The morning she first saw the boy, the wind was blowing from the east, driving eddies of litter down the highway, past rutted fields and fence posts connected by strands of sagging barbed wire. She considered a distant pillar of dust bending in the atmosphere, casting shadow across the barren plain, shifted on the porch step, and touched the slight swell of her belly. As ghostly forms emerged from circling dust, she gathered a piece of baling wire from the dirt, looped it around her fingers, and observed a line of people trudging down the road, refugees, she guessed, in search of sanctuary or work. She was squinting at the procession when the screen door behind her opened. She slipped her fingers from the wire and hunched her shoulders.
“Get me that pipe wrench,” her stepfather said. “I’m not asking again.”
“Was about to get it,” the girl mumbled, without drawing her eyes from the road.
“Don’t look like it.” He stepped up to the railing. “Any of these people stop and ask for something, you tell them to move on. I don’t care if it’s a goddamn glass of water.”
The girl slipped the wire into her pocket and started toward the shed, turning around twice to make sure her stepfather had gone back inside. She quickened her pace past heaps of salvaged metal whittled by blowing dust and a fire pit glutted with charred garbage, and crossed a yard befouled by dung and the carrion dropped by circling crows. In the shed, she paused beside a workbench and considered a tattered magazine splayed open to a photograph of a naked woman lying on a bare mattress. The girl wondered how many times her stepfather had touched himself looking at the photograph, and why, with his magazines and her mother, he had never left her alone. She felt her own breasts, tender to the touch, and hated the woman for being pretty enough to make her feel ugly, but not enough to prevent her stepfather from seeking her out as often as he did.
She swept the magazine to the floor, grabbed a wrench and left the shed, at first dazed and then mesmerized by the drone of a hymn rising on the wind. Near the porch, she paused to observe the stooped forms of men and women borne of swirling dust and detritus, and before them, a man wheeling a large wooden cross over cracked asphalt. She set the wrench on a railing, wandered to the road, and braced herself against a fence post, transfixed by the sweat darkening the man’s shirtsleeves, the sun scars covering his corded neck, and the worn plastic wheels at the base of the cross resting upon his shoulder. Behind the man, a flaxen-haired woman in a faded dress was pulling a wagon loaded with water jugs. Beside him, a young man walked deliberately, with a book pressed to his chest.
When the procession reached the girl, the young man leapt over a ditch to meet her. The girl considered his smooth brown skin and his dark eyes with thick lashes that made her think of a deer.
“Would you know how far it is to town?” he asked.
“Two miles,” the girl said.
He cradled his book in one arm and placed a hand on the post. “That isn’t so far.”
“Maybe a little farther if you cross to the far side of town, but it isn’t so big,” she said. “What are you looking for?”
“Souls. People seeking the Lord’s path. We’re setting up for a tent revival.”
“You been walking long?”
“We came from Texas. No so long. In God’s scheme.”
“I’ve never been to Texas. Never been anywhere. Just here.”
“It’s no matter. It’s what’s in your soul.”
“Still, it’s a long way to walk.”
“Only by suffering can we understand the sacrifices our Lord made to save us.” The boy fingered a tree ring visible in the post’s rough grain. “Are you a believer?”
The girl looked into the boy’s eyes, and in that moment, she believed, would have believed anything, and nodded.
“We’ll be in town tomorrow,” he said. “If you want to pray with us.”
She felt her face grow warm. “It isn’t so far to walk. To town.”
“I’ll look for you,” the boy said. “Won’t be hard to find you. There’s a special light around you. Like the Lord’s looking down on you.”
When he started down the road, she strained to see over the heads of pilgrims passing in ragged dresses, dirty shirts, and worn shoes, and carrying bed rolls and pans, sagging tent poles, and canvas sacks filled with cans. After he vanished from her sight, she withdrew to the porch and twisted the baling wire around her finger like a tourniquet to stanch her longing.
She was committing the boy’s eyes to memory when her stepfather emerged from the house. “What the hell you doing?” He looked at the dust roiling in the procession’s wake. “Just tent revival trash making a spectacle of themselves. Nothing to be wasting your time with.”
That night, she lay on her mattress, listening to muffled voices beyond the wall.
“If she’s going to disrespect me, she can move out of this house,” her stepfather said. “Problem is you spared the rod. That’s the only thing those religious freaks get right.”
“She’s just tired,” her mother said. “Sick with something going around.”
“Lazy, more like. Fifteen’s old enough to be doing more around the house.”
“I can deal with her.”
“Don’t seem like it. I hear her at night, sneaking out by herself.”
“Who else would she be sneaking out with but herself?”
She heard the creak of bedsprings and her mother crying and rested her hand on her belly. Soon, it would be impossible to hide a truth too monstrous for her mother to bear. Her mother would blame her—say that, at some point, a girl should be old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, to stop certain things from happening and make herself ugly if that’s what it took. She would never be able to explain to her mother that, at that very point, understanding had given birth to shame, and silence. The girl clawed her neck until welts rose upon her skin and then drifted into dreams of the boy touching her face and sheltering her body with arms opened like splayed angel’s wings.
When she awoke the next morning, she found the house empty and her stepfather’s truck gone. She stood in the kitchen, listening to windows rattling in their frames and wind whistling beneath the eaves. Then she felt a breath moving like feathers across her neck and left the house, walking and then running down the highway, past empty cisterns, rusted windmills, and dead cell towers. In town, she made her way past shuttered thrift shops and bars with bricked-up windows, down a crumbling street to a withered fairground, where a small crowd was gathered beneath a circus tent. The preacher was standing on a small stage made of wooden risers, bearing a Bible aloft and gesticulating. The woman with flaxen hair stood behind him, holding the cross upright. When the girl reached the tent, she edged past sweaty bodies until she could see the beaded perspiration on the preacher’s brow.
“We are all sinners, wretched and helpless,” the preacher shouted above the rattle of tambourines and the wind rippling the tent’s flaps. “Years ago, I trembled at the edge of a fiery gulf, stalked by drink and the ghastly forms of fallen women. But one night, Christ spoke to me and offered forgiveness.” He paused. “I wept in relief, but too soon. I had not yet wrestled with the temptations that bind the sinner’s heart.” The preacher set down the Bible and unbuttoned his shirt. “In the agony of a long night, the Enemy raged within me and sweat poured from my body until I lay on the floor, spent. I expected death, but at dawn, a voice commanded me to cast away my sins and accept the covenant sealed by Christ’s blood. I recognized the Lord’s voice and knew the transforming power of the cross.”
The preacher stripped off his shirt and to reveal a patchwork of bruises on his shoulders. She touched the welts on her neck, and her breath caught in her throat.
“I took up the cross to know how our Lord suffered,” the preacher continued. “To know the extent of his love. Once I knew his grace, I feared no evil.”
She rose on her toes to better see and stumbled before a press of sweaty bodies, until the preacher was looking at her. Sickened and stirred, she took in the preacher’s prominent ribs, and the lesions and bruises on his shoulders.
“One night,” the preacher said, “I met Satan on a dark road. I recognized him by his skin, black like charcoal, and his hair, twisted like snakes. When I rent my shirt and showed him my wounds, he saw the power of Christ and fled in terror. Dawn broke, and my eyes beheld a New Kingdom on Earth, a walled city where the faithful will multiply and God’s design will be made manifest.” The preacher looked up at the sagging canvas ceiling. “Once I groaned beneath the burden of sin. I now rejoice beneath the weight of the cross, knowing the Lord is guiding us to a land where Evil will never touch us, and we will drink the waters of everlasting life.”
Trembling, the girl began to hum along with the voices rising around her and might have wept if a hand hadn’t brushed her shoulder. She turned to find the boy standing beside her, with glistening eyes and wisps of hair clinging to his damp brow.
“I don’t know if I should be here,” she said. “I haven’t ever read the Bible.”
“People come to the light in different ways. You been baptized?”
“My mother never said one way or the other.”
“We’re having a baptism in the river. Some people are being baptized their second time. To rededicate themselves.”
“River’s high right now,” she said. “The rains came early. Flooded part of town.”
“God always provides for his children. Provides signs. That’s what Preacher says.”
As members of the congregation fell to their knees, the boy took her hand and drew her to the ground. One by one, penitents moved to the front of the crowd on dirty hands and bleeding knees, moaning and weeping and pleading as the preacher placed his hands upon their heads. Surrounded by prostrate bodies, she listened to shouted confessions and groans of submission and cries of supplication. Her lips grew parched, and sweat streamed down her face until she grew dizzy and her limbs grew light. She felt the heat building inside the tent and dreamed of rain cooling her face. Then she saw a heart engorged and aflame, and visions of angels crowded her mind. To the sound of fevered singing, she rose to her feet and walked unsteadily to the stage. The preacher took her in his arms, buried his face in her hair, and wept. When he released her, she stumbled backwards into the rising congregation and let herself be swept by a swell of bodies to the river beyond the fairgrounds.
On a muddy bank, the preacher addressed the congregation. “We come here to be cleansed, to embrace Christ, who gave his blood so that we might escape the scourge of original sin.” He waded into the river until its sluggish current broke around his waist, nodded at the girl, and held out his arms.
She slipped off her shoes and slid into the river. With water flowing around her hips, she gripped the preacher’s arm and let her gaze soften in the sunlight playing on his hair. He cradled her lower back and pressed his palm to her forehead, and with a firm hand, pushed her beneath the water. She let herself go limp, felt her body unfolding and growing light in his arms, and allowed the current to draw her limbs into fluid ribbons and ease streams of air from her nostrils until her last breath left her lungs. She felt grace washing over her and flowing between her legs, and then a cold sink drawing her into darkness. She clawed at the preacher and kicked the jagged edge of a can nestled in muck, broke through the water’s surface and into blinding sunlight, and crawled from the river, gasping, with her dress clinging to her body and blood seeping from her ankle.
The woman with flaxen hair was waiting for her on the bank. She studied the slight swell of the girl’s belly and cupped the girl’s face in her palms. “You’re a child of God, and the fruit of your womb is his blessing.”
The girl looked at the blood trailing from her foot and the mud oozing between her toes, and for the first time in her life, she felt clean.
That evening, she stood beside the boy, watching the sun set. In the distance, congregants were pitching wooden tent poles into the river.
“This was the last stop on our mission,” the boy said. “A friend of Preacher’s dedicated a parcel of land beyond Paxton. We’re building a church. Preacher wants to start a farm. We’ll call it New Canaan. It’s what’s been prophesied.”
“A church,” she repeated, envisioning vaulted ceilings and walls painted white.
“You could join us. We’re leaving at dawn.”
She studied the boy’s face. “You don’t look like anyone else here. They your family?”
“Preacher and his wife took me in fifteen years ago. When I was two.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“My mother was in prison. They wouldn’t ever tell me what she did. Then she got deported.” The boy twisted a piece of buffalo grass between his fingers. “Never knew a dad except Preacher.”
“You ever try to find your mother?”
“Preacher said it was best not to know her.”
“I’m pregnant,” the girl stated.
“It’s no matter,” the boy said, shrugging. “You’ve been baptized. Had your sins washed away. We’re all God’s children.”
The boy brushed her palm with his fingertips, and when darkness settled, she knew she would see him again at dawn.
That night, she knelt beside her mattress and prayed, and in moments of doubt, clawed at her skin and raged against the demons crowding her mother’s house. Then she touched her ankle, conjured the boy’s face, and felt the working of grace, a word and sensation as sweet and sustaining as honey dissolving on a tongue. The moon was still out when she started down the highway, carrying a backpack stuffed with clothing and a fold of bills her stepfather had kept hidden in the shed. She ran until her ankle throbbed and her ribs ached, thinking all the while about the wound in Christ’s side and weeping stigmata, about the kind of love sanctified by suffering.
Dawn was breaking when she arrived at the fairgrounds. She wound between indistinct forms folding blankets and loading water jugs onto wagons until she found the boy. Before she could speak, the preacher stepped onto a crate to address the congregation.
“To build a new Jerusalem,” the preacher cried, “We will need the faith of Abraham, a man so obedient he was willing to sacrifice his own son at God’s bidding, just as God sacrificed his only son to redeem sinners.”
She beheld the fiery sunrise behind the preacher and felt alive, and afraid.
“As he provided for Moses in the desert, God will provide for his children and reward the faithful with everlasting life,” the preacher continued. “This was the covenant sealed by blood in Abraham’s time and renewed by Christ’s sacrifice. Let us now cast all doubt from our hearts.”
The preacher stepped off the crate, assumed his cross, and started across the fairgrounds. Slowly, congregants fell in behind him, leaving empty soup cans and plastic bottles in their wake. The girl closed her eyes, remembered a house moaning in the wind, and sensed the movements of people brushing past. When she opened her eyes, the boy was standing beside her.
“The Lord is with you,” he said.
“I’m scared,” she answered.
“I’ll be with you,” the boy said, and with newfound faith, the girl took her first steps.
All morning, the boy walked beside her. When she confessed that she had never been more than a few miles from home, he pointed out gullies and the bleached skeletons of uprooted trees where levees had long ago broken, related the histories of towns memorialized on faded signs, and told her none of those histories mattered, for a new life was at hand. Still, when the congregation stopped to fill jugs with water from a gas station hose, she considered the vast plain behind her with a haunted expression.
“I keep wondering how she felt waking up and finding me gone. I keep telling myself it would have broken her to know the way I’m in.”
“God told Lot to never look back or he’d turn to salt,” the boy said. “That life’s behind you, now.”
That night, the congregation camped in a field beside the highway. The boy sat beside her, just beyond the light of scattered fires and kerosene stoves. He brushed her cheek with his thumb when she cried, overcome by the alien landscape and the soreness of her breasts and feet. He held her hand and promised her flowering pastures and flowing waters.
“We’ll have five-hundred acres, Preacher says.” He drew his knees to his chest and looked up at the stars. “There’s a creek, too. In two years, we’ll have a working farm.”
She tried to envision a farm and saw only rutted earth and blowing dust. “What will we grow?”
“Pecans. Dates, maybe. We’ll herd sheep. Have cows and bee hives.”
“You ever raised bees?”
“Preacher says we’ll learn how to do new things. Have allotted tasks.”
“All the ranches were dead by the time I was born,” she said. “The ground got poisoned. The cattle got sick.”
“God led his people out of Egypt. He sent plagues, but then he parted the sea. He tested his people before he saved them.” The boy unrolled a woolen blanket and draped it over her shoulders. “Preacher’s wife says what God knit together in your womb has been ordained. That your baby will be the first child born in New Canaan.”
That night, the boy lay down beside her, and when the last campfires died, he ran his fingers through her hair, and she felt God’s love moving through his hands.
In the days that followed, they wound into the desert. The sun ignited the air and covered the land in a molten glare. She grew disoriented, tormented by thirst, the twisted forms of stunted trees, and the unbroken expanse of the cloudless sky. She became unsettled by roadside memorials to the dead—plastic flowers warping in the heat and painted white crosses peeling—and the pink enamel chipping from the downcast face of the grieving virgin enshrined in cement grottos. When blisters formed on her feet, she counted each of her steps as an act of contrition. She berated herself each time she wavered and focused her thoughts on Christ’s flesh riven by nails, and the virgin’s delicate foot, as she had seen it, resting on the head of a snake straining to strike an exposed ankle. Every night, when she shivered with exhaustion, she imagined herself cloaked in celestial blue and crowned by stars, ascending to Heaven on a yellow crescent moon.
“Preacher said we’re leaving the highway,” the boy said on the seventh day, gazing at a distant range of mountains. “There’s a pass, and Paxton’s on the other side.”
“Looks like nothing’s ahead,” she said, running her fingertips over her cracked lips. “Just a dead valley.”
“This is the trial Preacher talked about. And it isn’t so far to walk,” the boy said, wiping his brow.
Placing her faith in the boy, she started down a trail littered with discarded cans and candy wrappers, following the tiny ruts of two plastic wheels marking a path through stunted scrub and into open country, and leading ever closer to the promised land.
Two days later, they beheld the wall, a rusted steel plane cutting through parched hills and spanning jagged clefts left by ancient rivers. Plagued by plumes of smoke rising from behind the wall and the stench of burning tires and trash, they covered their noses with bandanas, rubbed their stinging eyes, and prayed for salvation. That night, they camped in the long shadows cast by a burning landfill and buried their faces in blankets.
With the moon rising behind him, the preacher climbed onto a flat rock and gestured at the tongues of flame twisting into the sky. “The Bible tells of those who defiled Gehenna by building pyres and sacrificing their children to false gods. The Lord punished them by making a wasteland of their valley and dragging the bones of their ancestors from their tombs.” The preacher coughed into his sleeve. “There are those who would place obstacles in our path. But the faithful do not weaken in face of adversity. Remember those who followed Moses through the sea, only to grow impatient in the desert and invite God’s wrath by embracing profane ways.”
When the preacher sat down on the rock and lowered his head, the boy left the girl’s side, made his way past huddled forms, and took his place at the preacher’s feet. Alone, the girl curled up on the ground, drew a blanket over her face, and dreamed of waking beside the boy and dawn breaking in a clear sky. When she awoke, the wind had died, and smoke had settled upon the valley. The preacher was still sitting on the rock, and the boy was still sitting at his feet.
At noon, the preacher guided the congregation to a line of cottonwoods along a dry riverbed to wait out the heat of the day. She sat beside the boy and considered traces of people who had passed before them—a shirt ground with dirt, flattened cans, and empty plastic bottles.
The girl picked a laminated card off the ground and studied the photograph of a young woman, and the words beneath a heart encircled by thorny branches. “I can’t read it. Must be Mexican.”
The boy considered the photograph. “It’s a prayer card. Can’t read it, either.”
Without another word, he stood up and started down the riverbed. When he disappeared behind a line of creosote, the girl drew her foot from her sandal and examined her ankle. She looked up when a shadow passed over her leg to find the preacher’s wife standing above her.
“God put a thorn in Paul’s flesh to torment him. To save him from conceit,” the preacher’s wife said. “Hardship is God’s gift, for it demands faith.”
“I think it’s infected,” the girl said.
“If you walk in faith, you will not grow faint,” the preacher’s wife said, before continuing along the riverbed.
Chastened, the girl forced her swollen foot back into her sandal and went in search of the boy, following a path of trampled brush until she saw him standing beneath a tree, looking down at a small wooden cross. At his feet, shredded fabric surrounded a shallow pit containing a hollow rib cage half-buried in sand.
“Animals got to it,” the boy said. “Coyotes, probably.”
“We should say a prayer,” she whispered.
“We don’t know what kind of person it was. And somebody probably prayed, already. In whatever way they do,” the boy said, turning from the grave and brushing past her.
All afternoon, she walked several paces behind the boy, stalked by visions of disinterred bones, parched land soaking up blood, and sinkholes swallowing blistered flesh. That night, she curled up on her side, wracked by chills and thoughts of a desecrated grave.
“I can’t stop thinking about it.” She rolled onto her back and looked up at the sky, terrified by its enormity. “There wasn’t even a name on the cross.”
The boy propped himself on his elbow. “You afraid?”
“What if I died?” She drew her blanket to her chin.
“We would pray for your soul,” the boy said. “And you would be at the Lord’s side.”
“I did things. And things happened. Things I didn’t know how to stop.”
“You’re baptized, now. Washed clean,” the boy said. “And the Lord watches over his children.”
He brushed her forehead with his lips, and when she drew his mouth to hers, he reached beneath the blanket and slid his hand between her legs. She pulled her dress above her hips, and when he moved inside her, whispering about redemption and God’s forgiveness, she shuddered with gratitude and something akin to grace.
At dawn, the boy left her and took his place beside the preacher. In her shame and confusion, she walked with her head down until the sky no longer existed, oblivious to the smell of smoke fading and the wall receding behind her, and indifferent to her dwindling water supply. She noticed the empty plastic jugs lying on the ground, rocking in the wind, only when the woman beside her spoke.
“Border militia shot them.” The woman nodded at a gallon jug riddled with holes. “We could have used that water.”
She considered the pink tinge to the whites of the woman’s eyes. “What are they?”
“Was water somebody left for illegals,” the woman said, fingering a salt stain on her shirt. “Supposed to be natural springs out here. Cisterns in the rock, Preacher said. He must be heading us that way.”
Nodding, the girl used her teeth to scrape saliva from her inner cheek. As hours passed, she felt herself growing unsteady and falling forward with each step, and thought about sitting on the ground and letting darkness wash over her. Then she heard a voice calling her name and saw a flaming heart materialize in the air and a trickle of blood seep from slit skin. She let the wind lift a prayer from her lips and guide her into a sea of tall grass that parted, just before noon, at the edge of a shimmering salt flat.
She looked at the preacher, dragging his cross in the distance and dissolving in waves of heat convection. The valley’s distant rim blazed with white heat, and beyond, mountains seethed. She considered a palimpsest of footprints on the ground, drank the last water in her jug, and stepped onto a puzzle of crusted salt. Soon, her tongue swelled, and fire filled her lungs. Angels appeared and vanished behind veils of haze, and devils assumed their place. Black shapes massed in her mind, and her legs began to give way, and then the boy was walking unsteadily beside her, staring at the ruts of plastic wheels and using the cross as his compass.
They were halfway across the flat when she heard the sounds of engines and saw a convoy of jeeps and pickup trucks on the horizon. As the convoy approached, several trucks veered from their course to circle the congregation, kicking up salt and closing in until she could see the features of camouflaged men clinging to roll bars and cradling rifles. She folded her face in her hands until she heard engines idling, and then beheld men in body armor standing beside a line of parked trucks, studying the congregation through mirrored glasses, and black dogs sniffing the ground. The boy had left the front of the line and was standing beside her.
“Border vigilantes,” the boy whispered.
One of the men adjusted a rifle slung across his back and approached the preacher. The preacher slid his cross from his shoulder and stood it upright, and, for several minutes, gestured at the jeeps. When he lowered his head, his wife started down the line of congregants, pausing while people searched their backpacks, the inner folds of bed rolls, and the insides of boots.
“They said they’ll take us across the flat,” the preacher’s wife said, when she reached the boy. “Give us water. If we pay them.” Her face was drawn and her eyes were unfocused.
The boy looked at the ground. “What about me?”
“Preacher will tell them you’re his son.” The preacher’s wife turned to the girl. “How much money do you have?”
The girl looked at the boy and drew the fold of bills from her backpack. “It’s all I got.”
“I was never formally adopted,” the boy whispered, as they started walking toward the convoy. “I don’t have a birth certificate. Not that anyone saved. Or identification.”
As they neared a pickup, the vigilante standing beside the preacher glanced at the boy. “What’s with the dark one?” he asked. “Thought you said you were all Americans.”
“He’s my son,” the preacher said.
“Don’t look like your son.”
“What’s going to happen if I ask for his identification?”
“I raised him.”
“He mute or something?”
“We paid you what’s reasonable,” the preacher said.
The vigilante spit on the ground. The girl placed her hand on her belly, and a moment later, sat down beside the boy in the bed of the truck. The preacher and his wife sat on opposite wheel wells with the cross wedged between their knees.
Before climbing into the cab, the vigilante placed a jug of water at the preacher’s feet. “Lucky for you, we saved some. Was going to give it to the dogs.”
When the truck’s engine roared to life, the preacher lifted the jug and unscrewed its cap. “The Lord never abandons his children.”
He took a series of small sips and passed the jug to his wife. The girl rested her head against the cab’s window and waited. As crusted salt gave way to fissured clay and twisted creosote, the preacher’s wife handed her the jug. She lifted the jug to her blistered lips and felt her throat loosening, thinking even as it washed over her tongue, that the water tasted stolen.
In the days that followed, the boy walked beside her, told her their faith had been tested, and that they had proven themselves worthy of the Lord’s bounty. He pointed to the land’s slow softening, the purple sage sprouting from cracked granite where the ground rose to meet the mountains, and the cloudburst that drenched the earth one afternoon. They bathed in sunlit puddles, and when the water evaporated, they rested in the shade of mesquite. She felt her breasts and welcomed their soreness as a blessing, cradled her foot and felt its radiant heat. She tasted blood on her blistered lips and savored the pain that promised salvation. She imagined a steepled church rising at the edge of the desert and herself bearing the first child in New Canaan. That night, she told the boy she had envisioned herself standing on an altar, beneath a wall of stained glass, and bathing her child in a font of cool waters. When he touched her face, her fever rose beneath his fingers, and she felt healed by the balm of his semen and sweat.
Before dawn, she awoke to a series of sharp spasms in her back. She placed her hand on her belly and watched stars grow faint with the coming of dawn. “I don’t feel good,” she finally said.
The boy sat up and rubbed his eyes. “You sick?”
“My back hurts. Like I was kicked,” she said. “Maybe from walking.”
The boy considered the purple sky. “It’s not so far to go, now.” He stretched out again and drew his blanket over his shoulders. “Try to sleep some.”
To the sound of the boy’s steady breathing, she drifted into dreams of sparkling streams, overripe fruit splitting in the sun, and worms burrowing into sweet flesh. An hour later, she stirred. The boy was crouched beside her, folding his blanket.
“You ever eaten a date?” she asked.
The boy shook his head and tied his blanket into a roll.
“I haven’t,” the girl continued. “I wouldn’t know one if I saw it.”
“They’re in the Bible,” the boy said. “They’re what the Lord intended us to eat.”
They set off at sunrise, carving a trail over stony ridges bristling with cholla. As they gained elevation, she focused on the sound of the boy’s labored breathing to distract herself from her cramping back muscles. When her ankle throbbed, she imagined thorns piercing flesh, and a veiled woman pressing a delicate foot to the head of a snake; she prayed she might be as strong as the woman, and that no snake would ever strike her flesh and infect her with evil.
At mid-morning, a cramp stopped her in her tracks. Cold sweat beaded on her face, and when it evaporated, she started walking again. When the pain grew too insistent to ignore, she pressed her hand to her back and lifted her face to the sky. The sun seemed to be orbiting the earth, leaving a fiery wake, and the world spinning too quickly in the opposite direction. She looked over her shoulder, across the valley, to regain her bearings and once again started walking, counting her steps and imagining pale stars circled in an airy crown.
At noon, she pressed her hands to her belly, cried out, and staggered into a patch of shade beneath a mesquite. She collapsed on dirt and felt the warmth of viscous fluid trailing between her thighs and the pressure of hands on her knees. She heard voices rising in prayer and terror, drifted in and out of consciousness, and let herself drown in darkness. When she stirred again, a cloth bundle was lying on the ground before her. The preacher and his wife were standing above her, considering the bundle with dull expressions traced with sweat and streaks of dirt. The boy was crouched nearby, with his arms wrapped around his legs and his head lowered.
“A seed can’t grow in polluted ground,” the preacher’s wife said. “Nurtured by pride. It was our failing not to see it. And his failing not to say anything before this. To join her in sin.”
The girl slowly sat up, gathered the bundle in her arms, and stroked a fold of cloth until the preacher’s wife bent down and stayed her hand. “I want her baptized,” the girl said, pressing the bundle to her chest.
“It’s dead.” The preacher wiped his brow. “It would be an abomination.”
“You need to accept God’s will,” the preacher’s wife said.
The girl shook her head. “This isn’t God’s will, unless God hates us.”
The preacher’s wife stiffened. “Your heart has been hardened against God. This is your punishment.”
As the preacher’s wife turned away, the girl lifted a fold of cloth and howled. The boy pressed his fists to his ears and rocked back and forth on his heels.
She started digging late in the afternoon. She worked alone, breaking hard clay with the edge of a stone and loosening earth with her fists until her hands bled. When she had dug a hole, she pressed the bundle to her chest, whispered a name, and rocked back and forth on her knees for an hour. Finally, she lowered the bundle into the ground, covered it with earth, and lay down and wept. Moments later, the boy approached her.
“Put a rock over it,” he said hollowly. “So it doesn’t get disturbed.”
She sat up and looked at the boy. “It won’t get disturbed. I’m not leaving her.”
The boy averted his gaze from the blood crusted on her legs “You need to clean yourself. They won’t wait any longer.” He set a jug of water on the ground. “You have to accept God’s will.”
“We don’t know what God wanted. We don’t know anything about God.”
The boy touched his face, as if he had been struck. “These are the trials that test our faith.”
“My daughter didn’t do anything wrong. God could have left her out of it.”
“It’s dead,” he whispered. “Preacher said it was too early to know what it was, even.”
“He didn’t carry her,” she said. “He doesn’t know anything.”
The boy’s features twisted in fear. He looked over his shoulder, at congregants falling into line behind the cross, and turned back to the girl. “I need to go with him. He’s my father.” He took a step backward. “You can’t stay here. Alone.”
“You told me we’re never alone.” She raked the earth with her fingertips and fixed the boy in a hard stare until he started after the cross, leaving her to gather stones to place around her daughter’s grave.
The sun was setting when she drained the last water from the jug. Soon, her tongue swelled and dust settled in her lungs. When darkness fell, she leaned against the mesquite tree and watched clouds scudding across the moon and shadows shapeshifting upon the stones around her daughter’s grave. She considered her solitude with indifference, and then despair, as a falling star arced toward the desert.
She touched her chapped lips, imagined the burned faces of angels cast from Heaven, and felt her fever as a tongue of flame licking at her rib cage, rising from her throat, and scorching the inside of her mouth. She imagined her heart blackened by ash, tore at her clothes to bare her neck and shoulders to the night air, and collapsed against the tree with her palms to the sky. The wind died, and in the quiet, her mind compassed a kingdom of reviled beasts condemned to burrow in dirt and slither across stony ground. She heard tarantulas padding across stones, lizards winding through scrub, and insects carving out subterranean nests; she watched, in wonder, a ministry of snakes slither from a bank of grass and, in slow succession, slide across her lap and caress her upturned palms, stretching and tensing in a shed of lucent skin. She stroked their scales, mesmerized by their graceful molt until dry lightning split the sky and drove them back into the grass. She fingered an envelope of brittle skin caught on her finger, stretched across the ground, and felt her bones sinking into the earth.
She was curled into herself, nearly unconscious, when a gust of wind stirred her. Beyond the fetor of blood and urine, she smelled the delicate scent of the boy’s skin. She sat up, and the boy appeared to her, first as a flame, and then as flesh, as she had first seen him, untouched by the elements and almost angelic. He knelt before her, and with his tongue spun moonlight into silver threads and wound her heart in promises of everlasting love, but when she reached out to touch his face, his flesh and bones turned to dust and snaked away in the wind, leaving a darkness and deep more ancient than desert sands. A chill replaced her fever, and to the sound of distant coyotes, she stretched out beside the grave and waited to die.
She woke at dawn, to the sound of a man’s voice, and thought the boy had returned, but when she lifted her head, she saw five men with small packs slung across their backs standing in the grass at the edge of the clearing. With her cheek to the ground, she watched the tentative approach of a young man in gym shoes and a baseball cap. When the man reached her, he crouched down and considered the dried blood on her legs, the disturbed earth encircled by stones, and the empty jug at her side. She took in the acne studding his cheeks and the downy hairs edging his upper lip. She saw the fear in his eyes.
He pushed his cap back and settled on his haunches as an older man crouched beside him and uncapped a plastic jug. She turned to the old man and slowly registered the drape of a grey mustache and the creases in a face carved by the sun.
Without a word—for there was no Word in his mind, or in her memory, that had ever driven out the consuming hunger ravaging the land and haunting them both—the old man touched her wrist, slid a hand beneath her arm and helped her sit upright. When he lifted the jug to her lips, she wrapped her hands around his wrists to steady herself and tasted her own blood in the water on her tongue. When she started to choke, the man rubbed her back and wiped her face with a bandana. When she could breathe again, he held the jug to her lips again until she pushed against his arm. Then he drew a bundle of wax paper from his backpack, fed her bits of sweet dough from his fingertips, and beckoned his companions.
She looked across the valley and saw, at its far edge, the salt flat in the first light of day. She dug her fingers into the dirt and began to weep, and the older man placed his hand upon her shoulder. She looked into his face and became aware of her own smell, and the strained expressions of men looking anxiously at dissipating clouds and waiting for her. Slowly, she drew her fingertips from the earth and collapsed the circle of stones into a small pile on top of the grave.
Wisps of cloud were burning off in the morning heat by the time she rose to her feet. The old man cupped her elbow to steady her, and for some time, they stood in silence, staring at the stones. She whispered a name that dissolved too quickly on her tongue and, at the old man’s urging, turned from the grave and into the wind, and in the company of strangers, took her first steps along the winding path leading ever closer to the promised land.
Alice Hatcher is the author of The Wonder That Was Ours (Dzanc Books, 2018), which appeared on the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award long list. She has published short fiction and essays in numerous journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, The Masters Review, Fourth Genre, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. More about Alice Hatcher can be found at www.alice-hatcher.com.