand out tracts and speak of the gods’ glory. “The gods have given themselves to the earth,” he said, calm above the bell’s ostinato. “One day soon, the sun and stars will be unobscured by the false firmaments of ceilings.” He sounded almost reasonable. He smiled and bowed shallowly at each person who came to the pharmacy. Lucy scuttled around him like a futile goalie, hoping that if she kept him from delivering his tracts, his news, he would lose interest.

“Noel,” Lucy said. “Noelly-Polley, come on. Let’s go home.” She knew she must look wilder than he, hair a mess and color high. They’d walked here and the day was burning. She felt sick with fear that this was the end of a certain kind of life. He’d never proselytized like this before.

“Lucy, look, you can leave.” He did not turn to her, as if openly acknowledging her would weaken his message. He called to passersby: “Your body is a house, your house a body! The world will make us into rivers and we will meet in the ocean of Godly glory.”

It was a year and a day before he would die.

Exhausted and headachy, Lucy retreated into the pharmacy to buy an iced tea. A few minutes later she heard the bell stop, left her tea, and rushed back out. But Noel was only packing up his bell and tracts. Before him sat a man in a wheelchair, looking quite pleased. “I’m going home,” Noel said.

“Nice talking to you,” the man called after him. “Happy to give you a ride, if you want.” But Noel was already clomping home.

Lucy didn’t know whether to go or stay. The man nodded at Noel’s back. “He your brother?”

“Yeah,” she said. “What did you say to him?”

“Only what he’d remember from scripture, if he was more than a two-bit fanatic.” The man smiled. His voice was gravelly, as if he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day.

“And what’s that?”

“Works, not words, convince people.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said. She did not know whether to trust him or not, this man who had appeared out of nowhere. Did not know if he was, perhaps, a fanatic of a higher order. She worried her uncertainty was worsened by his disability—he looked too big for his wheelchair, as if he might erupt from it at any moment. “Are you in the church?”

“Used to be. Can still pull out the teachings when it’s needed.” Lucy stooped, picking up a stray tract that was scuttling across the sidewalk.

“Why’d you leave it? What changed?”

“Who knows. It was sunny, it was cloudy. It was unseasonably warm, it was exactly as cold as you’d expect. Things come and go.” He laughed. “Even losing my legs didn’t put me out. I thought the gods might like it, me kneeling all the time. Then one day, I was done. Had enough, I guess.”

“Do you ever miss it?”

Carve did not pause to think. “I miss the knowing.”

Down the road, Lucy could just make out the retreating speck of her brother. She felt calm for the first time in days. “Thank you,” she said again.

“Hey, what else is a heretic good for?”

They ended up at a fast-food restaurant a block away. Carve bought milkshakes. “My parents were obsessed with Noel’s success,” Lucy said. They sat at a low, hard plastic table. The thick malted chocolate cool relief on her tongue. “He won a national science fair prize when he was eleven and from then on, they’d shell out any amount of money to send him to physics camp, space camp, wherever. They told their friends he was going to be an astronaut, or make quantum computers. He was going to save the world.”

All those lost days of toy circuit boards and computer programs. Noel racing around, foam altimeter in hand, exclaiming about how high his model rocket had gone. Meanwhile, Lucy played cello with a practice mute on to avoid bothering her parents. The ringing strings so tinny and small that they made you feel something was wrong with your ears. She’d bought the cello with her own money, working in the same record shop she worked in now. She didn’t play anymore.

Noel had answered big questions as if he were bragging:

What happened when we died?

We disappear, Luce. Oblivion, obliviated.

What could they do about the ice caps, the rain forests, the dying birds?

Take to the stars.

Was it right to bomb a country if it would save lives at home?

Obviously.

“Do you feel like that was time and money ill-spent?” Carve asked.

She could not have put a name to it at the time, but she was jealous of Noel’s view of the world. For him, everything was explicable and pure and reasonable, if only emotions didn’t get in the way. He trusted so much in what his senses told him that of course, in time, he came to think of the gods—stretched out and enormous and smothering the earth—as divine.

“I don’t know,” Lucy said. She slurped her milkshake dry, leaving only a hollow burbling.

 

When they pull off the highway, they are still miles away from the god. It’s invisible from the road, but birds turn abruptly this way and that, uneased by its bulk. “Hold on,” Lucy says. They pass a house shedding water in sheets, a glassine carpet rolled out for them. She presses her hands to the window. It looks just fresh enough to be safe. “Carve, let’s go back. I’ll be real quick.”

“There could still be people inside.”

“The door’s open, there’s no car in the drive.”

Carve huffs. “Luce—”

“I know.” She knows he only wants her to be safe. But what do you do with that? What do you do when what is best and what you need do not match? She looks at the light reflected in the walls of her makeshift urn and does not feel ready to advance.

“One last time, okay?” she says. Carve looks at her. “This is it; I promise. Besides, there might be something we can trade. We’re out of tomatoes. And maybe there’s a Western novel you haven’t read.”

“Unlikely.”

“Well, maybe.”

He sighs, says, “Need I remind you?”

“You needn’t.”

He slows and executes a perfect three-point turn. Lucy can see, briefly, the joy that this smooth motion brings him, the simple action of pointing back the way they came. He has often told her how he used to love driving, used to take his car into the hills at night and let the headlights trace twin trails of light across the darkened road.

Now he claims gas is too expensive, the world too imperiled, but Lucy does not believe that this is the reason he stopped. She wonders who else might have once gone on those late-night rides. He’d told her, while drunk, that when he lost his faith he lost everyone who understood him, that everyone he’d met since treated him with pity or disgust. She didn’t know if that included her, and if so which one she was.

The house’s lawn is sopping. Water splashes Lucy’s calves as she walks. She wishes she had her boots, her bag—the tools of her pillage. Her socks are already soaked. She turns back to find Carve with his fist pressed to his mouth and asks, “Why are you biting your hand?”

“I’m trying to tear hair out with my teeth, thanks for asking.”

“Do you want to come in?”

“Absolutely not.” He eyes the house. Inside, barely visible, is the dark bruise of rolling clouds and rain. She thinks, Here it comes, but Carve only says “Be careful, Lucy.” She is surprised to see his eyes wet with tears. For a moment, she wants to rewind it all—the drive, the ashes, every journey into a waterlogged house. She wants to hold Carve’s hands in her own in a kind of secular prayer and prove to him that they will not die today or ever.

“Of course,” she says. They both know that no amount of care will save a house that wants to fall.

“Okay.” Carve looks at the ground as if wishing he could kick a stone. He makes a joke about silently circling the house, waiting until she’s outside, and blowing a trumpet to bring the walls down.

Lucy isn’t listening. She’s eyeing the door, and the water that flows free.

 

In the months after they met, Lucy and Carve hung out more nights than not. They drank beer and talked and, if they were at Lucy’s house, listened to Noel’s soft chanting in his room above. Carve liked to talk about the past, his own and in general. He held on to things some people would rather forget, and Lucy appreciated this about him.

Some nights, Carve invited her and Noel over to eat dinner and drink champagne and listen to old dance records. He’d cook up enormous quantities of sausage. “You can never have too much sausage at a celebration.”

“Ah yes, that old bit of liturgical wisdom,” Noel replied.

Lucy did not know how Carve did this—bringing out a side of Noel she had not seen since childhood. Wry and open to the world, if only just.

They’d talk of the way the world had been, talk of what they’d lost. As the night wore on, Lucy turned the music up and they three—drunk and full of bubbles and sausage and light—danced around the living room. With each other, or by themselves, or with the dying plants Carve held on to out of some sense of obligation. Lucy could feel the bass in the middle of her chest, feel the world opening up, feel that life was more than a slow slide to oblivion.

 

The abandoned house is nearer its end than Lucy realized. The floors are spongy beneath her feet. Books fallen from their shelves splay like dead, ink-smeared birds. She easily spots places picked clear: walls emptied of photos, foodless kitchen cabinets. Holes in the damp drywall where wiring was ripped free. There’s nothing here worth taking.

Through the kitchen window, Lucy spots Carve and waves at him but he doesn’t see her. Rain roars on the second floor. Dark stains splinter and meet across the plaster sky. There is the small echo of thunder in empty rooms, the smell of ozone.

Lucy knows that she should leave. There is no use in remaining, nothing on offer but the threat of extinction. But she can’t bring herself to go.

Every house she enters, her fear comes back like a too-catchy song, stuck in her head and the rhythm of her breath. It is like stepping into both past and future: to the day her house fell, to the day all houses will fall. But there is hope in each new house, inexplicable hope. As if she would find Noel there, body cloaked again in rain, and could this time drag him to safety.

And so in spite of herself, she keeps looking. Not for anything, only looking.

Pinned to the dead fridge is a lottery number for the relo camps. Lucy wonders how many more times the people who had lived here would have to move. She studies nicks and scuffs on the floors and walls, muddy traces of child-sized shoes, penciled records of growth on the wall. All the little histories, the petty squabbles and triumphs. Where will they go when it falls? A house is a record of more than what can be taken from it.

She is scared that without these salvage trips, without these damaged walls, she will lose her brother for good. That the ashes, and their burial, will not be enough, that she is erasing him forever from the earth. But she knows that if she tests her luck too much it will eventually run out.

The stairs are a waterfall. Lucy kneels below them, at the border between rain and air, between the first floor and the second. She cannot feel the tears sliding down her cheeks, loses her sobs in the thunder above. Maybe, if she went upstairs, it would be enough. Maybe she would feel able to go out into the world. But she cannot. Cannot give her own body over to that torrent again. Noel’s hand in hers, their ten fingers glazed with rain. She cannot.

She stays kneeling, though. She doesn’t want to be afraid, doesn’t want to flee the dark and damp like a child running out of a basement. She wants to believe, as Noel did, that she is safe—not because the walls will not collapse, but because, if they do, it will not matter. She closes her eyes, and all the world is a pounding roar, and she does not move.

When they are again in the car, Lucy peels off her wet socks and Carve grips her shoulder, his strong hand a tether to the world. “I’m sorry,” he says.

As they pull away, Lucy watches the house in the side mirrors. She is convinced that at any moment it will fall in on itself, will erase its own small emptiness. The spray of glass and plaster, the shedding of shingles like dead skin. But it stays standing, and soon disappears from view.

 

Lucy and Noel were lucky enough to see the storm as it formed in their childhood home. No midnight surprise of torrential rain, no sudden onslaught of thunder and light. It began as a twisting, an accumulation of dust and vapor inches below the low plaster ceiling.

Carve picked up on the first ring. “You guys can come stay with me,” he said. He had made this offer before, claiming that his house felt empty and he’d be glad for the company, but Lucy had never taken him up on it. She was sure he did not mean it and was only offering out of pity.

With the storm brewing above, she didn’t hesitate. “We’ll be there soon.” The clouds came darker and darker. The endless blue of the sky obscured as the dark folds smothered windows. She grabbed a plastic bag and raced to Noel’s room. The door banged open as the small clouds opened up and rain began to pelt them both. Noel lay prostrated before one of the church’s abstract icons, dragging a blunt bronze needle across his bare arms and chest. It drew no blood but left pale red marks, bright and inflamed beneath the tumbling dark. The overhead light shone muted through the mist.

“Noel, come on, we have to go.”

He looked at her with half-lidded eyes. Rain fell harder. The plastic bag that Lucy held began to fill, and she dropped it, and it burst across the floor like a bird on a windshield. “It is the will of the divine that the storm come,” he said, “and I must tend to it.” Noel’s chant continued, barely audible beneath the drumming of rain.

“Oh, for fuck’s—” Lucy pulled her jacket over her head, a canopy that did little to keep her dry. She found another bag and threw things into it at random. Her binder of CDs, her practice mute, a photo of their parents. She tossed in the urn that held their ashes; it spilled immediately, and they formed a damp paste. Lucy raced back upstairs, the flashes of lightning barely visible through Noel’s cracked door.

Noel asked the room, “What could this be but the will of the gods.”

“Noel.” She tossed an empty bag at him and it plummeted, plastered to the floor. “Grab what you can, we’re not coming back.”

“There were no walls in the old world, and there will be no walls in the new. We exist in a temporary hell of barriers.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay. We’re going to a different temporary hell, and then you can come back here. Okay?”

“Lucy.” He stared at her. The cheap paint of his icon was running, pooling on the floor around his knees. The bronze needle held up like a lightning rod. “It takes ages for the walls to crumble. It’s okay.”

There it was: that childish certainty, the know-it-all-ness that their parents had seen as feature not bug.

“Noel.”

“It’s okay, Lucy. I’m safe. We’re safe.”

He held out a hand to her. Water pooled and spilled out of his palm, endlessly renewed. She took his in her own, felt the brief vacuum as water displaced. Lucy wanted it to be enough, to stick them together forever. She thought of the first days after their parents had died, the car crash that had killed them. She and Noel slept in the living room, awkwardly sprawled on the couches, for fear of being alone and what childhood memories their bedrooms held. They sat on the floors and curled into one another and felt emptied out in turn. She wanted to pull him back to then.

But she knew it would be selfish. His teeth were wet and shining in the flashes of light, his eyes soft and bright.

So when he let go, she did not reach again for his hand. She knew he was right—it was unlikely the house was going to collapse around them, even as the floors shook beneath the weather’s fury.

Lucy will come back to this moment often. Will wonder what she could have done differently, and know that there is nothing. When she stepped out of the house and heard it crack and groan behind her, she regretted immediately the things she had chosen to take. She regretted not staying, not knocking Noel unconscious and dragging him from the stormy halls. When she watched the collapse of the walls, felt the expulsion of air as it all settled into itself, the water gushing from its jagged wounds, she stood shivering in the too, too quiet day, no more certain than ever.

 

The man at the military checkpoint hands back their IDs. Lucy wonders if this is normal, if the military always protected this area, or if—as with grocery stores, shopping malls, and riverbanks—this is a new protection the world requires.

The god stretches before them like an uneven range of mountains. It rises above the trees, scaly skin ugly where it meets the sky. The car bucks on the gravel road, pebbles clicking where they hit the underside. “I can’t believe you’ve never come here,” Carve says.

“You know how it is.”

“You’re lucky, I mean. It gives me the creeps.”

As the car traces the road, the world becomes emerald bright. Thick trees stand at attention, crowned with topaz lemons and ruby apples. A few children chase each other, feet sinking into the luxurious carpet of grass. Lucy feels enshrined. The world is closed off, the horizon banished. It is terrifying; it is safe.

There is a blur of grave markers as they go—brass, copper, iron. They look like yardsticks, enameled in yellow and purple, painted with names or crude images of houses. Some are draped with scarves, or garlanded with tinsel from recent holidays.

How would it feel to walk among them if Noel were already here? Lucy had gone back to the house, waded through the shattered glass and unspooled home movies, looking for the hand that rain had stuck to hers, desperate to give her dead brother a new home in fire and earth. But the fallen house was too heavy, the spaces between rubble too narrow. She left with nothing.

She tells herself she will come back here, one day. Will visit whatever marker she leaves for Noel. She hopes she feels better then.

They park in the handicap row. There are hardly any other cars—mostly the Jeeps favored by apocalypse preppers. She retrieves Carve’s chair from the back and he settles into it with some relief. “My trusty steed,” he says, and smacks its wheels with both palms. The car looks duller here; shabby. A path cuts through the dense greenery and Carve and Lucy follow it toward the god.

 

The markers come denser and denser, sticking up like hands from the loamy ground. Some are marked with names in small letters, or painted with crude images of houses or butterflies. Somewhere is one marked Carver Compson—Legs Only. She asks where it is. Carve gestures at the world.

They’re silent for a while, and he says, “After the accident, they gave me my legs—what was left of them—in a big silver bag. Like they were trash. They used to be a part of me but now they’re coffee filters and banana peels.”

Lucy has heard this story before, but is happy enough to hear it again; Carve always seems to like telling it. She looks everywhere but at the god’s body before her as she pushes along. It, regardless, slowly fills the field of vision.

“It freaked me out, having them lying around, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them. I kept them in the deep freeze, between lemonade concentrate and links of sausage.”

“You were still gung-ho for god, right? Why not just burn and bury them?”

“That silver bag bothered me. All its disclaimers in tiny font, its biohazard symbol. The idea that simply because this thing was not a part of me any longer it was somehow disgusting, somehow meaningless. I didn’t want to dispose of them.” Carve pauses for breath. The ground is lumpen and ill-suited to the legless. Lucy takes a turn pushing his chair. “You get it into your head, growing up in the church, that the body is sacred. That it’s going to be put back together someday soon. I couldn’t just give them up.”

“What changed?”

“The deep freeze broke. I lost all the sausage and lemonade and the legs started to stink. So I thought, ‘Okay.’ I thought, ‘Take ’em away.’”

“And now here they are.” Lucy gestures at the verdant field. “And here you are.”

Carve grunts. “Together again and it’s not even the endtimes. We should do this every day.”

They break out of the trees and there is the god, like an enormous gray wall between this world and the next. In its shadow stand more markers, a confetti of bright points. Lucy gasps when she steps off the path and onto the grass.

“You okay?”

“Yeah it’s just—I didn’t remember it being so soft.”

There are more people here than the cars would suggest. She spots picnicking lovers, children doing cartwheels. A man, woman, and child lead a lethargic Golden Lab toward the god. “You could almost forget,” she says, “about everything else.”

“I know, it’s awful.”

They catch up to the family and slow dog. “C’mon, Ripley!” the father calls. “A little closer, Rip!” Ripley’s muzzle is speckled gray and she shakes her legs as she walks. The young girl is not helping, hanging from her dog’s neck like a bandana, muttering in her ears.

“What are they doing?” Lucy asks Carve. “What are you doing?” she says more loudly.

The man stands and wipes his sweaty hands on his jeans and strolls over. “Fine day, isn’t it? Not a cloud in the sky.” Lucy winces.

“You folks enjoying the shade?” Carve asks. He beams at Lucy, restored by the chance to mess with someone. Ripley continues on her way, dragging the child as she goes.

“Sure as shootin’. It’s always a good day in the shadow of the divine. Isn’t that so, honey?”

His wife has dark circles under her arms and eyes. “You betcha.”

“What are you doing?” Lucy repeats. The Lab is in the world’s slowest game of chicken, waiting for the god to flinch.

“Oh, uh.” He looks at his daughter. She does not stop whispering to Ripley. “Old Rip’s on the way out,” the man says softly. “You know how it is.”

“Sure do,” Carve says.

“We figure the end is coming soon. Not just hers, you understand. And we wanted to make sure, well, if she goes before we do—we wanted her to be able to find her way home from here. After she’s put back together and all.” He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. “Bit unorthodox spreading her ashes here, but I believe it’s what the Gods would want, don’t you?”

His wife says “Silvie, don’t hang too hard. You’ll drag her down.”

The man points to the jar, still lodged under Lucy’s arm. “Who ya got there?”

“What? Oh.” She cannot say It’s the ashes of around twenty-three strangers. She does not want to say My brother. But what would be a better lie, a better truth?

“It’s legs,” Carve interjects. “A whole bunch of legs. There’s a commune of us and we’re going to bury them so that when the end of days comes, we can kick the devil.”

The man startles, grins. “Right on, brother.” He fist bumps Carve but does not look at him. “Silvie,” he says, “let’s go press our faces against the God. Doesn’t that sound nice?” He lifts Ripley over his shoulder and carries her off. Silvie follows, whispering still.

Carve says, “Fucking jackass.”

“They’re just trying to do what’s right.”

“No, I hate that. Mourning something before it’s happened.”

As they come closer, Lucy keeps hoping to get some greater sense of the god. Every time she thinks she can picture it, something changes. The limbs do not bend in predictable ways. The dips and hollows do not match the shape of the human body. She tries to map it to the old, blurry photos she remembers and cannot. She wants to feel resolution, or change, or hope, but feels only tired and afraid. She keeps thinking of Carve, wild-eyed after his mountain car rides. Thinking of the houses she has promised she will no longer explore. She and Carve come ever closer to the god.

Lucy looks at her smeary peanut butter jar and wonders at the limbs contained there. What were they before they were ash? The index finger by which a woman grabbed her lover’s collar. The legs that burned with the rising sun, jogging every day. The nose that relished the scent of buttercream, forever the smell of childhood. And what do they add up to? A lost brother? Some kind of peace?

She imagines the dog, Ripley, resurrected suddenly in this enormous shadow, far from home. She stops pushing Carve. “Look, let’s go.”

He looks at her and she fiddles with a marker, dragging her thumbnail over its coppery green.

“Lucy—”

She hefts the jar. Its plastic catches the sun marvelously. “Don’t you think it’s fucked up? Bringing these pieces of strangers here without asking?”

“Who would you ask, Luce?”

“You know what I mean. You chose to leave a part of yourself here and you still hate it.”

“Lucy.”

“I need you to tell me. Tell me it’s wrong.”

“I don’t—”

“Tell me it’s fucked up, Carver!”

Carve looks at her and Lucy thinks Pity or disgust? He opens his mouth but stays silent. They might wait like this forever.

Their standoff is interrupted by the ringing of bells. Men and women dressed in white come out of the forest in twin lines. A woman leads the way, her own bell aloft. Perhaps these are the people from the relo camp they passed, perhaps they are something else entirely. This is the way the world is.

“Is this what you did as a kid?”

Carve shakes his head. “Apostates.”

Lucy and Carve watch as they arrange themselves in horizontal rows, a plein-air imitation of church pews. The woman makes a sign and all drop to the ground, prostrated before the god. She is barely audible as she speaks. Her words almost private, small. Lucy catches scraps here and there:

“Dear Gods, who command the cycles of the world—

“—the ancient storms that washed filth away—

“—these promises belatedly made—”

Instead of listening, Lucy stares at her jar and thinks of the pharmacy. Noel’s final sermon in a house of storms. Carve is clearly discomfited by the apostates. But he stays by Lucy’s side.

The leader holds her bell up like a sword. Her voice rises in volume. She speaks as though making conversation across a crowded room. “What you have taken from us, oh Gods. We who would do whatever you ask.” Her eyes are wide and god-gray. “Tell us to take down our walls—we will. Tell us to flatten the world—we will.” Tears in her eyes shine despite the shadow. “But our children, Gods. Our memories. Our homes. We would give anything, willingly, if you’d only ask. But instead of opportunity you give us whim.” Her arm falls. The bell yields a harsh clang. “Tell us what you have planned. We cannot stand long in your blinding light.”

Carve looks at Lucy, and takes her hand.

The woman says, “Dear Gods. We ask for forgiveness. We ask for a new form of absolution. We will remake the world as you desire, but first, send us rain. Take the clouds out of our homes and return them to the skies.” She rings the bell, arm snapping like a pitcher’s. “Send rain.” Ring. “Send rain.” Ring.

The apostates stand, arms stretched high like one hundred enameled grave markers. They echo: “Send rain.” Ring. “Send rain.” Ring.

The sky is blue. As they turn their faces toward it, Lucy finds her eyes following the apostates’, hoping to see some blot on its expanse. Waiting—if only for a moment—for something else.

 

“The Ashes of Around Twenty-Three Strangers” copyright © 2020 by Jeremy Packert Burke
Art copyright © 2020 by Sara Wong

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