Though the Sun will be turned into darkness, and the Moon into blood, it is not the Lord’s Day. I am here to repay evil, for God takes too long. He could not save Jackson Tait, and He will not save me. Heaven has no place in my heart and no space for my soul. My anger, my rage is of this world. I cannot turn my cheek, nor rest until eyes and teeth are taken. The devil that built this house left his mark upon me when I was only eight years old and now I’ll return it. The pillars of smoke are the sign of his end, and the flames the things we shall all become. It is I who am clothed with the Sun, with the Moon beneath her feet. It is not the Lord’s Day. This day is mine, and mine alone.
Frank Marlin, my grandfather, has governed this church as if he was the Word made flesh. Yet today he will become human. I will reduce his sermons to ashes, and the Sodom he has built to rubble. It is beneath that wreckage that I wish to find my grandfather. His bones smashed, his blood draining away, his last breath slipping from his throat. As I cover his mouth, his eyes fixed in terror, he will know that I am the rider upon the white horse. With scales in my hands, I will place the mark upon his head, and he will at last suffer for every vile act he has committed. And when Frank Marlin finds the darkness that has been reserved especially for him, I will find my redemption, my moment of freedom. No heavenly reward will grant me that.
The syrupy contents of the can of gasoline in my hand splash onto my dress and run down my legs as I force open the only window I can see. I make my way into the long courtyard and watch the fire engulf the church adjoining the west wing of the compound. The flames spiral upwards behind the high ground floor windows, until the timber arches upon the ceiling begin to flare with shimmering fury. Half-formed figures dance amid the choking air, their desperate hands scraping in vain against the glass. I feel no pity for them. Clawing its way across the roof, the fire’s deep orange hues fade gently into the darkening colors of the early evening sky. I stand here transfixed, astonished at the beauty and horror of it all.
Easterly winds bring the smell of jasmine, its perfume quickly overpowered by the stench of burning flesh. A low boom ricochets around the buildings as the support structure of the main sleeping quarters begin to bend, bow and finally break. The heavy oak beams plummet two stories down, crushing the once grand veranda as if it were made of leaves. The river at the north end of the compound has swollen to the point of bursting. The currents swirl as I watch the charred remains of a small child become entangled in water reeds. There is no way to cross without drowning, no option but to follow the spread of the flames towards the main entrance of the compound.
Through the fading light I can just make out three objects on the ground in the middle of the courtyard. I tentatively begin to move towards them but freeze after only a few steps. A sharp, splintering sound comes from the window to my right; the paint around it bubbles and dissolves as the glass expands and contracts like a lung. When it finally explodes, a swarm of vicious shards pierce the right side of my body and face. Tiny red carnations blossom though my dress. The iron-rich taste of blood fills my mouth as I plead with myself to keep walking. Instead I step forward into a recurrent nightmare: the form of Cousin John comes staggering into view. Every inch of his body is alight as he stumbles through the now empty window. His clothes have almost burnt away, leaving his skin to feed the flames. John lurches towards me, his arms outstretched as if crucified. He attempts to summon the meekest of sounds.
“Laura Jo…Laura Jo.”
The Laura Jo he knew is dead. I am the resurrection. The hate-filled, godless soul that will destroy the things that John holds dear. He is Moses’ burnt offering of sin.
The fire silences him. He drops like a stone onto his knees, then hard onto his dripping-wax face. The dry crab-grass around him begins to pop as it ignites. In seconds it has formed a circle of light around him. His contorted hands twitch like a rattlesnake as I move past him, the great wheezing frame of his body finally coming to a halt. John has not found salvation or mercy. But I have the blood I’ve longed for upon my hands. When the flames die down I pour more gasoline onto him in the hope of prolonging his suffering.
Past John, the three prone objects gradually come into focus. There is no sense of surprise or shock; I instinctively knew what I would find here from the moment I first glimpsed these spectral shapes. The lifeless bodies of my mother, Josephine, and sisters, Beth and Ann, rest three feet apart from each other. Their eyes stare blankly into the ink-blot sky, hands clasped together, locked in prayer. Deep purple bruises run like rivers across the throats of Ann and Beth. Their silver-blonde hair splays out behind them, the burning light of the buildings trickling off its ghostly sheen. Bitter tears fall over my lips. I separate their fingers one by one and softly lay their hands by their side.
Mother’s head is surrounded by a slowly expanding red halo. The blood glistens in the grass as I bend down to close her remaining eye. One side of her face is no longer there. For her the tears will never flow. Though she may not have been the root of our family’s sickness, she was its ripe, rancid fruit.
Smoke drifts in great waves around me, and I can barely see beyond the end of the compound. Panic begins to spread through me as I realize the fire has encroached upon nearly every exit. Even now a part of me does not wish to die. The one route left open to me is past the room in which we stored and framed the history of our congregation. I summon what small amount of energy remains in my body and begin to press on towards the gate. A voice echoes out into the courtyard and stops me dead.
“Laura Jo Marlin!”
Every sinew in my body strains as if it is ready to snap. Ten feet beyond the veranda doors sits Frank Marlin, slowly rocking back and forth in his chair. His sallow skin glows like a Halloween pumpkin in an arch of fire. A sickness courses through me as my grandfather reaches for the shotgun that lies at his feet. In one flowing action he slides back the bolt of the gun and aims the long black barrels straight at me. He jerks the weapon twice, beckoning me forward.
“And the sheep returns to its flock. Did you think you’d be spared, Laura Jo? I should never have let you leave your mother’s womb. We are all going. This end must be shared, shared between me and you, as we as a family have shared everything else.”
I can no longer hold on to the can of gasoline. It slips from my fingers and hits the ground with a dull, metal thud. The sepia liquid empties around my feet. The heady odor of the gas drifts up to my head, leaving me dizzy, and my nerves tingling.
The wall behind him is covered with pictures and clippings. In the center of everything is a blown-up newspaper image of my grandfather, his remorseless gaze condemning us all. A picture of my mother slips from the wall and shatters as an image of my nine year-old self draped in virginal white starts to burn, sweat and blacken, my innocence destroyed one final time.
Yet I no longer am controlled by the fear which Frank Marlin spread through us. My salvation came in the form of a boy. An hour ago, Jackson Tait drew his last breath. Grandfather quickly thrusts a knife into that open wound.
“Such a shame about the boy…such a shame. More’s the pity his parents could not join him. It seems that I, alone, was chosen.”
He cannot resist a smile.
“Oh, Laura Jo. You’re proof ever-lasting that He has never entered your heart, that you were formed for a more…common use.”
He makes the sign of the cross with the gun.
“His rod. His staff. His shepherd. Goodnight, Laura Jo. You will not sleep well.”
Frank Marlin’s lines of scripture sear out into blackness around me, his conviction still unfaltering, his anger absolute. But where once these words were divine, I now laugh at the sound of a dying, bedeviled old man. I will not bow before him, nor place my hands in prayer.
As my grandfather releases the safety on his shotgun I hear the distant wail of sirens. They will be far too late to save me. In a few seconds, death will steal me away from the land of the Frontier Saints.