Aug 28 2013 10:00am
After a powerful sorceress is murdered, she’s summoned over the centuries to witness devastating changes to the land where she was born. A woman who lives by scavenging corpses in the Japanese suicide forest is haunted by her dead lover. A man searches for the memory that will overwrite his childhood abuse. Helios is left at the altar. The world is made quiet by a series of apocalypses.
From the riveting emotion and politics of “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” (Nebula winner) to the melancholy family saga of “Eros, Philia, Agape” (Hugo and Theodore Sturgeon finalist), Rachel Swirsky’s critically acclaimed stories have quickly made her one of the field’s rising stars. Her work is, by turns, clever and engaging, unflinching and quietly devastating—often in the space of the same story.
How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, available September 30th from Subterranean Press, collects the body of Swirsky’s short fiction to date for the first time. While these stories envision pasts, presents, and futures that never existed, they offer revealing examinations of humanity that readers will find undeniably true.
How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth
Part One—The Apocalypse of Trees
During the first million years of its existence, mankind survived five apocalypses without succumbing to extinction. It endured the Apocalypse of Steel, the Apocalypse of Hydrogen, the Apocalypse of Serotonin, and both Apocalypses of Water, the second of which occurred despite certain contracts to the contrary. Mankind also survived the Apocalypse of Grease, which wasn’t a true apocalypse, although it wiped out nearly half of humanity by clogging the gears that ran the densely-packed underwater cities of Lor, but that’s a tale for another time.
Humans laid the foundation for the sixth apocalypse in much the same way they’d triggered the previous ones. Having recovered their ambition after the Apocalypse of Serotonin and rebuilt their populations after the Apocalypse of Grease, they once again embarked on their species’ long term goal to wreak as much havoc as possible on the environment through carelessness and boredom. This time, the trees protested. They devoured buildings, whipped wind into hurricanes between their branches, tangled men into their roots and devoured them as mulch. In retaliation, men chopped down trees, fire-bombed jungles, and released genetically engineered insects to devour tender shoots.
The pitched battle decimated civilians on both sides, but eventually—though infested and rootless—the trees overwhelmed their opposition. Mankind was forced to send its battered representatives to a sacred grove in the middle of the world’s oldest forest and beg for a treaty.
Negotiations went slowly since the trees insisted on communicating through the pitches of the wind in their leaves, which astute linguists played back at 1,000 times normal speed in order to render them comprehensible to human ears. It took a day for a sentence, a week for a paragraph, a month for an entire stipulation.
After ten years, a truce was completed. To demonstrate its significance, it was inked in blood drawn from human victims and printed on the pulped and flattened corpses of trees. The trees agreed to cease their increasing assaults and return forevermore to their previous quiescent vegetable state, in exchange for a single concession: mankind would henceforth sacrifice its genetic heritage and merge with animals to create a new, benevolent sentience with which to populate the globe.
After the final signatures and root-imprints were applied to the treaty, the last thing the trees were heard to say before their leaves returned to being mere producers of chlorophyll was this: At least it should keep them busy for a millennium or two, fighting among themselves.
Part Two—The Animals Who Lived as Men
Mankind, as history had known it, was no more. The new hybrids wore bodies constructed like those of mythological beasts, a blend of human and animal features. They scattered into the world’s forests, deserts, jungles, and oceans, where they competed with unmixed animals for food and territory.
If some ancient legends were to be believed, men were only returning to their ancient roots as dolphin and lizard, raven and grizzly bear. Other traditions would have been appalled that man had cast himself down from his place at the apex of the chain of being and been consigned to the lesser links below.
Intellectuals became the whale men, who kept their faces, but lost their bodies for the streamlined shape of cetaceans. Their sentience blended with the intelligence already inhabiting those massive, blubbery forms. They indulged in abstract philosophy as they swam through the ocean depths in a silence created by the first absence of shipping lines in five hundred thousand years.
Pilots and acrobats became glider men, acquiring huge eyes, wing flaps, and nocturnal habits which served them well as they arrowed from tree to tree in forests that echoed with their eerie, sonar calls. Eight-armed crab men spent their days skittering up and down beaches dancing for the gulls; spotted jaguar men skulked through forests; cold-blooded turtle men inched through years; flattened stingray men lurked on river bottoms, awaiting unwary travelers.
For the first twenty thousand years, mankind peacefully coexisted in all its forms. After that, the buried genetic contribution of the human mind bubbled to the surface.
“The treaty is an outgrown shell to be discarded,” young crab men gestured defiantly with their third and sixth arms. Crab matrons clacked their claws in outrage, but who could control the youth?
The most extreme of the crab men formed a rebel sect called the Weeders. They wove strands of kelp around their eyestalks and ritually cut their seventh arms, searing the wounds with a mixture of brine and gull guano. At first, they expended their rage on symbolic targets: dumb unblended seabirds, or rocks shaped like dolphin men. And then a juvenile Weeder called Long Stalks found an injured seal man bleeding on the beach and dragged him home in time for the evening convocation. The Weeders tore him to pieces, rubbing themselves with his blubber and parading in his fur. The meat they left to rot.
When they discovered the decaying corpse, the crab matrons went to the seal men with offerings and apologies, but the seal men refused to hear diplomacy. They clipped off the delegation’s claws and sent the mutilated ambassadors home with a terse condemnation: “You didn’t even have the courtesy to eat him.”
Seal and crab men hunted each other to extinction in less than a decade. The last crab man sidled four hundred miles inland to a camp of parrot men before expiring with a curse on his lips.
Soon it was hyena man versus eagle man and frog man versus capybara man, then tiger and spider and cockatiel men against snake and giraffe and ostrich men. Amidst the hectic formation and betrayals of alliances that seethed on the battlefield, only one order created a stable federation. These were the insect men, greatest of all the species of men in their variety and achievements.
Their infantry were the mosquito men, fearsome female warriors with the muscular bodies of amazons topped by tiny, blood-sucking heads. They marched wherever battle raged, drinking the blood of fallen soldiers. They were sliced and swatted, crushed and grasped in giant crocodilian jaws, but still the indomitable parasites survived to carry samples of their victim’s blood back to their superiors, the butterfly men.
Oh, the tragedy of the butterfly men, wisest of the insect men, whose useless jewel-colored wings draped from their slender shoulders like robes. These were the descendents of the geneticists who engineered the destruction of mankind, innocent victims of their ancestor’s self-flagellation. Forced to subsist on honey and chained to a lifespan of less than a week, these shrewd but ephemeral leaders did not even enjoy the consolation of flight. Instead they lingered in forest glades looking pale and melancholy. Liable to terrible moods, they made love in the underbrush one moment and shredded each other’s wings the next.
Yet the geneticist’s legacy was not entirely bad, for they had left their descendents the gift of instinct: inscribed into the rapid pathways of their ephemeral brains lay an intricate understanding of DNA and genetic manipulation. Using this knowledge, the butterflies divined their enemy’s secret anatomical weaknesses from the blood samples which the mosquito men brought to them. Generations of butterfly men scrutinized each vial in order to create fatal viruses which would massacre their enemy’s ranks.
Only when the last disease had been designed did the butterfly men let loose the fruits of their labor. Simultaneously, a hundred deadly plagues seized their victims, sweeping across the earth in a single night. By morning, only the insect men remained.
High on an isolated cliff in a desert that had once been the Amazon, a cluster of hardy Joshua trees broke their ancient silence to speak once more. Wind rushed through the prickly tufts of their leaves, rustling out a single sentence: That didn’t take long, did it?
Part Three—The Reign of Insects
Though the butterfly men’s cunning won the war, their flighty emotions and brief life spans made them unsuitable for leading a world, and so it was that the cockroach men became the rulers of the earth. Tough enough to survive dismemberment because their brain processes were spread throughout their becarapaced bodies, and possessed of the keen and supernatural senses of scavengers who had once lived among creatures many hundreds of times their own size, the cockroaches had the desire and capacity to enact a reign of fascism on the other insect men the like of which had never been seen before.
Ant men and bee men filled the roles of farmers and drudges. Atlas and rhinoceros beetle men provided brute force. Flea and mite men accomplished those tasks requiring agility.
Mosquito men served as the secret police. The cockroach men sent them to swarm on enemies of the state and drain them dry—and there was never a lack of traitors to keep them fed.
Alas, the plight of the butterfly men was only to become worse, for the cockroach men were loathe to risk the same end which had befallen their enemies. To ensure their safety from the butterflies’ dangerous knowledge, they imprisoned the butterfly men in a dark chain of underground caves where they lived brief, miserable lives outside the sun’s reach. Within a season and twelve generations, all conscious knowledge of how to create viruses from blood was gone, but the butterfly men’s unhappy descendents remain incarcerated in their underground cells today.
Above ground, bees and ants marched to the cockroach’s well-timed rhythm, carrying crops from outlying farms into the hills of the city. Caravans of traveling gypsy moth men departed each hour on the hour, and the cockroach men began great civil works projects to erect bridges and statues and roads and memorials and temples. Larvae were taken away from their hatchers and forced to work at back-breaking labor past adulthood; dragonfly men journalists reported only that news which drifted on the prevailing winds of fascism; hives were routinely broken up to redistribute the working population. While the other insect men lived poor and wintry lives subsisting on meager grain, the cockroach men gorged on honey, orange peels and moldy bread. Those who dissented disappeared, only to be found as blood-drained corpses swinging from study branches.
Yet all this might have endured, were it not for the deadliest sin of the cockroach men. Ancestrally predisposed to look favorably upon debris, the cockroach men allowed their wastes to build up in giant landfills. Junkyards choked out the fields; garbage seeped into the ground water; rotting trash provided breeding grounds for the nastiest, most virulent epidemics. When the first wave of ant men died of a plague that turned their exoskeletons scarlet, at first the cockroach men suspected their old accomplices the butterfly men, but when they went to interrogate them, no one could remember where that unhappy species had been stashed.
The trees cried out against what was happening to them. New bacteria chewed through leaves and blocked out photosynthesis; roots withered in poisoned soil. Things would only get worse, they knew—oh, how they would suffer. Across the globe it would be the same for all things natural: seas would rumble, ecosystems shatter; even the iron-breathing archeans in the deepest volcanic vents would perish if the cockroach men were allowed to continue on their path. This will hurt you too, earth, the trees wailed, not in the language of wind-in-leaves which they had used to communicate with the humans, but in the language of roots-in-ground and life-in-soil.
And the earth heard their plight. It shivered, cracking the super-continent down the middle like a slice of lightning splitting the sky. I have seen enough of mankind’s ability to make trouble, it rumbled to itself in the language of magma-under-crust, and it initiated the seventh apocalypse, the Apocalypse of Darkness.
The Apocalypse of Darkness was the most terrible yet suffered by mankind. Untold agony wiped out almost the entire population of the globe.
Three cricket men survived. They woke quaking into the dawn, antennae shivering down their backs. They were two females and a male, and they might have carried their line into future generations, but the three of them regarded each other with dark, compound eyes that reflected the same understanding.
“We must never bear children,” said the oldest and wisest, “Or someday we might tell them what we have experienced, and we must never damn another soul to see what we have seen, even by picturing it in their minds.”
The others agreed, and the three of them leapt off the tallest cliff they could find, dying in silence. Though the details of the Apocalypse of Darkness are known, it would be disrespectful to the cricket men’s sacrifice to record them.
Interlude—Whisperings from Branch to Branch
So, little rootlings, little seedlings, little starting-to-grows, that is why the earth is quiet now. Feel the snails trail across your bark. Listen to the birds trilling in your branches and the insects nibbling your leaves. Hear the snap of monkeys brachiating from branch to branch. With mankind gone, we are free to enjoy these things. Are they not good?
Ah, but by now you’ve guessed, the time of man is not entirely behind us. Why else would we whisper this tale on a fine spring morning with winter’s frosts sweetly melted?
Before the Apocalypse of Darkness, we did not tell each other stories. Through necessity, we have learned the skill. Next year, you will help us tell the starting-to-grows about The Great Cathedral Mother who stood in the center of the world until her children sprouted up in a ring around her and sucked up all the sunlight. Her trunk remains where she once grew, swollen with dead leaves and congealing sap and blind grubs. Someday, lightning will strike all the way through the earth, piercing her in two, and each half will grow into a tall, straight pine with a tip like a spear: one going up, one going down. And when this happens, everything we think we know about the world will change.
The year after that, we will tell the great love story of The Garlanded Tree and the hive of bees who fertilized her.
But this is our most important tale. Like winter, man will return in his season. By the time he does, little rootling, you may have a great solid trunk like your mother. Or perhaps you will have grown and perished, and it will be your children standing. Or your children’s children. Whoever grows when mankind returns must remember how to drop their leaves and huddle naked in the snow.
And also, when man comes back, we wish to return to him his history so that he may hold and regard it like a spring bloom budding on a new-leafed branch, new and yet also old, a gift not unlike the one given last spring. Who knows? Maybe this will be the time mankind can learn from stories.
Part Four—Hands Yearning Upward Through the Surface of the Earth
Stretch your roots into the ground, little seedlings. Listen. Can you hear life rustling under the soil?
Who else, but the butterfly men? The Apocalypse of Darkness did not faze them. Having become accustomed to their miserable state, they could no longer be depressed by the black. They crept anxiously through their underground dwellings, their bright wings beautiful and unseen, and whispered to each other, “Do you feel that? What’s happening?”
When the Apocalypse was over, without knowing the reason for it, the butterfly men wept together for twenty-four full hours in cosmic mourning for the human race of which they were now the sole representatives. But since their quixotic moods were often given to fits of communal sorrow, they failed to understand the uniqueness of the occasion.
After that, it was as though a pall had lifted from the butterfly men. They no longer had surface cousins to envy, so they went about making their lives in the dark. Their society flourished. Their stymied flight sense muddled their sense of direction, so they built joyously everywhere, not knowing up from down or left from right. They laughed and fought and made love in the mud and created an entire caste system based on the texture of the useless flight powder that dusted their wings.
Sometimes an unusual prophet among them dreamed of the surface and spoke of things called light and sun, and usually she was buried alive—but occasionally she wasn’t, and then a new religion started and some of the butterflies marched off through the dark to pursue their cult in a different set of caves.
In the past millennia, these cults have gained power. Everyone has lost a sister or a cousin or a parent to their undeniable allure. Whispers among the fine-powdered aristocracy indicate that the cults have even gained sympathy among the inbred monarchy in their velvet-draped cocoons. Soon perhaps, every butterfly will believe.
The cults employ a diverse array of dogmas, rituals, taboos, gods and mythologies, but they all share two common traits. All tell of an eighth apocalypse when the earth will open up into a chasm so terrifying that it will unlock a new sensation—a sixth sense—to accompany hearing, smell, touch, taste and desire. And all require their devotees to spend one day of their week-long lives meditating to discern which direction is up, and then to raise their arms toward it, and start digging.
How the Earth Became Quiet © Rachel Swirsky