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There was this boy who walked the threadbare path between his hamlet and this small, lively town at the end of the path. People called the boy Bread because he never spoke or read or played with the other boys, but stayed home with his mother and baked bread to sell at the market. They made angel bread, black bread, silver bread, devil bread, pine bread, and three-river bread. All were delicious—sweet where they were supposed to be and bitter or savory in the right places. It was always warm, even up to the third day. People, animals, and gardens—even gardens—loved it, ate it up in their roots.
The boy’s job was to sell pine bread to the townspeople at the end of the threadbare path. He must do this every Friday afternoon before the threadbare path grew too dim for travel back to his hamlet. The people of that town used the bread—braided and dusted with black sesame seeds—in a ritual that went back to the beginning of days, and they needed it warm and fresh no later than one hour before sunset. Naturally, many baked their own bread, but the bread the boy and mother baked hummed like a gong. The 200 or so loaves were swept off his cart in less than half an hour. He and his old blind horse usually made it home just as the sun was setting.
But during the spring the boy turned eleven, the town was struck by a horrible vibrio, so instead of selling in the empty market, Bread walked his horse and cart up and down the streets, selling his wares like a dairyman. Though he began leaving at midday, he rarely made it halfway home before nightfall, and so he would have to pick his way down the threadbare path like a blind dog, on all fours, sniffing, feeling. He took to leaving home, therefore, in the early morning, rising from his mother’s bed before his eyes were open, and making his blind way with the blind horse; he would be mid-trail when the air was pale scarlet. He grew to adore this hour. Spring was coming earlier than usual and the negro-tongue blossoms were up, beaded with dew and sap. Red-throats hovered amid them, feeding, flirting. The lilac lilies were poised to open, their lips gently parted, their sweet breath already in the air. Bread’s blood flushed to the surface of his skin at this hour. His lungs and heart grew radiant. The old horse’s ears flicked toward every sound, her canter youthful, supple. She was pink in tongue and lip.
Every such morning was good, but only insofar as the threadbare path was concerned. The arrival always shocked him. The vibrio made the people stagger through the streets, and bleed from their ears, and speckle like rotting leaves, and cramp and twist and rattle and die. It was bitter to his eyes. The vibrio ate up the people for its every meal, but they went about, even in their grieving, as calm as snuff boxes.
One Friday afternoon, he asked a smithy if his faith gave him courage before his afflictions. The smithy handed over the money for the two loaves, spat pink on his own boot, and said, “What’s one to do with the other?”
Each morning on the threadbare path, spring burgeoned, and every morning Bread would see and the horse would hear and smell new flowers, new beasts, emerging from hibernation. There would be new spider webs, both violet and white. A giant horn wing might buzz his ears to show him who is king, or a small pink butterfly might ride the horse’s haunch for three full miles. One Friday he saw a giant green roach and a golden roach scuttling under the same rock for fear of the horse’s hooves. The next Friday he thought he saw the great green one eating the hind parts of his golden former compatriot. He also saw three Chester’s lizards sunning themselves, three blue ribbons on a carpet of moss, not a horse-length away. One of them watched the roach from the joint of his eye, and that eye did not once break its gaze. “It’s all eating in this forest,” Bread mumbled to the horse.
But one late spring day, three toads started from his footfall—in the sloppy way they leap, of course. Even the small ones land like sacks of pudding and, in order to take a subsequent leap, must gather their limbs together like so many yarrow stalks under their pudding bodies. They are easy to catch, though few animals touch them. Bread slowed his pace to let them pass into the elbow grass, which grows thick all along the threadbare path. Not long thereafter, 2 more toads pitched themselves away from the horse and boy, and vanished again into the elbow grass, and 2 more stood in profile on a stone the size of a man’s head, and 4 more stared at him from a low banyan branch, and 30 clung to the tree’s massive trunk, and 12 of them were on the opposite side of the path, on a stone the size of a man’s trunk, and over 40 watched as they sat on a mat of rusty needles under an ancient vinegar pine. And over 300 of them bobbed up and down and over and across one another’s backs and upturned bellies as they moved to clear themselves from the threadbare path. Then, the path took the usual sharp curve around an enormous boulder, and when boy and horse completed the near circuit, the toads were an uncountable mass. The Earth’s skin, it seemed to Bread, had become a million toads. So heavy they were, that they pressed the elbow grass clean to the soil. The horse, the boy, could not move.
Bread’s mother told him one morning as she bathed him, “Don’t kill what you don’t eat: lobster flowers, cinnamon birds, tassels, Chester’s, and toads. All those creatures, all of ’em, or anything like ’em, are full of poison. Each in its own way’ll wart you up, or shrink your manhood, or kill the baby inside the woman, or make you see life as it’s not, or make you clear on things that are a burden to know. Hear me good and tight, boy. You see these things you tip your cap and say, ‘By your leave, madam or sir,’ and go on about selling our loaves.”
So, the whole world, for a spell, seemed bitter with toads, and the boy did not lead the horse, and the horse did not so much as flick an ear, even though, by and by, the toads began to chirr, as they do at nightfall, and the mass was so shrill and loud, it tore the air into specks. Bread began to weep, and he pressed his wrists into his ears, and the horse knelt in fear, so Bread unlatched her from the cart, and when he did, she lay down completely. The broken air was full of the toads’ sound, the smell of them filled the places where the quiet had gone, and his every atom revulsed, and he vomited hard and sharp at his feet.
Bread saw through his tears that the creatures were still at the work of clearing themselves off the threadbare path. There always come those times when forward is identical to backward, so Bread patted the trembling horse on her rump, secured her harness, and urged her up the hill. They moved ever so slowly, through the shattered air, as the path resolved, and up they went until they reached the crest of the hill. There, Bread saw what at first he thought was a bearhound, but as he moved closer he understood that he beheld an enormous toad. Its huge back was turned toward Bread, but the boy knew the great thing could see him and the old horse just as well as he could see the toad. A toad, his mother told him, can see you coming and going.
Bread forced his jittering frame closer, and the toad turned three-quarters round to face him, gazed at him from head to toe. All Bread could manage was to return the gaze. The great toad was black, mostly, but had a yellowish belly, freckled here and there with brown. Its eyes rose mechanically—tick, tick, tick—reptilian, not smooth like the mammal. He began at Bread’s feet, and his eye scanned him from his ankles up. At the very moment they met eye to eye, the hill, the path, the grasses, the bushes, the treetops fell into quiet. Not only were the million toads silent, but the whole world felt devoid of sound, and when it was at its most silent, a silence so heavy he could not hear his own thoughts, Bread knew he would enter the town, and he knew what he would find. The great toad turned its back again in order to face the town, and took several long leaps toward the small copse of trees, the place where the threadbare path ends and the town road begins. Boy and horse followed toad. The great silence followed horse, toad, and boy. The great toad would not enter the town, but horse and boy, they went on in. Bread knew this would happen, and what they were supposed to do. They went on in.
No beast or being, two-legged or four-, traversed the street; no fires burned at roadside stands; no ladies selling feather hats or wicker boxes; no butchers; no taxis; no postal women or brickmen or porters or constables. No clergy in their pointed shoes and long beards. No clotillo players with their sheet music and upturned hats. No academy girls in their green frocks and flat caps; no turnbulls in starchy white uniforms; no leggers with the wide leather belts; no trench horses, muddy from hoof to fetlock to knee to belly. No mendicants, dockmen, cantor boys, regulators, dairymaids, stevedores—no guide, guard, or hen dogs. No partridges, doves, sparrows, cinnamons, spires, hawks, or ducks in the pond, or chickens in pens. No cats. No mice. Not a one.
The air, grey with flies, smelled of mildew and the sweet horror that lies three days beyond putrefaction, and Bread knew he must be thorough, and go from home to home, building to building—not, of course, to sell his pine bread, but to feed what was left of the town. So, he must have entered 500 homes, 81 shops, 3 temples, 9 civic buildings, the Great Park, the 3 market streets with their dozens of kiosks. He opened each kiosk. He found no one, alive or dead. Everything was cloaked in grey. Even the air was dead. The silence followed him like a pet dog. He led the horse back to the center of town and sat by the well in the Great Park. He ate his food, and fed and watered the horse. He gave her hay and pine bread, and she ate trumpet and elbow grasses on her own.
As the boy ate his meat and rested, the old horse’s ears pricked to something only she could hear. He turned in the direction her ears were cupped and saw a small lad in a green kaftan and yellow slippers, sitting on a banyan branch, not eighty paces from where he was sitting. It was some time after sunset, but still light enough to see this bird-necked child with the bird-bright eyes. Bread realized he must have walked right by the boy at least twice on his search for survivors. Or perhaps the boy had been following him the whole time, but how could a boy so young and raised in a town be so cagey? Whatever the case, the boy did not seem afraid as Bread walked toward him, but remained silent, looking relieved to see another living face. He did not smile, but looked hopeful, expectant and appallingly weary. Before Bread was quite twenty paces from the foundling, he said, “Are you alone?”
“Alone?” said the boy.
“Yes, ‘alone’. Are you alone?”
“You alone,” said the boy.
Only ten paces from the boy, Bread halted, raised his hands, palms upward. He said, “Just me and my friend over there—the horse.”
“The horse,” said the boy.
“Where are your parents, little boy?”
“Your parents, little boy?”
Bread began to understand, so experimentally, he said, “Dragonfly.”
“Dragonfly,” said the boy.
“Lilac lily, golden cup, club-leaf tea.”
“Golden cup, club tea.”
So he understood: the boy could speak, could even pronounce words better than a child his age usually does, but he doubted there would be much understanding between them. Bread closed the small gap between himself and the boy. He smiled, nodded, hoping to reassure, and lifted the boy off the branch. “Light as a feather,” he muttered.
“A feather,” the boy said.
“You’re all alone in the world. I’ll take you home.”
“Take you home.”
“I don’t think you’re feeble-minded, though.”
Bread carried the boy to his cart, and offered the boy meat. The boy refused it, but he ate lots of bread, and drank four cups of tea. He could not tell Bread what became of the people of the town, and Bread realized the boy might not even truly understand, and perhaps by the time he was old enough to understand, he would have no memory of what he had seen.
Bread built a fire as the grey sky grew black, and as the fire roared and cracked, he lifted the boy into the cart and laid him atop the warm loaves. He covered the boy with the horse blanket, but abruptly the boy sat up and his black bird eyes grew wide in the light of the fire. He clutched the horse blanket in his bird-claw hands and whispered, “Will happen to me! Happen to me!” Bread felt his heart thump hard four or five times, and for a moment he couldn’t hear the fire, or the snoring horse, but his own blood beating the sides of his head. He had been stunned not only by the boy’s sudden uproar, but this new wrinkle in his being. And he climbed up in his cart and wrapped an arm around the boy’s bony shoulders. The embrace brought him as much comfort as it might have given the lad. And then, words rose up to him from the very earth, words that he did not think of before he spoke them.
He said, “The people of your town, and all the horses, dogs, birds, show monkeys, chimeras, fish, worms, mice, all of it, everyone, it looks like, took to fever and it’s made toads of ’em all. Even the chancel-mayor took sick and toaded up. It was a merciless thing, but there’s good in it, since they’re still alive.” He paused, touched his fingertips to his chin as though in thought, but he wasn’t thinking at all. “So much alive they’ll never be eaten by anything, and they’ll never rot up even if they do die. You catch my way, boy? They won’t live forever, but they’ll live good lives free of jobs and religions, and they’ll sleep all winter under rocks and soft brown leaves. And each toad is all the way clannish, and all the way free. They don’t go to war, and they look after their own in their own way. You don’t have to worry about your family bush whatsoever again. They’ll eat and carry on. They had me come here and look for you.
“What you and me’ll do next, see, we’ll chummy on back to my hamlet, and we’ll see what we see. I’m just about the solest one who comes up this way, and it’s all sick here, now see. . . .” Bread paused to let his mouth fill up again from where these words were coming. He said, “They’ll run us off, you and me. We’ll knock on door after door, but not one will open to let us in. Not even my own mother. They’ll run us off, and that’ll be OK because I’m your brother, and you are mine. I think we’re probably half toad, anyway, you and me, and we might will live pretty close to forever. I’ll teach you to bake bread, and we’ll find you a name, and I’ll teach you to chalk up and feed a carthorse, and like I say, we just might will live pretty close to forever. Even this good horse. She’s likely half toad, too, seeing as they sent both of us to find you.”
Bread felt golden in his lungs, and his knees trembled. He lifted his arm from the boy’s shoulder and climbed down from the cart and made a bed for himself next to the fire.
In the morning they rose, and away they went into the future he had spoken into being.
Reginald McKnight is a short story writer and novelist. He has won the O. Henry Award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and the Whiting Writer’s Award, and many other awards and prizes for his work. In addition to writing, McKnight has been a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Maryland, College Park, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is currently the Hamilton Holmes Professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. He is the author of He Sleeps, Moustapha’s Eclipse, I Get on the Bus, The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas, and White Boys. He is editor of African American Wisdom and Wisdom of the African World.
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