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       The Road, p.6

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  What if that little boy doesnt have anybody to take care of him? he said. What if he doesnt have a papa?

  There are people there. They were just hiding.

  He pushed the cart out into the road and stood there. He could see the tracks of the truck through the wet ash, faint and washed out, but there. He thought that he could smell them. The boy was pulling at his coat. Papa, he said.

  What?

  I'm afraid for that little boy.

  I know. But he'll be all right.

  We should go get him, Papa. We could get him and take him with us. We could take him and we could take the dog. The dog could catch something to eat.

  We cant.

  And I'd give that little boy half of my food.

  Stop it. We cant.

  He was crying again. What about the little boy? he sobbed. What about the little boy?

  At a crossroads they sat in the dusk and he spread out the pieces of the map in the road and studied them. He put his finger down. This is us, he said. Right here. The boy wouldnt look. He sat studying the twisted matrix of routes in red and black with his finger at the junction where he thought that they might be. As if he'd see their small selves crouching there. We could go back, the boy said softly. It's not so far. It's not too late.

  They made a dry camp in a woodlot not far from the road. They could find no sheltered place to make a fire that would not be seen so they made none. They ate each of them two of the cornmeal cakes and they slept together huddled on the ground in the coats and blankets. He held the child and after a while the child stopped shivering and after a while he slept.

  The dog that he remembers followed us for two days. I tried to coax it to come but it would not. I made a noose of wire to catch it. There were three cartridges in the pistol. None to spare. She walked away down the road. The boy looked after her and then he looked at me and then he looked at the dog and he began to cry and to beg for the dog's life and I promised I would not hurt the dog. A trellis of a dog with the hide stretched over it. The next day it was gone. That is the dog he remembers. He doesnt remember any little boys.

  He'd put a handful of dried raisins in a cloth in his pocket and at noon they sat in the dead grass by the side of the road and ate them. The boy looked at him. That's all there is, isnt it? he said.

  Yes.

  Are we going to die now?

  No.

  What are we going to do?

  We're going to drink some water. Then we're going to keep going down the road.

  Okay.

  In the evening they tramped out across a field trying to find a place where their fire would not be seen. Dragging the cart behind them over the ground. So little of promise in that country. Tomorrow they would find something to eat. Night overtook them on a muddy road. They crossed into a field and plodded on toward a distant stand of trees skylighted stark and black against the last of the visible world. By the time they got there it was dark of night. He held the boy's hand and kicked up limbs and brush and got a fire going. The wood was damp but he shaved the dead bark off with his knife and he stacked brush and sticks all about to dry in the heat. Then he spread the sheet of plastic on the ground and got the coats and blankets from the cart and he took off their damp and muddy shoes and they sat there in silence with their hands outheld to the flames. He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

  They slept through the night in their exhaustion and in the morning the fire was dead and black on the ground. He pulled on his muddy shoes and went to gather wood, blowing on his cupped hands. So cold. It could be November. It could be later. He got a fire going and walked out to the edge of the woodlot and stood looking over the countryside. The dead fields. A barn in the distance.

  They hiked out along the dirt road and along a hill where a house had once stood. It had burned long ago. The rusted shape of a furnace standing in the black water of the cellar. Sheets of charred metal roofing crumpled in the fields where the wind had blown it. In the barn they scavenged a few handfuls of some grain he did not recognize out of the dusty floor of a metal hopper and stood eating it dust and all. Then they set out across the fields toward the road.

  They followed a stone wall past the remains of an orchard. The trees in their ordered rows gnarled and black and the fallen limbs thick on the ground. He stopped and looked across the fields. Wind in the east. The soft ash moving in the furrows. Stopping. Moving again. He'd seen it all before. Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of viscera where the slain had been field-dressed and hauled away. The wall beyond held a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes. They wore gold rings in their leather ears and in the wind their sparse and ratty hair twisted about on their skulls. The teeth in their sockets like dental molds, the crude tattoos etched in some homebrewed woad faded in the beggared sunlight. Spiders, swords, targets. A dragon. Runic slogans, creeds misspelled. Old scars with old motifs stitched along their borders. The heads not truncheoned shapeless had been flayed of their skins and the raw skulls painted and signed across the forehead in a scrawl and one white bone skull had the plate sutures etched carefully in ink like a blueprint for assembly. He looked back at the boy. Standing by the cart in the wind. He looked at the dry grass where it moved and at the dark and twisted trees in their rows. A few shreds of clothing blown against the wall, everything gray in the ash. He walked along the wall passing the masks in a last review and through a stile and out to where the boy was waiting. He put his arm around his shoulder. Okay, he said. Let's go.

  He'd come to see a message in each such late history, a message and a warning, and so this tableau of the slain and the devoured did prove to be. He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the trees the way they'd come in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy's head. Shh, he said.

  What is it, Papa?

  People on the road. Keep your face down. Dont look.

  No smoke from the dead fire. Nothing to be seen of the cart. He wallowed into the ground and lay watching across his forearm. An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. Shh, he said. Shh. The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge up-country. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay listening.

  Are they gone, Papa?

  Yes, they're gone.

  Did you see them?

  Yes.

  Were they the bad guys?

  Yes, they were the bad guys.

  There's a lot of them, those bad guys.

  Yes there are. But they're gone.

  They stood and brushed themselves off, listening to the silence in the distance.

  Where are they going, Papa?

&n
bsp; I dont know. They're on the move. It's not a good sign.

  Why isnt it a good sign?

  It just isnt. We need to get the map and take a look.

  They pulled the cart from the brush with which they'd covered it and he raised it up and piled the blankets in and the coats and they pushed on out to the road and stood looking where the last of that ragged horde seemed to hang like an afterimage in the disturbed air.

  In the afternoon it started to snow again. They stood watching the pale gray flakes sift down out of the sullen murk. They trudged on. A frail slush forming over the dark surface of the road. The boy kept falling behind and he stopped and waited for him. Stay with me, he said.

  You walk too fast.

  I'll go slower.

  They went on.

  You're not talking again.

  I'm talking.

  You want to stop?

  I always want to stop.

  We have to be more careful. I have to be more careful.

  I know.

  We'll stop. Okay?

  Okay.

  We just have to find a place.

  Okay.

  The falling snow curtained them about. There was no way to see anything at either side of the road. He was coughing again and the boy was shivering, the two of them side by side under the sheet of plastic, pushing the grocery cart through the snow. Finally he stopped. The boy was shaking uncontrollably.

  We have to stop, he said.

  It's really cold.

  I know.

  Where are we?

  Where are we?

  Yes.

  I dont know.

  If we were going to die would you tell me?

  I dont know. We're not going to die.

  They left the cart overturned in a field of sedge and he took the coats and the blankets wrapped in the plastic tarp and they set out. Hold on to my coat, he said. Dont let go. They crossed through the sedge to a fence and climbed through, holding down the wire for each other with their hands. The wire was cold and it creaked in the staples. It was darkening fast. They went on. What they came to was a cedar wood, the trees dead and black but still full enough to hold the snow. Beneath each one a precious circle of dark earth and cedar duff.

  They settled under a tree and piled the blankets and coats on the ground and he wrapped the boy in one of the blankets and set to raking up the dead needles in a pile. He kicked a cleared place in the snow out where the fire wouldnt set the tree alight and he carried wood from the other trees, breaking off the limbs and shaking away the snow. When he struck the lighter to the rich tinder the fire crackled instantly and he knew that it would not last long. He looked at the boy. I've got to go for more wood, he said. I'll be in the neighborhood. Okay?

  Where's the neighborhood?

  It just means I wont be far.

  Okay.

  The snow by now was half a foot on the ground. He floundered out through the trees pulling up the fallen branches where they stuck out of the snow and by the time he had an armload and made his way back to the fire it had burned down to a nest of quaking embers. He threw the branches on the fire and set out again. Hard to stay ahead. The woods were getting dark and the firelight did not reach far. If he hurried he only grew faint. When he looked behind him the boy was trudging through snow half way to his knees gathering limbs and piling them in his arms.

  The snow fell nor did it cease to fall. He woke all night and got up and coaxed the fire to life again. He'd unfolded the tarp and propped one end of it up beneath the tree to try and reflect back the heat from the fire. He looked at the boy's face sleeping in the orange light. The sunken cheeks streaked with black. He fought back the rage. Useless. He didnt think the boy could travel much more. Even if it stopped snowing the road would be all but impassable. The snow whispered down in the stillness and the sparks rose and dimmed and died in the eternal blackness.

  He was half asleep when he heard a crashing in the woods. Then another. He sat up. The fire was down to scattered flames among the embers. He listened. The long dry crack of shearing limbs. Then another crash. He reached and shook the boy. Wake up, he said. We have to go.

  He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the backs of his hands. What is it? he said. What is it, Papa?

  Come on. We have to move.

  What is it?

  It's the trees. They're falling down.

  The boy sat up and looked about wildly.

  It's all right, the man said. Come on. We need to hurry.

  He scooped up the bedding and he folded it and wrapped the tarp around it. He looked up. The snow drifted into his eyes. The fire was little more than coals and it gave no light and the wood was nearly gone and the trees were falling all about them in the blackness. The boy clung to him. They moved away and he tried to find a clear space in the darkness but finally he put down the tarp and they just sat and pulled the blankets over them and he held the boy against him. The whump of the falling trees and the low boom of the loads of snow exploding on the ground set the woods to shuddering. He held the boy and told him it would be all right and that it would stop soon and after a while it did. The dull bedlam dying in the distance. And again, solitary and far away. Then nothing. There, he said. I think that's it. He dug a tunnel under one of the fallen trees, scooping away the snow with his arms, his frozen hands clawed inside his sleeves. They dragged in their bedding and the tarp and after a while they slept again for all the bitter cold.

  When day broke he pushed his way out of their den, the tarp heavy with snow. He stood and looked about. It had stopped snowing and the cedar trees lay about in hillocks of snow and broken limbs and a few standing trunks that stood stripped and burntlooking in that graying landscape. He trudged out through the drifts leaving the boy to sleep under the tree like some hibernating animal. The snow was almost to his knees. In the field the dead sedge was drifted nearly out of sight and the snow stood in razor kerfs atop the fencewires and the silence was breathless. He stood leaning on a post coughing. He'd little idea where the cart was and he thought that he was getting stupid and that his head wasnt working right. Concentrate, he said. You have to think. When he turned to go back the boy was calling him.

  We have to go, he said. We cant stay here.

  The boy stared bleakly at the gray drifts.

  Come on.

  They made their way out to the fence.

  Where are we going? the boy said.

  We have to find the cart.

  He just stood there, his hands in the armpits of his parka.

  Come on, the man said. You have to come on.

  He waded out across the drifted fields. The snow lay deep and gray. Already there was a fresh fall of ash on it. He struggled on a few more feet and then turned and looked back. The boy had fallen. He dropped the armload of blankets and the tarp and went back and picked him up. He was already shivering. He picked him up and held him. I'm sorry, he said. I'm sorry.

  They were a long time finding the cart. He pulled it upright out of the drifts and dug out the knapsack and shook it out and opened it and stuffed in one of the blankets. He put the pack and the other blankets and the coats in the basket and picked up the boy and set him on top and unlaced his shoes and pulled them off. Then he got out his knife and set about cutting up one of the coats and wrapping the boy's feet. He used the entire coat and then he cut big squares of plastic out of the tarp and gathered them up from underneath and wrapped and tied them at the boy's ankles with the lining from the coatsleeves. He stood back. The boy looked down. Now you, Papa, he said. He wrapped one of the coats around the boy and then he sat on the tarp in the snow and wrapped his own feet. He stood and warmed his hands inside his parka and then packed their shoes into the knapsack along with the binoculars and the boy's truck. He shook out the tarp and folded it and tied it with the other blankets on top of the pack and shouldered it up and then took a last look through the basket but that was it. Let's go, he said. The boy took one last look back at the cart and then followed him out t
o the road.

  It was harder going even than he would have guessed. In an hour they'd made perhaps a mile. He stopped and looked back at the boy. The boy stopped and waited.

  You think we're going to die, dont you?

  I dont know.

  We're not going to die.

  Okay.

  But you dont believe me.

  I dont know.

  Why do you think we're going to die?

  I dont know.

  Stop saying I dont know.

  Okay.

  Why do you think we're going to die?

  We dont have anything to eat.

  We'll find something.

  Okay.

  How long do you think people can go without food?

  I dont know.

  But how long do you think?

  Maybe a few days.

  And then what? You fall over dead?

  Yes.

  Well you dont. It takes a long time. We have water. That's the most important thing. You dont last very long without water.

  Okay.

  But you dont believe me.

  I dont know.

  He studied him. Standing there with his hands in the pockets of the outsized pinstriped suitcoat.

  Do you think I lie to you?

  No.

  But you think I might lie to you about dying.

  Yes.

  Okay. I might. But we're not dying.

  Okay.

  He studied the sky. There were days when the ashen overcast thinned and now the standing trees along the road made the faintest of shadows over the snow. They went on. The boy wasnt doing well. He stopped and checked his feet and retied the plastic. When the snow started to melt it was going to be hard to keep their feet dry. They stopped often to rest. He'd no strength to carry the child. They sat on the pack and ate handfuls of the dirty snow. By afternoon it was beginning to melt. They passed a burned house, just the brick chimney standing in the yard. They were on the road all day, such day as there was. Such few hours. They might have covered three miles.

  He thought the road would be so bad that no one would be on it but he was wrong. They camped almost in the road itself and built a great fire, dragging dead limbs out of the snow and piling them on the flames to hiss and steam. There was no help for it. The few blankets they had would not keep them warm. He tried to stay awake. He would jerk upright out of his sleep and slap about him looking for the pistol. The boy was so thin. He watched him while he slept. Taut face and hollow eyes. A strange beauty. He got up and dragged more wood onto the fire.

 
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