The Trail, scene twenty five
Wind grew strong out of the west, pushing the thick slog of clouds eastward like a massive invisible plow. Cat and Tom leaned into it, almost angling forward to maintain balance. The taller pieces of grass lashed like little yellow whips, and hawks set their wings high above and rode the currents with deft little adjustments to stay level, their shadows on the earth mimicking every movement and warning mice and rabbits to stay hidden. By noon the temperature had risen dramatically and they had both shed all but their t-shirts and jeans, which flagged behind them in the wind. The tracks laid out in a long, straight, black line, like stitches in the earth in front of them, on each side was a tight, galvanized barbed wire fence. Different species of small birds clung to the top wire, leaning into the heavy wind, almost in fear of flying. After an hour of steady walking, with no sign of civilization anywhere in sight, they came to a small railroad bridge over a tiny spring creek, that was more black mud than anything else. They climbed down and sat under the bridge, the sudden lack of wind was almost disorienting, their ears ringing from the constant roar the wind had caused. “Son of a bitch, I can’t remember being in wind like that without a storm, or something driving it. Feels like we’re walking into the teeth of a hurricane, “ said Cat as he fished in the front pocket of his pack for a cigarette and lighter, “I remember learning about early pioneers getting something called prairie madness, when I was a kid in school. They said it came from the extreme isolation, the terrible winters, and the wind. After today I agree with the wind part. I’m about half nuts from a couple hours in it.” He put the cigarette in his mouth and cupped his hands around both the end of it and the lighter, and lit it. Tom took his water out and drank carefully, his lips beginning to turn white and crack from involuntarily licking them, and the wind drying them out over and over. He dabbed his lips with the neck of his shirt rather than wipe them when he’d finished drinking. “We have to be on the high line somewhere. It was colder than hell this morning, now it’s hotter than hell. I can’t think of anywhere else we’d get those extremes” said Tom. Cat took his hair from the ponytail and hung it straight forward between his legs then scratched it violently with the nails of both hands before whipping his head back and putting it into the ponytail. “My guess is we’re in northern Montana…somewhere. Montana is huge, so exactly where in northern Montana is the question.” Cat laid back against the bank when he finished talking, one hand behind his head supporting his neck, the other resting on his stomach holding the cigarette. He watched Tom use the fingernail of his pinky to poke and scratch gently at his chapped lips. “You been out here a while now…what do you think about this…this way of living?” Tom held the pinky nail up to the light for a moment and looked at it as if he may find blood, then, finding nothing, let it fall to his lap. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I mean, when I listened to you talking this morning about living so free, so kind of…unseen, I felt a little jealous. You know where you belong, I think that’s rare. Shit, I don’t belong back in Wisconsin, I don’t belong in one of those office jobs you talked about…and I’m not sure I belong out here either.” Cat sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees, his hands hung loosely between them, white curls of smoke coming from the cigarette. “Well, no one says it has to be figured out right now. There’s no hurry, shit Tom, for all we know you could start going by your given first name and run for congress in a few years.” He smiled a big smile and his eyes narrowed and sparkled, it was infectious and Tom smiled back. Cat continued, “If you do get some high up muckety muck job, and some day you’re riding around in the back of a limo on your way to some fancy dress up dinner, and you drive over a big old dark river lined with cottonwoods, look down there and remember this time we drifted, I just might be down there in the sticks smiling back up, and no one anywhere in the world will know our little connection..no one.”
Cat dug the can of Sterno out of his pack and shook it next to his ear. “Probably have enough to cook one last meal," he said. They ate a lunch of ramen, tuna, and the last of the peanut m&ms, packed everything up, and leaned into the wind. “I wonder if it’s windy like this very often around here. Be enough to drive you nuts,” said Tom. Cat turned his back to the wind for a few steps and walked backwards into it. “I think it’s windy up here quite a bit, but this is crazy.” He hooked a finger onto a long strand of hair that had whipped into the corner of his mouth, and pulled it loose. “I’m just wondering how long it’s gonna be until we see some signs of life. I mean, there ain’t so much as a road, anywhere. I’ve been all over this country and I’ve never seen anywhere this…blank.” He turned back around and angled into the wind, his thumbs hooked into the shoulder straps of his pack, chest high. A thought had been gnawing in the back of Tom’s mind since lunch, and finally he spoke it. “How much water you got?” Cat took two or three steps, just the right length to step from tie to tie without hitting gravel, before he answered. “Not very much. I mean, if I conserve it a little, probably got enough to last until this time tomorrow. How about you?” Tom fell into rhythm with Cat, also stepping from tie to tie, “Same. Knowing I’m limited makes me more thirsty for some reason. I thought about trying to get a little water from that spring, but it was just mud…maybe we shoulda dug a hole and waited for it to fill” a grasshopper burst into flight from the gray crushed gravel in front of him, and the wind immediately pushed it back behind them, a jumble of papery wings, “I guess hindsight is always 20/20.”
The sun slowly tracked toward the west, and as it did, the wind began to subside ever so slightly. Far to the northwest they could see what at first they thought was another building thunderhead, but as it built, it was a strange, thick combination of yellow and gray, and it was dense like an atomic cloud. It grew out of the ground and looked very much like the bubbly head of a diseased mushroom. Within an hour the first faint hint of woodsmoke reached their nostrils, bright and new, nothing like it smells coming from a cabin fireplace. Cat stopped and lowered his bag to the ground, took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, his back blocking the wind from the lighter flame. Then he turned and shaded his eyes against the lowering sun. “That’s a beast right there. It went from nothing at all to visible all these miles away in a half hour. That storm last night probably started it with lightning.” Tom took off his pack and lowered it to the ground, then sat on the shiny rail. He could feel the heat from the sun coming through the seat of his jeans. “You think we’re in any danger? I mean, is it heading this way?” He asked Cat. “No…that fire is way, way off, and I think it’s in the timber.” He tilted his head back slightly and sniffed the air, his nostrils flaring slightly. “It doesn’t smell like a grass fire, I can smell the pine in it. Probably in the mountains, it’s just that the mountain tops are too far below the horizon for us to see.” Cat sat on the rail next to Tom. “How are your ribs holding up?” They still hurt, but he’d become accustomed to the pain, the way a person learns to live with a bad bruise, and not even think about it after a while. “They’re still dinged, but improving.” Tom suddenly wondered what Gina was doing. This is Monday…or is it Tuesday…or, well shit, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter anyway, I can’t remember her schedule. He kicked himself silently for being so forgetful.
The sky around the plume of smoke was a dusty amber color, and a long tracer of the same color stretched away from it to the east, and slightly north. Cat was watching the column of smoke, bent forward, his chest on his knees, and he subconsciously rolled the cigarette free of ash on a rock, back and forth, making a sharp point of the cherry. “Nope, I think we’re okay, the smoke is moving east and a little north…maybe more than a little.” He lifted the hand that held the cigarette and pointed with his index and middle fingers, the cigarette held between. “See, when the smoke leaves the fire it moves slightly away, towards Canada…yeah, we’re okay.” Tom watched the side of Cat’s face. The way he kept reassuring himself that they were okay made him nervous. It’s gonna be dark in three hours, be nice to find something, anything, to have a little shelter,” said Cat. He rubbed the cigarette out on the gleaming railroad track and stood with a little tired groan. “You ready partner?” Tom stood gradually, letting his ribs get acclimated to his shifting body slowly. “As ready as I’m gonna be.”
As the sun set they moved to the sides of the railroad bed because the reflected light coming off of the rails went directly into their eyes. Suddenly Tom stopped and looked around in amazement, “Hey, do you feel that?” Cat put his hands on his hips and made a scrunched up face, “Feel what?” Tom smiled, “Exactly, I don’t feel it either.” Cat shook his head, baffled, “What the hell are you talking about?” Tom laughed, “The wind, it’s completely gone.” Cat’s face recoiled slightly, “Holy shit, you’re right. Happened so gradually I didn’t even notice.” Cat turned toward the column of smoke and tipped his head back, sniffing the air like a bloodhound. “No smell of smoke either, that’s good.” So he was worried, thought Tom.
With the roar of the wind gone, every sound stood out clearly. The chalky crunch of the stone under their feet, crickets playing their love songs, the screech of an unseen hawk somewhere. At precisely the same second they both pointed at something in the far distance, southwest of them. It was a dark patch on the prairie, but the sun, blinding at its low angle made it almost impossible to make it out. “Don’t know what it is, but son of a bitch, it’s something, and we haven’t seen anything but grass and dirt all day.” Tom was excited as he said it. They climbed down the low grade of the railroad bed and threw their packs over the fence before going through it themselves, each man holding the wires apart for the other.
Gauging distance over flat land is hard, and as they walked toward the thing they’d seen, they found that out. What seemed like a ten minute walk, turned into fifteen, and then twenty five, and then the sun went down and it still seemed like it was far, far off. Tom’s ribs, which hadn’t ached much the whole day, were beginning to throb, and he was dying of thirst, but trying to conserve the little he had left. The sun was down, and the brilliant white light it cast went with it, replaced by a warm lemon color. The temperature began to drop and cool evaporation rose from the ground in spots where the grass was thick. Tom squinted at their dark goal, “Is this like one of those trick carnival mirrors where we keep thinking we’re getting closer, but never actually do?” Cat laughed, “I don’t think so, but I swear to God that bastard has legs and it’s walking away at the same speed we’re walking towards it.” Subconsciously they hurried their pace as night crawled slowly from the east toward the west, pushing the remaining daylight to the horizon until it was just a narrow orange band on the horizon. Nighthawks swerved above, easily recognizable with the broad white band on the underside of each wing, and the short, shrill, high pitched burst of their call. Then, as if they’d covered a mile in only three steps, they were there. It was a small, gray, dilapidated house that was probably once painted, but now bare wood. It had settled and shifted sideways, and in the process had shattered all the windows and popped the frames loose from their caulking, where they hung at odd angles down the side of the little house. A galvanized tower and windmill stood to the north of the house, still intact, but motionless in the calm evening. Wild rose bushes crowded the east and north side, making a close approach impossible. They walked around them and towards the western facing wall. They were surprised to see a small pond, perhaps 60 feet in diameter, heavy grass grew over the water and bowed as if it were reaching for a drink. Tom’s anxiety lessened, maybe it’s drinkable. A little covered porch faced the pond, and though the house behind it had sunk and crumbled, it stood surprisingly unscathed. Cat walked over and tapped the single step that led to the porch with a toe, then stood up quickly on that foot, but left the other in midair behind him. He bounced up and down, all his weight on the single foot. “Feels solid.” He brought the other foot up and stood on the step for a moment before continuing onto the porch. “This porch is as sound as a dollar.” Tom walked over and cautiously mounted the porch. The floorboards and columns had been painted with some sort of thick, shiny, light colored paint that still held for the most part. He grabbed a wooden column and slid his hand up and down the smooth paint, “This paint is quality. That’s probably why the porch has lasted but the house is falling apart.” Cat dropped his pack and sat on the step, Tom sat next to him. “I’m shot,” said Cat, “but I could also eat the ass end out of a dead skunk. Wonder how far a little fire would be seen from here, I’m too tired to dig an Indian pit.” Tom walked out next to the pond and turned in a slow circle, scanning the horizon for any lights, and could see nothing. “I think we’d be okay so long as we keep it small.” They searched around the house, picking up a little pile of wooden shingles that had fallen off the roof, some branches from an apple tree that was seemingly half alive and half dead, and two old crates that were under the base of the windmill. Cat broke up the wood and placed it in a little cabin shape, then filled the cabin with grass and lit it on fire. Within minutes yellow flames were licking up. Tom looked at the pond. “Do you think we can drink from that pond?” Cat looked quickly towards the pond, then back at the fire, its light making his eyes dance. “They wouldn’t have put this house in the middle of bum fucked Egypt if that water wasn’t usable.” Tom watched Cat pour the last of his water into his little pot and hold it over the flames with one of the metal skewers. It was such an obvious answer that it made Tom feel dumb for even asking it, how did I not get that? Of course the water is good.
They ate ramen and Vienna sausages for dinner, and then had strawberry and cream instant oatmeal for dessert. After they’d eaten, they made their beds on the porch, using their packs as pillows. “Long day,” said Cat. Tom could hear the cellophane wrapper of a pack of cigarettes crackling, and knew that Cat was about to smoke. Without saying a word they both stood and walked down to the pond and sat on the gravel of a little bare spot on the shoreline. A single bullfrog croaked at the far end of the pond, then another answered to their left. Tom thought their calls sounded like rubber being stretched. The night was so calm it made the memory of the day’s fierce wind seem like weeks ago rather than hours. Tom bit his lips back and forth, top and bottom, somehow biting them relieved the chapping and cracks temporarily. He kept waiting for Cat to light the cigarette, and each time he turned to watch for the spark of the lighter, he could feel the sunburn on his neck where the skin tightened and stretched. The last vestiges of light from the fading sun had extinguished on the western horizon, and it was black. Finally the lighter sparked and lit up not only Cat’s face, but the tall, green and yellow grass that edged the pond. For a few moments the flame left them night-blind, the negative image of the flash burned into their vision, but it gradually faded until the stars came into full focus. They sat quietly with their necks cocked back, staring straight up until the muscles started to pinch, then they laid back. The Milky Way was brighter than Tom had ever seen it, an indefinable mix of colors, lavender, pink, purple, and enough glittering, diamond shard stars scattered through it to make it unclear where one color started and another ended. “I have never seen the sky like this before,” said Tom. “One time we went on a fishing trip to northern Wisconsin, and the stars were spectacular…but nothing like this.” Cat took a long drag of the cigarette and Tom could hear the tobacco crackle as it burned. Above them they could hear the tiny, sharp, sonar squeaks of bats, feasting on insects. Cat exhaled smoke, and Tom could smell it in the still air. “I’ve never seen them like this before either, never.” Tom felt a strange sense of camaraderie. Cat had been on the road a long time, and there wasn’t much he hadn’t seen or experienced, and he was glad he was experiencing something with him that was new to him too. The surface of the pond was black and smooth, like a pool of oil, and the heavens, with all their color were reflected there, making it appear like the milky way went deep into the earth. They laid there and stared into the depths of the sky for a long time, both of them feeling incredibly small and insignificant in all the vastness before them. “Do you believe in God?” Cat asked quietly, there was no sense of malice, or a trap being set in his words, he just wanted to know. Tom stared at a glinting star, twinkling almost blue, and particularly bright. “I think I do…yes, I do.” He looked up from the bright blue star and found a little pinprick of a reddish star, or planet, like a piece of bright sugar on a black tablecloth, he focused on it. “One time I had a science teacher tell me that he only believed in tangible things. Things you can see and feel. He told me that if there was no hard physical evidence, he just couldn’t believe in it. But I look at it like this, is it easier to believe that dirt has just…always been, or that an intelligent creator has just…always been? Both ways are ridiculous if you really think about it, so the ridiculous I choose is to believe in God over dirt.” Cat took a last drag off the cigarette and rubbed it out in the gravel. Tom watched from his peripheral vision until all the cherry was extinguished. “How about you, do you believe in God?” Cat sat up and drew his knees up to his chest. “Yeah…I do, maybe not the God that’s down in some white church with a big steeple and bells, and wanting all your money, and all that shit…but I do believe in God. One time I was sitting in an all night cafe in Tulsa, drinking a cup of coffee. It was one of those black, black nights, almost like you could feel its density, and it was raining like a scene out of a movie, just a downpour. There was a guy about 40 years old sitting just down the counter from me, and other than the cook and the waitress he was the only other person in there.” Cat adjusted the way he was sitting by rocking back and forth, and Tom could hear the gravel crunch under his weight. “So this guy is talking to the waitress, and he’s telling her everything you can imagine about rainstorms, and what causes them, and how they’re formed, and how you can tell if they’re gonna spawn a tornado or not…and on, and on, and on, this guy rambled. I could tell by the way he talked, you know the ten dollar words he strung together, that he wasn’t only smart, he was educated. So I sat there and listened to him, and watched him. I remember he had on a pair of tan cords, but they were those king sized, super thick cords, and he wore a gray vest and a gray newsboy cap that matched it. He was dressed how a new age hippy might dress. Just for the hell of it I walked down and sat by him. I listened to him rambling on about supercells and that kind of shit, and when he finally shut up, I said, ‘How is hail formed?’” He was just so fucking eager to show me and that waitress what a genius he was, he lit up like a roman candle. On and on he went about convection and rising warm air, and moisture…and just a big long rant. For some reason he thought it was important that me, a drifter, and that old waitress, knew just how smart he was.” Tom could hear Cat sliding another cigarette from the pack, he was quiet until he sparked the lighter and took a drag off the cigarette. “So we sat there trapped in that restaurant listening to the genius talk. I mean, it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, he was smart. Finally, he stopped talking long enough to take a breath, and just to screw with him I said, “This must've been how it rained during the time of Noah’s ark. Well, that didn’t sit right with him, and to be honest, I don’t even know why I said it. He turned to me and he goes, you don’t really believe all that nonsense do you? Now, at the time I wasn’t sure what the hell I believed, but I was angling for a fight with mister ten dollar words for some reason. I said, I don’t know…maybe, doesn’t make any less sense than everything we know in existence just appearing one day. So he went off on another long bullshit talk on why I was wrong, and I shouldn’t believe in myths, and on and on he went,” behind where they sat came a clear, who, who, of an owl somewhere by the old house, they both stopped and listened, but the owl didn’t call again. Cat took a couple of quick drags off the cigarette, the glow causing a faint red shadow on his face, “I listened to the guy dress me down for a few minutes, and when he finally shut the fuck up I asked him what he did for a living. He told me he was an adjunct professor, I can’t remember what school now, but he was a professor. He told me that when people come to college, they almost all believe in God, but through education, by the time they leave, most of them don’t believe anymore. I sat there and thought about that for a few minutes, all the while knowing that what he believed was a theory that couldn’t be proved, and what I believed was also a theory that couldn’t be proved, but in his college they convinced people that their unproven theory was better than my unproven theory, which, by the way, I wasn’t even sure I believed.” Cat laughed at what he said. “But I was screwing with the guy, so you know what I said?” Tom shook his head, then suddenly realized that Cat couldn’t see him do it, so he answered, “What?” Cat chuckled again, “I said, I think you’re confusing education with indoctrination.” Cat burst into laughter harder than Tom had ever heard him laugh, it caused Tom to join in. “You’ve never seen a son of a bitch more pissed off in your life. I could see the steam coming out of his ears, if you’d have flicked water on him it would’ve hissed. He told me I was indoctrinated too, and it was institutional, and on and on he went. I just sat there and took it, I’d made my point.” Cat laughed again, and Tom with him. Slowly they returned to the magnificent scene that was before them. They sat for a long time, staring up at the infinite sky in reverent silence. Finally Cat stood, and for a moment looked like a little child staring up at the sky…”Yeah…I believe.”