VII. Therefore My Harp Is Tuned to Mourning
In America, five years before Gideon Dodd would don the very same outfit to honor his deceased wife, he straightened a black tie and practiced a somber punim in the mirror of his grandiose dressing room. A woman at the mahogany door spoke to him as though she didn’t see he was wearing headphones. But she saw.
Most would not have even registered the brief flicker of Dodd’s eyes up, left, and back down to the silky wad in his fumbling hands. But Maria Gutierrez was more observant than most. She knew he saw her. She knew he recognized her.
“What?” Dodd pried one headphone from his ear with middle finger and thumb.
“There’s a Hummer hearse out back. News cameras interviewing sobbing old bags.” Maria stepped onto the green room’s suede carpet, uninvited, clicking her pen. “Who’re you eulogizing?”
Tensing, Dodd jerked the slippery tie taut with a slight gag. “He was a very famous R&B singer,” he said. “I’m attempting to familiarize myself with his body of work,” and here he brandished a portable compact disc player, “before I go out there. He was a fan of mine. For today, I will be a fan of his. So, if you don’t mind…?”
“Mm-hmm.” Maria, ever the investigator, found the CD case left on top of a dresser. “Oh,” she said. “Him. Yeah, he had a few good ones.” She flipped it over, read the track titles. “This’s some sexy, secular shit, Father.” She reached and tugged on the thin black cord connecting the handheld to Dodd’s music muffs. A tinny warble of sax-and-bass issued from the device. “You sure God’s okay with you listening to this?”
The song chimed.
Gonna give you all my heart
Letchoo fondle other parts
Put your lips on me, baby,
I’ll put my lips on you.
Ooh-wee, ooh-wee, ooh.
“Real funny,” Dodd said. He pulled down the lifeless headset to rest at his doughy neck. “You call Catholics ‘Father.’ I don’t speak Latin.” He laid palms on the vanity counter, watching the reporter’s reflection. “What do you want, Ms. Gutierrez?”
“You can call me Maria,” she said. She sat in a director’s canvas chair, which bore the embroidered moniker Power Pastor. “Christ knows you’ve called me worse.”
“Apology not accepted, Mr. Dodd. I’ve heard those sound bites from your sermons. You’ve painted me as a devil.”
The departed’s hit song continued:
I got your number, baby,
I ain’t got your name.
I’ll keep both mine to myself,
If it’s all the same.
Dodd, transfixed on his purpling reflection as he fingered at the well-sealed knot around his neck, merely grunted.
“You’re getting up there nearly every week,” Maria clicked her pen twice, “and preaching how the media spews Satan’s lies — and I’m their harlot leader, spreading filthy libel about your wife.” She stepped forward, thrust her pen whizzing past Dodd’s ear. “I wrote one article about your wife, three damn years ago, and every word of it was true. And you know it. Why else hasn’t the public seen Tamara Dodd in attendance at your church services since that article came out?”
“She’s abroad,” said Dodd through clenched teeth. He picked and fiddled at the ball of necktie pressing on his throat, but couldn’t get a good grip on the oily fabric.
I just can’t hide my feelin’s,
Or what’s below my belt.
Such a sexy love, babe,
You ain’t never felt.
“She’s doing philanthropic work with the Dodd Foundation for Troubled Girls and Pre-Teen Boys,” the pastor said. He made a gnarled claw and prodded his neck. “I received an electronic mail from her only this morning. She’s in Chile, I believe.”
“Chili’s, you mean,” the reporter said. Rising, she reached over the preacher, and for a moment he bristled and flushed when her chest brushed his shoulder. Then she was off him, holding a pair of scissors from the vanity. With one snip, Dodd’s four-hundred-dollar necktie was off him, a pale band of uncirculated flesh rung round his neck.
“I saw your wife yesterday,” Maria Gutierrez said, “at a Chili’s Bar and Grill in Indianapolis.” There was the grating scrape of metal on expensive wood as she smacked the Fiskars back onto the counter. “She had the fajita.”
The pastor was quiet.
Things’re gettin’ steamy now.
Come on up and take your bow.
“I’m going to write a story,” said Maria, “about how you and your wife are separated. That she’s no longer a member of your church, and you’ve been lying to your congregation for months.”
Don’t need to tell you nothin’, babe,
You know what to do.
Hand to his gullet, Dodd rose from his chair, coming eye-to-eye (or just shy of it) with this female invader. He lifted his palm and inspected the line of blood criss-crossing the creases: She’d cut him, snipping his tie.
“Do you believe in God, Ms. Gutierrez?” he asked.
Ooh-wee, ooh-wee, ooh.
Maria Gutierrez smirked.
“I’m a journalist,” she said. “Objectivity above all. I don’t editorialize.”
Dodd found a napkin, dabbed his palm, then his throat. “That’s not an answer.”
“In other words,” she said, “that’s none of your business.” She dropped the pen into her bag, proceeded to rummage through it. “I nicked you,” she said. “Shit. I think I’ve got a bandage here.”
“Why’re you doing this?” Dodd said. When she looked at him again, presenting a lint-ridden Band-Aid, his eyes had sunken under his brow. His mustache wriggled like a wooly-worm above his quavering lip. “Why’d you have to write that awful article in the first place?”
Ooh-wee, ooh-wee, ooh.
The song ended. The old disc player shut off with a weak whirr.
Maria stared back at him, no sympathy visible in her slanted mouth, her wide eyes.
“You’re a liar,” she said.
Dodd took a step back.
“You lie to millions of people every Sunday,” she said. “You write books filled with lies. You go on the radio every rush hour — and lie.” Shaking fingers pried open the crusty bandage wrapper, peeled it off its paper trimmings.
“You tell people that everything’s gonna be okay. That there’s a fucking reason we suffer. That it’s all part of some grand plan, and, hey! If I just mail in some cash to pay for your palace, and— and your green room that’s nicer than my actual apartment, then all will be revealed.” She slapped the adhesive strip onto his neck. He jumped, his bottom landing to rest on the vanity counter.
“And afterward, if I’m still hurting,” she said, “then it’s me who must’ve done something wrong, right?”
Dodd rubbed the tingling spot on his neck.
“I thought you didn’t editorialize,” he said.
The woman bared her teeth, and the dangerous space between them. “You’re just a snake oil salesman. Real prophets don’t have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.” The green rings of her irises wavered like mirages. “And God isn’t listening.”
Every feature of Gideon Dodd’s body sank a full two inches. It was more than slumping — as looked as though he’d shrunk.
Maria pinched the bridge of her nose. “Forget it,” she said. “I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to— Damn it. This all went to shit.”
“Tamara don’t wanna be in the news,” Dodd said. “That’s what started this whole mess in the first place.”
“Well, that’s hardly under my control now, is it?” Her hand — That’s a kind hand, Dodd thought to his own surprise — reached out, and Dodd took it, and she helped him down from the vanity.
“What do you mean?” he asked as his loafers smacked the carpet.
“You’ve got Congressman Roger Bulkiss to thank for that, don’t you?”
Dodd just stared at her.
“Oh, God,” Maria said. Her pen appeared in her hand again. “You really haven’t spoken to your wife in a while. You didn’t hear?”
“Tamara’s brother was arrested,” she said.
“Is that all?” Dodd grunted. “Again.”
“No,” she said. “No bail. He’s lost his seat. Caught soliciting a handjob—”
The preacher grimaced at the word.
“—from a horseback police officer in a truck stop bathroom, where he’d parked a mobile meth lab full of caged black market ring-tailed lemurs.”
A long, slow breath trickled from Dodd’s lungs. It was of equal parts exasperation and relief.
“Well, that’s got nothing to do with Tammy.”
“You’re not listening.” The reporter jabbed a finger into his sternum. “I’m writing about your wife eating fajitas at that Chili’s so she’s got an alibi on record.”
Just as the preacher’s mouth fell open, the CD player made a puny mechanical sound and fired up again. A dead man’s music began to tinkle out once more, a light bass riff teasing the funk to come.
“Bulkiss’s lawyers are saying Tammy was there at the truck stop.
“They’re saying everything was hers.”
Ooh-wee, ooh-wee, ooh.
VIII. A Wolf, Searching for Meat
“That’s it. Yeah, that’s it.”
In Tanzania, Maria’s hand wrapped round a blue-green, surely poisonous root. Shriveled and dry, it was the only item their guide-bird had evidently been able to conjure up from the bush, for all its trilling and darting, searching and pecking. The vile tuber seemed to pulsate a radioactive light in the darkness.
Night had fallen.
“There’s nothing else out here,” the reporter repeated. “That’s it.” One of her caramel-brown hands rubbed around her navel. “Which is really too bad, because I’m hungry as fuck, I don’t mind telling you.”
Groaning, Dodd planted his bottom in the dirt. One palm caught his sinking head at the eye line to hold it half-upright. The little honey-guide bird landed on his shoulder and chirruped into his ear. He swatted blindly until it took flight, circled him, and came to rest on his other shoulder.
“It can’t be,” he said. “It can’t be this hopeless.”
Maria sat opposite him, obscured from the waist down by tall yellow grass. “Look at it this way,” she said. “If we came all the way out here and didn’t find so much as a black banana or a mangy gnu, that Dunwiddie kid’s not gonna find a damn thing, either.”
“It’s Dunwoodie,” Dodd said, tightening his blindfold of a hand. Even the waning moonlight was harsh against the waves of his oncoming headache. His stomach gave a weak, exhausted quiver. “And anyway I don’t care about the wager.” He massaged his eyelids, his brow, with a callused palm. “The Almighty can have the Hadza vote. I’ll rally. Kratz will pull through for me. Or— or, heck, maybe I’ll just lose. But I didn’t want to leave here without knowing these— these good people had food and water.”
The preacher yawned — nearly snarled — and his chin sank nearer his sternum. “But the Lord giveth,” he said, “and the Lord taketh away. Looks like He’s in more of a takin’ mood than a givin’ one, out here. I thought I could maybe make a difference, but…” He sighed. “Here we’ve been walking how many miles? Following some bird? Trying to perform a miracle?”
He kicked the dirt.
“The age of miracles was over a long time ago.”
At her hip, Maria’s finger found the pocketed tape recorder and pressed the red button she knew by sense memory. “So that’s why you’re running for God?” she said. “To make a difference? To remind people about miracles?”
The preacher’s free hand splayed in the dusty earth, making a haphazard star pattern. Even over the din of prattling insects and nocturnal wildlife, Maria could hear his stomach turn from where she sat.
“S’more than that,” he said. “I don’t— Listen, I’m tired.”
“What would be different if you were God?” The woman smiled at him. Her lips did not part, but in his mind he conjured up images of her bleached teeth, her pink tongue.
“It would be better!” He shouted, almost angry, argumentative. Both preacher and reporter doubled back in brief surprise, recovered in unison.
“The Hadza wouldn’t be starving to death, for starters,” said Dodd. “I mean, what’s happening out here? Is He just trying to prove a point? Thumbing His holy nose at me? Are these people just pieces in some cosmic checkers game? Or is it all just a big, awful coincidence: Who lives, who dies? Who gets to eat, and who’s gotta scrounge in the filth, just prayin’, hopin’ there’s somethin’ in there to fill his belly?”
“Well,” Maria used two knuckles to nudge the recorder an inch or two closer in the soil. “You’re a preacher. You’re a Christian. At your very core you must believe there’s a reason behind everything God does.”
“I don’t know.” Dodd’s head rose from the cup of his hand. “I don’t know anymore. I don’t even know if—”
The bird on his shoulder gave a sharp, piercing tweet that drowned out his next two words. By the time it took off, he’d stopped speaking, zeroing in on its deliberate trajectory. Its call sounded positively musical, affirming, like a hymn.
Maria hopped to her feet, lithe as a lynx. Brushing off her hips, her calves, she snatched her recorder and tucked it into her waistband. Her hand reappeared with a small flashlight in its stead, and she clicked it on.
“I’m going to see what the deal is,” she said. Do what you want, her eyes, her smirk, said.
In the same general direction as the darting honey-guide, Maria Stenson took off at a semi-graceful trot.
A half-minute or more later, Dodd took up the rear.
It was night such as he had never known. All he could do in this absolute dark was follow the floating, distant disc of Maria’s light. Feet throbbing, mind and heart racing, lungs threatening to erupt, he strode uncertainly in the blackness.
In the distance, a lion roared.
Closer, another replied.
Dodd walked faster.
Something rustled in the shrubbery behind him. An owl (or demon, he thought) hooted and whooped to the left. Twigs he wasn’t touching snapped and ungodly things yowled in a swirling cacophony of nighttime terrors.
Panting, he lumbered. Something grabbed his ankle (oh God save me, he thought, and, No He won’t) — and he fell. He flailed, squealed, and farted, grasping at air for any sort of leverage. Something soft and safe filled his hands and he pulled.
Something kicked him, right in the gut. He broke wind again.
“Jesus, Gideon, there are more subtle ways to get into a lady’s pants!”
The circle of light expanded, hovered, and came to rest before his eyes in time for a fleeting glimpse of his fingers sunk into Maria’s hiking pants pockets, manically yanking. He released her. The light bobbed again and landed on his foot, where a root had snagged him and knocked him down.
“Get up,” Maria said. Her hand he felt in his, and in moments he was upright, only a little worse for wear.
“We’re here,” she said. And Dodd realized that, among the amplified noises of the nocturnal brush, he could hear the lulling drone of a constant, many-mouthed buzz. Somewhere in there, the honey-guide bird chirped and whistled in ecstasy.
“Hold this.” In a second the flashlight was in Dodd’s hands, and he swung it along the arc of Maria’s arm as she lifted a large stick from the ground. She stepped forward to the faint hint of a thick baobab tree’s base. “Up and to the left,” she said.
He obeyed. The light hit a modest-sized beehive nestled low between two thick branches.
“Hell, yes,” said the journalist — and she swung at the hive with all her might.
“Maria!” Dodd dropped the flashlight. It flickered for an instant, then shut off.
In the infinite darkness, there was nothing to see, nothing to touch or taste, no sense at all, save the deafening whine of hundreds of angry honeybees.
IX. Reproach Her Not
All those years before, a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times sat half-rolled on the hotel room floor. The open page now read:
“TELEVANGELIST’S WIFE EXONERATED IN BULKISS SCANDAL
“Tamara and Gideon Dodd separated years ago; Congressman’s claims disputed
“Maryland Congressman Roger Bulkiss will serve two years in prison after pleading guilty on two cases of sexual misconduct, one case of animal trafficking, and fourteen cases of possession of…”
It went on.
Maria’s expert writing had indeed spared Tammy Dodd of everything except utter humiliation.
Some weeks after the publication of this article in the Sun-Times and various other periodicals around the world, Gideon Dodd found himself in a hotel room with a woman other than his wife.
One of them was Maria Gutierrez. She had a pen, notepad, and miniature tape recorder set up in a perfectly geometrical arrangement on the desk where she sat.
The other woman was Gideon’s and Maria’s chaperone.
“All right,” Maria said, crossing her legs, “I’ll start asking questions, I guess. First: Who in the hell is this?”
She pointed at the chaperone slumped in an unlit corner: a child’s clay pot of a person, lumpy in all the wrong places and half-baked.
“She’s just here to observe,” Dodd said, folding his hands in his lap. “To take notes and things.”
“I can take my own notes, thanks,” Maria said. She clicked her pen four times and jabbed it toward the interloper. “Could we…?”
“I’m afraid we couldn’t,” Dodd said, making a steeple of his two pointer fingers. “See, I’m a man of the cloth and of the public eye. Gotta be above reproach, as they say, so I’d better not be alone in a room with anyone of the opposite sex who is not my wife.” He licked his lips clinically, like a lizard. “You know I’m in the doghouse with the missus as it is. My marital status is all over the front-page news. Better keep this professional-like.”
Maria rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Can we proceed?”
“Fire away.” Dodd smiled.
The writer’s eyes narrowed to nefarious slits. She, too, licked her mouth, though greedily, menacing.
“Okay then, fine,” she said, “on the record — can I finally get a comment from you in response to your estranged wife’s claims that you’ve never—?”
“All right!” Dodd leapt to his feet. “Janice, why don’t you take five?”
Janice’s eyes pushed through their flesh-fold prisons. “B-but,” she said, “what about reproach?”
“Five minutes,” Dodd said, and went to the door to hold it open for her, polite as pie. “Reproach can wait five minutes.”
“All… All right.” Janice shifted with imbalance to her feet. She shuffled out and cast a questioning look over her shoulder, frozen in confusion until the moment the door clicked shut and Dodd turned the deadbolt.
“Okay, fine,” he said, dragging his seat close to Maria’s. Close enough to whisper, which he did. “You got my attention. What d’you want?”
“I want a real interview,” Maria hissed. “None of this ‘Approved by the Ministry of Magic’ bullshit.” Her thumb tapped the end of her pen. Click click. “I’ve met with you six times to get a response on this Bulkiss thing, and all you’ve done is preach and talk about the weather. I need a quote about the disgraced Congressman, the decay of American society, a plea to your wife to come back to you. Something. Anything. You owe me that much. I kept Tamara out of prison.”
“She’d’ve never gone to jail—”
“It was her word against the Congressman’s!” Maria said. “Her own scumbag of a brother. Until I came along. Now he’s rotting where he belongs, and she’s—”
“Not here.” Dodd’s voice was more dog whistle than speech now. “You want a quote?” He leaned forward, hands grasping the wooden arms of the cheap hotel chair. “You want an exclusive? I miss my wife. I miss my kids. God’s been good to me, but He could be better.”
Maria’s eyes ballooned.
Dodd cleared his throat. “I didn’t say that last bit,” he said.
The reporter clutched her pointed chin. “Are you sure?” she said. “We could check the tape. Double-check.”
“It was off the record.” Dodd stood. “All of this: Off the record!” He took a big step toward the door. “Where’s Janice?”
“If you aren’t honest with yourself,” Maria said, “Tamara’s never going to come back. If you never take off your ‘TV personality’ hat, she’s not going to bat an eyelash in your direction ever again.”
Dodd whipped around. “And what do you know?” he said.
“I know everything she told me in our interview three years ago.” She stood and matched him, stance for stance and eye to eye. “Even the stuff I left out, I remember. I’ve got a mind like a vault.”
The pastor’s gaze fell to the carpet. “Don’t,” he said.
“‘Charlatan!’” Maria pressed the tip of her pen into Dodd’s nose. “Her word! She doesn’t figure you’ve spoken to God a day in your life.”
“I have. I do.”
“She told me her dream for you is that you’d end up preaching to a congregation of fifty people, somewhere in the suburbs again. That that was you at your best. At your most authentic. At your most holy.”
A tiny black dot was left on the tip of his nose. She tucked the pen under his chin and guided it up until she found his eyes again.
“To be honest, Gideon, I’d love to see that,” she said, “because I think you’re pretty damn authentic now.”
“You chose God over everything.”
There was a soft rap at the door.
“That’ll be the chaperone,” Dodd said. “Our five minutes are up.”
“I called you a fraud a few weeks ago. But after some of our conversations… I wish I believed in anything a fraction as much as you do, Dodd.” Maria jabbed the Bic into his cheek and blocked him from turning away. “I’ve got to corroborate everything fifty times before I even consider it as a possibility. I take notes when I talk to my mom on the phone so I can fact-check her later. I’m such a cynic, most mornings the only thing getting me out of bed is the chance I’ll get to prove someone wrong.”
Another tap tap tap on the door.
“It’s why I…” Maria stepped back. “Hell, I targeted you, a few years ago. And I’m a shit. I saw you on TV, and saw how everybody believed you — believed in you, and I couldn’t stand it, Dodd. I had to take you down. You know?”
Now it was her turn to stare at the floor. “But you really mean it, when you’re up there. I may not get it. I may never agree, or throw my hands up in the air and jabber in tongues, or, or pray for the rest of my life… But I believe you are sincere.”
She stepped forward again. Put her hands around the preacher’s neck.
He swallowed, though his mouth was desert-dry.
“Do you know how rare that is?”
She kissed him. Dodd mumbled into her mouth, “No.” But he returned the favor.
The two of them, the woman of facts and the man of faith, locked in an embrace that was likely to take them well past their allotted five-minute sidebar.
For her part, Janice the church-appointed chaperone was deep in a fascinating conversation with a hotel cleaning lady about bed sheet thread count.
X. A Little Balm, and a Little Honey
“It isn’t enough.”
Thick, amber liquid trickled down Gideon Dodd’s fat digits, slow rivulets past his knuckles, his pedicured nails, into tiny bulbs at his fingertips. The fore-and-middle fingers he now brought to his mouth and licked, tongue peeping over his swollen lip.
Wincing, a weak smile formed on his face, now covered in half a dozen bee-sting welts. A shattered honeycomb lay at the base of a nearby baobab tree. Their bird-guide friend hopped at the puddle of golden ooze, patweeting happily between jerky sips of the stuff.
Maria crouched and pushed a thumb into the honey puddle. Her face and body were spotless. The bees had simply swarmed her like an Eeyore cloud but apparently agreed in their hive-mind that she was out-of-bounds.
She sucked her thumb.
“It’s good,” she said. She smacked her lips. “Damn, that’s good.” Humming, she dug four fingers in for more.
Dodd leaned against the tree, legs spread, heels in the soil. He rubbed a big sting on the back of his neck. It burned at his palm. “It’ll never be enough,” he said. “That’ll never feed a village. I was supposed to find fruit, meat, nuts. I was supposed to take care of these people.” Overhead, one straggling honeybee circled. “It’ll never be enough.”
With an ah, hell with it sort of shrug, Maria snapped off a piece of the broken honeycomb and held it in two hands, coming to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
“Maybe,” she said, with a small landing grunt, “it doesn’t have to be enough for a whole village.” She broke off a piece of the waxy treat and held it at his chest. “Maybe it can just be enough for two. And maybe that’s okay.”
Gideon Dodd took her offering. He pressed it against his lips and smelled. Then he pursed his lips and snorted sweet goo from many hexagonal hidey-holes.
Something happened inside him.
All the bile and acid and toxicity roiling in his abdomen lay still. He felt relief for the first time in days. The muscles in his back relaxed. His sinuses opened up.
“Gosh, this is good,” he said.
And he put his arm around the journalist and drew her close to him, mouth folded into a weird circle searching for a counterpart.
Maria Stenson chopped his ribs with the side of her hand. The back of Dodd’s skull bonked into the tree, and he sneezed. The bee floating at his ear went in for the kill, stinging him right where a less conservative man might have had his lobe pierced.
“Ow!” Dodd grabbed the side of his head.
“What is wrong with you?” Maria pivoted in her seat to face him. “I’m married. You’re my subject. I haven’t seen you in years, and… That was really stupid, Gideon.” She tossed back her head and held the comb over her open mouth. Honey dripped into her gullet.
It was absurdly unattractive. But Gideon wanted to finish kissing her all the same.
“I’m sorry,” he said, crossing his arms. He closed his eyes.
“And anyway,” Maria said, “you’re campaigning to be God. God doesn’t get to kiss anybody.”
“No,” said Dodd, rubbing his forearms. “No, I suppose he don’t.”
“Is this going to go in your article?” he said.
“Can I read what you have so far?”
Dodd watched the flailing, dying bee — the bee that had just given its life to spite him — contort and flail in the dirt. He balled up a fist and pounded it.
When he lifted his hand, the thing was still moving. One wing, twitching away.
He did not strike again.
He let it suffer.
“Do you think I would make a good God?” he said.
“What do you know?” he said. “You don’t even believe in God.”
“Actually, I’m born again. Thank you for asking.” Maria huffed and got up. She kicked off her shoes and walked into the tall grass. Only her head was visible in the swaying reeds.
Dodd called out to her. “Born again?”
“I told you, I haven’t seen you in years. Things changed. Do you mind? I’m trying to piss here.”
“I lied to you.”
“Back then. In the hotel. I lied.”
For a long time, she didn’t say anything.
Then the brush rustled and she reemerged from the stalks.
She said, “I know.”
XI. He Took Her, and Lay with Her, and Defiled Her
Five years earlier, in a modest hotel room, instead of interviewing Gideon Dodd, Maria Gutierrez (not-yet Stenson) was necking him on the full-size bed.
Instead of giving her sound bites, Dodd was nibbling on her earlobe.
While their chaperone, Julia, was outside learning about Egyptian cotton from a friendly maid — instead of ensuring that her pastor was Beyond Reproach — Dodd and Gutierrez unbuckled one another’s belts, removed all of their clothing from the waist down, and began to make love.
It had been three years since Dodd had performed any such act, so although it was somewhat milquetoast in its execution, he was overcome with physical pleasure, nearly paralyzed with it. The thing sort of seemed to be happening to him, not because of him.
“I, I,” he said.
“Shh,” said Maria.
“I, I.” He whispered. “I hear God.”
“He says to stop. God’s talkin’ to me, He says to stop.”
But they did not stop.
“I’d better stop,” said Dodd.
And right in the finale ultimo — for him, anyway — he yelled out: “I know what to do now!”
Four minutes of catching his breath later, he turned over on the bed, hoisting up his pants in a clumsy supine arch of wriggling cellulite. Maria sat upright, her head resting against the wall as she stared at the ceiling, suddenly so very interesting.
“I know what to do now,” Dodd said. He leaned over to arrange his shoes on the floor. “I’ve got to leave the church.”
Maria cocked her head slightly and raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to be excommunicated for that, believe me.”
“No,” Dodd chuckled. “Not leave the church. Just — that church. The megachurch. I have to bow out, start a little congregation in the country somewhere. Somewhere quiet.” He clapped his hands. “I can do it. I build tiny churches all the time, for Doddville.”
“What the shit is Doddville?”
He rubbed his hands together now, pleased with himself. “Yessir. Tammy’ll be so proud of me, so much more content, in a little old rural church. I’ll have her back, I’ll have the kids back… We’ll be happy again.”
“Who told you that?” Maria said.
It was rhetorical. After all, she had more or less told him that, twenty minutes prior.
Dodd’s wiggling toes found home in his loafers, and he smirked back at her. His dopey mug faltered just before he turned away, and she saw labored, tired folds and creases creep across his weary visage — but only for a second.
“Who told me?” he said. “God, of course.”
XII. Why Do You Put Your Questions to Me?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you,” Dodd said, some five years later. He was on his back, hands laced behind his head, staring up at the night sky. “I’m sorry I lost control. Back then, in the hotel — and tonight. It’s something I’ll have to live with. It’s something I’ll have to be forgiven for.”
“Well,” Maria said, “if you win the election, you’ll just have to forgive yourself.”
Dodd looked at her. She sat cross-legged on the ground, palms supporting her. Several mosquitoes danced about her shoulders and head, but never once landed or attempted to drink from her.
“And I’m sorry,” she said, “for not answering you earlier. I think you’d be a great God.”
Somewhere in the distance, one of the lions snarled again.
“It’s just I think you’d be an even better father.”
The constellations were different here, he realized, gawking upward. It hadn’t occurred to them that they might be.
“My children adore me,” he said.
Nearby, the sounds of her scuffling. Shifting. Thinking.
“Did you save them any honey?” she said finally.
“It wouldn’t keep. In this heat?”
Maria said nothing.
“It was mighty tasty, though,” said Dodd. He patted his stomach. “Like a tonic. I feel much better. In fact —” He dug around in his side pockets. Tums and Pepto now in hand, he held the Costco-size containers aloft and shook them.
“Might as well toss these out,” he said.
“I wouldn’t just yet,” said Maria. She grabbed his wrists and pinned them, and the medicine, to the earth. “Your stomach may turn.”
He returned the digestive aids to their spot in his baggy pockets.
They ought to have had a fire. Only neither one of them had thought to bring any sort of tool to build one. They had only Maria’s flashlight, which she used conservatively to save battery.
She flicked it on now. Dodd rolled to his side and saw her face, ghost-white, levitating before him.
“Can I interview you now?” she asked.
Dodd sniffed. “Sure,” he said.
There was a soft sound like tunk, and a tiny red dot appeared where her lap would be.
“We’re on,” she said.
“Please speak your name clearly into the receiver.”
“Uh. Gideon Dodd.”
“Gideon No Dodd?”
“No. No middle name.”
“All right. Gideon no middle name Dodd. Now,” Maria Gutierrez-Stenson began, her tone shifting to one of authority and utter business. “I’ll start things off with an easy one: When is the election for God happening?”
“Now,” Maria Gutierrez-Stenson began, her tone one of authority and utter business. “I’ll start things off with an easy one: When is the election for God happening?”
“When’s Voting Day? What’s the date?”
The preacher flipped back onto his back, nose pointed skyward. “Huh. I guess I don’t know. Kratz might.”
A clicking from above as Maria tutted. “All right,” she said. “Maybe none of these will be easy.” There was a rustling, some shifting of papers. She read slowly from her notes in the dark.
“Why do you want to be God?” she asked.
The strange, alien stars twinkled overhead. Dodd wondered if the Hadza had names for the constellations, what shapes they saw in them. Were they benevolent or malevolent, these celestial beings?
“I see great suffering in the world. There may be a way for me to ease some of that suffering. If I am called to serve,” Dodd said, “I will serve.”
“So,” Maria said, “you don’t necessarily want the position.”
“I think I am more interested in carrying out the duties involved than the Guy currently in the throne.”
“Awesome,” Maria said. “That’ll be a great pull quote.”
“And anyway, I figure it’ll be easier than what I do for a living now.”
Her explosive laugh overhead made him jump.
“What?” He wormed his way upright. “What?”
The woman’s eyes were clamped shut, her hand pressed over her mouth as she shook with silent laughter.
“I mean, think about it!” Dodd said, drawing his eyebrows together in what he figured was a serious look. “Kratz says I’d have omnipotent power. I could do anything by snappin’ my fingers or twitchin’ my nose like that gal on TV. The only thing I couldn’t do is think of something I couldn’t do! Why are you laughing?”
“It’s nothing.” Maria held a vertical hand and looked down. “Don’t let me stop you. Continue.”
“Well, now I feel I’ve said something wrong. If this is some ‘gotcha’ journalism thing…”
“You haven’t.” In miniature spotlight her face slackened, became stoic. “It’s not.” Papers crinkled. Dodd could hear the scribbling of pen on page. “Now, moving on. Why don’t you think anybody ever thought to campaign for God before? And why would God — if He’s omnipotent, as you say — even allow an election to be held?”
“Like I said, I don’t think He wants the job anymore. And Kratz says maybe I thought of it first because I was meant to think of it first. He says—”
“You’re talking an awful lot about Kratz.”
“Well, he’s the man. He’s my guy.”
“Uh-huh.” She put a hand over the recorder. “This next can be off the record, if you say so.” In her lap, the notepad sat unused for the moment. “Do you worry at any point that Lucky Kratz might just be using you as a puppet, that he might intend to run the show and whisper directives into your ear, hover over your shoulder, should you get a seat in the Holy Throne?” The all-business, straight angles of her mouth and eyebrows softened. To Dodd, she seemed worried.
He prodded a loose shoelace with his fingertip. “I never thought about that,” he said. “But I’m no rube. I run my campaign how I want, and I’ll run Heaven and Earth the same.”
“Whose idea was it to come to Tanzania?”
One of Dodd’s eyes half-closed. He chuckled — once, unhappily.
“Okay.” The reporter scrawled something so quickly in her notes that it couldn’t have been an actual word. “Mr. Dodd,” she said, “have you ever actually spoken to God Almighty?”
Dodd froze. The honey-guide bird, well-fed, came to wearily perch upon his nest of curly hair, now that he’d become a scarecrow more or less.
“In your telecasts,” Maria said — she took a breath and mouthed sorry — “you frequently claim to hold court with the Creator, to have regular chats with him, and on not-so-rare occasions even portend to be the mouthpiece of God. But now you say God speaks to no one, that He doesn’t care, that He never did.”
“Did you ever truly speak with God?”
“I— You— Listen!” The bird settled in, curling like a comma into his coif. It didn’t seem to mind the spastic outbursts of each fresh word. “You— You saw me… Everyone, I mean… at the debate! We talked then, on camera!”
“That was a debate,” Maria said, and she leaned in, her voice dropping to a secretive hush. “Years after you’d become infamous as the guy God rings up to tell the winning lottery numbers. And anyway, that was a potted plant. Not exactly what I picture when I think of Yahweh.”
“This is a crucifixion!” Dodd said.
“Oh, come off it.”
“Next question, Mrs. Stenson!”
She resumed her statuesque stance, the arch in her back more severe than the one in St. Louis. “All right,” she said. “Next question.”
“Would you vote for Gideon Dodd to take over as the all-powerful ruler of the cosmos?”
He glared at her.
“Well?” she said.
“You bet your tooshie,” he said.
The bird said, Pweet-pweet.
XIII. And They Did Eat
They slept. Morning came.
They found nothing. Not even the pit of a fruit, or animal scat. No sign that this land had ever been sustainable.
In the dawn, Dodd dug. He followed the guide-bird anytime it veered off-course. Once he even attempted to climb a tree and might have broken a rib.
There was never any food in this. Each time he came slumped and hobbling back to Maria empty-handed, she would not look him in the eye.
The walk back to camp was six hours, and Gideon Dodd would not agree to begin the trek until there was only that much time left in the wager he’d made with the Jehovah’s Witness Dunwoodie.
So they returned in shame — even their avian friend sat head-down on Maria’s shoulder as they clambered through the tall grass back into camp.
As the tiny sleeping huts and fire pits came back into view, Dodd noticed a small cluster of people seated at the edge of the village. Dead center was Mal, and to his right Mwapi. The larger man — Dodd’s political advisor — sat with arms crossed, scowling.
“So,” he said. “Perform any miracles, Mr. Dodd?”
Somewhere off in the distance, Dodd could hear the distinct noises of a celebration: bopping drums and laughing, singing, cheering human beings.
“What are you doing here?” Dodd said. “What’s happening out there?”
Mwapi leaned over to Mal and whispered something in his ear.
“We faithful await your return,” Mal said, “because we believe in you, not the empty promises of the Jehovah’s Witness and his scary cartoons.”
“Well, that’s awful kind.”
“Mwapi said it.” Mal’s mouth twitched. “Not me. So where are your spoils, preacher? Where is the food that will win this election for you?”
Dodd tapped the tips of his forefingers together repeatedly.
“Well?” said Mal.
“There’s nothing out there,” said Dodd.
“I mean it.” The preacher stepped onto the red dirt and, standing, found his eye line to be level with the sitting Mal. “There’s no way that goofy Dunwoodie kid found anything to eat out there, either. It— It’s a wasteland, right, Maria?”
Mal leaned to Mwapi, and — his mouth scantly moving — clicked and ululated in the elegant-yet-primal Hadza tongue. Dodd watched the Hadzabe man’s smile falter, sink, then curdle into a look of utter pain. Mwapi croaked, but Dodd didn’t need an interpreter to understand him.
“No food?” he said.
“What? No,” Dodd said. The ten or so other tribe members gathered here in a semicircle began to murmur and grumble. Some of them grabbed the sides of their heads and rocked. Some of them held each other and cried into the crooks of their fellows’ necks.
“Tell them I tried!” said the preacher. “Tell them— Tell them as soon as I get back to America, I’ll send aid. Um, space food and Twinkies. Tin cans of salmon!”
“These people believe in you,” said Mal. “When you left, the camp divided. Dodd backers and God supporters. You are looking at Team Dodd. The jubilation and cheer you hear across the camp is Team Jehovah. We do not cross the line carved into the earth, dividing the village into one society that wishes to see God keep his throne, and one society that wishes to see him lose it to you.”
“Wait,” Maria said. “Seriously?”
“If one were to cross the line, war would surely follow,” said Mal. “This tribe, undivided for centuries, is now two tribes, with nothing but vitriol and malice for each other.”
“We were only gone a day and a half!” Maria said. “What the hell happened?”
Mal lifted and dropped one shoulder.
“Well, what’re the God people cheerin’ about?” said Dodd.
“Benny Dunwoodie found food,” said Mal. He rose. Pointed east. “In the Nation of Jehovah, they feast. God has performed His miracle.”
“No.” Jagged nails sunk into the fleshy folds of Dodd’s palms. “No.”
He looked to Maria. She upturned her hands and jerked her neck, eyes rolling.
Fists balled, shaking, the preacher pounded the sides of his thighs. “No!” he said. On jelly legs screaming out for respite, he stomped with purpose toward the source of the party sounds. A few of his followers gasped when they understood what he meant to do.
Marching, the pastor didn’t look back, but he knew he was being followed — by Mal, by Maria, by the tribe folk. Past straw-and-stick huts he loped, weaving between deadened fires and crude looms. The honey-guide flitted to and fro about his head, chirping with interest.
At last he came to a clear, deep line carved into the dirt. It was straight, harsh, and split the camp in two, no question.
Surprised at himself, Dodd realized he’d stopped at the threshold, the tips of his hiking boots less than a hair’s breadth from touching the swath.
Shaking his head, he stepped over it.
Behind him, a few men and women screamed in shock. Still he did not look back, and he continued toward the celebration. Another few steps — the camp was small to begin with — and the rising smoke of a fire came into sharp view, as well as the twirling, bobbing figures of happy people.
There was a considerable mound of yellow-brown, unmoving, that served as the centerpiece of this party.
A very dead giraffe.
To the side of this quarry was Benny Dunwoodie, Bible clasped to the starched, white shirt at his chest.
“Hey there!” Dodd shouted.
The happy dancing and hooting stopped as if a switch had been flipped. Dunwoodie turned, and in unison the tribesmen craned their own necks to stare at this intrusion led by Gideon Dodd.
There was some baring and gnashing of teeth on either side. Some brandished spears, and flashed bows and arrows, and lobbed what were surely Hadzabe obscenities over Dodd’s head.
“Aw, now,” Dunwoodie called. “It is a day of rejoicing, not of fighting. I bet if we all just take a breath and settle down we’ll have us a nice, fruitful conversation. Right, Mr. Dodd?”
Dodd frowned at the giraffe.
“You’re gonna eat that thing?” he said.
The boy nodded. “Giraffe’s a delicacy.”
“And you’re not gonna share it with my friends here?”
Dunwoodie hugged his scripture and stepped forward, so he wouldn’t have to holler with Dodd. When he was close enough to kiss him, Dunwoodie said, “Anyone that wants to partake of our bounty is more than welcome to,” he said.
“Even if they don’t vote for your guy?” Dodd tucked his thumbs into his back pockets.
“All are equal in God’s eyes,” said the kid. “We don’t see political parties. We just see humans.”
One of Dunwoodie’s supporters launched a jagged rock that whizzed past Maria’s ear and bloodied the mouth of a Dodd fan.
“You can all have some meat,” Dunwoodie said. He whipped around at the waist, shouted at his followers: “Everybody gets some meat!”
A few of them booed. Another rock went soaring, but Dodd couldn’t tell that it hit anybody.
“How’d you do it?” Dodd showed the boy his canines. “There’s not beast or berry out there in that bush. Did Your Man just wag a finger and say, ‘let there be giraffe?’ Did you even have to look, or did He just beam it down from space?”
One Hadza from the Dodd side yelled and jumped forward, caught and held at bay by the loincloth with one smooth, strong movement of Mal’s arm.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Dunwoodie, who only had eyes for the bubbling tumult of the opposing party, readying to bum-rush him and his people. “Let’s eat. Everyone.”
Wisely, Mal drew another line in the dirt, halfway down the campfire circle. The newly divided tribes sat on their respective sides, glaring and growling at each other, pounding fists into open hands and turning handmade blades over on their laps.
Mal and Dunwoodie carved up the meat. The giraffe skin was set aside, to be used for blankets later. As Dodd watched the two of them slice up servings and place them onto skewers, he noticed something odd.
“It never runs out,” he said. “The meat. It’s multiplying.”
Dunwoodie only smiled back.
The sun went down, and everyone — almost — ate and ate well. Dodd hung back, refusing to have any giraffe despite the severity of his stomach’s vacuous rumbling. In solidarity Maria and Mal sat with him, not partaking either. It was difficult; the meat smelled incredible, like steak and lobster and barbeque all rolled into one super-smell.
Dodd caught himself drooling once or twice. Wiped it off, embarrassed.
When everyone had had their fill, of those willing to eat, there was great contentment even among the split tribes. Children crossed over the line to play with other youngsters who knew no political divides. Parents allowed it, either relenting or too full to care, leaning back on elbows and rubbing bellies.
Songs started again. A few tribal standards, and then Dunwoodie was leading the entire group in a rousing rendition of “Our God Is an Awesome God.” The young Jehovah’s Witness weaved in and out of his lethargic, nourished Hadza chorus — swooping his finger in the air like a maestro and tucking graphic Chick comics and informational pamphlets under their arms.
“Well, that’s it,” Dodd said to Maria, as they and Mal watched from the sidelines. “I’ve lost the election.”
“Not necessarily.” The reporter sounded as kind as she could, half-focused and jotting feverish notes.
“No,” Mal said. “He is right. There is no way for him to win now. It is hopeless.”
They watched on.
Dodd saw their guide bird rejoin its younger friends, as the boys and girls of the Hadzabe camps twittered back and forth with it, giggling. “Awesome God” transitioned into “Are You Washed in the Blood?” and then “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
About halfway through that hymn, the first Hadza vomited.
A woman cried out among the singsong, doubled over, and hurled up her dinner. She screamed as if she was giving birth. The song continued through her third and fourth round of retching before an older, gray-haired main crumpled into a heap and puked as well.
The sounds of worship faded.
New sounds — an orchestra of belches and wailing, the patter of bile on dirt — emerged and grew.
Soon, everyone was rolling, writhing, or otherwise thrashing on the ground, geysers erupting from their mouths.
Everyone except Maria, Mal, and Gideon Dodd.
Maria watched all this unfold, writing in her pad without looking down. “Bad giraffe meat,” she said.
Two dozen people pounded fists and screamed in pain. The smell became quite overwhelming — like the evil twin of the cooking meat’s appetizing aroma.
Even Dunwoodie was balled up in a fetal position, his collared shirt no longer pristine but smeared with brown, yellow, red.
“These people need a tincture,” Mal said.
“These people need a hospital,” Maria said.
“No.” Dodd took a step toward the makeshift vomitorium.
“These people need a miracle.”
He walked with deliberation around the many puddles of sick. First he stopped at the nearest youngster — a sobbing mess of a girl no more than five. With a wink at Maria and Mal, and no small amount of theatricality, he laid a hand on her gut, felt the restless rumble within.
“My child,” he said, “I give you peace.”
He reached into his cargo pockets and retrieved with delicacy his antacids. He poured from his economy bottle of Pepto a pink shot of liquid into the lid. One Tum he popped out of the roll with his thumb. He placed this communion on the girl’s tongue, then washed it down with the bismuth drink.
Confused, wide-eyed, the girl swallowed, coughed, and slowly rolled onto her back and gazed up at the preacher man.
She said something in her native tongue.
“You’re welcome,” said Dodd.
He made the rounds, plying each Hadza person with their own treatment of American over-the-counter medicine. One by one they stopping throwing up and lifted themselves into tender upright sitting positions, watching Dodd.
He saved Dunwoodie for last.
“Wasn’t sure I’d have enough,” he said, taking his sweet time pouring the last helping of Pepto Bismol into the cap. “Looks like it’s your lucky day.”
Dunwoodie swallowed, rolling his tongue so that his weird, pointed Adam’s Apple rotated. Dodd held out a hand, and Dunwoodie took it, allowing himself to be pulled up.
When he let go of Dodd’s hand there was a folded-up Chick tract in it.
“Th-thanks,” Dunwoodie said. He gasped, and pushed his knuckles into both nostrils. Trickling strings of blood appeared down the back of his hand. “I don’ un-unnerstad wud habbened.”
“The Lord giveth,” Dodd said, “and the Lord taketh away.”
And that was how Gideon Dodd performed his miracle and secured the swing vote of the Hadzabe tribe of Tanzania.
The campaign could continue.
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