Authors: Amor Towles
Taking one last look at the great black finger that was swaying left and right as it bore down upon him, Ulysses lay back in the pleated white silk that lined the empty coffin, reached up a hand, and—
hen the vengeance of
the Lord is visited upon us, it does not rain down from the heavens like a shower of meteors trailing fire. It does not strike like a bolt of lightning accompanied by claps of thunder. It does not gather like a tidal wave far out at sea and come crashing down upon the shores. No. When the vengeance of the Lord is visited upon us, it begins as a breath in the desert.
Gentle and undaunting, this little expiration turns three times above the hardened ground, quietly stirring the dust and the scent of the sagebrush. But as it turns three times more, and three times again, this little whirlwind grows to the size of a man and begins to move. Spiraling across the land it gains in velocity and volume, growing to the size of a colossus, swaying and sweeping up into its vortex all that lays within its path—first the sand and stones, the shrubs and varmints, and then the works of men. Until at long last, towering a hundred feet tall and moving at a hundred miles an hour, swirling and spinning, turning and twisting, it comes inexorably for the sinner.
Thus concluded the thoughts of Pastor John as he stepped from the darkness and swung his oaken staff in order to smite the Negro called Ulysses on the crown of his head.
Left for dead. That’s what Pastor John had been. With the tendons of his right knee torn, the skin of his cheeks abraded, his right eye
swollen shut, he lay among the bushes and brambles preparing to deliver his own absolution. But at the very moment of his demise, the Lord had found him by the side of the tracks and breathed new life into his limbs. Lifting him up from the gravel and scrub, He had carried him to the edge of a cool running stream, where his thirst was slaked, his wounds washed, and into his hands delivered the branch of an ancient oak to be used as a staff.
In the hours that followed, not once did Pastor John wonder where he was going, how he would get there, or to what end—for he could feel the Spirit of the Lord working through him, making of him Its instrument. From the riverbank, It led him back through the woods to a siding where ten empty boxcars had been left unattended. Once he was safely inside, It brought forth a locomotive that hitched the cars and carried him eastward to the city of New York.
When Pastor John disembarked in the great railyard situated between Pennsylvania Station and the Hudson River, the Spirit shielded him from the eyes of the railway guards and led him not into the crowded streets but up onto the tracks of an elevated line. With his weight on his staff in order to spare his knee, Pastor John moved along the elevated, casting his shadow down upon the avenues. Once the sun had set, the Spirit led him onward—through an empty warehouse, through a gap in a fence, through the high and scraggly grass, through the darkness itself, until in the distance he could see a campfire shining like a star.
Drawing closer, Pastor John saw that in His infinite wisdom the Good Lord had lit the fire not only to guide him, but to illuminate the faces of the Negro and the boy—even as it made Pastor John’s presence invisible to them. In the shadows outside the circle of the fire, Pastor John stopped and listened as the boy finished a story and asked if the Negro would tell one of his own.
Oh, how John had laughed to hear Ulysses rattle on about his frightful tornado. For that little twister was nothing compared to the
widening gyre which is the vengeance of the Lord. Did he seriously think that he could throw a pastor from a moving train without fear of retribution? That his actions would somehow escape the eyes of the Divine and the hand of judgment?
The Lord God is all-seeing and all-knowing,
Pastor John said without speaking.
He has paid witness to your misdeeds, Ulysses. He has paid witness to your arrogance and trespass. And He has brought me here to deliver His reprisal!
With such fury did the Spirit of the Lord breathe into the limbs of Pastor John, when he brought his oaken staff down upon the Negro’s head, the force of the blow snapped the staff in two.
When Ulysses slumped to the ground and Pastor John stepped into the light, the boy, complicit with the Negro at every step, stretched out his hands in the silent horror of the damned.
—May I join you by your fire? asked the pastor with a loud and hearty laugh.
His staff truncated, Pastor John was forced to limp toward the boy, but this didn’t worry him. For he knew the boy would go nowhere and say nothing. Rather, he would withdraw into himself like a snail into its shell. Sure enough, when Pastor John pulled him up by the collar of his shirt, he could see that the boy had clenched his eyes closed and begun his incantation.
—There is no Emmett here, said the pastor. No one is coming to your aid, William Watson.
Then with the boy’s collar fast in his grip, Pastor John raised the broken staff and prepared to deliver that lesson which Ulysses had interrupted two days before. To deliver it with interest!
But just when the staff was poised to fall, the boy opened his eyes.
—I am truly forsaken, he said with a mysterious gusto.
Then he kicked the pastor in his injured knee.
With an animal howl, Pastor John let loose the boy’s shirt and dropped his staff. Hopping in place with tears of pain falling from his
one good eye, Pastor John became more committed in his intent to teach the boy a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget. But even as he thrust his hands outward, he could see through his tears that the boy was gone.
Eager to pursue, Pastor John looked frantically about for something to replace his broken staff.
—Aha! he shouted.
For there on the ground was a shovel. Picking it up, Pastor John stuck the blade into the dirt, leaned on the handle, and began moving slowly toward the darkness into which the boy had disappeared.
After a few steps, he could just make out the silhouettes of an encampment: a small pile of firewood covered with a tarp, a makeshift washstand, a line of three empty bedrolls, and a tent.
—William, he called softly. Where are you, William?
—What’s going on out there, came a voice from inside the tent.
Holding his breath, Pastor John took a step to the side and waited as a stocky Negro emerged. Not seeing the pastor, he walked a few feet forward and stopped.
—Ulysses? he asked.
When Pastor John hit him with the flat of the shovel, he fell to the ground with a groan.
Off to his left Pastor John could hear other voices now. The voices of two men who may have heard the commotion.
—Forget the boy, he said to himself.
Using the shovel as his crutch, he hobbled as quickly as he could back to the campfire and made his way to where the boy had been sitting. There on the ground were the book and flashlight. But where was that damnable rucksack?
Pastor John looked back in the direction from which he had just come. Could it have been by the bedrolls? No. Where the book and the flashlight were, the rucksack was sure to be. Leaning over carefully, Pastor John dropped the shovel, picked up the flashlight, and
switched it on. With a hop, he trained the beam onto the back side of the railroad ties and began moving from right to left.
There it is!
Sitting down on a tie with his injured leg stretched before him, Pastor John retrieved the rucksack and set it in his lap. Even as he did so, he could hear the music within.
With growing excitement, he undid the straps and began withdrawing items and tossing them aside. Two shirts. A pair of pants. A washcloth. At the very bottom he found the tin. Liberating it from the bag, he gave it a celebratory shake.
Tomorrow morning, he would pay a visit to the Jews on Forty-Seventh Street. In the afternoon, he would go to a department store for a new set of clothes. And tomorrow night, he would check into a fine hotel, where he would take a long, hot bath and send out for oysters, a bottle of wine, perhaps even some female companionship. But now, it was time to leave. Returning the flashlight and tin to the rucksack, he cinched its straps and hooked it over his shoulder. Ready at last to be on his way, Pastor John leaned to his left in order to pick up the shovel, only to find that it was no longer where he had—
irst there was darkness
without recognition. Then slowly, an awareness of it. An awareness that it wasn’t the darkness of space—cold, vast, and remote. It was a darkness that was close and warm, a darkness that was covering him, embracing him in the manner of a velvet shroud.
Creeping from the corners of his memory came the realization that he was still in the fat man’s coffin. He could feel along his shoulders the smooth, pleated silk of the lining and, behind that, the sturdiness of the mahogany frame.
He wanted to raise the lid, but how much time had passed? Was the tornado gone? Holding his breath, he listened. He listened through the pleated silk and polished mahogany and heard nothing. Not the sound of the wind whistling, or of hail falling on the coffin lid, or of the church bell swinging on its hook unattended. In order to be certain, he decided to open the coffin a crack. Turning his palms upward, he pressed at the lid, but the lid wouldn’t budge.
Was it possible that he had become weakened with hunger and fatigue? Surely, not that much time had passed. Or had it? Suddenly, it occurred to him with a touch of horror that in the aftermath of the storm, while he was unconscious, someone might have happened upon the open grave and shoveled the mound of topsoil onto the coffin, finishing the job.
He would have to try again. After rolling his shoulders and flexing
his fingers in order to restore the circulation to his limbs, he drew a breath, put his palms again against the inner surface of the lid, and pushed with all his might as the sweat that formed on his brow ran in droplets into his eyes. Slowly, the lid began to open, and cooler air rushed into the coffin. With a sense of relief, Ulysses gathered his strength and pushed the lid all the way back, expecting to be gazing up into the afternoon sky.
But it wasn’t the afternoon.
It looked to be the middle of the night.
Raising a hand gently in the air, he saw that his skin reflected a flickering light. Listening, he heard the long, hollow horn of a ship and the laughter of a gull, as if he were somewhere at sea. But then, coming from a short distance, he heard a voice. The voice of a boy declaring his forsakenness. The voice of Billy Watson.
And suddenly, Ulysses knew where he was.
An instant later, he heard a grown man howling in anger or in pain. And though Ulysses didn’t yet understand what had happened to himself, he knew what he must do.
Having rolled onto his side, with a great sluggish effort he raised himself onto his knees. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he discovered by the light of the fire that it was blood, not sweat. Someone had hit him on the head.
Rising to his feet, Ulysses looked around the fire for Billy and for the man who had howled, but no one was there. He wanted to call out for Billy, but understood that to do so would signal to an unknown enemy that he had regained consciousness.
He needed to get away from the fire, outside of the circle of light. Under the veil of darkness, he would be able to gather his wits and strength, find Billy, and then begin the process of hunting his adversary down.
Stepping over one of the railroad ties, he walked five paces into the darkness and took his bearings. There was the river, he thought,
turning on his feet; there was the Empire State Building; and there was their encampment. As he looked in the direction of Stew’s tent he thought he saw movement. Quietly, almost too softly to hear, came the voice of a man calling Billy, calling him by his given name. The man’s voice may have been almost too soft to hear, but it wasn’t too soft to recognize.
While remaining in the darkness, Ulysses began circumventing the fire moving carefully, quietly, inevitably toward the preacher.
Ulysses stopped short when he heard Stew call his name. A moment later he heard the clang of metal and the thud of a body falling to the ground. Feeling a flash of anger with himself for being too cautious, Ulysses prepared to charge into the encampment when he saw a silhouette emerge from the darkness, moving unevenly.
It was the preacher using Stew’s shovel as a crutch. Dropping the shovel on the ground, he picked up the boy’s flashlight, switched it on, and began searching for something.
Keeping an eye on the preacher, Ulysses crept to the edge of the fire, reached over a railroad tie, and retrieved the shovel. When the preacher gave an exclamation of discovery, Ulysses stepped back into the darkness and watched as he picked up Billy’s knapsack and sat with it in his lap.
In an excited voice, the preacher began talking to himself about hotels and oysters and female companionship while withdrawing Billy’s belongings and tossing them on the ground—until he found the tin of dollars. At the same time, Ulysses began moving forward until he was directly behind the preacher. And when the preacher, having slung the knapsack over his shoulder, leaned to his left, Ulysses brought the shovel down.
With the preacher now lying in a heap at his feet, Ulysses felt himself heaving. Given his own injury, the effort to subdue the preacher had taken all his immediate strength. Worried that he might even
faint, Ulysses stabbed the shovel into the ground and leaned on its hilt as he looked down to make certain the preacher was unmoving.
—Is he dead?
It was Billy, standing at his side looking down at the preacher too.
—No, said Ulysses.
Astoundingly, the boy seemed relieved.
—Are you all right? asked Billy.
—Yes, said Ulysses. Are you?
—I did like you said, Ulysses. When Pastor John told me that I was alone, I imagined that I had been forsaken by everyone, including my Maker. Then I kicked him and hid beneath the firewood tarp.
—You did well, Billy.
—What the hell is going on?
Billy and Ulysses looked up to find Stew standing behind them with a butcher knife in hand.
—You’re bleeding too, Billy said with concern.
Stew had been hit on the side of the head so the blood had run down from his ear onto the shoulder of his undershirt.
Ulysses was suddenly feeling better now, more clearheaded and sure of foot.
—Billy, he said, why don’t you go over there and fetch us the basin of water and some towels.
Sticking his knife through his belt, Stew came alongside Ulysses and looked at the ground.
—Who is it?
—A man of ill intent, said Ulysses.
Stew shifted his gaze to Ulysses’s head.
—You better let me take a look at that.
—I’ve had worse.
—We’ve all had worse.
—I’ll be all right.
—I know, I know, said Stew with a shake of the head. You’re a big, big man.
Billy arrived with the basin and towels. The two men cleaned their faces and then gingerly dabbed at their wounds. When they were done, Ulysses sat Billy down beside him on one of the railroad ties.
—Billy, he began, we’ve had quite a bit of excitement tonight.
Billy nodded in agreement.
—Yes, we have, Ulysses. Emmett will hardly believe it.
—Well, that’s just what I wanted to talk to you about. What with your brother trying to find his car and having to get you to California before the Fourth of July, he’s got a lot on his mind. Maybe it’s for the best if we keep what happened here tonight between us. At least for now.
Billy was nodding.
—It’s probably for the best, he said. Emmett has a lot on his mind.
Ulysses patted Billy on the knee.
—One day, he said, you will tell him. You will tell him and your children too, about how you bested the preacher, just like one of the heroes in your book.
When Ulysses saw that Billy understood, he got up in order to speak with Stew.
—Can you take the boy back to your tent? Maybe give him something to eat?
—All right. But what are you going to do?
—I’m going to see to the preacher.
Billy, who had been listening behind Ulysses’s back, stepped around him with a look of concern.
—What does that mean, Ulysses? What does that mean that you’re going to see to the preacher?
Ulysses and Stew looked from the boy to each other and back again.
—We can’t leave him here, explained Ulysses. He’s going to come to just like I did. And whatever villainy had been on his mind before I crowned him is going to be there still. Only more so.
Billy was looking up at Ulysses with a furrowed brow.
—So, continued Ulysses, I’m going to take him down the stairs and drop him—
—At the police station?
—That’s right, Billy. I’m going to drop him at the police station.
Billy nodded to indicate that this was the right thing to do. Then Stew turned to Ulysses.
—You know the stairs that go down to Gansevoort?
—Someone’s bent back the fencing there. It’ll be an easier route, given what you’ll be carrying.
Thanking Stew, Ulysses waited for Billy to gather his things, for Stew to put out the fire, and for the two to go back to Stew’s tent before he turned his attention to the preacher.
Taking him under the armpits, Ulysses raised him up and draped him over his shoulders. The preacher wasn’t heavier than Ulysses had expected, but he was gangly, making him an awkward burden. Shifting the body back and forth by increments, Ulysses tried to center it before he began walking in short, steady strides.
When he reached the staircase, if Ulysses had stopped to think, he might have rolled the preacher down the steps to preserve his own strength. But he was moving now, and he had the preacher’s weight evenly distributed across his shoulders, and he was worried that if he stopped he might lose his balance or his momentum. And he would need them both. Because from the bottom of the stairs, it was a good two hundred yards to the river.