She hears the dogs coming round now, bugling louder as they draw near, bawling out in unbridled rapture. Their aching bliss, laid plain, bleeds into her like a hemorrhage, and she can hear it, now, too, she thinks, calling them through the woods. Its song the furtive cry of a panther, a wailing baby. The dogs call out again, and somewhere in the quiet depths, he moans with delight as well.
Outside, it is dark as that which plagued Egypt. How the dogs manage in such blackness, she can’t say, but they have a scent on their noses and that’s how they go, she knows. Still, there are trees and all manner of things to watch out for in the night woods, though she guesses they can scent trees as well as beasts. Anse’s Plotts are of an olden breed, the keenest ever was. They can scent things never heard tell of. Trees? Why they must be simple, she guesses. She herself can scent trees, pine rosin and fruiting pawdads, though not at a full tear through the dark.
She wishes it was light out, a whitish day with the dogs scaring up quail from the hawthorn and hedge apples. Retrieving game, not stalking it. She doesn’t like the ropes of slobber that hang from their mouths after a chase such as this. Doesn’t trust how they pull against their leads so hard and lust for a thing. She can hear it there now in their voices, ringing round the woods. They’ve treed something or hemmed something in. It is over now. They’ll be home in a spell.
She goes to the stove, runs the grate back and forth, shovels out the ash, adds coal, and waits till the fire is built up good again. He’ll be froze solid when he comes back. She brings clean coveralls into the canning porch, pulls on her coat, grabs the washtubs, and goes to light a fire in the yard. She is late, and here come the headlights of the truck, dogs still baying for every ounce of life they’re worth, Anse’s old Dodge winding out hard to drag the heavy load up the steep drive.
She drops the washtubs under the hemlock and sets a match to the kindling. Anse ties the dogs and goes back to unload his catch. She comes round after him to help.
At first, she thinks it’s a bear. But it is not a bear, she knows. Too big. Unless it is a Kodiak, and she’s never heard tell of Kodiak round here. Her heart mashes chamber against chamber. “Another?” she asks.
“All that’s running,” he replies.
“Th’ey God in heaven,” she says. “Monsters. It’s the end-times.”
She hungers for something soft, the sweet, tender things of before. Now it is all hard hide and claw and horns and scales and beaks and necks and parts unheard of.
She looks at Anse. They string up the beast in the hemlock and split it down the middle. Bile rolls out and acid that singes what little grass there is. There is no heart inside it, nor any innard they can recognize, just what looks like a stomach, gut-colored and bloated. Anse pricks it and out comes nothing but noise, low grunts and shushed cries. She grabs it up and throws it to the dogs.
“Look what a taste for it they’ve got,” he says. But she looks away, cannot bear it. “Did you hear it?” he asks. “Hear it wailing? You should’ve seen it hiss and spit at me. Look at those horns. Have you ever seen anything like it? And those wings.”
“It’s unclean,” she says. “Take it out of here.”
“Clean as any other beast,” he says. “Why, look, it’s an angel.”
She steps closer, studies its faceless, floppy form, its veiny, segmented torso, its swine-like hoofs, cat-gut wings. “It’s no angel,” she says, “but a monster.”
“A monster? Yes, you’re right,” he says. “How many do you suppose there are? What all kinds, you reckon?”
He has counted and killed hundreds. Their mounted likenesses adorn the walls of the milking barn. She has never been to the barn to look, but she knows from night terrors that hell is on the other side. Worse than the monsters themselves is the smell of burning flesh, the sounds of loved ones gnashing their teeth in anguish.
“Try it,” he says. “You’d get used to it if you’d just try.”
“I don’t want to,” she says. “I’ll do w’thout.”
During the day, on her walks, she startles up quail from the hedge apples. “Look there,” she says. “There they go. Oh, how I hunger. Lord, don’t you know how I hunger? Oh, for the sweet, tender things still in abundance. Look there how abundant.”
“I’ve got a shank left yet in the smokehouse,” he tells her, standing to fetch it.
“No,” she says, holding him from going. “Not tonight.”
“I can heat it myself,” he says. “Won’t take but a minute.”
“Don’t bring that filth into my house,” she says. “I’ve had all of it I can stand.”
But he is already shaving off strips of black hindquarters with her best pairing knife. “Try a bite,” he says. “Look a’here,” and he tosses a portion of tentacle, uncooked, into his mouth and chews.
She wonders what it tastes like, how his tongue can abide the fusty butter secreted through its pores without gagging. A yellowish smear of it collects in the corners of his mouth, and suddenly, she wants fiercely to kiss him. At their age, she thinks, cross with herself and the weakness of her flesh. She fights the urge in favor of encouraging him to talk as he eats, so she can catch the faintest scent of his breath.
At night, he sleeps like a hound. She looks at his lips and traces her cracked finger over them. She wets it and runs it over them again. It’s all that’s left, he’d told her. She looks at her finger, at his lips. She misses him. Who is this strange creature beside her? He looks the same, has the same broken capillaries crossing his nose, the same loose jowl shuddering like a spoon of preserves when he breathes. But something is different. She leans in, breathes in his breath. It’s there, she thinks. Inside. She smells it. She looks into his mouth and there, his tongue. It lolls about, wide and thick as a wallet. She sees something, a line, a seam? Down the middle, yes. He smacks his lips and when she looks again, it is split. His tongue forks and flicks and she wakes herself panting.
He begins to capture and cage the monsters. He breeds them, one to the other, domesticates some that till the fields, do the hunting, work around the house. One can speak. It talks to her. Tells her he is the beast, that he does unspeakable things to them. Turn me loose, it begs her. Let me go back to my kind.
But he is a demon and she doesn’t trust him. The cages are flimsy. They could all free themselves with little effort if they wanted. No, she doesn’t trust them.
Outside, all around, the quail sing from the brush. “Catch me some,” she begs Anse, and he sends out the speaking beast, which slaughters two hundred and brings them to her.
“Eat,” the beast says. “I will bring you more, all you desire.”
But she pushes it away and hides. “No.”
He is lying with the beasts now. “Go and look,” the speaking beast tells her.
“Get!” she tells it. “Leave me be.” But the sounds carry on through the night. She hears his voice above the cries of the beasts. She hears him breathing, hears him humping and moaning. “God in heaven!” she cries, “why do you let this go on? Speak to me! There is a demon here who speaks to me plainly, but you deny me. Again and again, Lord. Why have you forsaken me?”
He opens a sideshow called Monsters in Appalachia, where he parades the beasts by whip and chain out of the barn and onto a homemade platform built of cinderblocks and three-quarter-inch particleboard. He has identified all the ones from the book of Daniel, but he is missing a few from the book of Revelation.
“This one here,” he tells curiosity-seekers, “this one is a silver-tongued devil,” and he cracks a whip at the one that can speak until it cries out so that the audience shrinks back in amazement.
Its voice is small now and timid. She listens from the window, hears it say, “Please, master, no more.”
She imagines folks leaning in to see if the thing is real or not, or maybe just for a closer look at its injuries. They don’t actually believe what they are seeing. They are merely playing along for the thrill of it. Monsters in Appalachia. Foolishness.
She takes down the rifle from the rack over the doorway and sets off for the woods. The dogs have all gone mad with desire. “I will prepare a table in the wilderness,” she says and sets out alone in search of quail. She is ravenous waiting on the Lord. She will go in search of Him. He has turned away from the wickedness of this place and may smite it yet, she thinks.
Outside, spectators are clapping and cheering passionately. Carnies sell cotton candy and day-glo necklaces from tents and booths littering the fallow tobacco fields surrounding the barn. There is a lighted marquee dead center of the hayloft on which the Whore of Babylon and her Scarlet Dragon take top billing. Hand-painted banners and sack-cloth signs adorn the walls of the barn, depicting the various monster acts one might see inside. “Hell on Earth!” says one. “Point of No Return!”
The line of those waiting to get inside wraps around the barn. Parents and their children, a group of women wearing pastel-colored uniforms, foul-mouthed teenagers, yuppies, coalminers, housewives, policemen, drug dealers, car salesmen, IT geeks, Bible scholars.
The monster that can speak is talking up the acts. “Step right up. Satisfy your curiosity. Peer into oblivion. Behind this curtain, there is a legion of demons the likes of which the human mind cannot conceive. This is real. You will see beasts loosed on the earth thousands of years ago, bound up now for your amussee-ment.” His voice is menacing, but not so much that folks are terrified. He conceals the pelt of fire and molten cinders covering his body and the bleeding boils beneath with a long black tunic covered in rhinestones.
At the front of the line, there stands a fierce-looking peacock-man, waving his brilliant green-blue wings, the diaphanous feathers of which are elongated and covered in a hundred angry eyes of God. “Depart from this bed of iniquity!” issues forth from a disembodied voice. A quiver of fiery darts is strapped to the bird-man’s blue velvet shoulders and broad back, resting in the valley of the creature’s poison-tipped wings. People step out of line to get a better look.
“Who is that?” they say to each other, beguiled, sore afraid for the coming of the great cataclysm rendered by the prophets.
“I am the purity of God,” the peacock-man says.
The monster howls with laughter. “The purity of God, are you?”
The peacock-man speaks to the beast in harsh tones of another language, a queer bird talk. Then, more plainly, “I am Jophkiel. God will show no mercy, Sumael.”
“If you are Jophkiel, the purity of God, why do you take on this preposterous disguise? Show your true form.”
The line breaks and shifts into a sea of onlookers, an audience awaiting a spectacular finale. The peacock-man is awesome, they think. Is it a costume, really? They’ve never seen anything like it before.
“‘It is a wicked and evil generation that looks after a sign. There will be no sign given,’ sayeth the Lord.”
“Harr!” roars the speaking beast. “If you’ve no mysteries to reveal. Get back in line.” Then he addresses the crowd. “I offer you proof. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Step right up.”
And the line rights itself again peacefully, and one by one, curiosity-seekers step behind the curtain of tinkling, plinkling rhinestones suspended mid-air.
“Did you see them today?” he asks her in bed that night. “The excitement on their faces? The anticipation of something spectacular, impossible, unbearable?”
She does not answer, nor does he care. He is making plans. “Who was that bird-man? An actual Got-damned angel, you suppose?”
“I want a divorce,” she says, and he grabs her bony wrist.
“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
“I never knew Him,” she says.
“I have a vision,” he proclaims next morning. “An outdoor drama, like Unto These Hills. If there are demons loose on the earth, there must be angels as well. I will find them and unleash them on the demons, and there will be Armageddon.”
“Yes,” she says, resting her peeling-knife hand in her lap, holding the dirt-covered spud in the other. “It’s time to judge the living and the dead.” This is what she has been waiting for, what they have all been yearning for fearfully but deeply. Last days, the terrible judgment.
They go together in search of the angel who had shown itself and find it whirling through the trees of the wilderness like a great gust of particle-ized ash.
“Messenger of the Lord,” Anse says, falling on his face on the leaf-moldering floor of the forest. “Go and unlock the gates of heaven so that the Creator can separate the righteous from the unrighteous.”
At once, a blinding light shines forth more radiant than the sun, and a voice says, “What have you to sacrifice?”
“Nothing,” Anse says, black tears burning hot in his eye sockets, leaving blisters on his bearded old jowls. “All that I have and am is misery. My wife there is an adulteress, and I am a sorcerer.”
“Even so, the Creator requires a burnt offering. Bring it here and I will intercede on your behalf.”
At home again, they sit on the davenport and gaze into the conjure box, which makes light of wars and disease and pestilence plaguing the earth. The weight of their transgressions is made both heavier and lighter now by their confession. She walks to the stove and stares in at the fiery coals. It is good to deny one’s self, she thinks.
In the beginning, the earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. And God gave dominion to man, who bore woman of his own flesh. And the woman was tempted by the formless void and the darkness that roamed. So she ate, and he ate what she ate, and they were cast out of the garden forever.
“I have learnt my lesson,” she says. “I shall never eat another bite of anything but that what has been bought by the blood of the Lamb.”
“Then you sh’ll starve, woman,” Anse says. “I aim to be fed one way or a’tother.” He and the speaking beast sit at the table spread with the meat of their own kind.
“I will never pull up a ch’eer to a table such as that again. Hold my hand to Jesus,” she says, clutching a dishtowel to her breast with one hand, lifting the other up to heaven.
“Then you shall perish,” says the beast, smiling coolly, “and suffer the terrible judgment.”
“I welcome it,” says she, unhinging a deranged smile, wringing the dish cloth in her hands. “I give up my whole self, my wretched old body and twisted, black heart. I want nary a piece of it no more.”
Suddenly, a form moves beneath the earth and buckles the kitchen floor, tearing asunder the shoe-scuffed linoleum that curls at the walls’ edges.
“I would gladly take my place in purgatory but for the terr-ible great judgment of the Lord to come!” She hollers excitedly at the sight of her house being rent to pieces, the windows now twisting and warping and shattering out of their frames.
“I’d cast my own soul into the fiery furnace of hell but for the righteousness of God to be revealed! I’d cast the whole lot of mankind there with me—we none of us deserves no better—but for the glory of Jesus Christ, the gentle Lamb, the terr-ible judge, to rain down His purifying fire from heaven and burn us ever’ one to cinders!”
“I would consume the tick-ridden hide of the devil his self to make right what wrong I done,” she says, flailing her arms round about her and letting her head flop back.
The little shack crumbles to the mountainside around them, and now Anse, too, begins to plead to the Heavenly Host to render forth the great ending. “Come, Yahweh, come!”
The blue halo that surrounds the earth becomes gauzy. The sky fills with ice shavings and dust, an astral mirror moving over the face of the waters and the firmament, and over all the herbs that yield seeds and trees that bear fruit, over all the fish that swim in the waters and all the winged birds that fill the air, over all the cattle and creeping things. And the reflection of the whole world is turned upside down and cast up into the sky.
And every eye on the earth and in the ground and in the sea gazes up and looks at its likeness in the sky, and it sees its whole self, from continent to continent, every mountain, every stream, every tree and rock and animal, and between those, every shadow, every dark moving place the eye has ever been tempted by. And beyond that the vastness of space. The blue halo thins further and the sky turns sallow with saltpeter. And a whisper goes out over all the earth, calling every creature by its name.