Read an Excerpt
God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.
Like those fish all disco-lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she's been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night. She left the lighthouse and went down to the beach to look at the moon pure and straight, and she stood in the shallows and let her feet sink into the sand as the patter- waves tickled her ankles. And that's when she saw it, a school of tiny fish, all darting around like marbles in a chalk circle, and they were lit up electric, mostly silver but some gold and pink too. They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn't seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she's never seen that before.
And you could say the world has gone to black damnation, and you could say the children of Cain are holding sway over the good and the righteousbut here's what Temple knows: She knows that whatever hell the world went to, and whatever evil she's perpetrated her own self, and whatever series of cursed misfortunes brought her down here to this island to be harbored away from the order of mankind, well, all those things are what put her there that night to stand amid the Daylight Moon and the Miracle of the Fishwhich she wouldn't of got to see otherwise.
See, God is a slick god. He makes it so you don't miss out on nothing you're supposed to witness firsthand.
She sleeps in an abandoned lighthouse at the top of a bluff. At the base there's a circular room with a fireplace where she cooks fish in a blackened iron pot. The first night she discovered the hatch in the floor that opened into a dank storage room. There she found candles, fishhooks, a first aid kit, a fl are gun with a box of oxidized rounds. She tried one, but it was dead.
In the mornings she digs for pignuts in the underbrush and checks her nets for fish. She leaves her sneakers in the lighthouse, she likes the feel of the hot sand on the soles of her feet. The Florida beachgrass between her toes. The palm trees are like bushes in the air, their brittle dead fronds like a skirt of bones around the tall trunks, rattling in the breeze.
At noon every day, she climbs the spiral stairs to the top of the signal tower, pausing at the middle landing to catch her breath and feel the sun on her face from the grimy window. At the top, she walks the catwalk once aroundgazing out over the illimitable sea, and then, toward the mainland coast, the rocky cusp of the blight continent. Sometimes she stops to look at the inverted hemisphere of the light itself, that blind glass optic, like a cauldron turned on its side and covered with a thousand square mirrors.
She can see her reflection there, clear and multifarious. An army of her.
Afternoons, she looks through the unrotted magazines she'd found lining some boxes of kerosene. The words mean nothing to her, but the pictures she likes. They evoke places she has never beencrowds of the sharply dressed hailing the arrival of someone in a long black car, people in white suits reclining on couches in homes where there's no blood crusted on the walls, women in undergarments on backdrops of seamless white. Abstract heaven, that whitewhere could such a white exist? If she had all the white paint left in the world, what would go untouched by her brush? She closes her eyes and thinks about it.
It can be cold at night. She keeps the fire going and pulls her army jacket tighter around her torso and listens to the ocean wind whistling loud through the hollow flute of her tall home.
Miracle, or augury maybebecause the morning after the glowing fish, she finds the body on the beach. She sees it during her morning walk around the island to check the nets, she finds it on the north point of the teardrop landmass, near the shoal.
At first it is a black shape against the white sand, and she studies it from a distance, measures it with her fingers up to her eye.
Too small to be a person, unless it's folded double or half buried. Which it could be.
She looks around. The wind blowing through the grass above the shore makes a peaceful sound.
She sits and studies the thing and waits for movement.
The shoal is bigger today. It keeps getting bigger. When she first came, the island seemed like a long way off from the mainland. She swam to it, using an empty red and white cooler to help keep her afloat in the currents. That was months ago. Since then the island has gotten bigger, the season pulling the water out farther and farther every night, drawing the island closer to the mainland. There is a spit of reefy rock extending out from the shore of the mainland and pointing toward the island, and there are large fragments of jutting coral reaching in the other direction from the island. Like the fingers of God and Adam, and each day they come closer to touching as the water retreats and gets shallower along the shoal.
But it still seems safe. The breakers on the reef are violent and thunderous. You wouldn't be able to get across the shoal without busting yourself to pieces on the rock. Not yet at least.
The shape doesn't move, so she stands and approaches it carefully.
It's a man, buried facedown in the sand, the tail of his flannel shirt whipping back and forth in the wind. There's something about the way his legs are arranged, one knee up by the small of his back, that tells her his back is broken. There's sand in his hair, and his fingernails are torn and blue.
She looks around again. Then she raises her foot and pokes the man's back with her toe. Nothing happens so she pokes him again, harder.
That's when he starts squirming.
There are muffled sounds coming from his throat, strained grunts and growlsfrustration and pathos rather than suffering or pain. His arms begin to sweep the sand as if to make an angel. And there's a writhing, rippling movement that goes through the muscles of his body, as of a broken toy twitching with mechanical repetition, unable to right itself.
Meatskin, she says aloud.
One of the hands catches at her ankle, but she kicks it off.
She sits down beside him and leans back on her hands and braces her feet up against the torso and pushes the body so that it flips over faceup, leaving a crooked, wet indentation in the sand.
One arm is still flailing, but the other is caught under his back so she stays on that side of him and kneels over his exposed face.
The jaw is missing altogether, along with one of the eyes. The face is blistered black and torn. A flap of skin on the cheekbone is pulled back and pasted with wet sand, revealing the yellow white of bone and cartilage underneath. The place where the eye was is now a mushy soup of thick clear fluid mixed with blood, like ketchup eggs. There's a string of kelp sticking out of the nose that makes him look almost comicalas though someone has played a practical joke on him.
But the rightness of his face is distorted by the missing mandible. Even revolting things can be made to look whole if there is a symmetry to them but with the jaw gone, the face looks squat and the neck looks absurdly equine.
She moves her fingers back and forth before his one good eye, and the eye rolls around in its socket trying to follow the movement but stuttering in its focus. Then she puts her fingers down where the mouth would be. He has a set of upper teeth, cracked and brittle, but nothing beneath to bite down against. When she puts her fingers there, she can see the tendons tucked in behind his teeth clicking away in a radial pattern. There are milky white bones jutting out where the mandible would be attached and yellow ligaments like rubber bands stretching and relaxing, stretching and relaxing, with the ghost motion of chewing.
What you gonna do? she says. Bite me? I think your biting days are gone away, mister.
She takes her hand from his face and sits back, looking at him.
He gets his head shifted in her direction and keeps squirming.
Stop fightin against yourself, she says. Your back's broke. You ain't going nowhere. This is just about the end of your days.
She sighs and casts a gaze over the rocky shoal in the distance, the wide flat mainland beyond.
What'd you come here for anyway, meatskin? she says. Did you smell some girlblood carried on the wind? Did you just have to have some? I know you didn't swim here. Too slow and stupid for that.
There is a gurgle in his throat and a blue crab bursts out from the sandy exposed end of the windpipe and scurries away.
You know what I think? she says. I think you tried to climb across those rocks. And I think you got picked up by those waves and got bust apart pretty good. That's what I think. What do you say about that?
He has worked the arm free from underneath him and reaches toward her. But the fingers fall short by inches and dig furrows in the sand.
Well, she says, you shoulda been here last night. There was a moon so big you could just about reach up and pluck it out of the sky. And these fish, all electriclike, buzzing in circles round my ankles. It was something else, mister. I'm telling you, a miracle if ever there was one.
She looks at the rolling eye and the shuddering torso.
Maybe you ain't so interested in miracles. But still and all, you can cherish a miracle without deserving one. We're all of us beholden to the beauty of the world, even the bad ones of us. Maybe the bad ones most of all.
She sighs, deep and long.
Anyway, she says, I guess you heard enough of my palaver. Listen to me, I'm doin enough jawing for the both of us. Enough jawing for the both of us get it?
She laughs at her joke, and her laughter trails off as she stands and brushes the sand off her palms and looks out over the water to the mainland. Then she walks up to a stand of palm trees above the beach and looks in the grassy undergrowth, stomping around with her feet until she finds what she's looking for. It's a big rock, bigger than a football. It takes her half an hour to dig around it with a stick and extract it from the earth. Nature doesn't like to be tinkered with.
Then she carries the rock back down to the beach where the man is lying mostly still.
When he sees her, he comes to life again and begins squirming and shuddering and guggling his throat.
Anyway, she says to him, you're the first one that got here. That counts, I guess. It makes you like Christopher Columbus or something. But this tide and allyou wanna bet there's more of you coming? You wanna bet there's all your slug friends on their way? That's a pretty safe bet, I'd say.
She nods and looks out over the shoal again.
Okay then, she says, lifting the rock up over her head and bringing it down on his face with a thick wet crunch.
The arms are still moving, but she knows that happens for a while afterward sometimes. She lifts the rock again and brings it down twice more just to make sure.
Then she leaves the rock where it is, like a headstone, and goes down to her fishing net and finds a medium-sized fish in it and takes the fish back up to the lighthouse, where she cooks it over a fire and eats it with salt and pepper.
Then she climbs the steps to the top of the tower and goes out on the catwalk and looks far off toward the mainland.
She kneels down and puts her chin against the cold metal railing and says:
I reckon it's time to move along again.