Friday, November 09, 2007

Work in progress (I)

He stood alone. The treeless plain stretched out around him in all directions, cold and dry and monochrome. The brown earth was stoneless, windswept, dotted with dead grass long beyond its season. Whatever blew onto the plain — grains of sand and rust, bits of leaf, splinters of bone — would whistle along for miles until it was caught in a patch of turf and held fast, there to remain until the next rain, months off, caked it in with the soil forever. To the north, a few miles off, the ground rose sharply to a broad plateau, as barren as the plain beneath. He thought it might have been the stranded coast of a sea whose waters had long ago drawn back, but he didn't know.

The mid-morning sun, its glare muted by a high, thin haze, had driven off the chill of night, but the air was still cool and flicked with breezes. A few dark birds wheeled above the horizon, very far off, but never approached.

He began to walk. He walked at a steady pace, without hurry, bearing south. As he travelled the exertion warmed him, and he soon shook out the last of the cold air from his coat. The mist on his breath grew lighter, then disappeared for good. He never looked back. After a few miles his boot struck a stone, just a milky white pebble the size of a knucklebone, and sent it skipping away; it was the only one he encountered. A kestrel crossed above, not hunting but moving quickly to the west. He watched its shadow pass in front of him, a perfect dark reflection of the silent bird, speeding towards an unseen convergence.

It was near evening when he sighted the flock. He heard the bellwether first, before they came in sight, a muffled low chunking that arrived and dimmed with the wind, the direction of its source undeterminable. When he came upon them at last, immense and eerily white in the twilight, they paid no attention to his passing and only shied at the last moment, when he reached out a hand to graze their backs. Silent but for the bell, they drifted around him in clusters of six or eight or a dozen, nosing at the turf. He thought they seemed like ghosts, and looked for the ghostly shepherd sure to be nearby, whistling for his spectre hound, but there was none.

The terrain began to slope down, in fits and starts, over little dips and rises, runnels trickling here and there in the gaps. Lacking a staff, he stepped carefully across the slick, broken ground, planting the lower foot first, bending his knees. In a while he smelled the first peat fire, borne for miles perhaps in the damp night air. He found a stream and a well-trod path and turned to follow it.

At the first settlement they gave him shelter in the barn, a loaf and a steaming bowl of mutton broth. There were three men, soft-spoken and remote, the one he supposed the father of the other pair. The woman, slight and leathery — she might have been the mother but he thought her too young — seemed glad of his company, though she spoke little and retired at the end of the meal. When he rose in the morning she was the only one about; she gave him bread and a blessing for the journey and he departed. He took the wagon-path along the rim of a narrow, fog-shrouded gorge until he reached the paved road. He read the name of the village on the sign at the turnoff and made a note of it.

It was drizzling and still when he caught a ride. The driver of the van smelled of tobacco and wool; he chattered over the radio, pointing out what sights of interest lay along the way without waiting to be prompted. They passed a little clapboard church, a convenience store, and miles and miles of grazed-over fields, dotted with little ponds, dilapidated sheds, and mothballed machinery. At the first intersection there was a traffic light but not a soul in view; the driver breezed through without slowing.

As the neared the coast the drizzle became fog, then drifted away suddenly, revealing the shoreline and the freighters in the offing. As soon as they had skirted a little point the port came into view. Its buildings were sullen and anonymous: silos and storehouses, processing plants and canneries, pipelines and cranes. A scattering of mud-daubed cars, nearly all of them white or black, were parked in the lanes and lots between, and a few gaunt men, in caps and white coats, stood outside smoking on their break.

The driver left him off near the ferry dock and drove on. He found the station, which was nearly deserted, and bought a one-way passage from the woman at the window, and a soda and crackers from a vending machine. He glanced at the newspaper someone had left open on the bench, but didn't know the language. When he had warmed sufficiently he went outside and watched the gulls and the splashing of the waves on the pilings of the pier alongside. The ferry took nearly a half-hour to reach its berth, from the time he first spied it; its wake, even at low speed, drove up under the dock and shook it to its foundations. With the clanging of bells and the shuddering of machinery it bumped to a halt and lowered its gate, discharging a fuel truck, a score of cars, a pair of motorcycles, and a handful of shivering pedestrians. The crew came ashore for a few minutes, entered the station to get back their land legs and chat up the ticket-agent, then went back onboard.

When they dropped the chains and began to board the lined-up cars he stepped up to the deck. The crewman took his ticket affably and said something to him, but he couldn't make it out. A woman in a yellow slicker, her head swaddled tightly in a scarf, was the only other traveller by foot. She stepped away from him, not meeting his eye, and quickly made for the warmth of the cabin. He instead climbed the iron stairs to the upper deck, just outside the wheel-house, and found a seat on a bench where he could overlook the harbor, hands in his pockets, the collar of his coat turned up, as the ferry began to pull away from shore.

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