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       The Road, p.13

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  We dont have to go upstairs, do we? the boy whispered.

  No. Maybe tomorrow.

  After we've secured the area.

  Yes.

  Okay.

  They entered the drawingroom. The shape of a carpet beneath the silty ash. Furniture shrouded in sheeting. Pale squares on the walls where paintings once had hung. In the room on the other side of the foyer stood a grand piano. Their own shapes sectioned in the thin and watery glass of the window there. They entered and stood listening. They wandered through the rooms like skeptical housebuyers. They stood looking out through the tall windows at the darkening land.

  In the kitchen there was cutlery and cooking pans and english china. A butler's pantry where the door closed softly behind them. Tile floor and rows of shelves and on the shelves several dozen quart jars. He crossed the room and picked one up and blew the dust from it. Green beans. Slices of red pepper standing among the ordered rows. Tomatoes. Corn. New potatoes. Okra. The boy watched him. The man wiped the dust from the caps of the jars and pushed on the lids with his thumb. It was getting dark fast. He carried a pair of the jars to the window and held them up and turned them. He looked at the boy. These may be poison, he said. We'll have to cook everything really well. Is that okay?

  I dont know.

  What do you want to do?

  You have to say.

  We both have to say.

  Do you think they're okay?

  I think if we cook them really good they'll be all right.

  Okay. Why do you think nobody has eaten them?

  I think nobody found them. You cant see the house from the road.

  We saw it.

  You saw it.

  The boy studied the jars.

  What do you think? the man said.

  I think we've got no choice.

  I think you're right. Let's get some wood before it gets any darker.

  They carried armloads of dead limbs up the back stairs through the kitchen and into the diningroom and broke them to length and stuffed the fireplace full. He lit the fire and smoke curled up over the painted wooden lintel and rose to the ceiling and curled down again. He fanned the blaze with a magazine and soon the flue began to draw and the fire roared in the room lighting up the walls and the ceiling and the glass chandelier in its myraid facets. The flames lit the darkening glass of the window where the boy stood in hooded silhouette like a troll come in from the night. He seemed stunned by the heat. The man pulled the sheets off the long Empire table in the center of the room and shook them out and made a nest of them in front of the hearth. He sat the boy down and pulled off his shoes and pulled off the dirty rags with which his feet were wrapped. Everything's okay, he whispered. Everything's okay.

  He found candles in a kitchen drawer and lit two of them and then melted wax onto the counter and stood them in the wax. He went outside and brought in more wood and piled it beside the hearth. The boy had not moved. There were pots and pans in the kitchen and he wiped one out and stood it on the counter and then he tried to open one of the jars but he could not. He carried a jar of green beans and one of potatoes to the front door and by the light of a candle standing in a glass he knelt and placed the first jar sideways in the space between the door and the jamb and pulled the door against it. Then he squatted in the foyer floor and hooked his foot over the outside edge of the door and pulled it against the lid and twisted the jar in his hands. The knurled lid turned in the wood grinding the paint. He took a fresh grip on the glass and pulled the door tighter and tried again. The lid slipped in the wood, then it held. He turned the jar slowly in his hands, then took it from the jamb and turned off the ring of the lid and set it in the floor. Then he opened the second jar and rose and carried them back into the kitchen, holding the glass in his other hand with the candle rolling about and sputtering. He tried to push the lids up off the jars with his thumbs but they were on too tight. He thought that was a good sign. He set the edge of the lid on the counter and punched the top of the jar with his fist and the lid snapped off and fell in the floor and he raised the jar and sniffed at it. It smelled delicious. He poured the potatoes and the beans into a pot and carried the pot into the diningroom and set it in the fire.

  They ate slowly out of bone china bowls, sitting at opposite sides of the table with a single candle burning between them. The pistol lying to hand like another dining implement. The warming house creaked and groaned. Like a thing being called out of long hibernation. The boy nodded over his bowl and his spoon clattered to the floor. The man rose and came around and carried him to the hearth and put him down in the sheets and covered him with the blankets. He must have gone back to the table because he woke in the night lying there with his face in his crossed arms. It was cold in the room and outside the wind was blowing. The windows rattled softly in their frames. The candle had burned out and the fire was down to coals. He rose and built back the fire and sat beside the boy and pulled the blankets over him and brushed back his filthy hair. I think maybe they are watching, he said. They are watching for a thing that even death cannot undo and if they do not see it they will turn away from us and they will not come back.

  The boy didnt want him to go upstairs. He tried to reason with him. There could be blankets up there, he said. We need to take a look.

  I dont want you to go up there.

  There's no one here.

  There could be.

  There's no one here. Dont you think they'd have come down by now?

  Maybe they're scared.

  I'll tell them we wont hurt them.

  Maybe they're dead.

  Then they wont mind if we take a few things. Look, whatever is up there it's better to know about it than to not know.

  Why?

  Why. Well, because we dont like surprises. Surprises are scary. And we dont like to be scared. And there could be things up there that we need. We have to take a look.

  Okay.

  Okay? Just like that?

  Well. You're not going to listen to me.

  I have been listening to you.

  Not very hard.

  There's no one here. There has been no one here for years. There are no tracks in the ash. Nothing disturbed. No furniture burned in the fireplace. There's food here.

  Tracks dont stay in the ash. You said so yourself. The wind blows them away.

  I'm going up.

  They stayed at the house for four days eating and sleeping. He'd found more blankets upstairs and they dragged in great piles of wood and stacked the wood in the corner of the room to dry. He found an antique bucksaw of wood and wire that he used to saw the dead trees to length. The teeth were rusty and dull and he sat in front of the fire with a rattail file and tried to sharpen them but to little purpose. There was a creek some hundred yards from the house and he hauled endless pails of water across the stubble fields and the mud and they heated water and bathed in a tub off the back bedroom on the lower floor and he cut their hair and shaved his beard. They had clothes and blankets and pillows from the upstairs rooms and they fitted themselves out in new attire, the boy's trousers cut to length with his knife. He made a nesting place in front of the hearth, turning over a tallboy chest to use as a headboard for their bed and to hold the heat. All the while it continued to rain. He set pails under the downspouts at the housecorners to catch fresh water off the old standing-seam metal roof and at night he could hear the rain drumming in the upper rooms and dripping through the house.

  They rummaged through the outbuildings for anything of use. He found a wheelbarrow and pulled it out and tipped it over and turned the wheel slowly, examining the tire. The rubber was glazed and cracked but he thought it might hold air and he looked through old boxes and jumbles of tools and found a bicycle pump and screwed the end of the hose to the valvestem of the tire and began to pump. The air leaked out around the rim but he turned the wheel and had the boy hold down the tire until it caught and he got it pumped up. He unscrewed the hose and turned the wheelbarrow over and trundled
it across the floor and back. Then he pushed it outside for the rain to clean. When they left two days later the weather had cleared and they set out down the muddy road pushing the wheelbarrow with their new blankets and the jars of canned goods wrapped in their extra clothes. He'd found a pair of workshoes and the boy was wearing blue tennis shoes with rags stuffed into the toes and they had fresh sheeting for face masks. When they got to the blacktop they had to turn back along the road to fetch the cart but it was less than a mile. The boy walked alongside with one hand on the wheelbarrow. We did good, didnt we Papa? he said. Yes we did.

  They ate well but they were still a long way from the coast. He knew that he was placing hopes where he'd no reason to. He hoped it would be brighter where for all he knew the world grew darker daily. He'd once found a lightmeter in a camera store that he thought he might use to average out readings for a few months and he carried it around with him for a long time thinking he might find some batteries for it but he never did. At night when he woke coughing he'd sit up with his hand pushed over his head against the blackness. Like a man waking in a grave. Like those disinterred dead from his childhood that had been relocated to accommodate a highway. Many had died in a cholera epidemic and they'd been buried in haste in wooden boxes and the boxes were rotting and falling open. The dead came to light lying on their sides with their legs drawn up and some lay on their stomachs. The dull green antique coppers spilled from out the tills of their eyesockets onto the stained and rotted coffin floors.

  They stood in a grocery store in a small town where a mounted deerhead hung from the wall. The boy stood looking at it a long time. There was broken glass in the floor and the man made him wait at the door while he kicked through the trash in his workshoes but he found nothing. There were two gas pumps outside and they sat on the concrete apron and lowered a small tin can on a string into the underground tank and hauled it up and poured the cupful of gasoline it held into a plastic jug and lowered it again. They'd tied a small length of pipe to the can to sink it and they crouched over the tank like apes fishing with sticks in an anthill for the better part of an hour until the jug was full. Then they screwed on the cap and set the jug in the bottom rack of the cart and went on.

  Long days. Open country with the ash blowing over the road. The boy sat by the fire at night with the pieces of the map across his knees. He had the names of towns and rivers by heart and he measured their progress daily.

  They ate more sparingly. They'd almost nothing left. The boy stood in the road holding the map. They listened but they could hear nothing. Still he could see open country to the east and the air was different. Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they'd lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I'm sorry it's not blue, he said. That's okay, said the boy.

  An hour later they were sitting on the beach and staring out at the wall of smog across the horizon. They sat with their heels dug into the sand and watched the bleak sea wash up at their feet. Cold. Desolate. Birdless. He'd left the cart in the bracken beyond the dunes and they'd taken blankets with them and sat wrapped in them in the wind-shade of a great driftwood log. They sat there for a long time. Along the shore of the cove below them windrows of small bones in the wrack. Further down the saltbleached ribcages of what may have been cattle. Gray salt rime on the rocks. The wind blew and dry seedpods scampered down the sands and stopped and then went on again.

  Do you think there could be ships out there?

  I dont think so.

  They wouldnt be able to see very far.

  No. They wouldnt.

  What's on the other side?

  Nothing.

  There must be something.

  Maybe there's a father and his little boy and they're sitting on the beach.

  That would be okay.

  Yes. That would be okay.

  And they could be carrying the fire too?

  They could be. Yes.

  But we dont know.

  We dont know.

  So we have to be vigilant.

  We have to be vigilant. Yes.

  How long can we stay here?

  I dont know. We dont have much to eat.

  I know.

  You like it.

  Yeah.

  Me too.

  Can I go swimming?

  Swimming?

  Yes.

  You'll freeze your tokus off.

  I know.

  It will be really cold. Worse than you think.

  That's okay.

  I dont want to have to come in after you.

  You dont think I should go.

  You can go.

  But you dont think I should.

  No. I think you should.

  Really?

  Yes. Really.

  Okay.

  He rose and let the blanket fall to the sand and then stripped out of his coat and out of his shoes and clothes. He stood naked, clutching himself and dancing. Then he went running down the beach. So white. Knobby spine-bones. The razorous shoulder blades sawing under the pale skin. Running naked and leaping and screaming into the slow roll of the surf.

  By the time he came out he was blue with cold and his teeth were chattering. He walked down to meet him and wrapped him shuddering in the blanket and held him until he stopped gasping. But when he looked the boy was crying. What is it? he said. Nothing. No, tell me. Nothing. It's nothing.

  With dark they built a fire against the log and ate plates of okra and beans and the last of the canned potatoes. The fruit was long gone. They drank tea and sat by the fire and they slept in the sand and listened to the roll of the surf in the bay. The long shudder and fall of it. He got up in the night and walked out and stood on the beach wrapped in his blankets. Too black to see. Taste of salt on his lips. Waiting. Waiting. Then the slow boom falling downshore. The seething hiss of it washing over the beach and drawing away again. He thought there could be deathships out there yet, drifting with their lolling rags of sail. Or life in the deep. Great squid propelling themselves over the floor of the sea in the cold darkness. Shuttling past like trains, eyes the size of saucers. And perhaps beyond those shrouded swells another man did walk with another child on the dead gray sands. Slept but a sea apart on another beach among the bitter ashes of the world or stood in their rags lost to the same indifferent sun.

  He remembered waking once on such a night to the clatter of crabs in the pan where he'd left steakbones from the night before. Faint deep coals of the driftwood fire pulsing in the onshore wind. Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea's black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.

  When he got back the boy was awake and he was scared. He'd been calling out but not loud enough that he could hear him. The man put his arms around him. I couldnt hear you, he said. I couldnt hear you for the surf. He put wood on the fire and fanned it to life and they lay in their blankets watching the flames twist in the wind and then they slept.

  In the morning he rekindled the fire and they ate and watched the shore. The cold and rainy look of it not so different from seascapes in the northern world. No gulls or shorebirds. Charred and senseless artifacts strewn down the shoreline or rolling in the surf. They gathered driftwood and stacked it and covered it with the tarp and then set off down the beach. We're beachcombers, he said.

  What is that?

&
nbsp; It's people who walk along the beach looking for things of value that might have washed up.

  What kind of things?

  Any kind of things. Anything that you might be able to use.

  Do you think we'll find anything?

  I dont know. We'll take a look.

  Take a look, the boy said.

  They stood on the rock jetty and looked out to the south. A gray salt spittle lagging and curling in the rock pool. Long curve of beach beyond. Gray as lava sand. The wind coming off the water smelled faintly of iodine. That was all. There was no sea smell to it. On the rocks the remnants of some dark seamoss. They crossed and went on. At the end of the strand their way was blocked by a headland and they left the beach and took an old path up through the dunes and through the dead seaoats until they came out upon a low promontory. Below them a hook of land shrouded in the dark scud blowing down the shore and beyond that lying half over and awash the shape of a sailboat's hull. They crouched in the dry tufts of grass and watched. What should we do? the boy said.

  Let's just watch for a while.

  I'm cold.

  I know. Let's move down a little ways. Out of the wind.

  He sat holding the boy in front of him. The dead grass thrashed softly. Out there a gray desolation. The endless seacrawl. How long do we have to sit here? the boy said.

  Not long.

  Do you think there are people on the boat, Papa?

  I dont think so.

  They'd be all tilted over.

  Yes they would. Can you see any tracks out there?

  No.

  Let's just wait a while.

  I'm cold.

  They trekked out along the crescent sweep of beach, keeping to the firmer sand below the tidewrack. They stood, their clothes flapping softly. Glass floats covered with a gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless.

 
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