Despite our better judgment we were watching the television news when the event occurred, and so we nearly missed it altogether. Although we knew we shouldn’t, we couldn’t stop ourselves. All around the world, on the television news, people were proving themselves to be both savage and heroic, and while we did not see ourselves in them, neither could we tear our eyes away, even as our children ran about unsupervised, without shoes and their homework undone.
Later, we’d remember everything differently, one of us saying it started with a color, another, a sound, and so forth.
And so forth, we said, our words trailing off into a kind of quiet dolor.
After that, no one had any words for what had happened to us.
Then the child spoke. He spoke, as children do, in a high sweet voice, with a bit of a lisp and too fast. He said, all at once, you know, it just got so dark.
The darkness, he said, came on everywhere at once. We were outside in the green trees – couldn’t you hear us? We could hear you on the inside, listening to your television news. But on the outside, how were we even going to get down from the green trees now?
Of course we hadn’t heard them: somewhere, there was a war on; somewhere, an earthquake had swallowed a whole city whole.
And get down, the child continued, to what? When we saw that, the child said, oh what a furious shrieking, all of us together, a terrible howl. Surely, you must have heard that.
But no, the first we noticed anything was when we called the children in for dinner. Not right at first – high up in the government, a man was having sex with a woman not his wife – but when they didn’t come, when the dinners went cold – a plague was ending somewhere and starting somewhere else – we shouted out to them the terrible things we were watching on the news. Don’t you know how lucky you are? we called. If you don’t come in pretty soon, we threatened our sternest of threats, we will send you to bed without any supper.
We’ll make you watch the television news with us, finally we called out, and then you will know what it’s like to go hungry.
Now the child spoke again in his high sweet voice, all in such rush that it sounded like a pant. We couldn’t get down, the child explained. We heard you calling and we wanted to come in – we wanted to be good so you would love us. But how could we get down with nothing there? I mean, the green trees with their branches full of leaves, the houses with you inside them, us – all that was still left, but in between, the ground the trees grew out of or the houses were built on top of or we walked on between here and there, just nothing. It glistened, the child patiently explained, as if we hadn’t been there too. But that’s all, just the glistening, and when one of us climbed down to test it, watch out! That’s when the real fun began.
On the inside, finally, we heard it – the gurgling slurp of the sucking sound of the boy going down, and the final muted little pop, like a fragile bubble bursting. Pop, pop, pop. One boy down, the others in the trees, and all those wholesome dinners going cold.
And who could miss that furtive, little pop?
Throughout the duration of the event we turned our televisions off and studied what was left of the world just outside our windows, our own children trapped in the green trees and the nothing between. After the first rush of panic, a kind of formal logic prevailed – after all, they were our children. Our first duty, now, was to help them, and as one of us was holding an orange she’d planned to section for dessert, not really thinking (for where would we get another orange now?) she tossed it out toward the green trees where the children were, but plop, it fell short to the missing earth, where pop, it was gone, like the boy.
And our mouths filled up with saliva and a terrible craving for oranges.
The next thing we heard after that was the cries of our children, who had also seen the orange disappear.
One of the smallest fell that night – this was inevitable. The popping was quieter – she was so small—but we all heard it anyway for none of us could sleep. All throughout the night, such a sadness prevailed, and oh, we rued the carelessness with which we’d let them roam: if only we had made them do their homework, if at least we had made them wear shoes. And in the morning, of course they were hungry. Children were always hungry in the morning and if you didn’t feed them, they grew cranky. But how to feed them now?
Someone turned the morning news on to drown out their cranky whining, but no calamity on earth could compare now to our own – our missing earth, our trapped children, the subtle glistening between them and us. But – and maybe this is like the way people can endure such other hardships as genocide or war – once we’d rigged a system with a pulley and a bucket to send them things to eat and clean clothes to wear and jackets to ward off the night chill, well, somehow we adapted to our children living apart from us in their green trees and our own supplies dwindling from all we were sending to them. In time we grew accustomed even to the sound of them falling. It still tore at our heartstrings, of course, but not so brutally, and though we knew we were failing human heroism, we tried not to let this get our spirits down.
When the last child but one was gone, with no one left to play with and no hope of being rescued, the one remaining boy – who stood before us now – added up the pros and cons before hoisting himself into the pulley bucket and sliding himself home to his own front door.
It was easy, he said, in his high sweet voice and little lisping lilt.
He wasn’t very big but he was strong, and as we contemplated him there on the porch he seemed as childlike as ever, but, we saw now, all alone on this earth. It took this – his aloneness – for us to consider the event, which included, in its aftermath, not just what had happened to the earth beneath our feet, but also each of the soft sucking slurps that had marked one of our children going down.
My, how you’ve grown, one of us said as another bent to smell the child’s hair and still another scooped him up on her lap, tickling him under his chin and kissing the back of his downy neck.
Outside, the trees glistened in the dying sun and I stood in the open doorway surveying the expanse of earth, now restored, between us. The child who had spoken – our last and only child – slipped off the lap of the one who held him and sidled up beside me to take my hand in his. We stood there for a moment, listening to the sound of the television news.
Then the child spoke again, in his high sweet voice: here, let me show you where they went.
Katharine Haake's books include a recent novel, The Time of Quarantine, an SPD Bestseller; the hybrid prose narrative That Water, Those Rocks; and three collections of short stories, the eco-fabulist The Origin of Stars, the LA Times bestselling The Height and Depth of Everything, and the New York Times notable No Reason on Earth. The recipient of an Individual Artist's Grant from the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles, she teaches at California State University, Northridge.