This is a work of fiction.
The wind howled all night, and I woke up several times, but no cloud came for me out of the earth.
At dawn, I rose and got dressed. I put my daughter’s sketches, still in their folder, into a light bag and strapped it securely onto my back, and belted it at my waist. If anything came to kill me, I could not easily be separated from her work.
I walked into the kitchen and saw that there was nothing to eat except some old bread. The big jug would have been too heavy for my wife to carry, and it was almost full. I drank and then looked outside. Snow was falling and the wind blew through a day dimly lit. Would I ever see the sun shining again?
All that day, I sat and listened to the storm and leafed through the 287 sketches that were the next most precious to me, after my wife and daughter. Each time I looked, they grew more beautiful.
That day and two more passed in the same way. In the middle of the that night, the wind stopped. I lay awake, listening to the silence, until just before sunrise. When it came, the sun was as bright as it could be, and I had to shield my eyes from the blinding glare. I looked out upon the day, and saw only snow, blue sky, and houses that stood quietly in the still air. It was time to go out and look for food and find out if anybody else had stayed or been left behind.
I put on my heavy coat and my snowshoes, and got my bags. I walked from house to house, looking for people and food. I found enough of the latter to sustain me, but none of the former, until I came to a set of steps and saw a hat in the snow. I lifted it up, and saw a frozen man. He’d died just feet away from his home; as I probably would have if I’d tried to leave during the storm. There was no point in digging him out; this was as good a grave as any, so I nodded respectfully and kept going.
In one house, I heard a voice, and went into a bedroom where an elderly lady was lying in bed. She was mumbling nonsense to herself, and her skin was thin, dry, and pale.
“I’m here,” I said. “Would you like a glass of water?” She looked at me but didn’t seem to see. “Lady, are you thirsty? I’m your neighbor and I’m here to help you. The storm is over. I have water and food.” She still didn’t seem to understand, so I filled a cup and offered it to her. She didn’t appear to know how to drink it, and I didn’t want to force it upon her, so I stayed with her and offered my hand, which she took.
All that day and into the night, I sat with her. Just before sunrise, she expired, and I covered her with a clean sheet, lifted her up, took her outside, and laid her in the snow beneath a large evergreen.
With a heavy heart, I continued my search for other humans. I found three more dead, a man and a woman outside their house, and a small boy in a broken bicycle cart. I had no doubt that there were others I couldn’t see beneath the snow. I was all alone. Soon, I would head down the mountain side in search of my wife and daughter, but there was one last place I needed to go.
As I approached the massive structure, I felt very little, except for a kind of dull, aching sadness, and something that resembled anger. I flung the doors open without any reverence, and entered. The place smelled bad, and the Worship chamber was empty. I walked with no hesitation between the two great pillars, and observed what lay beyond. There was a hallway with a door on each side, and another door at the end. I opened the door on the right and saw a bed that had been stripped bare, a kitchen containing very little, and a bathroom in need of a good cleaning. In the room on the left, the bed was also bare, the kitchen was empty, but the bathroom was spotless. The place smelled faintly of perfume, and I imagined that it belonged to the female Leader of Worship. Where was she now? Where was the man who’d stood beside her between the pillars and told us all that the dark tide was coming? Did I care?
I left her room and approached the door at the end of the hall. I wanted to leave, but I had a duty to find anyone who was still here.
The door was locked. I almost departed; it was probably just an office. What made me set my mind to the task of breaking in was not curiosity about what lay beyond the door, but anger at the Leaders of Worship for not being the last to leave. Mariners say that the captain goes down with the ship, and as a parent I know that my wife and I would gladly give our lives for our daughter, so why shouldn’t Leaders of Worship die for their people?
The door was solid, but being a furniture maker, I had the tools to remove it. I studied the problem, and a few minutes later, the door fell into my arms, and I laid it down on the floor. I looked into the room. It was no office! In the center stood a large cage. In the cage, there were two creatures. One was a child of about two, and the other was a bird. The bird was sitting on three eggs, and the child was curled up asleep. The bird was large, and I could easily have sat on her back. Her wings were folded against her sides and her feathers were a muddy combination of brown and gray. Her eyes were also brown, but sparkled with life and looked at me intently.
On the floor, the child uncurled and opened its eyes. It saw me, opened its mouth, and screamed. Another scream came from behind the bird.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. The words sounded ridiculous, given that my voice was shaking. If I was frightened, how could I comfort those around me? Could the children even understand me? Were they real children?
A pair of brown eyes appeared beside the bird’s tail and looked at me.
“I have food and water,” I said. “Are you hungry and thirsty?” The child nearest me nodded. The bird chirped in what sounded like agreement. I searched the room and found a cupboard containing bowls and cups. Once I’d filled them and put them through the bars, both children rushed over and picked theirs up. The bird looked at hers and made a mournful sound. The children looked at me.
“Can you two push her bowl and cup closer?” I said, realizing that she couldn’t leave her eggs and I didn’t want to make her wait until I could get into the cage myself. The children nodded and did so. The bird chirped happily and began to eat. I was starting to feel peckish myself, so I made myself a meal and ate it on the floor, just outside the cage.
After we’d eaten, I took out my tools and smiled at them all.
“I’m going to open this cage so we can leave. There’s nobody else here.” The bird gave a sad chirp. “I’ll try not to make noise, but if I do, don’t worry.” The children watched as I cut the door from the cage.
“May I come in?” I asked, once it was out of the way and I’d repacked my tools. The bird chirped and the children nodded. I entered the cage and saw that there was a door built into the floor. It was locked, and it took me only a few minutes to remove it. I climbed down a set of stairs and found myself in a small room lined with shelves. Some helf preserved food, some bottles of medicine, and others were piled with papers and books. There was also a wooden seat with straps that appeared as though it would conform perfectly to the bird’s back. On each side of it, bags hung by more straps. I opened the bags, but they were empty. Could I put this on her back and fly with the children out of there and down the mountain? What a crazy thought.
I was about to go back upstairs when I saw it. On top of a stack of papers, lay a sketch that could only have been done by my daughter. With a trembling hand, I reached out and took it. I looked at the bottom right corner and saw her mark.