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The Forgiveness of Sins

 

Shabes probably got the idea of putting up the crosses from those crosses that mark the site of fatal traffic accidents along some rural highways. He was generally unemployed, a solitary middle-aged man with little money and much time on his hands, and a lot of things to think about. The lightest of reasons would move him to drive his car along the older roads, out beyond the town and the mills, into farm country and the forested hills beyond, where it seemed to him, sometimes, his thoughts became a little clearer.

In any case, without really knowing where he got the idea, he found himself fashioning a small cross at home. It took him a while to figure out that to make the cross like the cross in a book about Jesus, he would have to provide slots at the point where the two beams intersected; otherwise, they would not really hang together properly, would not come together to the single quiet solid thing Shabes wanted. Shabes was not a much of a carpenter; he had to think it out.

Shabes talked to himself while he worked. He got it figured out and put a cross about four feet long and two feet wide together. It was solid. Shabes hunted up some white paint he had borrowed from his last job and painted the cross.

The next day, in the late afternoon, he took the cross out to the country, out to a place called, from its shape, Sugarloaf, a steep, mostly forested hill, out among other hills and well away from the town and the farms. He took a shovel along. He found a shallow, long gully running up the hill from the road, and stopped his car. He got out with the cross and took it up the gully about a hundred feet.

The ground was stony, but eventually Shabes found a patch of earth under a tree on a bank of the gully where he was able to plant the cross. He felt excited, exhilarated. By the time he was done, it was almost dark. Shabes stumbled down the gully to the road. He looked back once, and could see the cross shimmering, just barely visible, in the gathering gloom. "Keep the sin off," said Shabes. He felt good.

Shabes got in his car and stared out the window. He could still just barely see the cross. He started the motor and turned the car lights on. When he looked up, the cross had disappeared.

The next day Shabes came back to the same place and looked up the gully. The cross was still there, now modest and plain rather than mystical, yet exceptional, a small white cross on a wooded hill.

In the following weeks, Shabes made several more crosses. He set them up in the woods, usually so they would be visible at a distance from the road. He was never able to find a location quite as dramatic as the first, although in one case he was able to use a large field as a foreground and put up three of them on the far side of it. The view was striking, but the farmer who owned the field took them down a week or two after they were set up, or somebody did. Shabes didn't want to ask.

After a number of crosses had been set up, Shabes went around to visit them, usually towards the end of the day, as twilight was coming on. He never saw any other cars on the roads he had chosen; he had avoided the four-lane that went to the county seat, and the Interstate fifteen miles away as well, feeling that he might be interfered with, and besides, most people would be too busy with their driving and their business to see the crosses. Shabes continued to put up new crosses, about one a week. Some of them fell down and disappeared, but most of them remained. When Shabes saw the crosses, some of the excitement he had felt putting the first one up came back, like a drink of cold water on a hot day.

After several weeks had gone by, however, Shabes began to feel that something was missing from the crosses, even though he had made them larger and larger. The excitement was fading out and a dreary feeling of darkness, of sin, was coming back. He turned it all over in his mind. He had seen crucifixes a few times, with the figure of Jesus on them, and these now came to him. He thought about them for a long time. Finally, after completing a cross, he bought a cheap rubber baby doll. He stretched it out on the cross. It was too small for the cross, but nevertheless he went and got a hammer and some nails and nailed its hands and feet to the cross.

He contemplated his work for awhile, rubbing his stubbly face. He thought about driving downtown for some red paint. "Be careful," he said. "Oh, yes, they'll be taking notice of this."

"I'll be careful," he replied.

It was getting to be evening. He forgot about the paint. He put the cross, about the size of the first one, in the car, and drove off toward Sugarloaf. He intended to put the cross with the doll on it near where he had put the first, but a car passed by him slowly just as he was nearing the spot. He became afraid, and drove by the gully. Instead, he chose a less visible place about a mile further on, where the trees were sparse, mostly small pines, and he could see between them some distance, back into darkness that was either the trunks of the trees or the gathering night. He felt the sin there. In this place, he set up the cross and doll pretty near the road so that it could be seen in spite of the trees.

After he had set up the cross, he backed off and looked at it. He felt a sense of satisfaction he had not felt with the plain crosses as well as the usual excitement. He scrambled back to his car, looked back again, and drove away. He visited the place a few times but then he thought someone was following him, so he stayed away.

Several days later, Shabes built another cross and decided to get another doll for it. He drove into town to the Five and Ten where he had bought the first doll and parked, but he didn't get out of the car. "Old Shabes buying dolls, they're going to take notice of that," he said. He sat for quite a while. Then he started his car and drove around the block twice. The second time he noticed a police car and drove away. He got on the fourlane out of town and stopped at a diner. The diner was frequented by truck drivers who parked their trucks in the back. Here Shabes noticed that one of the truckers had tied a large doll, about two feet tall, to his radiator as a kind of joke.

It was not a baby doll but a little-girl doll. It was dirty and its hair and clothing were tattered, but it had big blue glassy eyes that were wide open looking at Shabes. It smiled at him, the mouth slightly open. Shabes got out and looked at it carefully and then went back to his car and got a large knife out. The doll was attached to the truck with string and wire. Shabes was able to cut these even though his hands shook badly. He got the doll off before anyone noticed him and put it in his car and drove away. He was still trembling; he trembled all the way back to his house.

He took the doll inside and put it on the table. He couldn't stop shaking or settle down. He rubbed his face with his sleeve and murmured. He felt sin in the doll and cut it open. Although its head was a kind of hard, stiff plastic the body was more rubbery and he could cut into it. Inside there were grayish-white pieces of foam rubber. Shabes pulled some of them out and kneaded them in his hand. The foam rubber was soft and crumbly between his fingers. A kind of darkness came over him. When it passed he got the doll onto the cross and nailed it there. He also closed up the gash with some wood glue he had around.

It was evening, but from having looked around before Shabes knew about a place where there was a small clearing, a kind of flat open space under the trees, close to the road but not visible from it, open to the sky. Shabes imagined he could put the cross and doll up there and no one would see it to meddle with it. It would be just for him. He managed to get them into the car without much trouble and got to the clearing. The ground in the clearing proved easy to dig and Shabes quickly had the cross set up. He backed off a bit. By now it was completely dark and Shabes could make out the doll only faintly, smiling into the dark. He made his way out of the clearing, stumbling through the pitch-black trees and brush until he came out on the road not far from his car. Then he drove home.

For a few days he stayed away; he had the idea that he might be followed and the place discovered. He thought about it, the doll in the clearing, however. Finally, a few days later, he went back to it. It was evening, just after the sun had gone down. The wind was cool and a few big stars were beginning to show. Nervous, Shabes parked his car and made his way through the brush back to the clearing. The doll and cross were still there. But someone had vandalized them. Much of the hair had been burned off the doll's head. The vandals had also stripped the tattered clothing off its body and painted breasts on its chest and body hair where its legs joined. Sexual organs and obscene words had been drawn on the white-painted cross itself with a marker. The doll had been ripped open and some of the stuffing had been pulled out. The dirty face was now streaked and stained. But the eyes were still open, bright and blue, and the lips still smiled brightly at Shabes, still breathlessly open. They had a kind of bluish color in the gathering gloom.

Shabes stepped back and stumbled over a beer can. There were several cans scattered around, and the remains of a small fire. There was a rank, sharp smell. Then Shabes heard a car coming and flung himself into the underbrush. The car slowed, but it didn't stop. As soon as the sound of it faded Shabes stumbled through the brush, returned to his car and drove away.

A few days later Shabes had built another cross, a larger one still. Then he went out and set a cage trap in a place he knew about. By the next day, he had caught a raccoon. It fought Shabes when he took it out of the trap, but Shabes subdued it easily and took it back to his house. He took the animal and tied it to the cross. Now it thrashed wildly, like a caught fish, but Shabes knew how to handle it and had tied it in such a way that the cords tightened the more it thrashed. After flinging itself around for awhile, the raccoon gave up again, seeming to fall asleep or die, awaiting its fate. It was now spread-eagled on the cross and Shabes picked up one of the nails he had made ready and placed it against the animal's right paw. He had difficulty placing it because his hand was trembling. Finally he got it in place and took up his hammer. Swinging it through a long arc, he struck the nail through the paw.

The animal screamed, a high-pitched, unearthly scream that made Shabes feel as if someone had taken a large, cold, pointed object and thrust it in his ear. And the same time an electric shock ran down both arms and he dropped the hammer. His vision blurred, a cold sweat came over his face, and he staggered to his knees. The animal screamed and then the screaming stopped. Shabes picked up the hammer and stood up and smashed it into the animal's head, again and again. Blood spattered around, on Shabes, on the table, and on the floor. Shabes drove in the remaining nails in spite of the shaking of his hands; it was very hard to hold the nail steady and hit it with the hammer. He worked slowly and methodically to get the job done. Then he cut the animal's throat, but there was not much blood; the animal had already been dead for some time.

Wiping the blood and sweat from his face with one arm, Shabes dragged the cross and its burden outside to the car. He tried to put it in the trunk, but his trembling hands could not make it fit. He dragged it around to the back seat and managed to pull it into the car.

"Going to be dripping on the seat," said Shabes. He took the cross out. Then he went back in the house and got an old army blanket. He wrapped the cross and the animal carefully in the blanket and put them on the back seat of the car once more. Then he got in the driver's seat and looked out. The night was covered with a moonlit mist, and he could not see far. Without turning his lights on, he started the car and eased it slowly forward, seeking out back roads, working his way toward the mountains.

After an hour he was well out beyond the farms, out beyond the nearer hills, out past Sugarloaf. As he drove up a rise, he suddenly came out of the mist. To his right, a brightly moonlit knoll sparsely dotted with pines stretched out. Shabes drove off the road into a clearing, stopped, and turned off the engine. There was no wind and no sound, only the moonlight pouring down. After waiting a few minutes, Shabes got the cross with the animal on it out of the car and dragged it out toward the knoll. It was heavier than he thought it would be.

The moon shone down on the sandy ground under his feet as he went slowly forward. The air suddenly felt cool, almost cold. Shabes could see tiny lights glinting in the gravel where the moonlight stuck it, between the black shadows of the small plants and brush. Around him, on either side, the land fell away into a forest of pines and fir trees, the moonlight bleaching the branches that rose out of the darkness to a curious pale gray. Somewhere far off there was a sound of water running, a small stream, but otherwise the night was utterly quiet. The wind died down as if it were waiting to see what Shabes would do. Then Shabes thought he heard something hissing not far away; it made his skin prickle and he was frightened. He shook his head and pulled his burden forward again. It felt heavy and he dragged it slowly.

Finally, he got the cross where he wanted it, about a hundred feet from the road, and began digging into the gravelly soil. It was slow work. After a long time the hole seemed to be deep enough and Shabes pushed the bottom of the cross into it and stood it up. The moonlight glistened on it, and on the animal's fur, and on the still-damp blood that covered both. Shabes filled in the dirt around the hole. The cross seemed to teeter a bit and to be not quite firmly set, but Shabes didn't have the power to pull it out and dig the hole deeper. Instead he knelt down in front of it, trying to pile the hard ground higher around the base with his bare, shaking hands. After awhile he put his face on the ground and began to weep. He could feel the sin around him coming closer. He thought he heard the hissing sound again. He jumped up and ran back to his car. When he looked back he couldn't see anything clearly, and he drove away.

A few days later, not knowing quite why, Shabes was parked again in front of Miller's Hardware. "Watch out!" he said. "Sheriff's over there, watching you. Don't look."

Shabes stared straight ahead without moving, down the wide street to where it disappeared over a rise. He kept staring and waiting. While he stared, the sheriff, who was across the street in a patrol car, studied Shabes. He studied him for a long time, meditatively, while drinking coffee from a plastic cup. Finally, he got out of the car slowly -- he was a large man and had been sheriff for a long time -- and walked over to Shabes's car.

"Bill! Bill Shabes!" he called out. Shabes allowed his head to turn. "Morning, Sheriff," he said through the open window.

"Bill. How you doing, Bill?" the sheriff said.

"Just fine, Sheriff."

The sheriff paused for a long moment, as if weighing and measuring his words, cutting off lengths of them in his mind. "Bill," he finally said, "You and your daddy spent a lot of time in the hills around here, over by Sugarloaf and Long Mountain. Hunting and fishing and trapping. I'll bet more than anybody around here. You still go over that way?"

"Not a whole lot, Sheriff," said Shabes.

"Oh. Well. Been some funny things happening over there. People found crosses with animals on them. Nailed to them. Dead animals. You ever see anything like that? Hear anything about it?"

"I seen 'em. Never saw nobody about."

"Well then. Some folks are concerned. You hear anything, you let me know, hear?"

"Sure, Sheriff."

"Nice day," said the sheriff, and walked back to the patrol car. He said something to the driver of the car and they went off.

"I told them the truth," said Shabes. He sat in the car for quite a while.

"You better get your business done, you hear?" he said. "Sheriff coming to put you away, put you in his hidey hole. Talking to folks. You got business to do, you better do it, hear me?" Shabes said. He was quiet again, working his lips and then nodding. He bowed his head and began humming. After awhile he sang in a low voice.

You won't get me down in your underground mine,
Away from the trees and the flowers so fine,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
Down in the dark and the gloom of the mine.
The old folk song calmed him a little and started the car.

He went back home and started building a large cross, much larger than any of the ones he had made before. He had a strong feeling about making it bigger, but was careful to make sure it would fit through the door of his house. He built it in a new way so that an additional piece would swing around and quickly nail a body to it, before the noise could start. It took him quite a while to figure it out and build it, three or four days.

While he was building it he occasionally stopped and got in his car and drove around. Sometimes he saw children and slowed down and stared at them, but he kept moving, he never stopped. Sometimes, looking at an especially attractive girl or boy, he came very close to stopping. But then he would say, "It won't do. Move on, move on," nod, and go on his way.

On one of his trips, he finally got out beyond Long Mountain, pretty much as far as he had ever been in his life, to an area which once had a little town and a brick factory, now long deserted. Shabes drove slowly past the factory works, old yellow buildings crumbling in the sun for many years, the roofs mostly gone, partly hidden by raspberry bushes and small trees that had grown up on the grounds since the works had been abandoned. There were two ancient rusted-out trucks by the buildings with underbrush growing through them. Shabes got out of his car and went around behind the trucks and the buildings, picking his way through the underbrush. It was hot and insects buzzed and chattered. Shabes felt sin all around him, hot, more strongly here than anywhere else, like something touching his face. He thought he would be afraid to come back here at night. He quickly went around to the front and got in his car and started home.

That night he finished working on his new cross, and he tied it to the roof of his car and put a tarpaulin on it. The next morning he took rope, large nails, and other tools, and started off. He drove very slowly into town, but it was too early for anyone to be around. He parked and sat in his car for a long while. Finally he said, "Someone going to ask what you got on the roof, ask what you're doing today." He nodded and started up the car. Then he turned it off and went to a pay phone, fingered an old, smooth quarter out of his overalls.

Shabes called the Sheriff's office. Someone answered, a deputy or a clerk. "Be something happen out by Long Mountain, where the works used to been," said Shabes into the phone. What's that, said the voice at the other end. Shabes hung up, trembling, and got in his car and started it again. He could barely drive. It was about noon. He headed out of town, toward Long Mountain.

Some time later -- the sun was now low, almost down to the horizon -- the Sheriff and a patrolman got out of the car at the clearing the clerk and he finally figured the caller must have been talking about. There was no sound beyond the evening murmur of insects and some obscure bird calling intermittently in the woods. They stood quietly for a moment, taking everything in. The patrolman who had driven the car stared off up the road and down the road. The sheriff listened, waiting for whatever was going to happen to happen.

There was a sudden creaking sound followed by a solid noise of impact of one heavy piece of wood on another, and then a sharp sound of wood breaking, followed by a kind of grunting, as of a large animal. Whatever it was was just out of view. The sheriff and patrolman looked at each other and alike loosened their pistols and headed in the general direction of the sound, about five yards apart. Then Shabes appeared, bursting out of the underbrush. The sheriff and the patrolman stopped.

Shabes was partially attached to a large cross by both nails and ropes, and bleeding profusely from one hand and one foot. With the others, he dragged himself along, almost but not quite falling down, grotesquely limping. He saw the Sheriff, and stopped.

"Pray, Sheriff," he called out. "Pray for the forgiveness of sins!" As the sheriff and patrolman ran forward to catch him, he fell, and the broken engine of the cross clattered around him.