Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mark of Cain

-i-

Marcus McCain was the talk of the town. In a small town, anybody’s business was everybody’s business.

Loners drifted in and out of Tumbleweed Texas on a regular basis. And Marcus McCain was both a loner and a drifter.

A man of indeterminate age, McCain was a topic of local conversation, not for what he did, but what he didn’t too.

Having purchased an abandoned farm for cash, he never came to town—not even for groceries. He had no phone, utilities or mail. He lived off the land and was only seen from time to time hunting in the woods.

-ii-

But mischievous boys being what they are, his life as a recluse was an object of mischievous adventure. They would do anything to get a rise out of him—teepee the house or shoot out the windows with a bee bee gun.

A favorite exercise was to see which boy was brave enough to knock on the door, then run for cover before the arms of certain death caught him in its clutches.

One day Timmy O’Brien was peering through the window, propped up by a water barrow, when the barrow tipped over and he sprained his ankle. Ominous footsteps were heard inside the house.

His playmates did what all braves boys do when having to choose between imminent death and rescuing a fallen comrade---they abandoned him to his fate.

Timmy heard the creaky front door open, and the heavy tread of footsteps on the porch, before he saw a forward leaning shadow curve around the porch in his helpless direction.

Jimmy’s life—all nine years and a quarter—passed before his eyes. He mumbled a half-remembered prayer and prepared to meet his Maker.

He fully expected Marcus McCain to be a ten-foot tall hunchback with six-fingers per hand and glowing red eyes. But he was quite unprepared for the full horror of what rounded the porch.

He near ‘bout lost bladder control at the sight. But after a moment of pure frostbitten fear, his lurid imagination adjusted to what his eyes actually beheld, which was a surprisingly well-kept man with a sad and weary, but not unkindly face.

Marcus McCain was, indeed, powerfully built, as if he’d descended from a race of long extinct Nephilim.

Timmy’s breath was caught in his throat as the stranger peered over him from Olympian heights. McCain wordlessly plucked up the young urchin in his arms, carried him inside, and deposited him on the kitchen table.

Timmy was now shaking and quaking like a wet kitten as his eyes darted about the dark corners of the house, for fear of seeing the cool, sharp gleam of stainless steel implements—the better to dismember naughty little boys.

McCain was rummaging through draws and cupboards for something in particular. He came back with a roll of gauze and began to tightly bandage the ankle.

The realization slowly dawned on Timmy that he may have averted death and hellfire for another day.

-iii-

Through the kitchen window, Molly O’Brien saw a tall stranger, with Timmy in his arms, walk into the front yard. She rushed out of the house.

McCain wordlessly deposited Timmy in her arms, turned around, and walked bacl home.

After she got him inside, Timmy filled her in on the momentous events of his misadventure. There were, to be sure, a few tactical modifications in his account to avoid self-incrimination—modifications which always left his own complicity swathed in enigma. But Molly was used to that.

Timmy had yet another version to tell his playmates—an especially lurid version of steely valor in the face of unspeakable horror as he made his narrow escape from the torture chambers of the unmentionable One.

Every time he retold the tale, he remembered yet another gory detail, yet another proof of his plucky ingenuity.

Before his brush with death, Timmy had held a middling rank in the pecking order of the gang, but his courageous tale was, to his playmates, what the Congressional Medal of Honor was to a wounded soldier.

A boy like Timmy would have been a handful in the best of times, but Molly was a single Mom. Her husband left her for another woman when Timmy was five.

-iv-

After he got over his limp, Timmy screwed up his courage and went back Marcus McCain’s farmhouse—this time to properly introduce himself and get to know this manly man and mysterious stranger.

It turned out that McCain was quite a storyteller. He had an endless fund of stories—from World War II and World War I to the Civil War and Revolutionary War, through the Crusades and the Black Plague to the Greeks and Romans, Assyrians and Parthians, Babylonians, Sumerians, and before.

Molly O’Brien was a churchgoing woman, and some of is stories sounded like stories that Timmy had heard from the pulpit, but with a lot of incidental detail, as if he wre remembering instead of embellishing.

He also took Timmy on hunting trips and taught him many survival skills, taught him how to be a tracker, taught him the nutritional and medicinal value of various plants.

Timmy was especially intrigued by an interesting looking ring which McCain used to wear. McCain had a story about that as well. He said it was an old heirloom. According to family lore, this was the signet ring which Pharaoh gave to Joseph.

-v-

Timmy had never been a very studious student. But under McCain’s tutelage, Timmy excelled in grade school and Sunday school.

When the time came for his confirmation, Timmy asked McCain to be his godfather. McCain did not want to become that involved in the life of the community, but he also did not wish to hurt Timmy’s feelings, so he consented.

After the ceremony, the Rev. Freigeist struck up a conversation with McCain. It turned out that the good parson was broad churchman with enlightened views of the Scriptures. He was especially amused by the “inanities” of the Flood.

At that point, McCain launch into a very detailed description of just how it was possible.

Freigeist could only grimmace. Here he was hoping to have an intelligent conversion. Now he saw his mistake. McCain was clearly just another backwoods Bible-thumper—a breed all to common in these parts. He asked, sarcastically, if McCain had been a stowaway on the ark.

-vi-

Up until his confirmation, Timmy had been keeping his visits to McCain a secret from his Mom.

After she found out, Molly wasn’t quite approving, but wasn’t quite disapproving. She wasn’t at all sure it was a good thing for Timmy to be under the sway of this strange man. He seemed to be benign, but she knew next to nothing about him, and he was nothing if not eccentric. Who was he, anyway? A fugitive from justice?

Molly worked part time for the local sheriff as a secretary, and she began to do a background check. At first he seemed to be a man without a past. No birthplace or birth certificate or medical records or school records or criminal records.

Yet as she dug deeper and did some cross-checking, McCain suddenly seemed to be a man with more than one life, more than one birthplace or birth certificate—a man who changed identities.

But Molly ran out of leads because the database didn’t go back before a certain point in time. So she turned her research over the local reporter.

He did his own digging, came up with some new leads—or rather—old leads—and then drove over to McCain’s place to interview him for a story he was writing for the paper.

McCain did not appreciate his new-found notoriety, and brusquely turned the reporter away.

-vii-

Molly forbad Timmy from seeing McCain ever again. But Timmy snuck out of the house that night. McCain told him another story, the story of a man condemned. Of a man guilty of an unspeakable offense. Of a man accursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming.

-viii-

The next day Timmy went back. He knocked on the door, but no one answered. The door was unlocked, so he went inside. The house was deserted. What personal effects had been there were all gone, except for a signet ring which McCain left on the kitchen table.

8 comments:

  1. neat story... tell us about its origin.

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  2. Dear Steve: Are you a Christian?

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  3. Until the end, I thought McCain might be the "Wandering Jew" of folklore [as used in Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz], but apparently I missed the obvious!

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  4. "Again Steve Hays makes his points subtlely and provocatively, with an eye for detail that may turn some people away about 200 pages in ..."

    Oh wait -- that's my review of Steve's book. This here script would make a fine comic book. Too bad Wil Eisner is dead because he'd make this story sing.

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  5. In answer to "michah's" quetion, there were a couple of themes feeding into "Mark of Cain."

    One is the motif you find in the Western genre of the loner male and reluctant hero who rides into town on houseback, does a good deed, then leaves before he loses his independence.

    The other is the post-biblical career of Cain in Medieval and Jewish legend.

    In that respect, Vestrup's preliminary ID was quite insightful, for Cain lies behind the motif of the Wandering Jew.

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  6. Yes, Keanu, I'm a Christian.

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  7. Ah, that's reassuring, then, regarding the Wandering Jew motif. Remember my previous perplexment at your Musica Mundana.

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  8. Am I the only one who was thinking of Boo Radley in reading the first three chapters?

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