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THE GOD OF DONKEYS
All living creatures are a mystery, more so after they die.
The man steered his truck west off of the highway and drove slowly over the frozen gravel road, looked to his left across the barbed wire fence and into the snow-patched field, a ragged checkerboard that stretched to the woods line. But the man saw neither the field nor the woods, his gaze fixed thirty steps distant on the little donkey with the stubbly wisp of a mane and a thin tail that shifted to and fro at the whim of the icy wind that knifed from the north across the road and into the field. The animal’s gray-dun coat was scruffy and thin, his ribs furrowed beneath the hide like the form of a boat hull under construction, yet with a wormy pot-belly sagging below. He appeared to stare straight ahead, as if there were an object worthy of donkey contemplation somewhere in the empty bleakness of late February. The muzzle and eye rings, once white, were filthy and crusted, the long pointed ears jutting forward like worn horns. His hooves were hidden in the dead grass, but the man suspected that they were curled upward, unclipped, perhaps with abscesses.
The man braked the new, black 1978 Chevrolet pickup truck, jammed the gear selector up into park. He looked back to the front, stared for long moments through the windshield at the low iron clouds scudding from north to south. He counted backwards, a winter at a time, settled on three as the accurate number over which, every two or three weeks, he had seen the donkey in the field, never more than a few feet from where it stood now, rooted in the harsh earth as surely as an unwanted scrub cedar or Osage Orange. The man’s job dictated his present travel route mostly in winter, but he was certain that the warmer months were only marginally better for the pathetic, unloved creature. The man swung open the door, climbed out, straightened his lanky frame. He was thirty-one years old, carried no excess flesh, and squinted out of long habit. On the back of his left hand was a black tattoo of excellent design that read: 101st AIRBORNE, and under that, the head of a screaming eagle. From the pocket of his denim work shirt he fingered a Marlboro cigarette, tucked it between his lips, and then lit it with a Zippo bearing the same design as the tattoo. He smoked half in four long draws and then tossed the long stub into the snow filled ditch. He turned back to the open cab, bent forward at the waist, and reached under the seat. He grasped the holstered revolver in his left hand, and with his right withdrew the six-inch-barreled Smith and Wesson Model 29, tossed the holster in the seat. The nickel plating gleamed even in the low light. The cylinder was loaded with six .44 magnum cartridges, hand loaded, each bullet two hundred forty grains in weight and in a jacketed hollow point configuration. The cases contained twenty-three grains of high quality smokeless powder. With a quarter turn of his head to his left, he paused, looked and listened for approaching vehicles. There was only the wind in his ears. He took a two-handed hold on the black rubber grips as he placed his forearms across the top of the door, and then cocked the hammer with his left thumb. The front sight with the red insert settled into the square notch of the rear sight. His eyes focused on the insert, the top of which was now aligned with a point two inches behind the left eye of the donkey. As it always was when targets lived and breathed, the report of the gun did not come to the man’s ears as a loud noise; rather, a fading echo wafting across the barren landscape. The donkey disappeared from his sight picture, and the man knew that there was no need to look down. He turned quickly, slid the revolver back into the holster, shoved it back under the seat. He settled back into the seat and drove a few yards forward before making a three-point turn back toward the paved road.
Eight hundred yards to the south, and hidden atop a wooded ridge, a frame house squatted in a copse of elm trees. Ensconced within the living room, a couple sat in green vinyl lounge chairs as they stared at the fuzzy images cast from an eighteen-inch black and white television set, the rabbit ears above it sagging and wrapped with clumps of aluminum foil. The man’s hair was still thick, though greying around the edges; incrementally, one year slipping into the next, he had come to care less and less about its length. His wife’s hair, in short tight curls, was more grey than black, but this fact caused her no more care than did the thirty pounds that had crept onto her frame over the past twenty years. The man’s thick forearms rested in his lap, and on the right forearm was a faded tattoo peeking through the hair that read: 101st AIRBORNE, and under that, the image of a screaming eagle.
In the kitchen, another man sat at the small oval table, his wide face expressionless, rivulets of saliva cutting crookedly from both corners of his mouth. His hair was buzz-cut on the sides to a line just above his ears, and above the line it was only twice as long. He was twenty seven years old, did not tolerate the smelly fuel-oil heat in the living room any better than he tolerated people, including his parents. In wintertime he spent most of his hours in the drafty kitchen shirtless and barefoot, as he was now. The man was vaguely aware that the seasons of the year bore names, but he sensed with great clarity the fact that soon the last of the snow would melt, the sun would rise higher and warmer, and that he again would lead his donkey to the shade of the trees and wait with his silent friend until the breeze found them, and then he would feed him carrots from his hand. And the man knew that even today, in the cold and before darkness, he would make his daily trek down to the low field and lead his donkey back up the hill and into the shelter. Robot-like, he poked a kernel of corn through the wires of a bird cage sitting in the middle of the table. The cage contained a young fox squirrel that chattered as it approached the kernel. Two huge cats, a yellow and a grey, both with long fur, slinked with arched backs and stilted legs back and forth between his bare ankles. On the linoleum floor beside his chair, a tan colored mongrel lay curled, its dark eyes peering upward and locked on the noisy squirrel.
In the living room, the woman asked the man, “You hear that?”
“I did in fact.”
“Yes ‘twas, but not a shotgun.”
“What you reckon?”
“Somebody takin’ a whack at a runnin’ coyote comes to mind. They will make a trot through sometimes in the middle of the day…or dig for mice in the snow.”
The man steered the Chevy pickup onto the paved road, but for only a hundred feet before he glanced into the rearview mirror, slammed the brakes and shifted into reverse. The tires squealed faintly to a halt at the intersection with the gravel road and then he turned back onto it, rolling slowly, past the still form of the donkey’s body, and on for a quarter mile until he stopped at a mailbox. It was fashioned from an old black metal lunch pail, and mounted on top of a cedar post. Painted white in sturdy block lettering was a single name: G I S H. The man looked south down the narrow lane—a packed bed of two-inch rock, thin but serviceable—and followed its trace across the end of the field and up the long rise where it disappeared into the trees. He turned the truck down the lane and drove slowly as he lit a cigarette. The north wind caught the little cloud of smoke slipping from the driver’s-side window and chased it ahead of the truck until it vanished.
He peered through the windshield as the truck topped the rise, and he spied the house, a far better vision than the one that had begun to form in his mind as he drove up the lane. It was old, to be sure, but the asbestos-clad walls were square, the asphalt-shingled roof sound and properly guttered, the window frames a reasonable shade of white. A small wooden porch, roofed and shingled, harbored a green front door with a brass knocker. The man braked to a halt, ground the cigarette stub in the console ashtray. Stacked one on top of the other at the corner of the porch sat two small, empty animal cages with trap doors for live catching. Behind the house was a metal shed that appeared even sturdier than the house, and from behind the shed the front half of a weathered, yellow bulldozer intruded into the grey light, its tall blade aligned with a goose-necked trailer. The front yard was no more than a forty-foot square, uncluttered with items either abandoned or neglected that the man had been certain he would see. A bird feeder was centered in one half of the yard, which was divided by a concrete walk, and centered in the other half was a twenty-foot flagpole with a three-foot by four-foot American flag rippling in the breeze.
The dog in the kitchen low-growled the presence of the truck in the driveway, but his master rubbed the toes of his right foot against the dog’s ribs, silencing it, and then he looked into the living room as he heard the engine stop. He watched his mother push herself up from her chair and shuffle toward the door. The man let the corn kernels slip from his hand onto the table as he pushed the chair back and stood. He slipped to the open doorway to the living room, and then hid behind the wall.
She did not wait for the knock on the door before opening it a foot and poking out her head. The approaching man had a chiseled, handsome face and was wearing an unzipped camouflage hunting jacket. He stopped six paces from the porch. “Is this the Gish residence?”
She nodded, said, “Don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Do you own the field with the donkey?”
She nodded again, furrowed her brow. “What’s that to you?”
The man shifted his weight, reset his boots in the grass, stuffed his hands into his coat pockets. “Is Mister Gish around?”
Her eyes did not move from the man. She was certain now, the dread rising in the space between them like a stench. “Vinis Gish, come forth!”
The door opened wide, the frame filled with the bulk of Vinis Gish, his broad, square hands thumb-hooked over the suspenders of his bib overalls. For several seconds, the two men studied each other’s faces, probing, seeking clues. Gish said, “What’s this here about?”
The man drew in a steady breath, released it slowly. “For years I’ve passed by that little donkey down in your field and wondered when somebody would ever take proper care of it.” He paused, studied Gish’s eyes for a reaction, saw a gear shift in the man’s head as surely as if metal teeth were meshing.
“The gun shot was your’n?”
The woman’s voice, low and plaintive, wafted past her husband’s shoulder. “Holy Jeeeeesus …Lil’ Clem.”
Gish said, “We have a terrible situation here.”
“I could’ve just drove on away…started to, but it wouldn’t have been right. I’m not that kind of man.”
“So you come up here to tell me what kind of a sorry-ass man I am, that it?”
“No. I came so you’d know that it wasn’t a vandal with no reason.”
“Donkey just as dead though, ain’t he?” Gish lowered his hands to his hips. “Who made you god of donkeys?”
The man’s hands slipped from his pockets. “Look, Gish…I didn’t come here to start a fight over this. I came as a point of honor, and if it helps, I’d be willing to pay you for your trouble if you want to dispose of the carcass.”
“You got any kids?”
“Yes…boy and a girl.”
The man’s brow crinkled. “Normal?”
“Of the mind, I mean.”
The man swallowed, nodded, said nothing.
“That is a blessing you’ll never really understand, mister god of donkeys.”
Gish’s eyes reddened as he stepped forward from the door and walked across the porch into the grass. He stopped three feet from the man. “Let me tell what you’ve done…and how much your goddamned honor’s worth.” He raised a fist and motioned over his shoulder toward the door. “In there is our boy who was born slow of the mind. He understands most everything, but he don’t…or can’t…no damn doctor knows for sure…say a word, never has. Sorta like the talkin’ world is a mystery he don’t care to participate in…which may make him smarter than all us talkers. He will live with us like a man-child till we’re dead and then the state will have to keep him until he’s dead. And the only things in this entire world he cares about are his animals…and that little donkey which woulda likely lived another twenty years…well, I reckon he loved that critter most of all. Speakin’ of which, I just spent sixteen dollars and thirty-four cents on wormin’ medicine which the vet claimed was gonna finally fix him. And further speakin’ of which, a farrier that knows him by name comes regular and tends his hooves. And further speakin’ of which, had a shelter just in the trees yonder which he could get in when he wanted…which wasn’t often, I know not why…because most donkeys would…but not Lil’ Clem.”
Gish stopped for breath and knuckled a tear into his cheek, clenched his jaws. He lowered his head, and the man in front of him took it as a sign of gathering calm, and he too lowered his head. It was then when the blow loosed an explosion behind his left eye, and when he looked up the tree tops moved in sweeping circles, as if a wind storm had invaded his head. Time slowed, trickling now, the tree tops slowing too, and finally the man raised his hand, fingered the blood leaking from his the corner of his eye. He propped himself on one elbow, allowed the details of the preceding minutes to re-form in the returning chambers of his brain. He glanced up, saw that Gish had not moved, and then steadied himself on one knee before regaining his feet. From his hip pocket he pulled a red handkerchief and held it against his cheek for several seconds. The only sounds in the yard were the frettings of a brace of crows, high overhead and discordant with the soft whoosh of the wind. Gish raised his right hand, no longer a fist.
“You take your honorable self away from here and don’t come back…ever.”
“Reckon I had that comin’. I am sorry for all the trouble.”
As the man turned toward his truck, a flicker of movement to his right and at the corner of the house invaded Gish’s peripheral vision. He turned his head and saw the barrel of the shotgun, but before he could open his mouth to shout, the roar echoed past him, and when he jerked his head back to the front the man was coiled in agony, his boots churning in the colorless grass. As Gish ran to the stricken man, he heard his wife scream behind him. The man rolled onto his back, then struggled to a sitting position. He spread his jacket and ripped open his shirt, three white buttons popping into the air. He made no sound as he stared down at the seeping exit holes that formed a ragged pattern spread over six inches of his abdomen. Gish dropped to his knees, placed his left hand behind the man’s head and carefully lowered him to the ground. He reached down with his right hand and found the bloody left hand and he squeezed it with a gentle pressure. From inside the house, the dog barked inquisitively and without pause, seeking his master’s whereabouts.
Gish looked at the holes that he knew to be the result of a double ought buckshot load from a twelve gauge shell, and with the knowledge he knew that the man was doomed. “Goddammit all! Goddammit, man!” He shook his shaggy head from side to side.
The man’s words wheezed upward, fading sounds, but Gish heard them. “Am I dead?”
Gish nodded, said, “Yes.”
“Thought that.” His eyelids sank halfway, then his eyeballs fixated in death.
Gish held onto the limp hand for a moment, then looked down as it slid free, the tattoo now in full view. The black numerals and letters and the image of the screaming eagle of the 101st Airborne burned a hole that reached into the middle of Gish’s head, then down to his gut, and he gagged, swallowed against the nausea pooled at the base of his tongue. He planted one foot underneath his body, then the other, and pushed himself upright. He felt his wife’s shoulder crowd against his, but he separated from her touch, could not deal with the trembling. From inside the house, the dog barking suddenly ceased.
The woman’s voice was a loud whisper. “Lord God, Vinis…what we gonna do?”
Gish pressed his fingertips against his forehead, and then lowered his hands to his waist, locked his fingers. “Be still a minute, woman…got to think here.”
She waited as long as she could stand the silence, a span of sixty seconds that she was certain had covered several minutes. “They’ll carry him away, won’t they?... pen him up somewhere where he can’t have his animals…Lord God…”
“No…ain’t nobody gonna carry him away.” He unlocked his fingers, raised his head, straightened his arms, then spoke in an even tone, like a man talking into a mirror, delivering a statement of great import to himself. “The only one that acted outside his bounds here was a man that shoulda’ known better.” He shook his head, slowly, steadily. “Our family will not pay for his mistake…in any manner.” Gish looked straight up into the low clouds for a moment, then back level, considered it appropriate to the occasion that the sun was not visible. “I will take down our flag to tie around him and then we will load him into his truck and I will drive it down behind this hill to the open glade where the rock won’t be shelved in the ground. I will take the tractor and go drag Lil’ Clem to the same place. Then I’ll fire up the dozer and go down there and dig a hole ten feet deep and thirty feet wide. Into that hole I will put and mash down to near nothin’ the truck, which will be the man’s casket, and I will put Lil’ Clem beside it, and then I will fill the hole and brush it over and make it look like it has been that way for a long time. All the while, you will tend the boy inside the house and be sure his mind is on his critters. It will be over before nightfall. It will be days, more likely weeks, before any laws might poke around after a missing man who traveled the blacktop road. They might never come. But if they do, I will be the one to talk.”
He turned to his wife, made her red-rimmed, weepy eyes hold his until he was certain that she wouldn’t look away. He said, “Can you live with that arrangement, woman…now and forever?”
Her chin quivered, her hands a white knot of bone, thinly covered with flesh. “I’ll have to.” She swallowed thickly, sucked in a quick breath. “I saw his tattoo, Vinis. Can you?”
Great tears rolled down his cheeks, and he stifled a sob that racked his barrel chest. He steadied himself, said. “In time….I’ll have to.”
At a quarter past four o-clock in the afternoon, on a Saturday that marked the end of the second week of March, a Moniteau County Sheriff’s patrol car rolled slowly to a halt in front of the Gish house. When the deputy stepped from his vehicle, he looked down the path toward the metal shed and watched as Vinis Gish ambled toward him. When he was twenty feet from the deputy, Gish hailed the younger man with a toss of his right hand and said, “Howdy there, young fella, what can I do for ya?”
“Well, sir…Mr. Gish, I take it?” Gish nodded in affirmation. “I’m helping with a search effort regarding a missing person that you might’ve heard about.”
Gish nodded. “Seems like I heard somethin’ about it on the news two or three weeks ago maybe. Somebody from down around Springfield, they say?”
“Yes, a man named Worth Strother, thirty-one, dark hair, six-two, around two hundred pounds…most likely wearing a camo jacket. Last seen in a new black Chevy pickup. He travelled regular between Columbia and Springfield, most often over on Highway 63 down through Lake Ozarks, but his wife said he liked to get off the beaten path every so often.” The deputy flapped his hands as if in apology. “The Highway Patrol, County Sheriffs all around, City Police…you name it…we’ve been near about everywhere by now I reckon. But you never know when you might run into somebody who saw something, heard something.” He flapped his hands again, and then reset his Smokey Bear hat. “Anyway…we’re pretty much stumped by it all…heckuva mystery, I’ll say. Sorry for the bother.”
“No bother a’tal.”
The deputy swung the car door open, swept his gaze back over the house and the surrounding trees. “Nice place you got here, quiet and private, up on this hill. Like to have a place like this myself someday.” He paused, flipped a hand. “Oh…and for what it’s worth, he had a tattoo on the back of his left hand. 101st Airborne thing, had the screaming eagle head under it.”
What Vinis Gish then did was something that he would never fully comprehend; he would only remember that he had no control over the rising of his right arm, or over his left hand as it unbuttoned the shirt sleeve and peeled it back to his elbow, or over his voice. “Like this most likely.”
The deputy squinted and then stepped towards Gish, looked closely. “Well, I’ll be danged…you too, huh?”
“World War Two. Place called Bastogne is what we’re remembered for most, I reckon.”
The deputy took off his hat, extended his hand. “Well, I’ll be…you were one of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne?”
Gish shook his hand, said, “Still am.”
“This is an honor, Mr. Gish…to be sure.”
“Oh, I ‘spect not as much as you think. We were just scared boys…tryin’ to make it to the next day…same thing everybody tries to do in this life.”
“Well, you’d be interested to know that Strother took a Silver Star in Vietnam…place called A…something…valley, I think.”
“A Shau Valley…that would be the place.” Gish paused, closed his eyes for a second. “This makes him a double sad story for me.”
The deputy looked up at the flag, said, “I’m sure it does. I might’ve known you were a vet. Not many folks fly flags that nice. Looks near new.”
Gish nodded, looked up at it with the deputy. “It is. I put a new one up every spring…retired the old one a little early this year.”
“Well, I better get on my way. Couple more stops before I get off.”
“So long, son.”
Gish watched as the deputy backed the patrol car away from the yard, braked, and then began to drive forward down the lane. Gish raised his right arm in a final farewell.
The wind calmed as the cold of twilight seeped up the hill and found Vinis Gish, who sat on the edge of the front porch. He wore his Army fatigue jacket over his coveralls, and on his feet were worn but sturdy combat boots. His head cover was his Army overseas cap, now a half size too small because he no longer took regular haircuts. Leaning on the porch beside him was a wooden-handled garden spade. In the right pocket of his jacket was a ring box that had not held a ring for over thirty years. After a time, Gish stood, waited for the stiffness to smooth out, and then began to walk south. He passed the shed and proceeded down a path that was roughly defined in grass still dead to the cling of winter. He thought ahead, two months into spring, to the time when he would walk in the bright of day, swing his Kaiser blade through green grass and more precisely define the path.
The moon a was halved orb, clean and gleaming, casting freely its white light, the precise shade of which Gish had never seen replicated by the hand of man anywhere on the earth that he had trod for fifty-six years. He stopped at the edge of the glade, waited for the light to settle on the quarter-ton Chert boulder that he had bladed into place over the bodies of Worth Strother and Lil’ Clem. He walked to the boulder and sat down on it, propped the spade against the stone. He leaned back, braced his upper body with his arms, felt the gritty cold of the Chert under his palms and fingers. Since the day of the burial, Vinis Gish had accomplished more hours of contemplation on realms both high and low than he had in the aggregate of his life before that day. The fact that he had already lived the majority of his days no longer pricked at him with a single, clawed finger as it once did. The reality of death within a rapidly decreasing span of years was nearly, but not quite yet, a comfort. What had been foreboding doom—seldom thought of and quickly chased away when it did slip past his guard—had been transformed into what he hoped was a spiritual foretaste of the higher realm. But it was only a hope, wispy and ephemeral, for no man could be certain of such things. And so it was that now he contemplated the layers of iron and organic matter—fragments of the low realm of earth—that had been compressed over eons unfathomable into the Chert marker. Beneath the boulder, the bodies of both man and animal had begun the process that would in mere decades—eye blinks in eternity— compress their matter, return the cells of flesh and bone to the earth from whence they came. Airy hope on high, stony reality down low; Vinis Gish was certain that he would be tugged back and forth between the two realms until they were sorted out and made clear to him in a place beyond Death, or until Death reigned in a vast black void.
He rocked his weight forward, stood, picked up the spade. At the base of the boulder he dug a hole, a foot wide and three feet deep. He stabbed the spade into the ground and reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out the box, opened it. He looped the ball chain over the tip of his right finger and lifted it until his dog tags rose to eye level, where they rotated in the moonlight for several seconds before he released them back into the box and replaced the lid. He knelt and reached into the hole as far as he could, then opened his fingers, freed the box. With the point of the spade, Gish drug chunks of soil and small stones into the hole, pausing every half foot to tamp the fill solid. He rested the handle of the spade across his right shoulder and began to retrace his path through the grass and up the hill. On a bluff top a half mile distant, coyotes began to howl and yip, and the man stood still, listened until the last of the haunting notes faded away, and then he wondered for a time if the sounds were heard in the high realm or if they died in the tree tops of the low realm. He looked up the hill before him, saw the yellow rectangles of light from the house, and then he began to walk toward them.
The man wearing a bright red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap watched from the edge of the glade as the operator of the yellow Caterpillar high-lift maneuvered expertly, the great bucket gouging and digging into the pliable ground. The man stood with his left hand resting on the top of a two-by-four driven into the ground, and stapled to the board was a building permit issued by The County of Moniteau, Missouri, dated: April 10, 2008. A Chert boulder lay in temporary repose on the low side of the glade, having been shoved there by the high-lift operator, who knew that the landowner would covet the stone as a jewel for the landscaping that would adorn the yard of the splendid, brick home that would soon rise from the ground, as now were the awakening blossoms of purple Henbit and white clover, and the Honeysuckle, its inimitable perfume delicate on the breeze. The big engine throttled low, then into idle, and finally chugged to a halt. The operator climbed down from the cab, and when his boots hit the ground he hailed the man in the cap with the sweep of his arm.
The operator—sixtyish, wiry, and clad in a blaze orange hunting jacket—waited until the man stood beside him in front of the toothed-bucket. They looked down at the mud-caked clump of twisted metal that was only slightly larger than a refrigerator crate. The operator tilted back his head and took a long swig from a plastic bottle of Mountain Spring water, then asked, “Know what that is?”
The man studied the unnatural object for a few seconds. “Shit…looks like a vehicle…or parts of one.”
“That it would be.”
“Why here I wonder?”
“Not many rocks. Same reason your house is going here. Must’ve come from the old Gish place that was up there on the hill. Old Vinis ran a dozer in those days…my dad knew him some, but nobody ever knew him too well.” He took another swig of water. “You’d be surprised how many old cars I’ve dug up over the years. House foundations, pasture terraces, digging ponds…lakes. I drained an old pond once, and not a big one, that had three of these in the bottom.” He paused, peered at the newfound problem. “Never saw one crunched down like that though.”
“Humm…well, I suppose that it’s an issue, you know, with…”
“Yeah, I know where you’re going, and the answer is maybe.”
“If we go by DNR regs, things get way more complicated…and expensive…than they ought to be.”
“And if we don’t?”
“If that was to take place, it would mean that just you, me, the crows and squirrels and some coyote that’s likely watching us from somewhere, and the like, will be the only ones who know that the new burial ground will be over there at the base of the berm to your new fish pond…which I can go commence right now…and then come back here and finish with your foundation hole.”
“I can keep a secret with the animals.”
“Story goes that nobody ever figured out how the house burned with them all in it.”
“My dad says there was a hassle between Gish’s brother and the insurance company about how the fire got started. Don’t know how that turned out…been what, fifteen years now?”
“That sounds about right.”
“Well, anyhow, Dad claims that their boy…bad retarded, living with ‘em…was in the middle of it all. Nuttier’n a damn fruitcake towards the end. Dad says he took to standing out in that low field that borders the road…rain, cold…didn’t matter…they couldn’t do thing with him. Dad saw him a couple times. Damndest deal.”
“Man, that’s sad.”
“Sure as hell is.”
The operator turned and climbed back into his seat, fired the engine and edged forward. The teeth of the bucket slid easily underneath the burden. With a hydraulic whine, the bucket rose from the ground and the machine clanked away. The man walked forward and idly toed his boot over the damp soil, and on a hand-sized clump of mud he spied a patch of material in a faded pattern. He bent down, peeled the patch from the clump. He placed it in the palm of his hand, smoothed it with a fingertip. There was no doubt that once it had been part of a camouflage garment, probably a part of something totally worn out even before it had been left in the vehicle. Or, he thought, it could have been a blunder of forgetfulness, or maybe it had belonged to Gish’s crazy son, meaning that it wasn’t a blunder at all, but just the odd way of some things. He turned his hand over, released the patch. He said aloud, “Oh well…all things dust to dust.” From the edge of the woods, two piercing caws hung in the air, then faded away, and the man reckoned that a crow had affirmed his benediction, and that the creature was as qualified to do so as most of the people he knew, or had ever known.