The woman walked west across the great prairie, following a desolate highway which neither rose nor fell nor turned for three hundred miles; a straight line of pavement bisecting a vast, frozen grassland. From an airplane it would’ve looked like a single dark stitch running over an enormous white cloak; but of course, no one flew anymore.
It took her most of winter to cross.
Snow squalls blundered in, draped the land in white and turned the stunted scrub trees into sparkling ice sculptures. It robbed the world of color, and at times this made her woozy, and black spots danced on the edge of her vision. On clear days, when the sun was at zenith, its glittering, reflected radiance would sometimes render her snowblind.
She took a pair of sunglasses from the glovebox of a wrecked Altima. They helped, a little.
When it didn’t snow, the sky was vast and blue and empty. When it did snow it was hard and gray and all-knowing.
Nobody plowed the highway that year, and when the drifts piled up past her thighs, she would go down on all fours and drag herself over the worst of it until the snot froze on her nose and her hands bled and her malnourished arms trembled from the exertion. But she never gave a thought to stopping, or turning back; she always kept moving forward. There was nothing else to do except move forward.
Her fair skin was red and ruined now, and her legs in a state of perpetual, wailing revolt. She sensed that her body had grown to hate her, and was maybe rooting for her to fall down and die in the snow. But she didn’t do that, she wouldn’t – not until she’d finished her walk.
She had never been a lovely woman, and now she knew she must look a fright – skin and bones and dirty hair and raw skin. But she no longer cared about that sort of thing. All she wanted to do was keep walking, and so keep walking was all she did. First one step, then the next. That was her world now. That was all there was.
She ate snow when she was thirsty, and when the hunger got bad enough to make waves of nausea ripple up her sternum, she would drift off the highway and rummage through deserted podunk towns of looted convenience stores and cowboy bars and rusty trailer homes on cinder block feet. When she needed to sleep, she did it inside empty cattle shacks, or on the back seats of abandoned cars along the shoulder of I-70.
Once, hunger jabbing daggers in her gut sharp enough to bring faint tears to her eyes, she ate from a cow carcass – a snow-covered lump she’d found sprawled behind a barbed wire fence. She tore strips from its flank and ate them raw and was sick for days after, but managed to keep most of it down.
She barely saw anyone, and that was okay, too. She didn’t want company, wasn’t sure she even remembered how to speak. She’d been a guest lecturer at the university one fall—perhaps a thousand years ago—and she’d bored entire army divisions of undergraduates on such enthralling subjects as The Biology of Neoplasia and Molecular Medicine and, most notoriously, Introductory Biostatistics. Language had come easily enough, then, but now the very thought of it made her anxious.
What would she say? What was there left to say?
Silence was her refuge; her weapon.