As the Sun Dies13 min read

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Death or dying
Reprinted from Grendelsong (Autumn 2015)

I don’t remember what came before the long night, except as dusty words on a rotting page. Memory has a way of fading, falling to the immediate concerns of life. Survival leaves no room for dreams. Fear-shaped time stretches and compresses, a shapeless fog pierced with terror. The world cast us aside, and we found our ties severed, our history erased, our names forgotten.

All I remember is that we walked. We ran. We stumbled.

I don’t know the names of the rivers we forded. I don’t know where we were on that last day, in what country or land we stopped. Our maps were old, stained with fear and hope, pieced together of scraps left from before the fall.

But I remember a song, a prayer, a hope. I remember a misty dream. I remember when we crested that last horizon and the valley spread beneath us, the sun before us. I remember that it was worth every breath, every death, every tear. And there were many of each of those things.

I do not know who will read this song, if anyone has survived the great world-eater who devoured the sun, but I leave this for their hands and hope that it will be sung again on a new earth, that our hope may feed another generation, and that the shining beauty of the old sun not be forgotten forever.

§

We were alone for so long before the end. The war started in the south and moved through the world like a wildfire, assimilating all the little endless conflicts that have been fought since man first picked up a stone. We were an island in this sea of strife, a town too remote to be strategic, too poor to be useful, too small to be dangerous. When the infrastructure of the Land of Dreams crumbled, we remained. We were spared the nightmares and madness.

A strange priest or prophet or youngling god found us, now and again. A little nuclear fallout, a few years of ash-laden rain. We covered our faces, burned the imposters, and filtered our water. When the news networks and internet died, we turned to the wandering traders. By that time, dictators and ghosts and gods ruled the earth; it was just a matter of dividing a ruined world into new nations, so we stopped caring.

As generations passed, we became afraid of the outside. We disappeared from the maps. No one could bother us. We had agreed on this course of action, and no sacrifice was too great. We weaned ourselves from the goods the nomad-traders offered and stopped sending people to the broken cities. If we couldn’t make something, we learned to do without. We built a wall, a barrier of denial and traps and broken roads, and rumors were spread of a ruined, cursed town.

We disappeared from the memory of the world, a people unto ourselves. Alone. Safe.

The clocks slowed, staggered, stilled. Time became meaningless, scored by erratic seasons and faltering days. The old stayed old. The young never aged. After a while, we stopped noticing.

The nights became shorter, lighter until the sun caught in our sky and baked our fields to ash. The rivers dried, and lakes shrank, then the weather patterns shifted again and storms snarled in from the broken coasts of the west. The stones in the hills steamed when the first drops hit, and our houses seemed to breathe again as the dust washed from them. The streams ran like red milk.

We became used to the changing of things, to unpredictability. We survived whatever was thrown in our path, and we wandered along a path into eternity, not doubting that we would surmount any challenge.

But our peace betrayed us, blinded us to the slow winding of the spindle, and when we saw it, it was too late. The end didn’t come quietly. When the earthquakes hit, three houses fell into a crack across the South River. For days, the ground heaved beneath us, and our dead moaned in their graves.

By the end of the week, it was dark, and morning hadn’t come for three days. A thick gloom choked the streets, not smoke or fog or dust, but some creeping darkness that shrouded lights and smothered voices into whispers. Strange, white lights glimmered in the sky, but they were not stars, not machines, and their glow was brief and malevolent.

We thought it would go away. For days, weeks, months, we hoped. The sun, our talisman, our lodestone was not gone. We could not accept it, as if our faith would bring it back. The new gods were not powerful enough to change the universe itself; they were figments of man’s wickedness and imagination. So we sat in the darkness and prayed to the old gods, prayed that our willful disregard could somehow restore our world.

Winter settled on the mountains, and then the plains. Snow buried our houses until we had to dig tunnels to reach our neighbors. We became a subterranean people. We slaughtered most of our animals and preserved the meat; we were used to preparing for hardship, our supplies were stocked and we went on short rations. Our men dug long tunnels onto the plains to bring back dead trees and harvest the dead grass for the few beasts we kept. We took turns watching the sky from the town square, the only place we could keep clear of the snow and ice.

Finally, we gave in to reality. We were running out of food and running out of soul. We found an old HAM radio in an attic. We figured out how to operate it, eventually, and sent our voices out.

Months passed. We despaired, gave up on the sun and on our kin.

And then, word came. It flew from halfway around the world, bounced from city to village to town to hermit to settlement to us. Short words, cold. The world doesn’t spin anymore. The world is dark in one land, burning in another. Something woke up, it is eating the sun. The old gods are too busy warring to notice. 

We cried like children who have lost their parents until anger drove into our hearts and defiance dried our tears. We threw open every switch and flooded the town with our precious energy, blazing our light into the night. We are going to find the sun, to be witness for its fall, we said, and sent a call across the air. Join us. We are the children of the old earth, of fire and madness and joy. Join us. 

They came, trudging over the ice with their ragged possessions and scrawny ageless children. We opened dusty old buildings for them to sleep in. One by one, they gathered to us with their worldly goods and hopes and their mending dreams.

And on every tongue, the joyful news. The sun lives. The world has shifted. The sun lives in the south.

We packed up our lives and our goods. Our children and starving animals came with us, and behind us, only ghosts and unlocked doors remained, flapping in the roaring winds. We would not return. Let the birds and beasts make caves of our dwellings, let them try to survive in the ice and wind.

We pointed our cold-cracked compasses south by southwest, toward the sea.

§

There were so many miles, so many mountains and hills and endless deserts, rock and ice and roaring rivers barring us from our goal. Ruined cities loomed, the rusting hulks of skyscrapers and collapsing tenements hiding evils we had never known. The worst of the destruction had centered on the cities, where pale-eyed humans slipped through the shadows like feral cats, baring their fangs if we approached. The clinging night was filled with the cry of hunter and prey, and great, unseen things swept us with their wings as they passed over, sometimes snatching one of our numbers. We passed walled enclaves, ringed with fire and razor wire, guarded by sharp-eyed hunters who did not acknowledge us or open their gates.

Sometimes we saw the new gods moving across the landscape, their beautiful, impossible monstrosities blacking out the stars or sliding across the ruins like oozing tar. We avoided those, cowering in shadows from a creature that loomed like a skyscraper, its whirring eyes limned with a soft blue glow, running away from a many-legged thing that rooted through steel girders to find the dog-sized cockroaches that sometimes scuttled across our path, tossing them into the air and devouring them whole. There was even a slithering, hissing thing of cords and chips, glowing red and green from a thousand blinking eyes.

But these were not interested in us and, as long as we kept watch, were no danger. We lost many more to the small, quick spirits, with their gleaming razors and plastic eyes. They came and were gone in a spray of blood or a truncated scream.

Finally, the cities fell behind us, and we found ourselves in cold deserts. Dozens of us died, and, our supplies depleted, we drank their blood like beasts, used their rawhides to mend our tattered shoes and clothes.

We climbed into the mountains again—mountains taller and crueler than those before—and felt the first tendrils of warmth beneath our feet. For weeks, we traveled, worn to thin shadows of ourselves, hard and hungry for the light, and finally, a glorious cry rose from the front of the line as our leaders crested the last mountain.

§

Huge and brooding, the sun rested on the horizon, weary prey fleeing for safety. Above us, the light gleamed on the scales of a vast, terrible serpent, casting its shadow across the valley below, its scales white as rotting flesh.

The light painted our tears as blood, and we looked like corpses. So long in the cold, in the dark and the cloud-shrouded stars that we had forgotten heat and light. We shielded our eyes and wiped sweat from our faces.

Someone started singing, crooning a wordless lullaby. A man, one of our preachers, hummed a dirge. A woman’s voice lifted in a wild tangent, grief and joy mingling. One by one, we all started singing our songs, minor melodies blending into a great paean.

Tears and song and light and dust mingled together as the sun slowly sank beneath the horizon and clouds stole across the sky, pushed by that great hunter.

It was so short. Was this it? No more? The sun was gone, though the rumors said the world was still. Did we pick up and climb again? The sea loomed on the horizon. Where could we go? Would the sun return, or would the serpent swallow it first?

We had nothing left. Our packs were emptied and discarded along the trail, our clothes worn to rags. We had only the pride of survival. As the darkness closed around us, some curled up and withered away, husks finally empty of hope.

The rest of us clasped hands and looked to each other, trembling on the precipice, and found that maybe we did remember something after all.

We had laughed and loved and cried. We lived a dozen lifetimes under that empty sky. If we didn’t remember the seconds of them, what does it matter? We’d learned that memory isn’t the half of it. It might only be a luminescent, quiet softness deep in our souls that told us of that eternity of darkness and travel.

We had found the sun.

“We climb no more mountains,” we cried. “We stay! The sun has blessed this spot, and this is where we will make our last stand and wait! It will return!”

We found shelter in the rocks. We scavenged sticks and mud and made little houses for ourselves. Those who were too weak to build, sat and wove dry grass into mats for roof and floor. Children ran to and fro, bringing armloads of grass, buckets of water. The strong mixed the clay and grass and water into a thick muck, and we smoothed it over the rough structures. It would have to be enough because it used up everything we had.

We were without strength. Everything had been given to the sun, and without it, we faded. Our mud-crusted bodies ached with grief and exhaustion. We huddled under the skeletons of our buildings, muck dripping on us. Nothing dried, rot and mold crept through everything.

Mud and dust and decay in our mouths and noses, our fingers bleeding in the darkness, it was a misery we had never known, even on the ice. No one laughed. No one sang. No children were conceived. Our numbers fell again as madness and starvation and despair claimed the weak.

When that long night ended and the hulking sun rose again, it burned through the clouds and the huts baked. Animals woke from their lethargy and began to mate and hunt. All work was put aside. We bathed in the cold, clear water of the river and watched it run red to the red sun on the red horizon. After the bleak night, we basked in the color, but always behind it was the sinister length of the monster, slow and inexorable as a glacier.

We stripped our stinking clothes off and tossed them into the river. The village glowed with a macabre beauty, and we danced as though possessed by the sun itself. The serpent’s scales reflected the sun in glittering rainbows now; its fangs dripped venom that ate through mountains and boiled the sea, and we prayed that it did not fall on our broken village.

Then, the sun set again as we clustered in the square and wept. We had no way to mark the passage of time. The beasts crept close to us, scenting our huddled bodies and our fear.

We crafted weapons to defend ourselves. Crude spears and bows and arrows flew crookedly while the ravens mocked us. The rabbits ignored everything we did to catch them. Deer watched us until we were almost on them, and then strolled off as we hobbled after them.

In our hunger, we ate the earth for its minerals, the grass like desperate cattle. Our bellies grew distended and our teeth fell out. The children, conceived in the sun, died as they were born in the dark.

Suddenly, after another eternity, there was light on the horizon and the sun rose again. We gathered what food we could. Better weapons were made, slings of animal hide and dead wood, clubs, stone knives. We made new traps for rabbits and birds, we sewed what clothes and blankets we could, and raised more houses. We built a great drum so that we would know how long the night lasted.

We would live through the next night, and we did.

It was enough.

But each night grew longer, each day shorter and darker. The clouds no longer fled the sun but dared to drift across its face and cast yet more shadows on us, drawn by the breath of the monster. The drumbeat, day and night, but the nights were longer than the days, and with every day, the serpent’s fangs were closer to the dimming bulk of the bright star, its belly bearing down upon us.

Our hearts despaired, but we were strong now, and we gathered in the fading days and sang wild songs, glorious songs, glad songs to the sun as if we could strengthen its flight.

Then we saw the great sun shrinking. Each day, it was smaller. Each day, it sank sooner, like a tired old man, and its pursuer took heart. The gap closed.

The crimson light faded and the shadows deepened, each day colder and darker until the red sun was little more than a dull glow on the horizon and color leached out of the world, out of our bright hair and our dyed clothing.

As the days faded, the nights lengthened and color disappeared, we sang a little louder, we danced a little harder. It wasn’t praise of the red sun by then. It was furious defiance of its hunter, as those distended jaws began to engulf the sun, light glowing through its swollen skin. The serpent’s eyes, as vast as cities, threw off a cold white light, usurping the red.

Days were barely tinged here and there with a pale red glow. We, the old ones, put aside our tools, our weapons, and our duties, and sat in vigil to this great death.

Our singers offered slow reveries as our blood thickened in our veins. So attuned to the sun, we faded with it. Our songs grew softer, weaker. We no longer needed to eat, nor drink.

Those who had been born after—who had not followed the sun on that great trek across the world—did not wish to die with us. They moved us outside of the village, and as the sun died, they dug our graves and set us within. We were forgotten, and civilization built around us, a great, white city, its murals drawn in shades of charcoal and chalk and dried blood.

The drumbeat slowly through the long nights. Boom boom boom boom, a heartbeat that settled into our blood and bones. Our hearts met that rhythm.

The red sun rose again, laboring towards the horizon. There was no glorious painted light anymore. Its dull fire bled down the serpent’s throat. This would be the final day.

The drum echoed across the world.

Boom.

Our slowing blood told us so, our grief told us so.

Boom.

Chants slowed, our voices deepened, each of us humming our own note, melting into a grief-stricken hymn.

Boom.

The pale-eyed young, not wishing to die, stuffed their ears with grass.

Boom.

The creatures of the plain came to us, mountain lion and coyote. Raven and crow. Rabbit and serpent.

Boom.

Ranks of them. Lion and lamb together to witness the end of an age.

Boom.

Long and slow into that final night, the sun sank towards the horizon. We lay in our graves, our eyes fixed to that dim great giant.

Boom.

A coyote cried its weirding song, other creatures joining in countermelody to our voices.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

And now the drumbeat is nearly gone. This night will never end. The sun is a glow of red from the mouth of a world-eater, its blood mingling with the serpent’s venom and falling in acid rain.

All is silent. Heavy, greasy anticipation.

Waiting.

Our breath slows.

It is time. His last light is fading. We are fading. My sight blurs.

I don’t know how many years we wandered. I don’t remember how many mountains we climbed.

I don’t remember the faces of my kin and companions. I don’t remember my past-name or my childhood.

But I remember ghosts. I remember a song, a prayer, a hope. I remember a misty dream. I emember when we crested that last horizon and the valley spread beneath us. I remember that it is worth every breath, every death, every tear.

The animals whimper, pressing their bellies to the earth. Their eyes are fixed on the horizon.

Light blooms one last time, a tidal wave of red and gold, and the serpent thrashes in panic as heat sweeps the earth.

Boom.

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