"It's the Cookie's job to improvise," he said. "Don't forget that, boy."
"Yes, sir," Cookie whispered.
The fire hissed and wheezed and Cookie and his commanding officer sat there watching it a while longer. The commander stared into the flames with glassy, exhausted eyes, and finally lifted himself up as well, and shambled into the trees.
Cookie remained by the fire. A log crumbled and fell to the red cinders, sending sparks toward the sky in a sparkling plume. He rubbed the stubble of his neck and cheek and jawline in a slow, languorous pattern. He had drawn first-patrol duty that night, which meant he would soon be circling the camp, protecting the men from whatever harm might come their way. Perhaps, he hoped, he might turn up some more food on the watch. Something small, like radishes or carrots, or a nest of quail eggs. Perhaps a well-baked brisket.
Cookie sighed and tightened his bootstraps. Out in the darkness, he heard a rustling of leaves, which he hoped was only a muskrat, or some wayward, nocturnal bird.
An hour later, after cleaning the stew pot and pitching the tents and avoiding an argument about the proper way to tie a Cincinnati bowtie using a length of rope no longer than a foot, Cookie crept toward the edge of the camp to begin his watch. The rows of tents glowed in the moonlight like a range of tiny, box-shaped mountains, the shadows of the men folding along the planes of the canvas as they moved about, illuminated by kerosene lamps and wax candles.
Cookie carried a wicker basket over his shoulder and wandered the forest, lifting the skirts of spreading ferns and scraping the white shingles of meringue-like fungus from the trunks of trees. He found a cluster of wide mushroom caps fanned with gills in the root system of a massive cedar, and a writhing crowd of potato bugs under a rotten log, their armored bodies curling into tight balls when they were touched by the air.
Some dogs remained among the company, but to eat them would certainly panic the men.
On his way from one side of the camp to the other he walked alongside the edge of a cliff, where a panoramic view of the forest stretched out in a patchwork of black masses. The clouds had parted to let down the milky light of a full moon, revealing rows of mountains receding in lighter and lighter waves, pressing against the distant skyline like a saw blade. At the base of the cliff was a creek, which passed by a marshy expanse full of tall grass and pussy willow, softened under the nacreous lamplight of the stars.
As Cookie stood there awhile, and time moved a little, the severity of his thoughts bundled into a kind of majestic doom, and oddly enough he began to feel a bit better than before. His longing for safety and acceptance transformed into a vague resolution, and his thoughts gradually fell into a new, more optimistic order. For no particular reason the men began to seem just fine to Cookie, quite fine, and small in comparison to the grandeur of things like the mountains and the moon. The secret language they spoke did not bother him. The waterfalls, and snowy ridges, and Indian populations ceased to pose a threat. He trusted the men and himself to move through each day's tests with stern resolve. They were his men, after all. They had embarked on this journey together.
Cookie lingered on the edge of the cliff, taking heart in the reasonable thought that Oregon, like any other country, was created to bear the fruits and meat of man's nourishment. Soon there would be settlers and farmers and women and children here, who in turn would need schools and churches and stores to shop in, and thus more men and women and children to come join them. Among those people he would surely find a place. He imagined, as he sometimes did, that history emanated from some central spot, Paris perhaps, or London, and arrived to distant regions in ever weaker pulsations, and that perhaps he had beaten it here, and could prepare for it this time.
From The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, Chapter 1, pages 1-17. Copyright 2004 by Jonathan Raymond. All rights reserved. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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