Death Walks a Shit-Scarred Lane was written from memory, mine and/or someone else’s, the brutal reality clear as it came to me.
Sucking, tugging mud, damp, cold around my feet and ankles. Val’s dress collects a dark brown fringe… the sucking, exhausting sound, every step through the last village we’re ever going to see.
Thrown together by fate in gray buildings sparsely tumbling over a dull horizon, they meet our trail curling into a hidden valley, high in the hills, impossibly cold in winter, summer’s days short, huddled against the terrors, the darkened chills of night.
Greens of summer wasting, grasses browning, branches bare, winds whistling and knocking.
Villagers stare at us, empty-eyed, we slog through their meaningless interruption among the hills, along the rutted trail, never saying a word, never threatening, just watching, waiting for us go.
Filthy, pale-cheeked children cling to their mothers, thin and weak.
Do the citizens in this godforsaken place, their souls scooped out and mashed, know we’re in flight, search party relentless behind us, our lead dwindled from a day to hours, minutes?
They suspect, sure. Val and I must look like runaway thieves, criminals… yes, lost to God.
We aren’t the first to drag weary bones over this miserable trail, looking for the way out, passage to uncharted peace, some fantastic exit, sick, tired, hungry, nowhere else to be.
My beautiful Val and I might as well be dead already, falling apart in pieces, hearts wasted, lungs thick, stomachs aching, pacing out our last hours like beasts in harness.
The way and the when are all we don’t know, optimism and spirit drained like water from a leaky bucket.
We never talk about it, we know what happens when people like us fall.
Separating our souls from our bodies must teach an artful lesson, under God’s inspiration.
They sent men with cold hearts to look for us.
Some God! I scream inside, silent with Val struggling beside me.
And I’m so tired I could lay down, right now, and wait for the end of time to come for me. But Val stares straight ahead, past the horizon, terrified beyond the words with which she had ease, my partner, my friend, my mystery, my believer.
As long as she keeps plunging one foot after another into the mud, I’ll walk with her.
But the mud, the shit and piss splattered ditches, the disgusting stench from pigs and growling dogs, the uneven gray to black overcast, the dense chill, everything about it shouts that life’s not worth this, not now, not anymore.
Patches of mud flatten in Val’s long, tangled hair, caked and carried on uphill from where she slipped and fell flat between ruts in the trail.
I thought she might not get up, and God forgive me, something in me prayed she would not, and we could both lay down and die, right there, together.
Let it be.
We keep walking.
Val’s eyes, even darker, stare straight ahead as if there’s something, anything, a way out higher in the hills, in the dense forest that paces us, not as if we’re walking straight into heaven or hell, but into some space where we’ll find ourselves again, no one following us, our crimes not committed, and we’ll build shelter, scrounge up something to eat, and sleep, oh, yeah, sleep for one whole, warm night.
You have to believe something.
Otherwise, why pull one foot after another out of this awful mud, the dogs growling, the clouds ready to spit cold rain, the villagers in this wretched hill town staring at us like we can’t get out fast enough, resenting our interference, not wanting the sick serenity of their lives disturbed, wanting their beliefs left unchallenged, their God secure in his anger…?
We pass their despicable little church as we force our way up the rutted road, the pigs and people staring at us, smelling like the reservoir where a whole town’s shit got stuck on its way to a river, the wooden structure with some paint not completely washed off from rain and wind and snow, distinguishable only by the cross above a half-open door.
Val and I see it at the same time. Our eyes meet.
I nod at the church.
“At least, we’re not them.”
Val smiles faintly, lips turned up out of exhaustion and filth.
Last time I’ll see her smile, I think.
But we keep walking because every time you pull your foot out of the sucking mud it means a tiny piece of hope remains, enough to lift a foot slightly above the soft surface and plunge it down once more.
That night, we climb higher after the village disappears behind a hummock and the road mostly disappears into the forest, we sleep inside a thicket, out of the wind and, after a while, the rain finally starts falling, dripping through the leaves above us, hungry still, with just each other to seek warmth.
Our third night outdoors, the coldest, higher up in the hills, hungry and aching, sleeping to survive.
I want to tell her, if we find a way through the pass and down into the next string of connected valleys, we’ll still not be free. No escape. We evade our pursuers. What then?
We lost every place in this world where we belong.
Daybreak and there’s no sun, just enough light filtering through the clouds to declare night gone. This is going to be our last morning, I sense. Neither of us will feel sun on our faces again.
When I realize they’ve seen us crossing an open, rolling meadow, I curse out loud. I don’t tell her anything else. I don’t have to.
All these years later, I regret that I didn’t say aloud that I loved her again, that I’d give my life to find peace as she raised her dress above her soft thighs again, to have those be the last words she heard from me.
Maybe this was my lesson.
Why had I led her out of the trees that hid us? Exhaustion? Death, at last?
Val dies first, but God spares me details. He makes invisible every memory after the men ride confident horses over the crest of the hill and, so sure of themselves, across the open ground, extending a semicircle to trap us, unnecessary because we have only surrender left in our aching bones.