The old city had been tough place to live in. There was no electricity. No roads. No drainage system. There was no food except for what the poor fishermen could get from the salty seas and the eventual canned delicacy from distant lands: peas, apricots, corn grains. There was no sweet water, it all had to be carried from the stingy wells. A man made it his business to distribute water bottles every morning –like the milkman of yore. He carried around a wheelbarrow and knocked on each house exchanging empty bottles with newly filled ones daily and obtaining a gratuity in exchange.
The concept of floors was foreign. Isn’t the floor of the desert, the sand, a floor? It is, and so it was. Life was precarious and precious. Modern medicine did not even have a word to name it, let alone a presence. Only a few decades ago people died of the simplest diseases and injuries. Nature never came to aid. The plants that were used to tie life back to diseased bodies elsewhere never grew here. They fought off disease with prayers, chants, and incense. Sometimes they worked but possibly not enough since medical advances were received with open arms.
Schools were just as unfamiliar. The alphabet. Mathematics. The geography of the world. Their own place on a map. Where are we? They had naturally asked before. We are inside the desert and inside the sea. Which are their names? The ones that we give them of course. Their limbs and fingers grew, like roots, upon this land in which they were appointed to live in. They tangled in complex knots, intertwined so tightly that their personal barriers blurred. Is this my cousin or my brother? Who does this hand belong to? Is it mine, or my grandmother’s? Did papa die? Or is he still alive in the pieces that he left knitted in between all of us?
A fateful day a small helix plane flew over the remote land appendix and with it came the world and its words and things for everything. You. Us. The Others. Here. There. Far away. Electricity. Water plants. Fresh fruit. Fresh meat. Schools teaching them what they needed to learn (what they needed to become). Stone floors. Stone roofs. Stone walls. Antibiotics and syringes. Wealth. Power. Mine and yours.
A hole in the ground of their homeland had revealed the breath of the God of Money, in exchange they received a huge cheque in foreign currency. Then the avalanche. Axes of greed cut the network of resilient desert roots. Sons lost their fathers, they forgot their faces. They were their own faces. Mothers lost their children. Who are these women? They are your mothers. I have no mother. I have no past. Where are my roots? The ax was wielded at first by foreign hands yes, then quickly young locals seized it and used it with prowess. They cut. My roots. I am ashamed of my roots. They thrust harder against the roots. What is this shameful mess of weeds? They cried. I am not my father or his father before him. I am my own name. My new name is Power.
The life that had been, ended with violent blows of cutting steel.
The beginning of new life came to be. After the light, unknown faces appeared. Faces from across the world, all of them, new and foreign. After the sound, came unknown words. Unknown languages. Then gods. Prophets and spirits. Then unknown life for everyone. Fear. Walls. Sharps spikes around enclosures.
This is a desert. A lifeless desert. Not the metaphorical one of spiritual quest and triumph. Not the one with the big wide-open deep blue eye of the sky staring down and searching our souls. It is not like the desert of exile where you meet the sage, find your path, learn that life is relentless and that flowers bloom even in the harshest of conditions. No. This desert is lifeless. Soulless. Polluted with smoke and noise. There are no sages here, only us –and we are certainly not imbedded with desertly wisdom.
The big eye in the sky cannot search our souls, its vision is clouded by the constant dust and smoke that floats above our heads. The wind, that has blown into people’s ears whispering truths and answers is overpowered by the loud eternal hum of the massive machines that need to be working at all times in order to preserve life in these conditions. Sand blows into our eyes and blinds us. Into our lungs and suffocates us.
A writer once said that crickets chirr relentlessly to stop the screams of the souls in Purgatory from being heard on Earth. If they ever stopped their song we would be able to listen to the tormented souls and live in fear.
We’re in Purgatory now.
Building machines keep us from hearing our own screams. We will never hear us. No one will.
In Purgatory the punishment is fire. Like the air outside today.
Will we cleanse ourselves in this transitory state? I doubt that. This is the upside-down Purgatory, where the dust settles in between the fibers of our flesh. It will only lose its grip on us when we loosen our grip on our greed. That, or when we get kicked out. What happens after? Not heaven, no. We’ll have to cleanse the dust. We’ll have to wash our skin, and our eyes, and our insides with sweet water. And we’ll have to pay for it.
My view of purgatory is this. Outside my window, the desert stretches flat. The heat and the dust blur the line of the horizon so I can’t tell exactly where the sky and the earth meet. A large group of finished and unfinished buildings stands in front of me. All are already painted the same color as the sand that stretches behind them towards the horizon. Next to almost each one, a tall tower crane stands guard. They look like giant robot spiders moving around all day, building a city on their own with their lanky legs and their lethargic motions.
This view always reminds me of the invasion scenes illustrations in a ‘War of the Worlds’ CD my father owned that frightened me as a child but that I couldn’t stop looking at. In it, the alien invaders walked tall, like tower cranes, on top of thin and long metal legs. Their entire body was commanded by their very small heads, which had shiny green eyes –like the glass of the cabin windows on the same cranes. The landscape in the background looks frighteningly similar to the one outside my window today. The giants walked high above the half-destroyed city as they fired red beams on the humans below their feet.
Inside the small cabins of each tower crane, there’s a tiny human operating its movements. Inside each tiny human there’s the need for food, which is acquired with money, which is acquired by operating the tower crane. The tower cranes’ raison d’être is to build cities. They need those tiny humans and their hunger to move around and do what they were meant to do. The tool and the crafter change roles. The world flips over. The hunter’s intellect becomes a double-edged sword.
The city that stands in the desert ends and gives way to more desert. The drive through the countryside is not much of a view. There are a few scattered desert shrubs here and there. Then there are the country houses, the palaces, the massive properties, like the oases from old stories.
Far away a thin line of dark blue insinuates the ocean breaking from the horizon into the sky. We drive around surrounded by a group of medium-sized plateaus. Some isolated like islands. Some stretching out small bits, like hands, trying to touch their neighbors. At any particular point, we stop and get out of the car. The wind, channeled between the rock formations blows strong into our faces. The sun, as always, shining brightly over the sand and over us –the only life around here, or at least the only one in sight.
Millions of years ago the sea used to be here, above our heads. These rocks lived below the water, and it was the water that carved them and the spaces between them. The sea retreated, the earth rose up. The wind kept sculpting their edges, sharpening them with the patience that only the weather can have. The flat surfaces end abruptly and reveal below them layers of rocks and sand. We approach and extend out our hands, almost caressing the mountain. It’s just sand that crumbles at our touch. So we walk around them a bit. We find a landslide, a place where the rocks are not so steep. So we go up. Up, up unto the top of the plateau. The sand below my shoes slides down with every step I take and drags me down with it. So I climb with my hands too and try to grab on to something but the sand gives way only to more and more sand. So I run. And I find a few prickly shrubs and I pull myself up and finally find firm stones. I hold tight to them. They’re carved. They’re imprinted by the life that once was. They’re ancient corals.
The top reveals the sea, closer than we had thought. It is blurred out by the heat waves rising up from the desert. The wind keeps blowing in more silence. The ground below us is no longer sand, but white stones of all shapes and sizes. I walk around a bit. Approach the edge and cautiously look down. Desert and sand. I turn around. Desert and sand. I look sideways. Desert and sand. I walk a bit more moving around the stones with my shoes and kicking some to the sides. They give out a beautiful sound, as if they were hollow. They sound like water. Of course they do. They speak the language of the place that made them.
Collapses don’t happen overnight. Much like creation, they take their time. They begin with whispered insinuations –like the small primal spark of light. With destruction, the opposite happens: minuscule flickering black holes begin to swallow existence. At first, they vanish before you even realize they were there, like something happening at the corner of your eye. They follow the scintillating patterns of strobe lights, but in darkness. They take things, first, the ones that aren’t missed. Like the childhood toys we have forgotten all about and don’t recognize even when we see our past image in a photograph, smiling a toothless smile back at us holding an inflatable rubber mouse.
The Nothing they bring begins to get comfortable in its invisibility. It appears for longer intervals. It takes away whatever is on the outskirts. Lint at the back of our drawers, bad drunken jokes told late at a party, the woman that was waiting at the bus stop. The small vacuuming holes suck the life from Life, like leeches, without us ever noticing.
There is a sense of uneasiness, it’s true. But it’s never enough. We scratch it and distract ourselves with something else. Get used to the itch. Buy and ointment. We fail to see the itch is stage four melanoma and our ointment won’t do anything not help us.
The permafrost melted and awoke ancient monsters –viruses unaware of the passing of time and the frailty of our species. They joined our time on Earth and shared in our voracity. Our beloved microscopic soldiers curing all infection got overpowered and death rates began looking again like those from centuries ago.
Medicine was overtaken by incurable diseases spawning from the same system supporting the medical one. Chemicals causing cancer, also causing the development of new drugs, to cure or to runaway, to solve the problems they had created in the first place. Chemicals making us crave, sugar or donuts or unhappiness. Us, making Us obese and sedentary and beyond salvation, because no medicine can cure the will to remain.
Humans got together, they touched and rubbed their arms in public transportation. They saw eyes staring back at them in all colors: black, brown, blue, green, hazel and grey. They approached cautiously, sniffling the perimeter. Then comfortably finding that a brown hand fits perfectly inside a white one. The same goes for genitals and the life that they bring. Healthy humans were born, in new colors and shapes. And they realized they fit just fine inside the arms and loving thoughts of others.
Except when they didn’t. And walls were not there for protection. The liberal discourse of equality and tolerance had rendered them all naked and ashamed, their intimacies bared for all to see. There was nothing left to do but resort to violence, raw human violence. Everyone became a bully. The dream of New World society of inclusion and the rediscovering of the Garden of Eden vanished. Everyone despised one another beginning by oneself, and violence took on its very different forms.
Collapses don’t happen overnight. The unimportants got swallowed at first. Their unimportance and their abundance made it unfathomable for the rest. They thought the Collapse was a matter of faith, not of facts. The poverty line extended and lowered and right before it hit the ground –right before starvation– it got propelled up by the countless numbers of people falling below it, surviving the unsurvivable.
The Collapse happened. Slowly. Then unhurriedly picking up speed. Markets crashed. What had they been anyway? Everyone owed money, or what we are now calling money, everyone had to somehow change some numbers on a screen into a different set of numbers on that same screen by means of their work. That would solve everything. The stress. The anxiety. The debts. The swarming debts that plagued rich and poor without distinction. If only, but if only I could buy that pair of shoes, that car, afford that vacation. If only my children could get an education. If only I could afford my health. If only I could stop switching these numbers on the screen into lower values… Wealth became elusive for most, and overwhelming for very few, but in all cases destructive.
The hoarding system of capital and goods widened its social differences. We saw the subordinates climbing up towards us at first and then. No. We were descending towards them. We looked up and the people above us, on a pedestal, began to fall as the pedestal shrunk away. The ones on top engaged in a fearsome bloody fight to remain there, biting and ripping apart with teeth and nails the ears and eyes of their former companions. Throwing them over the edge towards the multitudes below.
Attempts were made. Well-intentioned heartwarming attempts. Some spare change was given to starving children. Some starving children were saved only to starve as adults, or get raped and beaten and murdered. Worldwide campaigns were organized to help the others. They gave away used clothes and made tear-jerking documentaries.
The Collapse kept happening anyway. It was like trying to cure a hemorrhaging femoral vein with a plaster, while simultaneously drawing out blood from the same body with a carefully sterilized needle.
The well-intentioned hearts broke a little, but then turned to their smiling children playing safely with their electronics on a clean warm carpet, framed by a window overlooking the woods. The kettle boiling. Mangoes during winter. We have everything we need, be thankful, be aware, meditate on a recycled-natural-tree-rubber-overpriced mat, accept and embrace yourself, build walls to the keep the ugly out. Stay pretty.
The problem was never the system, they say. We accept. We act upon.
The problem is letting it affect you, they say. We accept. We act upon.
The main pillar is wealth. Not the kind that can be eaten, lived in, worn on our shoulders or used as medicament. The main pillar is that which sets us apart and above from the rest. The expensive clothes as symbol of our importance. The sunglasses, the designer wallet, the expensive toys.
It was the lucky and adventurous that escaped the Collapse. Across the ocean fountains of wealth rained upon the land. Then the exodus of greed started. But they are barbarians. There is no life there. They told me. Yes, but they have so much money. I said. There is nothing not worth sacrificing for it. But the landfills, and the fumes, and the construction debris. It spreads around the world. It will add to the Collapse. It will, most surely. But not for me, or my children. We will have higher blinking numbers on a screen. The jungles will become the wastelands. Their life will be sucked out.
The desert is the future of the human species in so many ways. We are getting ahead of the race, we are pre-adapting for the time your beloved forests become dead and barren. You will starve and right before your last breath, you will see us marching upon your land. We will have haute couture dresses and ten-carat diamond rings. We will have learned to survive on a diet of sand. And then, even then, you will envy my possessions.
Gabriela Gerard is an anthropologist and aspiring writer. She grew up between volcanoes in Central Mexico and her half-Mexican and half-french heritage, which is why she answers to m’hija and mon bijoux equally. Diversity and cultures fascinate her.
She became a mother of two daughters at almost the same time as she moved halfway across the world. She has a room with a view of the Persian Gulf, where she spends the day wondering about this mystifying Earth and its whimsical hominin inhabitants. Find her online here.