Immolation in the sea. Men and women, young and old, roped with muscle—beautiful. They gather nakedly on driftwood or floes and root flame in their flesh. The smoke furls out, the light stripes saltwater orange. This is sacrifice, and also indulgence. This is one brief blaze in a blazing world.
Around the globe, an upward and northward creep. Plants and animals retreating to cooler climes. Mountains crowd; equators empty. Life finds tiny places to survive: a pocket of blue shade, the underhang of talus. Pink salmon migrate early, while the creek still runs cold. Caterpillars shrink from heat and find leaves to eat they have never eaten. Spring comes earlier, earlier. Snowmelt, sun, the burst of buds—does this feel like hope or not?
In her yard, the citizen scientist charts the cycles of birds and plants. What is your plant doing now? Leaves? No leaves. Flowers? No flowers. Fruit? No ripe fruit. The apple tree, the alfalfa, the elm. Sumac, oatgrass. The dandelions in the lawn. Then she sits on a plastic chair with her neck craned and waits for birds. Counts magpies: one, two, three. No more birds. What time of year is this? After half an hour she goes inside. Pours more coffee from the carafe and enters the data online. Magpies: one, two, three.
What makes spring spring? Phenology: the study of nature’s cycles. If the temperature builds and snaps unpredictably, if eggs hatch and leaves unfurl at all odd hours, how do we then tell time?
When the corpses fall they fall with splash and hiss. Flame turning to steam, charred body sinking slow. Ash floats like wet-black feathers for weeks.
The citizen scientist has made and logged her observations. No leaves. No flowers. No fruit. One robin, hopping and wormless. The house is terribly quiet so she turns on the TV. On the news is footage of a dozen naked men and women burning in the Pacific. Standing atop a raft and burning.
Outside, early sun strokes the earth like a finger and the earth rises at its touch. Snow peels back like a split rind to reveal the fertile fleshy soil. Flowers lift and open, feasting greedy on this gush.
But the bees are not yet risen. In tiny burrows in the trunks of trees, the pupae lie coiled in their cocoons. Mud and silk and a winter-like dark. Outside the flowers are open and waiting, waiting. Stamens thick and shivering with pollen. Waiting. Waiting.
They call the burning ones the climate suicides. They claim to be sacrificing themselves for the planet. Removing themselves and their hungry bodies from the equation. The newspapers are outraged at such willing death.
The citizen scientist has coffee with her ex-husband once a week. He arrives on her doorstep carrying lemon cake, cranberry walnut bread. She is thin and he has noticed. After coffee, bread, they have sex in the bed that was once their bed. The sex is slow. Patient. His hand curls lightly around the back of her neck. Hers rests lightly on his chest. There is no need for a condom any more, no need for pills. Afterwards, they damp a washcloth and wipe clean their sticky skin.
“I think we’re old,” the citizen scientist says to her ex-husband.
“We’re not that old,” he says.
She nods slow. “No,” she says. “I’m pretty sure we are.”
The next week they stand by the empty birdfeeder while the morning sun goes white to gold. The citizen scientist has her notebook and is recording the apple tree’s unfurling. Her ex-husband watches her and says, “I’ve decided I’m okay with being old. I’d rather be old than young. All things considered.”
In her notebook, the citizen scientist writes, Terminal buds pink. “It’s early for the apples,” she says. She touches the hard glossy cones. For all her years of watching she still has trouble visualizing the process of change. Branch into bud into flower into fruit. “I can’t decide,” she says, “if this age is better or worse than any other.”
“Better,” says her ex-husband. He strokes her hair, where glints a bit of grey. “Can you imagine being young right now? Having all your life still to live?”
She stares, eyes not quite focused, at his chest, the blue weave of his sweater. “No,” she says. The sun hits every strand of yarn and she can see the thin and wispy fibers illuminated and crazed.
Her hand rests lightly on his chest. There is a spitting rain. The smell of him. The day they divorced they undressed each other slow and stepped into the shower. Stood together at the far end of the tub while they waited for the water to warm. Afterwards, holding the washcloth under the faucet. Wiping themselves clean. It’s early for the apples. His sweater in the sun. Yarn fibers glinting, the glinting of grey in her hair. It’s early, they are old, a frost comes down and the pink buds ice and die. Fruit? No ripe fruit. The feeder is full but the birds are not there. What time of year is this?
Stop driving, save 2.4 tons of CO2 a year. Avoid airplane travel, save 1.6 tons per transatlantic flight. Eat vegan, .8 tons a year. Drops in a bucket. But stop living? You eliminate 58.6 tons of CO2 per year. I mean—when you look at the numbers—really—what choice do we have?
Inside a wound clock, a steel spring stores energy and the energy turns into time. One gear turns another turns another. Pinion: the smaller of two meshed gears. Also, the outermost flight feathers of a bird. Those that scrape the sky.
Is the time trapped in a watch’s gears the same as the time carried on the wings of geese? The sun going down, coming up, is only an effect of gravity and mass. Does time equal motion? Does time equal heat?
The mountains are dripping, wet snow sliding into streams. Under the earth, mammals warm and wake. Emerge from winter dens with their flesh hugging close to their bones. But though the sun beats down the plants have not yet grown. A yellow-bellied marmot searches for alfalfa, clover, cinquefoil, lupin. Finds nothing. Lies down in the dirt and dies.
And in the Arctic, fire on ice. Pool of melt gathering at their feet. Helicopters hover like particles of smoke and inside, the reporters are all scorn and awe.
The victims on the floe die when their veins rupture with flame. Blood hisses and pours. Or else they die when their organs empty like opened bags. Either way, skin has already peeled off in sheets. Fire undoes a body into its parts.
Early spring. Corpses warm and stinking in sun. The rhythm of a mammal’s rot is itself a clock: blood pooling in the wells of the body, cells undone by their own enzymes. Then bloat, maggots, the bloom of bones. Under the carcass the grass will die, then spring back thicker, greener than before.
In her kitchen, the citizen scientist mixes a gin and tonic and flips on the news. Juniper and sugar and the muted blue of a summer dusk. A heuristic for childhood. Her cool bare feet on grass.
On the news, the suicides again. She watches. She is afraid of them. Afraid of their logic, which must be faulty, but the fault is so hard to find.
A politician being interviewed says, They’re taking the easy way out.
A naked eighteen-year-old, handsome, with dreadlocks, says, I think my life is a shapeless thing already. Then he coats himself in kerosene and sets himself on fire.
Before, after. Cause, effect. Winter, spring.
The certainty of sunrise after night.
Geese carve wakes in cloud and she rubs her eyes. Blinks.
The clock’s second hand.
Fruit? No ripe fruit. The frosted apple buds refuse to bloom. The yard freezes and thaws, freezes and thaws. Leaves green—iced—dripping—dead.
A news anchor: It’s very brave, what you’re doing.
A young woman, rubbing her neck: Not really actually. My generation has always been friendly with death.
After stepping from the shower they dried themselves slow and then he filled a backpack and walked out the door. She sat on the bed a long while. Time passed. Out the window, the sun tugged night the way a string tugs blinds. Shadows congealed, lengthened, spread. Her life felt newly shapeless, as if she found herself in the middle of a long and twisted sentence, filled with commas, clauses, detours, whose beginning she couldn’t remember and whose ending lay too far off to be imagined much less seen. She rooted her eyes on the now rising moon. Darkness accreted. Lights flared in houses below. From the kitchen, a clock. Tick. Tick. She tapped a finger lightly on the quilt. Stayed a long while.
Now the bees. Crawling from porous phloem into what feels like spring. Tanzsphrache: the dance language by which bees are led to nectar, water, nests. But there is increasingly little to say. Flowers scattered sparse and far. The bees are too late. Returning to the nest, their bodies lack stories to tell.
She watches the men and women burn. In columns of flame the bodies flicker in and out of sight. Dark torso, limb. Then gone. The smoke’s rising has a rhythm to it, like an artery beating blood. She envies the finality, the bright and flame-clean end. Perhaps life can only take shape once over. Perhaps time is only ever retroactive.
Oak tree and winter moth. Sand eel and razorbill. Admiral butterfly and stinging nettle. Species synched to each other and now suddenly not. Many ways to say disjointed. When the earth’s shape is no longer a negative of your own, when you do not know how or where or when you fit, when your bones can tell no time—then there is nothing else to be done.
Her ex-husband asked her many times what happened. What happened with us? he’d ask, as if he hadn’t been there. But she was unable to answer. Memory faded, slipped. Or else, more often, the memories stood there, fresh and bright but perfectly unnamable. She could describe sequences: this then this then this then this. But the events lacked connective tissue. They failed to accrete, failed to bestow their terminus with sense.
She checks flights. Pulls a duffel from the closet, unzips it. It lies empty for days.
On the news: I feel unreal to myself. I have always felt unreal to myself. I never got attached to the world, though I understand there are those who are attached. I have always believed I would die young. I have never had long plans for my life as some do. I frequently forget my age. I forget the date all the time. I am sometimes overcome with beauty, as during certain sunsets, or at certain times of year, such as when the first rain falls after summer. But these moments are increasingly difficult to grasp ahold of. I think the world is very close to its end, though maybe it isn’t too late. I think time becomes distorted in such moments. Like the ten seconds before midnight. I think my life is a shapeless thing already. I am not afraid. You cannot be afraid if you cannot imagine a future.
The citizen scientist leaves her duffel empty and continues tracking the changes in the yard. Fruit? No ripe fruit. Flowers? A little clover in the lawn. A bee climbing the pink and heavy heads.
If the bees were telling this story it would be the shape of a figure eight. But the bees are not telling the story. I cannot tell time and cannot tell anything else.
Birds? She hears one singing, but does not know its name.
(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 34)