The people who remember the old times call the Earth a living hell: a ruthless, inhospitable world of fire. They can remember the mild warmth of a gentler Sun, the caress of winds that did not dismember flesh in minutes. They can remember green verdant grass bedewed with morning sweat, tall lithe trees, and the solitude of cool nights, undimmed by falling radioactive ash. I have seen these fairy-tale things in pictures, and listened to their stories in wonder and disbelief.
But for me, this burning magma-encased Earth is merely my world. I have known no other.
Is it possible to miss what you have never had? I cannot feel homesick, because this cabin of two rooms is the only home I have ever known. It is a well-built radioactive shelter, shielded from radiation and insulated from the heat of the Earth’s core. I was told that it would last fifty years at least. It has a tolerably good Ethernet database, and the well-drum in the bathroom supplies me with two buckets of water-substitute every day.
My mother used to complain that it had no windows. She remembered her old house, with bay windows overlooking a beach, and a little square garden in front.
My mother died five years ago, leaving me the sole occupant of this cabin. She had stringy grey hair that never strayed from her bun, and veined knotted hands, with stubbly arthritic fingers. Sometimes she would hold my hand in hers and laugh at the difference, calling my long fingers beautiful.
“My hands are an old woman’s hands,” she would say, “I wonder when I became old.”
The day she died, her hair had come out of her bun and there had been blood on her cheek where she had cut it. I had found her slumped in the bathroom, hair and clothes askew, dappled with blood from the shallow cut. She must have scraped her cheek on the well-drum.
Apparently she had died of a heart attack. I was told that she did not feel any pain.
I wonder if it is possible to die painlessly. Even a slight scrape on the finger can well up with blood and sting in pain. It seems to me that death should be accompanied by the bodily unwillingness to die, by the race-consciousness agony of generations.
I have often tried to paint her, to somehow capture the image of her soul in something closed and immutable. It is no good; I have not mastered the art of capturing the essence of a defined personality.
My specialty is abstract art, and surrealistic imagery. It seems that I have no talent for painting reality.
My time is consumed by the dribbling of paint and the slippery slickness of oil, blocking out the opaque whiteness of the blank canvasses. There is something about how blank and empty the canvasses look, which makes me think of eye whites turned upwards in sightless groping. I paint the images of my mind upon their grasping blindness, filling their visions until I am drained.
I suppose that I am talented, in my own fashion, for people often ask for my paintings to be delivered to their cabins. Of course I receive no payment for my work. What would be the point?
But I like to think of my paintings hanging in someone’s room, and becoming part of a life I can never share myself.
Every week, I get deliveries of food capsules and painting equipment, and orders of paintings. The Delivery Man comes with my weekly rations every Monday afternoon, braving the radiation and searing heat of the partially shielded tunnels. They are too dangerous for civilians to travel.
I sometimes think about why I am alive. Every day is exactly the same. I could die today and no one would even know until the Delivery Man comes with my deliveries. My body would be removed then, and the cabin would be allotted to someone else. Or perhaps it would stay empty. Our numbers are dwindling.
Our race is doomed to die. It is difficult to have children, and the populations have become too inbred. There is talk of the Moon Base, and of being rescued some year, but it is my personal belief that the Moon Base has been abandoned. We have not received any communications from them in the last ten years.
I see no future for myself, or even for the human race as a whole. We kill time and ourselves by inches, hiding in underground tunnels and living on scant resources gleaned from past explorations.
And yet, every week the Delivery Man risks his life to keep me alive. My life must mean something then. Someone, somewhere, in the administrative department, believes that I have the right to live.
My life is defined now by the paintings I give away and the visits of the Delivery Man. He cannot be more than thirty, as navigating the rickety tunnels requires great agility and strength. I know that he is a man and not a woman, because once he asked for some water-substitute and shifted part of his head gear to drink it. I had seen the slight scratchy stubble of a twilight beard, not yet flecked by grey or white.
But I have never seen his face. I do not even know his name. I know that the same person comes every time, because his voice is the same, as he ritually wishes me good afternoon. And then I say thank you, in reply, trying to put all of my gratitude into those two simple words. And sometimes he asks me how I am doing.
I wish I could talk to him, really talk to him, or actually tell him how selfless I think he is, to be working every day of the week to bring supplies to useless civilians like me. I wish I could tell him how much those simple greetings, which cost him nothing to give, mean to me. I wish I could tell him that his visits have become the only truth in my life, as I wait for nothing at all. I am twenty one years old, and yet all I have to look forward to in my life are his weekly visits. I wish I could tell him about how lonely I feel, when I suddenly remember my mother and wake up sweating at night. I wish I could tell him how many times I have stopped myself from simply removing the air-lock of my cabin and jumping out into the scorching death around me. I wish I could tell him how much I wish that someone would come and talk to me, hold my hand. I wish I could tell him how afraid I am that I have lost the power of communication in my isolation. I wish I could say something besides “Good afternoon”, and “I’m fine, how are you?”.
If people’s lives and memories are given shape by the people who remember them, then I am a ghost already. I am merely waiting to die in this two-roomed cabin, marking time in my blind paintings.
But today is different. Today is my mother’s death anniversary. And today is a Monday.
Today I will talk to the Delivery Man for sure.
I have mouthed the words a thousand times. I have thought out every possible scenario. I have taken a bath, and worn my cleanest and most becoming dress. My mother always said that orange suited me the most. I have arranged my hair around my face, and even pinched my cheeks for colour.
I am sitting at my table, with the paintings packed in paper and cheap foam. The foam is flaking all around me, and my palms are sweating. I have never felt so nervous.
There is a screeching beep. The Delivery Man has come.
I open the air-lock carefully, from the control panel. There is a hiss of steam and squeak of creaking machinery as he walks into the vestibule, securing the automated door behind him. I can see him striding through the insulated gravity chamber,towards my living quarters. He looks tall and impregnable, in his clunky heavy suit. My heart is racing, and my palms are slippery with perspiration within my shielded gloves.
He removes part of his suit, and slides the hatch down. Only a transparent half-wall separates us now, shielding me from the left-over radiation of the suit.
“Good afternoon ma’am. How are you doing today?” he says, politely, like always. His voice is quiet. I am afraid that he can hear my heart trying to leap out of my skin.
“I’m fine, thank you. Would you like something to drink?” I say, a little too breathlessly.
“No thank you. I should be going now.”
I swallow my words in silence. I have forgotten all the things that I wanted to say. I hand him the paintings mutely, and I take the supplies from him. His metal-sheathed hands are much bigger than mine; they could have enveloped mine so easily.
He turns to leave. I am desperate now; my throat is burning.
“I just wanted to thank you…” I say, hating myself for the banality of the words. But there is no way I can stop now. He half-turns, looking at me with his blank charred head-mask.
“Its just…you risk your life to bring me my supplies…I know its your job..but still…” I am grasping for words now, “It makes me feel like my life means something.”
He has turned around to face me now. “Delivering supplies to all of you is my purpose. It’s the reason I’m alive,” he says.
There is a brief, awkward silence, clotting like congealing blood. I had not expected him to say that.
“What is your name?” he asks finally.
And then I tell him the name my mother gave me: a name that had died from disuse.
“That is an unusual name.” he says, “My work code is Apollo-324. People who know me call me Paul.”
He turns once more to leave.
“See you next week.”
[The image was a free wallpaper downloaded from the net.
PS: Although this is certainly not my best short story, I really enjoyed writing it. After three months of solidly obstinate writer’s block, it was a relief to write anything at all. This story was based on recurring dreams I have, about ‘darkness inescapable’, like Tolkien (but there the resemblance ends).
Have a nice weekend! ]