Last night I stumbled across this nodeshell while searching for inspiration for a creative piece that I needed to write on the meaning of poetry. Inspired quite suddenly, this is what I wrote:
There is More than Glass between the Snow and the Roses
She watched the sun set like the fall of the Roman Empire, a slow crumbling of cloud forms into bloody streaks, and then she lay down and slept the sleep of a lost child living under a viaduct.
When she woke up, she thought, "When will the last days end?" and then she pulled the dirty blankets away from her dirty body and went out into the street to read the street signs. They pointed nowhere away from the ashes and she wandered around the center of the broken city, trailing nothing but her soul, owning nothing but her dignity and intellect.
She was young, but not so young that she didn't remember the beginning of the end. Those last days before a nuclear cloud engulfed the Earth had been a lot like the last day of Waterloo: a scrambled and disorderly retreat, a falling away of sanity, a gentle and irrepressible fear of the future, a casual inevitability. Wellington was too close and the charges had all gone wrong and they would surely all be exiled to Corsica or hell or wherever else the dead spirits go. In the Middle Ages everyone in Europe was buried with their feet towards Jerusalem so that they would be ready to stand and face the Messiah in the last days. She believed in being buried with her feet facing anywhere but towards the ground, just so long as she was buried and dead and no longer experiencing the scorched, forsaken earth.
She hadn't seen anyone in months. Her lips, once cherry red but now cracked and white with dust and nuclear ash, could barely take in the little water and food that she could find among the rubble of the deserted city. Everything was spoiling around her, sending up a terrible stench, but the burning industrial fumes around her had long rendered her nose cauterized.
Night came again, but she could barely tell because the sun had slunk behind the poisonous clouds of sulfur stalking the horizon months ago. She lay down in the cardboard box, fingers curled around a picture, and tried to sleep. When she closed her eyes she dreamed of a tortured night and sleeping in a cardboard box, and then she opened her eyes and realized that she had not been dreaming or even sleeping at all.
Beside her was a computer, a laptop, somehow still working. She had found it in the early days after the war, lying on the ground outside an office building. She did not care to speculate how or why it had simply been set down on the street , left behind, but she took it, and plugged it into a wall socket, and slept beside it every night, under the viaduct, in a cardboard box.
Now the utilities were dying. She was trapped inside a ghastly machine that was slowly fading away into the night, and she knew it. When she turned on the computer and plugged in its satellite link and connected to the Internet, she saw mainly static or blank pages. There was still one website that worked: the sunset, televised and beamed down, streams of electrons, onto her monitor. Someone, somewhere, had put up a camera aimed at the sunset, and she watched it every night, and wondered where that camera was, and how she could reach it.
Another day passed, and she watched the sunset again, holding onto that image for her life, drowning on the Titanic and afraid to lose sight of ship's lights, even as it tilted towards the surface of the sea at an ever steeper angle. On the Titanic, the men down in the boiler rooms had drowned trying to keep the lights running for as long as they could, feeding coal into the giant steamers for nearly two hours before they, and their steamers, slipped into the silent and freezing sea.
In the night, she lay beside her computer, screen still on, staring at the darkness the camera was pointing at, trying to discern shapes, anything. She believed in nothing anymore but finding that camera, and that place that it advertised, but she didn't know how to start.
When she awoke, for this time she had drifted into an uneasy sleep, she found that in the night she had been covered in white ashes. For the millionth time in as many seconds, she thought, "When will the last days end?" and did not know. She sat up and plucked the ashes from her body, swiping at them at first ineffectually and then simply standing, letting them fall to the cold, hard ground. She couldn't see the sun for the clouds and she knew that something terrible was happening in the sky. The ashes fell around her and she glanced down at the computer. Seeing its screen covered she panicked and then recovered, moving her hand over the ashes and seeing the clear blue sky. And then, for a moment, the screen flickered, and shifted, angling downward crazily towards the ground, towards the darkened clouds, towards a hard metal ground. A dark shape moved in front of it, a mere shadow but nonetheless utterly terrifying. She could sense through the camera that it was deformed, horrifying. She shrank away from the screen, willing the sky to be returned to her, willing the dark thing to disappear. Her world was filled with enough darkness for her to be physically able to withstand any more. She needed that sky like Alexander had needed India; she would die of sheer wasting disease without it, as he had. The camera angle remained pointed downward, towards a terrible metal ground, and she glimpsed one number in the lower half of the screen. Leaning closer she saw that it read "783-2-23432-41" and underneath her fear she realized that it might be important; she placed it in her mind and resolved not to forget it. The dark form moved away, but the camera remained tilted down. She repeated the number over and over in her head, turning it into a chant, a prayer for her final, ultimate salvation, and then she turned her face away from the monitor, unable to step away but not wanting to look at that terrible earthliness any longer. She left it like that for a long time, only glancing back occasionally, hoping that it would change, and then she set out to scavenge for food.
When she returned, the camera was once again pointed at the sunset. It tinted out, glorious and intangible, and she traced her fingers down the ashes on the monitor and tried to see it. She laid her head down once it was over and watched the stars to make certain that they did not disappear, drawing her blanket tightly around her and remembering the dark outline. She fell asleep only after a long time, and she dreamed of the past, only it was of course a dream, and everything was disjointed and out of place but emotionally terrifying.
There was the announcement on CNN, the stone-faced anchor reading the declaration of war, the last time they went off the air, their voices strained and their faces chalky under makeup. Shots of panic in the streets, people terrified and without hope, and she couldn't tell if it was on the TV or outside her window. She was sitting in the kitchen of her grandmother's house, but that was wrong, because she had really been at work when she found out, but somehow this state of knowing it was wrong and feeling that it was right only contributed to the realism. She saw the checkered cloth of the ugly curtains and heard voices in the drawing room; she walked out of the kitchen and saw a coffin sitting in the hallway, and people in white standing all around it. A bell was ringing, and she remembered that in Victorian times, people had attached bells to the inside of coffins in case the person inside was not dead. Some diseases mimicked death, of course, and it was horrific to be buried alive, but when she opened the lid of the coffin and saw her own face she felt no fear. And then it was the last minutes, when she went down to the abandoned subways and stood before the closed cars, her tears falling for the first and last time. She watched them land on the platform, and saw them evaporate before they could form a lasting pool. And then the ground above her had shaken, terribly, and she had fallen, and not known anything for a very long time.
She woke up, the shreds of the dream falling away before she had even opened her eyes, and she was glad that those horrors could flee her unconscious before they could further infect her shattered mind. She was left with a feeling reminiscent of mortal terror, but could not place it, and so she sat up and brushed away the ashes and saw that in the night her blanket had disappeared. This scared her even more than she had been before; for a minute she thought she might die, but she gathered herself together and went outside, fingers numb in the cold wind, and saw the blanket. Something horrific and large and furry was sitting on it, panting in huge gasps, expelling white puffs of air out into the polluted sky. She stared in shock for a long minute before realizing that it was a dog, and then she opened her mouth and attempted to let a sound escape. Although nothing did, the dog looked up at her as if it had heard her anyway, and then leapt to its feet, guarding the blanket jealously. She dropped to her knees--she needed that blanket so much, she was so cold, and the ashes kept falling on her--and the dog, somehow, miraculously, understood and came towards her, huge feet padding in the snowy white powder. He dropped the blanket before her, gripping it in his massive teeth, and gave her a doggy smile, fangs bared, before laying down next to her prone form. For a long minute she looked down at it, shocked at the feeling of a living creature against her skin, and then she drew away and stared down at it again, but it only attempted to move closer. She let it follow her into her cardboard box, under the viaduct, and they snuggled up to sleep close together, both enjoying the wonderful sensation of not being the last creature alive on the Earth.
Again, she dreamed, and the dream was darker, more melancholy than terror-filled. She was wandering the deserted city, in the first days after she had dug her way out of the subway tunnels. She had emerged far from the epicenter, and there were buildings still standing, people still dying of radiation sickness, carcasses rotting in streets. The sun still shone, but darkly, sickly, hiding behind clouds for hours every day, and every day those hours getting longer, until finally most of the people were dead and the sun was gone and she was alone. She forgot how to talk, how to do anything but stagger around, going through the motions of survival, breathing in air that she knew was killing her slowly. She did not cry anymore, not even when her hair, long and red and the part of her body that she had always loved most, became wispy and began to fall out. She longed for death more and more every day, and in her dream she felt that pain like a stab in the chest. When she awoke, the dog was snuffling at her ear, and she could still remember every detail of the dream, every dying man she had tripped over on the street. She could have called it a nightmare had it not been better than the waking dream she lived every minute that her eyes were open: buildings beginning to crumble, terrible clouds all around, and the terrible, soul-consuming fear. She was dead already, and there was no point in destroying her physical body any more. She felt ready to lay her head down on the side of her cardboard box and just fade away. The dog continued its snuffling and she suddenly turned her head, startled, and looked straight into its eyes.
They were deep, deep blue; a sunrise reflected on a lake. They seemed to be pleading with her, begging her to stand up, to carry on, to survive, to rage, rage against the dying of the light... She stood up, slowly and looked down into those eyes again. A sunrise... and she set out across the city, laptop and blanket under her arm, the dog in tow behind her.
She walked nearly all day, through streets broken and beaten. Occasionally she would stumble upon a desiccated corpse and shy away from it, the dog following right behind her. The smell of decay began to pervade her almost dead nostrils the closer and closer she got to the center of the destroyed city. She could not, would not, would not even consider entering those almost sacred ruins, shattered blocks and twisted glass, that destroyed cityscape that she knew was repeated in every city around the world. Not even her imagination could carry her that far. As the day was ending, as surely it must have been, for she had been walking so long, she saw the building she had been searching for rising up before her.
The towers and turrets of its mock-Gothic style façade were already weathered and the marble steps leading to its heavy metallic doors were covered in the white ash. Under the heavy clouds, she turned to look back at the dog, frightened more than she could let on. It simply gazed back with its sunrise eyes and she turned once more and started up the steps. She remembered the story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," by Ray Bradbury, and the terrible stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She remembered the quote even:
"The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down."
She remembered reading the story in seventh grade, from a poor copy handed out in English class. How it had fascinated her! She had written a report on post-apocalyptic literature with that as her center-piece. She had spoken to her class of how silly the fears of nuclear war were...
What if she walked into that library and saw figures burned into the paint now? What if she saw a woman bent over her reading, what if she saw little children playing with their toys in the hall, what if she saw a man walking his dog on the side of the building, the paint congealed and dripped where his body had been incinerated, melted, melded from flesh into concealer? Her whole body shook with the effort of mounting those stairs and pushing that door open and feeling the silence of the tomb ever more oppressive than even in the bowels of the city.
The dog followed at her heels, and its quiet patter kept her alive. She entered the building records room and found the appropriate book, the appropriate number, and realized that she had known what building #783-2-23432-41 was all along. And then she turned, and left the library forever, still shaking, still terrified of what she might find embedded in the paint.
It was not until she was four blocks from the library that she really did see a body. It was hardly recognizable as a human, molded into the concrete of the street as it was, but she could see a diamond ring on something that must have been its finger. It must have fallen from an office building that loomed, half broken, above her. She remembered history, she remembered death, she remembered pain, but she could not remember anything about what to do when one went out to walk her dog and came across a body entrenched in the concrete of a sidewalk. Once there had been crews that would clean these things up. The dog came, sniffed, and stepped away, and she followed it, all thought dissolved from sheer force of will.
They walked on and on, nights spent without any shelter but their own silently growing love. She sometimes couldn't find a place to plug in the laptop to watch the sunset, and that frightened her, as if one day she might plug it in and it wouldn't be there if she didn't constantly monitor it. Occasionally, she would see the dark shapes lurking, and a new thought, malignant as a tumor, began to grow within her mind, poisoning her one hope from within. What if these shapes were intentionally leaving her clues to lead her to this particular building? What if the sunset was a fake? What if she would never see the sun again? And this set off a chain reaction, just like in nuclear war, mutually assured destruction. What if, when she died, as she knew she must, there was no golden place filled with sun? What if she was only dead, alone again? Oh god, she prayed, what if you do not exist? Still, they pressed on, through the wasteland, through the shattered earth.
They came upon the building in what she reasoned to be midday. In a world where there is no way to tell time because clouds of dust have obscured the sun, there is no certainty. She stared up at it, saw its top ascending through the clouds, wondered how she and the dog could ever reach through those clouds. And then she pressed the doors aside and entered.
The building was nearer to the epicenter than she had ever wanted to be, and yet it stood. The floors were meticulously clean, and even as she dripped ash on their polished surfaces they seemed to renew from within. The dog whined and looked around nervously, but she strode to the elevator and pushed the up button, sensing that there was still somehow power. She ignored the quiet noises emanating from the corners around her. She was terrified again, as she always was, and she was becoming used to it, a constant pain in her stomach and twitch in her hand. The elevator doors slid open and she and the dog stepped in. The elevator only went as high as the 500th floor, but she knew that the building rose infinitely higher than that. There must be a special elevator...
She remembered when it had been built. "The Tower of Babylon!" someone had declared, and the name had stuck. "Remember September 11!" someone else had yelled, and everyone did, and no one wanted to work there, so it remained empty, a marvelous feat unused and unwanted. She rode up in the silent elevator, clutching the dog to her, and understood why people had not liked it; it was so silent, so efficient, so much a machine. She longed for humanity more than ever, and this great instrument of a building was cold and unfeeling.
The elevator halted and she exited, to another elevator, and then another, and then another. Finally she emerged and saw not another elevator but a miracle.
She was outside, in the midst of a blowing storm of snowy ash. Ten feet from her, then five feet, then one inch, was a rose garden. The giant red flowers sparkled with clean dew, and she reached out to them, slamming her hand onto hard glass. A hand print appeared and she sank down the length of the wall, feeling for an opening, anything that would let her in to touch the wondrous flowers, but she knew that there was more than glass separating the snow from those huge roses.
She opened her mouth slowly, feeling the words on her lips. When she spoke, it was poetry that flowed from her tortured soul, broken and angry and still beautiful in its sound. What she spoke cannot be written, for no one but she understood it, but it saved her life. It edified her, it made her, it gave her a rebirth in its embracing arms. The sound of it was the prayer of salvation that she had thought would never come. And then, her poetry ended.
She stood for a long time, fingers clenched, and the dog stood too, understanding. She was growing quite light-headed from the altitude and she could hardly move, but she heard a noise and her heart began to pound even harder, if it was possible, until she could barely breathe at all. And then a hand, warm and human, was on her shoulder, and a man's voice said in a broken sob, "You are here! You are alive!"
She turned to look into his face and saw his eyes wide with terror. "Who are you?" she whispered, and the words were now harsh, just a gasp. All of her poetry was gone, spent on the roses and the dog with sunrise eyes, and she had none for this sad little man that she recognized from TV as the owner of the building.
"Oh god, you've come," he repeated, not hearing her words. "I've been waiting..." He paused and saw her face. "Come in, oh please come in."
She followed him into the room, velvet interior and plush carpeting. The roses were right there, before her, and he let her stand and touch them while he fed her dog with some strange meat. She did not ask where he had gotten the food and he did not ask where she had come from. There were things that could not be talked about for their sheer terribleness.
"You saw the sun setting?" he asked her softly, and she spoke without looking up from the roses.
"And you came... You knew because this is the only building tall enough?" He asked the question eagerly, as if the truth would scare him.
"The camera tilted one night," she replied. "I saw the number."
He nodded, and then crossed the room to grip her hands. His own shook violently, and she was filled with the urge to comfort him, but she couldn't remember how. "Then they really are out there."
"Who?" she asked, knowing the answer. Creatures terribly mutated by the radiation, creatures so distorted in their own suffering that they were mutilated monsters... she remembered the rumors, the corpses with their bodies brutally beaten...
He saw that she knew. "There is only one thing left to do," he whispered, and she knew it. "We must watch the sunset."
The dog lay down among the roses and she did too, beside it, obediently. He drew from his pocket a vial of clear liquid and looked at it for too long. She sensed that he could not do it, not now that he wasn't alone anymore.
"I can't fight," she told him, and her voice shook with emotion. "But I am afraid to die. Where will I be when I open my eyes again? Will this sunset ever stop?"
The dog came closer to her, eyes wide open and warm. It licked her cheek and she petted its head, and she wasn't scared anymore.
"What else is there to do?" he asked softly, and her lack of resolve had regained his. He took the vial and tipped it onto her lips. "Lick them," he whispered, and then he lay down beside her, taking her hand and gripping it tightly. He touched the vial to his own lips and then leaned over her and put it on the dog's tongue. The dog slumped down into everlasting slumber almost immediately, but the man still did not lick his lips. He turned on a wide TV screen mounted on the ceiling above the roses, and there they saw the sun setting, glorious, like a river run red with the blood of victory, high above the earth. He touched his free hand to her face and whispered, "Tonight, the fields of heaven belong to us," and then he put his lips on hers, staining the contents of the vial into both their mouths, closing their eyes for the journey into eternity.
wertperch reminded me to tell you that the title of this comes from the poem "Snow" by Louis MacNeice, which is very lovely.