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       The Road, p.7

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  They walked out to the road and stood. There were tracks in the snow. A wagon. Some sort of wheeled vehicle. Something with rubber tires by the narrow treadmarks. Bootprints between the wheels. Someone had passed in the dark going south. In the early dawn at latest. Running the road in the night. He stood thinking about that. He walked the tracks carefully. They'd passed within fifty feet of the fire and had not even slowed to look. He stood looking back up the road. The boy watched him.

  We need to get out of the road.

  Why, Papa?

  Someone's coming.

  Is it bad guys?

  Yes. I'm afraid so.

  They could be good guys. Couldnt they?

  He didnt answer. He looked at the sky out of old habit but there was nothing to see.

  What are we going to do, Papa?

  Let's go.

  Can we go back to the fire?

  No. Come on. We probably dont have much time.

  I'm really hungry.

  I know.

  What are we going to do?

  We have to hole up. Get off the road.

  Will they see our tracks?

  Yes.

  What can we do about it?

  I dont know.

  Will they know what we are?

  What?

  If they see our tracks. Will they know what we are?

  He looked back at their great round tracks in the snow.

  They'll figure it out, he said.

  Then he stopped.

  We need to think about this. Let's go back to the fire.

  He'd thought to find some place in the road where the snow had melted off completely but then he thought that since their tracks would not reappear on the far side it would be no help. They kicked snow over the fire and went on through the trees and circled and came back. They hurried, leaving a maze of tracks and then they set out back north through the woods keeping the road in view.

  The site they picked was simply the highest ground they came to and it gave views north along the road and overlooked their backtrack. He spread the tarp in the wet snow and wrapped the boy in the blankets. You're going to be cold, he said. But maybe we wont be here long. Within the hour two men came down the road almost at a lope. When they had passed he stood up to watch them. And when he did they stopped and one of them looked back. He froze. He was wrapped in one of the gray blankets and he would have been hard to see but not impossible. But he thought probably they had smelled the smoke. They stood talking. Then they went on. He sat down. It's okay, he said. We just have to wait. But I think its okay.

  They'd had no food and little sleep in five days and in this condition on the outskirts of a small town they came upon a once grand house sited on a rise above the road. The boy stood holding his hand. The snow was largely melted on the macadam and in the southfacing fields and woods. They stood there. The plastic bags over their feet had long since worn through and their feet were wet and cold. The house was tall and stately with white doric columns across the front. A port cochere at the side. A gravel drive that curved up through a field of dead grass. The windows were oddly intact.

  What is this place, Papa?

  Shh. Let's just stand here and listen.

  There was nothing. The wind rustling the dead roadside bracken. A distant creaking. Door or shutter.

  I think we should take a look.

  Papa let's not go up there.

  It's okay.

  I dont think we should go up there.

  It's okay. We have to take a look.

  They approached slowly up the drive. No tracks in the random patches of melting snow. A tall hedge of dead privet. An ancient birdsnest lodged in the dark wicker of it. They stood in the yard studying the facade. The handmade brick of the house kilned out of the dirt it stood on. The peeling paint hanging in long dry sleavings down the columns and from the buckled soffits. A lamp that hung from a long chain overhead. The boy clung to him as they climbed the steps. One of the windows was slightly open and a cord ran from it and across the porch to vanish in the grass. He held the boy's hand and they crossed the porch. Chattel slaves had once trod those boards bearing food and drink on silver trays. They went to the window and looked in.

  What if there's someone here, Papa?

  There's no one here.

  We should go, Papa.

  We've got to find something to eat. We have no choice.

  We could find something somewhere else.

  It's going to be all right. Come on.

  He took the pistol from his belt and tried the door. It swung slowly in on its great brass hinges. They stood listening. Then they stepped into a broad foyer floored in a domino of black and white marble tiles. A broad staircase ascending. Fine Morris paper on the walls, waterstained and sagging. The plaster ceiling was bellied in great swags and the yellowed dentil molding was bowed and sprung from the upper walls. To the left through the doorway stood a large walnut buffet in what must have been the diningroom. The doors and the drawers were gone but the rest of it was too large to burn. They stood in the doorway. Piled in a windrow in one corner of the room was a great heap of clothing. Clothes and shoes. Belts. Coats. Blankets and old sleeping bags. He would have ample time later to think about that. The boy hung on to his hand. He was terrified. They crossed the foyer to the room on the far side and walked in and stood. A great hall of a room with ceilings twice the height of the doors. A fireplace with raw brick showing where the wooden mantel and surround had been pried away and burned. There were mattresses and bedding arranged on the floor in front of the hearth. Papa, the boy whispered. Shh, he said.

  The ashes were cold. Some blackened pots stood about. He squatted on his heels and picked one up and smelled it and put it back. He stood and looked out the window. Gray trampled grass. Gray snow. The cord that came through the window was tied to a brass bell and the bell was fixed in a rough wooden jig that had been nailed to the window molding. He held the boy's hand and they went down a narrow back hallway into the kitchen. Trash piled everywhere. A ruststained sink. Smell of mold and excrement. They went on into the adjoining small room, perhaps a pantry.

  In the floor of this room was a door or hatch and it was locked with a large padlock made of stacked steel plates. He stood looking at it.

  Papa, the boy said. We should go. Papa.

  There's a reason this is locked.

  The boy pulled at his hand. He was almost in tears. Papa? he said.

  We've got to eat.

  I'm not hungry, Papa. I'm not.

  We need to find a prybar or something.

  They pushed out through the back door, the boy hanging on to him. He shoved the pistol in his belt and stood looking out over the yard. There was a brick walkway and the twisted and wiry shape of what once had been a row of boxwoods. In the yard was an old iron harrow propped up on piers of stacked brick and someone had wedged between the rails of it a forty gallon castiron cauldron of the kind once used for rendering hogs. Underneath were the ashes of a fire and blackened billets of wood. Off to one side a small wagon with rubber tires. All these things he saw and did not see. At the far side of the yard was an old wooden smokehouse and a toolshed. He crossed half dragging the child and went sorting through tools standing in a barrel under the shed roof. He came up with a longhandled spade and hefted it in his hand. Come on, he said.

  Back in the house he chopped at the wood around the haspstaple and finally jammed the blade under the staple and pried it up. It was bolted through the wood and the whole thing came up lock and all. He kicked the blade of the shovel under the edge of the boards and stopped and got his lighter out. Then he stood on the tang of the shovel and raised the edge of the hatch and leaned and got hold of it. Papa, the boy whispered.

  He stopped. Listen to me, he said. Just stop it. We're starving. Do you understand? Then he raised the hatch door and swung it over and let it down on the floor behind.

  Just wait here, he said.

  I'm going with you.

  I thought yo
u were scared.

  I am scared.

  Okay. Just stay close behind me.

  He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

  Jesus, he whispered.

  Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

  Christ, he said. Oh Christ.

  He turned and grabbed the boy. Hurry, he said. Hurry.

  He'd dropped the lighter. No time to look. He pushed the boy up the stairs. Help us, they called.

  Hurry.

  A bearded face appeared blinking at the foot of the stairs. Please, he called. Please.

  Hurry. For God's sake hurry.

  He shoved the boy through the hatch and sent him sprawling. He stood and got hold of the door and swung it over and let it slam down and he turned to grab the boy but the boy had gotten up and was doing his little dance of terror. For the love of God will you come on, he hissed. But the boy was pointing out the window and when he looked he went cold all over. Coming across the field toward the house were four bearded men and two women. He grabbed the boy by the hand. Christ, he said. Run. Run.

  They tore through the house to the front door and down the steps. Half way down the drive he dragged the boy into the field. He looked back. They were partly screened by the ruins of the privet but he knew they had minutes at most and maybe no minutes at all. At the bottom of the field they crashed through a stand of dead cane and out into the road and crossed into the woods on the far side. He redoubled his grip on the boy's wrist. Run, he whispered. We have to run. He looked toward the house but he could see nothing. If they came down the drive they would see him running through the trees with the boy. This is the moment. This is the moment. He fell to the ground and pulled the boy to him. Shh, he said. Shh.

  Are they going to kill us? Papa?

  Shh.

  They lay in the leaves and the ash with their hearts pounding. He was going to start coughing. He'd have put his hand over his mouth but the boy was holding on to it and would not let go and in the other hand he was holding the pistol. He had to concentrate to stifle the cough and at the same time he was trying to listen. He swung his chin through the leaves, trying to see. Keep your head down, he whispered.

  Are they coming?

  No.

  They crawled slowly through the leaves toward what looked like lower ground. He lay listening, holding the boy. He could hear them in the road talking. Voice of a woman. Then he heard them in the dry leaves. He took the boy's hand and pushed the revolver into it. Take it, he whispered. Take it. The boy was terrified. He put his arm around him and held him. His body so thin. Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? Stop crying. Do you understand?

  I think so.

  No. Do you understand?

  Yes.

  Say yes I do Papa.

  Yes I do Papa.

  He looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said.

  I dont know what to do, Papa. I dont know what to do. Where will you be?

  It's okay.

  I dont know what to do.

  Shh. I'm right here. I wont leave you.

  You promise.

  Yes. I promise. I was going to run. To try and lead them away. But I cant leave you.

  Papa?

  Shh. Stay down.

  I'm so scared.

  Shh.

  They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesnt fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly.

  He waited. The small nickelplated revolver in his hand. He was going to cough. He put his whole mind to holding it back. He tried to listen but he could hear nothing. I wont leave you, he whispered. I wont ever leave you. Do you understand? He lay in the leaves holding the trembling child. Clutching the revolver. All through the long dusk and into the dark. Cold and starless. Blessed. He began to believe they had a chance. We just have to wait, he whispered. So cold. He tried to think but his mind swam. He was so weak. All his talk about running. He couldnt run. When it was truly black about them he unfastened the straps on the backpack and pulled out the blankets and spread them over the boy and soon the boy was sleeping.

  In the night he heard hideous shrieks coming from the house and he tried to put his hands over the boy's ears and after a while the screaming stopped. He lay listening. Coming through the canebrake into the road he'd seen a box. A thing like a child's playhouse. He realized it was where they lay watching the road. Lying in wait and ringing the bell in the house for their companions to come. He dozed and woke. What is coming? Footsteps in the leaves. No. Just the wind. Nothing. He sat up and looked toward the house but he could see only darkness. He shook the boy awake. Come on, he said. We have to go. The boy didnt answer but he knew he was awake. He pulled the blankets free and strapped them onto the knapsack. Come on, he whispered.

  They set out through the dark woods. There was a moon somewhere beyond the ashen overcast and they could just make out the trees. They staggered on like drunks. If they find us they'll kill us, wont they Papa.

  Shh. No more talking.

  Wont they Papa.

  Shh. Yes. Yes they will.

  He'd no idea what direction they might have taken and his fear was that they might circle and return to the house. He tried to remember if he knew anything about that or if it were only a fable. In what direction did lost men veer? Perhaps it changed with hemispheres. Or handedness. Finally he put it out of his mind. The notion that there could be anything to correct for. His mind was betraying him. Phantoms not heard from in a thousand years rousing slowly from their sleep. Correct for that. The boy was tottering on his feet. He asked to be carried, stumbling and slurring his words, and the man did carry him and he fell asleep on his shoulder instantly. He knew he couldnt carry him far.

  He woke in the dark of the woods in the leaves shivering violently. He sat up and felt about for the boy. He held his hand to the thin ribs. Warmth and movement. Heartbeat.

  When he woke again it was almost light enough to see. He threw back the blanket and stood and almost fell. He steadied himself and tried to see about him in the gray woods. How far had they come? He walked to the top of a rise and crouched and watched the day accrue. The chary dawn, the cold illucid world. In the distance what looked to be a pine wood, raw and black. A colorless world of wire and crepe. He went back and got the boy and made him sit up. His head kept slumping forward. We have to go, he said. We have to go.

  He carried him across the field, stopping to rest each fifty counted steps. When he got to the pines he knelt and laid him in the gritty duff and covered him with the blankets and sat watching him. He looked like something out of a deathcamp. Starved, exhausted, sick with fear. He leaned and kissed him and got up and walked out to the edge of the woods and then he walked the perimeter round to see if they were safe.

  Across the fields to the south he could see the shape of a house and a barn. Beyond the trees the curve of a road. A long drive with dead grass. Dead ivy along a stone wall and a mailbox and a fence along the road and the dead trees beyond. Cold and s
ilent. Shrouded in the carbon fog. He walked back and sat beside the boy. It was desperation that had led him to such carelessness and he knew that he could not do that again. No matter what.

  The boy wouldnt wake for hours. Still if he did he'd be terrified. It had happened before. He thought about waking him but he knew that he wouldnt remember anything if he did. He'd trained him to lie in the woods like a fawn. For how long? In the end he took the pistol from his belt and laid it alongside him under the blankets and rose and set out.

  He came upon the barn from the hill above it, stopping to watch and to listen. He made his way down through the ruins of an old apple orchard, black and gnarly stumps, dead grass to his knees. He stood in the door of the barn and listened. Pale slatted light. He walked along the dusty stalls. He stood in the center of the barn bay and listened but there was nothing. He climbed the ladder to the loft and he was so weak he wasnt sure he was going to make it to the top. He walked down to the end of the loft and looked out the high gable window at the country below, the pieced land dead and gray, the fence, the road.

  There were bales of hay in the loft floor and he squatted and sorted a handful of seeds from them and sat chewing. Coarse and dry and dusty. They had to contain some nutrition. He rose and rolled two of the bales across the floor and let them fall into the bay below. Two dusty thumps. He went back to the gable and stood studying what he could see of the house beyond the corner of the barn. Then he climbed back down the ladder.

  The grass between the house and the barn looked untrodden. He crossed to the porch. The porch screening rotted and falling away. A child's bicycle. The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curled with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table. He crossed the room and opened the refrigerator door. Something sat on one of the racks in a coat of gray fur. He shut the door. Trash everywhere. He took a broom from the corner and poked about with the handle. He climbed onto the counter and felt his way through the dust on top of the cabinets. A mousetrap. A packet of something. He blew away the dust. It was a grape flavored powder to make drinks with. He put it in the pocket of his coat.

 
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