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I’m working on a writing multi-part question and need support to help me learn.

Thinking specifically of page 90-180 of

The Road

:

What does you think the book has to say about the responsibilities of a parent?

How do you feel while reading the book?

What questions do you have about

The Road

that remain unanswered?

Please note that I’m

not

asking you to summarize the reading. Instead, I’m asking you to share your intellectual and emotional responses to what you’ve read.

PART2

Please select three passages from pages 91-180 that you found compelling. Type out the passages and then write a paragraph for each passage that contemplates what you found most interesting, noteworthy, objectionable, and/or memorable about the passages.

Synopsis:
A searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac
McCarthy’s masterpiece.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America.
Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the
wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow
falls it is gray. They sky is dark. Their destination is the coast,
although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there.
They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against
the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are
wearing, a cart of scavenged food — and each other.
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It
boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in
which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,”
are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it
is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we
are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity,
and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of
total devastation.
The prose is quintessentially McCarthy: spare, desolate,
unemotional, reserved of both unnecessary vocabulary and
punctuation (he recognized the necessary evil of periods
denoting the end of a sentence. Some contractions are so
designated with an apostrophe, some not. Exclamation points
are avoided with the same vigilance as would be shown to
beanies with propellers). Although most English teachers I’ve
been a captive audience to would consider him Satan
incarnate, he still can turn a phrase of almost unbearable
beauty.
THE ROAD
By
Cormac McCarthy
Copyright © M-71, Ltd. 2006
This book is dedicated to
JOHN FRANCIS MCCARTHY
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the
night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one
than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold
glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell
softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic
tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets
and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In
the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a
cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing
over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable
swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some
granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and
sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the
hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they
stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake.
And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth
from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead
white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head
low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not
see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its
alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its
bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass
bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a
low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly
into the dark.
With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and
walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to
the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was
October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years.
They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another
winter here.
When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the
valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft
ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what
he could see. The segments of road down there among the
dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement.
Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and
pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose
on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.
Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the
ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the
child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God
God never spoke.
When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue
plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the
grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and
some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of
syrup. He spread the small tarp they used for a table on the
ground and laid everything out and he took the pistol from his
belt and laid it on the cloth and then he just sat watching the
boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was
buried somewhere in the blankets. He watched the boy and he
looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a
safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day.
The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi,
Papa, he said.
I’m right here.
I know.
An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and
both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were
essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make
a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome
motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them.
He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out
over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the
little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and
precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you
okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the
blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each
the other’s world entire.
They crossed the river by an old concrete bridge and a few
miles on they came upon a roadside gas station. They stood in
the road and studied it. I think we should check it out, the man
said. Take a look. The weeds they forded fell to dust about
them. They crossed the broken asphalt apron and found the
tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to
his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a
rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building.
The pumps standing with their hoses oddly still in place. The
windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he
went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went
through the drawers but there was nothing there that he could
use. Good half-inch drive sockets. A ratchet. He stood looking
around the garage. A metal barrel full of trash. He went into
the office. Dust and ash everywhere. The boy stood in the
door. A metal desk, a cashregister. Some old automotive
manuals, swollen and sodden. The linoleum was stained and
curling from the leaking roof. He crossed to the desk and stood
there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of
his father’s house in that long ago. The boy watched him.
What are you doing? he said.
A quarter mile down the road he stopped and looked back.
We’re not thinking, he said. We have to go back. He pushed
the cart off the road and tilted it over where it could not be
seen and they left their packs and went back to the station. In
the service bay he dragged out the steel trashdrum and tipped
it over and pawed out all the quart plastic oilbottles. Then they
sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs one by one,
leaving the bottles to stand upside down draining into a pan
until at the end they had almost a half quart of motor oil. He
screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a
rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to
light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read
me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can.
On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a
stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees
stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and
the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened
lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a
clearing and beyond that a reach of meadow-lands stark and
gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay
abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels.
Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered. At
the top of the hill they stood in the cold and the wind, getting
their breath. He looked at the boy. I’m all right, the boy said.
The man put his hand on his shoulder and nodded toward the
open country below them. He got the binoculars out of the cart
and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where
the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal
drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see. No smoke.
Can I see? the boy said. Yes. Of course you can. The boy
leaned on the cart and adjusted the wheel. What do you see?
the man said. Nothing. He lowered the glasses. It’s raining.
Yes, the man said. I know.
They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made
their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing
trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat
under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain
blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled
together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a
while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the
woods.
When it had cleared they went down to the cart and pulled
away the tarp and got their blankets and the things they would
need for the night. They went back up the hill and made their
camp in the dry dirt under the rocks and the man sat with his
arms around the boy trying to warm him. Wrapped in the
blankets, watching the nameless dark come to enshroud them.
The gray shape of the city vanished in the night’s onset like an
apparition and he lit the little lamp and set it back out of the
wind. Then they walked out to the road and he took the boy’s
hand and they went to the top of the hill where the road crested
and where they could see out over the darkening country to the
south, standing there in the wind, wrapped in their blankets,
watching for any sign of a fire or a lamp. There was nothing.
The lamp in the rocks on the side of the hill was little more
than a mote of light and after a while they walked back.
Everything too wet to make a fire. They ate their poor meal
cold and lay down in their bedding with the lamp between
them. He’d brought the boy’s book but the boy was too tired
for reading. Can we leave the lamp on till I’m asleep? he said.
Yes. Of course we can.
He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and
looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with
black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask
you something? he said.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we’re still going south.
Yes.
So we’ll be warm.
Yes.
Okay.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
Okay.
I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That’s okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Okay.
He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this.
The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried
on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried
forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything
uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air.
Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart
were stone.
He woke before dawn and watched the gray day break. Slow
and half opaque. He rose while the boy slept and pulled on his
shoes and wrapped in his blanket he walked out through the
trees. He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he
crouched coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he
just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are
you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a
neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you
eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.
They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He
kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He
kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No
sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything
covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A
corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He
pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put
into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to
think about that.
You forget some things, dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you
remember what you want to forget.
There was a lake a mile from his uncle’s farm where he and
his uncle used to go in the fall for firewood. He sat in the back
of the rowboat trailing his hand in the cold wake while his
uncle bent to the oars. The old man’s feet in their black kid
shoes braced against the uprights. His straw hat. His cob pipe
in his teeth and a thin drool swinging from the pipebowl. He
turned to take a sight on the far shore, cradling the oarhandles,
taking the pipe from his mouth to wipe his chin with the back
of his hand. The shore was lined with birchtrees that stood
bone pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond. The edge
of the lake a riprap of twisted stumps, gray and weathered, the
windfall trees of a hurricane years past. The trees themselves
had long been sawed for firewood and carried away. His uncle
turned the boat and shipped the oars and they drifted over the
sandy shallows until the transom grated in the sand. A dead
perch lolling belly up in the clear water. Yellow leaves. They
left their shoes on the warm painted boards and dragged the
boat up onto the beach and set out the anchor at the end of its
rope. A lardcan poured with concrete with an eyebolt in the
center. They walked along the shore while his uncle studied
the treestumps, puffing at his pipe, a manila rope coiled over
his shoulder. He picked one out and they turned it over, using
the roots for leverage, until they got it half floating in the
water. Trousers rolled to the knee but still they got wet. They
tied the rope to a cleat at the rear of the boat and rowed back
across the lake, jerking the stump slowly behind them. By then
it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle
of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming
on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had
spoken a word. This was the perfect day of his childhood. This
the day to shape the days upon.
They bore on south in the days and weeks to follow. Solitary
and dogged. A raw hill country. Aluminum houses. At times
they could see stretches of the interstate highway below them
through the bare stands of secondgrowth timber. Cold and
growing colder. Just beyond the high gap in the mountains
they stood and looked out over the great gulf to the south
where the country as far as they could see was burned away,
the blackened shapes of rock standing out of the shoals of ash
and billows of ash rising up and blowing downcountry through
the waste. The track of the dull sun moving unseen beyond the
murk.
They were days fording that cauterized terrain. The boy had
found some crayons and painted his facemask with fangs and
he trudged on uncomplaining. One of the front wheels of the
cart had gone wonky. What to do about it? Nothing. Where all
was burnt to ash before them no fires were to be had and the
nights were long and dark and cold beyond anything they’d
yet encountered. Cold to crack the stones. To take your life.
He held the boy shivering against him and counted each frail
breath in the blackness.
He woke to the sound of distant thunder and sat up. The faint
light all about, quivering and sourceless, refracted in the rain
of drifting soot. He pulled the tarp about them and he lay
awake a long time listening. If they got wet there’d be no fires
to dry by. If they got wet they would probably die.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and
impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.
Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and
blackened trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold
autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the
vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their
reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall
but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps
into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes
closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in
the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were
common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda
scribing through the long day movements of the universe of
which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.
It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond
ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell
away on every side. It’s snowing, the boy said. He looked at
the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his
hand and watched it expire there like the last host of
Christendom.
They pushed on together with the tarp pulled over them. The
wet gray flakes twisting and falling out of nothing. Gray slush
by the roadside. Black water running from under the sodden
drifts of ash. No more balefires on the distant ridges. He
thought the bloodcults must have all consumed one another.
No one traveled this road. No road-agents, no marauders.
After a while they came to a roadside garage and they stood
within the open door and looked out at the gray sleet gusting
down out of the high country.
They collected some old boxes and built a fire in the floor and
he found some tools and emptied out the cart and sat working
on the wheel. He pulled the bolt and bored out the collet with a
hand drill and resleeved it with a section of pipe he’d cut to
length with a hacksaw. Then he bolted it all back together and
stood the cart upright and wheeled it around the floor. It ran
fairly true. The boy sat watching everything.
In the morning they went on. Desolate country. A boar-hide
nailed to a barndoor. Ratty. Wisp of a tail. Inside the barn three
bodies hanging from the rafters, dried and dusty among the
wan slats of light. There could be something here, the boy
said. There could be some corn or something. Let’s go, the
man said.
Mostly he worried about their shoes. That and food. Always
food. In an old batboard smokehouse they found a ham
gambreled up in a high corner. It looked like something
fetched from a tomb, so dried and drawn. He cut into it with
his knife. Deep red and salty meat inside. Rich and good. They
fried it that night over their fire, thick slices of it, and put the
slices to simmer with a tin of beans. Later he woke in the dark
and he thought that he’d heard bulldrums beating somewhere
in the low dark hills. Then the wind shifted and there was just
the silence.
In dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy
canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted
white. She wore a dress of gauze and her dark hair was carried
up in combs of ivory, combs of shell. Her smile, her
downturned eyes. In the morning it was snowing again. Beads
of small gray ice strung along the light-wires overhead.
He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in
peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor
and of death. He slept little and he slept poorly. He dreamt of
walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he
and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning
how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Lying there
in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some
phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived
long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying
world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from
memory.
From daydreams on the road there was no waking. He plodded
on. He could remember everything of her save her scent.
Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward
listening to the music. Gold scrollwork and sconces and the
tall columnar folds of the drapes at either side of the stage. She
held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her
stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze
this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be
damned.
He fashioned sweeps from two old brooms he’d found and
wired them to the cart to clear the limbs from the road in front
of the wheels and he put the boy in the basket and stood on the
rear rail like a dogmusher and they set off down the hills,
guiding the cart on the curves with their bodies in the manner
of bobsledders. It was the first that he’d seen the boy smile in
a long time.
At the crest of the hill was a curve and a pullout in the road.
An old trail that led off through the woods. They walked out
and sat on a bench and looked out over the valley where the
land rolled away into the gritty fog. A lake down there. Cold
and gray and heavy in the scavenged bowl of the countryside.
What is that, Papa?
It’s a dam.
What’s it for?
It made the lake. Before they built the dam that was just a
river down there. The dam used the water that ran through it to
turn big fans called turbines that would generate electricity.
To make lights.
Yes. To make lights.
Can we go down there and see it?
I think it’s too far.
Will the dam be there for a long time?
I think so. It’s made out of concrete. It will probably be
there for hundreds of years. Thousands, even.
Do you think there could be fish in the lake?
No. There’s nothing in the lake.
In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched
a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and
break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight
of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked
and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn
air.
The grainy air. The taste of it never left your mouth. They
stood in the rain like farm animals. Then they went on, holding
the tarp over them in the dull drizzle. Their feet were wet and
cold and their shoes were being ruined. On the hillsides old
crops dead and flattened. The barren ridgeline trees raw and
black in the rain.
And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call
you? Waking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly.
Like certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly
exposed to the day.
The weather lifted and the cold and they came at last into the
broad lowland river valley, the pieced farmland still visible,
everything dead to the root along the barren bottomlands.
They trucked on along the blacktop. Tall clapboard houses.
Machinerolled metal roofs. A log barn in a field with an
advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope.
See Rock City.
The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted
brambles. No sign of life. He left the boy standing in the road
holding the pistol while he climbed an old set of limestone
steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse shading his
eyes and peering in the windows. He let himself in through the
kitchen. Trash in the floor, old newsprint. China in a
breakfront, cups hanging from their hooks. He went down the
hallway and stood in the door to the parlor. There was an
antique pumporgan in the corner. A television set. Cheap
stuffed furniture together with an old handmade cherrywood
chifforobe. He climbed the stairs and walked through the
bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. A child’s room with a
stuffed dog on the windowsill looking out at the garden. He
went through the closets. He stripped back the beds and came
away with two good woolen blankets and went back down the
stairs. In the pantry were three jars of homecanned tomatoes.
He blew the dust from the lids and studied them. Someone
before him had not trusted them and in the end neither did he
and he walked out with the blankets over his shoulder and they
set off along the road again.
On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few
old cars in the trashstrewn parking lot. They left the cart in the
lot and walked the littered aisles. In the produce section in the
bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and
what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled
effigies of themselves. The boy followed behind. They pushed
out through the rear door. In the alleyway behind the store a
few shopping carts, all badly rusted. They went back through
the store again looking for another cart but there were none.
By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted
over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins
everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the
works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed
over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and
sat looking at a Coca Cola.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
What is it?
Here. Sit down.
He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack
on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the
aluminum clip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned
his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then
handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.
The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said.
Go ahead.
He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He
sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.
Yes. It is.
You have some, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
You have some.
He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink
it, he said. Let’s just sit here.
It’s because I wont ever get to drink another one, isnt it?
Ever’s a long time.
Okay, the boy said.
By dusk of the day following they were at the city. The long
concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a
vast funhouse against the distant murk. He carried the revolver
in his belt at the front and wore his parka unzipped. The
mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones,
the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and
drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the
yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man
like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were
long since stolen.
They went on. He kept constant watch behind him in the
mirror. The only thing that moved in the streets was the
blowing ash. They crossed the high concrete bridge over the
river. A dock below. Small pleasureboats half sunken in the
gray water. Tall stacks downriver dim in the soot.
The day following some few miles south of the city at a bend
in the road and half lost in the dead brambles they came upon
an old frame house with chimneys and gables and a stone wall.
The man stopped. Then he pushed the cart up the drive.
What is this place, Papa?
It’s the house where I grew up.
The boy stood looking at it. The peeling wooden clapboards
were largely gone from the lower walls for firewood leaving
the studs and the insulation exposed. The rotted screening
from the back porch lay on the concrete terrace.
Are we going in?
Why not?
I’m scared.
Dont you want to see where I used to live?
No.
It’ll be okay.
There could be somebody here.
I dont think so.
But suppose there is?
He stood looking up at the gable to his old room. He looked
at the boy. Do you want to wait here?
No. You always say that.
I’m sorry.
I know. But you do.
They slipped out of their backpacks and left them on the
terrace and kicked their way through the trash on the porch
and pushed into the kitchen. The boy held on to his hand. All
much as he’d remembered it. The rooms empty. In the small
room off the diningroom there was a bare iron cot, a metal
foldingtable. The same castiron coalgrate in the small
fireplace. The pine paneling was gone from the walls leaving
just the furring strips. He stood there. He felt with his thumb in
the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that
had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to
have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at
the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a
hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a
storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing
our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes
claiming him he could not see. We should go, Papa, he said.
Yes, the man said. But he didnt.
They walked through the diningroom where the firebrick in
the hearth was as yellow as the day it was laid because his
mother could not bear to see it blackened. The floor buckled
from the rainwater. In the livingroom the bones of a small
animal dismembered and placed in a pile. Possibly a cat. A
glass tumbler by the door. The boy gripped his hand. They
went up the stairs and turned and went down the hallway.
Small cones of damp plaster standing in the floor. The wooden
lathes of the ceiling exposed. He stood in the doorway to his
room. A small space under the eaves. This is where I used to
sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their
thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds
rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the
one to be. He pushed open the closet door half expecting to
find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from
the roof. Gray as his heart.
We should go, Papa. Can we go?
Yes. We can go.
I’m scared.
I know. I’m sorry.
I’m really scared.
It’s all right. We shouldnt have come.
Three nights later in the foothills of the eastern mountains he
woke in the darkness to hear something coming. He lay with
his hands at either side of him. The ground was trembling. It
was coming toward them.
Papa? The boy said. Papa?
Shh. It’s okay.
What is it, Papa?
It neared, growing louder. Everything trembling. Then it
passed beneath them like an underground train and drew away
into the night and was gone. The boy clung to him crying, his
head buried against his chest. Shh. It’s all right.
I’m so scared.
I know. It’s all right. It’s gone.
What was it, Papa?
It was an earthquake. It’s gone now. We’re all right. Shh.
In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees
shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles,
sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators.
Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts.
Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men
tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The
frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues
resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a
thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.
Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what
he knew. That ever is no time at all.
He sat by a gray window in the gray light in an abandoned
house in the late afternoon and read old newspapers while the
boy slept. The curious news. The quaint concerns. At eight the
primrose closes. He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it?
When the time comes? Can you?
They squatted in the road and ate cold rice and cold beans that
they’d cooked days ago. Already beginning to ferment. No
place to make a fire that would not be seen. They slept
huddled together in the rank quilts in the dark and the cold. He
held the boy close to him. So thin. My heart, he said. My
heart. But he knew that if he were a good father still it might
well be as she had said. That the boy was all that stood
between him and death.
Late in the year. He hardly knew the month. He thought they
had enough food to get through the mountains but there was
no way to tell. The pass at the watershed was five thousand
feet and it was going to be very cold. He said that everything
depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he
knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There
was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that
would be that.
They passed through the ruins of a resort town and took the
road south. Burnt forests for miles along the slopes and snow
sooner than he would have thought. No tracks in the road,
nothing living anywhere. The fireblackened boulders like the
shapes of bears on the starkly wooded slopes. He stood on a
stone bridge where the waters slurried into a pool and turned
slowly in a gray foam. Where once he’d watched trout
swaying in the current, tracking their perfect shadows on the
stones beneath. They went on, the boy trudging in his track.
Leaning into the cart, winding slowly upward through the
switchbacks. There were fires still burning high in the
mountains and at night they could see the light from them deep
orange in the soot-fall. It was getting colder but they had
campfires all night and left them burning behind them when
they set out again in the morning. He’d wrapped their feet in
sacking tied with cord and so far the snow was only a few
inches deep but he knew that if it got much deeper they would
have to leave the cart. Already it was hard going and he
stopped often to rest. Slogging to the edge of the road with his
back to the child where he stood bent with his hands on his
knees, coughing. He raised up and stood with weeping eyes.
On the gray snow a fine mist of blood.
They camped against a boulder and he made a shelter of poles
with the tarp. He got a fire going and they set about dragging
up a great brushpile of wood to see them through the night.
They’d piled a mat of dead hemlock boughs over the snow and
they sat wrapped in their blankets watching the fire and
drinking the last of the cocoa scavenged weeks before. It was
snowing again, soft flakes drifting down out of the blackness.
He dozed in the wonderful warmth. The boy’s shadow crossed
over him. Carrying an armload of wood. He watched him
stoke the flames. God’s own firedrake. The sparks rushed
upward and died in the starless dark. Not all dying words are
true and this blessing is no less real for being shorn of its
ground.
He woke toward the morning with the fire down to coals and
walked out to the road. Everything was alight. As if the lost
sun were returning at last. The snow orange and quivering. A
forest fire was making its way along the tinder-box ridges
above them, flaring and shimmering against the overcast like
the northern lights. Cold as it was he stood there a long time.
The color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make
a list. Recite a litany. Remember.
It was colder. Nothing moved in that high world. A rich smell
of woodsmoke hung over the road. He pushed the cart on
through the snow. A few miles each day. He’d no notion how
far the summit might be. They ate sparely and they were
hungry all the time. He stood looking out over the country. A
river far below. How far had they come?
In his dream she was sick and he cared for her. The dream
bore the look of sacrifice but he thought differently. He did not
take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark and
there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no
other tale to tell.
On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I
am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: How
does the never to be differ from what never was?
Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less
black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving
mother with a lamp.
People sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and
smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. Others
would come to help them. Within a year there were fires on
the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the
murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.
What had they done? He thought that in the history of the
world it might even be that there was more punishment than
crime but he took small comfort from it.
The air grew thin and he thought the summit could not be far.
Perhaps tomorrow. Tomorrow came and went. It didnt snow
again but the snow in the road was six inches deep and
pushing the cart up those grades was exhausting work. He
thought they would have to leave it. How much could they
carry? He stood and looked out over the barren slopes. The ash
fell on the snow till it was all but black.
At every curve it looked as though the pass lay just ahead and
then one evening he stopped and looked all about and he
recognized it. He unsnapped the throat of his parka and
lowered the hood and stood listening. The wind in the dead
black stands of hemlock. The empty parking lot at the
overlook. The boy stood beside him. Where he’d stood once
with his own father in a winter long ago. What is it, Papa? the
boy said. It’s the gap. This is it.
In the morning they pressed on. It was very cold. Toward the
afternoon it began to snow again and they made camp early
and crouched under the leanto of the tarp and watched the
snow fall in the fire. By morning there was several inches of
new snow on the ground but the snow had stopped and it was
so quiet they could all but hear their hearts. He piled wood on
the coals and fanned the fire to life and trudged out through
the drifts to dig out the cart. He sorted through the cans and
went back and they sat by the fire and ate the last of their
crackers and a tin of sausage. In a pocket of his knapsack he’d
found a last half packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy
and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at
the rim.
You promised not to do that, the boy said.
What?
You know what, Papa.
He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the
boy’s cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then
handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.
I know.
If you break little promises you’ll break big ones. That’s
what you said.
I know. But I wont.
They slogged all day down the southfacing slope of the
watershed. In the deeper drifts the cart wouldnt push at all and
he had to drag it behind him with one hand while he broke
trail. Anywhere but in the mountains they might have found
something to use for a sled. An old metal sign or a sheet of
roofingtin. The wrappings on their feet had soaked through
and they were cold and wet all day. He leaned on the cart to
get his breath while the boy waited. There was a sharp crack
from somewhere on the mountain. Then another. It’s just a tree
falling, he said. It’s okay. The boy was looking at the dead
roadside trees. It’s okay, the man said. All the trees in the
world are going to fall sooner or later. But not on us.
How do you know?
I just know.
Still they came to trees across the road where they were forced
to unload the cart and carry everything over the trunks and
then repack it all on the far side. The boy found toys he’d
forgot he had. He kept out a yellow truck and they went on
with it sitting on top of the tarp.
They camped in a bench of land on the far side of a frozen
roadside creek. The wind had blown the ash from the ice and
the ice was black and the creek looked like a path of basalt
winding through the woods. They collected firewood from the
north side of the slope where it was not so wet, pushing over
whole trees and dragging them into camp. They got the fire
going and spread their tarp and hung their wet clothes on poles
to steam and stink and they sat wrapped in the quilts naked
while the man held the boy’s feet against his stomach to warm
them.
He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. Shh,
he said. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle
and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to
live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it
up and it was really scary.
Okay.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I dont know. But it’s okay now. I’m going to put some wood
on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didnt answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt
turning.
It took four more days to come down out of the snow and even
then there were patches of snow in certain bends of the road
and the road was black and wet from the up-country runoff
even beyond that. They came out along the rim of a deep
gorge and far down in the darkness a river. They stood
listening.
High rock bluffs on the far side of the canyon with thin black
trees clinging to the escarpment. The sound of the river faded.
Then it returned. A cold wind blowing up from the country
below. They were all day reaching the river.
They left the cart in a parking area and walked out through the
woods. A low thunder coming from the river. It was a
waterfall dropping off a high shelf of rock and falling eighty
feet through a gray shroud of mist into the pool below. They
could smell the water and they could feel the cold coming off
of it. A bench of wet river gravel. He stood and watched the
boy. Wow, the boy said. He couldnt take his eyes off it.
He squatted and scooped up a handful of stones and smelled
them and let them fall clattering. Polished round and smooth
as marbles or lozenges of stone veined and striped. Black
disclets and bits of polished quartz all bright from the mist off
the river. The boy walked out and squatted and laved up the
dark water.
The waterfall fell into the pool almost at its center. A gray curd
circled. They stood side by side calling to each other over the
din.
Is it cold?
Yes. It’s freezing.
Do you want to go in?
I dont know.
Sure you do.
Is it okay?
Come on.
He unzipped his parka and let it fall to the gravel and the
boy stood up and they undressed and walked out into the
water. Ghostly pale and shivering. The boy so thin it stopped
his heart. He dove headlong and came up gasping and turned
and stood, beating his arms.
Is it over my head? the boy called.
No. Come on.
He turned and swam out to the falls and let the water beat
upon him. The boy was standing in the pool to his waist,
holding his shoulders and hopping up and down. The man
went back and got him. He held him and floated him about,
the boy gasping and chopping at the water. You’re doing good,
the man said. You’re doing good.
They dressed shivering and then climbed the trail to the upper
river. They walked out along the rocks to where the river
seemed to end in space and he held the boy while he ventured
out to the last ledge of rock. The river went sucking over the
rim and fell straight down into the pool below. The entire river.
He clung to the man’s arm.
It’s really far, he said.
It’s pretty far.
Would you die if you fell?
You’d get hurt. It’s a long way.
It’s really scary.
They walked out through the woods. The light was failing.
They followed the flats along the upper river among huge dead
trees. A rich southern wood that once held may-apple and
pipsissewa. Ginseng. The raw dead limbs of the rhododendron
twisted and knotted and black. He stopped. Something in the
mulch and ash. He stooped and cleared it away. A small
colony of them, shrunken, dried and wrinkled. He picked one
and held it up and sniffed it. He bit a piece from the edge and
chewed.
What is it, Papa?
Morels. It’s morels.
What’s morels?
They’re a kind of mushroom.
Can you eat them?
Yes. Take a bite.
Are they good?
Take a bite.
The boy smelled the mushroom and bit into it and stood
chewing. He looked at his father. These are pretty good, he
said.
They pulled the morels from the ground, small alien-looking
things that he piled in the hood of the boy’s parka. They hiked
back out to the road and down to where they’d left the cart and
they made camp by the river pool at the falls and washed the
earth and ash from the morels and put them to soak in a pan of
water. By the time he had the fire going it was dark and he
sliced a handful of the mushrooms on a log for their dinner
and scooped them into the frying pan along with the fat pork
from a can of beans and set them in the coals to simmer. The
boy watched him. This is a good place Papa, he said.
They ate the little mushrooms together with the beans and
drank tea and had tinned pears for their desert. He banked the
fire against the seam of rock where he’d built it and he strung
the tarp behind them to reflect the heat and they sat warm in
their refuge while he told the boy stories. Old stories of
courage and justice as he remembered them until the boy was
asleep in his blankets and then he stoked the fire and lay down
warm and full and listened to the low thunder of the falls
beyond them in that dark and threadbare wood.
He walked out in the morning and took the river path
downstream. The boy was right that it was a good place and he
wanted to check for any sign of other visitors. He found
nothing. He stood watching the river where it swung loping
into a pool and curled and eddied. He dropped a white stone
into the water but it vanished as suddenly as if it had been
eaten. He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of
trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacolored water
except as they turned on their sides to feed. Reflecting back
the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave.
We cant stay, he said. It’s getting colder every day. And the
waterfall is an attraction. It was for us and it will be for others
and we dont know who they will be and we cant hear them
coming. It’s not safe.
We could stay one more day.
It’s not safe.
Well maybe we could find some other place on the river.
We have to keep moving. We have to keep heading south.
Doesnt the river go south?
No. It doesnt.
Can I see it on the map?
Yes. Let me get it.
The tattered oilcompany roadmap had once been taped
together but now it was just sorted into leaves and numbered
with crayon in the corners for their assembly. He sorted
through the limp pages and spread out those that answered to
their location.
We cross a bridge here. It looks to be about eight miles or
so. This is the river. Going east. We follow the road here along
the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the
black lines on the map. The state roads.
Why are they the state roads?
Because they used to belong to the states. What used to be
called the states.
But there’s not any more states?
No.
What happened to them?
I dont know exactly. That’s a good question.
But the roads are still there.
Yes. For a while.
How long a while?
I dont know. Maybe quite a while. There’s nothing to uproot
them so they should be okay for a while.
But there wont be any cars or trucks on them.
No.
Okay.
Are you ready?
The boy nodded. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and
shouldered up his small pack and the man folded away the
map sections and rose and the boy followed him out through
the gray palings of the trees to the road.
When the bridge came in sight below them there was a tractortrailer jackknifed sideways across it and wedged into the
buckled iron railings. It was raining again and they stood there
with the rain pattering softly on the tarp. Peering out from
under the blue gloom beneath the plastic.
Can we get around it? the boy said.
I dont think so. We can probably get under it. We may have
to unload the cart.
The bridge spanned the river above a rapids. They could hear
the noise of it as they came around the curve in the road. A
wind was coming down the gorge and they pulled the corners
of the tarp about them and pushed the cart out onto the bridge.
They could see the river through the ironwork. Below the
rapids was a railroad bridge laid on limestone piers. The stones
of the piers were stained well above the river from the high
water and the bend of the river was choked with great
windrows of black limbs and brush and the trunks of trees.
The truck had been there for years, the tires flat and crumpled
under the rims. The front of the tractor was jammed against
the railing of the bridge and the trailer had sheared forward off
the top plate and jammed up against the back of the cab. The
rear of the trailer had swung out and buckled the rail on the
other side of the bridge and it hung several feet out over the
river gorge. He pushed the cart up under the trailer but the
handle wouldnt clear. They’d have to slide it under sideways.
He left it sitting in the rain with the tarp over it and they
duckwalked under the trailer and he left the boy crouched
there in the dry while he climbed up on the gastank step and
wiped the water from the glass and peered inside the cab. He
stepped back down and reached up and opened the door and
then climbed in and pulled the door shut behind him. He sat
looking around. An old doghouse sleeper behind the seats.
Papers in the floor. The glovebox was open but it was empty.
He climbed back between the seats. There was a raw damp
mattress on the bunk and a small refrigerator with the door
standing open. A fold-down table. Old magazines in the floor.
He went through the plywood lockers overhead but they were
empty. There were drawers under the bunk and he pulled them
out and looked through the trash. He climbed forward into the
cab again and sat in the driver’s seat and looked out down the
river through the slow trickle of water on the glass. The thin
drum of rain on the metal roof and the slow darkness falling
over everything.
They slept that night in the truck and in the morning the rain
had stopped and they unloaded the cart and passed everything
under the truck to the other side and reloaded it. Down the
bridge a hundred feet or so were the blackened remains of tires
that had been burned there. He stood looking at the trailer.
What do you think is in there? he said.
I dont know.
We’re not the first ones here. So probably nothing.
There’s no way to get in.
He put his ear to the side of the trailer and whacked the
sheetmetal with the flat of his hand. It sounds empty, he said.
You can probably get in from the roof. Somebody would have
cut a hole in the side of it by now.
What would they cut it with?
They’d find something.
He took off his parka and laid it across the top of the cart
and climbed on to the fender of the tractor and on to the hood
and clambered up over the windscreen to the roof of the cab.
He stood and turned and looked down at the river. Wet metal
underfoot. He looked down at the boy. The boy looked
worried. He turned and reached and got a grip on the front of
the trailer and slowly pulled himself up. It was all he could do
and there was a lot less of him to pull. He got one leg up over
the edge and hung there resting. Then he pulled himself up and
rolled over and sat up.
There was a skylight about a third of the way down the roof
and he made his way to it in a walking crouch. The cover was
gone and the inside of the trailer smelled of wet plywood and
that sour smell he’d come to know. He had a magazine in his
hip pocket and he took it out and tore some pages from it and
wadded them and got out his lighter and lit the papers and
dropped them into the darkness. A faint whooshing. He wafted
away the smoke and looked down into the trailer. The small
fire burning in the floor seemed a long way down. He shielded
the glare of it with his hand and when he did he could see
almost to the rear of the box. Human bodies. Sprawled in
every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes. The
small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and
then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the
incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then
all was dark again.
They camped that night in the woods on a ridge overlooking
the broad piedmont plain where it stretched away to the south.
He built a cookfire against a rock and they ate the last of the
morels and a can of spinach. In the night a storm broke in the
mountains above them and came cannonading downcountry
cracking and booming and the stark gray world appeared again
and again out of the night in the shrouded flare of the
lightning. The boy clung to him. It all passed on. A brief rattle
of hail and then the slow cold rain.
When he woke again it was still dark but the rain had stopped.
A smoky light out there in the valley. He rose and walked out
along the ridge. A haze of fire that stretched for miles. He
squatted and watched it. He could smell the smoke. He wet his
finger and held it to the wind. When he rose and turned to go
back the tarp was lit from within where the boy had wakened.
Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like
the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world.
Something all but unaccountable. And so it was.
All the day following they traveled through the drifting haze
of woodsmoke. In the draws the smoke coming off the ground
like mist and the thin black trees burning on the slopes like
stands of heathen candles. Late in the day they came to a place
where the fire had crossed the road and the macadam was still
warm and further on it began to soften underfoot. The hot
black mastic sucking at their shoes and stretching in thin bands
as they stepped. They stopped. We’ll have to wait, he said.
They backtracked and camped in the actual road and when
they went on in the morning the macadam had cooled. Bye
and bye they came to a set of tracks cooked into the tar. They
just suddenly appeared. He squatted and studied them.
Someone had come out of the woods in the night and
continued down the melted roadway.
Who is it? said the boy.
I dont know. Who is anybody?
They came upon him shuffling along the road before them,
dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to
stand stooped and uncertain before setting out again.
What should we do, Papa?
We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch.
Take a look, the boy said.
Yes. Take a look.
They followed him a good ways but at his pace they were
losing the day and finally he just sat in the road and did not get
up again. The boy hung on to his father’s coat. No one spoke.
He was as burntlooking as the country, his clothing scorched
and black. One of his eyes was burnt shut and his hair was but
a nitty wig of ash upon his blackened skull. As they passed he
looked down. As if he’d done something wrong. His shoes
were bound up with wire and coated with roadtar and he sat
there in silence, bent over in his rags. The boy kept looking
back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He’s been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said.
Stop it.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There’s nothing to be done for him.
They went on. The boy was crying. He kept looking back.
When they got to the bottom of the hill the man stopped and
looked at him and looked back up the road. The burned man
had fallen over and at that distance you couldnt even tell what
it was. I’m sorry, he said. But we have nothing to give him.
We have no way to help him. I’m sorry for what happened to
him but we cant fix it. You know that, dont you? The boy
stood looking down. He nodded his head. Then they went on
and he didnt look back again.
At evening a dull sulphur light from the fires. The standing
water in the roadside ditches black with the runoff. The
mountains shrouded away. They crossed a river by a concrete
bridge where skeins of ash and slurry moved slowly in the
current. Charred bits of wood. In the end they stopped and
turned back and camped under the bridge.
He’d carried his billfold about till it wore a cornershaped hole
in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it
out and went through the contents. Some money, credit cards.
His driver’s license. A picture of his wife. He spread
everything out on the blacktop. Like gaming cards. He pitched
the sweatblackened piece of leather into the woods and sat
holding the photograph. Then he laid it down in the road also
and then he stood and they went on.
In the morning he lay looking up at the clay nests that
swallows had built in the corners under the bridge. He looked
at the boy but the boy had turned away and lay staring out at
the river.
There’s nothing we could have done.
He didnt answer.
He’s going to die. We cant share what we have or we’ll die
too.
I know.
So when are you going to talk to me again?
I’m talking now.
Are you sure?
Yes.
Okay.
Okay.
They stood on the far shore of a river and called to him.
Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste.
Trekking the dried floor of a mineral sea where it lay cracked
and broken like a fallen plate. Paths of feral fire in the
coagulate sands. The figures faded in the distance. He woke
and lay in the dark.
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a
series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window.
What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the
bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already
gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one
knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on
both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the
doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her
belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not.
Once in those early years he’d wakened in a barren wood and
lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter
dark. Their half muted crankings miles above where they
circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a
bowl. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never
heard them again.
He’d a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house
and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs
was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight
wrapped in their blankets. He tried to remember the rules of
childhood games. Old Maid. Some version of Whist. He was
sure he had them mostly wrong and he made up new games
and gave them made up names. Abnormal Fescue or Catbarf.
Sometimes the child would ask him questions about the world
that for him was not even a memory. He thought hard how to
answer. There is no past. What would you like? But he stopped
making things up because those things were not true either and
the telling made him feel bad. The child had his own fantasies.
How things would be in the south. Other children. He tried to
keep a rein on this but his heart was not in it. Whose would
be?
No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself.
The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace
and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a
common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So,
he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.
He thought about the picture in the road and he thought that he
should have tried to keep her in their lives in some way but he
didnt know how. He woke coughing and walked out so as not
to wake the child. Following a stone wall in the dark, wrapped
in his blanket, kneeling in the ashes like a penitent. He
coughed till he could taste the blood and he said her name
aloud. He thought perhaps he’d said it in his sleep. When he
got back the boy was awake. I’m sorry, he said.
It’s okay.
Go to sleep.
I wish I was with my mom.
He didnt answer. He sat beside the small figure wrapped in
the quilts and blankets. After a while he said: You mean you
wish that you were dead.
Yes.
You musnt say that.
But I do.
Dont say it. It’s a bad thing to say.
I cant help it.
I know. But you have to.
How do I do it?
I dont know.
We’re survivors he told her across the flame of the lamp.
Survivors? she said.
Yes.
What in God’s name are you talking about? We’re not
survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film.
I’m begging you.
I dont care. I dont care if you cry. It doesnt mean anything
to me.
Please.
Stop it.
I am begging you. I’ll do anything.
Such as what? I should have done it a long time ago. When
there were three bullets in the gun instead of two. I was stupid.
We’ve been over all of this. I didnt bring myself to this. I was
brought. And now I’m done. I thought about not even telling
you. That would probably have been best. You have two
bullets and then what? You cant protect us. You say you would
die for us but what good is that? I’d take him with me if it
werent for you. You know I would. It’s the right thing to do.
You’re talking crazy.
No, I’m speaking the truth. Sooner or later they will catch
us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him.
They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont
face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.
She sat there smoking a slender length of dried grapevine as if
it were some rare cheroot. Holding it with a certain elegance,
her other hand across her knees where she’d drawn them up.
She watched him across the small flame. We used to talk about
death, she said. We dont any more. Why is that?
I dont know.
It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.
I wouldnt leave you.
I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a
faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give
me what you cannot.
Death is not a lover.
Oh yes he is.
Please dont do this.
I’m sorry.
I cant do it alone.
Then dont. I cant help you. They say that women dream of
danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves.
But I dont dream at all. You say you cant? Then dont do it.
That’s all. Because I am done with my own whorish heart and
I have been for a long time. You talk about taking a stand but
there is no stand to take. My heart was ripped out of me the
night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none.
Maybe you’ll be good at this. I doubt it, but who knows. The
one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I
know because I would never have come this far. A person who
had no one would be well advised to cobble together some
passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with
words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from
harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal
nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.
He didnt answer.
You have no argument because there is none.
Will you tell him goodbye?
No. I will not.
Just wait till morning. Please.
I have to go.
She had already stood up.
For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell him?
I cant help you.
Where are you going to go? You cant even see.
I dont have to.
He stood up. I’m begging you, he said.
No. I will not. I cannot.
She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She
would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself.
Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick. And she was right.
There was no argument. The hundred nights they’d sat up
arguing the pros and cons of self destruction with the
earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall. In the
morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were
packed and ready to set out upon the road he turned and
looked back at their campsite and he said: She’s gone isn’t
she? And he said: Yes, she is.
Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most outlandish
advents. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end.
They sat at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a
midnight supper and watched distant cities burn. A few nights
later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp.
Gloves meant for dishwashing. The improbable appearance of
the small crown of the head. Streaked with blood and lank
black hair. The rank meconium. Her cries meant nothing to
him. Beyond the window just the gathering cold, the fires on
the horizon. He held aloft the scrawny red body so raw and
naked and cut the cord with kitchen shears and wrapped his
son in a towel.
Did you have any friends?
Yes. I did.
Lots of them?
Yes.
Do you remember them?
Yes. I remember them.
What happened to them?
They died.
All of them?
Yes. All of them.
Do you miss them?
Yes. I do.
Where are we going?
We’re going south.
Okay.
They were all day on the long black road, stopping in the
afternoon to eat sparingly from their meager supplies. The boy
took his truck from the pack and shaped roads in the ash with a
stick. The truck tooled along slowly. He made truck noises.
The day seemed almost warm and they slept in the leaves with
their packs under their heads.
Something woke him. He turned on his side and lay listening.
He raised his head slowly, the pistol in his hand. He looked
down at the boy and when he looked back toward the road the
first of them were already coming into view. God, he
whispered. He reached and shook the boy, keeping his eyes on
the road. They came shuffling through the ash casting their
hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing
canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy.
Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe.
Coughing. Then he heard on the road behind them what
sounded like a diesel truck. Quick, he whispered. Quick. He
shoved the pistol in his belt and grabbed the boy by the hand
and he dragged the cart through the trees and tilted it over
where it would not so easily be seen. The boy was frozen with
fear. He pulled him to him. It’s all right, he said. We have to
run. Dont look back. Come on.
He slung their knapsacks over his shoulder and they tore
through the crumbling bracken. The boy was terrified. Run, he
whispered. Run. He looked back. The truck had rumbled into
view. Men standing in the bed looking out. The boy fell and he
pulled him up. It’s all right, he said. Come on.
He could see a break through the trees that he thought was a
ditch or a cut and they came out through the weeds into an old
roadway. Plates of cracked macadam showing through the
drifts of ash. He pulled the boy down and they crouched under
the bank listening, gasping for breath. They could hear the
diesel engine out on the road, running on God knows what.
When he raised up to look he could just see the top of the
truck moving along the road. Men standing in the stakebed,
some of them holding rifles. The truck passed on and the black
diesel smoke coiled through the woods. The motor sounded
ropy. Missing and puttering. Then it quit.
He sank down and put his hand on top of his head. God, he
said. They could hear the thing rattle and flap to a halt. Then
just the silence. He had the pistol in his hand, he couldnt even
remember taking it from his belt. They could hear the men
talking. Hear them unlatch and raise the hood. He sat with his
arm around the boy. Shh, he said. Shh. After a while they
heard the truck begin to roll. Lumbering and creaking like a
ship. They’d have no other way to start it save to push it and
they couldnt get it fast enough to start on that slope. After a
few minutes it coughed and bucked and stopped again. He
raised his head to look and coming through the weeds twenty
feet away was one of their number unbuckling his belt. They
both froze.
He cocked the pistol and held it on the man and the man stood
with one hand out at his side, the dirty crumpled paintmask
that he wore sucking in and out.
Just keep coming.
He looked at the road.
Dont look back there. Look at me. If you call out you’re
dead.
He came forward, holding his belt by one hand. The holes in
it marked the progress of his emaciation and the leather at one
side had a lacquered look to it where he was used to stropping
the blade of his knife. He stepped down into the roadcut and
he looked at the gun and he looked at the boy. Eyes collared in
cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull
looking out the eyeholes. He wore a beard that had been cut
square across the bottom with shears and he had a tattoo of a
bird on his neck done by someone with an illformed notion of
their appearance. He was lean, wiry, rachitic. Dressed in a pair
of filthy blue coveralls and a black billcap with the logo of
some vanished enterprise embroidered across the front of it.
Where are you going?
I was going to take a crap.
Where are you going with the truck.
I dont know.
What do you mean you dont know? Take the mask off.
He pulled the mask off over his head and stood holding it.
I mean I dont know, he said.
You dont know where you’re going?
No.
What’s the truck running on.
Diesel fuel.
How much do you have.
There’s three fifty-five gallon drums in the bed.
Do you have ammunition for those guns?
He looked back toward the road.
I told you not to look back there.
Yeah. We got ammunition.
Where did you get it?
Found it.
That’s a lie. What are you eating.
Whatever we can find.
Whatever you can find.
Yeah. He looked at the boy. You wont shoot, he said.
That’s what you think.
You aint got but two shells. Maybe just one. And they’ll
hear the shot.
Yes they will. But you wont.
How do you figure that?
Because the bullet travels faster than sound. It will be in
your brain before you can hear it. To hear it you will need a
frontal lobe and things with names like colliculus and temporal
gyrus and you wont have them anymore. They’ll just be soup.
Are you a doctor?
I’m not anything.
We got a man hurt. It’d be worth your while.
Do I look like an imbecile to you?
I dont know what you look like.
Why are you looking at him?
I can look where I want to.
No you cant. If you look at him again I’ll shoot you.
The boy was sitting with both hands on top of his head and
looking out between his forearms.
I’ll bet that boy is hungry. Why dont you all just come on to
the truck? Get something to eat. Aint no need to be such a
hard-ass.
You dont have anything to eat. Let’s go.
Go where?
Let’s go.
I aint goin nowheres.
You’re not?
No. I aint.
You think I wont kill you but you’re wrong. But what I’d
rather do is take you up this road a mile or so and then turn
you loose. That’s all the head start we need. You wont find us.
You wont even know which way we went.
You know what I think?
What do you think.
I think you’re chickenshit.
He let go of the belt and it fell in the roadway with the gear
hanging from it. A canteen. An old canvas army pouch. A
leather sheath for a knife. When he looked up the roadrat was
holding the knife in his hand. He’d only taken two steps but he
was almost between him and the child.
What do you think you’re going to do with that?
He didnt answer. He was a big man but he was very quick.
He dove and grabbed the boy and rolled and came up holding
him against his chest with the knife at his throat. The man had
already dropped to the ground and he swung with him and
leveled the pistol and fired from a two-handed position
balanced on both knees at a distance of six feet. The man fell
back instantly and lay with blood bubbling from the hole in his
forehead. The boy was lying in his lap with no expression on
his face at all. He shoved the pistol in his belt and slung the
knapsack over his shoulder and picked up the boy and turned
him around and lifted him over his head and set him on his
shoulders and set off up the old roadway at a dead run, holding
the boy’s knees, the boy clutching his forehead, covered with
gore and mute as a stone.
They came to an old iron bridge in the woods where the
vanished road had crossed an all but vanished stream. He was
starting to cough and he’d hardly breath to do it with. He
dropped down out of the roadway and into the woods. He
turned and stood gasping, trying to listen. He heard nothing.
He staggered on another half mile or so and finally dropped to
his knees and put the boy down in the ashes and leaves. He
wiped the blood from his face and held him. It’s okay, he said.
It’s okay.
In the long cold evening with the darkness dropping down he
heard them only once. He held the boy close. There was a
cough in his throat that never left. The boy so frail and thin
through his coat, shivering like a dog. The footsteps in the
leaves stopped. Then they moved on. They neither spoke nor
called to each other, the more sinister for that. With the final
onset of dark the iron cold locked down and the boy by now
was shuddering violently. No moon rose beyond the murk and
there was nowhere to go. They had a single blanket in the pack
and he got it out and covered the boy with it and he unzipped
his parka and held the boy against him. They lay there for a
long time but they were freezing and finally he sat up. We’ve
got to move, he said. We cant just lie here. He looked around
but there was nothing to see. He spoke into a blackness
without depth or dimension.
He held the boy’s hand as they stumbled through the woods.
The other hand he held out before him. He could see no worse
with his eyes shut. The boy was wrapped in the blanket and he
told him not to drop it because they would never find it again.
He wanted to be carried but the man told him that he had to
keep moving. They stumbled and fell through the woods the
night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not
get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped
him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth.
A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth.
You will not.
In the grudging light that passed for day he put the boy in the
leaves and sat studying the woods. When it was a bit lighter he
rose and walked out and cut a perimeter about their siwash
camp looking for sign but other than their own faint track
through the ash he saw nothing. He went back and gathered
the boy up. We have to go, he said. The boy sat slumped, his
face blank. The filth dried in his hair and his face streaked
with it. Talk to me, he said, but he would not.
They moved on east through the standing dead trees. They
passed an old frame house and crossed a dirt road. A cleared
plot of ground perhaps once a truckgarden. Stopping from
time to time to listen. The unseen sun cast no shadow. They
came upon the road unexpectedly and he stopped the boy with
one hand and they crouched in the roadside ditch like lepers
and listened. No wind. Dead silence. After a while he rose and
walked out into the road. He looked back at the boy. Come on,
he said. The boy came out and the man pointed out the tracks
in the ash where the truck had gone. The boy stood wrapped in
the blanket looking down at the road.
He’d no way to know if they’d got the truck running again. No
way to know how long they might be willing to lie in ambush.
He thumbed the pack down off his shoulder and sat and
opened it. We need to eat, he said. Are you hungry?
The boy shook his head.
No. Of course not. He took out the plastic bottle of water
and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and
stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he
sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he
handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap
back on and rummaged through the pack. They ate a can of
white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty
tin into the woods. Then they set out down the road again.
The truck people had camped in the road itself. They’d built a
fire there and charred billets of wood lay stuck in the melted
tar together with ash and bones. He squatted and held his hand
over the tar. A faint warmth coming off of it. He stood and
looked down the road. Then he took the boy with him into the
woods. I want you to wait here, he said. I wont be far away.
I’ll be able to hear you if you call.
Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was
going to cry.
No. I want you to wait here.
Please, Papa.
Stop it. I want you to do what I say. Take the gun.
I dont want the gun.
I didnt ask you if you wanted it. Take it.
He walked out through the woods to where they’d left the cart.
It was still lying there but it had been plundered. The few
things they hadnt taken scattered in the leaves. Some books
and toys belonging to the boy. His old shoes and some rags of
clothing. He righted the cart and put the boy’s things in it and
wheeled it out to the road. Then he went back. There was
nothing there. Dried blood dark in the leaves. The boy’s
knapsack was gone. Coming back he found the bones and the
skin piled together with rocks over them. A pool of guts. He
pushed at the bones with the toe of his shoe. They looked to
have been boiled. No pieces of clothing. Dark was coming on
again and it was already very cold and he turned and went out
to where he’d left the boy and knelt and put his arms around
him and held him.
They pushed the cart through the woods as far as the old road
and left it there and headed south along the road hurrying
against the dark. The boy was stumbling he was so tired and
the man picked him up and swung him onto his shoulders and
they went on. By the time they got to the bridge there was
scarcely light at all. He put the boy down and they felt their
way down the embankment. Under the bridge he got out his
lighter and lit it and swept the ground with the flickering light.
Sand and gravel washed up from the creek. He set down the
knapsack and put away the lighter and took hold of the boy by
the shoulders. He could just make him out in the darkness. I
want you to wait here, he said. I’m going for wood. We have
to have a fire.
I’m scared.
I know. But I’ll just be a little ways and I’ll be able to hear
you so if you get scared you call me and I’ll come right away.
I’m really scared.
The sooner I go the sooner I’ll be back and we’ll have a fire
and then you wont be scared anymore. Dont lie down. If you
lie down you’ll fall asleep and then if I call you you wont
answer and I wont be able to find you. Do you understand?
The boy didnt answer. He was close to losing his temper
with him and then he realized that he was shaking his head in
the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.
He scrambled up the bank and into the woods, holding his
hands out in front of him. There was wood everywhere, dead
limbs and branches scattered over the ground. He shuffled
along kicking them into a pile and when he had an armful he
stooped and gathered them up and called the boy and the boy
answered and talked him back to the bridge. They sat in the
darkness while he shaved sticks into a pile with his knife and
broke up the small branches with his hands. He took the
lighter from his pocket and struck the wheel with his thumb.
He used gasoline in the lighter and it burned with a frail blue
flame and he bent and set the tinder alight and watched the fire
climb upward through the wicker of limbs. He piled on more
wood and bent and blew gently at the base of the little blaze
and arranged the wood with his hands, shaping the fire just so.
He made two more trips into the woods, dragging armloads of
brush and limbs to the bridge and pushing them over the side.
He could see the glow of the fire from some distance but he
didnt think it could be seen from the other road. Below the
bridge he could make out a dark pool of standing water among
the rocks. A rim of shelving ice. He stood on the bridge and
shoved the last pile of wood over, his breath white in the glow
of the firelight.
He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the
knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost
full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set
everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and
he chose a can of sausages and one of corn and he opened
these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge
of the fire and they sat watching the labels char and curl.
When the corn began to steam he took the cans from the fire
with the pliers and they sat bent over them with their spoons,
eating slowly. The boy was nodding with sleep.
When they’d eaten he took the boy out on the gravelbar below
the bridge and he pushed away the thin shore ice with a stick
and they knelt there while he washed the boy’s face and his
hair. The water was so cold the boy was crying. They moved
down the gravel to find fresh water and he washed his hair
again as well as he could and finally stopped because the boy
was moaning with the cold of it. He dried him with the
blanket, kneeling there in the glow of the light with the
shadow of the bridge’s understructure broken across the
palisade of treetrunks beyond the creek. This is my child, he
said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job.
Then he wrapped him in the blanket and carried him to the
fire.
The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple
into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips
and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him
while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this
like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where
you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and
breathe upon them.
He woke in the night with the cold and rose and broke up more
wood for the fire. The shapes of the small tree-limbs burning
incandescent orange in the coals. He blew the flames to life
and piled on the wood and sat with his legs crossed, leaning
against the stone pier of the bridge. Heavy limestone blocks
laid up without mortar. Overhead the ironwork brown with
rust, the hammered rivets, the wooden sleepers and
crossplanks. The sand where he sat was warm to the touch but
the night beyond the fire was sharp with the cold. He got up
and dragged fresh wood in under the bridge. He stood
listening. The boy didnt stir. He sat beside him and stroked his
pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god.
Please dont tell me how the story ends. When he looked out
again at the darkness beyond the bridge it was snowing.
All the wood they had to burn was small wood and the fire
was good for no more than an hour or perhaps a bit more. He
dragged the rest of the brush in under the bridge and broke it
up, standing on the limbs and cracking them to length. He
thought the noise would wake the boy but it didnt. The wet
wood hissed in the flames, the snow continued to fall. In the
morning they would see if there were tracks in the road or not.
This was the first human being other than the boy that he’d
spoken to in more than a year. My brother at last. The reptilian
calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and
rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made of the
world a lie every word. When he woke again the snow had
stopped and the grainy dawn was shaping out the naked
woodlands beyond the bridge, the trees black against the snow.
He was lying curled up with his hands between his knees and
he sat up and got the fire going and he set a can of beets in the
embers. The boy lay huddled on the ground watching him.
The new snow lay in skifts all through the woods, along the
limbs and cupped in the leaves, all of it already gray with ash.
They hiked out to where they’d left the cart and he put the
knapsack in and pushed it out to the road. No tracks. They
stood listening in the utter silence. Then they set out along the
road through the gray slush, the boy at his side with his hands
in his pockets.
They trudged all day, the boy in silence. By afternoon the
slush had melted off the road and by evening it was dry. They
didnt stop. How many miles? Ten, twelve. They used to play
quoits in the road with four big steel washers they’d found in a
hardware store but these were gone with everything else. That
night they camped in a ravine and built a fire against a small
stone bluff and ate their last tin of food. He’d put it by because
it was the boy’s favorite, pork and beans. They watched it
bubble slowly in the coals and he retrieved the tin with the
pliers and they ate in silence. He rinsed the empty tin with
water and gave it to the child to drink and that was that. I
should have been more careful, he said.
The boy didnt answer.
You have to talk to me.
Okay.
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now
you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you.
I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who
touches you. Do you understand?
Yes.
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked
up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
Okay.
In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the
road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of
roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him.
The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after
a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for
the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up
from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked
back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he
seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the
arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does
not know that behind him the players have all been carried off
by wolves.
He sat crosslegged in the leaves at the crest of a ridge and
glassed the valley below them with the binoculars. The still
poured shape of a river. The dark brick stacks of a mill. Slate
roofs. An old wooden watertower bound with iron hoops. No
smoke, no movement of life. He lowered the glasses and sat
watching.
What do you see? the boy said.
Nothing.
He handed the binoculars across. The boy slung the strap
over his neck and put them to his eyes and adjusted the wheel.
Everything about them so still.
I see smoke, he said.
Where.
Past those buildings.
What buildings?
The boy handed the glasses back and he refocused them.
The palest wisp. Yes, he said. I see it.
What should we do, Papa?
I think we should take a look. We just have to be careful. If
it’s a commune they’ll have barricades. But it may just be
refugees.
Like us.
Yes. Like us.
What if it’s the bad guys?
We’ll have to take a risk. We need to find something to eat.
They left the cart in the woods and crossed a railroad track and
came down a steep bank through dead black ivy. He carried
the pistol in his hand. Stay close, he said. He did. They moved
through the streets like sappers. One block at a time. A faint
smell of woodsmoke on the air. They waited in a store and
watched the street but nothing moved. They went through the
trash and rubble. Cabinet drawers pulled out into the floor,
paper and bloated cardboard boxes. They found nothing. All
the stores were rifled years ago, the glass mostly gone from
the windows. Inside it was all but too dark to see. They
climbed the ribbed steel stairs of an escalator, the boy holding
on to his hand. A few dusty suits hanging on a rack. They
looked for shoes but there were none. They shuffled through
the trash but there was nothing there of any use to them. When
they came back he slipped the suitcoats from their hangers and
shook them out and folded them across his arm. Let’s go, he
said.
He thought there had to be something overlooked but there
wasnt. They kicked through the trash in the aisles of a
foodmarket. Old packaging and papers and the eternal ash. He
scoured the shelves looking for vitamins. He opened the door
of a walk-in cooler but the sour rank smell of the dead washed
out of the darkness and he quickly closed it again. They stood
in the street. He looked at the gray sky. Faint plume of their
breath. The boy was exhausted. He took him by the hand. We
have to look some more, he said. We have to keep looking.
The houses at the edge of the town offered little more. They
climbed the back steps into a kitchen and began to go through
the cabinets. The cabinet doors all standing open. A can of
bakingpowder. He stood there looking at it. They went through
the drawers of a sideboard in the diningroom. They walked
into the livingroom. Scrolls of fallen wallpaper lying in the
floor like ancient documents. He left the boy sitting on the
stairs holding the coats while he went up.
Everything smelled of damp and rot. In the first bedroom a
dried corpse with the covers about its neck. Remnants of rotted
hair on the pillow. He took hold of the lower hem of the
blanket and towed it off the bed and shook it out and folded it
under his arm. He went through the bureaus and the closets. A
summer dress on a wire hanger. Nothing. He went back down
the stairs. It was getting dark. He took the boy by the hand and
they went out the front door to the street.
At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness
coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over
the boy’s shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.
I’m really hungry, Papa.
I know.
Will we be able to find our stuff?
Yes. I know where it is.
What if somebody finds it?
They wont find it.
I hope they dont.
They wont. Come on.
What was that?
I didnt hear anything.
Listen.
I dont hear anything.
They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He
turned and looked toward the darkening town. It’s a dog, he
said.
A dog?
Yes.
Where did it come from?
I dont know.
We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?
No. We’re not going to kill it.
He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent
over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog,
he said. I promise.
They slept in a parked car beneath an overpass with the
suitcoats and the blanket piled over them. In the darkness and
the silence he could see bits of light that appeared random on
the night grid. The higher floors of the buildings were all dark.
You’d have to carry up water. You could be smoked out. What
were they eating? God knows. They sat wrapped in the coats
looking out the window. Who are they, Papa? I dont know.
He woke in the night and lay listening. He couldnt remember
where he was. The thought made him smile. Where are we? he
said.
What is it, Papa?
Nothing. We’re okay. Go to sleep.
We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.
In the morning a cold rain was falling. It gusted over the car
even under the overpass and it danced in the road beyond.
They sat and watched through the water on the glass. By the
time it had slacked a good part of the day was gone. They left
the coats and the blanket in the floor of the back seat and went
up the road to search through more of the houses. Woodsmoke
on the damp air. They never heard the dog again.
They found some utensils and a few pieces of clothing. A
sweatshirt. Some plastic they could use for a tarp. He was sure
they were being watched but he saw no one. In a pantry they
came upon part of a sack of cornmeal that rats had been at in
the long ago. He sifted the meal through a section of
windowscreen and collected a small handful of dried turds and
they built a fire on the concrete porch of the house and made
cakes of the meal and cooked them over a piece of tin. Then
they ate them slowly one by one. He wrapped the few
remaining in a paper and put them in the knapsack.
The boy was sitting on the steps when he saw something move
at the rear of the house across the road. A face was looking at
him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an out-sized wool coat
with the sleeves turned back. He stood up. He ran across the
road and up the drive. No one there. He looked toward the
house and then he ran to the bottom of the yard through the
dead weeds to a still black creek. Come back, he called. I wont
hurt you. He was standing there crying when his father came
sprinting across the road and seized him by the arm.
What are you doing? he hissed. What are you doing?
There’s a little boy, Papa. There’s a little boy.
There’s no little boy. What are you doing?
Yes there is. I saw him.
I told you to stay put. Didnt I tell you? Now we’ve got to
go. Come on.
I just wanted to see him, Papa. I just wanted to see him.
The man took him by the arm and they went back up
through the yard. The boy would not stop crying and he would
not stop looking back. Come on, the man said. We’ve got to
go.
I want to see him, Papa.
There’s no one to see. Do you want to die? Is that what you
want?
I dont care, the boy said, sobbing. I dont care.
The man stopped. He stopped and squatted and held him.
I’m sorry, he said. Dont say that. You musnt say that.
They made their way back through the wet streets to the
viaduct and collected the coats and the blanket from the car
and went on to the railway embankment where they climbed
up and crossed the tracks into the woods and got the cart and
headed out to the highway.
What if that little boy doesnt have anybody to take care of
him? he said. What if he doesnt have a papa?
There are people there. They were just hiding.
He pushed the cart out into the road and stood there. He
could see the tracks of the truck through the wet ash, faint and
washed out, but there. He thought that he could smell them.
The boy was pulling at his coat. Papa, he said.
What?
I’m afraid for that little boy.
I know. But he’ll be all right.
We should go get him, Papa. We could get him and take him
with us. We could take him and we could take the dog. The
dog could catch something to eat.
We cant.
And I’d give that little boy half of my food.
Stop it. We cant.
He was crying again. What about the little boy? he sobbed.
What about the little boy?
At a crossroads they sat in the dusk and he spread out the
pieces of the map in the road and studied them. He put his
finger down. This is us, he said. Right here. The boy wouldnt
look. He sat studying the twisted matrix of routes in red and
black with his finger at the junction where he thought that they
might be. As if he’d see their small selves crouching there. We
could go back, the boy said softly. It’s not so far. It’s not too
late.
They made a dry camp in a woodlot not far from the road.
They could find no sheltered place to make a fire that would
not be seen so they made none. They ate each of them two of
the cornmeal cakes and they slept together huddled on the
ground in the coats and blankets. He held the child and after a
while the child stopped shivering and after a while he slept.
The dog that he remembers followed us for two days. I tried to
coax it to come but it would not. I made a noose of wire to
catch it. There were three cartridges in the pistol. None to
spare. She walked away down the road. The boy looked after
her and then he looked at me and then he looked at the dog
and he began to cry and to beg for the dog’s life and I
promised I would not hurt the dog. A trellis of a dog with the
hide stretched over it. The next day it was gone. That is the
dog he remembers. He doesnt remember any little boys.
He’d put a handful of dried raisins in a cloth in his pocket and
at noon they sat in the dead grass by the side of the road and
ate them. The boy looked at him. That’s all there is, isnt it? he
said.
Yes.
Are we going to die now?
No.
What are we going to do?
We’re going to drink some water. Then we’re going to keep
going down the road.
Okay.
In the evening they tramped out across a field trying to find a
place where their fire would not be seen. Dragging the cart
behind them over the ground. So little of promise in that
country. Tomorrow they would find something to eat. Night
overtook them on a muddy road. They crossed into a field and
plodded on toward a distant stand of trees skylighted stark and
black against the last of the visible world. By the time they got
there it was dark of night. He held the boy’s hand and kicked
up limbs and brush and got a fire going. The wood was damp
but he shaved the dead bark off with his knife and he stacked
brush and sticks all about to dry in the heat. Then he spread
the sheet of plastic on the ground and got the coats and
blankets from the cart and he took off their damp and muddy
shoes and they sat there in silence with their hands out-held to
the flames. He tried to think of something to say but he could
not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and
the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of
parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those
things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat.
Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More
fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone
already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its
reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat.
In time to wink out forever.
They slept through the night in their exhaustion and in the
morning the fire was dead and black on the ground. He pulled
on his muddy shoes and went to gather wood, blowing on his
cupped hands. So cold. It could be November. It could be later.
He got a fire going and walked out to the edge of the woodlot
and stood looking over the countryside. The dead fields. A
barn in the distance.
They hiked out along the dirt road and along a hill where a
house had once stood. It had burned long ago. The rusted
shape of a furnace standing in the black water of the cellar.
Sheets of charred metal roofing crumpled in the fields where
the wind had blown it. In the barn they scavenged a few
handfuls of some grain he did not recognize out of the dusty
floor of a metal hopper and stood eating it dust and all. Then
they set out across the fields toward the road.
They followed a stone wall past the remains of an orchard.
The trees in their ordered rows gnarled and black and the
fallen limbs thick on the ground. He stopped and looked across
the fields. Wind in the east. The soft ash moving in the
furrows. Stopping. Moving again. He’d seen it all before.
Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of
viscera where the slain had been field-dressed and hauled
away. The wall beyond held a frieze of human heads, all faced
alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes.
They wore gold rings in their leather ears and in the wind their
sparse and ratty hair twisted about on their skulls. The teeth in
their sockets like dental molds, the crude tattoos etched in
some homebrewed woad faded in the beggared sunlight.
Spiders, swords, targets. A dragon. Runic slogans, creeds
misspelled. Old scars with old motifs stitched along their
borders. The heads not truncheoned shapeless had been flayed
of their skins and the raw skulls painted and signed across the
forehead in a scrawl and one white bone skull had the plate
sutures etched carefully in ink like a blueprint for assembly.
He looked back at the boy. Standing by the cart in the wind.
He looked at the dry grass where it moved and at the dark and
twisted trees in their rows. A few shreds of clothing blown
against the wall, everything gray in the ash. He walked along
the wall passing the masks in a last review and through a stile
and on to where the boy was waiting. He put his arm around
his shoulder. Okay, he said. Let’s go.
He’d come to see a message in each such late history, a
message and a warning, and so this tableau of the slain and the
devoured did prove to be. He woke in the morning and turned
over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the
trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers appear
four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all
wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to
red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh,
he said.
What is it, Papa?
People on the road. Keep your face down. Dont look.
No smoke from the dead fire. Nothing to be seen of the cart.
He wallowed into the ground and lay watching across his
forearm. An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying threefoot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the
wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of
chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They
clanked past, marching with a swaying gait li…
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