9. Dark Tides
At night I sharpen the axe, the whetstone cold in my hand. Though I keep the door closed to shut out the spiders, the sound still echoes along the library corridors the way I like it: shing, shing, shing. In one of the books here—The Untold History of Japanese Weaponry—I’ve read about samurai katanas so sharp that they would slice straight through a dropped handkerchief, not a frayed thread to be seen. Though it’s impossible, I hope to make the axe this sharp; then Elroy will know I mean business. To retaliate, Elroy plays recordings of shock jock talkback shows on his radio. Somewhere in the library’s vast halls and labyrinthine corridors, the two sounds—the shing of the axe and the banal voices of the radio hosts—meet each other, as if in some bizarre crash of signification.
Soon the library will be my territory alone. The books, rotten with humidity from the water that submerges the lower levels, will be my empire. Mine and Sammi’s: Sammi, who stands on the little rise nearby, thinking her tree-thoughts. After the spider bit her, I begged her to put down roots in the library, and at first she agreed, but then, as the change set in, she started staring off into space, thinking her verdurous thoughts. Finally, like all the others, she planted herself on the little green rise that overlooks the library. I miss her: her dark hair, her easy laugh, her sporting gait. I met her here, in the library, and I will not give it up. Not to Elroy. Not to anyone. Sometimes, when I wake in the middle of the night, I return to sharpening the axe, my mind filled with feverish thoughts of violence.
But in the mornings, these dark visions clear. Strapping the axe to my back, I pull away the rags from the gap beneath the door and push it carefully open. Then I move slowly out. Sometimes the spiders scuttle along the walls, great big hairy beasts with crystalline hairs that glitter in the light.
But this morning there are no spiders to be seen. This is when you must be most afraid, for they hide in the shelves, clasping onto the backs of books, watching and waiting. This is how Sammi was bitten. She was looking for a book on willow pattern vases (she loved pottery; the finest mark of civilisation, she called it) when the spider got her.
‘It was sitting beneath the covers, underneath the book,’ she said. When I cried, she patted me gently on the arm.
That’s where the spiders will be now, as I leave my room: between the covers of the books.
Now that the door is open, I can discern the shock jocks on the radio. ‘Immigrants,’ one of them says, ‘should be grateful that they are allowed in. They need to integrate. Not hold themselves apart. They need to understand our values.’
The sound grates on my nerves. Elroy thinks it will drive me out. But he doesn’t understand. He will never comprehend the depth of my commitment. He doesn’t understand anything at all.
I pad along the passageway and pass into the vast hall. Long-dead computer terminals are lined in rows. I’ve tried to start them up, but of course it’s hopeless. There hasn’t been any power for years. Through the window, the city can be seen, the towers rising out of the waters like the stumps of dead trees. Vines hang from the broken windows. Sometimes I fancy I see lights in them, the fires of our last little grouplets. Sometimes I dream of joining them, but that would mean leaving Sammi, and I could never do that. Perhaps they could move across to this art precinct and stay in one of the nearby buildings, like the museum. But it’s just my imagination. There might be people further inland, past the great dunes that shift over the suburbs, submerging great swathes of houses like vast sandy waves, uncovering others which have been buried for months. Or perhaps the people are all gone—dead or transformed—and we are the last men, Elroy and I.
Down the stairs I creep, for I must see if my nets have caught any fish. If the great land-animals have gone, then the sea creatures seem to have re-emerged, though they are uncannily changed, just like the spiders.
I reach the first floor and he is there—Elroy. He looks up at me, his eyes like caves under his dark brows. I can see where he must have plucked his eyebrows a few days ago. He was always so fastidious, but now I can see the tiny hairs regrowing. He looks at me balefully. Something has changed.
‘Elroy.’ I take a step back, frightened. ‘It’s good to see you.’
He nods. ‘I trust you’re keeping well.’
I shrug. ‘Yes, well, you know how it is.’
He holds up a bag of seafood. Inside are distorted shapes, warped three-tailed creatures with eyes and mouths in odd, unsettling places. An octopus shifts within and emits a singing noise. These new creatures make long, sad sounds.
‘Evolution,’ says Elroy.
‘No. Devolution,’ I say stridently.
As he holds the bag in the air, I catch a glimpse of his uncovered arm, where little patches of brown are interspersed with nodules of olive. With a thrill of horror I realise he has the macules and papules of someone who is changing.
‘Elroy, you’ve been bitten!’ I stare at his arm with alarm.
He looks disinterestedly at his arm, looks back at me. ‘Oh, that.’
‘You have to amputate. It’s the only way.’ I think of the axe.
He looks at me again and rolls his shoulders. He looks over my shoulder, as if there’s something behind me. ‘When I was young, I thought that the world was filled with wonders. But I didn’t know what that meant. You think you’re going to do something special, but really, you’re just going to repeat everything that’s come before. Survive and consume and destroy. Look—’ He points to his shirt, cut so sharply to fit his form. Now I can see that there are stains on it. He gestures to them ambiguously, as if that is compelling enough. ‘The human race is finished. Let the spiders into your room. It’s time to move beyond.’
I back away from him, and his cavernous eyes follow me. ‘How far has the change spread?’
He pulls up his shirt to reveal not only the brown macules and olive knobbly papules of the first stage of the change, but the jutting brown bark-like growths of the second. How long has he kept this from me? I feel like I’ve been betrayed.
I back further away from him, towards the broken window that leads onto the green rise where Sammi stands with the others. ‘Have you picked a place to plant yourself?’
He shrugs, looks out over the water. ‘It’s really something, the way you feel the air on your skin and the ground beneath your feet. It’s as if you want to, I don’t know, rest. Don’t you want to rest?’
‘It’s been good to see you, Elroy.’ I back past the remains of the water feature, where rocky and moist ground sits within a square enclosure. The humidity from the basement waters condenses onto the dirt there, allowing little mosses to grow.
‘Open your door,’ he calls out, but I’m already out of the library. I need to speak to Sammi.
Sammi stands two-thirds of the way up the hill, closing and opening her mouths slowly. The copse is filled with vibrations as the trees hum little sounds. The branches of a far section of the wood are completely covered with spider webs, even though the trees move these branches like arms; which, in a certain sense, they are.
I step lightly between the trunks and Sammi leans towards me and rumbles softly. I touch her barky skin, which vibrates beneath my fingers.
‘Elroy’s been bitten,’ I whisper excitedly. ‘Soon he’ll plant himself up here and the library will be ours!’
Sammi sways from side to side and emits a high singing whine which wavers in quarter-tones like an eastern instrument. The others start to shake up and down disturbingly. I glance around, worried that spiders might fall from the branches.
‘I’ll be able to transplant you into the library, where the water feature was, remember? Then we can be close.’
Now the trees thrash and spiders drop from some of their branches. Though the sky is overcast, the spiders' hairs refract a rainbow sheen. They scuttle behind the trunks, out of view, but the sight of them has filled me with fear.
‘You’ll be happy there,’ I say. 'We’ll be together.' Sammi always took time to convince—she was contrary. I’d met her when I visited the library looking for a book on property development.
‘That’s where the money is,’ I said. ‘Subdividing.’
She laughed. ‘That’s not you.’
In that moment, I think she won me over. It seemed only an instant later that we were together. But there was another side to her truculence. Just before the floods there had been two weeks of burning hot days. The first sand dunes started moving across the landscape. When the weather services predicted a lovely ‘warm front’, like most people I assumed the worst. But she declared it would all be fine. Even though she knew it wouldn’t be. I loved that about her, somehow. She was always hopeful, see.
Still, as we sat in her office in the library, I said, ‘We have to go, Steff. We have to get out of here.’
‘You go without me, if you want. I’m staying. This is my place, this library.’
‘Then it’s my place too.’
‘You should go, really.’
‘We’ll be fine here,’ I said.
‘Our problem,’ Sammi said, ‘is that we think fucked-up people are interesting.’
‘I’m not fucked up,’ I said.
‘Yes, but then again, I’m not sure you could be called interesting either.’
‘You’re so intractable, I love that about you.’
She smiled and placed her hand over mine and looked out at the rushing river. When I looked up, I saw Elroy gazing in at us from the hallway, his eyebrows immaculately plucked, his shirt neatly tucked in to his trousers. He smiled greasily at us and moved on. But something in that smile stayed with me. It was as if he knew something that I didn’t. Even then Elroy had it in for me.
On the hill, a spider scuttles from behind a trunk and starts hopping unnervingly towards me. I pull the axe from my back and hold it ominously in the air. The spider seems to comprehend this and hops away.
‘Once he’s planted himself up here,’ I say to Sammi, 'we can move you back. It won’t be long now.’
She lets out a long sigh, like the sound of wind along a beach.
When I return to the library, my net full of fish, I feel somehow deflated. I close my door, replace the rags, and light my little fire. The fish steams over the flame as I consider everything. Things, which have barely changed for so long, have taken a sudden leap forward. The stasis to which I have become accustomed has lost its balance and now things seem to be reconfiguring themselves. This is what I have hoped for, isn’t it?
From far away, I can hear the shock jocks on the radio. ‘You’ve got a collection of John Oxleys? Is that the actual things or . . . ’ And then, ‘The point is that we have to detain them. I mean, we can’t just let all of them in. We’d be flooded. Anyway, there’s a new television show taking the world by storm, and on the line, we have one of the contestants, the young and beautiful singer—’
To calm myself I sharpen my axe, though now I have no use for it. In fact, it has only killed once, as far as I recall. When I was young, my grandfather had me hold down a chicken on his farm. The thing had gone psychotic, he said, but I think he just wanted to show me how to kill. It was the usual story: a struggling bird, the quick strike, spouting blood like a hose, the chicken continuing to scrabble, scratching my arms. From that moment, death terrified me.
I fall asleep to the memory of the headless chicken scratching my arm, and when I awake, the room is black.
A shape squats in the darkness.
‘God, Elroy, what are you doing?’ I reach out for the axe, but it’s not by my side.
Elroy holds the axe and looks at it curiously. ‘It’s wood, you know. It’s our people.’
‘Elroy, get out of here. You’re not allowed in my room.’
‘It’s a symbol for everything that was wrong, isn’t it?’
‘Elroy, I mean it.’
‘I have something to tell you. You’ve been upsetting them. I felt it today. You should leave her alone.’
‘She’s my girlfriend.’
‘She was filled with the sense that things were ending. She wanted the change, you know.’
‘She did not.’
‘She let herself be bitten by that spider. She told me. She said, “I want to transform. This place is not for us anymore. The human race is finished. It’s time for a new evolutionary shift. Like the moment we stepped out of the waters. Like the moment the dinosaurs died out. It’s in the logic of the universe.” That’s what she said.’
I start to cry. ‘Elroy, please. This is my room. You can’t just come in here. I don’t come into your room, do I?’
And he’s gone. I close the door rapidly, push the rags up against it and fall back onto the pile of old clothes I use as a mattress. The room smells of fish. I stare into the darkness as I lie there, thinking murderous thoughts. Elroy thinks he can just do anything, that the library is his empire. When I fall asleep, I dream of my grandfather killing the chicken, but somehow my grandfather is Elroy, and he plucks his eyebrows and wears meticulously arranged clothes. ‘Hold it down,’ he says. But the headless chicken scrabbles at my skin.
When I awake, I am relieved. I take a deep breath, open my eyes, and look at the great long-haired spider sitting happily on the wall.
At first, the macules are barely visible. Just little brown spots where the spider bit me. But they quickly spread over my skin like moss. Shortly afterwards the skin on my arm starts to bulge, as the olive green papules emerge. I spend the next few days obsessively looking at myself, as if by sheer will I can turn back the change. But it’s no good. Within a week, the first bark-like rough patches can be seen, and soon these will spread to my torso. Then all will be lost. I’m filled with shame, and barely leave my room. I can’t tell Sammi; she will be so disappointed with me. But Elroy—how I hate him. Like Sammi, he was a librarian, but he never cared for books. No, he cared only for status, for image. He cared for his clothes most of all. He preferred sharp clean cuts, classic greys and blacks. The narcissism leaked from him like sweat on a hot day.
Once he said to me, ‘You hate me because I’m so like you.’
I felt as if I’d been punched. My eyes blinked rapidly. ‘If that was true, then wouldn’t I be obsessed with my clothes?’
He looked me up and down and smiled cruelly. ‘Touché.’
But now Elroy’s changed, as if he’s been replaced by someone who looks exactly like him, but everything is slightly askew. He has been sent to ruin me; I’m sure he let the spider into my room deliberately.
Now I sharpen my axe each night with renewed vigour and listen to the shock jocks on the radio. I think for a moment they mention Sammi, but surely I’m imagining it.
‘It’s a matter of jobs,’ one of them says. ‘Look around at the country. Jobs don’t grow on trees.’
The other one laughs and says, ‘And hardly any of them have the skills we need. But back to the new television show. The last contestant to be eliminated was Sharna McLea, famous for her rendition of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”.’
In one corner of the room, I have arranged a tourniquet and prepared a fire. My plan is simple. I will amputate my arm, using the axe. I will then plunge the stump into the fire, cauterising the wound, sealing the blood vessels. But I must remain alive; humanity cannot be allowed to die out. Are we not the pinnacle of evolution? Didn’t we fly the skies and swim the seas? Did we not control nature before this—aberration?
I build up the fire with marketing textbooks and place the axe-head against my elbow. This is where I will have to cut it, I decide, to avoid bones. In my right hand, I pick up a massive book called TV Stars of Today and Tomorrow, and prepare to strike. With my hand hovering in the air, I hesitate.
Before the operation, I need to visit Sammi, to let her know that I will still move her into the library. That we will be together again. Down the corridor and into the book-filled hall I pass. The walls seem to be shifting as spiders move around them, looking for something. I can hear them, now, whispering to each other their strange and alien spider-thoughts. These thoughts seem to move on irregular vectors, like the obtuse angles of a web. Down the stairs I step, reaching the first floor. There I stop in horror. For planted in the middle of the water feature is Elroy, his arms waving in the air, sprouts bursting from his bark-like chest. He glances at me with the remains of his eyes.
Furious, I stride over to him. ‘You can’t plant yourself here. This is my library. Mine and Sammi’s.’
Elroy’s legs have fused together and his feet have dug into the ground. He turns at the waist towards me and speaks slowly. ‘The invisible threads have snapped. Can’t you feel it?’
I can feel things shifting inside me, the sudden movement of a dark tide, pulling everything along with it. For a moment I sway, and feel the wind on my bark, a gentle sensuous tickling, like Sammi’s hand brushing over me. I shake my head and pull the axe from my back. ‘I warned you.’
His eyes blink and a mouth opens in his now thick neck. It lets out a gentle hum, which vibrates within my stomach. I can feel it, the change. New perceptions of growth rise up in me. It’s an opening out, a reaching—not into the rest of the world, but into organic matter, the stuff of life, the constant self-evolution of things we once might have called cell division, but which I now understand as the leaping and starting of spirit itself. I am becoming a tree-man and it feels as terrible as it feels good, for parts of my humanity are dissolving like matter in water. Parts of me are breaking off and drifting away.
‘I warned you,’ I yell. I raise the axe up over my shoulder, prepared to plunge it into his trunk. There is only room for me and for Sammi here, not for this imposter.
But images of my grandfather killing the chicken come to me. I cannot bring the axe down. Instead, I let it drop from my hands onto the floor and run from that dreadful room out onto the hill, to Sammi.
The entire wood seems to be shifting and swaying to music I can now hear. I can feel the spiders crawling over our skin, lightly, like little dancers. I yearn to stand and let them come to me, take from me what they need, move on to find the last of the humans, to invite them to join us. But I cannot. I will not. For I am still one of those humans. Instead, I run up to Sammi, among the swaying trees and throw my arms around her. I begin to cry.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ I say.
She croons at me, a lilting, arborous, quarter-toned trill. She invites me to join them, these new creatures, not human, not tree, but sentient things halfway in between. Some part of me reaches out to her, but I know now that she is not there. There is no Sammi Bernhoff. There is only this new and alien thing that exists beyond humanity, the evidence of a new logic emerging. She left me a long time ago. With that, I let her go as well, and the final part of me breaks off.
And so I stagger back towards the empty library, which looms above me, the lost image of my dreams. When I am inside, I stand for a moment, surveying its vast reaches that once were filled with people: laughing children and studious teenagers; policemen and detectives; loners and groups. I know, now, where I belong.
When I plant myself in the remains of the water feature, I hear Elroy chirping away happily. My toes plunge into the damp earth, pushing their way into the ground. The cool dirt embraces my roots, pressing in on me, giving me the stability I have long yearned for. Nearby spiders scuttle and jump towards me, grasp my bark, climb into my branches. Others I send out through the library, for they are part of us—our hands and eyes. The spiders take our thoughts with them; we are one organism. Through the spiders, we can see. A few days later, my roots entwine with Elroy’s.
Things change. The sand belts engulf the last of humanity’s suburbs, burying the skeletons of those who have died, unearthing them again a little later, scattering the bones across the ruins of the houses. The whole city resembles nothing so much as a great collapsing cemetery. Our spiders flock over the land in waves, creating a new civilisation wherever they go. While we—I—watch on from my place in the library.
Strange creatures venture across the land, scrabbling land-crabs capable of building primitive tools. A flock of crystalline butterflies, their wings brilliant blues and oranges, flutter one day around the library. They won’t let the spiders embrace them, for they, like the final humans, want to keep their identities.
When two of those humans finally arrive at the library, we watch on calmly, knowing that no matter how much they struggle, evolution has passed them by.
The blue-overalled woman looks warily around the library. ‘We’ll have to clear the place of spiders. Unless we want to go back to the towers.’
The man nods and picks up the axe, which lies there on the ground next to me. ‘Look at this.’ He touches the blade. ‘Ah, it’s sharp.’
We call to the spiders, who come scuttling and leaping. The woman points a nozzle attached to what looks like a fire extinguisher. A spray bursts over the spiders, who slip, slide, and curl up like clenched fists. A spike of fear drives through my trunk. Who are these humans?
‘Let’s seal off that window,’ the woman says.
The man gets to it, and pretty soon he’s boarded up the opening. When he returns, he says, ‘Fire?’
The woman passes the axe back to him. He looks up at Elroy and me. ‘Which one do you think?’
She glances between us. ‘The larger one.’
He steps beside Elroy, who lets out a wail like that of a steam engine. ‘I hate the way they scream like that.’ The axe hovers, plunges into Elroy’s trunk.
Pain shoots through me. Elroy’s roots grasp tightly onto mine.
‘This axe really is sharp.’ The man’s face takes on a hard edge and he swings again. They’re cruel, these humans. Pitiless. For a thousand years they cut and burnt and razed and dug. A thousand years of tyranny.
Elroy cries and wails as the axe strikes again and again. His branches sway; his trunk shakes. We call more spiders, but again the woman sprays them, and they scrabble and turn over and die. The remaining ones slink into corners and hide themselves between the covers of books, leaving us to face these humans alone. Elroy finally crashes to the ground beside me, his roots still clasping mine in a death embrace. His body-trunk shudders a final time on the ground before he is extinguished. Out on the hill, we cry together, for a part of us has been obliterated.
‘We can cut the other one down later,’ the man says.
The woman looks at me, ‘Don’t you think we should leave one of them? Keep the place a bit pretty?’
The man shrugs. ‘Let’s go and have a look around.’
They are gone then, and we are left with our grief. I recall now, what it was like to be human: that restless energy, that drive to survive, to struggle. They have short lives, and this makes them savage and desperate, while we live the long slow rhythms of arboreal time. If we are the slow shifting sands, they are the flood, rushing suddenly on, submerging all beneath them. Like drummers out of time, these two rhythms do not form a counterpoint, but clash in awful discord. As night falls around the library, I hear a radio start up, playing recordings of two shock jocks. ‘You’re listening to Brightman and the Ferrett. So to round up, we’re saying that they’re just not a part of our society, are they? They just don’t fit. And on that note, let’s get back to our favourite television show, where the votes are just in.’