The Man Who Ran for God (pt. 9)

III. Weep Bitterly for Her Who Goes Away

Six days after Gideon Dodd’s sermon about Truth — and about his wife Tamera’s infamous interview with Maria Gutierrez (not yet Stenson) — he returned home late from an elders’ meeting.

He was hungry. He was thinking about playing catch with his boy, maybe, after dinner. (Not that James had yet caught anything, or thrown much.)

Humming a hymn, he opened the door on an empty house. In houses as big as Gideon Dodd’s, emptiness like that can almost be a punch in the gut.

There was a note.

He didn’t need to read it to know that Tamera had left him.

He didn’t need to read it to know it’d be a long road, getting her back.

But had he read it, he might have known to dig in the garden and find what his wife had left for him there, under the soil.

It might have saved him a lot of trouble, later on.

IV. But Only One Receives the Prize

“Mr. Dodd.”

A rough hand shook his shoulder, yanking him from uneasy slumber.

“Mr. Dodd. Wake up, sir.”

Dodd opened his eyes, the accumulated gunk of foreign pollens and dry air having caulked them shut. A wince at the loss of several eyelashes, and he found himself staring into the bleary visage of some horrendous hell-creature. A suspended bleached cow-skull hovered before him — the top of its head erupting with blazing flame. He jerked upright, gasping.

“Mr. Dodd. You were dreaming.”

Into slow focus came the black skin and bright eyes of Mal, Kratz’s old friend and guide. The bovine ghost was nothing more than the deceased dik-dik’s skull, pinned tight at Mal’s waist as a garish belt buckle. The flames were not flames, but an orange necktie, draped over the bone, leading up to a tidy Winsor knot at the diplomat’s khaki collar. Mal sat stooped at the side of Dodd’s soggy cot and prodded him again.

“You were calling your boy’s name.”

Dodd rubbed his eyes with smooth knuckles. “Was I?” he said.

“Yes. ‘James,’ you said. ‘James,’ again and again.” The man’s broad chest heaved in the dark. “What was happening, in your dream?”

Dodd thought. “I don’t remember.”

“Hmm.” Mal stood and cracked his back. Dodd flinched at the loud spinal bursts. “Even awake, you are scared.”

“I just don’t leave the states much,” Dodd said. “I got bad luck abroad.”

Mal’s thick tongue bulged from between his teeth. “Do not worry about your boy, Gideon Dodd,” he said. “He is quite safe in Mr. Kratz’s hands, I promise you.”

“I know.” Dodd rubbed his chubby bicep.

“It is the hound I would be worried about,” said Mal. He held out a hand.

Dodd took it and allowed himself to be yanked from his canvas bed. “That tie,” he said. “That’s Wachstetter’s, isn’t it?”

“I am sorry— who?” Mal pressed the silk strip against his chest so it wouldn’t dangle.

“Never mind,” said Dodd. “Just— my friend has a tie just like that.”

“Did he?” Mal shrugged. “Come,” he said. “You should speak to the camp. There has been a… development, overnight.”

Hobbling one-legged into his dirt-caked pants, Dodd said, “Oh? Is someone hurt? How should I address the chief?”

Mal grinned, eyes dropping. Dodd felt leered at, and very naked. He hitched up his trousers fast and zipped. The big man shook his head. “No one is hurt, no. And there is no chief. All are equal, in the Hadzabe culture. Now come. Mwapi has made coffee. We will talk.”

Dodd grunted. He’d met the other twenty-odd members of Mwapi’s camp the previous evening. They had received him with kindness — and unabashed fascination — had fed him from their scant stores of berries and potato-like roots. Mal had explained to him that this meager meal he and Maria were enjoying was very likely all the sustenance they had left.

“Should we save some?” Dodd had asked.

“That would be most insulting,” Mal had answered. “And you are, after all, here to conjure up some miraculous abundance of nourishment, are you not?”

Dodd had gone to bed at that point with a bellyache. He hadn’t successfully evacuated his bowels since arriving in Tanzania, though a veritable storm had been brewing within his guttiworks since the plane landed. Sleep came uneasily, and he felt anything but rested. In truth, he could recall hazy glimpses of disturbing dreams, in which he apparently had been calling to his son. A dark garden, some unnamed dread, and a kiss — James, smooching his papa on the forehead.

And a monster. Black, sleek, a shadow with fangs and ruby-red eyes.

Trying to forget these nebulous images, he felt as though a wet feather traced down his spine. He shuddered.

Holding open the swishy grass curtain of Dodd’s private hut suite, Mal said, “Everyone’s here. Waiting.”

Indeed they were. Just outside were a huddle of almost two dozen men and women, small in stature but strong, sturdy — all dressed like Mwapi, in billowing animal skin flaps about their waists and (in the women’s case) chest wraps. When Dodd emerged from his quarters the crowd dispersed, revealing just what they’d gathered around with such interest.

There was Maria, reporter for Time. In the rising light of dawn she was resplendent, bathed in gold, still in her nightdress and clutching a clay bowl of steaming coffee. Fingers extended, she assumed the stance of some benevolent divine being in a Renaissance painting.

Dodd scowled.

“Good morning, Mr. Dodd,” she said. “How’d you sleep? I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. Bastards.”

There wasn’t a single blemish or bite on her perfect skin.

Dodd’s scowl deepened.

“Fine,” he said, and the swirling vision of his son’s garden kiss flashed in his mind’s eye.

“We have a problem.” Maria held out the coffee and Dodd accepted. A Hadza woman conjured another serving and offered it to the reporter. She took it, and both she and the preacher blew on their cups and slurped.

A fingertip prodded Dodd’s side, and there was Mwapi, speaking frantically in Hadza.

Dodd asked him, in a language he couldn’t understand: “What’s happened?”

It was then that the preacher noticed the white land rover, parked at the far end of camp. It hadn’t been there the night before, while introductions were being made. A pup tent was set up not far from it, and now it wiggled and bulged as the opening spread. A pale white arm poked through, followed by pristine black dress shoes and, finally, a boyish frame in white button-up and tie, struggling through the tent flap with all the grace of a newborn deer.

Mwapi tugged on Dodd’s shirtsleeve, jabbing a finger at the young man and repeating the same glottal tone over and over. With each repetition the stranger drew clumsily closer, fanny pack bouncing at his waist.

Dodd looked to the reporter, who pursed her lips. “Meet the competition,” she said.

Producing a maraca-like accompaniment, Dodd dug out and dropped a few of Kratz’s gift Tums into his maw and munched, staring at the odd newcomer.

The youngster stumbled on a pebble and, grasping for balance, grunted: “Oh, gosh — Gideon Dodd! You look different in real life!” Upon his final steps he fell into the preacher, nose pressed to doughy sternum, and used the same hand to push himself upright and initiate a handshake.

The kid treated Dodd’s paw like a stubborn car door handle. “I’m Benny Dunwoodie. It’s good to meetcha, sir. Good to look you in the eye!” He prodded at his lower lip. “Read some of your books! Liked the older ones. Your last one— not as much.”

“I’m sorry,” Dodd said, scraping Tum from his molars with the tip of his tongue. “Can I help you, son?”

“Oh!” Benny’s cheeks flushed, and he pressed the back of one hand to his nose. “Sorry, there, Reverend.” The other set of fingers he used to brush at Dodd’s chest, where the kid’s face had touched. He realized that spot was damp — or, more damp than the rest of his sweaty clothing — and looked down to find a Rorschach blot of blood as wide as a Georgia peach.

“You’re bleeding,” he said.

Mwapi’s throat and teeth clicked and ululated. Dodd ignored him.

“Id’s the dry air,” Benny said. “Doe probbum. Sorry abou’ your shird.”

“Son,” Dodd said, “forget it. What can I do for you?” He grabbed at his gut and hoped no one heard its violent lurch.

“Ub,” the kid rolled back his eyes, a weak smile forming. “Id be dice if you pulled oud of the race?”

Dodd’s nostrils doubled in size. Maria chuckled.

“Ibe here,” said Benny, head tilted back far enough to make him seem either a deep thinker or an idiot farm-bird, “rebresenting the God constituency. Frub the Goverding Body of Jehovah’s Widnusses.” He let go the pressure on his septum, eyes still skyward, body swaying as if at sea. “The Good Lord sent me,” he said, “to campaign against you.”

Nose upturned, he dug a hand into his fanny pack and withdrew a trifold pamphlet. “Wanna tract?” he said.

“No, thank you.” Dodd glanced at the pin buttoned to the kid’s chest: RE-ELECT GOD, it said. The type was pixelated and the font choice poor, even to the preacher’s untrained eye.

“How do you spell ‘Dunwoodie?’” Maria asked.

“Not now, Mrs. Stenson,” Dodd said, but she produced and switched on a tape recorder all the same. Dodd sipped coffee and watched Benny’s Adam’s apple bounce. “They sent you all the way out here to botch my bid for the Hadza vote?”

“Well, sure,” Benny said, his chin lowering with care. “It’s a swing society.”

“And who’s, um, who’s ‘they,’ again?”

“The Committee to Re-Elect God, of course!” Benny’s nose was smeared with red up to the space between his thin blonde eyebrows. Mwapi made a finger firework in front of his own broad schnozz and tittered. A few of his tribesman laughed.

Oblivious, the kid smiled and shrugged, laughing a bit himself. “Yes, sir, we’re working day and night to make sure God stays God. He wants to keep tending His flock. I don’t think you’d be very good at His job. Not after writing that book.”

Dodd crossed his arms. He sensed Maria’s shift to refocus her drifting attention. “How do you know?” he said.

“Know what?” Benny swirled a pinky in his ear.

“That God wants to keep His job? Did He tell you?”

“Well, sure!”

“Directly?”

“Mmm.” The young man smiled, gazing at nothing. “More of a— sign? Like, I just felt His presence? And that presence said—”

“So no.” The preacher’s arms dropped, swinging. “I’ll ask again: How do you know He even wants to win this election? To watch over us, to protect us, to— to run the show?”

“Well,” Dunwoodie gave his beak a tender tap. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“And that is a problem.” Mal had reappeared, his elbow at Dodd’s ear. “Young man, I think you will find you have no legal right to be here and disrupt our mission. As Mr. Dodd’s political consultant—”

“Wait.” Dodd swung to the side. “You’re my…?”

“Does Kratz tell you nothing?” Mal sighed and bore down on Dunwoodie. “This is unethical and highly irregular. It goes against every accepted political practice of any civilized nation. Who is your supervisor?”

“All due respect given, mister,” said Benny, “but we’re in sorta uncharted territory here, don’tcha think? Not really a legal precedent to reference, is there?”

Mal snatched the pamphlet out of the young man’s hands. It fanned out in a crumpled bouquet. “Who told you to say that?”

“You’re very rude.” Benny snorted through his mouth. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”

“I do not have time for this.” Mal took a teetering step forward, then back.

“Anyway,” Benny stood akimbo, and Dodd thought of Pippi Longstocking. “They say you’ve come to solve the tribe’s little famine problem with a miracle. But I got God Almighty at my side, and He’s pretty good at miracles Hisself.” The youngster turned to Mwapi and screwed up his face, puking up a crude but passable attempt at the villager’s native tongue. Mwapi’s eyes went wide, and Dodd felt his own do the same.

Mwapi turned to his fellows, and one by one they nodded.

“Yep,” Benny said. “That’s that settled. Whoever performs the biggest miracle and fills up these good folks’ bellies first will have the Hadza’s endorsement.” Another dip into his pack and a tiny stapled booklet was pinched between his thumb and pointer. “Chick comic? It’s a good one: ‘The Homosexual Pandemic.’”

“No. Thank you,” said Dodd. Behind him, Maria palmed the comic and leafed through it, lips curling.

“How does… hmm.” Benny Dunwoodie made a sweeping arch with a blood-stained hand two times. Mwapi bowed. “Yes,” the kid said. “Two days. How’s two days sound, to complete our miracles and see what’s what?”

“Um.” Dodd gazed up at Mal, pleading.

“Two days,” the consultant said. “But you steer clear of Mr. Dodd. I am watching you, young man. If I detect even the slightest hint of treachery—”

“Oh, golly, mister,” the boy said. “I wouldn’t even know how to tretcher.” A slow trickle of red-and-yellow climbed down his left nostril. “Ope!” he said, and batted at it with the tip of his tie. “There it goes again!”

“May the best man win?” he said. He looked rather stupid, black cloth draped over his face, one blue eye half-closed in a sneeze tingle. “I’d shake your hand again, but…”

“That’s quite all right,” said Dodd.

He stuffed another four Tums past his lips.

Maria dropped her Chick booklet into the soil and ground it with a bare foot.

“Who prints this shit?” she said.

V. My Stomach Aches and Burns with Pain

Shaded in a small ditch copse, Dodd contorted his mouth into a pained curlicue. Hunkered, he grabbed a stick and make desperate jabs in the dirt to scoop out a small hole. Then he pulled his pants to his ankles and squatted over it.

Nothing.

All action remained inside.

Except— wait. Maybe…!

He daubed at his forehead with a sleeve and winced, miserable. But maybe. He blinked. Before the blink he was alone. After, the dancing dik-dik skull materialized inches from his face, along with its wearer.

“Little shit-sucking bastard Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Mal spat next to the khaki wad wrapped around Dodd’s feet. “Thumbing their righteous noses at basic decorum and courtesy! Always.”

The moment, his moment, passed, and Dodd wobbled and landed on his side. “Mal!” He squirmed. “Can you— Trying to—” His bound legs jerked in the dirt. “A little privacy?”

Mal sat cross-legged, facing the preacher. Dodd worked to right himself.

Another voice: “I thought the kid was sweet.” Maria Stenson wriggled through the brush to join the party. “Definitely homeschooled, but…” She shrugged, sat down.

“Excuse me!” Dodd said.

“Hi, Gideon,” she said.

“The Almighty is not playing by the rules!” Mal pounded at the ground. “Kratz will hear about this.”

“What can he do about it?” Maria said.

Mal gave her a brief, slanted glance.

Dodd wadded up his shirttail at the crotch and turned away from the others, a shaky sigh climbing from his chest. His stomach turned over itself. He pushed. Nothing.

“Can you…” He breathed. “Go away?”

“Anyway,” the reporter continued, “this is a good sign, you ask me. Not only does this whole ‘miracle contest’ angle make for a much more interesting story than, frankly, an American preacher taking a dump in the African bush—” Her eyes ran up and down the pastor “—or not. But it means the Man Upstairs is taking you seriously as a threat, right?”

Dodd gritted teeth, gingerly hitching up his pants as fire flared in his abdomen. “There’s no evidence to suggest this twerp was sent by God,” he said. He zipped up, still sitting on the earth. “People confuse their own prerogative with divine will all the time. Look at Kirk Cameron. No. This… ‘Committee to Re-Elect God’ isn’t necessarily proof that He’s all pins n’ needles over our campaign, Mrs. Stenson.”

“Have you?” Maria slipped a designer pen from its tight perch in her hair.

“Have I what?”

“Ever confused your own ambition with God’s will?”

Nearby, a bird trilled in singsong.

Dodd uncapped the Pepto Kratz had given him. “Uhh.” He swigged.

“It does not matter.” Mal stood. “If you do not feed these people within forty-eight hours, Mr. Dodd, we lose. We lose everything.”

The preacher licked bismuth remnants from the bottle rim. Looming, Mal blotted the sun, and for this first time, Dodd didn’t regret forgetting sunglasses. For the first time here, all felt dark and cold.

“I can’t exactly perform a miracle without God’s grace on my side,” he said. “How’m I supposed to—”

It does not matter.” The skull at Mal’s waist bobbed in agreement. “How is of little import to me, Mr. Dodd. I am only here to tell you that it is crucial that you figure — something — out.” He crooked a finger and loosened the orange necktie. “These savages are so goddamned backwards they still think flashlights are a miracle. You are a smart man, Mr. Dodd — or so Kratz says.”

He turned his back on the preacher.

“It is not fucking rocket science.”

He left Dodd and Maria there, on either side of the would-be toilet hole. Maria clicked her pen absently.

He’s the savage,” she said.

Dodd moaned. “Can I have a moment alone?” he asked.

She held the pen upright, to the sky, like some knight with a sword. “You know,” she said, “you’re going to have to talk to me at some point. That’s sort of how interviews work, Father.”

“I’m not a Father.”

“You’re still bent out of shape about the spotlight piece I did on Tamera.” The unseen bird twittered again, instigating a second identical chirp not far off.

“Don’t say her name.” Dodd picked up a pebble, tossed it. “And no, I’m not.”

“Because that was great press for you, Fa— Gideon. I happen to know attendance at your church tripled after that article came out.” She plunged the pen back into the clutches of her bun coif. “Apparently folks really loved to hear you bash me. How many weeks long was your sermon about the evils of the modern media?”

“It was a ten-part series,” Dodd said, placing palms on the ground and pushing to hoist himself. There was a loud, tremulous gurgle in his gut and he thought better of it, reseating.

“And then there’s me, who got a job with Newsweek, and now Time, thanks to all that national attention. Really, me meeting Tammy at that fundraiser’s the best thing that ever happened to either of us.”

“Don’t say her name!” Dodd grabbed his belly, bit his lip. “Yes, you can interview me. Just give me five minutes here alone, okay?”

“I’ll go.” Maria stood, brushing her bottom and thighs of dirt and dry grass. “But I don’t think you’ll be alone.”

She jabbed an indicative nod toward her eleven o’clock. Dodd craned his neck to follow and saw green bushes rustling, heard timid giggles and shushing. He cleared his throat with force, and the bush stilled.

They heard that strange, captivating birdsong a third time — just before a pair of Hadza children (a boy and a girl) burst through the stringy foliage, laughing. After a moment Dodd realized it was they who were calling out in avian tweets and chirrups. Or, at least, some of it was them.

For now an inconspicuous brown bird fluttered over the children’s heads as they laughed and whistled. It landed on the girl’s shoulder and peeped into her ear, then flitted ground-ward and pecked at what had looked, to Dodd, like a tan rock.

The boy exclaimed in Hadza, then grabbed the very stick Dodd had dug his bathroom with and — still laughing — caved the rock in as easily as if it had been a piñata. Dodd scooted back and Maria gasped as a few dozen droning bees circled the new hole opened up in the ground.

A beehive. They’d found a beehive.

The children looked into each other’s eyes, beaming, before plunging fists into the open honey hole, emerging with great scoops of golden, sticky liquid. They licked and suckled their fingers, their knuckles, laughing and chirping all the while.

The bird mirrored their sounds — and then their actions, dipping its beak into the reservoir to feed. The bees dispersed gracefully, having left all parties unmolested.

The final surprise came now: The girl, both hands running over with treacly deliciousness, came forward. Dodd and Maria, having thought they’d gone unnoticed, gave each other a look as the child extended her cupped palms to either of them. She bobbed her hands forward and back — an offering.

Dodd dipped a finger into the honey and licked.

“Thank you,” he said.

Maria did the same. After a taste, she said, “S’good.”

“Sure is,” said Dodd. “Fire up your recorder, Mrs. Stenson, ‘cuz I’ll tell you something else.”

The little girl ran back to her friends. Maria dipped an ear and motioned with a sticky finger: Go on.

“I think I found my miracle,” Dodd said.

VI. Have You Found Honey?

“The honey-guide bird.” Mal snorted and sneered at the two children before him, bared teeth at the little finch-like creature on the boy’s finger. “So what?”

“So,” Dodd said, “maybe it can lead us to food.”

Mal snorted again.

“I read an article once,” Maria said, “in National Geographic — complimentary subscription, I have a friend who works there — and it says these birds and the tribal people have a symbiotic relationship. They mimic one another, call to each other.”

“The birds lead them to honeycombs,” said Dodd, unable to hide the newfound excitement in his voice. “And the people open them up. It’s win-win.”

Mal straightened his tie, frowning. “Honey cannot feed a village, Gideon Dodd.”

“Well, no,” Dodd said, tracing the creases around his mouth. “But maybe I can train one to find fruit or, or nuts? Or lead us to its eggs?”

“That is the most stupid thing I have ever heard,” said Mal. He barked and clapped, sending the children running in alarm. “They are honey-guide birds, not food-guide birds. And you would need a Hadza to accompany you on this fool’s errand, one adept in imitating the birdcall — and you would need me to interpret.” He sniffed. “Which I will not, because this is stupid. You have less than thirty hours to defeat that boy and his fanny pack tracts. Do not waste another moment on this lunacy.”

“Mal.” Dodd placed a hand on either of the bigger man’s considerable forearms. “This is the closest thing to a hope we have. Now, I got a good feeling about this. St. Francis preached to a whole flock of birds. I can do this.”

“You are grasping.”

The interpreter yanked his arms out of Dodd’s touch and reversed the stance, taking control of the pastor by the shoulders. He spun him clockwise, pointed him at a small cluster of Hadza people many yards away. They sat, enthralled, around a campfire — and a wildly motioning, theatrical Benny Dunwoodie.

“He is already converting them,” Mal said, “with his Jehovah’s drivel. A dozen Hadza already have scheduled their baptisms. Thousands of years of self-sufficient atheism and practical living, and one famine, then—” He punched fist against fist. “All crumbling down.”

“But he hasn’t performed a miracle yet!” Dodd said, waving off the sight of Dunwoodie’s flashy storytelling. “Come with us. We’ll bring Mwapi to bird-whisper — come out looking so good nobody gets baptized!”

Mal focused on the space just above Dodd’s charcoal hair. “No. There are better uses of my time and yours.”

“Well,” Maria straightened up, “the joke’s on you, anyway. We can go on alone.” Summoning her tape recorder, she smirked and pressed play. The two men listened on, incredulous, at a crisp recording of the honey-guide bird from earlier.

Mal stared, bottom lip tucked in. One of the birds appeared and (There’s a miracle, Dodd thought) landed on Maria’s shoulder, going patweet right into her ear. Bird and woman looked ahead at the two men. The woman smiled, and there was that beguiling gap between her teeth again.

Dodd pried his eyes away to consider Mal. The consultant took a step back, gave the preacher something halfway between a nod and a convulsion, and swished around, dik-dik buckle bouncing.

Even Maria looked surprised when the bird allowed her to scratch its head with a fingernail. She made three Os of her eyes and mouth and stared at her assignment, at the man who would be God.

“That was impressive,” Dodd said. “That was really something.”

“Thanks,” she said. “Shall we?”

They gathered canteens (but no food, for there was none) and packed extra batteries for the tape player. The little honey-guide flitted and darted about them all the time, apparently eager to get going.

Dodd called it to him with the recording. It came, tiny head jerking, and nipped at the nutshells and fruit pits the preacher presented. “Go on,” he said. “Get a taste, get the scent. Find more.”

Maria chuckled. “Mal’s right,” she said. “This is stupid.”

Dodd frowned.

“Doesn’t mean it won’t work.”

The bird peeped — a fervent, staccato tone — and took flight.

They followed after it, toward the setting sun.

“Your mood’s really turned around,” Maria said, around the time they reached the waist-high grass. Indeed, Dodd moved with vigor and determination, not quite the constipated nebbish he’d played thus far on the safari.

“If this works,” he said, “it will mean a lot.”

“Will it?”

Dodd nodded, paused, and scoured the diminishing light. After he spotted their winged guide once more, he turned forty-five degrees and trudged on.

“You know, Father,” Maria said, “when we get wherever it is you’re taking us, whether or not there’s food — whether or not you work your miracle —” she stepped over a threatening insect with pincers the size of a nutcracker “—I’m not going to sleep with you.”

Dodd stopped in his tracks. Tall grass sprung up in his wake and slapped him on the rear.

Maria passed him, hot on the honey trail.

“Never again,” she said.

honeyguide-560x0_q80_crop-smart

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