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       The Road, p.3

           Cormac McCarthy
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  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 c
ant 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 tractor-trailer 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 a
nd 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.

 
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