Authors: Gil Adamson
Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000
Mary remembered what happened next only in dull flashes. The
of her wedding ring as it hit the sandy earth â thrown in like
a pebble or a spent match or any other substanceless thing. The glint of it in the dark
hole â then shovelfuls of earth raining down over it. Damp air, damp clothes, warm
drafts of wind coming through the trees. The cross slumped in its hole. Marking the
place, at the boy's head. Marking the death of it all. Her wedding ring buried, as
if she were already a widow and her husband already dead, the clock running backward and
forward at the same time. Everything had been taken from her â her father, her
birthplace, any money she had ever possessed, her engagement ring, her only child, and
now her husband. The girl had looked around at nothing, and had seen everything.
THE WIDOW SAT
to one side of the leaf-strewn altar and
watched the men come, one or two among them with their helmets lit, and the others
following. They came in small groups, some murmuring among themselves, clearly amiable,
others silent as if nothing more than chance had brought them together. It was the first
service to be held in the church â the widow gathered they were infrequent anyway,
impromptu. She wasn't sure what form they usually took. But since the pews were
finished, and since it was Sunday, the Reverend had called a service at dawn, at the end
of a night shift. A thin, bluish sunrise frosted the tips of the cedars. A massive aspen
that stood by what would someday be the front door of the church reached high above its
peers and spread its trembling, disclike leaves in the growing light. But down below all
was dark, and when the men sat down on the pews and blew out their head-lamps, the
church fell into gloom, a vague whiff of sulphur from the carbide lamps. The assembly
waited for the Reverend, who was late. He had dashed home quickly to wash the sawdust
off. Around the widow sat moving shapes and their voices.
“. . . used to be open range, mostly. We fenced in our gardens to
. Now they got fences everywhere. Like a man'd build a fence
just to be polite.”
“Wo ist der ficken Pastor? Ich bin so mÃ¼de,” said a
“Who's that girl?”
“I said I dunno.”
“. . . they look like a black snake only they got these, well not
rattles, more like plats, maybe two or three of them, five inches long. And they sling
those plats at you, and if they hit you, it'll just rip you up, like someone went
at your leg with a knife.”
“Shut up about snakes in church.”
“Coachwhips. I've seen 'em down south. They aren't
so bad. You take them joint snakes, now. That's not one of God's works. You
hit one, he breaks into pieces, layin' on the ground like a broken icicle, not
moving at all. And during the night . . .”
“Can't say as I believe that.”
“. . . during the night they grow back together. Ask him if you
don't believe me.”
“Will you both shut up? This is a church, and there's a woman
“. . . but he jumped down on this feller and went at him, and
I'm shouting, âDon't let 'im go!' I was too scared to go
help. Sorry, but it's true. Then this old fat boy runs up to me and says,
âWhat're ye shouting at?' So I say, âIf you're so curious,
go on down there and take a look.'”
“No way. Nothing grows back together.”
“Ronnie. I swear, you'd believe any old bunk someone told
“I thought they did too. Shows what I know.”
“Stop asking me. I got no idea where she's from. Go ask her
Slowly, the sunrise began to rain down through the trees into the unwalled
church so that the shapes of the men became clearer. The parishioners sat huddled
together after a long shift underground. The Reverend had laughingly told the widow it
was the only time to catch them when they weren't either drunk or asleep â
directly after a shift. Their breath was visible, vapour rising from their unhelmeted
heads and damp clothes and soaked boots. They waited so long that eventually some slept,
leaning together, heads on shoulders. Their faces were black and white, one common
pattern shared by all of them â the eyes white, the forehead white, the face and
temples black. Mouth blackest of all. The widow could not tell even the approximate age
of any man, not by the sooted and theatrical faces, nor by the ruined hands or the
filthy and corduroyed necks, nor by the unearthly eyes. She noted a strange but not
altogether unpleasant scent that wafted from them. Rainwater, gunpowder, sweat.
“Here he is!” someone shouted, and everyone stood. The
Reverend strode through them, stepping among those who had been seated on the floor of
the nave. He handed his Bible to the widow and turned to face his flock. He wore his
long black coat, held his wide-brimmed hat in his hand, and stood with his hands on his
hips, like a proud pirate on the deck of his ship.
“I am late. My apologies to you men, some of whom”â he
made a solicitous gesture to one withered and sagging fellow
front row â“are tired and want nothing more than to fall into your
“No worries, Father. We're here.” The shout came from
“Well, shall we get on with it?” the Reverend said.
“Let's go!” several voices replied. There was a true
eagerness in the crowd, as if they were attending a sporting event, and a look of pride
spread over the Reverend's face.
The widow was confused. This wasn't the way her father had ever
started a service, nor any other minister she'd seen. But then, nothing was the
same any more, or even familiar, nor had it been for a long time. She took a look around
her at the unfinished church, the wowed flooring, the leaves drifted up against the
pews, and above everyone's heads, the trees standing tall and silent. And then
there was the flock itself: all men, some still holding their axes and shovels, men with
ghostly faces, exhausted and odorous and moulding in their seats, like something dank
had floated up from hell to see what the Reverend was up to. Devils on holiday. But the
Reverend seemed so pleased. Mary told herself he was doing his best.
“The righteous man,” he began, “has nothing to fear. He
knows not worry nor fear nor uncertainty, and his days are filled with light.”
There was a shifting and shuffling among the miners. Several of the Reverend's
poorly made benches squalled with the movement of their bodies. The widow could not tell
what they were thinking for they sat pokerfaced, waiting.
“The righteous man is the most blessed of all God's creatures
because he has made his own place on earth. He has forged it with his own hands, his
heart, the sweat of his brow.
presented them his fists, “is the engine of righteousness.”
“Amen,” someone said.
“Who said that?” The Reverend stepped forward eagerly and
craned his neck. There was silence. It was unclear to the widow why he was so keen to
know who had spoken; she could find no likely source among the eerie blackened faces,
many of whom were staring at her.
is the simple key to happiness. Resolve is in
every man, every one of you, no matter how rotten your heart or black your deeds.
Whatever you have done, you may undo over time â if your heart is strong. True, in
certain unusual circumstances there is no escape. Certain men bear so deep a stain on
their corrupted hearts that nothing, not even the love of God, can erase it. I shall
The Reverend removed his coat and lay it over the altar. Scandalized, the
widow retrieved it and draped it over her arm.
“Thank you,” the Reverend whispered, barely moving his lips so
no one else but she knew he had spoken.
“I shall show you the work of a man . . .” he unbuttoned his
shirt and, to her dismay, removed it, “who called himself a teacher. A teacher to
me and other boys.” At this, he unbuttoned his long johns and stood naked to the
waist. The widow wanted to avert her gaze from the sight of a man half naked in church,
but what she saw stunned her. He was a normal man, normally built, with strong arms and
torso. But across his chest were many diagonal marks, raised white scars, and across his
shoulders lay dozens more â deep, indelible signs of some weapon, a whip or a
cane. He turned to display his back. More marks, intersecting and parallel, one
over another, some deep, some light, like the surface of a
butcher's chopping block.
The widow put a hand to her mouth but made no sound. None of the men spoke
or even moved, but she knew somehow that many had seen this before. The damage was
incredible, the marks repetitive and precise. None seemed to stray toward the edges of
his frame, there were no sloppy sideways cuts, nothing under his arms or near the
waistband of his dark pants. The widow had a vision of a boy not even trying to evade
the bite of the whip, and refusing to flinch.
“We resolve to endure the burdens of this world,” the Reverend
said into the silence. “What more can we do? We cannot know from which hand will
come comfort, from which hand punishment. How much in your life has been a surprise to
you? And you? We cannot save ourselves from injury, because it will surely come. Life
itself is injury, the way bread is made of flour. We can only strive, with a merry
heart, to do the right thing. Effort is your salvation. Of course, there is no effort
without error and shortcoming. But give yourself over to resolve. To courage! Be a man!
Which of you wishes to be among those timid and cold souls who have known neither
victory nor defeat?”
There was a murmuring of assent and a nodding of heads.
“Now,” he said, stepping off the raised platform down onto the
floor with the men, “who's first?” There was a movement at the back,
and several hands shoved a young man out into the aisle.
“Ricky's the only one today, Father.”
“Only one? Are there not more of you?”
“Father,” appealed one fellow at the back, “you've
whupped the rest of us. Ricky's the only one left.”
There were a few chuckles from the front row. The Reverend stood a long
minute considering the issue. “Well, Ricky,” he said finally, “I
suppose you'll have to do.”
The boy came to the front on shaking legs, and slowly, reluctantly removed
his coats and vests and sweaters, and finally peeled the filthy upper portion of his
long johns down over his waistband. With a few shamed glances at the widow, he tied the
grimy arms round his waist. When he was ready, the boy stood uncertainly, waiting. It
was then that the widow realized she was about to witness another Bible lesson. Pugilism
. . . in a church! She was holding the Reverend's clothing, and she clutched it to
her chest. What should she do? How could she stop it?
“Shake hands,” urged someone, and the two half-naked figures
did. And then the boy and the Reverend stepped away from one another, composed
themselves, and assumed boxing poses. The boy was disastrously huge, muscled and sinewy
from carrying rock, swinging a sledgehammer, pushing groaning carts on metal tracks in
the mine. The boy looked like a man, and next to him, the Reverend looked like a boy.
Even the widow could tell the fight wouldn't be a fair one.
“Who's gonna count three minutes?” a voice
“Never mind counting, it's first man down, is all.”
“You have to count. You gotta have rounds.”
But the fighters were already at it, the boy striking first with a long,
slow-armed swing and receiving a walloping counterpunch in return.
“There's no rounds and there's no betting. This is a
church, for Chri . . . Anyway, you don't need it.”
“'Course you do.”
“No, you don't.”
“Well, what if it's a tie? What then?”
“There won't be a tie.”
“No man wins every time, I don't care who he is. Think about
it! You don't expect a coin to always come up heads, do you?”
“I would if the Rev was on the coin!” This remark produced an
approving roar of laughter from the men, who were now standing to get a look at the
progress of the fight. The widow was gritting her teeth, her eyes riveted on the
“If the Rev was on the coin he'd beat the knickers off the
Queen!” roared a young fellow. With that, there was laughter and a stomping of
feet. The thundering sound alarmed the widow, and she felt suddenly certain that the
place was about to fall apart around her ears.
“Stop it!” she barked at no one. They all sat down again,
grins fading on their rueful faces.
“'Scuse us, ma'am.”
There was a hollow
and Ricky emitted a grunt. The Reverend
was stepping back and sideways, back and sideways, his head dodging Ricky's blows.
Then they came together in a staggering clinch, the floorboards sagging under them, and
exchanged rabbit punches. Finally, the widow couldn't watch any longer and she
buried her face in the Reverend's coat.
“Go, Ricky boy! Give it to him!”
“He ain't about to win. Don't waste your
“Sure he is, just look at him! He's bigger than all of us put
together. He's gonna win just from sheer size. . . . Aw, dammit.”
“All right, what'd'ya think of that?”
“Oh! I can't watch.”
“He's finished. The boy's done.”
“No, no, no. Give him a second. He'll recover.”
“He hasn't got a second. The Rev's coming . . .
“There goes your boy. Lookit him.”
“Told ya so.”