There were so many things for which I wasn't prepared the first time I entered the City.
The buildings, for one thing. How tall they are, and how big. It was different seeing them on the horizon for days than it is standing here beside them, looking upwards with an awe I can't help but respond to even though makes my neck ache. Even at their highest, I can't imagine the flood waters reaching the people on those very top stories.
I wasn't prepared for the traffic, such as it is. The remains of so many vehicles still littering the streets, some toppled and crushed, like they've been pushed aside and carelessly stomped on after an abandoned child's game of let's pretend. Others simply frozen on the road in polite, almost straight lines, pointed away from the city center, as if they're only parked, waiting for their drivers to get back behind the wheel and finish the journey.
I came from here, I remind myself. We all came from here. Those of use who are left.
I have no memories of this place.
It's possible that I shopped with my mother in one of the cavernous buildings I wander, helping her pull the food for our dinner from its now-empty shelves. It's possible that I visited my aunt in the hospital where I fill a bag half-full of what I hope might be useful supplies and medicines. That once, when I was much younger, I watched my last film in the multi-screen cinema. Maybe I saw the one on the torn poster outside, its faded image now depicting the outlined ghosts of a couple about to kiss. Or maybe I was too young for that. Maybe I squirmed through my last service at the steepled building across the way with the golden sun disk rising from its roof. Maybe I ran with my brother, laughing, through these very streets.
But I have none of those memories now. What I have now are these: a map, a compass, and the stories that my mother used to tell us.
And the silence.
Most of all, I wasn't prepared for the silence. For the only sound to be the crunch of debris beneath my feet, the echo of my own footsteps as I wander through empty streets full of the things we left behind. The evidence that humanity was here once, but no longer.
There are no people in the City now other than me. Not even the remains of people. I don't know what happened to them. The ones who didn't leave and become us, I mean. Not even my mother knows what happened after the last of us left, and I once thought she knew everything.
It didn't begin with silence, not according to my mother and the others who were here when it all started. It didn't even begin with the flood.
No, in the beginning was the Sound.
They said it started with a ringing in the ears, my mother always told us.
They said it started with a buzzing. With a noise like a siren.
They said it started with nothing at all. That one moment, you would be fine and the next, you would hear the Sound and it would be the last thing you would ever hear for the rest of your life.
Those were the rumors, at first.
I remember my mother telling us there were all sorts of theories about what caused it.
I couldn't go into the market in those days without hearing a sermon from the cashier about how the Sound was the Lord's judgment on a world full of sinners, she would say, the bagger nodding along, failing to notice the whole time he was putting the melons down on top of a carton of eggs.
The lady at the bank heard it was a government experiment gone wrong.
The nice man at the ice cream shop you liked was one of the ones who thought it was a virus. That we would all get it in the end. I let him talk gloom and doom and infection the whole time he was serving my kids sundaes with sprinkles and never thought twice about it.
It was all rumors. All harmless enough back then.
Besides which, there were other things to worry about. That was the year your father was away. The year I got promoted. Back then, I had you kids to raise and so much work to do.
And then there was the rain.
All my mother's stories have rain. Or the aftermath of rain.
Do you remember the little boy you used to play with in the park? she would ask me.
Back when we lived in the City, in the little white house at the end of the street? I don't remember his name, but his mom had the red hair and the ukulele? She was a Moon Goddess follower, but back then religious differences weren't quite the big deal they would be before the end.
Whenever she told me this story, I would get, not real memories, but flashes sometimes of a smiling boy with curly hair. Of a tall woman with a silver pendant around her neck that I knew somehow as a good Sun Lord worshipper I wasn't supposed to ask about.
But a small child's almost-memories always seemed too complicated to explain, so I always shook my head.
I don't remember her name, my mother would usually repeat.
I don't remember if I even knew it, even though she must have introduced herself. We weren't friends, exactly. We were just two people who met in the park and talked while our kids would play.
Anyway, she was the first one to tell me about the people who heard the Sound and left the City. All the ones who would get in their cars and just drive. Or walk, if that was all they could do. All of them heading in the same direction, though they couldn't tell you why. They couldn't even really hear you ask.
The government let them go back then. That was before the quarantines. Before the barricades and the army and everything they showed on the news.
That was before any of it was on the news, really. Officially, the Sound was just a rumor then, though at that point, most of us already knew somebody who was hearing it. At the very least, we'd seen them on the street. People who wouldn't talk to you. Who you had to study carefully to realize they seemed to be hearing something other than what was going on around them.
And then there were the others. The loud ones, for whom the Sound was a curse. The people falling to their knees, hands over their ears, crying, begging it to stop.
The red-haired other mom said that to some people the Sound was beautiful. They heard it as music. As a message. I always wondered how she could possibly know.
I remember the last time I saw her alive. It was muddy that afternoon, overcast and cold, but it was our first real break in the weather in days and you kids needed to get out of the house so badly.
I remember watching you and your brother running around, feet squelching in the saturated earth, when she told me she thought the Sound was a message from up there.
At first, I thought she meant to give me a sermon. But, no. It turned out by 'up there' she meant aliens.
She wasn't kidding, either, as absurd as it must have sounded back then. She was sure the Sound came, not from the Moon or the Sun or any human experiment, but from beings from another planet giving all us a set of directions. A way forward. A path to a better life for those who would listen and follow. The aliens didn't quite understand us, though, so it wasn't their fault some people couldn't hear the messages and others heard it only as an unbearable noise.
My mother always paused then and shook her head.
I think I might have laughed.
I remember when I stopped watching the noise…I mean the news, my mother began this story once. I didn't interrupt her to point out the slip.
I remember the three of us were sitting at the table having breakfast, she continued, and your brother asked me what a fornicator was.
I nearly spit out my coffee. I asked him where he had heard a word like that and he pointed to the television and told me the High Priest of the Sun. We'd been worshipping the Lord of the Sun our whole lives, of course—most people in the City did back then—but we'd never taken to the holy fire and damnation style of religion. Our local sun priest preached about love and tolerance and more than occasionally, charity and the importance of each of us giving a just little more than we thought we could spare each time they passed the collection plate.
Your father had some holy fire folks on his side of the family, but we never held with our faith getting mixed up with that stuff. Or with the government.
But sure enough, that morning there was High Priest on the news, addressing the City Council for some reason. And he was using those words. Blaming everyone he could think of for the Sound: blasphemers, fornicators, adulterers, criminals, the worshipers of false gods and—I remember here he made a face like he could barely brings himself to say the words—false goddesses.
All those folks were the reason the Lord was mostly hiding his face behind a cloud of rain these days and couldn't help us, too.
And he said worse things.
It was a time when we needed a spiritual leader who could provide a voice of hope. Of calm, peace, and love. Instead, we got…what we got.
"Mom, what's a fornicator?" your brother asked me around a mouthful of jam. His little face was twisted in so much concern. "Am I one? Am I going to hear the Sound?"
This was the part where my brother would usually interrupt the telling with an embarrassed, "Mooom!" Especially the time she told this story in front of his new boyfriend.
I turned off the news, she would continue.
I assured him that no, of course he wasn't any such thing. He wanted to know if he was going to start hearing the Sound because of the time he and I accidentally shoplifted that candy bar in the market. He wanted to know if he was going to start hearing it because you two played with little moon goddess worshippers in the park and at school. If he should stop being friends with those kids.
And I wondered for a second if maybe he should. If it would be safer.
We had a long talk then and I went to sleep that night wondering what the world was coming to.
And I cried, just a little. Not just because of that, but because it had been so long since we'd heard from your father by then. Because work was so short-staffed with all the people calling out sick or just not showing up. Because I'd pulled so much overtime, and was so tired.
And because it wouldn't stop raining.
Anyway, that was when I decided to turn off the news and keep it off, she'd tell us. At least, until my sister got sick.
I couldn't help seeing it then. It was on every television in the hospital.
You see her every time you look in the mirror, my mother would tell me when I asked about my aunt. Though I don't remember ever meeting a grown-up with a face that looked like mine. You're just like her in a lot of other ways, too.
I took from that the idea that my aunt was, just like me, someone who also bothered people by asking too many questions. Someone who couldn't sit still for very long. A wanderer. An explorer. Someone who had to know things. At least, she was until the day she started hearing the Sound and they strapped her to a bed for pretty much the rest of her life.
They'd thought they were helping.
People would tell me the powers that be were doing everything they could to find a cure, my mother would say.
Or that there'd be a miracle. That somebody's cousin's sister somewhere had been blessed by the Lord or the Lady or some other deity or helpful force and didn't hear the Sound at all anymore, and wasn't that just wonderful?
I'd say nothing much to any of them. Just nod and sit there by my sister's bed. I stayed there for days, holding her hand, brushing her hair, trying to calm her when she cried.
Your grandmother flew in to help out, so sometimes we were there together, if one of us wasn't at home watching you. We didn't talk to each other much, even toward the end. We'd just sit by her bed watching the news.
By that point, things were getting bad.
I saw footage of the some of the riots. The fires. Of what happened at the bridge.
We saw a riot in person once, too, in the streets below the hospital. Or at least that's what they called it later. Not one of the Sun vs. Moon ones. Not one of the big Council ones, either. In fact, I think all the people in it were mostly on the same side.
From our windows, it just looked and sounded like a lot a bunch of ordinary folks holding signs and shouting at each other. And then I guess, somebody threw something. I don't know.
We think about fights like that as love vs. hate, but maybe sometimes they're about love vs. love, too.
Back then, some people believed really hard the best way to love those who heard the Sound was to help them, restrain them, keep them from leaving and try to heal them, whether or not that's what they seemed to want. Other people believed the best way to love them was to let them be, even if they cried and screamed and begged for somebody to make it stop. They believed the best form of love was to assume all those who heard the Sound just needed to let themselves hear. To let those leaving the City go wherever they thought they had to go whether it was for good or ill, toward their eventual salvation or their own doom.
I don't think most of us wanted anybody else to hurt.
We just knew so little back then.
My mother's stories always skipped over the worst the parts. I only heard about most of the end stuff from other people: the curfews, the rationing, the quarantines, the laws against practicing any religion but one. So many things in flames.
All the ways people tried to save themselves from forces they didn't understand and only succeeded in becoming a danger to each other.
What the endless rain would have meant to people who hadn't seen the face of their Lord in days. How it must have made them feel.
Even for those who didn't hear the Sound, the floods kept coming.
My mother's stories always stopped while my aunt was still alive. They barely included my father.
They never went on to say what happened to my grandmother. Not really. Just that the Sound got her in the end, too. Or not so much the Sound itself—though she must have been hearing it; it was the only explanation—but a neighbor who saw her out of bed and walking through the streets in the middle of the night after curfew.
Sometimes, even good people do bad things.
I was out in the yard when I first heard it.
This is where my mother's stories resume, with the story she always told the most. Not what came before or what came after. Not the story of how we were some of the last to make it to safety, but we did. How we survived and made a home and how my brother and I grew older.
No, her stories always began and ended with the Sound. This is the version I remember best:
You and your brother were playing. The floods hadn't reached us yet, but there was a storm coming. There was a siren and a voice over a loudspeaker and the wind was so loud I couldn't hear if it was telling us to shelter in place or to evacuate. I was straining to understand the words.
And then there was nothing.
Not the voices of my children, not the orders from above. Not even the wind.
Nothing but the most blessed, wonderful silence.
Then there was the Sound.
There's no way I can describe the Sound, I'm sorry. You have to hear it for yourself. It's music. It's the voice of my mother singing. The laughter of my babies. The rhythm of my own heartbeat in synch with another's as I lie next to someone I love.
And it's filled with love. So much love and so much sympathy.
It was telling me to go.
It was telling me the way.
South by southwest.
So I took you both and I ran.
I don't remember any of this.
I was too young. I don't remember how she got us out the City, traveling at night, south by southwest. Out of the world we knew, until we got to where we were going. Until we were safe. I don't remember what we went through—what she endured on our behalf—to get us there.
I still don't quite understand how the Sound changed her. And what changed in her again the day she stopped hearing it. We were safe then, but the loss was in many ways too much.
She told me once that if I understood, I would never even think about doing what I'm doing right now. Maybe she's right. Maybe if I had any memories of this place, I wouldn't be here wondering what happened to it.
Maybe if I ever heard the Sound, it would have told me to stop. To just be grateful some of us are safe out there.
But I've never heard the Sound. It's never come to bless, torment, or guide me. Or answer any of my questions about what happened to the world I came from and the rest of its people.
And so I'm back.
What I have now are these: a map, a compass, the stories that my mother used to tell us, the silence, and no more answers than I had before.
What comes to me next might be a memory, or a story, or a memory of a story. It's a little boy with curly hair singing as his mother strums along on the ukulele. A song about the sun going down so the moon can show her face. The moon resting so the sun can rise. Things going in circles.
In the old days, some of the people who lived here probably called it blasphemy.
I turn my back on the direction I came from and walk down the road. Ahead of me, I think, is a particular street. One just past a park, with a little white house at the end of it. I accidentally kick up a piece of debris and send it careening toward one of the broken cars. The noise it makes when it strikes metal echoes through the empty City and I wonder if it sounds like thunder.
It's getting dark.
I keep walking.
And as I walk, I sing to myself, wondering how much longer I can stand the silence.