The end of the world had started slowly, in the month of September, in Mrs. Frobisher’s garden. It had started in a small way, as all big things start.
She had been watching from her bedroom window, one cold, bright morning as the sun lit the tall boundary fence, when she noticed the color falling from the apples. As she had watched, they turned from red to a watery paleness. She stood up from her writing desk and leant forward, reasoning at first that it was just a trick of the sunlight, but could see quite clearly that the apples were colorless. As she continued to stare at the tree an apple fell from its branch and landed in the tall, uncut grass. A wave of pallor swept over the grass, through the entire lawn, until it was no longer green.
Mrs. Frobisher made her way from the bedroom and down the stairs to the back door. Through the glass window above the back door she could see a blackbird turning a chalky white, its orange beak shading into a dull ecru like old porcelain. The bird flew up into the sky, which Mrs. Frobisher could see was no longer blue, or grey, or anything. It was simply as if the sky was no longer there, as if she was looking into the purest nothing.
That evening the local vicar, Reverend D’Vere, called on Mrs. Frobisher with the parish council. As they sat at her kitchen table Mrs. Frobisher had great difficulty in making them out, blending as they did with everything else.
“We’re very concerned about the Fete on Saturday, Mrs. Frobisher,” announced the vicar from somewhere to her left.
“Excuse me, Vicar?” said Mrs. Frobisher, whose concentration had begun to wane.
“The Fete on Saturday. We’re very worried about it. Mrs. Bates was to be making the RhubarbTarts, but the rhubarb has gone off.”
“Gone off, Vicar?”
“Yes,” chimed in Mrs. Bates. “It’s got some sort of blight or something. Gone terribly pale, it has.”
Mrs. Frobisher sat in a daze. The whole world was becoming completely pallid and all they had noticed was a lack of color in the rhubarb.
Mrs. Frobisher fumbled at the table, trying to find the teapot, which she eventually located by its heat. Finding a teacup with a gentle sweep of her free hand she began to carefully pour a cup of tea. The tea, she noticed, was almost unnoticeable, and she had to guess when the cup was full, for fear she would spill it over the table.
And that, basically, was the beginning of the end of the world. A lot more happened after that, but nobody could really tell exactly what.
Photo "Apple" courtesy of Liana Myburgh, East London, South Africa.
For seven nights in a row he dreamt of an old man building a cage of thistles in the rough fields beside a river. As the old man worked, his hands torn from the handling, gray thistle seeds, like feathered moons, rose out from the cage. All the time that he worked the old man sang a song, just one verse over and over:
You speak the speech of muted stones,
He had no idea what the dream meant. Each morning he would wake, the pale yellow walls of his room brightening in the sunlight, and would ponder the dream. But after the seventh night’s dream he went from the house with nothing in his pockets but the space for his hands and took the overgrown lane into the village. Beyond the village he asked a jackdaw for directions, not expecting an answer because he was only fooling, and no answer did he get.
As the day went on the wind increased and he had to turn up the collar of his coat and tie the buttons all the way to his throat. By midday the sky had turned dark and it began to rain in great slicing sheets.
Several miles from the village he turned off the road to get shelter from the rain. A thick ribbon of trees fringed the river that paced alongside the road, so he made for their cover.
Dizzy to its brim with floodwater the river tumbled triumphantly. He stood on its banks, amazed at the noise it was making, when something caught his eye. On the far side of the river a young woman was tangled hopelessly in the branches of willow that trailed its edge. She waved at him frantically, her body trapped in the thick osiers of sally. He strained to hear her voice but could make out nothing above the sound of the river. He stepped forward awkwardly, misjudging a jutted root, and, in that moment, slipped into the rushing waters.
Beneath the surface of the water all sound was gone. Nothing mattered. Nothing was. The river became seven nights of dreams. An old man built a cage of thistles. Gray seeds like feathered moons rose into the air. The old man sang a song one verse long, over and over, over and over.
Photo "Downy Thistle" courtesy of Joăo Estęvăo A. de Freitas, Santa Cruz, Portugal.
As the woman gave birth to five sons a gray tiger entered by a window and ate the newborns one by one.
Outside, the moon shone down, its face as if stained with tears. Stooped willows trailed their hair into the glistening river; nightbirds stirred in the shadows. At his table the Emperor drank tea from a jade bowl. He slouched unhappily, his dream still fresh. Moonlight filtered in through the slats of the bamboo screen as the Emperor blew gently into the bowl.
Opposite sat the Empress, her face sliced by moonlight. Even now she looked beautiful, her hair as silver as the moon. Her eyes had the subdued luster of jade; her dark skin wrinkled like the folds of an exquisite peony. As she looked at the Emperor she knew he was unsettled, but they sat there in silence.
He would tell her if he could, for a dream is but a dream. But he sat there unspeaking. On the borders of his kingdom his armies were massing against the enemy. The signs had been auspicious. The oracle had told him to keep to his course. “The marsh drains into the deep,” it had said. “All accrues to greatness.” His advisers agreed this boded well.
The Empress rose and turned to go, her silk gown shining in the moonlight, its embroidered dragons stirring.
The Emperor gazed into his tea. In its dark mirror he pondered the war. On the battlefield his sons were preparing for daylight.
John W. Sexton (Republic of Ireland) is a poet, short-story writer, dramatist, children’s novelist, radio scriptwriter, and broadcaster. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Prince’s Brief Career (Cairn Mountain Press, 1995); Shadows Bloom / Scáthanna Faoi Bhláth, a book of haiku with translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock; and, most recently, Vortex (Doghouse, 2005). He also created and wrote The Ivory Tower for RTE radio, which ran to over one hundred half-hour episodes. His novels based on this series, The Johnny Coffin Diaries and Johnny Coffin School-Dazed are both published by The O’Brien Press, and have been translated into Italian and Serbian. Under the ironic pseudonym of Sex W. Johnston he has recorded an album with legendary Stranglers frontman, Hugh Cornwell, entitled Sons Of Shiva, which has been released on Track Records.
"Apple" courtesy of Liana Myburgh, East London, South Africa.
"Downy Thistle" courtesy of Joăo Estęvăo A. de Freitas, Santa Cruz, Portugal.
"Moonlight on Water, Transkei" courtesy of James Stapley, Grahamstown, South Africa.
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