It engulfs every inch of this world. Every surface, every face, every bit of once-blue sky. It is infinite. Never ending, never ceasing to cloud the air. Ash and grit from things burned so long ago, reminding us of our failures. Reminding us of why we deserve it’s presence. It forces our lives to accommodate it; we wear masks to protect ourselves from it and become sick if we don’t. It gets in your eyes and in your hair, our teeth grey from eating the ash-ridden food and our skin dark from the endless accumulation of it on our bodies. It infects our children, our friends, ourselves. Our food is bleakly mixed with it’s dying color, our water murky or even black and clumped into slush. We become sick without the proper devotion of time and attention to these ceaseless elements, and even then, the dust still comes. Even with precautions, prayer, devout suffering, we find ourselves coughing the impossibly present dust from our lungs until the brown specks turn red and our bodies begin to submit. We begin, painfully, to return to the earth we damned so long ago. The dust is a god, an equalizer, a reaper. It steals those we love in the night as penance for our sins. We hold their lifeless bodies and cry to a god that cannot hear us through the ashy sky, and pray to never forget the soul that dust has stolen from us. We bury them in the hardened earth, knowing the dead soil will not retake them. We know they will fade, slowly, until they become themselves but dust, trapped beneath our feet. And by then, those many years later, we will have forgotten their faces, knowing only the bleak place in our memory where they once were.
We worship the dust, in this way. We devote time to it every single day of our lives. Each morning is spent pushing it from your belongings and picking it’s specks from our food. If we ignore the dust, it will punish us, forcing us to atone for our ignorance to it’s power. We spend years trying to fight it, thinking there is a better world with a better god where no dust exists. If only we could push through this world long enough, we think, the dust will retreat from the air and free us from it’s grasp. We think in our youth that our forgotten world might return, cleansing the ash from our streets and the dirt from our lungs. We believe the sun will punch through the clouds and once again return it’s light to our grimy, unworthy faces. That we will fall to our knees with joy and the cruelty of the world will be over at last. Our water will run clean, our bodies will be washed and laughter may once again be heard in the air. We dream of the food from a forgotten world, that which we read about in molded, dirty books found in basements and cellars. Food which glistens with grease and fat, shared with friends and neighbors at it’s bountifulness over laughter and camaraderie. Food that we don’t fight and kill one-another for. Food that doesn’t kill us for eating it and starving us for not. Our youth gives us this terrible hope. We carry the hope with us into our adult lives, trying to smile at the dim sky and think of the better world on the horizon. Our youth makes us ignorant to reality. The reality that dust will never leave us.
I’ve perched myself on the doorstep of a structure from another world. A place where thousands passed from their lives to their work in the days of the blue, clean skies. People too busy to think or live or find joy in their clean, dustless world. Our parents tell us these buildings were one filled with people, too many to count, and they sat at desks and worked on machines where their words could be heard and read around the world. If only now, I thought, we could ask the world for a cure to the dust. A way to clean it from our streets and lungs and lives. If only I had one of the machines in my parent’s stories. I could ask the world to bring my friends from their graves. Somebody, somewhere, I think, has the answer to our struggles and a solution to our damnation. I rest my head against the splintered concrete of the wall and close my eyes, as if I could pull the knowledge of this place from that forgotten world. As if I could ask those careless people to help us. Had I been younger, I may have tried. I may have come here and begged the beings and their machines from another time to save us from this pitiful world. But I know these people were thoughts, their machines fantastical stories parents tell their children to brighten the darkest of nights. Nobody knows what these ancient structures were or whom filled their walls. I know that time spent hoping to the past for a solution to the future is futile. I know they cannot help us.
When I open my eyes, the light has dimmed. The sun is recoiling for the day. Leaving us to fight for ourselves in the blackest of nights. My legs are weak from exhaustion, but I stand and shake the dirt from my clothes. I reach to the back of my head and tighten the cloth tied around my face, pulling my hat down further to protect my patchy, thin hair. I pick my rifle and my pack from the ground and turn to face the structure. The building that cannot save us. The people wiped from the earth. Good riddance, I think, and I turn to the street and leave it.
My ankles begin to bleed before I stop again in the night. The ashy sky which dims our world makes our night as sightless as the void, and I do not know if I am surrounded by buildings or a dense, green forrest. No light finds this place. I stop walking and begin to unpack my bedding, placing my belongings at my feet in a small pile. Unable to see the small shrine I build before me, I know I am building a tribute to the ash. I meticulously place my tins, pack, and clothes before me to be coated by the dust in the night. When I wake tomorrow and see the layer of filth from the air and the sky upon it, I will give thanks and know the dust has not forgotten me. I will know that although entirely alone in the world, dust and ash will always be with me. I will walk with them everywhere I go, and when they are ready, they will take me.
I remove my boots last, the drying blood in my socks breaking away as I do, replaced quickly with warm, fresh blood, trickling down my feet into small pools on the ground. I reach to my small pile of things and pull a stiff bit of cloth from my pack, moving it to my wounds. The longer I hold the cloth at my torn flesh, the softer it becomes, soaking and warming from my blood. If I could see, I know by now the crimson cloth would be soaked-through and my bare ankle carelessly streaked with red. The hard ground would have drips of my life for miles back, useful to a hunter in finding their prey. A trail leading directly to my small pile of treasurers. I turn my head and stare into the nothingness, imagining my face in the crosshairs of a bow or rifle a mile away. I close my eyes, welcoming the release my hunter offers, ready to be returned to the dust. But the wind howls and my hair flows loosely in the night and no bullet or arrow comes. Maybe tomorrow, I think, and I pull myself into the small sleeping-sack. I push the soaking rag into my mouth and gnaw on it, drinking whatever I can pull from the fabric. The warmth and the copper-taste are a delicacy. My growling stomach quiets, believing that I am finally submitting to it’s cries for nourishment, and I lay in silence as I enjoy the only thing i’ve ever found to not be soiled with dust. But this fact is as untrue as the machines and people in my parents stories, for the rag I use and my mouth are coated and caked in ash, and so I lie to myself and to my stomach as I drift to sleep.
I dream of running water, pumped from deep within the earth, running freely in a stream. The water is surrounded by green, full grass and it runs quickly, breaking itself upon stones where it splashes into the air. I am standing beside it, watching, wanting nothing more than to fall to my knees and push my face into the water and let it fill my mouth and belly. But I cannot move, I can only smell the clean air and listen to the quick, trickling water. I am alive in this world, free of sickness and hunger and pain. I wish to stay here forever, content being frozen in place. But the world begins to grey and the water stops running and the dust pulls me awake. The dimly lit world retrieves me from my conditional paradise and returns me to my enslavement. The cloth in my mouth is now hard and dry and I reach under my mask to retrieve it, slipping it into my pocket. I turn to my small shrine of things and find my morning gift from the sky resting peacefully upon it. The dirt and ash in a thin layer, disguising my things as forgotten, abandoned possessions from some lost owner or a traveler returned to the earth. I climb from my sack and stand, slowly spinning to take in my surroundings. I am in the air, on a road lifted on pillars from the earth below. I have never been this far from the earth in my life, I think, and I look over the edge to the dead ground. My eyes drift across the landscape, childishly hoping to spot the oasis from my dream, but I see only the dead planet, coated in ash dust for miles. I return to my pile and begin my daily devotion, clearing the ash from my empty rifle and shaking the dirt loose from my pack. I remove my mask and beat it with my blood-soaked boots, knowing it will not help, but justifying the lie to myself as a motivator to push forward. I begin to walk again, leaving only drops of blood and a spot in the ash behind me. I walk in the air, high above the ground, until the road gradually sinks and returns to the landscape below. Returns me to reality.
I am alone with my thoughts. I think of the book i’d found as a child with the pictures of farms and hills and people. The stream in my dreams. I think of the map i’d read and the places I must have passed. Places gone, forgotten, engulfed in flame. The names of the states and how many I would have to walk through to reach the haven in my dreams. My legs remind me of their exhaustion and my stomach once again begins to churn, angered at the lie I told when trying to nourish myself with my blood-soaked rag. I retrieve a hard biscuit from my pack and chew it as I walk. The biscuit feels like a stone, the only taste being the dust set into it from time and a rare appearance of dull-green mold. Each bite causes my teeth to wiggle in place and pierces some sore nerve, my eyes welling and tears spilling onto my mask. I don’t stop, hoping the pain might push me forward. Hoping I might be rewarded for my suffering. But the dust does not reward me for consuming it, and by mid-day, I have collapsed.
I am sitting in the soft, green grass. My clean, bare feet rest in the stream and I smile as the cool water runs through my toes and specks of water splash my ankles. My palms dig into fresh earth and I lean my head back, the sun beckoning onto my face. I’ve never touched the water before this, and I think I may finally have reached my paradise. I’ve suffered enough, and the dust has rewarded me for my piety. I breathe in, smiling, taking the cool air down into my lungs. I hear the laughter of friends and, for the first time in so long, feel no hunger. I turn to greet them, but find only the concrete of the road against my face. My eyes slowly open, and I see the ash-covered path beneath me, my biscuit strewn forward and now coated in a layer of dust. My head throbs and my legs beat with pain as I sit-up, staring into the dense, clouded air. My mask lays flat on the ground in front of me, and I do not retrieve it. I remove my hat and place it down alongside it, feeling no further need for it. Blood runs from my nose and lip, thick with the ash from the ground. My body begs me to stay, to remain here with the dust and the broken ground. I plead with myself to lay down and rest. To pick up the biscuit and continue eating it and to drink the water I have and stay here. I know that I may never leave this place. I may fade away, become another man’s meal or sink onto the ground and be covered with the ash and dust that I will surely become. My head throbs. I want to see the creek and the grass and drink the clean water. I want to hear the laughter of my friends and hold my loved ones. But I am tired. And the dust tells me that I have to stay. That I cannot leave. That I belong to it now.
When I stand, I realize that I can no longer carry my pack. The weight is pulling me down, toward the earth which seeks to destroy me and turn my body to ash. I retrieve my water from the bag and a single can of beans, stuffing each into my pockets. I do not make a shrine today. My rifle lays on the road by my biscuit, and I leave it there. Empty when I found it and empty now, the glorified club would remain where I had fallen. My boots came next. I pulled each tattered, red boot from my feet and threw them from the road, hoping no person would ever find them. No being deserved to spend even a moment in those god damned boots.
I looked at the grey road ahead and smiled. A real smile. My feet had gone numb and I felt as though I were floating above the ground as I began to walk. I breathed in the cool air from the stream and held it deep in my lungs as I pushed onward toward that happy oasis. The wind pulled and pushed my thin body and the dust smacked into my skin and made it’s way into my flesh. But I was not a prisoner of these terrible elements any longer. I knew how close I was to that special place, to that home where I would meet my children again and never go hungry. I would love and laugh and cry with joy. I tore down the exterior this world built upon me and let myself feel as a child did. I looked to the reward of the world ahead and knew that I would be there soon.
When I looked back, the dust had covered my rifle and my pack and blood. The world had allowed me to leave and pushed on without me, claiming the offering I left behind. I pulled the tin from my pocket and ate the beans and drank my murky water as I walked. I left their empty shells on the ground behind me. My stomach settled and the blood ceased to run from my broken nose. The pain had mostly faded and I walked until the world slid from view. The sun recoiled again and I walked through the blackness of night, closing my eyes and holding my arms out in front of me, laughing at the thought of what I must look like. Laughing at how my friends and family would greet me when I approached the creek in this way. Laughing at nothing. Laughing at god. And when my laughter ceased and my ams fell to my sides in exhaustion and I fell to the ground with numb legs, I rolled on my back and listened, happily, to the empty world.
I relished in the cool breeze of the night, fading from life, the world a still void from where I lay in the dark. And as I began to slip away, leaving this void behind, I listened to the faint, distant sound of running water. That peaceful, trickling stream. I listened, softly, and smiled. For all the pain and the blood and the endless dust of this world, I could finally rest, and be at peace. For the first time in my life, I was truly home.
Colby Torbett is a Criminology major and a Senior at UNCW, currently enjoying his fourth semester at the University. Before becoming a Seahawk, Torbett obtained his Associates Degree in Arts at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College. First published in La Piccioletta Barca in 2019 for a biographical essay on the life of Robert Shaw, Torbett has since began to write short fiction and hopes to continue submitting to the journal in the future.