The End of the World

The first time the world ended was on a warm Sunday afternoon. Pastor Jon—unlikely herald of the apocalypse—came to Vindler’s son in the west field as he mowed hay. Heat and heavy work plastered his shirt to his skin and stung his eyes so that it took a few blinks to tell just whose silhouette was approaching. When sweat-blur resolved into Pastor Jon’s face, he looked away and doubled down on the mowing.

“Even the Lord rested on the sabbath, Tolti,” Pastor Jon said, raising his voice a little to carry over the wind.

Vindler’s son bared his teeth, narrowed his eyes, and gripped the scythe in his hands so hard his knuckles turned white. “Well,” he wheezed, “maybe if He hadn’t then the rest of us could take a damn break.”

As soon as the words left his mouth he wished he could cram them back in. He’d have gone pale if it weren’t for the sunburn. There were some things you just didn’t say, especially to the pastor. He swung the scythe mechanically, taking refuge in the work while he waited for the Pastor’s rebuke. Stroke. Step. Stroke. Step. When no rebuke came, he took a cautious peek at Pastor Jon out of the corner of his eye. Pastor Jon’s mouth and eyebrows pressed down in a stern line as he… rolled up his sleeves?

“Give me the scythe, Tolti.”
He stopped mid-swing, spun to face the Pastor. “But—”
“And go sit down.”
“Yes, Father.” You didn’t argue when Pastor Jon used that tone. Vindler’s son tried to upend the scythe but it had somehow grown so long and heavy in his hands, and his arms were as clumsy as bags of sand, that he nicked his thumb on the blade before managing to get it right way up. Pastor Jon gripped his shoulder, guiding him (stumbling over his own feet) to a shady wall and pressing him to the ground. He closed his eyes against the glare off the ocean.

You breathe deep, tasting the air.
There are the constants: salmon bones and sandstone, redwood bark and trillium, loam and fisher-cat. The old-new smells that didn’t exist in the small world of your childhood, but have since become as familiar as your own hands.

Then there are the new-new smells. They are also constant now (and maybe always were?) but it’s only in the last few years you’ve begun to notice them. The smell of a holy man’s prayers. The smell of the sky falling. In your own veins, the smell of a lightning-strike on a tree as old as time. The smell of magic.

But all that is unimportant right now.

You push them to the back of your mind. They form a pattern of life that radiates in intangible spirals out from the center, singing an ever-shifting, intricate harmony. But there is a single discordant note. One badly-drawn mark. One scent that is newer than new. What is it?

Human blood.
And the man who shed it is only a few miles away.
You turn toward his sluggish heartbeat and walk carefully. You can smell the blood in his veins, but you can’t smell what opened them. That makes you very wary.

He must have dozed off there, because the sun had skipped down to the horizon when he opened his eyes again. Cut grass lay in untidy windrows across the whole field. Pastor Jon crouched in front of him, hand still gripping his shoulder but now flecked with hay, asking to come in for supper. He nodded, made the painful transition to standing upright, and guided the pastor into the house. Coffee. That was the first thing to do with a guest over. He grabbed the last few lumps from the coalbox to heat the water, took the coffee-cannister from the cupboard…


A cold splash of realization slapped him in the face. Of course. Of course it was empty. All the cupboards were empty. He hadn’t made it into town since before she’d left. He hadn’t even made cheese since midsummer. There hadn’t been time. He crammed the coffee-jar back on its shelf and checked every cabinet just in case he’d forgotten something. Nothing but dust and a few pieces of dried fish. He peeked over his shoulder at Pastor Jon, who was politely looking anywhere but the kitchen.

“Um. I…” he swallowed his embarrassment. “Have a seat. Please. I’ll get supper ready.”

The pastor took the nearest stool—the one that didn’t have a thick coat of dust, thank God—and cleared his throat. “You’re too kind. But please, don’t trouble to cook for me. I had a late dinner and it’s still settling. Perhaps just a cup of milk?”

Liar. You mowed hay for dinner, just like me, he thought. But he fetched two cups of milk from the cellar and set them on the table along with the fish and a lump of butter. He dusted off the stool across the table from Pastor Jon and they drank their supper in silence. Once Pastor Jon wiped the last drops from his lips with his handkerchief, he cleared his throat again.

“I didn’t come over just to lecture you about missing services, you know.” He gave Vindler’s son a tight smile. “Your mother sent a letter.”

“She did?” He jumped out of his seat so fast he knocked the stool over. “How is she? When will she get home? Soon, right? She’s going to make it before the port closes? Is—” he stopped short at the look on Pastor Jon’s face. He knew that look. That sad-gentle-not-quite-pity look. It was the same one he’d seen when Jon gave them the news about Papa’s boat. About how Maggi and Hjalli and Sigar had all been on board. All the questions dried up and all he could feel was his too-loud heartbeat.

“I’m sorry, Tolti. She’s still in the city. But doing well, very well… it’s good news, in fact! She wrote to say she’s found a husband.”

“That’s…” Too soon? Disloyal to Papa? Better than being dead, probably? “…good. Yeah. Good.” He picked up the stool and sat down again. “Is he, um, is he going to come here? Or… does he have his own land? Like a house or something?”

Pastor Jon rose to his feet with a grunt and refilled both cups—his own with water, and milk for Vindler’s son. He talked while he moved, in a smooth, even voice. “He has property of his own. A farm. Quite large, I’m told, over fifty cows. She sent for you to come join them in Reykjavík, then move into his house as soon as possible.”

“Oh.” He nodded, numb. Rummaged around for words. “I guess… I guess I can do that. What’s his name?”

“Hm, let me see…” Pastor Jon took the letter out of his breast pocket, unfolded it, and smoothed it with his thumb. He squinted at the letters, stumbling over unfamiliar combinations. “Eugene Ramirez. She didn’t give a patronymic.”

“What kind of name is ‘Eugene Ramirez?’”
“An American one.”
He set the cup down and surprised himself with how loud it slammed. “What?”
“I’m sorry, Tolti. He lives in Montana. It’s in the middle of the country, I think. She says you’ll both be well provided for.”

“That’s, that’s…” He jumped up again and paced around the kitchen. “He can’t do that! A wife can divorce if her husband makes her leave the country. He can’t make her go.”
Pastor Jon spoke very gently, very softly. “She could, but she hasn’t. It’s her choice.”

“I won’t go.” Pastor Jon looked like he might say something, so before he could say it Vindler’s son shouted, “I won’t go! She can’t do this! She—it’s too much!” He kicked the door frame so hard it burned all the way up his shin. Then kicked it again for good measure.

“I know it’s a lot to ask of you. But—”

“A lot? It’s too much to ask! Eugene Ramirez can go meet the devil, and move to hell, and bring his winter coat because it’ll be a cold day there before I leave Iceland!”

Pastor Jon made no sound to stop him, since they both knew it was a lie. Waited, silent, as Vindler’s son made angry orbits around the table, first cursing himself hoarse, then sobbing, then sinking to the earth with nothing left. He curled in on himself, unable to think beyond the next shuddering breath, unable to see or smell or taste anything but salt.

“It won’t be like this forever, Tolti.”

“My life is here. Everyone I care about… everything I worked for… my whole world is here.”

“I’m sorry Tolti. I… know that suffering reveals a greater hope and glory within ourselves, and that the Lord comforts us in all our troubles. Trust in Him to provide a new world for you.”

He shook his head. Liar. You can’t put a world back together once it breaks. But he didn’t say anything, because you don’t tell the pastor he’s wrong about the Lord. And besides, there was nothing left to say—

—to someone dying. He’d gone too far into the next world to be brought back to this one. Not even by you. If there was a magic that could do that, it was not one you had ever known, nor ever would.

You’d found him in the hollow of an ancient tree’s roots. You make offerings of blood and honey to the ones that watch—take this, and not his spirit, you ask. They agree, this time.

All that wariness was wasted work in the end: it was a simple accident that dealt the killing blow. A fall that snapped his spine. Well, not just an accident. It was compassion, too. He’d sent his daughter ahead with all their provisions. That had been two days ago.

He said she’d hoped the girl might be able to reach the distant lights by the coast. That whoever lived there would take her in. That she, at least, might live.

You don’t tell him the lights were from the old lighthouse, and the only people there are six feet underground these past three months.

Instead, you give him water. Give him what comfort you could give. And, before you left, you give him the only mercy within your reach: a promise and a proper grave.

If you’d asked Vindler’s son when the world had ended for the second time he wouldn’t have been able to say. Not that anyone had ever asked, of course.

He could mark—to the moment—when he’d walked through the doorway between the old world and the new. That had been just before sunset on September 23, when Gabe had explained in a shaking voice what exactly a letter from Selective Service meant and Vindler’s son had sworn his first oath. And he could say with absolute certainty when he’d turned back to find the door had shut behind him, that he’d kept his oath and nothing else. But the exact moment when the lock had turned? He hadn’t been listening.

It was also late September when he started listening again. When he tried to go back through that door to what-had-been. He stood on the stoop, caught between the desire to knock and the desperate urge to run. Chill fall air seeped through all three sweaters and ran down his spine. Even though it wasn’t cold enough for frost yet, he had to fight to keep from shivering and felt numb inside and out. Strange. He’d never had trouble with cold before. What are you even doing here? he wondered. None of it matters anyway. Why bother?

Why not? This is where you always went in September. Before.

He knocked.

The man who opened the door didn’t look like Don—he looked like Don’s grayer, fatter brother, and the complete lack of recognition in his eyes made Vindler’s son think for a moment this might have been the wrong address.

Oh. But he must look different now too.
“Don?” he tried.
The not-quite-stranger’s eyes widened. “Ken? Christ on a crutch, I thought I’d seen the last of you for sure! Hardly even know’d you to look at you.”
“What can I say? I missed Sal’s cooking.”
Don laughed, clapped him on the back, stopped laughing when he flinched. Fuck. Don’t do that. Just act normal for christsakes. “Should’a known you’d be back sooner or later. You’re slicker than a tomcat, they only got nine lives. You got time to catch up? How about some lunch. You look more’n half starved.”

Don drove the mountain switchbacks in silence, and Vindler’s son was quiet too. He could speak English just fine, but somehow in recent years he’d forgotten how to speak Civilian. He let Don lead them into the warm (oh thank God, so warm) diner, let Don chat up the young waitress, let Don order the food for both of them. The smell of the place alone was overwhelming: dizzying scents of meat, bread, fruit, coffee. He was just as glad to not say anything.

“Where you been all this time? I heard tell you went on a long cruise courtesy of good ol’ Uncle Sam.”

He shrugged. “Korea, mostly.”

“No shit? Glad you made it back in one piece. How’s Gabe doing these days? Surprised to see the one of you without the other.”

“He is dead.”

You should care. That should hurt. Did you stop caring? When?

“Oh. Damn. That’s—that’s a damn shame.”

Silence and coffee took over for a while. Don flagged the waitress and ordered a pie (“Whatever’s hot, sweetheart, bring the whole thing. We’ll finish it off”). Eventually he asked Vindler’s son, “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

He finished cramming the rest of his pie in his mouth, washed syrupy apples down with near-boiling coffee, coughed into his elbow. “Looking for work.” Don’s eyebrows inched up towards his forehead, so he continued, “Whatever you need done. Felling, limbing, hell, I will dig ditches. You know me, I am not picky.”

Don looked out the window with a frown and spun a fork around in his coffee four times before answering. “Sorry, Ken. I’ve got a full crew already. Maybe next year.”

“I don’t need the wages. Just give me room and board, I will do odd jobs—or chop firewood.” His words tumbled out faster, sharper. He knew he sounded desperate but couldn’t help it.

“Look. I know you have folks over in Montana or Arizona or somewhere. Why don’t you stay with them if you’re hard up? Hell, I’ll buy your ticket.” Don’s voice was too gentle, too easygoing; his smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Pity. That’s what was in Don’s voice. No one ever used to pity him before.

“God fucking damn it, Don, I don’t want a place to stay! I want a fucking job.” He punctuated his sentence with a fist on the table.

Shit. Shit shit shit, now the whole diner was watching them and he’d scared the waitress. He leaned in close over their dirty plates and lowered his voice to a growl. “Quit bullshitting me about having a full crew when I know damn well you do not start hiring till almost October. If you do not trust me then just fucking say so.”

Don shook his head. “Trust’s got nothing to do with it. I’d trust you with my momma’s life, you know that.” He hadn’t known that, actually. Five years ago, he might have cared. “But hell if I’ll put you out in the woods, the shape you’re in. You’d catch your death of pneumonia or something the first day it snows.”

“Can’t. Already had it.”

“It ain’t the damn chicken pox! Boy, I can’t tell if you’re trying to work yourself to death or if you just got your head on backwards right now, but either way I’ll have no part. I can’t conscience it.”

“Fuck you,” he spat.
Might as well make a bonfire, all the bridges you’re burning.
They were all looking again. And the waitress was talking all hushed to her boss, eyes flitting back and forth to their table. All of a sudden he couldn’t stand the pressure of their stares, of the walls, of the pristine dining room where he so clearly did not belong. He set (slammed?) the cup down on the table, heard a sharp crack a half-second before he felt the burn of coffee on his hand, tensed every muscle from an electric-wire current of rage.


He shoved himself away from the table, marched outside before the vultures in there started circling, and slammed the door on his way out. He wanted to beat the stuffing out of something but jammed his hands in his pockets instead, taking the world one step and one breath at a time. It burned his lungs with dry cold and the smells of wood smoke and autumn and pine. He didn’t have a direction in mind so he settled for uphill since it was the hardest. After an eternity of walking (well, long enough to work up a sweat at least), the rage subsided and emptiness took its place again. What the hell is wrong with you? It’s not like you. Not like you were before.

He didn’t slow when he heard the crunch of tires on gravel coming up behind him, didn’t allow himself to acknowledge the distinctive grumble of Don’s Ford. Not even when it slowed to a walking crawl alongside him. He did make more of an effort to walk like someone who wasn’t hurting though.

“Can you drive truck?”

He turned to look at Don, half-hanging out the window of his pickup. All he could manage to say was, “Huh?” He stopped walking, and Don stopped driving.

“You lose your hearing along with your temper? I said, can you drive truck?”
“Oh. Yes. But I do not have a license…”
Don snorted and swatted the whole idea of licenses away with one hand. “Get in. I’ll give you a job. Don’t you go making me regret it.”
He climbed in the cab, nodded a stiff thanks. Cold snuck up on him again now that he’d stopped moving. Without a word, Don shoved a musty old jacket at his chest—flannel and sheepskin, heavy, and so big he could have used it as a quilt. They watched a few miles roll by in silence except for the wind and tire-crunch. Don, once again, spoke first.

“I don’t know what happened to you over there.” Maybe he caught a hint of the electric-wire in his passenger, because he quickly added, “I ain’t gonna ask. But whatever it was, it’s past patching up now. What’s done’s done. Take it from me. Best thing now’s to put the old shit behind you and try and forget about it. Fill that space up with good things, good people. You’ll get to where you’re not always looking over your shoulder. Just takes a while.”

He would have said something sharp, something he’d regret if he ever had the energy to regret anything. But when he looked over at Don, Vindler’s son found himself staring at the eye Don didn’t have. The one he’d left behind in Normandy. So he said nothing. It sounded like bullshit. But maybe…

…maybe the world is constantly being remade, ending and beginning all at the same time in an endless process of cosmic rebirth. Maybe you are being remade too: you are not the boy anymore, not the soldier, not the misguided father, not the man Gabe loved nor the one who swore to walk with him to the end of the world. Or maybe you are all of those things still, and more.

Maybe you need some sleep.

You hear her heartbeat before you see or smell any sign of her. She’s well hidden—a clever lean-to disguised with ferns and blackberry canes, a small fire burning hot enough to not leave smoke. She’s even hidden her scent, smearing pond muck and bear dung down the arms of her sweater.

You move along the treetops towards her, pausing above her campsite to assess the situation. Then you descend.

So it came to be that the third time, Vindler’s son was the first to know. Well—the first on this coast, at least. He was probably the only one listening. Compared to the first two, it started rather pleasantly. That morning was as warm as it ever got on Fickle Hill, with air so humid you could drink it. He’d got to Manuel’s house an hour or so after dawn, just when the birds were really starting to go wild.

The old jeep’s engine chugged, sputtered, and completely failed to turn over, jumper cables be damned. He turned off his truck and unclipped the leads. “Well now, would you look at that? Your battery is just fine after all!”

“Yeah, great. Glad we cleared that up.” He wiped at the sweat on his forehead with a rag but ended up smearing dark traces of oil all over. “Crap. You going into town today? ‘Cause it looks like I could use a ride to O’Reilly’s after all.”

“Of course, of course. I…”

That sound. In the distance. Manuel couldn’t hear it, not ten miles up Fickle Hill, but Vindler’s son could hear a low wail ramping up to the unmistakable drone of an air raid siren. He froze for a moment, scrambling to figure out which direction they’d be coming from and where the nearest shelter was…

“Hey old man, you okay?” Manuel asked.

Of course. He’d forgotten… again. They didn’t even have an air raid siren in town. It was just the tsunami warning horn, testing the system like they did every Sunday.

“Oh yes, I am fine. Just got a bit distracted there. O’Reilly’s you sai—”

It’s not Sunday.

And the siren wasn’t turning off.

He leapt up on the roof of his truck to see over the trees. To look for the wave. Blood-sense hit him before he’d even reached the top: the smell of the sky falling, the taste of shackles, the sound of a panther’s breath on the neck. Out in the bay, the tide was coming in. Never mind that they were already at high tide, it was coming in fast. And there were things in the tide that he did not want to look any more closely at.

Manuel was saying something concerned-sounding, something about getting down before he hurt himself. But he fell silent when the first wolf howled. It was close enough even a human could hear. Another joined it, then another, until they all but drowned out the siren-wail even to his ears. There hadn’t been wolves in Humboldt County since before Vindler’s son set foot in America. These wolves sounded like midwinter.

“What’s going on? Are those wolves?” He sounded more stunned than scared.

They needed to go. Now. Before the water finished rising. But go where? He tossed the keys to his truck. “Take the kids and go to my place. You will be safe there.” Probably. But he had made arrangements, if not for something quite this big. “You know the way, yes?”

“Yeah, but—”

“Do not stop for anything until you reach the Klamath. There is some salmon and tobacco under the driver’s seat; give it to the water and then tell her the man with no footprints sent you. She will help,” he said as fast as he could without mushing the words together. Underneath the howls, from back towards town, he could hear the screams starting. They needed him.

“Tell who?” Now he was scared. “What the hell is going on?”

“I am sorry. I have to go. Do not dawdle here.” He grabbed the axe out of his toolbox. “But do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid,” you tell her. Like you’re the angel Gabriel, come to deliver the good news. Well, you do have news. But it’s no more good than you are an angel. A brief introduction is made. She is polite, if curt. She offers you water and a granola bar. She’s canny, this one: she knows it’s wise to make a stranger a guest, even if she doesn’t know she knows. You offer her salmon. She says you remind her of her great-grandfather, “except for the part where you’re not dead.” Her laugh is empty.

“Really?” you say. “Funny, because you remind me of”—myself, you think—”my great-granddaughter.” You pause. “Except for the part where you are not dead either.”

“What are you doing out here?” she asks.
“Looking for you,” you answer.
“How did you know about me?” she asks with narrowed eyes. Skeptical. Suspicious.

Good. She is wise not to trust a stranger.
“Your father told me. I found him first.” And then, because it would be cruel to leave her an empty hope, you say, “I am afraid he did not make it. I am sorry.”
“Oh.” Wet trails trace down her cheeks, but her voice and face have not caught up with each other. Her words come out clean and even. “How did you find me?”
“I followed your path. I asked the earth and the sky.”
“Oh.” she says, as if she understands. Maybe she does. Maybe she just doesn’t care.

Then the dam breaks and she doubles over under the flood, gasping for air. You sit there with her for an eternity, hands on her shoulders, reminding her how to breathe.

“Dad said—” She chokes on her snot, so you hand her a hankie. She uses it to mop up what’s left of her emotions. “Dad said it was just an earthquake or something offshore. Like a natural disaster, you know? He said… he thought once they get the highway open everything’ll be okay. They’ll send in FEMA or something and fix it. Everything’ll be okay. That’s what he thought.” She shakes her head. “But that’s… that’s not right? It’s not right. Nothing’s right. There’s wolves around… this is way outside their extant range. And there’s… other things. I don’t think it’s gonna be all right.”

“What do you think, lilla min?”

A whisper that breaks halfway through. “I don’t know. But it feels like the end of the world.”

“It is.”

You give her as long as you can, in that in-between state. But it’s not wise to linger too long at crossroads and gateways—not if you want to find your way again. And you catch a whiff of death approaching on many feet, drawn by the scent of blood and change.

“Come, lilla min.” You stand up and reach a hand out to her. “We need to move on.”

She shakes her head without looking up. “Why bother? My whole life is over. Everyone I care about… everything I’ve ever done… my whole world. How am I supposed to just move on?”

“I know, little bird. But endings and beginnings, they are the same thing. Just from a different point of view. It all looks like the end right now, but keep going; sooner or later you’ll see a new start.”

“I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Then I will help you, until you can.”
She looks up at you, the grave-dust of her life coating her face. She takes a deep, shuddering breath. And then she takes your hand.