“A land of deepest shade
Un-pierced by human thought
The dreary regions of the dead
Where all things are forgot.”
Autumn had fallen once again on the tiny farmstead. The wood was piling up slowly in the shed, and the root cellar had a little to show for the summer’s early harvest. Onions and potatoes hung from the ceiling and the first jars of strawberry and raspberry jam and diced tomatoes were lined up on the shelves. Today was the autumnal equinox, called “Mabon” by the neopagans of the days before. By the reckoning of modern calendars it was September 21, the day that marked the midpoint between the lightest and darkest days of the year.
It felt fitting, then, that on this momentous day - this day that signified balance and stability in nature - the siblings were just finishing up another task that would keep their little life afloat through the long winter. The hay was in. They had spent the morning tying up the last bales in the field, carting them home, and tossing them up into the hayloft. They had had quite a job of finding space and balancing those last bales in the loft which was already full to brimming. But finally, sweaty and covered in tiny, itchy flakes of chaff which filtered down under their clothes and gathered in the most uncomfortable places, they climbed down the ladder and stepped back out into the late-September sunlight.
“Well, what do you think?” Asked Dinah.
“I think I’ve got work to do on the firewood now.” Sam replied.
“No but before that Sam, it’s the equinox. Lets celebrate!”
“What, it’ll be fun. We could use some fun.”
“If we did, and I'm not saying that I want to, how would we do this celebrating?”
“Ok, so here’s what I’m thinking. We cook something lavish and tasty, break out the birch beer and light up the brush pile out by the lodge. You can’t say that doesn’t sound like fun!”
“Yes I can. But fine. I like food and beer and fire. Proper caveman style. Just as long as you promise not to get out the banjo.”
“It’s a deal.”
Dinah headed toward the road to the north pasture, shouldering the shepherd’s crook she used only occasionally, and that usually being to whack at the charging billy goat. Passing the cellar hole that used to be the foundation of her childhood home, she shook her head to fight off the sickening tingle in the depths of her gut. She turned onto the grassy old dirt road and her eyes swept fleetingly over a thicket on the other side, where there hung, caught on some low branch or briar, only barely visible from here, a weather-bleached and torn bundle of cloth. She shuddered again and turned her eyes away.
The end had come suddenly - two and a half years ago, it took the form of a virus that swept across the world unchallenged, giving it’s victims at most three days to live. There was no cure. No one was around long enough to find it.
Dinah was 22 that April. Short and broadly built, she had small features and curly brown hair. Her hands were small but her palms wide; “peasant’s hands,” her father called them. He had had them too.
At the time she was living near her parents in northern New England. Her brother Sam had returned home when the sickness began, as many had done, gathering their families close and hiding out the last days. It had taken their father early on. But the rest of the family had not succumbed in the end. These had not been their last days. Some hereditary strain, they postulated, huddled in their dark house after the quiet had spread across the land. Some cruel turn of fate made them immune while all those they loved fell around them.
At the end of April no one remained in the neighborhood. May passed and no one they knew was still living. Packs of looters, half dying themselves, foraged for valuables in the houses of the dead, ransacking and burning each in turn.
It was in early June, as the trees came fully into leaf, and the flowers of the fields and the birds and humming insects proliferated that, searching through the charred wreckage that remained of her childhood home, that Dinah finally lost it.
They’d seen the tell-tale smoke on the horizon, had packed as much as they could carry and headed into the woods to wait out the impending inferno. But to Dinah’s dismay, her mother suddenly turned and ran back toward the house, calling that something - the words were muffled in the close night air - had been forgotten. Nothing in that house had been worth her death.
A far corner of the house had not been totally destroyed and in it, Dinah had come across her handbag. Now a singed satchel of useless memorabilia - a wallet containing I.D.s, credit cards, and cash, an iPod - out of battery and never to be charged again - and her cell phone. She instinctively pressed the power key, and was surprised when it turned on. She flipped through her contacts, stopping suddenly when the realization dawned on her that each of these numbers belonged to a person who would never answer again. Her head spun. She reached her mother’s number, and pressed “call.” There was no ring, and an automated voice told her the number she had tried had been disconnected.
“NO!” She yelled, “just let me talk to my mom, lady!” She felt faint, and clung to the wall as she continued to plead into the phone. “Listen, Mom, you had no right to go back into the house like that. And now the house is burned and you’re dead, and Sam is terrible company. God damn it, Mom, what were you thinking?” She said to the dial tone. At last she added, more calmly, “and I love you.”
Hastily now she dialed each contact, getting the automated woman over and over, until suddenly, a call connected. She looked at the name. It was Henry, a boy she had met years and years ago, who had worked with her the summer before and they had been good friends. He’d left in the fall for one more year of school out in Colorado. Henry... he’d had triangular eyes like that actor from “My Week With Marilyn.”
No one picked up. At last, a message machine chimed in, and she recognized his voice as he recited his number. It sounded so close, so alive. Her knees shook. “Hi, Henry, it’s Dinah.” What was there to say to this man? “Um, I’m still alive. My brother and I are trying to make it work up here in Vermont. It’s not going very well.” God, why would he care what she was doing? Surely he had problems enough of his own. All she wanted was to speak to a real live person, one who wasn’t her curmudgeonly brother. “Please pick up. Please be alive.” Tears stung her eyes and caught in her throat. “I dare you to be alive. Don’t make me face the fact that everyone I know is dead. Oh hell, you’re dead too aren’t you?” Her head whirled and she lost control of the words as they poured out of her mouth like water gushing through a leak in a dam. “You’re dead and gone and I never told you that I love you... Loved you. You and your triangle eyes. I miss you my friend. I wish you were here. Oh come on, pick up!” Dinah caught herself. She took a deep breath and gave in. Yes, he was gone. They were all gone. “Damn it. Fine. Good bye Henry.”
She hung up and looked down at the phone. It flashed the message “Battery Low,” then went dark. Slowly she placed it back in her bag. She set the bag down on the ground where she had found it, and looked at it. Then she lifted up her foot and stamped it down on top of the bag, grinding the toe of her shoe into the cloth. She could hear the cracking and crunching of the obsolete electronics within. The tears came in deluges now and she picked the bag up and flung it out toward the road. “You see that?! I don’t need you anymore!” She ran toward it and scooped it up again, heaving and flinging it off into the woods, where it disappeared in the pucker brush. “And you know what? I don’t even care! You’re a useless sack of shit!” She choked; her voice cracked and faltered. Her knees buckled then, and she remembered no more.
“A land of deepest shade