Authors: Pete Hautman
And the Lord of the sheep went with them, as their leader, and all His sheep followed Him.
— Enoch 89:22
I know that the World is a terrible place, filled with wild animals and evil men and wicked women. I know that the Beast stalks the streets of the cities, and the canyons and footpaths beyond, and that only the strongest and wisest of men can resist his seductive ways. I know that the End Days are coming.
I know that the Lord will visit His wrath upon this World, and that all who remain are doomed to pay a terrible price, for as their fathers have sinned, so sin their sons. I know this day will soon come upon us.
I know how fortunate I am to be of the Grace, G’bless, and my parents, G’bless, and Father Grace himself, G’bless, and the Archangel Zerachiel, who needs not
blessing for he is himself the Lord’s Command. And I know that His light shines upon Nodd, and that Zerachiel will come to carry us away from the horrors and pain of the End Days. I know that the Ark will come.
The Day will come, and the Ark will come.
The Ark will come.
The Tree grows in the Sacred Heart of the Village. Brother Benedict and Brother Jerome tend it now, examining the leaves and bark for signs of infestation or disease. To tend the Tree is a great privilege.
I kneel, my knees fitting into depressions worn in the hard soil by other Grace’s knees. I rest my elbows on the smooth top of the stone wall that surrounds the Tree, and I think how wondrous a thing it must be to tread upon those roots and upon the fallen fruit, to be trusted so by Father Grace, by Zerachiel, by the Lord Himself. In nine short months, I will have eighteen summers, and I will become a Higher Cherub like Benedict and Jerome. Perhaps one day Father Grace will allow me this honor as well.
The Tree itself is a gnarly, ancient thing, its knotted trunk bigger around than Father Grace’s belly, its three main limbs as thick as his thighs. It is as wide as it is tall, arms cork screwing out from the trunk, sprouting uncountable leafy branchlets, reaching almost to the wall, which is itself thirty cubits across.
It is morning now; sunlight grazes the uppermost leaves of the Tree. A pair of jays alight noisily to peck at the ripe fruit. Brother Jerome rattles the leaves with his staff. Startled, the jays take flight. Leaves fall to the earth.
I close my eyes and whisper all one hundred eight lines of the Arbor Prayer. When I get to the last line —
and the Fruit, and the Lord, and the Ark will come
— I open my eyes to find that I have been joined at the wall by several other Grace whispering their own morning devotions. I touch myself with the sign of the Tree and leave the wall to report to Archcherub Brother Enos. Today is second Landay.
Today, it is my privilege to patrol the borders of Nodd.
I walk the edge on the second and fourth Landays of the month. Brother Will performs the duty on alternate Landays. We patrol our borders to keep our land pure, to protect ourselves from the evils that lie beyond.
Nodd covers 7,800 acres. Much of the land is steep and forested, but there is sufficient grazing land for five score sheep and a small herd of milk cows, and enough tillable land for our crops. The fence, eight-foot chain-link with loops of razor wire coiling along the top, is more than thirteen miles long. It takes the better part of a day to walk it.
In the spring and fall, when the weather is fine, to walk the fence is a pleasure. On this warm September day, I follow the well-trodden path at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to look out over rolling hills dotted with juniper and sage.
The world beyond the fence is deceptively peaceful looking. The grass is shorter; the landscape crisscrossed by cattle trails. I see them in the distance, scattered groups of twenty or fewer, each beast branded with the mark of the Rocking K Ranch, our neighbor to the north. The cattle often walk close along the fence line; you can see bits of their coarse hair caught on the chain-link. They hope to find a way into our fertile land. Only rarely do we glimpse the Worldly men of the Rocking K. Though they be sinners all, they forbear to trespass upon us.
The south of Nodd borders upon the godless Fort Landreau Indian Reservation. The elders of this Lamanite tribe have agreed to respect our borders. Even so, a year ago some of their young men chose to trespass upon us, cutting through the chain-link to poach our pronghorn and mule deer. Brother John discovered the cold and ugly remains of one of their camps, all ashes and gut piles. I pray that I never stumble upon such a scene.
The river Pison, fast and treacherous, forms our western border. There is no fence, only the water, and it is there that the wild creatures may come and go at will.
There, I laid eyes upon the wolf.
It was late last winter, bitter cold and blowing as only Zerachiel himself can blow. The sky was bright blue, the land covered with drifts of crystalline snow, fine and sharp. Now and again gusts of wind tore at the drifts to send clouds of ice particles swirling through the air. Walking north along the Pison, shards of blowing ice and snow cutting at me, I was thinking irreverent thoughts about Brother Enos for sending me out on such a day. Every few minutes, the blowing snow would come so hard I had to stop and pull my hood over my face and wait for the ground storm to subside.
The Pison herself was nearly frozen; a rare event. A jagged channel about ten cubits across showed black and wet near the center of the river. I was wiping ice from my eyes when I saw the dog sitting at the edge of the ice on the far side of the channel.
Except it wasn’t a dog. It had a wildness to it. A coyote, I thought. I unslung my carbine, knelt in the snow, and aimed. The creature was a good three hundred cubits off. I did not trust myself to make the shot at that distance. The carbine is a small rifle, and mine was not mounted with a scope. I would have to wait. Should it choose to cross into Nodd, I would send the beast to Zerachiel.
A fresh gust of wind kicked up another cloud of ice particles, and for several seconds I was blinded by the mini-blizzard. When the snow settled, I saw that the creature was in motion, trotting along the edge of the channel. I knew in that instant, seeing those long legs and the proud tilt of its head, that this was no coyote. It was a wolf.
As if sensing my thoughts, the wolf stopped and looked directly at me, or so it seemed. It sank back on its haunches and leaped, its long gray body stretching out, impossibly long, sailing over the open water for what seemed like seconds, dropping soft as a shadow upon Nodd’s ice. It trotted casually up the sloped bank and stopped not fifty cubits away. Again, I raised the carbine to my shoulder.
The wolf looked at me, and this time I was sure he saw me. His tongue showed and his mouth curved into a canine laugh. I released the safety and sighted in on his body, his chest, his heart. My breath came ragged and harsh. I fought to control my breathing. We Cherubim are well trained in the use of firearms. A shot taken in haste is a shot wasted. I willed my pulse to slow. The wolf laughed, his eyes locked upon me. My finger touched the cold steel of the trigger.
Two more slow breaths
, I told myself — but I had waited too long. The wolf became a gray blur, kicking up snow, instantly reaching pronghorn speed and disappearing into a stand of juniper. I never fired.