1. The Straw Falls
Coronis leaps across the thigh-deep cavity into which rain has been falling the past five days. She lands in the calf-deep stream that is the street. Branches, dead leaves, assorted litter, rats’ and small birds’ corpses float on it. She has gone four blocks; her powder blue cotton sundress, and her body beneath it, are soaked. So are her shoes and feet from walking in the downpour and the ankle-deep overflow onto the curb, the lawns, the hurriedly erected wooden platforms that were intended as walkways but have been been covered by the water. She hurries along the flooded avenue. She sees no other people in it, but she passes two giraffes and a camel standing casually on a lawn. Thunder rolls, in a voice she does not understand. (She is still young and has only learned the speech of a handful of living creatures; Thunder, she thinks and supposes, is not a living creature.)
There is another lightning bolt. She does not look up but rushes on. There is the house to reach, only a few more muddy blocks away. It is made of the wood of cypress trees, and glass and tar and leather and iron and rock, and stands on a high hill on Mariel’s estate. Mariel’s associate, Molly, a dove, came and told Coronis the water had not yet reached the house. Coronis knows it’s massive, but Molly said it may float if the time comes.
Mariel, wearing a pale yellow cotton sundress, is waiting for her.
She opens the door at once. The Old Man who lives with her stands a few feet behind her. “Oh, you poor dear,” Mariel says as Coronis steps into the foyer. “Old Man, get towels.” He hurries away without a word. “Come here,” she tells Coronis, and wraps both arms around her.
Coronis shivers: Even if she were dry, she’d be chilled. It’s cold for spring. “Here,” says Mariel, “Take off the dress.” Coronis does as she is bidden and waits, naked, skin glistening.
The Old Man returns with towels and hands them to Mariel. “Get my robe,” she tells him. He hurries away without a word. Carefully and thoroughly Mariel dries Coronis’s hair, face, neck, breasts, belly. “Spread your legs, dear,” she says, and Coronis does. Mariel pats, then rubs vigorously, the thick, wet hair surrounding her vulva.
“That feels good,” says Coronis.
Mariel continues to rub the rough terrycloth on Coronis’s thighs, her legs, her back.
The Old Man returns with a white robe. Mariel takes it and hands it to Coronis, who puts it on. It’s too large but it’s warm. “Coffee?” Mariel asks.
“Yes,” says Coronis.
“Coffee,” Mariel says to the Old Man, “In the kitchen.” He hurries away without a word.
In the kitchen Molly, unable to sleep, stares from her nest on the windowsill at the room around her. The six finches and the canary are singing. “Hush, please,” she entreats them. They ignore her and she coos an irritated sigh. Their songs rise above the howls of the rain and thunder.
The kitchen is dark; only two hurricane lamps ward off the blinding gray storm beyond the window. The Old Man stands, waiting, while Mariel and Coronis sit at the small table and drink their coffee. The Old Man looks at the finches. Coronis looks at Mariel. Mariel looks out the window. “Too much rain,” she says. She jokes, “We need to make this an ark.”
Coronis smiles and nods.
Mariel nods. “Did you see any fish on the way?” she asks.
“There were boats early this morning. Carrying fishermen. They wore slickers and rubber caps and smoked pipes.”
“I didn’t see any. Boats or fishermen.”
“What did you see?”
“Two giraffes. A camel.”
Mariel nods. The finches’ songs become more intense. “A camel or a dromedary?”
Coronis says, “A camel.”
Mariel nods again. “I had one as a pet when I was a child,” she says. “Old Man, more coffee.”
He brings the pot, pours, returns it to the stove, returns to standing before it and looking at the birds.
“Do you think it’s the end of the world?” Coronis asks.
“Yes,” says Mariel. “As we know it, at least.”
Later, Mariel opens the door and they look out. There is a camel sloshing through the street. Across the way, a man sits on an enormous bale of still-dry straw on the slight slope of the roof of a house, beneath a long and wide tarpaulin held in place by tent poles footed in cement blocks. The rain splashes off the tarp, onto the roof, into the gutter which empties onto the lawn; the water flows into the overflow of the street, carrying bits of grass and dirt and weeds and dead flowers’ color-sapped blooms. The camel stops, wedged in the deepening muck.
“Old Man,” Mariel says, “Go and buy the straw. Come back and build another fire.”
The Old Man, shoeless, wearing heavy white cotton pants and a heavy white cotton shirt, steps into the rain, down the three dozen steps of the path, to the sidewalk, into and across the muck-thickened street. He passes the camel, which bleats. The Old Man waves to the man on the roof. “I want to buy the straw,” he calls.
The man on the roof lifts a hand to an ear. “I can’t hear you,” he yells, and points at the tarpaulin on which beats the deafening rain.
“What?” calls the Old Man.
“I can’t hear you,” the man on the roof repeats, and points again.
The Old Man grasps a wood column, with wood pegs inserted throughout, on the porch of the house, and climbs, slowly, to the roof, hoists himself onto it. He crawls to the man sitting on the bale of straw, and stands beneath the tarp seeking the breath to speak. “I want to buy the straw,” he says when he finds it.
“It’s expensive,” the man on the roof says.
“Whatever the price,” says the Old Man, “I am to buy it.”
The man on the roof looks thoughtful. “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it.”
“Yes,” says the Old Man. “As we know it, at least.”
“I thought so,” says the man on the roof. “Then you can have it. Here.”
He tries to push the bale of straw toward the Old Man. “It’s heavy,” he says. “Help me.”
From the doorway, Mariel and Coronis watch the Old Man struggle the few feet up the incline to the bale.
In the street, the camel bellows as it struggles to escape the mud which has reached its belly. An African elephant turns the corner and lumbers past the camel, trumpeting, and waving its ponderous snout and elephantine ears. Behind it, three turkey vultures hover.
The Old Man reaches the man on the roof. Together, they tip the bale on its end and push it forward. “Careful,” says the man on the roof.
The Old Man can barely hear him through the din from the rain, and thinks he has said “Carry.” He squats and tries to lean the bale onto his back but cannot; instead, the bale tips and tumbles end-over-end down the slight slope of the roof, one edge catches the gutter and the mammoth bale hurtles into the air, through the rain and onto the camel’s back. The camel cries out. The straw bobs a moment, then floats away on the muddy stream. The turkey vultures cease their hovering, land on a branch of the huge, ancient oak in the yard below the tarpaulin-covered roof, and watch the camel collapse into the mud.
The man on the roof and the Old Man watch its throes from beneath the tarpaulin. Mariel and Coronis watch from Mariel’s doorway. The turkey buzzards watch from an oak branch.
“Oh, well,” says the man on the roof. The Old Man nods, makes his way back to the column, climbs down, crosses the lawn through the deluge, wades through the mud past the dead camel. He wipes his face and waves to Mariel, then sloshes onto the sidewalk and up the thirty-six steps to the doorway.
“Undress,” Mariel tells him. He does, hurriedly and without a word.
“Get towels,” she tells Coronis. She hurries away without a word. “Come here,” Mariel tells the Old Man. He does. She wraps both arms around him.
2. What is going to happen?
Although it is the middle of the day, Coronis can see nothing but the driving rain through the near-wall-sized picture window of the living room. She sits on Mariel’s white sofa, wearing Mariel’s white robe, facing the fireplace (in which a fire blazes) and listens to its crackle, and the calls of the three toucans in the cage in one corner, and watches the long exotic eels swim their way back and forth, back and forth, hypnotically, the length of the thirty-foot tank beside the toucans’ cage.
The Old Man also sits facing the fireplace, legs crossed, some ten feet closer to it, on a white rug. His skin is reddening with the heat, and he chants something, a song. Coronis does not understand the words, but the music is more beautiful than any she has ever heard. Beside him a placid apricot Schipperke, who is named Consuela, sleeps: Mariel has six dogs. All are small. The others congregate in her bedroom and usually leave it only for food or relief in the covered back yard.
An eel raises its narrow head from the tank, dives back in, opens its mouth, swallows a minnow and begins again to swim the length, staring at the world beyond it. What can it see? Coronis wonders.
Later in the afternoon, the rain stops. Coronis steps to a side window, draws the curtains and looks out. The same man is still on the roof of the house across the way, sitting under the tarp, eating a hero sandwich. The water has deepened on the street. The mud is thicker, but small boats work their ways through it. Slowly, with effort. She counts seven, each with someone rowing and at least one passenger. She opens the window, sticks her head outside. It’s pleasantly warm, like spring. The air smells damp but fresh. She can hear music, of a sort she doesn’t recognize, rising from one of the boats rowed by a large figure whose powerful arms are visible beneath a black slicker. Above the boat, an albatross flies, then dives, rises and flies again. It follows the boat’s path. Someone is singing with the music. She can make out only a few words:
…gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
before the boat passes out of range.
The turkey vultures are gone. So is the elephant, but there are a rhinoceros and a giraffe strolling alongside the mudstream. The giraffe stops to drink. The rhinoceros steps into the mud, lowers its head, and retreats. A puma climbs into view, clawing its way from an upper branch of the oak across the way to one a dozen feet below. It stops, still well above the ground, looks left, right, straight ahead, then lies down, disrupting a nest of Queen Alexandra Budwings. The butterflies fly into the air and to the top of the tree, where they disappear. Poof, Coronis thinks.
She looks up. High in the sky above her, a diamond shape bobs and weaves. “Oh!” she whispers in wonder. “It’s a kite,” says the Old Man, who remains cross-legged before the fire. She looks at him; his eyes are closed. “Kites are wonderful,” he says.
“Yes,” Coronis says. “I had many; many years ago.”
“When I was a boy,” says the Old Man, eyes remaining closed, “I had a paper kite with a picture of a clipper ship on it. I sailed it every day, from here to the moon. My father gave me the kite. My mother gave me the string, a new ball every day that I added until it was long enough to reach the moon. Of course I couldn’t see it, but that’s where it was going, my father told me. I could feel it pull on the string, as if it knew its destination and was eager to reach it.” The Old Man sighs. “One day the string broke. The kite sailed off. I have always wondered when it reached the moon, and whether it still sails around it.”
The rhinoceros climbs the lawn and up the steps of the house across the street. It butts its horn against the door. No one comes. The man on the roof continues to eat his hero. The rhinoceros shakes its massive head and butts again. No one comes to the door. The rhinoceros squeals. The puma looks down from its perch. The giraffe climbs to the tree and, under the puma’s wary gaze, picks leaves and eats them. The rhinoceros climbs down from the porch and walks away across the lawn, shaking its head.
Coronis realizes she is hungry. She says nothing, but the Old Man tells her, “We have plenty of food. In the kitchen,” he says, “and in the pantry. There are two ice-chests. I freeze the water every day. They are always full.”
“Thank you,” she tells him. She closes the window and goes downstairs. The toucans call after her. She says “Goodbye,” and they reply “Goodbye.” Consuela lifts her head lazily, then sets it back on her paws.
In the kitchen the finches are singing. Coronis takes a loaf of black bread from a breadbox, cuts a thick slice, and scoops a spoon of honey from the hive in the screened cupboard. Some bees fly out, to the window boxes filled with blooming marigolds and morning glories; the rest simply go about their business. Coronis breaks a few crumbs onto her palm from her slice of bread, and holds it out to Molly. Molly examines it, says “Thank you,” and carefully pecks the crumbs from Coronis’s palm. Coronis spreads the spoonful onto the bread, sits and eats it slowly. The bread is dark and richly flavored. The honey is sweet. Coronis is happy. Molly is happy. The finches are happy. The bees are happy. Only the canary is dour. It stands on the perch in its cage, looking at the wall through the bars, and refuses to sing. Between bites, Coronis sings to it:
Little bird, little yellow bird,
Bring back your song.
The rain has left us.
It is a song her mother sang to her when she was a girl, whenever it rained. Her mother called her “Canary.” Coronis sang beautifully.
The canary continues to stare at the wall.
She takes the last bite of the honeyed bread. There is a shout of thunder. The rain begins again.
What is going to happen, she wonders, at the end of the world?
Evan Guilford-Blake writes prose, poetry and plays. His work has appeared in more than 100 journals and anthologies. His prose has won 27 awards and garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. His scripts have won 46 competitions. Thirty-three are published.
His published long-form prose includes the novels Animation, The Bluebird Prince and the award-winning story collection American Blues.
Evan and his wife (and inspiration) Roxanna, a talented jewelry designer and business writer, live in the southeastern US.