THERE WAS NOT a lot of not much, and dim mainly. It’s hard to say when it all began. It had already been going on forever and was only just beginning. It would give you vertigo walking out into it, if you survived the cold, and if you tried to grab hold of it, it would slip through your fingers like dark rivulets of nothingness, weaving itself back together again.
There was an explosion and clouds of dust started to spin. Motes swirled together into orbs that formed metallic crusts. They started slamming into each other, smashing hunks off which flew into orbit, forming other orbs.
There would be a lot of songs about moonlight.
Things calmed down long enough for volcanoes to vent gasses, and air happened. In the resultant sky the sun set. There were rocks forming, and it was hot. Corrosives bubbled up through fissures. It turned humid and rained rusty water.
Pools formed and restless ladders replicated, disconnected, reconnected. Students in science class would diagram them for a thousand years.
Soon enough there were dinosaurs roaming and also flying around, misshapen and loud, with scales, spurs, talons. They were famished. They would meet in a field or forest or marsh and have at each other, clawing and biting, just trying to get a mouthful. In the end one would triumph and one would fall, or both would fall, and when they hit the dirt everything would shake, palm trees swaying back and forth, holes collapsing in.
A meteor came in on fire, smacked the Yucatan peninsula like a truckload of dynamite and everything blew up and dark clouds covered over the sun. It got cold fast and the dinosaurs died, leaving piles of bones around, so gouty men in pith helmets might someday have something to seal in glass cases.
The extinction was a good thing for little guys with fingers and fur coats. They didn’t mind the cold so much, and now with nobody stomping around trying to eat them, they thrived. They diversified. They sat up in tree-branches waiting out the long night, going titter-titter-screech as the light came back to the world.
Like usually happens, some of these guys thought they were better than the others and joined forces to make everybody else’s lives hell. They came down looking for rocks and started knocking the crap out of anybody who wouldn’t say how awesome they were. Just being dicks. There’s always a few, no matter where you go. These guys would knock the crap out of anybody, any time, for any reason. So the little guys—I guess they were little monkeys, capuchins, that’s how I picture them—they banded together for protection, so they wouldn’t have to look over their shoulders all the time.
They got smarter, and pretty soon they had pointy sticks and rocks with blade-like edges.
Still it was cold and there was nothing to eat but cold crudité platter type stuff—carrots and celery sticks, office party leftovers—when all of a sudden a bolt of lightning stabbed down and lit up a pile of dry branches. Flames knifed up orange into the night sky. They came down to get a look at it and burned their hands in the process, trying to ooh ahh the orange magical flowers from the sky trying to hold it in their hands, and it burned like hell. But then they were like: shit that smells good, is that you Fred? You smell fucking delicious. It smelled like it smells in the parking lot of a steakhouse.
Soon they were cooking up anything they could get their hands on. Groups of them got together, and when they saw something delicious running around or grazing or fording a stream, they would haul ass after it hurling sharp stones, and when it fell they would stab it to hell with their pointy sticks. Then right away onto the fire. They would look across at each other through the flames, faces covered in fat and blood, give each other high fives.
In their down time they would hang out telling lies about their dead uncles and grandpas, exaggerating how strong they were, or giving them magical powers, or sending them on enchanted adventures to the forest and having them killing seventy bears and making out with pretty girls, just one-upping the other guys with how awesome their family line was.
And when they slept they had dreams, but they didn’t even know what the hell dreams were, they thought they were magical windows into Disneyland. They convinced themselves that paradise was just out of reach—forests fat with game, easy commitment-free sex, honey-flavored drinks—a place where dead people went.
But some of their adversaries said that their ancestors were better than theirs, that reality had come to pass in some other way, which was just insulting. They’d end up meeting along the battle line, in the distance where the sky ends, where smoke and flame was rising, and a sound of shouting voices, and riders on armored carts, with helmets and axes and arrows, and men would get stabbed, gutted, scream Why in a bloody field as black carrion birds wheeled the sky.
Careers were made and cities were built, contributing to the rise of hedonistic arty types who liked to get drunk and have bullshit parties where everybody made up stories about where everybody came from—mountain tops, or the sun, or hey maybe everybody used to be joined together and rolled around like wheels until they split apart, and that’s why everybody’s so horny all the time.
Then some other guys came along and took the place over. These new guys were good at making weapons—armored carts and helmets and axes and arrows and battering rams and catapults that launched fire. Inspired by frequent victories, they had decided to claim everything everywhere as their own, and they went around taking everybody over, saying This is our land now, we’re going to be building meticulously straight roads through here.
And everybody they didn’t kill they made into slaves, with tight collars on and manacles, and you’d have to bring them goblets of wine on a tray, and some guy would be playing a lyre, and those guys would be laying around on gold cushions, refining their tastes, eating little delicacies wrapped in grape leaves and slamming red wine and then puking so they could eat and drink some more.
Inevitably it rotted from the inside, like a bad fig, grey and hairy when you cut into it. They got bored, and started getting into sicker and sicker shit, like a junkie developing a habit, starting out innocent—a little ligotage, a little spanking—pretty soon the only thing that gets you off is broiling virgins, rotisserie babies, co-mingling with corpses.
Nobody cared about upkeep anymore; morale slacked off, guards let the perimeter fences fall into disrepair.
Some of the rustics had the idea that everything had gotten really sleazy and it had to end, that there was some kind of storm coming, and soon. Something otherworldly, maybe. Something was bound to manifest, or cease, and we’d best prepare ourselves for it, even if there was no preparing ourselves. The same thing had happened a while back, last week or a hundred years ago, and it was going to happen again.
And maybe there was somebody making things happen behind the scenes, a benevolent intelligence behind everything, conducting the world’s progress, making gestures into the void that resulted in objects and occurrences—plants, animals, people.
Possibly the world was laid out by someone large and powerful, in the same way that a parent might lay out clothes for a child in the meager yellow light of a school morning. Possibly he lived in the sky, or close to it, on a mountain or the moon. Maybe he was like Dad, changeable contingent on his drinking—sometimes kind and gentle, other times cruel. If we asked him nicely enough, maybe he’d help us turn things around.
Then men rode in on horses from hungry steppes where game was scarce, where there was nothing to drink but mare’s milk and mare’s blood, and they wanted something else to eat and fuck and own: cows, virgins, fishing villages. Wave after wave of them came, like they were printing them up in the East and blowing them across the steppes, propaganda leaflets in the breeze from a box fan.
The pillars crumbled, the organized guys fled or died or blended in.
Then came a long night of torture machines, where they tied you to a board and asked you questions you couldn’t answer and stuck your thumbs in a vice and cranked it until your thumb bones broke and you would beg and plead and admit to all sorts of forest-dancing and candle-burning, mirror-watching with squinted eyes, the burning of hairs, the decapitations of toads, all to secure a romantic interest or a land mass or the bad luck of a rival. Which was bullshit for the most part, but you’d admit to pretty much anything if they were breaking your thumbs. The man-in-the-sky crowd believed that there were red-suited sulfurous guys with barbed forks everywhere, and although you couldn’t really prove it, you could still kill your enemies for consorting with them if you got enough people to sign off on it.
To make matters worse, rats the size of schnauzers came up through the floorboards looking for table scraps and everybody started getting boils that oozed black pus, and they screamed until they died and they put them on a cart and dumped them in a pit full of dirt and other people.
Many believed that weird old women with property were to blame, and with their odd manners you might think so too. So they burned them by piling up twigs and branches and setting them ablaze with them standing there in the middle screaming and crying.
Around this time these guys who thought that their celebrated ancestral prophet was the only God-certified-authentic prophet and that the other guy’s celebrated ancestral prophet was just some guy, like anybody—a dispute that had put them at odds for ages—well, they wanted Spain. They’d already taken the Holy Land—what the hell else did they want? So we sent a handful of orphans down there to get gutted on scimitars or something.
Sometime later, guys with waxed moustaches and poufy pirate shirts rediscovered the arty old guys—and the bloody corpse fuckers who took over from the arty old guys—and they started dissecting everything and painting in 3-D. One guy in particular was so talented that he made a lot of advances in catapults and crossbows and cannons and muskets and tanks and machine guns.
Some other guys built big boats and set off to rub their asses on everything. To mark the world with their scent, and also to provide a more thorough diversity of consumer goods. They knew there was a lot of good shit out there—indigenous peoples to enslave, chocolate and coffee and potatoes.
So they floundered around the ocean peering through a spyglass at rugged coastlines, and lines were thrown out, and gullible people with inferior technology were traded paste beads for all their land, and some of these people were taken back on the boats to do the dirtier chores.
Teeth slotted into teeth and steam was forced through narrow pipes and the manufacture of little gewgaws nobody ever needed was streamlined to the point that crusty children in rags could tirelessly assemble them all day long, and you could afford to live in a house made of big rocks and have portraits painted of yourself wearing a gray fox pelt coat and standing with Irish wolfhounds by a silver umbrella stand.
If you were going to take over the world it was now or never, the days of discovery were done and what was left needed somebody to rule it, and who better but the best?
There were some people who had finally proven that they were better than everybody else by measuring their foreheads with calipers and squinting into the mirror until they convinced themselves that there was something from that bust of Alexander the Great in their eyebrows, something pure and noble. And so they dug trenches in the mud and mowed down teenagers from Jersey like miniature bowling pins in a tent on the midway.
In subs they torpedoed the hulls of passing cruise ships; planes crisscrossed the skies letting loose bombs in a sort of fuck you fuck you fuck you rat-a-tat-tat symbolic hatred that flared up red like the gates of hell had opened, twisted metal raining down and people screaming, and then it got quiet, with nothing to break the silence but the settling of bones.
The next hundred years or so go pretty much the same, with occasional pauses of two to five years broken by unrest, incursions, invasions, civil wars, and border skirmishes. We return with improved weapons every time—napalm, chemical agents, unmanned drones. We help some causes along, suppress others, prop up a few underworld types to fight for us when popular support is hard to come by. We wave banners and bake pies.
In the end, there’s nothing left. Those that remain are standing on a beach, surrounded by ruins, dumbstruck, going ‘What happened what happened what happened?’ but there’s no answer. In the distance the top half of a building finally sags enough to give way and crumbles to the ground. You can hear it far off, like tiny pebbles tumbling to the dirt. Then silence again, and almost everybody’s dead, and everything has stopped. The few that remain are standing on the beach, and they look up at the stars or the sun or maybe birds flying, calm for a brief moment, introspective, considering the habits of mind that caused all the terrible things, thumbing the keys in their pockets.
Maybe they walk back along the shore, feel the cosmos contract around them, hold them close in its indifferent yet still somehow loving embrace, and it dawns on them slowly, how differently things might have gone.