From the wondrous mind of Brooke Bolander, the author of The Only Harmless Great Thing, who “shares literary DNA with Le Guin” (John Scalzi).
After the world’s end, the last young human learns a final lesson from Earth’s remaining animals.
Pretend you are the land. Pretend you are a place far away, the last vibrant V of green and gold and tessellated rock before the sea and sky slither south unchecked for three thousand lonesome turns of a tern’s wing. Once upon a time the waters rose to cut you off from your mother continent, better independence through drowning. Some day soon, when the ice across the ocean turns to hungry waves, all the rest will follow, sliding beneath an oil-slick surface as warm and empty as a mortician’s handshake.
But that does not concern us—yet. You are the land, and today you are here to bear witness to a story four million years in the telling as she closes her eyes for the final time, striped haunches slowing their rise and fall as entropy hoists another tattered victory flag.
Thylacinus: from the Greek thýlakos, meaning “pouch” or “sack.” You have made her into your own image, a unique beast neither wolf nor tiger but its own striped singularity. No one at the zoo is qualified to sex such a creature. They dub her Benjamin, short omnivorous ape jaws unequipped to pronounce her true name even if anyone ever thought to ask.
The cage is very hot. There is no shade. When night falls there will be no shelter against the unseasonable cold. She paces and pants, her shadow writing the future across concrete in angular calligraphy. Beyond and through the chicken wire bland faces peer, unable to make any sense of the warning in her trot, the glassiness in her staring eyes.
But you are the land, and you read the message loud and clear: a missive from the place between being and not; a signal from the space between the final breath and whatever comes after.
Auntie Ben pats makeup over her stripes every morning. The last neighbors moved on years before, the only folks left to see are Martha and Doris and Linnea, but Auntie Ben, she has her habits. In the end, the only sense you have to make, she tells Linnea, is to yourself. And so: delicate little dabs along the lean, dusky line of her jaw, up the cheekbones sharp as taxidermy knives, all the way to her forehead, where hair the color of dirty sand dangles listless, fabric on barbed wire. Nobody knows where she found the powder. Nobody asks. Maybe it was waiting when the three arrived, like the vanity and the three beds and the yellow farmhouse itself.
“Every mammal’s got stripes,” she says. “Even you. Fella named Blaschko found ’em. Somewhere back along the line, your people took ’em off as easily as I shuck my own skin, buried them in a cigar box out back. If you could find that box again, you’d find your stripes, sure as fleas and fresh blood.”
Linnea asks Doris if this is true. Doris is stout and cheerful and most likely of the three aunties to give a true answer. She cooks, she straightens, she drives the pickup to what passes for a town these days to pick up supplies. She does not work on the ship. She lacks the imagination, she says; she was never that great at flying to begin with. The little cedar chest at the foot of her bed more often than not stays closed.
“There’s no telling with Benny,” she says, scratching at her round, flat beak of a nose. “She’s always been a reader, that one. You don’t look like you got stripes to me, though. Humans come in all shapes and sizes—most of ’em hairy or hungry, terribly hungry, how can such skinny things gobble up so many?—but I never do believe I’ve seen a striped one. Then again, not a lot of them around to study anymore ’cept you, little chick.”
She doesn’t bother climbing to the roof gables to ask Auntie Martha, staring sadly up at an empty fading sky as bronze-and-violet as her hair. Instead, Linnea wanders back inside and stands alone in front of the vanity mirror, searching for invisible stripes. The light through the bedroom curtains is a washed-out yellow, like paper or preserved hide or the end of a long, hot day.
They never say how they got together, Linnea’s three aunties, or where they hailed from before finding her and feeding her and fetching her home, lucky orphan among grubby roadside hundreds. She doesn’t remember faces before theirs. There was a gas station with busted windows. There was a little scratched spot in the dirt beneath the old pumps where she slept at night. There was potato crisp grease, tangled hair, and the occasional sandstorm. Beyond that, Linnea’s memory is a skull picked clean; shake it and hear leaves rattle inside.
That’s okay. Now is good. Back Then was probably not-so-good. And as to what lies ahead…No. Linnea keeps that lonesomeness locked down tight as any auntie’s chest. Now is good; the rest doesn’t matter.
Endlings make for strange bedfellows, Auntie Ben often says, pounding away at sheets of rusted tin atop the rickety rope ladder. She keeps a red bandana faded to the color of bared gums tied around her forehead. Her overalls are so stitched and crookety-patched (Doris does her best, but her fingers are too thick and strong and her eyesight too bad not to mangle such tiny work) they look like a quilt tossed over her long, lean self. She keeps all her tools in a denim pouch against her belly, saws and nails and a gone ghost forest worth of toothpicks forever tumble-scattering to the dusty ground far below. Auntie Ben has a lot of teeth to keep clean. When there were fresh bones to gnaw, she says, wistful, there was no need for toothpicks.
“Wombat feet,” she says. “Those always did the best job. Itty-bitty little bones, but sturdy.” A sigh, a shake of the head. Back to soldering a seam, goggles pulled safely down, impossible jaw firmly set.
Auntie Martha mostly draws star charts, sitting atop the farmhouse with paper and pen. Sometimes she sings. Her voice is croaky and harsh and the words make no sense to Linnea: endless repetitions of the same sound tunelessly unreeled, keeho keeho keeho kee! Sometimes she cocks her head afterward, almost like she’s waiting for a response. Nothing ever halloas back. Just the windmill creaking, the screen door slamming, the bang-bang-bang-bang of Auntie Ben’s hammer smashing dusk’s purple hush to pieces like a carelessly laid egg.
Pretend you are the sky. Pretend you are a sky the faint peach and dusty slate of a dove’s wing, folded protectively over darkening fields of corn and cities where yellow lights wink on like punctilious fireflies. Some day soon you will wither and broil. Those newly-hatched smokestacks on the horizon will slide beneath feather and skin and subclavius muscle with a hypodermic’s lethal care, a payload of jaundice injected with a belch and a billow, and the resulting buildup of toxins will ensure nothing bigger than a botfly ever darkens your horizon again. Your decay will smother the world, a dead bird huddling over an empty nest.
Soon, but not today. Today you are full of life—screech owl and nightjar, cranefly and bat. They know the spaces between stars. Even the ones locked fast in cage and crate can feel the wheel turning, seasons brushing shoulders on the subway. Away I must be going, they say to the bars and the locks, the cold iron that batters the breath from their hollow bones. I’ve had a lovely life here, but spring waits for no one, and I really must insist—
Even when all the rest are gone, millions blasted from your breast and returned as smoke, she feels the pull and calls to you. Every autumn for twenty-nine years, right up until the day of her stroke. The zookeepers hang the name of a dead president’s wife around her foot like a wartime message, hoping for domesticity, but she is still Ectopistes migratorius, traveler in name and nature.
She hears the sound of phantom wings and hurls herself against the ceiling, desperate to take her place in the thunder. Her tired old body is the color of a bruise.
I’m coming, she whirrs, again and again. Wait for me! I know which way to go!
“Once upon a time,” Auntie Ben says, seated beside Linnea’s bed, “there was a cage. But that cage is rusted all to hellfire and back now, and the men who built it are bones in the dust so dry not even a dark-flanked yearling would stop to take a sniff. Nobody remembers a damn thing about those men. Nobody remembers their chickens, their guns, or their stupid cage with the concrete floor. But they remember us, my little naked joey, sharp-toothed pride of my pouch. We were beautiful and strong. Our stripes left long shadows across their minds. There were plenty left to remember us, but who will be left to remember your kind?”
“Once upon a time,” Auntie Doris says, “—and oh, it was a long time ago, fresh fruit and green grass and the Rats and the Dogs not yet come—there were nests! Nests on the ground, can you imagine, beneath trees that dropped nuts so close you didn’t have to stretch your neck out far to take them. We laid our eggs where we pleased. But then the Men came—yesyes, and the Rats, and the Dogs, the terrible slavering Dogs—and the guns went bark bark bark all the live-long day. Our nests and our eggs and our fine fat selves, we dwindled down to nothing.
“But do they remember us now, sweet milk of my crop? Bless my gizzard and claws, they do! Those hungry men stopped being hungry, oh, ages ago, and their guns and their clubs rotted like rained-on feathers. Nobody remembers much at all about them and their growling bellies, but they remember our name, you’d better believe they do. There were plenty left to make our name round and fat, but mercy, who will be left to remember your kind?”
“Once upon a time,” Auntie Martha says—her voice is so soft you have to bend your eardrums low to pick up the words, a halting thing much gentler than her evening song—“we were a thousand. We were a million. We were many, and we blotted the sky with Ourselves. We flew where we pleased, and where we flew was pleasing. We followed the starmaps, the pull in our heads that said Go here! Go here!
“But the guns brought us down, by the thousands and the millions and the many. We lost the stars. We lost ourselves. But d’you think, little squab of my breast, that they could ever forget the sound of that many wings blotting out the sun? There were plenty of mouths and memories to pass on the beating of a million wings that was our name. As to who or what will be left to remember your own kind, dwindling with no wings to bear them away…”
Auntie Martha shakes her head.
“We were many too, once,” she repeats, barely a whisper. “I really am sorry.”
Linnea has a voice, too, but she doesn’t use it much. The inside of her head is a safe place, full of futures that will never happen so long as she keeps her words under lock and key. You open doors when you say things. There’s no telling what will come out of them, or where they may carry you off to in their jaws. Linnea likes it here; she has no desire to be stolen away. The days flash by unmarked—fur-yellow, feather-purple, rust-red—and change comes in slow, sneaky bursts, the space between looking away and turning back, moments of distraction. The earth grows a little more cracked. The ship teeters a little higher into the brassy sky. The wars Elsewhere, according to the dying radio in the kitchen, are running out of bodies.
“All things run out eventually, unless you outrun them first,” says Auntie Ben. Her shadow isn’t a woman’s and leaves no question as to her identity, falling snout-to-tail down the wooden work platform. “Your people were never canny enough to plan for the one nor fast enough for the other. Poor sods. Be a love and fetch me that pair of metal shears from out the kitchen, will you?”
Linnea does as she’s told, crossing the hardpan between farmhouse and building site at a gallop so the ground doesn’t burn her bare feet. Her own shadow is small and knobby-kneed and very much human.
Pretend you are the sea. Pretend you are a life-filled veil of green and gold and black and blue covering 70 percent of the land and most of its mysteries. Some day soon you will choke on refuse. A growing knot of bottles and bags and tires and zipties and rubber duckies and microbeads and bright plastic bric-a-brac will catch fast in your throat, suffocating all life from your deep places. You’ll bloat like a dead thing, an albatross chick’s belly packed tight and stretched grotesque with all the indigestible junk you’ve been fed. And when the last coral has withered—when the final whale has sung her question to an empty abyssal plain and there’s not even a hagfish left to mourn her passing—you will rise primeval, stinking of pig effluent and rotting fish, mercury and motor oil, an entire undead ecosystem marching on the cities of the coast.
Soon, but not now, and not for many ages yet. Today you are bursting with so much life the men who ride your waves in their great wooden ships cannot conceive of an end to it all. They match the seeming limitlessness of your largess with an equally insatiable hunger, seeking and searching and grasping. The world has never seen anything like it. There is no time to prepare; blink and they’re pulling ashore with axes and dogs and fire. Sink their boats and six hundred more will follow. Flood their encampments and they simply sail to the next island, rats and pigs ravaging in their wake.
You have protected this rugged little hunk of jungle and sand well. The animals here are special, coddled by your sheltering blue arms until they barely remember what fear is. The birds nest on the ground and lay their wings aside unused, for of what possible use are wings when there’s nothing to flee? Round and happy is Raphus cucullatus. Round and happy you would have them forever, your little flightless flock, but you cannot rage hard enough or squall fierce enough to stop what’s coming.
Hobnailed sailor’s heels in the white sand, clomping up the waterline. A crunch and a thud; the first pair of curious eyes dimmed.
The killing doesn’t stop for years. Axes ring and the fires burn and the rats and the pigs pick up where the clubs and machetes leave off, shattering eggs and snatching chicks even after the first settlers grow bored and Abel Tasman bobs away to wreak civilization on other untouched shores. They eat until there’s nothing left of the flock but white sticks in your surf.
They capture a few of the young birds alive and send them back across your waters. The last will be put on display as a public attraction, a curiosity kept in a dank, dark little chamber at the back of a shop. She will huddle into herself, feathers fluffed to ward off the chill of this gray place so far from her tropical homeland. The people who pay their pennies to see her will laugh at how round she looks, how plump and silly and vacant-eyed.
Nobody left to speak through the kitchen radio. No more words. What’s left of the nearby town dries up with the rain. They take what they want from the abandoned shops and load it into the pickup and there’s not a soul left squatting inside or out to squint twice at the theft.
Linnea snoops in the cobwebs and cupboards while they loot, because once upon a gas station that was how she survived and sometimes she misses the taste of greasy crisps and dime-store jerky. There are newspapers, but they’re all from a long ways back and fat as ticks with bad tidings. There are old weather almanacs, but past a certain printing they all run a woeful rut into the dirt: rising tides, rising dust, rising temperature lines the color of sunburn. There are photographs, but they’re not from a world Linnea knows. There are clocks, but nobody’s left to wind them.
There aren’t any crisps left, either. Just plastic crinkling in the creosote bushes, as mournful in its own way as Auntie Martha’s evening songs. Linnea licks the sweat salt off her lips as they drive home, the three aunties crammed into the cab and her alone in the bed with the wind and her thoughts and the wide-stretched sky.
The first passenger is waiting when she runs downstairs for breakfast, seated at the table next to Auntie Ben like that’s the way things have always been. A muscular, sturdy, broad-shouldered lady, with slate-gray hair and a big sharp nose and tiny red-rimmed eyes behind wire spectacles, thick lips drooping southward in a permanent scowl.
“This is Fatu Ceratotherium,” says Auntie Ben. “She’ll be staying with us for a while, helping out with the ship until it’s done.”
Fatu squints down at Linnea, snorts, and continues turning the pages of the book she holds, muttering something about humans under her breath. Linnea is glad to excuse herself and escape outside. Nothing’s changed there overnight, at least. Since it’s early and the ground is still cool she visits the gorge behind their property, something hard and hot bubbling beneath her chestbone.
It’s a new feeling. Change has planted it there, and she feels more change building where she can’t quite see it. Good things—crisps, soft beds, kindly aunties who keep your hair free of snags—can never ever stay when change is on the move. If it was a thing she could bite, she would bite it. If it was a thing she could throw rocks at, she would chuck pieces of flint until her arm fell off. But there’s nothing to do but wait for whatever is coming.
So she screams.
She shrieks into the canyon until the echo makes a pack of her, big and mean and capable of keeping things the way they are forever. She shrieks until her throat gets raw inside and the sun heats the ground beneath her enough to be uncomfortable. She doesn’t cry, because that’s a waste of moisture and she’s frustrated and angry, not senseless. But she yells. She even uses a few of the more interesting words she remembers from the walls of the gas station restroom while she’s at it. And it does make her feel a little better, eventually. Not much, but enough to ease the feeling in her chest.
“They’ll never come back no matter how loud you call, you know.”
Another change: Auntie Martha is off the roof, right in the middle of the day. She lights a hand on Linnea’s shoulder, delicate but with a surprisingly strong grip.
“No, they’ll never come back, little squab of my heart,” she continues in her gentle singsong. “The nest is scattered and the shell is crushed and in the case of your people, they did it to themselves. But it…it does feel good to try, doesn’t it? You always hope something other than your own voice will fly back. And isn’t it always worth trying? Just in case?”
They’ve done their best, her aunties. There’s a gulf between them that no ship can cross, but they’ve tried very hard, and they love her despite her humanity. Linnea gropes for words, a shape to fold her feelings into. Her voice sticks like a rusted pump drawing up dust from an empty well.
“If I call,” she says, “will you come back?”
They watch the question drift to earth together. Auntie Martha sighs, soft as eiderdown, and wraps her arms around Linnea.
“Oh, little squab. Little naked thing.”
More passengers arrive—not just two-by-two, but in ones and threes and severals, all more or less shaped like human women. The radio crackles static, the horizon sizzles with heat, and the farmhouse fills with the noise of idle waiting room chatter. Figures with shadows like frogs and parrots and long-necked tortoises loiter on the porch, smoking and waiting for sundown. Some help Auntie Ben with what’s left of the ship’s construction, hammer-hammer-saw-slam-bang. Others walk the halls at night, pacing with an impatience you can feel sparking off their soles like blue lightning. The air, Auntie Doris says, feels like a chick is pecking gentle-like on the other side, looking for the best place to lay into the world’s shell with its egg-tooth.
“I still don’t see why it has to be a ship doing the cracking, though,” she adds, looking as disgruntled as she ever gets. “I don’t trust ships, even the kind that don’t go on the water. No telling what a ship will unleash, no no no there never is.”
Linnea tries to stay out of the way, but it’s hard when there are so many others around. She takes to sleeping on the roof with Auntie Martha, whose skinny fingers are an ink-stained blur now from sundown to first light as she makes her charts. Scritch-scritch-scritch goes the fountain pen, spinning delicate spider silk lines between stars. The house below them hums hot, creaky impatience in its sleep. Further out in the yard, listing in its scaffolding, the ship looms black and blue.