I am curious and could read the message but do not. I know my name. I am afraid to know anything else.
Monday was washday at my mother's house. I remember the clothes hanging on the wash line, whites, starched, bleached, blinding white in the sun, and the colored clothes like a queen's flower garden waving in the sky, the wind blowing, folding and unfolding the clothes as it came across the fields.
Blood Hill we call it now, graveyard of stolen kisses.
It was right there, all of it that I remember.
But we sang anyway, even those like me who sang poorly, the words, the tunes, wrapping themselves around our fears, easing them like a lullaby eases a baby in its crib.
The singing, it was the singing that gave sustenance to our poor rations, made brothers of strangers, our brothers, our strangers.
There were roads where I could run with my dog, Misty, fields crisscrossed by irrigation canals where we could swim naked under a benevolent sun, trees below the canal banks where we could laze in cool shadows, trees we could climb, so close and intertwining their branches, we could scamper like squirrels from tree to tree.
There were snakes that swam with us in the canals, long and sinuous as they undulated across the top of the water, and ferocious looking alligator gar, some as big as or bigger than those of us who swam.
But they were natural things and we had been taught not to fear natural things.
Innocent as we were, we could not imagine such unnatural things as there were in other places we also could not imagine.
In a forward position, watching for Floaters on the horizon, I see six blackbirds perched on an electric wire, the wire long dead and unused, attached to a leaning creosote pole at one end and on the other, ceramic insulators on the only standing wall of a small frame house.
I remember when I was a kid, running with my dog along the arroyo and the slingshot I made with a patch of leather and rubber strips cut from a bicycle inner tube and a fork of a tree limb I had cut from a china-berry tree in the backyard.
Remembering how good I was with the slingshot and small round rocks I found washed by the creek, knocking down tin cans on the fence one after another, and think how if I had that slingshot today I could have crow for dinner.
I don't know what has happened to my mother and father, or Mica,or Seth,or my little sister Beth. If they are not alive today, I hope they died quickly.
My world now is this mud, this blood, this stink.
When my time comes, I hope it comes quickly.
With all the grinding terror of our days, there are soft nights, night when the Floaters leave us in peace for reasons that are never clear to us.
Naked by the sweat rock, we struggle, clinched tight together, slippery with sweat, arms, chests, cocks, knees pushing, bumping together, desperately we try to gain advantage on the other while avoiding damage to ourselves.
He found and old can of tuna, tried to hide it, won't share.
We struggle, and in the end, I kill the son-of-a-bitch.
The son-of-a-bitch wouldn't share his tuna.
It is a virgin night in a place still unspoiled. The moon so big and bright, like a soft, white foam pouring across the hills, so bright I can see the cedar and mesquite and oak, and the shadows they cast on the meadows..
It is like before, sitting on a hill like this under a full moon on a quiet, pure night, Maggie and I together, as we intended to be forever.
I try to forget the memories, watch for the enemy instead, but memories do not fade with war, they grow more intense.
A danger, these memories, they make us soft when we must be hard. Better to forget, to fight each night for the next day's fight.
But still, of all that is gone, it is Maggie I remember best, and the nights like this when she lived and we were alive together, when I lived, before I became what I am this night.
They have come upon us from beyond the high sands and we are moving back as quickly as we can.
Blood paints a seeping pattern on white sand; how quickly it fades away. I leave my new friend, Willis, in pieces behind me, blowing sand already crusting over all his parts.
I run and run, and somehow find a hole to hide in, wrapping myself as tight in myself as I can, head and arms a bundle as small as I can make it in the sand, frantically scrabbling into the sand like a crab on a beach, eyes burning, sand on my tongue, caked around my mouth.
They pass over me and I am unseen.
A tiny church in a small mountain hollow, grown all around with weeds, the steeple still standing atop the front of it, but all behind is fallen, smashed lumber and stone.
Some of us want to pray, maybe sing a hymn, but no sense to it in a place already deserted by God.
The Devil has taken this place, and will take us too if we linger.
We go on, leaving a few of the still-devout behind. I do not expect to ever see them again.
We thought it would be refuge...
We thought it would be refuge, here on this little split of Santa Elena sand, but we are found and can hear the keening of a Floater echoing off the canyon walls.
Back in the water, frantically rowing, searching for one of the small, water-carved cave where we can huddle in silence. Seconds like hours as we race for the dark.
Across a desert and through the mountains...
Across a desert and through the mountains we have walked, and now, over the gentle rising and falling of wooded foothills.
There are fewer of us now, fewer every week. Some killed, some dead of exhaustion, stress and plain hunger and deprivation. Some just quit. Some of those try to return to from where they came, as if it was still there. Others just wander off in whatever direction they were standing when they started leaving, to wherever.
Preferring to be alone at night...
Preferring to be alone at night with our own thoughts, there is no more singing, very little talking beyond deciding on the next day's course.
The soldiers are all dead, fighters like we were not when we started. But they are dead and we are not, normal work-a-day types, the kind of people we used to see on the streets, in the shops, in the banks and offices. Leaders and followers then, such distinctions are forgotten now. We all just follow the footsteps of the feet in front of us, our common skill, survival and blind endurance.
Yet, beyond all understanding, we live.
We have our memories and our dreams, but we do not talk about them, afraid that once we tell them they will be gone like everything else we have known.
In the second week...
In the second week after the old Holiday of Eggs, a new demonstration of power.
The moon shifts, tides rise and flood the coastal prairies. November through July a north wind blows midnight to mid-day, the aurora borealis flashes in the sky over the broken towers of Tulsa, trees fall quiet in the forest.
Some, in despair, want to surrender; some, the brave and the proud and the dim, want to fight to the end.
I want to live.
It is the first short fall...
It is the first short fall after the first short spring and summer after the shifting moon and trees still standing glorify memories past with vivid shadows of red, yellow, and gold. It is beauty still hanging on despite all before the long winter ahead.
Meanwhile, we have not fought in three weeks, both sides, after the debacle at Rio de Animas, licking their wounds, practicing the fine military art of avoidance.
In long winter's middle...
In long winter's middle, clouds fall over the mountain and mist rises from the slow river.
A wet chill settles into bones.
And, God, I wish for real shoes, not these homemade strips of rubber tires strapped to my feet with coarse rope.
I will not complete this winter with all my toes.
If I complete this winter.
A woman in the snow...
A woman in the snow, back against a tree, the tree protecting her from the butcher's wind.
Dirty, wrapped in multiple layers of cloth, like a heavy theater curtain, dirty too, stolen, pulled down from a theater somewhere. I don't know where, don't know where there could be a theater. I don't' even know where I am.
A woman, filthy, in rags, like me, freezing to death in this dark winter, like me, a survivor, like me. She fights against the cold and will fight against me if I get close.
Though I haven't seen a woman in six months, haven't talked to a woman in even more time than that, haven't fucked a woman since the camp whore in the first year, this one, this one doesn't entice to try.
I think we have all gone insane.
Though we are together, the filthy woman and I do not talk...
Though we are together, the filthy woman and I do not talk. It is not together as in together, but a happenstance that we end up in the same place because we travel in the same direction.
We found, together, a hidden valley between lush mountain ridges, in West Virginia, I think, but I am not sure. Traveling on foot, living now for three years in a land with no maps beyond the broad distinctions of mountains, deserts, plains, seashores, the features of places meld together after a while.
There is fresh water here, a river that flows through the valley, game to be trapped, logs and other forest materials to build a rude shelter from the spring storms and winter cold.
We are safe here, I think, until all else is lost.
It is the middle of our summer...
It is the middle of our summer, short now because of the shifted moon, our valley green and lush, the sky blue, the air fresh and unspoiled.
Woman and I found a small cove in the river where we can bath, each alone at first, together now, unashamed in our naked flesh.
We have both regained some of our weight in the easy life of our valley, with renewed strength, so thin and depleted we were before.
She, beneath the grime, is a fair woman of maybe 30 or more, lithe and taut muscled.
I do not know her name, do not ask, just call her Woman because every named person I knew is dead, and I want to spare her that fate.
She is woman; I am man.
We make love sometimes with the fresh fever of those too long without.
Fall has come upon us...
Fall has come upon us and our green valley is alive with the colors of the season.
And there is new life within Woman, a child to be born in mid-winter.
We cannot let that happen. No child should be born only to die.
We do not let it happen and this death is mourned even more than all the others we have seen.
The ending of our world begins again for us.
He wandered into our valley in the last days of winter...
He wandered into our valley in the last days of long winter. A crazy man, a raving lunatic running through the trees, even filthier than we were when we arrived, screaming, throwing rocks at the trees and animals.
He was very aggressive in his madness, attacking me the first time he saw me, and other times as well, disappearing into the forest, then leaping out at me, then disappearing again. Every sighting was a struggle in his wrecked mind to the death.
Then one day I caught him, his mud-caked body lying naked on Woman, trying to rape her, threatening to kill her if she did not submit.
It was clear he was a danger to us; that we could not have him in our valley.
But our safety in the valley depended on our isolation, on no one knowing we were there. If we chased him away there was danger that in his rambling dementia he would lead others to us.
We could not let him stay and we could not let him go.
So I killed him, beat his head in with a rock, buried him at the far end of the valley, piled rocks on his grave so the scavengers could not disturb him, a better burial than I'm likely to have in the end.
We were saved, at least for a while.
I have been hearing the rush of Floater keening...
I have been hearing the rush of Floater keening late at night. Still at a great distance but I do not want to be surprised should they come closer quickly.
I go to the north ridge to reconnoiter.
As I look to the far north distance, I hear a Floater behind me, coming over the opposite ridge.
As I watch, our tiny camp is found and the destruction I've seen so often rains down again.
I hide between large rocks and the Floater passes over me and again I am unseen.
I rush down the mountain to our camp, but it is too late. It is incinerated in the bright Floater fire. I find Woman blackened and dead by the cove where we bathed and made love.
And now I must forget to be human again.
I am a straggler...
I am a straggler, not part of the few remaining groups that continue to fight. They are easier targets for the Floaters, any congregation of my kind are easier targets.
So I avoid my kind, remain a passing, solitary shadow, hard to see, hard to find.
I am a cockroach, living in the dark corners of this Earth I used to call home, skittering away under the light.
I am blazing a path...
I am blazing a path through thick brush under dense forest cover. Roads and pathways already established by past travel are too dangerous, to easy to be seen.
I have been hiking through this forest for three weeks now,walking during the day, sleeping at night without a fire that might be seen from overhead.There is game and I have become a very good trapper so I have eaten well, better than many who still survive. The taste of raw meat was hard at first, and hard to keep down, but hunger makes savages of us all, pushing us back to our long-ago pre-fire ancestors.
As I walk, I hear a noise overhead, something heavier than a bird, something fearsome I am afraid might leap down on me.
I walk back a step or two and peer through heavy branches.
A child straddles a high branch, a boy, a girl, caked with mud and grime, it's hard to tell - twelve years old, maybe, also hard to tell. Twelve years old, childhood, obsolete concepts after the past four years.
Whatever this child, however old, boy or girl, or maybe neither in this world, neither, boys/girls another obsolete concept. He or she is bound to be as wild as any animal in these woods.
And possibly just as dangerous.
A child high in a tree over my head.
Watching me with feral eyes...
I don't know what to do.
I cannot decide...
I cannot decide.
Unwilling to kill the boy, unwilling to embrace him, I let him follow behind, his wild, hungry eyes all the time on my back.
I know a choice will have to be made. I hope he will do something to help me decide.
We approach the edge of the forest...
We approach the edge of the forest, toward a wide meadow, the result of a meteor that crashed here millions of years ago, flattening everything that was below it, burning all signs of life around it.
But that was then, cataclysm at the long-ago moment of hellfire. Now the soft meadow is green with grass, yellow with waist high sunflowers. A herd of elk graze in the peace of this high pasture.
All is quiet, I imagine I can hear birds, the slobbery chewing of the elk.
And then the keening sound of a Floater approaching, I crab-scuttle back under the trees, the wild boy crouching at my back, huddled against me.
The Floater makes its slow jellyfish-like glide over the meadow, blasts the meadow, scorches the grass and sunflowers, incinerates the elk, turns them to smoldering furred hulks of meat. The boy begins to cry and I weep with him.
The Floater flies on, no reason for this destruction and murder of innocents, except perhaps to practice, like when I was a child, shooting tin cans with my BB gun. So few of my kind left they must use any animal the moves to maintain their deadly skills.
The boy and I remain where we are, huddled under the trees, another fire-less night.
In the morning, when we are sure the Floater has moved on, we walk cautiously into the pasture. With my stone knife, we take as much meat as we can carry.
Neither of us has yet spoken. I've no reason yet to believe he is able.
We are climbing the steep rock face...
We are climbing the steep rock face of a bald dome mountain, rising alone, some kind off geologic aberration in the middle of very thick, snake-infested brush for miles around, cactus and thorn trees, making passage difficult and bloody.
It is my decision to go over the dome, rather than through the brush.
Boy doesn't like it and I have come to agree with him.
The climb is harder than I thought it would be and the two of us on this bare rocky surface are like flies waiting to be swatted. After years hiding in deep forest, beneath trees and anything else that could shield us from patrolling Floaters overhead, it is gut-twisting to be so exposed. But once started I don't want to go back, no matter how bad the idea to begin.
It is the snakes overrunning the brush I most don't want to face.
But halfway up the dome, we have seen no evidence of Floaters on the horizon - it could be they consider the extermination of this region complete and no longer think there is a need to patrol.
We are beginning to feel safe.
We are on the last downward leg...
We are on the last downward leg of the granite dome, when we hear the familiar keening. As a Floater begins to edge over the dome's crest, Boy and I jump into a nearby crevice in the rock.
With our heads down, we stand on a narrow ledge beneath the surface, barely wide enough for our feet to catch hold.
Boy's grip is secure, but the part of the ledge I am on crumbles and I slip the rest of the way down the crevice into a cave, a winter den for snakes of all kinds, draped around the cave on small outcroppings, snakes entangled like twisted rope in piles on the floor. The edge of my foot touches one, and I hear the quiet button whisper of a somnolent rattlesnake. I stand, still as stone, afraid to move, with no place to move without stepping on a snake in the dark.
Boy sees me from his hold at the top and sees the snakes all around me. Slowly he begins to descend into the cave, carefully and gently picking sleeping snakes off the outcroppings where they lie and placing them out of the way. Slowly, as I sweat he clears a path for me to climb again to the top. The Floater is gone but it makes no difference to me, ready in a heartbeat to take a Floater over a cave of sleeping snakes.
Into the fresh, cool air, I dance and scream, cheeks puffed, blowing all the air in my lungs, trying to purge forever the smell of a hundred snakes sleeping.
Even doing the best I can, I don't think I'll ever be clear of that smell.
Boy saved me...
Boy saved me from the cave and the snakes, as he has continued to save me through this winter.
We huddle together by a fire he builds and I know had it not been for his skills at survival, this is the winter that would have killed me.
It is spring again...
It is spring again and Boy and I are again traversing rolling, wooded hills.
There is much Floater activity in this area and I don't see anything that suggests what they are doing and why they are here, the same question, why are they here, that perplexed us in the beginning and has not been answered since. They are the same mystery since they first appeared in our skies.
We keep our heads down, try to stay unnoticed, like insects under a log.
I consider the boy and the number of times it has been his strength and mastery of the elements of survival that have saved us.
He is about sixteen years old now, the age I was when the war began. War was new for me, for him, it has been the most consistent element of his life.
Because of that, we are like different creatures.
I am "old human." He is an evolved form, "new human."
Old human will not survive this, I know, and I know that means I will not survive it.
He, a new kind of human, forged in the fire of this everlasting war, might.
I decide that for his sake we must separate; he must be rid of me and my old human weakness.
I tell him we must go different ways and try to explain why. He does not understand, but over our time together he has come to respect me and follow my lead.
As we have done before, we both weep as he sets off down a separate trail while I stay behind.
I am satisfied that this is the best, if not the only thing, I have done for my kind since the war began.
I sit alone under a tree...
I sit alone under a tree, atop a hill and continue to weep for my loss.
From my high vantage I can see the rising and falling hills in the direction taken by Boy, my hope for human survival.
From behind a hill near the horizon of my sight, I hear a great explosion and the brilliant burst of Floater fire.
I am the path I walk...
I am the path I walk and the path is me.
It is so hard to remember when we were anything else.
I am following a river through a seemingly endless prairie...
I am following a river through a seemingly endless prairie and have not seen a Floater in weeks.
I come across a hut, built against a bluff beside a creek. It is made of grass, covered with river mud so as to be hidden from overhead.
I find a rude grass mat on the floor inside and, in the center of the room, a circle of fire rocks, embers still glowing - the first human sign since Boy.
I don't know if I should run or stay. It is hard to know what you might find in someone new. Driven mad by isolation, murderously protective of what little they have, or welcoming another of their kind, it is dangerous to assume anything.
As I consider this, an old man walks up from the creek, barefoot, naked, stoop-backed, on wobbly, knobby knees, white hair down his back to his ass, white beard covering his chest and belly. He holds a rough wooden spear and writhing on its tip, a fish, still wet and gleaming from the creek.
We both stand frozen in the moment, each waiting to react to whatever the other does.
"Hungry?" he asks.
I stay with the old man through three seasons...
I stay with the old man through three seasons, until finally his age and our harsh living conditions do him in. He dies in the very late night, asking me to take him outside so that he can die under the stars.
"The only thing that has not changed, all still in the sky just as they were when I was a child," he whispers as he dies.
We talked often into the night...
We talked often into the night, sitting on the ground around a small fire in his hut.
He was a wise man who had spent many years thinking in the quiet of his solitude, coming to understand, he though, the mystery of our destruction and the why of it.
We are vermin, he said, despised by all the universe for our stupid, greedy ways, and our arrogance. That was our worst sin, he said, our refusal to accept our place as just part of a whole not made for us, we who are only poor hitchhikers on the higher purposes of creation.
"Floaters," he said, "are the exterminators sent to cleanse the universe we defiled."
"Justice," he said, "is exceeding hard on the unjust."
After he died, I thought about this, tried to get my mind around it.
What does it mean to be vermin, despised by all the pure and just, seen good only for extinction?
What can vermin do, I thought, but struggle to survive.
I stayed in the old man's hut...
I stayed in the old man's hut for a full season after he died.
It was a soft and easy time, until a great rain came and the river flooded, washing away the hut and all the old man had left behind. I moved on, wishing I could have saved the tools he had made with his own hands.
Somehow, having those relics of him would have made me feel less alone, as if he was still there with me, beside me, a silent companion, but never really silent for his voice and the things he taught me never leave my mind.
It's been more than two years since the old man died...
It's been more than two years since the old man died and I continue to survive.
I followed the river's flow to a salty sea, then traveled up the coast, hard slogging through deep sand.
I haven't seen a Floater in all that time. So maybe the old man was right. The exterminators, satisfied they have done their job, have gone home.
That's good. It means there's one less way to die.
But in this broken world there is still no shortage of ways to die. Like how hungry I am now.
If this was a story in one of those magazines they used to sell in supermarkets, a scrawny old yellow dog could come along right now with a big bone in its mouth, eager to be my companion through these days of misery.
But hungry as I am, I'd probably steal the bone and eat the dog.
Maggie, and my parents and my brothers and sisters...
Maggie and my parents and my brothers and sisters, and all the soldiers I trooped with, and Woman and Boy, and the old man, it seems so unlikely that they are all dead and I'm still alive.
I think a lot of the old man and his vermin theory, how the Floaters were exterminators sent by some greater power to eliminate the pestilence that we had become on this good earth.
I remember the barn cats we used to have at the farm, several of them always, out to kill the rats and mice and snakes in the hay. I remember the one old blind one who, even sightless could sniff out a rat on the other side of the barn and chase it down.
Funny, as I think of it now, I always assumed I was the cat, never the mouse.
Now I'm the mouse that survived all the cats threw at me.
How much longer can this go on?
Somewhere a blind cat waits patiently for the scent of me.
Day after day...
Day after day, week after week,months and years each after the other and I walked the earth one end to the other it seems.
Now I lie, in the shadow of a wide-spread tree at the foot of an overhang, not even a big one.
But big enough.
I have fallen and I can't get up, the story of my kind.
My leg is almost certainly broken, and a couple of ribs, too. I am weak and in great pain.
I will die here of hunger and thirst if I don't get up.
But I can't get up.
Who could have imagined I would one day hope for a Floater to end my pain.
It is the end of me...
It is the end of me and I think might be the last of me for it's been years since I've seen another of my kind.
So I guess there will be on following me to hear my story.
But feel I must tell it anyway, must tell it to recognize my own life and the lives of all lost in this very last war of our kind, and all the lives lost in all the wars of our kind in the past, and for the lives of my kind who died as the normal consequence of living.
I must tell it for what we did and where we came from to do it, for our history, hundreds of thousands of year, and for our art and our music and our humor and our religions and our morality and our stories, joyful and sad, and for all the billions of lives lived in peace and war, always seeking answers, truths, relief, justification, seeking a god to love us, to cherish and protect us a protect us in our weakness, to enfold us n a love universal, and our forever seeking purpose.
We came from muck and mire and as muck and mire we return as the new lords take the land and the sky and the deepest oceans and tallest mountains we had imagined to be ours.
Our string is played out, and I am the last knot on it.
Vermin we might have been in other eyes, but by the gods we never found, there was still something grand about us in our time.
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