This short story was first featured in the Fall 2016 issue of the Spittoon Literary Magazine
When the traveler left, his wife handed him a lump of bread packed in leaves. He tried to pass it back to her, but she would not take it. I’ll return with money, he apologized, and stuffed it in his sack of tools. There was nothing left to say after he slung the sack over his shoulder. He left on foot, kicking up small clouds of dust like powdered blood as he shuffled down the road. As far as the road stretched, it was pockmarked with deep red ruts. He followed it to the village, then a neighboring village, then to a village where he’d never been before. He kept walking until he was in a place where they did not speak his language.
He returned three years later just as poor as when he’d left. The money he had made somehow vanished on this and that: A bribe here, a tool replaced there, renting a shared room when the rains got too heavy to sleep outside. Still, the thought of seeing his wife again filled him with joy. He had trouble remembering what the old village looked like. He’d passed through so many on the road they all seemedinterchangeable. Somehow every one had the same beggar woman slumped on the same church steps, the same three-legged dog limping out of the way of the same ox cart. Each time buildings rose out of the hills his breath quickened, but then some detail would reveal that he was not yet home. In fact, when he did return to the village, he did not believe it at first. The market was not there. It seemed too small; there were no people in the streets. He only understood where he was when he saw the elderly patriarch wobbling down the red road on the support of his walking stick. Though the patriarch looked smaller now, he was recognizable by the burl crowning his walking stick. It was shaped just like the wrinkled brain of a dog. The returning traveler greeted him warmly, but the elder only nodded, absorbed in the struggles of a praying mantis that had fallen onto his robes and was clinging to the sleeve.
Where is the market?
They couldn’t put it out in time?
There was no one left to.
No one left?
The patriarch began to talk about a plague which had consumed the village.
Sores appeared inside the crooks of the elbows, the old man explained. He rolled up his sleeve, revealing the underside of his arm while simultaneously coaxing the mantis to his wrist with one deft move. The traveler could not tell if the purple mottling on the inside of the patriarch’s elbow was evidence of the disease or merely the effects of old age.
The sores itched and peeled, the patriarch continued. They oozed a liquid the color of ripe wheat. Then they blackened and bulged, spreading to the underside of the chin, the inner thighs and the backs of the knees. The infected staggered through the streets, clawing themselves bloody, wailing. Then the final stage, calm and hopeless. Seizures and sweating. Chills. Hallucinations. Death.
And my wife, Blessed Father?
The patriarch had coaxed the mantis onto his finger, and he was now carefully ferrying it to the puckered burl that formed the knob of his staff. When the insect was safely on its life raft, he finally answered.
It is hard to say. Most everyone is dead, though of course I am too old and frail to check on every farm that surrounds the village.
The traveler started off in a fright, so panicked he didn’t even ask his elder’s leave.
When he heard the elder clear his throat, he expected to be upbraided for his lack of decorum. But turning around, he saw the patriarch was still more concerned with the mantis. The patriarch lowered the head his stick onto an ant’s nest, and dozens of red ants clambered onto the burl, overwhelming the mantis and pulling it limb from limb with their pincers.
Blessed Father? Why did you…?
Ants have to eat too, he chuckled.
I mean why did you call me back?
Oh. Well, there’s a place you might check. An hour’s walk out of town. Some men from the government came to round up as many corpses as they could and burn them all in a pit.
The pit was just where the patriarch said, a great black rectangle dished out of the crimson earth. It was framed on all sides by unharvested corn. The traveler dug through the bones for a while but it was impossible to determine anything except that the fire had burnt unevenly through the pit, leaving some of the corpses to decompose naturally. He decided to pick some corn instead. It was already withering on the stalk, but he managed to find a dozen good ears to take with him. He was walking in the direction of his old farm anyway. All along the red road, huts stood empty. No one worked the fields. No dogs came out to bark.
To his surprise, when rounding the final bend at dusk, he saw a wisp of smoke visible in the fading sky above his hut. There was his wife, hoeing in the dirt. She looked feeble but when they embraced she had the strength of an ox. He could feel her face buried in his chest, shuddering. The dampness of tears soaked through his shirt.
Did you find work? she asked.
After three years of wandering, he had returned with only a few moldy ears of corn from the next field over. Still, she took them with respect, and said she would prepare a special celebration dinner. He bathed at the barrel beside their hut, watching the sunset while she cooked. Scrubbing the ruddy dirt from his arms, he could smell a delicious soup. He wondered whether he was just that hungry, or if she had squirreled away some extra food, perhaps waiting for his return?
He had never felt so at home as in the warmth of that fire, watching her stir their dinner. Sections of corncob, bobbing on the surface, somehow glowed golden, whereas they had seemed so withered in his hands.
Is that ginger I smell?
He could barely ask the question his mouth was so thick with saliva. She just smiled, and brought it to the table. As she ladled him a bowl, the traveler’s teeth began to ache. While he wolfed it down, she just smiled at him like a child.
Aren’t you going to eat? he asked.
I haven’t been walking all day like you, she responded.
He suspected that she was going without on his behalf. He’d returned empty handed, and felt he didn’t deserve such respect.
You’ve got to keep up your strength, he insisted. Besides, in these times, who knows when we’ll have a meal like this again.
She ladled herself a bowl, and a second one for him. Though she did little except stir it around with her spoon, he couldn’t stop himself from noisily sucking his right down. When he’d finished, he couldn’t believe she was still just absently blowing at the steam wafting from her bowl and toying with her spoon. She was rolling the spoon in her fingers, but she still hadn’t taken a bite. He wanted to finish off the pot, but it would hardly be fair. As he was eying his empty bowl, the spoon flipped out of her fingers, bounced off the table and clattered on the boards below.
His wife looked down at the utensil, the tip of her tongue protruding from her pursed lips. Her cheeks were bulging. For a moment it looked like she was sucking on a wet ripe fruit. Then the tongue spilled out of her mouth, dangling all the way to her chin. Was this some effect of the disease? He cast an alarmed glance at his wife but she seemed not to notice. Her eyes were focused on her own tongue as it continued flowing out of her lips, growing in length until it extended past her knees. Pulled down by its own weight, it finally flopped to the floor like an eel out of water. The tip of the tongue poked at the floorboards until it landed on the spoon. It coiled its way around the utensil and then shot back, returning the implement to her hand. A moment later the tongue had retracted into her mouth.
Would you like more soup? she asked with a tender smile.
I think there’s enough for one more bowl.
Actually, I need to, to…go outside. Nature calls.
As he stood up, he glanced at the pot and noticed the charred tip of a femur poking out of the last of the broth. The image of his wife seemed to flicker as she continued to smile at him. He walked outside as calmly as he could. Looking out into the night as he pretended to urinate, he could see no other fires from the surrounding farms. There was no one left alive. Under the moonlight the outline of the road was just visible. He began to creep toward it as softly as he could, holding his breath.
Come back in, she called. There’s still more soup.
Her voice was shrill and desperate. He began to run. Just as he made it to the road something snagged his ankle and yanked him to the dirt. It was her wet tongue, coiled around his ankle. He clawed at the dust, but there was nothing to hold onto as the tongue reeled him back.