At dawn, two men awoke and headed down to the cold flowing river to wash. Using a bar of old brown soap, they washed their necks and their hands and their worn, tired faces. Together they waded back to the stony shore, and the younger man, dripping, sat down to warm by the fire's orange glowing embers.
"You should get dry by the fire, Pahk'r." he said to the older man. "We don't want you gettin' sick now."
"Bah." Came back the reply from the shore, he was standing shirtless, wringing out his beaten-up flannel shirt, gazing out across the fast-flowing river and the tree-lined shore across the way. Despite its swift current, Parker knew the water was much too dirty and polluted to contain any life aside from the thick algae and mold growing on the smooth stones on the shores. No doubt the ghost town they had passed three nights prior had done its fair share of damage to the surrounding ecology; the polluted river, the dying and dead trees, molding wheat crops. He could only assume the inhabitants had all taken leave of the place once the diseases and sicknesses became intolerable.
He sighed, knowing full well that the small supply of soft potatoes they had carried in a patched burlap sack had been used up in last night's root stew, he turned back to the younger man. "No fish for breakfast today, Corbit." The older man, a grandpa and protector of sorts, with his grey strands and clay beads thread aimlessly into his wild, untamed hair, headed for the crude lean-to spread between two dead poplars, and to a well-worn old army rucksack. "We'll make a gumbo; go git some kindling."
An old sleepy hound lay on a heap of filthy rags, it perked it's ears awake as Parker came close to it. The old man withdrew a rusty tin pot, and turned dripping to face Corbit. "Hey." He shouted. The young man jumped and turned, teeth chattering. "If you get some wood, I'll rebuild a fire and you'll warm up quicker." Without question, Corbit stood up, nodding, and stumbled into the thick dry woods, the old dog, now awake, stumbled sleepily after him.
"Stupid boy," Parker mumbled half to himself, half to the surrounding trees. He pulled a short knife from his string belt and began digging and stabbing at the root base of a tree. He chopped several chunks of brown root free and dropping them into the pot, continued his rooting search. In several minutes the old digger had collected a handful of edible bark, moss, leaf fungus, and root to make up a small portion of the pot. When he turned back to the camp, Corbit was already placing firewood into the hot coals, the dog lay lazily nearby.
Parker stirred the embers and a fire licked back to life, chewing through the dry sticks. He proceeded to smear the inside of the pot with soft mushy root gum and dewy moss. Satisfied, he placed the pot onto the warming fire.
"The fire feels good, Pahk'r," Corbit said, warming his hands.
"Mhm." Was all Parker said as he intently stirred the woody mixture of warming forest matter. He looked back over across the river, and said longingly, "If we had a canoe and paddles we could travel that quick current all the way down the river, cut our travel time in half. We won't be nearly as exhausted from walking either."
"But I can't swim, Pahk'r; neither can Thor." Corbit said referring to the sleeping dog. "We’ve talked about this already, haven’t we?"
Parker knew all too well that they had, he sighed, nodding, "Well, as long as you don't fall in I suppose you'll be alright. 'Sides it’s just a thought." He turned his attention back to the pot, the heat and flames now drawing the moisture from the roots and fungus and creating a thick, sappy goo. "Sure would be easier going though." He said finally.
Parker knew better than to travel the beaten path, the paved roads were dangerous, likewise the highways. "Too many lawless highwaymen," one old traveler had told him, "you'd do best to blaze your own trail, won't accidently stumble upon them that way." Though Parker still thought back upon the dusty roads and the many paths they've traveled together. About the cracked desolate highways and about the old abandoned compact car they had found in Boons, its half tank of gas only took them to the next town, but they were able to trade it as scrap metal to a shopkeeper for a bag of carrots, drinkable water, and a quart of well-aged moonshine. Parker thought it best if he kept the moonshine for himself. (Secretly he also kept the hubcaps hoping he could eventually use them to barter with if need be.) By his recollection of the geography, he figured that they had traveled nearly 500 kilometers in the last three months, but before that he couldn't be completely sure.
Parker fished two carved wooden bowls from the pack and handed one to Corbit who held it close to his chest as if it held life itself and then using a fir tree branch, Parker served up two heaping piles of the green mash and hungrily, they both ate the hot olive-colored pulp gumbo out of the wood bowls using their hands, straining the bits of inedible roots and moss with their teeth. Corbit always said that it tasted like cork, though Parker himself never said what he thought it tasted like.
After they had finished, he picked up the tin pot and the bowls and without hesitation waded out waist deep back into the cold current.
"Oh, Pahk'r, don't leave me please." the younger man begged from the shore pleadingly.
Parker just glared back at him, and spoke as he scrubbed the insides of the tin pot with his callused hand, and rinsed the wooden dishes in the dirty current. "Oh shut up now." He said and went back to his task. In a minute, he trudged ashore, dripping from the water, rusty-clean pot in hand. "I just went down to the river to finish cleaning the dishes. You know that Corbit, you may be a slow son-of-a-bitch but you ain't stupid." He patted the old bitch dog on the head, "S'far as we know anyway." He laughed miserably, coughing tragically as he did.
Parker turned slowly to the young man, Corbit's face was downcast, he sat stupidly on an upturned plastic 8 gallon bucket. He was digging a rubber running shoe into the soft clay dirt, hands deep in the pockets of his cheap blazer. Corbit was upset by the older man's harsh words; he stirred his foot and kicked the dirt into the fire.
Parker sighed dismally, "Ah shit, Corbit, I didn't mean that." The younger man remained mum. "You know I just say things, stupid things just come into my head. I can't-I can't help it sometimes."
In a minute, the silence and the dust had settled, Corbit turned and looked up at Parker. "I guess I can't blame you for saying those things, Pahk'r." He said nodding with understanding. "I s'pose the stress would git to me too if I had ta watch after me like you do." He stood up and slapped a hand against his leg. "Shit." He sighed and tucked his thumbs into is pants, then turned to the old man. "You're a good man, Pahk'r. Thank you for helping me, you didn't have ta, you coulda said no, but you didn't, and that makes you a good man."
Parker nodded, understanding. "You're a good man too." He said finally.
Corbit bit his tongue and stepped away from the fire, he looked over at the lake, the quick current, and the trees across the way, then over at Parker. "Do ya really think a boat'll help us git out of here?"
Parker thought for a long minute. "I don't see how it couldn't." He stepped closer to Corbit. "But the way I see it is that's not the problem. The problem is us not havin' a boat." He spit. "Could always make one I s'pose." He sighed again, "Ah, what do I know about buildin’ a boat anyways?"
By noon, the two men had begun packing up their crude settlement; Parker himself dismantling the lean-to while Corbit, in his slow laborious way attended to the cook pot and other miscellaneous left behinds.
Eventually, he rubbed his nose and stood up, tucking his thumbs into his overalls, as was his habit before sharing his mind. He straightened his back and let out a sigh as he turned to Parker who, on his knees, had just finished rolling up the old blankets, binding them tightly with frayed twine.
"You know what I miss most of all, Pahk'r?" Corbit said, breathing in deeply the chilled mountain air. "I miss fresh, clean milk." Corbit smiled softly to himself, thinking about the pure white-as-snow milk he often imagined in his head.
Parker couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted milk, least of all fresh milk. He thought back hard about it for a minute, tossing the rolled rags to one side. Then it came to him, like sheet lightning. It was months ago. They, Corbit and himself, had spent a few wet nights -and several days- in an old farmhouse a kilometer or two from the highway. They kept the highway in sight in those days, followed it along from a distance. Back then, they had seen all sorts of travelers. Not too many these days though, he thought warily.
He remembered that they met another worn-out fellow traveler in the leaky barn across the way, he called himself Maxie Peru, though Parker didn’t believe that was his real name at all. Parker had near clean forgot all about Maxie, the bearded kid that he was. Kid, no, he was about Corbit’s age, younger then Parker to be sure, but hardly a kid. Back before it all happened, before the world came crashing down, Maxie, or so he claimed, had owned his own landfill business in Moncloude.
It had been a long time since Parker had given any thought to Maxie Peru, odd too, because for some time the three of them had formed quite a motley little posse. Many 'adventures', as Corbit had called them, where had by the trio of starving, rejected, runaway travelers. In fact, it was through Maxie that they had acquired Thor, the old nearly blind, deaf, dumb bloodhound she-dog. According to Maxie, the old bitch had followed him all the way from Three Hills, just trotting along beside him like she hadn't a friend in the world. Faithful and stupid, Thor had become welcome company, although Maxie had observed the ugly dog once cower away in fear of the banging of thunder clouds, thus the poor dog had been dubbed coyly Thor. It didn't take long for the dog to form an ever-appreciated friendship with the equally slow Corbit, and from there on in, the two bosom buddies were near inseparable. They must have sensed something in each other, like loneliness or understanding, or perhaps just plain and simple stupidity.
With Maxie Peru joining their pack, and the poor dog making four, they traveled many long days and spent many long nights under the stars or in old run down farmhouses or in leaky pig sties or smelly, damp chicken coops.
Once, one particular lonesome June day, they stumbled upon an old abandoned catholic church, north of the equally abandoned town of Beresford. Fearing a band of bloodthirsty marauders more then they feared the wrath of God they decided to take shelter among the pews and wax candles of the church; though it had been the agnostic Maxie who had broken down the locked door of the parsonage with a pry bar and a rusty spade.
Much to their surprise, the parsonage had only recently been abandoned, food on cracked, fake Van Buren china still sat uncovered spread across the wooden dining room table. Barely edged with green and only slightly hardened with time, they scavenged what they could, hard breads, stewed vegetables of questionable origin. The ice box, though now powerless, also had an assortment of aged goodies, from hard blue cheeses to tasteless masses of fruit, though the real pick of the litter had been a full glass bottle of cow's milk.
By then, it was an off-yellow, rancid shade and had long since turned, but no one cared. They drank the whole bottle down, mixing it with half a bottle of barley hooch to cut the sour taste and smell. They reveled greedily in their treasure, and even spared old Thor a healthy lap-full. No one dared complain and the hooch even allowed them to sleep peacefully that night, and in soft feather beds no less; though threat of the highway men's wayward ways forced them out of the parsonage shortly after dawn. They all agreed, it was one of their finest memories. Though since then, Parker had forgotten all about it. Corbit, being ever the innocent, had obviously not.
But their travels were obviously not meant to continue on forever, because one grey morning, Maxie decided that it wasn't in his best interest to head west after all. He abandoned them with not so much of a goodbye, during the night he had taken packs of their food, some of their blankets, and against Parker's wishes had left that miserable, miserable sorry excuse for a dog. Just another mouth to feed, thought Parker at first. Then it became clear that the dog wouldn't be a problem, it hardly ever ate. Anything. Ever.
Parker hadn't the heart to tell Corbit that Maxie had run off on them and left them to starve, he simply told him that he had simply gone on ahead during the night, blazing a trail for them, Parker told him that they'd meet him again in the mountain town of St. Barth's. St. Barth's didn't really exist, but what did still exist anymore? Not life really, not freedom, not hope. Though hope did live in St. Barth's, even if both were just lies.
Months later Parker found out, from a skinny, dyin' Italian, that Maxie had supposedly drowned in Dover Lake. Poor son-of-a bitch, Parker had thought at the time, but, he finally surmised, perhaps the world wasn't created for men like Maxie Peru to live peacefully, or whatever his goddamned name really was.
Over the past half year, there had been a lot that had happened to them, and to the world itself. Enough tragedy to write a hundred teary-eyed novels, poems and odes, yet slow, dumb Corbit had only remembered the milk. And sour milk at that.
They were all packed up in about 20 minutes, and heading down an overgrown trail in 25, with Thor, the old dog, trailing way behind. They had learnt, from experience, what was essential and what wasn't. It had taken them awhile, but they eventually left most of their unneeded belongings behind or traded them in little villages along the way. Now they managed a pack for each of them, a steel pot, some in plates, an empty 8-gallon paint pail for various what-have-yous, and an assorted collection of other necessities. Parker had the only knife and a dull hatchet, and six shells to an old .38 that they had somehow lost along the way.
Two hours before nightfall they came upon the remains of an old camp, it had been gone unused for some time, -Parker was willing to bet about a month- and after carefully surveying the site from a distance they approached it, more than carefully.
"Where are all the people, Pahk'r?" Corbit asked cowering back with the dog. Parker said nothing. It was always chancy to enter a campsite that wasn't your own, even if it did look abandoned. Sometimes that's just how some travelers lived, they themselves were often abandoned and alone, and why shouldn't their camp reflect that? Other times, rarely, but it was still always a risk, travelers would leave a camp just like this as bait, and patiently await the unsuspecting fly to kill and rob. Some of them, as stories go, went beyond patience, it was madness. Parker had heard stories about one madman who would wait for weeks, hiding quietly, for his so-called fly to come along. For all Parker knew, this deserted camp could be have been his trap. And god, how he wished it wasn't so.
Parker approached the camp with unease, one hand firmly gripping the hatchet, the other tightly clenching the rusted knife. The camp was obviously quiet, not a sound, and Parker felt totally alone, despite the beady eyes of both Corbit and old Thor watching him from afar.
No, Parker thought, opening the torn tent flap with the axe, there's no one here.
Inside the tent, under a molding sleeping bag, cuddled in a little ball was the body of what appeared to be a man. Parker ducked down, and stepped inside. Smells of old yeast and rot greeted him viciously and he backed off just for a second before he bit the insides of his cheeks and approached the body.
Alive, he had probably been an old man, older than Parker and that was saying a lot. In the end, life had just run out on him, and not surprisingly, when he least suspected it, while he was sleeping. In a way, it reminded Parker again of Maxie Peru, he too had run out on them and while they were asleep no less. No, this was no trap, this was just an unfortunate scene. One among many.
Parker stepped out of the tent and called for Corbit, the boy and the dog scampered over. "I want you to start going through his packs," Parker told him, "see if there isn't anything we can use." Corbit did just that, and as if on cue, Thor herself began to sniff lazily about. Parker sighed. I suppose the man deserves a burial of some sort. He thought. Or we could just leave him for someone else to clean up.
But, at sunset, after a few hours of digging, Parker and Corbit rolled the old man's corpse into a shallow grave and buried him beneath a covering of damp leaves and dirt.
Using their own blankets and rags, they settled into the ripped tent, (As a precaution, Parker had burned the dead man's sleeping bag.) and they soon fell asleep. Only Parker slept restlessly, and he woke up several times throughout the short night. Once, he even stepped out, and stood gazing into the glowing orange embers of their fire. He was quiet, knew he wouldn't be sleeping much that night, he was feeling too stressed, too worn out, too old.
"Sometimes I just wish," he mumbled softly to himself, "Sometimes I just wish..." He paused, even in his head, he was choosing his words carefully. He spit. He was almost disgusted with his thoughts, but spewed them out anyway. Quickly as if no one would hear. "Sometimes I wish we'd never been born." But then he'd curse himself for such thoughts, and after that, he didn't sleep anymore that night. He stirred the embers of the fire, and after adding more wood, he brought it back alive into a full blaze. He sat on the up-turned 8-gallon bucket warming himself by the fire. Thor nestled down at his feet and slept.
In the early morning, sleepy Corbit stirred from the tent and found Parker still seated on the bucket, old Thor still at his feet.
"Oh, Pahk'r, I was wonderin’ where you was."
"Why? You know I never go very far."
"Still though. I thought you an' Thor'd gone and left me all alone. Gone to St. Barth's with Maxie Peru, gone the way of the dinosaur." The last word stuck in his mouth as if he'd personally known a dinosaur and it too had left him alone and gone to St. Barth's.
"Nah, you know better than that. I'd never leave you, not all alone anyways." He spit. "Aw, heck. Corbit, I couldn't leave you. We'd go to St. Barth's together, right? Jus' you an' I."
"And even Thor?"
Parker nodded. "And even Thor." The dog drooled lazily at the sound of her name, Corbit just laughed his deep throaty laugh.
He said. "Thor's happy now, Pahk'r. You made her happy. You sure made her morning."
Parker just straightened his back and sighed. "Yeah, I guess I did." Was all the old man could say. In a little over an hour, they had packed up their motley camp and ate an equally crude breakfast of pine root and a grey fungus, and they were back on their reluctant, sore feet, climbing, before midday.
In another hour, the forest dissipated and broke up away from the river, which now lay several meters below them at the bottom of a shale bank. On their right, the river raged fearlessly, its thick brown waters leaving a dark green scum on the surface. Away from the river, the open valley of a forest that had since burned down, ashen pine stumps and new grass shoots prickled out of the blackened landscape like alien thorns.
Parker decided that it would be easier going out of the woodland and through the valley, less stones to trip on or tree roots to get caught up in. He figured it would also be flatter terrain, softer, and perhaps the sleeping would be easier too. He pushed aside the nagging in his head that the tree cover gave them protection that the meadow couldn’t, protection mainly from the local banditos or sadists, but Parker reasoned that if the highwaymen really wanted to cut their throats and take their 8-gallon plastic pail as some sort of charm, then a couple of dead trees and bristly underbrush really wasn't going to stop them.
From the stories Parker had heard they were all merciless, completely lawless, and above all else desperate enough to kill even an old beggar woman for a dime, but they weren’t that desperate, not to leave their beaten path for the restrictions of the off-road.
They continued to plod along in the miserable sun, until the heat became too unbearable and they were forced back beneath the forest's cover.
They traveled a long time under these conditions, trudging in the heat, through the shade, over the ash and soot. And, though it was not yet dark, they set up camp at their next opportunity because they weren't sure when they'd get another opportunity.
That morning, Parker woke up with a start, and with a sweaty palm scratched the hair on his face. Corbit was sitting at his side, it was almost mid-day. Then he spoke, "Thor didden come home last night, Pahk'r." Corbit had been close to tears, Parker knew it, he didn't know what he'd do if the boy started crying. He didn't think he could handle the tears -knew he couldn't handle the tears-, at least not now, at least not this early in the morning. He stood up and stepped out into the hot sun once more.
Then Parker laughed sadistically in his head, I'm going to need my mornin' coffee first. He shuffled his foot in the dirt and looked up at his ward. "Well," he said, "I'm sure she's 'round here somewheres. Have you looked?"
Corbit nodded, "Even went down to th' river, figurin' she might have slipped in, but I couldn't see any signs that she had."
For a minute, Parker bit into him, "Corbit, you shouldn't have gone down to the river, you know that. You coulda fallen in, you can't swim, you can't-" but then changed his tone, when he saw Corbit's face sour, "ah, Corbit, just be more careful next time, huh?"
"But Thor, Pahk'r." He pleaded, "We gotta find her."
Parker was much too tired to argue. He really hadn't the strength to dispute anything, especially with Corbit. He sighed and restlessly looked to his feet and then back up at the younger man. He supposed the poor dog did mean a lot to poor Corbit.
For a minute Parker let his gaze wander out across the ashen valley, he thought about that damn dog, he thought about that damn temptress of a river, he thought about Corbit, the idiot Corbit, and he thought about milk and of Maxie Peru. His own grey hair, now turning white, the taste of wood and tree in his mouth, and he thought about damned St. Barth's, that damned Xanadu, the damned Ivory Tower, and the whole damn thing that never really existed. It wasn't even a figment of anyone's imagination. It was just a whisper, not even a hope, not even a dream. But to an idiot like Corbit, it was everything, wasn't it?
Parker just sniffed at the foul smelling air, "Aw," he said, "okay, Corbie, you just stay here in the clearing, so as you don't go git yourself lost, I'll check the woods as far back as I dare."
A dumb, goofy grin spread across Corbit's face, "Oh-kay, Pahk'r."
Old Parker tucked the axe into his belt and turned back to Corbit, "Now don't go wanderin' off now, I'm not too sure where we are, so I don't want you losing your way now, ya hear?"
"I'll stay close, Pahk'r, I promise."
Parker watched as Corbit took it upon himself to double check the surrounding area one more time, before Parker turned on his heel and trudged through the thinly stretched, sparse forest floor.
Despite the ash, the forest was old and it smelled strongly of dry rot and other versions of molding plant life. Parker swung the hatchet lazily at his side. The shade and the solace of his own mind gave him little comfort. He scanned the forest floor, but could not see the old dog hidden amongst the brambles.
Then not far from their little camp, hidden half behind an old dying pine, Parker saw her. Actually, he just caught a glimpse of her reddish brown fur, matted with morning dew, it stood out against the black forest floor.
He crept closer, hatchet in hand, heart pounding in his throat. Why? Was he afraid? Afraid of a dead dog? No. It wasn't Thor he was afraid of -if it was even fear at all- it was always the only thing that kept Parker up at night, that was the unknown. That was waking up with no idea where to go next, or what food to eat, or who to befriend and who to stay wary of, it was fear for sure. Fear of the unknown. And right now, dead dumb Thor was about as unknown as they come. And Parker couldn't help but shiver.
The dog lay strangely peaceful, spread out on her side as if just asleep, though as Parker got closer he noticed the old dog's chest neither rose nor fell. Like the rest of the forest, Thor was frighteningly still.
Blasted dog's dead, thought Parker as he quietly thrashed his way closer to the animal. Just up and died, just like that. Age did her in, I'd guess.
Parker knelt down beside her. Thor was still warm to the touch, she was lying as if she had just keeled over, not much more comfortable or relaxed than that. Her eyes were closed tight, and her yellow teeth were bared like she had gone through a great deal of pain in her lifetime only to end up here; stone dead in a forest, one hundred million miles from nowhere.
"Dumb bitch," Parker said half out loud. "You finally couldn't hack it anymore, eh? Finally gave up, got too old?" He looked around the wooded clearing and then slowly back down at the lifeless dog. "Or maybe this world wasn't created for anyone to live in peacefully anyway, maybe just to die peacefully.
"Or maybe you really were the smartest one after all." He spit.
He used the dull hatchet edge and brushed ash and dead leaves across the corpse and stood straight. Parker wouldn't tell Corbit about Thor; he thought it best not to bring any of it up. No, instead he'd look into Corbit's eyes and tell him simply that old Thor had decided the journey was too great for her old bones, that she had made up her own mind and that she had ran on ahead. Parker would tell him, that Thor would meet them in St. Barth's. Corbit would be happy to know that, Corbit was always happy to hear about St. Barth's.
("You sure made her happy, Parker, you sure made her morning.")
At the end of the day, it gave him something to think about, it gave him a goal to reach for, a goal where the prize was a re-acquaintance with Maxie Peru, and now with Corbit's only true friend, old Thor herself.
Though in real life, maggots or no maggots, both Thor and Maxie were deader than dead.
He tucked the axe back into his belt, he thought of Corbit. He let out a low sigh, and with a heavy heart, returned to camp. Dear dumb Corbit, he thought, you were born in the wrong century, kid. A simpler time would have suited you best. Where you coulda been honestly, truly happy, and learned to read and go to school, instead of being on the run all the time; looking for a dream that doesn't exist. St. bloody Barth's.
Parker knew St. Barth's was the only thing that kept Corbit going, he said often how much he missed Maxie Peru waiting for them in St. Barth's. And now with Thor in St. Barth's as well, perhaps that was just the motivation he needed, perhaps Corbit would let ol' Parker build his raft. Yes, the much needed raft.
Corbit was upset, and Parker could do very little to make him feel any better. He took him by the shoulder and tried his best anyway. "That old mutt’s happy right now, you know that. Playin’ and leapin’, good ol’ Maxie Peru is keeping her company, the way it’s meant to be.
"She left us, Corbit, but not for good, son, not for good." He coughed. "No, nothing could keep that ol' dog away, least of all from you."
"I s'pose you’re right, Pahk'r, I s'pose you’re right."
He was silent for a while, letting the morning air warm up, the distant sound of the river miles away. It was quiet, everything surrounding them, quiet as the grave.
Then Corbit spoke, "What’re we goin’ eat t’nite, Pahk’r?"
He sighed, "I'll think of something, Corbit. I always think of something."
He thought of Thor then, not a hell of a lot of meat on her, but at least there'd be some nutrients, he supposed. He figured if he could get back their before any true signs of rot set in, before the maggots and the other disease-ridden scavengers descended upon it. He barred his teeth and yawned, yes, he figured, it had to be done. There wasn’t anything else.
"You know I always think of something." And he picked up his hatchet and tucked it into his belt.