Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber

Chapter 5
Devil Horse

[p.27]On the road to the prophet’s house, just after a buckboard passed and the driver tipped his hat, Jonathan’s red-roan and broadchested horse started kicking, snorting, and chasing itself in circles around its master.

“You, Abner!” Jonathan tried to hold the reins that had been pulled from his hand. “Stop!” But it seemed the horse had no ears. “Whoa!” Jonathan yelled, tightening his grip on the reins and pressing a hand to the horse’s withers. Abner still bucked like a windstorm. Jonathan dodged the horse’s moves as best he could, given the burdensome weight he carried on his two feet. “Settle down, Abner. Twinkling of an eye, you’re a crazy horse.”

The horse jerked its head back and stretched its mouth into what looked like a cruel smile. The expression reminded Jonathan of a devil who’d take a man’s soul away on a platter, no questions asked. Jamming his hands into his pork loin hips, Jonathan summoned every ounce of authority from every pound of his abundant flesh. “Stop. Now!” But shouting didn’t faze the horse. It was spooked. It reared back on its hind legs again and tore at the air with its hooves. As Jonathan fumbled for a sugar cube in his pocket, Abner ripped the reins from him and raced like a fuse, a flaming red horse burning up the road to Nauvoo.

[p.28]Jonathan examined the rope burn on his fleshy hands. Blood beaded on the wound. “What in the name of … All I said was ‘We’re going back home!’“ He looked at the road, then the sky. Buggies and three-seated wagons had bustled past all morning on their way to Friday’s market. The day had been full of promise. Brightest of blue. But now, the edge of the sun was blurring and a faint curtain of clouds filtered the color from the sky. Suddenly, the road was empty, and this late autumn day seemed to move to a season of its own. Nobody’s cargo creaked over the uneven ruts. The mud-hardened imprints of wheels and hooves seemed deeper than before. The trees seemed to be pulling away from the edge of the road, their branches lifting their leaves higher than they’d been, too high for shade. Even the sun moved to a more distant place.

He considered his choices: walk back to Scott County after he’d been riding most of yesterday and last night, more than a hundred miles, or follow the hard-baked road until he found Abner, his usually placid horse who was bound to outrun this strange venom sooner or later. Given the fact that Abner was the only horse he owned and the additional fact that Jonathan was not fond of walking, he turned toward Nauvoo.

His tender sides and hips still hadn’t recovered from his too few hours of sleep by the side of the road where he’d curled into a ball of himself, thin blanket over his torso, cold seeping into his bones, and various critters touring the wrinkles of his worn suit and weary body. But before he’d walked too far, he shot a quick glance back over his shoulder at the face-down book by the side of the road—the one he’d tossed to the ground in the early morning light. He was glad it was in the dust where it belonged. He was glad it was a diminishing speck and glad the possibility of his being a too-easily-led fool for God was fading with every step forward.

“Too many curses in that book,” he mumbled as he swung his satchel over his shoulder and whistled quietly in time to his steps—the only sound he could hear. Soon the whistling turned to humming, then to the singing of a song he’d heard only two days ago: “A poor wayfaring Man of grief, hath often crossed me on my way, who sued so humbly for relief that I could never answer nay.”

The young man who’d sung that song had a voice as clear as spring water. He’d sung the same verse three times as he stood in front of the [p.29]meager congregation at the old Methodist church in Winchester, Scott County, claiming to be a minister of God. Strange young man. Big Adam’s apple. Hawkbeak nose. Jacket sleeves too short for his arms.

Jonathan remembered the feel of the church’s door frame against his shoulder as he’d leaned farther outside than inside the building, trying not to be captivated by yet another dazed minister, yet another fool looking for God. Why were there so many and why was he still one of them? Voice like my mother’s crystal, though. Never heard anything like it, the way it rang through that one-room chapel.

Suddenly, every muscle in Jonathan’s neck tightened. What was that sound? Footsteps? He turned to see what, if anything, might be behind him, but he only saw the stretched-out bareness of the road. Except he’d never seen the road this lumpy before, or even the sky mixed up the way it was. The color had gone out of everything.

“A poor wayfaring Man of grief … “ He couldn’t help but sing that haunting line again to the rhythm of his footsteps, even if he’d been hoodwinked by that pure voice sounding like an angel’s. Young man, gawky as a scarecrow, making him lose his good sense and hold out his hand for a copy of the Book of Mormon. Jonathan Wilkins. He. Himself. A reasonable man who only wanted to find God.

That same Book of Mormon now cast aside at the edge of the road, hopefully far behind him by now. How could he have been so deluded? He’d been unable to put the book down the day before yesterday. He’d read it as he ate breakfast and told his wife he must go see the Mormon prophet before another minute ticked on the clock. But, this morning, after reading one too many curses on wrongdoers in the pale rose light of this particular morning—”names blotted out,” “The Spirit of God doth not dwell in unholy temples”—his eagerness for the book and its message turned sour. All humans were unholy. Everyone sinned. So why the blotting out of names? The damnation? It was the old Arbitrary God again, and Jonathan had thought he’d found something better. He tossed the book just as the sun peered over the tops of the trees. “It’s time to go home,” he announced to Abner. Now his horse was gone. Frothed up and frog-eyed and scattered like the wind. And Jonathan was nowhere near home.

Is that the sound of my feet? He stopped abruptly to listen, turned around once again, but only saw a dust devil moving across the road. [p.30]Before turning back, though, he noticed something unusual about it—its shape, its movement, its hint of human form. Not enough sleep, he told himself, as he stubbed the thin sole of his shoe in the hardpan road. He whistled again to scatter his thoughts, then puffed his cheeks, held them big for as long as he could, and released the air with a burst. “Stupid arse of a horse,” he exhaled as he straddled the deep trace of a wagon wheel, his legs wide apart and awkward, and looked for a smoother portion of road on which to walk.

“You’ll never know the truth.” The voice came from behind him, and Jonathan turned with a jerk. The man wore a black three-piece suit and his collar was stiffly starched and fastened with a maroon colored cravat. His face seemed made of earthenware and his eyes jet black porcelain. A purple carnation was pinned to his lapel. A handkerchief was folded in the shape of a hexagon in his coat pocket. “You forgot your book.”

The man held out the dusty, bruised book Jonathan had left by the roadside, and he smiled until it seemed Jonathan could see every tooth in his mouth. “Your teeth,” Jonathan said, close to being speechless. “They’re so white.”

“They’re not teeth, they’re fangs,” the man said, then laughed, throwing his head back with abandon. “I’m the serpent, here to guide you.” When Jonathan didn’t join in the laughter, the man said, “Forgive me. I feel the need for jesting today. I’ve been trailing behind you, and now I’m weary of traveling alone. I noticed you left a book by the road. Here. Joe Smith’s Gold Bible, is it? Now, wouldn’t old Joe like that, a devil like me delivering his Bible to a stranger!” The man laughed again, his laughter echoing in the emptiness of the road. Jonathan trembled as he felt the man’s hot-to-the-touch hands place the book in his hands. The light of the day was becoming stranger than before, the trees taller, the sun colder and more diffuse.

“Something tells me,” the man smiled, his dazzling white teeth brighter than anything else in the vicinity, “your horse is about a mile up the road, waiting for you. Rather wild one, I’d say. But then, you tossed this book away. What else could you expect?”

The book grew hot against the welts on Jonathan’s hands. The road suddenly seemed a molten lava flow—unpredictable beneath his feet. The soles of his shoes felt as if they were melting. The road that had once been a sturdy, reliable road, was now a place where trees billowed [p.31]like sails and fantastic bubbles of clouds swelled to the point of bursting. The stranger began marching, his steps high. “Hold that book,” he shouted as he marched. “Witness for Christ. You’ll be a god some day, they say. You’ll build a better world.” And then the man stopped and turned square to Jonathan with a slash of hot yellow in his eyes. “Drop that book again,” he commanded. “Let me watch you this time as you curse it and throw it in the dust.”

Jonathan had no muscles that could move. His fingers were paralyzed.

The stranger lifted his arm, pointed at Jonathan, and his outstretched hand turned to flame. Sweat lined up like pearls in the lines of Jonathan’s face and neck. “Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be … ,” he whispered frantically as one of the overripe clouds burst and dropped a heavy mist around him, frigid as early winter morning on the river. It iced the soft hair on Jonathan’s face and the tips of his nose and ears and eyelashes. He hunched inside his thin jacket for warmth, but there wasn’t enough cloth for anything more than his portly chest, arms, and shoulders. He hugged himself, pressed his satchel to his chest, blew into his hands, but then, just as suddenly as it had fallen, the mist lifted. Jonathan felt the sun on his back, thawing him, telling him the world was once more what he knew it to be. He heard a bird chirping, saw a squirrel scampering across the road, and heard wheels squeaking over uneven ground. He looked cautiously to the sides and back of himself. He was alone, thank the heavens. Everything was the same as before, with one small exception: the book in his hand.

“Hey, Mister,” someone yelled at him. Jonathan looked up as two men on high-spirited horses galloped toward him. “You by any chance owner of that heat lightning horse?” a yellow-haired man with a flat-brimmed hat said as he and his traveling companion reined their horses to a canter.

“Probably,” Jonathan said in a dazed voice.

“Roan devil of a horse?”

“It could be Abner.”

“I ain’t never seen anything like it. Foaming at the mouth. What you been doing to that horse, Mister?”

“I just said I didn’t like this book.” Jonathan pointed to the battered book in his hand.

[p.32]“For your information,” the man said as he leaned to untangle his horse’s mane, “your horse’s grazing near the corner of a fence by the next turnoff. Some man in a black suit tried to tie him up, but the horse was impossible to catch-so many contortions, like it was trying to tie itself in a knot. But as soon as the man disappeared, the horse calmed down, dead still, as if nothing had happened.” The two men pressed their knees into their horses’ sides and galloped down the road. “Never saw the likes,” the other man yelled over his shoulder. “He’s my only horse,” Jonathan shouted after them.

First he walked one way, then another in the autumn sunlight while swirls of motes circled his head. He turned a slow, thorough turn to check the landscape for the man in the black suit. All he could see was a dusky raven flapping its wings, lifting off a fence post, soaring full-winged over the trees. All he could hear was the raven’s throaty caw. And he felt his fingers curled tightly around the binding of the book.

Jonathan sighed and turned toward Nauvoo once again. As a cart loaded with green and yellow squash rolled over the baked clay of the road past him, he thought of the young man who’d preached in the Methodist chapel, singing the song that wouldn’t leave his mind. The one who looked at him with eyes clear like a tunnel to a place Jonathan had always wanted to see, even if he knew better. A steady place where the weather didn’t change. A place of harmony.

He noticed the fence posts, the crooks in the tree branches, the tall straw-like grass. Their wavy lines had changed back to straight ones, the distorted half circles in the vees of the trees transformed back to ordinary angles. In the distance, waiting patiently, stood his horse, Abner, his head drooping like a day lily when the sun goes down. Jonathan had never seen such a change in anything still alive. He eased up to Abner’s side and slipped the bit and bridle in his mouth. Abner was docile as a sleeping lamb.

Jonathan finally arrived at the prophet’s house, his face pasty with sun, sweat, and the dust of the road. As he stood on the front porch with the book in his hand, he suddenly felt overwhelmed by too few hours of sleep and too many hours of pounding the road with his short and unexercised legs. He lifted his tired hand to knock on the door, but then felt a red flush stinging his cheeks. This man is called a Prophet of God. Jonathan’s face burned as he felt himself so close to foolish [p.33]again. What could be worse than a fool for God standing on the doorstep of a man people say talks to God?

When the door opened, Jonathan gazed up at a tall man with the nose of a Roman statue and the eyes of the singer he’d met back in Winchester. Jonathan stepped over the threshold without thinking, as if he’d been invited in. But no words had been spoken.

“I’ve been expecting you,” the prophet said.

Jonathan lifted his eyes and tipped his head back to speak. “You’ve been expecting me?”

“Strangers are welcome. Follow me.” The prophet opened a narrow door in a narrow hall. “Dinner is at 6:00 o’clock. Rest. You’ve had a hard journey.”

After dinner they sat in a small library crowded with books, stalwart faces in oval frames on the wall, and a fireplace.

“I want to know God,” Jonathan said as he crossed his short legs at the ankles. “I can’t help myself.”

The prophet lit the kindling for the fire. “That is also my greatest desire.”

“He nips the seat of my pants and nudges me, reminding me we’re all sinners, every one. But can we mortals ever fathom a God with a frightening face?”

“The human mind can only see in small ways. Think rather of worlds within the universe, within the world of the stars and the moons and the sun. Think of the cornucopia of God, of the fruit, the issue, the abundance. Human eyes can never see far enough. We must build a new kingdom—a Kingdom of God, not the selfish kingdom of men.”

Jonathan’s eyes began to water and catch the light of the fire. “I want God to be something I can understand, but maybe that’s not possible.” And as he said those words, he began to hum the song again. When he realized what he was doing, he stopped abruptly.

The prophet unfolded his long arms and legs, rose from his chair, dug his hands in his pockets, and stood in thoughtful profile between Jonathan and the fire. His patrician nose was the same as one painted on a face on a canvas on the wall, his eyebrows wiry, one side of his face the moon, the other the sun. The prophet turned toward his visitor. “How do you know that song?” he asked.

“In Winchester. At a Methodist church. A missionary.”

[p.34]The prophet closed his eyes and began to sing the same song, not only one verse, but verse after verse. He sang of a man who met different strangers locked in prison and beaten by the side of the road. In the last verse one of the strangers stepped out of disguise. It was Jesus. “Of me thou hast not been ashamed,” he said. When finished singing the last word of the song, the prophet stared at the world beyond the walls.

Jonathan pulled his body from his chair and stood as tall as he was able, his head reaching to the second button from the top on the prophet’s shirt. “Your voice sounds like the young man who sang this song to me a few days ago. You could be brothers.” Jonathan put his hands in the hands of the prophet. “I accept your God.” The prophet squeezed Jonathan’s hands and bent to embrace the round little man.

 ***

In the foggy, cold light of the morning, the two men rode their horses to the banks of the Mississippi where Jonathan’s sins would be washed away. But as they dismounted and stood together on the bank near a bending willow, Jonathan’s sense of beatification was jolted by a sharp breeze off the river.

“One thing bothers me,” he said as he unlaced his shoes and placed them side by side on a soft bed of dew-covered leaves.

“Yes!”

“I’m here to be buried and rise anew from these waters, but answer one last question.”

“Of course.”

“Why … “ Jonathan’s words halted behind his teeth.

“Go on,” the prophet urged.

Jonathan cleared his throat as he removed his coat. “Why … “He cleared his throat again. “Was it the Devil that brought me the Mormon Bible after I left it by the road and the Devil that possessed my horse yesterday?”

“You fear the Devil, do you?”

Jonathan took a step backward. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“You must understand,” the prophet said. “He has his unseemly methods, but he’s still a son of God. Might he not work for God from time to time?”

[p.35]“That’s blasphemy,” Jonathan said, trampling the tall grass with his heels as he backed farther away from the prophet, his body suddenly rigid as a bullet casing.

“Open your mind to the possibilities,” the prophet said, reaching down to hold Jonathan’s shoulders firmly. “] thought you, of all people, were opposed to an arbitrary God.”

“But why was the Devil the one to put a sacred book back in my hands?”

The prophet lifted his chin and squinted at the ripples of the river capped by steel gray light. “Maybe he’s a stranger in disguise,” he said. “Yet another teacher.”

Jonathan pulled at the hairs in his long sideburns and pulled Abner closer to his side and stroked his mane. He looked at a boat moving steadily through the gray mist and lifted his eyes to the overhead fog, which seemed to be moving steadily above him, not unlike the river. “Everything’s possible, I guess.”

“Everything,” the prophet said.

Jonathan slowly unbuttoned his shirt, as if each button were a thought he pondered. He unbuttoned the cuffs and carefully slipped from his shirt. He unbuckled his belt and eased his pants to his feet. The rolls of his stomach fell free without his belt; his flesh sagged in tiers of tender pink. He wrapped a sheet he’d carried from the prophet’s house around himself and mounted his horse.

“I put my hands in yours, but if it’s all right with you, Abner and I want to be baptized at the same time. Yesterday was more than we’d care to repeat.”

The prophet smiled, grinned, then slapped his knees and laughed. “You think you can be protected from God then?” But Jonathan had already ridden Abner into a shallow eddy of the cold-running river and sat as tall as he could in the saddle, wrapped in a white sheet, waiting.