by S. D. Chrostowska
It was in the first days of last December that radio bulletins on the state and location of the idea began hitting my city every few hours. The capital had already been evacuated. According to the newscasts, we were now in the danger zone.
In the month of October, the idea had reared its head on the peripheries of S. It gained ground, showing no sign of receding, uniformly covering each successive region of the country. Why it never crossed our open borders, and why not one of my countrymen fled abroad while there was still time, to this day I cannot explain. Systematically, it swallowed all in its path: municipalities and farms, party chancelleries, military bases, militia headquarters, liquor stores, culinary establishments, museums and movie houses, recreation facilities, ski resorts, mountains and forests and rivers and lakes, complete with wildlife and people. Everything without exception became its fodder. The advancing mass leveled the surface of our Fatherland, transforming it into an empty expanse. Whole stretches of land were coated by a thick layer of it, compacted under its weight, so that no sign (apart from occasional protuberances) was left of the life that until recently had thrived there. Thus it came about that the idea buried a small corner of the world.
At the beginning, the substance seemed harmless, and those who thought otherwise were labeled “alarmists”, “doomsday traffickers”, in the media. It was only when, under undisclosed circumstances, it dodged the “security systems” of the secluded laboratory where it was born that it was first declared “strange” and “inchoate”, then “hazardous”, and, finally, “lethal”.
Soon after, the substance known simply as the idea gathered formidable momentum. But it was not until the public statement of Professor R. (directly responsible for engineering it), a statement both concise and poignant, that unfortunately he was unable to check the exponential growth of an “experimental accident” (this he emphasized over and over), and, regretful, owned having committed a “crime against humanity” (thereby displaying a slight tendency toward exaggeration typical of scientists), or (which amounts to the same) to conducting a “sinister test” (testifying by such verbal self-castigation to the firmness of his faith), following also the capitulatory announcement by a handful of renowned experts; and, lastly, after the group suicide of the said luminaries (who threw themselves under the advancing idea)—which is to say, after the symbolic surrender of our national science—that a frantic exodus toward the coastline took place. No one, not even the Pope (after all, a native of P.), had faith enough to foretell the coming of a messiah capable of halting the idea in question.
At present, as I describe the events of the past several months, the migration which began then is nearing its end. We are well into February. I am sitting on the dunes, sore and weary, reconciled to impending doom. In my vigilance, I surreptitiously glance around. I am not alone. Refugees and their corpses, animals and the carcasses of animals, await a nationwide demise. The beach is teeming. Fear-stricken, the million-headed horde flees the shore for the water. Today is Judgement Day for our citizens. The Judge is on His way, but is making us wait: He is still seven kilometers away.
Despite the heavy atmosphere and subzero temperature, some of my compatriots are already immersing themselves—like our ancestors returning to aquatic life, devolving. They vainly put on lifejackets, lifesavers, and arm rings, inflate pontoons and mattresses, tie together flotsam—anything to keep themselves afloat. They take their time; since they are certain to perish without obsequies, they want at least to make a splash, a ceremony of this baptism. On the brink, the majority prefers drowning to being buried alive. (I, a chronicler who will share their fate, don’t partake in these ultimate, frenetic preparations, being determined to fill my role to the end. I am trying to present the panorama without euphemism or prejudice.) Then there are those who brought with them only warm blankets and catechisms. What were they thinking? They pray for our deliverance bobbing about in the waves.
Against the horizon, below a pallid setting sun, I make out the worthy vessels of those who may survive . . . So what? It is hard to envy them. (As I’ve said, I look upon the whole disaster with the distance typical of reporters, as if it did not concern me personally.) All is predetermined. Being conscious of this, rid of hope, resisting the common mood and the onset of panic, lends me a drowned man’s buoyancy.
What I see is the birth of a Legend: Together with the idea we shall pass into the Future (capital letters still stand for capital things!). We will be recounted, in prose or in verse, as a Modern Atlantis. Of those who experienced this catastrophe, a handful will live to tell it, who will spread the truth about the idea the world over. Perhaps they will only imply, having taken leave of their senses, what it was like and avow that something strange indeed once befell their now-vanished country. But a moment later they might act as though it never even happened. Will historians dare take it up? Facts—colorless facts—will of course be transmitted, but the crux of the matter shall speak louder than they. Here it is before us: The folly of myth, the stuff of tales regularly spun on the wheel of human curiosity, credulity, and conjecture, is so much more convincing than fact.
O wonderful Legend! You will rise from this bleak blank plain dramatic, heroic, and captivating, that I myself am dying to hear tell of you. But it is not my lot to be part of the Future, which will belong to generations dimmer than our own—ones that could not possibly have realized the idea.
Excerpted from A Cage for Every Child, Sublunary Editions, 2021
Image: David Yu: Fog City, 2017 (detail, CC)
Frontpage image: Samantha Beddoes: Waves, 2012 (CC)
About the Author
S. D. Chrostowska is is the author of The Eyelid (Coach House Books, 2020) and Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).