River of Dust A Novel - By Virginia Pye


T he Reverend loomed over the barren plain. He stared at the blank horizon as if in search of something, although to Grace's eyes, nothing of significance was out there. Sunset burned his silhouette into a vast and gaudy sky. Standing tall in his long coat on the porch above his wife and son, he appeared to be a giant— grand and otherworldly. Perhaps this was how the Chinese saw him, she thought. Her husband spread his arms toward the blazing clouds and shadowed flatlands as if to say that all this was now in the Lord's embrace. The breeze shifted, and billows of smoke circled their way. Grace watched the Reverend's outline waft and shimmer. She would not have been surprised if his body had gone up in flames right there before her eyes, ignited in a holy conflagration with only a pile of ash left behind to mark his time on this earth. Grace shook the strange notion from her mind, although she wondered how so good a man could appear so sinister in such glorious light.

As he started down the porch steps, Grace roused their sleeping child from beside her on the seat of the buckboard. "We're here," she whispered. "Our sweet vacation home."

The boy opened his pale blue eyes and blinked. How would it appear to someone so young? Grace wondered. Desolate or full of potential— she could not know. The Reverend lifted the boy from her arms and swung him high on his shoulders, Wesley's favorite perch. He rubbed his cheeks and surveyed the endless plain.

"If you look closely, you can see all the way to the Great Wall," the Reverend said. "And beyond it, the Ming Tombs and the enormous sand statues of Buddha that defy all belief. Then come the tribal provinces and the vast Gobi Desert that stretches on and on, further than you can imagine. I have seen it all, and I promise to take you there someday."

Wesley squinted into the slanting sun.

"That would be marvelous," Grace said. She slipped her hand into her husband's to step down from the wagon, and they proceeded on the rutted road.

"I am afraid that you will find the countryside here far from marvelous," the Reverend said. "It is too dry and forlorn to be called pretty. I hope, though, that it will grow on you. In the fall and spring, the light turns a most remarkable bruised shade at the end of day when the mourning doves return to roost in the willow trees."

"You are waxing poetic again, Reverend."

"Forgive my enthusiasm for boulders and scrub brush."

"There's no need to convince me. I have all faith that you have chosen well for our respite." Then, as they arrived at a narrow stream with a tree hanging over it, Grace took a seat on a rock and added, "I can see that this willow alone is reason for a visit."

The Reverend reached a hand toward her hair and patted it kindly. "Your forbearance is remarkable in someone so young. In all ways, you suit your name."

Grace blushed, which she knew was quite ridiculous. He was her husband and father of her child. Still, it was hard not to think of him as her master in matters of the soul, which were the only matters of consequence. Even after marriage, she continued to call him Reverend as she always had, and he never dissuaded her. That only seemed right.

"Don't you find this spot spectacularly Chinese?" the Reverend asked as he set Wesley down near the stream and took his hand. "It is as if we have stepped into an idyll depicted in brushwork. The setting warrants such artistry precisely because it is so lacking. The way they attribute beauty to bare rocks and ravines and rain clouds is really quite strange."

"But suppose I had not liked it here in the countryside?" Grace asked as the breeze made playful havoc with strands of light brown hair fallen from her bun.

The Reverend glanced across at the cottage he had built over the previous months with the help of his Chinese manservant, Ahcho. "I suppose then we would simply turn around and ride back to town and let the desert do whatever it liked with our little home."

"That's too sad to consider." She looked across at the charming structure that rose up surprisingly from the barren landscape.

"The desert winds would turn it to rubble in short order. You know how a corncrib or an outbuilding on our plains back home will