No sound was coming from inside it; all he could hear was his own labored breathing and the rapid beating of his heart.
Bending down he looked inside. The tunnel was blocked by filth, stones, and refuse brought by the water. But nothing moved or made any sound. He smacked his lips. There was no response.
Leaping up again he checked the road: the pyre was no more than a couple of kilometers away, and he could not be certain the hunters would not follow him.
Kneeling down he stuck his head into the tunnel and thought he saw a movement. He reached in, and, as if he had been breaking a membrane, was struck full in the face by the smell of death. Suddenly what he was doing seemed just as incomprehensible to him as when, years before, after one of his books had just reached the bookstores, he had been unable to explain to himself how he had spent three years of his life writing a complicated poem in a difficult and antique verse form, which many of his readers, and most of his critics, had already dismissed as an affected minor work.
He lay face down on the ground in order to stretch out an arm, but also because his twisted position was making his head spin. His hand touched something soft and cold. Pulling it toward him, he saw it was a dead puppy covered with ants. He threw it behind him near to the body of its mother, and when he heard the thud as it hit the ground he retched, as if his gesture had validated the existence of a hidden part of himself that had now emerged into the light with pangs like childbirth.
Reaching into the tunnel again, he felt something tepid and let it slide across the palm of his hand like a baker collecting a loaf from the far end of the oven.
He pulled the puppy out. It instinctively hid its muzzle between his fingers. It must have been the first time it had seen the light. It was wet with urine, and yellow liquid had dried around its half-closed eyes. Leonardo climbed out of the ditch and sat down in the shadow of the car. Grabbing his water bottle from the seat he took a long drink, poured some water into his hand and tried to wash his arms and neck; he then tried to get the puppy to drink from his hand, but the animal seemed stunned by sleep or hunger and did not react. Even when he cleaned the incrustation from its eyes, the dog continued to keep them closed. It was black and its ears were hanging sideways, giving it an air of resignation.
He put it down long enough to take off his shirt and stretch it over the seat. He settled the dog on top and was about to get into the car when he was stopped by a sudden pain in the pit of his stomach. With long strides, his naked thin torso marked by large moles, he ran toward the edge of the road and was only just able to drop his pants in time before a gush of diarrhea emptied him.
Gasping for breath and bent double, he got back to the car door and took a roll of toilet paper from the inside compartment. He wiped himself carefully, wetting the paper with a little water. Sitting down in the driving seat, he took a casual shirt with horizontal brown stripes from his bag and began searching on the map for a road that would help him avoid the crossroads where the pyre would certainly still be burning. He found one that would not take him too far off course: it was a case of going back about ten kilometers and crossing the river. His wristwatch said a quarter past three. To the north, blue mountains closed the horizon. By eight it would be dark, but if he couldn't get home by then at least he would be on a familiar stretch of road.
He drove slowly, taking great care at corners as if his new passenger must not be disturbed. The dog never moved, and every now and then Leonardo reached out a hand to check its little heart, which beat rapidly under his fingers. Toward five it urinated, and when the light started to fail, it began lolling its head and emitting little blind whimpers. Leonardo stopped the car and cleaned its eyes, which were encrusted again, then he held a piece of the cheese he had eaten for lunch to its mouth, but the dog seemed not to recognize it as edible and turned away in irritation.
Excerpted from The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo. Copyright © 2013 by Davide Longo. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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