A man tipped back his head and thrust a flaming stick into his open mouth. A blind charmer blew into his flute, and snakes stood upright like question marks. A giant swallowed a bucket of nails until his belly sagged under the groaning weight. Thick men clad in bright loincloths and boots circled, charged, and gripped oiled biceps, struggling to fell one another like massive, entwined oaks. Other sportsmen appeared to be flicking some sort of animal bone at a target with the goal of trying to knock yet more animal bones away while nearby an archery contest looked ready to commence. It all appeared good fun, this field day on the edge of a cliff. The Reverend felt he just might like to join in. But as he strode forward, the crowd parted and shuffled anxiously to keep out of his way.
Ahcho kept pace, and the Reverend was grateful, for he had not anticipated the shock on the faces as they looked up at him. He was a large man, he knew that. Six foot four ever since his seventeenth birthday. These country folk had no doubt never seen a white man before. And he supposed that the animal skin did nothing to make him appear more approachable. Ah, well. He would use it to his advantage. If they were intimidated by him, he could gather up his son all the quicker and make his departure posthaste. He would be the Ghost Man of their dreams if it helped him to secure his own.
He heard them whispering and assumed they spoke that very name as he brushed past. Many turned aside or shut their eyes, afraid, he supposed, of what he might do to them if they looked at him directly. Ahcho had hinted that the animal hide made even him feel ill at ease, for who knew what reason. The Reverend’s number-one boy was no longer superstitious but a true Christian through and through. He glanced over at him now and nodded in appreciation of his devotion and dependability. Ahcho kept his hand under his robe and looked as tense as a rubber band ready to snap. Perhaps in this one instance, his manservant’s penchant for worry was well placed.
The Reverend ducked his head deeper into the hide and balanced the wolf’s jaw over his brow. When he straightened himself to his full height with the animal head now atop his own, he must have measured a full seven feet tall. The Reverend chuckled to himself, for he realized that he, too, now belonged in the sideshow tent.
He swept his arms up under the fur cloak and spun around to face the assembled crowd. The fire breather stopped tossing his fire. The giant with the nails in his belly belched quietly to himself. The flute music died abruptly, and the snakes dropped to the dirt like useless pieces of rope. Nomad mothers pulled their children into their heavy skirts and turned the babies strapped to their backs away from the great, ghostly spectacle before them.
The Reverend cleared his throat and looked about for someone in charge of this ragtag scene. He whispered to Ahcho under his breath, “Do you see any sign of a ringmaster?”
Ahcho inched closer and looked at him with uncomprehending eyes. “A ring, Master?”
“The fellow in charge,” the Reverend clarified.
“No one is in charge here. That is the problem,” Ahcho said, then glanced around and said, “The Reverend is aware they surround us on all sides?”
“Indeed. No need to worry, dear fellow,” the Reverend said.
It was true. Around the edges of the crowd, men wearing brightly patterned jackets and matching hats sat atop diminutive, though sturdy and strong, horses. The Reverend could not help noticing the grand archery bows held in position by a clever apparatus at their sides. These horse-riding nomads had been known throughout history for their warring streak. They were nothing if not fierce. The crowd had closed ranks by now, and he was the main attraction.
The Reverend glanced over their heads and spied a sorry-looking elephant grazing amongst a herd of camels and horses. The skin on the enormous animal sagged miserably, and the Reverend wondered about the pathetic life the once magnificent creature had endured here with these barbarians. Then his face went hot as he allowed himself to consider what his boy had suffered in their midst as well.
The Reverend lifted his arms again, and the crowd stepped back a pace. His first instinct was to reassure them, but instead, he forced himself to make a fearsome face.
“Listen to me!” he began.
His powerful voice did nothing to set their worried brows at ease. If anything, hearing him speak their tongue only rattled them more. He thought he heard a fearful shriek from the back of the audience, although perhaps that was only the sound of the wind whipping up and over the cliff. The Reverend glanced at the sky and noticed a cloud bank approaching from the west. The weather on the steppes was notoriously unpredictable, and he hoped they were not in for a sudden storm. Although the quickly approaching shadows helped magnify the unsettled mood, which could work nicely in the Reverend’s favor.
“Give me back my son, and I, the Ghost Man, will leave you in peace!”
Ahcho moved closer, and the Reverend could tell that even his skeptical number-one boy was impressed by his alarming tone.
“He is small.” The Reverend lowered his arm toward the ground and put his hand at just the height where dear Wesley’s head would have been. “And his hair,” the Reverend reached for a hank of fur from the wolf’s head atop his own, “his hair is the color of the sun!”
The crowd let out a gasp.
“Bring him to me, and then you may return to your festival.”
The crowd stirred, and several of the burly, half-naked wrestlers marched off. The Reverend felt certain they would return in a moment’s time with his son’s hand in theirs. He waited and forced his expression to betray nothing of his excitement.
After a few long moments, the crowd parted, and the Reverend could not help the broad smile that overtook his countenance in anticipation. The people whispered, and several even clapped their hands, for everyone, except perhaps Ahcho, who remained as stern-looking as ever, knew that a miracle was about to take place before their eyes.
The row of grandmothers and grandfathers at the front of the crowd bowed and stepped aside. The children scurried off. Then there, before the Reverend, appeared a blond head, so blond as to be freakishly white.
The Reverend staggered back.
“Are you all right, Master?” Ahcho asked and reached under the hide to take the Reverend’s arm.
The Reverend did not speak.
A stout form waddled toward him. It was not a child’s face but a man’s, pink and with pink eyes. He blinked wildly under no eyebrows or lashes, as if it hurt him just to see. The small creature looked painfully raw and unfinished, and the Reverend could not help but think that the Lord had left this lump of clay only half molded. He looked away in disgust. He had never before seen a more hideous human being.
“Great Ghost Man,” the albino midget said, his high voice shaking. “You have come to save me!” He threw himself onto the ground and began to kiss the Reverend’s boots.
The Reverend stepped out of his reach and shouted, “Stand up, man. Do not grovel like an animal!”
The midget rose and wiped tears off his cheeks with his thick arm clothed in a colorful tunic. But his tears kept coming, and the Reverend saw that the hideous fellow was unable to control himself.
“Whatever is the matter?” he asked.
“My misery will soon end,” the man whimpered. “You will kill me, and I will finally meet my ancestors. I should never have been born, and now my time on this earth will be over. I am most grateful to you.” The man let out a sob and raised his head and shut his eyes, as if expecting to be smote down by the Reverend in the next instant.
The Reverend swallowed. Could those be his own tears rising up behind his eyes? He had become so resistant to allowing his grief to reveal itself that he hardly recognized the sensation. There was no mistaking, though, that the man before him was wretched to his very soul. His body was a travesty and his entire being spoiled and irretrievable. The Lord had seen to that.
The midget opened his eyes again but remained cowering, still waiting for the blow. The Reverend stared into the frightened and frightening pink eyes. The man’s features resembled those of other Mongols, but his skin lacked color to the point of virtual transparency. Blue veins rose up the thick neck and coursed behind fragile temples. The slick, tear-soaked cheeks resembled pulp more than flesh. He was made only of the most base of human matter and nothing divine.
Then the Reverend noticed the most hideous sight of all: red slashes cut across the backs of the fellow’s hands and on his shins below the polka-dotted bloomers.
“Turn around,” the Reverend shouted.
The crowd inched forward, curious what cruel thing was about to happen next to the midget. The Reverend recognized the sickening look of prurient curiosity on their faces.
“I said,” the Reverend repeated, “turn around.”
The midget did as he was told, his large head bowing lower on his stump of a neck. The Reverend pulled up the brightly colored tunic. Across the pale skin of the man’s child-sized back appeared long scars and welts. Beside them were fresh red cuts that oozed fine beads of blood. The Reverend dropped the shirt. A fury rose up inside him that he did not recognize. A low and fearsome growl issued from his lips. The midget dropped to the ground and covered his head with his arms.
“Stand,” the Reverend said through gritted teeth at the shaking creature. “Tell me who did this to you.”
The midget stood and swayed before him, his eyes shut and his whole body trembling.
“Open your eyes!” the Reverend shouted.
The eyelids quivered slowly open. The Reverend looked into those unearthly portals and thought he had never before seen such fear and misery in a man. How could the Lord do this to one of His creatures? How could He so punish an innocent soul?
The Reverend reared back his head, raised up his arms, and let out a piercing cry that echoed down the cliffs and into the ravine below.
“I will smite whoever has harmed this man. He must not be hurt again!” the Reverend shouted at the crowd. Then he swung his arms around and swooped toward them. The claws of the wolf slapped the ground and stirred up the dust. The people scuffled back frantically to keep out of his reach. “If you lay a finger upon him, I will fly at you in the night and I will swallow your soul. I will suck it out of you and spit it into the valley below. If you do not treat him with respect, you and your children and your children’s children will suffer a hideous punishment for all time.”
The Reverend returned to the midget’s side and took his pudgy, damp hand into his own and raised it up. “This is a man of consequence,” the Reverend said, his voice breaking with sorrow. “This is a man.”
He let the midget’s hand drop. The Reverend’s own head bowed as well. “The Lord Jesus,” he said more softly, “and I, the great Ghost Man, will watch over him from now on, forever and ever.”
The crowd remained frozen and unspeaking. The albino midget fell to his knees, and the Reverend ran a hand over his hair. Blond to the point of whiteness, it was as fine as dear Wesley’s and surprisingly soft. As he touched it, the Reverend felt tears roll down his own cheeks.
The wind kicked up at that moment in a sudden gust. Black clouds gathered overhead. The tents began to shudder, their flaps making a cracking sound in the rushing air. Rain came in an instant, hard and furious. The updraft from the ravine next caused hail to fall. Large pellets struck the crowd, and they covered their heads with their arms and fled. People screamed and shouted as they ran in all directions, seeking shelter.
Still on his knees, the midget looked up at the Reverend. His face flinched against the sudden ice that fell from the sky. “Take me with you,” he begged and threw himself around the Reverend’s legs. “Please, dear Ghost Man, take me!”
The Reverend kicked him off. “No, man, they won’t harm you any longer. Rise up and find your place amongst them. No one here is better than you.”
The man stared at the Reverend with disbelieving eyes. The Reverend would have liked to say more, to quote the Lord about the meek inheriting the earth if he could still believe it. But Ahcho had his arm and was pulling him toward the donkeys.
The Reverend looked back and saw the midget stagger off into the chaotic scene. No one bothered him, but no one helped him, either. He was a free man, with all the suffering that would entail.
The Reverend could not rush away. His heart had been broken here, and he wished to remember it always. He noticed then that no one was tending to the animals. The camels had dashed off toward the dangerous trail, and the horses had fled into the open countryside.
And the poor, panicked elephant had broken free of the chains that bound its legs and appeared altogether lost. The Reverend watched it trot off, the enormous creature’s feet surprisingly dainty. The great ears flapped like sails luffing in the wind. Despite its size, the elephant, too, seemed frighteningly vulnerable as it dashed into the sheets of hail. With small eyes closed against the elements, the animal stumbled in the direction of the cliff.
The Reverend left Ahcho and ran after the creature. He ducked his head deeper into the wolf hide for protection. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he couldn’t very well stand by as a great beast fell to its death down the precipice. Yet, as the Reverend pulled closer, he was shocked at the elephant’s size. From a distance, it had appeared large, but now, standing next to it, he understood that this was one of God’s grandest creations. Its scale suggested the expansiveness of the Lord’s will. He could make anything He pleased, and this elephant was what pleased Him most.
The Reverend dared not go nearer, for one stomp of the animal’s foot would end his life. But the animal had run precariously close to the rocky edge. The Reverend grabbed one of the chains that dragged in the dust and yanked on it hard. The animal stopped in its tracks, turned its head slowly toward the Reverend, and stared directly at him.
The small, dark eyes looked out with what could only be described as infinite sorrow. The creature conveyed a deep weariness with the world and all its follies, especially those wrought by humans who had bestowed upon it nothing but pain. The Reverend felt his heart wilt even more as he recognized and understood the animal’s misery.
“Dear Lord,” he whispered, dropping his chin to his chest, “why do you abandon us so?”
He set the chain back down upon the ground and stepped away. He was no match for the Lord’s cruel whims. If He, in His cruelty, chose to kill one of His finest creations, whether an elephant or a precious child, then who was the Reverend to stop Him? But in one final effort, he called out to the beast, shook his fists in the air, and even stomped his foot. The animal appeared not to hear his weak voice, nor did it seem to care about footfalls that were not powerful enough to shake the ground.
Then, as if to confirm how ineffectual the Reverend truly was at saving even a single soul, a bolt of lightning struck the field of poppies only a hundred paces away, and further mayhem ensued. The crack and boom shattered the air, as if God Himself had shouted down from the heavens. The Reverend instinctively covered his head with his arms and gripped the wolf’s fur with trembling fingers. The sound rang magnificently in his ears. A fire began instantly on the spot where the bolt had hit. The wind swirled with smoke and fire and falling ice as the terrifying blast continued to echo all around.
The innocent elephant took fright in this hellish moment. It dashed forward, and as the Reverend watched, the great, grand creature plunged over the cliff. Just like that. The Reverend stared unbelieving at the blank space where the animal had stood. The sleet struck hard, and fire spread, but even with disaster on all sides, there was no cause and no reason for the magnificent beast to have been sacrificed on this day. There was no possible understanding of such a pitiless world. The elephant had simply turned away from life.
And the Lord, the Reverend’s good Lord, had done so, too.
VIRGINIA PYE‘s debut novel, River of Dust, is an Indie Next Pick for May 2013. Her award-winning short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Tampa Review and Failbetter. She has taught writing and literature at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, and helps run a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. For more about her, visit: www.virginiapye.com.