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       The Road, p.12

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  Standing at the edge of a winter field among rough men. The boy's age. A little older. Watching while they opened up the rocky hillside ground with pick and mattock and brought to light a great bolus of serpents perhaps a hundred in number. Collected there for a common warmth. The dull tubes of them beginning to move sluggishly in the cold hard light. Like the bowels of some great beast exposed to the day. The men poured gasoline on them and burned them alive, having no remedy for evil but only for the image of it as they conceived it to be. The burning snakes twisted horribly and some crawled burning across the floor of the grotto to illuminate its darker recesses. As they were mute there were no screams of pain and the men watched them burn and writhe and blacken in just such silence themselves and they disbanded in silence in the winter dusk each with his own thoughts to go home to their suppers.

  One night the boy woke from a dream and would not tell him what it was.

  You dont have to tell me, the man said. It's all right.

  I'm scared.

  It's all right.

  No it's not.

  It's just a dream.

  I'm really scared.

  I know.

  The boy turned away. The man held him. Listen to me, he said.

  What.

  When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.

  When they set out again he was very weak and for all his speeches he'd become more faint of heart than he had been in years. Filthy with diarrhea, leaning on the bar handle of the shopping cart. He looked at the boy out of his sunken haggard eyes. Some new distance between them. He could feel it. In two day's time they came upon a country where firestorms had passed leaving mile on mile of burn. A cake of ash in the roadway inches deep and hard going with the cart. The blacktop underneath had buckled in the heat and then set back again. He leaned on the handle and looked down the long straight of way. The thin trees down. The waterways a gray sludge. A blackened jackstraw land.

  Beyond a crossroads in that wilderness they began to come upon the possessions of travelers abandoned in the road years ago. Boxes and bags. Everything melted and black. Old plastic suitcases curled shapeless in the heat. Here and there the imprint of things wrested out of the tar by scavengers. A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. Take my hand, he said. I dont think you should see this.

  What you put in your head is there forever?

  Yes.

  It's okay Papa.

  It's okay?

  They're already there.

  I dont want you to look.

  They'll still be there.

  He stopped and leaned on the cart. He looked down the road and he looked at the boy. So strangely untroubled.

  Why dont we just go on, the boy said.

  Yes. Okay.

  They were trying to get away werent they Papa?

  Yes. They were.

  Why didnt they leave the road?

  They couldnt. Everything was on fire.

  They picked their way among the mummied figures. The black skin stretched upon the bones and their faces split and shrunken on their skulls. Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming. Passing them in silence down that silent corridor through the drifting ash where they struggled forever in the road's cold coagulate.

  They passed through the site of a roadside hamlet burned to nothing. Some metal storage tanks, a few standing flues of blackened brick. There were gray slagpools of melted glass in the ditches and the raw lightwires lay in rusting skeins for miles along the edge of the roadway. He was coughing every step of it. He saw the boy watching him. He was what the boy thought about. Well should he.

  They sat in the road and ate leftover skilletbread hard as biscuit and their last can of tunafish. He opened a can of prunes and they passed it between them. The boy held the tin up and drained the last of the juice and then sat with the tin in his lap and passed his forefinger around the inside of it and put his finger in his mouth.

  Dont cut your finger, the man said.

  You always say that.

  I know.

  He watched him lick the lid of the tin. With great care. Like a cat licking its reflection in a glass. Stop watching me, he said.

  Okay.

  He folded down the lid of the can and set it in the road before him. What? he said. What is it?

  Nothing.

  Tell me.

  I think there's someone following us.

  That's what I thought.

  That's what you thought?

  Yes. That's what I thought you were going to say. What do you want to do?

  I dont know.

  What do you think?

  Let's just go. We should hide our trash.

  Because they'll think we have lots of food.

  Yes.

  And they'll try to kill us.

  They wont kill us.

  They might try to.

  We're okay.

  Okay.

  I think we should lay in the weeds for them. See who they are.

  And how many.

  And how many. Yes.

  Okay.

  If we can get across the creek we could go up on the bluffs there and watch the road.

  Okay.

  We'll find a place.

  They rose and piled their blankets in the cart. Get the tin, the man said.

  It was late into the long twilight before the road crossed the creek. They trundled over the bridge and pushed the cart out through the woods looking for some place to leave it where it would not be seen. They stood looking back at the road in the dusk.

  What if we put it under the bridge? the boy said.

  What if they go down there for water?

  How far back do you think they are?

  I dont know.

  It's getting dark.

  I know.

  What if they go by in the dark?

  Let's just find a place where we can watch. It's not dark yet.

  They hid the cart and went up the slope among the rocks carrying their blankets and they dug themselves in where they could see back down the road through the trees for perhaps half a mile. They were sheltered from the wind and they wrapped themselves in their blankets and took turns watching but after a while the boy was asleep. He was almost asleep himself when he saw a figure appear at the top of the road and stand there. Soon two more appeared. Then a fourth. They stood and grouped. Then they came on. He could just make them out in the deep dusk. He thought they might stop soon and he wished he'd found a place further from the road. If they stopped at the bridge it would be a long cold night. They came down the road and crossed the bridge. Three men and a woman. The woman walked with a waddling gait and as she approached he could see that she was pregnant. The men carried packs on their backs and the woman carried a small cloth suitcase. All of them wretchedlooking beyond description. Their breath steaming softly. They crossed the bridge and continued on down the road and vanished one by one into the waiting darkness.

  It was a long night anyway. When it was light enough to see he pulled on his shoes and rose and wrapped one of the blankets around him and walked out and stood looking at the road below. The bare ironcolored wood and the fields beyond. The corrugate shapes of old harrowtroughs still faintly visible. Cotton perhaps. The boy was sleeping and he went down to the cart and got the map and the bottle of water and a can of fruit from their small stores and he came back and sat in the blankets and studied the map.

  You always think we've gone further than we have.

  He moved his finger. Here then.

  More.

  Here.

  Okay.

  He folded up the limp and rotting pages. Okay, he said.

  They sat looking out through the trees at the road.

  Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they we
igh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.

  The country went from pine to liveoak and pine. Magnolias. Trees as dead as any. He picked up one of the heavy leaves and crushed it in his hand to powder and let the powder sift through his fingers.

  On the road early the day following. They'd not gone far when the boy pulled at his sleeve and they stopped and stood. A thin stem of smoke was rising out of the woods ahead. They stood watching.

  What should we do, Papa?

  Maybe we should take a look.

  Let's just keep going.

  What if they're going the same way we are?

  So? the boy said.

  We're going to have them behind us. I'd like to know who it is.

  What if it's an army?

  It's just a small fire.

  Why dont we just wait?

  We cant wait. We're almost out of food. We have to keep going.

  They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder. The wooden and the true. They stood listening. The smoke stood vertically in the still air. No sound of any kind. The leaves were soft from the recent rains and quiet underfoot. He turned and looked at the boy. The small dirty face wide with fear. They circled the fire at a distance, the boy holding on to his hand. He crouched and put his arm around him and they listened for a long time. I think they've gone, he whispered.

  What?

  I think they're gone. They probably had a lookout.

  It could be a trap, Papa.

  Okay. Let's wait a while.

  They waited. They could see the smoke through the trees. A wind had begun to trouble the top of the spire and the smoke shifted and they could smell it. They could smell something cooking. Let's circle around, the man said.

  Can I hold your hand?

  Yes. Of course you can.

  The woods were just burned trunks. There was nothing to see. I think they saw us, the man said. I think they saw us and ran away. They saw we had a gun.

  They left their food cooking.

  Yes.

  Let's take a look.

  It's really scary, Papa.

  There's no one here. It's okay.

  They walked into the little clearing, the boy clutching his hand. They'd taken everything with them except whatever black thing was skewered over the coals. He was standing there checking the perimeter when the boy turned and buried his face against him. He looked quickly to see what had happened. What is it? he said. What is it? The boy shook his head. Oh Papa, he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with him, holding him close. I'm sorry, he whispered. I'm sorry.

  He didnt know if he'd ever speak again. They camped at a river and he sat by the fire listening to the water running in the dark. It wasnt a safe place because the sound of the river masked any other but he thought it would cheer the boy up. They ate the last of their provisions and he sat studying the map. He measured the road with a piece of string and looked at it and measured again. Still a long way to the coast. He didnt know what they'd find when they got there. He shuffled the sections together and put them back in the plastic bag and sat staring into the coals.

  The following day they crossed the river by a narrow iron bridge and entered an old mill town. They went through the wooden houses but they found nothing. A man sat on a porch in his coveralls dead for years. He looked a straw man set out to announce some holiday. They went down the long dark wall of the mill, the windows bricked up. The fine black soot raced along the street before them.

  Odd things scattered by the side of the road. Electrical appliances, furniture. Tools. Things abandoned long ago by pilgrims enroute to their several and collective deaths. Even a year ago the boy might sometimes pick up something and carry it with him for a while but he didnt do that any more. They sat and rested and drank the last of their good water and left the plastic jerry jug standing in the road. The boy said: If we had that little baby it could go with us.

  Yes. It could.

  Where did they find it?

  He didnt answer.

  Could there be another one somewhere?

  I dont know. It's possible.

  I'm sorry about what I said about those people.

  What people?

  Those people that got burned up. That were struck in the road and got burned up.

  I didnt know that you said anything bad.

  It wasnt bad. Can we go now?

  Okay. Do you want to ride in the cart?

  It's okay.

  Why dont you ride for while?

  I dont want to. It's okay.

  Slow water in the flat country. The sloughs by the roadside motionless and gray. The coastal plain rivers in leaden serpentine across the wasted farmland. They went on. Ahead in the road was a dip and a stand of cane. I think there's a bridge there, he said. Probably a creek.

  Can we drink the water?

  We dont have a choice.

  It wont make us sick.

  I dont think so. It could be dry.

  Can I go ahead?

  Yes. Of course you can.

  The boy set off down the road. He'd not seen him run in a long time. Elbows out, flapping along in his outsized tennis shoes. He stopped and stood watching, biting his lip.

  The water was little more than a seep. He could see it moving slightly where it drew down into a concrete tile under the roadway and he spat into the water and watched to see if it would move. He got a cloth from the cart and a plastic jar and came back and wrapped the cloth over the mouth of the jar and sank it in the water and watched it fill. He raised it up dripping and held it to the light. It didnt look too bad. He took the cloth away and handed the jar to the boy. Go ahead, he said.

  The boy drank and handed it back.

  Drink some more.

  You drink some, Papa.

  Okay.

  They sat filtering the ash from the water and drinking until they could hold no more. The boy lay back in the grass.

  We need to go.

  I'm really tired.

  I know.

  He sat watching him. They'd not eaten in two days. In two more they would begin to get weak. He climbed the bank through the cane to check the road. Dark and black and trackless where it crossed the open country. The winds had swept the ash and dust from the surface. Rich lands at one time. No sign of life anywhere. It was no country that he knew. The names of the towns or the rivers. Come on, he said. We have to go.

  They slept more and more. More than once they woke sprawled in the road like traffic victims. The sleep of death. He sat up reaching about for the pistol. In the leaden evening he stood leaning with his elbows on the cart handle and looking across the fields at a house perhaps a mile away. It was the boy who had seen it. Shifting in and out of the curtain of soot like a house in some uncertain dream. He leaned on the cart and looked at him. It would cost them some effort to get there. Take their blankets. Hide the cart someplace along the road. They could reach it before dark but they couldnt get back.

  We have to take a look. We have no choice.

  I dont want to.

  We havent eaten in days.

  I'm not hungry.

  No, you're starving.

  I dont want to go there Papa.

  There's no one there. I promise.

  How do you know?

  I just know.

  They could be there.

  No they're not. It will be okay.

  They set out across the fields wrapped in their blankets, carrying only the pistol and a bottle of water. The field had been turned a last time and there were stalks of stubble sticking out of the ground and the faint trace of the disc was still visible from east to west. It had rained recently and the earth was soft underfoot and he kept his eye on the ground and before long he stopped and picked up an arrowhead. He spat on it and wiped away the dirt on the
seam of his trousers and gave it to the boy. It was white quartz, perfect as the day it was made. There are more, he said. Watch the ground, you'll see. He found two more. Gray flint. Then he found a coin. Or a button. Deep crust of verdigris. He chipped at it with the nail of his thumb. It was a coin. He took out his knife and chiseled at it with care. The lettering was in spanish. He started to call to the boy where he trudged ahead and then he looked about at the gray country and the gray sky and he dropped the coin and hurried on to catch up.

  They stood in front of the house looking at it. There was a gravel drive that curved away to the south. A brick loggia. Double stairs that swept up to the columned portico. At the rear of the house a brick dependency that may once have been a kitchen. Beyond that a log cabin. He started up the stairs but the boy pulled at his sleeve.

  Can we wait a while?

  Okay. But it's getting dark.

  I know.

  Okay.

  They sat on the steps and looked out over the country.

  There's no one here, the man said.

  Okay.

  Are you still scared?

  Yes.

  We're okay.

  Okay.

  They went up the stairs to the broad brickfloored porch. The door was painted black and it was propped open with a cinderblock. Dried leaves and weeds blown behind it. The boy clutched his hand. Why is the door open, Papa?

  It just is. It's probably been open for years. Maybe the last people propped it open to carry their things out.

  Maybe we should wait till tomorrow.

  Come on. We'll take a quick look. Before it gets too dark. If we secure the area then maybe we can have a fire.

  But we wont stay in the house will we?

  We dont have to stay in the house.

  Okay.

  Let's have a drink of water.

  Okay.

  He took the bottle from the side pocket of his parka and screwed off the top and watched the boy drink. Then he took a drink himself and put the lid back on and took the boy's hand and they entered the darkened hall. High ceiling. An imported chandelier. At the landing on the stairs was a tall palladian window and the faintest shape of it headlong on the stairwell wall in the day's last light.

 
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