By Karla Fetrow
We watched as the stars blinked out, Emma and I did, from the tall hill. Shuddering blackness spread across the sky, deeper than the mountains that no longer etched a line in the distance. There was absolute silence. Not one owl hooting from the invisible trees, not one burrowing animal snuffling in the grass. Even the crickets had ceased their two toned harmony.
Her hand gripped my arm, tiny half moons puncturing the skin. “What is it?”
“The event.” The event was what they had all talked about, but never explained. “They” were an anonymous group. The astronomers were a they. Sweeping diagrams over a chalkboard that was meaningless to everybody but them, they announced it was a phenomena like no other. They were the geologists that said it had happened before and would most likely happen again. They were the newscasters who said there was nothing to worry about. Studies showed … reports confirmed … experts concur, that it was all part of a naturally recurring cycle. Yet the darkness was greater than anything imaginable.
The night nearly consumed our little cylinder of illumination as we walked down the hill, back to the house with tiny cubicles of light. Here and there, other cubicles shone, all trying to stave off the all engulfing evening. It was thick, thicker than the clumps of earth stirring reluctantly aside to make way for our dragging, uncertain feet.
Only inside did it feel normal. We drew the curtains so the unnatural night could not penetrate inside our bright abode. We turned on the television. They were talking again. “There is no reason to panic. Satellite images confirm a slight anomaly in the earth’s gravitational pull, creating an illusion…” And then they resorted to that astronomical language we couldn’t understand, punctuated by atmospheric conditions, a passing asteroid blocking partial visibility, our particular alignment with the stars, and again, no reason to panic. The asteroid was not on a collision course and the current zero visibility conditions were only temporary.
That’s what they said, and that was what we were to believe, but my heart hammered distantly somewhere in my chest, saturated in a cold dread. But Emma… no Emma didn’t understand these things. She didn’t understand you could be frightened, but you couldn’t panic. You couldn’t give way to the wild urges to scream uncontrollably, to fly into the dark abyss, to protest when there was no one to listen to your accusations. Her eyes were the gloom of a frost filled morning. “What are they saying? We going to get hit… by an asteroid?”
“No, we are not going to get hit. It’s already passed us.”
“And the moon? Where is the moon? Did we lose it?”
“No. The asteroid left a dust cloud is all, and our trajectory…” I sought for words she would understand. “We’re slightly off course. The moon isn’t as high as it usually is, so the mountains block its view.”
“Off course? Then are we spinning wildly into nowhere?”
“We are spinning as we always have, around the sun. Call it a temporary interruption. Tomorrow, everything will be back to normal.” But I felt uneasy.
I told her to go to bed. I told her not to think about it. She said not turn out the lights. “I don’t want to be in this awful dark.” Neither did I. I left the hall light shining so the darkness could not creep in and take control over our minds and bodies. Our bedroom doors stayed open, and I listened to her breathing across the way. First rapid and shallow, then the long, smooth inhalation of slumber. Tomorrow would be different. I had to believe that. Yet that tight thudding in my chest was suffocating.
The morning wasn’t different. It wasn’t morning. The clock said it was. It clicked away the hours; eight o’clock, nine o’clock, noon; and still the darkness stretched out as smooth and faultless as black velvet. Emma started to cry. “It’s the end of the world.”
“It’s not!” I said. “We’re here. You and I. We’re breathing. That means there’s oxygen in the air. The electricity is on. The neighbors… we do have neighbors. You can see their lights. It’s the event. The anomaly. The thing they told us about. It’s happening, but it will be over soon. Just wait.”
They played old movies on the television between broadcasts that announced no one should go out because of zero visibility. They told us again not to panic and to conserve energy by not turning on too many lights. The conditions were temporary but they were unsure how long it would last.
They weren’t sure. That meant they didn’t know, and Emma knew this. Her eyes were as wide and round as those of a small, caged animal. “Look outside,” she whispered. She had drawn back the curtains so the bright rectangles of light were flung across the yard. Stray dogs and cats huddled in the artificial light, and not only that, but a rabbit crouched close to the window, and a woodland deer poised at the last edges of the illumination. They turned their heads toward our faces plastered against the glass. They all seemed to beg us to share this little patch of engineered sunlight, this respite from black oblivion. Lions and sheep, squirrels and foxes, what did it matter when the sun had been taken away? Yet we were breathing. Yet we were alive. It had to be that we were spinning, still revolving normally around the sun. It was only the dust cloud. It would pass.
Sometime when it should have been late afternoon, when the sun should have been just beginning to set, we heard a low, trembling whine. Nothing on earth could describe it. It seemed to well up from the bowels of earth, as though the hitherto hospitable orb was suddenly in excruciating pain. The pitch grew higher, louder, a bone shattering screech of agony. I covered my ears, but not just from the wind that hurled in with the screech like a fury unleashed from some ghastly dimension, but because Emma was screaming uncontrollably. I gathered my resolve and shook her. “You have to stop. Emma, you have to stop.”
“The television,” she sobbed. “The television.”
I looked blankly at the screen. There was nothing there but static. “It’s all over,” she cried. “We’re spinning away. We’re lost.”
“We’re not lost. The wind knocked out the station. There will be another.” I moved to change it, but just as my hand rustled over the controls, the power went out, and Emma’s screams continued, incredibly more piercing, more dominating than the wind.
Flashlight. I needed a flashlight. If I could find the door, there was one in the pocket of my jacket. I stumbled hesitantly, bumping softly into Emma. She clung to me, her breath wet and labored. One foot slid gently in front of the other, my hands groping in front of me. This was what it was like to be blind. Feeling your way hesitantly among objects you knew existed but had no shape, no introduction to their presence. I found it finally found my jacket, fumbled inside the pockets and snapped on the comforting light. “There. You see? We’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t me she was listening to, but the demented raving of the wind. “It calls. It calls,” she whispered. “Do you hear it? It’s calling your name. It calls my name. It calls us all in a hundred; a thousand voices!”
I shone the light at her face. She was quite hysterical. Completely drained of color, only her eyes stood out, wild and unseeing. The horrid wind howled, battering at the rafters, the tired timbers groaning under the weight. “We must get to the gate,” she said suddenly. “Do you understand? We must get to the gate. It’s there. It’s our only chance of escape.” She tugged at the door.
“Emma, no!” I cried in alarm, but I was too late. The door flew open, letting the wild wind rush in, along with the debris of leaves and dust, bits of shattered fence posts and broken branches. A strange, ethereal light accompanied the violent entrance.
She laughed with relief, “the moon is back!” But it wasn’t the moon. Thin, bouncing rays of pale green and soft golden light scattered across the sky, shifting, moving, streaming from one end of the horizon to another. Within that pale light I saw the uncertain shadows of people, struggling against the wind, crawling, clamoring over the hillside. “The gate! We must find the gate. It’s the only thing that will save us!”
I was numb. I was dull. Before I could stop her, she was out the door and had joined the struggling masses, tumbling, crawling their way up the dimly lit hillside. “Emma! Emma, don’t do this.” I had to find her. She was my sister. I was responsible for her well-being.
I followed her, or at least I tried. She was but a shadow moving among others. The wind clutched at my clothing, whirled about my face, menacing me with a thousand flying objects, but I could not leave her alone. I must find her and draw her from the terrible menace that was calling her away from safety. Behind me, the house gave one last groan and shudder, than collapsed in a heap.
So there it was. There really was no safe place to go, yet I still needed to find her, to shield her from the long, terrible night that breached all understanding. I could not, must not leave her alone.
I don’t know how long I searched. The wooded area was only a half hour’s walk from the house on an ordinary day, but in the wind and unnatural light, it seemed like eons before I reached its dense cover. The wind did not blow quite as intensely here. The thick forest served to break the steady direction, whirling it around and scattering it in gusts, yet it was more menacing. The young trees scraped and bowed to their violent master. The old growth groaned, many of them splintering near the base and crashing against each other. Still, the shadowy populace scrambled on, barely discernible except for the occasional features caught and poised in the beam from my flashlight. Still, no Emma.
Perhaps I would have continued on this way, dodging the hurling branches scratching at my clothing and face, calling and screaming out to ears that heard noting but wrathful wind, but incredibly, I felt something solid, something firm grip my shoulder. I glanced from a hand to a tall, hooded man, his cape gripped tightly at the neck. “Are you sane?” The man shouted. He looked at me, his eyes just inches from my face. “Yes, you are sane. Frightened but sane. Come with me.”
“I can’t.” My teeth chattered. “I have to find my sister.”
“You won’t find her here. She has joined the stampede. Maybe she’ll survive, maybe she won’t, but the question is, do you want to live?”
“I want to live, but how do we survive the end?”
“It’s not the end. Come with me. I can give you shelter.”
I followed. I couldn’t say why, but I trusted him. His was the first calm voice I’d heard since the stars disappeared. He seemed confident, and the confidence was like a drink of fresh water. They had not sounded confident; not the mathematicians, the astronomers, the geologists, the news casters, the leaders we were supposed to have trusted. Emma had not been confident, and neither had I.
He guided me through the shrieking forest until we came to a cave deeply embedded into the rolling hillside. As we stepped inside, I saw there were others, all with faces as frightened as mine, but with the same unfaltering gaze of sanity. The cave was illuminated by a couple of hurricane lanterns. Beyond that, there did not seem to have been any real preparations for this congregation. Some had with them, provisions of food and water. Some carried bundles of clothing and personal items. Some had come as empty handed as myself. There were old people and young, laborers and high end middle class, students and bland faced farmers. Some of the women had children who sobbed in their terror, but were held in the comforting protection of their mothers’ arms.
The cloaked one spoke. “This is the end of all we knew, but the beginning of what we don’t know. Your strength and your courage has brought you here, and your endurance through this great calamity will be your survival. You are fearful. I understand this, but don’t let your fears take control. This will pass and the morning will come back.”
“How can you be sure?” Asked a quavering voice. I think it was my own, but perhaps just someone who reflected my thoughts.
“Because this has happened before and the world yet lives. We will live if we take our fates firmly in hand and not resign them to the forces of nature.”
The wind whistled by, but it did not penetrate our cave, deep in the bowels of the unfriendly earth. Through the long hours, it slowly subsided and we dozed. Through the long hours, I began to feel an odd sense of peace, that singular tranquility of those who have met with calamity and lived to deal with its aftermath.
When we awoke, we realized that not only had the wind quieted down, but there was a soft illumination that was not entirely made up by the lanterns’ glow. One by one, we rose and wandered out to the cave’s entrance. The sky was clear, wonderfully blue, with streaks of red on the horizon. The dawn had come, but with it came a slow realization. Struck dumb, we gazed out over the awful landscape of infernal destruction, where barely a tree had been left standing, where even the hills themselves had undergone transformation, the thick soil scraped until the rough, sharp rocks glistened like bones. But this was not the reason for our shocked silence. At last we understood the magnitude, the warning calls and dreadful significance of the long night, for all that we had predicted or expected had not prepared us for this singular event. The sun was rising in the west.