The next night the bar was closed. It was whatever passed for the Sabbath in Tull. The gunslinger went to the tiny, leaning church by the graveyard while Allie washed tables with strong disinfectant and rinsed kerosene lamp chimneys in soapy water.
An odd purple dusk had fallen, and the church, lit from the inside, looked almost like a blast furnace from the road.
“I don’t go,” Allie had said shortly. “The woman who preaches has poison religion. Let the respectable ones go.”
He stood in the vestibule, hidden in a shadow, looking in. The pews were gone and the congregation stood (he saw Kennerly and his brood; Castner, owner of the town’s scrawny dry-goods emporium and his slat-sided wife; a few barflies; a few “town” women he had never seen before; and, surprisingly, Sheb). They were singing a hymn raggedly, a cappella. He looked curiously at the mountainous woman at the pulpit. Allie had said: “She lives alone, hardly ever sees anybody. Only comes out on Sunday to serve up the hellfire. Her name is Sylvia Pittston. She’s crazy, but she’s got the hoodoo on them. They like it that way. It suits them.”
No description could take the measure of the woman. Breasts like earthworks. A huge pillar of a neck overtopped by a pasty white moon of a face, in which blinked eyes so large and so dark that they seemed to be bottomless tarns. Her hair was a beautiful rich brown and it was piled atop her head in a haphazard sprawl, held by a hairpin almost big enough to be a meat skewer. She wore a dress that seemed to be made of burlap. The arms that held the hymnal were slabs. Her skin was creamy, unmarked, lovely. He thought that she must top three hundred pounds. He felt a sudden red lust for her that made him feel shaky, and he turned his head and looked away.
“Shall we gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful,
Shall we gather at the river,
That flows by the kingdom of God.”
The last note of the last chorus faded off, and there was a moment of shuffling and coughing.
She waited. When they were settled, she spread her hands over them, as if in benediction. It was an evocative gesture.
“My dear little brothers and sisters in Christ.”
It was a haunting line. For a moment the gunslinger felt mixed feelings of nostalgia and fear, stitched in with an eerie feeling of déjà vu, and he thought: I dreamed this. Or I was here before. If so, when? Not Mejis. No, not there. He shook the feeling off. The audience—perhaps twenty-five all told—had become dead silent. Every eye touched the preacher-woman.
“The subject of our meditation tonight is The Interloper.” Her voice was sweet, melodious, the speaking voice of a well-trained contralto. A little rustle ran through the audience.
“I feel,” Sylvia Pittston said reflectively, “that I know almost everyone in the Good Book personally. In the last five years I have worn out three of ’em, precious though any book be in this ill world, and uncountable numbers before that. I love the story, and I love the players in that story. I have walked arm in arm in the lion’s den with Daniel. I stood with David when he was tempted by Bathsheba as she bathed at the pool. I have been in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. I slew two thousand with Samson when he swung the jawbone, and was blinded with St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I wept with Mary at Golgotha.”
A soft, shurring sigh in the audience.
“I have known and loved them. There is only one”—she held up a finger—“only one player in the greatest of all dramas that I do not know.
“Only one who stands outside with his face in the shadow.
“Only one who makes my body tremble and my spirit quail.
“I fear him.
“I don’t know his mind and I fear him.
“I fear The Interloper.”
Another sigh. One of the women had put a hand over her mouth as if to stop a sound and was rocking, rocking.
“The Interloper who came to Eve as a snake on its belly in the dust, grinning and writhing. The Interloper who walked among the Children of Israel while Moses was up on the Mount, who whispered to them to make a golden idol, a golden calf, and to worship it with foulness and fornication.”
“He stood on the balcony with Jezebel and watched as King Ahaz fell screaming to his death, and he and she grinned as the dogs gathered and lapped up his blood. Oh, my little brothers and sisters, watch thou for The Interloper.”
“Yes, O Jesus—” This was the man the gunslinger had first noticed coming into town, the one with the straw hat.
“He’s always been there, my brothers and sisters. But I don’t know his mind. And you don’t know his mind. Who could understand the awful darkness that swirls there, the pride and the titanic blasphemy, the unholy glee? And the madness! The gibbering madness that walks and crawls and wriggles through men’s most awful wants and desires?”
“O Jesus Savior—”
“It was him who took our Lord up on the mountain—”
“It was him that tempted him and shewed him all the world and the world’s pleasures—”
“It’s him that will return when Last Times come on the world . . . and they are coming, my brothers and sisters, can’t you feel they are?”
Rocking and sobbing, the congregation became a sea; the woman seemed to point at all of them and none of them.
“It’s him that will come as the Antichrist, a crimson king with bloody eyes, to lead men into the flaming bowels of perdition, to the bloody end of wickedness, as Star Wormword hangs blazing in the sky, as gall gnaws at the vitals of the children, as women’s wombs give forth monstrosities, as the works of men’s hands turn to blood—”
A woman fell on the floor, her legs crashing up and down against the wood. One of her shoes flew off.
“It’s him that stands behind every fleshly pleasure . . . him who made the machines with LaMerk stamped on them, him! The Interloper!”
LaMerk, the gunslinger thought. Or maybe she said LeMark. The word had some vague resonance for him, but nothing he could put his finger on. Nonetheless, he filed it away in his memory, which was capacious.
“Yes, Lord!” they were screaming.
A man fell on his knees, holding his head and braying. “When you take a drink, who holds the bottle?”
“When you sit down to a faro or a Watch Me table, who turns the cards?”
“When you riot in the flesh of another’s body, when you pollute yourself with your solitary hand, to whom do you sell your soul?”
“Oh, Jesus . . . Oh—”
“Aw . . . Aw . . . Aw . . .”
“And who is he?” she cried. But calm within, he could sense the calmness, the mastery, the control and domination. He thought suddenly, with terror and absolute surety, that the man who called himself Walter had left a demon in her. She was haunted. He felt the hot ripple of sexual desire again through his fear, and thought this was somehow like the word the man in black had left in Allie’s mind like a loaded trap.
The man who was holding his head crashed and blundered forward.
“I’m in hell!” he screamed up at her. His face twisted and writhed as if snakes crawled beneath his skin. “I done fornications! I done gambling! I done weed! I done sins! I But his voice rose skyward in a dreadful, hysterical wail that drowned articulation. He held his head as if it would burst like an overripe cantaloupe at any moment.
The audience stilled as if a cue had been given, frozen in their half-erotic poses of ecstasy.
Sylvia Pittston reached down and grasped his head. The man’s cry ceased as her fingers, strong and white, unblemished and gentle, worked through his hair. He looked up at her dumbly.
“Who was with you in sin?” she asked. Her eyes looked into his, deep enough, gentle enough, cold enough to drown in.
“The . . . The Interloper.”
“Called Lord High Satan.” Raw, oozing whisper.
“Will you renounce?”
Eagerly: “Yes! Yes! Oh, my Jesus Savior!”
She rocked his head; he stared at her with the blank, shiny eyes of the zealot. “If he walked through that door”—she hammered a finger at the vestibule shadows where the gunslinger stood—“would you renounce him to his face?”
“On my mother’s name!”
“Do you believe in the eternal love of Jesus?”
He began to weep. “You’re fucking-A I do—”
“He forgives you that, Jonson.”
“Praise God,” Jonson said, still weeping. “I know he forgives you just as I know he will cast out the unrepentant from his palaces and into the place of burning darkness beyond the end of End-World.”
“Praise God.” The congregation, drained, spoke it solemnly.
“Just as I know this Interloper, this Satan, this Lord of Flies and Serpents, will be cast down and crushed . . . will you crush him if you see him, Jonson?”
“Yes and praise God!” Jonson wept. “Wit’ bote feet!”
“Will you crush him if you see him, brothers and sisters?”
“Yess . . .” Sated.
“If you see him sashaying down Main Street tomorrow?”
“Praise God . . .”
The gunslinger faded back out the door and headed for town. The smell of the desert was clear in the air. Almost time to move on.