By Stephen Thom
Emmett nudged Buck down a long slope, and out into the dry plains. The peon loped behind them, his rifle raised. A waxing gibbous moon strobed in the colour-sapped sky, and the comandante led the small group over the flats.
The hacendado swayed on the horse behind, his wife slumped before him. He had large, silver-covered cruciform stirrups, and steel jingles on his spurs. Emmett held the reins and pressed against Abigail, reassured by her proximity as they rode out into the void.
They stopped by a lonely wooden hut surrounded by misshapen juniper trees. There was an empty rope corral nearby. The comandante dismounted, led his horse to the pen, and urinated by the hut. The hacendado swung off his own horse and helped his wife down. Emmett guided Buck to the corral and watched the comandante amble into the shack. The corral was spacious, but appeared in a state of disuse. He figured the vaqueros probably used it for wrangling once upon a time.
There was a strong wind, and a strange spark in the air; an electric feeling. Dust clouds blew over their feet. The peon trotted into the pen as Emmett was lifting Abigail down. He dismounted and led them at gunpoint over to the hut.
The comandante was dragging out a large wooden box. Emmett glanced into the hut as they were hustled past it. A packed dirt floor. Pallet beds and quilts. The comandante whistled to the peon and removed a leather aguardiente flask from his satchel. He looked irritated. The peon lifted two rickety wooden chairs out of the hut, and set them on either side of the box.
The hacendado's wife shivered and spoke quickly to him. Her face was gaunt and weary, but her eyes looked bright with anticipation. The comandante took a long drink from the flask, spat, and passed it to the hacendado. The wind had picked up, and the plume in the hacendado's hat fluttered as he drank.
To Emmett's surprise he lifted his hat off and began singing. The song was slow and mournful, and there were tears in his eyes. His wife grasped his hand, bowed her head, and sobbed. Emmett felt the added weight and responsibility, as if he had been bizarrely cast as some healer or shaman, plying his mystic trade at the dead of night in dark, lonely places.
He met Abigail's eyes, and understood her look. His mind spat a series of possibilities. He tried to factor in different shapes, their properties, and the placement of each individual person. It was too much to calculate, and all the threads collapsed in his mind.
An eagle spiralled through the ash sky overhead, its great wings beating and blotting out clusters of stars. The comandante came out of the hut carrying two spades. He threw them on the ground before Emmett and Abigail, and lit a cigarette. His pupils flared orange above the match's flame.
'Dig,' he said.
The peon laughed hoarsely and sat on the wooden box. The hacendado's wife spluttered.
'Why?' Emmett said. The comandante pulled his cotton jacket close around him.
'Dig your graves,' he said. 'So we understand each other as we move forward. All being well, they will remain empty for the time being.'
Emmett glanced at Abigail. Her little shoulders were slumped, and her dark hair fell in knots over her face. His head burned, and his breath came quickly. He set his jaw. He picked up the spades, took Abigail's hand, and guided her to a dark spot several feet away from the shack. The horses watched them silently.
He passed Abigail a spade and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. Her eyes looked blankly back at him. He held them for a beat and tried to pass unsaid absolute love, as the wind whipped around them. She scrunched her nose up and watched him as he dug into the dirt. She positioned her spade and started digging too.
The hacendado led his shaking wife into the hut as they worked. He returned out into the gloom, and stood watching with the peon and the comandante. They passed the flask between each other. Each clot of muck Emmett pulled up broke his heart further.
Abigail could not manage to thrust and shovel for long, and he took her spade from her and threw it away. She knelt mute on the ground and watched him dig her spot. Emmett veered between boiling rage and utter hopelessness. When he cast his spade down, there were two shallow graves opposite the corral. His body ached, and he hated the comandante more than anyone he had ever known.
A rubber boa slithered over the sand as they walked hand-in-hand back to the hut. The men stood as silhouettes watching them. The hacendado swayed drunkenly. Dust flurried through the darkness. The comandante lifted his cigarette. Its orange pin-prick crackled between his lips.
'How long does it take to construct a shape?' he asked.
Emmett looked at the wooden box. The two chairs on either side of it. He saw the backpack atop the box, and squeezed his eyes shut. He could not bring himself to speak to the man.
'You will answer me, boy,' the comandante said. 'I see your sickness. You belong in the dirt already. You should be grateful to me for encouraging you to prepare yourself a peaceful and adequate resting place in this godforsaken land. How long does it take to construct a shape?'
'Not long, sir,' Abigail said. Her voice was peaky. 'We done practiced a lot.'
The comandante exhaled smoke. He eyeballed Emmett and nodded.
'You will construct it around the box,' he said, 'so that his wife may sit at peace whilst her healing takes place. And so that we may observe you.'
A horse whinnied behind them. The wind stung Emmett's cheeks.
'Just it's different on the inside, sir,' Abigail said, gripping his hand tighter. 'It passes different. It might be a few minutes on the inside, but much longer here.'
'Well, then,' the comandante breathed, 'you had best begin promptly.'
He palmed his belt and shot Abigail from the hip. Emmett flinched. He felt Abigail's hand slip from his own, and when he looked down there was a smoking hole in her chest.
His mouth hung open, and his limbs seized up. Blood flowered on Abigail's cotton dress, and then it was pumping and slicking onto the desert floor. Emmett moaned and dropped down. She was wheezing and spluttering, and her eyes were rolling. He pressed down on the wound and ran his shaking hands through her hair.
'Vámonos!' the comandante screamed. He seemed completely unhinged. The peon laughed and swigged from the flask. Emmett tore himself away from Abigail's spasming figure, and raced to the wooden box.
Desperation clouded his mind. The fat shape of the hacendado lurched past the hut. Shadows bled and greased together across the gulf of the plains. Emmett seized the backpack and removed the little wooden box. He spilled a selection of pins out, and held the leather notebook for a second. His mind had gone blank. He looked back at Abigail's tiny figure, lying supine and convulsing on the ground.
He dropped the notebook and began pacing out measurements, working from memory. He blotted out the peon's cackles, and focused on Abigail's face and form. The dark loops of her hair, her wide eyes, her giggles, and her hand wrapped around his finger.
Her breath against his cheek at night.
The comandante squatted on the ground, scratched his beard, and watched him with interest. Emmett shook off visions of loop symbols and triangle symbols, and paced out distances, gauging angles. The wind howled, and a light rain fell. He mapped out a large congruent shape around the wooden box and chairs, plugging fourteen pins into the earth.
He stepped back, assessed the shape, and glanced at the comandante. The rain came down heavier. He knelt down and wedged two large pins into the dirt beneath the chair nearest him, but he did not drive them into the earth. They bore no relation to the overall shape.
He stood. Raindrops streamed from his hatbrim.
Thunder rumbled out on the playa, and his head swam. He struggled for balance and ran to Abigail. She was still, and her eyes were vacant. The downpour had smudged the dirt on her face, and red puddles fanned across the ground on either side of her. He lifted her up and slung her over his shoulder. She felt limp. He hurried back to the wooden box. Thunder rolled closer overhead.
He laid Abigail across the box. The comandante yelled something at him, but he did not hear it. As he paced out the measurements for the final pin, a crack of lightning skewered the sky. He saw the night illuminated briefly by a fizzing white river with myriad tributaries, and he stabbed the pin into the ground.
There was a heavy whump sound. Black threads spoked across the desert floor.
A sparkling canopy spidered up into the sky. Emmett moved slowly towards the box, pushing against the resistance. Everything around him was ash-grey. The rain was gone, and a heavy mist had replaced it. Every step he made was amplified. He leaned over the wooden box and saw Abigail's eyelids flutter.
The canopy above them dissolved and rained down in grey flakes. Abigail gasped, and her eyes snapped open. Emmett turned and pushed out into the empty fog.
Empty. The shape was safe. It was safe.
He saw the threads crackling above the ground and dropped down, tugging out the first pin he found. The shape collapsed, and the darkness and rain rushed back in. He ran to the box, slipping and cursing. Abigail was sitting on top of it, shivering. He threw his arms around her and lifted her down.
The comandante appeared out of the curtain of rain as he was patting desperately at her chest. She coughed and cried. There was a tattered hole in her dress, but there was no wound.
'A vivid and reassuring demonstration,' the comandante said. He pushed Emmett out of the way and hauled Abigail up, tugging at her dress and running his hands over her small frame. His eyes widened.
'Truly a gift,' he breathed. 'You have learned well, child.'
Emmett looked past him. Candlelight illuminated the interior of the shack. The peon and the hacendado's wife were asleep on separate pallet beds. The hacendado was sitting just inside the hut, slumped against the wall. He held a flask in one hand, and he looked blind drunk.
'Two hours,' the comandante said. 'But this is not long to wait for such a reward.'
He dropped Abigail, and she collapsed onto the ground. Emmett knelt and held her in his arms. Swords of rain cut up the night. As he lifted Abigail's head onto his lap, a fork of lightning split the sky, and a juniper tree near the hut burst into flame. Gaping orange fissures opened in the trunk. The horses reared and neighed. Two bolted out of the pen and disappeared into the darkness.
The comandante watched them go. He turned to Emmett and raised his pistol. Rain dripped over his eyes.
'I will be first,' he hissed. 'I am due this renewal. It is too good an opportunity to pass on.'
Abigail spluttered and clutched at Emmett's hand. Emmett looked towards the hut. The sick woman curled in the pallet. The dribbling hacendado.
'You ain't a great friend,' he said.
'Darse prisa,' the comandante growled. Emmett stroked Abigail's hair and leaned down. She pushed her lips against his ear and whispered something, but it was lost amongst the rain and thunder.