Book 1 of The Epic of Didier Rain
1854 - Virtue
The pounding continued, like some club-headed woodpecker having go at a hollow log. I had a bad taste in my mouth, a bad feeling in my gut, and a grimace in my persona. I was in no shape to enter into the waking world. But at that particular moment, I would have done anything – even something so Herculean as rise up out of bed – to stop that incessant pounding. I stumbled to the door, opening it a crack.
“Yes?” I said, in a voice even more scratched and dry than I expected.
Distantly, I recognized my go-between, the man who found the tasks that I would then perform. “Cedric Dallon,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m put out, that’s how I am.”
I could tell by his mien that what he said was true.
“We had an appointment to meet our client this morning. He’s been waiting, but I’m sure I don’t know for how much longer.”
“I thought our meeting was for Tuesday.”
“This is Tuesday!”
I scratched and rocked back into the room, as if consulting my calendar. Then I stuck my head back out into the hallway. “So it is,” I said. “My apologies, friend. I seem to have misplaced a day.”
Dallon turned a color that brought to my mind the line, “My love is a red, red rose…” There was spittle on his mustache.
“Doggone it, Rain! This job is big. And I’m stretched so thin I can’t afford to let it go! These people are prepared to pay us more money than you and I have seen in all our other jobs lumped together.”
“Can you get yourself in shape?”
“Of course. I only need a minute.”
I commenced to close the door, but Dallon stopped it with his foot. “Rain,” he whispered loudly. “Impress him. You know, in that way you have. Let the man know you speak French and such.”
I nodded. “Sure, Dallon.” And then I closed the door.
The room was unfamiliar. It smelled like a stable. The curtain was drawn, and a blade of sharp white light cut in around its edges. An empty bottle stood upright on the floor in the corner and a woman was curled up asleep beside it. She was naked, as was I, and it did not take Pythagoras to put two and two together in order to calculate the sum of our relationship. It seemed unbecoming of a gentleman to leave her in such an undignified position, and so with no small cumbersome effort I hefted up her fleshy bulk and dropped it onto the bed.
She did not wake.
I pulled back the licorice tendrils of her loosened hair. Someone’s little angel, I thought, albeit after she had taken a dubious turn. She might have been quite pretty, had she not been so god-awful homely. Even in sleep, she wore her difficult existence like a mask, and although I did not recall her face, I was relatively certain that given the proper illumination, and from the proper angle, I might. I found two dollars in my trousers pocket.
“One for ink and paper,” I said. “And one for you.”
I curled the coin into the girl’s fist.
“Well, dear,” I said. “I hope we had a fine time.”
Then in a fit of romantic delusion, I was compelled to lean over and kiss her cheek. “Happy dreams,” I whispered.
She snored quietly while I dressed.
All in all, our farewell had been highly unsatisfactory.
WHEN I CAME INTO the café, I found Dallon sitting with a man whose back was turned. The man wore a black suit of clothes and was strumming the tabletop with long fingers. Even from afar I could see that his knuckles were unusually hairy.
Dallon stood, smiling wildly. “Here we are, Rain.” He waved me over. “Here!”
The other man remained seated as I arrived. He did not so much as turn to see. I stepped around to face him, and what a face it was – even hairier than his knuckles, and sour as a green persimmon. It did not take much to infer that he was either a politician, a lunatic, or some member of a start-up cult that deemed such cut of a beard to be a mark of holiness.
I smiled, but it was not easy to do.
Dallon grasped my arm, as if fearing I might bolt. “Mister Thurman,” he said, “let me introduce my business partner, Mister Didier Rain.”
I offered my hand to the man. “Enchanté,” I said, and surmised straight away that it was the wrong pied on which to start out.
The man just scowled at me, my lonely hand hovering like a cloud without purpose in the air before him. A trickle of sweat dripped down my backbone. I tried again.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mister Thurman.” I dropped my hand to my side. “May I sit?”
Thurman glared at me a long while, until my smile began to fatigue. I feared the muscles in my countenance were about to spasm when he gave me a nod and opened his great simian paw in a gesture for me to pull up a chair.
Dallon and I sat opposite this man Thurman. He examined my eyes, stirring in me a nausea, and it was all I could do not to look away. Mercifully, a waiter came up just then and asked if there was anything he could get me from the kitchen. I figured the other men had eaten their breakfasts some time earlier and were already building a hunger for lunch.
“Just bring me a glass of water,” I told the waiter. “As tall and cold a one as you can find.”
Then Thurman spoke.
“Mister Dallon here has been singing your praises, Mister Rain, whilst listing your many aptitudes, of which, I have learned personally, punctuality is not premier.”
I fidgeted in my chair. “Well, I humbly apologize for the confusion on my schedule. It seems my secretary had me down for another day.”
Dallon tensed beside me. Thurman let his gaze drift toward the ceiling. “Will thou darest tarry, oh sinner, for thine own redemption?”
His voice was solemn and deep, and I could not tell if he was asking me directly, or rather some shadow he saw floating above my head.
“Mister Thurman is an elder in the church of a new religion,” said Dallon. “His people have settled in the Territories, near The City of Rocks.”
“Well, that is the beauty of an open country,” I said. “It gives us the opportunity to form new beliefs.”
“The Church of the Restructured Truth is not new,” said Thurman. “It was merely quiet for some centuries, pending the call of Jehovah. We have only been awaiting a leader worthy of receiving its Holy Writ.”
Uh huh, I thought. Mormons.
“But make no mistake, Mister Rain. We are not Mormons. At least not Mormons as you might imagine.”
“Explain yourself, if you like.” (I have learned that men like Thurman generally appreciate an opportunity to bear witness.)
“The prophet Joseph Smith was granted only the first portion of the Almighty’s Restored Word. And now, in his martyrdom, Brigham Young has become his successor, as you probably know. He and his people have settled in the land south of us, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. We hope always to remain in harmony with his tribe, as we are in league on many counts. But our prophet, a true leader of pilgrims, was granted further direction from heaven, a more thorough and ancient instruction that goes beyond the simple teachings in The Book of Mormon.”
“An epilogue,” I offered. “A divine afterthought, so to speak.”
Thurman did not appear to appreciate my lay definition for his most sacred text. He clenched his fist into a furry ball that resembled a palsied opossum trying to tunnel up his sleeve. “You are not a believer,” he asked, “in any faith?”
A baboon could see that I was sabotaging the interview. And honestly, with my stomach roiling so tempestuously at that moment, it was hard to care. But I thought for Dallon’s sake, I should put forth greater effort.
“Do not misunderstand me, Mister Thurman. I mean no disrespect. But let us say that I personally am still gathering information on the subject, in hopes of someday forming an opinion that will serve my soul’s salvation.”
He smirked knowingly through his whiskers and said, “Pagan.”
I smiled back. “If you say so.”
“I suppose it makes no difference in the errand at hand,” he said. “Gentiles are often very useful as servants to the righteous.”
“Well then, how may I serve you?”
Dallon spoke up. “Mister Thurman’s people have asked us to make a delivery to the City of Rocks.”
“Do you know the place?” asked Thurman.
“I have seen your promised land on the horizon more than once. It is a true geological anomaly, a natural Jericho. Although I confess to never having ridden through its center, as my deliveries have always taken me by way of routes north, or south.”
“And what kind of deliveries do you primarily undertake?”
“Anything,” I said. “I have delivered stained-glass windows, a brood mare, porcelain dolls, and even a family Bible that some settlers, in the chaos of their departure, accidentally left behind.”
“And what of human cargo?”
“Oh, yes,” said Dallon. “Rain here took a lawyer as far as Fort Boise just last season. And the summer before that he escorted a government surveyor to the Divide.”
Thurman seemed unimpressed. “I think you will find our shipment to be of a more delicate and precious nature than anything you have delivered thus far, Mister Rain. And as for myself, considering the bloodshot marbling of your eyes, and the reek of drunken indiscretion that seems to emanate from your every pore, I do not consider you fit as the supplier of our needs. As the Prophet so wisely sayeth, Never an ass trust with its tail at both ends.”
At that point, with my wits at their lowest ebb, I guessed that the delivery was of blasting powder, or some other such substance of an equally explosive nature. I imagined myself leading a string of donkeys with bombs strapped to their backs. What else could the good citizens of the City of Rocks so desperately need? I was quite prepared to pass on the mission in lieu of being blown to kingdom come. I was quite eager, to be honest, to find a place to lie down. A nastiness was gnawing at my insides and was seeking a route by which to escape.
“Rain speaks all sorts of languages,” said Dallon. My partner always considered that an impressive point in my credentials, and one he readily interjected whenever he sensed the client was losing interest. “Tell him, Rain.”
I nodded modestly. “It is true. I have a propensity for foreign tongues, that of the Indians, as well as the Old World Romance languages, with a modicum of Greek besides.”
At that point in the interrogation, it was customary for me to recite a bit of Homer or Dante, but it was obvious, by the disinterested manner of Mister Thurman, that such an oration was ill advised.
Thurman stood. “May I confer with you alone, Mister Dallon?”
The two schemers left me for some privacy across the room just as the waiter brought me my glass of water. I thanked him, and stared into the beaker, considering it, and water in general.
There is a certain place I had been in the Sawtooth Mountains – a secret dominion, one could easily imagine, of pixies and nymphs. Water always made me think of it. I had visited it only once, upon completing a delivery to the Territories, and then wandering well off the beaten path. I have traveled many lands, all around this big world, but never was I anywhere that seemed more the stuff of a dream. I felt as though I were moving through a fanciful painting. Those peaks swept up like buttressed cathedrals into the cloud-cluttered sky. The snow-capped summits were peopled with silent white goats – guardians watching down on me as I wandered aimlessly through their labyrinth. After some time, I happened upon a small glade – a narrow band of orange and purple flowers festooning a stream tumbling over boulders into a wide pool. I dropped to my knees and took suck of that sparkling water.
Cold it was!
No wine compared.
I drank my fill, and then, happy as a lamb, I stretched beside that burbling brook and fell into restful, oblivious slumber.
I have contemplated that simple experience many times, weighing it against the tawdriness of my typical day, and have concluded that there are few enough times in a life when we are granted such a brush with paradise. Mostly life is hard, and harder still. It is a struggle, an endless thirst which one never seems to slake. But I carry that memory with me like a memento from heaven, a little reminder that it is quite possibly worth my while to carry on. And I have often wondered if, before I die, I will ever again have the opportunity to partake of anything so utterly sublime.
I could hear pieces of what Thurman and Dallon were saying, although it was obvious that I was not meant to. They seemed to be playing some sort of heated parlor game, one in which the first player offers a word, and then the next player tries to come up with another word that is the first word’s opposite.
“A Miscreant,” said Thurman.
“Cultured,” parried Dallon.
And so on, and so forth.
I was considerably impressed with the breadth of their individual lexicons. They swapped antonyms for what seemed like hours, building a minor plethora of oxymorons, and it did not take much stretch to guess they were each in turn offering their contrasting opinions of my character. I had given up caring who would win the battle.
I took a big swallow of my water. It was warm as piss and tasted, if one ever cared to make the experiment, like licking the underside of a dog.
That was all it took to trigger in me a revulsion, a profound distaste for civilization and its septic waters.
Thurman and Dallon came over to watch.
Now, there is perhaps no more compromising position than the one in which a man finds himself on all fours, uncontrollably barfing up, while trying to explain himself in dignified prose. Convulsions make such an endeavor most challenging. All the poison from my recent depravity seemed to be flushing at once, by way of my gullet and nostrils. I fear I made quite a mess of the floor.
When I was finished, I felt greatly improved, although somewhat sheepish. I stood and wiped my mouth on my sleeve.
The waiter had appeared and was assessing the disaster with sadness.
Dallon stood beside Thurman, not speaking, but revealing what was on his mind by the hopeless slump in his posture.
“Pardon me,” I said.
Thurman spoke. “Regrettably,” he said to Dallon, “the final decision is not mine to make.”
He gestured for me and Dallon to follow him.
I handed my last dollar to the waiter. “For your troubles,” I said. But I could tell he did not think it compensation enough for the task that I had left him.
FITTINGLY, AND WITH THE suspect irony of a prank fabricated by one of the more mischievous gods on their mountaintop, I first met Virtue after an epic bout of debauchery.
It was morning, although that I did not know. For I was still loitering in my dream, where it was an insufferably hot afternoon. I sat on the bank of a deep muddy river, soaking my feet, watching a tall, bearded man in a robe paddle slowly across the current in an Indian canoe. Somewhere, someone was pounding a fist against wood, but otherwise there was no sound besides the sizzle of the sun and the easy lap of water.
The man drew up in his primitive craft. “Shall I take you across?” he asked.
I squinted over the river. There were no trees over there, no cool relief of shade, and nothing much to recommend that yonder shore beyond the one where I already was. But I have learned that hope dies hard, and curiosity urged me that perhaps there was something pleasant awaiting me on the other side.
“Sure,” I told the man. “Just hold on.”
But when I brought my feet up out of the water, I was dismayed to discover they were not the two appendages I had expected. Hooves! Cloven and dripping. Like something off a billy goat. There was no way in hell they were ever going to fit properly into my boots. I was stricken with the revelation that no matter where I roamed again, people would discern, from the wobble in my gait, that I was not truly a man.
The fist pounding on wood sound grew ever louder as I stood there on that riverbank beneath the burning sun, pondering my future, while growing accustomed to my new hooves.
Then I heard a voice.
“Rain!” it called, very far away, as if from out of the sky. “Rain, you there? Answer me, Rain.”
As I tipped my face to the blue heavens, I inadvertently stirred myself awake, leaving that man waiting for me in his canoe.
As far as I know, he is waiting there still.