Lifelong friends and lovers Amos Ross, Suzie Mitchell, and Vickie Riordan have been fighting the bloodthirsty gods that bestride a post-apocalyptic America for a lifetime. But the terrible suffering and loss they have endured together have only led to the rise of Ba’al, the most powerful and terrible pagan deity of all. Now the island refuge they have built together is threatened, along with the lives of their children and everyone else they love. Follow them as they make a stand and seek to uncover the shattering cosmic truth, in Judgment Day!
He comes to me in the night, crying, because his wives have been feuding again, and I take him in like always and listen patiently. After all, I’m the Wise Woman of the Israel Band, so who else could our Headman Amos turn to? Plus, I’ve known him and Suzie and Vickie more’n twenty years now, since we was all just kids running for our lives from Chatham’s Forge and its demon gods. I’ve heard every twist and turn of their three-person marriage, from the days when it was just Amos and Suzie, with Vickie living under a curse outside the camp, to when Amos and Vickie was together after the Fall of Asherah, during which Suzie, who told him to go be with her best friend and rival, might as well have been under a curse. Until finally all three of them decided to live as one family and Amos married Suzie in front of everyone, while clasping her hands and Vickie’s to his chest at the same time. Both of them women seemed real joyful and so all three of them were a happy family together. For like a month.
In short, there’s been a lot of ups and downs, or rather ins and outs, so’s even I have trouble keepin’ them straight. I always secretly thought Amos’d be better off married to me alone, ‘stead of either of them crazy Forge girls. I’m just a simple Freeman, a child of the Pennsa Veinya woods that grew wild and deep after the so-called War of the Judgment done wrecked all the big cities of what used to be America. Time was when I was a strong and fleet huntress, the very model of what a Freeman is supposed to be. The band was real small in them days, so between me and Ginnie and Cindy we kept everyone well fed, and we even traded for a few luxuries using my medicine skills and the healing powers poor Ginnie had then as a renegade priestess. But that was afore the ghost of an evil man from the Forge named Rock-Solid Bill hurt me bad, and Cindy, who was secretly the High Priestess Unto Ba’al, near finished me off. I couldn’t even walk the whole way on the Great Trek south to Chincoteague when we had to flee the firestorms Ba’al sent to burn down the woods around the Forge after His Ascension. Ginnie at least could walk, though she lost her powers when Asherah fell and she turned back into a old lady. But she took her turn with everybody else carrying me on a litter down Delaware way, past the ruins of Wilmington and Dover, till she took a bullet for the rest of us, fighting the followers of Resheph in Salisbury. That god was a kind of mini-Moloch, till Ba’al slew Him a few years later.
We’ve been safe enough in the years since then, living out here as the Band keeps growing, swollen by refugees from Ba’al’s expanding empire. South of Salisbury it’s all ghost towns and abandoned chicken farms, so there ain’t nothing for that big ol’ demon to conquer. Amos has an old highway map that shows the land here is a peninsula between Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The land bulges out around Salisbury, then gets skinny like the tail of a sea monster further south, where we are. Chincoteague Island, where we’ve settled out here on the ocean side, was a big oyster fishery before the War, plus it had a bit of what Amos calls “tourism” on account of the wild ponies that live on the neighboring island, Assateague. Like, people would drive their cars out here and spend money just to see a bunch of little pot-bellied horses eating beach grass! I don’t understand prewar folk, really I don’t. Before the Exodus I used to ask Ginnie a lot of questions about what it was like back in them olden days, but she always said she was just a kid when it all got blown up. The War hit everywhere, even out here, where there was some kind of rocket base nearby at Wallops Island. The Russians nuked it, kicking up a tidal wave that wrecked the southern part of the island. Amos says that’s prolly why all the islanders fled, though he also says this clicking Geiger counter thing he used told him there wasn’t no radioactivity left worth worrying about.
He’s so smart, Amos is, and he knows so much. But his heart is so foolish, loving both them Forge girls when they ain’t never brought him nothin’ but grief. He loves me too, o’course, and I ain’t got to rely on my intuition to know it, ‘cause he’s whispering it in my ear as he unhooks my bra and kisses my breasts. His tears get smeared all over my chest, which I don’t mind one bit cuz leastways he’s shutting up about Suzie and how she wants to fuck all the time so’s she can have some more babies now that Kathy and Sammy are grown, while her rival wife Vickie has a whole tribe of children. And I also don’t have to hear no more about how Vickie’s so strict with them new Jewish rules she finds or makes up all the time, Amos isn’t even sure which. She found some old Jewish book called the Mishnah in an abandoned library in Salisbury, just before we had to run for our lives from there, and she’s never even let him see it on account of she says God done told her that’s her job. And one of the rules is that you ain’t allowed to screw when the woman has her period, which, yuck anyway, but Vickie uses that to dictate which nights are her turn with Amos and which are Suzie’s, and surprise surprise, Suzie gets shortchanged.
Thank God or Whoever that I don’t have to hear about that no more tonight, when I ain’t even in the running, not officially. I’m just the Wise Woman of the Israel Band, though those as don’t like me call me a Witch Doctor behind my back. I overheard Terri telling a new arrival t’other day that I’m “beautiful but crippled and so sad.” I dunno about the first part, but she’s right about them other things, bless her kindly heart. I ain’t got no scars, unlike poor Irene, true enough, cuz Cindy wanted me “unblemished” when she tried to sacrifice me to Ba’al, damn her evil soul. But no man wants me for a wife on account of I don’t dare get pregnant, after Bill’s ghost messed with my insides. So here I am giving Amos a hand job, while he sighs and moans.
Behold the Prophet and the Wise Woman of the Israel Band! If Ba’al ain’t bothered us all these years, it must be on account of we don’t pose Him no threat.
If I’ve told Suzie once, I’ve told her a thousand times not to corrupt my children with her impiety! That she’s an unrepentant atheist after God has protected us all these years, saving me personally from the curse Asherah had laid on me and rescuing all of us from Ba’al’s fire… guarding us on the Great Trek through Delaware and Maryland to the new promised land of Chincoteague… well, it’s just pathetic and sad, and it makes me pity her. We’ve been best friends ever since we were in kindergarten together, back in the Forge under Moloch’s terrible rule. Mom and Dad and I did the best we could back then to protect her from her psycho mother, Ariadne’s rages. There were times she slept in my bed more than she did in her own, and more than once I jollied Ariadne out of beating Suzie right in front of me. But we’ve been grown up a long time now—we celebrated each other’s fortieth birthdays last year, right after my fifteenth wedding anniversary and her tenth. And I can’t protect her from the consequences of her own actions anymore, not when they speak for themselves: I’m pregnant with my tenth child, and she… Well, I love her son Sammy, how could you not, his eyes are so soft and brown when he works his healing magic that you feel as if he’s singing you a lullaby when he can barely speak a coherent word. And I raised her daughter Kathy like she was my own, all those years that Suzie was estranged from the rest of us by her own choice. But it’s obvious that God has rejected her just as she has rejected Him, which is why she hasn’t had any more children, whereas if Amos and I can get just two more buns in the oven after the one I’m carrying now, God will have granted me the same number of kids as the tribes of ancient Israel. The Holy One must have chosen me for this honor, because it’s clear Kathy and Sammy are never going to have kids of their own. I mean, as kind as Sammy is, no girl wants to spend her life with a near-mute. And as for Kathy… it’s like a piece of the rambunctious little girl I remember never came back, after Ba’al’s whore Cindy bashed her head in and her brother brought her back to life.
After God brought her back to life through Sammy, is what I mean. Be’ezras HaShem: It’s all in God’s hands. And that’s what Suzie is incapable of understanding, although His miracles surround her every day. Such as our lives. Such as this beautiful beachside ghost town that was standing waiting for us when we washed ashore, more dead than alive, fifteen years ago now. There were just eight of us, back then. Me and Amos and Suzie, and Kathy and Sammy, who were still so little they could barely keep up with us, and Terri and Irene staggering with exhaustion from carrying Deena all those miles to safety after Salisbury, where we lost Ginnie, who sacrificed herself for the rest of us. Though I think she would have died anyway from the shock of turning back into an old woman… well, maybe not that much older than I am now… when she lost the Priestess powers and perpetual youth Asherah had granted her, because Ba’al had slain that false goddess. What I mean is, God used Ba’al to bring Asherah low, just as He will destroy Ba’al in turn when the time is ripe.
I wish Suzie would accept these truths, but in the meantime the least she can do is not poison my children’s minds against God! Of course she’s zeroed in on Leah, my second-born, who’s fourteen and thinks she hates me. I find them after dinner and the daily bonfire, talking quietly out by the pier that faces the marsh. My daughter is sitting huddled over against the chill, swinging her long legs over the black water. She looks so much like I did at her age, down to the freckles and red hair (though hers is long and straight where mine is curly). Amos and I used to joke that she was my clone, when she was little.
“…have to respect your Mom, but you don’t have to agree with her,” Suzie is saying as I approach. I step behind the boathouse to eavesdrop.
“Ha! You try disagreeing with her and see how much respect you get. You know what she’s like!”
“I do,” Suzie murmurs. “I do.”
Oh yes? What am I “like,” Suzie-Q? What was I “like” all those years I was your only friend in the Forge, and all those years when you wanted no part of any of us, except to eat our food and live under our protection?
“She’s getting worse all the time, you know,” Leah says, so softly I have to lean around the corner to make out the words. “You don’t see her when she’s alone with us in the Palace.”
Sure it’s a “palace,” the house I live in with the kids (and Amos, barely half the month). It was one of the nicer homes in Chincoteague at one time, no doubt, with its wide front porch and its steeply gabled dormer windows. There are four bedrooms, but, come on, I have nine children now, six girls and three boys, and little Rachel is going to have to give up her crib in my bedroom when the baby comes, and eventually someone is going to have to camp out permanently in the old-fashioned parlor, which will make the place even more of a disaster than it already is. Plus there are all those rotting floorboards and sagging ceilings, despite my firstborn son, Seymour’s, best efforts.
“I thought she was actually going to hit me when she caught me the other day sticking a milkhigge fork into an oyster.”
“She’s never laid a finger on any of you, Leah, remember that,” Suzie says. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t a day that went by that my mother didn’t cause me pain. Physical pain, honey, not embarrassment for using the wrong fork.”
Sure, it sounds like Suzie is sticking up for me, but she doesn’t say a word when Leah starts carrying on about how stupid all the kosher rules are, and why do we have to pray three times a day plus the full grace before and after meals? “Nicole says her family never prays at home, and only says the grace when they have visitors over,” Leah whines. “So how come I get to have a fanatic for a mother?”
I can’t listen to this anymore. “Fanatic?” I shout, storming out from behind the boathouse. “Leah, if I wasn’t such a ‘fanatic,’ none of us would even be here! Adonoi—”
“You’re the only one who claims to speak to Him,” Leah yells. Hey, scream louder, you little brat, I’m not sure the whole island heard you! “Dad never says he hears God’s voice! Maybe there’s no voice to hear, and you make it all up!”
I draw my hand back, as if to slap her in the face. But I hold back like always, and she stomps away, even though it says in Proverbs that if you spare the rod, you hate your child. Yet another sin on my conscience, as if it’s not enough that I let everybody in the Israel Band eat treif oysters and clams while pretending they are as kosher as fish with fins and scales. Is it really too much to ask the silly girl not to use the dairy utensils while slurping them down? Apparently so! “I guess I’m just a terrible mother, right, Suzie?”
“Of course not, Vickie!” Her green eyes flash in the dancing firelight of a nearby streetlamp. “She’s just having a tough time, that’s all. It might help if you could ease up on her a bit. You remember what we were like as teenagers.”
“Oh right, I’m such a terrible ogre, but you were all sweetness and light with Kathy!”
She flinches, and I do feel a little bad, really I do. For about a second, until she comes roaring back at me, “Like it’s my fault what happened to her, when you and Ginnie were the ones who fell asleep and let her tag along after Amos so that Cindy hurt her!”
Cindy killed her, in fact. But nobody says that aloud. Not even Suzie at moments like this, when her awful temper is at its worst. Still, even alluding to it is bad enough. I could tear her head off, but instead I just turn around and go home. (To my “Palace,” right? As if Suzie’s home is some little shack.)
So here I am. Amos hasn’t come in yet, since no doubt he’s being asked to play Solomon in some stupid dispute. Thank God Seymour is here, his sweet smile so like his father’s. “Mommy, you look upset,” he says.
“Oh, it’s nothing for you to worry about, Seymour. Just another stupid fight with Suzie.”
“And Leah, too, from the looks of it.” He shakes his head, his thick, curly dark locks bouncing. “She came flouncing in here without a word to anyone, kicked Nancy and Rebecca out of their room and locked the door behind her.”
“Where’s Rebecca now?” She’s only eight, and ought to be asleep already. It turns out she is, only she’s curled up in my bed, while Nancy is having a giggling pillow fight with Harry and Eli in the boys’ room. Shoshie, Ilana, and Rachel are playing a game of hide-and-seek that mostly just consists of them running screaming in and out of all the rooms. Except the older girls’ room, of course, which Leah seems to think she can have all to herself. Seymour helps by breaking up the pillow fight and then the hide-and-seek match, leaving me free to deal with Leah. Usually it’s Nancy who helps out with the younger kids. It’s annoying that she’s acting just like them at a moment of crisis like this.
I knock on the door to the older girls’ room, calling Leah’s name. No response. The lock itself shouldn’t be there. Seymour keeps disabling it, but Leah keeps fixing it. Well, I don’t have time or energy to do the job now myself, but I have to get the door open so Rebecca and Nancy can get back in their beds. So I fetch a milkhigge butter knife from the kitchen and jimmy the latch open. Walking in, I find all three beds empty and the window wide open to the chilly autumn night.
One of the things Leah is wrong about is God “talking” to me. I don’t hear a voice, at least not one that speaks in words. But when I fall to my knees, keening, the warm glow of Adonoi’s love ignites in my chest. “I don’t know what to do,” I whisper to it. Tears stream down both my cheeks. “I love Leah, but I can’t help her. Can’t reach her. Where’s she gone this time, Adonoi?”
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