In the end, it was beautiful.
The crumbling splendor of it all. It was quiet, by then. We were too far-gone to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I read that line in my book of poetry and I placed a paper marker there, like a tombstone.
I asked her, “How did they write such lines? How did they write like their words had wings?”
“They thought they were immortal. They thought their words would last forever.”
We knew better now. But we didn’t say it out loud.
The poets died out before the final fall. She said they’d been dying out a long time.
“They were a fragile breed, poets,” She said, rinsing her scarred brown hands in a bucket of rainwater, “Needed lots of space to think, lots of quiet to shout into. They got crowded out, like flowers crushed by weeds.”
I liked to think that in a gentler time, she might have been a poet. There was something in her self-contained strength that hinted at worlds and worlds and worlds beneath her surface. Worlds that might take shape in such beautiful poems, if only there were ever time and space to write such things.
But there was never time. Survival took it all, now that humanity was breathing its last. We picked through the rubble of cities scorched by bombs or trampled by riots or simply abandoned and reclaimed by nature.
Yellow lichen was the first scout sent ahead by the forest. It crawled over cement and asphalt, working in tandem with the elements to tear down what humanity had built. Then lion-headed dandelions would push up through the cracks in the disused sidewalk.
“Nature’s first green is gold” she would quip as we trekked through the gradually collapsing streets. We scavenged anything that seemed useful, carrying it with us in a squeaky wheeled shopping cart.
The singing of its wheels blended with the symphony of birds that had moved in when humanity moved out.
We wandered endlessly together, growing old scarcely seeing another soul. At first we wondered where everyone had went. On the rare occasions we encountered another traveler, we often heard rumors about refugee cams run by the remains of governments, or of underground remnants of civilization, even of escape to the stars.
At first we were hopeful. We dreamed that civilization soldiered on in some corner of the earth, or that a seed of humanity slumbered on some century long journey to a new world and a new sun. But as our youth faded, So did our hope. We sighed and accepted that we were among the last few left alive.
Eventually, we grew too old and tired to wander further. By then, we had reached the sea, and we settled down at last.
We built ourselves a hut out of the rotting boards and rusting sheet metal that had been left behind.
We planted a garden and prayed that the soil would not poison our food.
We cast makeshift nets in the sea and hauled in a bounty from the waters. The fish had begun to thrive again since humanity’s retreat.
Still, I saw the trash and refuse that washed against the shore. I cut the shreds of plastic from my catches’ stomachs when I cleaned them to be cooked. With every fish we took, I apologized to the earth.
“Our bloody tenure on your soil is coming to its end,” I would say aloud, for I had become accustomed to speaking to nothing and everything in my many years of wandering. “Do not begrudge us our last meals. We are almost done taking from you. Soon, you can heal.”
We worked hard and tried not to think about endings. Ahead lay the final sunset of civilization. We looked backwards instead, at the veiled stars of the past.
“I was only a baby when the world ended. Two years old,” she mused. She wasn’t sad, only thoughtful. You can’t miss a world you had never known. I suppose it was comforting, in a way, to know that whatever bird or beast inherited the world after us wouldn’t mourn our passing.
“I was six,” I replied. "I remember when it ended”. I remembered cartoons on a television, and news reports my parents flicked away from when I entered the room.”
“What happened when it ended?” she asked, her eyes huge even though she’d heard the story a thousand thousand times. We knew all each other’s stories by then, but there was comfort in telling them.
“It started gradually,” I replied, the heavy memories worn light with repetition, “Things got worse and worse, less and less to go around. First they rationed things, water, food, heat. Then they reduced the rations, and people scraped by on less still. They reduced them a second time, and people began to starve. They reduced them a third time, and the people rioted. In the end, it all burned.”
My parents had grabbed what they could and fled the city.
I was just a little girl in pigtails, clinging to my teddy bear in the crush of bodies.
“We walked for a week,” I continued. “Starving, stumbling. Eventually we found a camp of refugees like us. We lived in a tent and carried water from a spring half a mile away. But that ran dry and it all happened again. Less and less to go around, rations, reductions, riots. We barely made it out.”
I paused to take a breath. She added another log to the fire and gestured for me to continue.
“We wandered on our own for a few years. Eventually we joined up with a small band of wanderers like ourselves. Nomads, scavengers, survivors.
“And that’s when we met,” she interjected; her voice filled with the softness of wonder even after all those years.
“And that’s when we met,” I echoed. “And not long after that, my parents died, and you became my family.”
She scooted closer to nestle against my side. I pressed a kiss to her flyaway grey air, hacked short and ragged with the blade of a knife.
“Can you believe they cared we were both girls?” she murmured. I felt her words as much as I heard them.
“I mean, as the world is crumbling around us, they still have it in their hearts to hate.”
I only sighed and held her tighter. There was nothing I could say.
“They drove us away,” she said dully, pulling away from me. “I never knew any family but them, and they chased me out.” Decades old scars behind her eyes caught the firelight and shone like metal.
“They were blind.” I whispered. “Blind and stupid.”
“We found their corpses later.” There was no vengeance in her tone, no vindication. Only sadness. Only the weight of a society that had failed in so many ways.
“Cheer up, my love,” I told her, taking her hand. “This civilization’s left its legacy.”
“It’s left a layer of plastic across the earth,” she answered with a broken laugh.
I nodded. “A layer of plastic and a book of poems.” I patted the yellowed volume by my side. She smiled tremulously and pressed her forehead to mine, so close I could feel her pulse beneath her skin.
I thumbed through the time-softened pages, work-hardened hands finding the right page without having to look.
“Someone, I tell you, will remember us,” I told her, half prayer and half promise, “even in another time.”
Behind us, through the door of our little hut at the end of the world, the sun set like a blazing phoenix.