Whisper unto my soul, I am thy salvation
You have promised that there shall be time no longer. Yet there is nothing but time in the desolation of my soul. A vast Sahara of time surrounds me, and though the frightful minutes pleat when I manage to slip into unconsciousness, the release is so brief, so teasing, that to wake once more to my life is a horror. Am I a brother to anyone in this agony, I ask myself; is it Your design that I awaken to such a brotherhood . . . ? But I don’t want mankind, nor do I want the happiness of the individual without mankind: I want only You.
There shall be time no longer, yet we are deep in time, and of it; and it courses through us like the secret bright unfathomable blood through our bodies, bearing us along despite our childlike ignorance of its power.
Is this a revelation, I ask myself. Or an aspect of my punishment.
Save me, O God, by Thy name, and judge me by Thy strength and not by my weakness. If I have come to life again it is in obedience to the simple laws governing the sun, the moon, and the earth; it is not of my doing. My strength is like that of the mist-green reeds that do nothing but bend, with alacrity and cunning, as the violent winds pass over. Or do I think of the delicate young buds of peaches, or the hair-nests of the smallest of the sparrows. I think of the improbable precision of the eye: the perfection of the iris, the pupil, the mirroring brain. I think of my mother’s broken body and of my father’s swarthy beauty and of my own soul, which drains away in time, minute after minute, even as I compose my desperate prayer to You.
It happened that Ashton Vickery one weatherless day thirty-seven years ago climbed the remains of an old windmill on his uncle’s property, a .22 rifle under one arm, a shotgun under the other. He was twenty-three years old at the time: long-boned, supple, his pale blue gaze coolly Nordic, set for distances.
‘Come along, come along, little bastards, come along, I got all morning, I’m not in no hurry.’
Atop the partly rotted tower he stood for a while, shading his eyes. Where were they? In which direction? He unlocked the safety catch on the rifle, he unlocked the safety catch on the shotgun. Both guns were his; he had owned them for years. Very finely were they oiled. It was a pleasure for him to caress them, to draw his cheek lightly along the stock of the rifle, to raise the heavy barrels of the shotgun and take aim.
Through the scope he sighted the butchered chickens in the irrigation ditch. His finger hesitated, he felt a queer jolt of pleasure, wishing suddenly to pull the trigger: to tug it back toward him. The well-developed muscles in his shoulders and arms tensed. His mouth drew into its customary grimace – the corners downturned, the upper lip shortened, haughty and imperious. Ashton was a good-looking young man and very much aware of it. He had the Vickerys’ prominent cheekbones, their thick unruly eyebrows and hard, square chin; by the age of sixteen he had been taller than his father. His eyes resembled his mother’s and were as thickly lashed. Softly he crooned to himself, drawing his gaze along the uneven horizon, in no hurry. ‘Come along, come along and show yourselves. Come along now.’
He laid the shotgun carefully at his feet and cradled the rifle in his arms. It was light, lithe, a marvel to hold; a beautiful instrument. Quickly it leaped to his shoulder; quickly it arranged itself to fire. His arm extended, his right arm crooked: just so! He leaned his face against it, closing one eye. Like this. Pivoting at the waist, Ashton Vickery could, by moving the barrel as slowly as possible, contain all of the landscape; all of the visible world. He sighted it along the barrel and all was well.
‘Where are you hiding? It won’t do no good. I can wait. I ain’t half so hungry as you – I can wait.’
To the north, Mt. Ayr dissolved upward in a haze of cloud; the powerful scope could bring it no closer. Closer in, farmland belonging to Prestons and Bells and Vickerys lay perfectly still, greening wheat and oats and barley, and a field of straight young corn, and a sparse woods of beech and oak. The air was fresh, a little chill. Ashton would have liked it cooler: would have liked to see his breath turn to steam. He hated being over-warm. It pleased him that the sky was overcast and that clouds moved above in sluggish layers, clotted, the colour and consistency of skim milk. No sun. Only a peculiar glowering light that was like moonlight, like mist. A blank neutrality in which only a few insects sang, and very few birds. Like sleep, it was; like the dreamless sleep of the depths of the night. Perhaps he was sleeping? – dreaming? The foliage magnified in the rifle’s scope and the glimmering surface of the river some distance away and the pallid, dissolving Chautauqua Mountains and the oppressive sky itself (which looked, for a moment, like a soiled concrete floor!) were mesmerizing. Ashton found himself smiling a foolish mindless smile, drawn through the scope and into the vast silence, thinking that this had happened before, many times: and would happen many times again.
But this is false: Ashton Vickery did not really think.
He was not accustomed to thinking, for what was the need? The rifle was an extension of his arms and shoulders and eyes and soul, as everything he touched was an extension of himself. He did not think, he tasted. He tasted and chewed and swallowed. He was quite content with himself. (Since it had been decided that he would enter into a partnership with his Uncle Ewell, buying a one-third interest in his uncle’s general store in Marsena, since it was settled once and for all that he not only could not emulate his father – who had an MD degree from the state university – but would not, there was peace in the Vickery household. But then, Ashton had always been at peace with himself.) It did not surprise him that women found him attractive, for he found himself attractive when he paused to contemplate himself. Tall, rangy, arrogant, cavalier, he moved about Marsena and the surrounding countryside with an unflagging confidence in his own worth. Had he not, after all, the power to kill? – as he chose? – to kill with grace, with cunning, with mercy or without. The secret of his manhood (which he could not have articulated) lay in his ability to destroy, his willingness to kill, the zeal with which he snatched up his guns. He had first fired a rifle at the age of five, and at the age of six he had killed for the first time. The creature had been a full-grown hare. Ashton was never to forget the amazing kick of the rifle, the cracking sound, the certainty – he was never to forget the astonishing life – the livingness – of the rifle as the trigger was pulled and the bullet shot to its mark. The death leap of the hare had been extraordinary; it had torn from the child a gasp of startled recognition. The livingness of the rifle and the bullet and the death spasm and his own bright quickening blood: never would he forget.