Cormac McCarthy’s 1994 novel The Crossing is a grim tale set in the American southwest and Mexico.
From the book’s back cover:
In the late 1930s, sixteen-year-old Billy Parham captures a she-wolf that has been marauding his family’s ranch. But instead of killing it, he decides to take it back to the mountains of Mexico. With that crossing, he begins an arduous and often dreamlike journey into a country where men meet like ghosts and violence strikes as suddenly as heat-lightning – a world where there is no order “save that which death has put there.”
On his mission of goodwill, Billy suffers hardship, violence, and soul-crushing loss.
The book left a powerful impression. Since I read it more than 20 years ago, details of the story are lost to memory, but the ending – especially the very last paragraph – lodged itself in my mind and has stayed with me. Out of the darkness, there is a glimmer of light and hope.
I’ll quote the final three pages:
He got his blankets and spread them in the hay and he was sitting eating sardines out of a tin and watching the rain when a yellow dog rounded the side of the building and entered through the open door and stopped. It looked first at the horse. Then it swung its head and looked at him. It was an old dog gone gray about the muzzle and it was horribly crippled in its hindquarters and its head was askew someway on its body and it moved grotesquely. An arthritic and illjoined thing that crabbed sideways and sniffed at the floor to pick up the man’s scent and then raised its head and nudged the air with its nose and tried to sort him from the shadows with its milky half blind eyes.
Billy set the sardines carefully beside him. He could smell the thing in the damp. It stood there inside the door with the rain falling in the weeds and gravel behind it and it was wet and wretched and so scarred and broken that it might have been patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists. It stood and then it shook itself in its grotesque fashion and hobbled moaning to the far corner of the room where it looked back and then turned three times and lay down.
He wiped the blade of the knife on his breeches leg and laid the knife across the tin and looked about. He pried a loose clod of mud from the wall and threw it. The dog made a strange moaning sound but it did not move.
Git, he shouted.
The dog moaned, it lay as before.
He swore softly and rose to his feet and cast about for a weapon. The horse looked at him and it looked at the dog. He crossed the room and went out in the rain and walked around the side of the building. When he came back he had in his fist a threefoot length of waterpipe and with it he advanced upon the dog. Go on, he shouted. Git.
The dog rose moaning and slouched away down the wall and limped out into the yard. When he turned to go back to his blankets it slank past him into the building again. He turned and ran at it with the pipe and it scrabbled away.
He followed it. Outside it had stopped at the edge of the road and it stood in the rain looking back. It had perhaps once been a hunting dog, perhaps left for dead in the mountains or by some highwayside. Repository of ten thousand indignities and the harbinger of God knew what. He bent and clawed up a handful of small rocks from the gravel apron and slung them. The dog raised its misshapen head and howled weirdly. He advanced upon it and it set off up the road. He ran after it and threw more rocks and shouted at it and he slung the length of pipe. It went clanging and skittering up the road behind the dog and the dog howled again and began to run, hobbling brokenly on its twisted legs with the strange head agoggle on its neck. As it went it raised its mouth sideways and howled again with a terrible sound. Something not of this earth. As if some awful composite of grief had broke through from the preterite world. It tottered away up the road in the rain on its stricken legs and as it went it howled again and again in its heart’s despair until it was gone from all sight and all sound in the night’s onset.
He woke in the white light of the desert noon and sat up in the ranksmelling blankets. The shadow of the bare wood windowsash stenciled onto the opposite wall began to pale and fade as he watched. As if a cloud were passing over the sun. He kicked out of the blankets and pulled on his boots and his hat and rose and walked out. The road was a pale gray in the light and the light was drawing away along the edges of the world. Small birds had wakened in the roadside desert bracken and begun to chitter and to flit about and out on the blacktop bands of tarantulas that had been crossing the road in the dark like landcrabs stood frozen at their articulations, arch as marionettes, testing with their measured octave tread the sudden jointed shadows of themselves beneath them.
He looked out down the road and he looked toward the fading light. Darkening shapes of cloud all along the northern rim. It had ceased raining in the night and a broken rainbow or watergall stood out on the desert in a dim neon bow and he looked again at the road which lay as before yet more dark and darkening still where it ran on to the east and where there was no sun and there was no dawn and when he looked again toward the north the light was drawing away faster and that noon in which he’d woke was now become an alien dusk and now an alien dark and the birds that flew had lighted and all had hushed once again in the bracken by the road.
He walked out. A cold wind was coming down off the mountains. It was shearing off the western slopes of the continent where the summer snow lay above the timberline and it was crossing through the high fir forests and among the poles of the aspens and it was sweeping over the desert plain below. It had ceased raining in the night and he walked out on the road and called for the dog. He called and called. Standing in that inexplicable darkness. Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind. After a while he sat in the road. He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.