There was a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. A dull rose glowed in the window glass. (45) [*] The end had begun. Soon thereafter, the boy was born by the light of a dry cell lamp as his parents watched distant cities burn from their rural hilltop window. Some time after the birth, mother, father, and boy abandoned their home and began an odyssey, wandering for years, scavenging for food, and avoiding mortal danger in a world where each person fought a desperate battle to survive. The mother ultimately chose suicide, seeing death as a lover - her only hope for eternal nothingness (48-49) The man chose life with the boy: My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. (65)
The man had a dream in which the boy led him by the hand down into a cave. Unlike Plato's cave allegory that portends man's ascent to knowledge and the good, in this dream the boy leads the man downward toward a shadowy glimpse of hell.
His wife now dead; the man realized that he needed to take the road south, seeking warmth, knowing that he and the boy could not survive another winter. The goal was the ocean, a symbol of life. They pushed their meager belongings in a grocery cart ‑‑ canned food, a few blankets, tarps, and the like ‑‑ through seemingly deserted winding country roads. The main roads were dangerous and needed to be avoided. The man was sustained by the boy's breath, trembling and weak. (10) The days and weeks passed as they stumbled south.
They feared the bloodcults on the road that consumed babies farmed from the wombs of now insane women. The road was peopled by creedless shells of men toddling down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. (24)
Despite moments of hope, horror dominated. A road outlaw, who stumbled across the man and the boy, managed to grab the boy, holding a knife to his throat. The man instinctively rolled on the ground and with his pistol shot the man in the center of the forehead. He then threw the boy over his shoulder and began running. The boy was covered with gore and brains and mute as a stone. (56) They scrambled for two nights avoiding the companions of the outlaw until the man found what he thought was a safe spot.
He prepared a place in the ground molded to the boy's hips and shoulders where he could sleep comfortably and washed the dead man's brains out of his hair, tousling the hair before the fire to dry it: All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them. (50) The boy went into a deep sleep. The man stroked his pale and tangled hair ‑‑ Golden chalice, good to house a god. (64)
As the boy slept, the man reflected that the outlaw he had killed was the first human being other than the boy that he had spoken to in more than a year, and thought: My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made the world a lie every word. (64)
Hideous scenes continued beyond numbness and dulled despair. On an open field they found shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass, gray coils of viscera where the slain had been field dressed and hauled away. (76) In another moment, the boy frantically clutched his father and buried his face against him. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant, headless and gutted and blackening on the spit. (167)
From a hiding place near the road, they spied a small army of men armed with pipes, chains, and spears. Behind the men came wagons drawn by slaves in harness. . . and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill-clothed against the cold and fitted in dog collars and yoked each to each. (78)
The man's despair was palpable: How much was gone already? The sacred idioms shorn of its referents and so of its reality. . . . Now is the time. Curse God and die. (75) (95)
Yet somehow, through all of this, a distinct sense of hope prevailed. The man constantly assured the boy that they were the "good guys" and that nothing bad was going to happen to them because they were carrying the fire. (70) As the man dozed one evening in the warmth of their fire, he watched the boy stoke the flame: God's own firedrake. The sparks rushed upward and died in the starless dark. Not all dying words are true and this blessing is no less real for being shorn of its ground. (26)
As they traveled on, they heard a low thunder coming from a river. There was an eighty-foot waterfall dropping into a pool below. The boy was mesmerized. The water was freezing. The man spontaneously stripped bare and dove into the pool. The boy, ghostly pale and shivering, followed suit, swimming to the falls and letting the water beat upon him. The man held the boy and floated him about, the boy gasping and chopping at the water. You're doing good, the man said. You're doing good. (33) It was a moment of re-birth and release.
The next day they stumbled upon a colony of shrunken mushrooms which turned out to be quite edible. As they again sat in the warmth of an evening fire, they ate mushrooms, along with fat pork from a can of beans they had salvaged. The man told the boy old stories of courage and justice, an evocative claim of virtue in a disintegrating world ‑‑ courage not related to concepts of justice is, of course, foolhardy. The boy said: This is a good place, Papa. (35)
At one point, the man carved the boy a flute from a piece of road-side cane. The boy began to play: A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called upon from out of the ashes of its ruins. (66)
The man constantly studied the sky. He noticed there were occasionally brighter days when the ashen overcast thinned and now the standing trees along the road made the faintest of shadows over the snow. (87) Once, exploring an abandoned house, the man opened the cabinet and found a packet of seed: Begonia. Morning Glory. He stuck them in his pocket. For what? (112) All glimpses of hope. A world survived. Did the boy have a role in any such future?
The journey south continued. They overtook an old man on the road, small and bent, half-blind and filthy, with a terrible stench. The man wanted to leave him. The boy's instinct was the opposite ‑‑ care for and feed him. The boy prevailed. He gently sat the old man down and convinced his father to allow him to eat and bivouac with them overnight.
The old man was deeply confused by this kindness and wondered if the boy was an angel. The man said: What if I said that he's a god? The old man dismissed this notion: Where men can't live, gods fare no better. (145) As the old man prepared to leave them the next morning, recognizing that he would not have given any food or shelter to a stranger, he asked the boy's father: Why did he do it? You wouldn't understand, the father said. I'm not sure I do. (146)
Throughout their travels south, the man was coughing and began spitting up blood as they journeyed on. He was slowly dying, and both he and the boy knew it.
They began to see evidence of the approaching ocean. The man now realized it was a destination without hope or purpose. After a turn in the road, over a vast tidal flat, they saw a gray beach: Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash -- he looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I'm sorry it's not blue, he said. That's o.k., said the boy. (181)
The man and the boy encamped on the beach and began exploring the environs looking for food and shelter. When they returned to their campsite, they discovered their cart of belongings and remaining food had been stolen. They would be soon dead without their supplies. They frantically followed the footsteps of the thief left in beach sand and eventually caught up with him. The thief was standing behind the cart and holding a butcher knife. The man had his pistol with one live cartridge remaining. The thief dropped his knife. The man forced him to strip naked and left him in the middle of the road as the boy and the man lunged away with the cart.
The boy was distraught by what had happened. He begged his father to go back and help the man. The father, exasperated by the boy, said to him: You're not the one who has to worry about everything. The boy looked up, wet and grimy. Yes, I am, he said. I am the one. (219)
They struggled on. The man's health grew worse. He coughed incessantly and drooled blood. From time to time the man would gaze at the boy from afar and see the boy standing there in the road looking back at him from some imaginable future, glowing in the waste like a tabernacle. (230)
Finally, when they camped one evening, the man lay down, knowing they could go no further. This was the place where he would die. (233) The boy, his eyes welling, brought a cup of water to his father: There was light all about him. His father took the cup and drank and lay back. (233) The boy then took the cup and moved away, and when he moved, the light moved with him. The man said that he did not want anything covering him; he only wanted to watch the boy at the fire. Look around you, the man said: There is no prophet in the earth's long chronicle who's not honored here today. (233)
The man then made a fateful decision. He would die, but not take the boy with him into eternity or nothingness with the last bullet in his pistol. The boy would stand alone, out of food, the hope of the ocean dashed, and winter again upon them. A pre-pubescent boy to be left alone, at risk to the bloodcults and a possible future in a consort of catamites, or a death after which he would be field-dressed, grilled, and eaten. Was this a cowardly decision driven by the man's inability to hold his dead son in his arms, or an unimaginable act of courage and faith?
The boy, in desperation, asked his father why he could not go with him, presumably in death. The father's reason was direct and clear: You can't. You have to carry the fire…it's inside you. It was always there. I can see it. (234) The father comforted the boy, saying: You have my whole heart. You always did. You are the best guy. You always were. If I'm not here, you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see. (235)
Readily accepting his destiny, the boy talked longingly with his father. He asked his father if he remembered the little abandoned boy they had spotted some time ago. Who would find him if he was lost, the boy inquired. The father responded: Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.
The boy slept close to his father that night and held him, but when he woke in the morning, his father was cold and stiff. The boy knelt by his father's side and held his cold hand and repeated his name over and over. (236)
After staying with his father's dead body for several days, he spotted a man in the distance carrying a shotgun with a bandolier full of shells. Rather than flee, the boy just stood there. Are you one of the good guys, the boy asked. The man said that he was, and asked the boy to go with him. Before agreeing to go with him, the boy asked if the man was carrying the fire.
Although puzzled by the phrase, the man insightfully assured him that he was carrying the fire.
The man had a wife and two children, a little girl and a little boy. When the wife saw the boy, she put her arms around him and held him. From time to time, the woman would talk with God. The boy tried to talk with God, [b]ut the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath, yet though it pass from man to man through all of time. (241)
at the outsey of their jorney sought the man was driven by a profound insight which seemed to grow as the journey progressed: He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If you are not the word of God, God never spoke. (2)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 1, 5
Peter Tierney 12/31 07
[*] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (First Edition 2006). All italicized words are quotes from this book. The parenthetical numbers refer to pages in the book.