Excerpt from Torch by Cheryl Strayed, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2006, 336 pages
    Jan 2007, 336 pages

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They went to a Chinese restaurant. They could still eat. They read the astrology on the placemats and ordered green beans in garlic sauce and cold sesame noodles and then read the placemats again, out loud to each other. They were horses, both of them, thirty-eight years old. They were in perpetual motion, moved with electric fluidity, possessed unconquered spirits. They were impulsive and stubborn and lacked discretion. They were a perfect match.

Goldfish swam in a pond near their table. Ancient goldfish.

Unsettlingly large goldfish. "Hello, goldfish," she cooed, tilting toward them in her chair. They swam to the surface, opening their big mouths in perfect circles, making small popping noises.

"Are you hungry?" she asked them. "They're hungry," she said to Bruce, then looked searchingly around the restaurant, as if to see where they kept the goldfish food.

At a table nearby there was a birthday party, and Bruce and Teresa were compelled to join in for the birthday song. The woman whose birthday it was received a flaming custard, praised it loudly, then ate it with reserve.

Bruce held her hand across the table. "Now that I'm dying we're dating again," she said for a joke, though they didn't laugh. Sorrow surged erotically through them as if they were breaking up. Her groin was a fist, then a swamp. "I want to make love with you," she said, and he blinked his blue eyes, tearing up so much that he had to take his glasses off. They'd tapered off over the years. Once or twice a month, perhaps.

Their food arrived, great bowls of it, and they ate as if nothing were different. They were so hungry they couldn't speak, so they listened to the conversation of the happy people at the birthday party table. The flaming custard lady insisted that she was a dragon, not a rabbit, despite what the placemat said. After a while they all rose and put their heavy coats on, strolling past Teresa and Bruce, admiring the goldfish in their pond.

"I had a goldfish once," said a man who held the arm of the custard lady. "His name was Charlie." And everyone laughed uproariously. Later, after Bruce paid the bill, they crossed a footbridge over a pond where you could throw a penny.

They threw pennies.

On the drive home it hit them, and they wept. Driving was good because they didn't have to look at each other. They said the word, but as if it were two words. Can. Sir. They had to say it slowly, dissected, or not at all. They vowed they would not tell the kids. How could they tell the kids?

"How could we not?" Teresa asked bitterly, after a while. She thought of how, when the kids were babies, she would take their entire hands into her mouth and pretend that she was going to eat them until they laughed. She remembered this precisely, viscerally, the way their fingers felt pressing onto her tongue, and she fell forward, over her knees, her head wedged under the dash, to sob.

Bruce slowed and then pulled over and stopped the truck. They were out of Duluth now, off the freeway, on the road home. He hunched over her back, hugging her with his weight wherever he could.

She took several deep breaths to calm herself, wiped her face with her gloves, and looked up out the windshield at the snow packed hard on the shoulder of the road. She felt that home was impossibly far.

"Let's go," she said.

They drove in silence under the ice-clear black sky, passing turkey farms and dairy farms every few miles, or houses with lit-up sheds. When they crossed into Coltrap County, Bruce turned the radio on, and they heard Teresa's own voice and it shocked them, although it was a Thursday night. She was interviewing a dowser from Blue River, a woman named Patty Peterson, the descendant of a long line of Petersons who'd witched wells. Teresa heard herself say, "I've always wondered about the art—I suppose you could call it an art—or perhaps the skill of selecting a willow branch." And then she switched the radio off immediately. She held her hands in a clenched knot on her lap. It was ten degrees below zero outside. The truck made a roaring sound, in need of a new muffler.

Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Strayed. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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