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Outer Dark
Cormac McCarthy

SHE SHOOK HIM awake into the quiet darkness. Hush, she said. Quit hollerin.

He sat up. What? he said. What?

She shook him awake from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun and into a night more dolorous, sitting upright and cursing beneath his breath in the bed he shared with her and the nameless weight in her belly.

Awake from this dream:

There was a prophet standing in the square with arms upheld in exhortation to the beggared multitude gathered there. A delegation of human ruin who attended him with blind eyes upturned and puckered stumps and leprous sores. The sun hung on the cusp of eclipse and the prophet spoke to them. This hour the sun would darken and all these souls would be cured of their afflictions before it appeared again. And the dreamer himself was caught up among the supplicants and when they had been blessed and the sun begun to blacken he did push forward and hold up his hand and call out. Me, he cried. Can I be cured? The prophet looked down as if surprised to see him there amidst such pariahs. The sun paused. He said: Yes, I think perhaps you will be cured. Then the sun buckled and dark fell like a shout. The last wirethin rim was crept away. They waited. Nothing moved. They waited a long time and it grew chill. Above them hung the stars of another season. There began a restlessness and a muttering. The sun did not return. It grew cold and more black and silent and some began to cry out and some despaired but the sun did not return. Now the dreamer grew fearful. Voices were being raised against him. He was caught up in the crowd and the stink of their rags filled his nostrils. They grew seething and more mutinous and he tried to hide among them but they knew him even in that pit of hopeless dark and fell upon him with howls of outrage.

In the morning he heard the tinker’s shoddy carillon long through the woods and he rose and stumbled to the door to see what new evil this might be. There had been no one to the cabin for some three months, he himself coming harried and manic into the glade to wave away whoever by chance or obscure purpose should visit so remote a place, he himself slogging through the new spring mud four miles to the store and back once a week for such few things as they needed. Cornmeal and coaloil. And candy for her. When the tinker came rattling his cart in drunken charivari through the clearing he was there with wild arms like one fending back a curse. The tinker looked up, a small gnomic creature wreathed in a morass of grizzled hair, watching him with bland gray eyes.

Sickness here, he called. Got sickness.

The tinker took a few last short steps, backing into the wagon’s momentum like a balky mule, halted and lowered the shafts to the ground and passed one ragged blue coat sleeve across his brow. What kind? he said.

The man walked toward him, still waving one hand, his pegged brogans noiseless in the thatch of pineneedles and the only sound in the clearing the tinker’s pails penduluming with a tin clatter to gradual rest.

Old fevery chill of some kind, the man said. Best not to come round.

The tinker cocked his head. You sure it ain’t the pox.

No. Done had the doctor. Said not to allow nobody around.

What is it. One of the youngerns?

No. My sister. Ain’t nobody here ceptin me and her.

Well I hope her well anyways. You all need anything? Got everthing for the house from thread to skillets. Got some awful good knives. Got Dupont’s powder and most readyloads. Got coffee and tea for when the preacher comes. Got—the tinker lowered his voice and looked about him cunningly—got the best corn whiskey ye ever put in your thoat. One jar left, he cautioned with upraised finger.

I ain’t got no money, the man said.

Well, the tinker said, musing. Listen. I like to help a feller out when I can. You got ary thing about the place you been lookin to trade off? We might could work up a trade some way. Somethin new and pretty might just set your sister up to where she’d feel better. I got some right pretty bonnets …

Naw, the man said, toeing the dust. They ain’t nothin I need. I thank ye all the same.

Nothin for the lady?

Naw. She’s mendin tolerable thank ye.

The tinker looked past him at the ruined shack. He listened to the silence in which they stood. Looky here, he said.

What is it, the man said.

He motioned with crook’d forefinger. I’ll just show ye, he said. Here.

What is it?

The tinker reached down among his traps, groping in a greasy duck sack. He brought forth a small pamphlet and handed it slyly to the man.

The man stared at it, thumbed it open, riffled the crudely printed butcherpaper.

Can ye cipher?

Naw. Not good.

Don’t matter noway, the tinker said. It’s got pitchers. Here. He reached the book from the man and taking a confiding stance at his side flipped the book open to a sorry drawing of a grotesquely coital couple.

What about that? said the tinker.

The man pushed the book at him. Naw, he said. I don’t want nothin. You excuse me. I got to see to my sister.

Well, sure now, the tinker said. I just thought I’d let ye take a peek. Don’t hurt nothin do it?

Naw. I got to get on. Maybe next time you come thew I’ll need somethin … He was backing away, the tinker still standing with the little book in his hand and the cupidity in his face gone to a small anger.

All right. Didn’t mean nothin by it. I hope you’ns well. And your sister.

Thank ye, said the man. He turned and half lifted one arm in tentative farewell, then thrust both hands into his overalls and strode toward the cabin.

I’ll be clost by a few days yet, the tinker called out after him. The man went on. The tinker spat and stepped again between the prone tongues and hoisted the cart and turned it, creaking and jangling, and set off again into the woods the way he had come.

The man had stopped short of the door and stood with one foot propped on the sill watching him out of sight. For a while he could hear the rattle and clang of the cart as it labored over the pocked and rutted road, fading, then ceasing into the faint clash of the pines and the drone of insects, and then he went in.

Culla, she said.


That pedlar have ary cocoa?


I sure would admire to have me a cup of cocoa.

She sat huddled in a ragged quilt, her feet gripping the bottom rung of the chair, watching the barren fireplace in which the noon light lay among the ashes and in which her voice trembled and returned about her.

He’s done left, the man said. He ain’t got nothin.

She stirred slightly. You reckon we could have us a fire tonight?

It ain’t cold.

It turned cold last night. You said your own self it was cold. I sure do admire a good fire of the evenin. You reckon if it was to turn off kindly cool we could have us a fire?

He was leaning against the doorframe and slicing thin coils of wood away with his pocketknife. Maybe, he said, not listening, never listening.

Three days after the tinker’s visit she had a spasm in her belly. She said: I got a pain.

Is it it? he said, standing suddenly from the bed where he had sat staring out through the one small glass at the unbroken pine forest.

I don’t know, she said. I reckon.

He swore softly to himself.

You goin to fetch her?

He looked at her and looked away again. No, he said.

She sat forward in the chair, watching across the room with eyes immense in her thin face. You said you’d fetch her when it come time.

I never, he said. I said Maybe.

Fetch her, she said. Now you fetch her.

I cain’t. She’d tell.

Who is they to tell?


You could give her a dollar. Couldn’t you give her a dollar not to tell and she’d not tell?

No. Asides she ain’t nothin but a old geechee nigger witch noway.

She’s been a midnight woman caught them babies lots of times. You said your own self she was a midnight woman used to catch them babies.

She said it. I never.

He could hear her crying. A low bubbling sound, her rocking back and forth. After a while she said: I got anothern. Ain’t you goin to fetch her?


It had begun to rain again. The sun went bleak and pallid toward the woods. He walked into the clearing and looked up at the colorless sky. He looked as if he might be going to say something. After a while he licked the beaded water from his lip and went in again.

Dark came and this time he did have a fire, going out from time to time with the worn axe and splitting kindling and later by lanternlight scouring the near woods for old stumps which he split out and dressed of their rotted hearts, bringing in the hard and weathered shells and stacking them on the floor beside the hearth.

She was propped in the bed now with the frayed and musty quilt still about her. Periodically she would seize the thin iron headrail behind her, coming tautly bowed and slowly up with her breath loud in the room and then subsiding back among the covers like a wounded bird.

He had stopped asking her about it. He just waited, sitting in the chair and nursing the fire.

I wisht they’d hush, she said.


Them varmints.

He drew the poker from the fire where he had been absently stirring the coals. Somewhere between the wind’s cry and the long rip of rain on the tarpaper roof he heard a dog howl. They ain’t botherin you, he said.

He heard her fingers clatter at the iron and her body rattle the springs as it arched. In a few minutes she said: Well I wisht they’d hush.

She wouldn’t eat. He set a pan of cornbread on a brick before the fire and warmed it and ate with it the last of the cold meat he had brought from the store. He took the axe from under the bed and set forth one more time for wood. It was still raining but the wind had died and he could hear the dull lowing of an alligator somewhere on the river. When he came in again he stood the axe in the corner and stacked the wood and squatted once again before the fire. He was there for some time before she said his name.

What, he said.

Could you put it under the bed again? I believe it does ease it some. And it’s for luck.

And toward morning she called him again.

Yes, he said.

What is it? Here.

I don’t hear nothin.

Here. Over here.

He went to her. She put his hand on the crude tick.

Your water’s broke, he said.

The rain had stopped and a gray light lapped at the window glass. There was no sound but the small patter of waterdrops on the roof, no movement but the slow wash of mist over the glade beyond which the trees rose blackly.

It’s done mornin, he said.

I’ve not slept nary wink.

He was holding watch at the window, his own face drawn and sleepless. I believe it wants to clear, he said.

I wonder if they’s ary fire in under them ashes.

He returned to the hearth and poked among the dead coals and blew upon them. I doubt they be a dry stick of wood in the world this mornin, he said.

The sun rose and climbed to a small hot midpoint in the sky. In the yard the man’s shadow pooled at his feet, a dark stain in which he stood. In which he moved. In his hand a chipped enamel waterbucket now, headed for the spring, entering the woods where a path went and following it through kneehigh ferns, by rotting footlogs across a pale green fen and into a pine wood, scrub hardwoods, the ground soft with compost and lichens, coming finally to a cairn of mossgrown rock beneath which water issued limpid and cold over its bed of suncolored sand. He bent with the pail, watched with bloodrimmed eyes a leopard frog scuttle.

Coming into the clearing again he heard her call out. He crossed the glade rapidly toward the cabin, the water licking over the bucket rim and wetting the leg of his overalls. All right, he said. All right.

But that still wasn’t it.

It hurts bad now, she said.

Then let’s get on with it.

But it wasn’t until midafternoon that she began. He stood before the bed in which she lay bowsprung and panting and her eyes mad and his hands felt huge. Hush, he said.

Cain’t ye fetch her?

No. Hush.

The spasms in which she writhed put him more in mind of death. But it wasn’t death with which she labored far into the fading day.

Late in the afternoon he rose and left her and walked in the glade. Doves were crossing toward the river. He could hear them calling. When he went in again she had crawled or fallen from the bed and lay in the floor clutching the bedstead. He did think she had died, lying there looking up with eyes that held nothing at all. Then her body convulsed and she screamed. He struggled with her, lifting her to the bed again. The head had broken through in a pumping welter of blood. He knelt in the bed with one knee, holding her. With his own hand he brought it free, the scrawny body trailing the cord in anneloid writhing down the bloodslimed covers, a beetcolored creature that looked to him like a skinned squirrel. He pinched the mucus from its face with his fingers. It didn’t move. He leaned down to her.


She turned her head. Far look and slow flutter of her pale lashes. I’m done ain’t I? she said. Ain’t I done?


They Lord, she said.

When he picked it up it squalled. He took up the cord like a hank of strange yarn and severed it with the handleless claspknife he carried and tied it off at both ends. A deep gloom had settled in the cabin. His arms were stained with gore to the elbows. He fetched down some towels of washsoftened sacking and wet one in the water-bucket. He wiped the child and wrapped it in a dry towel. It had not stopped wailing.

What is it, she said.


It. What is it.

A chap.

Well, she said.

It’s puny.

Don’t sound puny.

I don’t look for it to live.

It sounds peart enough.

You best sleep some.

I wisht I could, she said. I ain’t never been no tireder.

He rose and went to the door, standing for a moment in the long quadrangular light of evening, his elbow against the jamb and his head resting on his forearm. He opened his hand and looked at it. Dried blood sifted in a fine dust from the lines of his palm. After a while he went in and poured water into the tin basin and began to wash his hands and his arms, slowly and with care. When he came past the bed wiping his face with the towel she was asleep.

The child slept too, his old man’s face flushed and wrinkled, small fingers clenched. Reaching down and refolding the towel about it he took it up in his arms and looking once again at the woman crossed to the door and outside.

The sand of the road was scored and banded with shadow, dark beneath the pine and cedar trees or fiddle-backed with the slender shade of cane. Shadows which kept compass against all the road’s turnings. He stopped from time to time, holding the child gingerly, listening.

When he reached the bridge he turned off the road and took a path along the river, the swollen waters coming in a bloodcolored spume from about the wooden stanchions and fanning in the pool below with a constant and vicious hissing. He followed it down, carrying the child before him delicately, hurrying at a half-jog and keeping one eye skyward as if to measure against his progress the sun’s, the deepening shade. Half a mile downriver he came to a creek, a stream of amber swampwater that the river sucked from high grass banks into a brief immiscible stain of dark clarity. Here he left the river and took a new course into the wood.

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