(As part of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, this is Part 2 of a short story I wrote some time ago. Part 1 was last week’s post. For my beautifully sensitive readers, I should mention that this gets a little R-rated.)
After bathing, the man sat beside the pond. The hazy disc of the daystar was all that reflected in its surface, rendering a monotone to the gray sky, the gray pond, and the sere fields and blighted trees. He thought it reminded him of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Sometimes he was no longer sure. At times though he could remember the days that came before, like he was waking up and standing on the edge of a dream. He remembered the last days of The Net, people huddled around the Screens watching as bad news came in from everywhere. The wind turbines had been dead a long time. When the ice melted, the currents changed, the prevailing winds shifted, and the long graceful white blades stopped. Even the huge dams had failed. The lakes filled with silt. The silt poured through the turbines, abrading away the impellers. As the turbines screeched to a stop they finally pulled every last trace of carbon from underground, burning it all just to keep it going. In the end, though, everything had failed. The lights went out and the humming data centers whirred to silence.
Like beduins, the people fanned out into the deserts and fallow farms. Out into…nothing. They were inexperienced at living that way. It was chaos. In a world already maddened by isolation and despair it was too much. Some were never going to make it. Theirs had been the world of hermetically sealed houses, heated and cooled to a set point, the mechanics of comfort left to the thermostat. They had never built a fire or a shelter. They had never raised food, caught food, shot food, or butchered food. It all simply appeared, sanitized and individually wrapped, in gleaming grocery cases. They had never located themselves in space except as a blue dot on a screen. Direction, topography and dead reckoning were lost concepts. In their cubicles, some of them had pretended the world was prey and predator. But it was all a joke, a game where the winners knew what the rules were or had simply been better informed how to play. If their game ever did hit the tipping point, policy makers and regulators threw out nets to save them. They had never tested themselves against the cold objectivity of Nature, against the rivers and mountains and the crazy chaos of weather patterns that did not give a shit if they lived or died. You would have thought that people who depended so much on what they had built would husband the carbon that ran it. But they had not. Their suburban enclaves, the inert orthodoxies of their catechisms and colleges, left them guided by superstition and hubris. Facts were the one luxury they would not afford themselves.
Still, it was nothing like the chaos when The Cloud came and covered everything. Without the Screens no one knew what caused it, or how long it might last. Not that it mattered. After a few months, far fewer voices were crying out. And then the virus came. No one was prepared for the scale on which it killed. And it had help. Some were killed just on the suspicion of being infected. Others did not wait to see if the microbe was going to choose them. Eventually the ammunition ran out and the virus, maybe, had passed. But not before the world became a very quiet place. Quiet and dark. But now, maybe not so dark as it was.
The fire was going when he got back. The back of the fire pit and the corner wall of the porch reflected heat making a spot that was almost warm. Claire was sitting there carving a sharp tip into a long stick, her bottom lip puckered slightly in concentration. He sat down next to her, his hip touching hers. It took a moment before he noticed that she was wearing Jenny’s hoop earrings. He reached up and touched the worn, warmly burnished metal.
“Gold came from the stars.”
It was an old joke and she started to smile, then seemed to think better of it and touched her tongue to her upper lip. She swung the sharpened end of the stick toward the fire, nearly catching his cheek in the process, and began charring the point.
“Carbon came from the stars. But it wasn’t worth knowing that, was it?”
She gave him a long look.
“We never treated it like what it was: something from another galaxy. We never treated it like it had an end. We never thought it was sacred.”
Silence passed between them until the stick began smoking.
“I think I’ll get some sleep. You?”
“No. Go ahead. I’ll bank the fire.”
He stood up and turned to push through the polymer hatch.
He paused and began peeling the yellow-and-black warning label from the hatch. He laughed to himself. A lot of good those did. The virus didn’t care if you had quarantined your house. It didn’t know anything about zippered hatches or adhesive labels. Walls, doors, antibiotics: microbes—evolving at a thousand times the rate of their human hosts—picked the genetic locks, then skirted human technology as if it didn’t exist. He walked across the porch and dropped the label in the fire. It flared briefly then shriveled into ash.
“What is it, Claire?”
“I just can’t right now.”
She seemed to shrink back inside herself.
“Do you understand?”
He brushed her cheek lightly with the back of his forefinger.
In his dream he was in water, warm, clear, bright water. He could look up to the surface and see the sunlight sparkling in the wavelets. He heard a muffled aqueous laugh and Claire came swimming up to him, her golden hair flowing around her face, bubbles forming under her nose. She giggled and more bubbles rose from her mouth. She swam to him in sure, even strokes, her breasts moving back and forth slightly with each advance. Her hair and skin and movement brought an unbidden memory of a lily that they’d seen once at a botanical gardens. Nymphaea thermarum. Its diminutive flower had ivory petals surrounding a yellow stamen. It was extinct in the wild. Nymphaea thermarum. Nymphs of the hot springs. Swimming up to him, she kissed him and he was filled with the sensation of weightlessness, and warmth and joyous light. She laughed again and playfully pushed him away. As she swam off he noticed that her belly was large and round, her hips full. Suddenly there was a child swimming up from the deeper water, up out of the dimness below, chasing a fish. The child was so intent on the fish that she didn’t notice him at first. When the fish swam past his face, she saw him for the first time and stopped her clumsy little doggy paddle. He could see her eyes move as she studied him. Then, motionless and without making a sound, she began slowly sinking toward the bottom again. As the dimness closed around her, he suddenly felt panicked and began swimming down to her. It did no good. The harder he kicked, the faster she sank. He knew he had to catch up. He knew they had to get back to the surface, to the air, to the sun. He could see the expression on the child’s face change to fear and felt the asphyxiation close around him.
The cry woke him up. He could sense Claire staring at him in the darkness. Her mat rustled as she rolled onto her hip and draped her arm across his chest. He fought back tears.
“I miss her too.”
The clipped tone she’d used on the porch was gone, replaced with a deep warmth.
“I should have known.”
“You couldn’t have.”
He laid there very still until he felt Claire relax back into sleep. The days were still. The nights were empty. There was too much silence in the world now. He felt like a shell, the living creature inside long departed. A shell, a lump of carbon with nothing that made it move. The last thought he had before regaining his sleep came out in a whisper.
“I should have known.”
He was so intent on honing the axe that he almost didn’t notice Claire’s light barefooted steps crossing the porch. She moved some lumps of coal from the bucket to the pit, squatted, and began blowing on the banked coals. After some moments yellow flames appeared. She started pouring water into the pan.
“I’ll have some.”
She set the pan in the flames.
“What’s that for?”
“We need more meat.”
She nodded and sat down on the edge of the porch.
“I think you’re right.”
She gazed upward for a moment at the gray canopy overhead, hugged her knees, and looked back at him.
“It seems brighter.”
Tom spent the morning at the top of the orchard with the binoculars glassing the hillside across the creek. He fiddled with the diopter from time to time, never quite sure if the focus was sharp. He worked up and down, methodically overlapping the binocular’s fields of view. Once, he refocused on the pond. Claire was in the water waist-deep. Her hair was tied back with a leather thong. She leaned forward from the waist, intently staring through the pond’s surface. Holding the spear she had formed lightly above her head, her muscles would coil slightly and the shaft suddenly disappeared into the water. A few moments later the plunk reached his ears. He was stirred slightly by her grace and fierceness.
He was about to go back to glassing the hill when he noticed a movement in the tall weeds at the pond outlet. A flash of darkness, quick and then gone. He pointed the glasses at the spot. Nothing. He steadied his elbows on his knees and looked again. Nothing. Not even that damned crow. He moved the diopter back a click. That patch of weeds could not possibly hide anything. Nothing. He went back to the hillside.
Long after he had begun stiffening up from sitting so long, he found what he was looking for. Near a rocky outcropping, he saw a flicker of movement through the scrim of a laurel patch. The binoculars stopped moving on their own. He refocused ever so slightly and the deer’s eye popped into sharp relief. As he watched, it moved in delicate, careful steps down the hill. He triangulated some landmarks and returned the binoculars to their case.
An hour or so later he found the deer trail and began following it. At one point it turned straight down the hill. This is what he wanted. It took Tom a long time to rig his axe. At first he could not lash the stones to the blade. Then the trigger would not release without hanging up. Finally everything seemed ready, but it felt so desperate. After watching the axe swing cleanly one last time, he reset the trip and walked away.
On his way back to the house he checked the snare. There was a rabbit in it! The animal seemed subdued and only bucked slightly at Tom’s approach. He passed his knife cleanly across the rabbit’s throat and waited for all movement to stop. Without waiting to completely dress it, he split open its abdomen and checked the liver. A look of resignation flitted across his face. They would not be eating this one.
Claire was not outside when he returned. But as he clomped across the porch he saw that she’d had a busy day. There were coals glowing in the pit. On the cloth sack were four gutted fish. He looked at them and saw the small whitish nubs on each side of their noses. Chubs. Beside the chubs was a batch of fiddlehead ferns. And beside that a small handful of teaberry. Claire pushed through the hatch.
“You’re finally back.”
“It took longer than I’d thought.”
She was fairly beaming and nodded toward the sack.
“I speared some fish.”
“That’s wonderful. Do you want me to cook?”
She nodded and he knelt down to prepare two of the fish.
Feeling oddly content, they spent a long time after dinner in front of the fire. After fishing, Claire had gone into the patch of woods along the lower part of the creek. Here and there she’d found the ferns pushing up through the old dead leaves. The teaberry had caught her eye on a drier, exposed patch of hillside. She was pleased at her success and Tom had to wait to ask his question.
“You didn’t see any bears?”
“No. Why would I?”
“When I was glassing for deer, I watched you in the pond awhile.”
She titled her head, laying it on his shoulder and touched her hand lightly to his knee.
He paused for a moment.
“Anyway, I though I saw something black moving in the weeds, Maybe a young bear.”
“I didn’t see anything. Should I worry?”
“It was probably nothing.”
Sleep eluded him that night. He spent what seemed like hours in a state where he could not tell if he was dreaming or awake. Then suddenly he tensed up, aware that something was in the room with them. His first reaction was to fling his blankets back and stand up. But choking down the rising panic, he peered into the even endless blackness trying to see. This time he could hear it breathe, a slow deep breath in, followed by a soft, short snort. It was standing over Claire. Tom tried to quiet his mind, but an uneasy cadence of fascination and alarm rose in his head like an insect noise. The creature was short and thick. Its skin was as dark and smooth and burnished as a worn Bible cover. Sprinkled across its forearms, shoulders and thighs were course gray hairs. It squatted onto its haunches. Its nostrils began flaring and he sensed an odd mixture of curiosity and menace. He knew that it was going to reach out and touch Claire. He realized that the beast was tumescent. The sudden rush of anger, fear, and fight converged on his muscles pushing him into a sitting position. His head banged the window sill, hard. His field of vision narrowed until he could no longer see the entire room, just the beast, just its head, and Tom realized that it had yellow eyes. Like a coal fire burning, it had yellow eyes.
“What do you want?”
Tom was startled by the loudness of his own yell. The beast snorted, rose unhurriedly, and, flickering oddly, disappeared. Tom never saw it move, never saw it go. It was just gone. He was aware of a vague smell like wet slate. He realized that Claire was awake.
“What is it?”
Her voice felt small and seemed to come from a place inside his own head.
“I think I’m just dreaming again.”
He felt the back of his head to see if it was bleeding. Tiny points of bright light flashed inside of his eyes. Claire squirmed into a sitting position beside him and pulled her blanket over them. Not until what seemed like the moments before dawn did his throbbing subside, and her breathing relax. They fell asleep leaning on each other, sitting against the wall.
He didn’t even bother looking in the smokehouse again. He just pulled the door closed, forced the hasp over the hook and hammered a stick in with a rock. Claire was finishing her tea when he returned. As he stepped onto the porch she held up a cup. He shook his head.
“I’m going to check to see if I got a deer. You should come along.”
The words felt stupid before he even said them. Claire resented the idea that she needed protecting. She understood community and sodality. With no need to be first, she would follow someone going in the same direction. But she lived on her terms, rejecting the idea that anyone was master or guardian. Chastised by the fortitude he often forgot she possessed, he looked away.
She tilted her cup and gazed into the bottom of it.
“It’s okay. I’ll plant the buckwheat.”
He sat on the deer path, seething in frustration and anger. The blade trap had been tripped. The blade was clean and bright, unmarred by a hair or drop of blood. He’d unstrung the axe, unlashed the stones, and was sitting there weighing one in his hand. He had already heaved the other stone as far as he could, regretting the waste of energy before it had even stopped crashing through the brush. He was stilling his breathing and bringing his heart rate down when the crow landed on the outcropping overhead and calmly folded its wings.
As he met its gaze the yellow eye came toward him in a rush. It passed over him, drawing him into its pupil, as deep and dark as a coal mine. In the mine it was silent, save a strange cosmic hum and the tympanic dripping of water. Other sounds began echoing up and down the tunnel. A swishing noise, the sound of scales on anthracite, came from behind. Something muscular slid past his leg fading into the deeper blackness further down the shaft. It’s slithering displaced a strange maniacal laughter, the same as he’d heard in the smokehouse. The echo gathered around his ears and devolved into a cacophony of insect noise. The noise died abruptly as if a threat had approached. In the silence was a quiet inhale, the tunnel walls pulling inward with it. With the soft snort of the exhale, the tunnel relaxing outward, he knew what was in the mine with him. He fought to push the lead from his legs, to make his chest muscles stop squeezing his heart, to get enough oxygen to run. He ran blindly, not knowing if he was headed deeper into the shaft or toward the portal. But a light miraculously appeared and he ran out. Out of the black pupil out into the world he left only a second ago, back into the body, his own body, still sitting on the path.
Without even thinking, he hurled the stone at the crow. It exploded with a crack against the outcropping where the crow was perched. In a blink it was gone. Without raising a wing, without disturbing the air, it was gone. His hands were still shaking as he reeled in the cord from his trap. He pulled faster and faster, and then, filled with an unshakable premonition, jammed the cord into his pack. Hoisting the pack over one shoulder and the axe over the other he began running back to the house.
As he came across the field he could see Claire hoeing the patch of ground beside the broken down arbor. He cleared the wooden bridge in three steps, the thunks echoing into the hills and back. As he passed the smokehouse he saw it, deep in the arbor. Already it was moving. This time it was not going to flicker and fade. It came out of the arbor on a line to intercept his path toward Claire. The damnable insect noise rose inside his skull. He felt like the wind was being squeezed out of his lungs. He dropped his pack and gripped the axe with both hands. The beast squared off to face him, nostrils flaring, yellow eyes in a rage. Tom tried to get enough air into his lungs to warn Claire. The sound began as a wheeze and rose almost into a squeak.
“C L a i r e!”
Claire turned around and, looking right through the beast, watched Tom running toward her with the axe. A quizzical expression crossed her eyes. She dropped the hoe and started toward him.
With that word, the beast flickered and faded. All that remained behind was the smell of wet slate. Tom stopped. He didn’t realize the wildness that must have shone in his eyes until Claire slowly reached down and picked up the hoe.
“What is it, Tom?”
“Do you smell that?”
She brought the handle of the hoe up across her body and stepped forward as if to brace herself against an unseen impact. Her voice had a force he did not expect.
He looked around. Everything was in place. Claire’s shawl was on the ground beside a pile of potatoes. A small square patch of dirt was freshly turned. There was dirt on Claire’s feet. A trickle of sweat had gathered in the hollow of her throat. Slowly normalcy returned. He looked around at the asbestos tiles on the house, the cement block smokehouse, the aging wooden siding on the barn, each board warped outward the same distance at the bottom. Each building was anchored firmly in place. The creek gurgled in the background. As he felt his mind move back to center, he brought his eyes around to meet Claire’s. His look was met with hesitancy, concern and a flicker of distrust. He realized he was still gripping the axe. He lowered it against one of the concrete arbor poles.
“I don’t know.” He looked around again. “I thought I smelled…”
His voice trailed off. Claire turned around and began hoeing. Tom pulled a picket from the fence and picked up the axe. Moving to the arbor, he grasped one of the dead tendrils and pulled it off of the support wires. Using the picket as backup, he chopped through the tendril and, freeing it from its root, pulled it loose. They worked side by side through the afternoon: Tome trimming and clearing the arbor; Claire planting buckwheat.
Dinner was a feast. Fish, potatoes, boiled fiddlehead. For desert they had teaberry tea and apples. While they ate, it began to drizzle. Tom pulled the tarp over the fire. While he was stretching and staking it, Claire went into the house and returned with their mats. They made themselves cozy in the corner of the porch, Tom propped against the wall, Claire stretched out onto the porch planks with her head in his lap. It was perfectly silent save the patter of the rain and an occasional hiss as water dripped through a hole in the tarp and into the fire. Claire began humming absentmindedly. It took him awhile to work out that it was Bach. A cantata. Eventually the name worked its way through the filter of time and anxiety and hardship: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He nodded in time to its triple meter, silently counting out the nine beats. At the fringes of his memory he waltzed with Claire; he watched Jenny open Christmas presents under a brightly lighted tree; he thought back to fires that burned with far less desperation. Tom could feel Claire’s arm move as she worked out the cello fingering on her thigh. Suddenly she froze and went silent. Tom’s eyes darted past the fire. He scanned the darkness. What had she seen?
“Do you hear that?”
He strained as if he could pull the sound in from the night and amplify it, but all he imagined he heard was the insect noise rising in his skull. He pushed back against it.
“I don’t hear anything.”
He tried to keep his voice even, but it felt pinched.
His heart nearly broke for her. Creeks and marshes and ponds came tumbling through his brain. Along with it came images of tree frogs, bullfrogs, pickerel frogs, leopard frogs. He could hear them all, with all their croaks and trills, and the spring peepers raising a chorus in the background. But try as he might he could not hear any calling him through this cool, wet night.
“I’m sorry, Claire. I don’t hear them.”
Then it came, unmistakable, but distant—as though it had traveled across time for them to hear it—the deep sonorous bellow, like a tone from a didgeridoo, of a bullfrog. Tom felt Claire’s head turn in his lap as she looked up at him. He bent to kiss her forehead.
“We’ll go look in the morning.”
She was gone in the morning when he woke up. He rolled back the tarp and stoked the coals before putting on his boots and going to the pond. Claire was by the tall weeds near the inlet on her haunches, peering into the water. She pointed as he knelt beside her. He watched. Down in the ooze a tiny bubble rose and broke on the surface. After a moment there was movement and a pair of bulbous eyes appeared under a rotted leaf. They stayed stock still. Satisfied that the threat was gone, the frog readjusted its equilibrium and floated to the surface. It peered at them for a moment like they were just another item added to the landscape. One of them must have flinched or blinked, because a sudden panicked dive sent the frog back to the bottom. Claire looked at him and smiled. It was a real smile, filled with warmth and knowing and deep-seated joy. Tom could not help but smile back at her.
“Is everything coming back?”
“Well, if it is, I should go check my snare.”
If the days since The Cloud never had a rhythm, they took on one now. Claire cut the eyes from some potatoes and set them in the basement trough so they could root, then planted them near the buckwheat. She gathered things from the woods to have with their meat. She seemed to remember plants that Tom had somehow forgotten. Tom brought back rabbits when the liver was clean; squirrels on other days. He still looked resentfully at the deer when he crossed their paths in the woods. But he managed now to get groundhogs with his sling, even when they were hurrying back to their burrows in their ungainly gallop. It helped to have the fat in their diet. The chill was gone and they spent more nights on the porch. Claire taught Tom to spear fish. Occasionally he guessed right at the refraction and made a strike. But he preferred to watch Claire. She was lithe and willowy now, not so thin. And her skin had regained some of its ivory color. He admired her calmness, punctuated by fierce thrusts of her spear. They both put on a little weight. Tom felt stronger and began chopping wood. The frogs they left be. The frogs were a marker of world returning to balance. He needed to know that more were coming. Even the damnable crow seemed to have departed, taking its oppressive weight and darkness with it. They stopped talking about staying and just did. Tom wondered less about why no other people had come by; the paved road was only a mile away. Claire hummed and smiled more. Occasionally she would even snuggle against his back at night and he would lay awake just to feel her warm breath on his neck.
He woke one morning to a memory. A smell brought it to him. At first he thought it was the memory of coffee. But as he rose through the layers from sleep to wakefulness he realized it wasn’t coffee. He was on the back porch of Boss McLean’s cabin up in the cove near Meadow Run and he smelled apple blossoms. Just before he came awake he saw the sun shining through the orchard, shining through pink and white blossoms. It was going to be a good crop.
When he was fully awake it seemed impossibly bright. He stood on the edge of the porch for a moment to bring his mind back from his memory to where he was now. Claire’s mat was empty and already straightened. She slept deeply now and was out early in the day. And that’s when he noticed it. A faint tinge of pink shown here and there, like the memory in his dream, in the trees in the orchard.
Her voice floated to him like it had been buoyed on a breeze.
She was standing beside the picket and turned at the sound of his steps. She pulled her hair behind her ear and pointed at the ground.
“Look at that.”
Tom thought at first she was pointing out the potatoes which were doing well. That’s when he saw the buckwheat. Claire’s little patch of ground was fuzzy and green with sprouting buckwheat. She grinned at him and coyishly crooked her finger. He watched her move away, practically on her toes, her steps light and buoyant. She paused beside the arbor.
Tom walked over. Claire knelt down and touched the base of the trimmed stalks. He couldn’t believe it. Tiny, acid-green leaves were sprouting. He began laughing and knelt beside Claire. She slid her shawl off, put it around Tom’s head and pulled his face to hers. Just before she kissed him he felt the world turn suddenly warm and safe.
He pulled Claire close, slid her skirt up her thighs and inserted his finger deeply into the wetness that had already began trickling from the forgotten place between them. The weight of a string of dark desultory years began lifting, scudding away like clouds after a rain. Tom felt himself leaning forward, yearning. Yearning for a feeling of belonging, for a home. Yearning for nothing between him and Claire except warm evening air. But that unshakable dark thread began snaking through his mind, creeping inward like tendrils of roots digging into the ground. With it came the distant trilling of insects, swelling and growing closer. And rising with that came a scream from the house, guttural, primordial, threatening. Tom had barely turned and the beast was already halfway across the yard, flowing toward him, toward them, in a kinetic blur as if space no longer mattered.
With a speed he’d never known, he leapt up, stepped back, and with a cry of his own caught the beast behind its head. Twisting, he slammed the brutish black skull into the concrete arbor post. The great cracking noise brought a stillness to everything at once. The beast slumped to the ground, fading and reappearing like a neon tube burning out. A smell, the smell of wet slate, the smell from deep inside a mine, filled the air. As he watched the beast flicker and fade, Tom became aware of his struggle to breathe, the pain in his knee, the startling silence. He saw tears welling up in Claire’s eyes, faint blue tears like a shadow on snow, clouding her wide, wild, blue eyes. He felt like he had never seen her eyes before, like she was opening them for the first time. But he saw them now and saw the fear welling up with the tears as she pushed herself, sliding across the dead grass, away from him. A sound came from deep within her throat. It sounded like nonononono. It took him a moment to realize that she was saying, No. No. No. No. No. But that didn’t matter. He knew now what was happening, why they had found this place, why it seemed to welcome them. Until now he felt like he was moving in and out of wakefulness. But now he saw all of it with absolute clarity. He limped over to the picket fence, to the axe.
Without taking his eyes off her, he slid his hand quietly down the axe handle, brought the whetted blade up, and laid it on his open palm. The beast’s primordial noise now rose from everywhere: From the house; from the barn; from a patch of tall weeds beside the pond. The woods, the hillsides filled with blighted trees, were now filled with those guttural screams rising and falling. As the voices rose into a crescendo, joining into a single cacophony, he saw them. He saw them pooling up behind every tree, every building. He thought the pitch would hurt his ears. Instead it echoed louder and louder, reverberating inside his skull. Broadening his stance, the man raised the axe over his shoulder, turned toward the woods, and waited, calm and resolute, for what was coming.