The Unilever Series: Dominique Gonzales Foerster - TH.2058



By Valerie O'Riordan

Something fell from the sky.

It dropped to the bottom of the dinghy, a wall of stagnant water cresting and slamming after it. The dinghy pitched and spun off course, everything crashing downwards, water spilling in from all sides, Harrison yelling and stumbling, the dinghy spinning in the current and finally slamming into the dead outcrop of an ancient electricity pylon. Harrison fell, cracked his head against the oar, and the boat drifted on silently.

The rain pattered down softly, beating out the rhythm of Harrison’s life like a thousand metronomes. When he awoke, he had drifted far beyond the settlement. His belongings were spilled and broken in the bottom of the boat. With his foot, Harrison poked the dark heft of the thing that had fallen from the sky and almost capsized him. He kicked at it with his toe and heel. It was disguised under his tarpaulin. He held his breath, shifted his weight carefully and lifted the edge of the tarp.

It was a dead bird.

Harrison stared. He didn’t know about birds. That is, he knew about them: he had read the articles as a child in half-drowned encyclopedias before the waters rose further and flooded the top shelves of the library, and his mother had told him what she could remember: wing-beats against glass, tiny forked feet, beautiful songs in the air. (He knew about snow.) When she was ill and writhing in the tent, her ribs pushing against the restraints of her papery skin, he had whistled for her. He had thought about bird-song and cried when she finally gave up and they pushed her off into the waters wrapped in blankets.

He sat in his boat in the rain and stared at the body of this bird; huge, filthy, balding where the feathers had come unmoored, the tiny feet, the tiny eyes, the unexpectedly hairy legs. His fingers hovered above the legs, curious, but loathe to touch them. What do you do with a bird?

Annie wouldn’t cook the bird, certainly; for her, the threat of disease was as high as ever. Harrison pictured her as she had stood when he left that morning: Annie in the tent over the bucket of greasy washing water, arms folded, her hip-bones casting shadows on her thighs, her dressing gown and wellingtons, a shower cap pulled down over her hair, her cough, the drip-drip-drip through the ceiling marking the time of her hopelessness. Annie turning away at night, jerking in tune with her nightmares, her eyes sinking deeper into her skull. Annie’s dreams of disease and contagion; Annie’s refusal to eat; her head lolling on her shoulders in the rain.

Harrison’s head ached. He saw the bird falling from the sky and hitting his tiny boat. He wondered about the distances it had travelled. He pictured jungles and deserts. He pictured the bird airborne – this dead mass winging in space – and tried to see it perched on a branch, but his memories of trees were ragged and silly, and the bird didn’t perch well on comic-book stick-trees, thick torsos with round bushes of bright green hair. Harrison sighed. The bird’s eyes stared back at him, offended, and he turned away.

He paddled until the sun sank halfway into the water. Its reflection danced huge and red, and the eyes of the dead bird burned. He didn’t know where he was headed. The bird watched him and he rowed as if under contract, afraid that if he ditched it, he would somehow bring the wrath of the fallen world down upon him. He felt the cracked old buildings deep underwater resonate as he passed, shifting in the earth as a tribute to the bird, a weird visitor from a very long time ago, lost in this savage place. In the darkness, Harrison sank to his knees, curled up and slept, his head inches from the bird’s beak, his warm breath fogging up the air around them so that from above, it would look as though they were both breathing.

When he awoke, the boat was bobbing against a huge concrete wall. Harrison paddled along the perimeter. Around a corner he found the bottom of a long ladder leading to a platform straddling the top of the wall. This was, Harrison realized, one of those areas protected from the beginning of the floods; the wall, concrete and steel, was twenty feet thick and must have seemed, back then, impossibly, stupidly, large. He slung the damp, slick body of the bird over his shoulder, lashing it to his chest with a length of rope. He moored the dinghy to the ladder, hoisted himself up to the bottom rung, and climbed. A glass roof joined the walls on the inner side, arching over the building, a dirty and debris-splattered sky for whatever waited underneath. Inside the wall, the ladder passed down through a tiny gap in the glass. Harrison descended, placing his feet gingerly, the bird pressing warmly against him. At the bottom, he shivered.

The air was dry.

The ground was dry. Dust covered the ground the rungs of the ladder; it settled on the bird’s bedraggled feathers. It irritated Harrison’s eyes and coated his tongue. When he moved, his footsteps shifted and disappeared. The silence, the missing rain, was terrifying.

The entrance to the building before him was shaded by an immense curtain of plastic, and he pushed through it as through the door of an immense meat-locker in one of his childhood encyclopedias. Beyond was a massive hall filled with monsters; huge metal spiders, garbled shapes, bunk-beds littered with books and statues everywhere – steel and wooden guardians of an abandoned space. Harrison moved through the room like a ghost. He sat on the edge of one of the beds and looked up at the underbelly of the spider, and wondered about the world that had drowned and rotted before he was born. He lay flat out on the bed and slept, the bird beside him, their heads level on the pillow, two eyes closed, two eyes watching.

He alternately slept and explored the mausoleum of statuary. He read the books, futuristic dystopian adventures, following the words with his fingertips and reading some sections aloud to the bird, who listened attentively, propped up on a pile of pillows on a top bunk in the middle of the vast chamber. Harrison couldn’t find any food, and he felt lighter and happier.

One day, wandering outside, he heard a noise. A retort. Something smashed or broken. Yelling. He looked up the ladder, a dark line pointing into the sky, and he felt dizzy. Shadows moved far above his head. Something fell. Something dotted the dusty floor of his strange garden, and Harrison stumbled over, tripping in his haste and then crawling crawling, his legs trembling and his head thumping. Glass littered the ground. Harrison picked up a sliver, the size of his arm, and it cut into his palm, and his blood dripped onto the dust too, glittering against the broken glass. And then the rain started, spotting the ground, spattering against Harrison’s face and arms and legs. He heard a cracking and roaring and he realized that the glass was shifting and giving in above him, and he crawled to the wall and grasped the ladder and watched as vast sheets of the sky fell in, smashing on the roof of the building, the noise horrific, the end of the world at last.

Harrison climbed the ladder. He rested every few rungs. His legs shook. Tears poured down his face as the rain pounded down into his own private arena. When he reached the platform at the top he lay there for a very long time, and when he looked out over the old sea, he saw his dinghy floating unmoored, about twenty feet out. In the boat were some kids with shotguns, smoking and laughing, singing some garbled song. They saw him and hooted, and one of them blasted the gun in his direction, and they cheered and whooped, but they didn’t bother with him beyond that. His face was hollow and hopeless. Their own makeshift raft was disintegrating nearby, rotted planks and plastic drums moving away from one another and sinking slowly into the old, old city below.

Harrison watched his boat sail away.

He slept in the rain until the morning. Then he climbed back down the ladder and walked across to his building, the dust underfoot now a slimy muck, clinging to his feet and slurping as he pulled his feet out, step after step. He pushed through the plastic curtain and walked around the growing puddle seeping underneath it and running into the hall, and he found his bird waiting for him, watching him lie down on the bunk beside it and close his eyes, and the bird kept watch as Harrison stroked its feathers and cried, and the waters rose.

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