Excerpt from 'The Pesthouse'


The Pesthouse

By Jim Crace

Nan A. Talese

Copyright © 2007 Jim Crace
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-385-52075-1

Chapter One

Franklin Lopez had not been sleeping in Ferrytown, though he'd wanted to. He'd not been sleeping anywhere, in fact. Couldn't sleep. He'd weathered such pain the day before that he'd been forced to consider what anyone (other than his brother) who'd seen the wincing recoil in his limp or examined his inflamed leg had already told him, that he shouldn't walk another step. Certainly he shouldn't walk downhill on such a long and hazardous gradient, unless he wanted to damage his knee beyond repair and put paid to any hopes of getting to the coast and boarding ship before the worst of the fall storms. He and his brother, Jackson (named for their parents' small hometown on the plains), had left the journey rather late as it was. Too late, perhaps. The prairie tall-grass had already whitened and buckled. Apart from nuts and mushrooms, there was little free food to be gathered at the trackside. The first rains had arrived, and soon the winds and snow would get to work. Traveling would become more hazardous and then impossible. Only the ill-prepared, the ill-fated, and the ill-timed were still strung out thinly along the previously busy route, hoping to make the final sailings before ice and squalls shut down the sea, and anyway made shore-to-ship or ship-to-shore impossible. The wayside going east was already littered with the melancholy camps and the shallow graves-soon to be torn up by wolves-of those whose bodies couldn't take the journey, those who had been fatally chilled by wading through rivers, those who had starved and weakened, those who had been thrown by their horses or poisoned by their suppers, those who had been crushed between the fears of going forward and the dread of going back.

Feet failed first; nothing could prepare the feet for this. Then the stomach gave way, soured by ditch and pond water and the usual makeshift meals of hardtack, jerked meat, pine nuts, and scrapple-and, in the brothers' case on one occasion, a stew made from a hand-caught rabbit too diseased to run away, with nettle tops as greens. And if the stomach survived that, then the less sturdy travelers were betrayed by bones and joints, starting at their knees and working upward, pain on pain, through hips, up spine, and into the shoulders and the neck until there was nothing left to sour, fail, or be betrayed except the soft pith of the head. Once summer turned and limped away, its sack crammed full of leaves, the route was challenging. Within a month, the weather would have mugged the final stragglers and the roads and ways would be empty again, untrodden till spring.

So Franklin understood that he could not readily afford to waste much time nursing such a slight injury. But neither could he afford the purchase of a horse or passage on a wagon where he could rest his leg. What should he do, then? Cut a stick and limp down to the coast? "Just put up with the pain," as Jackson advised? Carry on regardless, let nature take its course? He'd tried the stick, the putting up with pain; he'd trusted nature's course. His knee got worse. So finally he conceded. He'd have to find shelter and stay exactly where he was, high in the ridges, to sit out the swelling. It was an exasperating setback and something that he was slow to tell his brother. But what other choice was there? His knee was too bloated to bend and too painful to take any weight. The flesh between his ankle and his thigh was sausaging with every step he took. The skin was stretched and cloudy. One more afternoon of walking could lame him for a month. A day or two of rest might rescue him. Besides, this injury was not a failure that he should feel ashamed of, no matter what the stiff expression on his brother's face seemed to suggest. He'd done better than some to get so far-more than sixty testing days of walking from the battered, weather-poisoned village of his birth-without much damage beyond the usual aches and pains, the usual broken skin, and this damned knee, he told himself. He'd be a fool to take any chances now if he wanted to enjoy the undulating rewards of the sailboat deck, and then to put ashore this year in the other place, whatever that might be, with his pith intact enough to make a good start.

"It'd be crazy to take the risk, Jacko," he told his brother at last, coloring with self-consciousness as he spoke. He was still prone to being seized by sudden, girlish reddeners whenever he least wanted it.

"Only the crazy make it to the coast" was the older man's reply. Yes, that was the wisdom of the road: you had to be crazy enough to take the risks, because the risks were unavoidable. "Well, then, Franklin Lopez? You say."

"I've said."

"So say it again."

"Well, do what you want, if you're the crazy one. I'm staying here till it's good enough, my knee."

"How long's 'till'?"

"Three days, four days, I guess."

"I guess a month!"

Franklin knew better than to argue with his volcanic brother. He did not even shake his head. He watched Jackson mull over their problem for a few moments more, his eyes half closed, his lips moving, his fingers counting days. "That knee'll snare us here a month-if not a month, then half a month. Too long," Jackson added finally. "By then the winter'll be on us like a pack of wolves. You hear me, little brother?" Little brother? Less in everything. "You sit down now, then that's the end of it. We're carrion."

This was their final argument, the last of many, with Franklin daring to protest that his "crazy" brother should press on to the coast without him (but not meaning it-who'd want to be abandoned to the winter and the woods, to be buried, along with the trail, beneath layers of mud, leaves, and snow, even if it meant a few days free of bullying and censure?) and Jackson insisting that he'd stick by his infuriating, timid, blushing sibling till the last if he really had to (but resenting Franklin's physical weakness, his infuriating, girlish laugh that seemed to buckle his whole body, his dreaminess, his hypochondria, and saying so repeatedly-"That bitching knee's not half as bad as you make out," and "Where'd we be if every time you got a touch of charley horse you wanted three days' rest?"-until Franklin said, "Ma's hearing every word you speak").

The brothers should not have taken their ma's advice two months before when they'd "embarked" so late in the season of migration. "Carry nothing with you," she'd said, "then no one will pay you any heed. And you can hurry on." So they had left the plains equipped with just their boots, their knives, a double set of clothes rainproofed with deer fat, a spark stone and some tinder in a pouch, a water bag and a back sack each, full of nothing-worth-stealing or so they thought: some cheese, dried fruit, salted pork, and a couple of ground tarps.

To some extent their mother had been correct. They had moved fast and no one had bothered them yet, while others among the emigrants who'd been rash enough to travel in the company of carts and animals or had packed a year's supply of food and their prize possessions-best pots, jewelry, good cloth, good tools-paid a price for their comfort. The more they had, the more cruelly they were robbed, not by the other travelers but by the ones who wouldn't emigrate until they'd picked the carcass of America clean. But possibly two men like them-young, strong, and imposingly tall-would not be robbed even if they were walking naked with shards of polished silver in their beards. Jackson and Franklin Lopez, together, looked too capable of taking care of themselves to invite the attentions of thieves. And this had made them much valued as companions by other travelers, especially as their extra strength would always be prized by any wagoner, for example, who faced a hill or mud and would recompense them with a meal if only they would be his heavy horses for the afternoon.

No, Ma was right, wagons were slow and cumbersome. They might not have stomachs, feet, and knees to let their owners down, but their axles snapped if stressed too much and they were unsteady on gradients and hesitant at fords, with good reason. Rivers loved to test the strength of vehicles. A river's always pleased to have the opportunity to dismantle a wagon, to tear it into planks and carry it away in bits, together with its wagoner. Horses were less hesitant. They were fast and muscular. They didn't refuse the rivers or the gradients so long as there were sticks and sugar lumps to urge them on, but they were flesh and bones and prone to injury and sickness. Just like men and women. But just like men and women, horses' running costs were high, for oats and hay, board and lodging, tolls and tack.

Pack mules were the toughest of the lot. And cheap. More so than hinnies. A bucket of cottonwood bark or thistle and bitter water every night was all they needed. "If a rabbit can pass, a mule will pass," the mulemen boasted. But mules were stubborn, too. Both placid and stubborn. You could twitch the ropes in their lip rings or tug on their jerk lines until they bled, but still they wouldn't move unless it suited them. They had the patience to resist forever. The brothers had been wise, so far, to travel without animals or wheels.

But now, with their few possessions laid out around them at the top of the descent and the first indications that the coming night would be a wet and cold one, the brothers-Franklin especially-regretted that they had not equipped themselves better for such foreseeable emergencies. There were no cooking pots, they had no camping supplies, and except for a few scraps the store of food had been finished a month before. Their ma-she was far too old and metally at fifty-four, she'd said, to join them on their journey, too fat to go that far-was at that very moment most likely sitting on her stoop, rubbing her veins, and looking out across the now abandoned steads at the family cart and the three old roans for which she had no use. If Jackson and Franklin had only traveled with those horses and the cart, her sons would be at the river crossing by now and Franklin would not be limping. Or at least they'd have some warmth and free shelter for the night, up on the rapidly cooling hillside. But they had never been the sort to disoblige their ma. Big but biddable, they were, for her. Big and unprepared for what the world could do to them.

Now the brothers had to face the prospect of some nights apart-the very thing that Ma had said should not occur-while Jackson went ahead to sell his labor for a day or two and obtain some food. He'd leave his brother with their knives, the leaking water bag, the spark stone, the pair of tarps, their change of clothes, and make do trading with his strength and overcoat. That heavy, much-loved overcoat that his mother had stitched together from four farm goats would have to go, despite the colder days ahead. It was the one thing the brothers had that, though it had not quite been admired, had certainly been noticed by strangers. Being noticed might prove to be a handicap as they got closer to the lawless coast. So trading on the goats would be advisable. With any luck, Jackson would soon return with provisions and possibly the part share of an onward-going horse, or at least the purchase of a cart ride among the women, the children, and the old for his unmanly brother. Once in Ferrytown, if the worse came to the worst, they could pass the winter in relative safety. For the time being, though, Franklin would have an uncomfortable few nights on the mountainside; Jackson would have a proper bed. The best that Franklin could hope for was a mattress of pinecones.

Franklin might not be on his own entirely. Already he could hear the chirring of insects, the whistle of quails, and the barking of deer. And there was a boulder hut-evidently occupied, though possibly by lunatics or bandits, Jackson warned, amused to alarm his brother-on the edge of the tree line a hundred paces off, where a large but unmaintained bald had been burned clear by hunters. There was no movement from within, so far as they could tell, just smoke. "Keep your distance. That's best."

And Franklin would not be entirely out of touch with his brother and their shared hopes. Despite the pain in his knee, he had succeeded in reaching the final woody swaggings in the sash of hills where there were almost uninterrupted views to the east. His hopes of getting free from America could be kept alive by a distant prospect of the lake, the town, and the longed-for river crossing, after which, they'd been told, the going was less hilly, though punishing in more unusual ways.

It was late afternoon when his elder, tougher, taller brother shook his hand and set off down the track, promising to come back to the swaggings within three days. The dusk was already pushing daylight back into the sun. Jackson would barely reach Ferrytown before dark. But he was fit and well, not injured yet, and unlike all the travelers still on the descent with their carts and sledges, their mules and wheelbarrows, he was unencumbered by anything other than his coat. Unlike the mule trains, with their whistle-nagging masters, and the packhorses, with their bridle bells foretelling all the merriments ahead, he descended silently down the twists of Butter Hill, as it was known locally. (A hill so tortuous and uneven, they claimed, that any milk carried up or down it would be jolted and churned into butter.) You could not miss him, though, even in that gloaming. He was so much taller than the rest and hurrying like a man who was counting on a hot supper, and walking even taller than himself, actually, catlike and stretched (while Franklin walked shrinkingly, his shoulders bunched). The pinto patterns of the goatskins marked him out as someone of account, the sort of man who should be welcome and respected anywhere he went.

Franklin had not dared say so to his brother, but he was more than nervous of the nights ahead. It was not so much the unlikely prospects on such a busy route of cougars, bears, and snakes or the more certain prospect (on such a busy route) of human parasites that bothered him. Although he might not be as imposing as his brother-he was much lighter, easier in his skin, and so less dangerous-he was still big and strong enough to take good care of himself should he have no choice, even with Jackson by now far beyond his call. He had two knives. And there were rocks and branches with which to defend himself if any creature, beast or man, were ill-advised enough to take him on. But he was uneasy nevertheless, for no man's tall enough to fend off darkness, shadows, damp, and all the lonely terrors of the night.


Excerpted from The Pesthouse by Jim Crace Copyright © 2007 by Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission.
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