I remembered vaguely that I had gone through the town as a child many years ago; and the memory was of a dry and scoured cluster of buildings and of a small group of children throwing stones at each other. The sun now was overhead and there was a glitter in the air and the land was pale and flat. The cluster of buildings remained; the children were gone. I shook the sun out of my hair. I saw the train that I had ridden steadily dwindling in the distance. The sparkle of the sky was hard on my eyes. I approached the nearest building, which, in the old days, had served as a train depot. As I drew near I thought I heard (I am a tired and lonely man; my ears pick up the sounds of sagebrush and tumbleweed and give the wind a whistling voice) voices speaking—perhaps of love—perhaps they spoke of death. There was the rustle of rats. The dry air, unused, perhaps, to people, curled down my throat and explored my lungs.
In the air the dust of my moving hung and shivered.
Perhaps I said that: Help me. I walked down an empty street. The town was not very large. In a moment I turned, and came back down the same street. The road away from the town crossing the desert had long since been covered by the restless sands. There were no birds in the air, there were no sounds, I had heard no voices, the world, the land, the town, they were dead. When the evening came (with the rush of blackness and the smell of starfire) I made my way into the only hotel, of sorts, a few rooms above what once had been a grocery store. Up the stairs and through the corridors and in the space between the walls I heard the scurry of the hungry rats. Lord knows what they found to eat here—each other. And the dogs and coyotes and coyote-dogs that came gray and lank across the sand. In the air the flap of buzzards. Long curved necks and bleak eyes. I slept that night on a hard rat-chewed bed. My traveling bag I put next to my head and around it put my arm. During the night the rat scratchings became voices.
Where did he come from?
Where is he going?
Perhaps he will stay.
Speak softly. He moves.
It was a restless and unpleasant night. The hotel was full of groaning muttering crashing sounds. Once I thought a rat crossed over my chest.
Dont touch him.
What if he wakes?
Indeed, what if I awoke. There was black air around me.
There was a moment of lightning, a moment of heat; a blinding revelation: death stalked the world. On hind legs it loomed and its shadow was a weight on my chest. Eyes sparkled, staring at me. I loved my mother's voice. It was large and roomy. My father's was large and black. There was always the smell of flowers blooming under my nose. The towns disappeared. The buildings fell into the streets. A city was a dot on a map, and when the map burned, so died the city, in the curl of heat. My dog licked its wounds. My mother, like a dog, licked my father's chest. Her behind was in the air. She died crawling across his belly. The revelation grew, death expanded. For perhaps a year the smell of death haunted the air. I have always loved voices. I hear them now.
In the gray smokiness of the morning the voices came muffled through the fog.
I sat up on the bed and the air was shot with noises.
There was the steady minute movements of the rats in the walls.
I could hear my own breathing in my painful chest.
Each time I moved the bed seemed to explode with sound.
I love voices, but I hate other sounds. On that morning I spoke to myself.
"Well you are here now. Put on your shoes.
You need some water. Why did you come here in the first place? How long do you think you can live in this dry ugly place? Do you intend to eat rats? Did the voices in your head tell you to come here? I have nothing but questions for you, foolish man."
I descended through the gray building accompanied by the sounds of an empty house. Each creak in the steps was an explosion in my ears. Downstairs I came upon the three people. The shelves of the grocery no longer held food. Even the canned imperishables were gone, and this was strange, until I saw the people. They were standing near the open door. Outside I could see flat beaten ground and the piled sand, and smell the morning heat, the sun putting sparkles again into the air. The people made no sound, and for a moment I thought, perhaps they were not real. The girl was moving her mouth but she did not speak. The boy's big hands were clasped together. It was the older man who first said something. He pushed a can of some kind of food across the counter. "Here. Take this. Breakfast." His voice belonged in a cave. It was heavy and deep.
"What is it?"
"Beans, I think."
He was a farmer, it was dug into his face and splashed over his hands, the dirt, the sun, the growth of things. He spoke again.
"Where have you come from?"
"Across the desert."
"We know that." Patient, plodding. "You didnt come from here."
"It was just a town at the edge of the desert. I dont know the name of it."\\
"Why did you get off the train?"
"Let me eat the beans."
He slid them closer to me. I got a knife out of my pocket and stabbed it into the lid. While I worked it open the boy and the girl came closer. It was not beans, but green peas. The farmer grunted when he saw it. I held the can up and shook some of the peas into my mouth. The girl watched and her eyes were big and pale.
"Where are you going?" the old man asked.
"You plan on staying here?"
"I dont plan on anything."
The young boy looked like a strong brute. He had thick lashes, and a lowered, sullen head. Hardly out of childhood but already broad shouldered. The girl was spitted on the fence between child and women. Her breasts were already big, almost too big for the babyish face above them. Her skin looked thin and she looked dry from the sun.
"You got no reason to stay here," said the man.
"I got no reason to stay anywhere." I put the can still half full on the counter. "Where do you live?"
"Never mind," said the man.
"Papa," said the girl, "can I show him our house?"
"Never mind," said the farmer again.
"Let's be friends," I said. "I'm not staying long."
For a moment the man struggled with himself.
The boy turned and walked through the open door.
"All right," said the farmer with a sigh. He turned and left. I followed the girl outside.
I was told once, by a man who crawled through the city, that death would be a blessing. I killed him. He had painful eyes. Both his legs were gone and he was a target for rats and his body was swollen from their bites. Looking at his skin I could see the marks of their pointed teeth. There were black lumps the size of my fist on his chest. His hair, uncut, unkempt, was a frothy dirty mass falling around his head. Black eyes in death stared at me. Under the shadow of fallen concrete, in the growth of buckled pavement, steel warped into rusted music, he had lived, prying, pulling, with strong hands hard like claws. He hated me, and I hated him, and from him rose the stench of sickness. I think of him now dispassionately. His arms were like iron girders. He was a great man, because he lived and hated, and when he died, shadows from the sky covered him. In those days bands of savages roamed the wilderness. Often naked, toothless, they leaped and rept along, through, over the jangled city. Their speech was mostly grunts. Their eyes were mostly wormbitten and stark. In their clenched hands were stones and clubs. A flurry of rats came leaping like flames at their throats. In the savage music of their combat, I could hear blood, the drumming of hearts, hear the crash of rage and fear. I moved away like a heartless bloodless shadow.
The house was on a side street and preserved better than the rest. The dry air was good to wood. At the entrance the girl took my arm and tugged me inside. In the house the farmer looked big and raw; his gray hair was unevenly cut; and his eyes, pale like his daughter's, were faded from sun and a horizon stretching flat and shimmering in all directions. He could look a long ways, seeing nothing. In the house the boy looked powerful. Smaller than me, but with big hands, glowering eyes. He did not seem to notice anybody. I could smell his private world hovering around his head. Outside him, in the darkness, I stood there. He did not look at me. In the house the girl softened. In the uneven light her skin glowed. There was a haze too around her; but perhaps that was the haze in me, drifting before my eyes. The raw, big-boned farmer brought me a glass of water. In his hands, big also, the glass was a toy
”Where do you get your water?" I asked.
"We have a well outside."
"Do you grow crops?"
“Aye, what we need."
"Do you like the house?" said the girl. "We never had any visitors."
"We dont like visitors."
"It is a fine house," I said.
"You are welcome tonight," said the farmer. "In the morning you have to leave."
"Shall I walk across the desert? Follow the tracks?"
"We dont care how you go. We didnt invite you."
"Father," said the girl.
The boy came close, and for a moment his eyes fastened onto mine.
"In the morning," the boy said, "he leaves."
"All right," said the farmer. "We'll give you water."
"Father," said the girl. "Wait for the train."
"Impossible," said the man stubbornly. "That would be a month, maybe two."
The boy wandered around to the rear of the room. Without a backward glance he left, shutting the door. When he left half of the room was empty, half the life was gone, the air dropped into stillness. The man's eyes became dull. The girl's eyes picked up a sparkle. I inspected the furniture and rubbed my hand over the peeling wall paint. I traced my fingers over a chair. I listened for rats, but could hear only the girl breathing. Her bosom was full and her mouth was full of tongue and teeth. The inside of her mouth would be warm and sweet. The raw farmer lifted his feet, feet that had plodded over plowed fields, crashed through thickets, stepped on heads and kicked butts, and settled himself into another uncomfortable position still standing. I thought I could smell fear in his head. There was fog in his eyes
"Let me show you through the house," said the girl.
"You have an upstairs?"
"What's out in back?"
"The well, and a garden."
I could hear (but then, I am always hearing things) steady plaintive voices issuing from the walls around me. From a shadow clustered in a corner I heard a low moan.
"I'd like to see the garden first."
Perhaps the sparkle dimmed but she moved; I was close to her then and reached out and put my hand on her arm. Her flesh was very warm.
"Wait here," I said.
The farmer now was moving towards the door. His feet lifted slowly. "Just a peek," I said to him. "I'll be right back." He stopped and I went quickly through the door.
First the moment of light and heat. Then the people impaled in death, scattered in junky heaps throughout, perhaps, the world. Some fast, some slow, most of them gone. The dissolving of everything and the rotten stench. Then the city and the savage people and the rats and dogs and the leaping grappling raging battles. I smelled the people and heard the voices and listened to the sound of my mother crawling over my father's belly. The light burned during the day. At night was the fire of the moon and the hungry eyes of the stars. There was a fever in my head and the voices came cold through the night. I followed them, for a long time, and at last came upon the people working on the black train poised at the edge of the sand. At will, they made and smothered fire. At will, they ate, at regular periods, they slept, people swollen with sleep, swollen with food, careful and tidy with the hair on their heads. They washed me and dressed me and all the while I smelled their cleanness and carefulness, and the lack of hate. They were not great people. They could not hate. There were no massive snarls of emotion. They were careful because they feared, but it was a fear that hid, not a fear that leaped at death. Their train went across the desert to another city. I remember the train as a roar and a belch of steam, and the people had a fear of it too. I put my cheek against it. There was a roar in me too. My father died with a black roar. My mother's tongue licked his chest.
Outside I saw the hand pump that drew the water to the surface. Beyond it was the garden hemmed in by more houses. I saw back yards and back porches. I saw the young boy with his back to me, broad and strong. As I stood there he turned and looked at me. The sky was pale, the sun made the earth pale, and at that distance, I could not be sure if he were real. He moved towards me, his head lowered, his eyes hid. I could smell, as he moved, the movement of hate. From inside came the smell of excitement and fear. From the strange plants in the garden came voices, touching my ear, each plant a sound, a sigh, a gentle word. I found, alongside the moaning house, a length of pipe, and as the boy came soundlessly towards me I hefted it in my hand. When he was close I saw his black hair and the muscles jerking in his neck. The hate coiled around him leaped. The boy leaped, a small mountain, and I swung the pipe and immediately he flopped down, rolled once, and came leaping at me again, a blossom of red along the side of his face. The pipe was heavy and the jar and crunch of it hurt me. The voices gathered into a storm. His head was struck again, became misshapen. He crawled forward and a snarl came clawing through his lips. I swung again. His head a deformed flower, blooming with hate, was pushed against the ground, his butt in the air, his legs driving him forward.
I dropped the pipe and went back into the house.
The girl's eyes were alive with lights.
The man was lifeless and his eyes were sagging in his head. I helped him down on a chair. There was blood on my hand, and as I touched him, the blood smeared on him too.
"I'll take you upstairs," she said.
When she moved, with that excitement, her breasts bounced and rippled, and her body glowed with fire. She led me up the stairs. They were quiet, and the walls were quiet, there were no rats, there were no voices. She took me into her room. Through the open window came the broad desert and the sun-sparkling air. She stood in front of me and her face was flushed.
"My brother takes me here. And my father used to."
"What did they do?"
“I dont know the word for it."
She lifted her skirt to her head. The fur between her thighs was like a black spider. Slowly, at first faintly, from the bottom of the stairs, as she stood there, came the faint mumble of voices. She pulled the dress over her head. As she swayed, the spider flexed and moved. The voices, from all around, washed at me. The voices stood and leaped. I put her down on the bed. Each voice, each cry, was at my throat. There was a moment of fire, a moment of hate, and then, like a dog, my head down, my hips in the air, I crawled across her belly, and with my tongue traced the pattern of death on her breasts.
NOTES: See "The Birds" and "Will You Come With Us?"—more of my "wilderness" stories. This one was written in high school. I was 16 or 17 years old, and for a long time was my favorite short story.