What would happen if our species lost the race for survival?
Heat defines my days. Energy oozes out of my blood onto my skin, making me sticky with impossibility.
Wind-chimes rattle in a stifling breeze, chipping out a tuneless song that used to annoy me constantly. Now, it’s just part of my existence, like my twin shadows baked onto the dismal sand by two suns. They revolve in the skies like the eyeballs of a madman, burning with a sadist’s delight.
It’s the lethargy I hate. There are no bars to hold me here but I’ve lost the will to leave; not the desire, just the will. Like a bird with clipped wings, I no longer have the ability to find freedom. There are birds here. Their wings aren’t clipped but they don’t fly.
The fire-eaters hold us without bars. They never touch us but constrain us by keeping our enclosure a few degrees cooler than the surroundings. We must be a curiosity to them but they don’t care about us. They don’t bother to find out what would give us a reason to move in this heat.
I spend my listless hours wading through the convolutions of my brain, searching for an area of initiative that’s no longer there. I find no empty spaces but I still lie here, imprisoned by my own lack of will.
Back home, each day was filled with action and striving. Of course, I wanted it to be easier but at least there was a reason to move. I didn’t understand the value of purpose.
Now, a mechanical tray delivers hard, dry lumps that we’re supposed to eat with meagre moisture. It should be easy to refuse their excuse for nourishment, but I can’t be bothered to fight the hunger. I put the stuff in my mouth and chew until there’s enough saliva to swallow.
We all suffer. The child sometimes crawls to me for affection. It soon rolls away, repelled by my body heat. I wonder if it has any desire for freedom, or stays because it knows no better. This is the child’s home. It has no experience of water.
I try to explain how it feels to bathe in clear, cool liquid. My skin tingles momentarily, as if each cell holds the memory of a raindrop. But there’s not enough energy to find the words to describe oceans of something that comes in sealed containers to prevent the air from stealing it before it can be drunk.
It is my child. The man took me once, when our boredom overcame our lethargy. The fire-eaters supplied enough water to keep my temperature below fatal, but the sickening discomfort of pregnancy and unbearable agony of birth has turned us into strangers.
The suns are our chaperone. With whips of barbed heat, they beat out every desire, except the desire for water. Thirst is the master of a thousand hungers that command my ruined body. I miss the fear of death. It’s my only hope for rescue.
There was a time when I was strong and moved with grace; when the gentle warmth of a single sun caressed my shoulders, and my feet could feel grass. There was water everywhere, even in the air I breathed.
When the fire-eaters invaded our deserts, we were powerless to stop them. Our strongest weapons were based on fire. Fighting with nuclear weapons was like throwing fairy lights at the stars. Bullets and knives melted before they reached their target.
The only poison our world held for them was water, and they had methods for eliminating that. When they began to expand the deserts, we moved away or died. Then we died anyway as the remaining watered areas succumbed to overcrowding.
As we huddled in the room we were assigned in a tall building that my mother called an “office block”, she would talk about our home in the time before the fire-eaters. She told me how electricity used to make all the strange instruments in the building work.
People used to live in the offices through the day, then move to another place to eat and sleep. Those places had been beautiful houses, each with their own garden. Our office block had a garden. Mother complained that the flowers were weeds, but that didn’t stop me liking them.
I would stand in the grass, gazing up at the quietly reflecting windows, and wonder how the people who made such an arrogant building could allow this to happen to us. This settling in a new home with too many people, only to move on again to a place with even more people and less water.
The office block seemed solemn and wise, like the huge head of a great thinker with many eyes that gave away nothing. Its peaceful facade gave no hint of the frenzy going on behind its windows. And it looked out over the sea.
Sometimes I catch a faintly familiar sound in the dry tinkle of the wind-chimes and it sets off all those memories of the sea. It’s the damp salt wind that I miss the most. If only I could feel the air of seagull cries and rushing water buffeting me like a solid thing, just once more, perhaps I could find the energy to grieve.
There was panic when the tide went out and never came back. The rock pools dried up and seabirds left the cliffs. Seaweed that had swayed gracefully with the constant movement of water in silent depths rustled as a dry wind moaned through deserted canyons.
Headlands stood grand and obsolete, like our office block, perched on the edge of a craggy, salt-blasted moonscape. Yet still, we wanted to survive. Friends and neighbours, even families, turned against each other in the fight to live.
There weren’t many of us left when the fire-eaters took me away. I don’t know why they chose me. Perhaps they didn’t choose at all. I was walking back from the underground spring with the family’s water ration when I seemed to walk into a patch of warm air. It felt like something grabbed me inside my chest and pulled.
When I dropped the water I panicked and it took me a second to realise my feet were no longer on the ground. By that time, the ground was several hundred metres below me and dropping rapidly.
That was the last I saw of home before I was lost in darkness and woke to this nightmare. If I’d realised that dizzy view was the last I’d see of earth, I would have etched the picture better into my memory, but I was too busy being afraid.
So here I am, in the zoo of the fire-eaters, somewhere in the universe. I have no idea how far I am away from home. Perhaps it no longer exists, turned into a planet like this one.
If I could find the strength, I could will myself to die. Then, I’d be dust on the wind and escape. Once, I could believe in a God who promised that life was more important than a speck of dirt. Now, I know there is nothing but an infinity of disinterest.
Infinity is cold. I want to be there.
Dedicated to the Polar Bears in San Diego Zoo
Unplaced submission to the NZ Society of Authors, Top of the South Branch, 2019 Short Story Competition sponsored by Page & Blackmore booksellers of Nelson.