Short Fiction by Melaina Barnes. The Head of the End of the World was shortlisted for MIR15.
She had been touched by many other hands during her thousand-year life but perhaps never before so tenderly as the rabbi now handled her.
“The earth mother you liked went in the Collection,” I said. “But that one is beautiful too, no?”
Mike the rabbi bit his lip and bowed his head as he brought the carved lion-woman to his heart. “This one is beautiful too,” he said.
Mike must have stashed the carving beneath a tree, or in the long grass, because he wasn’t holding it when he waded into the lake a few minutes later. Another worshipper — an older woman I knew only by sight — followed him into the water. She scooped her hand and splashed him. They laughed. The older woman lost her balance and water darkened her robes, but Mike steadied her and they went deeper together, the lake a sparkling skirt as they held each other and started to sing to their different gods in verse-chorus-verse. A song full of fear of death and love of life. The worshippers refusing to accept what the rest of us have come to believe, that beginnings and endings are the perceptions of a primitive mind.
Father Dave came to the shore and smiled benignly at his brethren. I ducked behind a lalankalite shrub but Father Dave spotted me. He approached with arms extended, smile spreading. I pretended to be inspecting the lalankalite’s spindly branches, wishing it was still carrying its bounty of sweet spherical fruits, which would have made it a better hiding place.
“How are you?” Father Dave asked.
“Just a couple of things to finish off. Volcanos. Weapons.”
He gestured towards the lake. “How does one preserve the wonder of sunlight on water?”
“We’ve tried to collect a representative range of artefacts.”
When we knew survival was not an option, some of my most sensible friends took to prayer and fasting, meditation and silent retreat. They sang and swayed and channelled the great mysteries of the universe. They turned to Buddha, Shiva, Ra, Anubis, Brd-Brd, Allah, God. I understand. But I had known them before they adopted these beliefs, so I found their new rituals trite. Oppressive, even. Unlike the ancient worshippers, whom I can only know from their robes and headdresses, their jewellery and prayer objects.
These new worshippers have incense and laughter and boiling kettles. The landscape suits them – clean air and friendly mountains, a blue lake, the four moons. They built a sauna, and replanted trees in the forest to replace the wood it uses. I take comfort from their routine, their practical care for bodies and selves. But I am bothered by their insistence on symbolism and mystery. The baby god growing inside our planet is not at all mysterious. We know exactly when She will be born and we know Her birth will destroy our world.
“Would you like to come to the service later?” Father Dave asked.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll finish my work.”
Father Dave looked past me to the Mouseion, our archive of civilisation. He dipped his hand in his robe and handed me a jar.
“For you. It is what we will eat at the last meal.” He smiled sadly at me before he returned to the lake, to his people.
Back inside Mouseion, I walked the rooms, enjoying as always the click of my shoes on the floor of black and white spirals. These geometric dazzles were modelled on cathedral marble but have been recreated in wafer-thin super-strong compound. Around the walls, in vacuum-packed cases, sit the items we have collected: carvings, vessels, astrological devices, musical instruments, laboratory equipment, geological samples, genetic substances. The worshippers have never been interested in coming inside, though they always appreciate the faith-artefacts we give them. For the collection, we have kept a prayer shawl in the softest wool, a portable shrine with tiny sky horses, a set of delightfully sexy stone talismans.
I entered the alcove of earth mothers and carefully lifted a lumpen figure from her case and got on my knees, glad the floor was warmer than marble. I closed my eyes and tried to dredge up ancient facts about fertility and seasons, power and death. I could think only of the new beliefs that had swept our world – submit to The Bit. She is the future. Give yourself to the divinity who grows in our planet. She will be you. You will be Her. We had excluded all contemporary fetishes that attempted to ward off the Bit, judging them crude and unshaped. A word came to mind: Nurture. Then another: Life. I let other words form: Maternity, Creation. Bounty. Fucking. Birth. Destruction. I became short of breath as if my lungs were made of stone, were filled with dead songs.
My bosses, Trannie and Leggy were deeply committed to the archive. Their energy was infectious. The Head of Transition and the Head of Legacy. The tension between them confused me at first, but over time I think that’s what kept me going. Trannie’s idealism. Leggy’s pragmatism. Their arguments were full of fierce sharp words as they compared what was beautiful to what was useful; what communicates directly to the senses, and what was more likely to survive a trip to space, to endure until The Bit matures enough to seek out what lived here before Her.
Trannie and Leggie believed in a connection between artefacts and the people who will encounter them in the future, and the rest of us found this comforting. We adopted their obsessiveness, disrespecting the demarcations between sleep and work, failing to eat or wash adequately. We all started to look the same: bony-skulled with glazed eyes and crusted food round our mouths. Trannie’s adam’s apple stuck out and glooped up and down when he talked. Perhaps I should have shaved slivers from his throat to record his life. Perhaps he had already left a secret record of himself in the collection.
Trannie told me one drunken night that the theories by which he had lived his life had become useless almost overnight. He had thought deeply about beauty and memory, defended the right to do so, but luck was everything in the end. His thesis was there is no thesis, or, rather, it’s handy to have a thesis about death to free up your mind to think about other things, rather than having to think all the time about what everything really means.
I shook my head and replaced the earth mother in her case. I realised I was hungry. I opened the jar Father Dave had given me, and breathed the scent of tomatoes, olives, garlic and oregano. Recipes were something we all agreed should be preserved. Combinations of ingredients perfected by generations of cooks: boiled eggs with bitter herbs and salt; lemon, parsley and crumble cheese stirred through grains; garlic and chilli steeped in olive oil. The archive contains seeds and soil and growing instructions as well as recipes. As I raised the jar to my lips, I thought of crops going to seed, family recipes that would never again be cooked. I thought of Father Dave, and his belief that the true wonders of our world could not be preserved. Maybe I should go to his service. Maybe what I was experiencing was common loneliness, the impulse to push people away when you needed them most.
I went to the Visualisation Room and slipped on the bracelet that monitors emotion. I reclined on a silk-covered cushion and let the projections wash over me, carefully selected to ‘grow a range of positive qualities such as self-awareness, calm, kindness and concentration’. There was a time lapse sequence, the growth of a layer of plant life between Mouseion’s outer shell and the inner rendering. It took the bio-fabricators three years to grow this ecosystem. They kept themselves to themselves but I made friends with a woman called Betsy who had the tent next to mine. We shared food and the occasional joke. She confided to me that she hoarded her emotions, waiting for the best people to receive them. Like she had hoarded her eggs, waiting for the best time to fertilise them.
“I’m like you,” she said. “Saving the best of myself for my work.”
Once the biolayer was functioning, Betsy gave herself to The Bit along with the rest of the fabricators.
The images moved on to depictions of the soul: sounds and samples, patterns and beats. I turned a dial to switch to The Bit’s creation story. It began with a view of our planet from space. A cosmic narrative on the vastness of the universe, views from our spaceships, the hard moons, the blue planet, zooming in on atmosphere and oceans. Coral reefs and shoals of mackerel. Luminous jellyfish. Land, forests, clouds and crops. Cities and factories. The architecture of our civilisation. Then down to the micro level of insects and lichen. Microscopic viruses and dividing cells. A palliative sexless voice explaining how people will experience rebirth when The Bit is born, will become Her matter, Her form. A baby growing inside our world. A cluster of cells, hungry for energy and impulses, for matter and desire. She is becoming, says the voice, as visuals depict the process of Appropriation, the transformation of bodies into food for the new god; a calm explanation of The Bit’s birth, how nothing will survive, how it is better to give yourself to the inevitable.
People opt for certainty rather than uncertainty. We’re wired that way, apparently. The technology – two simple pills – came from the amniotic fluid around The Bit. We sampled Her, analysed Her material, synthesised a version of the drug for mass production. The pills expand minds. Allow bodies to dissolve into the earth. Our healers measured the brain waves of people during Appropriation. It was peaceful, they said. The brain processed signals of happiness before disappearing. After that, there was no turning back. The healers were among the first to give themselves up, lie down, let The Bit appropriate them.
There was shock and denial of course. People did terrible things. There were nihilists and mystics, mass hysteria and fakers of life-saving wonders. The early days were cultish, irrational, frenzied. But soon leaders and thinkers and teachers made the case for Appropriation. And we abandoned the efforts to survive: an escape fleet, brain implants, weapons made of blood and spider silk, bunkers spun from bee saliva. Those early explorations led to some unexpected discoveries: recipes for clean energy, therapies against war, eradication of disease. It’s amazing how the end of the world focuses people on the really important things.
People self-organised. All the mothers disappeared in the space of three days, taking their children with them. The farmers were a surprise. We thought they’d hold tight, protect their land. But they went quickly, leaving goats and cattle roaming the earth free from slaughter and butchery. Birds and bats and squid flourished. Enjoying the air, the depths of the oceans, while we went from billions to thousands in a matter of weeks. I remember sitting in the window seat of our house with my husband watching pelicans land. We’d never seen pelicans before.
If your bracelet says you are emotionally up to it, the visualisation shows images of Appropriation. The voiceover doesn’t use the word appropriation, it talks about passing over, passing on. Sounds better, I suppose, without connotations of property and theft. Though appropriation also means to devote. Physically, molecule by molecule. Consciously, thought by thought. I miss Betsy. I packed her white tent away when she left. I’m not sure there were bunkers made of bee saliva. I might have dreamed that.
As the clock at the corner of the projection ticks down to lift off, launch, the bursting birth, I watch a visualisation of a mass Appropriation in a rocky desert. The light of bodies disintegrating like fairy-lanterns in a tree or the sparkles of sunshine on a lake, such bright strange creatures. The words at the end: Our world existed. It was more complex than any of us could imagine. But each of us was able to add our voice to its song. We leave our learning to you, for your time, your world. Perhaps this is a terrible representation of our world. Perhaps our collection represents idiosyncratic beliefs, petty deals, parochial customs. Pigments full of visions. Earthly delight. Apocalypse dressed as happiness. In the last weeks it has been possible to hear The Bit’s breath as She readies herself, as She calls the final people to lie down on the earth and say goodbye to sunshine and the singing birds. I miss my husband, Carl. He used to sing in the shower.
I am lucky. I have been able to apply my life’s expertise, be useful and calm, spend my last years with others who share my passions. A willing mind for the big question of our time: what will endure? I thought there would be more competition for this job, that I wouldn’t be the right kind of person, not driven enough. But in the end, neatly documenting the end of civilisation wasn’t a great draw. My husband said I got the job because I’m one of those capable women. One of the ones who’ll do the routine boring stuff, and still manage a nice smile and helpful suggestions. He chose to go first, without me. He didn’t give me enough time to consider my options. He was certain. It made him impatient. He couldn’t understand my ambivalence, accused me of contributing to end-of-days drama instead of dealing with reality. I wish I didn’t remember the hurtful things he said.
Trannie and Leggy were restless on the day of their Appropriation. Trannie loping up and down outside the Mouseion fussing with his thick grey hair, piled sideways in a style he learned from the worshippers. Leggy, sitting on a folding chair, tapping her shiny shoes. They invited me to go with them. But I wanted to stay, to see it through to the end. They refrained from telling me there was nothing left to do. Mouseion will rise into the atmosphere, fuelled by The Bit’s birth. I want to see that. There is no room for people in the Final Collection. Leggie’s decision, early on. Artefacts only. Who’d want to go anyway? Not me. I don’t want to look down on what our world has become. I don’t want to be witness to the devastation when a baby god utters Her first cry.
I can picture my husband with his rugby team. They were all middle-aged and injury prone but they played anyway. I liked to watch them. The faces they pulled. The noises they made. He didn’t make those grunts and guttural cries at any other time. Not during arguments. Not during sex. His face in this memory – his expression is so joyful. Mouth open, eyes open, face filled with pure anticipation as he runs to catch a misshapen ball. I closed my eyes and an image came of people puddling in a valley, a river of human mud. Time was running out. I switched off the visualisation and went back outside had to decide whether to take the pills or be burnt up by The Bit’s birth.
Two yogis greeted me. They looked behind me, at Mouseion. I did not look back. Perhaps the blast of birth will destroy it with all else, instead of igniting its launch.
I walked among the worshippers as they swapped prayers and jokes and snacks. One bowed to me. One pulled me into a tender hug. One tapped me on the elbow.
“Excuse me,” he said.
He sounded different. But everything sounded different as the earth trembled and prayers started in earnest to be muttered and wailed and sung.
“A birth is always disruptive,” the stranger said. His eyes were deep, his mouth bluish, with a grin trembling on his thin lips. As he looked at me I felt the earth shudder. Jets of steam burst around the lake. The stranger seemed unperturbed by our proximity to the scalding vapour. He smiled at me. “You are from the … how do you call it … the Mouseion?”
“It is impressive.”
I could not tell his religion from his clothes. The landscape looked too small and dull for him, despite the glittering lake, the bright blue sky, the rock of the mountains, the fertile land that was breaking apart and would soon swallow us up.
“Tell me, how long did you work on it — your Mouseion, your collection?”
“And how did you agree on what to keep? I mean, it must have been difficult. Though you seem to have kept friends on all sides.” The stranger looked amused as Mike the rabbi danced around me grinning wildly, waving goodbye.
“I’m not sure that matters now,” I said, as Mike lay down on the ground and closed his eyes, ready for the end.
“It happens more often than you think.”
“Keeping friends on all sides?”
He was saying something else as sparks burst from the earth. I spied Father Dave laying himself down next to a lalankali bush, putting the pills in his mouth. The speed of Appropriation was shocking. The light and shine. The whole thing still took my breath away even though I’d seen it a million times.
The stranger shrugged. “An end is also a beginning. Not just for The Bit.”
“This is it. Except for what we have preserved, perhaps, if we are lucky.”
“You think She will understand your collection?” he said. I could tell he was trying not to laugh.
I started to walk away. He composed himself. That hand on my arm again. “I’m sorry. Hear me out. Mouseion is so exciting to us. If you can imagine, perhaps, if you can empathise…” He ran his tongue round his lips, relishing the word. “Your language is marvellous.”
Lava erupted. I heard the wail from new lungs. Other sounds were in my head. The laughter of my husband. The birds singing outside my house, in my neighbourhood, my country, my world. I’ve done my best, I thought, as the cries rose and sucked in the air. As best I could, I’ve preserved what’s good. But I could feel the scraps of flesh and hair and water and cells and bone that allowed me to walk through this world. I knew as I had never known before that we are all returned to nothing.
The stranger was still speaking.
He waved his arms, hands sweeping through air, reacting with it, creating a translucent shell that shielded us from the hot steam. It was quieter inside. I prodded the shell thinking I had seen nothing like this and it would have been good to include the technology in the collection.
“I am leaving soon,” he said.
“We’re all leaving soon.”
“No. I’m really leaving. You should come. You and the Mouseion.”
“What? … it’s not… that’s so cruel.”
“It would be a good move for you.”
“A good move—?” I couldn’t say more.
He cleared his throat. “I’m going back to my world. You could continue your work there.”
“You could save us from this … this … destruction?”
“Intervention is not our way.”
Bile flooded my stomach. Sloshing about, dissolving everything. I tasted tomato skins in my mouth. He saw me look over at a group of Imams kneeling by the shivering lake. “We can’t take anyone else, I’m not powerful enough. I’m sorry. It’s a lot to absorb. There is little time to explain—”
“What exactly do you want?”
His irises cycled through a colour wheel, processing light. He touched the corner of my eye, at the spot where I felt a tear forming.
“All that you’ve achieved here. All you’ve archived here – oh your words! — The Bit doesn’t need your collection. But there are others who do. Tell me. What would you do differently, next time?” he asked. “In the next collection?”
I put my head in my hands. “We spent all that time agreeing what was important … knowledge, truth, wonder.”
“I am sure your collection embodies those things: knowledge, truth… what was the last one?”
“Yes. I mean — look! This is a wonder, no?” He took the lion-woman carving from his pocket. His face was open as he considered it in his palm. “So, next time, less stuff about accepting destructive forces maybe? All this end of times symbolism in your cultures probably affected your judgement, prevented you from seeing what could be done. But the, er, principles — knowledge etc. — they would be the same. We could honour those. And I’ll be with you. I’ll look after you.”
The tear slid down my cheek. “I can’t bear…”
“…the irony. You understand that? Irony?”
“I think I understand. The proof of other worlds has come to you. But only when your world is ending.” The stranger coughed, which made a sound like a dry pea at the bottom of a cup. His body was too big, too fleshy for such a small sound.
“It’s been an intense time. But believe me, we need you. You can continue your work – just tell me how we can help,” – he slipped the carving in his pocket and clasped my hand with both of his – “We must trust one another. We must move forward. You would like to come with me, yes?”
“Oh yes. Sure. I’ll come with you. I’ll do my work. Of course I will. What else would I do? It’s a bloody wonder! I’ll be the Head of the End of the World.”
A wail pierced the air inside our shell. New life. It called to us. It demanded everything.
“Close your eyes,” the stranger said. He took the pills from my hand and dropped them on the earth. “Hold on tight. We’ll be there soon. Trust me. It’s going to be fine.”