Fiction

Preparing for the inevitable: Five states of mind

You have ten seconds

The car rolls over for the last time; the birds have flown away. You only have time to turn to your lover and rasp: I’m sorry, I wish, I –

You have four minutes

You gather with your family in the living room. The sirens are deafening. You snatch the curtains shut, you shove the coffee table against the windows. Everyone is blanched with fear. Silent, clenched. You hide under cushions. You begin to mutter compulsively: everything will be all right, keep calm everybody, we’re all together, we… The muttering subsides. The sirens cut out. You listen to the dog outside, howling. As you wait for the blinding flash, the flesh-tearing heat, you say: I wish, I’m sorry, I –

You have six months

You put your affairs in order. You have one last affair. You’re forgiven. You forgive. You’re very tired all of a sudden. The ocean rises and falls. Everything aches. You ask for the syringe. Before the needle pierces your skin, you realise you can endure one more day of this. Even this.

You have eighty-five years

On television, an enormous yellow bird is told that his friend the shopkeeper won’t be coming back. Ever. It’ll never be the same, the bird says. Outside, the garden grows. You love the taste of dirt. Your mother sticks to the fridge your scribbled drawing of Noah’s Ark. You spend entire summers underwater. You gather chip packets left on the sand. You’re hungry. You have never eaten so much cake. You break your arm falling out of a bunk bed. No fighting in the back seat! In a public park, you sit on a rug and listen to a woman shouting through a PA system, crying out about fireballs, about melting Hiroshima skin. You take the cigarette from your older brother. Afterwards you put eight ice cubes in your mouth to freeze the flavour away. Your mother’s favourite singer is shot dead outside a city building. Your grandfather is suddenly doddery; he calls you the wrong name. Your school photo reveals a massive zit on your chin. You throw up Southern Comfort. You’re going to change the world. You pretend you like acid-techno music to impress someone whose name, twenty years from now, you won’t remember. You sign on the dotted line. You give away a little freedom. You sleep in. You can’t sleep. You speed down the highway with your child in the front seat, both of you singing with a joy that almost bursts your lungs. You promise you’ll never light up another cigarette again. You mow the lawn. You pick up more plastic straws from the side of the road. You march on Sunday. There are days when all you think about is sex. There are days when you despair. (Sometimes they’re the same day.) You gotta make the most of it. It’s really late, we’re all at the pub and you’re really wasted, and it’s only one cigarette. A tyre bursts on a desert road. The car spins in the dirt. You turn to your lover and try to think of something to say. You have nine months of rehab for the whiplash. You sign more papers. You think: Next time, I’ll vote for the other guy. You never listen! your daughter screams at you in a campus carpark. You forget your password. You notice that the patch of dirt in the backyard is widening. You stretch out. You yell at those kids smoking outside the restaurant. The grass is desiccated by the drought. You take up swimming again. Why did you ever stop? There is something unfathomably wonderful about putting your head underwater. You refuse cake. You take the piece out of the fridge at 3 am and shove it in your mouth. Your knees ache. Someone is talking on the television and you can’t hear them properly. How many funerals did you go to this month? You have a screaming fight in the swimming pool change rooms about carbon-dioxide emissions. You register for support. You keep marching. You sit down and decide never to get up again. You forget everyone’s name. You dream of an enormous yellow – what’s the name of that thing? One night, in an empty bleach-scented room, you say to the stranger who’s squeezing your hand: I wish, I’m sorry, I –

You have 160,000 years

Red earth; yellow light. Has there ever been a day as beautiful as this? You sing to the blue-black sky. You traverse the expanse: the plains; the ocean. The animals roam. You clutch the fur to keep out the frost. You crush grain with stones. You burn the grass. You fight over patches of dirt. You build cities out of mud. Rubbish accumulates; the slaves sweep it away. You make the rules. They’re your animals. You shift enormous stones. You’re building a monument to a dead emperor; you’re beaten black and blue. Look at the purple of the blanket I bought in the market. Your garden is beautiful. You follow the trade routes. You unearth glimmering rocks. Crowds gather. You stone them to death. You hear a melody like nothing you’ve heard before. You flee the barbarians. You find a place to settle: in the mountains; on the island. You watch as others flee. You clear the land. Last night you breathed in a new constellation. Your flock is sleeping. In a stone building, you intone: world without end. That citadel on the hill is yours. You slaughter thousands. A falcon soars. You return in triumph; in shame. Wipe the mud off your boots. Is that a new song you hear down by the river? There are too many people crossing the bridge. You remarry. Downstream, there are more fields to till. Your hands are raw from digging. Your daughter is coughing up bile and blood. The animals are fenced in. You shoot birds. You shoot deer. Release the hounds. There’s a portrait of you with your fields, your gun, your horse and your wife. You serve roast beef. You starve. You drop anchor. You claim this land in the name of the king/queen/pope/emperor. They won’t accept the beads from you. You force the beads into their hands. Your gift to the population is your mother tongue. You sign a treaty. You don’t sign a treaty. Someone steals a jug of rum. You make an example of them. Crowds gather. On a bend in the river, you shoot them all. Expansion is everything. Have you tasted anything as potent as that before? Pepper, chilli, coffee, chocolate, tobacco. You gorge yourself. You stumble over the others, passed out on bamboo mats, the pipes still in their mouths. You redraw the map. You eat cake. You’re coughing all night. You write a poem about dark satanic mills. You forget the old songs. Some of you remember, or have never forgotten. You don’t listen. You dig trenches in the mud. Poppies grow; they wilt in the heat. Someone tap-dances on top of the Empire State Building. Everything crashes. Crowds gather in an airtight chamber. On a desert plain, you detonate the bomb. Bodies of ash, traced on the ground. Tickertape falling. You take soil samples. You will bury us. You measure strontium in snail shells. You measure time. You’re trying to determine when it all started. The air is thick with poison. No birds sing. A girl runs down a road, flesh peeling off her back. You write a song about it. You turn off the radio. You turn off the television. More bodies with lesions. More stillbirths. Everything is bulldozed to make way for the future. A list is made. You buy another pair of blue-black sneakers. They’re remarkably cheap. You don’t remark on this. There’s a tear, a rip, a hole in the sky. You put sunscreen on your children’s shoulders. There are no children in the water. The glaciers retreat. A cooling tower melts in the forest. One wave crashes over another. You establish exclusion zones. Children play Pokémon in underground classrooms. The heat tonight is stifling. You can’t sleep. You mutter to yourself. You have a screaming fight with a stranger about fracking. You garden. You save food scraps in a plastic bucket. You conserve water. It’s late, it’s been a long day, and what does it matter if one plastic bottle goes to landfill? You trawl the internet. Fish suffocate. Coral bleaches. The beach you spent your childhood on has been washed away. The data is projected on an enormous screen to a room full of men looking at their phones. Your lifestyle is not open to negotiation. They fight in the back row. You party all night. Everything is awesome! You forget to clear the dry leaves. You no longer remember how to burn. Some of you remember, or have never forgotten. You follow the line of the coast; the trees on the headland are orange and black. The ash trunks of eucalypts lie on the ground like Hiroshima bodies. A woman refuses to shake your hand. You force your hand into hers. The ferns come back. In some forests, the ferns don’t come back. You watch the water rise. The pH has shifted. You pick up the debris: shampoo bottles and nets, corrugated iron from a neighbour’s roof. There’s another stormfront approaching. There’s a three-, no, five-, no, seventeen-year drought. Those sneakers are way too expensive. You huddle together. You keep your distance. You cross another name off the list. You chuck out the mince that was left too long in the fridge. You bury chicken bones. You slaughter millions. The virus spreads. The number of the dying, the dead, grows exponentially. You tell each other it’s unprecedented. We’re all in this together, you say over and over. You lie to their faces. You hold your breath as you pass each other in the supermarket. The borders are secure; they get in anyway. You refuse to leave the White House. You’re on the wrong side of a razor-wire fence. You fight over patches of dirt. The bones crunch underfoot. You breathe in ash. The earth is chalk. There has never been a day like this. You’re starving. In the bunker, there’s no oxygen left. You turn to the body next to you and rasp: I’m sorry, I wish, I –

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