At last we came to a place from which the great spread of the earth was visible. For a time — I can not tell how long — we had wholly lost ourselves, going up and down, and turning corners, without getting further. But my father said that we must come right, if we made up our minds to go long enough. We had been in among all shapes, and want of shapes, of dreariness, through and in and out of every thrup and thrum of weariness, scarcely hoping ever more to find our way out and discover memory of men for us, when all of a sudden we saw a grand sight. The day had been dreadfully hot and baffling, with sudden swirls of red dust arising, and driving the great drought into us. To walk had been worse than to drag one’s way through a stubbly bed of sting-nettles. But now the quick sting of the sun was gone, and his power descending in the balance toward the flat places of the land and sea. And suddenly we looked forth upon an immeasurable spread of these.
We stood at the gate of the sandy range, which here, like a vast brown patch, disfigures the beauty of the sierra. On either side, in purple distance, sprang sky-piercing obelisks and vapor-mantled glaciers, spangled with bright snow, and shodden with eternal forest. Before us lay the broad, luxuriant plains of California, checkered with more tints than any other piece of earth can show, sleeping in alluvial ease, and veined with soft blue waters. And through a gap in the brown coast range, at twenty leagues of distance, a light (so faint as to seem a shadow) hovered above the Pacific.
But none of all this grandeur touched our hearts except the water gleam. Parched with thirst, I caught my father’s arm and tried to urge him on toward the blue enchantment of ecstatic living water. But, to my surprise, he staggered back, and his face grew as white as the distant snow. I managed to get him to a sandy ledge, with the help of his own endeavors, and there let him rest and try to speak, while my frightened heart throbbed over his.
“My little child,” he said at last, as if we were fallen back ten years, “put your hand where I can feel it.”
My hand all the while had been in his, and to let him know where it was, it moved. But cold fear stopped my talking.
“My child, I have not been kind to you,” my father slowly spoke again, “but it has not been from want of love. Some day you will see all this, and some day you will pardon me.”
He laid one heavy arm around me, and forgetting thirst and pain, with the last intensity of eyesight watched the sun departing. To me, I know not how, great awe was every where, and sadness. The conical point of the furious sun, which like a barb had pierced us, was broadening into a hazy disk, inefficient, but benevolent. Underneath him depth of night was waiting to come upward (after letting him fall through) and stain his track with redness. Already the arms of darkness grew in readiness to receive him: his upper arc was pure and keen, but the lower was flaked with atmosphere; a glow of hazy light soon would follow, and one bright glimmer (addressed more to the sky than to the earth), and after that a broad, soft gleam; and after that how many a man should never see the sun again, and among them would be my father.
He, for the moment, resting there, with heavy light upon him, and the dark jaws of the mountain desert yawning wide behind him, and all the beautiful expanse of liberal earth before him — even so he seemed to me, of all the things in sight, the one that first would draw attention. His face was full of quiet grandeur and impressive calm, and the sad tranquillity which comes to those who know what human life is through continual human death. Although, in the matter of bodily strength, he was little past the prime of life, his long and abundant hair was white, and his broad and upright forehead marked with the meshes of the net of care. But drought and famine and long fatigue had failed even now to change or weaken the fine expression of his large, sad eyes. Those eyes alone would have made the face remarkable among ten thousand, so deep with settled gloom they were, and dark with fatal sorrow. Such eyes might fitly have told the grief of Adrastus, son of Gordias, who, having slain his own brother unwitting, unwitting slew the only son of his generous host and savior.
The pale globe of the sun hung trembling in the haze himself had made. My father rose to see the last, and reared his tall form upright against the deepening background. He gazed as if the course of life lay vanishing below him, while level land and waters drew the breadth of shadow over them. Then the last gleam flowed and fled upon the face of ocean, and my father put his dry lips to my forehead, saying nothing.
His lips might well be dry, for he had not swallowed water for three days; but it frightened me to feel how cold they were, and even tremulous. “Let us run, let us run, my dear father!” I cried. “Delicious water! The dark falls quickly; but we can get there before dark. It is all down hill. Oh, do let us run at once!”
“Erema,” he answered, with a quiet smile, “there is no cause now for hurrying, except that I must hurry to show you what you have to do, my child. For once, at the end of my life, I am lucky. We have escaped from that starving desert at a spot — at a spot where we can see —”
For a little while he could say no more, but sank upon the stony seat, and the hand with which he tried to point some distant landmark fell away. His face, which had been so pale before, became of a deadly whiteness, and he breathed with gasps of agony. I knelt before him and took his hands, and tried to rub the palms, and did whatever I could think of.
“Oh, father, father, you have starved yourself, and given every thing to me! What a brute I was to let you do it! But I did not know; I never knew! Please God to take me also!”
He could not manage to answer this, even if he understood it; but he firmly lifted his arm again, and tried to make me follow it.
“What does it matter? Oh, never mind, never mind such, a wretch as I am! Father, only try to tell me what I ought to do for you.”
“My child! my child!” were his only words; and he kept on saying, “My child! my child!” as if he liked the sound of it.
At what time of the night my father died I knew not then or afterward. It may have been before the moon came over the snowy mountains, or it may not have been till the worn-out stars in vain repelled the daybreak. All I know is that I ever strove to keep more near to him through the night, to cherish his failing warmth, and quicken the slow, laborious, harassed breath. From time to time he tried to pray to God for me and for himself; but every time his mind began to wander and to slip away, as if through want of practice. For the chills of many wretched years had deadened and benumbed his faith. He knew me, now and then, betwixt the conflict and the stupor; for more than once he muttered feebly, and as if from out a dream,
“Time for Erema to go on her way. Go on your way, and save your life; save your life, Erema.”
There was no way for me to go, except on my knees before him. I took his hands, and made them lissome with a soft, light rubbing. I whispered into his ear my name, that he might speak once more to me; and when he could not speak, I tried to say what he would say to me.
At last, with a blow that stunned all words, it smote my stupid, wandering mind that all I had to speak and smile to, all I cared to please and serve, the only one left to admire and love, lay here in my weak arms quite dead. And in the anguish of my sobbing, little things came home to me, a thousand little things that showed how quietly he had prepared for this, and provided for me only. Cold despair and self-reproach and strong rebellion dazed me, until I lay at my father’s side, and slept with his dead hand in mine. There in the desert of desolation pious awe embraced me, and small phantasms of individual fear could not come nigh me.
By-and-by long shadows of morning crept toward me dismally, and the pallid light of the hills was stretched in weary streaks away from me. How I arose, or what I did, or what I thought, is nothing now. Such times are not for talking of. How many hearts of anguish lie forlorn, with none to comfort them, with all the joy of life died out, and all the fear of having yet to live, in front arising!
Young and weak, and wrong of sex for doing any valiance, long I lay by my father’s body, wringing out my wretchedness. Thirst and famine now had flown into the opposite extreme; I seemed to loathe the thought of water, and the smell of food would have made me sick. I opened my father’s knapsack, and a pang of new misery seized me. There lay nearly all his rations, which he had made pretense to eat as he gave me mine from time to time. He had starved himself; since he failed of his mark, and learned our risk of famishing, all his own food he had kept for me, as well as his store of water. And I had done nothing but grumble and groan, even while consuming every thing. Compared with me, the hovering vultures might be considered angels.
When I found all this, I was a great deal too worn out to cry or sob. Simply to break down may be the purest mercy that can fall on truly hopeless misery. Screams of ravenous maws and flaps of fetid wings came close to me, and, fainting into the arms of death, I tried to save my father’s body by throwing my own over it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50