Sara’s three little eggs lean against each other. They glow with a soft blue sheen. She’s brought a new piece of bark to shore up the nest. She thinks she sees one of the eggs rock slightly, but she stares at it for a few moments and it doesn’t move again. Ruthie is in the creek in her new boots, testing if they are, in fact, waterproof. It rained the night before and behind the broken clouds the sky is fresh and blue.
“How’s the water?” asks Sara, sitting on a damp log creekside.
Ruthie shrugs. Her sweater is too big and the empty sleeves dangle past her waist. “Can’t feel it,” she says.
“Believe me now?”
Ruthie just looks at her. She rolls up the sleeves so her little pale hands are poking out. She reaches down and lets the water run through her fingers. “The water is cold,” she says. “Happy?”
Sara sighs. She’s flown away, looking for food. The farther the hawk gets from her nest the less Sara can feel her. She sees a glimpse of rising canyon walls, wisps of fog strung in twisted oaks, and then its gone, and its just her, little old Sara, down at the creek with Ruthie. She feels a pang in her gut—a sickly flipping sensation—when she is just herself.
“Let’s get going, kiddo,” says Sara, standing.
“Don’t call me kiddo,” says Ruthie, stomping angrily out of the water. “I’m not a kid.”
“Of course not,” says Sara, which gets her a scathing look from Ruthie, but no response.
They continue their walk through the park at a slow pace. They follow the creekside trail. At a wide place in the creek, a deep pool lined with smooth boulders, Sara stops, says to Ruthie, “This is a popular spot to swim. We can come here in the summer.”
“I won’t be here in the summer,” says Ruthie.
“Ah,” says Sara. “Where will you be?”
“I’m going to go home.”
“Ruthie, we talked about that. You can’t go home.”
“No--you can’t go home. I didn’t break any rules.”
Ruthie blushes and her eyes go wide and soft—but just for an instant, and then the scared child is gone and Ruthie has replaced her with the hard, bitter little woman she’s been wearing so often. “None that anyone knows about,” she says quietly, but with defiance.
Sara thinks of reaching out for her, decides against it. She puts her hands in her pockets and says, “Sweetie, why don’t you just not make any decisions until after we talk to the doctor, ok?”
“I’ve made my decision,” she says, spinning away and trudging off the trail into an field overgrown with tall, dewey weeds. “I’m keeping it!” she shouts over her shoulder.
Jovan comes over with a bottle of wine and the makings of a chicken quinoa salad. Ruthie nods hello and goes to her room, firmly closes the door. Sara drinks her wine and watches Jovan cook from the stool at the kitchen bar, and she nests on her eggs. They get warmer and warmer until they are like little glowing coals against her downey belly. The sunset comes through the thin red curtains and the whole apartment is cast in a weak, pinkish light. From her nest she can see the sun wink out behind the coastal mountains. For a moment the clouds are marbled blue and gold and they stand out from the twilight as if someone had hung them by little strings against a painted backdrop. She can feel the cold, the night is touched with moisture, it will rain again before morning, her eggs are warm, the wind moves the brittle leaves and they go tic tic tic, and the evening, the whole world, feels vibrant. The apartment goes an empty grey with the sun gone. Sara turns on a floor lamp and its flat dead light falls without affect on her leather couch, her glass coffee table, her flat screen tv, the record collection left by some old boyfriend and always now a hit with new visitors, like Jovan, when Jovan was new.
Jovan puts a lid on the chicken, sips his wine and says, “So, not a successful day, I take it?”
“She didn’t like the boots?”
“She doesn’t like anything.”
Jovan shrugs. “Who does, at that age?” He smiles. His mouth is all teeth, big square teeth wrestling each other for space.
“She says she wants to keep the baby,” Sara says, looking down.
“Yikes,” says Jovan, whistling slightly, shaking his head. “Babies raising babies.”
“Deep,” says Sara.
Jovan nods seriously. “It’s a social issue,” he says.
“A problem for our times,” says Sara with the stern seriousness of an evening news reporter. But Jovan doesn’t get that she’s joking, he just squints his eyes and rests his chin in his hand as if he is deep in thought.
“I wonder…” he says. “Maybe we could raise it for her?”
“That,” says Sara, finishing her wine. “is a terrible idea.”
He barks a fake laugh. “Yeah, that would be stupid.”
He checks the chicken on the stove. Sara pours more wine.
“So,” he says after a minute. “You still think your parents won’t help her?”
“My parents can never find out about this. Ruthie needs to get an abortion. We have to convince her of that, and then we’ll worry about our parents, what to tell them.”
“If she doesn’t want to get an abortion, I mean…It’s her choice, isn’t it?”
Sara looks at him, takes three deep breaths.
“You always look at me like I’m so stupid,” he says quietly.
Sara closes her eyes. She is asleep in her nest, surrounded by darkness. “Let’s just change the subject,” she says.
He nods. “Dinner’s just about ready.”
Sara sets the small round table with three settings. Jovan puts a bowl of slightly steaming salad on a trivet in the middle of the table. Ruthie comes out of her room, makes a plate, but stands next to the table while Sara and Jovan sit. She looks at them. “I was taught,” she says, “that it’s rude to speak about other people when they’re not there.”
Jovan’s face goes pale. “Oh, Ruthie, no, we weren’t talking about you!”
Sara rolls her eyes. “We’re here to help you, Ruthie, we’re just trying to figure out how.”
“You’re rude,” says Ruthie.
“I know,” Sara says. “I was taught the same things you were, remember? But sometimes we have to break the rules a little bit. Sometimes you have to hurt someone’s feelings to do what’s right, okay?”
“That’s not okay. What’s right is always right.”
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” says Jovan.
Ruthie ignores him. “You don’t remember anything Father taught you.”
“Of course I do. We grew up in the same house, you know.”
Ruthie shakes her head. “Not even close,” she says, and takes her plate to her room.
Sara and Jovan eat quickly, and in silence.
The next morning arrives with a heavy rain. Sara makes coffee, checks her email, waits for Ruthie to wake up. She presses herself against her eggs. She knocks on Ruthie’s door and there is no answer. The rain hits the roof with an insistent drumming. The rain runs across her feathers. She knocks on Ruthie’s door and there is no answer. She opens the door.
Ruthie is asleep, draped in a blanket, and hovering three feet above her bed. The blanket hangs to either side of her and brushes the mattress. Ruthie’s hands are crossed over her chest. Sara goes over, reaches out to her, touches her gently on the shoulder. “Ruthie, sweetie,” she says.
The girls’ face is placid, pale, cheeks flushed. Calm. She looks like the little girl that she is, that she’s supposed to be. Her dirty-blond hair hangs down from her head in a tangled curtain. At Sara’s voice her eyes flutter and part, she turns her head slowly in Sara’s direction. And then she drops suddenly to the mattress, bounces slightly, and sits upright.
“I was dreaming,” she says.
“I know,” says Sara.
After the doctor’s office, they go to brunch. Ruthie orders a Benedict and hash browns and a side of biscuits and gravy. She devours it all. Sara has two eggs, bacon, coffee, then a mimosa. Then another. She is starting to feel fuzzy and sad. The rain has stopped momentarily and she flies off, shaking the water from her wings, searching, searching for something.
“Seven weeks,” she says.
Ruthie is working the last stream of gravy off her plate with a spoon. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says.
“Well, Ruthie. Shit. I mean, what the hell did you come here for?”
Ruthie licks her spoon slowly, sets it down on her plate. She stacks her biscuit plate on her Benedict plate and pushes them aside. “I want some chocolate milk,” she says.”
“You don’t get shit until you start talking to me.”
“You’re a drunk,” says Ruthie.
“I am drunk, I’m not a drunk,” says Sara.
“Father would see no difference.”
Sara stares at her. “True. But he’s not here. I want to help you, but I can’t unless you let me.”
Ruthie sighs. “Can I have a chocolate milk?”
Sara looks up, signals the waiter. “A chocolate milk for the lady, and you can top this off,” she says, gesturing at her mimosa glass.
When their drinks arrive Sara stares at Ruthie, who takes a long draught of her chocolate milk, leaving a foamy milk mustache over her thin lips that breaks Sara’s heart with its innocence, its childishness, its absolute incongruity with the look in Ruthie’s eyes. “Talk,” says Sara.
Ruthie doesn’t wipe her lips. She says, “It was after the last Awakening. I was one of the dancers. It was Sammael. You probably don’t know him. He’s just a little older than me.”
“He’s the father?”
Ruthie stares at her.
“Sammael is the father of you baby?” Sara says, feeling misunderstood.
“No,” says Ruthie. “He had the Awakening. There’s no father but Father,” she says, confused, as if Sara is speaking another language.
Sara looks at her empty glass. She has maybe had too much to drink. “Who is the father of your baby, Ruthie?”
“I can’t say,” says Ruthie.
“You’re safe here,” says Sara.
Ruthie cocks her head at Sara. “I can’t say because I don’t know. One day I was me and the next day I was us.”
Sara reaches across their dirty plates and puts her hand lightly over Ruthie’s. “We need to tell the police, Ruthie,” she whispers.
Ruthie shakes her head. “I told Father. He didn’t believe me.”
Sara pulls her hand back. Blinks. “You… told Father that you’re pregnant?”
“No, I told him I had an Awakening.”
“Girls don’t have Awakenings,” Sara laughs, feeling, for the first time in years, like the little girl who grew up in The Sanctuary. It makes her feel a little sick.
Ruthie wipes the milk away from her lip. “Bullshit,” she says.
“I’m sorry, no, you’re right. It is bullshit. I wasn’t laughing at you. I was laughing at the idea.”
“Well, it’s not funny.”
“I know. I know. That’s why I left.”
“You left because you’re weak.”
“I left because it’s a god-damned cult, Ruthie. I have a good life out here, in the world. Stay with me, and I’ll show you. I’ll show you how good life is here. You can be whoever you want here.”
Ruthie looks at the empty mimosa glass flecked with pulp. “Looks amazing,” she says.
Sara leans back in her chair. “So, what, you’re a true believer then?”
“Something has happened to me, Sarai,” she says. “I needed to get away to understand it. The dreams are helping me. The dreams are clearer out here.Maybe its because there’s no believers here, and so I’m easier for the Old Ones to find. I don’t know, Sarai. I just knew I needed to find you.”
Sara doesn’t know what to say to that, so she says: “That’s not my name anymore.”
“No. You’re trying to blend in. I get it. Normal Sara.”
“Something like that,” says Sara, signaling for the check.
“Come back with me,” says Ruthie. “Things will be different now. I can feel it.”
Sara leaves a large tip and signs hastily. Her hands are shaking as she puts her wallet into her purse. “It doesn’t last forever, you know,” she says.
“The magic,” Sara says, looking at Ruthie and not thinking that she is still a little girl.
Jovan is spinning at an art gallery opening: “One of Two Things: New Works by L. Vincent Vincent.” Jovan stands behind his table, holding a single earphone to his ear, bouncing to the music, eyes closed in a performance of ecstasy, his shaggy blond hair swishing and getting increasingly damp. He looks to Sara like a happy puppy ready to chase a ball. It is hot in the gallery but Sara has her arms crossed over her chest and finds herself shivering if she stands still. The artists work is minimal, each painting just two broad, bold brush-strokes of different colors against a white canvas. This one blue and red, that one orange and pink. The colors never touch; they swirl and arch in combat, fighting for the same space, that white void between them. Sara weaves through the crowd and looks at the paintings. Jovan’s music is throbbing at the edges of the room, ignored by the talking, hugging, glad-handing patrons, and despite her chill she feels like she needs air.
She goes over to Jovan. He smiles at her and continues to bounce to his music.
“I think I’m going to go,” she shouts at him.
“No way,” he shouts back. “I’m just getting started.”
“I don’t feel well,” she says.
“Come on!” he says, and there is a strange blip in the music where he misses his timing. “This is important to me!”
Sara shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says.
He stares at her, mouth open. The music plays on without him. No one notices.
“I’m sorry,” she says again.
He grits his teeth and his big clumsy hands paw at the records in front of him. He doesn’t look at her as she walks outside.
There is a young cherry blossom tree outside, strung with white lights. Bicycles are locked by chain to its thin trunk. Sara stands between the bikes and leans against the tree. Across the street is a tuxedo rental shop with a For Lease sign in the window. She cannot feel the hawk, not at her nest, and not in flight. But if she closes her eyes and concentrates until her temples hurt, she can see the eggs in their damp nest. Something has happened to the mother, Sara is fairly certain.
“Rather droll affair, wouldn’t you say?”
Sara turns to see an older man standing next to her, smiling. He’s got a widow’s peak and is wearing a heavy beard, flecked with grey. Several gold chains hang from his neck, glittering in the night over his plain black t-shirt.
“Needed some air,” says Sara.
He winks. “I couldn’t stand it myself,” he says.
Sara looks away, looks back again. “You’re the artist, aren’t you?”
“Oh! Well, I don’t know if I’m the artist,” he smiles, hands in his pockets.
“My mistake,” she says, turns to walk away, to the end of the street. Jovan has increased the volume, trying to drown out the conversations in the gallery.
“Miss!” says the artist. He jogs slightly to catch up to her. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound like such a pretentious wank. These things just make me uncomfortable. All the attention. I’d prefer to be alone, you know?”
“I think I know the feeling,” she says.
“Ha!” he says. “I like your gumption. Can I walk with you?”
“Can I stop you?”
“Indeed you cannot,” he says.
They reach the corner, keep walking. They end up in front of a fancy steakhouse with a dimly lit bar. They go inside and Sara lets him buy her a manhattan.
“Thanks for the drink, L.,” Sara says, hoisting the martini glass in a careful salute.
He smiles, “That’s my professional name. Please call me Les.”
“Les Vincent Vincent? Quite a name.”
“My real name is Lester, but there’s something distasteful about it,” he smiles.
Sara laughs, but she’s not sure why. “My real name is Sarai, but you can call me Sara.”
“Not a fan of its Biblical connotations?”
“Not a fan of its familial connotations.”
Les nods, raises his glass. “I knew we were kindred spirits.”
They end up back at his house, a bare and modern bungalow full of hard edges and moonlight. Sara turns her phone off and is not disappointed or even surprised when, in the morning, there are no messages from Jovan.
The apartment is dark—all the curtains drawn—and the flickering light coming from beneath Ruthie’s door is shimmering across the floor like a flowing river. Sara goes to the door, knocks, gets no response, opens the door. Ruthie is floating above the bed as before but now her skin is shining in a pulsing strobe. The light in the room is a blinding blue-white. Shading her eyes, Sara cross the room. She can see the veins in Ruthie’s arms, in her neck; they are bright and purple. Sara gently pulls the blanket from her sister. It falls silently to the bed.
Taking a deep breath, Sara lifts the bottom of Ruthie’s shirt, revealing her chubby little girl stomach. The light is brightest there, a swirling fluorescence, and hot. Sara lightly puts her hand on Ruthie’s stomach and watches as the light, pushing through her skin, reveals her veins and blood and then her white, delicate bones. She pulls her hand away. Between the pulses of light Sara can see the fetus, curled up, tiny, and it makes her think of a little golden potato. In the end, though, she must admit that it looks just like a fetus should look, and nothing more.
She pulls Ruthie’s shirt back down and quietly leaves the room. She takes a long, hot shower. When she’s done, Ruthie is up, sitting at the kitchen bar, eating Cheerio’s. When Ruthie sees Sara, she pours her a bowl of cereal, too.
She has returned to the nest, bringing with her a stomach full of mouse and a deep exhaustion. The eggs do not stir for a long time while she sits on them. But, finally, they do. A man walks beneath the nest, a man in a broad-brimmed hat. He looks up at the nest. Sara knows him. He looks at the hawk in her nest—high up in the tree—for a long time. His eyes are dark and inscrutable. He walks on. Sara looks over at Ruthie, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor watching Spongebob Squarepants with the sound off.
“Ruthie,” Sara says.
“I can’t stand this,” says Ruthie. “People watch this?”
Sara shrugs. “Kids do, I guess.”
Ruthie shakes her head. “Mine won’t.”
“I want you to stay here for a little while, okay?”
“Where would I go?”
“I don’t know, but don’t. Okay? I’ve got to run a quick errand, but I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere and don’t open the door.”
Ruthie shrugs, turns off the TV. “What if its Jovan?”
“It won’t be Jovan.”
“That’s fine,” says Ruthie. “Is your errand grocery shopping? Because you’re out of food.”
Sara walks briskly to the park, to where the hawk has built his nest in a tall sycamore tree that curves out over the creek. She doesn’t wait long until she sees him walking slowly towards her from down the trail. He is tall, with long, bony limbs. He wears a blood red, long sleeved shirt and a bolo tie. His face is shadowed by his broad hat but Sara knows the face: taut skin, beaked nose, flesh gathered at his throat in a waddle.
When he reaches her he removes his hat, nods politely. Thin strands of shock-white hair blow in the wind until he puts the hat back on.
“Hello, Sarai,” he says.
“Lovely,” he says, gesturing up at the nest.
“I thought we had an agreement,” she says.
He nods. “We do. But I’ve made no agreement with your sister. She left The Sanctuary without permission and needs to come home. The Father wills it.”
“She can’t,” Sara says, crossing her arms. “She’s with me now.”
Uriah slides his leathery hands into his pockets. “Don’t make me take you both back, Sarai.”
He stares at her with his blank black eyes. A passing cloud blocks the sunlight. “Bring her to me here, tonight, and I can forget I saw you, and forget I know where you live.” He turns and walks away, whistling quietly.
“One more night,” Sara shouts after him.
Uriah stops, looks back over his shoulder.
“Let me have her for one more night,” Sara says. “I’ll bring her to you in the morning.”
Uriah watches her. Finally, he nods. “Tomorrow morning then.” And then he is gone, vanishing around a bend in the trail, behind a tree, into the air.
Sara realizes she’s been holding her breath. She releases it and her heart pounds and the chills runs through her again. The cloud moves on and sunlight washes over her but still she shivers.
Sara takes Ruthie to Caper Acres, a fairy-tale themed playground. There’s Humpty Dumpty on his wall, the old woman’s house that looks like a shoe, slides swirling out of its windows. The maintenance shed is even shaped like a castle tower and surly, bearded men in bright green vests that smell like cigarette smoke come in and out, carrying weed whackers, shears, and their eyes are always down, as if there is something unsavory about their presence, the way it tugs at the edge of an illusion. Sara and Ruthie stand on a little bridge over what is supposed to be a river, but is in reality blue, spongey turf; children run beneath the bridge yelling and giggling, and one of them is saying, “Splish splish splish!”
“Why are we here?” Ruthie asks.
“I don’t know,” says Sara. “I thought it might be fun.”
“I’m a little old, you know.”
Sara nods. “I see that now.”
“Sara,” says Ruthie. “Are you okay?”
“I just don’t know what to do with you,” she says. Her voice breaks and she can’t stop two slow tears from spilling free.
Ruthie puts her little hand over Sara’s, who is squeezing the railing of the bridge. “I get it,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” Sara whispers.
“I know,” says Ruthie.
“I just—” Sara lets go of the railing but holds Ruthie’s hand, looks down into her hard little eyes. “I just wanted you to be a kid.”
“It’s not my path, I guess.”
Sara sighs. “It’s not fair.”
“No,” says Ruthie.
“I’m sorry I left. I always meant to come back for you. But I never could.”
“You couldn’t. It’s okay.”
“No, I just never did.”
“I could have, but I didn’t.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s bullshit.”
“If you’d come back for me, you never would have left again. I know. I know that.”
“I’m such a selfish asshole,” says Sara.
“Yeah,” says Ruthie. They laugh. Sara is crying. She leans down and they hug and she can feel Ruthie’s tiny little shoulders through her coat, feel her little girl body all knobby-boned and awkward. She holds her little sister tightly and there is an expanding, collapsing sensation and a snap, and they are in the sky, all lift and pull, and Sara is carrying Ruthie inside her, actually inside her, and she can feel all way down through Ruthie and into her unborn child, a boy, a radiant little boy whose eyes are blue fire. The patchwork earth rolls away beneath them and the clouds part for them in wispy streams of cottony moisture. There is so much space beneath them and so much more above them and they feel, can’t help but feel, that this is how they were meant to be, to live, to move so freely in such a surrounding void. And then another snap, an unfolding, and they are embracing on the bridge in the children’s playground. They are both crying but their faces are bright and clear, washed clean.
“It doesn’t last,” says Ruthie, partly a question.
“I know,” says Sara.
That night, when Ruthie dreams, she does not hover above the bed, and she does not glow with that burning, inner light. She is transparent beneath her blankets and across the walls and ceiling is a rolling image of thick white clouds in blue sky. In the morning, she is gone.
Les has finished another painting and invited Sara over to celebrate. It’s on an easel in his living room, in exactly the spot most people would have a television. He pours them both a glass of chardonnay and they sit on the slick leather couch and look at his painting. It’s a large white canvas with a broad stroke of blue curling in the bottom right, and a stroke of a silver curling in the opposite direction at the upper left.
“It’s great,” says Sara, drinking her wine.
“It came to me in a flash of inspiration,” Les says, leaning back, his eyes far away. Then he looks at her. “After our love-making, of course.”
“Of course,” says Sara.
He gets a pouty look on his face. “I thought you’d be happy.”
“Sure I am,” says Sara, shaking her head. “It’s just… my sister left this morning.”
“Ah,” says Les. “Are you feeling lonely?” He scoots closer to her.
“Yeah,” says Sara, “Something like that,” putting her wine glass down on the coffee table.
Later, while Les sleeps, Sara stands naked in his living room looking at the painting. She feels nothing. There was a time when all it would take was concentration, and she would be gone—in the wind, all bones and muscle. She’s been chasing that feeling ever since her deal with Uriah. He didn’t tell her how diluted life would come to feel. And she handed Ruthie over to him. Watched him take and walk away. Ruthie is gone and she is still her empty self.
“What have I done?” she says, weeping silently.
“You’ve stolen my heart,” says Les, behind her. She turns. He is naked with his hands on his hips, a healthy erection bobbing in the air. He has smeared blue paint all over his chest.
Sara sighs. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Don’t be,” he says, a wicked grin spreading across his face. He is walking towards her.
Before he reaches her, she grabs the wine opener from the coffee table, opens the small blade, and turns to the painting. She runs the blade from the upper left corner to the bottom right. It is not a deep slash but the canvas folds and curls away from the cut. She thought it would be more dramatic. She turns back to Les, who has stopped in the middle of the room, mouth open.
“It’s beautiful!” he says, but Sara notices that his erection is beating a hasty retreat.
“I’ve got to go,” she says.
“Of course,” says Les, sitting down gingerly on the leather couch.
It’s not far to the north. Take the I-5 for a hundred miles or so, then a series of old backroads with no names, past dusty old mobile homes in empty yellow fields and abandoned townships with flaking white churches, past overgrown rice fields and failed vineyards and up into the foothills, where you will begin to see, if you know to look for them, the wooden posts, the stone pillars, inscribed with the ancient language, the old symbols, topped with antlers and skulls picked clean and bleached in the sun. They are warnings and invitations to anyone who knows how to read the signs. Of course, if you don’t know how to read them, you will end up back in the rice-fields, the vineyards, the townships, the Five. Every turn you take will lead you back the way you came. Only if you know what to look for will you be able to locate it, The Sanctuary.
The road rises up into the hills and despite the hot sun and clear sky a low mist will start to waft up from the ground, cling to the trunks of the oak trees, and then it will seem to envelope you, thick and warm. The road disappears. You go forward on faith. If you’re rewarded, the mist will dissipate and you’ll find yourself in an open valley ringed with pine and oak forest, a clear creek running brightly through a small town of brick buildings and clapboard homes, laid out in a tidy grid. There’s a town square and an expansive church with a bell-tower. Hitching posts outside every building on Main Street. The homes all have small yards with green lawns and clotheslines strung with crisp, white shirts, floral sheets, sundresses. Surrounding the town are barns and fields dotted with cows, pigs, goats, men in overalls and floppy straw hats.
Sara knows all this, knows what to expect, but is still surprised to see it so unchanged. It sometimes felt like something she’d dreamed, like all the details she remembered were filled in with imagery she’d subsequently picked up from television, from other people, from stories. But here it is, The Sanctuary, just as she remembered it. And here she was, returning. She can sense the mist behind her, feels something shifting and closing, like a heavy gate falling shut. She closes her eyes. The only way is forward. It is how she has lived ever since she left this place, and it is how she must continue, even if by going forward she has only travelled the edges of a wide circle.
The gravel road she is driving on peters out into an empty dirt lot. She parks the car and continues on the narrow walking path, which winds through a green pasture before becoming Main Street, a wide avenue of hard-packed dirt, where people are milling about back and forth, standing and talking, all dressed in their nicest clothes. They seem to be waiting for something. Many are sitting or standing on the covered boardwalk connecting the shops and buildings of Main Street, and there is a small crowd gathering at the town square, which sits at the end of the street in the shadow of the church. It is late afternoon and the sun hangs just behind the bell-tower, bright and blinding, but the day is cold. A woman in a bonnet is crossing the street in front of her and stops to stare for a moment before approaching.
“Can I help you, Miss?” says the woman.
Sara smiles. “Maybe. I’m looking for Father Joseph. Do you know if he is home, or at the church?”
“Well, at the church, of course. But the parade is first.”
Sara looks around. “Is that what this is?”
“Aren’t you here for the Children’s Parade?” says the woman.
“I guess I am,” says Sara.
She follows the woman down the street to the square, joins the crowd. The sun sinks a little further and lanterns are lit along Main Street. Oil lamps glow in the windows of the buildings. And then there’s another light, from far off, somewhere in the pastures, a jittery little flame bouncing in the dark. It grows bigger and is revealed at the far end of the street to be a young boy, maybe thirteen years old, dressed in a white robe, holding a smoking torch. From the darkness behind him emerges dozens of other white shapes, formless little blobs that hover on the edge of darkness and light like the wobbling stars in the early night. And they, too, are children. The ones in front all seem to be of an age with the boy but as they get closer and there are more and more blotches of white becoming children, Sara can see that there are younger children behind them, younger and younger, until at last there are marching two or three year olds, stumbling on their white robes, holding the hands of children barely older than themselves. In the hair of all the girls are yellow flowers, and around the temples of the boys are crowns of thorns—save the eldest boy, the one with the torch, who wears around his head a leather band and the massive, many pronged horns of a black-tailed deer. It is a silent, solemn procession. The townspeople watch with teary-eyed awe. When the Children’s Parade reaches the town square, the boys all flow to Sara’s left, and the girls all go to Sara’s right, and as they reach the dark walls of the church they dissipate into a fine, white mist.
At the end of the procession is a palanquin draped in white carried by four adult men wearing dark red robes with hoods pulled low over their faces. In the palanquin is Ruthie, sitting stately in a nest of pillows. She is carried to neither the left nor the right, but instead the men bring her straight through the square, into the crowd, which neatly parts before her and closes again as she passes. Sara is pushed back in the crowd as Ruthie passes. Ruthie looks straight ahead and doesn’t see her. Sara tries to cry out for her, but finds she can make no sound. Ruthie passes by and the crowd closes up again and Sara can’t see what becomes of her. And then the crowd is filing into the church and before long Sara is alone in the night in the town square. A cold wind passes over her. The doors of the church slowly swing closed.
“Ruthie!” Sara shouts at last, and weeps.
Sara is sitting on the steps of the church when Uriah comes strolling out of the darkness. He tips his hat to her.
“So you’re home.”
Sara shakes her head. “I just came for Ruthie.”
Uriah breathes in sharply between his teeth. “Sarai, don’t be foolish. I’ll let you leave now, but only now. Last chance.”
“Fuck off, Uriah.”
Uriah’s mouth twists in disgust. “The World has made you an ugly thing,” he says.
“It’s what it does,” she shrugs.
“Good to have you home, Sarai,” he says, and beings to walk away.
“Uriah,” Sara says, standing. “Do you remember when I was a child?”
“I remember all the children,” he says.
“What was I like?”
He puts his hands in his pockets, turns to her, looks up at the stars. “You were quiet. Always hiding in trees, in the garden. One time I found you curled up with a couple of newborn goats, pressed up against their mother like you were one of them. But, mostly,” he says, looking at her again. “you were unremarkable. A mediocre student. No talents. Not a great beauty. You just floated along, did just enough of what was expected of you to get by. You were no great loss.”
Sara feels something quiver and fall inside of her, a dipping sensation brought about not by surprise or hurt but by recognition. “All I ever wanted to be was myself,” she says.
“And what is that?”
“I don’t know yet,” she says quietly.
Uriah laughs. His teeth are all pointed, sharp. “What a great reward,” he says, “for all your hard work.” He starts to walk away again.
“Uriah,” she says.
“Go away, Sarai,” he says without turning around.
She runs to him, leaps onto his back, squeezes him tightly. She can feel the power in his shoulders, his arms. Beneath his muscular chest his heart is a booming, thorny thing. He shrugs beneath her and she can feel him changing. She squeezes her eyes and there is a fold, a snap, and an unearthly night yawns open beneath them. Uriah is changing, he is inside her, and she can feel all the way down into the empty center of him, as black as the void around them. So she is inside him as well, just as she was in Ruthie, before, in the playground. But she had held to Ruthie then, they had held each other. Uriah is growling within and without her, he is growing, she is shaking. She can’t hold him any longer. But, she realizes, she doesn’t have to. He has no hold on her. He is thrashing, he wants to escape, it is only her willingness to hold on that keeps him a part of her. So she lets go. With a deep breath she lets go.
She lands on her feet in the town square, but finds she doesn’t have the strength to stand. There are deep cuts down her arms, blood bubbling out and running down her wrists, her fingers. She can feel where his claws tore at her back. She lays down on the cool grass, feels it grow wet with her blood. She has to stand. She has to get up. She knows she will bleed to death if she stays here. But the night is so cold. The blood is so warm. She is shivering. “God damnit Sara,” she says. She struggles to her feet, stumbles forward. Uriah is twisted in the grass. His head, shoulders, and arms are those of a bear, but his legs are still those of a man. Blood runs out of his jaws, puddles beneath his crushed skull. Sara continues on. She wants to shout for help but she doesn’t have the strength.
She staggers away, towards the rows of houses behind Main Street. Down a long dirt path is a large, Victorian house. A light is on in an upper window. Willow trees shimmy in the wind. Sara reaches the porch. She can’t go further. She collapses at the steps, holding the handrail.
“Mother,” she says. It is weak and cracked.
“Mother!” she yells. Sharp pain in her ribs, her lungs.
She is crying.
Mother, she thinks.
“Mom,” she says.
“Mommy please,” she weeps and her body shudders and she feels her back splitting open and new blood breaking free, pouring down in a shower, splattering on the ground, and the front door opens and the light that comes flooding out of it is bright and warm and purely white, and there is a familiar shadow in the center of it, a shadow that is not a shadow, a shadow that is a star at the center of a new universe.
It is still night when Sara wakes. She is in her old bed, in her old bedroom. Hard straw mattress, crisp white sheets, plain wooden walls. A writing desk with two hand-carved figures: one, a little princess, the other, a pretty bird. Sara sits up. She is sore and weak but she feels whole. She has scars up and down her arms but they are closed up, raw and scabbed. Her mother is there, sitting in a chair at the end of the bed. Her hair is dark black, flowing down around her shoulders and brushing the ground. Her face is narrow, pinched and thin. Her eyes are wide and clear, blue and white, and they look upon Sara with a deep sadness.
“Why are you here, Sarai?”
“I came for Ruthie.” Her voice croaks in her throat.
“You’ve killed Uriah.”
“Well,” says Sara, “he was a dick.”
Her mother’s eyes go narrow and hard. “So you’re of the World, just like you’ve always wanted.”
“I guess so.”
“Is it worth it? Is your salvation worth it? All the pleasure. All the fun.”
“All the freedom.”
“Yes,” her mother laughs. “Freedom. Freedom to be filled with sorrow. To be empty. To have no faith and no purpose. Such wonderful freedom.”
“You don’t get it,” says Sara.
“No, I suppose not.” Her eyes soften. She looks sad. “Sarai, what did you hope to accomplish by coming back here? You made your choice, remember.”
“But Ruthie didn’t make hers. She’s pregnant, you know.”
“Whose the father?”
Her mother stands, smooths the front of her plain white dress. “There is only one Father, my dear.”
Sara snorts. “Disgusting. She’s just a little girl, you know. She deserves a chance to live her life first, before she has to be used up by your sick cult.”
“This is her path.”
“What, to be drugged, raped, impregnated by Father or one of his cronies?”
“You have strayed far from your own path, my dear,” her mother says quietly. “You have lost your way and have forgotten everything you knew. I am sorry for you. I have healed your flesh, but your soul is broken and only you can remedy that. I am sorry, but you must leave now. Leave The Sanctuary, and never return.”
“Not without Ruthie,” Sara says, standing.
“I will not heal you again.”
Sara looks at her mother: thinner and smaller than she remembers, shorter now than Sara, but there are the resemblances, too. The long dark hair. The blue eyes. The sadness and self-righteousness and, Sara is certain, the disappointment—somewhere, maybe deep down, her mother is disappointed with her own life, just as Sara is with hers, but, also like Sara, she has dug in so deep on her choices that she can never back down from them. It is the last time she will ever see her mother alive and the only time she has ever seen her truly.
“Thank you,” says Sara.
The service is over, everyone has gone home. The church is empty and dark. Behind the dais is the Christ and the Bear and the Hawk, the Deer and the Badger, the Fox and the Skunk. Two torches are still lit there, casting a fading light on the dais and its podium and the statues. The pews are in shadow, save the first row, which catches a little of the light, and this is where her father is sitting in his black robes. He is holding a hymnal and staring straight ahead.
“Father,” says Sara.
“Sarai,” he says, closing the hymnal and standing. He looks at her. His deep black eyes shrunken in his skeletal face. “It is good to see you.”
“Thanks,” she says. “Where’s Ruthie?”
He crosses his hands before him. “It’s time to go, Sarai.”
“Not without Ruthie. She deserves a chance.”
“A chance?” he laughs. “A chance for what? Being a single, teenage mother in the World? Welfare? Poverty? Here, she is exalted. Our Child Queen, who will reveal to us the next Age of Man.”
“Ah,” says Sara. “So it’s some kind of prophecy shit, then?”
“You are a blasphemer,” her father says. He brushes past her and walks up to the dais, stands at the podium. His bald head is lit by the torches and seems to glow with a fiery halo. “I will cast you out of my heart, and out of this Sanctuary, and you will be condemned to the World.”
Sara laughs. “What’s new?”
He begins to chant something in the old language. Sara grabs the podium and knocks it over but he continues on with his hands folded in front of him. She knocks over one of the torches and the embers go scattering across the wooden floor, but nothing catches. She grabs an antler from the statue of the Deer and pulls it free. There is a deep groaning from somewhere deep within the church and the walls shake. Her father continues to chant.
She grabs him from behind and reaching around plunges the antler into his chest. Blood geysers into the pews. The church shakes. Her father gasps and she presses the antler deeper. His hands flail at her and then they are gone and from within his fallen robes a long striped snake comes slithering. It rears back and strikes at Sara, its teeth bite deep into her thigh. She cries out and grabs the snake behind the head, pulls it free. It hisses and thrashes. With a yell Sara plunges the head of the snake into the standing torch. The flames consume her hand up to her wrist and she can smell her flesh burning off; the fat between her fingers sizzles. She grits her teeth as the snake continues to thrash and then it is wrapping around her legs, around her waist, and squeezing. She feels her ribs press and crack and she puts the snake deeper into the flames. She can feel the fire burning at her bones, feels it all the way up to her shoulder. She feels a tooth crack as she grinds her jaws together. Her lungs are pushing against her heart.
And then the snake releases its grip and falls limply around her. She stumbles back and falls to the ground. The church is shaking. Dust is falling from the ceiling. Her hand is charred black and red, covered with popped bubbles of flesh and molten rivers of blood. She rolls over, pushes herself up with her good hand. She calls out for Ruthie.
And she is there, at the door to the rectory. Ruthie, surrounded by blue light, holding a small baby. Plaster and wood is falling from the ceiling. The rafters are quaking.
“Sara,” Ruthie says.
“Ruthie, come on! Run!”
“Sara, you’re dying.”
“Yeah,” says Sara. “Probably.”
“Why does this happen?” Ruthie cries.
Sara can barely move. Her leg is swelling where the snake bit her. She sits down in one of the pews. “I don’t know,” she says.
“Yeah?” Everything is darkly blurred. Everything sounds like it’s under water.
“Would I be a good mother?”
“I’m sure you’d do your best,” Sara says slowly, thickly.
“Ruthie, it’s done, okay? I’m sorry.”
“Sara, call him Daniel, okay?”
“It’s his dad’s name.”
“I’m not so young, you know.”
Sara nods. Ruthie is just a glowing blue blur in the darkness. Brighter and brighter she glows, though. “I can see that,” Sara says.
Sara isn’t sure, but what she thinks she sees is Ruthie throw her baby up into the air, where in a flash of light he turns into a great, Golden Hawk. His wings fill the room. They glitter. He glides towards her and gently picks her up in his talons. There is a grey mist and a great and terrible crashing and then its over.
There is an old nest in a sycamore tree in the park. It used to thick and sturdy but now it is all twigs and hangs precariously. Sunlight falls through its disarray. Once upon a time, a hawk built it and three eyas were hatched and reared and took their first flight from that nest. There was no father, though there was at one point. He had circled in the air with the mother, and their talons had entwined, and they had plummeted and soared. And then something happened, and it was just her. Time passes, it passes you by, it takes what you thought was going to be your future and leaves behind obstacles so you can never catch up. It leaves you stuck. And you adapt, or you don’t. Sara adapts.
She takes Daniel to Caper Acres. She holds his hand with her good hand, she wears a glove over the other. He climbs the wooden stairs up into the house that looks like a shoe and he slides out the window with a giggle and Sara catches him with her good hand and he does it again. She stands on the bridge and he runs beneath her on the spongey turf and he says “I’m a fish! I’m a whale!” and she says, “Whatever you say, buddy.”
She takes him to an L. Vincent Vincent retrospective. He likes the later pieces, the heavily colored canvases torn and slashed with a knife, and Sara agrees, they are his best works. They get ice cream and go for a walk in the park. It is late spring, almost summer, and Daniel splashes around in the creek, giggling. Sara sits on a log creekside and closes her eyes. She feels the sun on her face and she feels the wind blowing cool across her and she can see that it is a bright and clear day, even with her eyes closed she can see it all, everything that is around her, if not ahead of her. She wishes she could tell Ruthie how wrong they were. The magic you know doesn’t last, no—but the world is full of new and strange magic you just have yet to discover.