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From Wednesdays on Earth

Anis Shivani


n any event,” Adam said, lighting up another joint and offering it to Jeff along the way, “Raleigh is not an option. Perhaps the river might be alive, but not Raleigh.”

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Jeff asked, “And why do you say that?”

“You’ve noticed that the landscape is utterly flat.” Jeff nodded in agreement. “Well,” Adam continued, “we can see great distances without any obstructions in the path, not even electricity poles, let alone houses and buildings. All natural hindrances are gone. There are no hills, nothing rising from the earth, just flatness. I reckon we can see at least fifty miles in each direction, and Raleigh is only twenty-five miles away. Look west, JB!”

He was afraid to, although of course he already had, many times. “So what do you suggest we do?” he asked uncertainly.

“Keep walking, but never stray far from the point of origin. I have a feeling we are not meant to wander. If you deviate too far from your source point, you might lose everyone—me too. And no telling what would happen if you lost me.” Adam looked at him compassionately, the way his brothers Dan and Hal and Tim did when Jeff was young, wanting an expensive bicycle or something else that required intercession with his parents. “You were lost without me for a long time.”

“Only a day. Or part of a day.”

Adam didn’t respond, as Jeff felt unwanted benevolence wash over him. Adam’s weed was having its effect, making him repeat the words “Smoke, smoke!” in his head again and again, and also yearning to visit the Pacific Ocean, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia Forest, Flathead Lake, Yellowstone Park, Lake Erie, Niagara Falls, the Green Mountains, all of the landmarks he’d thought he would visit with Ann when she was old enough. An immense certainty settled over him, as though he knew without a doubt why he had been put on earth, and he felt the same about Adam, understanding Adam’s purpose in life too.

Adam was put here as a guide. He was always present and responsive, a guiding spirit through smoke and ash, leading to the oceans and mountains and forests of his imagination. In the travels Jeff had experienced during his brief corporate existence, whenever he’d visited any of his favorite destinations they always turned out to be more impressive than his fantasy had prepared him for. One wasn’t ready for the Grand Canyon, no matter how many pictures or videos had been consumed. Likewise, it was Adam’s role to convert Jeff into a believer in holy places serving as sentinels. Or the beauty of smoke. Or the fretful gray dust that kept sprinkling over them. Or the washed-up sky dotted with platoons of birds with heads and tails missing, only the long black cylinders of their bodies flying through the air, or not flying but remaining static. The air felt different in correspondence: heavier, thicker, fleshier, and not just because of the motionless birds.

“Is evening coming at last?” he asked Adam. “Will we have nightfall soon?”

“No, it’s just a storm trying to brew, JB. You remember storms. They aren’t really able to configure, because the weather components aren’t all there. Climate is not what it used to be, it’s not really changeable, it’s only a pastiche of possibilities denied realization. Like the graves of people now, formed but not formed. Like bones and skeletons, aesthetically pleasing but missing gravity.”

“Adam, you never did quit philosophy,” Jeff teased, trying to make a joke out of it, afraid to look west now that Adam had clearly outlined the limits to possibilities. “Is this weed different than what you gave me earlier?”

“No, the special stuff I save for emergencies.”

“Are we in an emergency now?”

Adam shrugged. “Not yet.”

“Cobwebs are rising all around us, higher and higher,” Jeff said, as if to himself. “Rising ten feet into the air, rising from the thick layers of dust on the ground, but what are the tops of the cobwebs, or the umbilical cords, attached to? How can they stay suspended in the air without anything to fasten on to?” Jeff tried to touch the phenomenon he was describing, but as soon as he got close enough to touch the cobwebs, they vanished. Yet he could still see the intricate webs rising and waving a short distance away. “And the earth feels squishy and spongy. It doesn’t sink with my weight, even though it’s only ash, or dust, or whatever these thick layers of film consist of. In places, it seems to be two or three feet thick. And I’m walking on it!”

“It’s meant to be spongy,” Adam explained. “It was designed for long hikes.”

“But you’ve been saying we should stay put or we’d be in danger,” Jeff tried to catch him out.

“Just because an invitation is there doesn’t mean you should take it.”

They had strayed about a mile from the Zebulon town center. Now that they were out of the commercial district the dust they were stomping on was thicker, which made little sense since they had just left the zone of dense human activity.

Jeff picked up a yellow-flowered gourd-shaped vessel which he recognized as an object of fetish from the Plaza del Mariachi—the only Mexican restaurant of note in Zebulon—whose owner was a sophisticated Argentinian ophthalmologist who didn’t seem to have much respect for Mexican culture and who barely spoke any Spanish.

“My favorite Mexican place, would you care for catfish tacos?” Jeff laughed sadly, making Adam give him that look of pity again, which he was getting tired of. He started remembering how oppressive his older brothers’ compassionate interventions had been when he was little, getting in the way of his own personal growth and adventurousness. “Or do you prefer Chinese food? Not that it means anything, because we’ll never get hungry again.”

He told Adam all about Mrs. Hu, his last night on earth, as he now thought of it, spent in the company of the orphic Chinese medicine woman, her magical shrimp clearing up every grain of sadness choking his temporal lobes.

To his surprise Adam was fascinated by his description of Mrs. Hu, expressing a desire to meet and get to know her.

“Well, we could easily have gone to her house to see if something’s left of her.”

“You know where she lives, JB?” Adam asked excitedly. “I mean, some individuals might well hold the key to our salvation. She could be one of them. You understand I’m not locked into the idea of a single savior, that’s too theological for me, but multiple saviors, that’s different.”

“Yes, that is different, I guess. But I don’t know where she lives.”

“When did that ever matter? You have a good idea where she ought to live, right?”

“Yes, Hamilton Acres, I think. Which is entirely too upscale for her, you’d expect to find her in Wedgewood or Judd Street Estates, the bourgeois housing districts. But I’m sure she’d do something contradictory to her actual station in life and go the other route. Disturb her staid relatives, you know, the aunts and uncles fresh off the boat, not here by way of San Francisco or Seattle.”

“We should turn around and investigate,” Adam suggested, “this might be important, JB.”

“No, we’re going to the river. We’re not far now.”

“What do you expect to find at the river anyway, JB?”

“The dam must be gone, because we’re close enough already to have seen it. With all the flatness, we should have been able to view it from the center of Zebulon. But what happens to an entire body of water? Does it go away? Does it freeze?”

He realized with sadness that he would never be able to see the Pacific or the Atlantic ocean with Ann. They must have turned into…whatever large bodies of water turned into.

The sand upon which they were trudging felt thicker, the farther they got away from the center of human activity. What must it be like in the mountains and forests and deserts, the uninhabited areas? Adam would know, but Jeff was reluctant to ask him. He’d always taken the shortcut of quizzing one of his brothers about anything that stumped him when he was younger, and he was not going to repeat the error now.

The cobwebs rose higher too—fifteen or more feet in the air—dragged upward toward the heavens, as though gravity worked in the opposite direction for these gossamer filaments.

As they got closer to the river, Jeff noticed the solid patterns of bone indentations repeating with greater frequency. Not just small animals now but much larger skeletons, mingling, lying on top of others: skeletons caught in flagrante delicto, making love, strangling and choking each other, trying to squeeze affection from where it didn’t exist.

“The bones are getting bigger and bigger,” Jeff said fearfully. “Did you notice?”

“The big bones were always there, JB, it’s just that you can see them better now.”

“Is it something to do with the marijuana? What did you lace it with? I remember you never used to warn your clients how you were testing and teasing them, so why should I be any different?”

Adam shrugged, neither admitting nor denying anything.

Jeff came to the realization that while night hadn’t fallen yet, and wouldn’t fall, it was definitely possible to distinguish day from night by the yellowish tint of the haze in the “daytime,” which had now disappeared for the moldy red one, signifying “nighttime.”

“My child had a hole in her heart,” Jeff remarked, as the sweeps of white dust, eerily akin to snowdrifts from the mighty blizzards he’d keenly anticipated as a schoolchild in his bucolic home state, rose higher and higher around them. “My wife didn’t think I was a good ‘role model,’ you see, with my bursts of alternating panic and silence. Action, that was what she was looking for from me, executive action. What is the fondness for the word executive among people who haven’t been executives? She called me a cold fish. A cheater—I assure you I never did, though she meant it not literally but metaphorically. A manipulator. A heartless bastard. Well, she didn’t say those things at first, but only toward the end, so it’s not like she was always at my throat. But from the very beginning she believed the hole in my daughter’s heart was symbolic”—Jeff laughed wildly, creating a hollow echo in the ashen landscape—“it reflected the hole in my heart, that I was the cause, it was my degenerate genes or something. By hating me she thought she could save our child. And somehow disempower the symbolism of my empty heart that had subverted our lives.”

“I was married too, JB, very briefly,” Adam responded, trying to be helpful. “Not to compare my situation with yours, yours involves real as opposed to imaginary illness, but most of the time these things don’t work out. It’s a miracle anyone stays with anyone for five years, let alone twenty or fifty, given the odds against it. I bailed out before it caused permanent injury to myself and my poor angry spouse.”

“But you never had a child!” Jeff objected, his voice rising. “It’s not comparable!”

“I never said it was.”

Almost without warning now they had reached the river zone.

The Little River, with its homely dam which had survived many a hurricane and flood, was an abundant repository of the American shad, the flathead catfish, and other species of diverse sizes. It was a weekend ritual for many a commuter living in Zebulon to don fishing gear and turn into instant sportsmen, hauling in the shad and catfish by the bucketload, frying the fish in their backyards, chewing the bones as they appreciated the carefully chosen lager that went with the seafood: such a world removed from the buttoned-down personas they would assume the very next day, behaving like attentive “listeners” to petty complainants, obeying the corporate etiquette pertaining to incremental gamesmanship, cheerfully picking up tabs and giving up seats and making way for their competitors’ ambitions because if someone else won they did too—or at least that was their Monday morning logic, when they weren’t killing fish and guzzling beer like reincarnated primitives.

When Ann was two Jeff had taken her to the Little River once—this was after the last big hurricane had breached a big hole in the dam, which, because of the personal generosity of one of the Raleigh exiles, had been healed overnight, almost as if the crack had never happened—and she was so upset at the fish struggling and suffocating in the grasp of the loud-mouthed town preppies that they had never gone back there.

He asked himself how had they known to head northeast, without any landscape markers. For that matter, how had they known where west was, the direction for Raleigh?

When he checked with Adam, he said, “We don’t need to be told such things. It’s always been in our bones.”

Jeff was positive that Adam was right, their sense of direction was flawless. And where they had arrived could only be the river.

“But Adam, the river, where is it? What is this we’re standing upon?”

They stood in the middle of a depression in the white ash cover, and as they moved farther along, the distinctive crisscross pattern—almost the color of wood—became more distinguishable.

Soon it was as though the whiteness of the landscape was far away and they were treading upon a surface that consisted almost entirely of the brown wooden cross-thatching, constituting squares that were about a foot wide, almost like the bamboo scaffolding an ancient tribe might undertake to build a hut, except that it traversed the entire expanse of the land.

The cobwebs disappeared and so did the white snowy drifts.

The air smelled as if a forest fire had finally burnt itself out, making it refreshing, more breathable, than the ashy cover.

Walking farther along, Jeff noticed a long faint groove running straight through the middle of the wooden cross-thatching, which was where he felt sure the dam had once been.

He bent down to examine the ground between the squares formed by the checkered wood pattern, hoping to find fish skeletons, but his hand sliced right through, as though he had jabbed it into a cauldron spewing steam or vapor.

“My hand plunged in, did you notice that!” But Adam seemed to know without being told. “There’s nothing between the squares,” Jeff marveled, “so how are we able to walk upon it? Granted, we might be treading strictly along the wooden supports, but still, wouldn’t it be easy to fall through? Into the steamy pit below us?”

It was the same implausibility as with swimming, except with air instead of water being the culprit this time. Unlike his champion swimming brothers, he had always experienced swimming as the most difficult of athletic skills. Something in his body rebelled against having to float upon water, when the only sensible thing to do was to sink and drown. He had never envied fish—or birds for that matter.

They continued the impossible walk for a while, not submerging into the gaps, until at last Adam said, “So, you’ve seen the river. Now what?”

“You tell me,” Jeff replied a bit testily, “you’re the guide.”

The thought came to him that rivers used to be a primary mode of transportation, both for goods and for people. They were the line of least resistance, less intransigent than the ground. The current worked with human energy, or other forms of energy like coal or steam, to provide swift movement. It was important to remember this information, it would surely come in useful sometime.

“Adam, I think maybe I want to be alone for now.”

“I understand,” said Adam, not acting surprised at all. “In case I lose you,” he offered after some thought, “here’s another joint. A last one, which you must use only in the worst of emergencies. Here’s the weed, here’s the paper, here are some matches. Keep it all dry.”

“Thank you, I don’t think I need anything else. But you don’t have to leave me now. We can wander around here for a bit.”

But he didn’t really mean it. Without looking behind to see if Adam was still with him, he kept trudging north until he had bypassed the river and entered the pure white zone again. There he lay down, not really tired, but noticing that the color of the sky had changed to faint yellow again, which meant that it was “daytime,” hardly the occasion for sleep, but he needed rest.

That’s when he dreamed of the African American family trying to load a grand piano upon a barge on the river bank, asking him for help. Their little girl looked just like Ann, very pale, with the same greenish natural tattoo on her right wrist that Jeff had been in awe of so many times.

“Adam, do you see her? If you want to know what my girl looks like, that’s her spitting image!”

But how could Adam share his dream? And besides, Jeff was well and truly alone now in the white desert.

The above is excerpted from Anis Shivani's recently completed novel, Wednesdays on Earth.


Anis Shivani