June 17, 2002
Again, my child? That story? But it is late, and you can never go to sleep, after... but all right, then. Children need their horrors, I suppose.
You do not understand, my child. You, who were not born, but made, because your mother and your father were crippled and made sterile by the radiation. You, who have never known what it is like to feel the breath of wind on your face under an open summer sky, or that it is possible to cup a handful of water from a wild stream and drink the water without fear. You, whose seasons have narrowed down to one, the nuclear winter of our twilight years, who has never known the feel of hot sunlight on your shoulders as you race into a blue ocean sparkling with light. Or the feel of sand between your toes. Or the taste of fruit or of honey.
When I was a little girl, the world was a very different place, my child. We lived on the surface. Some of us had to live in high-rise apartments, but some of us had houses, with gardens. My mother grew roses, and there were lilac bushes at the back of the garden, and the scent of them was a glory when the spring and the summer came. She grew lettuce and peppers and tomatoes, too, out back, and my grandparents had a cherry tree in their yard and every spring it was a work of art with its delicate flowers and every summer we gorged ourselves on the cherries, black and sweet. We rode bicycles into the country, and although in my day the great chestnuts were already dead and the elms too and the dogwoods were dying there were still forests enough to explore, and they were still inhabited, sometimes, by bears, and moose, and raccoons.
My great-grandparents fought in something called World War Two -- they said, after the war they called World War One, there would be no other wars, but less than fifty years after the war to end all wars and all its horrors we were fighting a war again, the whole planet, pitted one against the other. Somebody won, of course, and somebody lost, and after that there was 'peace' -- at least, there were always plenty of little wars, but they were always fought somewhere else with somebody else suffering the consequences. Someone else went hungry. Someone else went cold. We were secure, and we were safe, and the cherry tree bloomed every spring like it always did.
Then the 'peace' went pop, just like a bubble... ah, but you've never blown soap bubbles in the sunlight... With one act -- the killing of two buildings, the loss of human life in the thousands, the shattering of a nation's complacency -- the world was plunged into chaos -- the wounded nation retaliated with blind fury, first against one, then against many; those who were attacked in their turn began arming themselves. And two nations in the east started squaring off for yet another war. Only this time, they were on the road to repeating one of the worst mistakes of the human race. They weren't rattling sabers, they were rattling nuclear warheads, and they quickly reached a point that, if either was to back down, it would be seen as weak and this could not be allowed to happen. The Western world watched it unfold. They evacuated their nationals from what they thought was the danger zone, and watched what would happen.
People tried to warn them -- the people who had lived through, or had seen the consequences, of the only other time a nuclear bomb had been used, in two cities in Japan known as Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. People had photographs, testimonies from witnesses. People knew that nuclear bombs did terrible things to human beings, flaying the flesh from the bone, irradiating what remained until the creature unfortunate enough to have been within range sickened and died from it, throwing up what was left of its liquefied innards, unable to hold down food, its hair falling out by the handful, its skin burned, its eyes sucked dry first from the impact and then from the tears shed in its aftermath. People knew that nuclear bombs did terrible things to the places where human beings and other creatures lived. That sand turned to glass under the heat, that buildings shivered into matchsticks in the shockwave, that the land was sick and poisoned and made unfit to live in for years to come, for decades... for centuries.
People knew all this. But those in power vowed that they would rather be dead than thought weak.
And they let them fly, the nuclear birds. Millions died -- and that was just people. What was also destroyed was the soil, the water, the places where people could live, the creatures that turned the earth and pollinated the plants, the ecosystem itself.
And then it was unleashed, the beast, and now it is many, many years later. Your parents were the last generation to have been born of a woman's body, but even they never suckled a mother's milk because it was too rich with a lethal brew of chemicals and the pollution of the environment, and the very genes of the woman who gave suck. They were raised on formula mixed in the labs. They grew up and they could not reproduce any more, sterile from the radiation that blew on the surface of the planet like a fell wind. We had moved down into the caves, like moles, long before that. We abandoned the city whose towers had been destroyed, although no towers had been destroyed after that time. We abandoned the forests, and the roses, and the cherry trees in bloom in springtime. We abandoned the lazy drone of bees in the summer, and the rustle of fallen leaves in the fall, and the clean white snows of Christmases past.
It became a memory.
To you, it became a fairy tale....
Now go to sleep, my child.
Or the Big Nuke will get you.
· · · · · ·
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic is an essential member of Swans. She maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com
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Essays published in 2002 | 2001
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