We feel it in the air. The way the sky feels thicker, heavier, as if it is sinking downward. The seconds thump in our ears, a resounding reverberation that matches our heartbeat, measures the deafening, shrinking distance between us and the sky. It inches down, pressing into our sternums, filling our lungs with clouds. Each minute the sky is closer, and one day, we’ll wake up crushed without even realizing it.
We feel it, and we must leave.
Our mothers say that it is dangerous. When the sky darkens and the light crashes through the trees, illuminating our dark charcoal eyes—eyes that shine because we know there is something bigger and something greater than us, rending the skies and stripping the world. That, they say, is dangerous. Duck your head, they advise. Stay home, stay safe.
Stay stagnant, they don’t say.
We’ve watched the elders, seen the solemn, stately nods of their heads. Their chins wag, skin jouncing with the fat of ease. They grumble in mornings, voices gravelly with disuse—because no one dares to disturb their supposed-deserved peace. They whisper in afternoons, age-shrunken eyes tracking each movement in the village. Their mouths only tremble slowly, but their eyes flick with practiced speed. At nights, they are silent, but we can still hear their repulsion, their pride, their we’ve-lived-this-long-have-you?
We’ve watched the elders, and we’ve vowed to never become them.
The elders warn against the shift in the air. Their voices are thin and reedy, like a whispered secret that snatches at memory. It is the sound of a chill at the base of the belly, the gripping, ripping grasp of fear. Their voices are silky—their voices are dangerous. Be wise, they say. Be wise like us and stay at home.
Be wise and die, we sneer. Be wise and roll over, belly-up, let them dig into us, shift our intestines around. Pick this up and sniff it. Press a trembling tongue to its flaking tissue, before discarding it. Smear life across emotionless faces. Rummage through bulbous piping and examine cords never before seen. Put it back haphazardly. Did that go there? Does it matter to them? Dig their grubby fingers through the pink of flesh and stain it.
It comes closer, and the whole village trembles. The elders’ eyes roll and their mouths flap with words, words, words—but no one listens. We know better. We feel it in our blood, rushing through arteries and pooling in capillaries. It thumps with our hearts. One-two. One-two. Come-see. Come-see.
The sky darkens as we move through the forest, guided only by the skipping of our pulse. The trees rustle, their long stalks twisting in the wind. We have no one, but each other. We have no one, but ourselves. We breathe the same dead air, but it gushes from our mouths with freshness and vitality. We disgorge life into the plants around us. They tremble, but we do not notice.
We move forward.
We are nearly there, the closeness of the destination sending painful, pleasurable jolts down the length of our body. Our skin tingles. We do not know where we are headed, or what we will find. But, it will be right. It will be good. We know that, at least.
The sky cracks. Water rushes down. Some of us fall, drowning in fear and half-imagined shadows that choke and claw at the esophagus. Some turn back, water droplets streaming down their face, blinding them. They may cry. We do not know. We do not care. They will return to the village, we know, and join the elders. They will pose their blindness as a second sight. They will pretend their stomach-clenching fear, their frank cowardness, is wisdom. They, too, will nod, will wag, will frown. Will they regret the desperate crawl back to all they’ve ever known? Will the stagnancy bubble within their blood, coagulating, congealing into a mass that they choke on, late at night alone in their bedrooms? Will their breath stutter in their chest without them noticing, having grown accustomed to the dreadful sameness that our village reeks of?
We push forward, relishing the chill of the water that trickles down our neck and screams of life, of death. The water pools at the base of trees, puddles that deepen with each inching eon. We rush through the thickening bodies of water, splashing droplets back into the sky to join their brethren for one dizzying moment. They fall back to the ground, but we are already gone.
At the edge of the forest, a large white expanse awaits us. For
the first time, we hesitate. It is immense and we are reminded of our smallness, our insignificance in this brief moment in the whirling of the world. We are tempted to glance at each other, to seek comfort in the fear that stretches between us. For a moment, we are alone. The sky is heavier than ever, pressing wrinkles into our skin until we think that we may sink into the thickening mud beneath us.
And, then, we move.
The white is rough beneath our bellies, scraping against delicate skin. We do not care. We relish the pain. It is what makes us alive. We leap forward, further into the wide expanse. Space stretches around us, and we feel small again. This time, however, the smallness is welcome. We feel protected, watched over, in the wide, stretching palm of a gracious god.
We turn onto our backs and gaze up at the sky. Light flickers far above us. Specks of bright shine down below, and our eyes glitter. In the forest, we had not seen these pinpricks of hope, had only known darkness, had only known light and shadows. Blinding whiteness illuminates the sky as the ground shivers with a deafening crack. More water pounds against the ground, against us. We open our mouths and drink it in, letting streams of excess dribble down the sides of our faces, splashing to the white below. We drink until we can drink no more. Our bellies bulge with life, with joy.
The sky flashes again and we roll with the beat of the booming across the darkness. The patter of the water against the ground matches the pounding of our hearts. We raise our heads until we scratch the underbelly of the sky with our chins. Above us, the pinpricks of light sway in time to the beat of the water on our skins. We match the tempo, each movement a dedication of our life to this moment.
We know that no one has returned after discovering this place, that this is the close of our story. Winged shadows swiftly follow the daybreak. They whirl overhead, our feathered fate. We remain with our bellies pressed into the roughness, soaking up our last sensations. Gravel digs into our skin, water droplets drip from our backs, and the endless shrieking above remind us of our choice. The forest does not tempt us. Its safety holds no sway over us—we have lived, and we shall die.
A shadow drapes over us and the creature lands beside us, his enormous wings sending hurricanes of dirt and rot across our once-clean backs. Fools, he squawks. His voice is dissonant and pierces the calmness of the morning. Fools, he calls us, snapping his mouth with sharp, enunciating clicks.
Never fools, we correct him. We will not be cowards. We will not give in, we tell him.
He snaps up one of us, and the pain lances through each one of us. It is sharp, biting, and we gasp. We curl into ourselves, rubbing our backs raw against the white gravel. It dulls the pain, but not enough. We cling to the gossamer memories of the water from the night before, the blinking lights above us, the rumbling of the ground, of the sky. We focus on the good, and we ignore the snapping death of one of our own.
Fools, our enemy repeats. He cannot understand us. He can only eat another, and another.
We do not miss the stasis of our village, the ruddy dirt we buried our heads into. We do not regret our trek to this new place, our journey to death. The sky continues to lighten and the sun breathes warmth into our blood. We close our eyes and smile. The clicking and squawking of our enemy’s brethren fades under the reassuring steadiness of our heartbeats. One-two. One-two. We-saw. We-know. We-are.
In the early hours of the morning, perhaps just outside your house, you may see us. We writhe on the sidewalk, our bodies blackening in the scorch of the sun. We lay near the puddles of fresh rain, our heads flicking sluggishly back and forth. You may step over us, you may step on us. You may ignore us. We are just one more stupid worm, one more creature seeking out its early death. We disagree.
In the warmth of the sun, we dance.