Where the cart path divided, coming out of the valley, the remaining walk to the sea was mud. Dirty water seeped from the ground and filled their footprints, filled the ditches dug deep by footprints and cart wheels; the water filled up every gap and stayed there; it would not go down. Sano and Rin trudged onward, sidestepping stuck shoes, abandoned carts. Each mile the ruin brought by the disaster grew more upsetting, more inhospitable. They passed trees exploded into shrapnel, electric poles bent double so their cables swept the ground like a drowned person’s hair. Doors and windowscreens hung by one pin, clapping, loose, in the wind. Bodies, sometimes—blanched, hands wizened, laid out on a splintered porch, curled small near the trunk of a tree. Sano waited expectantly for signs of the living. But no one called out in supplication or greeting. No one stood watch at the windows. No one, and so Sano put a hand on Rin’s shoulders to ease her fear, and to stifle his; to keep them heading toward the coast, where perhaps all the remainders had gathered, following, like him and Rin, the obvious path.
In the afternoon, Sano was bothered to see, for the first time since the disaster, the signs in the sky of an angry rain. It was time for their fire—Rin, behind him, and the chicken, behind her, were already slowing, conditioned to making camp. “Keep up,” Sano said, instead, and pushed his pace, watching along the path for a sufficient place to take shelter, for a house with a roof and a door, finding nothing suitable.
Into the early evening they walked, through Rin’s whimpering, and one time, fitful tears; Sano had never known best how to abide complaint, and comforted himself with the thought that at the end of this, both their bodies would be by necessity stronger, that endurance was something both he and Rin could use. The sky sprinkled start-and-stop, wetting them and their wood and their hen, who burbled displeasure, whom Rin now carried because it would not walk. Sano’s skin prickled as he forced onward, as the clouds darkened and roiled and spun, and his head filled with self-loathing and dread; somehow, now, there were no houses at all; they had walked too far; he would not now turn down something broken, as long as they could huddle there for the night.
“Run,” he finally shouted, making for a cluster of cedar trees as the sky cracked open, the rain striking at their heads like arrows. “Run,” he urged, grabbing Rin by the shoulder and pushing, propelling her faster forward.
In the center of the grove, Sano stopped, swiping futilely across his sopping brow, trying to observe the situation, trying to think—was this in any way sufficient; would they be any safer or dryer here than out in the open; was there even time enough to consider something else. Too far back, Rin dragged, out of breath, her feet barely lifting, chicken borne in front like a hot and heavy cooking pot, and Sano made his decision. He stripped the woodpile from his back, cut with his knife the leather cord. Piece by piece he jammed the wood into the soft earth, and when there was enough to make two straight-enough walls, he threw the black wool coat over top for cover and burrowed underneath, holding his arms out for Rin.
Lightning streaked through the sky like a last crack in a vase, and thunder shook Sano’s bones. Rin yelped as her foot snagged on a lifted tree root, as she fell, skidding forward into the mud. The chicken, in her grasp, bellowed terror. It scratched free of her, skittering away into a tangle of bushes and out of sight.
Rin, face covered in ugly mud, raised her head to the sky and let out the wail of the bereaved. She wriggled up, feet failing to ground her, slipping backward and deeper into the mud—making more. She clawed the ground with her fingernails; she dragged herself up on her knees in the muck, and wobbled forward until her feet found earth again, and she pointed herself after the chicken; she ran—
Sano caught her and held her back.
Rin struggled against his grip, growled. He pulled harder; worried he might be hurting, but scared more of what would happen should he let her go. When he had her under the lean-to, he wrapped his arms completely round till her rage quieted, till her legs stopped reaching out for escape, and she began to sob, tears spilling from her chin to Sano’s hands where they clasped tight around her chest.
“Hush,” said Sano, tears falling also, from exhaustion, from not knowing at all what to do. He closed his eyes against them, resting his chin atop her head.
Rin’s cries grew louder, but her body calmed.
“There is something you loved,” said Sano, barely audible above the rain, “there is something you loved, and you kept care of it. You worked hard. But the thing you looked after was never yours. It was a lucky find. Its fate was decided without you. You must decide it was a happy gift that you got to take care of it at all.”
Rin listened to Sano run on like this, until the rain through the trees, the big drips on top of their lean-to, drowned him out, overcame him, put him to sleep, his arms still wrapped around her. She sunk her cheek into his shoulder and slept. This was to be the one and only time that he held her.
Sano woke her with a poke of his finger. It was morning, cloudy, but with too much sun behind for the rain to come back. Rin curled back up to sleep, but Sano poked her again. She cocked her eye up at him irritably. He put his finger to his mouth, for “Shush,” and prodded her up ahead of him, out of the lean-to. She stretched, rubbed her eyes till she saw clear. There in front of her, in a mound of picked and plucked grass, stood the chicken, clucking satisfaction to itself, presiding over a small, brown egg.
Rin snatched the egg from the makeshift nest and lifted it high, admiring. With disapproving clucks, the chicken vacated the nest as if it had been contaminated and waddled right to Rin’s ankles. Rin bent forward and trapped the creature tight once more under her arm despite its squawks, its beating wings.
“Let her go,” Sano said. “Lucky you! She’s safe, and she’s decided she’ll stay.”
Sure enough, the chicken, released, chose a spot some small distance away, where it lay down on its belly decisively and without comment.
Sano took the egg from Rin, cracked the shell against a tree trunk, and carefully poured the yolk into the bowl of Rin’s hands. It bobbed there, the warmth and shape of a small sun.
Rin drank. The taste of it was rich, full, and wholesome. Certainly she had eaten things as good as this, or better. At this moment it was the best food she’d had in memory.
Sano sipped the whites from the cup of the eggshell, and too looked satisfied. The hen pecked idly at the dirt.
“Gratitude has been difficult for me,” said Sano. “Even before the disaster—my whole life, I’ve had trouble with it. But I’m grateful for this. That you found her. And I found you.” He looked over at her, asking the silent question.
Rin could not answer, if he could not tell.
“Well,” said Sano softly. He tossed the empty shells to the ground, grinding them to bits with the toe of his sandal, covering them with earth. He brushed his hands clean on his trousers and made toward the cart path.
Rin hummed as he turned his back, pointing at the things he’d forgot. When he kept walking, when he did not answer, she stomped down the hill after him, grabbed his hand.
“What is it,” he said.
Rin pointed back at their abandoned campground, where the wood remained in poor formation, collapsing in from the weight of Sano’s soggy stolen coat.
“It’s ruined,” Sano said without looking at it, and in his eyes there was glee, as if she’d noticed something not about the wood but about him. “There’s no using wet wood. I didn’t tell you? No?”
Rin shook her head just as Sano had.
Sano squeezed Rin’s fingers together. “I should have told you what I was thinking. I’ll remember, next time.” And he turned her round to face where she’d came, giving her a light push on the back. “Go get your chicken,” he said. “You’ve been brave to leave her.”
They regained their route, the three of them, winding at last toward the shore.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.