Afterland

by Jean-Michel Calvez

translation by Jean-Michel Calvez and Don Webb

À la version originale


Lord wiped the back of his sleeve over the dusty cap of the large paint can. The lid had been frozen shut by time and a rim of rust encircling it. He pushed hard under the edge of the lid with the broken blade of his knife and finally pried it open.

The heavy consistency and creamy color of the paint half opened the door of fond childhood memories long concealed in dark corners of his mind. But the moist, acrid smell of solvent turned his stomach and drove away all other feelings.

He slowly stirred the mixture, as gummy and thick as tar. It had long since gone out of date. But if he could dilute it, it would serve his purpose: to lighten the dark green he had painted on the inner face of the plastic leaves intended for the Tree. The leaves were slowly drying in the humid air and lying side by side on a rough piece of canvas he had spread on the ground.

A coughing fit took him by surprise and almost made him drop the slimy wooden stick he was holding in his hand. He wiped the stick with a rag and then closed the lid on the can with a single blow of his fist. Anyway, the leaves were not ready yet. He would continue painting tomorrow, in the short hours when a fragile sun finally broke through the deep fog that always coated the evenings.

His aching eyes burned in the corrosive fog under the pale, feeble light, and they soon became exhausted as he went about his painstaking work. Cutting out the leaves one at a time with a knife on a flat stone required eye-straining concentration.

Lord stood up slowly, avoiding sudden exertion that might suffocate him in the rarefied atmosphere. The oxygen level must be very low, but he had no instruments to measure it precisely. He had also made a determined effort, some time ago, to stop building fires against the everlasting twilight — a pathetic and somewhat illogical attempt to save both breathable air and the remaining rotten wood.

Lord went out to the Tree. It had no leaves yet, but even so it was the only one that looked healthy in the dying forest. Most of the other tree trunks would not collapse right away; that is, as long as the wind didn’t pick up again. They stood motionless, like wounded soldiers abandoned without hope or care on a battlefield. He would go up to them quietly, as though they were children stricken by fever. He scarcely dared brush his fingers against them for fear that the bark might break and fall off, making a disgusting display of the pulpy, almost spongy matter oozing out from irregular cracks in the wood.

Halfway up the slope, Lord stopped for a short rest. He was gasping for breath, exhausted simply from standing up. He had forced himself to take on the painful chore of carrying his few tools and, especially, the long, rusty metal rods that bit into his shoulders every time he stumbled. And then there were the dozens of buckets of water, sand, and concrete mix.

But he was determined to build the Tree — to make it grow, he liked to think — on a place in the landscape that was visible from afar. It didn’t matter that it could only loosely be called a hill, strictly speaking; it was the only height he was still able to climb.

If they came back some day, it would be easier for them to find.

* * *

Lord leaned back against the solid tree trunk and gradually caught his breath. He tried to forget how icy the concrete felt against his shoulder blades. A drop of sweat trickled from his forehead down into a wrinkle on his hollow cheek. With only the scarce materials he had, he found it impossible to imitate the warmth and gentle roughness of living wood. Anybody can picture life, talk about it, sculpt it, copy its outward appearance, but nobody can create it with his hands. And yet he sometimes felt a certain rush of pride when he gazed fondly on the stark lines, curves, and elegant unevenness of the painted concrete.

He had taken bark fragments from trees sagging under their own weight and eaten through by disease, and he had molded the pieces of bark into the still-fresh concrete. He was finishing the work by hand, adding lines of wood grain where they were missing between the patches of bark. He traced them with his blunted knife, as though he were filling in spaces in a jigsaw puzzle. He was sorry that he could not represent the slow death of the last trees, but he could not bear to strip the last shield from those still standing. He knew that was all he could do for them any more.

New shreds of grey mist kept rolling in from the eastern twilight like flocks without a shepherd. The surrounding forest changed into an ancient, ghostly nightmare reflected in infinite images like an optical illusion, one that Lord might have banished merely by shutting his eyes tightly or shaking his head forcefully to wish away the stench of rot.

Had not he, too, been afflicted with the disease? The fog was its only material form and the only — amost palpable — evidence of its existence. His skin was dry and his eyes burned; he suffered constant weakness, moved clumsily, and had trouble breathing the thin, oily air that seemed to have lost its substance. Were those not symptoms of an incurable illness like that of the trees, an evil that was dissolving his flesh under the bark of his pallid skin?

* * *

In the first days, Lord had searched for comrades in misfortune but found none. He then withdrew into himself like a suffocated plant. He gradually awoke and realized how important his mission was. He was alone. All alone. He alone was entrusted with the mission to deliver the message and perpetuate the images of a life that was gone and that he remembered.

At first he had dreamt too big and conceived a mad scheme to lay out winding brooks on the plain. The streams would carry messages or love notes to a distant observer. He imagined vast fields of flowers that he would paint one by one in bright colors and dispel the surrounding grayness. He also wanted to build — no, to plant! — an incorruptible forest in which he would hide a real waterfall, one that he would design and build with his own hands, one that would be as alive as an animal and as resounding as life itself.

But the evil, illness, and pain were in him, and their irritating, ever-present fatigue and lassitude wore down even his motions and, sometimes, his thoughts. Or was it only time marching faster and working insidiously to restrict a bit more, every day, the scope of the work that he could imagine undertaking? And yet one trace must remain: the Tree must survive upon the hill. At least that. At least one thing.

* * *

Suddenly Lord felt dizzy and almost fell. To keep from collapsing into the sterile, muddy soil, he desperately threw his arms around his unfinished Tree as though embracing a beloved woman who was indifferent. And very cold.

The unbreathable fog thickened around him. And Lord prayed, his lips pressed to the rough surface, that they would understand, or at least know what he had tried to do and what he might accomplish before they came back.

If they did come back...


Story copyright © 2007 by Jean-Michel Calvez
Translation copyright © 2007 by Bewildering Stories

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