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Chapter 1, part 1 appeared in issue 89.
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Numbness gripped her heart. If there was any meaning to her life, seeing the senseless way she had been saved, she did not know where it lay. All she could do was to go on with the process of surviving, leave thinking, planning, mourning, to a later time.
She rose, at last, from where she was lying among the debris. The earth was still rocking, and she needed to be careful of her footfall. It seemed to be high noon; she must have flown on the wind throughout the night and morning. No ray of sunlight had penetrated the thick layer of smoke, dust and fog covering the earth, but it felt very hot.
A pile of ruins attracted her eye and she climbed on top of it, both to try and get some breath of air, and to take a better look at the area around her. Before her eyes stretched a panorama of moonscape of a different kind. It was as lifeless as the moon, but full of man-made stuff one could never find on Earth’s satellite.
“Nothing is left alive,” Dar murmured, trying to grasp the idea. After a long while, she finally climbed down the pile and walked away. The hidden sun must have inclined in the west, coloring the sky behind the screen of haze that had made up the dense atmosphere over the City. Dusk was delayed, though. The long summer evening lingered through the lights of bright flames burning around the weird landscape. An eerie glow caused by a mixture of smoke and steam diffused in the air, turning it into a sight out of a magical nightmare.
The lighted night was heavy with the stench rising from the dead bodies strewn everywhere, instilling in Dar a strong urge to hurry on her way. She broke into an attempt at running, jumped and skipped over obstacles; she stumbled, fell and rose again, resumed running through that unbelievably huge, shambled mound that seemed to have fallen from out of space, where once used to stand the City of her birth and life. At one point she fell, staying half-lying, half-sitting among the ruins, her eyes closing for a short spell of a disturbed sleep. She woke before dawn to continue on her flight, going on in this way for untold days and nights, as the City had stretched over many miles around.
All this time Dar had nothing to eat or drink. She walked and ran and stumbled, fell and rose again. She spent a short time, in the darkest of night, in fitful sleep, only to rise and continue on her way toward the suburbs. The repeated sameness of sight everywhere made her cease noticing it. She kept on walking, climbing up and down the heaps of fallen masonry, tripping and falling and rising, for the alternative was to lie down and die. Some blind instinct directed her, drove her away from that possibility, toward some unknown goal, unthought-of target, pulled her toward a kind of freedom she had never known before. She was completely on her own; no signs of life appeared anywhere to make a change in her course of action. It seemed that nobody had survived the catastrophe except herself. With that feeling of utter lonesomeness, she finally reached the end of her physical and mental strength. In one spot she fell as she stood, falling into the abyss of the repeated dream which drew her back, again and again, into the heart of the catastrophe.
* * *
At last, the dream dissolved, fading into a blessed darkness that filled Dar’s mind and let her forget for a while. She woke just before dawn. It was raining, but she did not move at first. Stiff and hurt all over, she was happy to rest her bruised body a little while longer. Lying amongst the rubble, she noticed how the unevenness of the ground had caused the water to flow away from her. The air was summery, warm and stuffy, she was in no danger of catching a chill. As far as she could see, there was no shelter around, anyway, but she was not even sure she wanted one.
As a physician, it was difficult for Dar to decide whether the rain was good or bad for her; but the water pouring down on her face stirred something in her mind. It cleared it, made it start working again. For the first time since the onset of the catastrophe she could understand its meaning. This upheaval, she thought, was not only natural, it was inevitable. As she looked back at what she had learned about the world in her forty-two years of life, she realized people should have seen it coming.
The planet itself, Dar reflected, had awakened, raging against the evil done to it and its creatures by Man; it was completing the destruction humanity had started, perhaps in order to give Life another chance.
There had been signs, she remembered. Weeks, even months before the local upheaval she had gone through — and now she was not sure how local it actually was — the media had been announcing strange events all round the globe. Earth tremors were felt in places where they had never occurred before; foul gases and brands of fire flared out of the ground where no volcanoes had ever existed in human memory.
Then, in one week, in different locations all over the planet, violent tremors shook the earth; mountain tops toppled right into large rivers and streams flowing below, causing a change in their courses, flooding cities and wide stretches of farm land. Dar recalled how these events had been gradually getting closer together and closer to home to people who had thought them too far away to be touched by them. She herself had felt quite safe in the Medic Center of her own City, never thinking disaster would reach her own life. It did happen, though, and nothing humans could do could prevent it. The sparks had turned into outbursts of burning lava, the tremors into massive quakes; lake bottoms rose to create new land, chasms opened in the midst of cities to swallow them up on their buildings and inhabitants.
Finally, the ultimate cataclysm occurred. Dar was certain now that what had happened in her city, was the fate of every place and person anywhere else on earth. That deep silence all round her was the silence of death, nothing was left anywhere, except vast piles of shapeless wreckage, an unrecognizable mixture of mineral, vegetable and animal material with its horrid stench filling the smoking air...
The rain stopped. With great difficulty, Dar rose from her own particular heap of wreckage, drenched in rainwater. For the first time in many days, she was surprised to feel, besides the cramps in her back and legs, also cramps in her stomach. Suddenly, she was hungry.
For the first time in many days she looked around her purposefully, instead of avoiding the unbearable sight. Ruinous remains were spread everywhere like open wounds on a diseased body, before it finally crumbles to dust allowing new grass and weeds to cover it up. What could she find to eat? What water could she drink with no fear of it being contaminated? There had not been any natural, unpolluted water on earth for centuries! She laughed silently to herself, then at herself. Was she afraid of getting sick? Was she afraid of dying? She was left all on her own in a world of ruins; what was she going to live for? Thoughtlessly, she cupped her palms and scooped some of the water collected in a small pool among the debris, disregarding its inevitable turbid state.
A sudden sound burst out in the quiet. A hoarse croak, coming from above. Dar was unused to the sound of bird calling, and this was not what traditionally counted for birds’ chirping. She looked up. A few black figures were hovering above, emitting that kind of unpleasant sound. They flew around, croak in their rasp voices, then they landed. Dar looked on curiously. The dark, large birds seemed to have found something to eat among the rubble. Her rumbling stomach echoed their call. Her eyes fell on what they were picking, and she saw they were parts of some dead bodies, half-buried in the masonry. These shapeless remains seemed partially burned; it was difficult to tell whether they were human or animal. But, she thought, if they were good enough for these birds, they were good enough for her also, at her state of starvation. Mechanically, Dar tore a slice of the burned flesh and put it in her mouth. It was hard to chew, and she took more water to help it go down, working her will against her revolted stomach. She managed to swallow some of it, softening the sharp edge of hunger.
Her instinct for survival drove her again, as it had driven her out of the ruined city, being too strong for any thoughts that might have crossed her mind. It helped her continue on her way toward some goal that seemed too vague to bother thinking about. It pushed her continually toward the outskirts of the city, in the direction that would lead her to a more countrified area. Only after she had gone some way, her thought went back to the crows that had led her to the edible meat. Where had they come from? She could not tell, and soon dismissed them from her mind.
The day was getting hot. Heavy haze filled the space between earth and sky, the stale air sustaining the stench in the atmosphere. Hazy weather had been a permanent condition on earth for generations; Dar, unused to life outside air-conditioned buildings or vehicles, began feeling the punishment of real weather. The remnants of her synthetic garments stuck to her skin, which sweated underneath, adding sting to the painful bruises she had acquired in her wanderings. The holes and tears in her clothing left areas of her body exposed to the air, but the air itself seemed to cause her itching and a sense of prickling. Her fair skin had poor resistance against the heat of the day, even with the sun’s rays diffused in the haze.
She walked on for untold days. Her tall, slim body turned skinny thin, her well-shaped face became gaunt and dark with mindless suffering. Her fair skin first turned red, then reddish brown; her short-cut blond hair, usually tightly arranged around her head, grew long and dishevelled. Her clothes, having been first torn in her strange flight on the wind, had turned into tatters. Her shoes had worn out on the sharp edges of the wrecks, the skin of her bare soles broke and bled, then, gradually, healed and thickened. She had become physically hardy, mentally vacuous, living off of what was left of the land. She had become an adept in spying among the debris, sometimes a spray of nuts fallen from a half-burning bush, or a bird’s egg well cooked in the cinders. These could supplant the rapidly rotting flesh, which had finally begun to repel her in its stench, even in her state of mindlessness.
* * *
It took Dar untold days to arrive at a neighborhood that seemed very different from the City center. This area looked richer and more leisurely, and she was sure she had never visited it before. The fallen buildings had not been very tall, but large, villa-like houses that had obviously stood separated from each other. Each house had a tiny patch of land around it, used as a garden with one or two shrubs striving to grow in spite of the foul air and water. In her fuzzy mind, Dar recalled hearing that some plants had mutated in order to survive the polluted conditions on earth. At this moment, though, as all rainwater had dried out, she was more interested in collecting some likely-looking leafy material to quench her advancing thirst and soothe her burning throat.
It was obvious that the riches of people living in this neighborhood did not help them escape the general catastrophe that had overcome Earth. Not one whole house had been left standing: black soot and eerie silence covered the ruins. Only a few somber cypress trees, covered with a thick layer of dark dust, stood erect with slightly bent tops, as if in mourning, over the unburied dead.
While Dar was roaming around the area, the haze darkened as black clouds gathered in the sky. Blood-red hue, like spilt blood, began penetrating through the haze, spreading among the clouds as they announced the setting of the sun. A sense of unsettled feeling overcame Dar and, for the first time during her wanderings, she looked around for shelter. Finding a half-standing wall, she sat down underneath it, ignoring the bodies rotting beneath their fallen home.
Darkness fell, followed by a gripping chill. The heavy heat that had prevailed all these days had dropped at last, and rain started falling again. It began with large, separate drops, gradually turning into a torrent. Dar, shrunken under her skimpy shelter, sat with her knees pulled up to her chin, shivering. She could not tell when she had fallen asleep, but this time she had no dreams to trouble her.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar
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