Last Days, Part 1
“safe is an interpretation” – Kate Greenstreet
We didn’t expect the eagerness that filled us on the last days of empire. For what, we couldn’t exactly say.
Metal glistened on the streets in the hot September days. The sun no longer a dandelion; the sun most definitely a muzzle. When it set, the Corporation—keen to kill the dark—flipped the switch.
Then, the marble facades of buildings were suddenly up-lit, streetlights swirled incandescent, and thousands of peopled hurtled through the furnace of synthesized laughter, pop songs, and an unlimited desire for all.
Some of us were on the edges, blocking out the canned sounds and lights as best we could. Building something new, something old. We could feel the northern half of our planet begin to tilt away from the sun.
I am on the cusp of change, and the curve is shifting fast.
It was an experience and then it was a memory. And then a system of belief, a way to navigate the dissolving world.
I wanted to become more salt-wind, less reflection. To become quiet enough to hear the ancestors.
Find the source at the underwater
roots, at the mudline:
fragile strands of a new language
among cattails and seed casings.
Trust the fibers
will lean in the right direction,
will not mislead you.
Child, we have always laid
one strand over, then under the next,
over and under, over and under—
until something like true
meaning emerges from the twist
of our fingers. This basket
is for you: an exhortation, a map.
Soon you will need to reach
all of us in this river of time
with the truest sentences
you can weave.
There were five of us in that small apartment, hauling water, coding and decoding, soldering metal, constructing strategies, drafting poems. I lifted heavy objects and learned to stitch up an open wound.
I no longer thought of myself as a girl. I was often afraid. At the same time, I glistened in the everyday fever brought on by Wave’s eyes opening, the morning sky breaking.
When we met, Wave said holding on was dangerous. The taste of hope could make us reckless. I knew what she meant, but despite ourselves, I came to love how she tasted more than I loved any fruit on my tongue.
Light breaks the glass
from the present.
The dangerous words
chime in the wind, spike
into sand and grass.
Behold the other kind of blade:
power of seed
turned blossom, turned fruit.
In the afternoons we would cross the river on the train, skimming ancient tracks into the center of the city where things were bought and sold on a grand scale. We slid into the gaps of commerce, knowing all warfare is based on deception.
So many people were building scaffolding against crumbling structures, using incantations from their fathers as mortar.
But some attempted to excavate the signals buried deep within their bodies; some tried to listen to their heartbeats.
Those were the ones we were looking for. We slipped them a scrap of paper, then dissolved back into the crowd.
Words can obscure like clouds
or reveal like the tidal pull.
Do you remember rain?
The state of emergency is also always
the state of emergence. Where does the water go
when ocean draws out its lowest tide?
When the new recruits followed the poem to find us, we put them to work or gave them maps to others in need of their skills. We were hundreds of loose groups across the country, fashioning transformation out of starlight and strategy, spindrift and solidarity.
I was impatient for the waking, the sharp sensation of light and promise. I thought I understood.
But there was still so much to learn. Wave reminded me of the libraries they had shut down decades ago, their floors like silk, books heavy with promise. That’s where we went: picking the locks, scraping away the dust, memorizing what we could.
Power grids, water-sewer lines, and fiber optic cables snaked their way across the city. We became deft in mapping and coordinates, diversion and distraction. We discovered the patterns the Corporation relied on, found the backdoors, planted the traps with care.
Creating new economies in the heart of capital required cunning and poetic imagination. We knew we were being watched when the NICE drones paused above our fire escape.
But cooking and dancing were not yet crimes. We could plan just as well stirring the pot in three-four time as in stillness around the kitchen table.
Patience is in the living. Time opens out to you. We hummed and we sang. We simmered soup and kneaded flour and water. We mapped out the next tactics.
Gratitude for the grace of these lines: “I am on the cusp of change, and the curve is shifting fast.” - Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light; “all warfare is based on deception.”- Sun Tzu, The Art of War; “the state of emergency is also always the state of emergence.” - Homi Bhabha, 1986 forward to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks; “Patience is in the living. Time opens out to you.” - Claudia Rankine Citizen
A version of this piece was published in the Black Warrior Review, volume 45.1, and won a 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.