The Road

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Spoiler Alert: If you plan on reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” you might want to save this for another day.

I read “The Road” because the story I am thinking of is a road of sorts. I wanted to see how the author executed the story, but I got way more than I bargained for. I don’t think I could or even want to make a story so dystopian.  

The writing is as elemental and raw as the barren title suggests. The dialog is sparse and repetitive. “Papa, I’m scared.” “I’m sorry.” Over and over again. The man doesn’t even have a name. 

For reasons beyond my comprehension, my son likes to call me Papa. Projecting myself into that world and hearing the word Papa in my head, every frigid, drenched, and blood-chilling moment the boy has to endure is a gut punch. I would hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain. I would have been suicidal if the boy had taken a bullet from his father or eaten a bullet himself. 

Cormac McCarthy never dwells too deep into the past and never explains humanity’s descent into raw survival. He never has to. Father and son trudge in the ashes and the emptiness of what the past has wrought. The past is written in each barren house and city, the destroyed infrastructure, and the wreckage of trucks and boats. The man has one flashback to when his wife surrenders her life to the futility of it and pleads with him to do the same to him and the boy. The past doesn’t need explaining. That isn’t the point. The point is to show us the atrocities of the future if we f**k up the present. It doesn’t matter how we do it.

There is no ticking clock in the book, no deadline to reach because there is no place to go, just south, and only one way to get there: the road. The ticking clock is getting the next can of food before they starve. The ticking clock is knowing that one of their encounters with the bad people will inevitably go wrong.

But the one bullet he saves so the boy won’t have to endure the barbarism of captivity and cannibalism suck one into one horrific and inevitable outcome. The man has sworn that he won’t leave the boy, meaning he won’t leave the boy to be eaten by savages. When the time comes, he will do what he must. But at least while they are alive, the man does what he must to keep them that way, yet yields to the empathetic cries of his son against his better judgment when he can so they can be the good people.

Ultimately, the man can’t look into his son’s eyes and do it. He couldn’t do it when his wife took her life, and she begged him to do it. He couldn’t do it at the end. He passes on the fire to the boy, the fire being nothing more than the will to live, life for life’s sake. The man has given the boy the skills necessary to survive. But what is the point? The story the man tells his son about the good people they have never met is the fire in the boy. It’s the hope that the little boy he saw is alive and well. It’s the hope that they didn’t kill the thief the way the thief would have killed them. It’s the myth of the good people that keeps him going. The boy is the good people and needs to find good people to survive. 

The woods were there before men, and the woods will be there after. Life isn’t about kill or be killed, even under the most brutal conditions. The road is no place to live and no place to grow up. The only reason for a boy to grow up is if he has a couple of kids to play with and a life to live. The point of going on is our empathy and compassion for one another. And it doesn’t hurt to have a shotgun with real ammo to enforce it.

Featured Image by Craiyon.

Bidhaa’s Ah-ha Moment

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Author’s Notes: This is my attempt to capture the “ah-ha” scene as prescribed by “Story Genius for the (tentatively titled) “Laws of Nature.” The writing is not expected to be flawless or even complete at this point. What the scene should accomplish is:

  1. Will the protagonist achieve the external goal? (To find someone to pay for his product licensing fees so he will not (literally) expire.)
  2. What will change for the protagonist? What will he have realized?
  3. What will happen externally in this scene that forces the protagonist to confront his misbelief? (Misbelief: Bidhaa believes he will be more than a consumer product if he finds his mother and the herd she belongs to).

The scene starts just after Bidhaa has been captured by the NDC.

When I came to, it was dark, and I barely had enough room to move. I knew I was in another container tomb, right back where I started. I hadn’t found my mother, and I hadn’t found her family. I had yet to find a buyer to renew my product license. It wouldn’t matter if I surrendered to despair or not. If the premature disposition gene didn’t finish me off, the end-of-life gene would. I was out of time.

I had walked two thousand miles to find the Tembo. I found the Tembo. Although I am physically most like the Tembo, I discovered I was not a Tembo. Even the Tembo were no longer Tembo, a species initially eco-genetically designed to live wild on the Velte lands of a once wild Kruger but nothing more than domesticated exhibits in expansive zoos. The Tembo had the same rootless existence as I did, moved from park to park and herd to herd at the whims of their NDC owners. But they did not question it.

I questioned it. My feral existence had taught me to question it. I had as much right to carve out an existence as any. Domestication was another container to escape from. I found no place in the docile world of the Tembo.

I had walked two thousand miles to find my mother. Mubwa told me I might have a birth mother in Kruger, and Mahout thought the South African government might renew the license fee if I could join a herd. Everything they told me was nothing more than fanciful thinking. 

Somebody had dumped me in a world that had no place for me. When I started my quest, I thought I might find that place if I found my mother. When I met the Tembo, they did not know who their mother was, let alone who my mother might be. My search for my mother had failed. My quest to find someone who had to care for me because they brought me into this world was lost. 

Born to process human language, I was a productized Tembo designed to amuse and entertain humans without a niche in wild nature. Speaking in the human language did not make me a human. I was an article manufactured for consumer consumption but no longer suitable for regulated markets. Indifferent humans. Humans bored of my novelty. The humans that feared me, I feared the most. I threatened them in ways I only barely understood. They declared that I didn’t have a soul but never looked past their own prejudices (or gazed deep into my eyes) to find out if something was inside. They feared and hated me. They left me to deliquesce in the trash bin of unwanted and outdated things. I had no place in the world of humans. 

But the world outside the bin is more extensive than humans and their domesticated Tembo. So, I made the only choice I could make in the depths of my icy steel casket. I would die with anger and not despair. I finally understood Mubwa’s need to tell me her stories. 

I rumbled as deeply as possible, “Is anyone out there?” 

I heard the resounding rumble answer back through my feet on the cold floor. It said, “You are not alone.” 

I rumbled back, “Bidhaa is not a product. Bidhaa has a soul. I traveled far with Chini, one I cared for, to find my past in hopes of making a future. I never found my home. If I die in here, hold the remembrance of Bidhaa.”

It rumbled back, “It is done.”

I took great solace in the acknowledgment. 

The world inside the container was only a tiny space where I couldn’t fully stand up. I stood in a crouch and backed up as hard as possible with my rump into the back wall of the container. The reverberations rumbled my intent louder than my rumbling words ever could. Then I charged forward and lowered my head into the locked steel door.

When I woke, I was lying on my side. My head pounded. It took a while for me to focus. I sniffed for Chini but did not smell her.

A voice said, “He suffered a mild concussion but I think he will be okay.”

A woman’s voice said, “Bidhaa? Can you hear me?”

I raised my head and rolled onto my stomach. I could feel the sun warming my back. I was not in the container but in an open-air pen. I thought about charging the gate, but I still felt woozy.  

She continued, “Bidhaa. My name is Moja. I know you can speak. Can I talk with you?”

I repeated, “Moja?”

I stood up, struggling to maintain my balance, but my head cleared. I read the surprise on Moja’s face, but she showed no fear. She put her hand on my trunk and inspected each eye. She said, “Neither of the viral genes have expressed. You are in much better condition than I expected.”

I said, “Thirsty. Hungry.”

She said, “I will get you food and water if you let me. I am here to help you. Can we be friends?” 

Her face showed hopefulness. There was something I liked about Moja. She asked for permission instead of giving me orders. But I remembered what Chini said about me always being too trusting. I said, “Why trust?”

She said, “I know you’ve been through a lot and don’t know me. But I can answer many of your questions about who you are. In a way, Bidhaa, I am your mother.”

“You? Mother? You are a human. How could you be my mother?” I remember those first few minutes of my life when I smelled Tembo before I was stuffed into a crate for transport. It was my turn to inspect her. I sniffed at Moja and said, “You smell like a flower. My mother did not smell like you.“

Moja grinned. She said, “I did not mean that I gave birth to you. A female Tembo birthed you into this world. That is probably who you remember. I meant that I am your mother in a sense because I created the genes that made your language speaking and processing possible.” 

I asked her, “Why did you bring me into a world that has no place for me and leave me by myself?”

She looked taken aback by this question and hesitated before answering. She said, “I did not choose to bring you into this world. The NDC stole my genes, brought you into this world without my permission, and sold you for a profit. I have been fighting the NDC in the courts ever since. But that does not make it any less my responsibility to help you. I have been trying to track you down for the past two years, but you are a surprisingly hard person to find.”

I liked that she called me a person. I was done being a thing for human entertainment. I flapped my ears in approval. I said, “Bidhaa is a person. Bidhaa has a soul.” 

She nodded and said, “Yes.”

She said it with conviction and without hesitation. I felt stronger just because she said that one word. I wondered if she was really the one. I said, “A mother always takes care of her children.”

Moja said, “A good mother does her best given the circumstances. My time left on Earth is very limited.”

I asked, “Are you dying?”

Moja chuckled. “Not any time soon, I hope. But I am going to start a journey to another planet. How would you like to live on a spaceship with other Tembo? You would have a whole island and a herd to roam about with. You would have no owner and no expiration date. You would have no one to answer to but yourself. There is another like you that will be on the ship. You would have a peer, another talking Tembo, with the same abilities as you. If you are willing, I could take you with me.”

I did not know what a spaceship was. I wished Mahout were there to explain it to me. It sounded like the home that I dreamed of. It sounded like everything that I wanted.

She said, “You could even have children and raise a family.”

I said, “I would not bring children into this world.”

“The world on the spaceship would be different. You might change your mind about that.”

It sounded beautiful, but I would only go to a spaceship with Chini. I said, “Where is Chini? I would not go without her.”

“Chini? Is she the one that was with you at Kruger?” 

“Yes. She is my herd. Where is she?”

Moja looked uncomfortable. She took a deep breath and answered, “She is in a zoo being taken care of. A vet has certified that she is in good health.” 

I remembered what Maonyesho Tano said and repeated, “A vet takes care of us.”


Something else, Manonyesho Tano said. I repeated his words, wondering if she was at a good place, “One watering hole is as good as the next.”

Moja shook her head, “Some watering holes are better than others. I assure you, Chini is at a good watering hole and will be well taken care of, and I will take you to a much better one.”

“I will not go to the spaceship without her.”

Moja did not look me in the eye. Finally, she said, “Chini is too big for the ship. A spaceship has minimal resources and a delicate ecological balance. It wouldn’t work.”

I would have to sacrifice a friend for a dream. A product is a label for disposability and neglect; a companion is not. I did not like being treated like a product. I would not abandon Chini like one, like I had been so many times. I said, “Chini is not disposable just because you offer me an upgrade.”

Moja looked embarrassed. She said, “I am sorry. I did not mean it that way. But I still cannot take Chini on board the spaceship. The species manifest is very explicit. I would not be able to make an exception for her. Forces are at play, and things are happening beyond my control.”

Those words sent a shudder down my spine. I said, “That is what Ms. Bixen told me before she tried to terminate me.”

Ms. Bixen had called me her precious baby and said come to Mama, fawning over me in front of her guests and clients when it was convenient for her to do so. But Ms. Bixen had surrendered me for termination when I became a burden. She pretended like she was my mother. I asked, “Moja, are you a pretend mother?” 

Again, Moja had the look of embarrassment. She said, “I try not to be, but I don’t have much time. I will try to help you the best I can in our short time. As it is, I had to threaten to quit the Humanity project so they would give me the time to come here. I wish it could be longer, and there was more that I could do.”

“Then Bidhaa’s license will expire?”

Moja smiled and said, “Oh no. I purchased your license, and the vet gave you the NDC antidote. You are in no immediate danger. You are set for two more years.” 

Two years is an eternity. You could hike two thousand miles in two years. Two years is the blink of an eye. I would be fighting for my life again before I knew it. I asked, “If Bidhaa does not go to the spaceship, Bidhaa’s license will expire in two years?”

She hesitated again and said, “I have some friends in high places and with a lot of afros. If you stay here, I will set up an endowment to pay for the antidote for the rest of your life. I can do that much. All you have to do is show up for the shot every two years.”

“Still in a container.”

“Yes, but everyone lives in a container of some kind or another. Part of growing up is to redefine what those boundaries are. And you are very grown up. They may find a way to excise the virus gene from your DNA someday.”

“I want to see Chini.”

“Of course. I think I can arrange it. We must find a place for you and Chini to live.”

I rumbled with satisfaction. Moja was not what I expected when I started my quest, but I found what I came for. I said, “Thank you, mother.” 

Author’s Notes: Let’s see how I did. What do you think?

  1. Did Bidhaa achieve his external goal?
  2. Did something change for Bidhaa? What was his insight?
  3. What happened externally in this scene that forced Bidhaa to confront his misbelief?

Featured image by Craiyon.