How to Describe Eternity
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn…
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
-T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
One night an idea occurred to me and when I woke, I rushed to tell my friend.
“We're doing something special here,” I said.
“Of course we are,” she replied. “We're rebuilding the city.”
I was perturbed by her lack of enthusiasm, and we began to walk to work together. During the war, she had volunteered in an office, and I had been assigned to the factory, but now that the fighting was over we were clearing the rubble.
I tried to elaborate on my statement, but she told me how she'd caught a squirrel and cooked it for dinner.
“It's the first squirrel I've seen in years,” she said. “But it tasted good enough.”
She set traps in her backyard.
I listened and looked at the landscape, parts of which were smoldering after weeks. Already most of the bodies had been removed and buried, but that charred-flesh stench remained and we wore masks over our mouths and noses for protection. Wreckage was scattered everywhere, and the damage was worst where the most profound blast had hit, but my friend and I had taken refuge on the outskirts in the second year, and the shacks in which we lived were still standing. My friend's husband was in the air force, and he'd been killed, but both of us were all right.
“Don't you want to hear what I was thinking?” I said.
“Oh, you mean what's so special?” she said.
“Of course,” I replied. “I was thinking of Plato.”
Before the war, I was a student, and one of my classes had been Western Philosophy, and during the war, I had an asthmatic condition and worked in the munitions plant.
“And why were you thinking of Plato?” she asked.
“Well,” I said. “He posits that each object in this world is an imperfect representation of a perfect version of that object in an alternate reality. A chair in this world is simply an attempt to create the perfect chair from that perfect world. The same goes for buildings or airplanes or anything.”
“You sound like a textbook,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “But it seems strange that the workers all go about their jobs with such joy as though we're not rebuilding, but building for the first time. Do you see what I mean?” I asked, but she shook her head.
“I haven't a clue what you mean.”
“Um…” I began, but I was interrupted by schoolchildren in an open lot reciting a story. They were receiving regular lessons again, but for the most part, it was poor children taught by the elderly. Those with money had fled long ago to the countryside where it was safer. The previous Monday, I'd gone to one of their classes to answer questions about our efforts, but explaining the bombings to them was difficult. One little girl had watched me with careful intelligent eyes before she raised her hand and asked:
“Will the city still be called N. when it's rebuilt?”
“I think so,” I told her.
“But it won't be the same city,” she replied.
And when I left, I realized she was right—N. wouldn't be the same city—but I didn't tell my friend about it until now. I never knew what might upset her. At times, she seemed surprisingly strong, but on occasion, she was also weak. She'd helped remove disfigured bodies without flinching, but when she saw a scar on the face of a living woman, she could weep for hours.
“That's more interesting than Plato,” she said, as we reached our site.
The cleanup was going well. The prevalent sense of unity among us was particularly astonishing since we'd lost the war and bare necessities were difficult to come by, but the trucks hadn't given us any trouble, and more importantly, no one got injured.
“Another day?” I muttered, my voice muted by the mask.
Our crew was sifting through broken concrete and wood, and one of my coworkers smiled. Most of the buildings in this area had been leveled, but one three-story office hung by a thread. Explosions had blown the glass from its windows, and when we stopped, we stared at its shell.
At one, we broke for lunch, but we were so tired that no one spoke a word. My friend took a seat next to me and opened her pail. “Leftover squirrel,” she said and took out a sandwich. She also had a thermos of persimmon juice. Her mother told her that persimmon juice was good after the bombings because it had lots of vitamin C, and she trusted her mother implicitly. I didn't like persimmon juice, but she always filled the thermos lid and forced me to drink some.
“You haven't finished with Plato,” she said. “Maybe you can tell me tonight. I'd like company.”
When her husband died, we became lovers.
“I'll be over.”
She kept eating, but before she finished, we were distracted by shrill laughter coming from a gutted schoolhouse nearby. I couldn't imagine why a teacher would let her students occupy that building, and when we approached, I was ready to tell her how irresponsible she was, but I held my tongue. Twelve children, dressed in gray uniforms and without supervision, were dancing in a circle, and though the class was mixed with boys and girls, it was so dark—the sun was behind clouds and there was no electricity— that I could only tell the difference by their dresses or slacks. They sang a song I didn't recognize; their voices rose to a high pitch; and they joined hands and spun faster and faster, but they didn't look outside. The workers gathered behind us, and we watched with curiosity. Perhaps we wanted to join hands and skip like that—most of us hadn't encountered such unencumbered innocence in a long time—but we were dumbfounded by the sight and just stood there. My friend took my arm and put her head on my shoulder. We were enjoying the music—it had been too long since we'd heard any—and they skipped more rapidly as the song came to crescendo, shouting more than they sang. Just then, the sun emerged from the cloud cover, and the children stopped abruptly and stood in place, as though without their instructor, they couldn't decide what to do next. A large chunk of the back wall had been blown out, and a white wisp of light entered the room.
The walls were covered with soot, but underneath the soot were darker marks, and at first, I though this might have been a mural. The marks resembled each child's standing outline, and their figures were amazingly close to a life-size photographic print, but after a few moments, I realized what I was actually looking at. I turned toward the trucks that hadn't given us trouble since we started, and I thought of the fact that no one in our crew had been injured despite the hazards and perils of living in our post-war city. In fact, not one of my friends or acquaintances had died in the raging fires, but I hadn't questioned this before.
A murmur spread as the rest of the crew came to understand that they weren't looking at a mural, but the shadows of these children burned into the wall by the bombing. With all our talk of rebuilding, we never stopped to consider that we might be among the dead rather than the living, and this now sent a shudder through me. But at the same time, I thought of Plato again, and his ideas on perfection; I wondered about the identities of the bodies we'd pulled from wreckage, maybe they were somewhere else, a better place, still alive; and I marveled at how all of this could have happened without one of us knowing.
words: Jason M. Jones, Philadelphia
original publication: How to Describe Eternity / Holy Cuspidor
image: Kevin Vickery, New Jersey
original publication: Dusk / Writers'Bloc
another better place: 'Life' said the magician (#5)