I’ll be posting previously published short fiction up here once a month or so.
Please do not alter, rewrite, republish or repost it in any format (electronic or otherwise). Specific publication information follows each piece.
End of lecture. Enjoy.
The End of the World as We Know It
Between 1347 and 1450 AD, bubonic plague overran Europe, killing some 75 million people. The plague, dubbed the Black Death because of the black pustules that erupted on the skin of the afflicted, was caused by a bacterium now known as Yersinia pestis. The Europeans of the day, lacking access to microscopes or knowledge of disease vectors, attributed their misfortune to an angry God. Flagellants roamed the land, hoping to appease His wrath. “They died by the hundreds, both day and night,” Agnolo di Tura tells us. “I buried my five children with my own hands . . . so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”
Today, the population of Europe is about 729 million.
Evenings, Wyndham likes to sit on the porch, drinking. He likes gin, but he’ll drink anything. He’s not particular. Lately, he’s been watching it get dark–really watching it, I mean, not just sitting there–and so far he’s concluded that the cliché is wrong. Night doesn’t fall. It’s more complex than that.
Not that he’s entirely confident in the accuracy of his observations.
It’s high summer just now, and Wyndham often begins drinking at two or three, so by the time the sun sets, around nine, he’s usually pretty drunk. Still, it seems to him that, if anything, night rises, gathering first in inky pools under the trees, as if it has leached up from underground reservoirs, and then spreading, out toward the borders of the yard and up toward the yet-lighted sky. It’s only toward the end that anything falls–the blackness of deep space, he supposes, unscrolling from high above the earth. The two planes of darkness meet somewhere in the middle, and that’s night for you.
That’s his current theory, anyway.
It isn’t his porch, incidentally, but then it isn’t his gin either–except in the sense that, in so far as Wyndham can tell anyway, everything now belongs to him.
End-of-the-world stories usually come in one of two varieties.
In the first, the world ends with a natural disaster, either unprecedented or on an unprecedented scale. Floods lead all other contenders–God himself, we’re told, is fond of that one–though plagues have their advocates. A renewed ice age is also popular. Ditto drought.
In the second variety, irresponsible human beings bring it on themselves. Mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, usually. An exchange of ICBMs is the typical route, although the scenario has dated in the present geo-political environment.
Feel free to mix and match:
Genetically engineered flu virus, anyone? Melting polar ice caps?
On the day the world ended, Wyndham didn’t even realize it was the end of the world–not right away, anyway. For him, at that point in his life, pretty much every day seemed like the end of the world. This was not a consequence of a chemical imbalance, either. It was a consequence of working for UPS, where, on the day the world ended Wyndham had been employed for sixteen years, first as a loader, then in sorting, and finally in the coveted position of driver, the brown uniform and everything. By this time the company had gone public and he also owned some shares. The money was good–very good, in fact. Not only that, he liked his job.
Still, the beginning of every goddamn day started off feeling like a cataclysm. You try getting up at 4:00 AM every morning and see how you feel.
This was his routine:
At 4:00 AM, the alarm went off–an old-fashioned alarm, he wound it up every night. (He couldn’t tolerate the radio before he drank his coffee.) He always turned it off right away, not wanting to wake his wife. He showered in the spare bathroom (again, not wanting to wake his wife; her name was Ann), poured coffee into his thermos, and ate something he probably shouldn’t–a bagel, a Pop Tart–while he stood over the sink. By then, it would be 4:20, 4:25 if he was running late.
Then he would do something paradoxical: He would go back to his bedroom and wake up the wife he’d spent the last twenty minutes trying not to disturb.
“Have a good day,” Wyndham always said.
His wife always did the same thing, too. She would screw her face into her pillow and smile. “Ummm,” she would say, and it was usually such a cozy, loving, early-morning cuddling kind of “ummm” that it almost made getting up at 4 in the goddamn morning worth it.
Wyndham heard about the World Trade Center–not the end of the world, though to Wyndham it sure as hell felt that way–from one of his customers.
The customer–her name was Monica–was one of Wyndham’s regulars: a Home Shopping Network fiend, this woman. She was big, too. The kind of woman of whom people say “She has a nice personality” or “She has such a pretty face.” She did have a nice personality, too–at least Wyndham thought she did. So he was concerned when she opened the door in tears.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
Monica shook her head, at a loss for words. She waved him inside. Wyndham, in violation of about fifty UPS regulations, stepped in after her. The house smelled of sausage and floral air freshener. There was Home Shopping Network shit everywhere. I mean, everywhere.
Wyndham hardly noticed.
His gaze was fixed on the television. It was showing an airliner flying into the World Trade Center. He stood there and watched it from three or four different angles before he noticed the Home Shopping Network logo in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
That was when he concluded that it must be the end of the world. He couldn’t imagine the Home Shopping Network preempting regularly scheduled programming for anything less.
The Muslim extremists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon, and into the unyielding earth of an otherwise unremarkable field in Pennsylvania, were secure, we are told, in the knowledge of their imminent translation into paradise.
There were nineteen of them.
Every one of them had a name.
Wyndham’s wife was something of a reader. She liked to read in bed. Before she went to sleep she always marked her spot using a bookmark Wyndham had given her for her birthday one year: It was a cardboard bookmark with a yarn ribbon at the top, and a picture of a rainbow arching high over white-capped mountains. Smile, the bookmark said. God loves you.
Wyndham wasn’t much of a reader, but if he’d picked up his wife’s book the day the world ended he would have found the first few pages interesting. In the opening chapter, God raptures all true Christians to Heaven. This includes true Christians who are driving cars and trains and airplanes, resulting in uncounted lost lives as well as significant damages to personal property. If Wyndham had read the book, he’d have thought of a bumper sticker he sometimes saw from high in his UPS truck. Warning, the bumper sticker read, In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned. Whenever he saw that bumper sticker, Wyndham imagined cars crashing, planes falling from the sky, patients abandoned on the operating table–pretty much the scenario of his wife’s book, in fact.
Wyndham went to church every Sunday, but he couldn’t help wondering what would happen to the untold millions of people who weren’t true Christians–whether by choice or by the geographical fluke of having been born in some place like Indonesia. What if they were crossing the street in front of one of those cars, he wondered, or watering lawns those planes would soon plow into?
But I was saying:
On the day the world ended Wyndham didn’t understand right away what had happened. His alarm clock went off the way it always did and he went through his normal routine. Shower in the spare bath, coffee in the thermos, breakfast over the sink (a chocolate donut, this time, and gone a little stale). Then he went back to the bedroom to say good-bye to his wife.
“Have a good day,” he said, as he always said, and, leaning over, he shook her a little: not enough to really wake her, just enough to get her stirring. In sixteen years of performing this ritual, minus federal holidays and two weeks of paid vacation in the summer, Wyndham had pretty much mastered it. He could cause her to stir without quite waking her up just about every time.
So to say he was surprised when his wife didn’t screw her face into her pillow and smile is something of an understatement. He was shocked, actually. And there was an additional consideration: She hadn’t said, “Ummm,” either. Not the usual luxurious, warm-morning-bed kind of “ummm,” and not the infrequent but still familiar stuffy, I-have-a-cold-and-my-head-aches kind of “ummm,” either.
No “ummm” at all.
The air-conditioning cycled off. For the first time Wyndham noticed a strange smell–a faint, organic funk, like spoiled milk, or unwashed feet.
Standing there in the dark, Wyndham began to have a very bad feeling. It was a different kind of bad feeling than the one he’d had in Monica’s living room watching airliners plunge again and again into the World Trade Center. That had been a powerful but largely impersonal bad feeling–I say “largely impersonal” because Wyndham had a third cousin who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. (The cousin’s name was Chris; Wyndham had to look it up in his address book every year when he sent out cards celebrating the birth of his personal savior.) The bad feeling he began to have when his wife failed to say “ummm,” on the other hand, was powerful and personal.
Concerned, Wyndham reached down and touched his wife’s face. It was like touching a woman made of wax, lifeless and cool, and it was at that moment–that moment precisely–that Wyndham realized the world had come to an end.
Everything after that was just details.
Beyond the mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, characters in end-of-the-world stories typically come in one of three varieties.
The first is the rugged individualist. You know the type: self-reliant, iconoclastic loners who know how to use firearms and deliver babies. By story’s end, they’re well on their way to Re-Establishing Western Civilization–though they’re usually smart enough not to return to the Bad Old Ways.
The second variety is the post-apocalyptic bandit. These characters often come in gangs, and they face off against the rugged survivor types. If you happen to prefer cinematic incarnations of the end-of-the-world tale, you can usually recognize them by their penchant for bondage gear, punked-out haircuts, and customized vehicles. Unlike the rugged survivors, the post-apocalyptic bandits embrace the Bad Old Ways–though they’re not displeased by the expanded opportunities to rape and pillage.
The third type of character–also pretty common, though a good deal less so than the other two–is the world-weary sophisticate. Like Wyndham, such characters drink too much; unlike Wyndham, they suffer badly from ennui. Wyndham suffers too, of course, but whatever he suffers from, you can bet it’s not ennui.
We were discussing details, though:
Wyndham did the things people do when they discover a loved one dead. He picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1. There seemed to be something wrong with the line, however; no one picked up on the other end. Wyndham took a deep breath, went into the kitchen, and tried the extension. Once again he had no success.
The reason, of course, was that, this being the end of the world, all the people who were supposed to answer the phones were dead. Imagine them being swept away by a tidal wave if that helps–which is exactly what happened to more than 3000 people during a storm in Pakistan in 1960. (Not that this is literally what happened to the operators who would have taken Wyndham’s 9-1-1 call, you understand; but more about what really happened to them later–the important thing is that one moment they had been alive; the next they were dead. Like Wyndham’s wife.)
Wyndham gave up on the phone.
He went back into the bedroom. He performed a fumbling version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on his wife for fifteen minutes or so, and then he gave that up, too. He walked into his daughter’s bedroom (she was twelve and her name was Ellen). He found her lying on her back, her mouth slightly agape. He reached down to shake her–he was going to tell her that something terrible had happened; that her mother had died–but he found that something terrible had happened to her as well. The same terrible thing, in fact.
He raced outside, where the first hint of red had begun to bleed up over the horizon. His neighbor’s automatic irrigation system was on, the heads whickering in the silence, and as he sprinted across the lawn, Wyndham felt the spray, like a cool hand against his face. Then, chilled, he was standing on his neighbor’s stoop. Hammering the door with both fists. Screaming.
After a time–he didn’t know how long–a dreadful calm settled over him. There was no sound but the sound of the sprinklers, throwing glittering arcs of spray into the halo of the street light on the corner.
He had a vision, then. It was as close as he had ever come to a moment of genuine prescience. In the vision, he saw the suburban houses stretching away in silence before him. He saw the silent bedrooms. In them, curled beneath the sheets, he saw a legion of sleepers, also silent, who would never again wake up.
Then he did something he could not have imagined doing even twenty minutes ago. He bent over, fished the key from its hiding place between the bricks, and let himself inside his neighbor’s house.
The neighbor’s cat slipped past him, mewing querulously. Wyndham had already reached down to retrieve it when he noticed the smell–that unpleasant, faintly organic funk. Not spoiled milk, either. And not feet. Something worse: soiled diapers, or a clogged toilet.
Wyndham straightened, the cat forgotten.
“Herm?” he called. “Robin?”
Inside, Wyndham picked up the phone, and dialed 9-1-1. He listened to it ring for a long time; then, without bothering to turn it off, Wyndham dropped the phone to the floor. He made his way through the silent house, snapping on lights. At the door to the master bedroom, he hesitated. The odor–it was unmistakable now, a mingled stench of urine and feces, of all the body’s muscles relaxing at once–was stronger here. When he spoke again, whispering really–
–he no longer expected an answer.
Wyndham turned on the light. Robin and Herm were shapes in the bed, unmoving. Stepping closer, Wyndham stared down at them. A fleeting series of images cascaded through his mind, images of Herm and Robin working the grill at the neighborhood block party or puttering in their vegetable garden. They’d had a knack for tomatoes, Robin and Herm. Wyndham’s wife had always loved their tomatoes.
Something caught in Wyndham’s throat.
He went away for a while then.
The world just grayed out on him.
When he came back, Wyndham found himself in the living room, standing in front of Robin and Herm’s television. He turned it on and cycled through the channels, but there was nothing on. Literally nothing. Snow, that’s all. Seventy-five channels of snow. The end of the world had always been televised in Wyndham’s experience. The fact that it wasn’t being televised now suggested that it really was the end of the world.
This is not to suggest that television validates human experience–of the end of the world or indeed of anything else, for that matter.
You could ask the people of Pompeii, if most of them hadn’t died in a volcano eruption in 79 AD, nearly two millennia before television. When Vesuvius erupted, sending lava thundering down the mountainside at four miles a minute, some 16,000 people perished. By some freakish geological quirk, some of them–their shells, anyway–were preserved, frozen inside casts of volcanic ash. Their arms are outstretched in pleas for mercy, their faces frozen in horror.
For a fee, you can visit them today.
Here’s one of my favorite end-of-the-world scenarios by the way:
Wyndham got in his car and went looking for assistance–a functioning telephone or television, a helpful passer-by. He found instead more non-functioning telephones and televisions. And, of course, more non-functioning people: lots of those, though he had to look harder for them than you might have expected. They weren’t scattered in the streets, or dead at the wheels of their cars in a massive traffic jam–though Wyndham supposed that might have been the case somewhere in Europe, where the catastrophe–whatever it was–had fallen square in the middle of the morning rush.
Here, however, it seemed to have caught most folks at home in bed; as a result, the roads were more than usually passable.
At a loss–numb, really–Wyndham drove to work. He might have been in shock by then. He’d gotten accustomed to the smell, anyway, and the corpses of the night shift–men and women he’d known for sixteen years, in some cases–didn’t shake him as much. What did shake him was the sight of all the packages in the sorting area: He was struck suddenly by the fact that none of them would ever be delivered. So Wyndham loaded his truck and went out on his route. He wasn’t sure why he did it–maybe because he’d rented a movie once in which a post-apocalyptic drifter scavenges a US Postal uniform and manages to Re-Establish Western Civilization (but not the Bad Old Ways) by assuming the postman’s appointed rounds. The futility of Wyndham’s own efforts quickly became evident, however.
He gave it up when he found that even Monica–or, as he more often thought of her, the Home Shopping Network Lady–was no longer in the business of receiving packages. Wyndham found her face down on the kitchen floor, clutching a shattered coffee mug in one hand. In death she had neither a pretty face nor a nice personality. She did have that same ripe unpleasant odor, however. In spite of it, Wyndham stood looking down at her for the longest time. He couldn’t seem to look away.
When he finally did look away, Wyndham went back to the living room where he had once watched nearly 3000 people die, and opened her package himself. When it came to UPS rules, the Home Shopping Network Lady’s living room was turning out to be something of a post-apocalyptic zone in its own right.
Wyndham tore the mailing tape off and dropped it on the floor. He opened the box. Inside, wrapped safely in three layers of bubble wrap, he found a porcelain statue of Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, died August 16, 1977, while sitting on the toilet. An autopsy revealed that he had ingested an impressive cocktail of prescription drugs–including codeine, ethinimate, methaqualone, and various barbiturates. Doctors also found trace elements of Valium, Demerol, and other pharmaceuticals in his veins.
For a time, Wyndham comforted himself with the illusion that the end of the world had been a local phenomenon. He sat in his truck outside the Home Shopping Network Lady’s house and awaited rescue–the sound of sirens or approaching choppers, whatever. He fell asleep cradling the porcelain statue of Elvis. He woke up at dawn, stiff from sleeping in the truck, to find a stray dog nosing around outside.
Clearly rescue would not be forthcoming.
Wyndham chased off the dog and placed Elvis gently on the sidewalk. Then he drove off, heading out of the city. Periodically, he stopped, each time confirming what he had already known the minute he touched his dead wife’s face: The end of the world was upon him. He found nothing but non-functioning telephones, non-functioning televisions, and non-functioning people. Along the way he listened to a lot of non-functioning radio stations.
You, like Wyndham, may be curious about the catastrophe that has befallen everyone in the world around him. You may even be wondering why Wyndham has survived.
End-of-the-world tales typically make a big deal about such things, but Wyndham’s curiosity will never be satisfied. Unfortunately, neither will yours.
It’s the end of the world after all.
The dinosaurs never discovered what caused their extinction, either.
At this writing, however, most scientists agree that the dinosaurs met their fate when an asteroid nine miles wide plowed into the Earth just south of the Yucatan Peninsula, triggering gigantic tsunamis, hurricane-force winds, worldwide forest fires, and a flurry of volcanic activity. The crater is still there–it’s 120 miles wide and more than a mile deep–but the dinosaurs, along with 75% of the other species then alive, are gone. Many of them died in the impact, vaporized in an explosion equivalent to thousands of megatons. Those that survived the initial cataclysm would have perished soon after as acid rain poisoned the world’s water and dust obscured the sun, plunging the planet into a years-long winter.
For what it’s worth, this impact was merely the most dramatic in a long series of mass extinctions; they occur in the fossil record at roughly 30 million-year intervals. Some scientists have linked these intervals to the solar system’s periodic journey through the galactic plane, which dislodges millions of comets from the Oort cloud beyond Pluto, raining them down on Earth. This theory, still contested, is called the Shiva Hypothesis in honor of the Hindu god of destruction.
The inhabitants of Lisbon would have appreciated the allusion on November 1, 1755, when the city was struck by an earthquake measuring 8.5 on the Richter Scale. The tremor leveled more than 12,000 homes and ignited a fire that burned for six days.
More than 60,000 people perished.
This event inspired Voltaire to write Candide, in which Dr. Pangloss advises us that this is the best of all possible worlds.
Wyndham could have filled the gas tank in his truck. There were gas stations at just about every exit along the highway, and they seemed to be functioning well enough. He didn’t bother, though.
When the truck ran out of gas, he just pulled to the side of the road, hopped down, and struck off across the fields. When it started getting dark–this was before he had launched himself on the study of just how it is night falls–he took shelter in the nearest house.
It was a nice place, a two-story brick set well back from the country road he was by then walking on. It had some big trees in the front yard. In the back, a shaded lawn sloped down to the kind of woods you see in movies, but not often in real life: enormous, old trees with generous, leaf-carpeted avenues. It was the kind of place his wife would have loved, and he regretted having to break a window to get inside. But there it was: It was the end of the world and he had to have a place to sleep. What else could he do?
Wyndham hadn’t planned to stay there, but when he woke up the next morning he couldn’t think of anywhere to go. He found two non-functional old people in one upstairs bedroom and he tried to do for them what he had not been able to do for his wife and daughter: Using a spade from the garage, he started digging a grave in the front yard. After an hour or so, his hands began to blister and crack. His muscles–soft from sitting behind the wheel of a UPS truck for all those years–rebelled.
He rested for a while, and then he loaded the old people into the car he found parked in the garage–a slate-blue Volvo station wagon with 37,312 miles on the odometer. He drove them a mile or two down the road, pulled over, and laid them out, side-by-side in a grove of beech trees. He tried to say some words over them before he left–his wife would have wanted him to–but he couldn’t think of anything appropriate so he finally gave it up and went back to the house.
It wouldn’t have made much difference: Though Wyndham didn’t know it, the old people were lapsed Jews. According to the faith Wyndham shared with his wife, they were doomed to burn in hell for all eternity anyway. Both of them were first-generation immigrants; most of their families had already been burned up in ovens at Dachau and Buchenwald.
Burning wouldn’t have been anything new for them.
Speaking of fires, the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in New York City burned on March 25, 1911. One-hundred and forty-six people died. Many of them might have survived, but the factory’s owners had locked the exits to prevent theft.
Rome burned, too. It is said that Nero fiddled.
Back at the house, Wyndham washed up and made himself a drink from the liquor cabinet he found in the kitchen. He’d never been much of a drinker before the world ended, but he didn’t see any reason not to give it a try now. His experiment proved such a success that he began sitting out on the porch nights, drinking gin and watching the sky. One night he thought he saw a plane, lights blinking as it arced high overhead. Later, sober, he concluded that it must have been a satellite, still whipping around the planet, beaming down telemetry to empty listening stations and abandoned command posts.
A day or two later the power went out. And a few days after that, Wyndham ran out of liquor. Using the Volvo, he set off in search of a town. Characters in end-of-the-world stories commonly drive vehicles of two types: The jaded sophisticates tend to drive souped-up sports cars, often racing them along the Australian coast line because what else do they have to live for; everyone else drives rugged SUVs. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War–in which some 23,000 people died, most of them Iraqi conscripts killed by American smart bombs–military-style Humvees have been especially coveted. Wyndham, however, found the Volvo entirely adequate to his needs.
No one shot at him.
He was not assaulted by a roving pack of feral dogs.
He found a town after only fifteen minutes on the road. He didn’t see any evidence of looting. Everybody was too dead to loot; that’s the way it is at the end of the world.
On the way, Wyndham passed a sporting goods store where he did not stop to stock up on weapons or survival equipment. He passed numerous abandoned vehicles, but he did not stop to siphon off some gas. He did stop at the liquor store, where he smashed a window with a rock and helped himself to several cases of gin, whiskey, and vodka. He also stopped at the grocery store, where he found the reeking bodies of the night crew sprawled out beside carts of supplies that would never make it onto the shelves. Holding a handkerchief over his nose, Wyndham loaded up on tonic water and a variety of other mixers. He also got some canned goods, though he didn’t feel any imperative to stock up beyond his immediate needs. He ignored the bottled water.
In the book section, he did pick up a bartender’s guide.
Some end-of-the-world stories present us with two post-apocalypse survivors, one male and one female. These two survivors take it upon themselves to Re-Populate the Earth, part of their larger effort to Re-Establish Western Civilization without the Bad Old Ways. Their names are always artfully withheld until the end of the story, at which point they are invariably revealed to be Adam and Eve.
The truth is, almost all end-of-the-world stories are at some level Adam-and-Eve stories. That may be why they enjoy such popularity. In the interests of total disclosure, I will admit that in fallow periods of my own sexual life–and, alas, these periods have been more frequent than I’d care to admit–I’ve often found Adam-and-Eve post-holocaust fantasies strangely comforting. Being the only man alive significantly reduces the potential for rejection in my view. And it cuts performance anxiety practically to nothing.
There’s a woman in this story, too.
Don’t get your hopes up.
By this time, Wyndham has been living in the brick house for almost two weeks. He sleeps in the old couple’s bedroom, and he sleeps pretty well, but maybe that’s the gin. Some mornings he wakes up disoriented, wondering where his wife is and how he came to be in a strange place. Other mornings he wakes up feeling like he dreamed everything else and this has always been his bedroom.
One day, though, he wakes up early, to gray pre-dawn light. Someone is moving around downstairs. Wyndham’s curious, but he’s not afraid. He doesn’t wish he’d stopped at the sporting goods store and gotten a gun. Wyndham has never shot a gun in his life. If he did shoot someone–even a post-apocalyptic punk with cannibalism on his mind–he’d probably have a breakdown.
Wyndham doesn’t try to disguise his presence as he goes downstairs. There’s a woman in the living room. She’s not bad looking, this woman‑‑blonde in a washed-out kind of way, trim, and young, twenty-five, thirty at the most. She doesn’t look extremely clean, and she doesn’t smell much better, but hygiene hasn’t been uppermost on Wyndham’s mind lately, either. Who is he to judge?
“I was looking for a place to sleep,” the woman says.
“There’s a spare bedroom upstairs,” Wyndham tells her.
The next morning–it’s really almost noon, but Wyndham has gotten into the habit of sleeping late–they eat breakfast together: a Pop Tart for the woman, a bowl of dry Cheerios for Wyndham.
They compare notes, but we don’t need to get into that. It’s the end of the world and the woman doesn’t know how it happened any more than Wyndham does or you do or anybody ever does. She does most of the talking, though. Wyndham’s never been much of a talker, even at the best of times.
He doesn’t ask her to stay. He doesn’t ask her to leave.
He doesn’t ask her much of anything.
That’s how it goes all day.
Sometimes the whole sex thing causes the end of the world.
In fact, if you’ll permit me to reference Adam and Eve just one more time, sex and death have been connected to the end of the world ever since–well, the beginning of the world. Eve, despite warnings to the contrary, eats of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and realizes she’s naked–that is, a sexual being. Then she introduces Adam to the idea by giving him a bite of the fruit.
God punishes Adam and Eve for their transgression by kicking them out of Paradise and introducing death into the world. And there you have it: the first apocalypse, eros and thanatos all tied up in one neat little bundle, and it’s all Eve’s fault.
No wonder feminists don’t like that story. It’s a pretty corrosive view of female sexuality when you think about it.
Coincidentally, perhaps, one of my favorite end-of-the-world stories involves some astronauts who fall into a time warp; when they get out they learn that all the men are dead. The women have done pretty well for themselves in the meantime. They no longer need men to reproduce and they’ve set up a society that seems to work okay without men–better in fact than our messy two-sex societies ever have.
But do the men stay out of it?
They do not. They’re men, after all, and they’re driven by their need for sexual dominance. It’s genetically encoded so to speak, and it’s not long before they’re trying to turn this Eden into another fallen world. It’s sex that does it, violent male sex–rape, actually. In other words, sex that’s more about the violence than the sex.
And certainly nothing to do with love.
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty corrosive view of male sexuality.
The more things change the more they stay the same, I guess.
Wyndham heads out on the porch around three. He’s got some tonic. He’s got some gin. It’s what he does now. He doesn’t know where the woman is, doesn’t have strong feelings on the issue either way.
He’s been sitting there for hours when she joins him. Wyndham doesn’t know what time it is, but the air has that hazy underwater quality that comes around twilight. Darkness is starting to pool under the trees, the crickets are tuning up, and it’s so peaceful that for a moment Wyndham can almost forget that it’s the end of the world.
Then the screen door claps shut behind the woman. Wyndham can tell right away that she’s done something to herself, though he couldn’t tell you for sure what it is: that magic women do, he guesses. His wife used to do it, too. She always looked good to him, but sometimes she looked just flat-out amazing. Some powder, a little blush. Lipstick. You know.
And he appreciates the effort. He does. He’s flattered even. She’s an attractive woman. Intelligent, too.
The truth is, though, he’s just not interested.
She sits beside him, and all the time she’s talking. And though she doesn’t say it in so many words, what she’s talking about is Re-Populating the World and Re-Establishing Western Civilization. She’s talking about Duty. She’s talking about it because that’s what you’re supposed to talk about at times like this. But underneath that is sex. And underneath that, way down, is loneliness–and he has some sympathy for that, Wyndham does. After a while, she touches Wyndham, but he’s got nothing. He might as well be dead down there.
“What’s wrong with you?” she says.
Wyndham doesn’t know how to answer her. He doesn’t know how to tell her that the end of the world isn’t about any of that stuff. The end of the world is about something else, he doesn’t have a word for it.
So, anyway, Wyndham’s wife.
She has another book on her night stand, too. She doesn’t read it every night, only on Sundays. But the week before the end of the world the story she was reading was the story of Job.
You know the story, right?
It goes like this: God and Satan–the Adversary, anyway; that’s probably the better translation–make a wager. They want to see just how much shit God’s most faithful servant will eat before he renounces his faith. The servant’s name is Job. So they make the wager, and God starts feeding Job shit. Takes his riches, takes his cattle, takes his health. Deprives him of his friends. On and on. Finally–and this is the part that always got to Wyndham–God takes Job’s wife and his children.
Let me clarify: In this context “takes” should be read as “kills.”
You with me on this? Like Krakatoa, a volcanic island that used to exist between Java and Sumatra. On August 27, 1883, Krakatoa exploded, spewing ash 50 miles into the sky and vomiting up five cubic miles of rock. The concussion was heard 3000 miles away. It created tsunamis towering 120 feet in the air. Imagine all that water crashing down on the flimsy villages that lined the shores of Java and Sumatra.
Thirty thousand people died.
Every single one of them had a name.
Job’s wife and kids. Dead. Just like 30,000 nameless Javanese.
As for Job? He keeps shoveling down the shit. He will not renounce God. He keeps the faith. And he’s rewarded: God gives him back his riches, his cattle. God restores his health, and sends him friends. God replaces his wife and kids.
Pay attention: Word choice is important in an end-of-the-world story.
I said “replaces,” not “restores.”
Different wife. Different kids.
The other wife, the other kids? They stay dead, gone, non-functioning, erased forever from the Earth, just like the dinosaurs and the 12 million undesirables incinerated by the Nazis and the 500,000 slaughtered in Rwanda and the 1.7 million murdered in Cambodia and the 60 million immolated in the Middle Passage.
That merry prankster God.
That’s what the end of the world is about, Wyndham wants to say. The rest is just details.
By this point the woman (You want her to have a name? She deserves one, don’t you think?) has started to weep softly. Wyndham gets to his feet and goes into the dark kitchen for another glass. Then he comes back out to the porch and makes a gin and tonic. He sits beside her and presses the cool glass upon her. It’s all he knows to do.
“Here,” he says. “Drink this. It’ll help.”
“The End of the World as We Know It.” The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Oct./Nov. 2004: 70-87.