One by One by One
April 2, 2012
It began with the birds, Icarus-winged, high and fast, far reaching towards the sunset, a reckless dance that swam upon the evening breeze. Starling cloud storms thundered westwards; squawking gulls, twisting and circling, cackled across the thrashing sea. The barn owls flew their perches; the falcons fled the chalk white rocks. Not one pigeon remained on the cold cut stones of Trafalgar Square; not one pheasant lay to roost, grain fat and weary, in the dank and dreary fields of a single country estate.
The people mused, confused, butchers and bakers, cashiers and clerks. Their theories mounted, their solutions babbled and gushed, the world to rights was put upon the public plate of resolution, and they went on, they moved on, they were dismissive and curt. They made do without poultry, for there was plenty of fish in the sea, and cattle upon the land, and grain in the fields. They made do without pigeons, for there were radio antennae and telegram wires. They made do without pheasant and quail and grouse, for there were foxes and rabbits and even stag to hunt too. Life moved on, clicked-but-not-clucked on, and the people built bigger farms to raise the cattle and bigger nets to trawl the seas, and they soon forgot what they had lost.
Time moved on, and there came a day a while later when the fishermen came to market with empty carts. The people asked for herring and carp and haddock and cod, but the fishermen had nothing but saltwater and broken nets. They trawled the waves for days and days with no avail; the fish had gone. The herring and carp, the haddock and cod, tench, trout and turbot, all had departed. The streams and estuaries, the rivers, brooks and the heaving seas that whipped and snapped at the sandy shore, all were barren, all were dead. The people asked for answers, they asked the politicians, the policemen, the publicans and the preachers, but none could speak, none could even mutter. A desperate few turned to God, (but she rarely offers reprieve to folks at times such as these).
So they went on, they moved on, dismissive as always and curt. They made do without fish because there were plenty of cattle upon the land; there was plenty of grain in the fields. They made do without cod and chips, and kippers for breakfast, they made do without plant food and finings for the ale. There was always pie and sausage and compost and lager. Life moved on, mucked on, from the fields plucked on, and the people built bigger and better farms, and bigger and better factories, with bigger and better yields, and they soon forgot what they had lost.
Time moved on, swiftly on, as time does at such a time. Soon enough the fields overwhelmed with cattle, and the fens run over with sheep, and the pens brimming and brining with swine, could hold a beast no more. The fences creaked and swayed and yearned, they cracked and sprung and squeaked. The farmers braced against the flow, and the fishermen who’d turned to meat, and then the politicians who’d no other fish to fry, and the preachers (who had nothing to eat). And the fences bulged and burst and broke and the beasts, each one ran free, and knowing, somehow, which way to run, all headed for the sea. The sheep, pigs and bovine, the horses and dogs all flew, and the rabbits and stag, all the beasts of the land, ran swift along with them too.
The people stared in wonder. Not a soul was the least amused. They stood and strained towards what they had lost beneath the great deluge. The worshippers cried for vengeance, but against whom they couldn’t decide, most people just pretended to grumble, then secretly went home and cried.
But they went on, they moved on, forever dismissive and curt, it did not matter in the least little bit how much this catastrophe hurt. They made do without pork and beef, and lamb and mutton and veal; without Sunday roasts and pheasant shoots and sausage and jellied eel; no chicken coops with farm fresh eggs, no cock’s crow in the morning; no dogs to bark in the dead of night to give their masters a warning.
There was plenty of grain in the fields, there was bread and beer and honey; there was cabbage and carrots and turnip and yam, so there wasn’t a need to worry. The preachers and policemen tilled the fields, the farmers and farriers too; even the butchers lent a weary hand (for they had nothing else to do). And soon the fields burst and bloomed with life, they supped on bread and honey and beer, they drank and they sang and forgot what they’d lost because now they had nothing to fear.
And right on time the time moved on, for time is like that when there’s things to go wrong. For one fine day in grey September, as the harvest was carried from the fields, and the pickers and preachers and politics-men were hooraying about the big yields; the worms slid up from the brown patchwork ground and squirmed their way to the shore, and the leeches and beetles and bugs followed on, and many a creature more. The ants and termites and lice and ticks, the wasps, the spiders and fleas, every insect, arachnid and slithering thing, oh, and of course the bees.
So the people moved on, mucked on, blind and deaf they all trucked on. They dithered and blithered and ever dismissed, they feigned to wallow in ignorant bliss. They bumbled and grumbled and eventually cried, then tried to stay curt through tear stained eyes. They made do without honey for a while, they tried and failed to shrug and smile. The winter came in swift and strong, and before too long the grain stores ran low, and the last of the pickles and preserves were scraped from the last glass jars onto the last thin crusts of dry, flaking, butterless bread. The spring rains brought no new shoots; no crops spread their roots in the barren fields. There were no birds and bees, because the bees and the birds were gone. There was no pollination, no propagation, and no final reprieve. By now there was nothing left to do, there was no thing to relieve, so all the people hungered and the people wondered why, and the people tried to figure out what had gone so terribly awry.
And the time moved on, the sands sifted down. The people slinked and shuffled about, their muffled groans offered no new plans; their leaders gave up giving commands. They scratched at rotten tree bark and discarded feather, they chewed on threads and suckled on stone. Soon skulking eyes flashed one to the other; the people craved flesh and bone. The weak began to falter, the old stumbled and swayed, and neither could keep one quaking foot out of the bloody grave. When one fell, the rest fell upon them, tentative at first, a bite and a tear, but the ravenous teeth took hold and before long the unthinkable became thought, heredity and pride reduced to naught. They went on, moved on, but now they weren’t quite so dismissive, and there wasn’t much point in being curt. Soon to be mothers became sick and more weary, unborn children, sensing too well their dreary futility miscarried themselves, their bodies roasted over coal fires, while their bloodied mothers wailed in grief and hunger and soon too were dragged lifeless to the cooking embers, picked to the bone like boiled chicken, giblets and all.
So one by one the publicans, preachers and policemen, the farriers, farmers and fisherman’s wives, one by one the bakers, butchers, clerks, cobblers, cooks, the vicars and the village idiots, one by one the salted sea captains, dashing squires and their coy mistresses, one by one the milk maids, mothers, children and school-house teachers, one by one the grooms and their blushing brides. One by one, the people cut, killed, or starved, and one by one they all died.
The last man had wandered the carrion fields plucking through the scattered bones for food. He had walked past the breached and broken fence posts and the dry and salt-smelling fishermen’s nets. He had stalked along the shore, skimming stones at the black, thrashing sea. It was night-time, and the sky was dark as pitch when the last man stopped looking for food. There was none to be found the last day, and no doubt there’d be none still the next. The man sat down on the sands, staring east across the sea. The smoking coal fires had blotted out the stars; his eyes stung. As he waited there for death’s embrace, tears began to stream down his blistered cheeks, drowning him in the memory of all that was lost. He wailed with all his waning might into the darkness, it was the last song of sorrow.
As the last man sung his last refrain, and his soul melted into the sand, he saw the dawn scratch its chalky line across the far horizon. Shards of silver flashed across dark water, and in the distance, shadowy against the fragile morning’s light, the last man saw with his last shred of sight a silhouette leap across the yawning sun: It was Icarus, twisting and tumbling in the sky amid a flock of starlings. He danced on the wind, catching the shadows with his tapered wing, and headed shore bound on the soft morning’s breeze.