Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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Under the North

The region where the couple lived was known for the scarcity, the preciousness of light. There seemed at times not even to be such a thing as light, only a world in which things somehow were grayly visible. During summer, when the sun was highest, mists arising from bogs to the north crept in, overspreading the woods and fields, intercepting the sunlight and shadowing the landscape and everything on it. The rest of the year the sun kept low, bleeding its light into the horizon.

As plants tend to seek the light, so in their own way do people, which left the populace of this region in a state of bereft inattention. There was forever the sense of something having been missed, something profoundly forgotten. It was not a matter of waiting. To the contrary, each moment felt like an empty aftermath, the consequence of an event that had not happened. People compensated how they could. With little to remember and even less to hope for, they had at least their work.

It was not an easy life for the couple, who had at one time imagined a brighter future for themselves. By now, however, they had all but let go of those imaginings, convinced that life, after all, was what it was. They worked together by habit, within speaking distance, though mostly they kept silent, devoting their days to cutting and splitting firewood, repairing fences, and planting and weeding and watering their sprawling gardens. They knew well enough how to handle an ax, an auger, a hoe. There was little need to talk about it. Their silent companionship was territory familiar to them. And—while their lives did not leave much time to reflect on the fact—in their own way, it might be said, they loved one another.

So the days went by, one after another coalescing and dissolving like waves of fog off the marsh. It was on one of these days, no more promising than any other, that the old man appeared. It must have been early autumn. The tips of the marsh grass had begun to brown, and the couple were in the midst of their corn harvest, meager though it was that year. The afternoon had faded, and evening had not quite materialized to take its place, which left nothing but the sound and the feel of their fingers working together down the rows of stalks, twisting off the ears and dropping them into baskets, clipping off the stalks and laying them in bundles.

The woman—Edith was her name—saw him first. Bent over her basket, she had a moment ago glanced up toward the marsh, as though to make sure it was still there. Her nose itched then and, rubbing it with a knuckle, she glanced up again. And there he was. She was so unprepared for the sight of him that at first she didn’t know what it was she was seeing. She tucked her hair behind her ear and peered at him, half concealing herself among the corn stalks.

The old man was standing maybe thirty feet away at the edge of their yard, looking as though he had just emerged from the swamp, although his clothes were not at all soiled, and the hems of his pants were dry. Perhaps he had come through the woods. He was carrying a sort of backpack—a bit large, she thought, for one so elderly. And then there were his boots, the kind that hikers wore. She had never before seen the old man. But his appearance unsettled her in a way she could not account for. It was as if she were reentering a scene from long ago—one that had been interrupted.

She set her basket aside in the dry earth, stood up, and stepped from among the corn rows onto the grass bordering the garden. She stood watching him.

“Lang,” she said.

Her husband, another thirty feet behind her, was aggressively clipping off the stalks with shears at ground level, laying the bundles perpendicular to the rows. “Yeah?” he said. He didn’t look up.

Whether the old man had noticed either her or her husband, there was no way of telling. He seemed hardly to have budged from where she’d first spotted him. Standing with his head tilted slightly to the side, he appeared to be listening to something, although she was aware of no sound beyond her husband’s rattling of the corn stalks. The world otherwise seemed to have collapsed into silence. Maybe that was what he was listening to.

She took a step toward him and then another and another along the edge of the garden until the distance between them felt right to her and she stopped.

“Hello,” she said.

He glanced in her direction, his expression right away friendly. It was a comfort to her, his friendliness. But his eyes kept moving, shifting from her, to the yard, and the sky overhead, and the swamp behind him, as if he were trying to get his bearings.

He spoke then. “You see?” he said. “No birds.”

She was relieved to hear him speak, and her immediate impulse was to smile, inappropriately, since this in no way answered his question—if, in fact, he had asked a question. In any case, he returned her smile, at which point it crossed her mind that the old fellow might have something wrong with him.

“Not a one,” he said.

At that moment, though they could not see it because of the fog, a cloud bank must have crept over the setting sun, for the world by the marsh turned a shade darker.

As the old man continued to gauge his surroundings, his fingers worked at unbuckling the straps of his pack. He wriggled, slipping his shoulders out of it.

“Here,” she said, “let me take that.” She moved to help, relieving him of some of the weight of the pack, which, she discovered, was even heavier than it looked. “My, what do you have in there?”

“Oh,” he said, “you don’t know the half of it.”

“What?” Lang called. His voice seemed to Edith to come from an impossible distance. But, glancing back, she saw him not far behind her, bent over among the same rows of corn.

Together Edith and the old man lowered his pack into the grass. There he leaned it against a log of hackmatack at the border of the yard. He cast a glance around. “I think, if it would be all right . . . ,” he said. He sat down abruptly on the log beside his pack.

“Of course,” she said.

The rattling of the corn stalks ceased, and she heard Lang’s voice again, softly trailing off. “What in God’s . . . ?”

Edith, standing there, could do nothing but stare at the old man. He was kind looking: fairly tall and slender with white hair and a neatly trimmed growth of beard. There was something about him.

He gave her a look, as if holding her responsible. “Birds aren’t easily discouraged.”

Some action, it seemed, was required of her. She said, “Would you like a drink of water?”

He appeared to consider the question, but said nothing.

Lang approached, wiping his hands on his pants.

The old man continued. “They were sparrows and finches mostly. Some just passing through. Others, they stayed on. And thrushes.” While speaking, he made repetitive motions with his arms and legs and even his fingers, as though these appendages were new to him.

Lang, standing beside the old man, looked at her and shrugged his shoulders, a gesture intended as a question.

She looked at Lang and then at the old man. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” she said.

Lang made a face.

“Right smack over there,” the old man said with emphasis. He pointed vaguely toward the swamp.

“They built their nests.”

Lang turned, scowling, in the direction he indicated.


Edith was at the kitchen sink, her hands busy with a stiff brush, scrubbing the soil and root hairs off turnips in a bucket of thickly brown water, a task she accomplished by feel. Her eyes were directed out the window and across the yard. He was standing by the shed now, perfectly still, staring into the weeds. He was going to do something, she was fairly sure. But what? She was keeping an eye on him.

Behind her, she could hear Lang pacing in and out of the kitchen, picking things up and setting them down as though he had business there to take care of, which in a way he did. Lang was a careful man. It was his job to worry. He didn’t take the responsibility lightly.

Very soon, she knew, he would say something.

“So what gave you that idea?” This was Lang’s voice. “We don’t have our hands full enough around here. We have to feed this idiot? Make conversation?”

Lang opened a drawer and closed it, noisily. He left the room.

She heard all of this while watching the old man. Then she heard something else—the old man’s voice. The light outside was rapidly fading, but even at that distance she could see the movement of his lips. The old man was speaking. Coming to her over the expanse of yard and through the window glass, his voice made her uneasy. She did not know what it should have sounded like, but not like that.

Just then, somewhere beyond the mists, the cloud bank that had earlier passed over the setting sun must have moved away, turning the light by the shed fleetingly golden. She watched the old man illuminated in this way as he continued what sounded like a small oration. She leaned in toward the window, straining to hear.

But Lang’s footsteps behind her interfered. “And after dinner?” he said. “What then? It’s already getting dark. We’re supposed to put him up for the night?”

She said, “He can sleep on the couch in the shed.”

Lang turned away from her before answering, “A mistake,” he said. “A big mistake.”

The old man was bending, inspecting something now among the weeds, an insect perhaps, or a flower. He had stopped speaking.

Edith reached and adjusted the wick on the kerosene lamp, brightening the kitchen, and the old man was swallowed in darkness.


The three of them sat at the table without speaking—Lang at the head, Edith across from the old man. Lang ate with an emphasis of gesture unusual for him, tearing off crusts of bread, soaking them in his soup, and holding them up for examination before they disappeared into his mouth. He kept looking at the old man, who was nibbling his bits of bread and sipping his spoonfuls of broth with the exaggerated attention of one who expected this to be his last meal. Edith angled her spoon in her soup, keeping her eyes averted into the darkness beyond the table, somewhere between Lang and the old man. She might have been expecting, at that very instant, a profound announcement from one or the other of them. Whether or not she had yet tasted anything of her dinner, she could not have said.

Catching her eye, Lang made a face and nodded toward the old man. In a mock whisper, he said, “Our guest doesn’t seem very excited about the soup.”

Glancing at him, the old man reached for his water glass. Maybe he’d understood Lang’s remark, and maybe he hadn’t. He raised the water glass to his lips and drank freely.

Lang watched him. “But then,” he said, “soup isn’t supposed to be exciting. It’s supposed to nourish you.”

Edith looked down at her soup, which seemed to her the source of both a terrific urgency and a paralysis. Something was slipping away. If only she knew what it was.

Finished drinking, the old man set his water glass on the table with a decisiveness that might have been accorded a chess move. His eyes on Lang, he picked up his spoon and stirred his soup.

Lang’s voice turned familiar, confidential. “So how are things up north?”

The old man paused with his spoon raised to his lips. Steam continued to rise from his bowl. It seemed for a moment as if he might answer.


Edith saw that a part of her was fading, losing its material substance—as if there were some essential question she had left unanswered. Probably there were many. She understood so little about herself. Even this: whenever she spun around quickly, she seemed on the verge of disappearing. For just that dizzying instant, there was the awareness of things around her. But no her. No Edith. For years this had happened. It terrified and at the same time thrilled her. She worried about the power it gave her over herself. Lang knew nothing about it. How would he? It was simply a thing she could do. There were the long hours of work. There was Lang. There was the enveloping fog. The seasons changed. There were rumors. Sometimes visitors brought word. They spoke only to Lang. There was ever the threat from up north.

She understood so little. Her days were complicated by recollections of another life that visited her at night. Of these dreams she remembered only their remnant colors, their black faceless energies, and their landscapes, which were nothing like the landscapes in the region where she lived. She remembered precipitous ridges of rock extending like fingers reaching always northeast into a ceaseless wind. There was always the same person, with the same tangled emotions struggling up those ridges and into that wind. She didn’t know who, but she knew what it was like to be this person, which was, after all, what mattered—this person making her way up out of the stillness of valleys that the wind seldom touched, making her way up into the bright, full intensity of the gale. And why?

On the tops of the ridges the trees all grew bending away to the southwest. They looked, against the glow of the horizon, like tips of wind-blown flame. Even now, closing her eyes at the kitchen sink, she could see them.


The old man was up early the next morning. Lang could see him out in the east garden, meandering through what was left of the corn. He watched the old man advancing from row to row. Now and then he’d stop and give an individual stalk his careful attention. Lang could hear Edith behind him in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. He wondered what the old guy was up to.

Lang stepped through the doorway out onto the wet grass. Edging around the side of the house, he momentarily lost sight of the old man before spotting him again between the last two rows of corn. It was then that he saw something he didn’t like. He watched as the old man stooped and took a pinch of the dark soil in his fingers. Straightening, he brought the soil up to his nose and then to his ear. He held it there, rubbing his fingers together, as if listening to the granules rain to the ground. At that moment, as Lang looked on, the backgrounding fog brightened, then darkened again, as it sometimes did in early morning, a consequence—he knew, though he could not see it—of clouds shifting along the eastern horizon, where the sun was just beginning its meager ascent.

As if freshly urged, Lang continued past the garden and across the yard. At the door to the shed, he paused and glanced back at the yard and house and garden, then ducked inside. The shed inside was in no detail different from what he might have expected: a hovel crowded with furniture and boxes he and Edith had largely lost track of. Its one small window, coated in spiderwebs and dust that made it difficult to see through, allowed in a milky light that seemed to emphasize the stillness. For a moment, he stood staring, as if the space—in the way of spaces long left unattended—somehow resisted his understanding. Lang tilted his head, perhaps to better view the couch where the old man had spent the night, his eyes searching the wrinkled spill of blanket as though in those wrinkles a message were written.

Leaning against the couch was the old man’s pack. Lang glanced toward the window and squatted. The pack was well-made, of lightweight metal and rugged dun fabric with reinforced stitching and various straps and buckles. There were zippered compartments. Kneeling, he opened them one at a time and examined the contents. The main compartment was stuffed only with rolled-up articles of clothing, which he returned, arranged precisely as they had been. Distributed among the five smaller compartments, he found a knife, a compass, a length of cord, a tin of matches, a bag of nuts and dried fruit, a camp saw, two water bottles, and a map. He unfolded the map, held it to the light from the window, and studied it. He could recognize none of its features. Carefully, he refolded it and tucked it flat into its pocket the way he had found it.

In the lower right-hand corner of the pack, Lang zipped open the last remaining pocket. He reached in, and as his hand closed around its contents, he knew immediately what it was. He pulled out the roll of bills held tight by a thick rubber band. Lang cradled the roll in his hand. He peeled one bill away from the roll, and stared at it. It was a large bill. So much money in one piece of paper! It was so rare in Lang’s experience that it looked strange to him. He slipped the rubber band off and thumbed the corners of the bills in the roll. They were all of this size. He tried counting them. He tried several times, but in his nervousness he kept losing track. There were too many. The old man must have been rich. Lang knelt with the bills in his hand until his knees hurt. Finally he folded the one bill, restored the rubber band to the roll, returned the roll to the pocket of the pack, and zipped it closed. He rose, slipped the single bill into his pants pocket, and left the shed.


A thin silence loomed over breakfast. Edith tried several times, without success, to prompt a simple exchange of words. Each time, Lang glanced at her and nodded. His thoughts seemed far away. The old man, for his part, replied each time with a smile of sweet bewilderment. But he said nothing.

At one point, Lang jumped up from his chair, the oatmeal spoon in his hand, to peer out the window.

“What is it?” Edith said.

Lang leaned into the window, angling his head one way and then the other.

“What?” Edith said.

“I thought I heard something.”

She sat still, listening.

Lang returned to his seat.

Outside the cabin, the fog thickened, an effect that seemed visible even through the walls. For the rest of breakfast the only sound was the click of spoons in bowls.

Lang was first up from his chair. Edith rose too then, her bowl in her hand.

The old man sat contemplating the surface of the table.

“So,” Lang asked, “where are you headed to?” The way he said it, it sounded like a challenge.

The old man appeared to give the question some thought. He cleared his throat and looked at Edith. “You know,” he said, “I seem to have misplaced my thinking cap.”

Lang stared at him, then turned and left the cabin.

As she worked at clearing the table, Edith saw the old man rise from his seat and reach in a vague gesture to help her.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll take care of that.”

He stood with his hands in his pockets.

She wiped the table down, washed the bowls and cups and spoons at the sink, placed them to dry on the rack, and set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. All the while he remained at the window, gazing out at the fog, his arms folded. But after she had finished, she looked, and he was gone.

Stepping outside, she noticed him by the shed, bent over his pack. It seemed the opportunity she had been waiting for. She approached, then stood over him, watching as he unzipped and zipped the pockets on his pack and adjusted its straps.

“So, you’ll be off this morning?” she said.

He straightened. He looked at her, his eyes searching hers. He smiled then, a smile that seemed to brighten and transcend the day.

Nothing moved except for the swells of fog rolling in off the marsh. The fog penetrated the trees and smudged out the garden and the walls of the cabin. And then the thought came to her. It would be dangerous for the old man to leave under conditions such as these.

The next moment, as if leaving herself behind, she stepped forward and took his hand. The hand was larger than her own, knurled but soft to the touch. She held onto it, looking down at it, then pressed it to her.


That night Lang made love to her, for the first time in weeks. He was quick, feverish. But in the midst of their ardor he shushed her.

“Did you hear that?” he said.

“Hear what?” she said.

“I heard something.”


She clambers along the wet slope. It is the same terrain always ascending to the ridge, the dark terrain and terrible wind, unexpected always but the same always. The same scrub hopeless with thorns, twisted out of reach, and scraped by wind.

The air is madness. It is not a question driving her forward, upward. Not an eagerness, but a certainty.

She climbs, bearing the darkness of the land like a weight. The narrow trail of shattered rock angles toward the brighter clouds, a pale yellow. It switches back and back again and back again and still she climbs. But it is different this time. Someone is watching her. There is something she wishes to say.


After Edith and Lang had picked all the corn and scalded and scraped the ears and dried the kernels in the oven, they turned their attention elsewhere—to the onions and the rutabagas, the beets and the potatoes. And there was firewood to split. Their days were always full this time of year. Left to himself, the old man wandered off for hours at a stretch, vanishing—it seemed—even from their memories until around dinner time, when he reappeared, energetic and rosy skinned as if his day had nourished rather than drained him.

Lang was appropriately cautious. He chose his moments always in the morning when the old man was apt to meander the fields and woods without his pack. He removed never more than one bill at a time and made certain always to leave things precisely as he’d found them. Each of the bills he took from the roll he carried back to the cabin and pressed flat between the pages of a thick book on birds native to the region—a book he and Edith had never read and likely never would. As the number of bills grew, so, in a subtle way, did his regard for them. It was not that he counted them. It satisfied him simply to turn the pages of the book and witness, in this sensual way, their increase.

As the days passed, Lang kept careful watch. As far as he could tell, the old man’s roll showed no sign of depletion.


One evening, just before dinner, Lang was sitting hunched over a sheet of paper, studying the next year’s garden plan when Edith emerged from the pantry to announce that they were running low on flour.

Lang turned to her. “How can that be?”

She glanced in the direction of the old man, who was standing at his usual place by the kitchen window.

Lang stared at the old man, then returned his attention to the paper in his hand. His voice was little more than a mumble. “He don’t eat much. Little old guy like that.”

Edith shrugged. “I’m just saying we’re low.”

“I can go into town tomorrow,” he said.


But by the following morning, Lang had begun acting strangely. Entering and leaving the cabin, the list of provisions in his hand, he seemed increasingly agitated. At last, taking Edith aside, he blurted it out. “Look,” he said, “I don’t like leaving you with him.”

She shook her head. “For God’s sake, Lang.”

“He’s not right in the head.”

“Fine. You stay here with him. I’ll go into town.”

“You know that’s not possible.”

“Why not?”

“Come on, Edith. We both know it isn’t safe.”

“Ha!” said the old man’s voice.

The two of them looked over toward where he stood in the doorway.

She couldn’t think of a reply, for it was well understood that travel in the region was not without its risks.

In the end Lang decided to go. Edith would stay with the old man. Lang considered leaving her the gun, but it seemed to both of them to be taking a chance. “A pot of boiling water,” he said finally. “Have it going on the stove, and keep it hot.”

“What for?”

“A weapon,” he said. “Just in case.”

Just before Lang stepped finally into the woods, Edith saw him pause and glance in her direction, a thing he had never done before. And then he was gone. It was a small gesture, but for the remainder of the morning it cast a mood over her thoughts. She felt strangely separated from herself, as though, going about her chores, she were moving in many directions at once. She kept an eye on the old man, who, instead of disappearing on his usual walk, was sitting contemplatively on a rock at the edge of the garden. Each time she checked on him, she saw that he had not moved.

Then all at once, as if in a dream, she was approaching him. His back was turned to her, but she could tell, even as she was moving across the grass, that he knew she was coming. When she drew near, she slowed and then stopped. She stood over him. She did not speak, for her standing there was in itself a question.

A stillness had taken hold of everything around her—the garden, the yard, even the marsh. It was a stillness, she could imagine, the old man had brought with him. In this way she was losing even a little more of herself. But she didn’t budge.

The old man stirred. He shook his head, as if in conversation with himself.

He said, “The world isn’t holding together anymore. It is becoming particles of itself.”

She waited.

“Courage,” he said. “And an acquired cunning. When we traveled the rivers up north, we never took the same route twice. Often we exchanged canoes, so the rivers wouldn’t object to us. The nights were so clear, even our thoughts were visible. The mists burned away under the stars. Keeping our eyes down, we could feel the heat from overhead.”

She had heard the old man speak before. Still his voice surprised her. It dispelled the stillness and seemed to provoke the mists to rise, twisting restlessly off the marsh, as though somehow those stars were still at work. The air flickered, brightening. She kept her eyes on the old man. Whatever would come would come from him.

“Later,” he said, “we abandoned canoes altogether, immersing ourselves. We left messages in the rocks.”

She accepted that his words did not exactly make sense to her, though she felt in some way she understood them. He knew things, she was convinced, things that he would tell her. She stood there. She didn’t mind the waiting.

For the first time, he turned and looked at her. “These days it isn’t enough. Something was eating away at our intentions. We never found out what it was. Time moves only in one direction. No one tells you this. We had come from another sort of life.”

“What do I do?” she said.

“The people who were here before you?” he said. “They weren’t much different. They knew their tools well. They worked hard. They turned the land upside down. We saw them sometimes plodding back and forth. Sharpening things. We kept our distance out there, our eyes just above the water. In the end they buried themselves.”

There was a flare of brightness overhead, and she felt a fluttering inside her. She hadn’t seen the sun in weeks and almost glanced up to where there would have been sky, had sky been possible. But, knowing better, she resisted this urge. Still, she felt her throat tighten, as though she might weep.

“You could hear them,” he said. “Singing their hearts out. It was enough to make you cry. As if the air was in love, somebody said. You couldn’t keep it out of your blood.”

He paused. “We thought it would last forever. These days they’re remembered in books. If you want to know, you look at the pictures.”


Lang returned the following morning with supplies, and with word from up north. The news was even worse than he’d feared. Lang had no interest in rumor. People had stopped him along the way and described what they’d seen with their own eyes. Coastal cities overrun. Smoke rising from the capital. Corpses lying twisted on pavement. He had himself witnessed men shooting their weapons wildly at the clouds. Trees and boulders everywhere were emblazoned with competing signatures in bright paint. Mobs were surging along overpasses toward the open countryside. Whatever had remained of order in the world, this was certainly the end of it.

It was early afternoon when Lang began the fortifications. Employing little more than an iron bar, a pickax, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, he worked—excavating with terrific energy and skill—all along the northern edge of the yard, facing the marsh. What gradually took shape under the onslaught of his tools was an earthen wall of surprising height—a rampart, he called it—protected by a ditch. He would, for the next phase of the project, extend this structure to the east and west perimeters and then finally close it on the south. From time to time, he stood to one side and surveyed his work. It wasn’t much, he felt, but it was a beginning.

The old man meanwhile assumed a shadowy presence in a corner of the kitchen, directing his gaze at the window. While, from his position, he could not possibly have seen Lang’s fortifications, he looked as if he knew exactly what was taking place out there in the yard, as if he had another way of seeing it. On his way in to refill his bottle of water at the sink, Lang shot him a glance. “You stick with us, old fellow,” he said. “We’ll take good care of you.”

The old man’s eyes followed him. “It’s not violence,” he said. “It’s sleep.”

Lang chuckled, raised the water bottle to his lips. He was beginning to show signs of exhaustion.

That evening, when Edith called Lang for dinner, he did not come. She watched him for awhile out the window, bent over his excavation. At last she brought him a tray. He ate as he worked, and when it grew dark he lit two kerosene lanterns and set them atop the mounds of earth and kept digging. He did not sleep but worked into the night.


From where she stood at the kitchen door, Edith could see Lang out there digging by the illumination of the lanterns. The door was wide open to the night. She could hear the steady scrape of his shovel, the clank whenever he hit a rock. Minutes earlier she had awakened from one of her dreams, and she had risen from her bed. Much of the kitchen was in darkness. The old man in his corner was almost invisible. He might have been watching her, or he might have been dozing—she couldn’t tell. But where she was standing, the kitchen lantern illuminated the book in her hand. She was turning its pages slowly, looking at the pictures and at the bills flat between them. Under the rich light of the lantern, the colors in the pictures shone so that they seemed entirely new and wonderful to her, like something out of an impossible world of someone’s imagining. Only the eyes of the birds were black.


Lang had something like his own awakening when the gray light of dawn surprised him with the first full view of his accomplishment. There splendidly before him lay the completed northern section of rampart, to which he had added on the eastern corner a crude but effective bastion. Leaning on his shovel, in a kind of delirium, he surveyed all of this. Then his eyes traveled to the marsh beyond, where in the gray light every tree stump and withered bush assumed for him an ominous character. He glanced over at the cabin and set the point of his shovel in the earth.

The old man’s pack was leaning in the woodshed exactly as he’d left it. He dropped to his knees and reached for the upper pocket. His hands shook with fatigue as he removed this time three bills.

“We’ve fed him,” he said, as if speaking to the money itself. “Given him shelter. A place to sleep.”

Across the yard in the cabin, she lay in bed. The noises of digging had stopped. She knew where he was. She remained quiet, listening.


By that evening Lang had nearly completed the eastern rampart. His fortifications had begun to enclose the cabin. At some point, Edith hadn’t heard the sound of the shovel in awhile. She went to see if something were the matter and found him curled up at the base of the fresh earthen wall. Lang had fallen asleep in his own excavations.

But that had been over an hour ago. Now the sounds of digging had started up again. They seemed to come from the bedroom window.

Edith was at the sink when the old man appeared in the doorway. She saw that he was once again wearing his pack.

Their eyes met.

She looked apprehensively at the darkness outside, but she kept her silence.


For the third time now, Lang paused in his digging. He kept hearing noises. They were coming from the marsh. And when he looked long and carefully he was certain he could see things moving around out there. Or was he imagining them?

Fetching his gun from the cabin, he saw that Edith was asleep in bed. The old man, however, was gone. Lang checked in the shed: he’d taken the pack with him. Lang returned to the rampart and, with one eye on the marsh, resumed his digging. But he had his gun ready.

Sometime later—it must have been later—Lang awoke to find himself in bed. He could not remember how he’d gotten there. He held still, listening, but there was no sound. Tentatively he reached into the dark—Edith was no longer in bed beside him. His mind reeled. It seemed to him at that moment that anything might be possible.

He arose with a flashlight and hurried to the bookcase. There, on the top shelf, was the book, just where he had left it. He opened to its pages and counted the bills. Seven. None were missing. From his pocket he pulled out the three new bills, and he added them next to the others. The book was thick, with many pages. He would never run out of room to add new ones. He closed the book and brought it back to bed with him. He quickly fell asleep. It was nearly dawn.


The sky was slowly brightening. A yellow light wept between the mists and glared from pools of water ahead of her in the marsh. She had been standing, watching. There was a sound she wasn’t used to, as of a strong wind somewhere in the distance. But here at the rim of the marsh, everything was quiet. She saw his tracks then—the dimpled impressions in the wet moss—heading along the edge of the swamp, clearly north. She set out in that direction. She walked at first eagerly but soon had to slow her pace, for the footing was difficult and her head was turning continually to see one thing and another in spite of a brightness almost hurtful to the eyes. She was taking in everything.

At some point a stray thought caused her to look down at her hands, and she saw then that there was nothing in them. Her light pack was stuffed with clothes and things she had collected at the last moment, but she had brought no tools or weapons. The realization intoxicated her slightly, but she kept moving. She plucked gently at twigs and bushes and tall grasses, as if in greeting, letting these things slide through her fingers as she passed. She did not doubt that, very soon, something was going to happen.

Lang was back there somewhere. Probably still asleep. She had thought of leaving him a note. She’d had the paper and pencil in her hand. Maybe she had left one, and maybe she hadn’t. She couldn’t remember.  

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