I surprised myself the other day when I realized just how many stories I’ve written that have not and doubtless will not see publication through magazine channels. A short story collection is still a ways off (I have many more sales to achieve before pitching such a thing, and the persistent veil of my winter’s exhaustion to slough off well before that), but it does feel strange to let so many stories moulder after a scant few rejections bring them to market’s end.
Someone recently asked me if I write for myself or for the markets. This is a tricky question; there are times when I try to think what a given magazine would like in the way of a story, and nudge certain ideas in that direction, but other times I write the story first, because it comes to me so strongly in a certain form, with a certain voice. I try to submit these latter stories to specific markets that might take them on the basis of listed publisher parameters, but thus far not one has been accepted (even the latest Analog piece was remodelled after feedback from an editor).
When I reflect on the topic or the tone I can see why, too; even if they’re competently written (as, of course, I hope they are), some of these stories will simply never fit current trends for character type and cultural approach. The story below, “Rhoda’s Monsters”, is one such beast: the tale of a turn-of-the-19th-century twelve-year-old wrangling with Christian theology in a way that brings a touch of real-world magic–for better or for worse–into her interactions with local fossils and fellow human beings. While I’m an atheist / secular humanist myself, it simply is not reasonable to make this protagonist share in my beliefs given her social context, and quite frankly, I would consider myself an exceptionally boring writer if I did.
This does, however, have the consequence of making the story teeter on an uncomfortable cultural line: Is there a place in mainstream fantasy for fiction blatantly about Christianity, without necessarily being Christian fiction or, conversely, a narrative that merely exists to mock belief? I see the occasional historical fantasy negotiating Christian oppressions and related heretical anxieties, but what I’ve read thus far uses the lens of a more decidedly secular present when helping the reader decide whom to root for in the past. Having a protagonist whose views are more complicated–and who, worse, does not get the opportunity to have certain wrong-headed ideas about guilt corrected after a trauma therein–definitely makes this story an odd fit for major magazines of a more optimistic and socially progressive bent.
Nonetheless, this story was a pleasure to write–my first attempt at historical fiction, and my first attempt at mundane fantasy!–so I’d like to share it all the same. I read an interview recently with Ursula K. Le Guin, who was asked why religion features so heavily in her writing when she herself was not raised religious. I laughed at this question, and some silliness that ensued thereafter, but Le Guin hit the nail on the head with her response:
Could it be—I’m going out on a limb here—that this search for a satisfactory or sufficient religion might have influenced your direction as a writer? If none of our extant religions satisfy, in other words, why not invent one yourself?
I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.
To my mind, speculative writers more than any other should be curious about other voices, other perspectives; we’re supposed to challenge cultural norms, even if there nevertheless remain certain narrative conventions that cannot be easily side-stepped for mainstream publication.
Granted, I do still have another short story with religious protagonists out in a submissions queue, where it has sat now for half a year; it was turned down with great articulated reluctance by one publication already for being just a bit too “controversial” for their readership, so I’ll be interested to see if it eventually finds a home at this other, less conventional speculative venue.
Otherwise, I don’t know if more religious characters will pop up in the near future, or if more stories will henceforth involve (light) fantasy or historical contexts. I do know that I like not quite knowing where my writing will take me next. So long as the spirit of exploration remains strong, I feel like a real writer. I dread the days instead when my store of delight and curiosity runs low–and there have been many this past year, so I doubly cherish all the others, if and when they come.
Happy reading, folks–and happy writing, too!
When Rhoda first learned of the infant who had survived a lightning strike the same night, she decided it must have been carelessness on God’s part that took her mother instead, when Anna had only been giving birth a sixth time, and not so much as standing under a hilltop tree during a thunderstorm in the process. This was not the sort of opinion to share with papa, of course, or Reverend Smith when he came by with cane and straw hat in hand, but Rhoda was fond of long walks around the cliffs that connected their little cottage at length to the beach, so along the way she shared such views with the rocks.
There were many on the beach who might have told her a great deal about these rocks, for men and women wandered the shores most mornings in search of stones bearing the pretty impressions of plants, shells, and other creatures that had long since perished in the mud. Some, Rhoda knew, would even sell their findings to gentlemen from larger cities and wealthier countrysides—persons with whole cabinets of labelled specimens, and books of names and figures even labouring men with only a little training in letters might peruse. The rocks themselves were very fine and intriguing to her, too—so many layers of limestone and shale with ragged edges her hands could bump along as she wended through their many twists and turns—but papa did not regard the beachcombers as good companions for a God-fearing girl of two and ten, so what conversation Rhoda managed always had to be done covertly, for in truth she did not mean to break faith with her father’s Word.
For all her good intentions, though, the very notion of conversing with the rocks had come to her only a few months prior, after just such an encounter on the beach. Restless on an overcast morning, with both guardians in town on errands, Rhoda had picked her way toward the seashore and there allowed herself to misinterpret the murmurs of a young man sifting through small stone fragments at the base of the cliffs. It would hardly have done to ignore an adult’s address, so Rhoda, perched atop a great grey rock with hands clasped over her skirt, had announced directly: “Pardon? Were you speaking to me?”
The young man recovered quickly from his surprise, smiling as he peered at the little interloper. The way Rhoda crouched and swayed upon the rocks, any outsider might have taken her at first for a wayward faerie. The young man, by contrast, was more clearly of this world: His overcoat sat neatly folded atop another outcropping, beside a battered pail laden with small stones; his light brown vest was streaked in spots with sand.
“Ah,” he said. “No, little miss—beg your pardon, but I was not.”
“But you were speaking,” she said with a pointed frown.
“Yes, that I was.” The young man caught Rhoda’s arched brow and winked in turn. “To the rocks, I suppose.”
“To the rocks!” Rhoda could not yet manage her voice as an adult might; what she had intended as a note of disapproval only came out as confusion.
“What!” said the young man. “You never talk to the things about you? Not to the trees and the songbirds about all your little secrets?”
“I should think not,” said Rhoda, sliding then from her perch. “Those ought to be told to God, if one’s parents will not do.”
The young man laughed and bowed. “My apologies if I gave offence. But don’t you think God hears them just the same? What are these rocks if not His creation? And if He is truly everywhere—”
“He is everywhere,” Rhoda cut in.
“Since He is everywhere,” the young man amended, “then He must be in these rocks, mustn’t He? How can anything in the whole of Creation be truly empty or dead if He stands at the centre of all things?”
Rhoda made no reply, for she had never heard such an argument before, and did not know how to affect papa’s condemnatory tone for all things not exactly of their church. At her puzzled look the young man added, in a softer voice, “Ours is an age of great wonders, little miss—I’m simply paying them all tribute as I work.”
Not an hour after this exchange, having returned to town for dinner with his mates and a few fine figures of near-genteel womanhood, the young man would forget having spoken at all with this child upon the beach, but his words would haunt Rhoda for the rest of the week. She could see reason in them, certainly, but if they were indeed reasonable, why did her papa not also converse with objects when going about his work—the axe when chopping firewood; the stacks of wicker furniture when he drove them to market? Why was their family’s way of worship and prayer achieved through a building and a book alone?
In church that Sunday, Rhoda studied the pews themselves, and the windows, and the bricks: What was it in this arrangement that the cliffside lacked—and was it in every aspect of the building, or did it solely emerge from the whole? Reverend Smith took to the pulpit in an especially grim mood that day, pinching the bridge of his nose hard before surveying his congregation, as if the former might sharpen his perception of sin in the latter. Rhoda was old enough to understand that his ensuing sermon had been provoked by some incident in the community, but too young to grasp the nature of the incident itself. It was enough, though, for the reverend to speak on temptation and invoke the terrible Fall—Eve’s fall—for in the heat of his words and the energy that rose from the pews to meet them, Rhoda remembered that the world was in fact a cursed and terrible place, filled with suffering and evil because Man had been cast out from the Garden of Eden.
On her way home from service, duly chastened and now frightened by how much her recent thoughts had veered from this sacred theme, Rhoda clung all the tighter to her mother’s arm. In the six-months’ rise of Anna’s belly, and all the memories it invoked of siblings who had come and died before, Rhoda found only further evidence that theirs was indeed a fallen world, and that nothing good could or should be found in it.
“Rhoda, dear, you’re crying,” said Anna, when she felt her daughter’s hot cheek against her arm.
“Yes mama,” said Rhoda, and though she could not look up, she felt her parents’ eyes meet over her Sunday bonnet.
“The good reverend is hard because he must be,” said papa, after a pause. “The world is a hard place, even for those who would only do their duty in it.”
“Robert,” said Anna, softly.
Rhoda’s father cleared his throat, then added: “But you’ve nothing to fear, Rhoda, so long as you do yours.”
Rhoda wanted to be consoled by the sound of papa’s voice, and the sweet warmth of mama’s arm, but when they reached the top of the last hill before their home, she could see the seaside in the distance, under a bright blue sky with tendrils of wispy white clouds rolling through it, and seagulls surging and diving over the shimmering surface of distant waves. She remembered watching sunrises from this height, too, on early morning rides with her father into town; and the breathtaking array of stars that greeted her on the occasional late night back from harvest and winter festivals, a heavy woollen blanket tucked about her legs against the encroaching cold; and mama and papa finding rare occasion then, when she had nearly drowsed to sleep, to sing out the songs of their own youth.
Rhoda remembered folks saying, too, of such splendid sights and sounds, that all were a testament to God’s greatness; that one could see in such precious moments God’s clear imprint upon the Earth. Which was theirs, then: a fallen world, or a world of amazing grace? Were some things good and others evil, and if so, why was it so difficult sometimes to tell them all apart? How, too, could God be everywhere if there was evil in this world? And how could some things be evil anyway? If God could be present in a rock—if God in His omnipresence must be in that rock somehow—then how, for instance, could a rock deceive?
Rhoda lingered on this last question because papa had always spoken of the rocks as deceivers in their own right, but his language always wavered on the matter of agency. Had the Devil put all those fossils in the hillsides—like the giant skeletons in the craggy forest on their property, which papa would never let outsiders know existed? Or were those remnants the work of God Himself—an attempt to test His flock—and if the latter, why, if He so loved the world, would He make it even easier to be damned in a lifetime already filled with threats to one’s salvation? Rhoda had heard papa invoke both causal explanations on different occasions, but neither even explained how such skeletons could be objects of temptation—for as Reverend Smith more often put it, temptation was all about the sins of the flesh. What flesh could ever lust after those old bones?
Answers would not rise readily from her surroundings, or even from the family Bible in its place of honour by papa’s chair. After mama’s death, though, Rhoda watched her papa’s temper and attention turn all the more to the subject of sin within the world—and sin within the nearby rocks above all else. Many a morning she would wake to find him at the window overlooking the path through their property to the cliffside and the seashore below, and if asked how he had slept, he would ever reply, “Poorly, Rhoda, for this world makes a mockery of all my attempts at peace.” To which Rhoda could only suggest that she would start breakfast, then—and so she did, though her hands trembled as she worked.
They visited Anna’s grave often in the weeks to follow, too, and those of the five babes Rhoda had scarcely been given time to call her living kin, but not even these solemn moments seemed to quell her father’s inner fire. Was there life in mama’s body even now, Rhoda wondered as she looked upon the little markers. The surrounding cemetery grass had already yellowed with the lateness of the season, but how could anything ever be truly dead on Earth? Since God was everywhere He must be here as well, in each little grave and all the fronds of decaying grass about them—and yet, to what end, if their souls had long departed?
Whatever questions now haunted her papa’s heart as these did hers, they seemed to burn low and deep and in perfect silence until one afternoon, with winter’s breath flaring from his nostrils as he chopped wood and she stacked the shattered pieces, papa came to a complete halt and stared at the copse of trees where both skeletons still idled in the rocks.
“Right then,” he said at length. “It’s time they went.”
He did not reply, ducking into the shed instead and bearing a sledgehammer and an empty rucksack on his return.
“Stay here, Rhoda.” But Rhoda barely registered the words over the visible tension, the startling anger in her papa’s gestures, and when she followed he did not repeat himself.
“Papa—” she started, when they reached the clearing where remnants of two spinal columns flanked a narrow walking path. Both skeletons’ outcroppings were banded with rust, and signs of massive, elongated skulls protruded at the far end of the path: here a tooth, there an eye socket, there a heavy jawbone—all fissured, dark, yet oddly smooth to the human touch. At the end closest to Rhoda’s home, backbones extended into tails at least as long as the rest of their bodies, though coiled and twisted in the rock. “Baby Leviathans,” mama had once called them. “Not to be meddled with,” was all papa would ever add.
Now, though, he set down the rucksack and took aim at the nearest tail. “It’s too much, Rhoda. How can I trust that your mother’s at rest when these beasts will not cease their nightly torments? When their very existence makes a mockery of His Word?” With this last and an accompanying moan, papa swung true and fragments of bone and rock dust flew out. Rhoda answered with a piercing cry.
While a monk might take a lifetime of quiet meditation to strike upon a new theological chord, in Rhoda’s sudden, wide-eyed terror at this wanton act of violence, months-long mental churning instantly cohered: Good and evil were merely states in the mind’s own eye, and Man could make a a good thing evil just by thinking on it too long. “Papa!” she cried out. “Papa, it’s you who’s tormenting yourself—not the rocks. Don’t you see you’re only showing God how much power they have over you?”
Rhoda’s father faltered then—startled as much by the fact of his daughter’s speech as by its contents. Then he set his shoulders and hefted the heavy tool again. “How else can I know?” he said sharply. “That she’s still out there—safe, and waiting for me? How, with the Devil spiting me—laughing at me!—from inside its hideous spawn?”
“Oh papa,” said Rhoda, her eyes welling as she reached the limit of her new philosophy. But tears were the more compelling thesis in any case, for her father never could endure them in either wife or daughter with a hardened heart for long. When he heard Rhoda’s shuddering breaths and ragged sobs continue, his arms went slack, and he let the sledgehammer fall. Eventually he knelt and began to pray.
Rhoda came to his side and clasped his callused hand in hers, then pressed her face against his shoulder, where the coarseness of his shirt came to bear the weight of many tears. She had thought to pray as well, but the moment’s revelation was still so fresh upon her that, with imminent danger past, she reeled instead at its implications. If good and evil were not absolutes—if they existed in one’s thoughts and varied there from man to man and moment to moment—then truly the mind of Man was God’s greatest—God’s only!—enemy, for in his mind, Man could create whatever world he chose: A bleak and forsaken one, or a world of great power, and destiny, and hope. Whatever did that mean, though, for his salvation?
The Bible did say that Man was made in His image, after all, but never before had Rhoda thought the act of creation might reach so far. What kind of God would create such a terrible being anyway—one so small and ignorant in so many ways, but filled with such a capacity for good and evil just the same? And how far did man’s creative will extend?
At length, Rhoda’s father stood, and with sledgehammer in hand started limply back. Laden with so many questions, though, Rhoda could not yet bring herself to follow, and so remained with the rucksack, collecting what bone fragments she could along the path. When she studied both fossils in the rocks it occurred to her that by preventing their destruction she had, in a way, given each old beast a new grasp on life. But did either even realize how close they had come to ruin?
“There,” she said, fitting what pieces of tail she could back into their places, and bracing the smallest with surrounding stones. “That’s not so bad, now is it?”
She waited and watched for an answer, but when none came she simply wiped the lingering tears from her eyes and laughed.
“That was silly of me, wasn’t it?” She patted the other skeleton’s spine. “But it would be something, wouldn’t it, if whatever still lives in you would rise up when I wished it? As a kind of debt to be repaid?”
Again, there came no answer—but this time Rhoda only smiled, a faint and tired thing that echoed the new constriction in her chest. By the time she had returned to the cottage, she felt years older and wiser, having reflected along the way on all the different minds exerting their competing wills just in her little town. What a cacophony there must be upon the whole of the Earth, with so many minds at work upon it! Rhoda no longer wondered why so many things were good and bad at once, and why the difference was so hard at times to discern. How could it be otherwise, when some people were so busy willing the world one way, and others pushed just as hard in another?
Rhoda thought of her mama’s world—its kindnesses, its little mercies—and her papa’s: a sober place now overrun with unrelenting grief. Was she the product of both creative wills, or was her will entirely her own? And where was God’s will in all of this—was He in all these competing minds as well? He must be, being everywhere, but what a moral mess His presence made of things. Did He really sanction all this confusion and this strife?
When, in the coming days, papa took to his bed and could not be made to rise, it seemed to Rhoda that God must indeed condone such things, since not everyone perceived the world as she now did—and lacking that perception, how could they ever hope to change it for the better? If papa only knew the power of his will to shape the world, why would he permit himself to become so sick within it? And mama—what of her own powers of creation? Had the sheer exhaustion of her labor been too much? Had she simply lost herself in the birth pains that night, and so given up her precious will to God’s?
Such questions gave way in time to more practical concerns, though their traces still haunted the periphery of Rhoda’s thoughts. With papa ill, and the family annuity only going so far, Rhoda took up as much of papa’s business as she could, attending market days with preserves and homemade wicker crafts, and there, in idle hours, reflecting on the resignation and smallness she so often saw in other adults’ eyes. Rumours, she knew, had started to circulate among the older women in town—that Rhoda spent too much time wandering the forests and the beach alone; that there was something not entirely Christian in her character after Anna’s death; that somehow her errant, roving ways were now keeping her father from getting well. But Rhoda paid the substance of such talk no heed—only wondering what sorts of lives people must live to reach a point where filling the world with gossip seemed the best use of their creative wills. Could they not better serve the world just by listening, as she tried to on all her walks through the forest and cliffside now—whole hours when the very rocks seemed to welcome her into their oldest secrets; whole pristine, snow-capped days when she could almost fancy she heard ancient footfalls and sympathetic whispers in her wake?
Rhoda could not decide if she actually understood these gossipmongers any better now, or if she was simply willing herself to believe she understood—but such minute points of contention, like “Is God in my mind, a part of my mind, or of my mind?”, were so finicky that they only brought on headaches, and so she left them alone as best she could. It was enough, she had to hope, that her own creative efforts moved in the direction of greater understanding, and attempted to sow more hopefulness into her own and papa’s worlds.
She felt she better understood Reverend Smith’s will now, too—for he had visited more often than ever since her father’s illness, sitting by papa’s side and talking quietly of somber, sacred things. Now, when his heavy eyes tracked Rhoda’s movements throughout the little room, she could almost put a name to the pain she saw there, though she could not grasp its implications yet. It was as though the good reverend had run from something a long, long time ago into his current, ministerial attire, but still did not sit well within it. It was no wonder, then, that his rebukes were all turned outward in his Sunday sermons, for Rhoda sensed that he would never bear to look within. But what kind of world could such a man be building? What did it mean if her family’s shepherd so much despised himself?
With papa not getting any better, the reverend began to linger on his visits, too—just long enough to acclimate Rhoda to the topic of his mother, who was apparently growing quite forgetful, and had already been mostly blind for many years. How good it might be for her, Reverend Smith would say, to have a companion—someone to aid her in day-to-day routines. Not just yet, he would always add, but maybe someday soon?
“Papa still needs me,” Rhoda always replied—and more firmly each time the topic arose. “And he’ll need me for a long time yet.”
Three times, the reverend inclined his head in silence at this answer. Three times he then added, after a long pause, “Of course.” But the last time he asked and she answered, the reverend’s silence continued for the remainder of his stay.
A week later, Rhoda came in with the morning’s yield of eggs and milk to find her papa propped up awkwardly in bed, and the reverend praying over him. At Rhoda’s entrance the two men’s glances met, and then papa beckoned for his daughter to come near.
“What is it, papa?” she said, her own gaze passing curiously between them.
“Rhoda,” he said, catching her hand in his and pressing it to his recessed lips. “This is a terrible world I’ve brought you into—for that you must forgive me—but it was always in anticipation of the next, you know.”
“I know,” said Rhoda. Tears welled as papa gave her hand a squeeze.
“Good girl,” he said. “I know you’ve always been—always tried to be a good girl. But still, the world…”
He sighed and sank back. “Papa?” she said.
Reverend Smith helped her father settle, then turned with solemn face to her. “It isn’t considered proper, Rhoda, for a girl to be on her own as much as you’ve been forced to as of late. There has been—I hesitate even to dignify it with mention—corrupting talk of you in town.” Rhoda started, and the reverend placed a hand upon her arm. “Women with unbridled tongues, you understand—people who do not understand that to go against their brother is to go against the one true Law. But—people of this world all the same.”
“Then why not tell them to stop?” said Rhoda, withdrawing to her father’s side. “Why come to me if you know I’ve done no wrong?”
The reverend hesitated. “Because the world is a complicated place, Rhoda. There are your best interests to consider. If you had shelter from the storm—a female companion—”
“Papa,” said Rhoda.
“It would only be for a few weeks,” said papa. “Just until I’ve found my strength.”
But Rhoda’s eyes only welled with further tears, and she shook her head, drew her shawl from the hook, and tore out through the kitchen door. Vaguely she heard papa speak, and the reverend reply, “Not to worry—I’ll go.” But Rhoda would not so much as turn to acknowledge Reverend Smith when she heard him behind her on the narrow path, for her tears were now falling too fast for her to care about anything but the ache within her heart.
“Rhoda,” said the reverend.
He spoke now with the kind of voice meant to stop her in her tracks—low, imperious, and absolute—but Rhoda would not be moved, hastening her step into the craggy copse of trees just before the cliffs. All the same, she heard the reverend bridge the gap just before she felt the sharp, lancing blow to her shin—the reverend’s cane flashing into and out of view as she tumbled on the rocky path. Her breath came hard and shallow as she adjusted to the fresh pain in her twisted ankle, bracing on both elbows as she tried to stand.
“Lord forgive me,” said the reverend. He knelt with hands trembling over the injury, Rhoda’s woollen stockings caught up as much in mud as snow. “I meant no harm.”
“I can walk,” said Rhoda, faintly—but when she caught sight of the reverend’s changed expression she did not reach for either outstretched hand. With a terrible acuity brought on by market days and dawning adulthood, she recalled the stories spread of her, and judged at once how little weight her voice would ever be allowed to hold in town.
“It is—a hard thing, Rhoda,” the reverend said, slipping a shoe off, and a stocking. “I was content to wait. I was. But when the Lord worked to bring you to such fragile circumstances, I knew He was speaking to me. Comfort your lamb, He said. Do it now.”
“Please, Reverend—” she started, but when his eyes flicked up and down again she found she could say nothing to allay the hardness there. She turned her gaze then to the rocks, and the trees through which the early morning light seemed now to be swimming. Please, she said to them instead. Please please please.
“At first I wondered at His urgency, for your father still lives and you of course are all a daughter should be to him. But these past few weeks I have seen the greatness of His wisdom pushing me to these necessary ends. The wilfulness, the independence growing in you like disease. Dark signs, Rhoda,” the reverend said. “The makings of a wife who will need much more training to submit, if the impulse is not checked now.”
As the reverend spoke he had one hand wrapped firmly around the twisted ankle; his lesser hand easing off her other shoe. Rhoda shuddered more at the sound of her name upon his lips, and the awful world it strove to consign her to, than at the surrounding winter’s cold upon the rocks. Not his will, she thought, with her heart now wildly beating. My own! My own to build the world!
Over the frantic energy of her newfound fears, and the deafening heat of the reverend’s hand upon her leg, Rhoda could not comprehend at first the snapping of roots and branches all about them, nor the rumbling of big and little rocks alike—while the reverend, in his increasing fervour, had long since shut his surroundings out. When Rhoda sank back to the ground, though—when she craned her neck further along the path, her gaze desperately following the rust lines on either side of the unfolding rocks—the whipping, coiling shadows she saw there suddenly cohered with all the rest. She drew her breath in sharply then, and stilled her body’s trembling to match.
“You must stop now, reverend,” she said with full composure, and a gravity she had never heard from her own lips before. “Now—or never, reverend. Please.”
Yet even as she spoke his hands were finding stronger purchase, and in the gaze bearing down she could see that all his self-loathing had settled now upon her—her body, her breath, her whole life as the singular sin to be resolved by something in his presence, his looming weight. So Rhoda sighed and closed her eyes, giving up a shrug as if on the merest whim. Very well then, she remembered thinking—you were warned—and then, in the terrible rush and roar of things to follow, her world winked promptly out.
Everyone in town called the incident a landslip, one chunk of the cliffs dropping suddenly by many meters, and the surrounding forest collapsing in upon itself. Such a shame, they said, for the good reverend had been so soundly swallowed up that his body might not be found for decades yet—but at least he had died in service to his calling, attending to a parishioner’s family in its time of need. And what good fortune, too, Rhoda was so very often told, that she had managed to escape the worst of the land’s collapse herself, and had thereafter been found as quickly as she was—before nightfall, when the cold would have killed her even after everything else she had survived.
Rhoda wanted to reply to these many voices—some that had held nothing but idle, damning words for her in the long weeks prior, yet which now came along with food and amenities for her and papa in their shared convalescence—but she found herself shaking whenever she tried to speak, and took gratefully to the counsel instead that she stay in bed and sleep.
Her sleep was just as fitful, though, for in her fevered dreams as in her waking hours, Rhoda replayed in her mind’s eye the sweep of tail-like shadows she had seen roused by her mental pleading, and the glint of antediluvian features just around the bend in the rusted, ancient rock. For all that the reverend’s actions had repulsed her, and for all she knew her anger justified, a life was still a life, and murder still a blatant breach of the Commandments. Even if Man could make any world he wanted—even if the powers of creation and destruction lay as much within him as with God—Rhoda realized in those haunted nights that this was a power she did not want: a power she no longer trusted herself to use.
Let God bear the sin of making us such easy sinners, she decided one pre-dawn morning, while shivering under a viciously cold sweat. Oh mama, mama! I just don’t want it anymore!
Not long after this entreaty, the fever having at last run its reckless course, Rhoda lapsed into her first uninterrupted sleep since the rescue, and when she awoke that calmness happily followed into the light of day. Her papa, she discovered then, had also begun to rally, and together they regained their strength in the weeks to follow. Rhoda took all these events quite seriously, as signs of an opportunity she had been given to relinquish her terrible power in exchange for inner peace. In quiet gratitude, then, she settled into a humble, diligent, and far more socially engaged routine throughout the next few years—so much so that all the neighbours noticed, and were quick to give the disaster that preceded these changes all the greater praise. The Lord works… and so on, and so forth, they would say.
After coming of age, this milder, meeker Rhoda married a man of modest holdings and mostly unreflective faith, and their life together, when not worn thin by daily practicalities, had its moments of genuine affection. Rhoda had seven babies, too—four surviving infant-hood—but if one were to ask these sweet-faced girls in the flush of their own youth whether their mother had ever seemed to them a woman of great imagination, all four would exchange furtive smiles, then bow and shake their heads—tittering softly at the very notion, even, until a strange silence came upon them equally. Then, one by one, each would begin to insist on all Rhoda’s other, better virtues for their listener’s pleasure—as if some greater willing of compassion, honed perhaps by years of subtler, gentler practice, had moved at last within.