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       The Road, p.17

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.

  They'd begun to come upon dead windfalls of pinetrees, great swaths of ruin cut through the countryside. The wreckage of buildings strewn over the landscape and skeins of wire from the roadside poles garbled like knitting. The road was littered with debris and it was work to get the cart through. Finally they just sat by the side of the road and stared at what was before them. Roofs of houses, the trunks of trees. A boat. The open sky beyond where in the distance the sullen sea lagged and shifted.

  They sorted through the wreckage strewn along the road and in the end he came up with a canvas bag that he could tote over his shoulder and a small suitcase for the boy. They packed their blankets and the tarp and what was left of the canned goods and set out again with their knapsacks and their bags leaving the cart behind. Clambering through the ruins. Slow going. He had to stop and rest. He sat in a roadside sofa, the cushions bloated in the damp. Bent over, coughing. He pulled the bloodstained mask from his face and got up and rinsed it in the ditch and wrung it out and then just stood there in the road. His breath pluming white. Winter was already upon them. He turned and looked at the boy. Standing with his suitcase like an orphan waiting for a bus.

  In two day's time they came to a broad tidal river where the bridge lay collapsed in the slow moving water. They sat on the broken abutment of the road and watched the river backing upon itself and coiling over the iron trellis-work. He looked across the water to the country beyond.

  What are we going to do Papa? he said.

  Well what are we, said the boy.

  They walked out the long spit of tidal mud where a small boat lay half buried and stood there looking at it. It was altogether derelict. There was rain in the wind. They trudged up the beach with their baggage looking for shelter but they found none. He scuffled together a pile of the bonecolored wood that lay along the shore and got a fire going and they sat in the dunes with the tarp over them and watched the cold rain coming in from the north. It fell harder, dimpling the sand. The fire steamed and the smoke swung in slow coils and the boy curled up under the pattering tarp and soon he was asleep. The man pulled the plastic over himself in a hood and watched the gray sea shrouded away out there in the rain and watched the surf break along the shore and draw away again over the dark and stippled sand.

  The next day they headed inland. A vast low swale where ferns and hydrangeas and wild orchids lived on in ashen effigies which the wind had not yet reached. Their progress was a torture. In two days when they came out upon a road he set the bag down and sat bent over with his arms crossed at his chest and coughed till he could cough no more. Two more days and they may have traveled ten miles. They crossed the river and a short ways on they came to a crossroads. Downcountry a storm had passed over the isthmus and leveled the dead black trees from east to west like weeds in the floor of a stream. Here they camped and when he lay down he knew that he could go no further and that this was the place where he would die. The boy sat watching him, his eyes welling. Oh Papa, he said.

  He watched him come through the grass and kneel with the cup of water he'd fetched. There was light all about him. He took the cup and drank and lay back. They had for food a single tin of peaches but he made the boy eat it and he would not take any. I cant, he said. It's all right.

  I'll save your half.

  Okay. You save it until tomorrow.

  He took the cup and moved away and when he moved the light moved with him. He'd wanted to try and make a tent out of the tarp but the man would not let him. He said that he didnt want anything covering him. He lay watching the boy at the fire. He wanted to be able to see. Look around you, he said. There is no prophet in the earth's long chronicle who's not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right.

  The boy thought he smelled wet ash on the wind. He went up the road and come dragging back a piece of plywood from the roadside trash and he drove sticks into the ground with a rock and made of the plywood a rickety leanto but in the end it didnt rain. He left the flarepistol and took the revolver with him and he scoured the countryside for anything to eat but he came back emptyhanded. The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I cant go with you. You need to keep going. You dont know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You'll be lucky again. You'll see. Just go. It's all right.

  I cant.

  It's all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it's here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it.

  You're going to be okay, Papa. You have to.

  No I'm not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you cant take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?

  I want to be with you.

  You cant.

  Please.

  You cant. You have to carry the fire.

  I dont know how to.

  Yes you do.

  Is it real? The fire?

  Yes it is.

  Where is it? I dont know where it is.

  Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

  Just take me with you. Please.

  I cant.

  Please, Papa.

  I cant. I cant hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.

  You said you wouldnt ever leave me.

  I know. I'm sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You're the best guy. You always were. If I'm not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see.

  Will I hear you?

  Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you'll hear me. You have to practice. Just dont give up. Okay?

  Okay.

  Okay.

  I'm really scared Papa.

  I know. But you'll be okay. You're going to be lucky. I know you are. I've got to stop talking. I'm going to start coughing again.

  It's okay, Papa. You dont have to talk. It's okay.

  He went down the road as far as he dared and then he came back. His father was asleep. He sat with him under the plywood and watched him. He closed his eyes and talked to him and he kept his eyes closed and listened. Then he tried again.

  He woke in the darkness, coughing softly. He lay listening. The boy sat by the fire wrapped in a blanket watching him. Drip of water. A fading light. Old dreams encroached upon the waking world. The dripping was in the cave. The light was a candle which the boy bore in a ringstick of beaten copper. The wax spattered on the stones. Tracks of unknown creatures in the mortified loess. In that cold corridor they had reached the point of no return which was measured from the first solely by the light they carried with them.

  Do you remember that little boy, Papa?

  Yes. I remember him.

  Do you think that he's all right that little boy?

  Oh yes. I think he's all right.

  Do you think he was lost?

  No. I dont think he was lost.

  I'm scared that he was lost.

  I think he's all right.

  But who will find him if he's lost? Who will find the little boy?

  Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.

  He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. He sat there a long time weeping and then he got up and walked out through the woods to the road. When he came back he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again.

  He stayed three days and then
he walked out to the road and he looked down the road and he looked back the way they had come. Someone was coming. He started to turn and go back into the woods but he didnt. He just stood in the road and waited, the pistol in his hand. He'd piled all the blankets on his father and he was cold and he was hungry. The man that hove into view and stood there looking at him was dressed in a gray and yellow ski parka. He carried a shotgun upside down over his shoulder on a braided leather lanyard and he wore a nylon bandolier filled with shells for the gun. A veteran of old skirmishes, bearded, scarred across his cheek and the bone stoven and the one eye wandering. When he spoke his mouth worked imperfectly, and when he smiled.

  Where's the man you were with?

  He died.

  Was that your father?

  Yes. He was my papa.

  I'm sorry.

  I dont know what to do.

  I think you should come with me.

  Are you one of the good guys?

  The man pulled back the hood from his face. His hair was long and matted. He looked at the sky. As if there were anything there to be seen. He looked at the boy. Yeah, he said. I'm one of the good guys. Why dont you put the pistol away?

  I'm not supposed to let anyone take the pistol. No matter what.

  I dont want your pistol. I just dont want you pointing it at me.

  Okay.

  Where's your stuff?

  We dont have much stuff.

  Have you got a sleeping bag?

  No.

  What have you got? Some blankets?

  My papa's wrapped in them.

  Show me.

  The boy didnt move. The man watched him. He squatted on one knee and swung the shotgun up from under his arm and stood it in the road and leaned on the fore-stock. The shotgun shells in the loops of the bandolier were handloaded and the ends sealed with candlewax. He smelled of woodsmoke. Look, he said. You got two choices here. There was some discussion about whether to even come after you at all. You can stay here with your papa and die or you can go with me. If you stay you need to keep out of the road. I dont know how you made it this far. But you should go with me. You'll be all right.

  How do I know you're one of the good guys?

  You dont. You'll have to take a shot.

  Are you carrying the fire?

  Am I what?

  Carrying the fire.

  You're kind of weirded out, arent you?

  No.

  Just a little.

  Yeah.

  That's okay.

  So are you?

  What, carrying the fire?

  Yes.

  Yeah. We are.

  Do you have any kids?

  We do.

  Do you have a little boy?

  We have a little boy and we have a little girl.

  How old is he?

  He's about your age. Maybe a little older.

  And you didnt eat them.

  No.

  You dont eat people.

  No. We dont eat people.

  And I can go with you?

  Yes. You can.

  Okay then.

  Okay.

  They went into the woods and the man squatted and looked at the gray and wasted figure under the tilted sheet of plywood. Are these all the blankets you have?

  Yes.

  Is that your suitcase?

  Yes.

  He stood. He looked at the boy. Why dont you go back out to the road and wait for me. I'll bring the blankets and everything.

  What about my papa?

  What about him.

  We cant just leave him here.

  Yes we can.

  I dont want people to see him.

  There's no one to see him.

  Can I cover him with leaves?

  The wind will blow them away.

  Could we cover him with one of the blankets?

  I'll do it. Go on now.

  Okay.

  He waited in the road and when the man came out of the woods he was carrying the suitcase and he had the blankets over his shoulder. He sorted through them and handed one to the boy. Here, he said. Wrap this around you. You're cold. The boy tried to hand him the pistol but he wouldnt take it. You hold onto that, he said.

  Okay.

  Do you know how to shoot it?

  Yes.

  Okay.

  What about my papa?

  There's nothing else to be done.

  I think I want to say goodbye to him.

  Will you be all right?

  Yes.

  Go ahead. I'll wait for you.

  He walked back into the woods and knelt beside his father. He was wrapped in a blanket as the man had promised and the boy didnt uncover him but he sat beside him and he was crying and he couldnt stop. He cried for a long time. I'll talk to you every day, he whispered. And I wont forget. No matter what. Then he rose and turned and walked back out to the road.

  The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

  Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

 


 

  Cormac McCarthy, The Road

  (Series: # )

 

 


 

 
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