CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|There Are No Footprints Today
Jefferson slices the corn in the morning. Using a chunk of granite sharpened into a blade, he carves the corn off the cob and into my hands. He bites the remaining kernels straight from the cob. I like to shake the kernels around in my palms, seasoning them with sweat, before licking them up. The corn is uncooked and bullies our teeth. I have lost a couple of crowns and spend many days distracted by pain. Jefferson’s missing two canines, his smile a crumbling fortress.
This morning, carving makes Jefferson sullen and breathy. We have both grown physically weak. Our arms are as slack and slender as vines, our hair wafts away at the touch.
I offer to carve. Jefferson will not allow it.
“The task is complicated,” he says.
“I’m a quick learner,” I say.
“Me too,” he says. “But it took me weeks to master the skill.”
He doesn’t trust me with his rock. This is fair. I do not trust him with the spear tied to my waist. We both have done terrible things. That is why we are here, still alive, on an earth shrunk to the size of a comet.
Jefferson tends to overlook the terrible things. He favors the popular vote. He believes in relative morals. When only two people remain in the world, according to him, it is their job to reimagine morality. Terrible is a measure of difference. We have both done terrible things, he insists, therefore they are no longer terrible. They are merely the things we have done.
I envy Jefferson’s brain. It fizzes with facts. He used to read doorstopper books. He quotes men with “de” in their names. He speaks in multiple tongues. From the books he learned how to sharpen his rock. From the books he learned about relative morals. I am very lucky that we are here together, that he is the one with whom I will die.
Jefferson and I hunt during the third day of the day. Because of its size, the earth rotates six times every twenty-four hours. Days elapse at a much faster rate: every three to four hours. The earth now has a 10.42-mile circumference, Jefferson posits, while I theorize an even 11. When two people are stuck with each other, one must develop a positive outlook. I have committed myself to this role.
We hunt in different directions. I go north, toward a giant freshwater lake contracted to the size of a pond, carrying my spear and a pot for boiling water. Jefferson hunted for land animals until he discovered the corn. He says it was an Iowan field before The Contraction. This explanation makes sense, though I have no way of knowing. Jefferson refuses to show me the field.
This morning, the lake looks bluer than normal: like raspberry candy. I scoop a handful of water and gulp, but spit at the taste of something decaying. I build a fire, set the water atop it. As it heats, I spear distractedly at the lake. I haven’t caught anything in a month. The fish no longer rise to visible heights. We will likely die of starvation before the fish reappear. I know it is useless, but what can I do other than fish? The fish might, after all, repopulate and resurface—maybe they’re spawning—just as the earth might, however unlikely, swell back to its regular size. We might even find other people. Hope is such a welcome distraction.
I take a bite of my arm. A gentle, frightened bite. Too gentle to break any skin. I want to feel flesh resisting my teeth. I want to know that if I were desperate enough I would be able to bite through an arm. It doesn’t appear that I can.
The water boils. I dump it into my throat. It burns, as it normally does, but I am too impatient to care. My throat has thickened with scars. I resettle the pot on the flame before stepping into the lake for a bath. Jefferson sees no reason to bathe. Crust covers his skin. He smells of soil and feet. All the earliest hunters hunted encrusted by grime, he tells me. But I like to be clean. The end of the world is no reason to neglect personal hygiene.
What I love most about bathing is holding my breath underwater. Every time I go to the lake I try to hold my breath for a little bit longer. It is important, I think, to continue striving for personal goals. Otherwise, what is left?
The breath holding began as an accident. I had dunked my head underwater to rinse my hair and rather than jumping back up, as I normally did, I stayed, mesmerized by the other person I had become, the toady tint of my skin, how much lighter I felt, free from some unnamable burden. Beneath the surface, sunlight spreads like a gold, slimy fog. It reaches as low as my flippering feet. It is so dark beneath the reach of the light. Whenever I go underwater I consider diving into the dark and holding my breath in that space, where my body will not be toady and gold but nothing at all.
Today, I do not dive below the light. I stay in the slimy fog. I count in my head. One hundred and two, one hundred and three, and set a new personal record—a world record!—one hundred and fifty-one seconds. When I step onto the shore, dripping, giddy, the pot of water is gone. I search until the sun scorches the far side of the earth, its light an ambient ring, yet I find no sign of the pot. There is now a footprint next to the fire. My left foot fits snugly inside, but that doesn’t prove anything. I wear a size ten. The most common of sizes. All this means is that the new person, Somebody Else, is more like me than Jefferson is. Jefferson and his massive, beavertail feet.
Jefferson and I are grateful for the mornings we spend away from each other pretending to hunt. I know when he says he is gathering corn that he is looking for Somebody Else—anyone else. Just as when I hike to the lake I’m always hoping to find Somebody Else. It gets so lonely and boring living together. We long for the novelty of a stranger.
We long to alter the recipe of our relative morals.
To Jefferson I am constantly lying. He lies to me too. We lie by refusing to discuss the terrible things we have done. Jefferson’s logic, regarding the terrible things, used to make me feel better. But I have grown wary of Jefferson’s motives. If Jefferson stabs me in my sleep and only he is remaining, then by Jefferson’s logic he has not done a terrible thing. As for me, my goodness prevents me from spearing Jefferson in his sleep. I used to be a teacher, a father, a spouse, a giver of coins to the Salvation Army, a holder of doors for women and men. Goodness swells under my skin.
My goodness prevents me from telling Jefferson about the footprint. He might interpret Somebody Else as a threat. He would likely mount an attack on Somebody Else, whereas I only want to learn from Somebody Else. Jefferson has already taught me all that he can.
At our camp Jefferson says, “I’m thirsty. Where is the pot?”
I slap myself on the forehead and say, “I must’ve left it at the lake!”
Obviously, he doesn’t believe me. But he sits silent with his suspicion. There is so little mystery here. Jefferson slices the corn in the morning. We hunt. I boil water for drinking. We cautiously glance at each other’s weapon, Jefferson’s rock, the spear tied to my waist. He must also find this mystery thrilling.
There are no footprints today. The pot has not reappeared. I swim to the center of the lake. Once underwater, I submerge my entire foot—only the left—beyond the reach of the sunlight—and only for a second. It shivers me keeping it there. But I stay underwater and break my record again: one hundred and sixty-two seconds!
On the shore, footprints rim the circle of rocks where I normally build a fire.
“Hello!” and “Come here!” I shout, racing around. Stones, branches, and thorns prickle the soles of my feet. I kick at conspicuous brush, wondering if there are tunnels beneath, but there are no tunnels beneath, and none of the trees are hollow inside, no forts hover high in their arms. At the lake, my spear is broken in half, its point beaten dull on a rock.
This is the type of thing that Jefferson would do to make me feel insane, I decide the following morning, as Jefferson shaves the corn into my hand. I do not tell him about my spear. He already knows what he has done. He must know. Why else would he ask, “Where is your spear?”
“I broke it,” I say. “Then I dulled the point on a rock.”
Jefferson hates when people take credit for what he has done. His lips quiver. He’s trying to conjure a believable lie. What he says is, “Don’t we need it to fish?”
“There are no fish anymore,” I say. “What if I help you out with the corn? We’ll gather enough for a week. Then we can rest.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Jefferson says.
I hold my breath for one hundred and eighty-two seconds. The festering water fills my mouth as I step out of the lake.
The footprints spell out my name.
“Where is the pot?” Jefferson asks.
“I can’t believe I did it again!” I excel at feigning stupidity. It is why I have lasted so long.
The lack of water, however, does not seem to be taking its toll on Jefferson’s health. Where are the caulked lips? Where are the sunken eyes? The skin as dry as a brick? The confusion? No, he seems to be doing okay. It is obvious he is keeping something from me.
I say to him, “Can we go to the field later today?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” he mumbles.
Finally, he agrees. Though I am positive that the field where he takes me is not where he normally gathers the corn. He brings me to a dummy field the size of a bus. The withered stalks carry husks that are exoskeleton crisp. Breathing here makes my mouth go stuffy from dust. There is no water. None that Jefferson shows me. We pick for an hour, settle for bug-eaten ears, hoping there might be more bugs—possibly larvae—flaked between the kernels.
Back at the camp, Jefferson says, “It was good having you with me. Man is most natural among other men.” He lifts his right arm importantly, a sign he is quoting someone distinguished. “Or is it,” he ponders, “the condition of man is a condition of—no, never mind.”
I excuse myself for a bath.
“I’d like to come,” Jefferson says. He scratches the blackened gunk adhered to his cheeks; flecks fall to the dirt.
“God knows that you need it,” I say to be chummy, trying to hide that I’m nervous. What is it he wants from the lake?
I build a wide lead on the walk.
“Wait up,” Jefferson hollers.
“Follow the path,” I yell back.
On the shore, footprints spell out the number 3. I smudge them before Jefferson sees.
Somebody Else comes to me in a dream. I see only their hands. The rest of their body is obscured by a fog. They hold up three fingers in each hand. When I wake, I feel something rattle around in my mouth. I spit out three of my teeth.
“I don’t see how the pot could just disappear,” Jefferson says.
He has been hammering me over the pot for the last couple days.
“There are things beyond understanding,” I say, my left arm importantly lifted.
“You’re lying to me,” Jefferson says.
So what? I think, thinking of Somebody Else, how little these tiffs will matter once they arrive, how lying, perhaps, will come to be moral and right, a necessary act of self-preservation.
“I’m hungry,” I say. “I get so muddled unfed.”
“So you admit it?”
“Remember those ads? Snickers commercials, about how different we get when we’re hungry? You’d see a rhinoceros charging through a school cafeteria, goring the kids, but really it’s just somebody hungry—the lunch lady, I think. Or what was his name? The man with the voice?”
“I hated TV.”
“He’d be yelling, scraggly sounding, but then he eats a Snickers and transforms into this quiet stay-at-home mom too busy to eat.”
“I just want something to drink,” Jefferson says.
“I don’t miss every commercial. That would be stupid. But those—they were my favorites.”
Rain patters on leaves. Jefferson tenses to listen. He races away.
“Gilbert Gottfried!” I shout, to no one.
Truthfully, I could not have asked for anyone better than Jefferson. He taught me so many things. But Somebody Else might be even better. Perhaps Somebody Else knows where to find land animals. Perhaps Somebody Else can carry a tune, or they’ll want to make love. This is all conjecture, of course, but I cannot sleep from wanting to know. I study the camp and I think, Would this appeal to Somebody Else? Would I appeal to Somebody Else? There is only one way to be sure.
Somebody Else returns in a dream. Again they hold out their hands. Two fingers lift out of each palm like antennae. When I wake, I run my tongue over my teeth, disappointed nothing is loose.
It is night. My sleep is a pebbled mosaic of dreams. I wake every hour and watch Jefferson sleeping. His nostrils flap as he breathes. He yips, like a dog dreaming of cats. I consider pressing my sheet over his face—he would be too weak to put up a fight—but the thought of Somebody Else prevents me from acting.
What would Somebody Else think if I snuffed Jefferson in his sleep? Would they praise me for my courage? Would they think me a coward for taking the life of someone asleep? Would they ever be able to trust me? Perhaps they would build a jail, lock me inside, or hang me high from a tree. The prospect of angering them makes me knot up with shame. I need to impress Somebody Else. It would be too risky to kill Jefferson now. I turn away and squeeze my eyes shut.
In a dream, Somebody Else holds up a single finger.
Jefferson’s feet are enormous, Jefferson has read too many books, Jefferson hides the real cornfield, Jefferson’s laugh sounds rusty and pained, Jefferson’s scrawny, Jefferson limps when it’s chilly, he never sweeps the brush from camp, he makes a barking sound in his sleep, he ignores the terrible things he has done, crust covers his skin.
Somebody Else presents two open palms. I take them in my hands.
I submerge both feet beyond the reach of the light. One hundred seventy-two. One hundred seventy-three. I sweep my arms toward the surface, propelling myself a little bit deeper. My calves go blank in the dark. One hundred ninety-nine. Two hundred. Two hundred and one.
The most difficult thing to do is arrive at a proper decision. But once you decide what is right—what is moral, in Jefferson’s words—it becomes so simple to move through the world. Life becomes guided and calm. It is as if every action you take has already been taken. No matter what happens, I’m grateful that Jefferson taught me this lesson.
I cannot wait to live with Somebody Else, but I will miss Jefferson when he is gone. There is no reason to lie to myself.
Jefferson slices the corn in the morning.
“You should come with me to the field.”
“Why so lonely all of a sudden?”
“It just feels good to have help.”
“The lake demands daily attention.”
“The fish are all dead.”
“They’re spawning,” I say. “They could reappear any day.”
“Current ecological conditions would likely preclude many species from—”
“I know they’re returning.”
“Focus on tangible gains. We know there is corn. It needs to be picked.”
I turn away but Jefferson clasps my wrist. “You need to come with me,” he says. I twist out of his grip, ready to run, but Jefferson does nothing as I walk into the woods.
At the lake I submerge my feet, my calves, my thighs beyond the reach of the light and hover, halved at the waist, counting two hundred and fourteen, two hundred and fifteen, gathering courage to sweep up my arms. I submerge my stomach. My shoulders go blank. I can feel fish—cute little guppies—in scared schools swarming my feet. Two hundred forty-eight. I go deeper. Mouth disappears. Then my nose and my eyes. Two hundred sixty-one, two hundred sixty-two, two hundred sixty-three and I lose it, dart to the surface, gasping, my lungs painfully pumping, into a world that seems enormous and clear. I crawl out onto the shore like something primordial. I try to stand but crumble back on my knees. Water boils inside the pot over a fire. Behind me the sun glazes the lake blindingly bright. Shore mud adheres to my arms. It forms a cracking crust that I rub and scratch but cannot remove. I empty the pot into my mouth.
I call Jefferson’s name.
Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Black Warrior Review, New England Review, Music & Literature, The Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. He is a print fiction editor for Gulf Coast.