She watches the fire and feels sleepy, and when she pokes it with a stick, the embers fly up into the air like a crazy squadron of insects and then simply disappear as if they’ve gotten lodged in one of the many folds of the night.
She looks at the man sitting next to her, his flat eyes brimful of contemplation of the flames. There is only so much room in that head of his, and right now the space is occupied with the shape-shifting vision of the fire.
The thing that happened back there, she says. I mean, it ain’t like you asked—but anyway.
He doesn’t take his eyes off the fire.
I mean I guess I been around meatskins too long, she continues. Sometimes it happens where I’ll lose it. Like a switch got flicked somewhere in my brain, you know? And then my hands’ll start rippin and tearin and they don’t care about the whys or wherefores.
The fire pops and sizzles with the sap from the branches they found.
And it’s wrong, it’s a sin as big as the world we live in, bigger even—to lay your hands on a creation of God’s and snuff it out. It don’t matter how ugly a thing it is, it’s a sin, and God will send a terrible vengeance down on you for it—I know, I seen it. But the truth is—the truth is I don’t know where I got off on the wrong track. Moses, he says I ain’t evil, but then if I ain’t evil . . . If I ain’t evil then what am I? Cause my hands, see, they ain’t seem to got no purpose except when they’re bashin in a skull or slittin a throat. That’s the whole, all around truth of the matter. Them meatskins, they kill—but they ain’t get any satisfaction out of it. Maury, you sure are wanderin a lonely earth—full of breach and befoulment—but the real abomination is sittin right next to you.
Overhead, the moon is just a sliver in the sky, like a candle flame, delicate and tenuous against the irreducibility of night. Like you should hold your breath for fear of blowing it out altogether.
If the big man next to her has comprehended a word of what she has said, he does not show it.
She nods to herself.
I guess what I’m sayin is, she announces at last, we better get you to Texas so you can get shut of me.
Days of waft and wayfaring. They follow the tracks and keep the morning sun behind them. Maury walks beside her, his feet trammeling along invariably—a gravitational movement, he is given direction only by her. When she walks into the woods because she thinks she hears something coming, he follows without question or confusion. When she stops to look at the sun or soak her feet in the river that still runs parallel to them, he stops also.
When the crackers are gone, they eat berries and fish caught from the river in a burlap sack she finds among the rubble of the railroad tracks. Where the tracks cross roads, she looks for cars suitable for driving, but the railroad has taken them out beyond the urban areas, and she considers trying to get back to the main highways but decides instead they may be better off where people are unlikely to follow. Besides, it’s peaceful here with the tracks and the river running straight and twinned. They go for hours at a time without seeing a single meatskin—and the ones they do find are sluggish from hunger, some not even able to stand.
Once, in the morning, while she is splashing water on her face, she sees a figure floating aimlessly down the river. It’s a meatskin, flailing about with slow movements, unable to right itself or keep its head above water, carried forward by the slow current—perhaps, she imagines, as far as to the sea.
Another time, in a clearing next to the tracks, they come across a pile of cremated human corpses. The brittle mass is higher than she is, and all the tangled, burnt limbs fused together and petrified into something resembling a black igloo. When the wind blows, the charred flakes of papery skin whip back and forth like tinsel. There are no signs of life anywhere, and she wonders what such a construction could mean out here away from the common flow of human discourse.
On the third afternoon, they are passed by a motorboat going upriver carrying ten or fifteen people, including two children who look at her through oversized sunglasses. The driver of the boat swings it around but does not cut the noisy motor. He waves to Temple, and she waves back. Then he does a dithering thumbs-up, thumbs-down gesture with his hand, questioning her status. She gives him a thumbs-up in return, and he signals back, circling his thumb and forefinger into an okay. Then he swings the boat back around and continues to drive it upriver.
During the day, the dry dust is kicked up under their feet, and they have to keep moving so it stays behind them. If they stop, the cloud of their own passage catches up to them, and they choke and cough and sputter.
Sometimes they find caved-in shacks in overgrown clearings, and they search these for useful items and curiosities.
At night she boils water in old cans she finds by the tracks. She adds berries and aromatic leaves she knows are not poisonous.
Riverwater, she says. It ain’t the elixir of the gods, but it goes down all right when you’re thirsty.
Sometimes she sings to keep herself company.
She was light and like a fairy,
And her shoes was number nine.
Herring boxes without topses
Was sandals for that Clementine.
Drove her ducklins to the water
Every mornin just at nine.
Hit her foot against a splinter,
Fell into the foamin brine.
Ruby lips above the water,
Blowin bubbles clear and fine.
But alas I weren’t no swimmer.
Neither was my Clementine.
In a churchyard near the canyon,
Where the murple do entwine,
Grow some rosies and some posies,
Fertilized by Clementine.
In my dreams she still doth haunt me,
Robed in garments soaked with brine.
Then she rises from the waters,
And I kiss my Clementine.
How I missed her, how I missed her,
How I missed my Clementine,
Till I kissed her little sister
And forgot my Clementine.
And she laughs and laughs, kicking at the dry dirt with the toes of her shoes.
Get it, Maury? Clementine’s sister, she must be a peach!
The clouds come, and then the rain, and the scorched earth swallows it through every pore. It could rain for days straight and never collect a puddle, so ashen and raw is the hard dirt they tread. They do not take shelter but continue to walk, liking the tonic feel of the droplets on their skin. She turns her face to the sky and sticks out her tongue and lets the rain trickle down her throat. The low tintamarre of thunder in the distance sounds like a medieval cannon reaching them not just over a stretch of miles but over a stretch of centuries—as though they are following the river back into their own primitive pasts. When it gets too close, the lightning turning the sky stark white for photographic instants, Maury begins to moan and refuses to move farther, his hands opening and closing on air.