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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“Do you know what a leper is?”

I did and nodded.

“And do you know the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus?”

I knew a few things from the Bible. The stories of Christmas and Easter and the Good Samaritan and such, the big selling points. The ten lepers was a new one to me.

“Jesus is on the road one day when ten lepers call out and beg him to heal them. Jesus takes pity and does as they’ve asked. Only one thanks Jesus for the miracle. And to that man, Jesus explains, ‘Your faith has made you well.’ You see? Jesus takes no credit. It’s the man’s faith that has healed him. I believe Albert can be healed, but only if his faith is strong enough. And I can’t give him that.”

“But maybe I can,” I said, jumping from the swing. “I’ll make him believe.”

I headed quickly to the room where Albert lay. The young Dr. Pfeiffer stood at his bedside, checking Albert’s pulse. I ignored the doctor, knelt, leaned to my brother, and said, “Albert, can you hear me?”

His eyes had been closed, but they opened now, just a crack.

“Listen to me, this is important. Sister Eve can heal, she can. She’s not a fraud. She’s the real deal, I swear to you. All you have to do is believe, Albert. Believe in God. Believe with all your heart. That’s it. Tell her that you believe, Albert. Please, please tell her that you believe.” Tears fell onto the sweat-drenched pillowcase, a river of my tears. I’d taken Albert’s hand in mine, and I squeezed it desperately. “You don’t have to die. Just tell her you believe.”

Sister Eve knelt on the far side of the bed and gently held Albert’s other hand. He turned the slits of his tired eyes to her. She spoke softly, as if coaxing a skittish animal to come and be fed. “It’s the truth, Albert. You can be healed. The belief is in you, the belief in a loving God. I can see that your mother put it there a long time ago. It’s still in your heart, Albert. Look down deep inside and you’ll see that God is there, waiting with his healing light, his healing touch, his healing
love. Believe in him, Albert. Believe in him with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and you will be healed.”

Albert stared at her with his dulled eyes and made no response.

“Say it, Albert,” I pleaded. “Tell her you believe.”

“Let go of all the darkness, Albert,” Sister Eve cooed. “It’s easier than you think. It will be like letting go of a great weight. It will be as if you have wings, I promise.”

“Just say it, Albert. For God’s sake, just tell her you believe.”

My brother’s lower lip twitched. His mouth opened and one word escaped in a long, exhausted sigh: “Liar.”

“No,” I cried. “It’s not a lie, Albert. She’s not a fake. Just believe, goddamn it.”

But he closed his eyes again, turned his face from her, and said not another word.

“Heal him, Sister Eve,” I begged, wiping my eyes with my fist. “You can do it.”

She ignored my plea and whispered to my brother, “There’s nothing to fear. The journey ahead of you will take you to a place of peace.”

I knew what she was doing. She’d looked into my brother’s heart and understood that his faith would never be strong enough for healing, and now she was offering him the only thing she could, which was comfort. She knew he was going to die.

“Don’t let him go,” I cried to her.

“It’s in God’s hands, Odie.” Her eyes were soft green pillows of kindness. “In God’s alone.”

But as I knelt at my brother’s bedside, all I could think about was the shepherd eating his flock one by one.

NEAR DARK, THE
storm that had been building on the horizon overtook New Bremen. It threw lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the town and poured down rain in a way the earth had not seen since Noah. I saw rivers of rainwater fill the streets and Dr. Pfeiffer
eye his pocket watch hopelessly, and I knew the antivenom would never arrive in time.

Because I was the one responsible for Albert’s snakebite, the one who’d brought Death calling, and because I was a wretched coward as well, I couldn’t stand to watch my brother die. So I ran.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

BY THE TIME
I reached the Minnesota River, I was soaked to the bone. When I’d fled the home of the physicians, I’d had no direction in mind, no destination, no plan. I simply couldn’t remain where Albert lay pale and lifeless on the bed. Emmy had called out to me, but I hadn’t turned back or even slowed down. I’d run, trying to escape the pain that ripped me apart but that no matter how fast my legs moved I could not outrun. When I reached the river, which flowed black and fast in the early dark brought on by the storm, it blocked my way and I could go no farther. I sat down on the wet sand and wept. After I’d cried every tear I could, I lifted my head to a sky still tormented by lightning and cursed, “You bastard.” I didn’t have to say his name. He knew.

By the time Sister Eve found me, the storm had passed, the worst of it anyway. Rain still fell, and Sister Eve, like me, was drenched. Her hair clung to her face in wet strands, and water dripped from her eyebrows and nose and chin. She sat beside me and said nothing until I finally spoke.

“You should have healed him.”

“I couldn’t, Odie.”

“He was right about you. You’re a liar.”

“I’ve never told you anything but the truth. Did I tell you I would heal your brother?” She looked up at the sky, which was like heaven weeping down on her face. “I knew the moment I took his hand that I couldn’t heal him.”

A train approached on the tracks above the river, and the weight and rumble of the passing cars made the sand below me tremble, and the sound of the engine horn as it retreated was the sad wail of a beast in torment.

When the evening fell quiet again, Sister Eve said, “You believe you’ve lost everything. I understand that. I understand the darkness you’re in. But even in the darkest night, God offers a light. Will you take my hand and come with me? There’s something you need to see.”

I had no strength to resist. I stood, put my hand in hers, and like a zombie, let myself be led. We walked through the soggy meadow, empty of vehicles except for the trucks of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade, past the tent village, where I could hear Whisker playing an extra-sad rendition of “Am I Blue?” We climbed the hill to New Bremen, crossed the empty square, and finally came to the house where I’d fled from death. I stopped, pulled away from her, and stood in the rain, unmoving.

“I can’t go in there.”

“I understand, Odie. But you need to.”

I wasn’t ready to look upon Albert a last time. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

“I can’t.”

She held out her hand, and rain gathered in her palm. “Trust me.”

She led me into the house, down the hallway to the small room. Emmy and Mose were inside, and Sid, and the young Dr. Pfeiffer, who stood at the side of Albert’s deathbed, blocking my view of my brother’s pale, lifeless face. The doctor heard us enter and turned and stepped away.

There was Albert, just as he’d been when I ran away, his head on the pillow, his eyes closed. Sister Eve let go of my hand, and I thought I was probably supposed to go to my brother and . . . and what? How do you say goodbye when your heart is telling you how horribly wrong that would be? How do you let go when everything inside you is screaming to hold on?

I never did figure that one out. Because in the next moment, Albert’s eyes opened, he turned his head to me, and he said, “Hey, Odie.”

MOSE SIGNED TO
me,
Doctor kept saying he couldn’t understand what was keeping Albert alive. Should have been dead. Said it was a miracle. Only explanation.

It was late in the evening by then, the storm long past, the rain ended, Dr. Pfeiffer and Dr. Pfeiffer and Sammy all abed, Sid back in his room at the hotel, and only Mose and Emmy and Sister Eve and me left to watch over Albert. The car from Winona General Hospital had arrived only moments after I’d fled, and the antivenom had been administered. His leg was still black, but not like it had been before. Some muscle tissue had been destroyed, which would cause him to limp slightly for the rest of his life. He was still weak and his breathing was a little raspy, but he wasn’t dead. He was just sleeping now, long and deep.

Sammy had brought out cots for the rest of us. Emmy and Sister Eve slept in the room with Albert. Mose and I were put in the waiting area, where a candle burned on a table near us so that I could see Mose signing.

“A miracle,” I said quietly. “Do you believe in God?”

I could see him rolling the question around in his head.
I don’t know about the God in the Bible,
he signed
. But I know you and Albert and Emmy, and now Sister Eve. And I think about Herman Volz and Emmy’s mother. I know love. So if it’s true, like Sister Eve says, that God is love, then I guess I believe.

Mose went to sleep, but I watched the candle burn down, and finally I got up and went out onto the porch and sat in the swing. The town was dark and quiet. The sky had dressed itself in black and was sequined with stars. The clock on the courthouse struck once. The front door opened, and Sister Eve stepped out and sat with me on the swing.

“The doctor said Albert should have died. He said it was a miracle that he didn’t. You took my brother’s hand and saw that his faith wasn’t strong enough to save him. Did you see that a miracle would happen?”

“I can’t see what’s up ahead, only what’s in your heart at the
moment. So I see where you’ve been and where you want to go. I can see what you want on your journey, but I can’t see if it will come to you.”

“What did Albert want?”

“What he’s always wanted. To protect you. In his heart, he thought he’d failed.”

“He didn’t.” I could feel the roll of tears down my cheeks, but they were tears of gratitude for a brother like Albert. I wiped them away and said, “What about Mose? Have you held his hand?”

“Of course.”

“And what does he want?”

“To know who he is.”

I thought about an Indian kid found in a ditch beside his dead mother, his tongue cut out, and no idea where he’d come from.

“And Emmy?”

“Emmy doesn’t know what she wants yet, but she will.”

“You’ve seen that?”

“I told you, I can’t see the future. I just know Emmy and I know God.”

Each time we rocked, one of the chains that held the porch swing gave a tired little groan. I finally mustered the courage to ask my next question.

“What about me? What do I want?”

“You’re the easiest of all, Odie. The only thing you’ve ever wanted is home.”

We swung gently back and forth in the comfort of each other’s company, and I thought, in the long night after Albert should have died but didn’t, that with Sister Eve and the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade, maybe I’d finally found what I was looking for.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

ALBERT SPENT THE
whole of the next day at the Pfeiffers’ clinic with one of us constantly at his side. Mostly this was me, but occasionally Mose and Emmy took a turn. He was alone only once, for an hour or so in the afternoon when I left him napping and popped out to the confectionery on the town square with a quarter that Sammy, who had no children, had given me out of kindness. I bought lemon drops for Emmy and licorice for Mose and Tootsie Rolls for me and Albert, all in celebration of the miracle of my brother’s life. That night, I stayed with him on a cot in his room but got little sleep. Albert tossed and turned and called out feebly from the depth of some nightmare. I spent most of those dark hours beating myself up for having thrown Sid’s brown snap case with the antivenom into the river. I was glad when dawn finally came.

Late that morning, the Pfeiffers gave their blessing to move Albert to the tent village. Sid and Sister Eve came at noon to pick him up and pay the bill. Mose and Emmy were along. We helped Albert into the red DeSoto and drove to the meadow.

The crusade had originally been scheduled to stay for two weeks, but Sister Eve and Sid had decided that evening would be the final service before they packed up and headed to their next stop. Sid was excited. He wanted to use my brother in that last service, parade him for all to see, a kid who should have died but had been saved by Sister Eve. She absolutely forbade it. Sid gave in rather easily, and I figured that was the end of it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the late afternoon, Whisker bought that day’s edition of the
Mankato Daily Free Press,
and Albert was big news. He wasn’t the lead story, which was all about something called the Bonus Army, a
massing of veterans in Washington, D.C., who were demanding delivery of some promised government relief. His picture was on page 2, along with an account of the snakebite that should have killed him but didn’t. The article intimated that it was a miracle for which Sister Eve was responsible. It showed Albert lying peacefully asleep in the little room with Dr. Roy Pfeiffer standing at his bedside. The only bright spot in all this was that in the caption under the photograph it said that the boy’s name was being withheld for reasons of privacy.

I had never seen Sister Eve really angry before, but she exploded at Sid. They were alone in the tent that was her dressing room. The broken terrariums had been cleared away, the harmless snakes long ago slithered off to freedom. There is no privacy in a tent, and we heard every word of the argument.

“I swear, Evie, I don’t know anything about this.”

“Don’t lie to me. This screams Sid Calloway.”

“All right, all right. I called a reporter in Mankato and told him that what his readers needed right now was a little shot of hope. He interviewed Pfeiffer, both of them actually, and confirmed the story. He wanted to interview the kid, too, but I wouldn’t let him.”

I figured all this had occurred while I was out at the confectionery buying candy, and I kicked myself for ever having left my brother’s side.

“No, you just let him take that young man’s photograph so he could splash it all over southern Minnesota. My God, Sid, what were you thinking?”

“What was I thinking? That a miracle like this is exactly what we need going into Saint Louis. Evie, you’ll be bigger than Aimee McPherson.”

BOOK: This Tender Land
12.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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