Land of the Beast
by Joel V. Kela
The sky was big enough to be a lie.
Sarah stood silent beneath it, twisting at a strand of black hair as she watched Amren load their wagon, throwing in axe and spade, hoe and harness, and whatever else he could before the pack returned. She knew he was delusional from losing Rebecca the night before. He had seen one wife killed, and now he thought to spare Sarah the same fate.
The thought made her sad. She looked through the smoke wisping up from the ruins of their cabin, now only the charred bones of a half-built dream. Her sister-wife lay buried over there, beside the creek. Beyond its banks the sun was rising over the hills, spilling blood upon their grassy sea. But it had never really been theirs, had it? This prairie belonged to others first, elder ones. Her Indian blood had known that--halfbreed though she was--long before the beasts came.
They should have stuck with Brother Brigham and the others and pushed further west.
They never should have left Illinois.
They should have obeyed God.
She stepped to Amren and took both of his hands in hers. His face was stretched taught with grief and self-hatred. His pride would never admit it the worst of it, but Sarah knew. She knew how the old Crow chief had warned them against this place, how he said their iron plow would break more than just earth. Amren had laughed and quoted scripture.
“Did you get the seeds?” She kept her voice gentle.
His flinch told her he had not even thought of it.
“I’ll bring them.” She could pretend too.
“Here.” He handed her the Springfield, and the narrowing of his eyes--though his were too light and not dark like her father’s--reminded her of stories told around the fire, tales whispered beneath a black expanse with too many frozen tears.
“It’s only lead.”
He nodded. “It still stings them.”
She didn’t argue. She knew the beasts wouldn’t come until dark anyway--and what would happen after--but she would feign ignorance. Let that be her gift to him.
She took the musket and walked over to the shed.
When she nudged open the door and saw the sacks of barley and wheat, her tears returned. She collapsed to the dirt as the night before broke in on her. The bellows of the cattle as the ground erupted beneath them. Rebecca’s shrieks as they dragged her away, right out of the cabin. The yipping laughter of the demons as they ripped her apart in the darkness, heedless of Amren’s curses and prayers and musket. The tears that reached Sarah’s lips tasted bitter like medicine, but she had no good medicine--not against this.
She stared at the ground beside her.
She didn’t want Amren to suffer like poor Rebecca. Furrow for furrow. Cut for cut.
The beasts would return. No matter how far the wagon might carry them, at the end of the day it would still be black dirt beneath them.
Of course they would kill her first, so he could watch.
The old words came back to her. Greater love hath no man than this. She thought about that for a long time. A sacrifice, really. Brother Brigham taught that some sins required blood atonement. Hers. And perhaps Amren’s. Spill the blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God.
Her eyes dropped to the Springfield in her hands.
When she finished packing the seed into the wagon she walked up to where Amren was hitching the horse. She cradled the musket in her arms like the baby she’d never have. “We should pray.”
Amren looked at her and frowned. “When we’re moving.”
Sarah shook her head. “We need God’s protection. And forgiveness.”
He stared at her, and he must have seen the steel in her eyes because he nodded. He stood up and lifted his hat from his head, looking at the sun. He turned and walked toward the creek. She kicked off her shoes and followed.
He knelt down beside Rebecca’s grave, and she joined him. The gun went to the grass beside her. He took off his hat and closed his eyes. Finally he began. “Heavenly Father, we call to thee out of the very shadow of death.”
It was the easiest thing to stand up--silent as a feather on the wind. Her fingers closed around the gun and brought it across her breast. The tears came again as she leveled the musket at the back of his head.
She waited for him to finish.
“…and for mercy. We ask it in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The snap-roar of the Springfield echoed all the way to the hills and back.
When she finished burying his body she put the musket on the ground and beat the barrel with a rock until it bent sideways--a hedge against cowardice. She turned the horse loose and went through her trunk till she found her best Sunday dress. After she tied the last ribbon she walked over and sat beneath the elm by the creek. She was careful to loosen the collar and leave her throat exposed.
She would atone for what she had done.
Her eyes moved upward. The sky looked so big.
But the earth was bigger.