They say there were one million pates under that sunset once upon a time. I imagine only once. Because I can’t imagine that impossible clot of humans happening twice.
They littered the valley with their aspirations. Plastic. Fading. Tired even in youth. I can see the echoes under the rainbow sky. Foundations poured out on the desert sands. Walls of salt and paper curling in on themselves. Scorch marks on the mountain granites and charcoal stumps along the river. And plastic in all the garish colors of a fever dream. The endless rubble of concrete and plaster, crumbling in heaps at the feet of adobe walls that were ancient before the old ones set their first footprint in the valley sun.
Some planted trees and for that I am here to remember them.
But more laid roads and built boxes for beds and towers for their kings. Ozymandias reigned over this land of dust and shattered rivers. We do not know his name. We only see his footprints in the sand. Grandiose and determined gait. One million strong, striving to squeeze life from watermelon stones. You can’t take blood from that rock. Water neither.
I don’t know why they tried. But why did any of them do anything back then? Still, this is a parody even by oily standards. There could not have been one million blind men in this valley. But you’d either be blind or insane to try to wrest a living from a desert for one million mouths. So what were they thinking? That’s what haunts me when I look out over the ruins into the sunset.
The hens would have had more sense. The churros probably laughed themselves silly at human idiocy. Maybe that’s why they have those crazy horns?
Did they look forward to me? I can’t imagine so. I don’t feel their regard piercing the gauzy decades that divide us. I don’t feel their eyes on me. Navel gazing, one and all.
No. Not all. I have the apple trees to counter that. And the complaining turbine. And this house. And my horno. No. Not all at all.
But Ozymandias was larger than those with saplings in their packs and hope for the seventh generation in their hearts. He was a million. The others were error bars on the edges of what counted.
This place. My farm. There used to be houses you could touch on all sides. I use the foundations for cisterns now. I only sometimes remember that each of these squares used to be another home, another family, another story right alongside this one. Did they like being so confined by each other? Were they maybe more sociable than I could ever be? Or did they cower in their boxes afraid of the tiny tyrants in the box a hen flight away?
We don’t know them. Those last people before the world changed again. We have books and music and stories from those who came before them. But the oily folks? They wrote in sand and electrons. They composed in wires and plastic. They told stories in flat pictures and grotesque castles. Brutal walls and tinsel hearts. None of it lasted. The glitter litters the bosque and nobody knows what it signifies now.
I wish I could reach back to them. I imagine the despair was wrenching. Because they had to know they were singing swan songs into the twilight. They had to feel the lack of my regard as I do theirs. Not for lack of trying, but I just can’t see them. Too much too much blankets the intervening years, and I don’t know what they were to be able to touch their minds now.
One million of them also. I could never see that many souls. There aren’t enough of us now that even if we each took a dozen into our hearts, we’d not see a million. And it feels like there are too many of us now for this desert to sustain. Especially when the rains are late.
Imagine what a dry July would have felt like to a million parched throats! The river could never quench that thirst. They had to have looked to the blank skies in terror. How do you tell your children that there is no water? How do you face their glazed eyes? How did they bear the weight of that gaze, knowing as they must have known that they tapped out all the wells themselves in their own frivolity? Perhaps that is why they told stories in sand. They could not bear anything more solid than melting air. They could not bear my gaze. They sealed themselves off from the judgement of their descendants.
I don’t judge them. Or I try not to anyway. Though some days I do use colorful language. I don’t know that I would have done differently had I lived with a million bodies for neighbors. Just that alone would have rendered me hopelessly irrational, I’m sure.
But maybe I would have. Maybe I would have been the error bars with apple trees in my pack. I like to think about those stories. They still wrote in sand. Though we do find a journal here and there in the crumbling walls. They tried to leave us bottled messages. They tried to tell us what they were thinking. I suppose they tried to warn us off from repeating our past, their present madness.
But that’s not a problem. We could no more follow in the footsteps of Ozymandias than sail to the moon in a tin tub with a pestle for a rudder.
Imagine those stories though. The dreamer with a trowel and the foresight of the cranes. Scared as the rest, I imagine, but resolute. She plants the future, looking deep into the soil to find my fingers reaching back toward her. I can almost touch her story. I can taste her hope in the fruit she nurtured. Crouched there in the shadow of prideful kings but glowing more fiercely than ten million suns. I know her tears watered this garden.
Did she have a child? Besides this orchard, that is. Did she have a daughter? A young mind to soak up the incantations and cantrips of wisdom such as were left to her. Did she teach her child to live on the edges and preserve what is solid? She must have done, else this tree would not be standing.
Imagine that hope! To face the blue skies and towering flames and bottomless want of one million desperate egos and plant a seed. And raise a child. And take that completely cavefish-blind leap of faith that there would be something, anything, beyond the darkness. No reason at all to expect success and yet to persevere all the same. Never mind the myths, this garden dreamer was the real hero.
And yet we don’t know her name either. It’s not written in the stars.
I like to sing to those dreamers when the stars are winking over the mountain and the glow of the sun still bathes the volcanoes across the valley. The churros think I’m mad. The hens just bury their heads and snuffle irritably. But I think the stars must send my songs back in time to those dreamers. To give them hope. To soften their fears. To show them that I am and so they must have done well in the end. These are the very same stars that gazed down on them in their extremity. These millions of lights in the skies, the only thing greater and more terrible than a million thirsty hearts, and yet gently beautiful and constant. I think the stars carry my songs back through the opaque years.
If I didn’t sing, I don’t think I’d be here. At least not with this apple tree in my garden and a dream of my own to carry forward into the night.
This is my song of hope in the setting sun. To all the dreamers that came before me.
All the words of Ozymandias may crumble. But your branches still bear fruit.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021