A Surface Life
He walked down the Western Road, the sun a constant companion which could only listen and never speak. If asked, he would have said that the worst part of traveling is not the loneliness; it is the getting used to it.
He had never been a solitary man in his old life. He’d had children, a wife with a sunny disposition and full, white breasts that welcomed him after a long day of work. The constant noise of life had kept his mind from delving too deeply into any one matter; his was an existence of surfaces, with no fathoms to keep him from a good night’s sleep.
He was tired of walking. Being a leader was exhausting.
He looked up now to the sun as it made a slow descent, like a woman lowering herself into the bath. The sky looked like a giant bruise, all reds and purples in shades that hurt his eyes. It was the sort of sky that brought on stomachaches and too much whiskey, but it wouldn’t last long. Night was drawing near on swift cat’s feet.
“The river is always watching,” said the dead man on the side of the road.
“What else is there for a river to do?” he asked, irritated as he always was when one of them followed him. The only thing worse than getting used to being lonely is the companionship of a dead man. They can only look back.
"Do you think it ever tires of constantly moving? Does it ever want to go in a different direction, do you suppose?" the dead man asked.
He sighed heavily and kept up his pace. He could hear the dead man shuffling behind him. That was another thing about the deceased: they always dragged their feet.
"I don't have a care one way or the other about the river," he said. "My only care is about this darkening road, and if you had any sense it would be yours, as well."
The sun began to slip out of sight, leaving a hushed violet gloom in the air around them. It smelled like rusted metal, a scent he associated with blood. He turned and looked at the dead man fully, drinking him in. The eyes were cloudy white, blinded by the traumas of the In Between. His nostrils flared like those of a bloodhound; he was trying to make sense of the world around him the way a living man would. But the dead man would find no solace in his remaining senses, he thought. The Western Road would see to that.
“You can’t follow me any farther,” he said gently. It was the softest he’d been with any of the dead, and he didn’t quite know why, unless it was that he knew what this one had been thinking of as he shuffled off the mortal coil: his girl, no more than five, pale hair flying behind her as she ran through a field. It had reached him in a way that no special pleading had done thus far. The humanity left in him was both a blessing and a curse.
“I can smell the river,” the dead man said. “I hate that smell. Just let me go with you.”
“Why do you want to go back?” he asked, genuinely curious. “What do you think awaits you there? Some love that didn’t exist before? The forgiveness of that little tow-headed girl?”
The clouds were rolling across the moon. A nimbus tide.
The dead man tilted his head up, as though surveying the sky. A single tear slid down his ruined face and stopped at the corner of his mouth. “I thought I had more time.”
A soft wind began to wake the trees with a hush and it was like a lullabye for the damned. An admonition to the wicked. He stood in the midst of the carnage and scrubbed a hand over his face, suddenly incredibly weary. There was still so much more road to go.
He took out his pouch, lit a cigarette. The strike of the match lit a sulphurous glare in the near-dark. “No such thing,” he said.