from Natura (2018), Chapter 1:
YOU WILL LOVE NATURA ABOVE ALL ELSE
It’s best if you go without me.
Don’t say that…
How far is north?
A lick of esparto swept away the world. Its bristle scraped along the entire surface of the earth. Lazily, chafing. It slurped away all the juices of survival and injected them with agony. The drought conquered parcels of land, starting with regions, then entire nations. It drained the perennial, pulverized the ripe, aborted reproduction. Fertility, in all its majesty, went barren. The atmosphere’s arid breath scorched urban gardens, family plots, and factory farms. Every old-growth forest, its root system still damp, went dry. Photosynthesis slowed to a standstill.
In the animal kingdom, the birds were the first to begin the dance of depletion. The beating of their wings decelerated into its lowest gear, then stopped entirely. They fell. Or rather, they zigzagged for weeks along the air currents, taking hours to reach the ground, without any haste, like the drizzling water drops in autumn that stave off the winter, exhausted in the last stage of their migrations. Some streaked down, leaving plucked feathers in their wake as a sign of their urgency. The crow’s caw and the robin’s warble went quiet. Sparrows picked apart the seasonal nests they had built under rooves. Hawks flaunted the prey trapped in their beaks, knowing it to be their last. The heavens stretched out in arrogant languor. A pure, ungraded blue, void of anything but air particles, lacerated corneas and turned the fauna blind.
Meanwhile, the hardiest species carried on breathing with military rigor, attempting not to lose oxygen through the fissures of defeat. They fought back heart failure. They struggled against the harsh weather, against all its new severities, but not against the doctrine of predestination. And that made their resistance futile. Soon enough, all living things rejected life. They repudiated their nature and began their procession into the darkness, victims of an unknown power.
No one noticed the absence of the bee-eater’s chirp, for its softness. Nor the asphyxiation of the trout in the rivers, for its subtlety. Few were surprised when the silence clawed its way to the grunts of the deer, which stopped their trot to give themselves over to the lynx. But everyone became afraid when the cows quit mooing, vomited their cud, and laid on the pasture in resignation, inviting the Beasts to gnaw on their flesh.
The evaporation of the seas lead to a salination of their depths and the subsequent rotting of their insides. Before fading away, they swirled into a maelstrom and swallowed cackling seagulls and travelling albatross. They tore apart fish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, cetaceans—everything within.
People of faith who inhabited forgiving lands with moist pastures and verdant horizons suspected a Biblical plague. They claimed that God was unleashing their wrath on Earth as a punishment for our behavior. Ecclesiastical communities predicted the apocalypse. Taking refuge in their spiritual retreats, prisoners to their own ravings, they exorcised evil from the world, and planned to immolate themselves. Hands joined, they burnt within their temples. It didn’t matter what religious sect they belonged to, they only had ears for the prophecy. Those not in the habit of taking the Eucharist, but with identical convictions, climbed to the most inaccessible heights in their areas only to fling themselves to the ground as the birds had done before them. But with a louder thud. An uglier one. Without floating feathers to leave in their wake or adorn them like a shroud.
Bodies overstuffed with gravity littered the ground. Given no time to rot, they satiated the voracious appetites of the animal kingdom. The martin, the fox, the coyote, predators awaiting their species’ entry into the darkness were instinctually bound to leave their holes and sink their teeth into the cadavers. Every single mammal was consumed by a famine without remedy. Wolves clawed their way up mountains in mourning and uttered their famously predestinatory howls from the highest peaks, heralding the end of evolution. Then they retracted their claws and threw themselves into oblivion.
The heavens went mute after this mass extinction. Maps were left without regions to immortalize.
At the beginning of the darkness, cities were hardly affected by the absence of rural life, set apart, secondary as it was. Sealed in the inertia they thought to be temporary, they paid no mind to the planet’s cries, sick, stricken with the collapse of its organs. Its forests were no longer lungs, nor its species muscles and tendons, and its changing seasons no longer framed the heart’s cycles. Its blood had coagulated. Urban centers became marginal bastions, prospering in their ignorance of the ailment, absorbed in the turning cogs that the entertainment industry had built to direct the collective flow. Bars overflowed, theaters applauded, stadiums gave ovations, corporations created new needs, and libido oozed onto avenues and alleys, in a state of madness and red cheeks. The festivities caused traffic jams on the highways. The passengers in the succession of cars felt blessed to be able to go to beaches where they could burn their skin, or to the countryside where they could grill meat.
The temperature emanating from the Earth’s core, or entering through the atmosphere, was rising. Unrelenting. One degree a month. So rapid that it caused changes that people didn’t perceive at first, because children understand nothing of environmental health—the lack of concern that makes their lives cheerful is incompatible with an interpretation of the twilight of the world. Caught up in their insolence, the teenagers didn’t notice anything toxic either, nothing but too-benign weather which they responded to by slumping in the sand on their days off. It was only the adults whose faces betrayed a hint of unease. In homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces, the first anxious conversations began. Could it be climate change, could it be chemical war, could it be divine punishment…They were ignorant of the causes, but agreed on the effects: the planet was heating up. They felt responsible for the suffocation. Guilty for having snuffed out the natural world.
The powers-that-be made sure that the engines of distraction pumped more fervently than ever before. Non-stop. Movie theaters didn’t just create fantasies, they established delusions; gyms, rather than revering health, thickened muscles; magazines engaged less in rumors than outright lies. Money satisfied every desire for fiction, an opaque veil over reality. Meanwhile, the countryside turned more desolate and the coasts more breathless by the day.
The months, and then the seasons, began to pile up on the back of an eternal, scorching summer.
People’s alienation came to an end a year after the first birds had surrendered: the day that those in power found themselves informing the masses of thousands of human deaths from causes yet to be determined. Half of the scientific world alleged a global pandemic, and the other warned of a radioactive leak. The most respected experts in every field were gathered to solve the equation. They dusted off studies on environmental impacts and developed contingency plans. Meteorologists, doctors, physicists, soldiers, and politicians agreed on the urgency of outlining strategies for a counterattack. All they had to do was identify their enemy, and find a refuge.
Any news broadcast over television was at the behest of the authorities. Hosts speaking in measured tones had to convince their viewers of a passing crisis. They were forced to instill calm, brandish control, and advise the people to put an end to the chaos—they didn’t use that word, they said “disorder”—and return to their inertia—they avoided this word too, using “routine” instead. They also promised to swiftly bring back the channels which had collapsed under duress. But the delivery was wrong, their tone falling between a plea and a prayer.
After several days of news shows packed with thoughtful debates and images pulled from reality, after an equal number of sleepless nights spent uttering supplications that would carry people from fear or taking drugs that sunk them into sleep, a special broadcast was announced. The city’s inhabitants sat with their eyes fixed on the television, in reverence. The most influential of all men was going to speak to the matter. The most powerful of all the heads of state. Suited and inexpressive, he flooded their screens. But he said nothing. He explained one thing that was evident, made a couple lamentations, gave three recommendations, and, after blinking four times in silence, he begged for aid from anyone who could give it. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy, Matthew, chapter 5, verse 43,” he concluded.
Faced with all this evidence and its inexplicable origins, those in power declared martial law as a preventive measure. They held off on sounding the alarm.
The irrespirability of the air and the increasing fervor of the ground didn’t seem like the prologue to a prophecy, this combustion not part of a divine plan. The flames spread like wild, a domino effect made possible by the drought. The fires were spontaneous, with no need for human intervention, and they evoked an endless solstice night of bonfires and revelry.
At first, firefighting brigades sent out water trucks and used their hoses to try to suffocate the affected plots. They drained pools, sucked up dams, and whiled away the wide rivers. But, distributed around focal points, the flames bloomed with vigorous fertility. When water began to go scarce, they decreed that the last remaining flora be left to the fire. A sacrilegious scorching turned the seeds of the earth into ash. The authorities insisted that people leave flammable areas, wrapping themselves in damp blankets and covering their noses and mouths with cloths, and repeated their calls for calm, for order, for patience. But it was too late. A journey had begun among the confusion. The people’s instinct for survival had been ignited.
Money was practical for a time. Those with the most in their wallets, in their purses, or hidden in their homes, accumulated the most food. Hordes of industrious savers mobbed at the doors to their banks and asked to take out their money. Some managed to stuff a trash bag with theirs. Others needed only a pocket. Faced with this flood of consumers, the authorities gave the order to bolt the doors and not restock the cash machines. Improvised militias armed with bats or kitchen utensils they could wave threateningly in a dispute intimidated the financial employees into giving them what they’d rightfully earned. “It’s ours, you thieves!” they shouted as they kicked the glass windows and battered them with stones. In self-interested terror, the banks, savings banks, and credit unions closed their doors.
Money lost its value when corner stores and supermarkets and department stores and malls were conquered and sacked by entire neighborhoods in fear of the oncoming famine. They emptied the gluttonous aisles and took rice, pasta, legumes, and all those other imperishable goods, including alcohol, back to their pantries.
For the first time ever, it was the people who were in charge of something: looting.
They robbed gun shops and private garages. Any tool would be valuable in case of a battle. All they had to do was identify their enemy, and find a refuge.
What people didn’t count on was the ineffectiveness of their weapons. War had already broken out and one side was winning: that of fear. Atrophied, shadowy. With just one ally on its side: silence. Uncanny, sepulchral. Fewer and fewer people gave opinions in conversations because the authorities had begun to censor them and listen in on their every word. They slumped into grunted onomatopoeias. Then they went quiet. Facial expressions and body language became their entire range of communication.
Silence sang its muffled hymn beneath the incinerated pavement. Silence stalked by windows, intimidating the interiors of buildings. Silence rocked into stillness above the sewers with their immaculate rats. Silence flattened language, embalming it from the tallest peaks to the darkest depths. Nearly exterminating it.
Picking out one’s clothing, maintaining one’s hygiene, keeping one’s home clean, and all the other chores with which people used to fill their days and take a break from at night, became superfluous. Schools and hospitals ceased to function. The orphaned children, without adults to guide them through the disaster, and the dependent ill, without aides to care for them or health workers to give them medication, were left to their fate.
The avaricious looting slowly dissipated. It slid in the opposite direction as the still rising temperatures. No one could bear the heat. It made breathing so difficult…Few could take the fear. It pounded so hard on their temples…All it took was a rope, a precipice, a few pills to beat suffocation to the punch. With neither baton wavers on the ground or air traffic controllers, airports were inundated with planes crashing into the ground. Any way to end one’s life was valid.
Provisions were people’s sole obsession: accumulation as resistance. Bartering became a practice once again. Those who had too much of one thing traded it for another they had too little, or none of. Given the scarcity of fresh food, the world was reduced to the hermetic flavor of preserves. Dehydrated, smoked, pickled, vinegar-soaked, cured. The extreme heat and failures in the electrical system quickly spoiled frozen foods, without leaving time for them to be eaten.
Nomads willing to make these transactions turned up, people previously labeled as “disadvantaged.” Nothing to lose, everything to gain, and determining life to be worth living, they offered their services to the fearful. They walked along avenues and through parks in the heat of a righteous sun, needing only umbrellas and the occasional relief of shade. They had no fear, because they’d been swaddled in it. They acted as benefactors of a sort, with the airs of a messiah, handing goods to those entrenched in their homes through windows covered almost entirely with canvas and boarded up with wood, or blocked with furniture.
The nomads pushed shopping carts and carried backpacks full of subsistence. In exchange for provisions, the house-dwellers gave up everything that had once granted them their desirable social status. Besides canned food, water was the most sought-after provision. Bottled water in particular. Transparent fuel.
The walkers’ fees were determined according to each individual. People showered them with wine, clothes, and jewelry so that they would come back to their windows sooner. They traversed the desolate landscape like drunken, spruced-up dandies with their suits and medallions. They walked alone. They were at the head of a frigate loaded with provisions and kitchenware, with no destination but the desert. They gagged themselves with damp cloths to keep their lungs from blackening among the countless particles hanging in the air after the deterioration, the devastation, the disaster polluting the atmosphere. The planet had transformed into an open-air mine, a barren oil field with no wealth left to offer.
Troops of zombies left their dens at nightfall. Cautiously. Stealthily.
Until their silence fractured. Somewhere, someone whispered something. A rumor. Its source was nameless, and no one could say whether it was reliable, but like all rumors, it travelled from mouth to ear to mouth to ear. It filtered timidly through minor gaps at first. Then expanded. It absorbed despondency. What had been a trickle became a torrent. Wide, dense. It drank up fatigue. Knocked down the walls of mistrust. Amplifying into an echo, it battered against buildings, mountains, and glaciers, which spread the message of insurrection to anyone who would believe it. The most widespread of the whispers spoke of a cardinal point. The north. Salvation lay in that hemisphere, they said. North of north, they chanted. In the unrepentant snow of mountain ranges containing the last vestiges of water. Its last drops. North of north of north.
A faith theretofore unseen in the modern age shook the Earth. A human earthquake sent shudders through its surface. Floods of human beings fled the south. Their heads hanging and their legs languorous. Void of courage. They abandoned shacks, apartments, and palaces, and shed themselves of their belongings. They took to the streets to find the route, detaching from themselves. They deserted everything in their wake, like stampeding cattle. They eroded the path with their steps, whiled away the streams with their thirst, and exhausted the fruits on the trees with their hunger, though by then they were more like twigs with gangrenous roots, which no one could remember in their abundant, voluminous state. All that was left of the rivers were beds of smooth rock. Of the swamps, cracked mud. Of the pastures, a clay crust. The most immense exodus in history thwarted any possibility of finding even the smallest of untouched plots. It strangled the last breath out of the world.
But some people decided not to go into exile. The entrenched urbanites and regal nomads remained, all of them in a communion with death.
Opting not for the mountains, guerillas fled to the asphalt. They clogged their farewells with laments, the pavement with agony, the highways with cars. And so the service stations became yet another victim of the looting. Drums and tanks overflowing with gas were vital to making pilgrimage. After countless miles, after the black well had dried up, or groups of bandits had stolen their wheels—sabotage, so that fewer people would reach salvation—they were left stranded like whales in the sand. Their skin bland from the sun and their bodies worn away by the struggle, they didn’t immediately react. Then, with resignation as their banner, they continued on foot. Or by bicycle, the most ideal form of transport because their legs could act as a drive belt and the only fuel they needed was the frenzy of their flight.
Many gave up, either out of exhaustion, or because they became convinced it was impossible. Limping and thirsty, they huddled within cars parked in the shade or beside buildings in construction. Then, with withered hearts and open arms, they gave themselves over to the darkness.
Thousands of settlements and refuges sprawled from south to north. Animated whispers traveled along arteries connecting the coerced pilgrimage with its phantom destination, and fell on the surviving walkers, reinforcing their hope. The times of faith returned with a renewed vigor: “We will make it!” “Salvation is at hand!” “Stand up!” they rallied each other. The festering determination in their guts had been fermenting within them since the dawn of time.
People had always existed in a state of inertia. An unmistakable path had traced their lives since genesis: obeying their basic biological needs, the chores they undertook as a collective, and the whims of their leaders. A play of light and shadow, health and sickness, joy and sadness. A dance with a pre-determined rhythm that few could escape from. Only the marginalized had ever dared to, set apart as they were from the dictates of a social structure that threatened those who made their own choices, those who fled through the cracks in a frame designed to contain the masses, struggling their way through the gaps of omnipotent fate
She and her mother left at sunset. They had stayed shut up at home since the day of the TV broadcast. Under lock and key, with the windows and the doors covered. Stocked with everything they could get from the market, which had already been sacked, and from the corner store that her mother had run and decided to close during the first riots. Liquids and solids, bottles and cans, which they estimated would last months. Maybe a year.
But doubt crept into their convictions with the arrival of the rumor. Stay or go? Resist or risk? In the end, there was no difference. Agony was lurking at every dead angle. It didn’t matter how many times they skirted tragedy; it would always find them. Her mother felt old, impotent, crushed by the many years on her back. She tried to convince her of the second of the two options. Maybe, behind the risk, there was good fortune awaiting them.
After debating the alternatives, they went quiet and looked at each other a long time. Her mother had no choice but to concede to the glimmer in her daughter’s eyes.
Alright, I’ll go with you, my love.
I wasn’t going to leave you here.
They gagged themselves with surgical masks. Along with their supplies, they had two gasoline canisters that their dead husband and father had kept in the garage. He thought that when the future came, the only gold worth its weight would be black. He thought that calamity was waiting to strike. His desire to get ahead of the disaster, combined with a period of unemployment from an inability to work, gave him the time to build a shelter in their basement. Absurd in its dimensions. Forty square feet as a horizon. Forty square feet for asphyxiation.
She took the wheel; her mother leaned back in the passenger’s seat. She drove at night and they rested by day. They hardly spoke, saving the saliva they wouldn’t be able to replace. The relentless heat gave them a primitive thirst, but they were rationing water. A few drops a day. Her father was wrong. Once the future came, gold would have no color, it would be clear.
They witnessed wonders on the asphalt. A dumping ground of guts and hooves littered the way. It was the residue of animals that had entered the darkness, laying alongside the fallen exiles. The world had never elaborated such a decline.
On the fourth night, they were stopped by waylayers. There were several. It was impossible to tell how many in the darkness. The moon no longer shone at night. It had been some time since Earth’s satellite had reflected any sunlight. Despite their victims’ blindness, the bandits hid their faces behind cloths. They shouted in a rough, foreign tongue. Infested with r’s and cacophonous strings of words. They placed their hands on the door handles and saw that they were locked. They kicked the car. Grunted with rage. Broke the windows with iron bars and unlocked the doors. She tried to scare them off. She had her father’s pistol. The one he kept in a box in the cupboard and meticulously cleaned until it gleamed. He thought that a gun was a lover that never disappointed. But the hostile instrument trembled so much in her hands that once she pulled the trigger, she missed every single shot. Her audacity only enraged their attackers even more. “Crazy bitch!” they spat, and, using the butts of their rifles, they battered them in the legs, back, head. Their pleas were to no avail. They dragged them out of the car. Her mother went unconscious, but she still was still lucid enough to curse them in her rage.
They stole all their provisions. Carried their plunder to a van. Urinated into a corner. Laughed at how easy the assault had been. Started their car. Upon accelerating, a toxic cloud enveloped the two women. A cloud of helplessness.
They spent hours lying on the ground, she trying to get her breath back, her mother fighting to regain consciousness. Set off from the road, near what seemed to have been a forest and was then nothing but spines bristling out of the arid ground. They went looking for shade at dawn, and entered an abandoned house. The door had already been forced open. It was clear this family had left in a hurry too. Evicted by their terror, disorder reigned in the rooms. Half-packed bags on the beds, clothes on the floor, a derailed toy car track. Pots on the stove alluded to affection. A dead dog, nothing left but its fur, hinted at companionship.
They searched the cupboard and found some preserves that brought them relief. They turned on the faucets, which creaked with exhaustion. She took a plastic bottle and carefully collected the warm, murky water pooled in a drum near the roof. And what was left in the toilet bowl. Every drop was valuable, even an impure one.
Go on without me, my love.
I’m not going to leave you here.
I won’t make it any further…
Their water reserves wouldn’t last them even two days. She knew that. Still, stagnating in there would mean sure death.
They continued on foot. Gripped by pain, fatigue, suffocation.
Her mother crumbled to the ground at dawn on the sixth day. She may have simply succumbed to a wave of heat. Or maybe her executioner was multiple organ failure. The one certainty was that it came down to a lack of faith. She was surprised to find herself feeling suddenly calm. The kind of serenity that precedes the persistence of knowing you no longer have anything to lose. She held vigil over her mother’s body under a shed all day, and all night. Around the hour for the morning prayer, she buried her. She clawed in search of food like an animal. Or like the girl who had looked for the kittens birthed by a cat that belonged to no one. On her knees, with her nails in the earth, her cries inseminated the dust. She heard a sound of dragging chains in the distance. It was the crawling steps of a procession of orphan souls like herself. She quickly completed the grave by throwing some withered herbs onto it as a kind of memory, and headed towards the penitents. Flailing, she offered them some of her water in exchange for food. They too seemed to have been victims of assault, aggression, rape. They accepted. Enlisting in the exodus alongside this group of lifeless beings seemed safer than going on alone.
As their prayers and time on the road accumulated, so did the fallen. They blanketed the asphalt and filled ditches, fields, channels, rivers, and banks. The living avoided the dead. They sidestepped them or walked over their bodies with the boldness of someone chasing a dream, which had begun as a rumor and fleshed out into a certainty. An unprecedented civilization, they said. Sheltered, not exposed to the outside world, defying fate. The last bastion, they said. Where humanity could attempt its own salvation. A fortified settlement for the few, they said. A promised land. They called it Natura.
North. Natura. North. Natura. North…Such was the litany of hope with which the people strung together their path, step by step.