The first thing to stop working was art.
Not all art, of course. We all thought – because nothing like this had happened before, it was nothing we could really conceive of – that tastes had just changed, criticism become more cutting and true. Impressionistic art, abstract art, self-referential and subjective and conceptual art, all of it quietly lost its power. Except for the artists, and a few critics who staked their claim on such things, everyone just agreed that this was a normal enough shift in opinion, that it must have been the publication of certain reviews, that they at most tapped into a hidden public belief not yet expressed. It wasn’t really news that the Turner Prize had lost its punch, after all. It wasn’t shocking to admit that Hirst’s shark left us cold.
The artists themselves were strangely muted, unable to muster a defense.
“I made this to express…” they would say, then stutter, stumbling over words, “I mean, I know what it was supposed to be, but it just isn’t, is it? It’s just… I’m not sure anything’s there.” And they drank more than before, and talked less, and stopped trying.
At the time, I didn’t notice at all. Like everyone else, I began to better appreciate landscapes, realism, photorealistic paintings, that’s all.
Maybe it could have been stopped, back then, if we’d only realized it.
It was a whole year later, maybe more. (Who can mark when we first became disillusioned? Who can say when the fire died, when there were no embers left, amid all the smoke?) Art and music and every other high folly had ebbed. By then poetry could no longer move – when I say that the Sea of Faith was no longer at the full, now, it’s hollow. The referents remain after the beating heart has stopped. But we still didn’t really realize it. What was there to realize? The problem was unnameable. Ridiculous to even begin to describe.’
Then the sciences ground to a halt. A general admission by a researcher at CERN: “There’s really nothing left to say. We think we pretty much understand it all.” He blinked, swallowed, and said, “And it looks like everything is some kind of clay.”
There’s a humor in it, isn’t there? Except his eyes were moist, his voice low. Pictures were displayed, as we all stared at our phones or our laptops or the television in the laundromat: Tangles of cables and equipment, turned gray and uniform. The lenses of telescopes turned opaque, their texture grainy. “This is, obviously, very unexpected,” he said, “But it seems to fully explain everything. You see, most creation stories say that humans were made from…”
I closed the video. It had to be a hoax, right? But even lies were starting to become harder to maintain – denial being another kind of lie.
This was around when the physical changes started, obviously. Things being reclaimed. Later, people.
This isn’t supposed to be about me, but this is how it was, when the fire at the heart of the world went out. December, I think. The end moved faster than we could imagine, back when we could imagine.
I was coming home on the subway, headphones on but nothing playing (I’d lost my taste for music) when I heard someone shouting. Shaved head, skin mottled with clay, eyes featureless and earthy gray, he loomed over a woman cowering in her seat.
“You’re nothing! Finished!” he shouted, and grabbed her wrist, “No more fucking stealing! No more taking from real people.”
And he was real, he was solid and wet and heavy, and I told myself I couldn’t do anything. I’m weak, I said, and he’s not hurting her, better not to make him angrier. Better not to act.
And eventually she got off. Other people didn’t get too close to him, but there were whispers that maybe she had it coming. By then there were clay people on TV, in suits, faces gone, mouths holes in the clay, talking about how really, this was as right as Scripture. Color television had stopped working not long after the internet, so one couldn’t tell if the people they were talking to were clay as well, or just going along.
“We’re all going to witness it,” I remember one saying, in a clean, objective voice, “The world returned to its rightful and original state. You see, the stolen fire has gone out. It should have been snuffed long ago, of course, but we persisted in sinning, in feeding it, in protecting it.”
The host nodded, smiling.
“But why haven’t we heard anything about this before?” she asked, “And how can viewers at home help darken the coals of the universal fire?”
“Well, that might be a bit more than we have time for here. What matters is that the fire was stolen, and we didn’t have a right to it. And isn’t it better to give up all the hallucinations, all the false pretenses, of that particular fever? The best way to help restore the world is simply to live virtuously.”
On the train, trying to stay distant from the world around me, I felt a chill in my left hand, and when I looked it was streaked with gray.
That’s why I decided to write something down. Not quite this – something a little less devoted to my own failings. A little less devoted to me, at all. Something that might carry on after cold unfired clay reclaims the world. This is for myself, to remind me why I have to keep going. My left arm is clay past the elbow, and I know that the fire in me is barely staying alive. But this stokes it, I think. Maybe. I talked to friends about my hand. They were all being reclaimed as well, by then. Talking about it still had an air of the absurd, of something pointless. I’m sitting on the beach, which is gray, watching the sun rise over a gray ocean.
I need to quicken whatever spark I have. How?
Friends said: “It’s how things are and we should get used to it” and “There’s nothing we can do” and even “Maybe we should try to see things their way.” We cried (gray, opaque) tears, and made (heartfelt, unlikely) promises to stand by each other.
And they one by one went colder, quieter.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand to walk through the streets. The curbs slumped, people shuffling wetly, the buildings beginning to slump like poorly cast pots on the wheel. You can’t tell who still has any skin left, since it’s all coated in wrinkling, elephantine clay.
Not that there are elephants anymore, I think. They must be gone, because the image of them in my head is vague, decayed. The physical and the immaterial collapse together now, flavors and colors bleeding away.
So I fled. I went north, to Maine, to here. The trees don’t really have branches anymore, the pine needles have formed mats of clay strands, the birds can’t even fly. The water is murky and opaque. My family’s cabin has some color left, some objects dense with unreality that have held out. I haven’t been in contact with them. There wasn’t any way, and I didn’t want to hear flat, unkind words from clay tongues. How could I stand that any more than I could stand my friends?
The things I have left: Paintings of the family on the walls. The building weeps slip down the inside walls, but the murals of my aunts and uncles when they were small still hold their color. The tools in the woodshed, though the lock has stopped working, and some of them even seem to have a little electricity left in them, somehow. Knickknacks from my grandparents’ travels, sheet music for singing folk songs. The old boat. Everything our family memories have latched on to remain as embers. Even the fireplace, though in a harsh irony the matches to light it are soft and monochrome and cold.
The lights still work, dimly. The first night here, exhausted from trudging through clay mud for days, I tried to stargaze. No planets to be seen, and there seemed to be many fewer than there should be. Even the vast strange ideas of astronomers could return to clay – we are the center of everything again.
I needed something to write with. Some flame to seal my testament. Something hot and red within me.
I’ve just come back from the woodshed. I’ll have to write quickly, since I don’t know how much longer I can stay awake. None of me is clay anymore – and there’s less of me by a significant part. I hadn’t realized how heavy my inaction was, how much I’d started to lean to the left from its imbalance. Even a little clay is heavier than a whole body of flesh.
I write right-handed, which is fortunate.
I wonder who might read this, who might find the small embers I can leave. It seems unlikely that anything will be left. Maybe the clay people will keep going once everything is flattened out. I think I won’t be one of them, at least.
(Written for Chuck Wendig’s January 2017 flash fiction prompt)