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       The Road, p.4

           Cormac McCarthy
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  In the morning he lay looking up at the clay nests that swallows had built in the corners under the bridge. He looked at the boy but the boy had turned away and lay staring out at the river.

  There's nothing we could have done.

  He didnt answer.

  He's going to die. We cant share what we have or we'll die too.

  I know.

  So when are you going to talk to me again?

  I'm talking now.

  Are you sure?

  Yes.

  Okay.

  Okay.

  They stood on the far shore of a river and called to him. Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste. Trekking the dried floor of a mineral sea where it lay cracked and broken like a fallen plate. Paths of feral fire in the coagulate sands. The figures faded in the distance. He woke and lay in the dark.

  The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?

  I dont know.

  Why are you taking a bath?

  I'm not.

  Once in those early years he'd wakened in a barren wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter dark. Their half muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again.

  He'd a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets. He tried to remember the rules of childhood games. Old Maid. Some version of Whist. He was sure he had them mostly wrong and he made up new games and gave them made up names. Abnormal Fescue or Catbarf. Sometimes the child would ask him questions about the world that for him was not even a memory. He thought hard how to answer. There is no past. What would you like? But he stopped making things up because those things were not true either and the telling made him feel bad. The child had his own fantasies. How things would be in the south. Other children. He tried to keep a rein on this but his heart was not in it. Whose would be?

  No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.

  He thought about the picture in the road and he thought that he should have tried to keep her in their lives in some way but he didnt know how. He woke coughing and walked out so as not to wake the child. Following a stone wall in the dark, wrapped in his blanket, kneeling in the ashes like a penitent. He coughed till he could taste the blood and he said her name aloud. He thought perhaps he'd said it in his sleep. When he got back the boy was awake. I'm sorry, he said.

  It's okay.

  Go to sleep.

  I wish I was with my mom.

  He didnt answer. He sat beside the small figure wrapped in the quilts and blankets. After a while he said: You mean you wish that you were dead.

  Yes.

  You musnt say that.

  But I do.

  Dont say it. It's a bad thing to say.

  I cant help it.

  I know. But you have to.

  How do I do it?

  I dont know.

  We're survivors he told her across the flame of the lamp.

  Survivors? she said.

  Yes.

  What in God's name are you talking about? We're not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror film.

  I'm begging you.

  I dont care. I dont care if you cry. It doesnt mean anything to me.

  Please.

  Stop it.

  I am begging you. I'll do anything.

  Such as what? I should have done it a long time ago. When there were three bullets in the gun instead of two. I was stupid. We've been over all of this. I didnt bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I'm done. I thought about not even telling you. That would probably have been best. You have two bullets and then what? You cant protect us. You say you would die for us but what good is that? I'd take him with me if it werent for you. You know I would. It's the right thing to do.

  You're talking crazy.

  No, I'm speaking the truth. Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They'll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant. She sat there smoking a slender length of dried grapevine as if it were some rare cheroot. Holding it with a certain elegance, her other hand across her knees where she'd drawn them up. She watched him across the small flame. We used to talk about death, she said. We dont any more. Why is that?

  I dont know.

  It's because it's here. There's nothing left to talk about.

  I wouldnt leave you.

  I dont care. It's meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I've taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.

  Death is not a lover.

  Oh yes he is.

  Please dont do this.

  I'm sorry.

  I cant do it alone.

  Then dont. I cant help you. They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all. You say you cant? Then dont do it. That's all. Because I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time. You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take. My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none. Maybe you'll be good at this. I doubt it, but who knows. The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.

  He didnt answer.

  You have no argument because there is none.

  Will you tell him goodbye?

  No. I will not.

  Just wait till morning. Please.

  I have to go.

  She had already stood up.

  For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell him?

  I cant help you.

  Where are you going to go? You cant even see.

  I dont have to.

  He stood up. I'm begging you, he said.

  No. I will not. I cannot.

  She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He'd taught her himself. Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick. And she was right. There was no argument. The hundred nights they'd sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall. In the morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were packed and ready to set out upon the road he turned and looked back at their campsite and he said: She's gone isn't she? And he said: Yes, she is.

  Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most outlandish advents. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end. They sat at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a midnight supper and watched distant cities burn. A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing. The improbable appearance of the small crown of the head. Streaked with blood and lank black hair. The rank meconium. Her cries meant nothing to him. Beyond the window just the gathering cold, the fires on the horizon. He held
aloft the scrawny red body so raw and naked and cut the cord with kitchen shears and wrapped his son in a towel.

  Did you have any friends?

  Yes. I did.

  Lots of them?

  Yes.

  Do you remember them?

  Yes. I remember them.

  What happened to them?

  They died.

  All of them?

  Yes. All of them.

  Do you miss them?

  Yes. I do.

  Where are we going?

  We're going south.

  Okay.

  They were all day on the long black road, stopping in the afternoon to eat sparingly from their meager supplies. The boy took his truck from the pack and shaped roads in the ash with a stick. The truck tooled along slowly. He made truck noises. The day seemed almost warm and they slept in the leaves with their packs under their heads.

  Something woke him. He turned on his side and lay listening. He raised his head slowly, the pistol in his hand. He looked down at the boy and when he looked back toward the road the first of them were already coming into view. God, he whispered. He reached and shook the boy, keeping his eyes on the road. They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe. Coughing. Then he heard on the road behind them what sounded like a diesel truck. Quick, he whispered. Quick. He shoved the pistol in his belt and grabbed the boy by the hand and he dragged the cart through the trees and tilted it over where it would not so easily be seen. The boy was frozen with fear. He pulled him to him. It's all right, he said. We have to run. Dont look back. Come on.

  He slung their knapsacks over his shoulder and they tore through the crumbling bracken. The boy was terrified. Run, he whispered. Run. He looked back. The truck had rumbled into view. Men standing in the bed looking out. The boy fell and he pulled him up. It's all right, he said. Come on.

  He could see a break through the trees that he thought was a ditch or a cut and they came out through the weeds into an old roadway. Plates of cracked macadam showing through the drifts of ash. He pulled the boy down and they crouched under the bank listening, gasping for breath. They could hear the diesel engine out on the road, running on God knows what. When he raised up to look he could just see the top of the truck moving along the road. Men standing in the stakebed, some of them holding rifles. The truck passed on and the black diesel smoke coiled through the woods. The motor sounded ropy. Missing and puttering. Then it quit.

  He sank down and put his hand on top of his head. God, he said. They could hear the thing rattle and flap to a halt. Then just the silence. He had the pistol in his hand, he couldnt even remember taking it from his belt. They could hear the men talking. Hear them unlatch and raise the hood. He sat with his arm around the boy. Shh, he said. Shh. After a while they heard the truck begin to roll. Lumbering and creaking like a ship. They'd have no other way to start it save to push it and they couldnt get it fast enough to start on that slope. After a few minutes it coughed and bucked and stopped again. He raised his head to look and coming through the weeds twenty feet away was one of their number unbuckling his belt. They both froze.

  He cocked the pistol and held it on the man and the man stood with one hand out at his side, the dirty crumpled paintmask that he wore sucking in and out.

  Just keep coming.

  He looked at the road.

  Dont look back there. Look at me. If you call out you're dead.

  He came forward, holding his belt by one hand. The holes in it marked the progress of his emaciation and the leather at one side had a lacquered look to it where he was used to stropping the blade of his knife. He stepped down into the roadcut and he looked at the gun and he looked at the boy. Eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes. He wore a beard that had been cut square across the bottom with shears and he had a tattoo of a bird on his neck done by someone with an illformed notion of their appearance. He was lean, wiry, rachitic. Dressed in a pair of filthy blue coveralls and a black billcap with the logo of some vanished enterprise embroidered across the front of it.

  Where are you going?

  I was going to take a crap.

  Where are you going with the truck.

  I dont know.

  What do you mean you dont know? Take the mask off.

  He pulled the mask off over his head and stood holding it.

  I mean I dont know, he said.

  You dont know where you're going?

  No.

  What's the truck running on.

  Diesel fuel.

  How much do you have.

  There's three fifty-five gallon drums in the bed.

  Do you have ammunition for those guns?

  He looked back toward the road.

  I told you not to look back there.

  Yeah. We got ammunition.

  Where did you get it?

  Found it.

  That's a lie. What are you eating.

  Whatever we can find.

  Whatever you can find.

  Yeah. He looked at the boy. You wont shoot, he said.

  That's what you think.

  You aint got but two shells. Maybe just one. And they'll hear the shot.

  Yes they will. But you wont.

  How do you figure that?

  Because the bullet travels faster than sound. It will be in your brain before you can hear it. To hear it you will need a frontal lobe and things with names like colliculus and temporal gyrus and you wont have them anymore. They'll just be soup.

  Are you a doctor?

  I'm not anything.

  We got a man hurt. It'd be worth your while.

  Do I look like an imbecile to you?

  I dont know what you look like.

  Why are you looking at him?

  I can look where I want to.

  No you cant. If you look at him again I'll shoot you.

  The boy was sitting with both hands on top of his head and looking out between his forearms.

  I'll bet that boy is hungry. Why dont you all just come on to the truck? Get something to eat. Aint no need to be such a hard-ass.

  You dont have anything to eat. Let's go.

  Go where?

  Let's go.

  I aint goin nowheres.

  You're not?

  No. I aint.

  You think I wont kill you but you're wrong. But what I'd rather do is take you up this road a mile or so and then turn you loose. That's all the head start we need. You wont find us. You wont even know which way we went.

  You know what I think?

  What do you think.

  I think you're chickenshit.

  He let go of the belt and it fell in the roadway with the gear hanging from it. A canteen. An old canvas army pouch. A leather sheath for a knife. When he looked up the roadrat was holding the knife in his hand. He'd only taken two steps but he was almost between him and the child.

  What do you think you're going to do with that?

  He didnt answer. He was a big man but he was very quick. He dove and grabbed the boy and rolled and came up holding him against his chest with the knife at his throat. The man had already dropped to the ground and he swung with him and leveled the pistol and fired from a two-handed position balanced on both knees at a distance of six feet. The man fell back instantly and lay with blood bubbling from the hole in his forehead. The boy was lying in his lap with no expression on his face at all. He shoved the pistol in his belt and slung the knapsack over his shoulder and picked up the boy and turned him around and lifted him over his head and set him on his shoulders and set off up the old roadway at a dead run, holding the boy's knees, the boy clutching his forehead, covered with gore and mute as a stone.

  They came to an old iron bridge in the woods where the vanished road had crossed an all but vanished stream. He was starting to cough and he'd h
ardly breath to do it with. He dropped down out of the roadway and into the woods. He turned and stood gasping, trying to listen. He heard nothing. He staggered on another half mile or so and finally dropped to his knees and put the boy down in the ashes and leaves. He wiped the blood from his face and held him. It's okay, he said. It's okay.

  In the long cold evening with the darkness dropping down he heard them only once. He held the boy close. There was a cough in his throat that never left. The boy so frail and thin through his coat, shivering like a dog. The footsteps in the leaves stopped. Then they moved on. They neither spoke nor called to each other, the more sinister for that. With the final onset of dark the iron cold locked down and the boy by now was shuddering violently. No moon rose beyond the murk and there was nowhere to go. They had a single blanket in the pack and he got it out and covered the boy with it and he unzipped his parka and held the boy against him. They lay there for a long time but they were freezing and finally he sat up. We've got to move, he said. We cant just lie here. He looked around but there was nothing to see. He spoke into a blackness without depth or dimension.

  He held the boy's hand as they stumbled through the woods. The other hand he held out before him. He could see no worse with his eyes shut. The boy was wrapped in the blanket and he told him not to drop it because they would never find it again. He wanted to be carried but the man told him that he had to keep moving. They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not.

  In the grudging light that passed for day he put the boy in the leaves and sat studying the woods. When it was a bit lighter he rose and walked out and cut a perimeter about their siwash camp looking for sign but other than their own faint track through the ash he saw nothing. He went back and gathered the boy up. We have to go, he said. The boy sat slumped, his face blank. The filth dried in his hair and his face streaked with it. Talk to me, he said, but he would not.

  They moved on east through the standing dead trees. They passed an old frame house and crossed a dirt road. A cleared plot of ground perhaps once a truckgarden. Stopping from time to time to listen. The unseen sun cast no shadow. They came upon the road unexpectedly and he stopped the boy with one hand and they crouched in the roadside ditch like lepers and listened. No wind. Dead silence. After a while he rose and walked out into the road. He looked back at the boy. Come on, he said. The boy came out and the man pointed out the tracks in the ash where the truck had gone. The boy stood wrapped in the blanket looking down at the road.

 
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