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By Adam Williamson

A blood red road with grey skies.

In Zephyr’s pack were his most beloved companions. He treated them accordingly. Each night before he slept, he would polish his toothbrush and place it all gentle and loving into its case. There, it too would sleep soundly, grateful to be respected so. He would take great care to unfurl his sleeping bag from its holding knapsack, smooth it down well upon the turf of the Road and lie to look up at the stars. The bag would shudder, warmed with pleasure at its own utility.

Dirty clothes were a source of shame to him, as he felt he betrayed the good fabrics by leaving them unwashed and stowed in his pack. So when a water source appeared on this highly particular morning, he did not think of his own need for hydration but instead of the clothes in his pack. He stepped down towards the basin, hands shaking, and removed the offended items one by one. Then, he would carefully hold each one to the light and down to the lapping of the water. He would soothe the shirts and shorts and socks, humming to them gently, as he dunked them beneath the surface and coaxed out the dirt of the day with soap and brush.

The first time, his favourite shirt had been so betrayed by this unexpected submersion that it could not be worn for a week. Each time he reached for it, it turned away, basking in almighty sulk. For this beloved unbuttoned piece had assumed that Zephyr had been attempting to drown it. Betrayal was written across its creases. With time, it learned that he had been simply doing what was best, and as they sidled further on, the clothes came to understand the need for a wash. Indeed, some of them came to enjoy it. So now, as Zephyr hung them lightly on branches of trees, they trembled happily in the breeze. He lay upon a rock. The day was hot and the clothes would be dry deliciously quick, ready to be stepped into warmed and crisp.

The Road watched all weary. It had seen this before. Nothing but decay would come from excess care for objects. But it had been with Zephyr for some time now and, though it would not admit this to the boy, it had developed an unsettling admiration for his commitment to ritual. The Road had banished much of the feeling it had some centuries before, and a positive reaction to a human being had not been felt for longer. It buzzed and thrummed slightly - uncertain how to process the sensation.

The afternoon passed with not so much as a whisper or a furtive glance. No one else set feet or boots upon the Road. Zephyr dozed happily, following clouds and leaves in the wind, hands behind his head and feet upon the rock. The brook was not a large one, and murmured shyly instead of erupting into full babbling goodness. Zephyr appreciated this, it being an idle and pleasant companion for him against the hard and pessimistic grit of the Road. He savoured the sweet gift of the bank and the arching shade of the tree.

Afternoon bled into evening. Zephyr retrieved his clothes from their hanging places and stored them in the separate compartment of his pack reserved for clean items. Over the following days, there would be a migration from this pocket to the next, via his own form, as dirt supplanted cleanliness. But that would come later. Now, Zephyr had a pack full of clean and warmed clothes and an afternoon’s residual rest kept down deep within him.

Back then now to the road for Zephyr, where his light feet spread inky footprints, the water of the river cleaning down and through him. In its younger years, the Road would have shivered slightly, sensitive to the touch of others and alive to their possibilities. Now it merely grunted - not because it felt his touch but simply to acknowledge the shift.

After a time, asked the Road - Why do you wash them?

The Road is -, Zephyr paused, you are long. I have much further to go. And my clothes are getting dirtier by the week. He brushed himself down.

Yes, but you’ll only have to wash them again, said the Road.

I know. And I will do it again, Zephyr louder now.

And then again. And again, the Road needled the boy.

Zephyr, impatient - I know.

You cannot stop it, the Road mocked, the dirt will spread again. Things do not stay clean.

Well, I will keep on washing them, Zephyr paused for emphasis or to wipe his nose - it was not clear to the Road - even when you are well behind me.

The Road was silent. Zephyr had never spoken in this way before. And truthfully, neither had paused to contemplate the other’s future absence.

Well, then, the Road wrinkled, poison now dripping from its gravel cheeks, I’m sure things will improve for you then.

I didn’t mean… Zephyr tried now to choke and swallow the words he had spoken back down his throat. But this attempt was ill-fated and left him spluttering and coughing, apologetic, hands on knees.

Zephyr wiped his mouth.

I am glad for you, said the Road. I will not be sad to see you go.

A coolness sat between them now, and while Zephyr passed through a number of things he could or should say, he elected against all and any. They did not speak again until morning.

It would be deceptive to suggest that there had ever been anything close to a friendship between the two. You could try, construing some of their more amicable interactions as evidence of some deeper connection. Cast laughter from Zephyr in light, grumbling agreement from the Road as something like calm, paternal affection. But these would be the contortions and dislocations of a deceitful artist, eager to portray life in colours brighter than the day itself.

Because in the early days, there was nothing - Zephyr’s utterances evolved into soliloquies which were met with barren silence. The Road had been the outline of a mountain in the distance. There it was, he knew or thought, but none of its details or embellishments were apparent to him. All that time, it may as well have been an apparition. It lingered on the outer horizon of his mind through soft childhood and cold adolescence, whispers of it from his mother settling in his mind as gentle as seeds in the soil.

On the morning that he set first foot on the path that led to the Road, there had been darkness. A vast and cacophonous silence. Yes, there is always choice - but on that morning, the range of possibilities for him had been reduced to a binary of one or the other. He chose to run rather than stay and die like a dog with the others. Sweat, absence in the next room, boots barely on, pack with enough for a week at most. He extended out into the world and the Road drew him towards it. The tiny capillaries of the outer network were navigated and utilised to work his way there. Bleeding and unkempt, he made his way with blistered feet and calloused tongue. And he did reach the Road.

Most fell to both knees when they saw it. Zephyr did not fully collapse but removed his pack and slowed himself.

It’s good to see you, the boy said to the Road, I’ve waited a long time.

The Road did not respond. And as he planted aching feet upon it, it rumbled in its sleep, strange, curmudgeonly beast, not welcoming nor inhospitable.

Hello, he whispered. Hello.

And now he did kneel to more closely examine its great brick back, expanded and contracted, cracked through the seasons and centuries. He placed a hand on the Road and felt its gritty breath and beat.

It’s good to be with you.

Though the Road did not respond, Zephyr was glad for its company. In his own grief, he talked, pointing at slices of sky and trees and plants.

What is this tree, Road? he asked on the first day. It doesn’t look like any I’ve seen before.

He paused all hopeful, thinking that so direct a question might elicit a response. He was, after all, offering the Road an opportunity to offer forth its knowledge of the world - which was most formidable from what Zephyr had heard.

But - nothing.

More days of stillness for Zephyr to calm the rage within. He was reassured by his own self, the treading and stepping, the presence of the Road beneath him. To survive, he had to keep moving.

He tried again.

What do you hope for, Road? What are your dreams?

Perhaps Roads do not dream of anything, he thought, not gravel sheep or gritted teeth.

The Road seemed to have moved beyond sleep into full hibernation. There had been no acknowledgement of Zephyr, unless you consider the deep earthy grunts or rumbles from the deep as partaking in a dialogue. Zephyr did not. And while his feet bore him further, he searched within for something to say. Moths in his stomach flapped pathetically, miserable and despondent, stirring Zephyr to keep trying, keep talking, keep his feet upon the Road.

He stopped for some time. He did not want to reflect on the time before, fresh was the haze of the violence of home. They had come earlier than expected, he could feel it, taste it still. Trembling something there, on the inside of his mind. How he had not woken, how they had missed him, was unclear, his own dormancy made apparent.

All he now sought to control was what he could of the days to come. He sketched out whole maps of conversation amidst some imperfect analysis of the Road’s own nature. Prompts and threads, things to stir and move the Road.

He kept on.

So Road… he began tentatively, chewing over the words he had practised, how long have you been here?


How old are you, Road?


Zephyr paused.

What are you, Road?

And now, it stirred and huffed, upturned unblinking eye to behold Zephyr fully.

What do you want? Tones travelled up from the deep.

Zephyr stilled himself, daunted and delighted that the Road had answered back.

You have a voice! And it is a good one, he said.

Yes, the Road paused to regard itself in grumbling and sarcastic magnificence, I have a voice.

I hear it, said Zephyr, hushed in his reverence, It is a good one.

The Road did not nod for it had no neck or head. But it vibrated imperceptibly, fully aware of its own vast importance relative to everything else around.

Mm, it groaned, too askance to fully respond to Zephyr. Still, some small droplet of appreciation formed for the boy’s opinion now that he had knelt before it.

Zephyr did not sleep that night, glowing with the response of the Road.

The next day, he was giddy with nectar, and asked the Road all manner of things The Road specialised in answers so cryptic as to be meaningless to non-believers or those who might be more skeptical of deception. But Zephyr was not one of those and he felt something now between him and the Road.

How far do you go, Road? He asked, a little too quickly, any attempts at coolness now evaporated to steam and cloud.

Very far, the Road chewed. Very far, indeed.

It looked wistfully and powerfully into the distance. Zephyr was awed.

The boy gestured at the world around them, the hills in the distance and the plains all around. When a lurking mushroom could be spied from the Road, he would peer over it with greedy delight, searching through his mind for its name. Most often, he could not remember - he had left his books at home. But though it could not be named or catalogued, he loved its shape and form.

I love this, he said, in exhausted exaltation, raising a trembling finger to feel the outer, calloused shell of hardened fungus.

They look like they’ve been here forever, he would say of clusters and clumps that clung to barren fallen trees.

What’s this one?

The Road did not respond. Instead it sniffed and muttered - They’ll all die in the end.

Yes, said Zephyr. I suppose they will.

They continued on together. Zephyr wanted to know the Road. And gradually, it came to trust the boy, in spite of and because of all his habits and formulations.

I have heard stories of you, Road, said Zephyr.

Oh. What stories?

Stories of how you came to be. Why you are what you are, Zephyr murmured.

Tell me, the Road smiled a gritty grin.

Well, there is one. I don’t know if I believe it.

Tell me, said the Road.

Zephyr hesitated. And then the boy recounted what he had heard.

Generations before, the Family had arrived on the Road. The Father stopped at the foot of the Road and gestured for the others to do so. He was spindly, tall, wearing a great and craggy beard. And on this very first day, he laid himself on the Road’s vibrant young, vivacious cobbles, muttering and burbling to himself. Every other member of the whole extended Family followed his example, prostrating themselves on the brown of the Road.

Zephyr paused. The Road hummed. Yes, I remember it.

The Road was younger then, eager and untarnished by life in the world. And it could not contain itself, starting to giggle and chuckle and titter and hooting, as the many members of the Family tickled its back. It was as if a thousand feathers were being used to scrape and to tease it. The Road found the whole situation quite absurd - the Family viewing it as some sort of mythical being to be worshipped and exploited. And then, in imitation of the Road, a child started to laugh, and then another. Cascading now, and soon the whole Family cackled and snickered, fluid cacophonies of laughter coursing out across the Road and over the plain beyond.

The Road greeted them keen and apologetic, excusing itself.

Sorry, said the Road, it’s been a long time.

The Father spoke. No need for apologies, oh mighty Road. He knelt once more. We are here to serve you.

The Family nodded in generous assent.

The Road shivered with self-importance.

Ah, the humility of the Road! The Father announced and gestured to the gathered Family, This is why we must serve you.

The Road shrugged. Well, you’re most welcome here. I can help you get to where you need to go.

And the Family murmured and nodded in dreadful appreciation.

The Father led the way. They walked in generous formation. Their aim was not clear to the Road, but it did not much care for further detail. It was happy for the company. And they were together in peace for some time, the Road bearing the Family, humbled and delighted by their presence. All but one of the Family was honoured to set foot on the Road.

The Father was not so, a man ever keen for change and growth. And as they came closer together, he whispered in the night.

Think of how far you could go, if you had an end goal, he said to the Road. We could drive you forward, tidy up your cobbles-

I like my cobbles!

Yes, yes, of course, and don’t mistake me, they are wondrous cobbles, apologised the Father, But I just think with greater form, he pushed his clenched fist into his opposing palm, You could have much further to run.

The Road was not convinced. It had always roamed free, coursing its way across the terrain.

You will be the one who decides, said the Father, we are but your humble servants, Road.

Thank you, said the Road, warmed with respect.

Yes, of course, said the Father in obsequious apology, I do not mean to speak out of turn. You are an excellent Road.

The Road shuddered with love. And the Father turned away to examine the full length of his own arms and the hands that sat upon them.

On a morning, the Road was woken by a scything neatness. The Family had gathered on both sides. They had made much progress over night, and the Road had been shorn of its ruddy brown crust, blemishes and specks polished clean, cobbles buffed and softened. How had it slept, the Road wondered, as its character had been washed away.

What are you doing? asked the Road, voice barely audible, What are you doing to me?

The Father looked up from his work. He gestured softly for the Family to pause.

We are helping you, he said, For you are most magnificent, Road. You know this. But we know how far you can go. With our tools and your most ineffable magnificence, we will do wonderful things.

But - I don’t want this, whispered the Road. Stop. Please stop.

It’s for the best, said the Father. You will see this, one day.

He shook his head and turned back to the Family, motioning for them to continue their work. And so they continued to scrub clean the calloused back of the Road, smoothing its ignoble edges.

The Road tried to wriggle free - squeezing and contorting itself to escape their grip. It had asked them and they had not listened. Now, it would run. But the Family had the Road pinned into shape. It could not slip gently from their grasp.

The Road was a humble and abundant thing, kind and generous, warm and true. But it had not before been pushed into unnatural forms. And it had warned them, warned them clearly to no response. And now, the Family pushed further, breaking its back. The digging began, scrabbling spades cut into the Road and its screams ricocheted across the plain.

And now the Road fought back.

Brick back raised, it shook off the Family with violent force, parting and opening to crush those it had brought to bear. The Father made to run, escaping off the side, onto the plain and away. But this long, deep Road, too vast and too quick, would not desist in his destruction, rising up and out over its manipulators. The Road screamed and shook, earth around it all transformed, air vibrating until each last member of the Family could do no further harm.

There was quiet then. Red soaked into the Road. The anger did quell and cease after many years. But there was left a residue - the Road now deep within itself, fermented and distrustful.

Zephyr stopped there.

Yes, said the Road. I remember.

Zephyr stopped then and went to wash his clothes.

Later - I didn’t mean it, Zephyr said.

Perhaps, the Road shook. But I will get you where you need to go - and that will be that.

No. There’s more.


And something splintered through, some pressing fingers of feeling. The Road allowed itself to think, for the first time in many centuries, that another might be right.

There had been times when the Road’s air had compressed and reduced Zephyr to something less than himself. But even in the dark, when a veil of gloom descended that seemed so dense as to be impenetrable, Zephyr retained his own self, leaning against his pack and the dry clothes that sat within it. Diminished and enlivened by experience, he had remained what he was.

The Road could see this now. And it shivered, gravelling chunks spilling out over its edges and sides over the unconfined plain, looking out over the lakes and trees and life beyond. Some shared healing of a scar was here - two reluctant organisms in chastened symbiosis. The stirring beat of Zephyr’s feet, the gasp of wind, the Road’s deep, resonant breath.

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