THE YOUTH CRIED TRUTH
Once, longer ago than you might think now, all was right with the world. The youth could be that: young. They breathed in deeply the summer air, and marveled at the distant storms, and played in the sea.
But as the youth grew older, they watched the world change. The summer air became tinged with smoke, the storms became more violent, and the sea ever closer.
“World,” the youth said, “things aren’t like they used to be. We need to figure out why and stop it.”
The world shook its head. “There is nothing to worry about. You are just getting older. It has always been this way.”
“Don’t you see,” the youth said, “the fires each summer that destroy towns, and kill the animals and people? Don’t you see how they pollute the air with smoke?”
And the youth showed the world, and the world shook its head.
“Do not worry,” said the world, “the fires are distant and the smoke will dispel eventually. It’s only a small loss. We don’t need to do anything.”
“Don’t you see,” the youth said, “how storms are destroying homes and villages? Don’t you see how people have nowhere to live, no food or water?”
And the youth showed the world, and the world shook its head.
“Do not worry,” said the world, “it is only the ones who cannot build strong homes. It’s only a small loss. We don’t need to do anything.”
“Don’t you see,” the youth said, “how the sea is higher than it used to be? Don’t you see how the trees and plants are dying from the salt clinging to their roots?”
And the youth showed the world, and the world shook its head.
“Do not worry,” said the world, “the water is not near us and it is not that many plants. It’s only a small loss. We don’t need to do anything.”
Then one day, the fires came in from the forests and the small towns, and the smoke blew in with the wind so thick, some choked on it before they could run and those who didn’t were nearly blinded as they fled the flames. And those who remained could not escape the reek of smoke and burnt plastic and burnt flesh.
Then one day, the storms destroyed even the strongest cities until the once-tall skyscrapers were turned to rubble. Lightning struck the metal skeletons that remained and wind blew petals from flowers and leaves from trees and bricks from buildings. And those who were still standing when the storms settled took shelter in their fallen monuments.
Then one day, the waters came rushing into the land, forcing everyone to take what they could carry and run for higher ground. But not everyone has legs that can run or arms that can carry. Many were left behind. And those who remained watched as the salt water choked out the plants, turning once great trees into shrivelled corpses.
“Youth!” what remained of the world cried. “Youth, you were right! You have to help us! What do we do? How do we fix this?”
And the youth shook their heads. “It’s too late,” the youth said. “You didn’t listen and now it’s too late.”
And so the world burned, veins catching fire from the gasoline running through them. And the world crumbled, bones snapping under the weight of all it had taken from the Earth. And the world drowned, lungs filling with liquid so toxic it could barely call it water.
DON’T FEED THE WOLVES
We ran through the blackened forest, our paws beating the ground like the music of the humans, gone quiet. Only the spindliest of plants had begun to grow from the ashes, and we kicked charcoal and jumped over burnt logs.
For weeks now, we had been drawn to the smells of flesh, only to find the remains of some burnt creature. We would share the scraps, then run on with empty stomachs and hollow howls. Our ribs started to stick out from our matted fur and twice now we had awoken to find that some of our pack would not.
One evening, a branch cracked. We all paused, ears upright and noses twitching. Another crack, and heavy breathing. The wind picked up, carrying with it the musky smell of sweat and fresh blood. Of something living. With the most vigorous howl given in weeks, we chased the creature.
The creature was a man, limping from a slice down his leg and nearly as thin as us. At our steps, he looked around frantically and ran faster.
“Wait.” An elder wolf stopped us. “There is more food we can get from this human if we wait.”
We protested, growling with hunger, impatient and greedy for flesh.
“Look,” the elder said, “look at the creature on his shoulder.”
As with our noses and ears, we could sense things humans could not with our eyes, too. Sitting on the man’s shoulder was a small creature: a rat so thin we could see individual bones.
“If we wait,” the elder said, “the human will lead us to a greater bounty.”
We trusted the elder, so we pushed aside our ravenous snarls and followed the human from a distance until he came upon a speck of fire. Nothing like the flames that had consumed the forests, but man-made nonetheless.
It was a camp. Four more humans sitting around a fire. Unlike the man, they had bags full of supplies, lean-to shelters, even shining knives. We crouched low and listened.
“Who’s there?” one called to the man.
“Please,” he said, “I’m alone and hurt. Do you have any medicine or food to spare?”
The other humans welcomed the man to their camp, sitting him down around their fire, putting some of their food in his hands, and tending to his leg. All the while, we watched as the skeletal rat scurried all over the camp’s supplies, the man’s eyes following its path.
“Say,” said the man, “I heard something in the woods as I was running. Since you’ve been so kind to me, why don’t you let me take the first watch? I’ll wake one of you when I get tired.”
We watched as the other humans went to sleep. We watched the man watching them. We watched the skeletal rat scurry faster, faster, faster until it stopped on one of the shining knives.
We watched the man take the knife and kill the other humans with it.
Blood filled the air and we salivated at the thought of all the meat that lie waiting there for us.
Rat on his shoulder again, the man began packing all the supplies into a bag for himself.
We looked to the elder. The elder bared his teeth and began running toward the man once more. Snapping, we ran with him.
The man frantically grabbed his loot and ran. “Help!” he cried. “Someone, help!”
But there was no one to help. Even the skeletal creature was silent and still. The man didn’t have time to draw his stolen knife before we pounced, dragging him back to the other humans.
And we feasted.
The pups sniffed at the skeletal rat, but could smell nothing. One bit into it, but only bit air. “What is it?” they asked the elder.
“That is greed,” the elder said, nudging some of the good meat towards the pups. “It is never full, and it brings nothing but emptiness.”
WHEN DEATH COMES TO TOWN
Once there were civilizations that stretched to the horizon and beyond. But that world fell away, leaving only empty husks of buildings. From the ruins sprang cobbled together shanty towns. One day, a visitor began to appear to these towns.
They would come in while vicious storms shook the shelters, and all had hidden inside from the wind and thunder. When the rains subsided, all that would be left was a note carved in stone.
I will return tomorrow evening. Give to me one of your own and the rest will be spared.
The shanty towns learned to heed the notes, and they named the visitor Death.
One such evening, Death came to a town living in a fallen skyscraper that stretched across the plain like the spine of a long-dead beast. Everyone had locked themselves in their houses as tightly as if they were still sheltering the storm.
Waiting for Death was an old woman with a cane. “I suppose you’re here for me, then,” she said as they approached.
“Are you the one who has been offered to me?”
Death put an arm around the old woman’s shoulders. “Come.”
And they left, and in the morning the town still stood, and the old woman was never seen again.
Death carried on, through the burgeoning forests accompanied by the distant cries of wolves. Another storm blew into to a new town, this one made of sheet metal shelters nestled among the fledgling trees. Death blew in with it, leaving their note and returning the next evening.
It was as quiet as the eye of a hurricane, except for a single voice crying.
In centre of the town, tied with a rope around their ankle to a stake in the ground, was a tear-stained child. They pulled at the knot holding them and when that failed, they began gnawing at it.
Death crouched in front of the child, who scrambled as far away as the rope would allow. Very quietly, they asked, “Are you the one who has been offered to me?”
The child sniffled and again tried to pull their leg from the rope. Death cut them free and the child immediately bolted for a sheet-metal house, banging on the door. “Let me back in!”
Death stood and again approached the child.
Back pressed against the closed door, the child looked the visitor up and down. “Are you going to kill me?”
“I wasn’t planning on it, no.” Gently, Death wiped the tears from the child’s cheeks. “You are not the one who incurs my wrath. Come.”
The child shook their head, clutching the latch.
“Why do you wish to stay with those who would cast a child aside?” Death asked the child. Taking their hand, Death said again, “Come.” And they left.
Death took the child to another town, deep within the mountains, built into the rock and stone, protected from storms. Here were the other offerings from all the towns Death had visited. The old lived their final days peacefully, cared for by the youth who had been offered up as sacrifices before their lives had barely begun.
“Go now,” Death said to the child. “Go now and play.”
When night took hold, Death returned to the sheet metal town. They brought with them a dense fog, a powerful gale, and thunderheads taller than long-fallen skyscrapers and let them all loose.
“What have we done wrong?” the town cried. “We gave you what you asked for!”
From the fog and rain, Death emerged. “A new world must be made,” Death said. “And the poisons of the old one cannot contaminate it.”
And in the morning the town no longer stood. All that remained were the youth, cowering but unhurt.
“Come, young ones,” Death said. “Come somewhere safe, somewhere you will not be sacrificed. This world does not deserve you.”
WE MUST REMEMBER
You grew up knowing nothing else but this world. But there were some in your settlement who still remembered another. They told stories of flying metal machines who ate fire and flew like birds. Of homes so tall you could look out the window and peer down on the clouds. Hand-held technology that could span continents to talk to others. But even with its riches, that world fell all the same.
“We’re greedy creatures,” one storyteller said. “We’ll tear this world down, too, if we’re not careful.”
You were told stories of the sea – how it was not always so close, how once you could look to the horizon from here and see nothing but land. Of all the stories, the one that captivated you the most was of a city that had drowned beneath the water.
As you grew, the stories left you hungry for more. But there was a guide in your settlement who would take those too young to remember the old world to see the city.
“It’s good the youth see the city,” the guide said. “They can learn from it.”
Once you were old enough to make the journey, you made your request, and soon set off for the sea.
On their back, your guide carried a large, glass sphere that was open on the bottom, and a long tether of rope. “They’re for you when we get there.”
“What do you mean?”
Your guide smiled. “Well, the city’s beneath the sea. You can’t see very much from the surface.”
You passed remains of fallen towns, half-standing walls scattered through the forest like crooked teeth. The plants pried their way into the structures, reclaiming the towns as the forest grew back.
You crossed from the forests into the marshlands, the ground now squishy, squelching with every step. The pines here were barren and pale, not able to grow in the brackish swamp – a remnant fromwhen the water came in and great waves swept parts of the world out to sea.
The closer you got to the sea, the more solemn your guide became, not smiling when you asked about the city. A day before you reached the sea, they sighed. “Look, I could never do it justice. That’s the point of this: you have to see it for yourself.”
At last, you reached the seashore, where a small raft was tied to a rock far above the tideline. In the distant water, you could just make out a pointed shape, like too-long fingers on a misshaped hand. It sent a chill down your spine.
You and your guide dragged the raft to the water and loaded your bags onto it, plus two head-sized stones. You paddled out to the fingers. They were so much bigger when you were floating above their metal nails.
Your guide placed the glass over your head, tied a knife to you, the rocks to your feet, and you to themselves.
“I’ll pull you up before you run out of air. You don’t have long, so take in as much as you can. When you feel me starting to pull, cut the rocks off.”
Your stomach dropped as you stared into the abyss. But you took a deep breath and plunged into the water all the same.
It was freezing and only got colder the deeper you sunk, until you were suspended above the broken streets. Sunlight streamed down in shafts, illuminating the world below. The city spread out farther than you could see. It was magnificent, and yet… The metal rusted, holes like empty mouths and bumps like tumors. Shattered windows stared at you like dead eyes. No plant life grew. No life at all. It was an underwater wasteland.
When the rope tugged, you cut the rocks off, rising to the surface. You collapsed, shivering, to the raft. Your guide wrapped you in a blanket. “What’d you think?”
“There was so much. They had so much. And it didn’t matter at all.”
Your pack seemed light now compared to knowing a world so grand could fall. Because it could fall again. And you must remember.