Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Last Girl

Dear Ellie,

This was a difficult story to write, and it may also be a difficult story for you to read.  Why?  Because its about an uncomfortable subject.  Yes, I want to write you stories that are fun and fantastical with morals about how to live a happier, brighter life... but I also want to write stories about harder subjects so that you can one day defeat them.  Stories about rejection.  Stories about fear.  Stories about vulnerability.  The story I've written you here?  This one, The Last Girl, is about the most difficult subject of all: mortality.

Yes, it might seem odd that I would be inventing a story about mortality when you are just 1 year old, but the greatest tragedy is to waste one's life fearing death, and to defeat fear is to face that fear.  I've wanted to write you something exploring this theme for some time, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it.  But then, a few weeks ago while walking late at night, it came to me.  I looked up at the black spaces between the stars, and thought about the distant future when all of the sky would be black.  When the cosmos, itself, will die.  I realized that the greatest barrier to accepting the fact that we will one day die is believing that there is always more time to live in the future.  However, to acknowledge that existence itself will end one day is to acknowledge that death cannot be evaded forever.  Even if you were to drink some elixir that made you immune to the frailties of age, even if you somehow dodged all accidents, even if you enshrined your consciousness in some spectacular machine... the stars will one day burn out, the cosmos will become cold, and the very stuff of existence will fizzle away.

In this story, the last girl must face death, as well as the end of all things.  Once she finally does, she is finally able to live.


 Illustration by Tze-Chiang Lim

When Keoni awoke at dawn, she stood to her feet.  Stared to the East as the wind stung her eyes.  She looked not to the beauty of the last sunrise or the crash of the waves.  She couldn't find peace.  Instead, she looked to the horizon for the canoe.  Or volcano smoke.  But there was neither.  Only water.

When her gaze came away, she noticed that yet another chunk of her island had disappeared while she slept. Another piece, nibbled away by the encroaching ocean.  It was Dawn Rock that was taken this time, a once massive spire of stone that reached skyward.  Somewhere beneath the waves, it was now sliding toward the abyssal depths.  Keoni's legs fell out from under her.  She clutched the last patch of grass on the island with her hands, but she didn't slide the soft blades between her fingers.  She didn't lie down and let them tickle her skin as she'd done so many times in years past.  She couldn't find peace.  Instead, she wept.  Quaked in fear.  If Dawn Rock was gone, then perhaps the wise elders had been right all along.

The Elders gave Dawn Rock its namesake for two reasons.  The first reason?  It was the tallest place on the island; the very first piece of land that was touched by the light of dawn each morning.  The other reason it was called Dawn Rock was that it was said by the elders to be the place where the world first formed.  And the place where the world would end.

Keoni ambled over to where the proud rock once stood.  In prior days, she'd have walked uphill to reach it.  But now?  The land sloped down toward the sea.  A small, craggy lagoon had taken its place.  As she walked down the incline, soil and pebbles gave way beneath her feet and tumbled toward the frothy waves.  So fresh was the scar in the land that there weren't any of the usual intertidal denizens down by the water.  No barnacles.  No scurrying crabs.  No snails slithering along smooth stones.  Just jagged rock, torn open.  In earlier times, she would have noticed the eerie, primal beauty of those rocks.  Like the very first stones spewed forth from volcanoes upon the Eternal Sea.  But she didn't.  She couldn't find peace.

Instead, Keoni looked again toward the East.  Watched for the canoe of her older brother, Anulu.  Is there any way he could have survived 3 months at sea?  If anyone could, it would be her bold, determined brother.

She thought back to her childhood.  Back to when her brother would awake in the early morning to scale Dawn Rock.  How he would wait for the first rays of light.  How he would bellow: "I am Father of Dawn!" and then all of the elders would jeer at him for his sacrilege.  How easy it was for her brother to taunt the elders back then.  Back when Dawn Rock was the very center of the island.  Back when plump Dodren birds roamed the plains.  Back when there were plains.  Back before the famine and back when all who dwelled upon the island believed that the end of the world was far, far away.

Keoni stirred from her reverie.  The waves were now lapping at her feet.  Were she to stay another hour, they would be up at her ankles.  Then her shins.  Then her knees.

Was the ocean rising or was the island sinking? she wondered for the thousandth time.  Her mother and father used to argue about the subject endlessly.  Her mother believed that the island was sinking.  That Father of Dawn had grown too weary and tired and could no longer battle the relentless advance of the Eternal Sea.  Keoni's father, on the other hand, believed that the ocean was rising.  He insisted that Father of Dawn--- great volcano God--- had not abandoned them.  Instead, he claimed, the Eternal Sea had risen and risen and risen until Father of Dawn's volcanoes could no longer reach the surface.  Unable to give birth to new land while the Eternal Sea reclaimed the world, unchecked.

When it came time, her mother and father chose to die the same way that they believed.  To die, once the fresh water grew too scarce and the famine grew too great, so that Keoni and Anulu might have a chance to live.  Her mother chose to swim out to sea, exhaled the last breath from her lungs, and let her body sink to the bottom of the ocean.  Her father swam out to a tall weathered rock beyond the break of the waves, sat with his legs wrapped around the stone, and surrendered to the Eternal Sea as it rose above his knees, and then his chest, and then his neck, and then, finally, his head.

In time, the few tribesmen and tribeswomen on the island that remained surrendered their lives as well, each one finding their own ways to perish.  They'd all disappeared, one by one, until only Keoni and her brother were left.  And then, in desperation, he brother left as well.

What, then, is my way? Keoni wondered, but when the water came to her ankles, her thoughts were broken.  She stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do.  She could have relished the lapping of the cool, briny waves at her shins.  Sighed with each crash along the shore.  Watched as little fish swirled about in tidal pools.  Instead, her heart throbbed in fear.  She couldn't find peace.  She stepped away from the water and fled to higher ground.  Before she left the scar where Dawn Rock once stood, she shielded her eyes from the sun and stared to the East.

She walked back toward the last patch of grass.  To the new, highest point on the island.  It was that very place where she had so often gone to be alone when she was younger.  To watch the grass shimmer in the breeze and the clouds blow away before the wind and the waves break on far away atolls.  "The lonely girl," her father used to call her.  It wasn't a nickname meant to be endearing, but Keoni always thought that there was something beautiful about being alone.  It was at those moments of deepest loneliness that she also felt the greatest inner peace.

Once she'd arrived back at the patch of grass, though, her heart sank.  While she was gone, another piece of the island had disappeared.  This time, it was the place where the tribe used to build their fires at dusk and sing songs to the stars.  Keoni thought back to that happy time.  That time when the island was so big that when you stood in the center of it, you couldn't even hear the waves they were so far away.

The island always seemed to slip away in the place where her back was turned.  Disappear while she was dreaming or between each blink of her eyes.  Were her brother, Anulu, still there, they might stand back to back on that last patch of grass and stare out across the island, unblinking through day and night and salt spray, so that no more land would be stolen from them.

"Anulu..." Keoni whispered to the air.

She shielded her eyes and stared to the East.

Maybe it isn't the end, Keoni thought.  Perhaps Anulu found land.  Perhaps he is coming back for me in his canoe right this moment, like he said he would.  Or perhaps Father of Dawn has awoken again.  Perhaps, if I stare hard enough at the horizon I'll see a volcano erupt through the water.  Spew forth new land that I can swim out to.  Perhaps all the world will start anew once more: that the Father of Dawn will slowly fill all the ocean with volcanoes and all the world with land just as he did at the beginning of time.  Perhaps I will be the last girl... and the first girl.

She'd thought these things often.  Thought these things each time part of the island disappeared.  Or each time one of the tribesmen or tribeswomen let themselves be taken by the ocean.  Or when her parents let themselves drown.  Or when her brother set out in defiance of the Eternal Sea, paddling away in his canoe to find land that the Eternal Sea could not take.

The words he spoke before he left rang again in her head.  Those desperate words.  "The elders are wrong.  The world will never end.  There is land, somewhere, that the ocean cannot touch.  I will find it.  When I do, watch the Eastern horizon sister, for when I return, I will take us to a place where we will start anew."

And so all through that last day, Keoni could not find peace.  She didn't stop to feel the wind whisk through her hair.  Or stop to feel the sun warm her skin.  She didn't stop to watch the flying fish that rose from the ocean in great fountains or the whales that spat water skyward in mighty spouts.  Instead, the smaller the island became, the more she found herself staring East, her thoughts seduced by those desperate notions of salvation.  Perhaps the world might start anew.  Or her brother had already found land and his canoe was just off the horizon, just behind the clouds.  Her eyes were fixed East as the sun rose up in the sky for the last time. As it set toward the west for the last time.  She stared when dusk came for the last time and the stars blinked to life for the last time.

She sat there on the last patch of grass through the night.  A dry, crisp night.  The stars were bright and piercing, just as they'd been in her childhood when she and her family and her tribe sang songs to the sky.  But Keoni didn't notice the stars.  Instead, she stared, still, at the East.  Was Anulu paddling in the dark?  Was he behind the nearest moonlit wave?

But then she felt it.  The tickle of water, licking at her thighs.  She lurched to her feet.  Reached out in all directions with the tips of her feet, but there was only water.  Water, slowly rising.

"Anulu!" she shouted in the darkness.  Then listened.  And listened.  And listened.  Behind every crash of the waves and each gust of the wind, she thought, perhaps, that she could hear his voice.  She waited.  And waited.  Each minute, the water rose higher, and as it swallowed her knees, she began to weep.  Her eyes still gazed east through tears.  Her legs shook and she shivered in fear.  A slow, rolling wave nearly knocked her from her footing.  She clutched the ground with her toes.

That's when she felt for the patch of grass beneath her feet.  Felt and felt and felt... but the patch was all but gone.  Taken by the ocean as she'd stared, with the thinnest of hope, toward the East.  It was then that she understood the truth behind that hope.  A truth that had always been there but she could not face.

The truth was that the world would not begin anew.  Father of Dawn had long since left, or been vanquished by The Eternal Sea.  There was no land that the ocean could not touch.  No land that her brother might find.  Just as her mother had and just as her father had, Anulu simply set out toward his own end in his own way.  To die in a way that was true to him.  To die fighting, just like he believed.

She took a deep breath, finally accepting this truth.  Accepting was not like she thought it would be.  Her heart did not beat faster.  Her fears did not grow greater.  Instead, all of the things that kept her from her peace sank away into the ocean.  This, she thought at last.  This is my way.

That's when she felt something beneath her feet.  Something soft and wispy in the water.  She clutched it between her toes.  A blade of grass.  She reached down through the water and picked it up in her fingers.  Held it near her face.  It blew dry in the wind and tickled her cheek.  She stood there.  The last girl with the last green thing standing on the last sliver of land in all the world.  She turned her gaze away from the East and toward the sky.  She watched the stars, free of fear, as the water crept above her stomach, then her shoulders, then her chin.  She kept watching, never flinching, as the ocean rose above her nose.  As the ocean came above her head.  As the stars grew bleary through the shimmering water.  As the stars disappeared from her vision, to be seen only in her mind.

When the stars vanished from her mind as well, when the light was gone from her eyes and there was no more ground beneath her feet, Keoni found the deepest peace she'd ever known.  

Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

No comments:

Post a Comment