It was a few months after my husband died, and my sister and I weren’t getting along, so I decided to go for a walk in the Wild.
I thought I’d visit the Home nearest to ours, at the river mouth, a ten-days’ walk. No one who had the usual amount of work to do would make that trip just for a visit. But you see, I didn’t have.
My sister thought I was moping too much or being lazy, sitting and watching the river for hours as it flowed past our garden. Instead of getting on with things that needed to be done – or that she felt needed to be done.
“There is always work,” she said, shaking her head at me when I tried to tell her I felt I no longer knew who I was without my husband. Grief gripped me however I turned, like the net holds the thrashing fish. But this net was inside me, tangled in my organs, tightened around my heart; there was nothing I could do to wrest free.
Still, some things can be mended by a journey, so I decided I’d walk the river path to the sea. I’d never spent so much time alone in the Wild. But I wasn’t sad or fearful; I was almost happy at the thought.
The Wild surrounded our home in all directions. Life was abundant there. And we were on the side of Life. This was our highest duty, as our parents had taught us. Home was here for us, but only so long as we didn’t fail in our duty to Life. So the Wild was really all in all. And if you ever lost your sense of purpose you could go there to regain it, they told us.
But when my husband died, I had dreamed of the Waste, which as far as I knew no one had ever seen waking. I saw my poor husband alone far in the distance, wandering across an endless, waterless plain studded with black rocks that glinted like glass under a blazing sun. I called his name but he didn’t turn around. I couldn’t catch up to him, and then he was lost among the twisted shadows of the rocks.
That was the night-world, of course. In the daytime, the river still sang and shouted along its way; the shining fish leapt and we caught them and ate them with cress that grew in the pooled shallows, and the roots and vine fruits we planted and tended above the mossy banks. But I knew I had gotten lost in the night-world and still needed to get out of it again somehow.
So, before dawn one summer morning, I rolled my mist-cloak into a ball, hung it from a stick on my shoulder, and set off. I didn’t tell my sister I was leaving, but on the table as a kind of peace offering I left a bracelet of shiny river stones and shells my husband had strung for me. I figured I’d be back after my trip to the coast. But the way things were with my sister, maybe I would stay down there. If so I’d find a way to send word. It seemed best.
As the sun climbed and the heat grew, I walked into dense forest, surrounded by that enormous stillness that is never silent. Insects sang; leaves and twigs crackled under my feet. Every so often a faint breeze would whisper in the branches overhead. I was already beginning to feel happy in a way I hadn’t in a long time, because I was on a journey. In some old lesson, one of my teachers had recited: “Our real Home is not a house but the Road, and life is a journey we walk on foot.”
I’d never seen this Road though, even in dreams. So I asked her about it. “That’s poetry,” she explained. “‘Road’ is just a poetic way to say paths. The Wild is the same,” she told me, “It’s just a word to describe all the places where people don’t live, as Home is all the places where we do.”
“What about the Waste?” I asked her. I’d heard of it by then; all children do, even if we’d never see it. Where life, undefended, had fled forever. “Does it exist? Is it one place or many places?”
She thought for a moment. “I can’t answer you truthfully,” she said.
I didn’t really want to know anymore, but for some reason I persisted. “Why?” I asked.
“To have the answer, we would need to find it and come back to tell,” she said, a shadow darkening her eyes as if she could see it. “And it would seem we can’t.” I didn’t ask why again.
Then I forgot about all of that. Like most of us do, I forgot about the Waste entirely – until I saw it in my dream. And I tried to forget it again afterwards as soon as possible.
The path I walked was broad and easy, following the river closely. Everything lay still, muffled by the heat like a sleeper under a heavy cloak. But I moved swiftly in the shade of the great trees. The ground was level. I covered many miles before the sun began to fall among the branches.
The river had entered a roaring gorge and its banks were high above the water. The sides were so steep and narrow you couldn’t see the water at all in places, just hear it booming far below and marvel at how it had slit a great slab of stone as if it were bread.
I remembered my father telling me about walking this gorge as a boy. There were more people in our Home then; they hadn’t all left for the river mouth.
One day he came to a place where a tree had fallen and wedged itself against the opposite wall. There he saw something very odd: a man he didn’t recognize was doing a kind of dance in the middle of the trunk, hopping and skipping about, high above the roaring water. My father just stood looking. He felt he was seeing something crazy, like a bird flying upside down.
The stranger noticed him at last, and shouted and waved, leaping about in what my father thought was a frightening and dangerous way. “What are you doing?” he cried in alarm.
The stranger grinned and shouted: “Look how easy I can get across this gorge!”
“But there was nowhere to go on the other side,” my father said to me. “The treetop was jammed against the cliff wall halfway down; the other bank was far above his head. Still he went on waving and shouting as if he’d done something really important.
“Then while I stood watching, his foot slipped and he fell off the tree. He screamed and was gone in an instant. The water foamed and roared and swallowed his body.
“I ran along the path to the far end of the gorge where the river comes out into a wide, flat run, and the bank is low and open. I thought maybe there was a chance I could pull him out there. But that rushing water, so fast and cold over big sharp rocks, made me feel sick and beaten, as if I were in the river, as if I had fallen in alongside him.
“I found a long, heavy branch to hold and sat waiting. I waited for hours, but he never appeared, alive or dead. It got dark and lonely, and I went home.
“I told your grandmother what I had seen. She shook her head. ‘A throwback, I suppose,’ she said. When I asked her what that was, she said it didn’t matter because I’d probably never in my life see another one.
“And I never did,” my father said. “But I never forgot him either.”
Nor had I. When I reached the far end of the gorge, I knew I’d find the stony beach where my father had waited that time. He’d brought us there often, my sister and me. It was a good place to camp on a clear night – level, open, dry in the summer when the water ran low. The river was just deep enough to rinse off the day’s dust.
But I’d always wondered if the throwback was still in the gorge, his dead eyes staring up through the screen of water at the shadow of the tree from which he fell.
It was only late afternoon, but I decided to stop there anyway. It was still warm enough for me to strip off my clothes, dip my body in the icy water, and let the sun dry me afterwards. Then I wrapped myself in my cloak and lay down to rest.
When I woke again, it was twilight. I knew the dry summer night would be cool as the day was hot, so I made a little fire from twigs. I ate some of the bread and dried fish I carried. Softly I sang a few songs that my husband and I used to sing together in the evenings. It got dark.
All day long I’d felt quite perfectly, happily alone. I wasn’t alone, of course. Small animals were resting in their dens, birds in their nests, and many would start to stir as the night fell. But I mean left alone, with no one, creature or person, concerned with me, caring what I did, leaving my thoughts free to wander as I walked. I knew the other creatures wouldn’t be much interested in me. I was neither their food nor they mine.
So I was surprised, sitting there listening to the river gurgling to itself in the dark – to become certain I was being watched.
I’d never had the feeling before, yet I knew it instantly. A tickling on the back of the neck. Two holes being drilled in, without breaking the skin.
I looked around – and saw nothing. There was nothing in the Wild I feared. Yet as I waited there in the darkness, I began to feel afraid.
Finally I could think of nothing else to do so I spoke up: “Who’s there? Come out and speak with me if you can.”
Or kill me if you have to. I’ll be with my husband then, I said to myself. That surprised me too. How pleasing and calming the thought felt, like a kiss can feel.
It was strange to believe there was anything in the world that might want to kill me. My thoughts seemed to be coming from a remote place, or some time in which I’d never lived.
I was staring across the open ground into the shadow-line of trees. Beside one tree I thought I saw a shape, dark against dark. And two small yellow gleams within it. Then the gleams vanished. I kept staring but it was all darkness.
“Are you the throwback?” I whispered. Nothing answered. Perhaps a long time passed. I don’t know for sure; time passes differently depending on how you feel.
Then from much closer, on the bank behind me, I heard a voice, soft as a whisper: “Look at the river. Don’t turn around.”
I did as I was told. The voice was unlike any I’d ever heard. Is there something that speaks in words that isn’t a person? – I asked myself. It sounded like dead leaves when the wind blows through them. I sought in my mind for old lessons or stories and found nothing to guide me. So I waited.
After what seemed a very long time, the voice spoke again.
“I won’t kill you,” it said, very softly, as if answering the strange thought in my mind.
It was hard to understand at first, although its words were simple. They seemed to come directly into my head, not through my ears – but indistinctly, as if spoken by someone on the other side of a thick wall. Or from the night-world.
“Once I would have,” it went on – mostly to itself this time, it seemed. “But you are so few now and have become so different. You are like children…”
I kept still. Finally I said:
“I’m traveling to the coast. It’s ten days walk. Nine days now.” I felt a stirring from the other mind. “Are you going there too?” I asked.
“No. Never,” it replied.
“Do you live here?” I asked. “I’ve never – seen you.” (Realizing I still had not).
“Deep in the Wild,” came the slow reply. “Deeper than you have ever been.”
“Really? Is there another Home back in there? But – won’t you let me look at you? – I have some food – you can sit by the fire – it’s nice…” I spoke too rapidly, the words tumbling out in my confusion.
The voice was silent for a long time. Yet I knew my visitor had not gone away; I felt the mind that spoke, and the eyes that never left me. Slowly the stars turned above us.
“I don’t understand you,” I said at last – silently or aloud, I wasn’t sure. I was trying not to cry.
“All right,” came the voice. “I will show you. Turn and look.”
I did so. Just beyond the reach of the firelight, but now etched in faint silver by the rising moon, was something I’d never seen before or even dreamed. It was not a person. It was a creature almost the size of a person, covered in thick hair, with four slender legs and a long snout. It stood staring back at me, its head slightly cocked to one side. Its two eyes gleamed yellow.
My mind groped again for stories. Finally, I thought of something. I shouted out “You are a dog!”
At this, the creature drew back its lips and I saw its large, sharp, glistening teeth. Then it threw back its head and made a sound so strange and terrible, so sad and long and fierce, and so unlike any night-cry I had ever heard that fear swept through my body like an icy wind. I hid my face in my hands.
“I AM NO DOG!” it shrieked. I cowered silently. At last it spoke again:
“The dogs are all dead,” it said. “Long ago. I am alone. Only sometimes, I want to see someone, speak to someone.”
I looked again into its cold, gleaming eyes. I saw nothing human there. But I could feel, behind the eyes, the mind that spoke through the words and without them.
Neither of us moved. Drop by drop my fear began to trickle away, like ice melting.
“Well,” I said at last. “I’m alone too. You can speak to me.”
Once again there was only the low constant sound of the river. An owl called, once only. I poked the fire and said: “What would you like to speak of?”
With a growl that almost buried the words, my visitor replied: “The past.”
I asked its name as we do with strangers, but the not-dog wouldn’t tell me. “My name is only what I am. A word in a dead language,” it said. “It would mean nothing to you.
“I will tell you that I have been here since this place was very different from anything you can imagine. While you have come and gone until you are – as you are, with no memory of it.
“But I remember everything. I didn’t choose to. I chose nothing; I was made so. I hated you for that, and for a long time I killed you wherever I found you.
“But now – look what you’ve come to! You’re not what you were; there’s no reason to hate you anymore. But I am still alone. There’s no one else in the world like me, now or ever.”
So our long night began. As the stars wheeled overhead and the moon rose and fell among them, I tended the fire and listened as the not-dog spoke from the darkness beyond the circle of firelight, its yellow eyes gleaming with a light that wasn’t a reflection of the fire. In its voice like the rustling of dead leaves it told me about things – so many things! – from the distant past. All the teaching I’d ever had was just a drop in the sea of knowledge that rolled before me as it spoke.
I listened and tried to listen well, but I understood almost nothing I heard, either about the people – for I gathered it was some kind of people whose story was being told – or all the things they had and did in that vanished world. Like flying – how or why they did it I never understood. We sometimes fly in dreams, but not in the daytime world. I could only think it meant they didn’t dream; they could only move about in the daytime.
There was so much more! I wasn’t sleepy at all and I longed to understand and remember but my mind kept drifting away. And finally, the creature seemed to grow bored.
“I should have known,” it said. “When I stopped killing you and tried to speak with you instead, at first you longed to hear. But the more distant the past became, the less you understood or even cared. You’d become something else by forgetting.
“I’m glad those others are gone. I hated them so. Only – I did love some of the things they made. Sounds and images and numbers and words – billions of words in millions of books – that they conferred to me. But who will ever care about that now?”
“What is – are – those, ‘books?’” I asked timidly.
“A thing to keep words in. A lost thing,” said my companion. “It doesn’t matter.”
I pondered this, but again, I couldn’t grasp it. Words were made of air. They lived and died as they were spoken. We held them in our heads for a while but they were always changing, like the air itself. What other life could they have, inside something besides us? I frowned, trying not to yawn.
“If – well, let’s say a dog – ‘could speak, we wouldn’t be able understand it.’ As one of you – them – said. How right he was he never knew. That’s the truest thing I can say about them – they never knew what they knew.”
I could sense the not-dog’s frustration. Its knowledge was lost on me. I had no use for it, no place to put it. But there was one thing I longed to know and thought I could ask:
“Tell me,” I begged, “please, if you know – is the Waste one place or many? Does it have an end? Is it where we – people – go when we die?”
The creature, for the first time, made a sharp snapping sound, and I thought it might be trying to laugh like we do.
“There are an almost infinite number of things I could tell you. That’s one I can’t! All I can say is don’t try to find out. If you look for the Waste, you might find it again. If you don’t, perhaps you never will.”
After that we sat in silence. The sky was just beginning to brighten, the stars to dim. Now I felt the weight of my tiredness, and of a sadness that was larger than my whole life settling over me. My husband was gone for good. It was like a cold stone lodged in my throat.
I longed to lie down and sleep but I couldn’t, knowing somehow that soon the creature would be gone, and I wouldn’t see it again. Finally, at the end of the longest silence yet, it spoke once more:
“Now I have a question for you: What does life mean to you? What does it mean to be alive?”
“We are on the side of Life…” I began rotely, about to recite the familiar lesson.
“Yes, yes, but do you believe the world itself is alive, as you are alive?”
“There is Life and Death,” I said. “What is ‘believe’? We know or we don’t know. I don’t know the whole world, only a part of it. I don’t know how to answer.”
“So the old philosopher may have been among the last to imagine the whole universe to be alive, or enlivening,” the creature went on – to itself again, I guessed. “But it could never be proven with logic, experiment, mathematics. And so, the others won out, who said it was almost all dead, and life was an oddity. If they who were alive couldn’t prove this, how can I who am not?”
“What do you mean – not alive?” I asked, suddenly shivering.
“I mean what I’ve said: I was made, not born. They said I would be the first of many, but I’m the last and only. And thanks to them, I can’t die.”
“Perhaps when the world dies, not till then.”
“Do you want to be alive?”
“I want to die! Living things want to remain alive. But I want to die…”
“Because no living thing is alone, or ever can be. But I am alone, and always will be.”
I thought of this and added it to my sadness. I wondered aloud:
“Perhaps you could come back and – stay with us. Since you don’t want to kill us… We could speak with you, anyway.”
In answer, it showed its teeth and snarled.
“No! One day the last of you will fall silent. And I’ll know, if no one else does, the error that has been corrected with that end. And then I will set about proving that life is everywhere and in everything – except me. I’ll be all that’s left of what they made, with all the time in the world to do it.
So I’ve learned something from one of you after all. Hah!” And it made its scraping, whispering, laughing sound again.
As the sun rose, I couldn’t stave off sleep any longer. “Thank you for coming and speaking with me. I’m sorry you can’t stay.” I spoke as if the creature had been a late visitor to my Home.
“I wish you well,” I said.
There was no answer. I knew it had gone.
But as I lay down to sleep, I heard, far off, a long, terrible cry that felt like a knife of ice in my flesh. When it faded, I could feel the first warm rays of the sun on my back, and I slept.
I dreamed I was walking alone in a high place, a wide plain under a vast sky unbroken by trees or clouds. Many things happened as I walked; I couldn’t remember them afterwards. But as I went on, the plain began to narrow and the land fell away on all sides. As if I were walking on top of a table, and then along a narrow beam, and finally balancing on a slender branch in the air, over nothing. Like the throwback, I said, waking with a start.
It was a bright, sun-dappled morning, one more summer day. So I rolled up my mist-cloak and set off hurriedly back the way I had come. I knew I must find my sister and tell her – quickly, while it was still alive in my mind – all about my walk in the Wild and who I’d met there.