It just stands there while I back slowly toward the house. I don’t want to know what’s up today, and I don’t appreciate the interruption. My heart hasn’t beat this quickly in years and now I can’t take my eyes off the ring of dark clouds just above the tree line and gathering all around the hills to the north, south, and east. The sun makes the neighbors’ windows look afire, and I strain to hear the thunder of the far off storm.
If there’s going to be a bad blow, I should get things ready. Our house is a little thing, one and a half stories with dormers, though I haven’t been up to the bedrooms since the days after the Fall. The house is built into the side of a hill and the basement door comes right off a gentle slope above what used to be our garden. I head in that way and get the shotgun out of the back room, loading it with rock salt shells.
When the wind gets going, these bastards are going to try to be helpful one way or another, and I just won’t have it. If they wanted to help me they should never have come at all. When I look back outside, the breeze is picking up a bit, but it doesn’t smell like rain, more like someone’s burning leaves somewhere down in the valley.
Standing in the doorway, I let my visitor see me break open the gun and check the seating of the shells. For now, it’s just show on my part, and with a grimace I try to think: is this one of them or what’s left of a man? Whatever it is, it bows like some polite oriental maiden and takes a dancing step back behind the trees.
I’m upset now and in no mood to finish with the yardwork. It’s like I’m hopped up with too much coffee and all I want to know is what they’re going to take away from me now. What’s going to change? I don’t like change.
I stalk the house with the shotgun, closing windows and blinds, except in the bedrooms; as I said, I haven’t been up there in years. Eventually I persuade myself to brew some tea, chamomile and honey, which I take in the sun room where I can sit, warm my hands around the cup, and watch the rose arch and the pitch pines, keeping the shotgun close by.
It’s still not something I want to think about, but sometimes I try to understand. I think of how I would explain it to my dear Jennie, who died of the cancer before the Missionaries came.
The Missionaries. That’s what we called them later on. The movies were all wrong of course. There were no lights in the sky, no spaceships, no battles of any kind. Somewhere, doors opened all around us and they started looking around, as sheepish at first as kids who’d broken into a sacristy. They’d peek through a window, then slide away like ghosts
Our boys came to say goodbye to me in the spring of the second year after the Missionaries arrived. They had done all their arguing the year before, all that well meant badgering aimed at getting me away from house and out among the stars. Now they were just making farewells. They showed me things, touched my mind with cosmic vistas and with joys that must have come from very near the throne of God, but even then my sons were starting to look a little thin and dark, and I could only cry at the change that had overtaken them. They cried too and I bowed my head to pray for them, but when I looked up from that last prayer, they were already gone.
I haven’t prayed since. The sweet smell of the grass and the thrum of my mower is all I need.
Sometimes I think our hill has become an exhibit, like a museum of ancient artifacts. Otherwise I don’t understand what has gone on. The neighbors moved away, of course, even before my sons came to say goodbye. There are six close properties near the top of the hill that I look after, and that keeps me busy day in and day out. It’s the grass mostly, and keeping the bushes trim and the yardwork well in hand. Beyond that, my memories have begun to dim. There used to be a hospital across the stream at the bottom of the hill, but I can’t say exactly where, and a community of little houses I could see from the dormer windows, but those dried out like fall leaves and soon, before I remembered to look again, they were gone. I think I’m the only man left on this old world.
The Missionaries know I don’t like them, that I don’t even want to think about what they are and what they represent, but in my bones, on a bad day, I have to admit things wouldn’t be as they are without their help. Where our power and the water come from, I don’t know. When the glass in the windows gets old and thick at the bottom, I can hear them tinkering in the night to put in new panes. The last time I don’t think they used glass at all. After the bridge over the stream collapsed, the kitchen shelves began to stock themselves. The milk in the fridge never sours. I even believe the house rebuilds itself from the inside now, the way a man grows new skin, and hair, and bone.
I’m thinking about all this, my heartburn growing, and the chamomile isn’t calming me at all when I see a woman standing in the rose arch. She didn’t pop in or shimmer, like in the movies, but something whispered its way into the back of my mind, like an instinct, and I knew she’d been standing there for a long time, long enough to finish my pruning and weave a few yellow roses into the arch, of the kind I hadn’t grown there in forever…
I didn’t need to think twice about who she was. It was my Jennie.
The muscles of my hand cord like steel and bear in on that tea cup until it shatters, digging pottery shards into my flesh. By then I’m fumbling with the shotgun, my blood slick against the barrel. The weapon leaves my grasp and tumbles to the tile floor, letting loose with at least one of the old shells. It fills the sun room with rock salt and smoke, and I find myself standing there, beating my balled and bloodied fist against my chest.
The fumes sting my eyes, but through them I see Jennie as if she were alive, as if she had grown old and aged like me. Gray hair frames a thinning face, and her hips seem wider than I recall, but the eyes are everything, the proof of the soul. The woman standing in the rose arch is thirty years older than when I buried her.
Jennie hears the roar I’ve triggered and looks my way.
I didn’t think it would be like this. Whatever they were trying to warn me of, I had no conception that pain could strike at my vitals the way this one vision has. I can only hope that I am dying, at last dying, with this excruciating trick their last attempt to comfort me. I close every blind and draw every curtain. The doors are locked.
The next time I have a clear thought, I am in the basement, huddled beneath the stairs in the same way a frightened child seeks respite from the meanness of life. I have been crying, and it is no ordinary crying, for I feel as if I am soaked to the bone in a combination of sweat, blood, and tears.
It’s then I hear the voice, her voice. She is whispering to me at arm’s length, while her form and the warmth of her body remain hidden from me. Before I can make out the words, I realize she is sitting right above me, on the stairs.
“I’d forgotten about you,” Jennie repeats when she is certain I am listening, “but you never forgot about me.”
It’s the last thing I could ever have imagined her saying, and it stops me dead. Now I am listening with more than my ears; I incline my whole heart into the space between us, into the darkness from which her words gentle down like soft rain.
“I wasn’t forgetful,” she explains quietly. “Life took me on and away, into numberless forms, in numberless places. They forgot, those other avatars, but not me.”
“You died, Jennie.” I say, choking out the words and ashamed that it sounds like an accusation.
“I was with you and then not, and when not with you, I was elsewhen and someone you never knew. Oh, it’s not a riddle, My Dear. I’ll show you the truth of it, when you are ready to come up from that hiding place.”
“Am I dying, Jennie?” I ask, rubbing my hot eyes with the back of my hand. “I’ve been waiting so long. Have you come to take me to heaven?”
“Not that heaven, Dearest. It’s the world that’s ending, not you. You’ve worked here, caring for the last green sprouts of Earth, her final lawns and blossoms, for longer than you imagine.”
“A thousand years,” I venture.
There is a gentle laugh. “The days always had a way of getting away from you, the ages too it seems. It took them many times that just to find me and help me back into this old life, into my old thoughts. Would you have believed it then, when we spread out our blanket across the fresh cut grass and watched the stars appear, that the stars and all who rule them would join together at the last, and together hold the end of this world at bay, until we two could be together once again?”
“Jennie, I’m afraid. I know it’s you, Jennie, but I’m afraid. It’s been only madness since they came. There used to be things we believed. Nations and holy lands, prayers and commandments. And God was coming. Jennie, God was coming, and I was waiting to be with you up above.”
“Oh, sweetheart, they all came back.”
“What?” My tears had stopped, my bleeding had stopped too, and now, with those words, Jennie stopped by soul.