mythic journey to hell

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.4 (Fall 2016)

 

Fiction & Poetry

scorched

 

El Moreno, Vendetta di Dio
J.S. Moseby

The first third of this novel-in-progress was published in Praesidium 13.4. The author has contributed a few intermediate chapters of his just-finished project: a highly stylized, quasi-mythic journey to Hell during which the traveler discovers himself while learning that wickedness does not pass unpunished.

CHAPTER TWELVE: THE MAN IN THE CLIFF

With time, I indeed went to the Arroyo de la Columna alone. El Moreno had said that I need only fire a shot of his revolver into the sand, and the sickly ravening waifs would scatter like wild sparrows, armed or not. He was not deceived. Those sparrow-hearts gathered in a vulture’s circle whenever I began to harvest the Column. But I did not fire into the sand. I would always shoot the nearest one where it would cause the greatest pain. That gave me pleasure, when I thought of their deeds.

I dreamed of a little body in a garbage bag (a shiny black plastic bag, such as one gets a dozen to a box) lying in a dumpster. I dreamed it several times, each time just before rising early to go to the Arroyo. And I dreamed a little later (as if the first dream had called the second out of the shadows) of a young girl’s body half-wrapped in a muddy sheet and lying in an open sewer drain. A girl of seven or eight… or perhaps it was a boy. And I would try to remember if I had only dreamed these things, or if I had seen them once. Among the living, my memory had become a dumpster, a drainage ditch. It was strange to be now among the dead yet stalked, as time went on, by so many memories—for the old people used to say that in death, all is forgotten. They were wrong. It isn’t so.

After I had scattered the unwholesome waifs, after I had harvested the Column, I began a habit of lingering, though the Sun would be winding himself higher and deeper into his white sheets all the while. I began to study the sheer cliff at whose base the Column rose. The first time, I walked to it and ran my palm along it. The face was of reddish sandstone, smooth yet gritty to the touch. And I noticed that it was not so sheer as I had thought but rutted by grooves that water had cut, even as the Column’s green barrel ran yellow with ruts.

The second time, I began to scale the widest and least sheer of the grooves. I found a cavernous opening on the groove’s inner fold, still far above, that I would never have seen from the streambed.

The third time, I made my way up to the cave. I pulled myself upon its ledge and peered inside, where all was black. I turned and looked out upon the Desert in its wasted, shimmering greatness, where all was brown and white. Even the greens, from up here, had been beaten brown by the Sun’s white slumber. And I chanced to look up as I prepared to slide down again. I saw another cave, still higher; and I saw a face staring down at me.

The fourth time, I scaled up to my cave and searched and searched for a way to go yet higher, but found none. So I settled back and stared and stared at the face staring down upon me. The eyes, like an owl’s, were close together and full to the front; and like an owl’s, they never blinked—just once, perhaps, every five minutes. But this was no bird, and he had not flown to his perch. I almost overstayed in my study of him. Going back, I found the shadows thin and more brown than blue. I feared lest the hat of blossoms in my hands explode. I heard close screams.

The fifth time, I went into my cave. I lay down the hat of blossoms and felt along the smooth sandstone with my two palms. I edged along until, over my shoulder, I saw the entry no bigger than a silver dollar. And then I would have turned back; but, just then, I felt a cool breeze play in my collar. It was not blowing from the direction of the silver dollar, but from farther within.

The sixth time, I stole an ember from our fire pit. I wrapped it and carried it cradled in my hat, like an egg. I blew on it and nursed it after I reached the Column. I half-filled my emptied hat with blossoms, shot a wicked spirit while I rested, filled the hat’s other half, and then hid my harvest well. I made a torch from reeds and carried the ember up the cliff face in my scarf like a niñito, a papoose. I lit the torch in the cave, and I quickly found the passage deep into the cliff that the gusts of wind had hinted at before. The breeze caused the torch’s hair to wave, but I could clearly see that the passage began to go up and up after taking a turn. There were crude steps carved in the steepest parts.

The seventh time, I took another ember with less appearance of theft. I believed that El Moreno must know of my earlier delays when I harvested; and, since he had said nothing, I believed that he was allowing my explorations to take their course. I believed that he must know of the Man in the Cliff, since (as the wicked spirits had said) the Desert held no secrets for him; and I believed that he knew better than I why I did not simply ask him about the Man, but must find out for myself—and I believed that he was letting it be so. After this time, there would be no more belief but only certainty; for this time, I must stay the whole day and return at dusk. The seventh time would leave all doors ajar.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE PROFESSOR

For the sixth time, after my harvest, I scaled up a flute in the brittle cliff. For the fifth time, I reached my cave and studied my owl-eyed observer (but not for long). For the fourth time, I entered the dark hole. For the third time, I proceeded to the hidden passage winding upward—because, for the second time, I had a torch’s light to guide me. For the first time, I began the full ascent.

The hair of my torch streamed longer and longer as my way up the passage grew steeper. I stepped farther to bestride the rising, narrowing stairs; and as I climbed higher, that head of golden hair seemed to run in greater panic. As the passage became so steep that its steps formed a ladder, the long-haired girl became more shadows than clarity in her raving terror, and I left her panting at my feet. As I climbed the ladder by touch, using both hands now, I noticed a graying dawn to grow overhead. As I emerged from the last step and rolled onto a broad, smooth sandstone floor, I found myself at the feet of The Professor.

He had donned a kind of crown that read, El Profesor. It had not sat upon his head as he had looked down upon me from far above. I supposed it a preparation for my arrival, that I might know in whose presence I stood. A kind of crude throne also lofted the crowned one above me; but its arms seemed more shaped by use than skill, and of cushions there were none.

I asked this Professor many questions, and in many different ways.

“Are you alive or dead?” I asked simply. “Are you flesh and bone, or are you spirit?”

“How do you come to dwell here?” I asked thoughtfully. “You did not fly: you do not have wings. Your cave is no easy climb from the Arroyo. Were you chased up the cliff by a pantera? I do not think you carved those steps, for you do not have a stonecutter’s hands nor a laborer’s back. Were the steps here before you? Were those who made them here when you arrived?”

And I asked with boldness: “El Moreno does not torment you: you are not, perhaps, a wicked man. Why, then, do you dwell in a place given over to wicked souls?”

And I asked to cajole, and maybe flatter: “You see so much from here, by day and by night. You can see everything, of the half of this nether world that your cliff faces. Perhaps you are here to study. May one ask what you have learned? What, then, is your subject, mi Profesor?”

To all of this he said nothing, and blinked not once nor lifted a finger from his dusty throne.

I had risen and begun to walk about the throne room. I had gazed long from the cave’s high opening. The Sun was in his full, deep sleep now, and very distant screams rose from the desert floor like the bubbles of a boiling cauldron or the sputtering of locusts in an open meadow.

When I had turned back inward and recovered my evening eyes, I first noticed the handwriting all over the walls, top to bottom. There were languages that I couldn’t make out, and there were characters to which I could connect no sound or sense. There were even numbers in places—tall columns of figures from ceiling to floor and x-y-z equations expanded to many feet in length. I understood none of it. Being all unknown, it cowed me with mystery; it humbled me with possibility deep truths of the universe rested here.

One word only I thought had a familiar look, if I might but brush the dust from its carved canals. I touched it with a fingertip… and an entire line crumbled.

Then I noticed that one row of writing, about the level of my nose, was none other than printed titles on the spines of books. I could scarce make out the vertical lines separating the volume covers, so thick was the dust. I reached to draw one out from its invisible shelf, then reconsidered and merely blew upon the title as one might blow filings from a fingernail. The spine collapsed and the book’s pages yielded a puff of red dust, leaving a squared gap where a full volume had been.

I looked back at the Professor. His head had still not turned, but his owl’s eyes had narrowed and his thin, sealed lips had pursed into a dot.

“I must remain until dusk,” I said. “It is now too late for me to travel, before then.”

I saw jaws clench behind the tight dot.

“Tell me something, Professor,” I said. “Tell me anything.”

“You,” he said, “are a fool.”

“Indeed,” I said. “And such a fool are you, as well. It is a failing common to all the sons of Adam. But you who have studied so long and learned so much… I must know something, and you must tell me.”

“I cannot,” he said.

“And why can you not?”

“Because only you would know whatever you once knew. I cannot tell you what that was. I cannot tell you why you chose to forget it. I can only tell you this: that you do not wish to remember.”

“That is untrue!” I said in anger; for before now, I had not lost a feeling of respect.

“Then remember!” he said, as if he would taunt me.

I grew even angrier. I turned back to the wall. I drew El Moreno’s revolver from my belt, and with its muzzle I wrote heavily, broadly, quickly across the verses and aphorisms, the treatises and diatribes, the figures and formulas: V…e…n…d…e…t…t…a……d…i……D…i…o…

“Tell me how I may remember!” I said, turning back as if to thrash him.

He trembled all over now, and I saw his hands grip the arms of his throne until fine showers of red dust fell to earth. But it was not in anger, this trembling, for his eyes widened over the words I had written as a deer’s do before the nearing step of a tigre—even though a decade of scholarly production had vanished in a rusty plume that the Desert’s breath blew down the deep shaft beside us.

I could see him fight to speak now. His eyes fell from the wall to the dusty floor, dustier than ever after my strokes. His scholar’s fingers wrestled in the sandstone and themselves seem to rust in the struggle.

“You must go to the Man in the Moon,” he said.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE ACACIA TREE

Eager as I had been to climb the cliff’s inner passage, I had forgotten to strew the blossoms across the ledge of my cave of entry. It would not have mattered if I had remembered better. There would have been little light to reach the trumpeting red ones, tucked away in the cliff’s folds as they would have lain. Yet I had forgotten even to seek out some shift that might have worked, as my master would have done. I spoke humbly of my failure to El Moreno, and openly now of my cliff-climbing (but not of the Professor). I talked in the dusk of our lair, as he stirred a fire. His face was that of a distant mountain, and I saw no change in it.

(For the first time, I had the thought that his face must change when he was visiting vengeance upon wicked souls—but that I had never watched it at those moments. And I wondered, looking back in time, why I had never watched it. The form of his vengeance was always such that it held me spellbound, both terrified and raptured. I could not have looked away with all the desire in the world—all the will of a world where souls had wills. But I thought that there must yet be something more: I thought that, during those moments of supreme revenge, I perhaps must hide my eye from his face as a vision too holy to be viewed.)

El Moreno simply said, “We will leave the flowers in the dew tonight, and they will dry tomorrow. It is better than half-drying and trying to dry later.”

Then the fire took the wood’s bait and ran on its own. And he said, “Also, I shoot too much, perhaps. I shall show you the bow-and-arrow trick. And the spring-javelin, and the pit of spears. They are all good tricks. But I was a pistolero in life, and it is my way. No doubt, I like to see their eyes as I kill them. Even in the darkness, I can see their eyes.”

And we settled back, the two of us, onto our different sides of the fire pit. It was not yet time to make our nightly rounds, though it would soon be time.

And he said, “Not tomorrow, but the next day at dusk, as the Sun’s day begins and our day ends, you will go to the Acacia Tree. Do not trip the bells as you leave camp. You will find the Tree in the gray dusk as you find the great Column in the Arroyo: by looking in the right direction. It is the only tree in the Desert, and yet you will not see it if you do not look in the right place at the right time. East and West shift around it. You did not see it as you entered this place because the shifting spaces sent you into a swoon. This time dusk will be before you, as when you entered, but now in the other direction. You will see the Acacia’s limbs as clear against the red Sky as you see veins in an old man’s hand. If you should swoon again, the lapse will be brief that sends your compass spinning; for you seek only the Sky, and not the Exit.

“You must climb to the Tree’s highest limb and slide out as far as the limb reaches. That way, you will just be able to throw a leg over the saddle of Slip In Slip Out when he will come. He will carry you to your destination.”

“He is truly a wonderful horse,” I said.

Un alazán milagroso. There is no greater mount in the land where the Sun sleeps,” he said.

“But,” I said—for a sudden fear had overtaken me—“will he bring me back? How will I re-attain the saddle, where…”

“Where there are no trees? Little man, if you truly wished to know of hidden things, as you lay claim, you would leap and catch the stirrup in your teeth!”

I felt the mountain in his face cast a ragged, rugged smile in the dancing firelight—though I did not see it, for I looked down in shame.

“Do not fear,” El Moreno continued. “An ordinary man like you may jump great heights—even unto the saddle of Slip In Slip Out—on the surface of the Moon.”

No longer could I doubt what I had long suspected: that this inhuman man, this angel’s dark shadow, knew everything of my visits to the Professor down to the last detail. Truly, he was a fearful and marvelous being.

One does not question such a mind lightly or foolishly, nor did I ask El Moreno why I must wait through one dusk and set out on the next. Perhaps Slip In Slip Out required such time to be summoned from the brushy dunes and granite canyons. Perhaps the Professor, having revealed my next step under duress, could be expected to lay a trap for me the evening after my return to camp (for I had destroyed decades of scholarly scribbles). Or perhaps more desperadoes were on the prowl just then, and El Moreno had intent of purging them from my path; or perhaps he needed to show me the Acacia, first one day and then the next, since I had so far been strangely blind to it.

Yet neither of the last two reasons tested true. In the dusk of the next day, having dried our harvest as we slept the Sun’s sleep, I was led a short way into the wound through which the Traveler left our space and entered living man’s. Stiffly, darkly clotted across its splashed blood were the Acacia’s tortured limbs. I had not been this way, perhaps, because it was the way I had entered, some weeks or months ago. Yet I was puzzled to think that the tree could so utterly have escaped my notice, unless we had passed it as El Moreno carried me in my swoon. My guide had told me as much.

And then, indeed, my head swam suddenly, and the letters of “Vendetta di Dio” wheeled round and round me, pricked out by stars. When I was steady on my feet once more, the wound stretched bleeding just behind me.

My lesson in direction needed no repeating after that. As for desperadoes, the Desert had been empty of ambush and murderous foray for those few days. It lay in a peace of despair, perhaps, as if the damned ones had been seared so much by day and shot so much by night that they had lost their will to fight, for some brief while. Yet they had no will, in truth: not now. Not here. They were beyond will, locked forever in the perverted choices they had made among the living —wearing those choices deep in time, like ruts, over and over. And now they must forever be led through those choices like child’s toys drawn on a string—a string knotted around their withered hearts. They would be back again, always back again, to suffer more.

So I did not know why I must wait, and I did not ask. When my time came, I left camp by the dusk’s dried blood. I stepped over the trip-line of the bells. I found the Acacia’s dry, brittle veins against the purple wound that spread before me. I walked until my head began to spin, and I kept walking and did not fall. I reached the Tree in a dark glow now shed from over my shoulder, with only early stars to my face. I climbed her as I had scaled the ladder in the sandstone cliff, feeling with my hands and pulling on whatever took me up.

When I was as up as hands would take me—for I could not climb thin air—I waited and read the stars. They seemed brighter to me than usual, as bright as the writing in the Professor’s cave had been blunted in dust. And though I knew these characters no better than the Professor’s script, I could feel their meaning almost as if they had spoken. I read joy in their green-golds and blue-golds and gold-tinged reds, and their whites that triumphed over gold; I read energy in their flickers, and zeal in their slender, showering needles; I read power in their numbers, and plan in their swirls and lanes. And all of what I read spelled out a verdict upon those whose joys had been mud and soot, whose energy had been spent zealously winding selfish fantasies into tighter and tighter balls, and whose power had executed gnarled plans that cut others around them off from the light. In the beauty of this writing was a damnation of deformity—of willed and loved deformity, chosen over and over in ever more twisted shapes.

And in such beauty was something else, as well: something not of this blasted and wasted plain. It was something I had tried to forget, and succeeded; something I was trying to remember, without yet succeeding. And my failure made me very sad as I read so much beauty.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE CHAIRMAN

A cloud moved between me and the galaxy’s open avenue. So silent had been its coming that I thought perhaps Slip In Slip Out had stood there all the time, and now was signaling me to mount. I so wanted to see the stars again that I felt less a leap of my legs than an evaporation of my bones, as if I had floated into place.

As before, I rode at a speed past measure and without the jostle and toss of riding. Like a magic carpet, the horse carried me through darkly drawn swords of lechuguilla that never touched my feet and through forests of bald-black saguaro that scarcely reached the height of my hat. The constellations turned cockeyed sometimes, and I felt my weight shift into my groin and thighs. This was how I knew we were descending. At other times, the Great Dog and his Hunter seemed to pry up my hat’s brim for a peek, and my hips and back caught and held a strain. This was how I knew we were climbing. Yet never was I pitched. I kept my eyes upon the heavens. It was best not to think about the length of fall always yawning beneath the stirrups, and reckoning my length of leap into the stars drove the other from my mind.

It is strange to say that I was so entangled in the starry net that I forgot to look for the Moon. And in truth, where I was these days and nights, she came more as an earthbound boulder spat from a silent volcano than a ball that bounced among the galaxy’s wheels. We turned and started to climb… and there she was. I recalled at once the night when the posse of mounted hounds had chased us from Dead Town—recalled it all with such clarity that I almost spun in the saddle to check for pursuit. Here was the same steep slope, with the same arms of cactus lifting in benediction or terror (who could say which one?) against the Moon’s vaporous orange arch. She was rising just beyond the slope, and I remembered longing—that earlier time—to take one great leap and reach her, for I had been sure that we could jump so high.

Now, as I felt the great stallion gathering speed even as he cantered up Earth’s bulging shoulder, I was less confident. Yet the Moon had never been so big, so orange, and so round. The last rim of her perfect roundness was just spinning free of the thorns and needles—cleverly, without a run, snag, or tear—when the two hooves at my back shook off the planet’s dust.

It was at that moment, with my whirring thoughts as disengaged from any ABC of order as my body was from the land of men, that I understood the choice of this evening: why tonight and not the night before. The Moon was as full and close this evening as ever she would be. A day earlier or later, and we might not have made our landing. We might have sailed forever in the empty space between Mother Earth and stars; or we might have fallen back to Earth and sowed our bones so deep in her womb that she would bring forth another Moon out of another arid volcano.

As it was, we landed in a gold-orange film so fine that I never felt the point where the hooves found firmness—yet so unlike to earthen dust that breathing was easier, and choking not a pain you might know if you should fling yourself face-down in the gold.

“Where is this place, my noble horse?” I said without much sense. “Where should we go from here, and here should be measured from where? And why go, but to reach a better place—but what place could be better than this?”

I felt my wits leaving me, but could only watch them drain away. I felt like a desert farmer whose last barrel of water has sprung twelve leaks at once, and he keeps counting his fingers to find another two—but his hands cannot reach around the barrel, in any case, and he cannot decide which leak to slow with which finger as all the gushing soaks his feet.

“My sense is slipping out, but none is slipping in!” I said to the horse while laughing. And I could not stop laughing. “There is enough gold here to buy the Moon, but not a bowl of beans to buy! And why should the Moon buy herself with herself… and why should a buyer buy her, and her substance mined and given away until there’s no more ‘she’ to buy? But given away to whom? A seller! And who sells the Moon? Her owner! But, my excellent steed, who owns the Moon? Her conqueror! But who will conquer the Moon? Why, who else but that most illustrious and invincible champion of the people and friend of all planets, Chairman of the People’s Party and President for Life, Dioniseo Guzmán Hulé y Azolatleca! Also known as the Mongrel. My son who studied Greek called him ‘Stuff’, and sometimes ‘Woody’—the kind of light jest for which friends of all planets kill you, you know. Hey, Woody! You up here? Dónde ’stás, Woodissimo? Come on, you bastard! I need to buy the Moon from you! I’ll sell her to you and then I’ll buy her back. That sounds fair, no? Well, not so fair… a little crazy. Sounds like one of your speeches. Sounds like your five-year economic plan to get the economy off her economic ass. Hey, Woody! I could be your Minister of Finance and Economic Planning. And you could pay me with the Moon… and then I could sell her back to you! Maybe for the Earth. Yeah, you could come live here and I’d go live there… and you wouldn’t miss a thing, because there are just about as many of your citizens here as you left alive down there. No, you can’t have my Rocinante in the bargain… and I don’t think he’d let your blood-soaked ass in his saddle!”

And I said many, many more such things as we wandered the surface of the Moon—most of which I have forgotten, some of which I am ashamed to recall, even with the excuse of lunacy.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE MAN IN THE MOON

If there was little sense of time in the Desert, there was less on the Moon. Though every schoolboy knows that her surface reflects the Sun, I never thought to look for that great star over my shoulder—or for any smaller ones overhead, or for our mother planet. My brain was too full of moondust. My eyes were swimming in the orange glow whose waves shone gold in their bends. I had no past nor future. I had a horse on loan from someone, but I could not recall his name—and the terms of the loan, if they existed, no longer concerned me. If I thought of past days at all, I thought of them as like this moment. I thought, perhaps, that we had always been here—my horse and I—parading in moondust.

Sometimes there was escarpment a great distance away—a long line of cliffs, a mesa. I could discern it only by streaks of grayer orange running upward steeply, where the land’s all-covering glow must have shadowed itself in bands of leaning ridges. Sometimes I also happened upon great playful pock-marks and empty pools—and even circles of pock-marks where the lesser ate into the rims of the greater. I thought that my legs were jumping these when the stallion gave a jump; and when he clambered down into the deepest and leapt back out, I thought that my steps had passed them in a hop and a skip. I forgot that I was mounted. I had become a giant; and as for those memories of a land a-bristle in cactus and raw heat, I thought it a dream—a mirage suffered in a half-doze during my gold-orange life.

(And yet, in my ravings, I had spoken truths—under lunatic veils—about things I had barred from memory for years. It is a strange forgetfulness that can thus resurrect buried truths from their graves with silly laughter.)

At last, I saw a man atop a dune wound in a sheet, as it seemed. The dune was tall. Where he lay upon it, the man’s eyes were almost level with mine.

“Peace be with you,” he said.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am the Man in the Moon,” he said. “Dismount, and rest from your long ride. All here is peace.”

I was amazed at his words; but looking about me, I rediscovered Slip In Slip Out. I laughed and laughed. “Dismount! Dismount!” I cried.

And I threw my leg over the saddle horn, and I fell into the orange sand in such a way that I never knew when it became thicker than thin, or when thick enough to hold me up. I laughed and played in the glowing grains, and I breathed them in and out.

“You have come a long way,” he said, now from far above. “Peace be with you.”

I rolled my way up the dune until I arrived at his side. “Who are you?” I asked, and laughed.

“I am the Man in the Moon,” he said. “Peace be with you.”

“Ha-ha!” I laughed again. “I had thought that the Professor lied, only to have his little revenge.”

“Who is the Professor?” he asked.

“I thought for a moment, and said, “I do not know. Who are you?”

“I am the Man in the Moon,” he said. “Peace be with you.”

“Yes,” I said. And I knelt beside him—beside his sheet or white cassock—as one who would whisper a secret. “But who is the Man in the Moon?”

“Why… he is a man at peace. The only man at peace in the wide world.”

“But he is not in the wide world,” I said. “He is out of the world, on the Moon.”

“Where else would he have found peace? For there is no peace in your old world. It is a hopeless place. Here is nothing but peace.”

“There is the peace of the grave,” I said. “I have heard it much praised. Have you heard of the peace of the grave?”

“There is no such peace,” he said. “You are wrong. They are wrong. The grave does but stir things up, so that they never stop. Only here is peace.”

“Then you are neither alive nor dead!” I laughed. “You are not of the world, for you live on the Moon. Yet you are not from beyond the grave. You are neither fish nor fowl! You are a sand-fish with feathers that breathes in words and breathes out empty air!”

“I am in a place of peace,” he said. “I have found the peace of a higher place. A higher order of peace.”

“But not higher than the stars,” I said.

“The stars are not at peace,” he said. “Not as I recall. I do not see the stars from here, in this peaceful glow. I do not look for them. I have no need of them. I am at peace.”

A word of his prodded me like one of the thorns I had left so far behind, and I arose. “Do you recall? Do you recall anything at all?”

“Less and less each day,” he said. “Almost nothing now. I am at peace.”

I picked up a handful of sand, and I poured it on him—on his sheet or white cassock.

“At peace you should not be, Father Moon,” I said. “If you have not crossed the grave to the other side, then a world awaits you where ‘up’ is ‘down’. A star is coming for you. Collision course.”

I was not laughing now.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “Peace be with you!” he cried.

I poured another handful of sand upon him.

“I recall what he did for you. As you do not. He did many things for many people. For you, he spoke up. He spoke for you all when you would not speak for yourselves. When they took you from your quiet cells and imprisoned you in other cells whose corridors sang with screams, he told the world.”

“We did not ask for that. I do not remember asking.”

“Then you told them—all of you—that you wanted only peace, and would say what they told you to say. And would say nothing if it disturbed the peace to speak. And they released you, after you had said very much to them in secret. And then they came for him.”

I shoveled now in the rhythm of my recollections, which fell one upon another. A new thing remembered… a new handful of sand.

“He asked you to hide him. You would not. He asked you only to give him food and bandage their beatings. You would not. He left, and they came looking for him again. You told them when he had come, and you pointed out the way he had gone. And you asked their peace upon you, and they gave it. And they imprisoned him now not as they had done you, but in a cell so deep that Hell warmed its flagstones. And you covered your eyes and ears, as if the walls were not thick enough. And when you were asked by a few men of those lands where men are not yet entirely animals… when those few asked if you knew anything of him, you wished peace upon them; and when they asked if you had ever known him at any time, you wished more peace upon them. You rained peace as a sewer rains stench. And what he suffered and how he ended, you never knew, because you had made a peaceful place apart from the world where you heard and saw nothing. And so you did not know that he was executed on your holy festival, when you all crawled out of your holes to bless the world—crawled out briefly, to bless a world you fled again at once. Like a mountaineer flinging his bacon to a bear, you flung peace over your shoulders and made off—not eating, but not eaten. Making straight for the Moon.”

The last words beneath the sand were so smothered that none could have guessed them who had not known the Man in the Moon. “Peace be with you!” he screamed from deep within the dune.

“And also with you,” I said, covering the last small wormhole to his world.

I led my horse behind me, for days or for weeks, until I came to the place where I thought we had landed. There was no laughter in me nor spring in my stride. I walked because I was weary and wished to be more weary. I walked because I had remembered at last and wished again to stop remembering. I thought nothing now, for days or weeks; but I found that not thinking cannot stop remembering. The cork once removed does not go all the way back in.

We had, it so happened, only been gone a day (as such things are measured in the Desert, where all is upside-down). The great horse leapt precisely as the Moon slid past Robbers’ Ridge, and we touched not a spine and rolled not a stone. Our return was all silence and peace. Yet in the moonlight (now much paler) streaming from behind me through the greeting, grieving saguaros, I imagined I could read, spelled out in long shadows down the slope, Vendetta di Dio.

Mr. Moseby has retired from academic life to undertake farming in North Georgia and dedicate himself to writing.  El Moreno is a kind of declaration, he notes, that the Christian faith does not forgive everyone everything in a vast negation of historical atrocities (contrary to the view promoted by many Christian leaders).