21. The Gods Can Show You Whatever They Want

Lucius hears about a rash of attacks near the railroad crossings, and he cannot stop talking about them. It bothers him when Inglorion insists that Brutus is an adult, an army veteran, and probably more prepared to defend himself and his property than they are. Clearly he expects Inglorion to check on Brutus, and won’t rest until he does.

At first, this annoys Inglorion. Once the sun has set, however, he agrees to walk over, if only to escape Lucius’s nervous chatter on the subject. The streets are empty and quiet, but there’s evidence of disruption: Newly burned-out structures, a few more buildings boarded up. Some of the destruction appears wanton, the product of cruelty rather than need or calculation. By the time Inglorion reaches Tereus’s home, he’s as anxious as Lucius could wish.

It’s a warm, dark night. The moon is waning, with heavy cloud cover. The higher ambient temperature gives everything a pearlescent glow that obscures darkvision.

As Inglorion approaches, he sees that the gate is unlatched and the front door is ajar. A hose has been left running on one vegetable bed. The bed is soaked, and the nearby paths are inundated. He forces himself to slow down and take in the details of the scene. He climbs the stairs, crosses the porch. The house is silent.

He pulls the door fully open. He sees only a vague, gray, luminescence. There’s a slight metallic scent, and a taint of meat. The stillness is absolute.

Inglorion’s hands shake as he fumbles through his pockets for a match, lights it. In the brief flare, he sees Tereus lying on the floor. The flames dies. The scene fades to gray.

If Tereus were alive — in trance, unconscious or injured — he would glow white hot. His body has cooled to the temperature of the stone and wood around him.

Now Inglorion can hear his own terrified, labored breathing.

He lights a second match, forces himself to look away from the body, to find the oil lamp on the coffee table. He uses a third match to light it.

Tereus is lying dead on his side, halfway between the kitchen and the front room. He’s been shot in the chest and head. His face is intact, but the top of his skull is missing. The tattoos obscure his features.

The chest wound alone is massive, and would have killed him instantly.

It’s hard for Inglorion to think. The sense-impressions come at once, in a flash, but he’s slow to grasp their meaning.

Tereus is dead. The room has been ransacked — drawers pulled out and emptied, boxes thrown open.

He walks towards the back of the house, holding the lamp high, skirting the body. The pantry has been emptied of canned and dried food, and the tobacco that Tereus had hung up to cure. They missed a flask of rum, sitting out in plain sight. Inglorion pockets it, returns to the front room. Here he sees that the intruders took the pre-rolled cigarettes from the coffee table. Tereus’s sword belt hangs from the coat rack. They left his longswords, but his bullwhip is missing.

Inglorion cannot bear to search the bedroom. He sits for a moment, numb, on the couch.

The police and court systems have collapsed. There are no funeral homes or crematoria. There are no authorities to notify.

He can’t bear to leave his father exposed to the elements, prey to coyotes or wild dogs. He’s not strong enough to lift Tereus on his own, or to drag him far. He’ll have to roll the body onto a blanket, drag it out back, bury it there.

And so Inglorion digs a trench. It’s can’t be six feet deep — Inglorion is only 5’4”. It will be four feet deep, with a stone cairn.

The soil is soft from the recent rains, and from years on mulching and work, but it still takes a painfully long time. He would like to bury his father under a mesquite tree, but in the end he simply digs at the foot of the steps, where he knows he won’t run into tree roots or caliche, and where the ground has been broken before.

When this is done, he goes back inside. He’s covered with dirt and sweat, sticky and itching with it. He wipes his face on his shirttails, leaving a muddy smear.

He pulls the quilt off the bed, carefully averting his eyes from this most private space, which is tiny, and monastic in its simplicity. He spreads the quilt on the floor and stops for a moment, overwhelmed by what he must do: Calculate how best to wrestle his father’s corpse onto a blanket, wrap it up, and drag it across the floor, down the steps, and into a shallow grave.

He’s laid out bodies before, and buried them. Despite a lifetime of combat, espionage and warfare, Inglorion still has a visceral distaste for burial. He eyes the corpse, adjusts the quilt this way and that, and finally just grabs his father’s shoulder and hip and starts to half-roll, half-heave him onto the improvised winding sheet.

He’s overwhelmed by a silent vision: Tereus setting down a paring knife and a handful of greens, turning from the cutting board. He takes two steps. He’s gazing towards the door, his expression calm, attentive, grave. Inglorion sees him in darkvision, his chiseled features white-hot.

A light flares, and the tattoos obscure his features and expression. He clasps his hands behind his head and drops to his knees, apparently in obedience to an order.

Two trigger pulls, an explosion of blood and bone. Tereus slumps over, dead before he hits the ground.

The vision ends. Inglorion has recoiled from the corpse. He hears his own low, sobbing moan of horror. He chides himself, saying, The gods can show you whatever they want. It’s not your place to decide.

He clenches his jaw, grabs the body again. Apparently the gods are done with him, because he’s able to roll it onto the blanket. He ties the corners hastily, hands shaking. He talks to himself aloud, trying to steady himself, force attention where it’s needed. It’s as if he’s climbing: He mutters a mix of obscenities and clench-jawed directions.

He hauls it across the floor, out the door, down the steps. This will stay with him: the dull thuds of the body traveling down the steps, the metallic smell of blood with its vague edge of rot, the dead weight. It’s 13 stone, 185 pounds, half again Inglorion’s weight.

He tips it into the trench and stands there for a moment, hot and panting, face and chest dripping with sweat. Then he shovels the dirt in, forcing himself to be thorough, berating himself — he must fill it all the way.

The sound of dirt pattering down, the scrape of the shovel on soil and stone. His own labored breath, half-sobbing. There’s blood on his hands, and on his shirt front.

He fills the wheelbarrow with stones again and again. He’s lightheaded and his mouth is dry — some mix of horror and exertion. He tells himself that he must finish the job. There are coyotes and stray dogs, and there’s no one else to see that it’s done right.

He’s left with a grave, the dirt mounded up six inches or so, piled high with stones, ranging from fist-sized to the size of a man’s head.

It feels incomplete. It’s a brutal, menial task. He’s felt disgust and horror; there’s been no room for awe or grief.

He stops, returns to the kitchen. He washes his hands and face, brushes off his boots and clothing as best he can. He can smell his own sweat, pungent with fear and exertion.

The cool water brings him back to himself. He leans his forearms on the edge of the sink, sees the cutting board, the knife and wilted greens where his father left them.

He feels an impulse to pick up the knife, cut himself with it. He notes the desire, sees grief and rage rise and fall within him.

He looks around, tries to think what he can do to mark this death properly. He heaves the owl down from its niche, thinking in his confusion that it’s heavy, and will deter scavenging animals. He carries it out, lies it down in the middle of the grave, so that it’s staring up at the dark and clouded sky. He looks at it for a moment, lights a cigarette, smokes it.

After a time, he stubs out the cigarette and begins to sing, starting with the Johnny Cash songs they sang together. He sings the same few songs over and over, sometimes with soaring, bell-like purity, more often with his voice cracking with tears. Occasionally his voice is suspended entirely. He sings until he’s hoarse and his limbs are cramped from sitting on the porch steps. The air has cooled; he can see again — the stones, the dirt, the trees and vines, the chicken coop.

He walks to he back of the yard, unlatches the coop door. He’ll have to hope they wake and leave before predators try the door. A few of the red pullets are dead in the yard; they fought out of hunger and deprivation.

He’s trembling with exhaustion, but reluctant to leave. Before his own death, Inglorion spent time in Tereus’s particular haunts: The libraries at Shelawn House and in the farmhouse at Xialo. He looked through his father’s papers, sat in his chair, skimmed the titles of his books, read his marginalia. He could do that now. He’s alone in his father’s last, most personal home, where he lived quietly for years, reading and writing and reflecting on the past, seeking purpose and meaning.

In life, Inglorion stole what he could — learned of his father through espionage and theft.

He thinks of the the books and songs and conversation that Tereus shared with him — the meals he cooked, the cigarettes he rolled and lit and handed over. The quilt he tucked around his son, the shirt he lent him to use as a nightshirt.

It’s enough.

When he’s calm enough to notice his surroundings, Inglorion leaves his father’s home, shutting the front door, latching the gate. It’s well after midnight. He walks back through cool, empty streets. When he gets to the flat, he sees that Lucius gave in to trance long ago. Inglorion makes coffee, sits down on the couch, waits for his son to return to him.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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