The sky was an oppressive grey outside, as it always was. The old man peered at the clouds through a dusty window, squinting as though it would reveal a blue sky if he could only focus his sight. He had some memory of such times, when the sky was full of light and the earth full of colour, and if he really tried he could almost picture it: flowers growing in the dead patch of earth outside, animals in the forest on the hill—the sweet forgotten songs that the birds used to sing. But it was a long time ago.
He pulled his eyes away from what would never be and turned back to look around his small home. It was most definitely dusty and probably untidy as well; far too many things crammed into a small living space. Small trinkets adorned the mantle above the small fireplace, knitted quilts hung from every piece of furniture. Books were everywhere, lined in the bookshelf and stacked on the coffee table, in some instances being used as tables themselves. But it was cosy, and out of all the odds and ends and finished stories, the man felt he was the only piece out of place.
His eyes came to rest, as they usually did, on the comfy looking chair in the opposite corner of the room.
He allowed himself a deep sigh. Then he stood, slowly and purposefully rising out of his seat as though it were the first time in a thousand years and—after a moment of stillness—broke into a steady movement about the house.
First he made his way over to the fire, where he had been warming up a very plain soup, mixed in with a few low level concoctions to help him with walking and other such things, and took a sharp sip from a wooden ladle. Apparently satisfied and perceptibly standing a little taller, he proceeded to pour a measure of the steaming liquid into a weathered thermos, and then placed the thermos into a leather pack. He continued this way (book, knife, metal object) until the bag was almost full, ritualistically picking and placing and moving. When he was done he put on a long, thick coat, laced his boots and walked to the door.
He let out a deep breath, which wasn’t a sigh, took a last cursory look around the warm, colourful room, and stepped out into the cold.
There was quite a strong breeze dancing about outside, invisible for the lack of leaves to be blown or tall grass to be swayed, and seemingly frustrated with its own lack of consequence. There was no one out here to be bothered by such a thing, just black dead trees pushing up out of black dead earth. No one left, save the tiny old man, wrapping his coat against the wind and setting off down a black, dead road.
The gravel crunched underneath his feet amid the silence. Breath wheezed from his lungs. He ignored the dismal noise and set his eyes on the road in front of him, trying not to think about the way back. Among the endless expanse of a world that had run out of time he was a bright ball of colour, flickering and fading from the weight of the crushing dusk.
Although he walked quite slowly, methodically and patiently placing one foot in front of the other, there was a determination about him, a confidence noticeable from the tree line of the approaching forest. Nothing was alive there, but eyes watched him all the same, peering out of the darkness. It was something like fear that kept them in the dark.
The man noticed the forest too, felt the weight of the blackness emanating from it. The breeze coming from that direction was bitterly cold, but he continued forward through the bleak, grey landscape until he was upon the trees himself. The air from within whispered and threatened the man.
He pulled up his collar,
took a large sip from the thermos in his bag,
and lit a short wax candle using the heat in his hands.
He then stepped forward off the road and onto the small, rapidly narrowing track that continued for a short while past the line of trees, maintaining the same steady pace.
The dead hills outside the old man’s house were very still, and very silent. They were grey and dark and dead. Some days the man believed it was the silence that was slowly killing him. But when compared to the silence of the forest, the wind of the hills was a melody. The grey of the rotting fields was a kaleidoscope of colour after the deep, permeating black that existed under that canopy of bare branches, sharp and dead as splintered bones. The only light came from the candle in the old man’s wrinkled hands, painting his face with a gentle orange glow for all those who watched soundlessly from the shadows.
They couldn’t be seen or heard, smelt or touched. They existed outside of experience, veiled in darkness beyond the dull light of the candle. He would have convinced himself there was nothing there if he could have—if he didn’t have the overwhelming feeling he was completely surrounded. If there wasn’t a soundless scream cutting through the silence of the trees like a desperate, hopeless cry for help.
He continued to walk at the same steady pace, the lonely sound of his stifled sobs echoing amid the building crescendo of tortured souls.
When he felt he had reached the heart of the forest he came to a stop and brought his sack off his shoulder, taking care not to put out the candle, which he sat carefully on the ground. He rummaged through his things for a moment before carefully bringing out a small box filled with old photographs, holding it in the gentle way one holds precious things. After allowing another small sigh through jagged breaths he bent and placed the box on the ground and, though it was hard to do, he felt lighter when he stood again.
Darkness swallowed the box, as the old man and the candle drew further and further away.
The remainder of the walk through the woods was easier—the terror was quieter now, and the darkness seemed to part willingly before the candlelight. Still, it is not easy to submit yourself willingly to the pain of your darkest nightmares, your discarded memories. They clawed at him lamely as he approached the end, weak and powerless against the heat and warmth that remained in his heart, dwindling though it was.
The old man involuntarily gasped for breath as he stepped out of the dark, only to find himself swallowing gulps of sour, acrid air. He had made it to the salt flats.
It is hard to imagine that anything could be worse than the claustrophobic density of the forest, and the man often expected to feel relief at the beginning of this phase of the trip. He was, every time, disappointed.
The flats stretched out seemingly to infinity ahead and to both sides, dwarfing the fading energy of the dark line of trees to his back. They were entirely flat, the salt itself a glaring, brilliant white made impure by the scattering of black shapes distributed thinly in every direction. They could almost have been rocks or burnt shrubs if not for their barely perceptible movement, seemingly dragging themselves with excruciating deliberation across the salt. The old man had come too close to one once, had felt the sickening gaze through the eyeless lump that may once have been a face. Since then he knew what they were, and tried very hard to forget. But his mind always repeated to him the thoughtless mumble that escaped his lips that day.
They’re smaller than I thought.
And so a deeper dread replaced his brief moment of relief as he took his first steps out onto the flats under the empty threat of the dark grey sky and the listless stares of the small black shapes.
Out of necessity he maintained his steady pace, but where in the woods he held his head high, on the salt he kept his eyes firmly on the ground in front of his feet. He continued this way for some time, only glancing up quickly to ensure his distance from the figures, changing direction slightly if needed, to lessening degrees of success. He couldn’t avoid them all the way across for their sheer number and relentless advance.
Eventually one was close enough for him to hear the faint, grating sound of weight dragged across salt. He felt his heart beating against his rib cage and knew he could go no further. So, like in the forest, he slipped his bag from his back and brought out a small item. It was a pink stuffed bear, not tattered but clearly old and well loved. He knelt on the ground and held it in his hands as though cradling a living child.
The crunching sound of the salt grew louder, but the old man was momentarily lost in memory, free from the horror of reality.
He closed his eyes and allowed himself to return. As before, he gingerly placed the bear on the ground, gathered himself, then turned and walked away. He was permitted to continue his march across the flats largely uninhibited, but still felt the guilt of crying eyes looking to him from far across the dead white sea.
Again, he battled the feeling of relief welling inside him at the thought of making it across, countering it with the memories of what was to come next.
He could smell it before he could see it.
It twisted and curled through the thick dead air, slowly overpowering the acidic tang of the flats; the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh.
He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wrapped it around the lower half of his face. He could see it now on the horizon, the hills that weren’t hills, and the relief was gone. He kept his head down and tried not to think about the smell, putting one foot in front of the other as he drew ever nearer. Eventually the handkerchief became redundant, so he wrapped more cloth over his mouth, but there was no escaping the smell when he stood at the entrance to the valley where the hills revealed themselves. It didn’t matter how many times he saw it, he was never prepared for the sheer volume of decomposing bodies, stacked and piled like trash in landfill.
His breath was shallow and he was filled with terror, but again he broke into his determined stride and entered the valley between the mounds.
They were at his sides, overhead, and under his feet. Countless thousands that he could see, countless more that he couldn’t. There was no care to be taken in treading, no avoiding the harrowing sound of bones breaking under his weight. There was nowhere to look to avoid staring into the collapsing faces of the dead, nowhere to hide from their blank stares. But unlike the forest and the flats, there was no feeling of presence, no judgement or despair. They were just dead and, as horrible and terrifying as it was, the man found some comfort in that.
Finally, through the smell and the occasional sound of bodies crumbling and falling as they decayed, he glimpsed his journey’s end; a window of light and sadness and memory, the gateway to the feeling of love that had been lost from his heart so long ago. The old man reached around to his bag again, this time pulling out a lifeless bunch of flowers. He knelt at the foot of a small stone and placed the flowers before it.
1929-The End of the World