The kid crouched behind the chuparosas along the ridge. Down in the valley, the man stoked the fire with a long, crooked sage switch. The kid imagined that he felt the outer warmth of the fire, but the desert cold coiled cruel and true inside his bones. He huddled into his father’s old hunting coat and kept watch. He had been awake for three days now. He fell into a waking dream.
“You out there,” the man shouted into the space between them. “You come out where I can look at you.”
The kid started awake. The man did not raise his face from the fire. The kid looked back the way he had come, where the knotted bodies of the chuparosas and ocotillos provided cover enough for miles. But he thought of the old cattle fences he passed that day, garlanded with fingers and strings of skull bone. And the wild men that lived back that way, at the end of the path that put him here. And the kid heard the fire crackle in the valley – and even though he knew he should run, he stayed where he was.
“I ain’t asking again.”
In the moonlight, the kid rooted among the rocks on the cold, hardpacked desert floor. A smooth black one fit in the palm of his hand. Holding it tight inside his fist he stepped out from behind the bush.
“I ain’t doing nothing, mister.”
The man stood up from the fire. His face was too far gone for the kid to make out. But his switch swung back and forth in the flamelight.
“I don’t like it, amigo,” the man said. “Being watched by a man.”
“I ain’t doing nothing,” the kid repeated stupidly.
“Well then come do it by the fire.”
By moonlight things seemed clear. The stars burned disinterestedly above him. After a time, even they would go out. Then there would just be dark. And when it was dark, the men would come even this far for him.
As he walked towards the fire, the man crouched back low near the pit, resting his bony rear on a large rock while feeding the fire from a sloppy pyramid of branches at his feet. The kid saw him in its low flicker. The man wore old, earth-colored clothes, a hunting knife strapped around one skinny leg, a leather hat that covered all of his face except for the piss yellow beard straggling down to his chest. His boots were ruined to the soles, and blackened toes showed through the cracked leather.
“Thank you.” The kid sat down in the dirt and quietly dropped the rock at his feet.
“Nothing of it.” The kid offered his canteen to the man but he waved it off. The man pushed the fire around the pit with his switch. “We’re still men, ain’t we.”
The kid did not know if this was a question, so he kept silent. He leaned in so he felt the fire on his face and then rubbed his hands together at the fire and then he pressed them to his body and tried warming his cold blood . His body stopped feeling some time ago. The fire pit had been cobbled together from several small black rocks, same as the one he’d brought from the dark, and the fire leaped over them in patterns and tongues. He squeezed his fingernails into the skin over his ribs to stave off the sleep.
“Cold one tonight.”
The man looked up from the fire, showing his face for the first time, smiling through his filthy beard.
“It always is, amigo.”
The man’s eyes were pupil-less and caged with bloodshot. The man’s nose had been broken again and again until it had flattened dead to one side. His lips were flared open with viruses. The entire upper shelf of his teeth was missing. Where it wasn’t covered by beard, his skin was black with putrefaction.
“I see you looking at me,” the man said. He smiled again, but it was different.
The kid looked down into the fire. “No,” he said.
“I see you looking at my face.”
“You’re wrong, mister.”
“I’m wrong.” The empty smile disappeared back into his beard. “Well, what are you looking at then?”
Moments from the lives the kid had walked away from crackled in the flames. Kind-faced women burned in fires in empty streets. Bodies rotted in the ash.
The man picked up another branch, thorns and all, and threw it into the pit. The flames leapt chaotically about it and the kid came back.
“I’m not looking at anything,” the kid said.
“That’s right,” the man said. “You’re looking at nothing. We’re just sitting here looking at nothing.”
The fire cackled and spat at their boots. The man pushed the wood around the fire a bit, then set down his branch and took out a pack of tobacco from his coat pocket. A coyote wailed alone in the darkness.
“You got a name, kid?”
“I’m not a kid,” the kid said.
“Sure you ain’t. But you got a name?”
The kid told him.
The man repeated the name. He opened the tobacco pouch and distributed what was left along a dry cornhusk.
“You got a last name?”
The kid said it.
The man gave the kid a long once-over.
“What kind of name is that?”
“It’s just a name. Some place in France.”
“Some place in France.”
“That’s what my momma told me.”
“You know a lot about places in France.”
“I don’t know nothing about it. I’m from Texas.”
The man’s mouth laughed quietly. He put the cigarette to his lips and took a black matchbook from somewhere in his ragged clothes. He pulled out a match and struck it.
“I know Texas.” He lit the cigarette and was quiet again.
The fire sputtered orange and red and dark into the night. The kid held his hands close to it, until he felt the nerves of his fingers singe, then he slid them up his coat sleeves and grasped his scrawny arms. The smell of the fire upon the rocks was the smell of the doors of the earth cracked open.
“What’s yours?” the kid said after a time. “Your name.”
The man dragged on the cigarette. A red eye burned in the darkness where his mouth was. He said his name.
“Is that really your name?”
“It’s one of them.”
“Christian name or surname?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just being civil is all.”
“I’d call it something else, amigo.”
The kid came close to saying something, but as his mouth opened the ground beneath their boots rumbled. In the fire, the world happened. Girls in streets. Bodies in mud. A white rancho building, its doors boarded up to those inside, burned and slumped and disappeared in the flames, moaning low.
A smell of gasoline on the wind.
They were quiet – funeral quiet until the fumes passed.
The coyote started up again.
“They’ll be here come morning,” the man said.
“The low sorts men have become in this age.”
The man looked at him from under the brim of his hat.
“A man can’t deny the life he’s been dealt, can he? Embrace it. No matter who’s flesh you got to eat.”
“We should clear out early,” said the kid.
The man said, “I don’t run. Myself, I am always out of their reach.”
The kid took his eyes off the man and with his boot shifted the black rock within arm’s length.
“I’ve heard men say that before,” the kid said. “I may be young, but I’ve seen plenty men run.”
“But maybe it is them that are running from me.”
“I don’t think we’re talking about the same men.”
“Maybe we are, though.”
“Maybe we are and maybe we ain’t. Maybe what we’re talking around doesn’t even belong on the same earth.”
The man stamped his tattered boots. “Let me tell you about this earth.”
The kid floated upward. He floated over the fire pit and drifted in slow circles. He saw unearthly light. He saw where the man had sat on the rock. Where the man’s boots had fanned fresh inner desert earth. And he saw where the kid had sat earlier. Saw all around the ashes and fire-scarred rocks.
The kid shook himself out of drift.
“This earth is an old war trail,” the man was saying. “Comanche. I knew those people. Before them, this trail belonged to the Shoshone. Knew them, too.”
The man motioned.
“You see those black crosses out there? Those are old telegraph poles. Old steam engines used to go across this land. There was black boiler smoke and houses. Babies being born.”
In the illumination of the flames, the kid saw how the man’s face had cracked open in places as he spoke – how spume and fluid wept from the cracks.
The man said, “You have no idea about me, kid. None.”
The kid took a crumpled brown paper bag from his coat pocket and pulled out the last biscuit from the bottom.
“You talk a lot, mister.” He broke it in two and held one half to the man. “But I have no idea what you’re saying.”
The man took the biscuit half and sniffed at it.
“Appreciate it,” he said.
The man bit into one stale side and pushed the biscuit around in his mouth before slowly chewing and swallowing it. He extended his half-smoked cigarillo to the kid.
“Thanks.” The kid dragged slowly on it.
“Do you know who I am?” the man suddenly asked.
The kid exhaled into the space between them and looked at the man through the smoke of the cigarette and campfire.
“No,” he said.
“But you know my name.”
“You told it to me.”
“No one comes out this way unless they’re looking for me.”
“It’s a big desert.”
“But you’re wrong there, amigo.” The man smiled and in his mouth the kid saw sores crack open and puss freely.
A winged bug flew out of the darkness onto the man’s face. It skittered into his beard, leaving a milky trail behind itself. The man fished the insect out of his beard and held it in the firelight. Judged it. Then the man decapitated the bug with his teeth, spat out the head, and ate the remainder.
“I’ve never seen you before in my life, mister.”
“Forget it. Those sure are nice boots.”
The kid looked down at them. Spattered with mud and shit. The soles coming unstitched. Then he looked at the man’s blackened toes showing through the busted leather. Then into the fire.
“Mister,” he said, “when did that fire stop making noise?”
“The fire?” The man looked at it, then looked at the kid. He laughed and said, “Amigo. You’re losing it. You must have been walking for some time.”
The kid watched his hands. The bloodied teethmarks on his knuckles grew black with scabs, crusted and healed and disappeared.
“I’m just moving.”
“A lot of men are moving on in this desert. Young, mostly. Maybe that’s why I do not intend to go anywhere at all.”
“Don’t know where I’m going either.”
“That’s not quite the same thing,” the man said. “But I suppose we have more in common than you think.”
The man looked one way into the darkness, then the other. He leaned close into the fire and said, “Can I tell you a secret?”
The kid took a drag of the cigarillo and handed it back across the dying flames.
“I have a deformity, kid. A physical ailment. I have this hole in my body. In my chest.”
The man waited for the kid to say something.
“If you look through this hole just right – say, in the right slant of light – well, kid, you can see all the way to Hell. You can put your hand through the hole and reach your fingers right into Hell’s dirt and shakes hands with the Devil. Do you want to see it, amigo?”
The kid stared at him for a long time.
A sound came out of the night. Animal. Or something else.
“Well, then.” The man looked up at the night sky. “Sure is dark tonight. What do you know. Stars.”
He leaned his thin ass back on the rock.
“Want to hear something?” he asked. “When I was a little kid my grandma would tell me stories. Funny stories. She said vultures flew on nights as dark as this. A venue they’re called when they fly together. They look for small kids on nights like this.”
The man held the stick in the fire until it caught. He held up the burning branch, crooked and sharp at one end like a scythe, and watched the flames race to consume it. The kid followed the flare with his eyes until suddenly his vision washed out and he slapped himself hard on the face. But when he came to the man wasn’t on the other side of the fire.
“Do you know anything about vultures?” the man said.
The kid still couldn’t see him. After a moment he shook his head.
“Well, I didn’t either. My grandma did, though. She was a real smart woman. She said the vultures could find me anywhere I was. But they would wait until I was asleep at night. She said that was the vulture way.”
The man chuckled, then appeared. He was bent low to the earth with one yellow finger pressed down into the fire. The other hand holding the burning branch. The kid wondered how the man didn’t go aflame. The raspy gravel of a cruel old gram came from somewhere in the man’s throat.
“They will come through the windows for you, boy. They will slice the tendons in your legs so’s you don’t run. Your eyeballs will be plucked out of your head and popped in their beaks. Inside your chest they’ll dig with their claws until they find your beating heart. And they will sit on your chest and dream their wicked dreams while they brood on your blood.”
Leaning his arm into the fire, the man righted himself.
“I believed her,” he said. “I still do.”
The flames consumed the branch to the very end. It burned feverishly at the man’s fingertips. He didn’t seem to notice. In the flame, the kid saw the man’s dead body, clear as polished glass. His own dead body. The scorched world to come.
“Those sure are nice boots, amigo.”
The kid looked down at them again. Then he looked back up at the man in the dying firelight. The man’s chest disappeared into the shadows. Then piece by piece, the man’s entire ruined body flickered into shadow. Then there was no sight, no voice – nothing except the coyotes and their midnight corridos.
The kid awoke to darkness. The fire had burned itself out to only a few ashes smoldering quietly in the pit. A sour, black smoke filled the kid’s nostrils and mouth with sulfur.
He pulled off his coat and sat up. Looked around. It was more night out than morning, but by the waver of light at the horizon he saw well enough. The cauterized earth, dull and empty land in all directions, stretched to the very rims of the planet, and he alone in all that scorched world.
The man was gone. A vague impression was left in the earth but it shifted back and forth—slower and slower the grains of sand righted their place in the desert until it was as if he had never been there.
It was bitter cold out. Desert cold. The boy’s feet ached. He looked down at them. His big toes poked out of his worn out socks. His boots were gone.
He stood up and slowly cracked the bones of his spine. The man’s boots were there next to the fire. From even this far away they smelled of the grave. The boy picked up one but it came apart in his hands like rotten wood. He left the other where it was.
The boy walked carefully across the cold earth, picking his way in his socks far from the men and their city. A morning wind clawed at his back. In an hour’s time the sun would be up. In an hour’s time that earth would be scalding to the touch – and his socks would be full of his own blood. He did not know what to do. So he kept on.
He looked behind him. Something moved on the horizon. A bright wash of animal terror ran through his body. Not now. Whatever it was came right towards the boy, from the direction of the city. There was no escape, sockfooted across the desert scrabble. He stood tall and still and watched its approach. Odd, cross-cutting patterns. The boy picked up a black rock. He waited.
A hundred yards out, it was a horse. A large horse with a coat the color of days old coffee, the flesh wasted and diseased off its bones. The animal carried something across its back. A large sack, full of strange bulges and lumps.
Another ten yards and the boy saw a man splayed face down across the shambling beast, embracing it. Graveyard dead.
The kid watched as the animal and man passed. The man’s hands were bound to the saddle horn by the reins. The leather of the reins was crusted with blood from where he had tried to break free. Vultures had ripped through his clothes to get at his flesh, and all that was left was a foul mass of maggoty meat. From his baggy face, his long, red eyestalks hung down. The horse’s skin festered where the man rotted into it. The animal’s eyes were crazed. It couldn’t walk a straight line.
For a minute the boy stood watching the beast stumble into the scrubland, away from the city and into the future that awaited such creatures. Then the boy went for the boots.
Shane Joaquín Jiménez