Read The road Online

Authors: Cormac McCarthy

Tags: #FICTION / General, #Fiction / Literary, #Fiction / Science Fiction / General, #Fiction / Classics, #FICTION / Fantasy / General, #United States, #Fiction / Action & Adventure, #Voyages and travels/ Fiction, #Robinsonades, #Fathers and Sons, #Survival skills, #Regression (Civilization), #Voyages And Travels, #Fathers and sons/ Fiction, #Regression (Civilization)/ Fiction

The road (9 page)

BOOK: The road
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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 you 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.

BOOK: The road
4.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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