by Rosemary Cox
“What ocean?” Kima mocked. She looked to the women around her, but they just smiled.
“Leave her alone,” Kima’s mother chastised. “Children are allowed to believe in silly things like the ocean.”
Sera’s face flushed at being called a child and leaned over the basket she was weaving. Or trying to weave. Too embarrassed to ask herself, she signaled one of the younger children. He piped up immediately, asking the old woman to tell the Story of Beginning and End.
“Humans abused their earth and all the gifts she gave them,” she began. Everyone nodded. “The earth became sick because of their greed and heaved and trembled in a fever. The shining cities humans had built came crashing down and the earth split open to swallow them. Disease and hunger ate all the greedy wicked beings who were left, leaving only a fraction.
Like lions, some humans roamed in small packs and ate what they could find. Like monkeys, others took to the large forests, hardly ever setting foot on the blood drenched ground, and picking fruit for eating. Others turned to cannibalism, living in a delicate balance of truth and lies and games before finally playing traitor and tearing into their own friends…but none went near the ocean.”
The children in the pride whispered excitedly. One jumped on his sister, pretending to eat her. She shrieked and scrambled behind Sera. On the old woman went, ignoring the interruption.
“Deep, angry quakes would send waves so large they’d block out the stars. Walls of water with such force that when they came crashing down they demolished everything in their path. The ocean turned into a nightmare to keep people from roaming too far. Possibly it never existed. It’s hard to imagine such a large mass of water, isn’t it? Well, that’s the story of how their world of Greed ended, and ours of earned survival began.”
Clicks of tongue and fingers thanked her for the story and everyone settled back to their work. Sera pushed long grass in and out and built up the basket. Surely that force still existed. Her heart pounded faster as she thought of it. Something so strong, something the earth had sent to wipe clean her surface had to have lasted through the shaking earth and fire that burned the skies and winds that could uproot forests. Surely the ocean had survived.
Sera picked her way through the sleeping pride. Her family, beaten and tired, but surviving. Creeping away in the dark, her boots shifted the long grass aside before settling into it with a dry crackle. There were few trees, spread far and wide across the plain for rare shade. The cold wind nipped at Sera. Pulling her three thin and tattered jackets around her, she pushed on. A groan and a crack. The earth shifted. Indifferent to the small quake that made the ground bounce beneath her feet, Sera continued. Behind her none of the pride shifted. No one cracked an eye.
Daylight took to the grey sky when Sera was far from the pride and the plains. Moving quickly, she stumbled over broken rocks and fallen, splintered trees. The smell of sap and dirt not dry and cracked made her head spin pleasantly. Light filtered through a thick canopy of wide leaves and strong branches all twisted together. Roots stuck out of the ground and rocks shifted under her weight, some turning to dust at her touch. Grabbing onto branches to help her way, and her eyes fixed on the ground, Sera very nearly missed the girl up ahead.
She slammed to a halt. Holding absolutely still, she watched. Wind wound through the trees, making the leaves shake. The stranger did not seem to notice. Not a strand of her long, strangely neat brown hair moved. Sera crept behind a tree, wincing at every sound her boots made. The weight of her knife in her hand lent her strength. The stranger did not move. She faced a different direction, looking up as if she could see the sky through the canopy. Was this girl a Monkey? It was hard to assume so. She looked nothing like them. Everything she wore was clean and whole, from the black tights and knee high boots to the long necklaces she wore over the black tank top.
Sunlight broke through the canopy for a moment, flooding the forest with warm colours. Again, nothing touched the girl. No shadow darkened the ground around her, the light seeming to pass straight through.
Very close now, Sera paused. Half of her hid behind the tree, the knife ready. The stranger turned. Her expression neither welcoming nor hostile.
“You’re reaching for the stars, you know.” Her voice echoed strangely, as if she’d shouted into a plain rather than murmured in a forest. It was nearly not a sound at all, but an impression, a ghost of a sound.
“Who’re you?” Sera demanded, baring her teeth.
The girl beckoned and started walking.
“You’ve got to keep moving if you want to find the ocean.”
Sera jogged after her, too curious to mind the danger. The stranger moved comfortably, fluidly, her long legs easily taking in stride the broken ground. She seemed peaceful, but her eyes didn’t focus on anything.
“It’s nice that you have hope,” she murmured. “When the earth started over not many people did.”
“Started over? How?” Eyeing the stranger, Sera wondered if this girl was an ‘imprint’, a person of earth left over from years ago.
“Everything just sort of…stopped…and then it was gone,” the girl whispered, haunted.
Her wide brown eyes stared at something Sera couldn’t see. She swallowed tightly, pushing back tears. “The ocean was there then, and it wiped out so many things…I don’t think it exists anymore, but who knows? You might as well try.”
A breeze wound through the trees. This time it caught her just as she smiled, brushing her image away like a drawing in the dirt. “Good luck.”
Sera did not stop. She’d find the ocean. It had to be there. Waves so high they’d block out the stars. Her pride had laughed at ideas like imprints and apparitions, stories made up by Monkeys and Cannibals. The world was haunted, the stories said, by the memories of those who had been wiped out at the end of their world.
Just after noon the forest gave way to another plain. The sun warmed her quickly, but still a chill remained. Her boot hit a large black rock, sending it jumping away. Sera stared. Long and broken, barely distinguishable through the long grass, was a road. A road that might lead to an ocean. Sera followed it through the plain, eating a small meal from what she had packed. Afternoon sun forced her jackets off, and the hot wind did little to cool her. Nothing for miles around except for the occasional ruin of a farmhouse. A tiny town which had been ransacked during the End.
“You could be walking forever. You think that after all this earth has been through, there’s still an ocean?”
Sera’s head jerked up. A man walked beside her, unaffected by the loose road or the hot sun or wind. Another imprint. He was old, but strong. White stained his grey hair and stubble on his chin, though patches were missing, a mocking expression on his face, as if Sera’s insistence, her hope, amused him.
“There is,” Sera told him, refusing to believe otherwise.
“Probably not,” the old man sighed. “You have not seen what I have seen, little girl. Why don’t you go back and stay with the things you know? It’s safer.”
She snarled at him. He laughed and let the wind brush him away, his mocking voice the last to go.
Sera kept walking until sundown. With tired legs and sore feet, she veered off the road toward a gnarled, bent tree. Curling up beneath it, she slept. The first rays of sun woke her. Rolling to her feet, she ignored the quake that threatened to topple the tree. As she walked on the quake grew harder, thunder rolling on and on and on. Vision shaking, Sera paused and sat to wait for it to pass. The quake grew harder still. Birds filled the sky with black shadows. She waited alone on the plain, yearning for the safety of her pride. At last it stopped.
For a moment Sera sat, trying to regain her senses. She jumped to her feet and ran. On and on, she went. Something was rising up in the distance, a city she thought. An ancient structure that housed the Cannibals.
Sera’s heart jolted. She skidded to a stop.
Another woman, running full pelt down the road toward Sera. Gasping, crying hysterically, her dirty face streaked with tear tracks. Her arms flung wide, waving in the air, demanding Sera’s attention. Knife in hand, Sera backed up. The woman was wild, her hair in straggled knots and her clothes ripped to show skin brown with dirt.
“Nothing!” she screamed again, weeping. “My children, gone, all wrenched away by the ocean! Nothing remains! Turn back!”
The young Lion crouched, ready to fight her. Just as the apparition would have hit her, it vanished. Sera’s hand shook as she slid the knife back into her waistband.
On she trudged. The woman’s hopelessness shocked her, but all that was a long time ago. The earth had started again, and there was an ocean.
Sera kept on, ran forward. All day she ran and ran then slowed to a walk and then ran some more. A city rose up around her. The ruins of houses, roofs collapsed, walls splintered outward, some completely toppled to one side. The roads were broken and cars shattered, dented and rusting. Rotted, ancient skeletons peered out from broken windows. The entire place reeked of death.
Peering around corners and making no noise, the Lion crept through the city, wary of Cannibals. She stuck to the outskirts. Deeper into the city what skyscrapers still stood swayed in the wind. Fear slid through Sera, making her pick up her pace. Cannibals wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.
Running flat out, she turned corners. Buildings grew taller, the ruins larger, then smaller again. Shadows fled around her, playing with her heartbeat. She kept running. At last the city gave way to houses, to broken roads and rubble.
Night would fall soon, but Sera needed to get away from the city. On she jogged. Relief was just beginning to drive her fear away, when she saw a hunched shape on the side of the road. Slowing, she approached carefully, trying to see in the half light. A child, she was sure, but a Cannibal, or another apparition that haunted these parts? The child just sat, barely moving. Her head was shaved bald and her clothes were a loose, pale green. Sera stopped beside her.
“Why are you sitting here?” She whispered to her, noting how the light passed through the child, how there was no shadow next to her own. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“No…I’m just…sitting.” The child’s voice was dead. No expression or hope at all.
“Why don’t you get up?” Uneasy, Sera moved back, away from the child. Her stomach churned at the sight of her. Her face was less than blank, it was empty, just like the rest. It was like a corpse had learned to sit and talk.
“I have no reason to. There is nothing.”
Sera stared at her, backing farther and farther away. The child did not look at her. There was no hope to make her. No hope for…anything.
Sera ran. As fast as she possibly could. She ran down the broken road, needing her lungs to burn and her muscles to ache. There was an ocean. She had hope for that.
Another quake shook the ground, but she ignored it even as it grew, and ran on. She kept her eyes fixed on the stars in front of her, on the moon above her. The thunderous rumbling of the quake grew louder. Still she ran…but the ground did not shake. She stopped. It was the sound of a quake. A tremor in the ground and that crashing, booming thunder layered on top of itself, but there was also a rushing, a whispering that turned into a roar. A cool wind rushed down the road. Sera stared up. She could not see the stars anymore. They winked out, more and more of them, darkness sweeping across the sky.
Rosemary Cox has grown up between Australia and America. Currently, she’s in Australia studying Creative Writing, Linguistics, Italian and Mandarin. When she’s done with her studies she will work overseas, travelling frequently and collecting inspiration for her writing.
Photo credit: Karthik R via Flickr All Creative Commons