It was the end of the world, and everyone was invited. Mother Earth, the battered woman, had returned to us time and time again, and we always promised that we would do better. But now she'd had enough. We were being removed, expunged; sloughed off like so much dead skin. It was difficult to process. We cycled through the five stages of grief as we mourned our future deaths. There was something like camaraderie when we accepted that we were all going to die. People were nicer to each other. There were fireworks and cookouts. It felt like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day and Christmas morning, and it seemed to go on forever. "I almost wish the world had ended sooner," my neighbor hollered as he led another anonymous blonde up to his apartment. We were drunk on the milk of human kindness and Miller High Life.
It had begun with the large marine mammals. Each new day more of them washed up with the tide. Their bloated corpses were towed out to sea or blown up with dynamite. Red tide, Fukushima, mercury poisoning—everyone had an opinion. Some believed that the earth's rotation had shifted a few degrees and we were now on a trajectory to oblivion. It was all meaningless conjecture, and there was no urgency to it. A live pair of juvenile blue whales showed up on a beach in Newfoundland. People roped their tails and dragged them out to sea, but the whales kept beaching themselves. They confounded every effort to save them. Tie-dyed spiritualists came and placed flowers around their blowholes. They sang songs and played guitar for them. The whales watched, mute, milk-eyed. The government of Japan offered to take them away to conduct scientific research, but everyone was fairly certain that they just wanted to eat them. It wouldn't be dignified. So they were left on the beach, a feast for gulls.
The large terrestrial animals were next. Bulldozers carried dead giraffes from the zoo, their long necks hanging grotesquely between the steel teeth. It was all too much; we needed a palate cleanse. The Huffington Post published a fluff-piece on the last elephant in sub-Saharan Africa. At dawn each day the large tusker would amble to the watering hole and trumpet defiantly at the shimmering horizon. Its trunk would probe the ground searching for the fallen and fermenting fruit of the Marula tree. The fruit would intoxicate the elephant, and the great beast would stumble around comically. Now this was a creature we could relate to, one that was drinking away its sorrows. The article led to a great outpouring of interest from the general public. More than anything, people were concerned that the elephant didn't have a name. A contest was held, and the elephant was named Arthur. The world fell in love. The story of Arthur was tragic but hopeful. Arthur was proof that this Armageddon was not indiscriminate, that some of us would be spared. The sheep would be separated from the goats. A Livestream was set up to capture Arthur's daily sojourn. We awoke one day to discover that Arthur was not at the watering hole. Poachers had killed him for his tusks. A photo of a dead Arthur made the front page of the Huffington Post. "MURDERED!" Half of Arthur's face had been hacked away. Blood streamed from his eyes as if he had been crying. A garland of flies crowned his head. Our Heraclitus, our weeping philosopher. There was outrage! We demanded justice, but the poachers were never caught. Weeks later Arthur, the last elephant, was forgotten. Not quite forgotten but put aside and not spoken of. He had become the elephant in the room.
It was half a minute to midnight, and society began to unravel. The Science Technology and Religion Tribunal (START, because people still loved acronyms) was established. START was meant to finally bridge the gap between the secular and religious worlds. They held a symposium. The man of science spoke first. "Our existence is only a footnote in the story of the universe. We should not mourn the few months we have left but celebrate the two-hundred thousand years the human race has existed." The man of religion, the sweating, smiling preacher man, objected to this opening statement on the grounds that the human race had existed for only six thousand years. The technologist suggested that we should forget the past and look to the future. There was a shuttle, a great gleaming silver shuttle that could ferry a dozen of us to Mars. Time was of the essence. They took our best and brightest. The launch was broadcast around the world. We cheered, we cried, we would never learn if they made it. We sent them off with all of our hopes, like a message in a bottle cast into an unquiet sea.
We weren't dead yet. The conservative press called it "The Apocalypse at Sea" after "The War at Sea," those strange eight months at the beginning of the Second World War when no major power launched a land offensive. All that the people of the time had known were smiling faces and pressed trousers boarding warships for some faraway front. It wasn't real. Not until the bombs fell. Drôle de guerre. We had yet to have our Blitz or Normandy. We weren't yet chuffed off to our Treblinka or our Auschwitz. So we carried on, operating on a collective anxiety. We did those things we had always promised ourselves we would do. We climbed mountains and took piano lessons, but mostly we just got drunk and bought things. The real world still pressed against us. There were car payments and mortgages and student loans, and no one wanted to be out on the street when the apocalypse finally arrived.
A great multitude of small birds settled in the trees of Central Park. They were charming creatures, bobbing and dancing on the branches. Singing for their lives. They brought us some measure of happiness. In the weeks to come, they would fall to the ground, one by one, like so many dead apples. "There is a biblical precedent…" the preacher explained as he mopped his brow with a handkerchief, "…when God delivered manna from heaven to feed the starving Israelites. It is all part of God's plan." Somehow we had expected God's plan to be grander, all scorched earth and Battle of Megiddo. Not this. Not hundreds of dead wrens and sparrows. The preacher smiled too much, and he perspired too much. The jig was up.
So we waited. Like the man at the train station who checks his watch and peers down the track. He waits for the train that will come. He looks up the track and down the track, and they appear one and the same. And it seems to take forever. Then all at once, it is upon him. It was quiet in the city. No distant rumble of airplanes. No dogs barking. No sound of weeping or laughing. No sound at all.