This is desert now, desert country, red country.
Some say you can taste the air, the change, a sort of bitterness, an indescribable flavour. I for one cannot. I see only the slowness of it all, the inevitability.
We stand against the wall in twos and threes, or own little government, parliamentary observers of time and place.
‘A heavenly breeze above us. Let us worship it.’
The pastor speaks.
We gather in the square under the heat and look for hymns in the dust trails moving through town. Any slight simple sign is taken as a missive.
‘Why not whoreship it?’ Hermil says, leaning against a broken barrel.
He rolls words and licks letters.
He was a sailor once, of minor voyages, and likes to imagine he is still at sea, but all he has now is a raised arm, a curled fist of burnt skin straining into white.
This is the desert and we are desert people. Before that we were just people, peasants with peasant ambitions, puritans depleted of will, in those days before the sharks came.
They called it The Great Migration, when the sharks in their millions began to push themselves onto the land, onto the beach heads and the mud banks, the jetties and the piers.
They lay there for days, some cut open on the ragged rocks, their round bodies flexing, their gills opening and closing like the shutters of a Hanoi hotel.
And their eyes, oh yes, black and determined as always.
We just stood and watched, all of us, humanity. Groups took buses down for the day. Some picnicked on the beach amongst the decaying bodies.
They struggled in their new world before they began to die, and we thought that was the end of it, that we had witnessed some strange natural phenomenon that we could not understand, for we were only simple creatures, history had shown us that.
My wife had always told me she would die young. There was nothing romantic in it, she used to say, nothing that would make her stand apart from anyone else. When she did get sick she just accepted it, as so many millions had to at that time. When I went to visit her for the last time she said the same thing.
When I told her she was fifty one she turned from me and wept for a while.
“It is not the time to say such things,” she said.
The age of women was coming to an end. No one doubted any more that God was but a spiteful man.
Once a month a representative of the government arrives and marks our names on a ledger, to determine how much supplies we need. He tells us to be hopeful but that there is no news, nothing he has heard of, but then he is not told anything. He is as desperate as us but seems to know some secret to keep it under the surface, and on the occasions that he drinks with us we see it is a faith of some sort, some deeply set guiding movement that he has within him. He never drinks enough that we can know for sure.
It took a season before the sharks tried again, lifting themselves out of the water and winding and rolling their thick muscle across the land. Some managed twenty feet before they succumbed to the elements, others lasted a week nearer to the shore. Being close to home seemed to give them something to live for, some inner strength. Many swore they saw longing in their eyes, but what do humans know of such things.
My brother rang me after his wife passed and told me he wanted to enlist. He was fifty five at the time and too old and infirm but he said it didn’t matter, he knew what had to be done. I asked him which side he was going to join and he said it didn’t matter, any would do, he just wanted to kill someone, hurt someone. It didn’t matter, he said, because everyone had it coming. We were all guilty.
Even the children? I said
Even the children, he said.
This was during that strange time after the war and before the invasion, when all the women began to die. Some like to think that they are both connected, that our use of weapons caused it all. We were beyond nuclear, beyond simple chemicals, we were the post-nano age, we thought we could fix everything, that we could cure grief at the supramolecular level.
Clemence plays his harp and laments about old Victoria, a lover he had never quite touched. The pastor comes once a month, the doctor every new season. A mystic passed through one July and was greeted warmly before being shunned for his arrogance and his thirst. These are our stories, this is all we have.
They live with us now, the sharks. They live in our towns and our cities, pushing past us as we go about our day, half drawn to the netherworld of lonely male evenings, the dry stink of the predisposed, the wilting lungs, the wasting muscles.
We are shunned like the catfish, mounds of walking waste, yet they smell of nothing to us.
Are we putrefied to them yet? Their sense of smell is admirable. What must we taste like on the wind?
The first mass burial was a tedious event. Eighty two bodies and eighty two speeches. Mostly young men acting defiant, promising that they would overcome and asking others to join them. The war was coming to an end and they needed something to unite them. Many packed their belongings and moved towards the city in the hope that they could do something there that could make a difference. I’ve heard nothing back from those I once knew.
I sit outside near the fountain and drink warm beer and watch as a man approaches from the west. He is ragged, dirt hued, entirely alone. I guess he must be twenty if a year.
Go out and be wild and fail amongst the reeds and the dust bunnies, he says.
I don’t know what good that would do, I say.
Well, if you can feel young maybe you can will yourself to youth, he says.
I say nothing.
I wear a peaked hat because it is the time of my life to wear one, he says, before shuffling off into the east.
There is a pile of rust resting near the fountain, an old car rotting away, shaving skin off those who pass. It is Rusty’s car and he does not offer apologies. They call him Rusty because he served in the army but no longer believes in metal. It was metal that caused the collapse of the world, so he lives a life of dry wood and sand and rot.
They never speak to us, if they even can, and rarely acknowledge our existence beyond an empty stare. Yes, sometimes they look at us, a long ghostly look through the light which must hinder them. There is something quite wondrous about sitting in a café as a large shark lifts its body upon a table and points its nose at you. We make enquiries of each other and try to watch their movements, their habits, but we are no closer to understanding them. On the chalkboard of the bar someone has begun a list:
Entertainment, needing none
Currency, human bones
I buried my wife in the desert outside the town. I placed some rocks there, a cairn is it called, a pile of rocks. The day I buried her some men argued about what this pile of rocks was called. Cairn, pile, stack, mound, they went on for hours as if it all had meaning, but it is nothing special, it doesn’t deserve more than one. Just rocks, someone says, quietly, but he is ignored.
We believe they have elected a Mayor. He is a Hammerhead that we call Burns. His face is scared and he is long and wide and seems to act in the way that one would as Mayor. He struts about in the awkward way of his people, and all others move for him, except the Great White that lives in the shadow of the old hemp shop. Some whisper that he is a gangster.
They are growing women in laboratories under the great mountains of the world. That is todays rumour. I expect they will be very expensive and reserved for the rich and the powerful, if there is any truth to it at all.
Nurse sharks lay around seemingly intoxicated. They roll in fabrics they have taken from the empty homes and some say they are trying to dress themselves as we once did. They pull themselves up against the wall of the bar and make soft noises to the others who pass by.
Reef sharks stole my friend’s house. This is the story. Angelo goes for a walk in the wild. Angelo finds some solace in the hills. Angelo returns to find that a new family has taken root. The house looks better now than it did before, in that it is a home again.
Norman believes in true love, in witchcraft, magick, and potions. He has walked on water, he says, in his own way, a way of spirits outside of the bottle. He is determined to communicate with our neighbours. He believes starvation is the key to this. He will go blind soon if he does not eat.
We are starving now and they are growing plumper by the day. A juvenile blue has been murdered and consumed by some men on the edge of town. Our guests do nothing and do not seem to be bothered by it at all. I wonder if they have yet to fully shake off their primitive side.
The war has begun again, and then it ends, and we see nothing of it.
A disease has come down off the mountains and turned friend against friend. Those of us who remain do not have any interest in burying what is left. The sharks can have them.
I move into one of the great houses of the town, perched on a hill which overlooks it all, and accept all twenty five rooms as my own. I defend my castle from all intruders.
My daughter grows colder every day. Her mother is gone. She leaves college and returns as the war arrives on her doorstep. I bring her to her room and she lies upon the bed and begins to cough. I place a blanket over her. She pulls the blanket back. I repeat the action until she accepts it. It is better this way. She did not see her mother suffer.
I can see there are so few of us left. I have not spoken in weeks. There is something in the air still, some by-product of this red country. Our neighbours are thriving and for them life seems to be good. Sometimes at night I believe I can hear them laugh. Perhaps that is just me. There appears to be a tear in space. I can see it from the balcony, a long lightless lesion above us. They do not seem to notice, or they do not seem to care.
If I can I will learn their ways.
Roy Endean lives in the south of Ireland. His work has appeared in Brand Magazine, The Steel Toe Review, Corium, Sonder Magazine, and Juked.