Plain China

Her Remembrance

by Clayton Wortmann · Oberlin College
Helmsley, United Kingdom, Elle Azul Duncombe-Mills · Grinnell College

After Emma transcended, I spent a lot of time alone. I ate straight from cans, sat naked on stones, spat when I didn’t want to swallow my saliva. I felt my skin grow gray and then flake away like dead bark. The calluses on my hands cracked and healed over, again and again. I forgot about the stock market. I forgot about global warming and endangered species. I slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, and cried when I could no longer keep silent.

Times had been better, right after the Television Drownings and the formation of the Bodhi Brigades, when all we had was the solidarity of our isolation. When I was young, I used to crank the AC up high during the summers so that I could sleep under the covers. It made me feel safe. When Emma and I bought our first ten-gallon jug of emergency water, I felt alive. When we bought a back-up generator, left the city, and moved into her aunt’s cabin, I felt like I’d never die.

Food tasted better than ever before, even when it came out of off-off-brand cans. I’d seen rabbits around the woods so I tried to build a bow, but without the internet I was helpless. I tried chasing the littlest bunnies and almost had one but when I saw the fear in his eyes I had to stop and apologize. He didn’t acknowledge the apology, but I’m sure he was happy I didn’t eat him.

I was vegetarian, so I didn’t want to eat him anyway. His Permanence suggested everyone abstain from eating meat. He later corrected himself and suggested that everyone stop eating. To make it easier, he took the world’s hunger upon himself. That was after the Drownings. We used to listen to the loops through the crank radio out of curiosity. Later, I realized this was what people call morbid curiosity.

Much later, when the car ran out of gas, I lit it on fire for just that. Morbid curiosity. I’d never seen a car on fire before.

In the beginning, when we first got there, I wanted proof of what I’d lost. I’d drive to the little seaside town nearby. Mostly, it was quiet. The streetlights didn’t turn on when the sun sank. Burned food lined the streets. The grocery store was all ash and metal. His Permanence said, Fire is most pure because it consumes itself. Water is the least pure because it is permanent.

 

Each time I went away, I told Emma it was to see if help had come, but really I just wanted to see all the ash. I can’t remember why.

During one of those dark quiet nights in town, two Bodhis sprang out of nowhere and jumped in front of my car. I swerved to avoid one and slammed right into the other. His body bounced off the windshield, rolled over my car, and hit the pavement behind me with a dull, blameless thud. I swerved again, barely avoiding a telephone pole. As I sped away, the other Bodhi yelled his thanks and wished transcendence upon me. That was the last time I went into town.

Emma never wanted to join me on my excursions. She wanted to read, look at clouds, laugh, and sleep late. She wanted to breathe deeply and stare straight into the sun, even if only for a few seconds. She wanted what she’d had before—namely herself and her own thoughts. And for a while that’s what she had. I told her no one could take her self away, and I meant it.

And so we lived in our one-room cabin. One sink that never ran. One fridge, one lamp, both dead, along with the back-up generator. The bed still worked though. So did the rug and the few books on the shelf, mainly classics and a few collections of poetry. We had a single Bic pen that we used to tally the days. At first we got water from the well to wash our clothes. Then we stopped washing them. When the smell became unbearable, we burned them and stopped wearing much of anything.

When we first visited the cabin five years ago, we’d thought the well was quaint. In time it turned out to be life itself. I’d never understood wells—where the water came from, how it stayed there, why it was okay to drink. I didn’t think about those things anymore. The well was there. It had water. That was all that mattered.

When one thing stopped mattering, something else inevitably replaced it. Television didn’t matter, but books did. Traffic jams didn’t matter, but weather did. Time didn’t matter, but love did.

That surprised me the most. How much love mattered. When I lost distraction, I gained reflection. I sat for long periods of time and thought about myself and Emma, the last two things in the world that would still bend to reason. I thought she saw that too, that the future existed only as a function of me and her.

She listened to the radio. I did too. The loops were like the unfunny, crude joke you tell your friends just to see if they react the same way you did. His Permanence stopped making new ones. The same twenty or so loops replayed all day on every station. Emma knew them by heart. I suppose I did too. It was like a joke. She laughed when she wasn’t crying.

I used to be a city dweller, so trees meant nothing to me. We were in a forest, that is all I could say. I didn’t know the kinds of trees. I didn’t recognize the paw-prints. The leaves were green and then brown when they fell to earth. I didn’t commune with nature, but I lived in it, and Emma lived with me, and that was enough.

 

Before the Bodhi Brigades formed, before His Permanence spoke to the sun and absolved the world of its hunger and suffering, before the Drownings and the Food Burnings, before declaring war on the moon and then finally banning the words “death,” “die,” and “dying” altogether, His Permanence had worn polos and hosted an infomercial. Even in the infomercials, you had to admit, he was pretty convincing. You never wanted to buy a clapper so bad. His name was Tom Emmons, a stage name. No one knew his real name.

Or maybe someone did. But with the internet long gone, the radio on loop, and all the televisions floating to nowhere or resting in lake silts or washed up on beaches, there was no way to know anything worthwhile. Shouldn’t the Brits have come by now? I kept wondering. Where’s the Chinese navy when you need it? In the books there were always rumors of salvation, faint hopes to cling to like a candle during a blackout.

There were no rumors for us. The few people we saw were in the form of ash. So we made our own rumors. Soap was being shipped from Norway. The squirrels were rallying the resistance. The President had recovered from his supposedly fatal burns with minimal scarring.

The squirrels did not organize the resistance. We had lots of canned food though. Lots of beans. People had called me crazy when I spent $700 on canned food. I should have bought more but it seemed like enough at the time. By the time we ran out of beans, I couldn’t remember what a dollar bill looked like.

The days ticked off soundlessly. The sun didn’t notice anything had changed. Clouds came and went. The radio played on, if you cranked it. Which Emma did, every day.

And she was just as beautiful as before. Maybe even more so. Or maybe less, I couldn’t really remember. All my memories of her collided into that day in September when we saw a beached whale. She stood before its massive gray body and heard the death in its ragged breathing. Bracing herself against the wind, her hair a moving sculpture, she cried. I did too. Later that day, she told me that, more than anything else, she didn’t want to drown. She’d rather die any other way.

 

Her Remembrance, I’d call her, because as I forgot, she remembered more and more. She remembered the veins on her grandmother’s hand. The names of all four of Hemingway’s wives. The lyrics to bad songs, the rhythm of a waltz. She remembered how I’d proposed to her. She remembered loss. She didn’t have to remember the stretch marks, those never went away.

She still smiled, when the weather was nice. She’d smile like it was a blessing, a privilege. But something had changed in the contours of her lips, something hardly perceptible but impossible to ignore. Like the way the birds hadn’t given up on singing, but their songs sounded somehow less earnest.

Or maybe it was we who had changed. Maybe our ears had grown tired. In one loop, His Permanence spoke about how music is the purest art because it is destroyed as it is created. Sound, little more than air pushed into patterns, takes place in the physical world, and as such is destined to transcend, to return to nothingness. Reading, therefore, taking place only in the brain, is the least pure.

I started to worry when she stopped reading, but what could I say?

My own words sounded like a foreign language to me. We would say things but it felt less and less like talking, more like moving a jaw up and down. I forgot the phrase for when you feel like what you’re living has already happened. I didn’t ask her what it was, even though I felt it all the time.

I forgot the name of my childhood dog. The smell of disinfectant. I forgot the taste of pineapple and the acidic burn it leaves in the mouth. None of this angered me. None of it saddened me.

It hurt Emma, though, seeing everything she had known in me become pointless, useless, and then vanish altogether. Or maybe it was that she wanted to forget too, but could not.

So she cranked the radio. She just needed to kill the quiet, I told myself. Wanted to hear another voice. Maybe she just liked the feeling of cracking it up, the familiarity of the motion.

For some, His Permanence said through the radio, the absence calls from within, pulls against the tethers, yearning intrinsically for transcendence. But for others whose minds are feeble from disuse, unable to part the veil of Maya, believing their bodies to be a home rather than a prison, the bonds must be cut from without.

Emma knew all the history. She remembered the beginning, when His Permanence could be brought on talk shows, when he was a joke, and a crude one at that. Just another New Age guru looking for a quick buck. She remembered when the Bodhis took over broadcasting. She remembered how, when it really started getting bad, the military had stepped in and claimed they’d killed him. But new videos and loops kept coming. Because, he would explain, I am Permanent.

Towards the end, she told me she wished, more than anything, that we’d had a child. She told me she’d die right now if only we could’ve had a child, and painted her room yellow, and hung a mobile above her crib. She asked me what I would’ve named her. I told her I didn’t remember any names worth giving.

After she said that, I knew. Her eyes went empty and dull. She ate less, and her mouth hung open like she was waiting for something to crawl out. She’d touch her face, and then her stomach, over and over again. I kept talking to her as if she were listening. Then she stopped crying, stopped laughing. All she could do was crank the radio.

 

My hunger grew off of my starvation. When we got to our last dozen or so cans, I tried hunting again. No look in a rabbit’s eye could stop me. I went out for hours at a time, sticking my hand into holes, looking for flashes of brown fur. I found nothing. My hands ached to squeeze something. I screamed and the sound of my voice frightened me. I started to walk back to the cabin.

When I was about ten minutes away, I found a miracle. A limping rabbit, right in front of me, one leg dragging behind the others like a guilty conscience. I picked it up. It writhed. I looked into its eyes and found nothing but expressionless black dots. I couldn’t remember what I’d seen in them before. I gripped its head in one hand, its body in another. I twisted. It snapped. It was limp in my hands. It was mine.

I walked back.

When I found the ash streaked across the ground in front of the cabin, I wasn’t surprised. I wept, but I was done with surprise. Much of the ash had already blown away. I went inside and got a plain wooden box. I couldn’t remember why we had it or where it had come from. The ash blurred into my hands as I filled the box. I felt bits of bone and sinew hidden among the soot. My tears stained the ash like black calligraphy ink. I remembered calligraphy but not my own mother’s name. When I had gathered all I could, I closed the box, took it inside, and placed it on the table. My hands were stained for days.

Emma hadn’t believed that fire was most pure, I hoped. It was just that we had lots of matches and not much else. I forgave her because I had nothing else I could do. I still ate the rabbit. The days slid by silently. The soot faded from my hands. Only skin remained. And the blood beneath.

I stopped speaking. My mouth opened, but my brain couldn’t shape any words. I sat for hours at a time. I went to the well to drink and found a dead bird in it. It felt expected, natural. I lowered the pail to try and lift it out, but the bird only sank deeper and eventually vanished. After a few days, the water started making me puke. The food had been running low anyway.

The box sat on my table, plain as could be. I carved Her Remembrance into the wood with the blue Bic pen. For a moment, I thought I’d forgotten her real name.

I was thirsty, my throat so dry it hurt to breathe. My head throbbed like a heart. I forgot how to sleep. Forgot to want to eat. Hours felt like days.

I stood up. I picked up Her Remembrance. I walked barefoot for hours under the sun. When I came to the quiet, empty town, I was drawn to the coast like a bird to the South at the start of winter. I stepped through the ash. My feet met the sand. Televisions dotted the beach. I walked to the water.

I opened the box and turned it over. Her ashes fell and were swept away by the tides. The icy water caressed my feet, washing the black and gray ash from my skin. I forgot what it was like to be solid.

About the Author

Clayton Wortmann · Oberlin College

Clay Wortmann is a junior at Oberlin studying creative writing and religion. He listens to most music and tries to get eight hours of sleep every night. His greatest inspirations are food and friends. His story first appeared in Oberlin’s Plum Creek Review.

About the Artist

Elle Azul Duncombe-Mills · Grinnell College

Elle Azul Duncombe-Mills grew up in Hawaii and coastal Maine. Towed to many other parts of the world by her adventuring family, she began early to photograph the places where a captured beauty and a glimpse of social justice issues meet. Her photograph first appeared in The Grinnell Review.