Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Humanity - Part 5

Part 5

I found the first dead bodies the next morning.  Death has always been surreal to me, its presence accompanying life as a final companion.  Man spends his days trying to avoid death, hardly stopping to consciously think he is avoiding it.  Though the religious man contemplates it, death is merely seen as a gateway to life.  Death, in all its finality, is a thing to be avoided, but its end is one of few absolutes in human existence.
    My hosts had not been so fortunate to avoid death and I found them in it’s final grasp.  One was laying in a bed I was thankful I had not slept in, the other in a chair opposite.  Some time had allowed decomposition to set in, significant enough that any lingering scent had all but gone.  I guessed they had been here for more than a year, but I was no expert on the matter.
    They seemed to have died peacefully, both in calm repose.  This was not a scene of horror, although a body marked by death hardly culls up feelings of peace.  It was obvious that these two had chosen to die here.
    They were man and woman, I guessed husband and wife, perhaps done in by some sickness.  I looked in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom hoping for some revelation of their fate.  I found none. The two had simply died here.
    I felt slightly morbid for having stayed in their house.  I had impinged upon their burial ground.   I backed out of the room and made my way to the kitchen.   For a few moments I stood, unsure of what to do.  I opened a few cabinets and took what little nonperishable supplies were left, but couldn’t shake the feeling that what I was taking was not mine.
    I was overwhelmed with pity then, for the hopelessness in the way they had died, both resigned to their fate.  Looking over this foreign home, I couldn’t help but be burdened with a sense of their loss.  All I could think of was this couple happily enjoying their home, the couch, the art I had admired, and the  intimacy shared in the bedroom that had become their final resting place.  Family photos were scattered about the living room.  There were scenes of children and grandchildren, a legacy of joy.  I saw a happy couple before tragedy had befallen their world.  I felt human then, and that comforted me.  In that moment it mattered not wether any society or culture was left.  Humanity resided within me.  Who I was and the sympathy I now felt wasn’t determined by a culture, a city, a hero, or history.  I loved and I felt and I was human.  I took solace in that.  Humanity may have decayed and created this world, but I had not, I still felt, I still breathed, I still lived.  If the last vestiges of humanity resided within me, I resolved to do it justice.
    I approached the bedroom again and spoke out loud for the first time since coming from the cabin.  My voice surprised me.
    “I’m sorry for what happened to you,” I said.  “Thank you for your hospitality.  I’ll carry your memory with me.  You don’t have to worry, I’ll do humanity justice.”  That seemed fitting.  It wasn’t simply these two I was speaking too.   It was each family in this neighborhood, each surrounding city.  It was for the innocent that had suffered in all this.  Whatever had happened here, these were not the purveyors of this violence.  Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.  Behind these atrocities lies mankind’s desperate bid for power.  It always does.
    In the garage, I found a car.  The keys were still hanging on the key-rack.  I threw open the garage door, silently thanked the owners for the use of their car and left that neighborhood.  I was deep in contemplation and a half day’s drive from my home.
        The human being seems to understand himself in light of the people around him.  I had defined myself by the lack of others around me, but that predicated itself on the existence of others.  I didn’t understand that until now.  I had removed myself from society because I felt more comfortable by myself, but I now realized that I was only human in how I related to others.  I was human because I empathized, sympathized and honored.  While at the cabin I think I wrote to remain human.  I made myself believe I was an objective observer of humanity, but objectivity didn’t exist.  The more I strived to become objective the more subjective I became.  I couldn’t be objective because I was human.  All of what made me me was in my relation to other people.  No other being on earth had the power to define itself in that way.  I could not be objective about humanity because I myself was human, the subject.  I saw in a moment how Kierkegaard, Epicurus, Socrates, Lucretius and all philosophers were flawed.  They attempted objectivity in humanity but were always influenced by who they had become in relation to other humans.  Every hurt, wound, smile, and laugh that others had caused shaped them.  Their entire existence was subjective, just as mine was.
    Flawed characters are the most interesting because we can identify with flaws.  We see our flaws in how we relate to others, and in that way they define us.  When we see flaws in others we are immediately drawn to them because we are flawed ourselves.
    I drove, lost in thought, not paying much attention to the passing scenery.
    Epicurus had defined his philosophy on his own desires and passions, believing that the experience of those wants and needs were the reason for existence.  Maybe he saw in all men the potential for good, but all men don’t share in his equanimity.  Years of misunderstanding would turn his philosophy into the free-for-all, morally degraded society that ancient Rome became.  Kierkegaard based his view of faith on the dissolution of his engagement to the woman he loved, seeing in himself a tragic hero.  He believed life could only be understood in the absurd and illogical.  Men took his thoughts and ran with them, looking for some illogical experience to give them meaning.  Surely Kierkegaard, a man of deep, resolute faith never intended for this.
    Philosophers failed not in themselves, but in the men that followed them.  These followers took one man’s conclusions and applied them universally, rather than letting those conclusions inspire them to live their own life as they were made to live it.  Perhaps the greatest thinkers are those that reduced life to the simplest of anecdotes.  Is it possible they discovered that life could only be understood by living it?  The Proverbs of Solomon and the saying of Confucius give wisdom it’s simplest form in some of the most profound statement ever recorded.
    It was precisely then that I heard the voice.
    I looked around querulously, wondering what I was hearing.  It took a few moments to register that it was coming from the radio.  When it dawned on me I reached down and turned the volume up.  The voice then announced what I knew was the end of the world.
    “...55 PM, a nano-virus was released on the general public.  The virus spreads rapidly, stay indoors.  Repeat, do not go outside.  Contact with infected members will result in eventual death.  End message. This is an emergency broadcast.  At 6:55 PM a nano-virus...”
    The soothing, feminine voice repeated it’s message ad infinitum.  I had no way of knowing how long this harbinger had been sounding her gong.  Somewhere between the 5th or 6th repetition I shut the radio off.  I drove in silence for a while.  The soft voice that had conveyed humanities death stroke to me was an odd contradiction.  It was the first voice I had heard since returning to find the world the way it was, I hoped it was not the last.
    I drove in what was now a grave silence, unsure that the destination I longed to reach was even where I wanted to be.  The concept of home had felt safe in my thoughts but now that sanctity was challenged.
    When civilizations decay, the bubonic plague is born.  When humanity decays, man births his own killer plague.  Men are capable of great highs and ignoble lows.  It seemed as though when man’s grasp of technology became complete he created his own killer.  Man had preemptively cast his own stone.
    I wept for the innocent and felt little remorse for the guilty.  In the demise of humanity I had found mine.  I wept for my mother and my father, I wept for my friends, I wept for the losses of others.  And in that hopelessness, resolve was born.   At first merely a glimmer, and then it increased.  A steely resolve formed and took shape and multiplied.  Each tear, each loss served to fertilized the soil in my heart.  The more I lamented the loss of humanity, the more I decided that I must continue it.  I resolved for each Ghandi, each Jesus, and each Mother Teresa to find other people and speak of the nobler things.  To reinvent society.  Humanity at once was his own destroyer and his own purifier.  Where people existed I would spread this message: You are human because you love.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Humanity - Part 4

Part 4

    I spent the afternoon driving, alone with my thoughts.  I tried the radio a few times but had been unable to pick up anything but static.  There were few interludes in my driving and I spent much of it watching the ever descending gas gauge.  The sun had a way of reminding me that I was alive.  The way it trickled through the tree foliage wreaked havoc on my retinas.  Humanity may try to end itself at nearly every turn with hate and war but life continues unabated.
    Trees eventually gave way to rolling hills spotted on occasion with barns and farmhouses.  I don’t know why I never stopped to see if anyone resided in them.  Perhaps I was scared of what was becoming a growing certainty in my mind.  Other than the occasional bird soaring high overhead, I had seen no signs of life, no one to shake a fist at when they cut me off.  I stopped to check a couple of cars I came across on the side of this forlorn highway.  They were all abandoned and low on gas.  A few books, fashion magazines, a cell phone that wouldn’t turn on, and some change were all I found, it was nothing that would help me.  At one car the driver door had been left hanging ajar.  My heart jumped at what looked like a sign that someone had been here recently but quickly fell when I found the car had been that way for some time.  The battery was dead, dirt and a few leaves had been blown through the open door.  The scene suggested a panicked exit.  I gazed at the horizon for a moment wondering what had become of the car’s owner.  Eventually I resumed my trip.
    I thought of my book.  Was it pointless to write if no one was to read it?  The thought amused me for a while.  If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound?  Likewise, if a man has a message and there is no one to hear it, is there still a message?  Writing seemed vanity without an audience.  Would I write to convince myself of something?  Maybe I always had.  Modern science can tell me that the tree will surely make a sound, but it can not answer the question of wether my voice will be heard or not.  I found myself humming the tune to “People are Strange” and chuckled at that.      What happens to man when civilization decays?  The answer to that question is easy, it has been shown time and time again throughout history.  Man reinvents himself.  He discovers new heights of morality, new technologies, he finds himself again.  Of course that takes time, and historically much bloodshed.  But man has proven capable.  But what happens when humanity itself decays?  Can it reinvent itself, or is there no life left and man must die as ignobly as countless scientists say that it began?  All these thoughts and more swirled in my head, some seemingly more trivial than others. 
    After a time the sun hung low on the horizon and the gas needle had followed suit.  I began looking for a place to stop for the night.  Of the three towns I had passed each was as empty as the next.  I thought of searching more cars and some homes, but was eager to finish my trip.
    In the last town, the sun had released it’s tenuous grip and the night had taken over.  I pulled into a neighborhood of homes, there were no lights to be found.  Streetlights that normally illuminated the night hung empty and lifeless.  Each house was as empty and pitch black as the one before it.  The headlights of the car I drove shone upon each driveway without favor.  I  chose a house arbitrarily.  I had no affinity for it.  They were tract homes, each resembling the last.  I can’t say why I chose the house I did, it just happened to be the one whose driveway I pulled into.
    The front door was unlocked and I let myself in quietly.  Still holding onto some form of civilization, I removed my shoes.  It felt good to stand after a day of traveling.  The home was modestly furnished, what you would expect from a middle class American family.  A few couches, a dining table, some modern pieces of art, two or three lamps, and a ceiling fan.
    The light from the moon cast half-seen shadows across the living areas.  The darkness served to hide most of what the owners had made this house to be.  But one thing was obvious, no one had lived here in a long while.  The air was musty, thick from the lack of circulation.  There were no signs of recent use in the kitchen or in the living room.  Nothing scattered about, no dishes waiting to be washed.  Not that the house was impeccable clean.  From what I could see in the darkness, the house simply looked unused.  In the first bedroom I came to my gracious absentee hosts had left a bed made for me.
    Exhaustion came then.  I undressed, rolled into the bed, then fell fast asleep.  And, unlike the previous night,  my sleep was untroubled.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Humanity - Part 3

Part 3

    I resolved to head to the center of the town, which I knew to be a brief walk.  I passed more buildings that, by all appearances, had not seen use in some time.  A few cars were scattered here and there, all had the unmistakable appearance of disuse.  Weeds had grown around the tires of each, windows and paint were discolored and dirtied. 
    The town center was marked by a park that was a popular spot for tourists and picnickers alike.  Today it was empty.  The usually trim grass was overgrown and the trees were surrounded by leaves that I guessed were normally cleaned on a weekly basis.  No one had visited this park in some time.  Each shop or restaurant was the same as the others I had encountered.  I puzzled and tried to put together a clear picture of what happened here, but lacking any information, all I could do was speculate.  Most doors were locked, which told me that people had time to lock them.  There were few cars surrounding the park telling me that people had driven somewhere, else there should be more vehicles.  Whatever it was that happened, people had some time to prepare.  Maybe a chemical outbreak? I thought.   But if it was a chemical outbreak surely the area would have been quarantined, or some sign of government clean up crews would be present?  There was no evidence of violence.  No guns, the buildings were dilapidated, but not decimated.  And most of all, there were no bodies. 
    I walked across a street to a gas station to check the news stand.  The door was locked, but some of the glass was broken making the lock accessible.  I unlocked the door and approached the news stand.    The nearest newspaper was dated, August 8, 2014, almost two years ago.  The headline article read "No More Oil?"  A cursory glance revealed that the article was about the growing oil crisis that scientists had yet to resolve.  It appeared that the world's oil reserve was quickly dwindling and the oil wells weren't producing any oil.  Kuwait, Iraq, Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico all reported a growing concern over the lack of oil production at their wells.  I looked outside and noticed the sign that detailed the gas prices read “$16.84” for the lowest grade of gas.  I stared at that for a moment, stunned.   Grabbing another paper I read the headline, "Mass Famine!  Farm Failures Across the World". 
    What happened in the nearly six years I had been gone?  An adequate question given my current situation, the answer to which I could not begin to fathom.  Something tragic had fell upon the world and had similarly affected this small town. 
    A breeze ruffled the edges of my coat bringing with it a sense of dread I was not accustomed to.  What of my family?  Although I was not close to them, I still cared a great deal for my mother and father.  Were they still alive?  My friends who struggled to respect my boundaries, what had befallen them?  This town and this emptiness had stirred feelings deep within me that had lain dormant for years.  I had convinced myself of my lack of need for companionship, but maybe that belief had been rooted in the possibility for companionship in the future.  Now, with the emptiness of this town trying to convince me that a similar fate had fallen upon the rest of the world, for the first time in a long time, I desired human contact.  I wanted someone to tell me it was alright. 
    The next breeze brought no answers. 
    I knew of but one antidote to despair and that was action.  I decided in those moments to travel up the coast to my home.  I would visit the houses of my friends and parents and see just what fate had befallen them. 
    I turned to the few cars lying about the central park.  The idea of taking one of these stirred feelings of guilt in me.  Could I bring myself to take one?  Was that akin to stealing?  They seemed abandoned, but what if they were not?  Would the owner come back to an empty parking space with only me to blame?  I could not shake these questions and thought to myself, “Damn my conscience.”  Even in the face of anarchy, I struggled with morality and consequence. 
    I can’t just take someone else’s property, I thought.   
    But there may be no law left, I told myself.
    Can I redefine those self-evident truths simply to fit my needs?  I may be American, but I am surely not Roman.
    In the end, I decided on what I thought to be the least expensive car, and somehow that justified my actions.
    The car happened to be unlocked and the keys were in the ignition, a stoke of luck I turned into hope.  I curtailed my growing sense of guilt out of necessity and turned on the car.  The engine of the two door sedan groggily shook to life and was purring gently within a minute.  I tossed my pack into the back seat, threw the car into reverse and headed home.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Humanity - Part 2

Here is the second part of my short story.

It was the sun that woke me up.  Half asleep, the light shining on my face momentarily confused me.  I opened my eyes and saw a hole in the ceiling that I had not noticed the night before.  A single pillar of sunlight paved it’s way through the hole to where it presently rested upon my face.  A solitary bird whstled outside. 
    When I had arrived at the hotel late the night before, the front desk had been deserted.  The lights were turned off but the doors hung ajar.  The parking lot was empty, not entirely uncommon for a hotel this far removed from any town.  I rang a bell marked service a number of times, but it appeared no one was present.  What the hell? I thought and walked around to the other side of the desk.  The board with all the door keys was behind the counter.  There were only a few still hanging, I grabbed one from peg 215.  Earlier that day I had reached the service road leading into town from the forest.  It had been a two and a half day hike from the cabin, a hike I had made many times.  There were no cars on the road, but that was normal for the area.  I had walked the rest of the way to the hotel, but hadn't arrived until late. 
    After taking the key, I made my way up the stairs to room 215, opened the door and flipped on the lights.  Only, the light did not come on.  I flipped the switch up and down a dozen or so times, not sure why I was doing so.  I would call room service in the morning and tell them of the problem, I told myself while too exhausted to do anything about it at the present.  I kicked off my shoes, removed my pants and fell into a restless sleep.
    I arose from the bed I was lying in, my head still cloudy from the restless night.  Half remembered dreams swam into memory, but nothing I could clearly recall.  I went to the bathroom and rinsed my face.  My beard had become a thick matte of hair from the years spent in the forest.  I resolved to shave the first chance I got.  I turned on the TV and was greeted by a dead screen.  When I picked up the phone there was no dial tone.
    I took a shower.  The water was cold, but I was used to that.  Sleepiness partly abated, I decided to visit the front desk to find out about the serious state of disrepair this hotel seemed to be in. 
    I made my way out into the crisp, morning air, my lone companion long since having taken flight.  The front desk was still deserted, I was puzzled by this.  I left a note with my home address, explaining that I had stayed for one night, and that the hotel could bill me, for which I would be happy to pay.  Satisfied with my good intentions, I left.
    The road I travelled on was deserted, which seemed an odd thing for this hour.  The sounds of birds and the wind rustling through the trees were my only company on the lonely walk.  I was used to loneliness.  The absence of company had become a companion itself.  As much as I looked forward to the friendly faces of civilization, I must admit, solitude had its comforts. 
    I had never married.  My only friends were a few I had kept in contact with since my days in  school.  Personally, I had never seen the point of marriage and measured myself as happier to be alone.  Maybe that's in part due to my parents divorce.  It had been a bitter time for me.  I had isolated myself.  I became content in that isolation and didn't long to end it any time soon.  My friends were accepting of me although they didn't see life from my perspective, and I never expected them too.  When I was around they were happy for my company and rarely bothered me for my choice of lifestyle.  I appreciated them for that.  The cabin had felt like my home for a long time now, and each foray into civilization was likened as a vacation to me.  Although, I did maintain a house and payed for someone to clean it once a week while I was gone. 
    Presently, I was nearing my destination.  A small train station on the outskirts of a town.  I tried to recall if I was missing some holiday, and that was an explanation of the lack of people, which was really beginning to perplex me.  Usually, there were cars and trucks passing me regularly by now.  The sun had risen high in the sky and begun it's graceful decent, marking the beginning of the early afternoon.  I was getting hungry, and as I had some provisions in my backpack, I ate modestly.
    I arrived at the train station to find a building in shambles.  I knew without entering that it was deserted. It had the distinct look of a building that had long gone unused.  The train station was never an impressive buliding to begin with, but in it's current state with broken windows and unhinged doors, it was even more forlorn than I remembered it.  The architect must have been a simple man, never bothering himself with extravagance in that which he built.
    Trash marked the walkways leading up to the building, bushes were unkempt, the last surviving windows were dirty and marred with scratches.  The entrance was comprised of two doors swinging opposite each other, both made of metal with bars cut through the middle as a means of swinging the doors open independently. The doors were chained together at the middle and one of the doors hung limply on one of it's hinges, propping itself up against the other.  I walked around to the side of the building and then to the tracks in the rear.  To the north and south the railway unwound it’s metal causeway.  I travelled this route before and was familiar with the contours of the land.  I peered in the distance for a few minutes, hoping that something would arrive, knowing with growing certainty that nothing would. 
    The platform was simple in nature, mimciking the building that it was attached to.  A few benches littered either side of the tracks and some now defunct computer monitors failed to display anything but the blackness of an empty screen.  This was a small town train station and, as such, it saw little use, but it appeared as if it had not been traversed in quite some time.  The normal janitorial routine would have served to clean up the mess that stretched from the platform down onto the track into the distance.  There was a ticket window along the back of this building that I recalled purchasing tickets from numerous times in the past.  The window was now smashed in and broken shards of glass littered the ground.  I peered into the once inhabited ticket office.  Papers were strewn about, chairs were upturned.  Some drawers lie limply open.  The office was an empty shell.  I stood still and listened for a moment, hoping to hear some vestiges of humanity, but heard none.  Work had ceased abruptly here, that much was obvious.  This forlorn platform was as devoid of human life as the lake I had been living by for the past 5 years.
    My curiosity had been displaced by an eery sense of wrongness.  Heretofore, the peace and stillness surrounding me had been a welcome, if not confusing, companion.  That very same stillness had now become the source of my unsettlement.  I recalled the few shops I passed before arriving at the train station, they had been eerily quiet.   No lights, closed doors and shuttered windows.  I jogged back to the nearest one, a local floral shop, and tried the door.  It was locked.  I knocked on the door to no avail.  I repeated this at two other buildings with similar results.  The town seemed deserted.