As she walked naked along the dusty ground, mother wondered if this was what the men of the War felt when they charged. Did they feel stripped and bare? Did the guns and the bristling steel in their hands turn to air and feel like nothing? Did they feel the rough of the ground on their feet as if they had no shoes?
Mother had nothing with her. Everything was back at the ranch house, inside the great trunks. But what use was it to her anymore? All of it had become South Dakota, so there was no need to take any of it. There was nothing in the great trunks that she did not see in the land right before her eyes. Even she herself was South Dakota. And not only that, but she finally understood that all the things of Richmond, the great trunks, the War, none of it had ever even existed. It was only ever South Dakota. That made her sad.
Then she saw the vision. An image of bristling steel, and the wheels of cannon, and shouting men and the legs and heads of charging horses, and pounding, pounding, pounding upon the ground. And it was all tangled up in a great battle where there was no ground or sky, no up or down. Just men and things swirling around, and sounds and shouting and screaming. And the image pulled away from her eyes and it became a writhing ball of violence and noise, and it grew further and further away from her eyes, as though she were rising into space and the writhing ball was the earth in orbit around the sun.
Then the image faded and all that was before her eyes was the silence and the mountain. The mountain loomed like the back of a great whale rising out of the ocean. Mother stopped. There was no getting over it. Not for her. Not now.
Above her there were clouds swirling gray and cold, dangling down to her in spires, but she could not feel them. They moved over the mountain and hung there, and the dark mountain now looked like an open mouth on the horizon. It was hard to see. But then, everything had become hard to see.
Something inside her longed for Richmond. Richmond during the war, even. She wouldn’t even mind seeing the blue general. At least he had a face. She saw it many times in the papers, as well as the pictures of his army. Endless army. So endless they were that the pictures could never hold them all. They spilled beyond the edges of the paper and she just knew that they went on forever and ever.
But at least there, in Richmond, she knew who was coming for her and why. But this. South Dakota. All unfamiliar. This place. Her bootless husband. Her children. All strangers. There was no army, no generals, no burning homes. It was all just South Dakota. And there was nothing more to say about it than that. This made her sad, too.
“I know the way you suffer, woman,” Leonard said. His voice came from in front of her. He had come out of her vision. Out of the churning ball of violence and shouting he had stepped and had walked towards her.
“How can you know? You are unfamiliar to me. I don’t think you know me,” she said.
Mother shivered and closed her eyes briefly and wrapped her arms around her naked torso. She felt a wave of unconsciousness rush over her. She started to fall, then came to and caught herself. She looked up at the stranger and examined him with her muddy eyes.
“One eye only,” she said. “Where is the rest of you?”
“Off on the four winds, perhaps,” Leonard said. “Where it needs to be, I suppose.”
Leonard got down off of his horse.
“I have no face,” he said with a sigh. “I am blind and deaf in this body. It is true. Still, I understand how you suffer in those ways particular to a woman. And you are a very poor woman indeed.”
Mother wrapped her arms tighter, looked around, and nodded.
“Is there any going back?” she asked.
“Yes, to Richmond.”
Leonard shook his head. “No. The line of marching and drumming from Richmond does not turn back. It either ends in South Dakota, or sometimes it goes on and on to the great ocean beyond us on the other side. But not too often. Mostly, it’s just this for everyone. There may be visions, everyone has their own, but there is no real difference in the end.”
Mother looked sadly at the stranger.
“I am cold,” she said.
“Yes. It is cold out here.”
“Will you build a fire for us?”
Leonard shook his head. “You cannot stay here. Your line is still moving, for a little longer still. It will end soon. Not here, but not far from here.”
“But I could warm myself for a while and then continue.”
“A lot of work for no real purpose,” Leonard replied. “You can’t build a fire that reaches all the way to the ocean. You might as well stay cold.”
Mother shivered. Her eyes were red and they rolled back into her head for a moment. She swallowed a dry swallow. She rubbed her arms slowly then began to step forward.
“I have further to go,” she said.
“Only a little, yes.”
Mother took a few steps forward, then fell to her knees. Her shivering became uncontrollable and her red eyes began to burn as though they were filled with hot grease. Her dark hair was like rope on her head and hung thickly down her neck in cords that were so heavy and taunt that not even the winds of South Dakota could move them.
She looked up. Was that the stranger standing in front of her, or was that the mountain? No, it was the stranger. She was nowhere close to the mountain. She looked up at his face. A face, but no face. She understood at that moment where the rest of it was, besides just the eye. There were pieces of it everywhere, all the way from Richmond to here. It was a face that had been smashed and scattered. She sat on the ground and pulled her knees up to her chest.
“Please give me your coat for a covering, stranger.”
Leonard walked over to her. She looked down at the ground. She did not look him in the face because there was no point. Might as well just look at the ground, she thought. She shivered again.
Leonard pulled a pipe out from somewhere inside his thick, gray coat. It was already lit and smoking. He knelt down beside her and held the pipe to her lips. Lemon pulled the smoke in, then breathed it out again. It came out of her mouth and nose and wrapped around her head like a sack. The smoked burned her red eyes as the smoke of Richmond once did long ago.
“You don’t need my coat,” Leonard said.
“I am cold.”
“Yes. It is cold out here.”
“Please give me your coat.”
With a smooth motion, Leonard’s fingers quickly wrapped around the pipe, and he put it back beneath his coat. The pipe was still lit when he put it away, and still smoking. His eye looked up and around at the fading light of South Dakota’s evening sky.
‘My eye is very painful tonight’, he thought. ‘Just like the woman’s eyes are painful.’
The eye always hurt to some extent, though it was a little worse at that moment. It was split in two and bled constantly, so it made sense that there was always some kind of pain. His vision was very poor in that eye, too, and he cursed this fact more than once during the course of a day. All he could ever see were the shadows of this or that. Shadows with a little color. The details were not sharp at all. Everything looked smooth to him, with soft edges, like the edges of a sandy shore.
No good eye, he thought. I should put a hot knife to it and stop the bleeding. I wish I did not need this eye. But at least I see better than the woman. And I see well enough to tell the Strangers where to go and what to do. And they go there and they do it. Soon I will not need this eye at all. I will have other eyes that I can use. Sharper eyes. He paused in his mind. He brought his fingers to his chin and hummed softly for a moment. It was tuneless. He did not think his new eyes would make much of a difference in the end. They would only be less painful, he hoped.
Leonard said, “If I give you my coat then I will be as exposed as you. And then all of South Dakota will see, and that would not be proper. We all must stay proper, especially in South Dakota. In the midst of everything that happens, we must stay proper. Even if it is during a great war, and our homes are burning, and our family, and our slaves and wagons.” He paused. “No. That will not do.”
Mother did not respond. The sound of the stranger’s voice had become just as the wind against her ears. Mother was done. No more commanding or shouting. Rest, soldier, came the general’s voice to her ears. Lay against the ground and close your eyes.
Mother’s body relaxed and slumped, then fell to the side. Her face was in the dirt of South Dakota. Some of it was in her mouth and teeth.
“I will sleep now. I am tired,” she said to the dirt. “I would have liked to have your coat, stranger, but I guess all the gentlemen are dead these days.
“Gentleman is a nice word,” Leonard said. “But if there are any left, they are back east. They are always so polite as to let others come to the West first.”
Leonard knelt down and rubbed his hand and upon her hair and down her neck gently. Then he grabbed her thick hair and pulled back on it, but only hard enough to lift her head off of the ground a little. He brought his bandana and bleeding eye to her ear.
“And truly you have arrived in the West, woman. And now you are here, and you have no further to go. But South Dakota will continue for you. All the way to the ocean. For you, as though you were not ever born.”
Mother nodded and smiled weakly. “It is good what you say,” she said, her eyes closed. “And so it must be. How can one with such confidence be wrong?”
Mother’s body relaxed and settled. Her smile faded, and her head felt a little heavier in Leonard’s hand. He put her head down gently and stroked her hair one more time. He felt the back of her neck, and it was very cold. Colder than ever. But there was no more shivering because it was the kind of cold that made no difference.
The Stranger stood and looked over the body of the woman. The he knelt down again and began to take some dirt of South Dakota in his hands and to cover the woman with it, sprinkling her from head to toe.
“Here is my coat, woman, that you asked for.”
Then he mounted his horse and left the woman behind. He moved very quickly, as fast as he could go. Soon the feet of his horse were above the ground, and Leonard’s eye was closed and his hands were down by his sides and his head was forward on his chest and he was truly flying.
Leonard moved faster and faster, away from the woman. His Witch’s Spur pounded upon the side of the snorting horse, and he opened his one eye and there was a lot of blood. He pulled two long-barreled pistols out from somewhere underneath his coat and began to fire them into the air as he flew, over and over again. At that moment, all he wanted was to hear the guns and see the color of blood everywhere as it spilled from his eye to the bandanas, to the ground, to the sky.
He did not want to think of the Strangers. Or the boy. He wanted only to think of himself and all that he had done. he did not even want to think of the woman. The woman. She was now removed from him. Covered in a layer of South Dakota, just like she had always been.