narrated by Bob Eccles
Jesus watched dust curl up from the desert floor on a straight-line trajectory that left no doubt it was heading for him. For a time he hoped it was an unusually persistent dust devil, but even before he finished weeding and watering the corn in his twelve-row mixed garden, he gave up on that notion. It was a wagon, or worse, a truck.
Bandits? Marauders? He had little of value, but desperation was like a plague, driving ordinary people into paroxysms of violence. No one was truly safe these days.
He wiped his brow. The gritty smear of soil from the back of his hand grounded him. His heartbeat slowed. It’s probably nothing; pilgrims, wanderers. Even in a world nearly exhausted of the inexpensive energy that had made overpopulation possible, there were occasional travelers. Over the years he had entertained a dozen or so visitors out here in the heart of the 40-Mile Desert.
Nodding to himself, he bent to his work.
A half hour later, Jesus checked the agave for signs of weevil infestation. He went inside and patted out a dozen tortillas for the solar oven before marching down to the cellar to retrieve a bottle of wine. At least it was cool down there.
When a truck towing a trailer filled with plastic drums squealed to a stop, Jesus was setting plates on the rickety table in the abandoned rescue station he had taken for his own habitation. It had cinderblock walls and plastic-patched windows, and worked well enough. He had a cot in one room, a table and chairs in the other, and it was only a few steps from the door to his garden.
Through a smudged pane, Jesus watched a pudgy man step down from the driver’s side. His beard looked like a beehive plastered onto his chin and his face was leathery, with prominent frown lines and a hooked nose. He wore jeans and a blue cotton shirt with stains at the armpits.
A woman exited the passenger door. Jesus could not help staring. A sweat-stained dress hung from her shoulders, but when she moved, the curve of her hips and breasts became clear.
“I’m Zebah,” the man said as he and his companion approached. “Zeb for short.” He pulled the woman forward with one calloused hand. “This is Ulla.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Ulla said. Jesus frowned, momentarily confused. Her eyes were steady, unblinking brown, not blue.
“We came to ask a favor,” Zeb said. “I’ve . . . we’ve heard . . . I mean—”
“We’re in need of a miracle,” Ulla said.
“Fuel,” Zeb said. “Folks claim you have gasoline.”
Jesus indicated the plain building and the garden of corn and squash and agave. “What you see here is what I possess in this world, but what I have I gladly share.”
“You shared wine with Josesha,” Ulla said.
Jesus nodded, remembering the mousey little woman and her gangling brother who had come to the desert to find Soda Lake, but had encountered him instead. “I have a wine cellar.”
“She claims it cured her brother’s hives, and all you asked in payment was faith.”
Zeb laughed nervously. “We brought fruit in case the price has gone up.” When Jesus did not smile, he looked away.
“She also said your touch cooled the fever in Celeste’s baby,” Ulla said. “I do not know Celeste—that was before Josesha joined our family—but surely that was a miracle.”
Jesus said nothing. Theirs must be a faith of convenience, but even that was a spark.
He started to reach out and light cascaded through his senses, framing Ulla’s face in layers of blond halo. He blinked, trying to regain his bearings.
Zeb spoke. “Look at the scars, Ulla. He survived the pox plague. I’ve heard of people who fell into coma, but did not die. The fever addled their brains.”
“No,” Jesus said, raising his hand. “I died and was reborn.” It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. “And, yes, the miraculous is possible, with faith.”
He led them inside and broke bread, taking none for himself. Whenever Zeb directed the conversation to gasoline—refined gasoline, not crude oil, since no one refined crude these days—Jesus poured more wine, or offered additional tortillas, squash, and beans, again taking none for his own cup and plate.
“Why do you not eat?” Ulla said. “Are you unwell?”
“I am fasting,” Jesus said.
Ulla set her fork to plate. “Surely you can make an exception. Will one day of celebration truly make a difference? You seem so thin already.”
Jesus smiled. “One does not live by bread alone.”
“Amen, brother,” Zeb said, raising his wine glass. After the meal, Zeb angled a tarp from the truck bed and ordered Ulla to lay out sleeping bags.
Jesus woke to the feel of skin sliding across his leg. His first thought was of a snake crawling onto his cot, but it was Ulla’s calf, followed by her thigh and the hard bone of her hip. Fingers traced the pocked skin on his back.
“I was cold,” Ulla said, settling against him.
He did not turn, but lay silent. She smelled familiar, of sandalwood infused with peach. For an instant it was not Ulla crawling into bed with him, but someone else, a woman with endless blue eyes and fine blond hair. He remembered touching it, silk against his fingertips.
“M . . .” Her name dissolved on the tip of his tongue.
“Is it okay?” Ulla whispered. Her breath felt warm against his ear. “Please say it’s okay.”
Yes, he thought helplessly, his manhood hard. You will know a tree by its fruit.
“No.” He cleared his throat. “This is wrong.”
Ulla sighed. “It doesn’t feel wrong.”
“You are with Zeb,” Jesus said, turning onto his back. Covetous thoughts swarmed, a buzzing tickle in his spine.
“He’ll not miss me.” Ulla’s dark eyes glistened in the moonlit room. “He has four other wives. You have no one.”
“You are married,” Jesus said with greater force. “This is not the answer.”
“But I want to be here, with you.”
“Invite me into your heart and I will remain with you forever, but this is wrong.”
Gently, he forced Ulla from the cot and watched her stumble away. He thought of piñon nuts lying on the ground beyond Soda Lake, the smoky taste of them on his tongue, the sticky sap that coated his hands if he harvested them from the pinecones rather than waiting for first frost. He closed his eyes and let the pine-needle smell of that place lull him, but could not stop thinking of Ulla’s soft skin, her sandalwood scent.
The blonde returned to his thinking, blue eyes vibrating with vitality. He tried to force them closed, to wrap his mind around the image and force it closed, but he was too weak. She floated inside him, drifting closer, a golden halo of hair framing her head.
Desperate, he recalled a Bible pulled open across his lap. There were more too, a box half-filled with Bibles at his feet. He was sitting in a chair in a room lined with beds. He smelled disinfectant, saw a sliver pole, clear bags containing fluid, a woman’s sunken face pocked with bloody sores.
Jesus’ gorge rose. His fingers grasped the cot with surprising force. “No!” The image shattered, leaving only dust.
He breathed slowly in through his nose, out through his mouth. Sandalwood and peaches.
“Why does she come into my bed?” he whispered. “Why does she tempt me? Why does she remind me?” He started to roll from the cot. Lightning flashed through his senses. You shall have no others before me. Consciousness angled from his grasp.
In the morning, he found Zeb weeping over the still form of his wife. Her skin held a bluish tinge that complemented his shirt. A towel had been tied around her neck.
“She’s dead.” Zeb’s lips pinched tight. His bearded chin trembled. “Why would she do this? Why didn’t she wake me?”
Jesus touched Ulla’s cool wrist. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone and bears no fruit.”
“What are you talking about? My wife is dead.”
“You have other wives.”
“I love them all, but she . . . she would always rise early when I stayed with her, and bring fresh coffee to my bed. I never asked her—”
“She came to me last night.”
“She wanted to stay with me. She was unhappy.”
“I told her to say that. I told her to go to you, to give her sweet body to your pox-riddled corpse. That’s why I brought her, you fool. Why I brought her. I knew I could trust . . .” A sobbing fit overcame him. He wiped at his nose. “We need gasoline. I used our last supply to come here.”
“There are other ways to obtain what you desire than through deception.”
Zeb shook his head. “The piñoncillo crop failed and we can’t distill biodiesel. We can’t irrigate without pumps. The solar cells died.” He glanced down at his wife. “We need gasoline to relocate to Vegas. There’s civilization there. We have fruit, seeds and canned goods to barter, even some honey. But we need a way to get there. Please, I’m begging you. We have women and kids. I offer you leadership of our entire family in exchange. Anything.”
“Perhaps you should have planned better,” Jesus said.
“Why should you hoard fuel while others suffer?”
“I hoard nothing,” Jesus said. “Pray for what you need, and, through me, you shall find your prayer answered. Have faith beyond doubt and you will find what you most desire.”
“I lost what I most desire,” Zeb said softly.
Jesus shrugged. “Come with me.” He started around the building, grabbing a shovel on the way. Zeb followed.
Soon they reached the spring where Jesus obtained his drinking water. Water spurted from a crack in the sandy soil, but was quickly reabsorbed, leaving only a moist depression. Jesus widened the crack with the shovel.
“Fill your containers here and seal them. Have faith, and when you return to your home, you will find they contain what you need.”
“Gasoline?” Zeb looked confused. He knelt and rubbed his forefinger and thumb through the spurt, then sniffed them. “This is water.”
“Fill your container to the brim and cap it. Pray fervently and with faith. It was your belief in the miraculous that led you to this place, was it not? Your belief that miracles would cure what hands and minds could not?” Jesus propped the shovel over his shoulder. “Well, believe.” He turned to go.
“You’re mad!” Zeb screamed. “You strangled her. How else . . .?” A click.
Jesus turned. A gun had appeared in Zeb’s fist. The gun roared and spat. Pain pierced Jesus’ hand. He lifted the shovel. A blinding light issued from his mouth.
Ulla lay beside the cornrow, hands arranged atop her stomach, hair fanned around her head. Jesus spread his fingers. The bullet had pierced the flap of skin between his thumb and forefinger. Pain radiated from the wound in cadence with his beating heart.
Kneeling, he touched his thumb to Ulla’s forehead, leaving a red fingerprint. “This is my blood,” he whispered. He touched her left cheek, and her right, finally her chin.
With each touch, the face changed shape, the cheeks rounding, chin narrowing, lips thinning, until it was a different face, framed by a glow of golden hair.
A sob tore from Jesus’ stomach. He saw the blood-encrusted shovel nearby. His chest clenched. The day’s heat seemed suddenly unbearable.
In a flash he saw his fingers twisting the towel around Ulla’s throat, Zeb’s beehive beard exploding into bright red gouts as the shovel blade struck. Then it was gone, lost in that familiar fog of unknowing that cursed his every day on Earth.
He ripped his shirt open and spread his fingers across his pocked chest. This is my flesh! he tried to scream. He splayed his arms wide and gaped, but there was no more light inside him.
Oh, Father, why have you set this plague upon your people? He already knew the answer, but could not let her go, even now. Weeping, Jesus settled onto his knees and prayed for Mary’s endless blue eyes to open.
BIO: Stephen V. Ramey’s work has appeared in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Eschatology, among others. He lives in New Castle, Pennsylvania with his novelist wife and a herd of reformed feral cats. Read him at Ramey Writes.