A twosome appears in the half-light thin and ragged in pale buckskin. A father and daughter together in the sunset crouched atop a promontory. Iron blue dusk settles on the dry creek bed below.
She follows him through the dimming. The gravel pike crunches underfoot. His gaunt contours lag. His gait is feeble and weighted with an empty canteen slung from one shoulder. His spine bows. He reaches for the daughter. She examines the bulb of his hand. His knuckles callused and scabbed. She takes his into hers and allows herself to be lead.
They pass a rusted horseshoe. They pass a coyote track in cracked mud. They pass a bleached rack of deer rib. Very small, high above, a distant wedge of fowl fords the heavens and fades into evanescence.
The daughter limbers forward on nimble legs. Her nymphal torso noodles like a mantis.
“I’m thirsty,” she says. Her face is cratered and pink with pockmark though in the chevron twilight she is beset with a vernal beauty.
“I know,” the father says. “Me too.”
“If I had a penis life wouldn’t be so hard,” she says. “Would it?”
“I prefer not to speak of such things,” he says.
“What things?” she says.
“Sex things,” he says.
“What are those things like?” she says.
“Like everything,” he says. “They exists and go away.”
“I’m worried about disease,” she says.
“We all have to stare death down,” he says. “Or life, depending on how you look at it.”
“What does that mean?” she says.
“Everyone gets sick eventually,” he says.
“Is that true?” she says.
The father holds the canteen and shakes it blankly. “It’s nature’s way,” he says.
The daughter’s brow furrows. The father cups her mouth with his hand before she can respond and she respires through his fingers. “No more questions,” he says and removes his hand. The daughter wets her hairlip and sighs.
The pike narrows and parts into twin treads, running parallel through the woodland. Stocks of ragweed sprout from the tract between the ruts.
“What are we doing?” the daughter says.
“I dunno,” he says. “We’re walking.”
“We’re walking where?”
“To where the water’s at.”
“How will we find it?”
“Listen for it,” he says. “We’ll hear frog croaks.”
“We don’t have a lantern,” she says. She nods at the nightfall. Lavender bands settle on the horizon.
“We don’t need one,” he says. “The moon’ll lead us.”
“We should turn around,” she says.
“Don’t look back,” he says. “We can’t.”
The pike dwindles into a patchy footpath and they follow it uphill through the forest. The daughter labors with the grade. “Can we stop?” she says. “My legs hurt.” She slows and rests her tiny hands on her knees.
“Relax,” the father says. “We’ll wait.” He stands beside her and segues into the incline as if his pelvis was hinged. He fishes through his buckskin. He produces a small matchbox; inside is a hand rolled cigarillo half smoked and damp with old saliva. He lights up and holds the cheery to the girl’s earlobe, inching it closer and closer until she shoos him.
“Stop it,” she says. “That burns.”
The father titters, drags and expels a plume up the rise where the pike recedes into a frill of dead cottonwood. A rotund crag of rock rises above the trees, and within the bald a small cave is visible.
“Look at that,” he says.
The daughter stands upright and rubs her eyes. “At what?” she says. “I can’t see.”
“A cave,” the father says, winging his elbow ahead. “Let’s go closer.”
They start up the scramble navigating loose moss and stone until they stand before the cavern’s black maw.
“What is it?” the girl says.
“The mountain’s mouth,” he says.
“It looks hungry,” she says.
The father fans his hand at the grotto. “Do you feel that?”
“It smells like urine,” she says.
“The earth is breathing,” he says.
From their vantage they can see out over the town where they had both been born not one generation apart. A dry riverbed sprawls southward beyond the silhouettes of abandoned belfries. The settlement had prospered until the broke tides of Christendom receded. The drought that proceeded consumed all that preceded. Life was made improbable save for bandits and dust and whatever else sulfurous wind spared.
The father and daughter climb the remaining rise and stand on the small knoll of the precipice. A wagon-sized wedge of lichen rock juts in an upright menagerie. The pillars cast shadows in the moonlight. The arrangement appears unnatural as if balanced by the hand of a dozer rendering some ancient pagan order. The father and daughter stand before the structure pacified and reverent.
“What is it?” the daughter says.
“It looks like a tombstone,” the father says.
“I feel like we’re intruding,” she says.
“I bet it’s been here for a thousand years,” he says.
Starlight glazes the earth in cold cellulite. Sparse archipelagos of cloud dot the winking sky.
“When I get sick, you have three options,” the father says. “Begging, stealing, or selling your body on the street.”
“You’re not sick,” she says. “Are you?”
“That’s not the point,” he says. “This goes for all people.”
“What would you do?” she says.
“I’m not certain,” he says. “I have a hard time asking for help.”
“I wish the world was different,” she says. “I wish we could live forever.”
“Life continues without us,” he says. “There’s no reason to feel bad about it.”
“We should have a revolution,” she says. “Would things be different?”
“Probably not,” he says. “Let’s go.”
They start down the gradient and temperature drops. Their breaths fog from their nostrils. The cold air fills the daughter’s lungs she coughs. She sidesteps awkwardly and twists her ankle. She totters backwards and falls onto a moss heap where she play-lays lifeless in a bramble of dead leaves.
“Water,” she murmurs into the earth.
“Don’t be dramatic,” the father says. “We need to keep moving.”
The daughter remains motionless. Neither she nor the father speaks. A soft breeze and funnels a calm into the hollow. A boggy stillness descends upon them and spreads into the uttermost rebates of space.
“Do you hear that?” the father whispers.
The daughter lifts her head and tilts with a rubberneck curiosity. “What is it?” she says. She sniffles and fingers her hair from her face. The distant chortle of ribbits murmurs from the forest’s dark depths. “I hear a sound.”
“God speaks through the least of his creatures,” the father says. “They’re thirsty too.”
Adam Moorad is a writer, salesman, and mountaineer. He lives in Brooklyn. Visit him here: adamadamadamadamadam.