Something is going to happen soon. Of that much, Solomon is sure. The surety is an annoyance; it worries at him like an insect or a pang of hunger. After everything, all this surety means is waiting. Having come to the end of plans, of action, he finds himself waiting, as they all do, for something he didn’t create, and can’t direct, and in all likelihood is not even truly a part of. That’s not the right way to think of it. It’s too much like absolving himself of what he has done. Or putting himself out of a job. Yet, he sees Hickey say something to Des Voeux, and Des Voeux stride away with the semblance of purpose. Maybe he’s already out of a job. It’s then that Hickey looks at Solomon. As far away as he is, Hickey doesn’t have to cast about. He knows exactly where Solomon is. It’s his inclination to go over to Hickey, to find out what he wants, but Solomon makes himself stay where he is. Looking out ahead, he watches the figures of Des Voeux and some of the others grow smaller, fade, vanish. He waits for Hickey to come to him, hands in the pockets of his coat, the front unbuttoned, the bottom moving as he does, like curtains parting and closing and parting again.
“I have a different task for you,” Hickey says brightly, as though they’d been speaking this whole time, Solomon’s thoughts and his.
“I thought you would.” He only just got back from running Hickey’s last errand, and he feels even the short journey in his bones; a scraping ache down to his knees, in his back, his shoulders. He hears the irritation in his voice, but it only rests on the surface, doesn’t break it, doesn’t sink down. He knows where he’s being led. All irritation will be forgotten once he gets there.
“I have something to retrieve,” Hickey says. He turns his gaze on Solomon, eyes narrowing either from the sun or in appraisal. Suddenly, he looks unsure of himself. “Will you come with me?”
Whither thou goest.
Solomon looks down, nods wearily. It feels like reassuring a child or an idiot. The weight that was upon him shifts, and it’s now just another thing to haul. The men left behind are sleeping, or at least out of sight, so there’s no one to see them go.
“It’s not very far,” Hickey says, his eyes fixed ahead, as though on something only visible to him.
Solomon says nothing.
Barrenness opens for them. For the breadth and emptiness, it might be field. It might be the sea. One endless plain is not so different from another, so much of the same on top of the same that the eye and mind are flooded.
Here, there is a blemish on the terrain. It’s subtle, so you might pass it by, if you weren’t looking for something unusual. They tried to conceal it, but the shales at this point lie in a different way than those around. Even at a distance, it’s suggestive. Closer up, it’s unmistakable. When they get there, he helps Hickey shift the larger stones that lie atop, and brush aside the smaller ones beneath. Hickey crouches down, over the shrouded figure. The image of Gibson, wrapped in his blanket comes, unbidden. Solomon turns around. He doesn’t have to see this. He hears, though. A long row of fraying, rupturing sounds, stitches being broken. Sounds of effort. A shifting of the shales as Hickey falls back suddenly. Now, he does look. In Hickey’s hands is a boot. The figure is uncovered, gray-skinned, open-mouthed and disarrayed from being jostled, wearing the other boot. Solomon turns around again.
The process is repeated. Another shifting. Hickey’s standing beside him, now. Solomon turns. The figure lies cruciform on its shroud. Like a dozing drunk on an unmade bed. “Are you going to leave him like that?”
“And why not?” Hickey asks, his expression grave. He smiles. Or shows his teeth, anyhow. “Or should we carry him back with us? You could heave him over your shoulder. There’s not much to him, now.”
Solomon looks around. There’s nothing in sight. “Leave him.”
“As you wish,” Hickey says, getting a better grip on the boots.
At the camp, Hickey says: “There is one other thing I’ll be asking of you.”
“I thought as much.”
“You almost sound reluctant.”
Solomon looks down, at the boots in Hickey’s hand. “Are you going to put them on?”
Hickey raises his eyebrows, nods toward the boots. “These, and nothing else?”
Solomon can’t help it. He laughs.
In the tent, Hickey clears a space on the floor, crouches, and sets down the boots with care. Perhaps it’s not the most absurd thing in the world to imagine that he only went where he went and did what he did so as not to let a fine pair of boots go to waste.
Hickey stands. He places his hands on Solomon’s shoulders. There’s color in his cheeks, from the walk. Beneath Solomon’s hand, his cheek is warm, soft. The cold never really touches Hickey. He remains the only one among them not rubbed raw by it. His lips are soft, unchapped, first to the pad of Solomon’s thumb, then to his mouth. Hickey opens his mouth against Solomon’s, breathes in deeply through his nose, with a rushing sound that makes Solomon start away. He feels himself frown.
“Perhaps you think I’m after your soul, too,” Hickey says.
Solomon shakes his head. “Don’t say that.”
“No,” Hickey says, the corners of his mouth pulled downward severely. He almost looks angry. God in heaven knows why. Why, any of this, if you’re going to start asking.
Just to be done with the question, he pulls Hickey close, kisses him again. He feels a perfunctory tickle of concern: someone could see them. It’s the first time in a while that’s occurred to him. Strange, that it should be now, that the place is all but vacant. Anyone still there is making himself scarce. Maybe it’s the sudden return of the fear after so long an absence, but it’s exciting. He feels a thrill run through him. He pulls Hickey closer, slips his hands into Hickey’s coat, snatches at what he’s wearing underneath until he pulls it aside, and feels skin. He expects Hickey to say something. If something, anything happens, if Solomon is hesitant or eager or not especially one or the other, like clockwork, Hickey will say something. Hickey says nothing, so he keeps going, moves his hand up Hickey’s waist then down again, into his drawers.
“Do you want to lie down?” Hickey asks, a sort of caution in his voice, as though asking a sick person if he wants to rest.
He pulls Hickey along with him, down onto the bed. Hickey looks troubled, suddenly.
Why any of this?
It’s what he told Hickey, about the creature. That’s what Solomon decides. It’s the weight of it all. It’d burden any man. And who was Hickey before this? Nobody. Nothing. It is as he said; it’s a matter of looking on things differently. But changing what you call a thing doesn’t change what it is. What he is. In his soul. Solomon knows what he is, and he knows what Hickey is, too. They may be less than they were when they started out. All the more important, then, that they hold together what they’re made of.
He finds himself acting as though to console Hickey, as though all of this has passed between them, and they’ve both come to understand it. He has his hands in Hickey’s hair, on his face, gentling Hickey as he kisses Hickey’s mouth, his neck. After the initial embrace, Hickey had cooled down, wanted less. It was as though he’d just had to prove it to himself that first time that Solomon would acquiesce. Solomon now knows that this is what it was. It was to see how well Solomon could follow orders. For that, he often gives Hickey more than he asks for. It is up to Hickey to pull away. He often does, with a tart expression or a cross word. He’ll draw himself away, either to get away from Solomon, or to simply be alone. When he comes back, it’ll be on his terms. He’ll refuse to be kissed. He’ll conduct his affairs only with the back of Solomon. He does none of that, now. Hickey lets himself be stroked, caressed, right out of his coat. He lets himself be touched, safe as he is on top of Solomon, one knee pressed between Solomon’s legs. It’s no-doubt meant as a warning, but it acts as more of an inducement. If you find yourself pulled sufficiently taut, you’ll rub against anything that’ll hold still for it. All the better if it’s familiar. All the better if it’s someone known to you. There’s a difference, between knowing someone, and the person being known. That comes with time. Solomon never had time for that before. He now has nothing but time. He unbuttons Hickey’s drawers, pulls them down in back. He must do it roughly, because Hickey starts a little. It’s good to have Hickey, for once, be the one to do that.
He pulls Hickey down flush against him, pulls his drawers down completely, touches him. There’s a tenseness in Hickey momentarily, like he means to get away. Solomon holds him closer, one hand on his arm to keep him still, the other on the back of Hickey’s head as he kisses him. Hickey’s settled himself, so Solomon takes the hand off his arm, runs it down Hickey’s body again. For a while, he just feels Hickey. He hardens without very much attention. It’s better to give him attention; most of all when Hickey seems to want it least. Solomon pulls at him slowly, lets Hickey ease into it. Sometimes, it takes working up to, even when Hickey wants it. He’s peculiar that way. Strangely reluctant. Like he’s losing a bet with himself.
He must have lost it. He eases himself down completely, presses his face into Solomon’s neck, shifts his weight. It’s as well he hides his face. It might be an insult to his dignity, fucking himself in Solomon’s hand, bare arse in the air. For that, Solomon draws Hickey’s face up, kisses Hickey before Hickey can object. Holds him fast, a hand on his neck. Kisses him hard and deep. Maybe some of the insult is taken away. Like this, Hickey can’t really make any sort of sound when he comes. He always seems like he’s making an effort. He’s thought out how he wants to sound, and in being faithful to his idea, he rings untrue to another. Without realizing it, Hickey’s made a mockery of himself.
It makes Solomon pity him in a way. Something softer than pity, which can so quickly curdle into disdain. Breathing heavily, Hickey pulls away. He looks at Solomon. His expression is soft. Maybe there’s enough pity to go round.
There’s something else.
Hickey’s pawing at his clothes. Solomon lets himself be stripped of his shirt, now ruined, anyway, then his undershirt. He draws Hickey to him, pulls off Hickey’s undershirt. Hickey’s drawers are still down around his hips. Solomon touches him, because he can. Just to touch him. His skin is soft. It tastes of salt and iron. He bites Hickey on the shoulder. Hickey gasps, a bitter, choked sound, then does it right back to him. Only harder. Hickey’s knee’s between his legs again, pressing in roughly. It makes Solomon feel sharp on the inside, like something filed down. He holds Hickey’s hips, lets his fingers press in deeper than he meant them to. Hickey starts, gives Solomon a warning jab with his knee. It makes Solomon press in, deeper, still. He can feel the bone beneath the flesh. Hickey tries to pull away, but Solomon reaches up quickly, claps his hand on the back of Hickey’s neck. He rubs himself against Hickey’s knee, runs his other hand slowly up from Hickey’s hip to his waist. It occurs to him that he may be trying to put Hickey at ease. His intention isn’t violence. Not real violence, anyway. Not of the sort that Hickey might want to respond to in kind.
It must suffice, because Hickey kisses his mouth once more, then directs his attention to points lower on Solomon’s body. First, it’s like the sea dragging over him. A sea as warm as blood. A summer sea. Hickey’s mouth is soft, gentle, but insistent. It might wear Solomon away, into nothing, and in a way, he feels himself dissolving. There reaches a point where the softness becomes punishing. Somewhere in Solomon, it hurts. It must, because he groans like a wounded man. It matches the ache in his bones. It pushes him forward, toward the inevitable. Either to escape pain, or to go into greater pain, still. Solomon doesn’t know. Perhaps it’s the second one. At the edge of his thoughts comes what he’s heard about death by hanging. A short, sharp jerk. Then stillness.
Not total stillness, because he’s still breathing. His heart pounds. Then, Hickey’s lying next to him again, turning Solomon’s head toward him. Solomon closes his eyes, feels Hickey’s mouth against his. Feels it open. And what pours out. It’s meant to disgust him, so he opens his mouth, lets Hickey’s tongue slip against his, kisses Hickey through the brackish slick. He waits a moment, then finds Hickey’s undershirt and wipes his mouth on the sleeve. Hickey smiles. He kisses Hickey again. Hickey suffers himself to be held, caressed, retained. He lets his head fall onto Solomon’s shoulder. For a moment, everything is silent. Even the wind stifles itself. Perhaps this is what Solomon’s been waiting for. Perhaps this is the end.
Hickey takes Solomon’s hands away from his body, and gets up. He pulls up his drawers. He leans over Solomon, and picks up his undershirt, frowning as he rubs at the stain on the sleeve. He puts it on. He puts on his coat. He picks up Fitzjames’ boots. He takes off his own, and slips his foot into one. Fitzjames was a tall man. It was bound to be too big. Hickey looks around until he finds a bit of cloth, tears it into sections, and stuffs them into the toes of the boots so that they’ll fit him. He puts them on, and stands.
“Make yourself decent,” Hickey says, looking out before himself, at the opening of the tent. The wind has picked up again, and the flap rolls outward into the cold air like a tongue. Before Solomon can reply, ask where this sense of urgency has come from, or tell Hickey to go to hell, or even pull Hickey, complaining and lashing out all the way, back down onto the bed, Hickey’s opened the front of the tent. It closes again just as quickly, as Hickey leaves, but before it does, Solomon catches a glimpse of the blasted landscape outside, all gray. Nothing but gray. Even though it’s clearly blue, the sky is also, somehow gray; in disposition if not in hue. It looks like ash. All of it. Even the sky. A condemned and derelict place, forsaken even by the beasts.
Except for it.
Except for them.
Hickey’s gone, so he won’t know if Solomon tarries. Perhaps, Solomon won’t move at all. Perhaps he’ll lie here, forever. Until whatever awaits him, awaits them, comes to him for a change. Instead of he rushing out to meet it. Perhaps it’ll never come. Perhaps this is the end.
Sighing, he sits up. Even when they’re still, they are all moving. Toward God knows what. They can’t stop. It would be foolish to try. He starts to dress. Whatever it is, he’ll come forward to meet it, just as he always has.