BY C.G. SCHWARTZ
“A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible.”
The boy says he would like to eat.
The man asks him why.
“It’s been a while.”
The man stares down. Bronze firelight licks the curvature of his cheekbones and ripples the pooled shadows under his brow. “Not really,” he says, prodding the campfire with a stick.
The boy’s eyes search for a place to rest but wander in the darkness. He looks at the man and insists that he’s hungry—that it takes time to be this hungry.
“We just ate,” replies the man.
“No, we haven’t eaten since Winslow died.”
“Is that right?”
“It has to be.”
The man turns a burning log, prompting a helix flock of sparks to geyser up from the coals beneath it. His eyes stay low, veiled in dark. “That was recent,” he mutters. “Winslow just died.”
The boy squints, thinking. He shakes his head. “It’s been a long time.”
“It can’t be that long,” says the man. “The one from Dayton went first.”
“Ernest,” says the boy.
The boy looks up, trying to remember. “Well,” he says, “that was a long, long time ago. Even longer ago than Sam.”
Fire glints off the man’s tired eyes; he lifts them to see the boy. “Is that right?”
“She was really upset about Ernest. I remember.”
Tall flames oscillate in brief flickers, snapping up like whips and disappearing at the crack. The man strokes a jagged stone lying on the dirt next to his thigh. It’s heavy, roughly the size and shape of a sledgehammer head, with protrusions every place. “I don’t think she was upset,” says the man. “I think she was tired.”
“She was upset,” says the boy, nodding insistently. He pauses for a moment and looks into the fire—pensive—then doubles over, cradling his stomach.
“Stop it,” the man says. “We don’t need your theatrics.”
“I’m hungry,” moans the boy. “Can’t you hunt another pig?”
“Boar,” says the man, correcting him.
“Boar,” sighs the boy.
The man shakes his head. “No. They’re murderous. If they kill me, what will you do then? They killed everyone else. They can kill me, too.”
A long moment passes. The boy fidgets with a stray piece of bark. “I can hunt them.”
“Sure, I can.”
“They’ll gore you out there in the dark. You’ll be impaled.”
The boy sighs his exasperation. “How do you do it then?” He jerks his chin at the man.
The man looks up from the coals and shrugs. “I’ve been here a while.”
“I’ve been here just as long!”
The man scowls. “No, that can’t be right. Not this whole time.”
The boy strips ribbons of cambium from the bark he’s holding. “You lost track of time,” he says, flinging a strip into the fire. “It’s hard without the sun, but I can still tell it a little bit.”
The man rocks forward, squatting on the balls of his feet. At this height, the firelight turns his bony chest amber. His dirty skin is stained with dark splatter marks and wraps over his ribs like canvas on tentpoles. His organs huddle inside like refugees, barely secreted from the outer dark beyond his skin. The man stands and stretches.
“Where are you going?” asks the boy.
“To get wood,” the man replies, turning away.
The boy watches him disappear. Neither light nor sound pass through the black air encircling this place. It’s like fog, but heavy—the fire makes a bubble in it. The boy can’t remember coming here. He doesn’t know where he is or how this came to be—only that there was a sky above him once and now there is not, just as there were once a dozen people here and now there are two.
The man grunts. A loud snap pierces the silence, colliding with nothing—a missile in empty space. The man reappears dragging a naked tree branch whose extremities curl up like dead fingers. He pulls this giant hand by its wrist and, panting, drops it by the fire. Then he stomps on it and pulls the curled fingers off until it isn’t like a hand at all—just firewood.
“We’re getting out of this,” says the man, adding sticks to the fire. “You can believe that. We’re getting out.”
The boy tilts his head. “You think there’s still a place outside of here?”
“Of course there is. Lots of places. In London, they’re probably drinking tea at cafes and hearing about this on the news. In Mexico City, they’re out playing soccer right now. I bet they are.”
“You think so?”
“Sure,” nods the man as he arranges wood like a tipi over the fire.
The boy pauses for a moment, thinking hard. “This place was full a while ago.”
The man glances at him with an expression almost like fear, then turns back to the fire.
“Connor and Mary even sang when they were here. We played Tic-Tac-Toe in the dirt. You remember that? And there wasn’t enough food for all the people.”
“All right. Stop dwelling on food.”
“No,” says the boy. “I mean that everything could be like that. The whole world.”
The man freezes, his hands motionless as the tipi falls apart between them. The orange fire glints from his eyes, and he turns to face the boy. “No,” he says. “It’s different here. The boars kill them.”
“Couldn’t there be wild boars everywhere?”
“No, that’s not their habitat,” says the man.
The boy squints. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know,” the man says, trying to balance the logs again.
“So how do you know what a boar’s habitat is and isn’t?”
“It’s where the fucking boars are,” he grumbles. Then his tipi begins to fall a second time, and, seeing this, the man throws his hands up. The logs crash into the coals beneath them, launching frenzied sparks into the black air.
The boy stares, unsure of what to say. The logs burn and crackle in the silence. The boy rolls a pebble between his fingers. His eyes cross the fire and dwell on the large rock lying by the man. It’s dark. It’s stained with what he thinks is mud, just like the man’s body is.
Suddenly, the man whips his gaze toward the darkness, startling the boy. His shoulders hunch low and his eyes grow wide like glass orbs full of fire. He glances at the boy as if to ask, “did you hear that?”
“God,” cries a voice—a woman’s voice. “God.”
The man and boy look at each other, each seeming to ask the other how they should proceed. Then the man stands up. “Who’s out there?”
“Wait!” The woman shouts. “Wait, stay there!” The crunch of dirt and deadwood grows louder as she draws near. The woman rushes into the light like a meteor strike in miniature. She looks at the fire, squints, and winces—her eyes are unaccustomed to light.
The boy stands up. He stares at her in shock—in wonderment—in recognition that his world has been invaded and that the overwhelming stasis, the stagnant pool of his being, is now undammed.
“How did you get here?” Asks the man.
The woman squints hard. Her wet eyes glisten. “I don’t know how long I walked,” she says. “I just walked.”
“Where did you come from?” The man demands.
“They killed each other,” she says, rapidly shaking her head. “They did it and I ran.”
The man looks her up and down, carefully. “This must have been recent,” he says.
“It was,” the woman replies, trying to blink sight back into her eyes. “I can still hear it.”
The boy points excitedly, unable to contain himself. “You survived the pigs?” He shouts.
The man tries to interject.
“Pigs?” The woman interrupts, puzzled.
“Boars, I mean.”
“Stop it,” snaps the man, glaring. Then he steps forward, folding his hands as if to convey civilization with as few muscles as possible—as if to overpower his stained skin and knotted hair through sheer force of delicacy. “You should sit,” he says. “Come by the fire.”
“It’s bright,” she says, rubbing her eyes.
“Give me your hand,” says the man. Then he leads her to the fire and instructs her to sit. “As the boy will tell you, we don’t have any food. But there is a stream running just outside this circle. There’s water if you want it.”
“No,” says the woman. “I’ve had plenty. I found rivers in the dark.”
“Out there?” Asks the boy.
“You step into deep water, and you don’t know if it’ll be minutes or hours until you reach the far bank. But you know it’s a river by the current. I waded into something stagnant once and turned right back.”
The boy’s eyes are large and full of wonder. “A lake?” He asks.
The woman turns to him, still squinting but able to lock eyes with him now. “Or an ocean.”
“There would be waves,” the man says.
The woman turns toward him. “No, there wouldn’t be,” she shakes her head. “That’s done with.” Then she pauses, seeming to reflect on what she just said. “How long have you been here?”
The man looks up, searching his thoughts. “Not long.”
“You lost track,” the boy erupts. “It’s been a long time. A really long time. There used to be twelve people here.”
The woman freezes, her breath shallow and skin lined with goosebumps that cast round shadows on her arms. “What happened to them?” She asks, straightening.
“Wait,” the man says. “Why are you going to tell her that?”
The boy apologizes.
“No,” the woman insists, adjusting her posture so that one foot is underneath her, ball down. “I’d like to know.”
So the man sighs. “We have a boar problem. There’s a sounder of them here. You know, each one can be 200 pounds. They have tusks and they’re not vegetarians. It’s dangerous.”
“We used to cook them,” the boy declares. “And I’m going to hunt some later. So, you don’t have to worry.”
The woman stands, backing away from the fire.
“Hold on,” the man says. “It’s not what you think.”
The woman steps backwards slowly as the man inches toward her. She glances over her shoulder at the dark, fearing it—weighing death against a long march through bottomless night and coming up unsure. Her eyes are wide now. She has moved far enough from the fire to see again.
“Are you crazy?” The boy shouts. “Don’t go out there!”
Then he looks at the man and sees that his right hand is behind his back. And his fingers are wrapped around the large, jagged stone that he likes to rub when his thoughts begin to wander. The fire shines on it—a spotlight indulging the stone’s hammerlike form—a brush drawing lines in shadow, describing its lethal perimeter. The stains are copperlike. They are on the man’s skin, too. His red right hand curls under the stone, cradling it between his fingers and forearm.
“No!” Cries the boy, leaping to his feet.
The man springs forward, twisting his arm out from behind him like a trebuchet sling. His fingers slide off the stone, giving it spin. The rock is weight. Velocity. A crater in process.
The woman ducks her head back, leaning away, but it smashes into her chin, wrenching her head sideways. It concusses the earth, thumping heavily. And she stumbles toward it, flailing.
The man pounces, landing on top of her. His elbows rise like the tops of oil derricks and sink as he beats her with his fists.
“Stop!” Screams the boy, rushing forward.
Suddenly, the woman grasps the stone and, with both arms, swings it up into the man’s head. He falls. She clambers on top of him. Still clutching the stone, she straddles his body and lifts it high with both hands.
As the boy hurries forward, he sees the man raise his hands to stop the descending stone. But it drops like a guillotine blade, breaking the man’s thumbs backwards as it falls. His face jerks sideways when it strikes him. The second impact cracks the side of his head. And the third collapses it. His hands lay motionless in the dirt, thumbs snapped backwards and fingers curled up.
The woman looks up at the boy, who stands next to her in shock. His mouth hangs open. He does not blink. “He tried to kill me,” she says, still sitting on the dead man’s stomach.
The boy shakes his head. “You killed him.”
She looks down at the man—at his opened mouth, lips stuck with dust and blood—at his wide eyes that look white in the shadow her body casts—and shuts her eyes. But she can still see him. She sobs and shakes her head. “I did,” she says. “I did.”