Martha was looking for her daddy.
By the time she saw the lights of the cabins on the stark hillsides outside the gates of Austin, she'd nearly forgotten her goal. Especially as she knew not to travel by road, it had been enough to survive one hill, the next, and then another
She sniffed the frigid wind blowing toward her from the notorious stove vents of those who lived just outside the city.
Someone was roasting human flesh in their fire.
The thin leather boots issued by the Central Texas Christian Reform Camp were scant protection for slogging through two feet of snow. Breaking the icy crust had made her shins sore, even through her jeans. Wind flapped her sleeves and collar and battered her ears until a dull ache throbbed through her skull. She'd stopped three times on the way from Smithville to build a fire and revive her feet, and sleep a bit.
The aroma quickened her progress. It had been a long time since Martha had smelled that particular odor. The biscuits and apples she'd carried with herstolen from the camp kitchenhad long ago been eaten.
The closer she struggled toward home and warmth, the more stinging the dry snow felt. Gradually, she could discern details of the cabin she'd spent most of her life inthe heavy drapes at the window, the flat boulder that she used to perch on while she watched her father chop wood, the daub patches on the east wall.
Wise enough not to approach the house from the road, where stray travelers, legal or not, were watched with interest, she came upon the rear door. She pushed it open and stepped inside.
The house had changed only a littledifferent colors and smells; she noticed that her small bed was gone from beside the fireplace. On the stone of the hearth, a cracked head and shoulder lay with its hair stiff and awry. Strips of flesh hung from hooks above the fireplace, and a kettle bubbled on the high grate above the fire. The meat smelled old. It was apparently not a kill, but probably a body tossed out the gates because there was no one to pay for a burial inside the city.
She heard a sound behind her.
"Dad " she said, turning.
A woman was poised toward Martha, holding a garrotting wire in her hands. Martha stepped back and knew as she spoke that she was imitating the cool of her father's manner. "Hey, neighbor," she said.
The woman's eyes narrowed. She was still ready to strike. Martha would have to work fast to get out of the situation if the woman was a Crazy.
"Neighbor?" the woman repeated.
"What are you doing in my house?" Martha said.
The woman smiled wryly. "Like hell yours, kid. I live here."
Now Martha speculated. It had been over a year since her father's last letter had reached her at the camp. Could it be that he'd found himself a companion? "With my daddy?" she asked.
"Don't think so," the woman said. Her hands lowered a bit. "Not unless the old fella hasn't told me all."
"My daddy's Harry Jim Skill."
"Well, then, your daddy ain't here," the woman said irritably. "What are you doing out here anyway?"
'Looking for my"
"Yeah, okay," the woman said. She unwound the wire from her hands and stuffed it into her pocket. "He didn't teach you a bit of sense, did he? If you're really neighbors with folks like us, I'll let you go. Go on now!"
Martha wasn't ready to have the decision made for her. She couldn't believe her father was not nearby. She shouted, "Harry Jim!"
"You little fish, I'll stew you." the woman said, walking toward her again.
The back door swung open. Martha swiveled to look. The face could have been handsome or beetle-like, she didn't notice, but it was wrong, all wrong, and that made it horrible.
"Git!" the woman shouted, and Martha hesitated only long enough to shake the uncertainty of terror out of her bones, then pushed through the front door.
As soon as she came in sight of the city gates, she knew she'd lost her caution. She stopped. Before her was the battered sign on a brick wall just outside the gates:
WELCOME TO AUSTIN, TEXAS STATE CAPITAL
Above her, the sentry leaned out of his watch booth, sighting her down his gun barrel. "Don't move," he said through a loudspeaker.
Martha stood completely still. For the first thirteen years of her lifeuntil she'd been taken to the campshe had seen the walls of Austin, but she'd never been so close as now.
"Drop that bag."
Martha let her bag of possessions slip from her hand onto the frosty mud.
Still, the guard kept his weapon on her. "Do you have a pass?"
She started to say no, but thought better of it. "I got jumped in the back of a government truck. They stole my pass, then shoved me out. Been walking for three days."
The sentry paused. After a moment, the box that he stood in eased down the wall on a track. When it was about a meter from the ground, it stopped with a mechanical bounce. One of the spotlights atop the wall swiveled until it shone directly on her. She raised her hand to shield her eyes.
"Throw your bag over here."
Martha picked up her bag and flung it toward the box. The sentry moved cautiously, watching her, and stepped sideways to pick the bag up with a hook. He examined it inside his box. "Take your clothes off."
"It's too cold!"
"Do you want inside the city?"
She peeled everything off, including her boots, shivering so hard that she could barely throw the heap toward him. After a few moments, the voice in the loudspeaker said, "Come in." The gate opened just a bit; Martha squeezed through the opening. Someone grabbed her arm as she entered. Peripherally, she saw the sentry box rising up the wall again.
She stood naked inside the gates of the cityfor the first time. Trampled pathways glittered coldly under the bowed heads of street lamps. Small houses shouldered one another as if for comfort, their windows dark. The wind whined eerily through broken panes of glass. The sound of loose metal clanged in the wind.
She'd imagined cities to be clean havens for good folk but it looked more miserable than outside to her. Still, she thought, surveying all the possible places for residence, there must be a lot of food here.
The solider who held her arm stared hard at her face. "What's your name?"
Martha blinked, "Uh Martha "
"Hey, Carrie," called the sentry above. "Take my post a while."
"Shit," the solider with Martha muttered. "Come on down," she said impatiently. As the other hurried down a metal stairway, she took on a warning tone. "You're going to get caught one of these days, you horny dog. Someday the governor's daughter will come through WP."
"This isn't the governor's daughter," he said, taking Martha's hand. "Come on, now, I got to check you in. You want in the city, right? You got relatives?"
As he pushed her toward a metal shed, Martha said, "Don't know if they're still in the city." She was getting hazy from the cold and from being shoved around.
"We'll just find out in a little while." He opened the door. In the shed was a table with tools, greasy notices pinned on a board, and the kind of radio she'd seen in Brother Guy's office at the camp. Against one wall, a cot listed in a mended way.
"Lay down, spread your thighs. Ever done this before?" he asked, unbuckling his coat.
Martha tested the cot and figured it would hold her. "Do I have to?"
"Sure would make things easier for you, sweetie."
· · · · ·
The jeep shot through the city, sometimes leaping off crevasses in the streets, sometimes jerking to avoid potholes, sometimes dipping one wheel in a hole with a thump. Martha sat beside the policeman driving, hunched over the bag in her lap.
They'd found her Aunt Jenny Skill in the directory. Martha couldn't remember much about what her father's sister had become, except she'd married in the city and either left or lost her husband. The check-in police told her that if her Aunt Jenny couldn't (or wouldn't) take her in, she would have to go to the WP camp.
Martha knew vaguely about WP camps. Sometimes they kept people doing construction or working in government janitorial jobs for years. One could get out by playing political or buying a bureaucrat's attention. Martha figured her aunt might know where her father was; even if he'd gotten stuck in a camp himself, she could find him. He would help her. Wouldn't he?
She thought about the last time she'd seen him "Renounce your ways!"
She'd run outside to see the battered truck with a chicken wire cage on the back. Standing inside the cage was an old woman with two apples in one hand and a potato in the other. Though she was grey and fragile, when she spoke to Martha straight through the cage, she had a strong voice.
"Renounce your ways!" she shouted, then pointed to Martha's father standing just behind her. "Come with us to the Lord's commune. We have food, we have warmth. Don't let your child be damned by your sinning ways!"
"Martha," her father said, but then was silent.
"Look at all the food," Martha said, noticing the lumpy bags of potatoes, apples, beans, and cheeses with heavy rinds in boxes, loaves of bread wrapped in paper.
"Forty miles to happiness," the woman shouted. "Forty miles to regular meals, a warm bed, and God-given peace of mind." She beckoned to Martha with an apple, unlatching the door of the cage. "You won't have to eat the flesh of your brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters in God's eyes! Renounce your ways! We understand! We forgive! We will save you!"
"Martha," her father said again with a voice as soft as snowfall, "do you want to go?"
Martha looked at more food than she'd ever seen at once in her life. She thought of the nights that her father wept and sighed after an especially trying capture and kill. She was still young enough to believe that a different life meant a better life, and if her father was willing
"Come, child," the woman said, "come with us to pray with thanks for salvation."
Martha caught hold of the tailgate of the truck and boosted herself up to the cage door. Then she looked over her shoulder and saw that her father was standing still, just watching.
The woman grabbed her shoulders and pulled her headlong into the truck, shouting, "Take off, Brother Guy!"
The truck lurched. Martha skinned her knees falling forward. She crawled up to look out at the figure standing down the road and screamed, "Let me out, let me out, you old bitch!"
And far away, her father yelled her name through cupped hands. "Martha, I love you!"
· · · · ·
From the jeep she could see broken-down houses. To her left, she noticed the tall outline of buildings she'd seen distantly for years. They seemed close and large, and yet still a coherent shape.
A wish came to Marthaperhaps if she couldn't find her father, maybe her aunt could take his place.
After she'd first been taken to the Christian camp, she'd been bitter and angry, feeling deserted by the only person that had ever meant anything to her. His few letters to her there had eventually made her realize that he had thought it was the best thing for her. During the numb years at the camp, Martha mouthed the phrases and sang the verses, but they hadn't touched her. She'd made adequate, tentative friendships, but none so profound that she would grieve at separation.
She leaned back and slid down the seat, face turned outward passively to watch the scenery. She'd seen picture in old books of cities, but all this seemed a ruined imitation. Dried weeds poked out of the thin crust of snow. Parts of houses had been hacked away, probably for firewood or to patch other houses. Fleetingly, she saw someone prying a window frame from an abandoned garage. She saw one tree enclosed within a fence.
Slowing down, the driver spoke for the first time to Martha. "Is this it?"
Martha looked at the house beyond the posts of what had once been a chain-link fence. The house was a square two-story with symmetrical windows. "I don't know," she said.
She followed the policeman up the path to the house. The roof overhung the door a bit, but looked chopped away. A layer of gritty snow covered the boxes and other odd shapes on the porch. The policeman pounded on the door and turned toward the street uneasily.
When the door opened, four people stood behind a heavy mesh. Others looked through the parted drapes. The policeman unfolded a piece of paper and held it out. "Is there a Jennifer Skill here?"
It reminded Martha of the time she'd first arrived at the camp. Faces, faces, looking back at her.
A woman came forward out of the other room and stood behind the mesh. "What do you want?"
Martha couldn't superimpose her father's stories of his childhood companion on this tight-lipped, thin woman.
"This girl claims you'll take her in."
Jenny Skill looked at Martha speculatively. "Who is she?"
"Martha Gail Skill, she says," said the policeman.
"Where's my daddy?" Martha asked her.
No answers came for a moment. The policeman and Martha stared inward and the others stared outward and no one said anything. Jenny reached above her head and there were sounds of metal locks slipping as her hands crept down the side of the mesh.
The door opened. Martha stepped inside and stood behind her aunt. The policeman thrust his notebook in the door. "Sign this," he said. "She has no papers. You'll have to get them for her in ten days or pay the fines."
Jenny only nodded as she signed the paper.
After the policeman left, Jenny took Martha's coat collar between her thumb and forefinger and guided her into the living room. Furniture crowded the room, as if several households' worth of things had to be arranged in a single place.
Fifteen or so people came into the room, some sitting on the sofas or chairs, but most stood around them. Jenny lifted her chin. "She's kin to me and I'll take responsibility for her. You know that she's my brother Harry's kid, but she won't pull anything here." Then Jenny took Martha's jaw in her hand and jerked her face around so that Martha stared straight into Jenny's eyes. "Will you?" she said.
"Where's my daddy?" Martha whispered. She felt a cramping in her lower gut. The bright electric bulb overhead, the strangers all intent on her presence, and Jenny's roughness confused her.
"Poor thing," one of the grannies whispered.
"You just forget about your daddy," Jenny said. "He's not here."
"But where is he?"
"No use worrying about it."
"Now, wait a minute," a man said.
Jenny let go of Martha and for the first time she was able to focus on the people around her. There were two old grannies sitting together. There were several men about her father's age, and even more women. Younger people nearer her own age numbered only about five. Later, she discovered that six children had been put to bed.
The large man who'd spoken shouldered closer. He had an aggressive, troubled kind of look that Martha had seen on some of the Crazies at the camp. "I don't feel safe about having your brother's kid here. Nothing against you, Jenny, but we all know what your brother was, and what's to say"
"Tell 'em where you've been," Jenny said, nudging Martha.
Martha stood dumbly. She'd heard the word was referring to her father. Was? What did it mean?
"She's been in the Christian Reform Camp," Jenny said. "Okay, look, Darren, we'll move Terry out of the closet under the stairs and hang that big brass bell over the door. Anyone will hear her coming out at night. Send her out with the kids to scavenge. If she gets fed like the rest of us, she won't be looking to carve anyone up."
"You'll have to feed her better than that," one of the grannies said.
"Well, where am I going to sleep?" one of the young ones asked. She was kind of pretty, but she kept narrowing her eyes at Martha.
Martha listened vaguely as sleeping places were rearranged. Someone was sent to lock up the knives in the kitchen. Jenny searched Martha's pockets. Sweat formed on Martha's upper lip; she clenched her teeth as her bowels churned nervously.
"Jenny," she said, "what happened to Daddy?"
Jenny turned quickly. "He's dead! Now I don't want to hear another word about it."
Martha nodded slowly. She had expected her to say exactly that, but somehow she couldn't believe that she really had. Her ears buzzed and she felt weak. "I need to go to the john."
"Kaye, take her out back," Jenny said.
A young dark-haired woman shuddered melodramatically. "Me?"
"All right, all right," Jenny replied impatiently. "Switzer."
A blond, rosy-cheeked young man motioned to Martha. She followed him through the kitchen, which was clean, but dishes, boxes, cans, and bottles were crammed together on narrow shelves and utensils and pots hung everywhere there was room. Switzer unbolted the back door. She saw the john and ran for it.
She stayed longer than she needed to, in spite of the cold, rocking back and forth, sobbing. She thought of the last time she'd seen her father, the words he'd written to her about how they would go south together someday when he had money to pass the boundary. She revived old memories of him telling her stories, the little jokes they had with each other, songs he would sing while cooking or sewing, the way he looked when he was "just thinking."
She didn't want to go back inside with those people. At the camp, everyone had done their best to act nice, though the feelings were usually at odds with their behavior.
She stopped crying. She felt dry and cold and used up.
On the way back into the house, Switzer said, "I'm sorry about your father." There was a sort of anger in his voice.
Jenny met her in the kitchen and led her to a dim room lined with several mats. Two small forms lay under blankets, but the rest were flat. "Here. We're giving you a warm place. Keep that in mind." Jenny opened a closet door. A bell jangled. One of the sleeping children sat up. Martha saw that the dark closet was the inverse shape of a stairway, lined with boxes and tools, all of which seemed to lean dangerously inward. Jenny urged Martha forward.
The door shut behind her with another jangle, then a bolt slipped into place.
She sank down, only then realizing her weariness. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw the ghost of her hand against a rough blanket. Voices and footsteps scattered randomly around her. Someone went up the stairs above her.
She was hungryawfully hungrynow. Beyond her door were so many people.
She knew her own ribs and hip bones and spine as hard places on her body. But there were those in the house who were not so lean. She could crawl from mat to mat and search for their hip bones and find none so sharp as her own.
"People are not food," Brother Guy had said to her on her second day in the camp. "When God gave Moses the laws, he said, 'Thou shalt not kill.' It's better to die of hunger than to kill your fellow man. It is wrong, Martha, wrong. You will pay for doing wrong by torment of eternal fire, eternal pain, eternal sorrow in the depths of lonely Hell if you don't get on your knees right this moment and swearswear!to God that you were wrong. That you will no longer eat the flesh of humans. That you were an innocent child of circumstances. That you beg His forgiveness. That you repent with a soul full of anguish and remorse. That you will face hunger with a heartful of love for Him! On your knees and pray, Martha! Pray for your soul!"
And Martha had gotten to her knees and prayed, hoping that would relieve all the fear. But over the years, she'd come to recognize that Brother Guy didn't see the world the way she did. In fact, he saw things differently from almost everyone else. Her hope of salvation and fear of an infinite Hell broke little by little, until she behaved the way they expected her to merely out of customand respect for the supper table.
Now she was free of that.
· · · · ·