Ash and Bea
by A. T. J. Cember
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
A cicada hopped onto Bea’s face and woke her up. Reflexively she flung it off, sitting up with a shudder. Awake, she felt a pang of guilt that she had been so violent to the innocent critter, but then noticed with relief that it was crawling uninjured nearby.
She picked up the bug, in wakefulness no longer a threat but a companion, and cradled it as a treasure. She blinked while staring at it, her hands drawn near her face, but was otherwise motionless.
The sky, she noticed, was oddly green. She peered through a gap in her cupped hands, and saw the flutter of the insect’s restless wings. She whispered to it, “Where am I?”
She was glad that, even when she had disassembled his little home, he remained perched, indifferent to orientation, on her thumb. The trees around her looked normal, other than that they weren’t the kind native to her home region, and the weather was passable: overcast, but not too cool. Other than this and her sticky-footed friend, there was little familiar or comforting about the situation.
She hadn’t forgotten anything fundamental. Her name, birthday, address, parents, high school, university were all available for her memory to call up, but she decidedly couldn’t recall what had happened before she fell asleep. But she could make inferences, and the only logical one seemed to be the apocalypse.
“Well, we shouldn’t get dramatic now, should we?” she counseled to Chip, as she had named the cicada. His muted murmur was taken as corroboration. She was surprisingly unshaken, and what she saw around her was beautiful: leafy trees, cicadas on the ground and butterflies in the air, all of different bright hues against an olive sky. And after all, she hadn’t been all that irrevocably attached — or at least it seemed to her now — to what had been before.
This scenery was decidedly more tranquil, primordial, and moving than a college campus. She relished the quiet and the solitude but decided that for logistical purposes, she should probably take a walk.
What was under her feet could hardly be called soil; it was more like make-up: somewhat sticky, finely ground mineral powder that would feel good spread across her face. It felt warm and sun-baked, which was odd, because there was not really a sun.
Bea began to rule out that anything had occurred that resembled a traditional end of the world. There seemed to be no end to the vegetation, insects abounded and at some points she even heard birds. The river, which she’d felt she’d seen before, was calm and shallow and cool, crystal blue.
This seems less like God has ended the world than that he started over again, thought Bea to Chip, who doubtless could understand her without vocal articulation.
“Aha, Eden,” she reasoned aloud. Her heart was pounding with an overbearing sense of significance as she saw, blooming in front of her, a tree whose limbs were weighted down with variegated shapes and colors of what had to be fruit.
She scanned for serpents, and sensed none. With her left hand — Chip was still clinging to her right hand — she reached up and grabbed an elegant fruit the color of sunset and the shape of one of those interesting functions she’d encountered in her last semester of calculus. It was, in fact, mathematically perfect: sublime, a computer model held in the sweaty palm of physical reality.
She inhaled its scent, which was quintessentially fruity. With her eyes closed, she bit in. Nothing happened. It was tasty, if not completely ripe. She ate it to the core, which was the same shape as the exterior, scaled down. It seemed imprudent and gluttonous to pick any more. She smiled over her shoulder at the tree, and headed onwards.
She hoped the river wouldn’t play any metaphysical tricks on her, that forward would remain forward and back back, but this didn’t seem to be a safe assumption under the present circumstances; she had to hedge her bets.
She continued to walk along, and began to wonder about time, wonder about space. She rattled off to Chip the six postulates of quantum mechanics, comforted that she could remember them all.
She found a stick, and paused for a short while to sketch the structures of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine in the sandy soil, including the ribose and the phosphates for completeness. She sat down on a nearby hunk of granite, pursed her lips at Chip, and thought.
Even if this world was discontinuous with her own, and her existence suddenly defied common assumptions of the nature of the universe, her old world was not completely inaccessible, for she had it still in her mind. And if it turned out — although verification would be a daunting task — that this rock was held together by the very ionic bonds she was familiar with, and Chip’s DNA held the same bases as her own, why, then, nothing very drastic had happened at all, only... she was alone.
So she tried to open other things up with her mind: not just the content of her lectures in biology and chemistry, physics and mathematics, but the professors who taught them, the accents in their voices and the warmth of their smiles. She thought about her parents, hoping they weren’t worried; her boyfriend, hoping he was safe; her classmates, hoping she had never left one feeling ignored or slighted; and her childhood and high school friends with whom she hadn’t met up with, hung out with, for so long.
Her eyes flooded with tears, both of sadness and of relief. No, nothing was gone, her whole life and world were inside her, she could even remember yesterday and last night and maybe, just maybe, this morning... But they were not here. She wept tears of unknown meaning and murky emotion and with her pinky finger stroked the little cicada’s back.
Had that been there before?
A firework of adrenaline released in Bea’s chest. Her eyes seemed to open to their maximum capacity as she scrutinized the strange swirls of what could only be dark, curly, human hair. Still attached to a head, they were dirtied with the mineral-rich ground, the rest of the body hidden by a large rock.
She rose and scampered across the river, able to traverse the topaz waters with almost no sound. Her ankles dripped on ferns as the padded the few feet up to the boulder. Yes, not just a head but a whole, breathing, body, almost comically outfitted in a rather nice sweater and corduroy pants and fast asleep. And she knew him: her friend Ash.
She shook his shoulder gently. Please, please let him be alive. An eye opened, the one that wasn’t pressed into the strange sand.
Bea gulped the luscious air with delight. “Ash! It’s Bea!”
“Hey,” he muttered in a voice appropriate to his state of iffy wakefulness. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know, but I’m really glad you’re here. I’ve been wandering for a while now by myself. There are awesome fruits and everything is really beautiful...” Bea recognized a note of delirium in her breathless voice and stopped.
Ash got up slowly and brushed himself off. His thick eyebrows oscillated in and out of a furrow as he surveyed the surroundings. “Weird. Nice.” He was never one to get ruffled. “So show me these tasty fruits.”
Bea led him along the river back in the direction of the grove from whence she came. She thought it was odd how even here, Ash was his normal laconic self and asked no questions, made no comments, just trotted along like a good sport behind her.
She wondered why it was that, of all people to find sleeping in this eerily paradise-like place, she had found precisely Ash, and not any of her other friends and classmates with whom she had developed colorful personal relations with over the years and semesters. Why not her dead great-grandmother, with whom she longed to speak as an adult, or the friend of her father’s whom she was named after, a now long-dead woman of mystery whom she considered her guardian angel.
Bea burned with curiosity to speak with this other Bea. She missed her childhood friend Adele, her cousin Adam — they were both overseas — but the one who appeared here was someone she saw every day, Ash. It would be wrong to say she was disappointed; there was something comfortingly unmystical about it.
The fruit trees stood in a vast array, replete with their mathematically perfect bounty. Ash made a face as if enchanted, tracing his index finger along the edge of a yellowish pyramid-shaped fruit, all the way to the vertex. “You ate these?”
“Yeah, at least one type. Try it.”
An exemplar of endless trust, Ash plucked the fruit from the branch and gazed straight at Bea as he bit into it, not even bothering to examine the surprising specimen any further. He raised both eyebrows with unexpected pleasure. “Not bad,” he said with flirtatious understatement, and smiled before downing the rest.
After they had wandered through the orchard a bit, repeating Bea’s survey of its fantastic leafy inhabitants, they continued along the river, back again in the direction Bea had originally been walking. They passed the rock by which Ash had been asleep — Bea pointed it out to him, to their mutual mystification — and continued for what seemed like hours. The sunlight grew more gentle but never ceased.
Their conversation eventually strayed from the circumstances and meandered along its usual routes. Ash was theatrically performing Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Oyster,” one of his favorites which Bea had listened to, in precisely this absurdly silly voice, many times.
“I wish I had more poetry memorized,” lamented Ash, as if atoning for a sin.
Bea smiled indulgently. “You always have ridiculous expectations of yourself. It’s not often someone ends up wandering in the middle of a sparkling nowhere so far from any laden bookshelves.” Ash was usually not very far from them.
Ash stopped suddenly with a half-open mouth and glanced sideways at Bea. “When I appeared, had you just wished for another person?”
“I guess.. obliquely, yes,” Bea answered.
“Because look what I spotted.” Ash took a few steps to the right and lifted a hefty scarlet tome from a bed of geometric flowers. “A book.”
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by A. T. J. Cember