The Last Life on Earth - a short story by Ewen MacDonald
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
A short story by Ewen MacDonald inspired by the Covid 19 lockdown
The sound of the dogs barking ceaselessly, the seagulls cawing and wheedling high above the streets. Car tires, rolling round and round the bitter, lonely tarmac. They come and then they are gone, but the dogs continue to bark. Their senseless demands are never met.
The apnoea returned and relieved him from his sleep. There were always visions of drownings, closed pressed cells, gasmasks. The words of supplication could never escape. An invisible force, far off, out of reach, always came to rescue him. Like some gentle siren from the depths of the ocean. His lungs filled with air once more.
The dogs had ceased barking: everything was silent. Had the afternoon really past? Was it evening? The shadows in the room, draped long across the walls. How long had it been? Was he alive or dead? What was the time? Hadn’t he owned a watch? He searched for it in vain. Where had the dogs gone? Indoors, out of the hideous calm of the street. Were they also afraid?
The light bleeds into dark as the day moans into night. He awaits the nocturne feverishly. The dying of the sun and the rising of the moon. When dreams awaken: nightmares too.
All is still on earth. No branches bustle on the trees, no drunks shout and shuffle down the streets, no midnight racers screech around the roads. There is only a slash of rain on the window pane and the drip from a broken gutter.
Where is the world? It is disappearing. But to where? Where can it escape to? Has the darkness carried it away into the inky black night?
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A breeze enters through the window. It is cool and bristles on the skin. He lays still, half covered in a white cotton sheet, which appears bluish in the darkness. The streetlamps are switched on for no apparent purpose. Their light enters in a tepid reflection on the wall. Sleep is impossible.
It is summer now. Where did winter go? What year is it? There are questions to be answered in the darkness. If it is night, it must be the early hours of morning. Perhaps one o’clock, or even two o’clock. There is no way to tell.
He is alone in the room. There are no others to contend with, to commune with, to elaborate on some hypothesis with. It is him, on his own. Alone in the dark, in the night, in the blackness.
There is a bicycle in the street. Is it a bicycle? Might it not be something else? Some other instrument which perambulates with wheels attached.
The room is filled with light. It is morning, or afternoon. The thin white blinds reflect the light inwards. She is there, with him, in bed. The sheets are damp. She is not there. He is alone. The room is empty: there is only him. There is no other. There is never any other.
When did they last meet? Did they touch? Did their skins cross paths? Was she ever truly there? Had she ever entered his room?
There is a murderous cry of a magpie, outside, repetitive, screeching its claws across his brain. There is a ferocious sweat on his back, words that won’t form in his mind. Where has speech gone in the silence? What is his language? How did he learn it?
Is it light, or is it dark? If he closes his eyes he cannot tell. What is it there, in the shadows? Is it just his memory? Is somebody watching him? From the dark corner of the room.
The gulls are back, waiting, patiently. But for what? His demise? His deteriorating corpse? There is no rubbish in the street. There is no rotting food.
He can smell the salt in the air from miles away. Ships forming in the mist. Seas and oceans falling away, tumbling out into the universe.
When did he last eat? What had he eaten? Dried food from a plastic packet. His taste buds were dying from inactivity. Flavour was a concept from a far off distant past. A place he could no longer reach.
Were his memories even real anymore? They were places untethered to the now. This space he inhabited, in the eternal here.
Forms, shifting ghostly across the room. The falling and the rising of the light and dark. The creeping chiaroscuro of unseen objects. The silhouettes lengthening throughout the day.
A black fly, unmoored by its surroundings, battering, scavenging, harrying its prey, strafing the walls. Its buzzing ceaseless and then silence, ceaseless and then silence. A flit and dart about the room, from wall to wall, then nothing: a perfect invisibility. In the still, night air, heavy and humid, it is there, unseen, lying in wait, for the morning to come, for the final, desperate charge. He awaits its renewed activity with a paranoid petrifaction. Is it there, or there, or over there. It is watching. It is waiting. For the first signs of dawn.
The flowers must be wilting, in the vases, in the gardens. The butterflies and bees all starving. The felines all in hiding.
He scans for light and life under the crack at the bottom of the door. Is there a fleeting movement? A change in the texture, from the glow penetrating through the gap? Should he feel along it with his fingertips? Scream into the empty void outside?
Days upon days, come and go and merge into one another. Moving backwards and forwards with equal intensity. As one passes, another begins. Their momentum building then crashing, building then crashing. There is no precise point at which one day passes from one to the other. Time is now illogical and elliptical, set free, with no narrative to contain it.
There is a scraping and scratching noise coming from within the confines of the four walls of the room. Is it a mouse? Is it a rat? Is it above ground, or beneath the floorboards, desperate, contagious, seeking release, to infect all.
He cowers and shivers, in a corner of the bed, head buried deep beneath the pillows. He is senseless with fear, of infestation and contamination, of sick, rabid teeth, in search of mortal wounds. He will succumb to them and die.
The air in the room is heavy and stagnant, poisoned by an invisible substance: it is fear. It hides stealthily, in the dark crevices of the room, stalking him mercilessly.
There is a carafe of water, by the bed, which is permanently empty. It cannot slake his thirst. Today the weather is hot. Tomorrow it will be cooler. The winds and rain will appear to herald in the Autumn. It will grow ever colder, entering into another winter. Perhaps the snows will fall and leave a carapace of whiteness covering the world. A stillness that will settle upon it for eternity.
Somebody whistles a tune, out in the street. Could it possibly be a bird in the hedgerow, a thrush maybe? Its song piercing the fetid air in the room. He stretches out his arm. Will it come to him, in his macerated state? No miraculous bird appears. It takes flight again. To who knows where. It may fly south to warmer climes. Will it never return?
It is still in the night. Even more so than during the day. There is no movement and that is the most fearful of all. There is only the vaguest of shapes and traces of objects in the room, a chair, a wardrobe, some discarded clothes.
Spirits hover in the winds. The walls are filled with ghosts. He listens out and catches occasional murmurs from these vengeful phantoms. They hiss their incantations through the blank, mysterious spaces of the world. They gather their paranormal musings in his skull, tormenting him further towards madness.
There is no relief. There is no comfort. He stairs up at the ceiling looking for a sign: for anything. There are no replie, no soothing words returned.
He sleeps then wakens with a start, uncomprehending. The light stuns him momentarily. It is still daytime. When was it last night? Will darkness come again? Cover the expanse of everything. A dark mass descending everywhere.
There is a screech, or a scream, in the street, then silence once more. Did he dream it? Is he dreaming still? Will he ever awaken? Was the sound human, or wild animal? Devious and hungry, thirsting for his blood. Vampiric in its intentions. Climbing the walls, entering through the window and then a deathly kiss on the neck. A beast tearing his flesh from its bones. The horror of that most impossible instant: the wound which kills.
His mind is lost. It is entirely empty. Devoid of any notion of the self. He is a flickering light in an expansiveness of permanent decay. He has no past, nor future, just the endless monotony of the present.
It gets colder each day. The sunshine receding further and further away, hardly troubling the room anymore. The window remains open, his hearing alert to any glimmer of life to break the solitude. The shadows envelope the room until it is all just a solid mass, free of light. There are no shapes or silhouettes anymore.
He fumbles around to touch the cotton of the sheets, the wood of the bed, his strange moulting skin.
He strains to listen, to hear, to feel, to consider, to think, of something, anything other than his constant predicament. The hell of time deferred, this instant, this second, vicious and without remorse.
He is blindness in the dark. Now there is only blackness. There is no sound in the street. There is no sound in the house. There is no sound in the room. There is no sound anywhere.
Ewen MacDonald is a writer and photographer. His latest book, The Painter, is available on Amazon and all good book shops.