Isaac and Billy

They’d been walking for three days when they saw the place. Isaac knew instantly that this was it. His father stopped, sucked in his breath, closed his eyes and waited as though very afraid.

The ground there was empty but for a few scrub thickets, a litter of broken stone. The hilltop they’d been searching for was not far ahead. To one side a dry stream bed, a shelf of crumbled rock. The sun throbbed above them like a great wound in the sky.

Finally, Abraham said to the two servants, “Stay here. The boy and I will go on further to worship.” He untied the baskets of firewood from the ass’s back and transferred the burden to Isaac. Abraham carried the bronze bowl filled with coals from that morning’s fire, broad-bladed stone knife. The knife for the sacrifice.

He wiped the sweat off his face and scowled. He started out, picking his way among the outcroppings of reddish rock. The heat was huge, a crushing presence. Abraham’s silence too was huge, painful to his son. He wouldn’t look the boy in the eye. His grizzled beard swung against his chest. The hem of his robe scraped the dirt. When they’d started out on the journey, he’d seemed furious, so angry he could hardly speak. The silence remained, but was darker now, flowing from a deeper source. It seemed to Isaac that his father had become very old during the past three days of wandering.

Nearing the top of the hill, Isaac said, “Father, we have coals and the wood for the sacrifice, but where is the lamb?”

Abraham trudged on. “God will provide.”

When they came to the peak, Abraham immediately began to build an altar out of the loose rock. Isaac set down his burden and tried to help, but Abraham pushed him away. When he’d finished, the platform was waist high. He then heaped the firewood on it and picked up the knife. He stared at the blade with a hatred Isaac had never seen before.

The sun was directly overhead now, a great baleful eye. Abraham said, “Come here, son,” and took Isaac by the arm. Though old, he was still far stronger than Isaac. He looped leather thongs around his son’s wrists and tied them. Then he did the same for his ankles, lifted the boy and placed him gently on the pile of firewood. Still he could not, he would not, look his son directly in the eyes. He tilted his head back, craned his neck, staring directly into the sun as if to blind himself to what he must do next. Isaac followed his gaze, sucking the light into himself, until he saw nothing at all.

When he opened his eyes, all was darkness. He was still lying on his back, but now was in a bed with soft clothes. It was night, or he was blind, or his father had gone through with the sacrifice and Isaac was now in the next world, the place of clay and worms and endless thirst.

He sat up. His legs and feet were tangled in blankets. Voices came from nearby, words he didn’t understand. Someone was approaching. He heard shod feet on a wooden floor. Whispers in the darkness. He drew air deep into his lungs and the foreign stench made him sick. He put his hands to his face and though he was a smooth-skinned boy, felt whiskers there. He ran his hand down his chest and felt the ribs protruding, a knotted scar that was not his. His hands went to his groin. He was no longer circumcised. The sign of his covenant, his father’s covenant, had been taken away.

Someone was nearby, a tall man peering at him through the darkness. He carried a rod or short staff in his hands. The end was pointed at him. Isaac said, “Father, is that you?” and a blast of light and smoke erupted.

Billy Bonney woke in a furnace of sunlight. Noon? Had he drunk that much? Had the others dragged him outside as a joke?

The sun was heavy and close, like an undertaker’s face hovering over a corpse. Billy’s vision was still blurred by the whiskey. His flesh seemed wrong, too small. He smelled like a goat. He tried to reach up to wipe the drool off his mouth and found that he was bound, hand and foot. He shook; he wriggled and swore. Caught again, God damn it. Pat Garrett had been closing in for days. The others had joked about the noose tightening around Billy’s neck. “Kid, he’s out there. He wants your ass. He wants it bad.”

And here he was tied like a pig, helpless. “God damn you to hell, Pat Garrett.”

An old man appeared, his beard hanging almost to his belly, wearing a robe and sandals. His skin was dark as a Mexican’s, darker. He had a knife in one hand, a broad flat blade that looked like it had been carved out of stone. “Jesus, God damn hell, what the hell do…”

The old man came closer with the knife. He lifted it high above his head, stared like a blind man into the sun.

Billy squirmed. He called out and the old man seemed to listen. He spoke back, but kept his eyes on the sky, as though that was where Billy’s voice came from. The old man lowered the knife, then suddenly cut the leather straps.

The old man helped Billy climb down from the pile of rocks and wood, but then turned away, as though ashamed. He walked to a nearby bush. A ram was caught there, moaning like a drunken whore. The old man took hold of it by the horns, dragged it out of the thicket and quickly bound its legs.

He lifted the ram and placed it where Billy had been lying a moment before.

Then with one clean jerk, he raked the knife across the ram’s throat. The animal shook and thrashed, but made no noise now. That made it worse to watch, the blood pumping out in dead silence. The old man was covered in red: his face, his hands, his ridiculous gown.

Billy stood watching, dazed. This was no drunkard dream. That blood was real. He smelled it. He could almost taste it. It might have been his blood.

Billy turned and saw nothing but blasted rock, withered scrub. No horses, no house, not even a trail down from this hilltop.

The old man laid a small pile of coals under the firewood, breathed gently on them and soon there was a blaze. Smoke poured upward into the already darkened sky.

Billy looked at his hands. They were too small, too brown. He pulled at his clothes – he was wearing a loose robe too. He ran his tongue around his mouth found all the teeth he’d ever lost in barroom fights.

The flames roared. The old man stood before the pile muttering in some language – that Billy didn’t recognize. Not Spanish, no Indian tongue he’d ever heard.

Billy closed his eyes, trying to remember what had happened the night before. He’d been blind stinking drunk, bragging as usual. Twenty-one men dead, one for every year he’d lived. He’d gone to bed with his rifle there beside him. He’d gone to sleep thinking of Pat Garrett stalking the desert like a ghost, coming closer every day.

A few years back he’d ridden with Pat for a while, worked with him on Pete Maxwell’s ranch. They’d been friends. But now Pat was wearing a badge and Billy had a price – five hundred dollars – on his head.

Billy had lost his first father, the man who’d gotten him on his mother. His second father, the drunk Will Antrim, had disappeared on some fool’s gold errand. His third father was John Tunstall, the only man who’d ever treated him like a human being. He died with three bullets in the back of his head. Now his last father – Pat Garrett – was out there, getting closer every day, dreaming of blood and justice and five hundred dollars.

The old man was moaning now, just like the ram had moaned, He stood before the flames with his arms raised.

Billy wanted to run, but he had no idea where he was or where he could run to. He tried to speak, but hearing the voice – too young, too high – he stopped.

From somewhere very far away, came the blast of a shotgun, then the sound of feet moving over a creaking wooden floor, and fainter still, the echo of the blast.

Then he heard a voice, in English, say, “Sorry, Kid.”

The sound dwindled to nothing. The light faded and that world was gone.

They unbound the restraints, the headgear. They disconnected the neural tap and helped me out of the bed. The technician smiled – a good smile, authentic – and steadied me on my feet.

An hour or two later I was home looking in on my son. He was in bed, where he’d been for months. Hoses up his nose, an IV drip giving him a steady dose of morphine, monitor patches on chest and forehead. He looked like something that had been pulled out of an open grave.

They’d said I’d need the therapy a few more times before I’d be ready to pull the plug. Maybe another set of stories would help: Chronos and his sons, Mordred and Arthur, Superman being sent away from Krypton by his father, Daedalus and Icarus.

But once was enough.

I went to the bed, touched my son’s arm. Cold, he was already a corpse, though his pulse still registered.

I knelt by the power unit. There was an official way of doing this – with a doctor present, two witnesses, legal notification.

I didn’t care anymore. It didn’t seem to make much difference. I wanted to do it alone.

I flipped three switches. The main unit’s faint hum died. I never knew until then how much I hated that sound. I went and called my lawyer. I had a couple of hours before he showed up.

While I waited, I listened to the silence. No hum, no gun shots, no flames, no voices.

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