A Prayer at Noon
by John Shade
It was a day into the third sun when the patchwork man rode into town.
I remember the dust scrabbling at my eyes, and the folk that had gathered on the sidewalks to watch him plod past on a chugging, nearly-spent machine horse. As he came to me, the stitched segments of his face shifted into a new configuration, a hinted smile or frown, and his torso swung around, my breath seized. I’d been around men before, but he was something different. Something more. He was ugly, though, with a wiry frame and a large head set on top, wads of crusted hair sprouting between the seams across his skin. He rode toward us, confident as anything. I braced as he reached down, but he plucked my little sister, Ester, from the crowd instead. The town went silent but for the constant shuffle of wind-blown sand.
With his god-strength, the patchwork man tossed Ester into the air like an aerialist, and set her down to swelling applause. The dread was broken. Our prayers had been answered at last.
As the patchwork man continued to the town center, folk whispered between themselves whose prayer had brought him here. For years they had defied the desert, old men and women volunteers moving their brooms back and forth down the sun-stained road, humming the same tunes that had sustained futility for a generation. Those of us with younger eyes knew it’d never be enough. The desert always won, as it had again and again since the time of progress, when the factories were touted as our salvation.
There was nothing left to do but pray and hope that whatever answered was what we wanted. You rolled the dice with prayer and sometimes things came up bad, but we thought this’d be different. This’d be pure. This’d be good.
This’d set things right.
Papa’s gun shop, where my sister and I scratched a living, was wedged along the border where the market rows used to stand. As the last stop for those traveling into the desert we attracted treasure hunters, scholars, military men, cartographers, convicts, hucksters, and thrill-seekers drawn by the lure of the dunes and tales of buried factory cities. We were taught never to go into the desert, but some just couldn’t listen, or were desperate enough to try.
The gun shop shelves were filled with every type of weapon imaginable: strange, twisted guns with metallic, clattering timers; guns grown from blast gardens, magical jars, and fungal tattoos. There was no make or model unrepresented.
Mixed among these were Ester’s inventions: syncwyrms, sawdust dancers, bone tethers, and more. On a shelf behind the counter one particle village still worked, its clockwork apparatus ticking its miniaturized machinations through hollow days and dreary nights. A mezzanine of wasted, forgotten dollscapes and carousels crowded other shelves, colors long faded.
Wasted dreams and memories, I thought.
Ester spent most of her time in the backroom workshop Papa had granted her, leaving me to tend the front. Today, she was making something special, a gift for the patchwork man. I heard her giggling as saws bit into metal, as fires pulsed in time. She sounded carefree, as if everything in that room, in the whole world, was made just for her. It irked me that she could be so blind to reality, but also made me jealous. Life ought to be about more than survival.
Before Papa left, he kept a vigil at the town’s edge for cobbled gods looking for a bit of prayer to drink in. Some people just couldn’t help praying. I remember sitting with him in the blinds when I was old enough, our best guns gleaming on racks behind us.
“We don’t need no gods,” he’d say, over and over like an incantation.
When a god did come—which was often back then—they always arrived at high noon. Something in them I guess, some mechanism, told them.
Papa’d walk out to the road, blast gun in hand, and a few minutes later he’d return. Most times he came back with another gun to add to the collection. Sometimes gods would be friendly and move on, but usually they wouldn’t. It was the way of things.
Papa was faster than all of them. He might have been one of them for all we knew. He wasn’t our real Papa, but found us, gave us water, nurtured us back from our forgotten past, and took care of us from that day forward. Sometimes that mattered more. Sometimes not.
But there was always something faster being stitched together he told me once, something more cowardly being manufactured by factories beyond the desert, huge sprawling complexes that covered entire valleys. He told me how they were made to last, churning out creations long after their creators were dust. Sooner or later he would meet his match if he just waited out here for them to come.
I remember imagining the noises gods made as they crept just outside the windowsills of my room at night, the way I lay there, frozen without a sound. I remember the wounds Papa accumulated, the determined way he looked heading out into the desert the night he left us, ambling purposefully toward where I imagined the factories lay.
Later that day of the patchwork man, Ester and I–bearing a box of gifts for our new god–joined a line that stretched from the town center. Everyone had something to give it seemed.
By the time our turn came, the light was red and low and the courtyard wobbled through a dusty film. He sat on the cracked fountain’s ledge, guns holstered beneath the flaps of his long coat, face mottled with seams and scars. Stitches curled down his cheek.
“Are you a water god?” Ester said.
“A thousand pardons!” a woman behind us shouted. A quarter of the line dropped to their knees (me included), hands clasped before faces. Soon the whole line was kneeling except Ester, my poor misfit, tinkering sister. I pulled her down from behind, hoping she would have the sense to close her eyes and bow her head.
“It’s all right,” the patchwork man said. He waved a bored hand over Ester and me. Alien eyes inspected us. “Ester,” he said, “Nine years and eight months old; you have a knack for dancing and gymnastics and school, and invention.” The patchwork man looked at me. “Sasha. A fair shot and an aptitude for horseback, if there were any real ones left. A waste.”
Ester nodded emphatically.
He leaned toward her, “I do have a little water god in me.” He tapped at his chest. “Right here, do you see?”
Ester smiled and skipped off toward the gun shop, head in the clouds, no doubt dreaming of inventions.
“Apologies, sir,” I said. “My sister doesn’t understand. She’s not like the rest of us.”
“That’s what makes her valuable,” the patchwork man said. He stood and strolled, spurs clattering, past piles of gifts—baskets and meats and desert salvage (old guns and gizmos) that’d probably never work again—toward the motionless horse. I wondered if it would carry him again, or if it had run out of energy like the rest of us.
The patchwork man took his fill and more. Lines formed each morning for offerings, and the giving didn’t end until sundown. At night, he stalked the taverns, and gave more than a few men and women bruises across their faces. He did worse to some and all the while a slow uneasiness crept over the town.
Ester made gift after gift. We fought more than once about it, about him. Big, scratchy fights, the sisterly kind. The kind that made you embarrassed after.
One afternoon, I sat at the register giving the particle village its daily tune-up, when the patchwork man pushed the door open. The sun was at his back, coating everything beyond in gold. He walked to the counter, spurs clanging. The air danced between us in the heat.
I found my voice. “H—hello sir.”
“Hello, Sasha.” He looked at the particle village. “That’s an odd little thing. Is it your sister’s doing?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You use this as a kind of miniature firing range, to test out the effects of a weapon without risk, yes?”
“Very perceptive, sir,” I said in my best salesman talk.
“Clever.” He smiled. The stitches on his face pulled taut. He scanned the shelves behind the counter and then those around the shop. “I’d like to see your sister. Where is she?”
“She went out,” I said loudly. “I’m not sure when she’ll be back.” She was in the workshop like always, but she would hide.
“Do you think you’ll be able to push back the desert?” I said. “It’s quite a lot of work, I bet.”
“She’s very special, your sister.”
“Yes,” I said. A pause. “Will you begin soon?”
His eyes kept to the shelves. “Do you know how many factories it takes to produce my blood? Do you know how many it takes to keep me going?”
“I’ve heard stories,” I said. I remembered thinking Papa would be the one to end it, to staunch the leeching of the world. I remembered hating him for leaving two girls to fend for themselves. The gods had slowed since he left, but they had not stopped. Obviously. I held my gaze firm against the patchwork man’s. Ester is not here, I told myself. She is not in the back room, and never has been.
“As far as you can see,” the patchwork man said. “Imagine a world filled with buildings, smoke, an endless assembly line, and you might gain some notion of what it takes to maintain me.” His smile dissolved. “Where is she?”
“I’m sorry, sir. Who?”
His arm lashed out, and I was flung against the shelves. Cavalcades and carnivals splashed over me, their crafted denizens—samurai and cowboys and soldiers—staring through horror-filled eyes. I cast my own eyes wildly.
Under the counter lay Papa’s favorite pistol, the lightning sieve arcing through its barrel staining the shelf a sickly blue-white. He’d left it for us, a sign, a symbol, maybe a promise of his return.
It might as well have been on the other side of the planet. The patchwork man watched, waiting for me to grab it. I bled on the floor, trying to be still.
“You all started off so well,” he said, taking his time stepping over the scattered trinkets. “Sheep, but good sheep.”
He crouched beside me, and produced a six-gun from its holster. Nothing fancy. Black metal and a wide trigger. The barrel was scarred, the grip worn, but it still worked when it needed to, I reckoned.
“I think you’ve mistaken why I came here,” he said. Heartbeats pumped beneath his jacket. “You know what your sister is.”
“Special,” he said. He slammed his palm onto the back of my head and pressed my face into the bits of glass coating the floor. Pain bubbled up. Tears.
“Your sister,” he said.
More pain. I wanted to scream.
The pressure eased. “Can’t let her rot in this backwater town, can we? The factories need repairs when someone goes and tries to break ‘em. Gods can’t run on prayer offerings forever, right? We need our repairs, too. The whole world’ll be a desert soon anyway.”
He wrenched my face toward him. Glass clung to my cheek, hot as a bonfire. Up close, I saw threads of light leaking from the seams of his face.
“You’re going to tell me where she is,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
He pushed my head to the floor. His boot pressed my cheek. I watched the spur turn slowly through a film of tears. The pressure increased harder and harder until everything blurred and darkened, and the blood thrumming in my ear was the only thing left to hold. Hide, Ester. Hide like you have never hidden before.
Papa found us curled together in a storm drain like mice waiting to die. It was my first full memory, just grown enough for it to stick. I held Ester close as a sandstorm raged all around us. I was praying, rocking back and forth with Ester in my arms, sand starting to fill the drain’s open end.
And he came walking through the haze, a silhouette. I remember thinking that was what a god ought to be. Simple as anything.
When I came to, weapons of every kind imaginable lay strewn across the gun shop floor, some dismantled or killed, some bent, and others jammed, detached, siphoned down to a shell. The ceiling was a gaping hole, a wound through which the desert gushed. Sunlight revealed the completeness of the patchwork man’s devastation.
Ester’s workshop lay in shambles too. She was gone.
I walked along the perimeter of it, not wanting to get close to my sister’s work tables, as if proximity would hurt even more. Tools lay scattered on the floor and lines in the dust showed where she had been dragged away.
In the corner, something wheezed. I cleared debris from it and lifted the white sheet my sister always used for her unveilings.
It was larger than most of the things she created, with long, powerful legs, a clicking, breathing chassis with muscle sewn over top. A machine horse. Guilt washed through me. Sasha’s next invention was meant for me. She must have felt bad about the arguments too.
The chassis was smashed and it lay on its side, trying not to move, trying not to be damaged further, the machine advising the organic. It must’ve tried to stop the god from taking Ester.
Given time, I might have repaired the chassis and helped the organic bits along, at least given it a chance. But there was no time. I reached down into the chassis and found the life-release. Locks disengaged. Steam whined out—a long, final sigh—as I left the workshop for Papa’s blind and the spare guns left inside.
I walked into the desert just like in the schoolhouse plays that taught us not to. I carried a bag crammed with canteens, bread, salted meats, and the guns from Papa’s blind that hadn’t soured or been packed with sand. People stared, faces pinched by resentment or hopeless rage. They wouldn’t stop me; they wouldn’t help either. By annoying the patchwork man, I had taken everything from them; their prayers had failed, and there was no way left for them to resist the desert.
I set out in the direction Papa had gone. It helped that the patchwork man took his time in everything, especially victory, and that Ester fought him all the way. I followed the signs of her struggle: gouges, plumes of sand in the wind.
I caught sight of them at the end of a winding ravine where the dunes had turned rocky, the ground cracked and brittle. He was dragging Ester with little effort, her feet kicking up dust beacons in the afternoon light.
Soon, he couldn’t ignore me anymore. It was the patchwork man and Ester, and me closing in, Papa’s favorite shotgun heavy in my sweating hands.
“You think you’re faster,” he called over the wind.
“No,” I said. I was breathing hard.
“You don’t think…” He turned to face me, strange eyes glowing against the haze. “No, that’s not it. Why would you want to fight me?”
“Don’t you understand what she is,” he said, “how important she is?” He sounded smaller than he ought to. It scared me a little that there was fear in his voice.
“If I don’t bring her to the factories,” he said, “then why’d they parch the world? Just to make us for no reason? To let us die? Why put that on us? On me? No, it’s something needs correcting. We must survive. You know it, too.”
I kept my eyes on Ester, on when he was going to drop her. He’d come then. Concentrating on anything else was a mistake. The world was his hand around her shirt. The world drew down to a moment.
Even so, I was too slow.
The patchwork man jerked quick and odd, folding down onto himself, and appeared beside me. He ripped the shotgun from my hands, and the resulting blast tore a hole into the ground. His fist sent me flying, sand bunching at the corners of my mouth. A throbbing ache settled in, as intense and relentless as the sun. He kicked the bag away.
“Sasha!” Ester yelled someplace far away.
The patchwork man took me by the neck and lifted me high.
“You don’t have a single notion on how to work those guns,” he said.
He tossed me as he had tossed Ester that first day. I tucked my body into a rigid ball and rolled as the canyon struck my back. He was on me in the next second. I drew a pistol from my coat—the aperture spinning up to show the bright, blinding yellow spore inside—and took the shot as best I could.
Close, but sloppy. The spore nicked his neck and sailed into the red sky.
“You pray and roll the dice,” he whispered. “Nothing to be ashamed of. You’re no god, after all. Why do you even call her sister?” His face stretched, light leaking from within. His hands closed around my throat, crushingly focused. His expression wasn’t what I expected, not anger, but fear. A frightened boy behind all those seams, all that power.
My vision irised down to a circle. Somewhere, I heard Ester crying. I didn’t know what to do, so I prayed. I prayed to Papa. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect everything, the guns, the town, Ester, but you most of all.
Something came up behind the patchwork man. I glimpsed Papa’s lightning pistol. My vision blurred further; the heat-haze wrapped around me. I knew it couldn’t be Papa, but let myself believe it. It was easy. Ester moved so much like him now, a purpose, a power, to every motion.
The hammer went back and the patchwork man noticed the gun behind him. Too slow. Papa/Ester jammed it to the place where the water god lay stitched in; the place the patchwork man had showed Ester all those days ago. The trigger released and light bloomed across his chest, down his torso, along his arms, first following the stitching, and then on through the skin. Still, he squeezed my neck. I was slipping, almost gone. My peripherals shrank until only his face remained. A sad face, stricken with surprise. As if disbelief were protection.
The blast consumed us, and I sailed back into the still dark beyond.
I woke in a cave the next morning. The early desert air curled in, brushed my cheek, stirring me. The guns lay bundled next to a spent campfire, and Ester’s shawl was draped over my shoulder. Ester was nowhere.
And right then I knew she’d gone to the factories.
No matter how loud I yelled, or how far I searched, I couldn’t find her. It was what she wanted, what Papa had wanted, not to be found. She wanted me to go back to the town. And I could almost see it, the life that I would live through the years. Mother to grandmother, and onward in Papa’s gun shop, tightening screws, matching grips and ammunition, teaching of the craft to others before I was gone. All of it laid out before me, a bridge to the end. Ester walked a path for gods now, and she wanted me to leave her to it, wanted me to hide like I did with Papa.
So I didn’t. I took the other way. I packed up the guns and the canteens and what food was left in the bag and set out after Ester. She had half a day on me, I figured. It wasn’t so much.
No more gun shops, no more town, just the all-consuming desert. My sister needs me, and I need her. There’s always something faster being made out there, and she can’t do it alone. Papa proved that much. We’ll find the factories and a way to shut them down. We’ll do what Papa couldn’t and make what he did for us count for something.
For the first time, I feel more right with each step, one after the other toward a long horizon, a prayer on my lips, eyes watching for what’s next.
About the Author
John Shade was born in Central America and grew up all across the U.S. as a Navy brat. He received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. He is also a graduate of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop on Martha’s Vineyard.
His work has appeared in Gold Dust Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Giganotosaurus, among others. He writes short stories, novels, and comics, and now lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife, daughter, a cat, and a dog. He tries to stay out of the sun’s way when summer comes around.
About the Narrator
Amber Pracht has bachelor’s degrees in American history and print journalism. She enjoyed a brief career as a copy editor, and she is currently keeping busy taking care of her three young children and their many activities while volunteering in her community. She lives with her husband, Adam, and their children and many pets in Lindsborg, Kansas.