Sunday, April 4, 2021

A Short Story: Imperium Sine Fine

    Imperium Sine Fine is an extract from a larger work that I began in March of last year. This particular piece seemed to stand well on its own though references are made throughout to the larger work. However, it is a work still in progress and, as so happens with any creative endeavour, the final product, including this piece, may be entirely different when all is said and done.

    Many other titles may be appropriate: "In the Aftermath of the Birth of That Which Came Slouching Towards Bethlehem", "Out With the Old, In With the New", or "The Best of All Possible Futures". In any case, it is a mythology for a time which has yet to occur but seems inevitable and unavoidable. But as we say, "All things must pass." Let me repeat that: ALL things must pass. 

Special thanks to MD for feedback and editing.

See you around!   


Imperium Sine Fine

(by Daniel Hagen)


 

    You stagger up the mountainside, tenderly clutching the newborn child in your arms. In the sepulchral sky above you, there is a crack, through which the soft glow of sunlight crowns the mountaintop. You have no hope for yourself any longer and are beyond fear; you have lost everything except for this one purpose: Keep the child alive.

    Looking back on the desolation below and all around you, you realize that whatever hope exists for the child is as weak, fragile, and vulnerable as the child itself. Looking upon the infant, you see clearly now that it is human but also not; it is something new, unique in the universe. You may have failed in your stewardship of the earth, but you would gladly die not to fail this child. It is all you have left.

    You reach the summit and as behind you, so before you; the world is nothing but ash and dust. The skeletal remains of the Great Tree are limned with the faintest glow of the sun. The sun still lives, but the tree is dead.

     The child, who has been strangely quiet ever since you first lifted its tiny frame into your hands, gurgles as if to speak to you and raises a tiny hand towards your dust-covered chin. It smiles and looks into your eyes as if to say, “All is not lost.”

    The babe has grown since you first chose to take responsibility for it, nurtured—somehow—by your will to keep it alive. In your arms, it turns its head and, with its other hand, seems to gesture towards the base of the tree.

     The hole in the sky above you widens, and the mountaintop is bathed in the sun’s golden light. You think of all the time and energy spent—Wasted!—in pursuit of riches and glory; such a vast empire of beauty and wonder was gifted to you as your birthright, and you laid it to waste.

     Your heart is filled to bursting with sorrow, and in your grief, you fall to your knees and weep bitterly as you cling to the child. It has grown further, no longer held aloft in your arms but now standing—a bit wobbly perhaps, but standing nonetheless—as it puts its arms around your neck to comfort you. It kisses your cheek, paying no mind to the tracks of your tears streaking your grime-covered face, and babbles again as if to say, “All is not lost.” Turning towards the tree, the child draws your attention to where your tears have left a small, ashy puddle at its base. Taking your hand in its own, it points down and says, “Look!” 

     A great gust blows across the mountaintop, a cloud of ash lifting up and away into the grey and lifeless distance. As you watch this cloud recede from your sight, it appears as a swarm of locusts or a murmuration of starlings—somehow alive—swooping and swirling, twisting and turning, dancing…

    Again, the child calls to you and tugs gently on your hand. It continues to point down to where the pool of your tears encroaches upon the base of the tree. The faintest flash of color, neither grey nor gold, catches your eye.

    The tiniest green shoot, as weak, fragile, and vulnerable as the child when you first found it, has somehow grasped on to life. Somehow, a seed has taken root in the dust and ash you had made of the world. It seems more wondrous to you now than you could have ever imagined; you had taken such things for granted for so long that you forgot how even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant sign of life was truly an incomprehensible miracle. You have seen reflected in the universe—in all its vast, frightening emptiness—just how small and seemingly insignificant, and yet miraculous, you yourself are, just as you saw reflected in all its cosmic violence how the violence you inflicted upon yourself may simply have been a penance, necessary for you to accept the burden you carry now, complete in the fullness of love for both yourself and the universe of which you are a part. Yes, you have seen the universe in all its wonder too, and the mystery of whatever else—or whoever else—may yet wait for you out there remains.

     Well, not for you.

     But for the child…

     Perhaps.

    For now, the miracle of the still living or reborn tree is all the mystery you need. How it should have come to survive in this wasteland, you cannot imagine. And, as with the child, you would gladly die never knowing the answer to that particular question as long as you can keep it alive.

     The child burbles again, beaming up at you, as if to say, “See, I told you so.”

    You hug the child tightly to your bosom, whispering gentle words of gratitude in its ear, and then kiss the crown of its head. You would not be here to witness the possibility of being reborn if not for this child, nor would you have been prepared to do what you must do next.

     Taking the child’s hands in your own, you look intently into its eyes and say, “It’s time to sleep now, child.”

     It casts its gaze downward, a sad expression on its face for the first time you can remember since you found it wailing in the burnt-out rubble of your ruined dwelling, half buried in debris, poking miraculously out of the ground much like the little green sprout before you. The hole in the rock face had caved in but not before birthing this inexplicable life form—somehow human but somehow not, somehow new and yet somehow the sum of everything you were through the ages, back unto the primordial chaos from whence you came. The child nods in reluctant understanding and kisses you once more upon the forehead before stepping back, waiting patiently but expectantly.

    With what little you have at hand to work with, you build a small, low shelter of charred rocks and blackened branches on the other side of the remains of the once Great Tree. It looks as much like a cairn as it does a cradle.

    You take the simple cloak that you had wrapped around your shoulders upon leaving your shattered home and beckon the child towards you. You begin to swaddle the child in the torn and sooty garment as tightly as you possibly can. “I love you,” the child tells you in its loose pronunciation and soft, mellifluous voice. As you wrap the last of the cloak around the child’s head, leaving only its face visible, you look into its eyes and reply, “I love you, too.” You want the child to know that you mean it, though it does not matter if the child knows it or not, because you know you do.

    You hug the child again as you lift its enshrouded form off the ground and then place it gently within the humble shelter you have built for it. With the child safely ensconced in its second womb, its temporary tomb, you weep once again—a mixture of elation and mourning—knowing you will never see the child again, never live to see what it may become or what it may yet accomplish.

    A quake and low rumble greet your tears as they are drawn downward and absorbed into the earth’s ashy bed. The shoot begins to grow again but stops as soon as the quaking does.

     You have no more tears.

     The well has run dry.

     There are no more joys, no more sorrows, left in this world to move you.

     You have only one thing left to give.

 

   There, on the mountaintop—a golden crown sitting upon a sea of desolation—you fashion a crude blade from the same charred rock and blackened branches you used to build the child’s crèche. There are no more animals to sacrifice—no more sons or daughters to offer up. There is no one left to take your place, no one left to atone for your sins. Either you die or the child dies, and if the child dies, you will truly be forsaken. The child must live, and in order for the child to live, the new tree must be born, and for the new tree to be born, you must die.

      And so…

    Gripping your primitive blade, you press its roughhewn tip into your forearm, grunting and gasping at the pain as you do so, until the tip tears through skin and muscle and your blood begins to gush forth, a choked ejaculation of agony forced up from deep inside you and out of your gaping mouth.

     Gasping for air, that tender thread which keeps you tethered to the earth, you sputter:

        “Drink. This is my blood.”

        You swoon slightly and drop down to your knees as you hold out your forearm to the base of the dead tree, where its gnarled roots cradle the shoot. Again, the earth quakes and groans. Pieces of the dead tree crumble down around you, sending up puffs of ash as they hit the ground. You are reminded of the powder you found in the mortar on the workbench, how the powder was thrown up into the air when you cast the mortar disdainfully back down again. The memory reminds you again that you had forsaken your duty, turned your back on the natural law, and are now paying the price.

       The shoot continues to grow, becoming a slender sapling as a rain of carbonized boughs fall and shatter around it. With a mighty crack, the trunk of the tree splits open, and as another gale roars across the face of the earth, a cry—not of anguish but of release—pours forth from the heart of the once Great Tree.

        The child, larger now, sleeps undisturbed.

        Pale and faint, you wrench the blade from your forearm, crying out as you do. A fountain of blood, thrust up by the blade’s removal, splatters across your face and body; the chain that shackles your mind to your earthly vessel has been severed.

        But you are not yet done.

       The tree, blasted once more by the hot winds of the barren planet, cries out again, this time in consolation for the earth it leaves behind. The interior of the trunk crumbles away, leaving a gap in its cracked frame just large enough for you to crawl into. 

    Cradled within the dead tree, you take up the blade once more and proceed to carve off pieces of your flesh from your other arm, your legs, your stomach, your breast. You offer these pieces up to the earth, your hand—increasingly tremulous in its effort to hold both blade and bits of flesh—emerging from the now blood-soaked fissure of the tree. 

     In a hoarse whisper, audible to no one but yourself in the confines of your sanguinary space, you croak:

       “Eat. This is my body.”

      You barely notice the earth heaving around you, all sound growing dim to your ears. You feel like a baby being rocked to sleep. You barely notice as your head lolls backwards, the carapace of the tree falling away, and your eyes are cast upwards towards the golden sky above you.

       You wonder, Is that a patch of blue?

     You do not notice as your body is raised up into the sky, higher and higher.

       Yes, I believe it is.

     You do not notice as your vision distorts, bending and blurring around that single point in the sky above, kaleidoscopes, and fades to black.

       You do not notice that you are smiling.

       You do not notice that you do not notice.

       It is done.

 

*                *                *

 

      When the child awakens, it is no longer a “child” but nearly fully grown, having emerged from its cocoon into a world renewed but still raw. Though new to this world, the child knows that in a way, it is as old as the earth itself, formed of the ash and dust not only of the earth but of the sun, the moon, the stars, the entire universe—flesh, bone, and billion-year-old carbon.

     The child looks up into the re-arisen tree, scanning its leaves and branches and getting to know its mother and father, entwined together as they are now, at one.

       The child looks across the still scarred hills, valleys, and plains. The sky is blue this way, but rainclouds are rolling in from the other direction. Soon, the rivers will flow again, and the lakes will once more be teeming with water and life.

    Like a gathering of the elements or the forces that form and hold together the universe, the child focuses and collects all the parts of itself—each in its own place, each in its own time—and sets off down the mountainside in search of mystery.