The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.4 (Fall 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
El Moreno, Vendetta di Dio
J. S. Moseby
O vendetta di Dio, quanto tu dei
esser temuta da ciascun che legge
ciò che fu manifesto a li occhi mei!
Dante, Inferno 14.18-20
Sleeplessness had ailed me like a microbe that wouldn’t leave my body. In those years, it came on as if I had been born with it, like a club-foot or a hare-lip. I could usually limp around and impersonate the living. A man with one dead foot can still hobble. Some nights held a few hours of sleep, out of the thirty in a month. Doctors were unworried. I hadn’t enough money to worry them. I couldn’t pay enough to turn my problem into a condition. They told me, most of them, not to worry about my sleep any more than they did. They said that I didn’t sleep because I was worried.
Once I got some pills. They killed me dead for more hours than the few I sometimes slept, for two or three days. I awoke feeling as groggy as on the days when I hadn’t slept. And then, after three days, even the pills didn’t work. As bad as I would have felt after a merely sleepless night was not a half or a quarter as bad as I felt after such nights. Those were the days when I most intently thought of killing myself, and when I might easily have killed someone else.
My bosses were unconcerned, because my job was just a matter of shuffling things and stamping things. When I showed up half-dead, I showed up in full body, and I always showed up. Staggering and dazed, I did no worse a job than the gossips and the playboys. Silent and sullen, I shuffled and stamped more than the hung-over and the lads who “baked” on break. One of my bosses called me a model employee. Another recommended a doctor.
I came to view life as such a thing, a succession of such things. Mere misery, the miserable usual. I ceased worrying or being concerned, knowing that I was just alive, and that this was just life. And that it would end tomorrow, or if not, then the next day. I could see no point to it at all, but I could see no real point to ending it. If something has no sense, then its end has no sense, either. That was the way I thought. It was perhaps not a reasonable way, as some or many would say. I had nothing much to do with reason. It was one of those green plants that grew in the gardens of the bosses, like sleep. I ceased worrying about my life that was no life, and I lived it and I died it. And I did not sleep.
When the old man told me about the fountain at Aguas Negras, I did not believe him, and I did not ignore him. It was a picture that settled into me. My brain soaked it up the way cracked soil soaks up droplets of rain. I did not want to see the fountain, and I did not want to avoid it. If I had desire or intent, it was in me somewhere that never appeared to my mind.
On my day off, I got in my truck and drove out to the crossroad where the old man had said. It was early, as people who sleep tell time. Not even the old women in black were yet crawling toward Mass as I left the village. The highway was empty and cool. The land around it was mostly flat, but at this hour the cholla breaks cast long shadows into the west.
I left the road where it crossed the other, just as the old man had said, and I coasted down a little goat path. Even the dust felt cool. I shifted into low gear and pumped the brakes. I didn’t use a drop of gas. The track led me down and down, into the cool shadows. It was strange to think of this arroyo opening up so deep out of nothing in the flat, flat plain. I had never known that it was here. I had the thought that this might be the place where I could sleep, if I just pulled off the track and found a cool rock.
Where the path gave out, I had to pull the parking brake secure and take to foot. The descent was almost all stone now, all of large stones. Smooth stones. If it had ever rained here, the rain must have come from many miles around to just this spot, rolling boulders with it. If it had rained many times over many, many years, the rain must have polished the boulders smooth. I slid easily down them. There was nothing to cut or scratch. I slid like water, so fast that I might never get back up them again if I ever came to the bottom. But I did not look back up at what stone wall I was building behind me. I hadn’t a care in the world just then.
The waters were as the old man had said. Their pit was so deep that no blue sky clouded them. I could see straight to their bottom at a glance, to a bed of gravel white as pearl. When I reached out to the wet surface, my fingers were fully in before I expected to touch it. I cupped my hands and drank, and drank. I made no reflection in the waters. The boulders sealed them off from cloudy images. They were invisible, and I was invisible. Only the gravel’s pearls shone.
Then I lay by the fountain and slept the day away.
When I awoke, the sun was at the bottom of the gorge. It was big and red and wet, like a grapefruit without the rind. The ocotillo were already trailing their fingers over its face. Night would come soon. Along the sun’s red rim, bats fluttered silently, like leaves on a windless day in a place that has autumn and trees.
I remembered that the goat track had led me in a corkscrew, and that I should have been turned all the way back east. I forgot that I had parked my truck up the canyon. Or maybe I wanted to get to the bottom of the gorge for a far view of the highway. There should have been cars on it by now, and some of them should have been turning on their headlights. Maybe I wanted to see if the sun was setting east or west, or if the track had corkscrewed through another half-circle. I must have forgotten that the canyon could not have opened, if that had happened. I forget what it was that I forgot.
I walked a very long way. I forgot about my truck, and the track. The red sun forgot to go down, but burned low and slow like a campfire’s ember in a big block of wood. I didn’t hear my footfalls in the sand. I didn’t scare up any doves from the brush. I didn’t hear a caracara in the distance. Nothing made me think that my long way took any time.
I must have gone miles in five minutes. The plain was again all flat around me, though the reaching claws of cactus wouldn’t let me see very far. There might have been a mountain range on the horizon, but I could see nothing that far in the sun’s last glow. The arroyo that had become a great corkscrew canyon must have been behind me, but I never looked back. I was sure that I had walked it out of sight, in those five minutes.
I found a man’s figure sitting upright in a sandy trough. A low fire was glowing before him, a fire like the sun’s last memory. I went up behind him and touched his shoulder. He didn’t move. I shook his shoulder, and still he didn’t move. He made a sound like rattling bones, and I saw that under his broad hat and poncho he was all of dead ocotillo branches.
I went on into the sun’s red rim, about five minutes away from me. I found another man like the first, and another fire like the first. I touched the man’s shoulder only once this time. Then I went on.
The sand and the cactus were like still, silent waves. I didn’t look back, but I knew that the other two men were long swallowed up when I found the third. This time I didn’t touch his shoulder. I walked in front of him and kept walking. My footfalls made no more noise than they would have upon the sea.
I left him behind a sandy ridge and followed one of a million paths between the cactus outcrops, all of them untrue. Then shots fired close by. They were dry and stung my ears. I fell upon my ribs in the sand and hugged it like a pillow. Out of my left ear, open to the sky, I heard the dark mass of prickly pear crackle. There was enough red in the dusk for me to notice a shredded nopal fall at my nose. Then I heard cries like the cries of men, but not quite the cries of men. Then more shots, too many all at once to be counted.
My left eye caught the smoldering sky in its corner, and it caught a black cloud passing across the sky. I could not hear footsteps on either side of my body, but I felt sand grains trickling into my ribs from both sides. I rolled over on my elbow to see, and the black cloud stood fixed like a cactus, tall and thin like a saguaro, looking back where I had left the stick man.
I heard a voice say something that I understood, but not in a tongue that sounded like one of mine. I had traveled north where leaves fall in autumn, and I had traveled west where snow can be seen on mountains. I understood these words, but I did not know where they were spoken.
“O vendetta di Dio!”
The shots I heard then were different from the others. They left me deaf for an instant, and left my ears ringing afterward. They were like thunder upon lightning with no lag. I saw orange flames vomited from two bores with every strike. The flames licked outward a foot into the dusk. By their flickers I could see two muzzles and two hands. Once I saw something like a face when something like a brim caught the orange glow and threw it downward. Or maybe I saw a mountain range in the sun’s red dusk.
I did not hear cries. I remember hearing cries, but only when I try to remember. I have not forgotten that I did not hear cries before I tried to remember them. I heard only ringing.
The cloud man stooped low over me and gently pressed my shoulder down. My face was in the sand again. Sulfur welled over me. It stung my eyes, and my nostrils pricked at every breath.
Everything was very still for a time that went far beyond the time I had walked. Only the cloud of sulfur moved. I could smell it moving in thicker and thinner wreaths over my eyes and through my nose.
Then there were two more shots. They were the tight dry shots that I had heard first off. There was another cry, almost human but not quite human. The other cries had the squeal of jackals. This one had the snarl of a wounded wolf.
Then I heard and saw the lightning-thunder tongues. My cheek was to the ground and my eyes to the cactus break, but I saw the thorny palms prick in the lightning. I heard the wolf man groan out his life. His cry before had been more scared than angry. His groan now was more angry than scared.
A jackrabbit started from the brush beside me. I lifted on an elbow and saw a man’s bare head and shoulders against the stars. He whined like a jackal with shot in its tail. The stars had become bright.
“I always let one go,” said Vendetta di Dio in a tongue that I knew.
He had stepped over me again as a cloud passes a gulley. I sat up and hugged my knees. They rasped with sand. Then I stood up and followed.
The stick man lay in shambles beside the dying embers. All around him lay fattened bodies whose bones had not come apart when they fell.
The muzzles of the cloud man’s revolvers pointed toward the stars as he kicked each body. They made a U that his lean trunk and high head split in two, like a saguaro. I could not see the sulfur pouring from the bores, but it left two clear trails of burnt reek in the night.
“Collect the balls,” he told me. “Lead is not so easy to find.”
“How?” I said.
“Find the head in the dark,” he said, “and find the side with the mouth. The ball will come out of the mouth. Be not squeamish. There will be no blood. There will be no spittle, even.”
He kicked the first corpse between the shoulders. He kicked it over and over, perhaps ten times, perhaps twenty.
“The Presidente,” he said, “or El Condor, as he styled himself. Yes, the Vulture of the Andes. He always needs much persuading to cough my lead out of his craw, which I give him with pleasure. There. Collect.”
As he was kicking on another, “The Faithful One’s trusty Chief of Police,” he said. “He coughs it up quick, as he made thousands of others do. I believe that was Faithful himself that went yelping into the night. No matter. The more he runs off, the longer he stays in the hunt. He, too, gives me pleasure.”
And another: “The Chief Justice of the People’s Court. No man has ever murdered more with cleaner hands. He’s always at the back of he pack. Sometimes I kick lead besides my own from the men in front of him. A coward and a poor shot: not much sport there.”
And another: “The Generalissimo. He loved his work, more even than his women and wine. He always leads the charge, and I never miss him between the eyes.”
And another: “Ah, Professor… are you here? Few scholars can boast of founding a new field. He made murder a science, and he devised a grand system to rid murderers of all guilt. Many big words. I always give him two through the teeth. Be careful you don’t collect his filthy ivory with my clean lead.”
“You are El Moreno,” I said. “I have heard of you.”
He sheathed his revolvers. “Do you remember where you heard of me?” he said.
I admitted that I had forgotten where.
“Then be silent,” he said, “and follow me.”
We traveled while the sky still bled, and we walked into its wound. There were more stars in the sky now than cactus on the plain, and their pricks were sharper.
“We must work while the sun is risen,” he said. “When he comes back to sleep, we sleep. But there are no more hooks to be baited tonight. A good catch… but tomorrow I must have more powder. We shall go diving into the sea, where the fishes have their lairs, rather than dangling hooks along the shore. I am low on powder. Diving days are good days. And fishing days are good days, too.”
I did not understand the sense of his words, but I remember each one just as he said it.
“We will set bells and make balls, and then we will sleep when the sun sets,” he said.
We walked without footfalls, without sound. Now I saw red eyes in the dark, here and there. Our sounds did not go to them, and their sounds did not come to us.
“If you look straight up into the sky and look deep,” he said, “you can see it spelled out straight across the Great Vault. ‘Vendetta di Dio.’ The stars, they know how to spell.”
I looked as he directed. I saw the words in the stars. They were huge, bright words, and they sparkled. It was not possible to believe that I had never seen them before, these stars and their words, or that others before me had not seen and read them. Others had seen animals or men with bows or clubs, but none that I had ever heard before had ever seen the words. They took long to read because my head turned so far, going east to west or west to east, in reading them. But the sound of every letter spilled out in red and blue and green, all of it making white.
As I read them once, I saw them again and again. They turned around me on a great wheel. Dio was followed by Vendetta, and Dio Vendetta was quoted by little di’s. My head was their axle, and it wobbled. It broke, and the wheel was released upon the universe. I lay in the sand, on my spine, as the wheel rolled over me.
El Moreno laughed. It was the first sound he had made. His words had not been like a sound before, for I could always hear the silence through them. But when he laughed, I heard a jackal yelp with a start and scurry off.
“No sea legs,” he said over me. “No ‘see’ legs, hah-hah-hah! It is to be expected.”
I felt myself lifted upon his shoulder, where the breath drained from my diaphragm and I lost life without sleeping. I did not awake when he set me on my feet, but simply came back to life. I was not foggy in my mind, but simply what I was before and knowing that that was now somewhere behind us. I had walked not a dozen steps when a bell tingled, not loud enough to be a star.
“There,” he said, “you have found one of the lines. That is good. My steps do not trip the lines, and finding them is the devil for me. Step high, and then wait.”
I did as I was bidden. I saw a dark island of prickly pear showing clearly black against the pale sand, now soaked with starlight. The island’s arch of palms did not rise above the saguaro fingers, but was not far below them. Its height was not that of a tree, but its sweep was not unlike that of a rooftop.
“The line is unbroken,” he said in benediction. “Now we will enter my foundry. We will build an unseen fire, and we will melt lead into balls.”
“But the lead fumes will kill us,” I said. I was sorry at once, and bowed my head. “I had an uncle who died of lead fumes. He was a foolish smithy.”
“Yes,” he said, “and you are his nephew.”
We passed into the dark beneath the prickly pear island. I bent my head and felt for my hat, and then remembered that I had none. I said something about needing a hat, as I remember. A hand upon my shoulder pressed me gently to the sandy bottom. It was smooth and bowled, as if carefully sculpted under the thorny arch. There were no stars overhead now.
A match rasped, and a flame flickered. The red glow flared white and then became a steady yellow. Dried ocotillo housed it in a tepee, sending a thin smoke straight up and letting the light lap between its charred sticks. The wedge of open space at the entrance of our shelter became pitch-black, like the mouth of a cave.
El Moreno mounted an iron pot upon a crossbar. It hung from a swinging handle. As its belly grew hot above the tepee, he dropped the deformed and cloud-gray shots into it. One by one, they knocked its bottom with a dull tap. They did not rattle around. You could tell that they stuck at once to the heated bottom. Then we waited for them to melt. We did not die of the fumes.
El Moreno gave me some pears with the prickles removed.
“Do not eat or drink of anything in this place,” he said, “that has not come from my hand.”
Then he heated the ladle. When the ladle was heated, he scooped out the slag. When the slag was removed, he heated the mold. When the mold finally gave perfect balls instead of misshapen pellets, he went to work quickly. The balls dropped one by one into an earthen plate and rolled around to show off their silver coat. They were as silver as fresh-minted coins, round coins worth a man’s life.
“It is simple this way,” he said. “Shells are hard to come by. I use them only for the Winchester. When we go to the bank tomorrow, perhaps I will play a little game with the Winchester.”
“Are we not going for powder tomorrow?” I asked. “Will we buy it with money from the bank?”
“Powder,” he laughed, “it is money in the bank! You will see.”
“But perhaps they will try to catch you,” I said. “After tonight. Or to kill you.”
“They will try, that is certain,” he said. “And I will kill them when they try. That is part of why I go to the bank. Partly for powder, and partly to kill them.”
There were many balls in the plate now. He had dropped in not more than a score, but half a hundred must have glistened silver.
“One or two of the crew from tonight may even be there tomorrow,” he said. “It is not unheard-of. Old Faithful, por ejemplo, may be there. He that got away for a day. He cannot keep his fingers out of the bank. He ordered a million executions once because he so hated anyone with money, and anyone who kept the money from him. He was going to do something with it. The Professor, he told him what to say he would do with it. They molded words like I mold balls—and the words always came out of the mold all golden and bright. But he understood them in a strange way, I think. For all he did with the money was to count it. Faithful, I mean. The Professor, he became famous for his books. That was what he wanted, and not the money. Just as well. Faithful would have paid him in bullets, if he’d asked. That was how he paid the architects of his palace, The People’s Palace. First he locked them up for betraying the revolution, and then he ordered their execution. They shouldn’t have asked to be paid.”
“Faithful, you mean… his palace. It was his palace?”
“Of course, who else’s? The funny thing is that he never spent any money. He just collected it. And then he used lead for gold. But the books! They were excellent books. They burn very well.”
“The Professor’s books?”
“Yes. Who else’s? They grow here as ocotillo, one plant for every page. They burn at once, and they burn steady. There is nothing else like them, for a burn. But soon I will burn the last one. Fortunately, there are many more professors.”
“But… will he be there tomorrow? In the bank?”
“Who, the Professor? In the bank? Never on your life! I told you, he cares nothing for money, though I’m told that his books talked about nothing else. They usually stick together, you see, these desperadoes. For the most part. You have this gang, and then you have that gang… and they do not trust anyone else in the gang, but even less do they trust another gang. It is a difficult position they have gotten themselves into, the dears.”
I wanted to ask something about death, but I did not know how. The words I thought of made no sense together.
“You are a very talkative one for your first day,” said El Moreno. “It has exhausted me listening to you. Soon the sun will set, and it will be time to sleep.”
I remembered that sleep had long been a troubling word to me, but I did not remember why.
“You will hear cries in the desert,” said El Moreno. “Do not become alarmed.”
“Coyotes?” I said.
“Their snouts are shorter than your coyote,” he said. “Listen, the sun, he must restore his energy from somewhere. There is much to burn in the souls of men, like the learned books in my fire. It is the hottest fuel in the universe, this fuel of the sun. He soaks it up and burns it off, over and over and over. It will last as long as men will damn themselves. A very long time, I think.”
El Moreno said no more that night. He allowed the fire to lapse into embers, and the embers to die in their charcoal. Yet the shelter did not grow darker. I observed that the entry’s archway grayed with the charred wood. My companion curled up and turned away from me. I did not imitate him. I wanted to see the sun’s arrival. Even from our den of prickly pears, I thought that such a marvelous thing must be seen.
I went to sleep in the gray light. Through my sleep I saw the sun’s rest. I saw the sand burn silver beneath him like the melted lead. I saw his flames lick between the arms of saguaro and cholla like the flames that licked between the tepee’s sticks. His ladle warmed and warmed, and he scooped out the slag. Screams dotted the desert like bubbles at a boil. There were little ones that barely rose and others that stretched and hissed before they popped. They all seemed very far away, and peaceful. As a dog’s barks are peaceful when heard from very far away, so the screams sang in my sleep. It was right that they should squeal and howl. The universe was setting itself straight. Everything was growing straight up out of the ground, like a healthy plant.
And my sleep was of that growth. Perhaps I had tried to sleep down before, when I could not sleep. Now my soul floated above me in the waves that rose to the sun. I waked in my sleep, watching my rest and feeling the desert pulse. Her throbs were my heart’s, and her heaving moved my lungs. I saw that all was being set right, all of the millions and millions of things that had ever gone wrong. The stars I had seen before would have needed a thousand more skies to contain them all if each were to have been an evil deed of man. There would have been enough of them to write Vendetta di Dio a thousand million times. Yet not one single deed would be uncounted. The warm waves melted them into warming waves. The multitude of nothing closed its perfect circle.
Dogs barked merrily as the screams boiled away. And their barks were peaceful in the distance.
El Moreno shook my shoulder gently as the sun’s light left us. He was carrying a Winchester. “The sun is rising,” he said.
“I heard no bells in the night,” I said. I remember that I said “night”, and that I wondered why I had said it. But I said that and other things, perhaps, to show that camp life had now entered me. I said that I would find some wood, and that I would bait some traps.
El Moreno stood up tall outside the shelter. In a low red ray that sifted through the nopales, I believe he smiled. Or perhaps I saw a distant mountain range in the red twilight.
“Easy, amigo,” he said. “The bells do not sound as the sun sleeps. There is no movement then. Only now might our guests arrive and ring our doorbell. But we shall not be here if they do.”
Then I remembered that we were to go for powder, and to the bank. I told him that I remembered now.
“We will walk into the setting sun… yes?” I said.
He said nothing, but took me by the elbow and led me off the island toward the last red rim of sun. With his other hand, he balanced the Winchester upon his shoulder. He held me fast just as I was about to protest the guiding.
“The line,” he said. “Step over the line.”
My spirit was humbled, and we walked on in silence. The saguaro ate away at the sun upon a ridge. El Moreno went before, his Winchester pointed behind him at the first star. I came after, somewhere in his shadow that ran for half a mile as we topped the ridge.
He stopped, and pushed back his broad hat with a thumb.
“Now we will get conveyance,” he said. “Or in just a moment. We must await full dusk.”
I stood at his side as the sun’s red wheel grew redder in the west, or in the east. Then it left only spills of red and gold behind. They zigzagged over our heads, streaking V upon V, upside-down and downside-up, tip touching tip. At last the colors turned and drained. The arm of the farthest V grew purple, and then the purple crawled up its nearer arm.
“O Vendetta di Dio,” I thought to myself. But the sky had said it to me, and I only remember it as a thought.
“Now we will summon my horse,” said El Moreno. “He is called Slip In Slip Out.”
El Moreno held his fingers to his teeth and blew as if to whistle, but I heard nothing. We waited. A star came out low on the horizon and chased the purple from the last V’s lower arm. In other places, frogs and crickets might have started their nightly sawing. Here the stars moved in the same silence as the sun.
I heard El Moreno sigh upon his fingers again, but I did not hear a whistle. Then I felt a cloud moving in between me and the stars. It was the same color as the night without her stars. I did not hear any hoof beats.
I heard leather creak, and I felt El Moreno’s shadow lifting far above me into the cloud. His voice called from high over my head.
“Here, climb up. Take the butt of the Winchester, and I will lift you.”
I grabbed onto something, and then my feet left the ground. I heard sand grains rasp between my pants legs and the leather. The stars came out again. I read di Dio and then lowered my eyes to quieter constellations. I did not want to lose my balance so high up.
We left at a strange jog. I did not bounce in the saddle behind El Moreno, and no hoof beats whispered in the sand. The leather did not creak with the animal’s strides or against his sweat, and his nostrils did not huff or sneeze. We seemed to ride upon a magic carpet. The round heads of the tallest saguaro sometimes made thicker black against the furry black grasses, but they passed beneath my feet. I heard El Moreno pat the animal’s neck. I saw a blue nebula above his broad hat clipped by a sharp black V, and I understood that this was the cut of the animal’s ears.
I saw the stars at play. We chased them along white lanes and under yellow arches. Some of them frisked like colts around Slip In Slip Out. His hooves struck sparks without raising a sound. His ears clipped their way along a starry tunnel without bowing. The stars moved up to make room.
There was a wind on my face from the motion. I had not felt a breath in the desert before this, but now the air rasped against my ears as if starlight were bright sand. There was a tone to the wind’s smooth passing. It was like a rope spun from several tones, all of them bound together in one. It was a sad, steady sound that left me happier than if I had never known sadness. It was like looking back upon being a child while still being a child. I remembered being a child, for the first time in many years. The stars rolled bright new things within my reach, as on a young child’s birthday.
I said none of this to El Moreno. I would not have found the words to say it, and I knew that there was no need to say it. And then he told me what I could not say.
“In the vengeance of God,” he said, “is the vindication of innocence.”
There was darkness at the end of one star tunnel, the one we followed and followed. It grew bigger and darker, that darkness, as we drew nearer. The brilliance around us echoed and became a solid corridor, a golden gutter. It poured us right into Darkness Main Street, like a gutter’s spout.
El Moreno reined up where desert became street and sand turned to ground dust. I thought he might be letting our eyes readjust to the badlands, to night-from-which-stars-have-fled. I thought he might be listening for sounds. I did not ask why we were waiting. A hunter does not speak during a hunt.
The stars had drawn away, and our eyes grew wider. Their light had stopped echoing, and we heard new forms of silence. Squared blocks of thicker darkness rose upon a rug of thinner darkness. They made me remember, those squares, how I had once built cities out of boxes as a boy, on days when I had to stay indoors. I would build around squared furniture, like a cabinet’s base. That would be my City Hall. I would imagine moving along the streets. Maybe I would move a toy horse, and my fingers over his back would be my two legs.
That was what I remembered in the Town. All the buildings were as still as empty boxes, and all smelled of the same dust as do old boxes. The streets were as vacant of life as a worn old rug. I thought I saw street lamps, but they were unlit. I heard dogs bark in the distance, but I thought they must belong to the desert. If they barked at our passage and not at the fleeing starlight, then I saw no one to hear them.
For I saw that we were passing through the Town, and then I understood that we had long been passing down its streets. I did not know when Slip In Slip Out began to move, and I did not know that he had ever stopped. I thought windows passed in file before my face sometimes, perhaps three stories high. I might have reached out and touched them, so close were they. Yet the darkness was heavy, and I was unsure of their blank, flat stares. They were thin and tall, like the windows of one or two centuries ago, if they existed at all. None of them looked. They all only stared. They reminded me of the eyes of corpses. I had forgotten the eyes of corpses until then, and still I could not remember where I had seen so many open-eyed corpses. Much memory had long ago died in me. To the stares of the dead windows my eyes returned dead windows.
I had almost forgotten El Moreno for an instant, or maybe a minute. A strain in his shoulders brushed against my head, and I knew that he had reined in. We had stopped before the building that would have been the cabinet, when I was a boy. It pinned the whole town down in the middle, and was taller by far than all the other shadowy squares.
The leather creaked, and I felt El Moreno’s figure leave mine alone in the saddle as it vanished upward. He did not brush me in passing, any more than steam brushes the kettle’s spout. It was a passage of shadow within shadow.
I felt my shoulder grabbed and lifted from above. My feet scrambled over the leather of the saddle’s seat. I didn’t have time to slip off. El Moreno drew me up into a window.
“They didn’t bother to bar the fourth story,” he said. “They do not conceive of such a magnificent animal as Slip In Slip Out.”
“We are in the bank?” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “In the President’s office. It is from here that he decides the fate of nations and the course of history. Will he underwrite this despot or bankroll that revolutionary? Or will he finance both and milk a clever return from both investments? Legal bribes begin here. Policy for generations is determined here. Who will build what kind of road, traveled by what conveyance fed by what fuel? Will we have flying saucers that run on tomato juice? Will trains made of rubber travel through the earth in linen sleeves? What will surprise the market and turn the biggest profit in the briefest time? Or what will stall the market and keep an investment steadily paying long after it makes any sense?”
I had not heard El Moreno descant with such fervor before now.
“Excuse me,” he said. “You can see that I am invigorated by the world of high finance. Perhaps it is this room’s smell of cured leather furnishings, fine polished woods, imported tobacco, and a whiff of brandy. One encounters few such smells in the desert. What a grand life! Let us explore its heart.”
“And the powder?” I asked.
“Yes, let us explore its heart,” he repeated.
I did not resist the guidance of El Moreno’s firm grip through the black room. I could smell such things as he had described, and there must have been much to clutter clumsy feet in passing. I heard a bolt slide which I had not heard turning, and I smelled new air enter through a door which I had not heard opening.
We emerged upon an interior balcony. It looked down into the guts of the building. Far, far below glowed a fallen star, a prick of light. El Moreno released my arm, and both of us grasped the balcony’s rail of rare, polished wood. We peered into the pit as far as we might.
I saw about the prick of light a half-dozen of men, all on their knees. They were lifting their hands in a motion of bathing, as if they knelt around a fountain. The distance below was great, and I studied much to see more. It seemed that the drop below was far greater than Slip In Slip Out’s height plus standing in a saddle. The earth seemed to have opened up.
The men were bathing their hands and faces black. They may have worn clothes, or their naked bodies may already have been bathed black. A black dune flowed round about the prick of light. It poured into their cupped hands, and then poured from their hands again like sand and shined like silver as it flowed back upon itself. It was not soot or char, but a pure mineral black that sparkled like stardust.
Then I saw the vault from which it poured. A massive cast-iron door lay open. A wheel that gave a hermetic seal gleamed at its center. The room that it would have sealed must have held the mineral black up to its ceiling, for the dark sand had vomited forth unchecked. From time to time, as the dozen hands shifted the dune, the grains would give way on this slope or that one, and the sparkling black snow would start a fresh landslide.
“The banking community,” said El Moreno. “I had thought that that Judas of the People, the Faithful One, might be here. It is the only bath he ever took that wasn’t in blood. Yet his presence makes the others nervous. They do not invite him when they think he may not notice. Perhaps he swam so far away from our fishing expedition that the currents have not yet borne him back.”
As great as was the distance below me, I felt that I knew a face or two.
“You will know more as we go along,” said El Moreno. “You will recognize them from history books and newspapers. You will know them from political posters and television screens. Some you will recall as great heroes, perhaps many. Do not be surprised. Remember our friend the Professor, how he takes living trees and grinds out deadwood.”
“Give me the Winchester,” I said, “and I will pick off El Padrino. He was to have benefitted the sickly and the starving by turning their ruined farmlands to riches. Their new jobs were the path to progress, as he told the all newspapers that he owned. They paid well, those jobs: paid in coppers and Black Lung—plenty of jobs, plenty of coppers and Black Lung. The campesinos became good little workers in good little overalls. They bought whisky to forget the farms they had sold, and they sent their daughters out to whore. And he, he had sold them the whole package. The People’s Godfather, they called him. And yes, they called him a hero.”
“You did, too, once upon a time,” said El Moreno. “Listen. The Winchester I left in the saddle scabbard. You are not yet of age. Only study the true color of these men who once curled up in their party’s color, calling themselves Reds or Greens or Golds. The man who owned half of half the newspapers on the continent is there—he who owned the other half of El Padrino’s paper. Also the man who unionized your good little workers and bought himself an island. How men love their colorful banners! Yet you see that the weakest of lights sometimes shows the truest color.”
El Moreno unbound a sash from around his waist. There were great marble columns that ran up from the pit to a ceiling I never saw, and never looked for. There may have been six or eight of these. I do not think there were more. I had not bothered to notice them since my guide first brought me to the rail.
Around one of these columns El Moreno threw his sash. Nothing earlier had made me notice them. But that act made me notice with a cry. I cried, “No,” for it seemed to me that El Moreno had just cast himself into the black gulf. The column was not so near to the rail that he could catch his sash’s other end without hurtling over the rail.
I covered my mouth, but the cry was out. I saw the half-dozen faces below look up from their sooty bath. Then I saw my guide riding the column as he would a wild mustang. With his two hands he pulled back hard on the sash, and with his two knees and shins he dug hard into the marble. His fall slid smoothly. As he slid, he cried, “Vendetta-a-a-a-a di Dio-o-o-o-o!”
The six men drew six little black pistols from their sooty vestments. We call such things banker’s revolvers where I come from. I had never seen such a fine, polished half-dozen of them. They fired six pellets into the air. I became aware that I was their target when I heard them hum about my ears like wasps. El Moreno, hidden by the column, was invisible to them.
He dug the toes of his leather boots into the marble and skidded to a stop. He wrapped both ends of the sash about his left wrist, always pulling back. Then he produced a revolver from beneath his dark mantle and leaned around the column’s plump ribs.
”I have come for your gold, señores,” he said, and a cannon’s blast was the sentence’s period.
The report blew through the pit like a great round ball shot from a great round bore. My ears stung me with it. I withdrew farther from the railing to absorb its shock than I had to avoid the gunfire from below.
The pea-shooters now popped in another direction. I still heard their ricochets up among the rails and columns, but I did not fear these wasps.
El Moreno lifted the leather toes of his boots, then applied them once more and skidded to a halt. He leaned around the marble trunk again and again triggered a thunderbolt. Then he lifted his toes, and then he dug them in. This time he leaned around the side where he held the sash. He fired two shots. I watched the orange tongue of both lap out like a lizard’s capturing a fly. Then he leaned about the right side again, not pausing to lower himself a further span, and fired two more. Then he sheathed the revolver and drew its blue sister.
But there was no more thunder and no more lightning. His feet came to a flat, silent rest upon the floor of the pit, and he popped the sash like a towel. The sulfur smell I remembered from the desert curled through my nostrils once more. Gray smoke drifted upward in a frowning, milling mob of trouble-making wreaths.
I leaned farther in to follow the events. I leaned as far in as I dared. One stride carried El Moreno from behind the column, and another two brought him among the bodies. There were five of these sprawled in the pitchy mineral dune. A sixth was yet active. Two haunches pointed up at me from the open vault’s doorway. The body’s head and arms and trunk were already buried in the interior dune. The haunches worked feverishly like a mole’s rear legs.
I would not want to say that El Moreno’s sixth shot had missed. He always allowed one desperado to get away. No doubt, he had dealt a special target among the other five a bullet in both sides of the mouth; for many of this bunch were known to use both sides in speaking.
El Moreno delivered several incitements to the mole’s cleft with his boot.
”Work harder!” he said. “All the way in! Your speeches and op-eds encouraged hard work, did they not? You owe me a thousand deaths more for the children who died making clean energy for your Earthworks Corp—but I will collect that interest later. Go have yourself a mouthful of these blue chips.”
The mole disappeared, and El Moreno sheathed his cold, fresh bore. He took two big satchels from among the corpses. These he raked along the space before the vault’s doorway. When they were filled at one pass each, much of the dune yet remained to block the cast-iron hatch. Yet it rode some inches above floor-level, and the way was almost cleared. After he managed to shut the door, and he spun its wheel to seal it tight.
He seized a satchel in either hand.
“I have a long climb ahead, fool that I am,” he said. “There is nothing else for it but to get climbing.”
I was about to respond, but he vanished at once.
My notion of the pit’s depth was true. The bank’s rotunda was wrapped in rails at every floor of its ascent. My guide was traveling a zigzag staircase that brought him to a level of rails opposing me, as I could hear whenever he topped a new zig or zag. I could not see him for most of his climb, such was the chasm’s depth. But he spoke to me up the great open shaft every time he came to another turn.
At the first level: “Bad planning. I forgot the rope this time.”
At the second level: “Normally I run it from the saddle horn, through the window, and into the rotunda.”
At the third level: “I do not take apprentices, normally. It is a great distraction.”
At the fourth level: “It was a clever idea, though, no? The sash and the column!”
At the fifth level: “How did I look, eh? That must have been something to watch!”
At the sixth level: “Your diversion was not… ineffective. As long as you don’t get yourself shot.”
At the seventh level: “They lock themselves inside here, you know. The keys to the front door… who knows where they are?”
At the eighth level: “Besides, we must be in the saddle quickly now. Straight to Slip In Slip Out.”
At the ninth level, as his broad hat came toward me eye-to-eye from the staircase: “They will let the dogs loose on us. Always do. With them, it is always the same.”
And he walked the half-circle around the railing. We went back through the bank president’s office. El Moreno gave me the satchels and bolted the door as it had been before. Then he went through the window, and I handed him the satchels after he settled in the saddle. Then I crawled through myself. He told me I must close the window as it had been. I clung to a cornice with my toes and shut the window dead. Then I dropped straight upon Slip In Slip Out’s croup. I think the great horse must have moved to catch me, for there was no skill in my fall.
I heard dogs baying all about the town, up and down every street. Wherever I saw a street corner, there I found a hollow throat that poured forth barks and howls. I knew then that I had heard the dogs as I handed the satchels through the window, and as I balanced on the cornice, and as I fell into the saddle. They were all converging, these dogs and packs of dogs, upon the plaza.
”It is a good time to bid farewell,” said El Moreno.
I heard his tongue cluck against his cheek three times. Slip In Slip Out turned the town behind his tail as a carpet might shake out dust, but without crack to the ear or bump in the ride. I thought I had seen dark figures converging upon us from all the streets at once beneath a street lamp’s glow, but I could not be sure. I thought I had seen a street lamp glowing, but there had been no light when we rode in. I thought I might only have thought some of the things that I had just seen, such was the horse’s windy pace.
Most strange of all, I might have thought that there were no dogs at all. I might have thought, from what I thought I saw, that our pursuers were barking from human throats. As if our silent gallop had carried my face into a cobweb, I passed a hand over my forehead to rake the images from my mind. They were images of mounted men barking and baying as they strained into their horses’ manes.
El Moreno reined in to a magic-carpet trot, slower but no less smooth.
”We must not lose them,” he said. And he drew his Winchester from the saddle scabbard.
We lingered until I heard the bays again. This time I could not doubt. The bellows were closing fast, and the desert’s full darkness had sharpened my ears.
”El Moreno,” I said, “why do these men bark and bay like hounds when there is not a dog among them?”
”The dogs are all around us,” he said, “but they wait. Your eyes are not yet desert-trained. They are slow to open. Soon you will see the stars again, and then you will see pairs of red stars fallen to earth. They are all around us. They know their feeding time is near.”
”I am a fool to ask a second time what was not answered the first,” I said. “Pity a poor fool, and explain these barks to me.”
”They are the true barks of false jackals,” he said. “Nothing in their falsity was ever truer. The Vulture, the Generalissimo… how could they fill up such mass graves by their own hand? Such men give orders. And then there are such men as join the firing squad, but shoot wide. And then there are such men as shoot through the heart, and never know another night’s sound sleep. And then… and then, you have the slavering hounds who run to every firing-squad detail like curs to their nightly slop. They jam their machine-gun with their drool, and then they shoot their pistol till the reloading burns their fingers. Then they dig through the corpses for gold teeth and rings, and when they rear up, their muzzles are red from the offal.”
I heard cracks now within the howling. The buzz and hum of angry wasps overtook us.
”’Sta bien,” said El Moreno.
He clucked, and we lifted away. Like a golden butterfly chased by a fool whose mouth hangs open wider than his net, we set down just out of reach. And then again, and again.
”I will recognize one or two of these, I think,” said I. “My eyes now let the starlight in.”
”No,” he said, “you will not. All of them always look the same. And they have no names. They lost their names when they entered this place.”
We set down at last upon a glowing ridge. I had seen the red moon rising low on the horizon when we were yet far away. We rode easily for the moon, and she patiently awaited our arrival. All earth seemed to stop upon that ridge. If Slip In Slip Out had taken one more bound, it seemed that we would have bathed in the moon’s orange dunes. I wished for the visit but said nothing, for I knew that our night’s business must be leading us elsewhere. El Moreno reined up and drew the great horse tall back in the direction of our coming. Like the moon, we waited. I could feel her orange veils sliding over our shoulders like fine silk.
The baying strengthened, and then the wasps returned. I could see guns spark like fireflies in the dark vale beneath us. I could see faces, low-browed and fat-jowled, panting from all their howling. El Moreno was right. They all looked the same.
”Hold on!” he said to me; and then to our mount, “Hie up!”
The great dark horse leapt from ridge to gulley. It was the first time his loins had almost bucked me off. No sooner touching his sandy rest than wheeled about, he stood firm now in deepest shadow. I saw the mounted hounds gallop far above us, crossing the face of the moon. I have seen geese fly into a sunrise. The black wings of these scarecrows shook out their reins in a flight without grace. But for the hunter, they were just as easy a shot.
The Winchester sneezed its powder in living rhythm. Sneeze, blink, sigh. Sneeze, blink, sigh. The desert sand had congested its long nostril, and now it released a furious fit that had built up for miles and days. At every dry sneeze, another stick-figure fell from one of the saddles that rotated, all of them together, like toy targets on a fairground’s wheel. El Moreno might have popped every one clean out of its seat. But he had planned another game, and we turned tail to ride another carousel.
We cantered into darkness, our backs to the moon. We quickly left her in our dust. The low-whispering desert received us again, laid with a million snares. My untrained eyes had been shot blind by moonlight. Now I waited for the desert floor to silver again under a million stars.
El Moreno reined in and halted. I saw a shooting star, and I heard a memory of its crackle. Nothing else struck my ear.
Then I felt my guide’s lungs fill before me in the saddle. He let out a yelp that scared the star back in its tracks. He threw a howl that made Slip In Slip Out fidget, whose thighs had not flinched once while the Winchester coughed. He barked until constellations of silent eyes opened red around us, enough to sketch out every one of the desert’s legends. And then we listened.
Again the human hounds were baying in the distance. I heard El Moreno pat the great horse’s withers.
”It is well,” he said. “Now I must find the Gateway. Look for the Spool. She spins low on the eastern horizon this week, rising at moonset.”
I had almost learned enough upside-down geography to look for a vanishing something in the west. Yet my calculations were still too slow. El Moreno pointed to a dark ridge as far from the forsaken moonglow as anything made of sand—a horizon-building ridge, skulking like the first sire of all coyotes. Riding his spine was a galaxy, ready to disappear. Her blurry white swirls made a fair-weather hurricane deep in the purple heavens. Her eye was a place I would like to have gone. I would rather have been there than here. Yet I knew that one place somehow led to the other, down a labyrinth of swirling lanes.
The barks and yelps behind us grew louder. We set out at a walk, heading for the galaxy’s eye. I heard cracks, but no wasps followed.
”None of them ever minted a bullet in his life,” said El Moreno. “They’re only good for wasting ammo. Like bambinos mimados that gorge themselves on candy as if it were made of water and sand. Me, I have to count my shells. I am going to kill most of the rest of them tonight with a single shot. I use the Gateway for that.”
I saw the starlit silver of the desert floor around about me now, and I saw the million islands of massed cactus and gray grasses. But I would not have known that a canyon lay in the midst of it all, though I had looked till the next rain. I would not have thought that chasing after a galaxy might lead us to the darkest depth of our dry furnace.
El Moreno reined up between two islands. They were dark and frozen. Their leathery palms sometimes sketched parts of circles against the stars. Their leathery daggers sometimes sketched parts of arms. I remembered bodies jumbled into mass graves, and I recalled snapshots of crowds cheering a leader and tossing their hats in the air. Both memories froze together, and somehow seemed the same.
”There, now,” said El Moreno. “Two should do… and a little dried grass in either chamber. Why waste powder?”
I heard our saddle creak and the high grass rustle at our side. El Moreno righted himself again. I saw one of his revolvers menace a flame-shaped nursery of stars, all blue, that I had never noticed in the other world. A cylinder clicked twice, a hammer found full cock. Then the pistol spewed white sparks at a sky that scarcely needed any more. It was no cannon blast, this shot, but it sent dry echoes running in all directions as a pebble does in a still, silent pond. The baying had flagged, but after that it heartened and neared.
At a mere jingle of his master’s spurs, the great horse stepped ahead.
”Draw your knees up to your chin,” said El Moreno. “”You will not fall left or right, for there will be no room to fall. But the Gateway will grind your legs away if you sit astride, for the animal’s thighs must squeeze to pass through.”
The islands grew taller on either side, and darker. No more were they prickly leaves and fronds against the stars. They quickly congealed into two solid walls, and each wall grew more wall at every step. I had thought myself watching the horse’s great neck beyond my guide’s shoulder. Now I saw only a straight flute of shadow in the lead whose throat swallowed us lower the farther we moved. I looked aloft one time to find light. I saw a star far overhead, a glimmer of water in the pit of a deep well. I buried my head at once in El Moreno’s back and hugged my knees. I did not want to swoon and roll rearward off my ride.
We seemed to be sealed in a stone crypt. The silence about us now was of stone slabs on the ears, not of limitless space where things twinkled rather than breathed.
The pack’s sniffing and growling sent a shock up my spine. I had forgotten our pursuit: now the slavering pack-mates were just up the chute from me. Their howls had been muted to surly, confused snorts and gurgles. The stone funnel must have magnified their grumble, to make them seem right at my neck. I knew that they must only just have turned in, but I did not like the feel of their echo upon my spine. The horse’s tail whipped above my shoulders once, and made them tremble as if a block of ice had settled against them.
I heard the echoes fall off to the left and right. I saw the black masses melt into charry space. El Moreno wheeled around to the side. I released my knees and let my legs dangle.
The Winchester rolled one shot back up the chute. In this game, if you hit the mark, a tumble of marbles spilled back down the slide. I heard the lead dog give a human “ugh”, and I knew El Moreno had found the bull’s eye. We didn’t linger, but resumed our forward pace as shot upon shot hailed down the Gateway. Not a one fought free to whistle about our ears. “Augh” rhymed “ugh” and “aye” harmonized “ow”. Horses neighed, and I heard hooves claw for running space.
We cantered across a smooth-bottomed bowl. I heard grass swish and whisper on either side. As great as was the height of Slip In Slip Out, I smelled the dry-straw odor of golden hay as if I rolled in it. The saddle creaked, and creaked again. A bundle of hay soon whispered all the secrets of the hidden canyon under my nose.
”Hold tight!” said my guide. “We will take back quickly on this side what we gave up slowly on that one!”
The horse sprang to a gallop just in time to launch up a slope. I heard rocks tumble behind us and heard them raise a cracking racket far beneath us. While my ears were yet filling, my eyes filled again with the flat badlands. I saw the Spool’s last spin upon the horizon.
”Basta,” said El Moreno. “It is time to finish.”
After the abyss, this night seemed almost daylight. Perhaps the moon had fully risen, or fully set. I did not look round to see if the new clarity bore her colors. I was keen to see the end.
El Moreno seized the grasses balled up against me and knotted them with each other’s twisted strands. I saw his revolver’s bore sight the zenith once again as his broad hat dipped toward the Gateway’s deep bowl. He pressed the pistol into the grassy wad and fired his second straw shot. The cap sparked, the chamber flickered, and the knotted ball began to smoke.
This plaything he aimed down the slope into the bowl. It flared red in the air and rolled white through the bowl. The parched straw took and spread its angry glee. Soon the yawning pocket below us flamed like wild blonde hair in a breeze.
I saw riderless horses milling round and round, racing to escape the trample, stretching to outpace the flames. One by one, chasing each other’s tails, they found their way back up the Gateway’s chute. Corpses that trickled down were sliced and diced. Unhorsed wounded that staggered down were sauced and salad-tossed. No mass grave was ever better compacted by any bulldozer’s shovel or tank’s treads.
I noticed that no more barking sparked the night, though four scarecrows yet clung to their saddles. Like dogs riding ponies in a circus ring, their tongues lolled out in concentration, and their dull eyes glazed in shock.
El Moreno drew his Winchester from its scabbard. He waited for each performer in the fiery ring to make a near pass, matching the motion of bore to rider. Down went one, and down went two. He followed the third to our feet, and squeezed him out of his seat.
”Fish in a barrel, eh?” he said. “You have seen mass graves, yes? You have dug them open? Like sardines in a can, only not all in a row.”
”Yes,” I said. I had forgotten that I had seen mass graves. But this evening I remembered that I had seen many.
”Well,” he said, “these were the workers on that assembly line. The ones who got the full retirement package after twenty-five years. This is where we package their final benefit.”
He pumped the lever of his Winchester one more time.
“I will leave no one behind this time,” he said. “Why would I? These asesinos, they are too stupid to have much fear, and too dumb to have any speech. All they do is bark.”
And he popped the last hound out of its saddle. The figure did a full flip in the air, landed face-down in the sand, and lay still.
We waited many minutes. I did not know why we waited, and I did not ask. The brown grass that had burned so bright burned quickly. Soon nothing stirred in the bowl but smoke. And the swirls of smoke were stirred into the night, and they followed after the swirls of the Spool.
We waited after that. At last I saw pairs of fallen red stars converge upon the corpses. Many pairs, many for every corpse. One shadow began to yelp, and suddenly all were howling the holiday hymn of true four-legged jackals.
“O Vendetta di Dio…” I heard my guide say. I barely heard him. I knew then that I had heard myself.
John Moseby, a frequent contributor to this journal for years, lives in the Atlanta area. He is a part-time teacher of composition at several institutions and otherwise devotes his semi-retirement to writing..
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