The flat red sun rises straight ahead, painting the highway the colour of clotting blood.
I have been aware for some time that it is about to rise. The flames on the horizon have been gathering themselves up to crawl into the sky, and, each time that happens, soon the sun will crawl up after them.
I have long since lost count of how many days I have been walking this highway. Days and nights have followed one after the other so many times that I might have been walking this road since the beginning of time. I can’t even remember when I started; it is all I can remember ever having known.
It is not yet light enough to get a look at the eroded desert on either side of the highway, but the first of the morning’s corpses has appeared, lying half on and half off the road. One of its hands is still twitching a little, as though reaching up for help. I barely glance at it as I walk by.
There will probably be many corpses today. For the last day or two there have been hardly any. Sometimes I might walk hours without seeing one. Sometimes they are so thick on the road that I have to be careful not to step on them. Sometimes I have to step off the highway altogether and into the desert, but I do this as rarely as possible. There are things that move out in the desert, just glimpsed out of the corner of my eye; things that seem to be following me, biding their time. I do not want to give them an opportunity.
The sun is rising up into the sky now, fading from red to blinding yellow-white in the flaming sky. It is probably very hot. I don’t know; perhaps I am so used to it that I have stopped feeling it. But at every step, the soles of my boots stick a little to the surface of the highway, as though it was softened toffee. If I looked back, I would see my footprints marked in the road surface, black and glistening in the faded, dusty grey; but I do not look back.
In all this time I have looked back only once. Once was enough.
The corpses have begun to appear, sprawled on the highway. Today they are in groups of two or three, not clustered too thickly, so I can pass easily by them. They’re like all the others, leathery skin stretched over bone, wisps of hair and grinning teeth. Some of them clutch guns, the metal muzzles black holes leading to nowhere and nothing. A few occasionally have mobile phones and laptops, the screens dead as the desert, dead as the hands holding them. Some of the corpses wear uniforms, so faded from the sun that it is impossible to tell what colour they were. Others wear any clothes you care to mention: suits and T shirts, saris and dresses, kimonos and sarongs. A few wear nothing at all.
Some of them moan and turn their eyeless heads to track me as I pass.
Today, I think, I will finally reach that city whose spires have been rising on the horizon for many days now, climbing like white cliffs into the white blazing sky. Once, I would have welcomed the sight of a city, hoping to find someone living, or at least an end to my journey. Once, I imagined reaching some city with spires of marble and gold, where the truth would finally be revealed about where I am going and what I am doing here.
Now, having passed through towns without number, straggling along either side of the highway before giving way to the desert again, I know there will be nothing.
I think I can still remember the first corpse I saw. It sprawled halfway out of the turret of an overturned tank, the tracks spilling like the intestines of a disembowelled monster across the road. It still had a helmet on its head, and it was making a noise between a sigh and a moan. I think I had gone to help it, but its hand had reached for me with skeletal fingers, to pull me into the charred metal box with it. And I had kicked it aside and moved on.
Since then, how many corpses have I seen? And does it matter?
I have often wondered where the corpses come from. I have never seen any sign of fighting or disease. Perhaps it is famine, though I do not think so. I have, of course, not looked for food or water; I do not even remember ever needing either, and though I do not believe that there is any to be had, I also do not believe that there was ever any food or water in this world. All there is, in fact, are the highway, the desert, and the burning sky.
Sometimes, more than once, I have wanted to stop. I have wanted to sit down on the highway and rest, to let happen what will happen, but I do not. I dare not. I will walk until the end of time, but I will not sit on this road and rest.
Where am I? How many times have I asked myself this? Who am I? And why is it that these questions have no answer? What is the point of asking questions that have no answer?
The city is close now, and I can see that the white cliffs are tarnished and shattered, the walls crumbling and broken. The streets leading off from the highway are choked with rubble and wrecked vehicles, the metal scorched and corroded, half-cremated corpses still sitting behind the remnants of steering wheels. If I looked up at the towering cliffs of masonry on either side, I could perhaps imagine that there are living eyes staring down at me from the blank windows and empty balconies. But the highway goes straight through the city, and I do not look up.
I see the girl from some way away. She is sitting with her back to a half collapsed wall, her legs stretched out before her, her hands in her lap, and at first I think she is just another corpse, her stick-thin limbs skin and sinew pulled over bone. But as I come closer, her head slowly rises, and her mouth moves, the remnants of her lips writhing over the hissing of her withered tongue.
“You,” she says. “You’ve come.”
I stop, startled. “What?”
“All this time. Endless. And you came.” Her eyes, holes in the parchment-mask of her face, seem still to see me, to have some kind of expression. Her head swivels slowly, her feet and legs straightening, pushing her upright. “This is why we have been waiting,” she says.
“We?” I want to walk past her, as I have walked past a million corpses, but I can’t. I try to look away from her, but I cannot. “Who are you?”
“Who are we?” Her voice is like the wind across the desert. “We are your children,” she says.
My mouth moves, in response to the absurd thing she uttered. “I have no children.”
“You do now,” she says. “You are our father. You made us. You created us, and we are your children. We have been waiting for you to come, for we belong to you now. Now and forevermore.”
And, oh, I can remember now, the locked door bursting open. “I didn’t know,” I hear myself whisper. “I didn’t know it would be like this. I didn’t want this.”
“That does not matter,” she says. Her hand rises, touches my arm. “We were many, we had many lives. Now we have nothing. Only you.”
“And the road,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “The road.”
And I can hear them coming now, as I have glimpsed them, the one time I looked back, in their hundreds and thousands and millions, those I have created, with my power and what I did with that power. I have brought them here.
“You have brought us here,” the girl agrees. “We will be with you from now on.”
They are behind me now, close-packed, streaming from ruined buildings and debris-clogged streets, joining together in sections and battalions and divisions, more and more till the highway behind me is so full of them that there is nothing but them, until the end of the world.
But the highway before us is empty, and there is but one way to go. Where that will take us, I do not know. It doesn’t matter anymore, if it ever did; perhaps, there will be a grand destination, a shining city on the horizon, with spires of marble and gold. Or maybe we will walk on till the end of time.
Head bent before the burnished sky, I trudge on, leading my army of the dead.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017