BY MATTHEW CHENEY
When I was a child, we lived inside the war. Our parents went away sometime during the last year, leaving me and my sister, Olly, to fend for ourselves amidst the rubble. Our house was old and solid, made of stone, and the shelling had mostly been to the other side of town, so all the walls of the house were still intact and there were only a few holes in the roof. Most of the windows had shattered, but we covered our bedroom’s windows with trash bags taped to the frames, and that mostly kept the wind and rain out, except for the windiest, rainiest nights, but those were few and far between. It was awfully dry that year, in fact, which created its own problems — after the well ran out, we got our water from the river, but the river water was full of bacteria and we didn’t always have enough fire to boil it. We were often sick.
The day J.C. died, we were healthy, though, because there had been some rain recently, but not enough to bring out lots of mold and mildew, and that day itself was one of the sunniest of the spring. Because of the good weather, Olly and I decided to go into town and see if the war had ended. It hadn’t, but we discovered Mrs. Carter had died in the night and we were able to take some of the onions and carrots she had stored up. We felt guilty about stealing food, and so we were always grateful to find people who had recently died. We took our snacks out to the town common and sat down for a picnic. Before the war, the common had had a bandstand and a grove of trees, but people had taken the bandstand apart for firewood and the trees had been shattered during a bombing raid, so there wasn’t much to separate the common from the street except for occasional tufts of grass, but we remembered the bandstand and we remembered the trees and so it was still the common to us.
It’s impossible to know if J.C. recognized it as the common, too, but it was the place where he came to die. He had arrived in town soon after our parents went away, and he lived in a little cottage less than a mile down the road from our house. The old man who had lived there (and whose name I have forgotten, if I ever knew it) left right after the war began. J.C. occasionally talked to us, but mostly he kept to himself. He was tall and skinny, with a head that was too big for his body. He wore clothes he seemed to have made himself, and he didn’t have any skill as a tailor. He said his name was Jesu Cristo, but we could call him J.C. He said he was God incarnate. He said he was the savior. He said he would bring peace on Earth. He asked us if we believed in him, and Olly said he was standing right there in front of us so we didn’t need to believe in him. This seemed to make him sad, and he went back to his cottage, and we didn’t talk to him again for a little while, though now and then we would see him out staring at the sky and we would wave to him, but he didn’t wave back. “Maybe,” Olly said, “he doesn’t believe in us.” I told her not to be silly, but I didn’t really think she was silly, it was just something to say.
Later, we saw J.C. carrying things into the cottage in big blue bags from the post office.
“Is the mail working again?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I’m building a temple.”
“Contemplation,” he said. “Prayer. Don’t you know what a temple is?”
“Sure,” I said. “But I thought they had to be old.”
“No,” J.C. said. “Anybody can make a temple. It takes a lot of work, though.”
He went into his cottage and I heard the door lock. I went back to our house and found Olly working on the mud castle she was building on the dining room table. She spent a lot of time on this castle, bringing dirt in from a hole she had dug in the front yard. She spent a lot of time trying to get the crenellations at the top of the walls to be perfectly even.
“That’s not a castle,” I said.
“Yes it is,” Olly said.
“No,” I said. “It’s a temple.”
“No, it’s a castle. I don’t want to build a temple. I’m building a castle.”
“No you’re not,” I said.
Olly, her face streaming tears, threw a handful of mud at me, screamed, and ran out of the room.
We tended to fight when we got hungry, since we were most irritable when we were most hungry, but we didn’t fight very often, because we always had plenty of space to wander around in alone when we wanted it, so we rarely felt like the other person got in our way. We had our own little worlds, really. Olly, for instance, never went up to the third floor of the house, but I spent a lot of time up there, in the places our mother had called “the servant’s quarters”, though we never had any servants. I brought our stuffed animals up there, because after our parents left, Olly had grown scared of all the teddy bears. (The only things she seemed attached to were a few little rocks she had given names to and carried around in her pockets.) I arranged the animals to sit in rows and pretended I was their teacher, telling them all the truths of the world. I told them about the giant man who held the Earth up in space so that we wouldn’t all die, and I told them about the dinosaurs that ate the cavemen, and I told them that all the stars in the sky were lights from rocketships that were flying through the ten bazillion miles of space to come get us and bring us to Heaven, and I told them that humans are the only animals that can speak English and this is why we are the rulers of everything.
Olly and I spent much of our time together, though, because Olly liked to hear the stories I told her. At first, I told her stories about the things our parents were doing out in the world — fighting evil witches and dastardly kings, working as spies for the government, flying in warplanes and bombing remote regions of the Earth. Olly didn’t seem to understand these stories, but she liked them. As she got older, though, she asked for stories about other people. I told her about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. She especially liked the story of how Wonder Woman discovered that Superman was insane and used her powers to tie him up and then smash his head in with a boulder. “She had to hit him again and again, didn’t she?” Olly asked. “Yes,” I said. “He was very strong, and she had to smash his head in over and over and over again to kill him.” We laughed a lot at that, and then Olly began to sing, and soon I joined her:
She smashed his head in
over and over and over again
and over and over and over again
and over and over and over again!
Eventually, I began to tell Olly stories about J.C. In my stories, he was a wandering wizard who had lost his powers, but he didn’t know why, and so he was making his way through the world to find out what had turned him into a mortal man. I couldn’t seem to bring the story to a conclusion, I couldn’t figure out why J.C. had lost his powers or how he could get them back, and Olly asked me to stop telling her stories about him because they made her sad, so we went back to Wonder Woman and Batman. I even brought Superman back from the dead so Wonder Woman could smash his head in again.
As we had our picnic on the common, I heard movement behind me and turned around and at first I didn’t recognize J.C. He was naked and purple. He had found some paint of some sort and covered every inch of his body with it. He stood on a big rock at the other end of the common from us and held his arms out to his side. He couldn’t close his eyes because he had covered them with paint. The paint had sunk deep into his pores and clogged them. His skin couldn’t breathe. He stood there for a long time — it felt like hours, but I doubt it was much more than a minute or two — and then he fell over, flat onto his face. I didn’t do anything, just stared, but Olly ran to him.
“Get up, J.C.,” she said.
He didn’t move.
“I like purple,” she said. And then, more quietly: “Why won’t you get up?”
I went to him and stuck my ear down next to his mouth to see if I could hear him breathing. I couldn’t. I moved my head down to his chest to listen for his heart, but I didn’t hear that either. I took Olly’s hand. “Come on,” I said. “Maybe he has some food and stuff in his cottage.”
“Why did he die?” Olly asked me as we walked down the road.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Or, I mean, I know the paint, the purple stuff on his skin, that could have done it. Probably. But I don’t know why he painted himself purple or if he knew what would happen. I guess he did know what would happen, though. At the end. It seemed that way. Don’t you think?”
“Sure,” Olly said.
The cottage was built from cinderblocks and stones and mud. It had a rusty tin roof. From outside it didn’t look like much, but inside it was cozy. It wasn’t as small as it seemed from outside — there was one main room, but it was at least as big as our dining room, the largest room I’ve ever been in, and there was a little bedroom at the back, beside the kitchen nook. I immediately began to think about moving in. The single fireplace would probably be enough to keep the cottage warm through the winter, unlike our house, where even if we had been able to light a fire in every fireplace, the house never would have gotten very warm, given the tall ceilings and all the broken windows. Some of the windows in the cottage were still whole, and the ones that were broken had been carefully covered with thick boards.
We didn’t find any food, though, or any evidence of food having been eaten there. What had J.C. lived on? I imagined him foraging in the woods, chewing on berries and grass, gobbling dirt.
Then Olly found a trap door in the bedroom that led down into an apparently deep and very dark cellar.
“I don’t want to go down there,” Olly said.
“Me neither,” I said. “But there could be food. It looks like a good place for storage.” I started to look for a candle in the kitchen when Olly called me back to the bedroom — she’d found a flashlight under the bed.
“It’ll never work,” I said, but I was wrong. “Those’ve got to be the most powerful batteries in the history of batteries.”
Olly handed me the flashlight and I pointed it down into the cellar. A wooden ladder led down at least ten feet to a stone floor. I began the descent.
There was food — shelves of it, in cans and jars and bottles. The metal shelves ran from the floor to the ceiling on three sides of the ladder. The cellar was larger than the cottage, at least twice its size. I shined the light ahead — the shelves continued on and on, filled not only with food but with artifacts from the old world: books and newspapers, computers, dolls, tools, pens and pencils, cups, bowls, framed photographs, portable music players, sheets, towels, clothing of every imaginable sort…
I finally reached the end of the shelves and discovered there a little bed and desk. The chair at the desk was small, like Olly’s chair in the bedroom at our house. The floor was sticky with something, and I shined the light down. At first I thought it was a pool of blood, but then I realized it was the purple paint. Cans of spray paint lay scattered in a corner, covered with purple fingerprints.
On the desk, I found a battery-powered lamp and turned it on. The desk was covered with bits of paper with strange drawings on them — stick figures, mostly, in abstract landscapes, or what I took to be landscapes. Only one of the pieces of paper had any writing on it, but I’ve kept it with me ever since. It took me days to decipher it all, the handwriting was so tiny, the letters so indistinct from each other. As far as I can tell, this is what was written on the paper:
THE REVALASHUNS OF JESU CRISTO
I have been alive 100000 years now LORD my GOD and you have in those 100000 years tormented me always with your ABSENSE! and I want to no only what I am sposed to no but you will not even let me have that. You are DEATH! That is all I no. I AM LIFE – I LORD AM LIFE! This is my revalashun. This is the only truth you have reveeled to me. This is the only thing I bleve and becuz I bleve it I no it is the TRUTH. This is the war this is the true war this. You are death. I am life. I am life. I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM!!!!!!
Looking at this now, typed, free of its yellowed paper and red ink and strange, minuscule handwriting, the words seem ridiculous. I am tempted to laugh. But when I first read them down in the darkness of the cellar, the shadows kept barely at bay by the low-powered lamp, the effect was a mix of absolute terror and profound sadness. I stared at the paper, puzzling out the words — LORD GOD ABSENSE DEATH I AM LIFE I LORD AM LIFE TRUTH I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM — and my hands shook and my legs felt like their bones had softened and my heart sped up so that I could feel every drop of blood shooting through my veins.
I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM I AM!!!!!!
I grabbed the paper and ran past the shelves and back to the ladder and burst up into the afternoon sunlight.
Olly lay asleep on the blue and white quilt that covered the bed, but she woke when I looked at her.
“What did you find?”
“A lot,” I said.
“A lot good or a lot bad?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Food. Things. All sorts of things. I think J.C. was collecting them. Hoarding, collecting, I don’t know. Something. The temple. I think he brought all this here from somewhere else. If this was all here when the old man was here, why would he have left?”
“That all sounds good.”
“Yes,” I said. I put the paper down on the quilt. Olly looked at it.
“I can’t read it,” she said. “Or not most of it. What is it?”
“Something J.C. wrote. I don’t know what it is.”
“That’s okay,” Olly said. “It’s nice to have something from him. We can remember him this way and tell stories about him and tell people what he was like. Later. Don’t you think?”
“Sure,” I said.
The war lasted another two years. We moved into the cottage and lived there until the end. Our parents never came back, but we didn’t expect them to. Nobody really came back, but new people arrived. Serious people, people with empty eyes. Some of them wanted our cottage, but we had found guns in the cellar and ammunition and we had used them to hunt squirrels and rabbits and deer, so we knew how to use them to protect ourselves. But we didn’t have to protect ourselves for too long. People mostly left us alone once things got more settled. I began to be able to sleep through the nights again. Olly got her stories from the books she found in the cellar, and I read them too, though not as many and not as often.
And then Olly went away to get married, and I was alone in the cottage, and have been alone for some time now. I tried to tell people about J.C., but nobody wanted to hear stories about anything from before the war.
A few days ago, the food finally ran out. The last things I ate were some pickled beets. I’d never much liked beets. I should have saved something I liked for the end.
It didn’t have to be the end, I suppose. I could have planted a garden, I could have even gone shopping at the new grocery store in town, but it felt somehow like a betrayal, and so I never did. I just ate what was in the cellar, until now there is nothing left to eat.
I wrote Olly a letter, telling her all about the changes, about how the common has been paved over so there will be, they say, fewer traffic jams. I told her the food was mostly gone. I told her she should come visit, and that I’d save some food for her. (But I didn’t. I’ve lied about so many things, why not lie about that? She wouldn’t expect anything else.) She’ll laugh when she reads the letter, if she reads the letter. She’s only written to me once, quite some time ago. “I used to love your stories,” she said. “We lived on stories, didn’t we? Stories aren’t truth, though, and after everything that’s happened, I just want some truth.”
I should have written her another letter. I should have apologized for not coming up with a good ending for the stories about J.C. I wish I had thought of some way for the wizard to regain his powers. I hadn’t meant to upset her, I just wanted to pass some time.
I know when she saw him all covered in purple, Olly thought J.C. had become a wizard again — and then, when he fell, that whatever forces had taken his powers had done something even worse.
I’m sorry, Olly. He was just a crazy man. There were a lot of them in those days, don’t you remember? (There still are, I suppose, but they are more hidden now.) I shouldn’t have given him meaning for you. That’s the only thing I regret.
Her handwriting was remarkably neat and clear. That is what I remember thinking as I let the letter fall into the fire.
I wake up in the darkness every night. I reach for the flashlight, but the batteries have long since died.
I am hungry. If you were here now, Olly, that is what I would tell you. I am hungry.
A little German boy in town told me that in his language they do not say, “I am hungry,” but rather, “I have hunger.” It is not who you are. It is a possession that can be shed.
(She smashed his head in over and over and over again, and over and over and over again, and over and over and over again.)
The beets were a deep, rich shade of purple. Almost the deepest purple I have ever seen. They stained my hands and mouth, and when I saw my palms covered with the purple juice, I cried for the first time since we were children one hundred thousand years ago.