Mhairi McIntyre |
I wrote this piece as a reaction to current discussions of declining bee numbers. Even though I’m highly allergic to bee stings, I remember my childhood filled with honey sandwiches. I imagined a world without bees, where there would be no flowers, no trees and no environment.
The world is different. I am different.
I remember the day it happened, when the tanks rolled in and the sky collapsed.
He had given me a flower. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He told me it was the colour of my eyes. I never knew where he found the flower and I never saw another one after that, but I remember its scent. Its sweet honey smell, mingling with the mustiness of his old sweater. The smell isn’t real anymore. But I can’t let go. So I breathe deep and remember.
The only thing in my nose now is dust. Dust and blood.
I wipe it on a kerchief, getting the dried blood off. I’ve heard the atmosphere is so polluted in some places in the world it can strip the skin off your bones. At least it’s not so bad here. Yet.
I leave the building and attach my airmask. I fit it to my nose and pull the straps tight around my head, allowing sweet, clean air to fill my lungs before stepping outside. The hum of the city hits my ears. The noise and bustle of people presses on me like a weight. All around me are the broken remains of a once grand city, now reduced to rubble and dust. But people have congregated here like ants. Frenzied. Sandwiched together. Too many people for the small amount of resources the city can still offer. When the water dries up this city will die, just like the others.
I look up, see the shattered remains of the dome above like a glittering eye inside the sky. Until I was fifteen, I had not known a life without its protection. When the dome collapsed over the country, pollution had flooded in like a wave of death and disease. My teenage mind remembers the brown air and thinking I would die that day.
This city has no answers.
The small box under my arm seems to vibrate. Is it just my imagination? My gloved fingers curl around the carvings of its sides, tracing its flowing vine-like patterns. It’s the size of my palm and I have no idea what’s inside. Sometimes I think I can hear a sound, a buzzing of some sort, but whatever it is it cannot get out. And I cannot let it out. It is closed with a lock: a delicate silver clasp. No, not delicate. It seems that way, but I’ve tried to pry it open, smash it, burn it; nothing works. I have been carrying this thing for months now, trying to find someone to open it. Not even the Keymaster knew how. So now I have one option left; to return to the city where I was born, where I met him.
My boots crunch on faded brown earth as I make my way to the train station. Once inside a carriage I find a seat. The train hums into life and as it bellows steam, its heavy wheels begin to turn. Slowly, slowly, it moves out of the station and we leave this nameless city behind.
The station master tips his hat as I step off the train. Warm, thick air encases me; it is heavier here and my airmask begins to fog. I thank him with a polite smile and a nod. The platform is empty except for me and the man. No one else gets off. I’m not surprised. The train whistle blows and before I can change my mind, it rolls out of the station. There is nothing left to do but square my shoulders and continue on.
The town is empty; shops are boarded up and nothing but dust and stray dogs occupy the streets. I pass my reflection in a broken window and pause. I didn’t remember there was so much grey in my hair; but when was the last time I saw myself? I look a hundred years old, though truthfully I can’t remember my age. I take out my pocket watch and check the time. Night will fall soon and it’s dangerous for a woman alone. I make my way to his house.
His house is at the end of town. It used to be right on the lake, but of course that’s all dried up now. I can see nothing but bones and old car parts in the dusty hollow.
The door swings open at my touch. Time and the weather have taken its toll. I feel the house shiver and groan as I step inside and my old woman’s bones empathise. Twilight falls but there are no gas lamps or candles to light my way. I am not scared, even though a graveyard of memories surrounds me. There was love inside these walls. I think of better days, when I would come over to play and his mother would make us honey sandwiches. Honey was a valuable provision and his father worked in the government, so I knew his family was well-off. When the fallout came, they were the first to be moved to the bunkers. It was only six years later that I heard he was killed when his bunker had rioted. Everyone had died.
The dome had failed sooner than any politician or scientist could have predicted. But they had made a contingency plan; and when the sky collapsed the rich and powerful escaped underground. One family took pity on me and helped me sneak in. I thought it was my salvation, but it was a fearsome concrete prison.
When it was safe to leave the bunkers another ten years later, I was alone in the world.
I wipe dust off a table, making a place to gently place the box down. I look around at the emptiness of cobwebs and shadows. What did he want me to find? It seems to hum again and I place my ear close, straining to hear what it’s trying to tell me. It sounds louder here.
With a gloved hand I scratch under the airmask. There’s no atmosphere conditioner in this house so I can’t remove it and it’s starting to itch. Thick boots and a heavy coat protects the rest of my body, but my face is bare, so I won’t be able to stay long in this place before the skin will bubble and peel. I leave the kitchen and move down a creaking corridor to his bedroom. I remember watching dust motes float in the air while he read to me; they were fantasy tales, about an earth that flourished with green and good and a sky with no barriers.
I sink to the floor, breathing deeply. The memories overwhelm me. No, it’s my air. I check the machine on my belt. 3% left. I thought I had more. I think I will die here.
Sometime in the night I wake in a sweat. The air machine beeps at me in warning while my airmask barely keeps my lungs alive. My cheek is pressed to the floorboards. I sit up, dizzy. There are marks on my cheek. On the floor, carved into the wood is a familiar flowing pattern of leaves and vines.
I stumble back to the kitchen. The box is thrumming now, loud and persistent.
I grab it, bring it back to his room. It’s the same pattern. I don’t know what to do, but I know I have to get to other side. I look for a gap between the boards. Whatever is inside the box is trying to get out. My air is running low. Poisonous air is filtering into my lungs. It burns. I feel faint. My eyesight dims. The beeping warns me of imminent death.
There. My fingers find a space, and with some effort I pull open a trapdoor. It smells strange, and memory tickles my nose. It reminds me of….honey. A series of steps lead down into a dark unknown. The trapdoor closes ominously behind me. Hunched over, I tread carefully, clutching the box to my chest. Its contents have become frenzied; the whole box vibrates.
A light begins to shine, and my eyes adjust to the change. Down, down, down at the end of the stairs the air is fresh and soft. Along the way I remove my airmask. Strangely, I do not need it. It falls to the floor.
At the end of the corridor, in a small room, is paradise. A green, humid, life-filled paradise. I have never seen so much colour in one place. I am drawn to one of the plants, with thick flat leaves and dusky blue flowers. His flower. The one he told me was the colour of my eyes the day the sky collapsed.
A small insect hovers in front of me. It seems to be waiting. I hold out my hand and it lands. Its fuzzy striped body is strange as it crawls over the box. It stops on the silver clasp and in a moment, the lid opens. Another identical insect sits inside. Its delicate opaque wings flutter. Its mate speaks to it with a twitching of antennae. I watch on, entranced. I seem to have reunited them and am strangely jealous that they have found each other and I have no one.
They fly off together, buzzing, humming.
Yes, I think I will die here.
Mhairi McIntyre is a PhD candidate at Deakin University, writing a screenplay based on Scottish Highland folklore. She completed a Creative Writing degree at Flinders University. She is interested in fantasy, folk and sci fi and hopes one day to become a screenwriter.
Hive image (top): Photo: fdecomite, 2009. Source: flickr