The Passage Page 112

"Which direction?" he asked her.

A silent moment passed. "Across," she said.

They dismounted. The snow was deep, a loose powder that rose nearly to the tops of Peter's boots. As they approached the riverbank, Peter saw that the connecting roadway was gone; the bridge's decking, which had probably once been wood, was all rotted away. Fifty meters: they could probably manage it, balancing on the exposed beams, but the horse would never make it.

"You're sure?" She was standing beside him, squinting intently in the light. Her hands, like his own, were drawn up protectively into the sleeves of her coat.

She nodded.

He returned to the horse to unhitch their packs. There was no question of leaving Greer's horse tied up to wait for them. It had brought them this far; Peter couldn't leave it defenseless. He finished unloading their gear, unhitched the bridle, and stepped to the animal's hindquarters. "Ha!" he yelled, giving the animal a firm slap on its haunches. Nothing. He tried again, louder this time. "Ha!" He slapped and yelled and waved his arms. "Go on! Git!" Still the animal refused to budge, gazing at them impassively with his huge, gleaming eyes.

"He's a stubborn son of a bitch. I guess he doesn't want to leave."

"Just tell him what you want him to do."

"He's a horse, Amy."

And yet what happened next, strange as it was, did not feel wholly unexpected. Amy took the animal's face in her hands, placing her palms against the side of his long head. The horse, which had begun to fidget, quieted under her touch; his wide nostrils flared with a heavy sigh. For a long, hushed moment, girl and horse stood there, locked in some deep and mutual regard. Then the animal broke away, turned in a wide circle, and began to walk in the direction they had come. His pace quickened to a trot as he vanished in the trees.

Amy lifted her pack off the snow and hoisted it to her shoulders. "We can go now."

Peter didn't know what to say; there was no reason to say anything.

They clambered down the embankment to the river's edge. The reflected sunlight dancing on the surface of the water was almost explosively brilliant, as if, on the edge of freezing solid, its reflective powers had been magnified. Peter sent Amy up first, giving her a knee to send her through a hatchlike opening in the exposed beams. Once she was situated he passed her the packs, then chinned himself up.

The safest route would be along the edge of the bridge, where they could hold onto the guardrail as they stepped from beam to beam. The feel of the cold metal on his hands was like fire, an exquisite sharpness. They couldn't get this done fast enough. Amy went first, skipping with confident grace over the gaps. As he made to follow her, it became instantly clear that the problem wasn't the beams themselves, which seemed solid, but what encased them, under the snow: a hidden skin of ice. Twice Peter felt himself losing traction, his feet slipping out from under him, his hand biting into the frigid rail, barely holding on. But to come this far, only to drown in an icy river-he couldn't imagine it. Slowly, beam by beam, he made his way across. By the time he reached the far side, Peter's hands felt utterly numb; he had begun to shiver. He wished they could stop to build a fire, but there was no delaying their progress now. Already the shadows had begun to lengthen; the brief winter day would soon be over.

They ascended the bank of the river and began to climb. Wherever they were going, he hoped there would be shelter. He didn't see how they would last the night without it. Never mind the virals; cold like this could kill them just as easily. The important thing was to keep moving. Amy had taken the lead, her strides carrying her up the mountain. It was all Peter could do to keep up. The air felt thin in his lungs; around him the trees were moaning in the wind. After a period of time had passed he looked back and beheld the valley far below them, the river curling through it. They were in shadow now, a zone of twilight, but on the far side of the valley, the faces of the mountains, receding to the north and east, thrummed with golden light. The top of the world, Peter thought, that's where Amy is taking me. The very top of the world.

The day drained away. In the descending gloom, the landscape appeared as a confusing jumble; what Peter had thought would be the apex of their climb revealed itself to be a crest in a series of ascents, each more exposed and wind-blasted than the last. To the west the mountain fell away sharply, an almost sheer drop. The cold seemed to have reached some deeper place inside him, dulling his senses. It had been a mistake, he realized, to send the horse away. If push came to shove, they could at least have hiked back down and used his body for warmth and shelter. It was a grave thing, to kill such an animal, nothing he could have imagined doing before; but now, as darkness was falling on the mountain, he knew he could have done it.

He realized Amy had come to a stop. He struggled forward and halted at her side, breathing great gulps of air. The snow was thinner here, pushed away by the wind. She was scanning the sky, her eyes narrowed, as if she were listening to some distant sound. Beads of ice clung to her pack, her hair.

"What is it?"

Her gaze settled on the line of trees to their left, away from the open valley.

"There," she said.

But there was nothing, only the wall of trees. The trees and the snow and the indifferent wind.

Then he saw it: a gap in the undergrowth. Amy was already moving toward it. As they neared, he realized what he was seeing: the gate of a half-fallen fence. It ran the length of the woods on either side of them, entwined with a dense mass of camouflaging vines, now denuded of leaves and covered in snow, making the fence all but invisible, a part of the landscape. Who knew how long they had been walking along it without his noticing. Beyond the opening stood a small hut, more suggestion than actual structure. The building, not more than five meters square, seemed tipped, one part of its foundation having collapsed beneath it; the door stood half open, angled on its hinges. He peered inside. Nothing, only snow and leaves, rivers of rot running down the walls.

He turned. "Amy, where-"

He saw her darting through the trees, away, and lumbered after her. Amy was moving more quickly now, practically running. Through the fog of his exhaustion and the trudge of his frozen feet, Peter had become aware that they had reached the end of their journey, or nearly. Something was leaving him; his strength, stripped away by the cold, was leaving him at last.

"Amy," he called. "Stop."

She seemed not to hear him.

"Amy, please."

She turned to face him.

"What's here?" he pleaded. "There's nothing here."

"There is, Peter." Her face was lit with joy. "There is."

"Then where is it?" he said, and heard the anger in his voice. His hands were on his knees; he was panting for breath. "Tell me where it is."

She lifted her face to the darkening sky, letting her eyes fall shut. "It's ... everywhere," she said. "Listen."

He did his best; with every ounce of his remaining strength he sent his mind outward. But all he heard was the wind.

"There's nothing," he said again, and felt his hopes collapsing. "Amy, there's nothing here."

But then he heard it.

A voice. A human voice.

Somebody, somewhere, was singing.

• • •

They saw the beacon first, rising in the trees.

They had come into a clearing, the forest parting. All around them Peter could discern evidence of human habitation, the suggestive shapes of ruined buildings and abandoned vehicles under the snow. The antenna stood at the edge of a wide depression in the earth, full of debris-a foundation of some kind, for a building long since gone. The antenna was positioned to the side of it, a four-legged metal tower rising high above them, anchored in place by steel cables sunk in concrete. Affixed to its apex was a gray orb studded with spikes. Beneath the orb, encircling the tower and jutting from the sides like the petals of a flower, was a series of paddle-like objects. Perhaps these were solar panels; Peter didn't know. He placed a hand on the cold metal. Something appeared to be written on one of the struts. He brushed the snow aside, revealing the words UNITED STATES ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS.


But the place beside him was empty. He detected movement at the edge of the clearing and quickly followed her, into the underbrush. The sound of singing was stronger now. Not words but a wash of notes in phrased patterns, rising and falling. It seemed to be drifting toward them from all directions on the wind. They were close now, very close. He sensed the presence of something up ahead, an openness. The trees separating, the sky exposed. He reached the place where Amy stood, and then stopped.

It was a woman. She was facing away, standing in the dooryard of a small log house. The windows of the house were lighted, and curls of smoke coiled from the chimney. She was shaking out a blanket; more blankets sagged on a line that stretched between a pair of trees. The incredible thought reached him that this woman, whoever she was, was taking in her laundry. Taking in her laundry and singing. The woman was wearing a heavy woolen cloak; her hair, dense and dark with streaks of snowy white, flowed over her shoulders in a cloudlike mass. The lines of her bare legs descended from the edge of the cloak to her feet, on which she appeared to be wearing nothing more than a pair of rope sandals, her toes in the snow.

Peter and Amy moved toward her, the words of her song resolving as they approached. Her voice had a rich, full-throated sound to it, full of a mysterious contentment. She sang and went about her work, placing the blankets in a basket at her feet, apparently oblivious to their presence. The two of them were standing just a few meters behind her now. Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee, the woman sang,

All through the night.

Guardian angels God will send thee,

All through the night.

Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,

Hill and dale in slumber sleeping,

I my loved ones' watch am keeping,

All through the night.

She halted, her hands poised over the line.


The woman turned. She had a broad, handsome face and dark skin, like Auntie's. But it was not an old woman he saw. Her skin was firm, her eyes clear and bright. Her face bloomed with a radiant smile.

"Oh, it is good to see you." Her voice was like music, as if she were singing the words. She advanced toward them on her sandaled feet and took Amy by the hands, holding them with a maternal tenderness. "My little Amy, all grown up." She let her eyes drift past Amy toward Peter, appearing to notice him for the first time. "And here he is, your Peter." She gave her head a little shake of wonder. "Just as I knew he would be. Do you remember, Amy, when I said to you, Who is Peter? It was when I first met you. You were very small."

Tears had begun to fall from Amy's eyes. "I left him."

"Hush now. It is as it had to be."

"He told me to run!" she cried out. "I left him! I left him!"

The woman jostled Amy's hands. "And you will find him again, Amy. That's what you have come to find out, isn't it? I was not the only one to watch over you, through all the years and years. That sadness you feel is not your own. It's his sadness you feel in your heart, Amy, for missing you."

The sun was down. Cold darkness crowded around them, standing in the snow outside the woman's house. And yet Peter could make himself neither move nor speak. That he was a part of what had just unfolded he did not doubt, and yet he did not know what part.

He found his voice at last. "Tell me," he said. "Please. Tell me who you are."

The woman's eyes sparkled with sudden mischief. "Shall we tell him, Amy? Shall we tell your Peter who I am?"

Amy nodded; the woman raised her face, wearing a shining smile.

"I am the one who's been waiting for you," she said. "My name is Sister Lacey Antoinette Kudoto."


Private Sancho was dying.

Sara was riding at the back of the convoy, in one of the big trucks. Bunks had been slung from the sides of the rear compartment to carry the injured men. The space was crowded with crates of supplies; it was all Sara could do to wedge herself between them, to offer what comfort she could.

The other one, Withers, wasn't as bad off; most of the burns were on his arms and hands. Probably he would survive, if sepsis didn't set in. But not Sancho.

Something had happened when they'd winched down the bomb. A cable had jammed. The fuse wouldn't light. Something. The story had come to Sara in bits and pieces from a dozen different sources, all with a slightly different version of events. It was Sancho who had entered the mine shaft, shimmying down the cable on a harness, to fix whatever had gone wrong; he had either still been down the hole or was just emerging, Withers running toward him, reaching for him, pulling him free, when the drums of fuel exploded.

The flames had engulfed him utterly. She could see the path the fire had taken, moving up his body, fusing his uniform to his flesh. That he had survived was a miracle, though not, Sara thought, a happy one; she could still hear the screams that had torn from his lips as, with the help of two soldiers, she had peeled the blackened remains of his uniform from his body, taking most of the skin of his legs and chest with it, and again, as she had done her best to scrub away the debris, revealing a raw, red flesh beneath it. Already the burns on his legs and feet had begun to suppurate, mixing the sick-sweet odor of charred skin with the stink of infection. His chest and arms and hands and shoulders: the fire had consumed them all. His face was a smooth pink nub, like the eraser on a pencil. After she'd finished the abrasion-a horrible ordeal-he'd made scarcely any sound at all, lapsing into a fitful sleep from which he awoke only to beg for water. She was surprised when, in the morning, he was still alive, and then the next day also. The night before their departure, she had offered, in a moment of bravery that surprised her, to stay behind with him. But Greer would have none of it. We've left enough men in these woods, he said. Do your best to make him comfortable.

Prev Next