Our generation is like a garden of roses that never bothered to bloom; in defiance of the sun or just a morbid stubbornness against fate, a metaphorical voice thundered towards the sky: We will wilt away into Oblivion!
For centuries, we’ve been fed stories of a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but there wasn’t a single definable event that degraded our life. Ablazed our plants. Slaughtered our acquaintances. Ripped out our books. Our history. Our humanity.
The moment we sent a portion of our species to procreate in outer space, something snapped in the collective consciousness. One could see the shadows embarking, a slow descent, a subservience to an apathetic madness.
The first awareness of hell rang when, everywhere I saw, there were rows and rows of flies like a glue of sticky paste—their wings wouldn’t lift. I watched madness descend on an old woman as she beat her cat with a metal edged broom, blotching white fur with blood, its meek purring coddled in its dainty windpipe. As the bicycle spokes of a young boy collapsed, hacking away the pages of his book that was balanced under his armpit, I watched as the world held him by his throat, cursing him to silence. Then the weather became unendurable.
Now, men murder without prejudice; they slaughter each other without reason. The worst of our species run whatever remains of countries, the mediocre—the anarchists—run the rebellion for stealing them off their futures. And the best of us are either locked in madhouses or man the last strand of sanity. Of dignity. The library!
All night, I stretched my arm across where she lay beside me these past few years (in a society such as ours, time hangs helplessly from the holes on this bedraggled canvas). Through the rivers of blood, the dark woods, I sing with all my skin and bone, “Please keep her safe. Please let her lay her head on my chest again!”
Opening my eyes on the murky ground, I stare at the top of the canvas for a long time until a shaft of intense sunlight penetrates every fibre of my being. Suddenly I snap back into consciousness. A series of images flit across my mind—plunder, starvation, fire, gunshots, guillotine, stampede, and Athena. I jump with a start and make my way through the interminable tide of misery like a man possessed. For hours, I scour through every tent, tap on every breathing, moving person. Athena! Athena!
With no trace of my only daughter, my eyes find the desolate building that I’ve guarded as though it were my childhood home. My Maison d’enfance. Dragging along my marbled legs, every step is accompanied by images of my wife’s mutilated body, her guts spilling out, and I suddenly can’t go on. I’m rendered an invalid, I can’t move. But I have to. Rounding on my hands and knees, I yell at the sky devoid of all life. “Keep her safe! I’m begging you!”
Broken shards of glass pinching through my palms serve as reminders of my imprisoned existence. With each crawling movement, I tell myself I have four cans of food, three for her, one for me. Three for her, one for me! But where is she? Where is Athena?
Back when we were still humans, the golden hour was called twilight. Athena was with me the last time the sun set. I boiled a can of tomato soup in a bowl of red hot coal. As she went in to pour, her mother’s necklace caught on one of the burning logs, almost igniting her hair. I yanked her away from the flame but the pendant slipped into the smoldering pot. Athena yelled, Papa, leave it! I retrieved it anyway.
Thoughts of last night cause my knees to grow roots in the soil. My palms greased with nails, glass, tiny pieces of stone, blue veins, I plunge a hand into a pocket and take out the heart shaped locket. Wiping my hand over my shirt so as to not desecrate it, I delicately open the trinket to find the last reminder of Rhea holding baby Athena. My beautiful wife with a genius for intrigue, I should have listened to her! We should all have!
I remember it so vividly. We’d just decorated the tree. The window let in an unusually warm breeze for a snowy December, and the newscaster was announcing the science behind terraforming mars: Nuclear Missiles.
Sure, we only showered every other day, mostly ate out of plastic coverings, hadn’t touched a fresh peach in months, and no one was allowed to see the sun without a mask, but we were together. We had Christmas. Rhea still read Nietzsche. Athena had a mother. And I, as a man, still had a center of gravity.
“What if a demon were to creep after you one night, in your loneliest loneliness, and say, ‘This life which you live must be lived by you once again and innumerable times more; and every pain and joy and thought and sigh must come again to you, all in the same sequence. The eternal hourglass will again and again be turned and you with it, dust of the dust!’ Would you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse that demon? Or would you answer, ‘Never have I heard anything more divine’?”
Never have I heard anything more divine, Athena and I’d answer in unison. She was, then, a couple of inches shorter than me. But where is she now? I strain my memory but my tired mind is muddled. Did she just walk to the library by herself? Was she hungry? Thirsty? Did she go looking for her mothers voice in the middle of forgotten books? Where are you, Athena?
Papa, No one cares about books anymore… Why do we come here every day? Why work so hard to protect this?
Athena! You’re named Athena because your mother always dreamt of reading you stories. She’d say that her daughter would one day grow up to be the goddess of knowledge. And this is all I have left of her… A promise!
As I slither up the stairs, hands first followed by knees, a bunch of mendicants tip their heads ever so slightly by way of a greeting. We never exchanged names—hell, I don’t even remember my identity. I simply go by Papa!
Since we couldn’t stop ourselves from poisoning the soil, discoloring the water, robbing the next generation of a home, all we’re left with is the knowledge preserved here. So we accomplished a friendship by taking turns to protect whatever sanctity remained of this dilapidated library in the hope that one day, when the Earth finally heals, the children of today may read Nietzsche, Einstein, and Kafka. Austen. And learn that there is such a thing as love. As dreams. As philosophy. As mathematics. Perhaps, even, as God.
Pushing up to my feet, I scan my eyes around the courtyard—a miasma of debauchery, dead strays serving as vulture meat, lone shoes, fingers strewn across. Why are there fingers but no accompanied body parts? Where is the arm? The legs? Is this the work of the worst of our kind? Or do the anarchists have no use for fingers? Where does that leave us?
Just then, the man who lost his book, bike, and voice all at once waddles towards me. They’re the same age—perhaps he knew Athena. Unkempt hair, holed t-shirt, stained teeth from abstract intoxicants, I immediately dispel the idea that my daughter would consider him a friend.
Although I cruelly rejected the idea of him spending time with Athena, I can’t help but feel entitled to this boy’s sympathy. Clutching her locket, I begin to describe Athena for him. She is exceedingly pretty. She takes after her mother, not me. Big eyes, dark hair. A keloid on her right wrist. Please find her! She is my only daughter.
He doesn’t say much—doesn’t say anything at all—but smiles and I instantly feel at ease, for his smile is blessed with the fecundity to bloom tulips in the Sahara. Fleur Sur du Fumier!
The first few days, as the boy, sparing no effort, limps through the perimeter of the library, I make several promises to take him in. I promise you, Rhea, he will find Athena. Then I’ll teach him math. I’ll read them Shakespeare. I’ll sew him a new pair of boots. I’ll give him my last remaining Tuna!
The last time I saw her, the sun was on the periphery. Six suns later, he wades down with a hint of mockery. See, I gave you all the light in the world, yet! You couldn’t find her! All the love in the world, yet! You couldn’t stop them from gutting Rhea! All the energy of youth, yet! The mute will never find the right words!
In an attempt to hide from the sun, I storm into the library and mindlessly scuffle through aisles of battered voices but am startled by a tap on my shoulder. Shuffling around, I find the boy with the crooked nose clutching a book to his chest: L’Ėtranger, the Stranger by Albert Camus.
As I unwittingly begin to read aloud, I understand there no longer exists a society to condemn me. No longer a human who cares enough, save for Zeus (if he finds my Athena, then he can be her Zeus!), who’s weeping beside me.
Overcome by a sense of conviction, I understand that his solitary goal wasn’t to find my Athena, but to be read! He exploited my last remaining mode of transportation, my leap of faith, just so he could learn of Camus’ absurdity.
Despite words choking my throat, poetry knotting my stomach, I plow through a syllable at a time. Knowledge is all I can give. Just then, in an act utterly uncharacteristic of any human I’ve met in a while, rising to his feet, he wipes his tears with the back of his hand.
Taken aback with the sudden shift in atmosphere, my heart hammering out of my chest, I run after him. Breathing hard, I storm through the Mahogany door and am greeted by the army of stars above and zombies of men and women on the precipice of madness, all seemingly guarding the last remaining wealth of human history!
102 steps. Hold Up! I yell. 136. Strong smell of Petrol. 400. I’m sprinting. 732 steps. 810. The stench of rotten flesh burning, of gasoline tarrying the night air is more pronounced with every movement of the foot. 907 steps.
As Zeus stops dead in the tracks, the courtyard is illuminated. The full moon working as a lampshade sheds a spotlight on a strange woman clutching a flamed log. She holds it as though fire wouldn’t melt her skin. Like fire is her only ally in this cold world.
My goddess of knowledge, my Athena, on the precipice of setting ablaze the last remnants of Rhea. The books! I don’t remember much of what happened after. I like to think I begged her. Maybe wept at her feet. Caressed her cheek. Made false promises of bringing her mother back. I don’t know if my hands were trembling, but I want to believe they were. Then perhaps knifed her in the gut.
There are images of shock ingrained in the labyrinths of my brain. Of betrayal. Of Zeus carrying her back with us. Even as one arm dangled down, the keloid shining bright on her wrist against the moonbeam, I simply looked across the sea of dead plants, now thorns and sticks, shivering in a windless sky.
Leaving the body for the vultures, I walk to the tent and pour some soup. It’s almost cooked and I sit eating, looking at my fingernails. Sweat comes down behind my ears. I hear gunshots in the streets. But I chew and wait without wonder. It’s someone else’s turn to protect the library today.