Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke







 The Reason the World Has Ended


If it’s true that the Shalazh are the most melancholy people in the world, that’s only because they believe the world has already come to an end.  A Shalazh will stand on a dry mound, surveying the badlands and the perpetual gray skies that surround them, and will imagine what the world was like before it ended, the tall green plants that dripped with sweet nectar, the shafts of sunlight spoking through the trees like music, the cool rains that made you laugh with joy, the charming curiosity of certain extinct animals.

The worst part is that the Shalazh can find no explanation for it.  Not that they don’t try.  The tribal elders periodically debate the causes of the world’s end until a consensus is reached.  That consensus becomes the official explanation, the one a Shalazh will give to a stranger who poses the question in public.  “The world was destroyed by an unsupervised child who dropped it on a stake,” a Shalazh will say.  If you ask him again the next week, there’ll be a new explanation: “The world was rolled across a hard surface by a finicky giant who disliked its irregularities.”  But if a Shalazh invites you into his home, he’ll tell you what he really thinks: “The elders are full of nonsense.  Everyone knows that the world ended because that’s what worlds do sometimes.  The elders think their explanations will make us feel better about the end of the world, but instead the explanations make us laugh at the elders.”

While it’s true that the elders do come up with some incredible explanations (“The world was on the tip of an arrow that finally reached its target”),  they believe they are doing more than comforting their people.  The elders believe that if they hit upon the correct explanation, the world may be revived.  They think that whoever is responsible for the world’s demise may simply be playing a game, like a child who has hidden something and wants you to guess where it is (“The world was taken from its nest and buried in the desert, where it dried up and mummified before it could hatch”).  Or it may be that this certain Whoever wants the Shalazh to come to some understanding of its great power (“The world was a brief happy thought in the mind of a dour God”).  Or it may be that there is no Whoever and the world ended because of some natural process (“The world was crushed by the swelling weight of its overactive breeders”).  If this latter is the case, then perhaps the elders can find a way to reverse the process (by allowing no plant to reach more than three feet, for instance, and no person to live past forty).

So far, none of the elders’ explanations has worked.  Their world is just the same as it has been for generations: barren, depressing, difficult.  Since the world ended, the Shalazh have been forced to eat rodents and roots--small, tasteless things that barely survived the destruction.

The Shalazh dress in black, in mourning for the end of the world, and they speak in hushed tones, as though they’re attending a funeral.  Their dark eyes are moist with sorrow, but most are too stoic to cry.   They say that once the gates of sorrow are opened, they’ll spend their whole lives crying for the lost earth, and what’s the point of that?

Instead, they gaze into the long distance and imagine for themselves what the earth was like.  Then, when they gather in small groups, they entertain themselves by describing the earth as it once was, the singing birds darting among the branches, the cold brooks chattering over stones and smoothing them into disks, the black mud you could scoop up and squeeze between your knuckles, the fragrant breeze that spoke the language of flowers, the first taste of fruit on your tongue.  In these conversations, the Shalazh take on a changed aspect.  Their moist eyes sparkle, they throw their heads back and laugh with open mouths, they slap each other on the shoulder, their voices strong and clear and their words quick, as if they are remembering the good times they’d once had with the deceased.  At some point, though, one of them will remember that the deceased will not be returning, and a look will cross his face as though he now regrets all the breathless pleasure he’d just allowed himself.  The others in the group will see that look and feel ashamed at their pleasure, too.  The conversation will fall quiet, and soon the Shalazh will go their separate ways to dig up roots or catch a field mouse for supper.

A splinter group of Shalazh have quietly ignored the explanations of the elders.  They are tired of explanations and want to abandon the false hope of bringing the world to life again.  They meet outside the village in a dried riverbed, and there they allow themselves to cry openly for the dead earth.  The elders are not unaware of these heretics.  Sometimes they stand on the bluffs above the dried riverbed and watch in silence as the others sob, hands on knees, tears dripping off their faces.

The elders don’t discuss it, but each to a man wonders what will happen if the heretics are allowed to continue.  And each to a man imagines the heretics’ tears pooling together on the dried riverbed, the pool beginning to flow, making chattering brooks, and the brooks joining into wide rivers, and the rivers pouring into deep seas, and soon the earth springs to life again, the trees and plants shooting out of the mud, the birds darting and chirping, and the sun finally showing its face again, its spokes of light piercing the hearts of the Shalazh like Cupid’s arrows.

When will enough tears be shed to bring the world to life again?

That’s a question both elders and heretics wish to avoid.