Part 1 here
I didn’t know what I expected, though what came through that door surely weren’t it.
A gal edged sort of sideways through the opening, and it was her. “Is he awake now, Pa?” she asked, her eyes all big and bright with excitement. She smiled my way.
That beautiful smile pulled an answering one out of me. Forgetting that I didn’t have so much as a stitch on, I started sitting up in bed, and then I saw the Other come through the door, and Lord, they looked exactly the same. But where the first’s smile was sweet and warm and held everything that was good, the second’s was cold and hostile and filled with a jittery darkness.
And it only got worse.
As the two of them glided across the floor toward me, I remembered what I’d seen when they were perched up on the wagon seat: three arms. One arm on her right, one arm on the Other’s left, and where their shoulders touched, one more perfect arm. And I knew good and well that if I could see up under the long, full skirt of that gray dress, I’d see three legs.
What in God’s name was she?
Her lips quavered. She looked confused. The Other’s grin widened, showing all those cruel white teeth.
“You’ve had your look, and you can see he’s all right,” the Preacherman said. “But he ain’t up to company right yet.” He put his arm around the joined shoulders and turned them back toward the door. “Tomorrow, you can visit with him.”
Just before her face disappeared after the Other’s through the doorway, she glanced back, and my heart pretnear broke. Her beautiful, sweet smile was gone.
The next morning, the Preacherman told me about his daughters.
After I’d eaten the bowl of cornmeal mush he’d brought me, he turned his back and stared out the big window while I pulled on my clothes that were now all washed and starched and smelling of lye soap.
“You ain’t never seen anything like my daughters before, have you, son?” he asked.
I didn’t know what he wanted to hear, so I stuck with the truth. “No sir, I ain’t.” Then remembered that I weren’t supposed to remember. “Lest ways, not that I recall.”
“They’re a miracle.” He clasped his hands behind his back, rocked on his heels. “A gift from God.”
I didn’t know how a body could call a two-headed, three-armed, three-legged gal a gift from God, most especially a preacherman; their kind set fire to everything they thought unnatural. But then I pictured the sweet face and sunny smile that’d been in my dreams all night—along with the Other—and knew something so beautiful, so perfect, couldn’t be anything less than a gift from Above. Just what the Other was, I couldn’t have said.
“Just like their mother, a gift from the Almighty.” The Preacherman turned to face me. The morning light hit the glass and fired it up, making a bright halo around the darkness that was him.
I shivered, cold in his shadow.
“So long ago…” He sighed. “I was about your age when they came into town, the old man and…and Lia, his daughter. They came from a far place, somewhere on the other side of the Endless Sea, the old man told me, a cold place where rain fell in white flakes that covered the ground. They were strange looking, slanted eyes so light a blue that you could barely see any color to them at all, and hair as white as sand. But on Lia it was beautiful. She was an angel.”
That’s what I’d thought when I’d seen her: an angel.
The Preacherman stepped away from the window, his dark shadow moving across the floor and climbing the far wall. He walked up to me and pinned me with his eyes. Lord above, he made me feared. He had the blackest eyes I’d ever seen on a preacherman; he was plumb filled up with his god.
“And I knew God had sent her to me, a pure white angel,” he said. “And I knew what He wanted me to do.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and leaned in close. And I weren’t too sure, but I thought he might be holding me up.
“I got rid of the old man and took Lia. She didn’t understand my words and I didn’t hers, but we didn’t need no words. God did the talking for both of us. It was glorious. Glorious! So glorious that she cried all the time until…”
The Preacherman let go of my shoulders and turned back to the window. I stumbled a bit on quivery legs, then sat down hard on the bed.
“Until she died, bringing my daughters into the world.” His big head shook back and forth. “God no longer had a use for her; she had fulfilled His purpose.”
A heavy stillness settled inside the room, rounding the Preacherman’s wide shoulders with its weight. He stared out the window and I stared at his back, too feared to say or do anything. Then he cleared his throat and started talking again.
“God takes away with one hand and gives with the other. He took my beautiful Lia and gave me a miracle. He gave the world a miracle. And every time I look at the perfection that is my daughters, I see what God is capable of.” His voice rose. “When my daughters walk down the street, the people see what glory God is capable of and they fear Him. And they fear me for I know His will.” He chuckled. “Do you fear me, son?”
My voice came out all crackly. “Yes, sir.”
“As well you should.”
Lord, right then I wished I was back in the Cheyanna strip pits. That black, bottomless hole with its Albo snakes and spider-bats held less to be feared of than the Preacherman and his god.
“But as long as you do what you’re told, you and me will get along just fine.” He kept his back to me, his eyes on the world outside the window. “Can you do what you’re told, son?”
I didn’t feel I had much of a choice. “Yes, sir.”
“Ask and you will receive!”
I reckoned he was talking to his god and not to me, so I kept quiet. Ma always told me to be careful not to rile a looney or a preacherman; they were too unpredictable. And he was both.
“Loi and Maira have taken a shine to you,” he said. “And what my daughters want, I provide, just as God provides for His faithful children.” He turned toward me. “I prayed to Him, and He brought you out of the wilderness to me.”
His god brought me here? “Why?”
I didn’t realize that I’d spoken the word out loud till the Preacherman answered my question. “For my daughters.”
And even though I didn’t ask, he explained why.
“There are no young men of quality in Cornflower. A year or so back King Herbert’s army came through, conscripting all that were old enough to fight in the Holy War—you remember the Holy War, don’t you, son?”
I remembered it. The war with the Kathliks had been going on since before I was born. When I was ten, my older brother, Arlie, had been swept up and marched out of town with the army and I’d never seen him again. Yeah, I remembered, but my answer was a “No, sir.”
“Well, it don’t matter…you remembering or not remembering. What matters is that my daughters needed a husband, and God delivered you.”
A husband? To them? How could I be a husband to someone who weren’t one, but two? Now, the one he’d called Loi I could gladly lay down beside every night for the rest of my life; but the Other…it feared me just to look at her face.
Lord, what had I gotten myself into?
The Preacherman married us the next day. I stood up before him and his god and the townsfolk and took Loi Conroy and Maira Conroy for my wives. Or they took me. And since I didn’t have no name, the Preacherman gave me one: Adam Conroy.
I did as I was told.
But I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. It was like picking between a pack of cyclotes and a preacherman; go one way and I was as good as dead, go the other and maybe I had a chance. So I married Loi and the Other, thinking that in time, I’d figure a way to get out of there in one piece.
After the ceremony, there was a celebration of sorts. No dancing and no singing, but there was a tall, white cake and pink punch served up by a long-faced Mrs. Deats, the Preacherman’s housekeeper. And after everyone had eaten their piece of cake and drunk their cup of punch, one by one, they came over to where I stood with Loi and the Other and offered up their congratulations.
And that was it.
But nobody left until the Preacherman shook their hands and told them thanks for coming. Then acting as if they were trying to get out of a burning house, the townsfolk made a beeline for the church house doors.
Them folks were as feared of the Preacherman as I was—and rightly so. A body never knew when his kind might call upon God to throw down a lightning bolt to burn up their house. Or let loose a pack of cyclotes on their cattle. Or strike their sons with the bleeding sickness.
Now, Ma always said that preachermen didn’t own God, and maybe they didn’t, maybe God owned them. Didn’t matter, though. Either way it worked, a body had to walk careful.
Something warm and soft brushed my hand. I looked down and saw small, dainty fingers teasing mine, and my eyes crawled up the slim arm wrapped in white silk to Loi’s sweet, kind face. Something in her eyes, something in her smile, made my chest feel all tight, and lord, it felt good. I reckoned I must be in love.
I opened my hand and hers slipped inside.
Strong fingers wrapped around the wrist of my free hand. “Aren’t you going to hold my hand, husband?” asked the Other, her voice all silky-smooth.
For a minute there, I’d forgotten the Other. But now that she was back in my head, all the good feelings drained right out of me.
And I wanted them back.
Staring into Loi’s blue eyes, I ignored the Other. Even when the Other’s fingers tightened, and she said my new name, “Adam…” I didn’t look her way.
Then Loi said, “Please.” And with that third hand, she took the Other’s hand from my wrist and coaxed it down alongside my clenched fist. “Please…”
The pleading in her eyes pried open my fingers—lord, I’d do anything for that gal—and the Other’s cold hand wrapped tight around them.
Now two faces smiled at me, two faces that feature by feature were exactly alike, but taken as a whole were completely opposite. Like heads and tails. Light and dark. Good and bad.
There was the difference!
The eyes. It was all in the eyes.
Loi’s bright blue eyes looked out on the world and saw beauty and goodness and reflected it back, while the Other’s looked inward to a place filled with monsters and demons and other evil whatnots.
Down in the strip pits, I’d seen another set of eyes like the Other’s, eyes that were filled with a jittery darkness that saw things most men didn’t see and didn’t want to see. And I’d remembered Ma’s warning and kept my distance. I didn’t talk to him, I didn’t even look at him. But Old Jethro didn’t keep his eyes down and his body out of arm’s reach of that looney, and got his nose chewed off for his carelessness.
Lord, how was I gonna stay out of the Other’s reach when she was hooked on to Loi? How was I gonna keep from looking into her terrible eyes?
Like I was looking in them now…
Oily and slick, a blue sheen over blackness. And I felt myself falling into them, falling into a blue-black sea that pulled me down into a rolling, churning, screaming world where no light had ever shone. Unseen things skittered around inside that darkness.
A flood of vile blackness filled my mind. And the unseen started to reveal themselves…
“God has blessed us this day, daughters.”
The Preacherman’s voice yanked me out of the Other’s head. He stood behind Loi and the Other, his arms around their shoulders, and for once I weren’t feared to see his grinning face. After what I’d seen in the Other’s mind, it was as welcome a sight as food was to a starving man.
“He brought this fine young man from out of the wilderness to cherish and protect you as I have done. Now I can go to my reward with a light heart.”
Loi and the Other turned around and reached out toward him, and lord, them three arms sure looked queer.
“Don’t talk like that, Pa,” Loi said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
The Preacherman’s smile stretched wider as he gathered Loi and the Other to him. “Someday God will call me home and I must go.” He patted their shoulders, then turned them back to face me. “But this is not that day. This is a day to celebrate for my daughters have a husband, and I have a…son.”
All three of them smiled at me, two loonies and an angel, and I got a feeling that I was snarled up tight in the Preacherman’s web, and there weren’t no getting out of it. Ever.
I got better acquainted with sweet Loi and loved her even more. The Other didn’t talk much, though, which was fine by me. Most of the time her strange, blue-black eyes were empty, and it seemed as if her part of the body just went along with Loi while her mind was someplace else. Again, fine by me.
Loi and the Other and me strolled the streets of Cornflower, and Loi introduced me to the townsfolk, a timid bunch who wouldn’t or couldn’t look a body in the eyes. I didn’t hold it against them ’cause I understood the why of it. I tried my best to never look directly at the Preacherman or the Other myself.
And every evening after supper, while Mrs. Deats washed dishes and the Preacherman talked with God’s Book, me and Loi sat out on the porch and watched the sun go down. I held Loi’s hand and sometimes the Other came up out of herself and held mine. And every Sunday, me and them sat on the front pew in the church house, the Preacherman sermonizing in front of us, and the townsfolk amening behind us. And every night at the door of their bedroom, I kissed Loi’s cheek, and if she insisted, I kissed the Other’s too. But I weren’t invited inside.
And I didn’t ask to be.
Now, I knew what happened between a man and woman when they went to bed together. And sometimes I hurt so bad from the wanting of it with Loi that I was tempted to ask if she’d let me through that door. But to be with Loi I’d have to be with the Other, and just the thought of it made my man parts shrivel up to nothing.
It was on one of those nights when the wanting was fierce that I turned around from that closed door to see the Preacherman’s eyes on me. I knew that he knew what was on my mind, and I was feared and embarrassed and a hundred other things, and none of them was good.
He weren’t grinning. And that weren’t good neither.
“Come over here and sit down, son.” He motioned his head to the chair beside his. “There’s some things I need to tell you.”
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