THE SECOND BOY
A kind of darkness had swept up very quickly to catch them unaware. The wind rose with it, crusting the snow into ice, the cold become now crisp and hard. As they walked, snow began to fall again until soon Leppin could no longer see the trail. He could hardly see Dierk either, except as a dim shape on its way to being lost.
“Hadn’t we better stop?” Leppin asked.
But Dierk apparently could not make up his mind to do so. He shook his head. There must still be some trace of the trail, and perhaps they were still on it or not too far from it or would find it soon. Or perhaps they would soon see a light and be able to make for it.
In the wind, Leppin caught only scraps of what the fellow was saying. He trudged on, just behind. The wind rose further and he could feel his fingers growing numb. He kept walking until he could no longer feel them at all.
“It’s very cold,” he finally said. “We have to stop.”
At first Dierk didn’t hear him over the wind. Leppin had to hurry his steps and wrap an arm round Dierk’s shoulders and shout into his ear. Even after this, there was a moment in which Dierk gave no response. Then came a short, curt nod that made Leppin believe he had given in.
But no, after Leppin released him Dierk just kept walking. After a moment Leppin, not knowing what else to do, followed.
The drifts were deep enough that sometimes when the crust of ice broke Leppin sank to his thigh, the snow underneath powdery and clinging to everything. He could feel the bones ache in his feet, and then that passed too and he couldn’t feel his feet at all. It was hard for him even to remember where he was, or who he was.
Dierk was a little ahead, back stiff, marching resolutely forward, a vague, withdrawn figure. And then little more than a shadow. And then as the snow thickened in the air, he was suddenly gone. Leppin called out once, but Dierk didn’t hear. Or if he did, he didn’t stop.
Leppin waited, stamping his feet, wondering if Dierk would notice he was gone and double back. When Dierk didn’t, he tried to follow.
The storm was still growing. In the darkness and cold, he couldn’t find Dierk’s tracks. He wasn’t even sure he was moving in the right direction. He was surprised to notice his body seemed comfortably warm. His face, too, seemed like it might be warm, though he couldn’t feel it exactly. Why not just dig out a place for himself in the snow, make a little cave, a little hole, and wait for the storm to pass?
Instead he lurched onward, kept moving. It was as if someone else was walking, not him: a body moving bluntly forward, rudderless, under its own power. He let go, just trying to stay vaguely connected to it.
It went on like that for a while, with Leppin less and less aware of what was happening around him, until he walked into a tree limb, sending a cascade of snow down onto his head. A branch had torn into the side of his neck. Not that he could feel his neck exactly, but there was a wetness there that was different than the other wetness, and a faint smell too. Unless it was something he was only imagining or making up as he went, since it was too dark to see and his hands and face were too numb to feel.
There were around him other trees as well, he soon found, encountering one and then another and then a third. He struggled his lighter out of his pocket and watched his gloved fingers try to flick it alight, was surprised that they finally managed. He cupped the flame with one hand and saw below him nearly bare ground, almost no snow: a matrix of pine needles and dead vegetation and mud spidered through with veins of frost.
He prodded the ground with the toe of his boot. Some places it remained hard, like a single consistent organism. In others it came slowly apart, the ice not strong enough to hold the dead leaves and other matter together.
He kept at it until he found a large spot that was loose and mostly dry, the leaves and needles such that he could push them together into a heap with his boot. From there it was little enough to bring the lighter down among the needles and leaves until they smoldered and, crackling, caught flame. He kept uprooting needles and leaves and adding them to the fire until the flames were high enough for him to start stripping bark off the nearest trees.
The underside of the bark was threaded with worm trails. It was also studded with black blotches which, as the bark caught fire, began to unfurl and move, becoming small black vermin that spun madly about before sizzling away. Unless it was just that he was seeing things, parts of his brain going dim and dying from the cold. He tried not to think about this, carefully feeding bigger and bigger chunks of wood onto the fire until he had a roaring blaze.
An hour later he had built a shelter just big enough for him to crawl inside. In the glow of the fire he could see the trees all around him but could not tell where the forest ended or where he had come from. He had removed his boots and gloves and they lay there beside the fire, slowly steaming. Feeling had begun to creep back into his hands and feet, his fingers and toes feeling as though flies were biting them repeatedly. His face throbbed; it felt as though his eyes were scraping against their sockets as they moved. He heaped more fuel onto the fire and then settled back into the shelter, gazing at the flames until, almost without knowing, he had fallen asleep.
He woke up shivering. The fire, he could just see through the entrance of the makeshift shelter, had guttered, flickering down to almost nothing. I should get up and keep it going, he thought, but even though he was shivering, he found it very hard to imagine moving.
Maybe he slept a little, his eyes slightly open. Or maybe almost no time passed at all. But in either case suddenly he realized that the fire had flared again and he was no longer shivering. Something was shaking him, rocking one of his legs back and forth. He let his eyes fall into focus and there was Dierk.
“How did you find me?” Leppin asked.
“Let me come in,” said Dierk.
“There’s not room in here,” said Leppin. “There’s only room for one.”
“Nonsense,” said Dierk, and he began to push his way up Leppin’s legs and in. The shelter itself groaned and threatened to come asunder, then the boughs and branches to either side simply slipped and settled, leaving the shelter more or less intact. Dierk was pressed against its wall on one side and against Leppin’s legs and chest on the other. His body was very cold, and once he was inside, the snow on his coat and trousers began to melt.
“Take your wet things off,” Leppin said.
“It was hard enough to get in here,” said Dierk. “That’s all I can do.”
“I’m freezing,” said Leppin.
“All right,” said Dierk. “Just a minute.”
But he just lay there, not moving. What’s wrong with him? wondered Leppin, and then couldn’t help but wonder, What’s wrong with me?
Dierk just lay beside him, not speaking, not moving.
“Dierk,” said Leppin. When Dierk didn’t respond he repeated his name, louder this time.
“What is it?” Dierk whispered, his mouth somewhere close to Leppin’s right ear.
“How did you find me?”
“How did you find me?”
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Dierk.
“What do you mean?” asked Leppin, astonished.
“I already answered that question,” Dierk said.
“No, you didn’t,” said Leppin, voice rising. And then when Dierk didn’t answer, he reached over and tapped his forehead. “Answer again,” he said.
“I found you,” whispered Dierk. “Isn’t that enough?”
Enough for what? wondered Leppin, and then, afraid of it, he let that thought drift slowly away.
“Tell me a story,” said Dierk a little while later, same dull whisper. He was staring up at the ceiling of the shelter, eyes hardly blinking, features difficult to make out in the flickering light.
“A story?” asked Leppin. “About what?”
“While I’m warming up,” said Dierk. “A story.”
“But I don’t know any stories,” said Leppin. “Get closer to the fire,” he said. “Leave the shelter and get closer to the fire. That’s what will warm you up.”
“In a minute,” said Dierk.
Leppin waited. Dierk didn’t move. Finally Leppin pushed at him.
“A story,” Dierk said.
“I don’t know any,” said Leppin again. “I already told you.”
There was a long moment of silence. He must have fallen asleep, Leppin thought. He was not shivering now, or hardly. Either Dierk was getting warmer or he was getting used to it.
“All right,” Dierk suddenly said. “Then I’ll tell you one.”
“There was once a little boy lost in a cave,” said Dierk.
“What boy?” asked Leppin, suddenly jumpy. “Did he have a name? Where was this cave?”
“It doesn’t matter what boy,” said Dierk. “Or in a way it does. Which boy, anyway. But his name doesn’t matter at all. And the place doesn’t matter at all either, beyond there being a cave.”
Deirk tilted his head halfway toward him. This, somehow, made Leppin nervous. “Very little ever actually matters,” Dierk said. “That’s just the way it is.”
There was once a boy lost in a cave. Or rather a crevasse. He had been up in the mountains with a second boy and had slipped and fallen. The second boy ran the few miles back to town and came back with help.
By the time they had returned, it was dark. At first, they couldn’t find the crevasse. The second boy, panicked, had failed to note the way, and none of the residents of the town had ever seen or heard of a crevasse where the boy said he had been. The second boy kept searching without finding anything. The region, it might be worth mentioning, was harsh, of an austere harshness. Through that curious acoustical quality that dry-aired mountainous regions sometimes possess, the second boy, whose ears were better than those of the adults he had brought with him, could hear the faint cries of the other boy, but he could not tell from where these cries came. Indeed, to him they seemed to come from everywhere at once. He kept starting out in a direction and then hesitating, moving off in an altogether different direction. “Can’t you hear it?” he kept asking his rescuers, “Can’t you hear him?” But none of them could. After a while he began to wonder if the cries he was hearing were the boy after all. If they weren’t, rather, the wind. Or worse, simply a noise existing only within the confines of his own skull.
After half a night of this, almost all of the rescuers gave up and went home to rest, planning to resume the search in the morning. The only one left was a large, quiet man, dark-haired, with thick dark lips and a brooding stare, who was rumored to have a predilection for young boys.
“What kind of story is this?” Leppin blurted out.
“You’ll see,” said Dierk, turning a little further toward him and giving him a blue-lipped smile. “You’ll see.”
The man stood there, a coil of rope hanging from his shoulder, watching the second boy come and go. Eventually, he sat down and started a fire. When the second boy passed yet again, the man patted the ground next to him and said, “Sit down, take a moment, think about other things. Then maybe you’ll know where he is.”
So the second boy did. Knowing the man, he didn’t sit too close to him but instead on the opposite side of the fire. He might simply have run off to search on his own except that the man had a rope. If he were ever to find the crevasse he would need the rope to climb down to search for his friend.
“What,” asked the man, “would you like to talk about?”
The boy just stayed squatting on the other side of the fire, not saying a thing.
“Tell me a story, then,” the man said.
The second boy looked into the fire, then looked into the darkness. He could still hear, faintly, the cries of his friend.
“I don’t know any,” he finally said.
“Of course you do,” said the man. “Everybody knows a story.”
Leppin, listening, felt suddenly very afraid.
“Then I’ll tell you one,” said Dierk, said the man in Dierk’s story, the story he was telling to Leppin.
“Stop,” said Leppin.
But Dierk didn’t stop. “I don’t know exactly what he told,” Dierk said, his voice stronger now. I suppose it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was a story that wormed its way slowly under the second boy’s skin. It felt as though, even though he was hearing it for the first time, he had heard it before. There was a slow inexorability to it, the sense that it was a story moving steadily closer to something that would be very bad to reach. There are some things I know about the story, scattered bits and fragments that may or may not make much sense to a listener. In it, there was a man with pudgy fingers who, at a crucial moment, rolled slowly out of a cane-backed chair, dead. There was a man who held a mirror flat in his palm and regarded his surroundings only in their reflections. There was a small, withered creature, maybe a hairless monkey, maybe a sort of extremely small and very old woman, whom another larger hairless monkey or withered crone carried around like a doll, whispering to it from time to time something that sounded like I saw the devil, all red, all red. And saying this, the man reached his hand out toward the boy.
As soon as he saw the storyteller stretch forth his hand, the second boy felt the story had come altogether too close to arriving at that place where it would be very bad to reach and rushed off into the darkness. The man, surprised, went after him, shouting, or so it seemed to the second boy. All red, he kept thinking, his heart beating fast, all red. And it was precisely then, when it was furthest from his thoughts, that he managed to run directly to the chasm. Even in the darkness he knew he had found it at last.
A moment later, there was the man, wheezing.
“Here it is,” the second boy simply said.
Leaning over to catch his breath, hands on his knees, the man simply nodded. Then he traced his way back to the fire, got his coil of rope and took a burning branch off the flames. He returned, using the boy’s cries—the second boy’s cries this time—to guide him.
It was hardly a crevasse or a chasm or a cave at all. Though perhaps, the man realized, it seemed that way to the boy. It was more a rip, a tear in the ground, partly hidden by bushes, a fact which surely explained how the first boy had failed to see it and had fallen in. Properly speaking, it was just a hole.
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Leppin.
The man, Dierk continued, tied the rope around the bole of a scraggly tree and unfurled its coil down the hole. And then he climbed in, holding to the burning branch and the rope at the same time. There was a short drop and then a steady slope—this much the second boy could see from the top of the hole—and then the man disappeared from sight, the light within the hole slowly vanishing.
Who knows how long the second boy waited at the top of the hole, in the cold, the quiet, the dark? For a long time he stared down into the hole’s darkness. Then he lay on his back, hands and feet aching from cold, and stared up into the dark, at the whorl of stars above. Perhaps he closed his eyes and slept a little, perhaps not. But, finally, there came a noise and a light, and when he looked again he saw, revealed in the light of a single match struck below, the dim form of the man carrying, slung over one shoulder, the body of the first boy.
“Is he alive?” the second boy called down.
“Yes,” the man claimed. He would, he said, tie the boy to the end of the rope and leave him lying on the floor. And then he would climb up himself and then, together, they would haul the first boy to safety.
Which they did. Once they had, they built a fire. And only then did the second boy discover that the boy they had drawn hand over hand out of the chasm was not the boy who had fallen in, but a boy he had never seen before.
It was morning, the fire long dead, Leppin all but frozen, no feeling to any of his extremities. He was very hungry. He prodded the ashes until he found a dull glow, then fanned it, added what little tinder he could find dry nearby. Soon he had begun to warm up, though parts of his face he still couldn’t feel and other parts stung. His hands were numb and clumsy and it was hard to make them grasp anything. The wrist of one hand, where his glove met the cuff of his coat, was covered with a band of blisters, turgid with blood.
Once he felt partway human again, he set out.
The forest seemed to stretch equally in all directions. He could not tell now where he had come from, what direction. The town should be, roughly, east or southeast, but through the canopy the cloud cover was such that it was difficult to judge where the sun was. The snow was still falling, sifting its way down through the branches. I saw the sky, he thought, all white, all white. Or gray, rather. Very somber and expressionless.
He walked for a long time without reaching the edge of the forest. I’ve gone the wrong direction, he thought, and changed his course, walked some more. He was tired, his hands and feet and face frozen again. It was hard to keep walking. He went a very long way but still arrived at nothing. If anything, the trees closed in even more thickly around him.
He looked around for a clue about where to go next. It was not that the trees looked the same on all sides, only that they didn’t look different in a way that he knew how to interpret. They were just trees. He struck out, veering a little from the course he had been following.
And so it was, all day, until, near dark, in despair, he came across a set of footprints in the snow and tracked them backward, heart beating fast, only to find the ashes of a campfire and a half-collapsed shelter which it took him more than a moment to recognize was his own.
He rebuilt the shelter, better this time, closer to the fire. He was very hungry, but there was nothing to be done. He started a fire in the ashes, gathered up enough dry branches and leaves and twigs to last the night. Then he sat down very close to the flames, stripped off his gloves and boots, and began to warm himself. One of his socks, he saw, was soaked in blood. The wool gave off a bad smell as it steamed and began to dry. Before he knew it, still staring at the fire, he had fallen asleep.
When he awoke, the fire was still going, though not as strong. He reached some wood from beside him and put it on the coals, then turned, crawled into the shelter.
On the way in, he touched something cold.
“I wondered when you were going to come,” said Dierk.
Leppin didn’t say anything.
“There’s not room in here,” said Dierk. “There’s only room for one.”
Very slowly, still on his knees, Leppin backed his way out of the shelter. Once out, he picked up his gloves and his boots, carried them over to the far side of the fire.
After a while, Dierk crawled out as well. He moved very slowly. His skin, even in the fire’s glow, seemed exceptionally pale, almost transparent. Leppin sat watching him across the flames.
“How did you find me?” Leppin asked.
“Come back into the shelter,” said Dierk. “I misspoke. There’s enough room after all.”
“I’d rather stay out here,” said Leppin.
Slowly Dierk pulled his body around until he was sitting. He stayed there, legs crossed and beneath him, all but motionless.
Leppin, despite the fire, felt his hands and feet and face begin to go numb.
“How did you find me?” Leppin couldn’t stop himself from asking.
“I already answered that question,” said Dierk, and smiled.
But he didn’t answer, thought Leppin. Did he? What’s happening?
“I just found you,” said Dierk after a long pause. “Isn’t that enough?”
Leppin closed his eyes, covering his face with his hands. He stayed like that for a while, gathering himself, but when he lowered his hands and opened his eyes, Dierk was still there, calm, attentive, still waiting.
“Tell me a story,” said Dierk, his voice little more than a whisper. His eyes, too, Leppin noticed, like his skin, had gone pale, the pupil contracted almost to nothing despite the darkness, the iris a much-paler blue than he remembered. Almost white.
“A story?” Leppin asked. “About what?”
But in the end it was Dierk who told the story, the same one he had told the night before, almost word for word, even the same pauses for breath. In one way for Leppin it was like hearing the same story over again, but in another way it was much worse, the story both following its order and progression and yet, because he already knew it, all moments of it existing in his head all at once. In his head, the hairless monkey or minuscule old woman never stopped saying I saw the devil, all red, all red. In his head, the man was always descending into the hole and always coming back out with the wrong boy.
But this time when Dierk finished Leppin was still sitting upright before the fire, still awake. They sat staring at one another.
“Why would you tell me this?” Leppin finally asked.
Dierk smiled. “You didn’t listen,” he said, “or you would know.”
Leppin waited, but Dierk didn’t say anything else. Finally, Leppin asked, as much to have something to say as for any other reason:
“Which boy are you?”
Dierk shook his head. “This is not the question you should be asking,” he said. “The question you should be asking, my friend, is which boy are you?”
“What happened after?” asked Leppin, once the fire had begun to go down.
“In the story,” said Leppin. “Where does it go from there?”
“That’s the end,” said Dierk. “The ending is that it doesn’t end.”
“But who is the boy?” asked Leppin.
“There are three boys now,” said Dierk. “Which boy do you mean?”
Leppin gestured helplessly. “Who is the third? And what happened to the first?”
“The first is simply gone,” said Dierk, his voice very soft now, hardly more than a whisper.
“But where?” asked Leppin. He was, he suddenly realized, nearly shouting. “Where did he go?”
“As for the third boy,” said Dierk. “Everyone agreed to pretend he was the same boy as the first.”
“Everybody agreed to pretend he was.”
Leppin shook his head. When he looked up again, he saw that Dierk was watching him closely.
“Shall I tell it again?” Dierk asked.
It was too much for Leppin. But instead of rushing away into the darkness, he found himself leaping over the fire. His hands found the other man’s throat and closed around it. Dierk did nothing to resist, just kept his eyes open and fixed on the other’s face. His flesh was colder than Leppin could imagine. Dierk even seemed to help, sagging unresisting to the ground once Leppin clambered on top of him.
As for Leppin, he squeezed down as hard as he could, trying to ignore the fact that nothing really seemed to be happening.
“Why?” asked Dierk finally.
“Why what?” responded Leppin, panting.
“Why were you so eager for the story to end? Couldn’t you see there was no chance it would end happily?”
But sometimes, thought Leppin, it is enough for things just to be over, even if they end badly. Sometimes that was all you could hope for. Though sometimes, as in life, you wouldn’t get even that.
“So what shall it be?” asked Dierk. “Shall we agree to keep pretending?”
How he can continue to speak with my hands around his throat is beyond me, though Leppin. Aloud, he said, “I don’t know what you mean,” and squeezed harder.
Dierk laughed. “Ah, Leppin,” he said fondly, “you really kill me.”
Leppin didn’t answer. He just held on. Soon it would be morning. And then, if he were still alive, maybe he would have a chance. Maybe he would have another crack at getting it all sorted out.
And if not then, maybe the day after.
There was, he thought grimly, always tomorrow.