Peter went through the ablutions, burning the last of the quarantine yurts and scattering lime on the ashes. Hours later he found himself still kneeling on the spot where hed gone down that final time, his small, boy knees numb nubs at the ends of his thighs, his modest hope for the future extinguished. Then he stood and, limping a bit at first, walked down the path that had once been a road to where it ended at a bend in the highway and where, just as hed promised his father, he raised the black flag.
For days after that a sour smell persisted, and Peters throat felt raw and seared as, item by item, he moved what remained of his familys possessions into the high stone building that had served, since he was four, as the center of his community and world and where now, according to the contractual obligations by which the children had been bound by their consenting parentsin Peters case, his fatherhe would live out the rest of his natural life, a boy alone in the woods. This, too, he had promised his father, for hed have promised anything in those last days when it had almost seemed that both he and his father were going to be spared from the rapidly mutating virus that had wiped out the rest of the compound. Peter, just a boy, had been so relieved, so desperate to pleaseand savehis father, that hed made a great number of other promises as wellto brush and floss his teeth two times a day, to work the garden and preserve its produce, to study the community curriculum all the way through to its end in the low double digits, to remember the dead, to keep fit, to maintain the solar power packs but avoid direct sunlight, to learn a new word every day, to nurture the trees, to honor their history but forget what did not need to be remembered, to get plenty of sleep, to move into the primary shelter where it would be safer, to take inventory and keep careful records, to ration the drugs, to treat each small cut or abrasion as a potentially life-threatening infection, to respect his body and practice good hygiene (wash behind your ears, between your toes, all the way down your long, lovely backand then his father wept, but privately, as if Peter could not hear), to continue the observances and perform weekly acts of contrition, to use proper posture, to speak aloud, to eat a balanced diet, to clean the flue and flush the pipes, to take pleasure in small things, to kill only what he ate and use all the partstan the hide, crush the bones, knot the sinews, collect the claws, stuff the intestinesto sing, to shave (but be careful when he did), to wear shoes, to make soap, to follow the seasons and chart the moon and keep the time and cherish the language, to mourn and celebrate (in equal measure), to maintain the periphery, to practice humility, to drink the wine in moderation, to map the elusive circle, to have patience, bear witness, be a man. And always, his father saidalways, Petietake care of the computers, and theyll take care of you.
Then his father said, who loves you? And then his father died.
These were the things that a boy must do, the things that he promised his father, and Peter, a boy, did them all for a while, as if in doing them he might still somehow make his father proud. But it was a lot for a boy to keep track of, and there were other promises as well, promises hed written down and promises hed promised to commit to memory and promises hed forgotten almost as soon as hed made them, the promises of a boy to a father and leader whom he had assumed (the way boys do) would be around forever.
Between the moment of his fathers death and the moment, some years later, when Peter would discover his fathers monumental deception in the byzantine computer loop that came, in its own time, to its end, looping back to its beginning (the way loops do), Peter tried not to feel sorry for himself. Accept with affection, his father had taught him, what fate had given him, and of course Peter wanted for nothingsave companions like him. At first, Peter took a guilty pleasure in the storerooms to which he now had unrestricted access and which had once been intended to sustain the entire Intentional Community, and its offspring, for the duration of a time not less than one hundred years. It was wrong, and he knew it, but hed sometimes spend hours in them, among the grains and utensils and tools and shoes, surveying inventory and feeling, inexplicably, rich. Then, flushed with shame and hugely chastened, hed go out to survey his real wealth, the land itself , with its steady, spring-fed creek that ran for most of every year; its solemn and sheltering hills; its few stands of living treespines, some cedar and fir, the young graceful orchard, and here and there a dogwood that blossomed in sporadic bursts, its delicate blossoms snowy and startling among the pervasive dead foliage.
In this way, Peter grew from the boy who had promised, above all, to be obeisant and true, into the small, wiry man he was destined to become, a man with a sturdy constitution and complex cerebral patterns, and without a single hair on his body.
In later life, Peter would remember these remaining years of childhood as years of stubborn labor, of watering and hoeing, of mulching and weeding and pruning and occasional, atavistic praying. Peter did neglect the vegetable garden, letting the tomatoes go to seed, the carrots and potatoes, asparagus and broccoli, the beans and beets and butter squash run wild all over the woods. In that he remained like other boys. But the diligence hed mastered as a young arborist in a flourishing community and then persisted with throughout their private plague, he now turned to the orchard which he tended so devoutlyfor Peter, above all, was a lover of treesthat, save for the pomegranate, it thrived and produced even as the last ancient pines in the woods all around continued to fail, rising dead toward the flat, gray sky.
Peter didnt blame himself for thatno one could save every tree. Still, especially at the start, he did suffer from random bouts of inattention and sudden rushes of panicwhen he couldnt find his toothbrush, or forgot to change the irrigation flow, or found the fish lines knotted, or let himself be tempted (no Peter, you mustnt) to turn his fathers portal away from its bead on the end of the world to one of the fantasy modules, the games he had played as a boy.
When Peter was very small, hed had a mother and a father. Hed had a house, like other children. Hed had a street, a bowl of languorous goldfish, a best friend, a school, a future. Then the viral gene swapping took hold, the plagues came in waves, and everything seemed low and grim for a while until a new government was formed on the mandate of the Intentional Community movement and hope was restored to the nation. With its lucrative package of free land, tax incentives, technical assistance, and general amnesty, the federally sanctioned all volunteer quarantine programs were among the most sweeping reforms since those of the mid-twentieth century that had, once before, pulled the people back from their own barbaric brink. And though most would greet the opportunity with cautious optimism, carefully weighing the odds and counting up the pros and cons, there were others, like Peters father, who embraced the moment with zeal. Peters father was, like that, a man of vision.
Peter knew this, had always known this, from the first heady meetings at his parents apartment, to the late-night murmurings between his mother and his father, and in his toddler memory bank theres a whole intact memory of the first meeting of the Central Committee, convened in their apartment at his fathers behest. In it the settlers are arriving one by one from work; theyre stripping down in the decontamination foyer; theyre presenting themselves to Peters parentsto both of his parents, his father, a respected epidemiologist, and his mother, a concert violinist. Their protective gear is yellow, and in the blue irradiation of the foyer they turn a luminescent green, with glistening purple teeth. This amuses Peter, who watches on the closed-circuit security screen, his laugh clear as a bell.
Theres an air of anticipation to the evening, maybe even bravado, for Peters father has gathered about him an impressive array of peoplescientists and artists and medical professionalsto propose what is already rumored to be the most remote and ambitious IC ever yet imaginedsomewhere in the mountains far away from everything and sealed for a period of not less than a century, a full, round hundred years.
No one in, someone says, and no one out? He sounds incredulous, doubtful, enticed.
But if things settle down, another says. If theres hope of rebuilding, why give up the Right of Return?
Peters father laughs, but not like it is funny, the incisive bitterness of it giving way to everyone talking at once and the air going charged and electric and maybe a little bit dangerous. And Peters father lets it. Anyone could see that. He lets it until they know he is right.
In the quiet that follows, Peters father says: once, in another time, the last wild Indian walked out of those same hills. Now well be walking back.
Although Peter should be sleeping in his crib, hes managed instead to wander out into the room and climb up on his mothers lap and cuddle in the place that smells of violin and resin and a little bit of fear, such that what he will remember, later, of the evening is the cup of his mothers hand on the crown of his head, how it tenses when his father speaks, the catch in her throat on the lullaby she hums, her fierce embrace, then the warmth of her nipple and sweet rush of milk as he turns to her breast to nurse.
You cant remember that, his father said. But Peter did.
In less than three months, one whole season of loss, Peters father will have planted the beginnings of what would become the small mountain orchard that later provides Peter, in his youth, with bits of sour fruit, putting in the first precious apple and pear even prior to Final Consensus. Peter remembers this too, going out on the excursions with his parentswith both of his parentsand the small surveying crew on the first site-finding missions. Each time they set off in the government van, his father, a confident man of enormous conviction, would load the back with treestwo each of an apple, a pear, a peach, a plum, and one exotic fig and pomegranateand then hed tuck Peter among them and say, go to sleep, and Peter would take his small thumb in his mouth and dream the dream of the last wild Indian as the van lurched along over ancient dirt roads that led to the end of the world. In this way, his first horticultural lesson would be linked forever to the day they found the place where they would settlethe small flat clearing between two steep hillsides beside a creek that ran west toward the river that flowed from the single snowy mountain to the north.
Peters father got out of the van in the gray morning light and slowly scanned the old forest, the rocky earth, all the living things it still supported, its potential. Then he turned back beaming at the others.
As Peter bound out of the back of the van, his mother called after him, no, Petie, no. Petie, be careful, its dirty.
Then Peters father took him by the hand, and showed him where to dig, and how to tamp the earth, and soak the roots, and place the net around the transplants, with his mother fretting the whole time behind them. All this felt so precise and true in Peters memory that he could sometimes feel the small rocks beneath his knees, the cool, loose mud in his hands, the fretful pacing of his mother. And yet his father had insisted to the end that his mother wasnt there.
She never came with us, he would say. You must remember that.
And then his father would reach out and tousle Peters hair, or place the big paw of his hand on Peters young shoulder, and say, who loves you?
Some years later on the day the world ended, Peter found himself out in that same orchard, munching on the sweet meat of a small red apple and trying to capture a distant thought. The day, like all days at the time, hung low and gray, and Peters thought, like the day, remained remote and stubborn, drifting just beyond the capture of his mind.
Of all the chores hed promised hed do, Peter had pretty much kept up his end of the bargain when it came to the orchard. Maybe he felt some affinity for it from the time when he was very small and his mother called out dont, Petie, its dirty, but he also liked his fruit and hed always been a conscientious guardian of trees. So as regularly as anything could be said to be regular in a world with everything dying, Peter had worked to keep this one small orchard alive. He had irrigated, mulched, and weeded, hed pruned, composted, and sprayed, and sometimes hed got out the hot pots and sometimes, hed harvested little fruits. Though the pomegranate seldom even flowered, today he was munching the apple; tomorrow there might be a pear.
Peter was still working on his thought when, vaguely, he became aware of a dull sound in the distance, something mechanical, a kind of whirring. The sound grew louder, rolling in on him like thunder, louder and louder, and as it grew, it brought a subtle darkening of sky, an almost imperceptible cooling of air, a scent of metal just before it hit with a ferocious electrostatic hum that ripped through Peter like a wind and knocked him one more time to his knees. Had Peter known that this would mark the exact moment of the worlds end, he might have offered up a little prayer for grace. But though hed been following its demise on his fathers portal for years nowits plagues and its famines, its widespread brutalities, its wars, its religious strife, and ruined air and waterPeter was a young man still who, whipped by the wind at the end of the world, wentmind and bodywholly porous, like a sieve, as if the very molecules of his corporeal being, the cells and atoms and tiny strings, just as those of everything around himthe downy new bobbin of fruit in his hand, the rocky soil under his feet, the canopy of branches abovehad ceased to spin or hold together, their essential magnetism momentarily discharged so as to create a rupture that splintered matter itself into a web of microscopic schisms with a pulsing wave or dull throbbing that was not quiteor no longersound but something else, something that swelled into a dreadful crescendo and then went out, in a long, slow exhalation that Peter would remember his whole life as the saddest sound he had ever heard, while all around him the world deflated, losing dimension, flattening out, like water, into a low and final formlessness.
Really, Peter was powerless to do anything other than fall. But his actual thought as he knelt on the slab of rocky dirt until his bent knees knotted and throbbed with pain was that he would never again kneelnot like thatas long as he lived.
Whatever happened now, it was going to hurt.
Back in the primary shelter, Peter made tea, turned on his mothers Gorecki recording, and went up into the loft to check on the computers, where at first it was impossible to take in what had happened. At first, couldnt even begin to sort out the physical parts of what he was seeingthe cables and modems and other hardware that linked the computers to each other and the world, the long curved silky-skinned monitor banknow garbled and diffusethe high, arced rafters of the loft, and finally the light that streamed in from the narrow slot windows, the light that was really no lightnot a light of day or night or sun or moon or hopejust a dull flat light hed never seen before. Dazed, he started doing things he was not supposed to do. First, he touched himself. Then he touched all the knobs and switches, even the red ones. Then he went into the mainframe and tried adjusting settings, but all he could make out in the descending outer gloom of the soft skin of screens looked like nothing so much as the shadowy outlines of people going down in the streets where they were, people going out, like lights. The last thing Peter did that he could remember was pressing himselfhis whole bereft bodyagainst the membrane of the monitor bank as if he might press himself through it and go out, like the others, too.
What Peter feels when he wakes some time after is not exactly mourning. Peter knows mourning from the first time hed awakened on the compound, a small boy in a blanket on a bed of piney mulch, and understood his mother was not there. Nor is it outrage, though there is plenty of that. What he feels, right at first, is disoriented and hes hotso hotwith his body, knobby now in awkward adolescence wrists, knees, ankles, the bony protrusion of his prickly Adams appleall askew beneath him, his voice strange and ragged, having cried out.
Peter does suspect its his voice thats awakened him, his own voice crying out, and now that he sees he is not in his bed he feels as though he were emerging from some unfamiliar place inside his bodya living placebut not entirely familiar, more as if the body his bodyhas been reduced to separate, discrete partsface collapsed into shoulders collapsed into chest. All the different parts of him lie in a hapless clump. The chest heaves; the mind floats somewhere above.
And then he hears that sound again (but where has it come fromfrom him?), one less of grief thanimpossiblydefiance.
Fully awake now, Peter cannot tell how long hes slept, nor if it was really sleep, what hes been in, and hes only just piecing together how he came to be here, in this soiled nest of pillows, when one of the promises he had made to his father was always to sleep in his proper bed and always to make it in the morning, for a man who was careless in his personal habits, his father had said, was a man of doubtful moral fiber.
Regular habits, his father had said, ensure a habitual mind. You will appreciate this when you are older.
Trust me, his father saidwho loves you?
Now, Peters eyes hurt, his heart pounds, and his facehis whole bodyfeels painful and puffy. Momentarily he hopes hes getting sick, but no, he suspects the truththat he has been cryingand he finds this thought so intolerable that though an adolescent on the cusp of life, he considers crossing over, but almost as soon as he has the thoughta thought that includes both the thought of his own self-immolation and the thought, who better to set the last fire?the shame of it passes entirely through and out of him.
This is going to be the last time Peter thinks like this, for the next thought Peter hashis thoughts are coming on fastis the memory of whats happened, followed by the clear and simple thought as he unfolds his body from its limp clump of sleep (or whatever state hes been in), that, okay, its not just his father. Theyre all gone, he tells himself firmly, but without satisfaction. Thatthe satisfaction, cool and purposefulis coming, like the sudden powerful urges running through him nowthe urge, for example, to burn down what remains of the compound and wander out into the dying woods, the urge to return to the outer world and ride the empty subway cars and play the empty concert halls and make multiple radiant MRI images of his own internal self, the urge to destroy the computers.
Peter looks around him at the blank and darkened skins of lifeless monitors, the deadened indicator lights at the master controls, and in the absence of the whirring fans, what he hears is silence. As far back as Peter can remember these computers have hummed in the loft. They were supposed to have hummed for all time. And now at last Peter thinks: for what?
When Peter was a boy hed had the secret hope that his father was doing it all for his mother, loading their memory with beauty to lure her back in one humbled act of contrition and seduction. Surely there were better ways, he thinks now, to have held on to her. Or me, he thinksto have held on to me.
Not that his father hadnt tried, the only way his father could, in guarded moments of affection, coded and opaque. The other children, for example, never even got close to an actual computer, especially not one of their own, but Peter had his small handheld processor as well as unrestricted access to the loft where he was allowed to wander freely, a boy among machines, to pry in the portals and recursive databasesto play. Later, his father taught him how to access information and keep the programs running and troubleshoot the problems of both hardware and software, things that would surely come up. Still later, hed had lessons on the motherboard itself.
A time will come, his father said. Im not saying when, Im just saying youve got to be ready.
In this way, as Peter grew, little by little, his father introduced him to the vast archives of art and all human achievement hed been compiling since the day they walked out of the world, culling and storing whole compilations of music and architecture, science, philosophy, literature, history.
Everything your mother loved, his father said, more than she loved us.
Ok, Peter said, but it was difficult for him to keep things apart. The wars in the actual world blended into his fantasy modules, Beethoven sounded like his mother. And how could he ever be sure, what was real, what was not? In the loft, away from other children, he felt so thirsty and acute, so potent, so connected and disconnected all at once to everything, soPeter did not quite yet know yet how to think human. Sometimes being up there with his father amused himthe lights and the images, the complicated sounds and all that information. But more often, he was just bored and could not wait to be let out so he might run to join the other children, who sometimes did let him play.
But sometimes, like all children and out of jealousy and spite, they formed vicious child circles against him who only wanted to kick the ball and runwith them. Peter would want this all his life, and all his life he would be forced to linger self-conscious and forlorn on the fringes of the circles of others, hating the knowledge inside him.
Years later, after his father completed his work and shut down their interface with the outer world, Peter alone was privy to the one open portal his father maintained, the single real-time feeder of the worlds sad demise which continued, throughout Peters time alone, to stream data back at him with maddening neutrality, forcing him to see. It was the seeingthe unrelenting animal consciousness by which Peter could not not know his own knowingthat he hated most and would have deleted, in an instant, if he could.
Two things stopped himthat somewhere deep in an encrypted database his father had downloaded that last digital image of him and his motherof her on her knees and him sprinting toward her, a boy with flexed legs on the run an eight-year-old, nine-year-old boyand her in the dirt, the violin thrust in the weeds to the side and her arms spread open and widefor him; and that somewhere in his own skull, his Brain Computer Interface had been expanding all his life and no onenot even Peters fatherhad known what would happen if he disconnected it.
For this reason, Peter finds now that the stronger urge by far is to repair the computers, which hes surprisingly determined to do. It is tricky, exacting work, and though Peters young yet, his fathers lessons, which hed often only half attended, already lie so far behind in a long ago world that seems hopelessly beyond himthe motherboard fried, the programs scrambled, his own organic unit numb and unresponsive in his head. Sometimes theres still a little static in his left cerebral cortex, and more infrequently, a stabbing pain, but mostly, the place where his father had inserted the experimental cluster shortly after his birth just feels blank, a total loss, and this, more than anything, drives him, for in the absence of a working BCI, Peter finds that he no longer knows how to know himself and as if he were somehow complicit in what he understands now as his fathers most egregious betrayal.
You did what? his mother cries, blanched above him and holding back somethingsomething furious, but also wounded. The evenness of her tone, the clinical detachment of her carefully modulated words alerts Peter, the mewling infant in her arms, who instantly quiets himself. Weeks old, his tiny hand flails before him, grasping at the white skin of her mothers breast, the coarse hairy fingers of his father.
Of all the memories Peter cant be said to have, this one is the most improbable, yet it persists, troubling and powerful. Above him, his mothers bloodless lips hold back the words they might release at any moment while another unspoken struggle plays out between the adults, each with one hand on the infant.
You dont understand the simplest facts, his father said. It doesnt replace things; it replicates them.
But no, theyre in the kitchen, where his mother has been cooking, the room soft and moist with steam and the dense scent of garlic. And Peters older, maybe two, and when his father says this, Peter stops banging on the pans, looking instead to his mother, whose hands are furiously chopping some green and leafy vegetable for stew. In the silence when she should have had some response, Peters father scoops him up and tosses him playfully over his head, but his hands are rough and unfamiliar, and Peter just wants down and already, a bit, also wants out.
Finally Peters mother says, so what, you are going to double him?
Its entirely organic, his father insists. Youll never know its there. I grew the cells myselftheyre amazing.
Nothings happened yet, she says, taking Peter and giving him a breast. Its like a zygote, even I know that. Theres a lag time after implant, and you can still delete them. Then she paused. Ill assist.
And though thats where the memory ends, Peter finds it so alarming and definitive that hes always believed this to be the precise moment that his mother turned away from his father in her heart, and sometimes he wants so much to change what happened next that he tries to imagine it different, tries to believe his father would have done as his mother asked, tries to imagine his own infant body anesthetized on a soft flannel blanket, his tiny arms and legs strapped akimbo, a bead of infant sweat swelling in the tiny cleft of his upper lip. Someones handshis mothershold his head steady, two warm clamps on his cheekbones and temples as his father, poised above him, guides the laser that will kill the foreign cells already multiplying into the BCI that will link him, forever, to his fathers computers.
But of course that never happened.
And his father sighs. The procedure wasnt even invasive. We just threaded the cells, there on the inside of his thigh and into his femoral artery; we threaded them all the way up to his beautiful brain. Hell have more capacity is all; hell grow into a better, more versatile boy. Inside himself, our boy will be huge. And again Peters father throws him upward toward the ceiling with an enthusiastic grunt.
Put him down, his mother says. He doesnt really like that, you know.
Later, rocking Peter in her arms, shell whisper sadly, you are perfect as you are, dont ever forget that. You are the most perfect boy in the world.
But of course Peter cant remember that, and now as he works to rebuild the motherboard and drag the annals of human achievement back out of the space where, presumably, they might vanish forever, all that remains in him is the raw animal hope that if he can get things up and running again, he will restore the part of his brain that he needs to feel himself again to feel alive. As he works Peter finds himself stripped of curiosity, suspended in an unfamiliar, if subtle, state of mind that keeps him focused on the single hidden image of his mother he knows that he must salvage if he is to go on. In his heart, Peter knows, has always really known, that he was four and sleeping soundly the night his father took him and bundled him up in the back of the van and left her behind forever. Knowing this, surely he must know the other image of her on her knees in the dirt and him sprinting long-legged toward her is just as unlikely as the image of him mewling at her breast while his father primes and programs the laser that will set them free. But Peter, whos had plenty of time to think, secretly believes it must be like this for all boys and mothers, ripped apart forever through all time.
And anyway, his father said, its just a dream. Go back to sleep. You know your father loves you, yes I do.
In the aftermath of the end of the world, Peter stays up in the loft a long time, working to salvage whats been lost until at last the computers are repaired, booting up as suddenly as they had shut down in the first place as the long sinuous monitor bank flooded with a brilliant blinding light and Peters own BCI sputtered up with the low familiar thrumming that is him. Finally he stirs a bit stiffly and reaches up to run his hand over the back of his head, which he finds to be sticky with sweat and shockingly bald. Proceeding a bit gingerly, he tests out the various parts of his bodycurling and uncurling each of his fingers, flexing his knotted calves. All the joints in his body ache like those of an old, old man, and then a cooling numbness surges through him, followed by a blinding flash and a series of deep, wrenching jolts as, one by one, the computers blink back on to reveal the world made over again and already healing.
That cant be.
But as Peter settles down again to watch, he seesalready, and at oncesigns of every kind of life but what is human springing back everywherewater, flora, fauna, weatherthe earth restoring itself, healing over with the toughness and resilience of a scar that takes his breath way. Ruptured mountain ranges knit themselves whole, while deep in their valleys newts and frogs and iridescent dragonflies appear out of nowhere, fish and opossums, skunk and quail, wolves and weasels and hawks and sloths repopulate their native landscapes. Peter has only to turn his eyes away from a barren swath of desert to find it verdant and lush when he looks back again. Black water turns blue before his eyes, rippling and dense with new growths of giant algae and vast schools of glistening fish; glaciers reappear; high water rescinds; rainforests spread back down denuded slopes, replete with bright-plumed birds and delicate orchids; meter by meter, the ozone hole closes. And even the vast infrastructure of humanity is rapidly going down to decay, with strip malls and housing developments, suburbs and slums, going out in cleansing waves of spontaneous combustion that give way to native grasses in a heartbeat. Pit mines fill back in, garbage dumps recede into nothing, toxic waste sites disappear in radiant blasts of purified heat. Soon, very soonPeter sees nowall that will remain of human history are his fathers archives and the artifacts themselves, somewhere lovely in the outer world.
Peter watches as long as he can take it in, and when he cant anymore, he shakes his head and reaches up to touch itstill bald. In the absence of hair he believes he can feel a tiny indentation just behind his temple, the place where the cells must have attached. Well, and why not, he thinks as he rises from the soiled nest of pillows where he has been watching the world restore itself. And now he is standing again. Hes walking down the stairs, touching different parts of the worldthe banister, one stone wall. Hes opening the door. Hes breathing the air, hearing the wind in the trees above, the water in the creek below.
Beyond the compound, Peter knows, the worldthe human part of it, anywayis gone, but inside the sealed borders of his fathers vision, Peter and his little plot of planet earth continue spinning safely through the galaxy and time. Its an odd feeling, really, but one that Peter rather likes, as out on the deck he discovers that his own immediate world is strangely unchanged, with maybe a bit of the glare gone out of it, the air dry and tinged with musk, a few green shoots showing, here and there, through the old piney mulch.
And then, because this momentthis precise momenthas been coming forever and is finally here, a sanguine feeling spreads him, like water, as Peter hears himself speaking aloud for the first time in months: in the history of the world a time came when one boy alone remained.
One soupy day in Peters lonely adolescence before the world ended, he is startled awake with the strangest feeling in his bodyan unfamiliar lightness that he paradoxically experiences as a heavy weight pulling at his chest even as the rest of him languidly floats, and when he gets up his hair is tousled and damp. Peter has the momentary feeling that he is not alone, almost as if he can feel a breath on the nape of his neck, but because Peter doesnt even know what a human breath might feel like, he doesnt know quite what to think.
Peter is up now, walking around. Is it possiblehas someone come for him? and a catch rises up in his throat. But almost at once he forces it back down for he knows well enough that even if the shield that hides the compound from the world has failed the region itself is inaccessible, wiped out by cataclysmic earthquakes along the old dreaded faults in the early days of his time alone. For a while everything was so exciting, with the crumbling of the city and the rupture of the continent into its current patchwork of landlocked archipelagoes, the chasms that stitched them together so far intruding the earths outer mantel as to threaten, as well, to tear it apart. Were they soon to fly apart, Peter wondered? Was he himself going to be flung with the rest of the human detritus out into space or sucked deep into earths inner molten core?
Through this time of imminent collapse, Peter, still a boy, kept a steady eye on things with his fathers secret portal, but he never felt afraid. Out there, anything could happen, but inside the compound, his father was right. Inside, he would always be safe.
Now Peter laughs. No, of course, he is truly alone.
But Peters feeling of uneasiness persists, and he finds himself trying to flush the other out, spinning around abruptly to effect surprise, but each time, nothinga tree, a rock. Even in the shower hes bothered, but when he emerges, again, nothing, or maybe just a bat peeking velvet, beady eyes through the overflow hole in the sink
Oh you, Peter says, tapping the basin. You dont belong here, get outside, you, though of course he hasnt seen a bat in many years.
And so he puts on gauzy outerwear and takes some protein supplement to clear his head and goes out to shift the irrigation channels and check the perimeter traps.
Busy hands, his father said. Think of someone other than yourself, his father said. And this time, Peter really does laugh, a big guffaw deep from the belly.
Peter has been growingseveral inches in what seems like only monthsand his chest and genital area look strange, even foreign, to him, with their new curly tufts of dark hair. His shoes have long since grown too small for his feet, and even though there are plenty of others left over and already broken in theres no telling who they might once have belonged tohis math teacher, the compound electrician, his own fatherand so Peter prefers padding around on bare and blackened feet and in thinning pants several inches too short. The storage sheds, of course, are full of things that would fit, but their newnesstheir odorless, synthetic unused-nessseem so dehumanized to him that hes lost all desire for what had once been proper clothing.
And that is not the only way he disobeys his father.
But on this day, the unsettling sensation of another lurking presence makes him acutely aware of his exposed wrists and ankles, his knobby and callused feet, his knotted hair, and when he closes his eyes, an unfamiliar smellsome heady muskhovers nearby.
In the afternoon, his chores complete, Peter sits down at the mainframe to check out the latest military strikes on the East Asian territories. He does this with keen anticipation. Peter doesnt like to watch the large mammals go out, and the faces of human famine are uncomfortably close to the faces of their own plague. But the wars, which more closely resemble the games he had played as a boy, are normally a source of distraction, and Peter has looked forward to this moment all morning. Somewhere in the world it is night, and the glow of missiles slicing through black sky has always looked so beautiful to him.
But everything is quiet in the outer world and Peter gives in to a momentary feeling of pique.
That night, at last, he takes himself in his hand, closes his eyes, and with another unfamiliar feelinga feeling like gracehe imagines the sensation that has plagued him all day as a lying down thing beside him, as if the space taken up by his own body has been increased by the sizeand the heatof this other presence. And this, he will think years later looking back, is the first time in his life he has truly felt alone.
Until that very moment, uneasy in his bed, Peter had simply imagined himself as a boy on his own in the woods, not unlike one of the boys in his fantasy modules or the books the adults used to read. Those had been among Peters favorite times, when they had gathered as small clumps of children around the evening fire and one adult or another would take up the reading, with Peter himself snuggled up against a girla girl with small emergent breastshis head beneath her breasts, pretending he still had a mother.
Youve got to be crazy, his own real mother had said to his father. You and your lunatic fringe are no better than those twentieth century redneck survivalists, or the ones that came afterwhat were they called? She had put her violin down and was looking up at him from the straight-backed chair where she shut herself off against them and played. And you know it.
Look at the Mormons, Peters father said. They stock provisions for, what, seven years?
Were not Mormons, Peters mother said, lifting Peter firmly to her lap. And seven years is not a hundred, and if you say another word about this I will take him and well leave you and you will never see either one of us again in your life. I mean it.
Would you kill your own son, then? Is that what you want?
Peter didnt really remember this. He was just a small boy, downy-headed and loose-limbed, clutched against his mothers chest. And although shed spoken calmly, her own body was shaking. Peter did remember thatthe heat, the musky underscent of saltshe always sweated like a horse, she said laughing, when she playedand he remembered the mineral taste of her neck.
Later, in bed, Peter listened to the argument continue. You will not, she had said, take that boy into bitterness like that. There was a silence then, something charged, before she added, I wont let you.
And how do you plan to stop me?
Its barbaric. Peters mother sounded really angry now. Hed be better off dead.
They had argued on and on until Peter really did fall asleep, and in the morning their faces were worn and bruised looking, and Peter had paced between them, working his way up onto their laps or into their arms and then slipping off and padding to the other, first his mother, then his father, using his body to comfort and keep them together.
In later years, Peter would sometimes remember the softness of his mother, the swish of her clothes and the plantlike smell of her, but not a real plantsomething sweeter, cultivatedand the smell underneath of resin, a smell of hope. Peter knew hope. Hope came from the land, from the tiny sprigs of new trees that sometimes, even now, pushed up from below the mass of decaying matter, the great green stalks of food-bearing plants in the garden, and the shared compound memory of vernal equinox, despite the gray, depleted climate of the time.
It wasnt, of course, a real equinoxnot since climatic volatility had destabilized earths orbit by knocking the planet off its axisbut instead a kind of lightening, a softening of air and light that would initiate a subtle period of anticipation. Maybe the icy temperatures would yield or the murky skies lift, almost imperceptibly at first but enough for everyone to sense what was coming. And then there would be dayssometimes days and daysof uneasy waiting that were hard on everyone but especially the children.
Then, like that, it would turn. Dawn would come crystalline and white, with the air warmed fifty degrees overnight by the blast of the hot wind from the south, and Peter would be roused from his sleep with his young pulse racing even before he was quite conscious. Everything smelled if not new, then on the verge of being new, the long fetid air tinged with sharpness and the sky outside blinding.
On that day, the first day of new light, everyone sweated and suffered from headaches, shielding their eyes with their hands as Counsel convened to initiate the week of preparations for the Celebration of New Life.
People accepted this, even the children who, despite their keyed up impatience and inability to understand why they must wait againfollowed the cues of the grown-ups and performed their cleaning chores and specified ablutions with subdued obedience, though inside they could hardly be contained. Adults, too, went about the business of the weekairing their homes out and turning the soil of the community gardens, strengthening the fish lines, taking careful inventory, preparing their minds accepting the prescriptions for both ritual and work the same way they accepted their reduced circumstances and all the other limitations of the Charter. They accepted it with affection and a certain cheerfulness, even obstinate hope, for hope also was their consensual belief that, despite what had already happened, their beloved planet might yet prevail. Hope was looking for signsthe almost imperceptible lightening of sky, the slight rise in the temperature, the barely longer day. Hope was the first meager promise of new green life. Hope was what remained of human memory.
And hope was everyones responsibility, beginning with children as young as three or four as soon as they could navigate the woods and find their way back, on the seventh day, alone. Every child knew this, knew too that theyd be judgedtheir community value assessed and ranking establishedby their ability to find new trees and nurture them along. And every child also knew that those whose trees survived would receive special treats and recognitions throughout the coming year, while those whose trees did not would be shamed. Maybe not overtly but in subtle ways, ways that would cause the child to feel less than cherished or suspect about herself what others had concludeda certain pathologic laziness or inability to be organically empathic with other living things. No one knew how such children were going to turn out and so it was a matter of some palpable relief and no surprise to anyone that when the deaths began, these small failed children were among the first to go, like their own trees before them.
Peter looked forward to the Hunt all year and counted it among the happiest and most exciting times of his entire childhood. Unlike other special daysChristmas, for example, or the Day of CharterCelebrations were mercurial and could not be predicted or fixed on any calendar but came instead on the wing of an auspicious wind that marked a new season of growth. During the endless final week, Peter slept poorly and was plagued by frequent thoughts of his mother who, in his over-stimulated mind, urged him to fortitude and patience and promised to help him if he would just be good, just for another moment, another hour, another day.
Until at last it was over and Peters father came to crouch beside his bed in the pale darkness of the seventh dawn. Feel that? he would say. Feel better? Its time.
Almost, this was Peters favorite part of the entire day, every year the same: Peter feigning sleep, his father crouched so close they could both feel the breath of the otherand then his father touching him, hardly even a palpable touch, the barest stroke of Peters cheek with the rough, dry skin of the back of his handthe only time all year they had physical contact.
For this reason both father and son kept up the pretext long after they knew it for what it was, both pretending just a moment longer that the boy was asleep, that the father would wake him, both honed to the touch of mans hand on the downy softness of the boys cheek, the boy who was the son of the man. Feel that, the father would whisper, stroking the sons cheek, come on Son, wake up. But he didnt really want that and neither did Peter, each of them lingering as long as they could on the cusp of tenderness that so rarely occurred between men and boys. And then Peter would be up and off, out into the woods, always among the very first and intent, the whole day, on his search for the tiny vegetal breaks in the mulch that promised, with diligence and love and luck, to grow into trees.
Some of the childrenbasic counterswould run around beside themselves, marking tree after tree the way they might once have crammed Easter baskets with too many eggs. These were thoughtless, greedy children who would have to pay later, for the more trees a child claimed, the more arduous their care would be and the greater the possibility of failure. Among them, thered be children so excited by the moment that they marked and claimed trees that no amount of nurturing would save.
More deliberate than other children, Peter understood this rigid calculus, this stubborn alchemy of love and labor, and was as cool and systematic as he was resolute. Peter was not greedy. He did not lack foresight, and almost from the start exhibited such a preternatural instinct for identifying viable seedlings that over time, he would become the only child who never lost a single tree. For even as a very young boy, Peter seemed to grasp that the dying off of old growth forests all around them was a greater harbinger of things to come than even their existence as an Intentional Community.
So he fought. He fought doggedly and he fought hard, thinking of himself as a valiant warrior for the earth. He went out earlier than other children and more calmly, he walked farther along the perimeter in more protected places, he looked for healthier already established shoots of indigenous pines, and he chose only a handful every year so as to be able to give each his most tender and assiduous attentions. In this way Peters trees flourished. They grew and grew, slender and strong, daily thrusting their roots ever deeper down into the earth, their crowns ever higher toward the light. And as they did, Peters skill and reputation grew as well such that by the time the Hunts came to their natural end, Peter would have cultivated what, grouped together, might have counted as a small successful grove of hardy fourth growth trees.
And these were to be known as Peters trees.
Eventually a Hunt came in which Peter was followed by a girl. Several years older than Peter but noticeably smaller and with a deep widows peak on her broad forehead that leant her face a troubling heart-shaped appearance, Peter knew her, if he knew her at all, as one of the pallid, failed children. But having dreamed the night before (when he had finally slept) of a silver-tipped fir already as tall as he was and lit by the sun, Peter was distracted and didnt notice her when he first started out. And as the morning progressed, hed missed other signs as well, attributing her clumsy cracking of twigs behind him to the general excitement of other children, her breath to the panting of boys, her smell to his own excited sweat. Peter searched for the dream tree with such single-mindedness, not until late in the day when he finally found it far along the perimetera fir! did he become aware of the presence lurking behind him.
It happened with no warning. First the treehis fourth and final find of the day, and his own heart pounding with joyand almost in the same breath the new uneasy sense that he was not alone. Maybe this time he heard a twig snap, maybe he smelled her, sour and flat, but as he bent to part the mulch around the seedling, to examine the soil where it had taken root and look for signs of hardinessa smooth and shiny bark, many buds of branches, good colorhis hand closed involuntarily around the small plant and, suddenly aware of somethingPeter froze.
Because the firas in his dream, only much, much smallerhad poked its tender crown out in a patch of brilliant sun, Peter was momentarily blinded when he turned to look behind him into the gloom of the older dead trees, and he shook his head hard to rid himself of the strong, unpleasant feeling that he was being watched. Then he turned back to admire the seedling, which, though very small, already showed the subtle lightening at its tips that would turn, also as hed dreamed, silver as it grew. Peter knelt in the mulch to offer gratitude and stake his claim and offer up his little prayer for grace, but the persistence of the smell was distracting, and he turned to check again, staring longer this time, straining his eyes against the darkness until at last he could make a shadow out, motionless beside a dying cedar.
What, Peter called, turning his body to shield the tiny fir from the motionless shape. Go away, Peter called. This one is mine.
Now the scent of the shadow sharpened, turning even more acrid, and it made a sound, the sound of the catch of a breath drawing in. So it was human after all, a child like him who was crying and who, on this day of all days, had at last given in to despair or was cheating. And once he knew all this, the only thing Peter felt was annoyed.
Then the shape stepped out of the shadows and, brushing lank hair from its face, revealed itself to him.
Go away, he said again. Find your own trees.
Im not after trees, she saidfor the shape was a girl. Mine always die. You know that. And she took another step closer to Peter, smiling uncertainly and showing him her discolored teeth. Peter, still kneeling, shielded his small fir with his body, but her teeth confused him, gleaming in the sunlight like wet yellow stars. Of course Peter recognized her as the girl who lived in the last remote yurt, with two fathersskilled technicians bothand no mother, and it was for this reason that his heart had gone out to her when she began to fail. Now, he could not help but wonder if her bad teeth were a cause or a result of her failure. Beneath the light gauze of her shirt, the soft form of breasts moved up and down with her shallow breath. She was older than he was.
If youre afraid for your tree, she said, Im not going to hurt it.
Oh, Peter thought, staring at her teeth.
I wont hurt you either, she promised.
Peters knees, in the mulch, were damp and suddenly cold as the girl started moving slowly toward him, but doing something with her hips, something sinuous, and because he really was afraid that she might contaminate, by her proximity, the tree he had dreamed, he marked it quickly and got up to meet her halfway through the bright clearing.
When the girl sickened some weeks later, Peter had felt shocked, haunted as he was by the memory of the softness of the breasts he had felt that day of the Hunt, her wet mouththe mouth with bad teethon his body, and the outcome, a terrible secret. Also, the fir died, or maybe never even was, for when he went back to install the protective net he found his stake easily enough but the tree was gone. Peter had knelt there again, in the same depression his knees had left the day before, and picked gingerly about the decaying mulch, wanting to weep. But what he told himself was that thishis first failuremust be nothing to him now.
Peters resolve was going to have to last a long time. For between the first sicknessthe girls and the lastPeters fathersthe Community would go through all the stages of grieffrom the first stricken sense of denial, through brutal panic, to grim acceptance, ending finally with serenity and grace. By the time the ordeal was finished everyone would know what to do and how to do it.
It was Peters father who had found the girl, curled up beneath a mound of leaves in the outer reaches of the compound and already so diminished even he might have missed her had she not made a sound. The sound was hardly human, but he knew it. He knew it, and he brought her back.
Everything happened so fast.
One day, the girl was kneeling before Peter, whispering Im not going to hurt you; the next, Peters fatherhis own fatherwas unfolding her like a piece of fabric from underneath the mulch where she had hoped she might never be found. But there wasnt going to be any hiding now, and you poor thing, Peters father murmured, brushing the dirt from her face and hair as tenderly as he could manage, you poor thing. Then he lifted her shivering body and carried her across the creek where he built a little yurt for her and gave her food and water.
Peters father did all this.
Then Peters father kissed her and left her there.
But between that first moment when she and Peter touched in the clearing, and the last, when Peters father left her, shivering and alone, for this was protocol, there had been so many othersuncountable othersPeter pulling her not out of but down into the mulch. They had done this so many times, as many times as they could, whenever and wherever they could, over and over, undone by their need and careless as children will be. They were both so small, the lightest compound children by far. Any strong wind might have blown them away. But there wasnt any wind, only dank emanations rising from the earth.
And only the warmth of her mouth on his body, only that and nothing more.
Until theyd grown so absorbed by what they were doing that neither of them heard Peters father crashing through the brush, noticed his jaw twitching above them. At his fathers side, one white hand hung, opening and closing, like a fish. The other took the girl by her scruff of yellow hair, pulling the two apart. All his life Peter will remember her face, stunned, and the arc of his own sperm spewing milky above them.
Oh, Peter cried, dont hurt her. Please.
Peter covered his face with his hands, trying to hide, but he couldnt stop from hearing the mewling sounds the girl made. Then as he reached down to button his jeans, rolling tentatively to one side, he became aware of another sound, the sound of his father, massive above them, somehow apologetic.
You dont know what youre doing. Youre only children.
To the girl, he said, go home. Lets never speak of this again.
Then he took Peter to the creek.
We were just, Peter said, shivering in the water, his small body shrinking from cold. But he did not know what else to say. Beside him his father crouched to scoop up a handful of sand.
Come, he said, rubbing grit on Peters back.
In his memory Peter cant ever sort out how long they stay in the water, his fathers hands on him gentle but firm, scouring caressingevery inch of Peters bodythe knob at the back of his neck, between his little toes, in the crack where his spine ends, the deep round dimple at the back of his ear. But he does know what is going to happen when his father finishes andPeter cant ever forget this kneels in the rocky shoals, bringing his own body down to the height of Peter, and turns his bare back to his son.
Now, he says, you.
Two things sustained Peter during the time of their plague, but only one of them was honorable. The firstthe steely fortitude he discovered on the day the fir was gonewould serve, throughout that time, to steady him and give him solace.
The second was harderthe second was his ravaging guilt.
But what troubled Peter was not what hed done with the girl or even how often hed done it, would have kept on doing if she hadnt gotten sick, but what instead hed done all on his own, a transgression of unholy proportions.
Years before, Peters parents had gone at the same ambivalence with a relentless futility that tore them apart. Whats wrong, his mother had pleaded, with an urban IC. Its more civilized that way, and the buildings are sealedtheyre completely safe.
No place, his father said, on earth is going to be safe from the next part in the history of the world. How can you be so na´ve?
Thered been a pause. Then his mother sighed, followed by the dissonant tones of her tuning her violin. Then, this: I just dont see why it has to be so far away. You might as well take him to the moon.
Peter had followed the creek. That was the easiest way.
In later years, Peter would remember only bits and pieces of his first crossing back into the forbidden worldthe sound of the water, needles dropping on wind, the smell of something pungent just beyond. He would remember, but not in any choate way, the simple and incongruous lure of what he believed he had heard. And by the time he had threaded the culvert and followed the creek bed all the way down to the river that flowed to the rest of the world, the only thing Peter could say about what he had done was that he would do it again.
And so he had, just as hed lain with the girl, over and over, though at first the one part of his mind wasnt even sure what hed heard. Sometimes the wind in the branches above sounded like music to him. But nothing else nothingcould ever have accounted for the sudden charge at the back of his neck, his boy pores opening to release a dew of startled sweat, the pounding of his heart that began not inside him, but out. And even before the first note had settled into his ear and worked up the length of his auditory nerve to make itself known in his temporal lobe as the sound of a violin, the other part of his frontal lobe had processed and deducedhad recognizedhis mothers violin. This cant be, Peter thought, as a limpid feeling ran through him.
Who loved him, Peter thought.
But when he tried to tell his father later, his father said it was a dream.
Dreams can do funny things, his father said, his hands clamped firmly on Peters thin shoulders. They can seem more real than reality itself.
Peter looked down at his own hands, the stubby nails black with dirt, the delicate skin of a pine needle lodged like an eyelash under one, and wanted, for the first time, to squirm away from the grip of the man who determined what was possiblewhat could be imaginedand what was not.
Peter found the embarkation camp but he didnt find his mother.
He wandered down into it, dazedthe old tattered yurts, the scattered cottonwoods and prickly oaks, coming to a stunned halt on an old wood platform where, almost, he remembered his father overseeing the processing of settlers, the bequeathings of this and abdicatings of that, the oath-swearings, and almost, too, a day when his mother came for him and there had been a final argument. Now, Peter stood listening for an indeterminatean inconceivabletime, every pore in his body, every synapse in his brain straining, his BCI primed and acute.
But no, nothing: he was completely alone.
What could he have been thinking anyway?
So Peter did what any boy would do: he renounced his mother in his heart and went off to explore, wandering up the railroad tracks that followed the river to the great high rocks from which he would leap, time and again, into green pools far below. And then, two days later, he did it again.
Asked, Peter could not have said why. He knew as well as anyonebetter than most, had learned as a catechism in his fathers loftthat the compounds most sacred compact was to remain sealedhermetically sealedfor a hundred years, one full round earthly century. And yet he was breaking it, was breaking it willfully and without remorse. For in fact Peter went because he wanted.
He went because he was a boy and because there was a river.
He went because he could not be contained.
He went because the culvert made a perfect conduit out into the world.
He went because there was an outer world.
He went because it might, where they were, as well have been the moon.
And though Peter would remain in all other respects the most praiseworthy of sons, against the lure of the river, its phantom violin, and the pleasure of this transgression, he proved to be completely powerless.
Of course he was careful. He made certain no one saw him and removed all his clothes before leaving the compound, hiding them neatly beneath rock overhang. And on his return, he rinsed often in the creek and stopped at the far side of the culvert to scour all trace of river water from his body with sand. Back inside the perimeter, he air-dried completely before dressing again. Then he performed the ablutions to return purified and clean, both in body and spirit.
But of course he had no way of knowing then what peril was.
Then one day Peter learned for an incontrovertible fact that what he had heard in the woods was true when he looked up from his solitary weeding chores there at the back of the orchard to see his mother comingfor him. Peter had been clearing weeds all morning and he was covered with dirt and flies. Peter wont remember and will never really know why he is aloneperhaps hes being punished? What he does know is he knows she is there even before looking up. First the charge, again, at the back of his neck, then his hands clumped with dirt. The road shes walking downthe dirt road to the highwayhas been sealed since Withdrawal, but shes walking down it anyway and headed straight for him.
And this, this precise moment, is the happiest, most complete of Peters childhood, just this: him on his knees in the orchard, his heart in his throat, and his mother walking toward him with a red violin case flung over her shoulder and a bright yellow cap on her head. Shes wearing jeans and a cropped white t-shirt, a gold-colored sweater tied at the waist, and shes walking so quickly, with such stunning confidence, as if to make this quick. The only thing wrong is her too-red mouth. Its smiling too hard; its showing her teeth.
And then Peters running, and shes the one kneeling, her arms opened widefor himwho flings himself into them and knocks them both into the dirt.
Its okay, Petie. Its over and everythings safe now. Her words go into his hair, his neck. Is that really you? How big you have grownsuch a big, strong boy.
Sometimes, Peter remembers the smell of pomegranates, sometimes that she lets him bury his small, dirty face in her neck.
And Im here to take you home.
But sometimes the men come for her while Peter is still running and he never gets there. And sometimes Peters father grabs him before Peter even starts, a hand clamping down on his shoulder from behind.
You and your big imagination, his father says. How could that possibly be?
At first, the plague among them seemed impossible. How could a virus have found them as far out of the world as theyd taken themselves? But all the tests confirmed ita virus, heretofore unknown and utterly intractable, which could only have lain dormant, despite their careful screenings, in one of them from the beginningno doubt, they concluded, that first failed child, the girl with the heart-shaped face.
Then they built the gate and bridge and drew up plans for quarantine as calmly and efficiently as if theyd been preparing for this all along.
And as Peter came at last to understand, too late, the whole desperate logic of separation, he could do nothing but watch.
Some of the passings were powerful and movingthe goat woman, for example, who had long provided them with butter and cheese and yoghurt and whey and sometimes, big vats of her rich, sweet cream, left proudly at the first signs of sickness, hardly even pausing as she left her best bell at the gate for the ritual pyres. To Peter, shed seemed milky, almost incandescent, as shed crossed swiftly through the gate, then abjuring the bridge, splashed through the water to the other side where her splashing continued in private ablutions and where she would sing, as if there were goats.
For several nights after, Peter watched her in the moonlight on the far side of the creek where she had taken to caring for those who were already there. An ample woman, she moved lightly as she tended to others, making frequent trips to the creek and bringing water back in her fluted bell to quench their thirst and cool their unbearable heat. When newcomers crossed, shed be waiting to embrace them, holding them close to her bosomy chest. And when it was time, she torched the yurts, each going up in a blaze.
The librarian downloaded his files to leave a story behind for each surviving member of the compound.
The potter broke most of her pots and scattered the shards, save for those she stacked neatly on the deck, each tagged with a name and instructions: break before crossing. Peters was blue.
One whole family went over together as soon as the youngest child fell ill.
More often people waited until quite near the end, eking out the last drops of pleasuretime spent with family in the comforts of home. Some were so diminished that their crossings exacted a terrible toll, and still Peter watched. Despite his inner torment, he could not not watch, setting up in a stony little knoll where rocks cut painfully (but not painful enough) into his body and where some nights he slept.
Then one soupy nightall the nights were soupy in those daysPeter watched as a father ripped a child from the arms of a mother to send the child off alone across the bridge. The mother, apparently healthy, clung to the child and argued, but when she tried to go with the boy, the father grabbed her roughly and would not let her go. There was yellingmostly at the child, who hardly even whimpered. A frail, moon-faced boy with a clump of yellow hair, he waited with unbearable stillness. And when the parents finally left he continued waiting for the mother to come back. Clutching the stuffed bear meant for pyre, the boy waited for so long that both Peters heart and resolve were shattered.
Peter took the small boys hand and found its heat electric as he led him gently to the middle of the bridge where they sat side-by-side in the milky moonlight, their four legs dangling toward the water in a complex pendulum, back and forth, back and forth, the boys half the length of Peters. At the end of the boys, his small bare feet had already taken on a pulsing luminescence.
Finally, Peter said this to the boy: a mother loves a child, no matter where she is in the world or how she shows her love. That is what a mother is. You know the way your mother smells? Close your eyes, little boy. Tell me what you see.
When Peter opened his own eyes, the boys long lashes threw spidery shadows down the length of his pale cheek.
Its not really dying, he said, over theresomething else. And it wont hurt, I promise, he said, even though he knew that might be a lie.
But the boy seemed calmer now, almost ready. You too?
Not yet, Peter said. But Ill take you. Ill help if I can.
The next time Peter crossed the creek it was to help his teacher who had delayed too long, and who, when she knelt at the gate to leave her schoolroom whistle, found herself too weak to rise again. As Peter watched her struggle he thought about the boy hed carried over only nights before, then he thought about the sturdy line of the librarians back. What did they know? What could they see over there that they couldnt see here? Could they see, Peter thought? Did they know about his shame?
Peter imagined his own teachers shame at being found there in the morning having failed to cross. She had always been a complicated woman who had taught him several languages and complex algorithms, and in the absence of his mother, had kept a careful eye on his diet and prepared the plasters for his childhood colds and flues. Why had she waited so long? Peter wondered. Was it hope or indecision, an inability to act? Orshe had always been stubbornsome intractable nostalgia for the dying human race? Or simple human error, a careless inattention to her waning? Maybe she had not wanted to go out alone. But the teacher had always lived alone and now she lay at the gate making small, helpless sounds, like a cat.
It hadnt been that hard with the boy, crossing over and returningno harder than threading and rethreading the culvert.
Oh, yes, please, she whispered to him when he offered to help.
First he found a small yurt for his teacher and settled her there, taking off her wet clothes and helping her into one of the white gowns. In the yurt Peter smelled something sweetlike the moss in the river or the big leafy plants that covered its banks. Then he felt his own mothers hands guiding his and as he went to smooth his teachers back and forehead, she smiled up again more broadly and said, you wont believe the light. Pale as new wheat, her body was already shimmering. Still, she could not stop smiling, and there was something else about her too, something sereneand much, much younger. Her breasts, the small mound of her stomach beneath the white gauze, felt warm and firm, like those of the straw-haired girl. Peter sat beside her, his hand on her forehead, watching the light in her eyes dim, even as the rest of her grew brighter and lighter. Her teeth beneath her parted lips glowed like wet stones. Then, just before the final moment, she grabbed Peters hand and moved it from her forehead to her breast.
There, she said, now.
And as something hot and vital passed through Peter what he heard, her last words its okay passed through him like a breath. And then she was gone in a flash of final lighta radiancebrilliant and fleeting.
That night Peter broke all the taboos. He went to the creek to replenish the cisterns, entered the yurts, and tended the sick. He fed them. He cleaned them, wiping their pale and attenuated bodies until they were as new, as clean as when they had first started out. He held their hands and listened to their final stories, the sounds they made that were not unlike those he had made with the girl in what already was a prior time.
And then he kissed them: one by one, he kissed them alltheir foreheads, both cheeks, their lips.
Some years later, at the end of the other soupy day on which Peter had awakened to the feeling that he was not alone, a feeling that had grown throughout the day, from the first unnerving presence to the absence that made the presence possible and doubled all the space around him and filled it with loss and forced himwhat else could Peter do?to assuage it, Peter took himself in his own hand for the first time since his father found him with the girl, and then lay awake unable to sleep.
Peter knew this feeling, this relentless wakefulness.
This, what he was feeling, once again, was shame.
No, not shame. No, what Peter suffered from was human memory itself.
And as much as he tried not to Peter was unable not to think, on this night of all nights, about how his father must have known. For if his father had known where to find him that first time with the straw haired girl and what he would find them doing when he did what Peter was doing nowoh, Peter thought, what had ever made him think he could have hidden anything from him? And so he thought about his fathers face, which had looked, when it had looked on them, not strickenstricken was what the others looked likebut momentarily defeated. And then something else had taken over, something frightening.
No, Peter, no, his father had said, his hand moving to stop them and Peters sperm spilling on all of them. And then his father sent the girl home as, for the first and only time, Peter saw him weep.
Now, as he does again the thing that killed the girl and brought his father to his knees, Peter lets himself remember the girl herself, the silky wet warmth of her mouth, her failed teethwhat she wanted. For long before shed followed his Hunt she had been following him to the culvert.
Look what Im doing for you, she had cried later. Please, take me with you.
The way she said it shocked Peter, her little moon face pale and urgent.
I want, she had said, away, away. Cant you see what its like for me here?
They were standing at the bend in the creek beyond which Peter could see the culvert and so, he thought, could she. He could see the rock where he hid his clothes. He could see the light at the other end. But though he could see all that, could already even feel the corrugated metal beneath his feet, the wind of the culvert swooshing past his naked skin, the words she had saidher wordshad not even made sense. Inside his head, a desperate clicking as he found himself transfixed by her teeth. In all the times he had been with herand thinking this, Peter feels himself flush with a different kind of shame he had never once imagined her as a separate person with her own hopes.
Where did she think he went anyway? How far did she think she could get?
But Peter had had his mind on the other thing and so he told himself that it was just a river, the same as any river, and placed his hands upon her head to bring her to him. And though now he wanted more than anything to go back and do things over, it was too late for that and Peter knew italready the world was going out.
Sometime later in the nightthe night Peter acknowledges his own hand as the last hand on earth that will do this for himhe gets up to vomit. He does not use the bathroom or any of the sinks but goes outside and walks a little into the darkness of the woods, instinctively tracing the path to the place where hed found the fir and met the girl, and when he gets to where he thinks it might have been, he digs a hole and vomits into it, and then he, too, lies down in the mulch and weeps, his face turned toward the pale part of the soupy sky where he knows, if the clouds would only part, the old, sad moon still hovers.
Return to Top