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       The Road, p.5

           Cormac McCarthy
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  He'd no way to know if they'd got the truck running again. No way to know how long they might be willing to lie in ambush. He thumbed the pack down off his shoulder and sat and opened it. We need to eat, he said. Are you hungry?

  The boy shook his head.

  No. Of course not. He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack. They ate a can of white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty tin into the woods. Then they set out down the road again.

  The truck people had camped in the road itself. They'd built a fire there and charred billets of wood lay stuck in the melted tar together with ash and bones. He squatted and held his hand over the tar. A faint warmth coming off of it. He stood and looked down the road. Then he took the boy with him into the woods. I want you to wait here, he said. I wont be far away. I'll be able to hear you if you call.

  Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was going to cry.

  No. I want you to wait here.

  Please, Papa.

  Stop it. I want you to do what I say. Take the gun.

  I dont want the gun.

  I didnt ask you if you wanted it. Take it.

  He walked out through the woods to where they'd left the cart. It was still lying there but it had been plundered. The few things they hadnt taken scattered in the leaves. Some books and toys belonging to the boy. His old shoes and some rags of clothing. He righted the cart and put the boy's things in it and wheeled it out to the road. Then he went back. There was nothing there. Dried blood dark in the leaves. The boy's knapsack was gone. Coming back he found the bones and the skin piled together with rocks over them. A pool of guts. He pushed at the bones with the toe of his shoe. They looked to have been boiled. No pieces of clothing. Dark was coming on again and it was already very cold and he turned and went out to where he'd left the boy and knelt and put his arms around him and held him.

  They pushed the cart through the woods as far as the old road and left it there and headed south along the road hurrying against the dark. The boy was stumbling he was so tired and the man picked him up and swung him onto his shoulders and they went on. By the time they got to the bridge there was scarcely light at all. He put the boy down and they felt their way down the embankment. Under the bridge he got out his lighter and lit it and swept the ground with the flickering light. Sand and gravel washed up from the creek. He set down the knapsack and put away the lighter and took hold of the boy by the shoulders. He could just make him out in the darkness. I want you to wait here, he said. I'm going for wood. We have to have a fire.

  I'm scared.

  I know. But I'll just be a little ways and I'll be able to hear you so if you get scared you call me and I'll come right away.

  I'm really scared.

  The sooner I go the sooner I'll be back and we'll have a fire and then you wont be scared anymore. Dont lie down. If you lie down you'll fall asleep and then if I call you you wont answer and I wont be able to find you. Do you understand?

  The boy didnt answer. He was close to losing his temper with him and then he realized that he was shaking his head in the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.

  He scrambled up the bank and into the woods, holding his hands out in front of him. There was wood everywhere, dead limbs and branches scattered over the ground. He shuffled along kicking them into a pile and when he had an armful he stooped and gathered them up and called the boy and the boy answered and talked him back to the bridge. They sat in the darkness while he shaved sticks into a pile with his knife and broke up the small branches with his hands. He took the lighter from his pocket and struck the wheel with his thumb. He used gasoline in the lighter and it burned with a frail blue flame and he bent and set the tinder alight and watched the fire climb upward through the wicker of limbs. He piled on more wood and bent and blew gently at the base of the little blaze and arranged the wood with his hands, shaping the fire just so.

  He made two more trips into the woods, dragging armloads of brush and limbs to the bridge and pushing them over the side. He could see the glow of the fire from some distance but he didnt think it could be seen from the other road. Below the bridge he could make out a dark pool of standing water among the rocks. A rim of shelving ice. He stood on the bridge and shoved the last pile of wood over, his breath white in the glow of the firelight.

  He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a can of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fire and they sat watching the labels char and curl. When the corn began to steam he took the cans from the fire with the pliers and they sat bent over them with their spoons, eating slowly. The boy was nodding with sleep.

  When they'd eaten he took the boy out on the gravelbar below the bridge and he pushed away the thin shore ice with a stick and they knelt there while he washed the boy's face and his hair. The water was so cold the boy was crying. They moved down the gravel to find fresh water and he washed his hair again as well as he could and finally stopped because the boy was moaning with the cold of it. He dried him with the blanket, kneeling there in the glow of the light with the shadow of the bridge's understructure broken across the palisade of treetrunks beyond the creek. This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man's brains out of his hair. That is my job. Then he wrapped him in the blanket and carried him to the fire.

  The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

  He woke in the night with the cold and rose and broke up more wood for the fire. The shapes of the small tree-limbs burning incandescent orange in the coals. He blew the flames to life and piled on the wood and sat with his legs crossed, leaning against the stone pier of the bridge. Heavy limestone blocks laid up without mortar. Overhead the ironwork brown with rust, the hammered rivets, the wooden sleepers and crossplanks. The sand where he sat was warm to the touch but the night beyond the fire was sharp with the cold. He got up and dragged fresh wood in under the bridge. He stood listening. The boy didnt stir. He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please dont tell me how the story ends. When he looked out again at the darkness beyond the bridge it was snowing.

  All the wood they had to burn was small wood and the fire was good for no more than an hour or perhaps a bit more. He dragged the rest of the brush in under the bridge and broke it up, standing on the limbs and cracking them to length. He thought the noise would wake the boy but it didnt. The wet wood hissed in the flames, the snow continued to fall. In the morning they would see if there were tracks in the road or not. This was the first human being other than the boy that he'd spoken to in more than a year. My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made of the world a lie every word. When he woke again the snow had stopped and the grainy dawn was shaping out the naked woodlands beyond the bridge, the trees black against the snow. He was lying curled up with his hands between his knees and he sat up and got the fire going and he set a can of beets in the embers. The boy lay huddled on the ground watching him.

  The new snow lay in skifts all through the woods, along the limbs and cupped in the leaves, all of it already gray with ash. They hiked out to where they'd left the cart and he put the knapsack in
and pushed it out to the road. No tracks. They stood listening in the utter silence. Then they set out along the road through the gray slush, the boy at his side with his hands in his pockets.

  They trudged all day, the boy in silence. By afternoon the slush had melted off the road and by evening it was dry. They didnt stop. How many miles? Ten, twelve. They used to play quoits in the road with four big steel washers they'd found in a hardware store but these were gone with everything else. That night they camped in a ravine and built a fire against a small stone bluff and ate their last tin of food. He'd put it by because it was the boy's favorite, pork and beans. They watched it bubble slowly in the coals and he retrieved the tin with the pliers and they ate in silence. He rinsed the empty tin with water and gave it to the child to drink and that was that. I should have been more careful, he said.

  The boy didnt answer.

  You have to talk to me.

  Okay.

  You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?

  Yes.

  He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

  Yes. We're still the good guys.

  And we always will be.

  Yes. We always will be.

  Okay.

  In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.

  He sat crosslegged in the leaves at the crest of a ridge and glassed the valley below them with the binoculars. The still poured shape of a river. The dark brick stacks of a mill. Slate roofs. An old wooden watertower bound with iron hoops. No smoke, no movement of life. He lowered the glasses and sat watching.

  What do you see? the boy said.

  Nothing.

  He handed the binoculars across. The boy slung the strap over his neck and put them to his eyes and adjusted the wheel. Everything about them so still.

  I see smoke, he said.

  Where.

  Past those buildings.

  What buildings?

  The boy handed the glasses back and he refocused them. The palest wisp. Yes, he said. I see it.

  What should we do, Papa?

  I think we should take a look. We just have to be careful. If it's a commune they'll have barricades. But it may just be refugees.

  Like us.

  Yes. Like us.

  What if it's the bad guys?

  We'll have to take a risk. We need to find something to eat.

  They left the cart in the woods and crossed a railroad track and came down a steep bank through dead black ivy. He carried the pistol in his hand. Stay close, he said. He did. They moved through the streets like sappers. One block at a time. A faint smell of woodsmoke on the air. They waited in a store and watched the street but nothing moved. They went through the trash and rubble. Cabinet drawers pulled out into the floor, paper and bloated cardboard boxes. They found nothing. All the stores were rifled years ago, the glass mostly gone from the windows. Inside it was all but too dark to see. They climbed the ribbed steel stairs of an escalator, the boy holding on to his hand. A few dusty suits hanging on a rack. They looked for shoes but there were none. They shuffled through the trash but there was nothing there of any use to them. When they came back he slipped the suitcoats from their hangers and shook them out and folded them across his arm. Let's go, he said.

  He thought there had to be something overlooked but there wasnt. They kicked through the trash in the aisles of a foodmarket. Old packaging and papers and the eternal ash. He scoured the shelves looking for vitamins. He opened the door of a walk-in cooler but the sour rank smell of the dead washed out of the darkness and he quickly closed it again. They stood in the street. He looked at the gray sky. Faint plume of their breath. The boy was exhausted. He took him by the hand. We have to look some more, he said. We have to keep looking.

  The houses at the edge of the town offered little more. They climbed the back steps into a kitchen and began to go through the cabinets. The cabinet doors all standing open. A can of bakingpowder. He stood there looking at it. They went through the drawers of a sideboard in the diningroom. They walked into the livingroom. Scrolls of fallen wallpaper lying in the floor like ancient documents. He left the boy sitting on the stairs holding the coats while he went up.

  Everything smelled of damp and rot. In the first bedroom a dried corpse with the covers about its neck. Remnants of rotted hair on the pillow. He took hold of the lower hem of the blanket and towed it off the bed and shook it out and folded it under his arm. He went through the bureaus and the closets. A summer dress on a wire hanger. Nothing. He went back down the stairs. It was getting dark. He took the boy by the hand and they went out the front door to the street.

  At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over the boy's shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.

  I'm really hungry, Papa.

  I know.

  Will we be able to find our stuff?

  Yes. I know where it is.

  What if somebody finds it?

  They wont find it.

  I hope they dont.

  They wont. Come on.

  What was that?

  I didnt hear anything.

  Listen.

  I dont hear anything.

  They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He turned and looked toward the darkening town. It's a dog, he said.

  A dog?

  Yes.

  Where did it come from?

  I dont know.

  We're not going to kill it, are we Papa?

  No. We're not going to kill it.

  He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog, he said. I promise.

  They slept in a parked car beneath an overpass with the suitcoats and the blanket piled over them. In the darkness and the silence he could see bits of light that appeared random on the night grid. The higher floors of the buildings were all dark. You'd have to carry up water. You could be smoked out. What were they eating? God knows. They sat wrapped in the coats looking out the window. Who are they, Papa?

  I dont know.

  He woke in the night and lay listening. He couldnt remember where he was. The thought made him smile. Where are we? he said.

  What is it, Papa?

  Nothing. We're okay. Go to sleep.

  We're going to be okay, arent we Papa?

  Yes. We are.

  And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

  That's right.

  Because we're carrying the fire.

  Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.

  In the morning a cold rain was falling. It gusted over the car even under the overpass and it danced in the road beyond. They sat and watched through the water on the glass. By the time it had slacked a good part of the day was gone. They left the coats and the blanket in the floor of the back seat and went up the road to search through more of the houses. Woodsmoke on the damp air. They never heard the dog again.

  They found some utensils and a few pieces of clothing. A sweatshirt. Some plastic they could use for a tarp. He was sure they were being watched but he saw no one. In a pantry they came upon part of a sack of cornmeal that rats had been at in the long ago. He sifted the meal through a section of window
screen and collected a small handful of dried turds and they built a fire on the concrete porch of the house and made cakes of the meal and cooked them over a piece of tin. Then they ate them slowly one by one. He wrapped the few remaining in a paper and put them in the knapsack.

  The boy was sitting on the steps when he saw something move at the rear of the house across the road. A face was looking at him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an outsized wool coat with the sleeves turned back. He stood up. He ran across the road and up the drive. No one there. He looked toward the house and then he ran to the bottom of the yard through the dead weeds to a still black creek. Come back, he called. I wont hurt you. He was standing there crying when his father came sprinting across the road and seized him by the arm.

  What are you doing? he hissed. What are you doing?

  There's a little boy, Papa. There's a little boy.

  There's no little boy. What are you doing?

  Yes there is. I saw him.

  I told you to stay put. Didnt I tell you? Now we've got to go. Come on.

  I just wanted to see him, Papa. I just wanted to see him.

  The man took him by the arm and they went back up through the yard. The boy would not stop crying and he would not stop looking back. Come on, the man said. We've got to go.

  I want to see him, Papa.

  There's no one to see. Do you want to die? Is that what you want?

  I dont care, the boy said, sobbing. I dont care.

  The man stopped. He stopped and squatted and held him. I'm sorry, he said. Dont say that. You musnt say that.

  They made their way back through the wet streets to the viaduct and collected the coats and the blanket from the car and went on to the railway embankment where they climbed up and crossed the tracks into the woods and got the cart and headed out to the highway.

 
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