Who would’ve thought the end of the Earth could be so gloomy?
Prescient, millennial minds foresaw the end of the world as an atomic holocaust, like a gas lamp shattering over an anthill. Others foresaw a destructive end—massive waves knocking down steel structures, earthquakes cleaving the Earth’s crust, eradicating every single building. There were others who waited for some divine punishment—giant meteorites, as messengers of the Apocalypse. Or maybe even the Sun’s rays, as it grew to radiate unbearable heat, as the flesh of all things and beings melted, leaving behind piles of shiny white bones and remnants of steel and concrete devoured by the blaze. And maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad; maybe it would have been a heroic ending, a fierce struggle for survival rather than the lamb’s death by the butcher’s knife.
We each owe a death, people used to say—and still say it—for every man awaits his ending in his own way; either by standing still, or perched on top of a mountain, or carelessly walking around a God-forsaken corner of the world.
And still …
And still it happened in the beginning of December, a time when children yearned for snow and Christmas, while adults were thrilled about vacations and boiled bacon.
The grey dust began to fall faintly, undisturbed by anyone or anything. A soft and crumbly dust, as light and graceful as a goose’s fluff. The whole world was astonished; they could not believe anything like this could have happened, that the sky was pouring ash instead of snow. They laughed at first, chuckled at the thought of some saint barbecuing fat, greasy steaks up in heaven. But the joke only lasted for a while, as the dust kept falling and falling from the sky and would not stop: an unrelenting dust, wrapping the world in a blanket of soot.
The kids were laughing, making butterflies and angels in the soft ash, but adults began to worry, because they thought of what would happen to the Earth when it needed water and the sky is pouring ash.
And the light dust still keeps falling from the sky. Softly and silently weaving a grey silky veil, beyond which you can’t see anything. It’s spreading everywhere, enveloping every roof, every flower and tree, and only the humans and animals shake it off their backs and wonder about the overwhelming sadness.
There are different types of people.
There are people who await their ending, in their own beds, ready for the dust to sneak into their rooms and pantries, bedrooms and basements, to lie upon the old blankets, to fill their nostrils, to clog their lungs; to die of suffocation. But there are others, diligent people, who fight against the sky’s will, who put cars and machines to work and gather the unstoppable ash. They collect it and throw it into deep valleys and canyons, but it’s pouring ash everywhere in the world, and it keeps piling up. It covers holes, chasms, and turns into dunes, even mountains of ash, where the tractors are working non-stop.
But the dust keeps falling and nobody can stop it. It covers the pulleys, destroys hearts of steel, and mechanisms, makes the cars tremble and creak. Neither the bikes nor the carts are working because of the solid layer covering the world.
The animals are dying of starvation. Trees and flowers are dying. It’s snowing with ash, and where there’s no light anymore, there’s no life, either. Neither the birds nor the planes fly anymore, as the dust keeps adding up on their wings, torturing their flight and causing them to fall wearily to the ground.
Fields are dying, forests are dying, everything is dying, the whole world is falling apart.
Even the sea is fading away, because the dust reacts with the salty water, creating a blackish film, thin at first, and then grows in thickness until not even a dolphin or swordfish can tear through.
But the human is the only animal who’s striving for survival. Hidden underground, the food and water supplies can’t last forever, nor the dust filters. Man will feel compelled to flee from his lair, to scratch his way to the surface through the thickening blanket of dust, gasping for air. Because day after day, hour after hour, the dust blanket keeps growing thicker and thicker, until it becomes a solid slab.
And it’s not even raining anymore, to wash the Earth. The wind is not blowing anymore, to blow the damned dust away. Everything is standing still, but sometimes you can still see some wandering soul, hiding his eyes behind filtered glasses, covering his mouth with a purifying mask. Walking from place to place, scraping through the dust with a stick, looking for some carrion, to carry it up there, to the top floor of a skyscraper; where the dust hasn’t reached yet, but it will, sooner or later, don’t worry.
Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from.
Perhaps the Sun is consuming itself, perhaps the stars are fading, or maybe a giant is crumbling the Moon in his hands. That’s what people used to say, utterly terrified of death, knowing it wouldn’t be long until the end, until the last living soul vanishes from the face of the Earth. Because people lost their hope, their sons and daughters, their reason, and have no idea where to go and what to believe anymore. Throwing themselves down on their knees, sinking into the ash, they ask for forgiveness and cry like crazy, because God is up there and He’s the only one who can forgive them. But apparently it’s too late for repentance, because maybe not even the Heavenly Father wanted this kind of ending. The human race dug its own grave, handled the spade without even noticing the tormented voice of the Earth: stop burning me, stop poisoning me, stop burdening me. Let me breathe! I have no air, and if I’m not breathing, you won’t either!
The cities are dismal. There are no streets or sidewalks anymore. The buses and trams have been swallowed by the ash. There’s nothing’s left of them but their roofs outlined in the thick grey. The ash has no mercy. Delicate, crumbling, it found its way through the cracks in the shops’ shutters, covering the mannequins with dust, daubing counters and shelves and glass: stuck on everything.
The child sits blankly, with his legs crossed and hanging over the steeled ruins of a tram, ready to pull his bow. He’s not even frightened anymore. The lights have been out for some time now. Electricity is nothing but a sweet memory, a sparkle from humanity’s glorious past.
He sits quietly, patiently, as only luck will save him from starvation. A weary bird, a wandering mole, anything will do. From time to time, he scrapes the surface with his stick, just like his parents taught him, and it’s good that they did, even when he was tiny and stupid. They forced him from an early age to stop playing and to dig through the ashes or lurk for birds, rats, and moles.
But they’re gone. There’s nothing left. He’s all alone, sentenced to solitude for the rest of his life. His parents’ old and dusted lungs could not take it anymore, but Abu’s lungs still fight to catch a breath.
“It’s a grown-up game, to know how to be patient!” the child keeps telling himself and laughs to himself, because there’s no one to laugh with, except for Doggy, his friend made of old and dusty cloths. When he sleeps, up there in their home, Doggy crouches at his chest and keeps him warm at night. He’s also perfect as a pillow, from time to time. But that’s just when Abu waders through the sad grey world, when the way back is too tiring, when he feels compelled to sleep in the first dark nook he can find. But what’s darkness anymore, when there’s no distinction between day and night, Sun and Moon, stars and clouds?
Everything is enveloped in a grey mist, down on Earth, and up there, in the sky.
He suddenly jumps. Something’s moving. Something’s there, in the distance, against the gloomy windows. It’s too far away for Abu to distinguish what the thing is that moves the mannequins—it makes them dance, from side to side. Dust keeps falling from them, they’re shaking and he could swear they were alive.
What could it be? the child keeps wondering.
He cups his hands and shields his filtered glasses from the dust. The lenses buzz and he can hardly focus anything, worn out as they are. He could use a new pair, but where would he get them from? It was a miracle he got these ones, more than half a year ago, when wandering through the ruins of an obsolete building, finding a corpse and …
Abu shakes his head. The thought can wait. Right now, he needs to understand what’s hiding in there, and it’s something big, no doubt about it.
“A cat or maybe even a dog?” he dares to hope. “No! It can’t be a mole!” he says, arguing with himself. A mole couldn’t make the plastic people dance, couldn’t make them seem real.
He focuses again. The dust has infiltrated into the fine mechanism of the glasses. He climbs onto the tram. His foot slips on the rusty metal and he almost tumbles to the ground. He clings at the last moment to the electric wire. The wire dances through the air and makes a sharp noise, like a giant’s whip, and leaves a trail of dust dancing on the ground, immediately blending with the sky’s pouring ashes.
“This bloody dust!” says Abu. Could I be the last living soul of my kind? wonders Abu, sometimes, when night falls—or at least when he becomes weary, for he never really saw the sky in plain daylight, with its warm, bright light.
In the year he was born, the world began to die.
He sees something—not too clearly—that looks like a dog. A silhouette is moving in the window, scratching and scraping through the dust. It’s hidden in the décor, favoured by the boy’s inability to see through the dusted lenses. Still, it’s in there and the boy knows the game of patience. He plans to move close to it, stealthily, like a ghost. He will ambush it, and at the last minute, when the fierce hunger dulls the dog’s senses, he will take it down with his bow. One steady shot in its scraggy, famished body.
Abu is full of joy. His sad old soul is suddenly filled with fireworks. Food—he’ll have lots of it! If he catches it—and he’ll be damned if that doesn’t happen—he will have provisions for at least a month! He will knock it down with his bow, skin it and drink its blood to the last drop. He will make a big fire, from old books and newspapers, and cook the meat perfectly. Roasted chunks of meat, sprinkled with salt—a lot of salt—so it will last for a whole month.
The boy jumps and the dust reduces the noise, creating only a muffled thud. He begins to crawl.
It’s not too far away, he thinks, reassuring himself. Not too long to writhe through the gloomy dust.
As he lies down on his stomach, the filtering mask sinks into the dust, wheezing and struggling to provide breathable air. Abu struggles with all of his remaining energy, trying to get there. He repeatedly checks his bow and arrows as he moves, anticipating their use.
He looks to the window again—the mannequins keep swinging; he can’t see the dog anymore, but it’s there, he’s sure of it.
He’s struggling with all of his energy, because he has to earn his food. He thought he would not stop for anything in the word, but then he sees the hound’s crazy eyes. The dog is far bigger than anything he’s ever seen before. It looks like a terrifying beast. Only then does he realise it is a giant wolf.
They both freeze.
The child had never found himself in such trouble before, but the wolf is not what he used to be, either. Its sight is gone, blinded by the ash, but the boy knows that the wolf’s nose does not lie. He thinks about running to escape from its giant maw, but lacks the courage to move.
He remains still, like a fallen statue being buried in dust. The lenses buzz again, trying to focus, and his heart is pounding. It seems to him that the sounds he makes are as loud as a huge turbine cutting up the air, threatening to reveal him. But the grey hunter doesn’t do anything but sniff, shaking its ears and fur from the dust.
Neither of them dares to make a bold move.
Abu waits, but it’s killing him inside. He can’t decide, he can’t find his strength, but he must do something, he must come up with an escape plan for the grey hunter is serious. The boy knows it, he was told a long time ago, when the world was still alive.
He jumps up and the dust flies around him, transforming his surroundings into a big, grey cloud. As the wolf growls and reveals his white fangs that look like daggers, the boy is ready to take his shot. The beast is far away, but he has no choice but to try his luck. The string is taut, as taut as the beast. Both boy and beast ready to kill. The arrow flies and the wolf pounces, claws and teeth bared to tear his flesh.
He could’ve used a little bit of luck and a steady arm, one that wasn’t weakened by hunger and thirst, to make him aim more sure. The tip misses the wolf by an inch. A trail of blood and a patch of fur is all the arrow leaves behind in the mantle of dust.
And still, it’s good! the child thinks.
At least now he can run and maybe even escape, since the wolf is limping. The beast throws itself at him again, and the boy is not going to stay put, not for a split second, and starts sprinting through the mists for dear life. As long as his legs and lungs do not yield—especially his lungs, as they are the things that have suffered the most in these dark times.
A building appears. He knows its secrets, as he raided it countless times before. It’s not too far away and he thinks he can make it. His feet sink into the dust, but that doesn’t bother him—it’s not the first time—he knows the mysteries of running through the ash, only this time, luck is not on his side. He hears the wolf growl, sees its slobber whipping the air, leaving a shiny, long trail behind.
Luckily, the beast is still limping. It is the only thing that can save him. Abu doesn’t give up. He runs like the wind, as fast as he can, and doesn’t look back. He’s not scared, even though his life is hanging by a thread. Abu knows the wolf is wounded and that gives him hope.
He races up the stairs. His breathing purrs like a diesel engine and a gelatinous lump of mucous accumulates in his sore throat. The boy is wheezing badly. Rashly, he takes off his mask and expectorates. The ball of sputum falls on the ground, and sinks into the dust.
Abu hears the creature. He turns around and sees it, approaching, with its eyes sparking. He sees the hunger and cruelty in its eyes: two pieces of coal smouldering in the dust.
There’s no time to linger. He runs to the stairs, and step by step, floor by floor, and finally reaches the top, the top of a moribund world. He’s short-winded and feels as though he’s suffocating. He ran fast, and he’s way ahead of it but now it seems that there’s no more air to breathe, like his larynx is tightening and his lungs are struggling to catch a breath. He waits for a second—no more—and sees between the stairway’s iron bars that the beast has not given up. It’s still following his trail, as fierce and determined as ever. He runs again.
Not too long and I’ll get there! he keeps reassuring himself. There’s no other way!
Either run, or die!
He reaches to the top of the stairs and shuts the door behind him. That should hold for a while, shaky as it is. Even if it falls eventually, it will buy him time. He’ll figure something out. He paces back and forth, scraping through the ash, looking for a pipe or anything he can find to defend himself with.
Bang! then silence. Bam! the door loosens, shakes from the beast’s blow.
“Not long before it comes for me!” he says in despair.
He keeps searching but can’t find anything. He still has his dagger, he hasn’t forgotten about it, but the demon is huge. It will unleash his fury onto him like a stormy wind. It will give him a hard time because …
Bang! And then the door is history.
The boy’s terror knows no limits. The wolfhound now stands in the door and he has nothing to defend himself with. He stands still, barely moving, his blood freezing in his veins. He looks left, then to his right, but the wolf keeps staring at him, without blinking. It doesn’t want to lose sight of him. It’s drooling, gritting its teeth, like metal rubbing against metal. A thin line of black blood is barely visible on its fur.
The boy slowly pulls the knife from its sheath. The wolf takes a step forward, growling, but keeps its eyes fixed on him.
“It’s now or never!” the boy mutters to himself. There’s no one else to do it for him.
He squats, with his left foot forward and the right foot propped against the brim of the roof. The wolf roars and attacks. The boy also jumps onto him and when their bodies collide, Abu falls to the ground, the beast on top of him. A terrible thud follows, enveloping them in dust, and they can barely see each other; but they can feel one another as they coil like giant snakes. Its fangs are trying to reach his throat, but end up in the forearm he shoves against its snout.
The dust that surrounds them is soaked with Abu’s blood. Now that the beast has him in its muzzle, it shakes his head frantically. He screams for the pain, the sharp, bitter pain, like a hawk. Doesn’t know how long he can take it, as he feels like he’s standing in a field crammed full of raging bulls. It will be seconds until the bulls break the planks, but until then, he hangs on.
At some point, by some miracle, he finds the strength to fight back. He lifts his fist into the air and stabs the beast with his dagger as hard as he can.
It doesn’t matter that the dagger’s blunt tip only scratches the surface, doesn’t go all the way through to the ribs. The blows still cause pain. The boy feels it, sees it, as the beast backs up, making throaty, wheezing sounds. Its eyes are spinning in its head.
Abu stands up, swinging on his feet. He drops the dagger, and a wave of pain cuts through him. He can barely see anything, as though he’s looking through a dirty veil.
The wolf arches. Its flesh is shaking. It dashes forwards and Abu is powerless to stop, his energy spent. He falls to one side. The beast misses him by an inch and goes tumbling over the rail.
He remains still like a rock, staring blankly into the swirling dust.
How long have I been standing here? he thinks.
The blankness of stone has its benefits. He looks at his hand, shaken by the way his shredded clothes and flesh hang from his body. The boy feels a pulsating pain that goes from his arm up to his shoulder and stiffens his neck. His eyes are filled with tears and sadness and he can barely make out the body of the dead wolf. It is just a dim shape, crushed underneath a thick layer of dust.
Abu must go down to look for the wolf in the dust. He must take it to a safe place for a while, until he will be able to deal with it: to skin, portion, and then roast it on the fire that he will make from old books and newspapers, or wood if he can find it.
He gets up and walks, shaking. He’s slowly fading away. He will lie on his back, just for a moment, enough to gain some more energy, and then he will leave. He’ll recover, sooner or later.
“Have no fear, boy,” he tells himself. “You’ll struggle and forget the pain, eventually.”
He lies back down. And it’s not even that bad, he thinks. It’s soft—the dust—velvety and light like the feathers of a bird. It covers his cheeks first, then plays with his nose, and finally covers his eyelids and mouth.
Soft, the boy thinks. Velvety. Nice.
First published in The Singularity, Issue 3, March 2016.