It had, for the moment, subsided, passed away, moved on if you will. When one had spent a year trekking until one’s feet bled, one learnt to distinguish between what was simply the aftermath of the shock of a no-event and what was actual ruin, in the form of cities and states and provinces failing to bring themselves into normality again when they’d all but destroyed themselves.
And I’d learnt not to refer to myself in a general sense.
I pushed the passport under the official’s nose and waved it back and forth a few times.
“Look. Here,” I croaked in the poor Italian I’d picked up tentatively hitchhiking through Milan. “Me. Pass I go?”
He narrowed his eyes at me, but nevertheless shucked a gloved thumb behind himself. I nodded a votive of thanks, and shuffled past the camouflaged militant, keeping my head down and out of sight, and my eyes on the half-cement, half-cobbled streets ahead.
I had to keep moving.
Sometimes I hadn’t been blessed with as much fortune. My hair had grown a deal since that passport photo, already a couple of years old, had been taken, and, with the extended checks they did at the continental borders nowadays, sometimes my fate was jail for a few days whilst the militia found an English-speaking official who’d assess me in my own language.
I expected no less, so I pressed on, casting no glance behind me, and none away from confidence. You had to look confident—then people tended to trust that your actions matched your spluttered words.
Yet, the streets of Venice echoed with each of my footsteps. Judging by the sun, I’d crossed the border between the hours of two and four, and the day didn’t particularly come with heat. People should’ve been not swarming, but at least going about their daily businesses with some pace.
Unless this place, too, was haunted by fear.
Some were—but most had found their feet, their bearings, their foundations, and had started putting brick after brick together.
I passed the front of what must once have been an Italian gelateria, where now its canvas covering had been torn by rioting and its large windows shattered as thieves strove to stock up on the icy goodness. Ridiculous in this weather, but the faux-pocalypse had driven people to do strange things.
It had changed my life, and I hadn’t minded that.
Making sure I darted around shards of glass, I petered up a path of stone steps, and ascended further into the city. Around me, the city bore a similar state of disrepair to the gelateria—houses had barely been rebuilt, by the looks of it, and I resisted laying my hand on the bridge-wall. More than moss had marred it. A thin coating of dust discoloured the wall, as if an unlikely sandstorm had hit before I’d turned up.
Sigh. I’d given up pulling faces at the murk after the first couple of months. When you faced over and over the filth that came from rubble and unkindness…
Nevertheless, civilisation tickled my shoulders as I walked. It crept about behind the facades of buildings in taped glass and tidied doorways. The door-paint had faded, but the door-knobs were worn by more than time. One punt – no, gondola – bobbed gently by a bridge. Its tether held strong.
I’d wandered to the end of the pavement before the sense of being watched overwhelmed me. I spun. A flash of darkness scampered from behind me to an alleyway. I knew better than to follow directly.
Now that feeling hit me from above.
I whipped my head up. A face disappeared from an upper-storey window.
I was being watched.
“Hello?” I called to nobody.
The water lapped in response.
This time I tried in my little Italian. “English? Supplies. Medicine. Help.”
Sometimes, those were the only words people cared to hear before they made a decision on your life. In Antwerp, I’d stuttered through French with a knife propped into my ribs. In Geneva, the continental militia had drawn hands to their guns at my midlands English, but had shown me their palms when I’d protested innocence in broken German.
My focused wandering had certainly given my tongue a workout.
A figure stepped from a doorway ten metres in front of me. Female in body, though lithe with hunger and not feminine. She had no weapons in her hands or across her back, but that only meant she’d learnt to conceal them. I fingered the shard of glass in my waistband.
As she – for the moment, I presumed she used those pronouns – glided towards me, I took in her appearance.
Her hair, tangled brown, from what I could see of it, had been gathered with twine or elastic into a ponytail. Complemented by a smear of dust across one cheek, her face was as natural as the day she’d been born. Her eyes were small and blue, her lips round and dark.
Those lips opened and she gabbled a bunch of noises my way. I caught the occasional word or article and the syntax of Italian clung to me, but I was no linguist.
I frowned. She changed tact.
“So, English. You speak English I guess.”
Someone in every country knew at least enough English to barter. We and Americans had been the great traders of the world before we’d set fire to our assets and drank them away in what we’d thought were the end days.
“Oh, thank God,” I said, tossing invisible salt over my left shoulder. I’d not been superstitious until the comet had not-hit the Earth, but I owed a lot to that day and I’d do anything to keep my good fortune – or as much good fortune as I’d had travelling so far – on the up.
“Yes. Sorry for watching from afar. Most strangers come to steal or fight rather than offer.”
I nodded. I had sympathy. “It’s the same in many places.”
She set off at a steady pace, strolling further up the canal-path I’d been following, before hitting the corner of a bank of houses and turning sharply. A tight staircase built out of the rock rose above us, but subtly enough that it wouldn’t be noticed unless someone knew of its existence.
As she led me further and further into this city, in tighter and tighter circles, so it felt, we encountered more and more Venetians. Some greeted her with a smile or a nod or others hurried past down the path with a distracted look, but nobody exchanged words in this lost place.
None greeted me.
Some people were tucked into alcove-like spaces or perched on doorsteps. Where they found room, people curled. Most men wore their beards and hair long; a number of women had chopped theirs off. Everyone donned robes, grey, black, brown, colours unwashed, that swished the ground as they walked or kneeled or sat with a notebook and pencil. Everywhere I turned, someone was writing, always writing, and a steady brush of graphite against papyrus soothed me.
“You have quite the revival here,” I said.
She nodded and took a moment to retie her hair. She was rough with it, yanking the thick strands through an elastic band that was due to break soon.
“We’ve had long enough to try. Long enough to find our own little city again.”
Not so little.
“Do you mind me asking how much further? I’d been walking…” For hours. “…Before I came here, and I could do with setting my pack down, Miss uh…”
I realised we’d not been introduced. Pleasantries hardly made the top of my list.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
The woman halted and turned to face me. Her lips twitched, but if she was smiling, it was with her eyes alone.
“We don’t use names here any more,” she said. “They call me Raft-Bringer. I was the one who got the gondolas running again.”
“They call me… No, I don’t use my given name any more, either.”
She clasped my fingers within hers, and a small look of surprise crossed her face.
“Welcome to our fold…Worn-Hands.”
We were walking through a quadrant of cobbles and grass that was beginning to look like a flower garden again when Raft-Bringer asked me.
“Where do you come from?” she questioned.
I glanced at her, took a minute. Not to hide my answer, no, but to find it in amongst the hand of foreign faces and documentations I’d been given.
I could’ve returned to that orphanage. Once the madness of the apocalypse had taken over, I would’ve had ample time and opportunity to break in and liberate my birth files to where they rightly belonged.
But I hadn’t.
And, surprisingly, I didn’t regret leaving my past well alone.
“From Oxford, England,” I told her.
“Is it like this there?”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. Disused? Destroyed…?
“I don’t know. I’ve not been back for months.”
She nodded, as if she knew exactly my journeying. She’d said she’d arrived, too—perhaps, we were of the same mission.
We’d been walking the incline for fifteen minutes or so when the path flattened out—or the steps did, and I tilted forward to counteract the way I walked. I’d lost track of time, and was running on estimates, but Raft-Bringer walked with a kind of bizarre confidence up these slopes, as if she’d taking this path since the morning after the non-apocalypse. She’d probably once resided in the ‘heights’ of Venice.
We rounded a corner onto a small square when I noticed the darker sides of the fact people lived here. Where in the lower segments and canal-sides of Venice, the way had been decked with houses, now longer stretches of wall and grass sprouted from the townside. Lines of graffiti decked the walls. Painted dripped in numerous colours, in numerous languages.
I stopped next to a particularly dense piece of graffiti. I found myself hunting for the English, despite the part of me that had no desire to know.
The words bled from the wall: Down with the ‘Merican slags. Stop them destroying Gaia’s newfound paradise. And another: The world was built for Italy. GTFO aliens.
“Disgusting, isn’t it?” There was an edge to Raft-Bringer’s soft voice.
She was looking at me – I heard it more than I saw it – and I rooted my eyes to the libels until she had to lay her hand upon my arm to pull me away.
“I have more to show you. This way.”
So we walked on, slower this time, more reverently, Raft-Bringer holding her ropes a little off the ground here. These upper points had been swept better than where I had entered the city, and, although each corner brought a toast to the water below, the steps and doorways were absent of water-made muck. Even the shop-front I passed had an air of use to it. Its canvas had been sewn, its glass replaced by oversized wooden shutters. Here, the scent of sandalwood and fruit perforated the air.
We wandered through an archway into a square plaza-like area of tessellating pavestones culminating in a church. The centre of the city, but neither of those features made me gawk. My expression was due to the number of figures in dark robes. They lined the plaza, on their knees or bottoms, none on their feet. Some were sobbing, but most bore silence and glass-eyes. I swallowed. I’d only once before seen a gathering of this measure – when we’d thought the world was about to implode in fire and rock.
This was no chapel setting, but it reminded me of that very hour of not-reckoning.
“What are they doing?” I whispered.
Raft-Bringer stared at me as if I’d just announced that the Orient Express was ready for boarding at Milan.
“Don’t you know?”
“I’m sorry.” I shrugged.
“The date. Today is the anniversary. They’re saying a moment of silence for the lives lost to humanity’s violence on the 15th July 2015.”
Hell. Was it really the 15th today? I’d lost all track of days and dates, certainly—but I would’ve thought I’d have known. You know? A sort of shiver through my bones as a clock struck midnight in the middle of the city. A lump in my throat and a wash of memories as sudden as that ghost-on-grave sensation. A something, an understanding maybe, that made me feel.
I should’ve known.
Pushing Raft-Bringer’s hand from my shoulder, I turned and stormed away.
How I found myself beside the graffiti, I had no idea. I hardly knew the way back. I’d walked, and now—here I stood.
This sort of explicit black-talk didn’t happen everywhere, but pockets of the land I’d walked, ridden, and even run through had all displayed traces of hate-crime. Because everybody wanted to horde their resources.
For a moment, I wondered if Oxford were the same, or if it had started to offer a hand to the less prepared of British cities. Maybe the government was beginning to come together again, and had a hand over the comings and goings of their citizens.
Maybe I’d go back and be welcomed—
No, I wouldn’t give in to cowardice. I’d worked so hard to get here—
A scuffle of footsteps drew my thoughts back to the present with a bump. I swiped the trails of tears off my cheeks. The rustle of robes joined the sounds of low-soled shoes, and Raft-Bringer wandered her way towards me. The bits of robe over her knees had gained circles of dust. Her face was frustratingly neutral. So much for reading if she judged the way I’d reacted.
“Interesting I found you here.”
She tipped her head to one side, almost thoughtfully. “Your reaction, I suppose. Curious.”
I didn’t repeat my question, but that was no way to answer.
We stood in silence – I’d lost any thought-track I’d had, and evidently Raft-Bringer had nothing more to say to me – until the setting of the sun doused the scene with yellow-orange and reflected off the water below with numinous fingers of amber. My stomach rumbled anarchistically.
“Are you hungry?” She didn’t ask if I’d travelled far.
“This way,” she said, and trailed through the city. Although Venice had its maze of canals and unified box-houses and every corner I saw had sixteen steps in blocks of four (I wasn’t counting – this was simply what I’d noticed, whether true or indeed false), I began to recognise areas that I’d been led through before.
We returned to the first street on which I’d encountered Raft-Bringer, and the house she used sat central, twenty metres from the lone gondola, waiting, ever waiting, for one of the community to ride it out of here.
But they were never going to.
“You are welcome to the room upstairs for as long as you stay. I’m afraid it has only a mattress and a dresser, but I’m sure—”
“I’ve had worse. Yes.”
I slept soundlessly that night, filled with dreams of robed individuals with flames instead of hands and dials instead of eyes – and a comet that danced, a way out of view.
I woke a little after sunrise in the tradition I had built from travelling so much. In England, that would’ve meant I’d be meeting four or five o clock, but in Venice, I had no clue as to the time.
I cleared my face of sleep and relieved myself in the small lavatory opposite my top-storey room, before wandering down the stairs with my pack on my shoulder. Despite having faced days with little but bread –food was but a luxury when one travelled as I did – I found myself wondering what sort of food, apart from the dinner of rice and veg, they ate here.
The door banged shut to the left of me. On instinct, I whirled around, but my heart slipped from throat to chest when Raft-Bringer stepped in.
I had no idea she’d been gone.
She gave me a weak smile.
“Ah. I didn’t expect you’d be awake so soon. Let’s walk.”
She gestured. A dash of yellow paint decorated her wrist. I frowned. When she saw the direction of my gaze, she pulled down her sleeve with more brio than necessary.
“I think I’d rather stay here for a while, thank you. You’ve not shown me around your house.”
I started heading inwards, but she was by my side in a flash. Okay. If she was trying to alleviate my suspicions, she’d done the opposite. I moved towards the doorway to my right, further into the house, and the opposite room to that in which we’d eaten the previous evening. Indistinguishable noises tripped behind the door.
Raft-Bringer blocked my way. First with her hands, then with her entire body.
“Please, no, Worn-Hands, not this way.”
“There are things…you don’t need to see.”
I dodged to the side, but Raft-Bringer was quicker, and she blocked me again. Her robes rippled about our feet, threatening to trip me up.
“What are you hiding? Woman, let me through!”
I grabbed clumps of her robes in my hands and shoved her out of the way. As a cry escaped her, I stormed into the next room. I was too angry to apologise, too confused to admit…anything. I had a right to see whatever had happened. Didn’t I? I was a guest, someone who’d come to help, and weren’t guests supposed to be treated in the highest respect?
A fire light the room from its centre. Smoke clotted the air, so unhealthy for a living space, but the room looked more like a boardroom for meetings. Four mattresses, stripped of any bedclothes, bordered a square around that unkept flame. It resided in something akin to an empty oil can, sawn to make an opening. A robed man stood as I entered, and his eyes flamed with anger. He went to tuck an object into his pocket, but I leapt forward.
“Give me that,” I snapped, snatching it from him.
An effigy-in-miniature. A doll of straw with fabric trousers and a little fabric shirt. Looking into the fire showed more similar figures, some dressed in camouflage, others in plain-clothes, some with shapes in their arms that looked enough like weaponry to make that assumption. The one in my hand had a rucksack.
I’d say it was almost a piece of voodoo, if a voodoopunk culture was still practised in the continent.
Raft-Bringer entered, one wrist in her other hand I thrust the doll into her face. Hell, I knew exactly what it meant, what with everybody else dressed in robes.
“You knew about this.” Perhaps, she’d even been part of it. Welcoming me in, but calling me names and fuming about my presence in their town.
She said nothing, and I threw the shape into the fire myself. It burnt, and so I did.
“Didn’t take you long to make this one,” I said aloud. I wasn’t sure if I addressed the two in the room, or the city at large. Venice had once been such a beautiful landmark.
The comet had destroyed many landmarks by never even touching them.
For the second time in so few hours, I rushed into the street.
Where was it?
There. The gondola I’d seen, still tethered, still waiting. Waiting for me, I now realised. I fiddled with the rope keeping it to the bridge. A small lip between the base of the bridge and the canal-side held the gondola back. I tugged at it.
“Come on.” But my anger was retreating now, and a plan formed in shards.
I breathed out, more than a sigh. I had to leave. Again. And I’d so been looking forward to Venice. When I breathed in, my outburst had subsided, replaced instead by guilt at such a reaction. I hadn’t needed to fume at their wariness.
For that was all it had ever been.
“Worn-Hands,” a voice called.
I refused to turn—but my head turned automatically. She was swishing towards me again.
“Raft-Bringer.” Even her title sounded less ridiculous to my ears. “I can’t stay.”
Sadness darted through her eyes and onto her soft features. An apology. “I know.”
“Part of me wishes I could. I was too harsh. But when I see objects like those…”
“You would be a strong healer in our community,” she added. Quickly, but not without genuineness.
“But I’m not welcome.”
GTFO aliens. We both knew that meant me, a foreigner sprinting across the lands to share what little knowledge they had of medicine to peoples who had less. Venice had rebuilt its populace, albeit in an unconventional community, and, as per my self-assumed arrangement, I had to move on.
“Just answer me one thing—”
“I was genuine,” she replied in that instantaneous twang again. “I meant it welcoming you. I even wanted you to stay. But I talked to the council this morning—”
“You have a council?”
“And they decided you cannot stay. You didn’t even observe. The Silence.”
That damn 15th July silence! So, she’d taken me to the central plaza for that reason, as a test. And here I’d thought she was keen on welcome sight-seeing.
Despite myself, I cried, “I didn’t know!”
How was I to know? She hadn’t even considered the tears I’d hidden…
I’d faced guns and knives and unwelcoming abuse, but never this…prejudice for wanting to help!
“You’ll only change us,” she said.
Right. I shook my head, but said nothing to her. The gondola was untethered now, and I leapt from the canal-side onto it, a movement which send ripples down the canal, and almost upended the gondola.
My gasp spilled from my lips, but I sprang to my hands and knees, eventually with some sense of balance.
Raft-Bringer’s eyes on me made heat spring to my cheeks. I lifted my head, squared my eyes with hers until the blush left my cheeks.
“And fare well,” she murmured.
“Oh, I always try.”
If I had my geography on tap, I’d soon meet St. Mark’s Square and the wall where once the French Ambassador had been received with all the pomp and circumstance my visit had lacked. Beyond that…the open sea, bright and dark.
I’d faced worse.
Without any further words to the woman who’d offered me lodgings and satiation for a day, I pushed off the canal-side, and the water picked me up in its flow.
I wondered if Croatia had yet escaped their ruin.
Want to know what happened before our protagonist found themselves trekking the world? This story is a continuation from my short story Revelation, published in the anthology Fauxpocalypse, a collection of tales about what happens when the world doesn’t end even if we’re convinced think it will.
Alexandrina Brant just finished her second year at university and turned twenty. In her ‘free’ summer – not spent researching for her final project – she’s been a vocal part of a piece of contemporary art at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, and is currently striding through one of two July NaNoWriMo projects: a novella about a steampunk MRI machine and the brain someone reanimates to destroy the campus of New Berkshire and the reputation of the Psychobiology department.