01 Feb The world was dust
It happened abruptly. We woke and the world was dust. I heard it on the window and I thought it was sleet but no, this was summer, and for a moment I felt lost inside our bedroom, lying there beside her and wondering why sleet was striking the window. She stirred when I rose. I always got up before her and by the time she was awake, I would have coffee ready. This time I went to the window and drew back the curtain and stood there, staring, until she realized something was amiss and came to join me.
She stared over my shoulder and looked outside at what was once our world. The dust came from the sky like rain, gritty sand rattling against the panes of glass, accumulating like snow on the branches of the barren trees and covering the grass with a thin sheet of tawny brown that shifted and flowed like bracken water. Somewhere in the distance would be our neighbors, but the dust fell in thick sheets, like curtains that blocked out our house from the world around it.
I let the drapes fall. We said nothing. I went to the kitchen to make coffee and she went to the living room. I heard the couch creak as she settled onto it and then the low hum of static as she turned on the TV.
“Anything?” I asked. I went to the kitchen window and drew those curtains as well, so I didn’t have to see outside.
“Nothing,” she replied. “No internet or mobile signal either.”
She left the TV on, staring mutely at the static until I brought her a mug of coffee. I sat next to her and we drank it in silence, watching the TV screen out of helpless habit.
“I think something is wrong,” I finally said.
She laughed. Of course something was wrong. And here we were, helpless to do anything about it.
After breakfast I said I’d try to reach the neighbors. She blinked at me, thoughtfully, and I knew what she was thinking. Gauging if it should really be me that went. Thinking through which of us was stronger – and not necessarily physical strength – but mental. Persistent, willing to fight through the teeth of the driving sand. Finally, she nodded, agreeing with my assessment. I’d wear a rope around my waist, she suggested, so that I could find my way back if I needed to. We’d shut the other end in the door. I wouldn’t be able to go far, but perhaps I could get to the end of the drive. The houses are set far back into the woods and had long, winding driveways leading up to them. I could see the others in our neighborhood from the road, at least. Perhaps I could see if there was light in their windows. We’d decide what to do from there.
I dressed in jeans and long sleeves and tied a scarf around my nose and mouth. I put on safety goggles from the garage to protect my eyes. Gloves over my hands. She fastened a rope around my waist and kissed me on the thin patch of cheek that was left exposed.
Then I opened the door. It lunged at me, thrown forwards by the wind, and I let it go in shock. It slammed against the wall, bounced, and then my wife was at my back, shoving me forwards and I think she yelled something but the wind swept up her words and carried them away to keep for itself.
I like to think she said, ‘I love you.’ We didn’t say that much more after the world turned to dust.
I stumbled out into the sand that was already encroaching into our house and then she slammed the door shut behind me. I paused only to check that the other end of the rope was fixed firmly in the doorframe and then I ducked my head and began walking into the wind. It clawed at my clothing, searching for exposed skin, and it stung where it hit my cheeks.
Down the long, winding driveway, through the dust that clawed at me like a beast. It pushed me here and there and I stumbled in the drifts that rippled and reformed, like the world was remaking itself with every step I took. I could not see more than a handful of feet ahead of me and the house was quickly swallowed up in the dust. I only knew I was still on the driveway because the wind wiped it clear for a brief second, exposing the asphalt, before covering it up once more in a ceaseless cycle of destruction and creation.
Then, the driveway ended. It dipped into a concrete gutter, filled with dust like a dam, and then spread outward in waves like the surface of the ocean. I peered through the storm but could not see the outlines of the other houses. The rope around my waist still had slack. So long as the rope held out, I should keep going, I supposed. I confess there was a moment of terror in which I wondered if perhaps something had gone wrong and the rope was broken, but I picked it up and tugged lightly and felt the resistance of the door holding it fast. Satisfied, I kept walking.
Out into the street. Then, I reached a curb, then an uphill. Another driveway, I reasoned. I continued on, the rope slithering behind me through the dust like a snake.
The outline of a building shouldered out of the storm ahead of me. I could have wept with relief and I struggled forwards, the dust up to my ankles – and I stopped. Familiar shutters. Familiar siding. I stood on the threshold of my own house.
I’d gotten turned around, I reasoned, out there in the middle of the street. I’d try again. And I did. I fought back down the driveway and the wind roared in my ears like a living thing, like it was angry that I sought to defy it. I felt it against my chest like a hand, pushing me backwards, but I set my shoulders and forced my way towards the street. Once I reached it, I put my back to the road and walked backwards, holding the rope with both hands so that I could mark its position and ensure I was walking straight away from it. I did this until my heels touched the opposite curb. Only then did I turn around and go forwards.
I found myself at the threshold of my own house.
Once more I tried, if only to convince myself of the madness of this world of dust I’d found myself in. The wind was furious with my persistence, screaming at me that this was the way it was to be and my struggles were in vain. It would not be stopped.
And once more, I stood on the threshold of my house.
I turned and let the scarf slip from my mouth. I screamed my defiance at it, my anger and my rage. The dust filled my nose and mouth, clogged my throat, and only when I felt like I would suffocate if I stayed any longer did I turn and stumble through the front door of our house.
I collapsed to my hands and knees. My wife made to come to me, but she stopped, staring down at where I knelt as if I were some wild beast. I kicked the door shut and stormed past her to the kitchen sink, coughing and spitting out thick clumps of mud. I felt the grit grind between my teeth when I closed my mouth.
She believed me when I told her how I’d tried. How certain I’d been of my direction but how each attempt turned on me and how the wind only grew angrier and angrier. It was as if we were cut off from the rest of the neighborhood.
So it’s not the entire world that’s turned to dust, she reasoned. Just our world.
She swept the dust into the garage. It left a thin layer of grime on the tile that I couldn’t seem to wipe away, no matter how hard I tried.
We made preparations. We took inventory of our pantry, we filled up all the available containers with water in case the water line failed. I watched her as she took all the glasses out of the kitchen cupboard, watched her fingers distort through the lens of the water as she filled them. I think that it was her hands that I noticed the most, when we first met. Slender fingers, nails trimmed short (she didn’t like long nails, nor did she paint them). She liked to press her palm against mine and laugh at how our fingertips seemed so far away. My fingers are long. I’d curl them over hers and we’d hold hands and at the time, I felt like we could stay like that forever.
We didn’t hold hands much after the dust came.
Days passed. I paced by the windows, frustrated and angry and lacking something tangible to vent my hate upon. Meanwhile, she looked for patterns. Symbols and rituals. Significant numbers and acts. This was a strange thing that was happening to us, she said, and we could not save ourselves with our intellect or will. She developed a routine – touching all the windows as she walked through a room. Turning in a circle three times before the door. Setting glasses of water along the windowsill, seven in a row. I began to hate watching her. I told her it was stupid, what she was doing, and she only closed her eyes as she turned as if she could pretend that the dust wasn’t there. As if I wasn’t there.
We became strangers to each other.
She told me that we had to persist. That the world was not gone, that it was out there – waiting for us – and we only had to escape this small pocket that we’d found ourselves in. I wasn’t reassured by her words. It seemed like such an inescapable thing, the dust clawing at our windows and the wind slamming into the side of our house. Where did it come from? We lived in a verdant place, rich with life. We had rain in the summer and snow in the winter. Not dust. Never dust.
I spent much of my time staring out the windows. I thought I saw bones in the dust but when I told her, she only shook her head and said I was imagining it and I hated her for it. She was growing weaker, it seemed, and that too, I hated. We had not yet run out of food and the water was still running, so I thought she was exhausting herself with her patterns and her endless circling and that distant look in her eyes like she was listening to that damned wind. I began to detest the sight of her.
Then one day, she went to the cups on the windowsill (seven in all) and added four more. This was an unnatural thing, she said, so we would fight it with unnatural patterns.
We got married at the courthouse four years ago. Only a few of our close friends were in attendance. Neither of us wore white because we didn’t care about tradition or formality. We were together and that was all that mattered.
Now, she took the blouse she’d worn when we were married out of the closet. She tore it into strips. She tied these to tent stakes from the garage, thirteen in all. Then, while I held the tattered neckline of what remained of her blouse, she went out into the backyard and staked them at the edge of the patio. She made a line of them, a wall against the wind. I threw the remains of the blouse on the floor and walked away.
I woke that night. We slept on opposite sides of the bed, not touching, and I felt like her presence hung heavy at my back. It was difficult to sleep now with the wind and the weight of her hanging over me. Yet, it was not the wind that woke me. It was the absence. I rose, quiet so that I didn’t disturb her – not out of consideration, but because I didn’t want to talk, it was such an effort these days, like I hadn’t ever cleared that dust from my mouth – and I went to the window.
The fabric of her blouse hung limp around the edges of the patio. The wind stirred it halfheartedly. I looked at it for a long time before I went back to bed.
The next morning, we stood out on the patio together. The wind danced in a tumult just a few paces beyond, but it would not venture past the line of her stakes.
It’s not enough, I said, feeling the grit of dust on my lips as I spoke. Not enough. The wind and the dust still circled, keeping us caged inside our house and our tiny patch of yard.
She went inside and looked through those things that were valuable to us. Photos and trinkets from trips we’d taken together. Gifts from friends when we bought this house. She sought for something valuable enough to rebuke the wind and bring us out of this world of dust and back into the sunlight.
I looked for something else.
Sacrifice, I reasoned. The most ancient of patterns.
It was a conclusion I’d come to slowly, unknowing of the pieces my mind was quietly assembling in the darkness. Now that the pattern was complete, it presented it for my consideration and I realized it had been a part of me for a long time now. Ever since the woman in my house became a stranger to me and I to her.
I went to the garage. I walked past the pile of dust lying there and picked up the sledgehammer. I went back inside.
The woman knelt in our living room with our framed marriage license in her lap. Our most valuable of treasures.
I stood behind her. Brought the sledgehammer up, letting it hang in the air, and then released. My hands and wrists guided its path. The weight of it was all that was needed. I’d picked it for that reason. I am not strong. It struck her in the back of the head, the impact shuddered all the way up the handle and I dropped it in shock. It hit the ground a few seconds after she did.
My wife was dead.
The wind slammed into the front window. I screamed in frustration, in despair, in emotions I couldn’t comprehend. I went to the kitchen and swept the glasses off the windowsill. They shattered on the floor and I heard the front window break apart as the wind smashed into it with a blow that reverberated through the house. Beyond reason, I stumbled back to the doorway and stared into the maelstrom, to that dust that swirled around my wife’s corpse. It began to unmake her.
She dissolved, she became dust, her blood turned silver and let go and the wind picked it up and then it was all around me and I thought it would take me apart too and I felt myself falling, no longer angry and thinking that it would be best if I was gone too.
The sunlight on my face brought me to myself. I lay on my back in the kitchen, the shattered glass of the cups glittering all around me. I sat up. Brushed the dust off my arms and face and slowly, unsteadily, rose to my feet. I staggered to the bedroom where my cellphone had sat useless, wondering how long I’d been trapped in that world of dust.
It was as if no time had passed at all. I’d slept through my morning alarm, but that was all. I didn’t even have new messages.
I went to the garage. Got in my car and backed out into the driveway and then I drove to the house of one of my closest friends. The world was perfectly normal and I wanted to stop in the middle of the street and scream at them that hadn’t they noticed? Hadn’t they realized that I’d been trapped elsewhere and I’d been suffering?
I can’t remember exactly what I said when my friend opened the door. I wept. I was incoherent for a bit. And he gently set me down in his living room and told me that what I was feeling was normal, given what today was. I paused, raising my head, and I asked him what day was it?
The anniversary, he said. The anniversary of when she died.
Then he got up and called a couple more friends and asked them to come over, that I was upset and I needed some help. Like they’d been expecting this.
My wife has been dead for a year now. This is what my friends tell me. Did I not remember? Did I not want to remember? It’d been so sudden. There’d been a funeral, a small one, with just a handful of close friends. I’d had her cremated and we’d all gone out into my backyard together – because she loved this house, she truly did – and scattered her ashes.
No. I’d killed her. I’d killed her and then she’d turned to dust in front of me. I did not say this out-loud.
And I heard them whisper to each other, when they thought I wasn’t listening, that of course I’d be struggling today. It’s the anniversary, after all. Perhaps I shouldn’t be left alone.
There is a pile of dust in my garage. There is more in my entryway. Glasses of water on the windowsill and the strips of her blouse, tattered and stained with grime, hang limply in the backyard. And everywhere I look is the dust of her body, coating the tables and floors, a thin layer on the sofa. My carpet shivers a small cloud of silver every time I take a step.
Her cellphone is charged and when I unlock it there are no messages. There are posts from her on social media, as recent as two day’s ago. I have memories of us from the past year, of us celebrating Christmas, of New Year’s together with champagne. I remember her thin fingers on the flute of the glass. I have photos of her from just the prior weekend.
I can’t find her obituary. I don’t know what to look for – are there medical records? Bills? I can’t find any. I don’t know how she died and I’m afraid to ask, because what if they figure it out? What if they realize that I’m the reason she’s dead?
That’s the only certainty I have right now. A year ago or a day ago: my wife is dead.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my life. I don’t know how to live with myself. I killed her while she was a stranger and now she is a stranger no more. I feel her in my lungs, in my bones.
For a little while, my world was dust, and I loathed it and everything trapped there with me. Now that I’m back in this hateful sunlight I wish I was still there. I wish the dust had swallowed me up, I wish that the wind had carried me away into nothingness.
I killed my wife to escape from our own world of dust and now I want nothing more than to return, to throw myself at the mercy of the wind – to become dust like her.