Short Fiction by Gerard McKeown
‘You know, out of everything in this rotten, broken world, I’m glad we became friends,’ Sister Sarya said, threading her fingers playfully through Sister Zoon’s, so their two hands joined into a fist.
Sister Zoon’s open, honest smile seemed to agree.
‘Out in the broken world we wouldn’t have met,’ Sister Sarya said. ‘Or if we had, we wouldn’t have taken the time to get to know each other.’ She looked ready to cry.
‘You know the end of the world won’t be the end for us,’ Sister Zoon said. ‘Remember what Grand Being of Light said. Once we leave our corporeal bodies, we’ll be able to help the broken spirits left behind.’
They sat cross-legged in the centre of the large room. With its beige carpet and magnolia walls, it reminded Sister Sarya of a conference room, perhaps that’s what it had been before the Humanhood lived here. She’d heard the ministry of defence were the previous owners. Around them, sat groups of Brothers and Sisters. Everyone had washed their white robes the night before; the room smelt of detergent, but as tonight was special, they hadn’t used the regular store brand of washing powder. The fancy brand gave the air a hint of almond.
Tonight was a beautiful occasion, but Sister Sarya thought she could sense an underlying stress threaded throughout the room. She studied the faces around her but couldn’t pinpoint any specific indicator. She wondered if the stress belonged to her, and only her. Groups were unusual for the Humanhood, where people were normally encouraged not to pair off.
The door of the chamber opened and Brother Dooray entered, followed by Grand Being of Light. Brother Dooray didn’t look his usual cheery self. He kept his head bowed, eyes focused on the floor, as he crossed the room. Sister Zoon had seen that expression before on many jokers, the weight of unnecessary thoughts overpowering their studied veneers at crucial moments. Funny how people hang on to problems they could just let go of. In less than an hour these problems wouldn’t matter. Brother Boomba was the last to enter, locking the door behind him and handing the key to Grand Being of Light.
The trio stopped at the front, beside a large drink dispenser filled with cordial, probably blackcurrant or summer fruits. In the bland room, with its strip lit magnolia walls and beige carpet, the rich purple liquid looked like red wine. It looked like blood.
Grand Being of Light reached into the deep pockets of his robes and handed Brother Dooray a paper cone that looked like a bag for icing a cake – their quotidian megadose of multi-vitamins had arrived. Strange they were nourishing their bodies, just when they were about to leave them behind. But then, as Grand Being of Light always said, a healthy body is less inclined to attack the mind. Brother Dooray opened the narrow end of the cone and held it over the drink dispenser. White powder poured into the juice. Grand Being of Light took his seat at the front of the room and closed his eyes to begin meditating.
‘Suzanne,’ Sister Sarya said. ‘That was my broken world name.’
Sister Zoon read the unease on her furrowed brow. Could Sister Sarya be that dissonant note Grand Being of Light had warned them to watch out for? Brothers and sisters abandoned their broken world names when entering the Humanhood.
‘It was nice to know you,’ Sister Zoon said. ‘When we’re free from our bodies, I will look for Sister Sarya.’
‘I’m not trying to get your broken world name,’ Sister Sarya said, sure that Sister Zoon knew that’s exactly what she had been doing. ‘I don’t want to know it. When we’re free from our bodies, I’ll look for Sister Zoon.’
Sister Zoon lifted their coupled hands and smiled.
‘Just remember, our bodies are a barrier between us,’ she said, squeezing Sister Sarya’s hand. ‘They get tired and they filter the world around us in inaccurate ways. They create fear to hinder us, to preserve the body, but it unsettles the mind. Don’t be afraid to lean on me as you need to.’
Sister Sarya could feel her back trying in knots with stress, but she tried not to let it show.
‘We have until the sand stops running,’ Sister Zoon said, nodding at the giant sand clock at the front of the room.
Sister Zoon had gathered that sand. Over the last two months, each time she was sent to the broken world she would bring back a bucketful from the nearby beach. She never questioned what it was for, but she knew she was being trusted with an important task. The last time she brought the sand Grand Being of Light confirmed this, telling her he had intentionally let her remain in contact with the broken world the longest, since, as their last recruit, she had been the last to leave it. He worried the news would hit her the hardest. She wasn’t fazed by it at all. In fact, as she kicked off her black Converse All-Stars for the last time, she knew she wouldn’t miss any part of the broken world. She was happy to walk barefoot among the Humanhood while they waited out the last days.
Seeing the completed clock for the first time, Sister Zoon appreciated its rough beauty – a large metal drum with a funnel on the bottom, sitting on top of a huge box of reinforced glass. You could see the sand gather, but not how much was left to fall.
‘Brothers and Sisters,’ Grand Being of Light boomed from the front of the room. His voice had great resonance, as if he’d been an opera singer in the broken world. ‘Though we have less than hours left, we have lived more truth together than many live in lifetimes. Our world is outside the broken one, but soon both will reach their end. Though their ending will feel final, it is only the point where we will leave our bodies and move beyond this mode of existence. Our bodies will die, but the Earth itself will remain.’
Looking at the other members, Sister Sarya felt as though she was the only one with any apprehension. So what if she didn’t understand the science behind Grand Being of Light’s teachings? She couldn’t get her head around gamma-ray radiation, or orgone. Science had been her worst subject at school; she thought she was a humanities student, right up until she failed her English degree. She didn’t dare question Grand Being of Light, not out loud. Besides, she trusted him; she knew that much. She tried to feed off the enthusiasm of Sister Zoon, who looked as if her favourite band had just arrived on stage.
‘As a last gesture to our physical bodies, which have carried us through the broken world, carried us together,’ Grand Being of Light continued. ‘Let us share a toast in these final moments.’
Brother Dooray filled a plastic wine glass that looked as if it had come from a pound shop packet of fifty. He passed it to Grand Being of Light, who took a long, slow drink, finishing the glass. Next Brother Dooray drank one himself. Brother Boomba lugged himself off the ground and instructed everyone to queue behind him. As the other members of the Humanhood assembled into an orderly line, Sister Sarya stalled, unsure if she was unwilling or unable to move, until Sister Zoon pulled her onto her feet, playfully, as if she was dragging her onto a dancefloor. Some members toasted each other. Some downed the juice like shots. Others sipped it politely. But all of them did so with smiles on their faces.
‘A sip, then we neck it,’ Sister Zoon said, lifting two glasses, one for each of them.
To Sister Sarya, it sounded more than a suggestion, as if it was a ritual that, beyond the end of the world, would allow the connection between them to remain. She imagined they were in a bar, meeting for the first time. She sipped the juice, glad to find it was Summer Fruits, then downed it watching her new best friend do the same. When they sat back down, Sister Zoon threw her arms around her. Now all they would have to do is wait for the sand to run out.
‘Did you have a favourite song,’ Sister Sarya asked, ‘back in the broken world?’
‘I like the songs we sing about ourselves,’ Sister Zoon said. She didn’t like to dip her head into the broken world. A lot of the members did, by varying degrees. The ones who’d been here the longest seemed to think they were immune to it. You had to be careful with music; it was a lure. People tied music to memories; their teenage years mostly, when the broken world tricked them into believing their dreams were tangible objects in the near distance, not puffy clouds full of rain, ready to burst if they reached out to touch them. Grand Being of Light had once told Sister Zoon that Sister Sarya’s severed ties to the broken world hadn’t healed. Sister Zoon had believed him, as she always did, but only now was she seeing an example. It was those connections that would make the end of the broken world hit hardest.
‘If I tell you a song I liked, will you tell me if you know it?’ Sister Sarya asked.
‘L7. Pretend We’re Dead?’
Sister Zoon couldn’t help but giggle.
‘Don’t laugh at me,’ Sister Sarya said.
‘I’m not. I liked that song. It’s just…so…appropriate right now.’
Sister Sarya laughed. ‘Okay, another one. Belly? Gepetto?’
‘I don’t know Belly. How’s it go?’
‘Hey Gepetto, what you get me? Poor Gepetto. I can’t sing. You don’t know it, do you?’
‘Sorry,’ Sister Zoon said. ‘In another life, you can teach it to me. Can I braid your hair? You’ve the longest hair here. I’ve always wanted to braid it.’
Sister Sarya leaned her head closer to Sister Zoon, who gave her two long plaits at the front. One falling down each side of her face. Sister Sarya remembered her mother doing her hair in braids for primary school. The teachers gave her backhanded compliments, saying the braids took the hair out of her eyes and stopped her looking like she was daydreaming.
‘Thanks for getting my hair out of my eyes. Now I won’t look so sleepy.’
‘I like your sleepy look. Everything seems soft around you.’
Brother Dooray sat down in front of them and crossed his legs. He had the air of someone who’d studied a book on how to be both a manager and a friend. To Sister Sarya he seemed suddenly false. She was surprised she’d never noticed that before.
‘Hello sisters,’ he said. ‘Are you feeling okay?’
‘Yes Brother,’ Sister Zoon said.
Brother Dooray did a strange, almost business conference worthy, a gesture of extending his arms to touch each of them on their shoulders. The sisters instinctively linked hands again, so that the three of them were in an unbroken circle.
‘Good luck sisters,’ he said. ‘We share a connection in the Humanhood that the broken world didn’t offer us. We have no need to aggressively compete, to use personal weaknesses to fortify ourselves and destroy others. Use drugs, sex, and alcohol to trick ourselves into thinking we feel good. Here we celebrate and experience salient living, thanks to Grand Being of Light. We have so much to learn from him in the time that remains. However long it is.’
When he walked off, Sister Sarya wondered if he’d come over because of their laughter. Perhaps they weren’t treating the moment with the seriousness it deserved.
‘I’m ready,’ she said, turning to Sister Zoon, who’d been watching the clock. The glass box was almost full.
Beside them Brother Dooray was sitting with a couple of Brothers. He had his hands on their shoulders too. It sounded as if he was saying the same to them.
Sister Zoon gave her that reassuring smile. Sister Sarya wanted to hug her again, to have the two of them hold each other until it was over. She wiped away a tear.
‘Wow, a yawn,’ Sister Sarya said. ‘That’ll be the last time I do that.’ She thought if she started crying she might never stop, end of the world or not.
Grand Being of Light looked as if he’d fallen asleep. With his head bowed and his eyes closed, he reminded her of her dad, sleeping in his armchair every evening, waiting for her mum to wake him at bedtime.
A low hum eased above the chatter. With each new breath, Grand Being of Light started up again with the same note, growing louder each time. Conversations in the room trailed off, as the other Brothers and Sisters joined in. The only one not humming was Sister Sarya. She squeezed Sister Zoon’s hand, wishing she’d turn to her with that smile; that the power of it would drown out the humming. Sister Sarya’s head felt like it was vibrating as if the resonance of the hums would shake her skull to pieces. Every time a note finished, she hoped it would be the last, but when another started up, it bored deeper into the holes already drilled in her psyche. Her mum popped into her head, just for a second. Then her sister. Was Sister Zoon a surrogate sister? Sister Sarya swallowed. Her mouth was dry. Why did she have to cut off links with her real family? They were nice people. Hadn’t she’d just got some middle child nonsense in her head? Many people had parents who were drinkers, who were never home, but her parents had held down jobs, provided for the family. Hers were first world problems. So what if she’d failed her degree? Her parents would have understood, eventually. Other Humanhood members had been junkies, alcoholics, homeless; how did she end up here?
She wanted to stand, but her legs had gone to sleep. Was it the white powder in the juice? Had it not been vitamins? Had they been poisoned? The room was too hot, the moment too real. She imagined people from the broken world finding them dead, the rotting bodies of her Brothers and Sisters, half-eaten by rats and insects. She wanted to be sick, but wouldn’t that be disrespectful? Wouldn’t that push her further into the lonely space she occupied? Her hand was shaking. Sister Zoon looked at her, then down at their hands. A flush of embarrassment enveloped Sister Sarya, but at least she’d been acknowledged. She offered a weak smile, hoping it would be reciprocated. Sister Zoon lifted her free hand in front of her chest as she breathed in, then lowered it again as she breathed out. She nodded for Sister Sarya to copy her rhythm. Sister Sarya struggled to breathe as her muscles constricted her windpipe. Any air that reached her lungs came back up her throat with a rasp.
Sister Zoon leant towards her so their foreheads touched. Her honey blonde hair fell around the braids she’d given Sister Sarya.
‘Copy me,’ she whispered, before starting to hum again.
Sister Sarya tried. She struggled to steady her note and harmonise with the rest of the room. She’d sung lead in the school choir but lost her range as she got older. She fought to free her thoughts from the broken world. Her last thoughts wouldn’t be these weak, useless, sentimental memories.
The humming stopped. Sister Sarya looked up. The sand had finished running. Was this really it? Had the world ended? Had they just not realised it? None of the Humanhood moved.
‘It’s time,’ Sister Zoon said, kissing her forehead.
Grand Being of Light remained still, knowing the members were anticipating his next move. He stood up and walked to the sand clock, leaning his elbow on top of the metal drum. He looked tired, defeated. His fist slammed hard against the drum. Three quick punches landed, one after the other. People in the crowd flinched as if the clangs heralded the end of the world. Grand Being of Light bent down, looking at the box as though he expected an alien to rise out of the sand, press its face against the glass and deliver wisdom in an unknown language. The sand didn’t stir. Tilting the drum back, he stuck his finger into the welded-on funnel at the bottom. A fresh stream of sand started to fall.
‘Brothers and Sisters,’ he said. ‘This will not be our last night in physical form.’
Sister Sarya looked at Sister Zoon. She wanted to look round at the rest of the Humanhood, but the force of Sister Zoon’s stare kept their eyes locked.
‘This world will end one year from now, to the day. But we will not be here for it. Our devotion and willingness to share love with each other has spared, not just ourselves, but temporarily, those in the broken world too. A passing comet will take us with it, because Brothers and Sisters, we do not belong here. Together we have healed our beings. In six months, we will leave our bodies behind.’
Sister Sarya couldn’t believe how quiet the room was. If someone had challenged Grand Being of Light she would have backed them up. She willed someone to speak, anyone.
‘Return to your quarters,’ he continued. ‘Recognise the importance of this event with silence. Tomorrow begins a new stage of our mission.’
Grand Being of Light unlocked the door and left the room, followed by Brother Dooray and Brother Boomba. As instructed, no one spoke. The members wandered out in their own time. The sand was still running when Sister Sarya left. She walked back to the sleeping quarters with Sister Zoon, their hands still linked.
Even among the long rows of beds back in their rooms, no one spoke, but Sister Sarya could read the confusion on their faces.
As they lay in bed, the only light was the full moon, streaming like a silver lightbulb through their curtainless windows. The first noise from anyone was when a sister started snoring. Sister Sarya turned to look at Sister Zoon, who was looking at her. Sister Zoon smiled her reassuring smile, but something had changed. In the intensity of the end of the world, the smile had lost its magic. Now it seemed like a barrier, keeping her out. Sister Sarya smiled back. She didn’t know if her smile held the same meaning for Sister Zoon, but it was important they shared this one last time. Sister Sarya wouldn’t sleep, despite her exhaustion. Before first light, she would leave.