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Fiction: Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind by Rachel Swirsky

The last word ever spoken by a human is said in a language derived from Hindi. The word is trasa. Roughly translated: thirst or desire.

#

The second-to-last human to die is a child who lives in the region that was once called the Blue Mountains of Australia. She has the strange light eyes that children are occasionally born with, the way they are sometimes born as triplets or with white hair or with another baby’s empty body growing from their bellies. Her mother calls them water eyes, a sign that the child shares the changeable spirit of the ocean which can shift from calm to storm in the space of a breath. 

On the last day of her life, the light-eyed child finds a pair of ancient skeletons exposed in the silt by the river near her camp. She pulls out the ribs with a sucking noise, loosing the foul stench of trapped gas. Pelvic bones lie in the mud below, tangled with metal things no one can make anymore. As she teases them free, the light-eyed child unearths rusted chains and hollow disks the diameter of her wrist.

The light-eyed child rinses the bones clean in the river. She runs her hand over the long femurs, marveling. People no longer grow so tall.

The light-eyed child sets the bones in a loose pile underneath a scribbly gum tree. The skulls preside on top, regarding her with hollow eyes. The light-eyed child kisses each in the center of its caved-in forehead.

Goodnight, Grandpa Burn, she says. Goodnight, Grandma Starve.

#

The last major art movement is invented near Lake Vättern in Sweden. With the help of enough processing power to calculate the trajectories of a beachful of sand over a millennium, the artist taps a feeder loop directly into her brain and uses it to shape a three-dimensional holographic image of her father. For the first time, human thought patterns take direct, physical form. Her father’s projection repeats sequences of fragmented memories. His limbs trail into images of people and places he loved when he was alive; his hair winds into the tapestries he was famous for weaving; his face flickers cyclically from youth to gray. It’s not my father, the artist explains. It’s how I think of my father, his imago.

Within five years, her invention revolutionizes art. Artists show the world how they conceive of childbirth, fire, finches, walk bodies, urtists, religion, synthesis and death.

Within twenty years, the technology to create such work is destroyed. Art falls backward. Humanity falls farther.

#

The man who will survive to be the last human lives in the region once called Nepal. Amid the still-falling ash from a series of volcanic eruptions, he and his son dig their way free of a cave-in.

Ravens perched on branches overhanging the cave mouth observe their progress. When the son grows weak, the last man tries to scatter the birds by throwing stones. They flap a short distance into the naked trees and witness the boy’s death from there, watching events unfold the way birds do: turning their heads to look first with one eye, then the other, to see which version of life is more appealing.

#

The last scientific discovery excites the neurons of an amateur stargazer. Even before the cataclysm, she is the last of an increasingly rarefied breed - air and light pollution have made ground telescopes useless, so she has to pay for satellite time to peer out in an era when almost all of humanity’s technological eyes are aimed inward. One lonely night when all her mates and children are away, she trains her screen to watch the cloud bands on Jupiter’s gaseous surface and glimpses a city-sized object hurtling toward the earth.

Oh, God, she says, an asteroid.

#

With near-earth space increasingly militarized, it’s been years since government telescopes have been dedicated to anything but scrutinizing the actions of other nations. The scant handful of under-funded astronomers confirms that the object’s path will bring it into contact with earth. 

The astronomers agree: there’s nothing to be done. A century of attrition has withered space programs. Early iterations of space-faring technology were cannibalized to fund defense and weapons aimed at earthly targets. Remaining resources are primitive and useless. The object is too close to fire missiles at or deflect or drag into the gravity well of the sun.

#

Wealthy global governments convene. If they can’t stop the asteroid, they agree to let it hit. Calculations demonstrate it will impact near the southern tip of Chile. Industrialists working on technology for deep-sea exploration believe they can adapt their pressure shield mechanisms to protect a few major cities from the global fires, earthquakes and tidal waves that will result from impact. With nuclear, wind, and solar power operating at full capacity, there should be enough energy to protect key sections of Asia, Europe and North America. First world populations that live outside protected urban centers are herded in en masse, crowding like cattle into emergency shelters.

As for those who won’t be included in the rescue plan, global leaders mumble about regrettable losses then do what they have always done: sacrifice the good of the many for the good of themselves.

#

The last act of malice lights in the eyes of a pathologist who works in a secure facility in a dome on an island in an untraveled sea. When it becomes clear their government has abandoned them, the other scientists drink and screw on the lab tables. He unlocks his deadliest specimens, flees the building to the rhythm of unheeded alarms, and looses genetically manipulated spores like fairy dust onto the wind.

#

The last heroes desert their homes in wealthy nations and travel south to stand with their impoverished brothers and sisters. 

Like everyone else, they die.

#

By the time the cataclysm strikes, more words have been forgotten over the course of human history than remain known.

#

The city-sized object hits.

#

Wealthy northerners watch the event through cameras on surviving satellites. Milliseconds after impact, their screens go black as the asteroid’s collision displaces earth and rock in a hundred mile radius. Radioactive waste illegally buried in poverty-stricken Puerto Natales flies into the air, joining the plume of dirt that whirls into the chaotic weather systems caused by impact. Soil sewn with radioactive dust distributes across the globe in a storm that blocks the sun for three months.

Human folly has made a bad natural occurrence into an untenable one. It is as if the planet has gone to global nuclear war. Toxic heavy metals rain into the surface water systems and poison the springs of civilization.

Pressure shields are helpless against nuclear fallout. For those not killed by the fiery rains of impact, dying lingers. Bones weaken; teeth fall out; skin loosens in long, slender strips like fruit peels.

Before she dies, the Swedish artist tries to redraw her father’s imago on a flat sheet of pulped tree. Her shaking hand is raw and bleeding, but her lines fall true. The drawing fails anyway. She can’t remember what her father looked like. She can only remember her art.

#

The last man’s people survive by moving underground. Caves shelter them from fiery rains and pathogens and tidal waves. Underground, they have access to subterranean water sources that remain temporarily pure.

His people’s luck lasts a century, until the geological instabilities set in motion by impact bubble up from the earth’s molten heart. Sudden, violent tremors herald chains of volcanic eruptions that transform the caves into tombs.

The last man and his son dig their way free, but it takes so long that the already weak child grows weaker. He breathes dust and ash. Once, as they work to pry loose a stubborn boulder, a rain of debris showers down on the son. He seems fine when he gets up and shakes himself off, but who knows what injuries can afflict a malnourished boy?

#

The light-eyed child’s people believe they escaped the fiery rains because the earth protects them. Unlike the mining-scarred, ecologically damaged area of Nepal where the last man’s people live, the light-eyed child’s people enjoy a paradise of native species and pristine cliffs. Even some kangaroos survive to provide the light-eyed child’s people with food.

The light-eyed child’s grandmother tells her the bones she finds sometimes are not the bones of people, but of devils. They made the cataclysm happen by hating and ignoring the earth, she says, Most of them died, but the ones who survived - Grandpa Burn and Grandma Starve, Grandpa Hate and Grandma Bullet - they chained us and hurt us and tried to take our land. We had to use their tools on them instead.

The light-eyed child’s people initially triumphed over their enemies, but their luck ran out some four score years after the cataclysm. A species of bird which hadn’t been seen since impact arrived during the annual migration, carrying the pathologist’s bequest.

One illness killed the elderly. A second attacked the healthiest. A third killed one tenth of the population in a single night. The fourth wiped out the men.

No one tells the light-eyed child directly, but she hears talk of the plagues as our curse, sometimes brought by the earth spirits, sometimes by the ghosts of the demons. The light-eyed child asks her mother, who pauses while gathering roots to explain, Being favored by the spirits is both a blessing and a burden. They won’t forgive us for acting in ignorance as the demons did. They haven’t yet decided the punishment for our transgressions.

The light-eyed child’s mother gets a strange, wistful look on her face and goes on. You’re our last hope.

The light-eyed child’s people have a legend that girls with water eyes can sometimes turn into boys. They need her to do so; that is what they mean when they say she is their last hope.

No one knows how to make it happen. Send the girl out on her own, her grandmother says, Boys like to be on their own. So every morning, the light-eyed child’s mother sends her off to explore the remnants of the rainforest.

The light-eyed child thinks being a last hope is both a blessing and a burden. She enjoys being special. She hates the disappointment in everyone’s eyes when she comes home every day, still a girl.

Sometimes she squats over the river, her eyes squeezed shut as if she’s trying to shit because it’s the best way she can imagine to force a penis out of her vagina. She clenches and grunts, clenches and grunts. Sometimes when her eyes get so tired she sees bright sparkles over the scribbly gums on the horizon, she feels her vaginal walls pinch together and she knows - just knows - that something has come out. But when she reaches down, she finds only soft, yielding flesh.

#

The last man cries over his son until he realizes his sobs are tearless. He stops.

The ravens won’t leave them alone, so he throws more stones. He must watch the birds constantly or they try to pluck out his son’s eyes.

His trousers are soiled, but he urinates at a marked spot near the cave mouth to maintain a semblance of civilization. He has nothing to defecate. When he gets too hungry, he sucks on stones. 

In all the deprivation the last man has suffered in his life, he’s never lacked for water. Even now as he starves, puddles pock the stony landscape. They taste brackish, but they keep him alive longer than he wants.

He gives up sleep, but dreams awake. He sees mirages on the horizon, machines his father told tales of: great silver birds with hearts like ticking clocks; blood-heated covers to keep him warm; android doctors with needle-covered palms injecting life back into his bony chest.

He remembers the first time he came to the surface as a boy, with his own father. His people’s men folk had a tradition of sending males to the surface to prove they had the courage to tread across the lip of a dead world. All around the valley grew the red-stemmed ban mara daisies which choked out the trees until the hills blanched white as the clouds. 

When I was young, they said the flowers showed the hills were dying, the last man’s father said. They came from a far-away land over the sea and when they got here, they grew so thick and fierce that they killed all the plants that had been here already, the ones that had lived here forever.

Once, the last man and his father explored the mountains beyond the hills and found the remains of a fabric shop. Bolts of durable synthetic cloth tumbled across each other, like the discarded sheets of a giant. The last man and his father brought them home for the women to make clothes out of. They were greeted like heroes.

Before the eruptions, the last man never brought his son to the surface. He was a sickly baby, like all the newborns conceived in the past few years. Many of them died, but the last man prayed over his son every minute until he was a year old. His son’s hair grew in scraggly patches across his scalp. When he ate, his gums bled into his food. Even after the boy had passed the most dangerous point, the last man refused to let him sleep alone, afraid he’d get lost in his dreams and forget to come home. The last man’s wife told him she would leave him for another man if he didn’t return to share her pallet. He let her.

The setting sun reflects pink off the upturned petals cloaking the hills. The last man regrets not taking his son up here before, sickly or not. He thinks his son would have liked to explore these hills, feel his bony feet slip in the mud. He would have run through the ruins and hollered at the vast, free sky. At least, he would have liked a length of the gray cloth the last man and his father found so many years ago: sewn with golden strands for the sun and red strands like the stems of the ban mara daisies.

#

Literacy fades years before the last man dies. The older generation of his people remember how to read, but they don’t teach the young ones. Reading seems frivolous, indulgent, a luxury like brocade or peacock feathers or reminiscing about long summer evenings when men chewed betel nuts and women chattered while the lowering sun lengthened their shadows until an ordinary human presence had the heft of a god’s. 

#

Two generations before the light-eyed child was born, her grandmother would have screamed at Grandpa Burn and kicked his skull downstream. Her mother would have cried over Grandma Starve’s aged bones, cursing the fact she would never live to acquire a stoop.

The light-eyed child places her hands over their hollow sockets and returns to playing.

#

The last lie is not a single lie but a group of lies, uttered by the last man’s people and the light-eyed child’s people, by children and elders, by men and women, by the stoic and the red-eyed.

Don’t worry, Mama, Grandpa, sir, honey, lover, child, heart-keeper, mine. You’re going to get better. You’re going to be all right.

#

The last man leaves his son awhile and climbs a formation of rocks on the other side of the cave mouth. The tallest one leans on a pair of others like an old man asking for support. Below, a thousand foot drop sinks into a ravine blanketed in daisies.

The last man selects a small gray stone and pitches it down. As it plummets, he tries to fit the idea of such distance into his head: how things so high can fall so far.

Before it hits, he’s distracted by a rush of wind as a raven flies past him. He waves it away. It dives past the cave, headed for his son. The last man climbs down to chase it off and misses the moment when the rock hits the ground.

By the time the last man reaches his son, the boy’s left eye is gone. The thread of his intestines trails across the stony ground.

He remembers sitting with his son, then a five year old, coaxing him to eat yak meat and lichen. The little boy turned away, fanning his hands in front of his face.

A little more, just a little more. Come on, the last man said. It hurt the boy to chew; it hurt him to swallow; it hurt him to have food in his stomach. 

A few steps away, the last man’s wife stood, staring, the glint of her reddened eyes bright in the darkness. The next day she’d leave him for the fat man who lived near the cave mouth, the one with who had another wife already. She didn’t need to vocalize; the words were written in the taut line of her mouth: Why squander time on the dying when we’ll reach death’s door soon enough ourselves?

Truthfully, the last man had heard the ravens fly toward his son as soon as he climbed the rocks. He’d known what the birds would do. But it wasn’t until he threw the stone that his mind had the sense to distract him from trying to confront mortality while the wind of falling rushed around his own ears, too.

#

The last man is tone deaf and the light-eyed child doesn’t like to sing because it reminds her that her voice is piping and high when it should be resonant and bass, so the last music mankind makes is subtle and strange. It’s the last man grunting in answer to the raven’s sporadic caws; it’s the light-eyed child splashing in the river to the beat of her heart; it’s the last man’s fingers drumming on his son’s hollow belly.

#

The light-eyed child’s people don’t live long enough to suffer from their lack of men. The third wave disease, the one that killed a tenth of them in a night, reawakens in its surviving hosts after its long period of incubation and strangles the entire population by dawn.

The dusk before, as the last man prepares to throw a stone down a cliff, the light-eyed child runs back to camp to find her mother. The sky dims. Pale stars emerge. The two of them stroll to a spring to fetch clean water with which to cook the evening meal of kangaroo meat flavored with peppermint leaves.

#

The last word the light-eyed child’s mother says before she starts to choke is whakahohoro: hurry.

#

The last man becomes grateful for things he should despise: the red-tinted sky, the stench of his son’s decaying corpse, the coldness of his soiled trousers. His last hour stretches, but not in the way a bored afternoon expands across a child’s landscape. His last hour is the petal of an orchid browning from the outside in. It’s a cloud blowing across the sky puff by puff, until without ever moving as a single entity, it soars away into the blue expanse. It’s a grain of sand, unnoticed until held up close - whoever would have known it was crimson? And smelled like salt? And shaped like a crescent moon?

#

The last piece of technology mankind invents is a bundle of lyrebird feathers and wallaby bones and blue lizard tongues wrapped in sugar glider fur which the light-eyed child’s people believe a woman can use to draw sickness out of a loved one. It possesses no magic, but it serves a purpose: it busies hands and buoys hearts.

#

The light-eyed child lives a few hours longer than the rest of her people. She clutches her mother’s hand through her breathless contortions, and when they’re over, she cradles her mother’s blue, arthritic fingers.

As she runs out of breath herself, she wonders if her skeleton will wear jewelry with spokes and chains like Grandpa Burn and Grandma Starve. She wonders who will dig up her bones.

#

The puddles of rainwater could sustain the last man a few days yet, but he stops drinking. He watches the ravens’ reflections in the dirty water and repeats, “Trasa, trasa.” Though his mouth is dry, it isn’t thirst he’s referring to.

#

Though the last man and the light-eyed child live on opposite sides of the globe, they die within hours of each other. It is one of those improbable vagaries of fate which become probable given enough time and opportunity, like calculus stirring simultaneously in the brains of Newton and Leibnitz, evolution in Darwin and Wallace, relativity in Einstein and Smoluchowski. The last two humans are simply the final pair to march hand in hand into an unexplored realm.

#

The last animal to see a living human is a raven. She watches the last man’s final exhalation and waits a moment to be sure he won’t rise and hurl another stone in her direction. His body sags. She paces her perch. All remains still.

She swoops.

Location

Address:

P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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