I’m sorry to leave this letter for you. I’m sorry I couldn’t do this in person, but I was running out of time. There are some things you need to know; things I’ve never told you. But that was always the problem, wasn’t it? What pushed you away.
Too many secrets.
So here they are.
I’ll start from the beginning. It’s not a story. More of an explanation.
For why I did what I’ve done.
A long while back, I was cutting up an old horse that the neighbour had given us. I had done most of the butchering the night before so by then it was ten or eleven in the forenoon and I was just deboning and cutting the meat into fist sized chunks and bagging it.
There’s a lot of meat on a horse. Dad had sled dogs back then and they ate a lot of meat, so we took in a lot of old livestock from surrounding farms and I spent a lot of time out on that table, cutting, bagging, and packing freezers.
It’s a monotonous sort of work, but I’ve always liked that. It’s the sort of work that busies your hands and just the parts of your brain necessary to look at a haunch or shoulder or some other part of a mammal – we’re all built more or less the same – and see where the bones are, where to cut, how deep, what angle, and what muscle groups to take off in slabs and which in smaller pieces.
That may seem complicated but once you start doing it, you quickly develop what people call “a knack” or “an eye” for it, which means you can do it without thinking or planning much, which means that the rest of your mind is free to do other things. Like figuring. Or planning. Or having ideas. Or just daydreaming.
Sometimes, if I’m tired or if I’ve been thinking a lot about one thing and my brain gets tired, I’ll put on the radio and listen to people talk about something simple, like politics or movies or news, which is enough to distract me and let my mind calm a bit and it feels like I’ve been working all day and finally laid down for a rest, only my body is still working but this is how my mind feels.
But sometimes, my mind does this on its own, like when I’ve been sick or had a migraine so bad my vision gets blurry or I go blind in one eye and the other half of my face goes slack and the only way to get better is to put myself to sleep for a while. I never have any control over how long that sleep lasts – it might take an hour, it may take a day – but when I wake up, it’s like my mind has rebooted. Like a crashed computer.
Just like a rebooted computer, not all of my mind comes back online at once. And none of the old applications that were running in the background, eating up compute time and power, have started back up yet. And I walk around in a kind of calm, clear, don’t-give-a-fuck state, during which I can see very well, even without my glasses and I can figure out solutions and designs really quickly.
You’ve noticed that about me.
It’s like that when the clouds are moving fast overhead – like they were that day. I didn’t bring out the radio because clouds have their own sound, almost like a music. It’s similar to the sound that train rails make when the train is coming down the track but is still too far away for the engine to be heard.
I say similar, but that’s not a perfect word. It’s not similar like how the sound of an idling truck is similar to the sound of an idling tractor. They don’t share common sounds, but more like common textures to the sounds. In this way, the texture of an idling tractor is similar to the texture of the sound a spray paint can makes when you shake it. And an idling truck shares a texture with a ticking stopwatch. And it shares a different texture with the sound of a refrigerator running. I hope that makes sense.
The sound clouds make shares a texture with the pinging, distant, metallic ring-hum that train rails make as the train approaches from a long way off. Except that it’s not an ear sound. Trucks, tractors, fridges, stopwatches, and trains make sounds that are first in your ears and then in your mind. But the sounds fast moving clouds make bypass the ears and are instantly mind sounds. Even if I can’t see them. I tried to tell you about it once but you were tired and blinking and started to look at me the way some people do, and so I just let it be.
As long as it’s quiet and nobody is chattering on about this or that, I always hear the clouds moving, whether or not I’m outside. I just hear them.
Different clouds make different sounds – it’s not at all constant. It’s lyrical and melodic. They have their own songs. Like pods of whales. They’re usually very relaxing and they quiet my mind so I don’t think as much and get head-tired.
The day I was cutting up the old horse, the clouds were moving very fast. There seemed to be dark thunderheads on the horizon, and wispy mare’s tails were streaking across the sky out in front of them, running in great herds to stay ahead. Off in the distance, in the North, I saw patches of sky open up and shafts of light fall and sweep across the green hayfields in big broad arcs, tearing away up to the edge of the forest and vanishing into the trees.
The songs were different that day. Far different than I’d ever heard clouds sing before. There was more energy, more tempo to them, and all the while, in the background, gaining ground, was the rising thrum of the bulging thunderheads.
This was not the music I generally listened to. Although it cleared my mind and quieted the inner dialogue, it did not relax or calm me. I found the pace of my hands quickening and realized even my heart was beating faster. I re-steeled my knife and found I was flying through the pile of meat. And then I felt a jab and a warm spot on my hand and looked down to find a splinter of bone had driven into my thumb.
I stopped to pull it out and just stared as a dark drop of blood fattened, slipped down my thumb, and another grew to replace it.
I was out in the back paddock, not near the house, and anyway, it wasn’t serious so I took a break and walked over to my backpack to get my first aid kit and clean it up but instead I wound up just sitting in the grass. I leaned up against the old fence post and watched the thunderheads come, and just listened to their low, rumbling voices
These weren’t like normal songs. I mean that because I wasn’t just hearing their sounds in my head, but I was feeling pictures too. That might sound weird, but then again, it might not. I’ve come to learn that not everyone sees or feels or hears the same things and anyway, there’s an awful lot that just can’t be communicated by words.
Like, how the hell do you describe a colour? It can’t be done, except by comparing physical examples but still how do you know what the other person sees when they say blue and look at a blueberry? They may see something totally different from what you see, and the next guy may see something altogether different from either of you. But you would all call your blueberry blue, even if you perceived it as green or red or… 9. And you would all be correct.
As the clouds swept over me, their songs were almost deafening. And they evoked images so strong, I wasn’t trying to conjure pictures in my head, I was trying not to. And failing.
By the time the black thunderheads boomed overhead, they covered the sky and blotted out all light. Their thrumming was so deep, it reverberated physically in my bones – I could feel them – like the sound of the huge two-stroke diesels that the lakers use, coming down the canal with that bass that’s so deep, you feel it in your teeth. You feel it for miles.
I couldn’t feel the grass beneath me anymore.
I wasn’t sitting against a fence post.
I couldn’t feel my body at all… and for some reason that didn’t alarm me. I just hovered, somehow. I was nothing more than awareness. Witness to a very different landscape.
What I saw was our world, but not our world. Something had changed. Something was… very wrong.
I saw far fewer people, living in small groups and villages, spaced much farther apart. Like Alaska, but…. not Alaska. Not glaciers and grizzly bears. Just fewer people, living in scattered, remote villages; pockets of humans like shipwreck survivors clinging to little buoys bobbing in a sea of trees. I looked out across the land – because I seemed to be both at ground level and floating in the sky – and I saw endless forest stretching out as far as I could see.
There were no roads there. No place to set a wheel. Only trails – narrow, grass-fringed and short-lived, barely visible dirt paths cut through the wild. Just wide enough for a single horse or a person to hurry along on foot before the forest reclaimed them entirely.
Most of these encampments couldn’t even be called villages… Just a few families or so, with mud-caked, pale, scrawny children, carving out a clearing in the boreal forest. Lean and scraggy folk, illiterate and bordering forever on scurvy, guarding a patch of dirt, a goat or some chickens. Trying to scratch out a living while freezing in log shacks and bark huts. They had no writing, no history.
I thought at first my mind had dredged-up fragments of some colonial documentary I’d watched but I began noticing bits and pieces that didn’t belong.
A twisting line of lamp posts, bent and corroded, their busted crowns just barely peeking out of the forest canopy.
The toppled skeleton of a repeater tower, with enormous oaks grown up inside and around and through it.
It wasn’t the past I was witnessing, but what was left long after something awful. The old world had been lost; crushed underfoot and left for nature to reclaim, tangling and corroding and dragging it all down into swamp and briar and the shade of jungle. What was left of our proud, arrogant species huddled around hidden fires by night as dangers moved in the darkness.
These survivors were not triumphant settlers taming their particular wilderness. The forest that had crept back in around them had brought something else with it. Something ancient and foreboding. It concealed itself in shadow and stalked these people, terrifying them. Preying on them. Those whose ancestors dominated the food chain now lived in fear of a distant relation who had taken their place atop it.
They held fast by nightfall, pulled together and barred their doors; posted watch. Now and then some unfortunate traveller was caught out after sundown and his screams would serve as reminders to all within hearing. A spray of blood in the leaves, a wisp of hair, and what story bare earth could tell of their final moments were all that remained. The cries of the taken were the lullaby of countless generations.
In all of this I was present, not merely in one place and time, but everywhere – or nearly so. I was aware and of much, but not conscious of self. I didn’t feel. I didn’t think. I just saw. And it wasn’t until I felt my curiosity swell that it all began to shake off and drift away, as if I were slowly waking up.
And as I began to process the fragments I retained, and wondered what had happened, how the country could have come to such a pass, the thunderheads loomed once more, drumming and beating until the world around me reverted to something hellish and stinking hot. The trees were gone, had not yet grown, and the devastation was younger, the rubble of it all still fresh. Still smouldering. Fires raged across the land, painting the sky orange and black with soot, raining down bits of burning debris miles away, starting more fires.
Breeding. Threatening to engulf the planet in ash and darkness.
I was stretched again, felt my mind thin out and dissipate like smoke, losing myself as I encompassed everything. There was so much suffering. So many dead.
The rains had stopped; hadn’t come in years. So much farmland, so much corn and soy and green pasture had withered and taken wing on winds that choked and clotted people’s lungs. Still more were raptured up in flame. Torrential wildfires fanned out across the continent, leaving scorched bodies and charred remains of everything that had once been. Gaunt, shadows of people, made skeletons by starvation, wept bitter tears over tiny graves.
They dug up the dead.
It was their final harvest.
Cities fell into ruin. Sickness spread amongst the masses and bodies were hauled to pits, overflowing. Staggering men in bug-eyed masks and ash-blackened suits hefted body bags, some still weakly moving, on to burn piles.
Columns of smoke.
A blackened sun.
Ash and haze swallowed the sky.
When winter finally came, it settled in for years.
Few of us remained. Fewer still by spring.
Spoiled by progress and convenience, every sun-smear day brought new life-threatening hardship. Cold and hunger became our constant companions. They followed us unto death.
We were, and still are, an endangered species.
So, that’s how it feels.
They’ve taken the farm. It was too far in debt for me to hold on to forever after my father passed away. Surprised I got this far. I know I should told you sooner.
For a long time, I struggled with what I had seen; what the thunderheads had shown me. I didn’t want to believe. I tried to rationalize my way out of accepting the knowledge – of accepting the responsibility – but time has a way of rubbing your nose in your own inaction.
I woke with the sun and a red sky following the rain the clouds had dumped on me. I was soaked and sitting in inches of mud, hoofprints all around and under me, like the cows hadn’t seen me. Like I hadn’t even been there.
I could only hold on to fragments of what I’d seen. Man did not evolve a brain equipped to handle omniscience or omnipresence or whatever the fuck that was. Just pieces. That’s all I got. But they continued to unfold.
I saw the wreck before it happened. But Susan still got in her car and I didn’t stop her. And it cost her her legs.
I tried to stay with her but the guilt of knowing overwhelmed me for a time and I took to brooding and drinking and soon I’d lost her entirely.
I saw the astrocytoma on my father’s right temporal lobe, too, but by then I was despondent and angry at myself and God and everything and the doctors caught it too late.
Stage four. With infiltrates.
And I watched the strongest man I’d ever known become a child overnight. The surgery left him in a wheelchair; the chemo didn’t help. I drove him daily to radiation appointments and watched a good man die in slow motion in less than six months.
And I failed again.
During the eulogy I gave at his service, I read a verse from the family bible that he had bookmarked and fallen asleep reading over and over. John 14 I think. The one about “my father’s house” having many rooms or mansions or something, and going to prepare one for you. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the bible. Or wanted anything to do with God.
A month after the funeral, I turned on the news to watch the hurricane I knew would decimate New Orleans and witnessed bloated bodies floating by half-submerged steeples. I couldn’t fathom the point of knowing any of it, when there was nothing I could have done to change it.
None of it seemed to have any purpose. I hadn’t even noticed that the clouds no longer spoke. Nothing had sound any more. It was like living in a world on mute.
Until I met you. That first night when we rode back through the trees to the little lake – that was the first time in years that I began to see colour again. We swam out to the island, you pressed your body into mine and afterward, we collapsed there in the open and slept under a galaxy of stars that serenaded us.
I woke before you the next morning and just lay there listening. Listening to the whispering in the pines, the chattering of ducks on the water, and the turning of the world. And I heard the clouds again.
It wasn’t always so peaceful – you and me – and I know I was often distant and confused you, but I want you to know that you got me working again after I had broke. That you and Jenny gave me a purpose.
I’m leaving you the truck. I won’t need it where I’m going and the bank would only try to auction it. My ring is in the glove compartment – maybe you can get some money for it. I know you said you just needed time and you didn’t want a divorce, but I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I’m afraid you’ll have to settle on declaring me dead in my absence. I have to go.
I can never be anything more than a burden and an embarrassment to you and your girl, but this way, I can keep you safe. And I can keep her safe. I’ve seen what’s coming, Katie. But I’ve also seen the strongholds. High ground for when hell floods in. I think I know how to find one of them.
I’m taking the dog with me. He stinks and I know you hate him, even though you wouldn’t say it. You never do. I’ll be taking the gelding and the black mare, too – the one with the ewe neck. She’s ugly and wouldn’t fetch more than meat price, but she makes a good pack horse and she’ll follow that grey gelding anywhere so I won’t need to hold a lead rope.
And I’ll be bringing Misty, too, for Jenny to ride. I picked her up from school, as I’m sure you’re aware of by now, so you can call off the search. I would’ve dropped her off to you if that’s what she had really wanted. Please don’t worry about her. She’s a good enough rider, even in the back country and that pony will take good care of her. I love her like she’s my own daughter and not having to worry about her will make it easier for you to get out of dodge when the time comes. Please don’t do anything rash. We all know what you’re like when you lose your temper.
We’ll be gone by the time you find this. We’ll be heading west along the tracks, up into the high country and then north for a week or so, to the other side of Whitemud Pass. I think you know where. Come and find us when the time comes. I hope I don’t have to tell you that we’d both appreciate it if you came alone.
I go now, to prepare a place for us.