The Light at the End of the World

Irene Adler

“This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang,
But a whimper.”


- T. S. Eliot


When the world ends, it ends in a whisper.

With a single breath, everything stops. Mid-kiss, mid-argument, mid-prayer, mid-song humanity ceases to exist. The grind of machines, the cry of animals, the spread of disease, the thundering of storms, the rotation of planets - they all come to a halt. Concepts, philosophies, fears, and dreams simply end; history and stories erase themselves from the universe. Heaven wilts like the lonely petals of a forgotten flower. Hell expires, spewing darkness. Ash swallows the world. Street-lamps flicker out. Stars close their eyes.

When the world takes its last breath, it’s a silent one. What we know and what we are unravels quietly like a ball of yarn. The world is unmade and nothing recognizable is left.

All except for forty stars, twenty-two fig trees, a bit of ocean, two humans, an angel, and a stone cottage at the edge of a crumbling cliff.

Oh, and a mouse.

***


They fall asleep and wake up with their cheeks pressed against the floor of the stone cottage. The angel is the first to open his eyes, and when he does, he knows. He can feel the crushing emptiness that surrounds them as he goes outside. There is no sound. There is no movement. There are no smells. Every step he takes makes the rocky dirt crunch beneath his feet. And every crunch echoes endlessly in the terrible vastness of it all. He stands at the edge of a cliff, the ocean settled dark and still below him, and looks out at the fiery horizon, his weathered face aglow with the warm rays of a dazzling light from one last and final sunset. A young man and woman come to stand beside him.

The silence is deafening.

They watch the line where heaven touches the earth until only a few bright streaks remain to signal heaven's passing, and the angel knows: they are the last in the world to witness this. And perhaps the young man knows this too, because he does not blink, and perhaps the young woman knows this most of all, because she turns her back upon the light.

And then the sun disappears, and they're left alone in sprawling darkness, with only the sea that has no surf, nor tide, nor white-tipped waves. The angel has not seen a darkness such as this in a very long time. This is the darkness of the unmade. This is the darkness of the unknown. A hungry cry that swallows the galaxy and all of its heavens and angels, a darkness that he barely remembers from when the world was raw and unfinished. The darkness is humanity's last lullaby, and while it hovers all around, it does not gather them into its cold embrace. Their little slice of land remains untouched. And while they are surrounded by blackness from all sides, they are relieved by the faint glow of the forty remaining stars in the sky. The angel brings a hand to his lips and breathes forth a flame, a warm glow of hope that curls around his palm.

The young man turns to the angel and asks, "Do you know what's happened?"

"I believe the world has ended," the angel replies, and he closes his eyes and sends his soul to the very edge of the universe, reaching out as far he can, searching for a very long time as he enters the bleakness beyond their island. The universe is devoid of color, though sometimes he senses squirming mutations within the blackness, a warning to look no further. He does not know why he is here, but he does know that he is the last of his kind. Everything there ever was is gone. All except -

He opens his eyes, hands trembling as sweat beads upon his brow. He stumbles forward, but something catches his elbow. The woman's face is calm. The angel is very old, and she is only thirty-five, but her steadiness, calmness, makes him forget which of them is the wiser.

"Are you alright?" the young woman asks. The light in the angel's palm grows brighter, casting shadows over her as it highlights the fear in the young man's face. He can make out the gleaming whites of his eyes as he stares out into darkness, unfocused and scared.

"I'm fine," he replies, "but what about you, young man?"

The young man responds by falling to his knees and retching onto the dirt. The woman moves with purpose and smooths the man's hair back from his forehead as the angel gives them their privacy and returns to the cottage. It's small, but cozy - almost womblike. The windows are framed by daffodil-yellow shutters, the once-bright color faded to a lovely pastel. If he looks outside, he can almost pretend that everything is okay; a few stars shine in the sky, after all, so they aren't truly alone, and he imagines that small fact will provide great comfort for the other two. He can feel the imprints of life within the walls, current and past; fleeting thoughts and soft caresses against his senses. There are living creatures here - tiny ones - but alive nonetheless. A parting gift from his Father, perhaps, a sign that he doesn't want them to be alone.

And there are belongings here. Beloved items left behind. A harpsichord stands in the corner of the living room, the keys are yellowed and out of tune, the gold paint of its intricate designs peeling and discolored. There's a heavyset wooden dish cabinet where a thick layer of grime on its glass hides the chipped chinaware that's patterned with woodland creatures. The angel runs his fingers through the dust covering the kitchen table, observing the scratches etched into smooth wooden grain that flows as if it had a pulse, as if a heart had taken in each sweet touch and sent them on their way. The chairs are mismatched - the stool that was missing from the harpsichord, a rickety rocking-chair, and a metal folding chair decorated with childish stickers.

Three chairs. Forty stars, twenty-two trees, and the ocean.

The second floor holds three small bedrooms, a cramped bathroom, and what looks to be a storage room. The storage room is crammed with books. He flips through a few: old Stephen King paperbacks, scattered volumes of Kurt Vonnegut. Twain, Hemingway, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Woolf. A battered pile of well-loved Harry Potter books. There's a queen bed with a multi-hued blue quilt in one of the rooms. There are plain curtains hanging over the windows. A little round rug on the wooden floor and numerous paintings piled up in a corner. He bends down to look at the canvases. Most of the them are dramatic oil paintings of the ocean, wild and crashing, but there is one painting that stands out against the rest. A watercolor - grey, brown, and blue – of children playing in the street, leaping over gold streaked puddles that have caught the sunshine spilling over the uneven tops of the buildings. He recognizes the rails of an old, red fire escape in the foreground, in sharp, detailed focus against the playful background, his mind is hazy, however, and he cannot recall where he has seen it before. He wonders if it was an unhappy memory for its creator, for there is a large slash across the canvas, as if someone had taken a blade to it.

Saddened, he leans the painting back against the wall and leaves the bedroom.

The room across the hallway is smaller than the first, containing only a double-bed with a neatly made white duvet. A battered record player lay forgotten on a chair in the corner. There are no records anywhere to be seen. As he sits down on the bed, he wonders what kind of music the previous occupant enjoyed listening to. The angel strokes the duvet, unsurprised to find that the cotton has become feather-soft with age. He watches the movement of his veins and tendons as he splays his hands against the whiteness of it, fingers spread wide like wings.

"What is your name?" a voice asks, breaking the silence.

He looks up to see the young woman standing in the doorway, watching him closely.

"I do not have a name," he states.

"You're quite old," says the young woman.

"That is true," the angel replies.

"You can create light," she continues.

"Yes," he confirms.

"Then I will name you Uriel."

A flame sparks in his heart and spreads warmth throughout his veins, the wrinkles in his face deepen as a smile stretches his lips.

Everything felt beautiful and nothing hurt, "Then that shall be my name."

***


Like dust, they eventually settle into their new life.

They quickly find out that none of them need to eat, but they do anyway simply out of habit. Just like the firewood stashed behind the cottage, their pantry's supply of canned and dried foods never seems to deplete. Sleep is no longer a necessity, but the young man tries to force it because he goes a little mad when he can't stop thinking, as they discover one day when he and the kitchen knife go missing behind a locked door. Their bodies no longer age, but it doesn't remove the premature crows-feet gathered around the woman's soft eyes or prevent the young man from swearing every time his body aches as he climbs the stairs. He threw his back out a few months ago and his movement has never been the same.

The young man still gets headaches, too.

"I'm not sure if God left them to give me some sense of normality or as punishment," the young man snarls as he rips through the house like a tornado, opening every drawer and peering through every nook in search of pain medication.

Uriel doesn't have an answer, so he doesn't reply.

When they first arrive at the cottage, the young man refuses to leave his bed. He and the young woman decide to share the room with the paintings - which are now tucked away in the storage room while the books had been scattered throughout the cottage - and no matter how often she whispers comforts into his ear throughout the night, he refuses to open his eyes. Uriel can't put into words how long this goes on, for time no longer exists. There is no sun to mark the passage of time, no bright light to filter through the window and warm your skin as your body hums awake. The world is dark and all they have is beginning after beginning. Every clock in the house is stuck on thirteen past three. And so, the young man lays curled up under the duvet, his face hidden against the pillows as he makes no sound.

"I feel like he's waiting for something to happen," the young woman says to Uriel, voice quiet as they peer into the room from the hallway.

"Maybe," he replies, and together they watch as the young man stirs in response to their concern, his pale, bony hand reaching out to pull the duvet tighter around his body, fingers curled painfully tight.

It takes time - perhaps hours, maybe months, possibly centuries - before the young man opens his eyes. The young woman later tells Uriel that she found him standing in front of the window one day, his hand gripped around the wrist he attempted to slit during their first few days here. She had looked up to see the strangest of looks in the young man’s blue eyes: clarity, as if he had finally woken up from a long dream.

It is a while - they will never know how long - before the young man speaks. They're in the living room, the fireplace crackling as they gather in silence. The young woman bustles around the kitchen, making something that smells vaguely of mint and burnt meat. The young man sits on the ratty red carpet spread out in front of the fire; his head tipped back to lean against the knotty knee of the angel sitting in the over-sized armchair behind him.

The young man's eyes are trained on the small lump in front of him, and, softly, he says, "mouse".

Uriel looks down in surprise. The young woman almost drops a plate.

The young man is being literal: there's a wood mouse next to his foot. A tiny creature with sandy fur - no bigger than the center of the young man's palm - twitches a tiny pink nose at him as he extends his hand out. It's the first living creature they've seen in ages, and the young woman stares in disbelief as the mouse scuttles up his arm to settle comfortably on his shoulder, it's small black eyes curiously examining his face.

The young man smiles down at his new friend.

It's the first smile Uriel's ever seen him give.

The young man looks up and catches the young woman's eye, and the pair are looking at each other in a way that Uriel has seen many times before – with eyes bright and alive.

Soft and lovely.

Holy.

"My name is Zacharias."

"Evelynn," the young woman replies.

And here they are, trapped in a moment.

There is no why, there is no how.

There is only now.

***


Evelynn and Zacharias fall in love with each other, and Uriel falls in love with the sea. It happens like this: he misses heaven, that place of knowledge, light and perfection. He misses earth, that place of infected glory - deeply flawed - yet home to all the things he has come to love. And now his world is empty, a gaping black wound that festers and weeps and is devoid of everything he has ever known; despairing, Uriel reaches into the emptiness. The space deep within his skull is devoid of the soft whispers of his brothers and sisters, comforts that were once as sure as time. He probes and probes, but there is only silence. There are no thoughts left.

Except those belonging to the three of them. And a mouse.

Uriel has never been so aware of the complexities and vastness of his Father's creations until he could count its remnants with his fingers. He closes his eyes and listens, and now, all he hears is memories. The ocean - the tiny bit they have left - is the only thing that feels real to him. And so, he fashions a fishing-rod from a fig branch, sits at the edge of the world, and fishes. He sits there night after night after starlit night, for dawn will never come, and he waits for fish that no longer swim.

The air is not always still, for sometimes God will send them a breeze. A breeze that strokes his feathers in musical, dismayed sobs, and when this occurs Evelynn and Zacharias emerge from the glowing innards of their home and stand among the trees, tall and strong, sparkling eyes turned up towards the stars.

When he feels the wind brush against his skin, he feels all that is holy stir and swell within him, rising and fanning out like a fountain come to life. An ache burns within his heart and his wings unfurl and break away from his back to sweep and arch and sing, light bursting from the tips to pierce through the darkness with a brilliant radiance that reflects the love of God. The earth bows in respect and the trees wail in homage and the starts brighten like lamps.

And Uriel, in all his towering glory, roars in delight.

He sometimes yearns for more, but mostly he is content with fishing, just as Zacharias and Evelynn are mostly content with each other.

***


When he's not with Evelynn, Zacharias spends his time among the trees. He takes a lantern and reads his books amongst the swaying leaves and fragrant figs. The trees are imposing, towering and gnarled, with bulging trunks and knotted roots that rip through the earth with a violence only seen in nature. Zacharias seems to find them comforting. The grove is peaceful, and the soil is littered with succulent fruit that never rots. The young man speaks more, though none of them are as talkative as they used to be; words are rarely needed when most things can be communicated through the flick of the wrist, a squeeze to the shoulder, or a brief touch to the face.

After all, connections are made through the heart, not the tongue.

Uriel finds his own comfort within his small room and its view of the ocean and the few dim stars scattered across the dark, cloudless skies. Evelynn suggest a few books for him to read; he is currently making his way through Conan Doyle's adventures of Sherlock Holmes. When he isn't reading, he listens to Zacharias and Evelynn. He can hear them through the walls. Beautiful sounds. The couple sleep wrapped up in each other, and occasionally, Uriel will stand at the foot of their bed and watch the rise and fall of their bodies, admiring the way their bones shine beneath pale flesh and how their souls cling tightly to one another, intertwined.

Evelynn catches him one night, lips twisted up into a knowing smirk.

Uriel's alarmed when he feels his face heat up.

He has never blushed before.

Funny how the end of the world brings about the beginnings of something new.

***


Zacharias returns from the grove one day, excitement quivering in his voice. He tells Evelynn that he saw a milky-white lamb there, and Evelynn smiles as she pulls his head forward and kisses him on the brow.

"Show me," she whispers.

The couple venture into the mass of silent trees, and when they return, they are enraptured by what they have witnessed.

"You should have seen it, Uriel," Evelynn says, in awe.

"I've never seen anything like it. It's a lamb, just like Zacharias claimed, and there was a great white lion walking alongside it. They paid us no mind; it was if we weren't even there."

"I'm not even sure if they were even real, I mean, they didn't look completely corporeal," Zacharias said. "A bit here, a bit elsewhere, y'know? But...they had to be real. I saw them with my own two eyes, and that's something I could never forget, even if I wanted to. I can feel it in my bones."

Uriel looks into Zacharias's eyes - wet and shining - and considers telling them the truth. It was a reflection you saw among those trees. Bits and pieces of yourselves peeled away over the years, and now they've come back to you, ready and whole.

He considers saying congratulations, you found your missing pieces.

But he just smiles, nodding in acceptance as he watches Zacharias grin like a small child and Evelynn shine radiantly beside him. He thinks there might be a word for this...what do they call it?

A deeply human concept.

A nice word.

Happiness.

***


"I am a forest,
And a night of dark trees:
But he who is not afraid of my darkness,
Will find banks full of roses under my cypresses."


- Friedrich Nietzsche


All good things must always come to an end, but all bad things do not continue on forever. The three of them take on a certain wonder to their lives. No matter how dark and bleak the world is, they come to realize that there are shards of beauty all around them. In the ugly, in the darkness, in the suffering, in the small, in the monotony, in the silence, in the moments before they close their eyes.

Beautiful like plastic bags carried to flight on the back of the wind, like the dust that settles after a ravaging fire, like a hidden diamond in the rough.

Something raw, dirty, and wondrous.

Something unearthly.

Evelynn and Zacharias slip out from their bodies sometimes without noticing, and when they do the trees are haunted by the silent laughter of a lion and her lamb. One windy night, while Uriel is fishing at the edge of the cliff, he hears a chorus of whispering and turns around.

And there, emerging from above the trees, throwing back its head, light erupting from where its wings touch the edges of the universe, eyes and palms raised upwards - shining and shining and shining - is a message.

The air vibrates, the earth trembles, the waves swell, and whispers collide.

Uriel feels a sharp tug on the line of his fishing pole.

A cry bursts from his chest, goes screaming up into the clear blue sky, where there's nothing but birds and clouds and sunshine as far as the eye can see.

Irene Adler is a first-generation Polish immigrant and emerging writer who loves to paint, read, and code. She lives in Austin, Texas with her two dogs – a Swedish Vallhund and a Golden Retriever – and her husband.

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