You are not here.
A cat yowls in the wildflowers, birds twitter, the sun rises and falls, then there is a dead mouse curled up grey in the road, and a dead dog grey also, and one morning after that the starlings lie around, a sprinkling of sharp angles and dusty feathers. I knew it would happen, eventually. The birds begin to fall daily, amassing beneath the trees or under the eaves, going until there are no birds left alive. The radio no longer plays its terrible love songs. Softly I hear the insects at night talk to me about their cousins overseas, still healthy, a fecund lot clattering amongst glossy, riverine trees. There’s nothing coy about the insects; they make their desires quite apparent. At least they are still trying. They are in pieces but they do not stop singing. Perhaps they simply don’t know how to. I find cricket legs and wings all over, and collect them like charms to hang around my neck.
Then one day let’s say I make a mistake and touch one of the birds. Now I tend the infection; a grey that spreads. I stroke the grey; it feels like the velvet of an ancient and crumbling curtain, it pulses like slime mould, seeking out nutrients from my body. I wrap up the infection site neatly as I was once told to, but just for aesthetics. I defy anyone to read the advice available and not laugh. The disease goes creeping towards my heart, just as it suggests.
Let me tell you what my morning looks like: get up none too early, clean last night’s dishes, change my dressing. The grey velvet progresses. It is said to get to the genitals quickest of all, though I haven’t looked at mine in a long time, so I’ve no idea. I call the cat (she does not come), leave food for anything that might still need to eat, make something for myself. I have a shelf full of old jars and what’s in them counts as food. There is no one to watch me smear the brown stuff on rice cakes, and anyway the salt from my crying jags is a pretty good seasoning. I wash one of the broken cars, sweeping out the hay and picking about for anything useful. I work, and the sun pinches in the shadows of the trees across the dirt road where no one ever goes. The shadows start to stretch back, filling the land from the ground up, and then it’s blue-dark, and I put on my head torch, and go about the place, wishing I could speak insect. Wishing I could speak to anyone.
What does your morning look like? I try to assemble something convincing: you wake up sweet and refreshed in your studio, and the city is loud and the morning sunlight very robust, rubbing up against your paintings and smoothing the lines on your face, slight as they are themselves. You make yourself a tapioca wrap and coffee, and you talk to the whole world on your phone: the whole world wants to know how you are, because that is how you are, magnetic, alive. Then you must have some bills to pay, some preparation for the smooth running of a plague-free life. And then you make art until classes, or therapy and the theatre group, then classes. I imagine this life you have as full of sounds, bustle. I imagine you becoming annoyed, overworried, taxed by the constant overturn of voices, traffic, demands, brilliance, beauty. I imagine you whole and continuous in your healthy body. I have to imagine it, because I cannot tell what does or doesn’t exist beyond a ten kilometre radius of the affliction where I am now. Where I will be as the small end, with patient slowness, a mother in her long grey dress, bends across my body to lay me down.
For thirty-four years I had no idea about apocalypses. It’s strange, I used to think they were a global event. I suppose that was a position of privilege. Now I know better. An apocalypse can be limited to a single city, or even a street, shattered into debris by a gas explosion. An apocalypse can be as small as a palm, as large as a house, seemingly sturdy, now desolate to look at on its patch of hopeful ground. It takes on fairy tale dimensions. It can fit about one like a skin, like a grey fur covered in ticks. At the end of the world there is a farm and I am living in it, more and more undone by this particular catastrophe. I have lost the use of my tongue; my mouth full of softness, my teeth sending sparks of static when I chew. I cannot cry now, it is now a disease without release. But it doesn’t know me, not at all. And the people that are supposed to know it, know nothing either. And me? I’m as lost as the rest. Just for fun, of a night I sit on the rotten wooden deck and stare out across the empty field, imagining horses there, gleaming, snorting, rushing about with their tails up. The velvet inches over and into me, I can feel its ministrations in my heart, my heart starting to beat like powdery moth wings. But the world, the world is populated by many wondrous things: horses and the horses I make when there are none; you and all that is aside from you, and I understand this, right to the very end I get to, no matter what anyone else has said, or failed to say correctly.
Helen McClory lives in Edinburgh and grew up between there and the isle of Skye. Her first collection, On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her second collection, Mayhem & Death, was written for the lonely and published in March 2018. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.