Until the Petals Fall
It begins as a grey cloud, a scattering of dust, a shifting wind.
For a moment, utter silence, a shallow pool of quietude amid the desert plains. But then comes a harrowing roar, as if the very firmament of the Earth has been torn apart by some omnipotent blade, and all around it the land becomes awash in a merciless haze of dust and fire.
Two thousand miles away, people raise their heads and remark on the light, now spreading to the edges of the world like a thousand strident suns clawing their way to oblivion.
They stop what they’re doing, eyes full of fear, full of awe.
Oh God, they whisper. What have we done?
Two children lie opposite each other in a field of dandelions. The boy with his eyes closed, snoozing, the sun warm on his face, his skin giving off the radiant scent of baked dirt. The girl with her eyes open, trained on the blue.
Birdsong floats in from the pasture, and up above, clouds seem powdered with the dust of dreams.
David, she says, shaking him. David wake up.
The boy stirs, blinking. He begins to yawn but is stopped by the urgency in her eyes.
Look, she points. See it?
Along the horizon a rising darkness has settled. Clouds and sky alike have been swept up in a sea of blackness, fast approaching.
What is that? he asks. But she doesn’t hear him.
Beneath them, the Earth trembles. Shakes loosen from the barn roof and come crashing to the ground in a clamor of clapping boards. A car alarm shrieks. The screen door swings open as their mother rushes onto the porch, shoes pounding on the deck. There is a sound in the air seemingly bound to the wind — a rising cry like the bleat of an approaching train.
I’m really scared.
He looks at her.
Me too, he says.
She takes his hand and together they watch the swelling darkness overtake the sky. Their mother calls for them in the newborn twilight but they’re too afraid to answer. The wind howls. Ashes settle over them like falling snow.
I’m so tired of it!
Bradley paces the kitchen. Eyes ablaze, loathsome. You don’t like what I do? he says. Then get the hell out!
Stop yelling at me!
You’re yelling, I’m yelling, we’re all fucking yelling! What does it matter anymore?
The tension in the house is palpable, so fine it could be cut with the whisper of a child’s finger. Bradley takes a few deep breaths to calm himself.
You criticize everything I do, he says, his voice lower, flat. I don’t know what’s happened to make you hate me so much.
I don’t —
Hold on a minute, Mary, just listen. I like what I do. It means something to me. I take pride in it. It may not be meaningful for everyone but it is for me. I enjoy it. Isn’t that enough for you?
Mary doesn’t answer.
Christ, he says, leaning against the countertop, shoulders slumped. What happened to us?
You married your work, Bradley, that’s what happened to us.
Oh, stop it. See? You see what I’m talking about? My words offend you. My presence offends you. Everything we say to each other is a reprimand. What the hell happened to us?
I’m not blaming you, he says. It’s both of us. I just don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know whether there’s anything I can do. You call this life? You call this marriage?
You saying you want a divorce?
I’m not saying anything! I’m asking. Please, for the love of God, Mary, answer me. Are you happy?
Mary looks at him, arms crossed, biting her lower lip.
Of course not.
Then what do we do? We can’t just keep going through the motions here, yelling and screaming and fighting. It solves nothing, achieves nothing. We walk away from our arguments with more resentment than when we went into them. What do we do?
Mary is about to answer when the house begins to shake. A teacup and saucer rattle toward the edge of the counter; Bradley leaps forward and catches the teacup as it falls, but not the saucer. Broken shards spread across the kitchen floor into the living room. The house shudders violently; cupboards fling open, dishes spill to the linoleum, shatter.
Bradley, in a flight of panic, takes Mary by the arm and rushes to the door, chandeliers coming off their chains and collapsing in resounding heaps, artwork and photographs falling off the walls. More broken glass.
Bradley loses his footing and falls down the stairs. Mary calls to him but his hearing has become overpowered by the sounds of objects breaking, crashing, shattering. Beyond the door a godless cacophony has taken hold of the city — air-raid sirens, car alarms. Vehicles colliding in the street. An airplane roars over their heads, casting shadows over the tenements until it crashes in a fiery glow and they know no more.
They’re playing Monopoly on the patio surrounded by deep alpine woods, contours of mountains dim in the afterglow of the sun. Silhouettes of things unseen. Playful shadows in the murk.
Dad’s holding a beer in his hand, laughing, his little girl balanced on his lap as they share the secrets of the game. Mom twirls a glass of rosé and pretends to listen while checking her cell phone, wondering if her lover is going to be at the Motel Six this weekend. Clint and his girlfriend sip PBR’s and watch each other with wicked smiles from across the table. Susan keeps talking about how she won the spelling bee and that she’s going to states and will win that, too. Meanwhile, Madison, content on her father’s lap, slips her hand under the table and comes away with Susan’s Park Place. She shows it to her father, who laughs.
Hey daddy, Madison says, eyebrow raised. What’s that?
What’s what sweetheart?
Bottles vibrate on the table, fall still. The evening birds have stopped singing.
That, she says.
Gunfire erupts in the village.
A blood-orange sun sits enthroned on a bed of cloudless azure. Men are yelling, shouting orders. Bleeding, crying out for mercy and the will to die. Screaming the same sentiments in mixed tongues.
Get on your knees! shouts one of the soldiers, young and brash and full of clout. Down on your fucking knees!
A rifle butt collides with the old man’s forehead and he’s suddenly on his knees, groveling in the hot dirt. His wife in the doorway, bawling, screaming for mercy. The soldiers shove her back into the house with the muzzles of their guns.
A tall man in fatigues steps forward holding a photograph of a mosque afire, people scattered in the city square, bodies everywhere, smoke rising thick and grey.
Omar Hossein Salameh? he says.
The old man doesn’t speak. A drop of blood swells in his eyebrow and rolls down his cheek like a crimson tear.
He asked you a question!
The old man looks up, his eyes a brilliant palette of green and gold, pupils bottomless and dark. Shakes his head.
He’s lying, Reed, fuckin cocksucker. All these sand monkeys are liars. Shoot the bastard.
Hold on a minute, Collins.
A fighter jet soars overhead, breaking the sound barrier, and then another, and still Sergeant Reed holds his gun trained on the old man’s face, and the old man looks up at him with those brilliant eyes, naked in their sincerity, but not pleading.
Maybe he’s not Salameh, Reed says. Maybe they’re telling the truth.
For Christ’s sake!
Private Collins grabs the old man and drags him to the well in the center of the village. The old man’s wife evokes a fresh barrage of wails and cries. The soldiers scream at her, brandishing guns. Villagers watch from windowless huts. Children half dazed standing in doorways, fingers poised on doorframes as if uncertain of what to do, what to think.
Private Collins holds the gun against the old man’s head. The old man does not cry. He does not beg for his life.
Shoot on sight, Reed. Shoot on sight were our orders and if you won’t carry them out, I will.
From beyond the desert comes a horrifying sound, as in two forces of unimaginable magnitude grinding together in stalemate. The villagers cover their ears. The soldiers lower their guns and look up with ponderous faces toward the sky. The woman stops shrieking.
The old man folds his hands together and kneels in the dust of the courtyard, bringing his forehead to rest upon the ground, eyes closed, muttering. Intangible at first, the soldiers begin to understand. His staccato voice, alone with the rising sound from the west, is saying, Allah huna. Allah huna.
God is here.
The professor strides across the stage, pinching his lower lip.
And who then can tell me the nature of God? He is at once all around us, yet we do not see him, we do not feel him, we do not smell him.
It’s not the same, says a student. You’re asking us to go a step beyond belief. You’re asking us to know, and we can’t know what is impossible to prove.
The professor looks at him.
Stars gleaming on South Pacific waters — tiny pinpricks of iridescence in a bed of black velvet. Waves slop against the shoreline. A driftwood fire crackles among the dunes. A bearded man in torn khaki shorts sits warming his hands by the fire, every once in a while turning a spit with a sizable roast bird, its fat sputtering, juices falling on the coals, sizzling.
He hears the sound but does not see the darkness, only the failing of starlight. Fear does not move him. Trapped on the island for twenty years, he is no longer afraid of death.
Take me home, he says. I’m ready.
They’re sitting outside a crowded Parisian café. A motorbike beeps past. Couples laugh, drink wine. The girl has finished her coffee; the boy has not touched his.
No, he says stubbornly, eyes welling with tears.
Lukas, I’m sorry.
You can’t do this to me. I’m in love with you.
You’ll fall in love with another, and another, and countless other women throughout your lifetime.
No, I won’t.
Why are you doing this? We’re happy together. We love each other. You said so yourself. You said you’d never met anyone like me.
Lower your voice please.
You said you’d never met anyone like me.
Then be with me. Be with me and I will love you till Hell freezes over. Be with me and you’ll never want for anything in your life. I’ll care for you. I’ll nurture you. I’ll love you, Francoise. That’s the deal.
Do you love me?
Of course I do.
Then don’t be afraid of loving me. Rejoice in it like I do for you. Accept it, don’t run from it. If you run right now you’ll be running all your life.
I won’t, she says, brushing a tear from her cheek. She clenches her jaw. I need to go, Lukas.
Chairs scrape pavement. She rises. He rises.
Francoise, please stay, at least to finish your coffee.
She’s crying now, and she can’t hide the tears anymore; there are too many.
I’ve already finished, she says, wiping her eyes. Sniffling.
I’ll get you another. Sit down with me and have one more coffee, and if by the end of it you never want to see me again, so be it. Please. Just one more coffee.
She turns to leave but is blocked by a phalanx of pedestrians standing by the curb. Cars have stopped in the street and drivers are getting out to peer up at the sky. People are covering their ears. The ground shakes for a few moments, falls still.
What the Hell was that? Lukas says.
Francoise turns, eyes smeared with mascara, though she’s not crying anymore. She clutches his hand.
Lukas, she says. We need to go.
A woman walks the busy streets of Manhattan holding an umbrella, cell phone glued to her ear, all around her the bustling display of life in its most resplendent glory, herself but an infinitesimal speck amid the vastness of it: neon billboards featuring brand new cars and toothpaste and sports drinks. Skyscrapers with long banners advertising big business. The incessant cry of car horns, taxis screeching in the wet street. Police sirens. Ambulances. Fire trucks. All of it coming together in a clash of perfect chaos, establishing a backward sense of order unto itself.
The woman sounds exasperated.
John, I asked for it a week ago. So? Now I have to drop it. Don’t ask me, I told you, bring it to me and I’ll see what I can do — you didn’t bring it. Uh huh. Right. Well, I’m sorry, you’ll have to find someone else. Fine, I don’t care. Bye now.
She hangs up and immediately dials home.
Did you pick up dinner from Cherazzo’s? she says. What do you mean? We talked about it last night. Yes we did, Daniel. I said I wasn’t cooking tonight. Goddamnit yes I did. Ok, fine, you eat alone and I’ll go have dinner at Cherazzo’s. No, you can’t come with me. Just stay home. Order pizza for all I care.
The woman hangs up the phone and thrusts it into her pocket, fluffs her hair. An ambulance reels past, lifting the hem of her skirt and spraying her ankles with water. She groans, hails a taxi and gets in the backseat.
Where to, miss?
Take me to 42nd Street.
The taxi merges with traffic. Rain falls slanted on the windows. The going is slow.
Wet night, the cab driver says.
No shit, that’s what happens when it rains.
He eyes her in the rearview.
I apologize, I was only trying to make polite conversation.
Well do me a favor: don’t.
He turns up the radio. African music. The woman sighs and shakes her head.
They pick up speed for a time and come to a traffic jam. There in the center of the city five hundred people stand in the rain, eyes skyward, ripples of consternation creased between their brows.
What’s going on? Why is everyone stopping?
There seems to be something in the sky.
Well, what is it?
I cannot tell you. I do not see it.
Whatever, can’t you take a back way or something? An alley?
The cab driver opens his door and gets out. Looks up.
The woman gets out of the cab cursing, but stops, conscious of her voice being the only sound. She follows the cab driver’s gaze — everyone’s gaze — westward, above the skyscrapers, where a dark fog has gathered.
Stuck in a subway car a thousand feet below the earth, all the lights off, passengers trade stories or sit in defeated silence, trying to ignore the warm infusion of strangers’ breath, the silence, the fear.
For a while a woman was screaming, smashing the subway windows with her fists until they were bruised and bleeding. Now she’s restrained by seatbelt straps, panting madly in the dark.
Some of the passengers are praying. Others trying to make phone calls. A bum and a high school teacher sit in the back and talk of the way things used to be. The way things are.
Ain’t never gone be the same after this un, the bum says. This is it, I reckon. Been a long time comin ye ask me.
Yes, the teacher says. I suppose you’re right.
A man alone on his sailboat. He’s already furled the sails and tied the lines, lowered the anchor into the bay. He sits in the bow while the boat rocks steadily back and forth, the sun a bright smear dipping down to set fire to the sea.
One mile west, a monstrous wave has formed, ripping up sand from the sea bottom and painting its crescent the color of mud. The wave is a thousand feet high and a mile long, and carries with it the force of an earthquake. But the man doesn’t see it. Having poured himself a glass of dry Scotch, he sips contentedly, watching clear blue waves break against the beach, thinking maybe he’ll lower his dinghy into the water and go take a look around.
Thinking, Maybe this island will be abandoned.
Hey Nell, he says, feet slippery on the grass of the orchard. You ever kissed leaves before?
Yeah, Nell says, delicately touching the leaves, the stems of apple trees. But I’m a weirdo.
Me too. I think if you kiss leaves it shouldn’t be considered adultery.
His glasses reflect the light of the moon, the stars.
They reach the outhouse, a series of clapboards in a standing rectangle, haphazard, immune to the laws of physics. Nell goes inside while Jacob waits dutifully, watching the moon glint off polished apples.
Really, Jacob? I’m peeing.
I know, I’m sorry, but it’s weird.
What about the moon, Jacob.
Jacob takes off his glasses, puts them on.
Down in the musty wine cellar with root vegetables in the corner, a woman lights a candle and sets it on a crate. Outside, wind howls fiercely, pummeling the walls of the house, threatening to rip it off its foundation.
The woman walks methodically down rows of wine vintages she’ll never get to drink, finds the bottle she was supposed to have on her 50th wedding anniversary, and opens it. She drinks from the bottle and addresses the dark.
Have you ever felt so alone? she says quietly.
The dark says nothing.
She looks around. Flickering candle. Slamming shutters. Windows caked with sulfuric ash.
No, she says. I suppose not.
An old man watches from atop his apartment building as a colossal wall of flame swoops into the city, swallowing whole blocks in the time it would take to blow out birthday candles. He holds a black and white portrait of a woman clutched to his chest. Behind him, Mozart’s Piano Concerto №21 mutes the despairing cries from the streets below.
He feels the heat long before the flames ever touch him.
His last thought: Like God’s magnificent breath.
I can’t breathe. My throat’s burning.
Here, I’ll close the vents.
Don’t go. Please.
I’m right here, baby. Not going anywhere, see? Vents closed.
I’m so scared, Caleb.
I know. Me too.
Please hold me.
I am holding you.
Closer. Hold me closer.
Is that ash out there?
Yes, I think so.
It looks like snow.
It does, doesn’t it.
It falls like snow. They dropped a fucking bomb on us, didn’t they Caleb?
We can’t say that for sure. It might not be that bad.
Don’t lie to me.
I’m not lying, I don’t know. It could be anything.
I’m so thirsty.
Hang on a minute, I think we left a water bottle in the back — Yep, here it is.
That’s not even half a bottle. Oh, Christ…
Hey, it’s all right, don’t worry. You go ahead and drink it.
We need to share it, Caleb.
I want you to have it. Besides, I’m not thirsty anyway.
No, darling, I’m not. You drink it.
Fine, only a sip though.
Just go ahead and drink it if you’re thirsty. Your throat will feel a lot better.
But shouldn’t we ration it?
No. I don’t think we should.
Are those people walking out there?
Over there, by the coffee shop. See em? Oh wait, no. It’s just cardboard I think.
Yeah, just cardboard.
I wonder where everyone is.
At home I guess. Maybe watching a movie. Maybe they’re just laughing at the stupidity of it all.
Caleb, can’t we just go out? I can’t breathe in here. I want to go home.
No. We need to stay here.
What if it’s not as bad as they say?
We need to stay here.
We’re going to die, aren’t we?
Don’t talk like that. Of course we’re not going to die.
You’re just saying that because you don’t want to upset me. But you know it and I know it. We’re going to die.
Darling, please. Why do you keep talking like that? Come here. Shh, it’s ok. We’re ok. We’re here and we’ve got each other. Don’t cry, baby, please don’t cry.
I don’t want to lose you, Caleb.
You’re not gonna lose me silly, I’m right here.
But we’re stuck in the car and the air is running out and I feel sick. We’re gonna die in here and I don’t want to lose you. Fuck, it’s not fair. Please God, wake me up! Wake me up!
Stop it baby, you’re gonna make me cry.
This doesn’t make any sense. None of it makes sense. Why should we die? What did we do to deserve this?
I don’t think we did anything.
We’re good people, aren’t we hun? We’re good people?
Then why is this happening? What did we do? Huh? What the fuck did we do!
Baby, calm down. You’re yelling.
I can’t. Oh Christ, I can’t breathe. Can’t think. This is just some nightmare and I will wake up, and so will you. Won’t we hun? We’ll just wake up?
Yeah, we’ll wake up.
Caleb, please hold me.
You keep saying that and I am holding you. See? Feel that? That’s me holding you. I love you, darling, I will always be here and I will always be holding you. God damn it. God fucking damn it all. What a waste.
A waste? What do you mean? Are you crying? Caleb? Are you crying?
I can’t help it.
Why are you crying?
Because I love you. I love you so goddamn much and it’s all a waste.
I love you too. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you sad.
You didn’t make me sad. You don’t need to apologize, you’ve done nothing wrong. I just love you so goddamn much.
I love you too.
Oh, fuck, now you’ve got me crying, see?
It’s ok. You can cry. I’m all done now.
Well that’s reassuring.
I’m joking. Come here. Right here.
You were right about the water. I feel much better now.
I mean it. I feel really good now. That water helped a lot.
Good, baby. I’m glad it helped.
That light over there. It’s growing.
Over there. See it?
Yes. I see it.
What is it?
Just some light. Don’t worry.
What’s that sound? What’s that?
It’s ok baby, it’s just the wind.
Don’t be scared. I’m right here.
It’s getting brighter. You see that?
Can you feel it?
Oh, God! The car’s shaking. Caleb why’s the car shaking!
I love you baby, look at me don’t look out there look at me! I love you do you hear me?
And I will find you again.
I can’t see anything!
In the next life —
Caleb I lo —
A young boy crouches in the forest to pluck the head off a flower: speckled purple, crossed with vanilla cream veins. It smears his hands with yellow pollen, and he laughs. He lies in the grass, his chubby thighs slick with dew, and moves the flower around like a plane skimming across the sky, a big purple plane, soaring high into the air. He finishes playing with it and goes to put the flower back on the stem, but the stem will not take it. He tries again, and again the flower falls hopelessly to the ground.
Silly, his father says. Once you pick the flower you can’t put it back.
The boy stares at him, confused.
Can’t put it back, his father says again. You picked it.
Finally understanding, the boy begins to cry. His father tries to comfort him, but the boy will not relent. He holds the broken flower cradled in his hands, petals already curling, limp and lifeless, and cries with all the sorrow of creation.