He is five steps away from the cabin's front steps, and four steps too far to turn back. There is no way to return to the hearth now, where she waits with the baby that cries without ceasing. He knows he is a coward and a bad man, but if he turns back he will still be a coward and a bad man. He moves from the warm light of the window towards the barn with the stride of a man who is not guilty, in case she is watching, and once the darkness has taken him in he gives in to the queasy spring of his knees and walks faster. The snow will return soon and cover his tracks.
He slips crossing the frozen lake, falls backward and cracks his head, sliding for a small distance along the grimy surface of the ice. He lays still. The world is very cold and white and quiet around him, all the normal night noises muted. The prairie is as eerie as a foreign sea, its horizon blurred where the whites and greys of sky and snow kiss. He looks up into a small patch of sky not covered in clouds, and wills the earth to tip and send him tumbling into the deep well of stars.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he whispers, then rolls onto his knees and stands to walk. The wind that had been at his back has shifted direction and now buffets his face. He has nothing in the pockets of his thick coat but his hands – no bread, no money, no gun. He deserves none of it. The snow begins to fall. His steps are slower.
Something silver hovers at the edge of the lake. A frozen bush, he thinks, but as he draws closer it's form does not become more distinct. It pulls at him, the silver form, even as the wind grows fiercer, bringing tears to his eyes. Then he is on the bank of the lake, where his boots crunch through the crust of the snow. He reaches out to touch the silver mystery, and that is when it grabs him by the wrist and pulls him forward.
For some time he can keep up with its relentless pace, brisk steps becoming a run. His boots fill with snow. The flakes, driving at his face, obscure everything. He can see its bony fingers on his wrist and no more. And then he falls to his stomach and it is dragging him. He tries to get up, stumbles falls again. His mouth fills with snow and dirt. A tooth breaks, and then another. He feels a fresh pain when the ground abrades the cloth that covers his most sensitive parts. The dragging goes on for a time and distance and speed he cannot measure. Then his head and shoulders go through a bank of snow, and into a rock, and the darkness takes him once again.
When he wakes it is to an animal smell, then the throbbing of his wrist. The hand the creature had seized is before his body, gnarled and blackened by the cold. His clothes are torn away, and to breathe through his broken nose and bloody mouth requires effort. But trickling next to his body is something warm and sweet-smelling, and he moves his head to see a cow. She is the color of gold and her udder is swollen with milk. She shakes her pert horns and lets out a small, impatient sound. It is his cow, the one that had nosed the gate latch open and left their farm not five days before.
He shifts to look at her more closely and sees all that he has lost. The bloody stumps of his feet, the soft skin of his belly and manhood, all taken by the earth's persistent touch.
Oh Lord, let me die, he says then.
The cow lows again, and twitches her tail.
Hold out your hand, she says, Your God is not done with you yet.