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       The Road, p.16

           Cormac McCarthy
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  I'll kill you where you stand.

  Dont do this, man.

  I wont tell you again.

  All right. All right. Just take it easy.

  He stripped slowly and piled his vile rags in the road.

  The shoes.

  Come on, man.

  The shoes.

  The thief looked at the boy. The boy had turned away and put his hands over his ears. Okay, he said. Okay. He sat naked in the road and began to unlace the rotting pieces of leather laced to his feet. Then he stood up, holding them in one hand.

  Put them in the cart.

  He stepped forward and placed the shoes on top of the blankets and stepped back. Standing there raw and naked, filthy, starving. Covering himself with his hand. He was already shivering.

  Put the clothes in.

  He bent and scooped up the rags in his arms and piled them on top of the shoes. He stood there holding himself. Dont do this, man.

  You didnt mind doing it to us.

  I'm begging you.

  Papa, the boy said.

  Come on. Listen to the kid.

  You tried to kill us.

  I'm starving, man. You'd have done the same.

  You took everything.

  Come on, man. I'll die.

  I'm going to leave you the way you left us.

  Come on. I'm begging you.

  He pulled the cart back and swung it around and put the pistol on top and looked at the boy. Let's go, he said. And they set out along the road south with the boy crying and looking back at the nude and slatlike creature standing there in the road shivering and hugging himself. Oh Papa, he sobbed.

  Stop it.

  I cant stop it.

  What do you think would have happened to us if we hadnt caught him? Just stop it.

  I'm trying.

  When they got to the curve in the road the man was still standing there. There was no place for him to go. The boy kept looking back and when he could no longer see him he stopped and then he just sat down in the road sobbing. The man pulled up and stood looking at him. He dug their shoes out of the cart and sat down and began to take the wrappings off the boy's feet. You have to stop crying, he said.

  I cant.

  He put on their shoes and then stood and walked back up the road but he couldnt see the thief. He came back and stood over the boy. He's gone, he said. Come on.

  He's not gone, the boy said. He looked up. His face streaked with soot. He's not.

  What do you want to do?

  Just help him, Papa. Just help him.

  The man looked back up the road.

  He was just hungry, Papa. He's going to die.

  He's going to die anyway.

  He's so scared, Papa.

  The man squatted and looked at him. I'm scared, he said. Do you understand? I'm scared.

  The boy didnt answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.

  You're not the one who has to worry about everything.

  The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.

  He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

  They wheeled the tottering cart back up the road and stood there in the cold and the gathering dark and called but no one came.

  He's afraid to answer, Papa.

  Is this where we stopped?

  I dont know. I think so.

  They went up the road calling out in the empty dusk, their voices lost over the darkening shorelands. They stopped and stood with their hands cupped to their mouths, hallooing mindlessly into the waste. Finally he piled the man's shoes and clothes in the road. He put a rock on top of them. We have to go, he said. We have to go.

  They made a dry camp with no fire. He sorted out cans for their supper and warmed them over the gas burner and they ate and the boy said nothing. The man tried to see his face in the blue light from the burner. I wasnt going to kill him, he said. But the boy didnt answer. They rolled themselves in the blankets and lay there in the dark. He thought he could hear the sea but perhaps it was just the wind. He could tell by his breathing that the boy was awake and after a while the boy said: But we did kill him.

  In the morning they ate and set out. The cart was so loaded it was hard to push and one of the wheels was giving out. The road bent its way along the coast, dead sheaves of saltgrass overhanging the pavement. The leadcolored sea shifting in the distance. The silence. He woke that night with the dull carbon light of the crossing moon beyond the murk making the shapes of the trees almost visible and he turned away coughing. Smell of rain out there. The boy was awake. You have to talk to me, he said.

  I'm trying.

  I'm sorry I woke you.

  It's okay.

  He got up and walked out to the road. The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.

  He went through the cans again one by one, holding them in his hand and squeezing them like a man checking for ripeness at a fruitstand. He sorted out two he thought questionable and packed away the rest and packed the cart and they set out upon the road again. In three days they came to a small port town and they hid the cart in a garage behind a house and piled old boxes over it and then sat in the house to see if anyone would come. No one did. He looked through the cabinets but there was nothing there. He needed vitamin D for the boy or he was going to get rickets. He stood at the sink and looked out down the driveway. Light the color of washwater congealing in the dirty panes of glass. The boy sat slumped at the table with his head in his arms.

  They walked through the town and down to the docks. They saw no one. He had the pistol in the pocket of his coat and he carried the flaregun in his hand. They walked out on the pier, the rough boards dark with tar and fastened down with spikes to the timbers underneath. Wooden bollards. Faint smell of salt and creosote coming in off the bay. On the far shore a row of warehouses and the shape of a tanker red with rust. A tall gantry crane against the sullen sky. There's no one here, he said. The boy didnt answer.

  They wheeled the cart through the back streets and across the railroad tracks and came into the main road again at the far edge of the town. As they passed the last of the sad wooden buildings something whistled past his head and clattered off the street and broke up against the wall of the block building on the other side. He grabbed the boy and fell on top of him and grabbed the cart to pull it to them. It tipped and fell over spilling the tarp and blankets into the street. In an upper window of the house he could see a man drawing a bow on them and he pushed the boy's head down and tried to cover him with his body. He heard the dull thwang of the bowstring and felt a sharp hot pain in his leg. Oh you bastard, he said. You bastard. He clawed the blankets to one side and lunged and grabbed the flaregun and raised up and cocked it and rested his arm on the side of the cart. The boy was clinging to him. When the man stepped back into the frame of the window to draw the bow again he fired. The flare went rocketing up toward the window in a long white arc and then they could hear the man screaming. He grabbed the boy and pushed him down and dragged the blankets over the top of him. Dont move, he said. Dont move and dont look. He pulled the blankets out into the street looking for the case for the flarepistol. It finally slid out of the cart and he snatched it up and opened it and took out the shells and reloaded the pistol and br
eeched it shut and put the rest of the loads in his pocket. Stay just like you are, he whispered. He patted the boy through the blankets and rose and ran limping across the street.

  He entered the house through the back door with the flaregun leveled at his waist. The house was stripped out to the wall studs. He stepped through into the livingroom and stood at the stair landing. He listened for movement in the upper rooms. He looked out the front window to where the cart lay in the street and then he went up the stairs.

  A woman was sitting in the corner holding the man. She'd taken off her coat to cover him. As soon as she saw him she began to curse him. The flare had burned out in the floor leaving a patch of white ash and there was a faint smell of burnt wood in the room. He crossed the room and looked out the window. The woman's eyes followed him. Scrawny, lank gray hair.

  Who else is up here?

  She didnt answer. He stepped past her and went through the rooms. His leg was bleeding badly. He could feel his trousers sticking to the skin. He went back into the front room. Where's the bow? he said.

  I dont have it.

  Where is it?

  I dont know.

  They left you here, didnt they?

  I left myself here.

  He turned and went limping down the stairs and opened the front door and went out into the street backward watching the house. When he got to the cart he pulled it upright and piled their things back in. Stay close, he whispered. Stay close.

  They put up in a store building at the end of the town. He wheeled the cart through and into a room at the rear and shut the door and pushed the cart against it sideways. He dug out the burner and the tank of gas and lit the burner and set it in the floor and then he unbuckled his belt and took off the bloodstained trousers. The boy watched. The arrow had cut a gash just above his knee about three inches long. It was still bleeding and his whole upper leg was discolored and he could see that the cut was deep. Some homemade broadhead beaten out of strapiron, an old spoon, God knows what. He looked at the boy. See if you can find the first-aid kit, he said.

  The boy didnt move.

  Get the first-aid kit, damn it. Dont just sit there.

  He jumped up and went to the door and began digging under the tarp and the blankets piled in the cart. He came back with the kit and gave it to the man and the man took it without comment and set it in the concrete floor in front of him and unsnapped the catches and opened it. He reached and turned up the burner for the light. Bring me the water bottle, he said. The boy brought the bottle and the man unscrewed the lid and poured water over the wound and held it shut between his fingers while he wiped away the blood. He swabbed the wound with disinfectant and opened a plastic envelope with his teeth and took out a small hooked suture needle and a coil of silk thread and sat holding the silk to the light while he threaded it through the needle's eye. He took a clamp from the kit and caught the needle in the jaws and locked them and set about suturing the wound. He worked quickly and he took no great pains about it. The boy was crouching in the floor. He looked at him and he bent to the sutures again. You dont have to watch, he said.

  Is it okay?

  Yeah. It's okay.

  Does it hurt?

  Yes. It hurts.

  He ran the knot down the thread and pulled it taut and cut off the silk with the scissors from the kit and looked at the boy. The boy was looking at what he'd done.

  I'm sorry I yelled at you.

  He looked up. That's okay, Papa.

  Let's start over.


  In the morning it was raining and a hard wind was rattling the glass at the rear of the building. He stood looking out. A steel dock half collapsed and submerged in the bay. The wheelhouses of sunken fishingboats standing out of the gray chop. Nothing moving out there. Anything that could move had long been blown away. His leg was throbbing and he pulled away the dressing and disinfected the wound and looked at it. The flesh swollen and discolored in the truss of the black stitching. He dressed it and pulled his bloodstiffened trousers on.

  They spent the day there, sitting among the boxes and crates. You have to talk to me, he said.

  I'm talking.

  Are you sure?

  I'm talking now.

  Do you want me to tell you a story?


  Why not?

  The boy looked at him and looked away.

  Why not?

  Those stories are not true.

  They dont have to be true. They're stories.

  Yes. But in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people.

  Why dont you tell me a story?

  I dont want to.


  I dont have any stories to tell.

  You could tell me a story about yourself.

  You already know all the stories about me. You were there.

  You have stories inside that I dont know about.

  You mean like dreams?

  Like dreams. Or just things that you think about.

  Yeah, but stories are supposed to be happy.

  They dont have to be.

  You always tell happy stories.

  You dont have any happy ones?

  They're more like real life.

  But my stories are not.

  Your stories are not. No.

  The man watched him. Real life is pretty bad?

  What do you think?

  Well, I think we're still here. A lot of bad things have happened but we're still here.


  You dont think that's so great.

  It's okay.

  They'd pulled a worktable up to the windows and spread out their blankets and the boy was lying there on his stomach looking out across the bay. The man sat with his leg stretched out. On the blanket between them were the two pistols and the box of flares. After a while the man said: I think it's pretty good. It's a pretty good story. It counts for something.

  It's okay, Papa. I just want to have a little quiet time.

  What about dreams? You used to tell me dreams sometimes.

  I dont want to talk about anything.


  I dont have good dreams anyway. They're always about something bad happening. You said that was okay because good dreams are not a good sign.

  Maybe. I dont know.

  When you wake up coughing you walk out along the road or somewhere but I can still hear you coughing.

  I'm sorry.

  One time I heard you crying.

  I know.

  So if I shouldnt cry you shouldnt cry either.


  Is your leg going to get better?


  You're not just saying that.


  Because it looks really hurt.

  It's not that bad.

  The man was trying to kill us. Wasnt he.

  Yes. He was.

  Did you kill him?


  Is that the truth?



  Is that all right?


  I thought you didnt want to talk?

  I dont.

  They left two days later, the man limping along behind the cart and the boy keeping close to his side until they cleared the outskirts of the town. The road ran along the flat gray coast and there were drifts of sand in the road that the winds had left there. It made for heavy going and they had to shovel their way in places with a plank they carried in the lower rack of the cart. They walked out down the beach and sat in the lee of the dunes and studied the map. They'd brought the burner with them and they heated water and made tea and sat wrapped in their blankets against the wind. Downshore the weathered timbers of an ancient ship. Gray and sandscrubbed beams, old hand-turned scarpbolts. The pitted iron hardware deep lilac in color, smeltered in some bloomery in Cadiz or Bristol and beaten out on a blackened anvil, good to last three hundred years against the sea. The following day they passed through the boarded ruins of a seaside re
sort and took the road inland through a pine wood, the long straight blacktop drifted in pineneedles, the wind in the dark trees.

  He sat in the road at noon in the best light there would be and snipped the sutures with the scissors and put the scissors back in the kit and took out the clamp. Then he set about pulling the small black threads from his skin, pressing down with the flat of his thumb. The boy sat in the road watching. The man fastened the clamp over the ends of the threads and pulled them out one by one. Small pin-lets of blood. When he was done he put away the clamp and taped gauze over the wound and then stood and pulled his trousers up and handed the kit to the boy to put away.

  That hurt, didnt it? the boy said.

  Yes. It did.

  Are you real brave?

  Just medium.

  What's the bravest thing you ever did?

  He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.


  No. Dont listen to me. Come on, let's go.

  In the evening the murky shape of another coastal city, the cluster of tall buildings vaguely askew. He thought the iron armatures had softened in the heat and then reset again to leave the buildings standing out of true. The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake. They went on. In the nights sometimes now he'd wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun.

  He leaned his forehead on his arms crossed upon the bar handle of the cart and coughed. He spat a bloody drool. More and more he had to stop and rest. The boy watched him. In some other world the child would already have begun to vacate him from his life. But he had no life other. He knew the boy lay awake in the night and listened to hear if he were breathing.

  The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He'd stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.

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