In the stories Mother tells, the sky is black and the air tastes like ash.
Laila and I burn a piece of toast on the stove to see what ash is, rub the charcoaled crumbs across each other’s lips to taste it. It fills the kitchen with billowing grey smoke and sets off the beeping alarm that brings Mother running. She doesn’t yell like she sometimes does, though, just stands there and stares. Like she knows what we were doing, almost.
“Did you taste the ash?” Laila asks me that night, spider-thin fingers running up and down my blanket. I
can hear the rasping sigh of her progress in the pitch dark and see the glint of her eyes in the red emergency
“It tasted like burnt bread,” I confess, and she laughs.
The sky part is a mystery to us, too – Mother says it was like a giant ceiling, so high up you couldn’t see any walls or cracks in the plaster. She says it was blue, in the Before. We try one day to figure out how much paint it would take to cover a ceiling so big, and Mother tells us that isn’t the point in her clipped, frustrated voice.
“Probably a thousand buckets,” Laila whispers after the lights are out.
What I figure is, the sky probably wasn’t exactly like a ceiling. You couldn’t touch the sky, Mother said, even after the Cataclysm. We can touch our ceiling by standing on the bookshelf or jumping high on the bed with our arms stretched as far as they could go, even though Mother told us that bouncing like that would break the bedsprings.
“And a ceiling that survived twenty years of missiles and bombs would have to be awfully strong,” Laila
points out once. It is a good point. She has always been the smarter of the two of us, drifting around the
compound in my hand-me-down dresses and too-big shoes, lost in her thoughts.
Mother tells a lot of stories.
In some of them, there is the Father and his heroic sacrifice to save us from the Cataclysm, the days of fire and falling skies. Other stories tell of the whole world, its beginning and its end.
Here is how the world came to be: In the beginning there was light, and from that light came dark.
And here is how the world came to an end: The darkness, given life by mortal hubris, swallowed all but the Faithful few.
Mother’s stories of Before echo like half-remembered dreams. They are a time and a place we cannot touch, cannot place our hands on and scout with our fingers. They are like apples, which Laila does not believe in because we – Mother and I – ate the last of them during the months before she was born. I tell her of slippery-smooth red skin, waxy surface on tongues, burst of crisp-bright-sweet as teeth pierce the taut surface. I sketch round balls on scraps of paper, pressing down hard with our red crayon to convey the glisten of the surface. Laila laughs.
“I wish we lived Before,” she confesses to me one night, her limbs tangled in mine even though Mother says we’re too old to share a bed anymore.
“But we’re all that’s left.”
“I know that.” She sits up, and I know she’s frowning. Something about her voice, I think, even though I can’t see her face. “But back when we weren’t – when there were other survivors left––”
Our vocabulary is limited in this way: there are only survivors.
(The Faithful are survivors. And the darkness descended on the earth, for the pride of mankind had grown great and terrible. And the Faithful were afeared, and sought shelter in the depths of the earth, and survived the days of fire.)
The Book that teaches us everything does not tell us if there were other survivors.
“Well, no use wishing for what you can’t have,” I reply. It’s one of Mother’s favorite sayings, what she told me the day there were no apples left. It leaves a bitter, unsatisfied taste in my mouth that I cannot swallow away.
Here is another story: the Father came to Mother one night under a sky of little white lights called stars and asked her for a dance. They swayed to music from the record player Mother keeps entombed in her room: lively strains of Mozart and Brahms, a needle scratching along the black and whispering music into the dusk.
When the time came to take refuge, the Father stayed behind to protect his wife and daughter and unborn child.
He was a hero, like Jason of the Argonauts, like Hercules, like Superman.
Mother taped a picture of him to the back of the Book. He had brown hair like Laila’s, feathering out over his forehead, and thick black glasses. His arms were thick with muscle we can never hope to get from the exercises Mother makes us do every day, and his skin was golden-brown, tinted by a sun that humanity has since shrouded in atomic clouds.
“Do you remember coming down into the Shelter?” Laila asks, running a finger across the edge of the table, back and forth. Her arms tremble a bit, as though she’s shivering with cold.
“It was dark.” I close my eyes, pretending to recall. “Nighttime, I think. Like lights-out, but there was no emergency light – no light except the moon. Mother was scared.”
“What else, though?”
“Just – then we were here.” I shrug. “Safe.”
Her eyes gleam, unsatisfied. “That’s all?”
“I was too young to remember anything.” That’s what I’m supposed to say. That’s what I’m supposed to believe. I almost do, too.
“Do you remember Before?”
I shoot a glance towards the closed door that leads to Mother’s room, suddenly afraid that she’s over there with her ear pressed to the cold metal, listening. In the silence, she could be anywhere. “It doesn’t matter. There’s just the Shelter now, you know that.”
“Have you ever noticed that all the other books are typed up?” Laila asks abruptly, one of those derailments she’s good at. “The mythologies, Mother’s comic books, the old literatures. But not the Book. It’s Mother’s handwriting.”
“It’s the truth.” About what had happened to the world, and how we – the human race – had ended the natural order of things through our own arrogance. The story of the Faithful. “It is.”
Once a year, Mother unravels strands of tangled green wire and fragile little bulbs, tacks them to the corners of the room so they drape down in waves. She says that it used to be a holiday celebrating corporate greed, a
twisting of a pure and sacred winter festival towards unbridled consumption of frivolities.
Now, she says, it is our birthday.
These lights are the closest I have to the stars in her tales – stars that Laila discredits, scoffing that nothing could be hung on a ceiling as high as the sky.
The naming story used to be my favorite, and then it was Laila’s, and then it was simply a handful of words repeated under strands of twinkling lights, repeated until they meant nothing.
Gwyneth, Mother would sound out, tracing the loop of the y, the delicate curl of the h with her finger on the back of my hand. It means blessed. You are blessed.
Laila. For the night that has fallen on us.
We are blessed, here, in the safety of the night.
Blessed night. (Every year, the strings of lights and the lilting melodies Mother hums under her breath when she thinks we aren’t listening.)
When the sins of humanity were many, the sun went dark and the earth shook with grief and loss as it felt its children gasping and dying. For the land was made barren, and the waters poison, and the air toxic.
And the only ones who lived were those who deserved to survive, and they were the Faithful.
“What is the Shelter?” Laila asks, and Mother gives her an indulgent smile.
“The Shelter is the world.” We are a seed, we are the last candle against the darkness. Catechism words from the Book. Words we know by heart, perhaps from birth.
“But what was it Before?”
I bite the corner of my nail surreptitiously, a habit Mother used to chide me for; it’s something she thinks I’ve grown out of. Laila shouldn’t be asking questions. Not about Before.
Mother must be in a good mood today. “It was a bunker from another one of humanity’s wars – the Faithful must always be prepared. Have always been prepared.”
Laila nods. Mother has forgotten how to know her, and so she does not see what I see: that Laila is not satisfied, that my sister is searching for something.
And I am afraid.
Down in the Shelter, during lights-out, I can see Before.
Mother says that these were once called dreams, but that dreams were what brought humanity to ruin –
dreams and visions of power and glory and triumph over the rest of the world. Bringing low the forests and
oceans and laying waste to the lives of fellow humans, as though the same bloody chambers did not beat in
their chests, too.
Dreams are something she does not like us talking about.
(Laila does not dream; or if she does, they are nothing she remembers.)
Sometimes, I wake, grasping at the edges of something half-recalled, feeling it slip away like condensation down the side of a glass. Flashes of color and sound. Something nearly forbidden, like the slick grey glass of the television set in the next room that no longer plays any videos.
I remember the stars.
There is a book about astronomy in the worn-out bookcase.
Television static is the echo of the formation of the universe, the first second of everything. Even before the television broke, there were only fuzzy grey swirls and a distant rushing noise that hurt my ears. Black and white and black and white until my eyes were dizzy and I could almost see shapes in the formless mess.
In the beginning, there was nothing.
It was still the beginning.
Laila finds me on my bed, lying on my back and following the cracks in the ceiling with my eyes. “I found a way up. A way outside, maybe.”
“Up?” A word that has little meaning outside of the Book – up and outside are words of doom, words of the fall. Shelter is safe. Shelter is down, and under, and hidden. (Shelter is the night that has fallen on us.)
“Come on.” She takes my hand and pulls me away, through the kitchen. Up above a cabinet is a dusty hatch half-hidden by jars of preserved tomatoes and onions; she climbs up on the counter and pushes those aside. There are marks in the deep dust where she has already gone this way.
From the next room, the sounds of music. Mother is playing one of her records. She won’t emerge for hours, maybe.
“Are you coming?” Laila is up on the cabinet, now, body half in the dark hole revealed by the hatch. Her voice echoes in the empty space up there, bouncing back and rebounding until it doesn’t sound like her at all.
Outside is Before.
Outside is danger.
Outside is pride and murder and everything humanity did wrong, everything that brought fire raining down and smoke clouding the sky.
(Here is the truth: humanity never needed any vengeful god to bring about its ruin. Humanity has only ever needed its own arrogance.)
The access shaft is dark and deep, stretching up and down on either side of the ledge we emerge onto. Laila drops a penny from her coin collection over the edge and waits.
Far, far below, the clink of metal on stone.
“Miles, probably,” she says, satisfied. “And up there – Gwyn, can you see?”
I squint, trying to clear the swirling color from my eyes. There could be a light, up there, small and distant as a star.
“Nothing,” I lie.
“There’s a light,” she insists, hands fluttering in that way they do when she gets anxious – rapid, nervous movements like the wings of a bird. “Before isn’t before, see? What if the Book isn’t real? Mother – she’s––”
The word she’s searching for is lying, but her worldview does not encompass a mother who lies. (Or a sister, for that matter.)
“There’s a ladder.” She reaches out – the shaft is wider than her armspan, but the ledge we are on juts out at least halfway – and her hand brushes rusted metal. Her voice is sure now, strong and echoing in the dark space. “I’ll go up first, and you follow after.”
Arrogance stems from progress, and progress stems from discovery, and discovery stems from curiosity. Mother’s hands have hair-thin scars on them, thin white ropes criss-crossing her skin. They curl around the Book, slip from the thick pages.
Curiosity is the first sin of humanity.
Those pages are heavy enough to cut me when I reach for them, slicing marks the color of glossy apple skin across the pads of my fingers.
This is a lesson.
“Maybe we can see the stars. Maybe the air isn’t really poison, just for a little bit, we have to at least see––”
I shake my head, the words tangling in my throat. Wrong. This is wrong.
She sets her foot on the first rung, and the metal squeaks a protest, shivers under her weight – and holds.
“I’ll go see,” she says.
I grab her hand. “You can’t. You’ll die, you’ll––” The poison in the air will seep into your lungs and you’ll drown from the inside out. You’ll return with radioactive blood and die a death of slow decay.
You’ll burn your eyes to dust when you try to look at the sun
“I won’t.” She smiles. “Come with me.”
(Do you remember coming down into the Shelter?)
Yes. And no. And never the way I’ve been told I remember.
What do I really remember?
On the last night of Before, the earth did not shake. It was not night; the moon did not wink a farewell before fading behind lethal clouds of gas and dust. I saw no planes scratching black lines across the sky, dropping packages of death. The sun was setting in red and gold, and the backseat of the car was dusty. Mother and Father had been fighting, and Father had slammed the door behind him when he left.
There was a door, and a flight of stairs, and the distant sound of a lock being drawn. My mother’s hand held mine too tight, pressing my fingers together until they hurt.
Say goodbye, Gwyn.
(Mother’s knuckles white on the edges of the Book, showing me the cramped handwriting for the first time. Far, far underground, the Faithful were safe.)
She pauses, but doesn’t turn. Her arms shake from the strain of holding up her thin body, but her voice is steady. “Aren’t you coming, Gwyn?”
My hand closes around the back of Laila’s shirt, tugging her back down. The thin cloth (worn twice over) tears in my grip. She turns, an indignant question forming on her lips, and I set both hands in the center of her chest and push.
We were safe.
Laila screams once, sharp and clear, and then there is nothing.
The Shelter is the world.
We are a seed, we are the last candle against the darkness. We are the Faithful.
And the Faithful are few in number, but steadfast in heart, and the earth’s depths will shelter them until the end of time.