the Apocalypse: Dystopias and Doomsdays
at the Dump
exactly a competition, but I'd been digging at the dump ever since
I had been old enough to care about making a living, and more
than me said I was pretty good at it. I'd pulled up bottles with
drinks still in them, and paper books that could still be read.
I had a nose for it, that's what I told people, but I didn't tell
them where I got my nose.
A lot of people
said I got my gift for finding from Snave, the creepy old bastard
who took credit for bringing me up until he came down with the
sickness. It wasn't from him, that's for sure. It wasn't from
waking up more than once a week in the dark with Snave's cold
hands on me until I was old enough to beat them away. My mother
took up with Snave after my father died. I don't remember much
about my dad, but I know Snave wasn't an improvement.
I found the
old stuff because I had a secret technique. No one had noticed,
but I didn't eat before I started digging. I would get up early,
when the grey lightened a bit, then I would sneak over the dirt
floor, my shoes in my hand because one of the soles had came loose
and had started to make noise at inconvenient times.
a crow would complain I'd woken them from a nasty crow dream,
but the pit was usually quiet when I got there. The pit itself
is just a long trench, where the best digging is, but if you have
the knack there's other stuff to be found. If I was alone, which
in the morning the chances were pretty good, I would try to ignore
the plastic blowing in the wind off the sea when the day lightened.
I would concentrate instead on feeling the ground. I would close
my eyes and picture the ground hollowed beneath me, mentally examine
the lodes of treasure, and then put them aside until a piece would
catch my mental eye. That's where I would dig. And being hungry
had been dry for a while, I'd go without eating for longer. Once
I starved for four days until I found a huge hunk of aluminium
and some cans with food in them. My father used to say, sitting
on the edge of the dump pit in the old days before it was as picked
over as it is now, that if you dug long enough you could find
one of everything in the world. "You can find anything you imagine,
boy," he told me, looking into the pit and his eyes far away.
"There's stuff down there that even the people who threw it out
didn't know what it was. Stuff no one has a use for, and stuff
people would kill you to get."
I asked him at the time.
"I hope you
never know. I hope you're never that good a digger, that you dig
up your own death."
wasn't the best digger. He was steady and careful. My mother told
me how he'd pull up a bag, and before tearing it open, like others
would, he'd shake it, and then find the tie that held it closed.
"Many's the time that he shook out delicate stuff someone else
would have broke," my mother told me, pointing to the shelf over
the fire that held things that had been precious once. As a kid
I'd looked at the fragile fingers of the porcelain hand, its missing
central finger obscured by the silk flower my dad had found and
inserted into the stump. We had porcelain dogs and glass cups,
too nice for use, until Snave broke them all drinking his rotten
I never really
planned to be a digger like my dad. I was going to be a fisherman,
like Frank. Except better. I was hoping to build a boat, like
those I'd seen in pictures in the dump books. Frank knew better
than me that we didn't have enough wood on the island for a boat,
and we never pulled up anything from the dump that could be used
to make one, but it was a long time before I gave up my dream.
Finally, I became a digger like my dad.
would've stayed a digger, if I wasn't such a good finder. Or if
I had eaten more, I'd probably be on the island right now, together
with Lyne from two houses over and raising diggers like everyone
before me. But I never even approached Lyne. I figured I needed
to raise something spectacular, something that would bend even
her iron dad, Mel, to my approval. Then I could sit with her on
the rocks near the shore and pull her hand to mine.
But I was
a good finder, and there's no point to lament that now, especially
given how everything's turned out.
I found was dissatisfaction. That's what Preacher Evans called
it. "He's found his way to the dump of hell," he told everyone
he could force to listen to him, he was so angry about it.
dig up plastic bags with what might have been food decades before,
and scraps of plastic and metal that we'd look over and then either
stockpile or burn. There was always lots of cardboard, and we
kept any wood for Mel. He said he was going to build something,
but everyone had the things they kept and wood was his. He'd made
a shed out of what could be spared from building other houses,
and there he kept scraps too small for burning, although my dad
had teased pieces away from Mel to make into something just with
a knife and some energy.
delicate stuff like the porcelain on our shelf and Osborne liked
machines. He was going to build a machine to get us off the island,
but as far as anyone saw, he just piled.
didn't like the digging. He claimed that only god was worth digging,
although he would be right in there demanding what food had been
brought up and which none of us younger ones had ever tasted.
I hadn't really
developed my own taste, and one morning, I pulled up the package.
from the dump has a look that you learn to recognize. There's
stuff that no one liked even when it was new, like an iron dog
with a movable tail, or a wooden woman whose legs move apart and
together again. Those items are never worn, like many of the fancier
kids toys which are broken and smooth-edged with playing. Most
metals are rusted into machines that I bet even the maker couldn't
recognize, and most shiny pieces of bright glass beckoning from
the mud prove to be broken and dull.
would we find something sealed. Tin cans contained foodstuffs
that in some cases were still edible, even after the intervening
years meant that such foods didn't exist anymore. Some toys were
still in unyielding plastic, soaked from ground moisture, but
otherwise perfect, as though they'd been thrown away hours before,
when the kids with too much to do had grown tired. Crazy Cara,
as we called her, found a case of knives, thin and brittle though
they were, still in a plastic and cardboard case. The lettering
on the cardboard had long since faded, but every house got a knife
from the Cara find.
tried not to think badly about the people who threw away what
we ended up digging, it was hard sometimes, when we cried to uncover
the wealth they had discarded.
On my last
day of digging I got up early, for it had been five days of finding
nothing beyond a few pieces of plastic for the fire and a re-sealable
bottle that I still have with me. My mother had begun to comment
that I'd lost my gift, and people wiggled their knife blades at
me, signifying that I was carrying bad luck and they were hoping
it wouldn't jump to them. I decided to fast. I was beginning to
worry that my skills were gone and that I'd have to make do with
junk like the rest of them.
When I arrived
at the pit, Cara was already there, scrabbling around. I ignored
her. I would have anyway, for she was prone to following if you
gave her attention, and that would throw off my concentration.
My mother said that Cara had been bit by the wrong bug, but I
blamed her mumbling ways on her age, for Cara was the oldest amongst
us after Zemro had died. She had to be over fifty, and bent over
like she was dead already.
I went away
from Cara to the far side of the pit and began to feel with my
feet and my head the ground beneath me. I reached under, pulled
up lumps of clay and rocks and meaningless metal shapes. The gift
I was making
my third pass of the section I'd mentally staked off when Cara
approached me. With my eyes closed I couldn't see her come, but
I could feel the impress of her feet on the ground. "You're digging
grated like gravel in the cold air. "Today is the day." I'd learned
that if I was cryptic with Cara she might leave.
"The day to
find nothing," Cara stomped her foot.
of her foot bounced off my mental image of the ground. As the
vibration came to me, I knew I'd found it. I kept my face shut,
but Cara could tell. "What is it?" She stamped her foot again,
as if that would make me answer. Down deep, so far I could barely
extend my mind's fingers, an image came. It wasn't flesh, which
was just as well, for bodies pulled from the dump are horrifying
incomplete. It was a reverberation, a thrum of tension.
I went over
to the pit and grabbed one of the shovels and went back to where
a piece of plastic bag kept my place.
something, haven't you?" Cara was no more than an arm's length
away and I could smell her. "You've found the big one."
at the pit, when the grey day turned sour with cold, we talked
about the big one. It kept us warm, and for some of the younger
kids, it gave them hope. They could summon the energy to dig,
especially if they thought a toy lay at the bottom, but they hated
drudgery. I never talked about the big one, although it lay buried
in my dreams just like anyone else's.
"I doubt it's
anything," I said. Bad luck followed excitement about a find,
especially when it was still covered in dirt. "But I'll just do
some digging, limber up my arms." I made a show of morning stiffness,
but Cara's sharp eyes weren't fooled. She watched me dig through
the brown surface layer, then the grey clay that lay a foot deep
everywhere on the island, and then into the black mud that hid
the treasures of the past.
I was still
digging, my muscles loosened by the pile of mud beside the hole,
when the rest of the houses emptied their contents into the dump.
Mel came with his daughter Lyne, and Frank limped by on his way
to fish and stayed, keeping an eye on his son Eddy, who wasn't
smart and couldn't be left alone but was a champion digger. He
hopped into the hole with me until I got so deep that there was
only room for one. Then I called out above, and lifted him until
he could get his purchase on the sloping sides.
the bucket on a yellow plastic rope that represented one of my
luckier finds. I filled the bucket and hefted it to him so he
could dump it out of the way. Mel and Lyne began pulling dirt
away from the crater until the light could get down to me without
slanting past the heap. In their excitement everyone was calling
out advice, although they stopped respectfully when I asked for
quiet to seek out what I'd heard. I'd received no signs since
I'd started digging, but I figured the find had gone into hiding.
They did that sometimes. I imagined a bottle full of sweet brown
drink once, only to dig in three different spots when it became
suddenly shy of the open air.
called above. I wasn't above a bit of grandstanding when I had
an audience. "I have to smell for it."
Snave taught him," I heard Frank say.
I muttered to myself. I'd argued with them before, but each person
clung to their own theories like food and drink. I wagged my head
and pretended my anger was part of a complex ritual.
teach him shit." My mother had joined the others and, far over
my head, she argued how I could sense hollows in the ground. "His
father had a bit of a nose."
I heard Mel's
good-natured joke about my father's face from far away as though
I was drowning. I was further into the mud than I'd ever been
and I felt the weight of the mud over me. For the first time I
became a lode of an object underground myself. I stopped breathing
for a moment and felt faint. "You okay down there?" Lyne called,
and I breathed again.
It's just this is a big one." With Lyne as my audience, I couldn't
resist bragging. When I finally uncovered the package, most people
were gone from the hole. In their sensitive way, they feared I'd
overreached myself and, afraid of coming up empty, I was going
to dig to sea water like the legend of Dan the dump digger. They
had left to their own business, Frank to the sea to try his luck
with fish, and Mel and Lyne to the beach to see what might have
washed up. But I still had my mother, faithfully lowering buckets,
and Cara, waiting like a half-dead crow, torn between hope for
something fantastic and delight in my failure.
it," I yelled up to my devoted few, then climbed the slick mud,
clutching the precious package to me.
too far away to hear me, but Mel and Lyne had stuck close just
"Open it already,"
Cara was practically tearing at it with her eyes, but I shook
has to be here. This is the big one." My entire career as a digger
fell away from me. Even if I opened a well-wrapped body of an
animal as we sometimes found, I knew I was done digging. I endured
a few jokes at my expense as Frank went for Osborne, and in the
distance Eddy hurried back, lurching to one side in his excitement.
As I placed
my package on the ground, I heard Cara echo my claim. "This is
the big one." It sounded tinny somehow coming out of her mouth.
was cardboard wrapped in many layers of clear sticky plastic.
I cut that away with the flimsy knife I'd received from Cara's
haul, and revealed more plastic. I cut through layer after layer,
exposing cardboard that hadn't seen daylight for who knows how
many years until I got to a sealed container. I could feel it.
The thrumming was louder now. The package was talking to me.
My avid audience
leaned forward. Their hands grappled with the plastic and paper
I'd already taken off as if clearing the way, but really wanting
a tactile confirmation of what I'd found. I swept away the trash,
helped by their eager hands and then, following my private ritual,
I began to bend the edge of the container like I had others that
call came from the other side of the pit, and such was its creak
that Frank said afterwards he thought it was a crow gone mad from
the stress of the moment. Once we saw it was Preacher Evans, we
turned back to the package. He constantly told us we shouldn't
have what we found because what was buried was sacred. He wanted
us to fish and grow our food, to eat and to reproduce. He wanted
us to forget that life had once been different, for others at
have no idea what you've found. He is evil that brought that to
the surface." Mel looked nervously towards Evans and Lyne reached
out for her father's hand.
Evans." I was as wracked as anyone else, but I wasn't going to
let Evans convince everyone to put what I'd found back into the
ground. "This is the big one."
"It will mean
the destruction of us all," Evans was raising his hands to hit
someone when I opened the container with a popping sound. Lyne
leaned in to smell the air from years before, just as we always
did. Hoping that we'd get some sense of a time that had passed
somehow without any of our recollection. "Smells good." Cara sounded
calmer than she had in years.
rumpled newspaper in the bottom of the plastic box, was another
box. I suddenly feared that I'd been tricked. A sound of hollow
laughter reflected from the empty ground. "What is it?" Frank
broke the spell.
"I don't know."
I lifted out the paper and gave it to my mother, who would want
to keep it. The box was a sealed plastic device, with various
wheels and indicators on one side.
a note," my mother said as she unfolded one of the pieces of plastic.
"It says it's a radio." We savoured the word on our tongues.
it do?" In his eagerness, Mel pushed on my mother's arm, earning
a sharp look from her.
"It will kill
us all." Most of us had forgotten Evans in the excitement of the
a working radio,' it says." My mother liked to show that she could
read. Few others on the island could and it was a point of pride
and contention. "'I am sorry for all the trash we have left you,
but I hope that you make use of this as I have. I am sorry for
Mel snatched the paper from my mother's hand and scanned it. Frank
grinned, for Mel couldn't read and the paper would mean nothing
for this, I guess." I held it up where we could all see it, slapping
away Eddy's hand. "It's a device of some sort," I said positively.
No one knew any better than me what it was, but Cara's quick hand
was the one that started it.
to turn this." She reached out and twisted one of the wheels.
There was a click and then a hissing noise. If I had been more
certain of the box's solidity, I would have thrown it back into
the pit. As it was, I held it like a live rat, afraid it would
bite if I kept it, and afraid of what I would lose if I threw
it away. "And you turn this to make it clear," Cara twisted another
you know a lot about these things." Frank was reaching to touch
it himself when a voice came out of the box. I set it down carefully,
not wanting to hurt it but eager to get it out of my hands. As
I did, the voice faded, then became stronger again.
where my hand is," I said, wonderingly. "Look." I passed my hand
back and forth over the machine, and the voice faded accordingly.
"It can detect movement."
When we backed
away the voice became stronger, and to our amazement we could
understand it. It was evening finally, when we picked up the radio
and brought it to my house. Preacher Evans complained the entire
way, but after Mel warned him that he'd have no food if he persisted,
he finally slunk away. Lyne was looking at me with the shining
eyes of my dream now that I'd found the big one, but once I was
actually in the moment, I was too distracted to give her the attention
the occasion called for.
told of grey weather and storms, of floods and deaths. Although
the sounds must have been trapped in the radio from before, what
the voice was saying compared uneasily, in my mind, with our present
weather. I twisted the wheel when I was alone, only to find other
voices, other concerns, and late at night when the radio died,
I realized that we were not alone.
idea that there were other islands and other people elsewhere
had been bandied around, I had not been an advocate. Cara saw
boats in the distance, Osborne's machines weren't local, Mel knew
his wood didn't grow on our island and he talked about other people
as a possibility, as if to explain how his daughter's hair could
be red. Only Preacher Evans claimed that we were the only ones
alive, and I had found myself in reluctant agreement with him.
for me at least, was confirmation that not only were there people
on other islands, but they were close enough for their voices
to be picked up by the device.
was sceptical. "You're talking like Cara now. Going to be looking
out to sea like her, every cloud somebody coming."
"I know what
Cara says, but she might be right. We never considered that."
are you going to do about it?" My mother sat in the plastic chair
that my father had pulled out of the sucking mud. The stains had
never come off, but the chair was one of few in the houses.
to build a boat." I went to bed defiantly, but my mother's look
of pity made it difficult to sleep.
The next morning
I went to find Frank to ask him what he knew about boats. "You're
a fisherman, Frank. You must know something about them."
"I could use
one, that's for sure. What have you been talking to Cara again?"
Frank didn't try to hide his smile.
"I mean it
Frank. You remember the books?"
all kinds of things in those books. Better off without them, that's
what I say."
I left Frank
as he was giving me advice on continuing what I did best instead
of competing with his fishery. Next I went to Mel and told him
I intended to make a boat.
the wood on the island, boy," he said, glancing involuntarily
towards his shed.
I came to you, Mel. I need your shed."
"Look, I didn't
collect all that wood to-"
"No you didn't,
Mel. I did. Me and everyone else. And I finally know why. I want
to make a boat, or more like a platform."
Mel dredged up the word with difficulty.
A raft." It was in front of me now. "A raft."
to lose all my good wood for nothing," Mel complained. "Just so
you can go chase some voices that can't even keep going through
I spent a
few hours arguing with a weakening Mel until I convinced him to
open the shed, then I went to see Osborne. Osborne was easier
to convert to my way of thinking. He already had his theories
about other islands from his machines so he willingly gave me
three of the many containers of nails we'd pulled from the mud
of the dump, or wrested from the rotting grasp of wood on the
passed before I had a craft that I thought would hold together
long enough for me to get to another island. I had fastened Mel's
wood as best I could with Osborne's nails and some wire, and then
caged it in light woven metal from the dump. When it was ready,
my mother brought some of the others by to comment, thinking that
as a group they might halt me in my suicidal path. Setting aside
their fears, and the caterwauling of Preacher Evans, I dragged
my ugly, lopsided creation down to the sea.
The day was
nice, grey with a light wind whipping the water to whitish waves.
I tried to give Lyne a kiss goodbye and was rebuffed and then
I hugged my mother. She wiped tears from her eyes, the first I'd
seen in years, and said, "You're going to your death, son. Evans
I'd seen Preacher
Evans sniffing around my mother, and I'd not missed her use of
his name, but since I was leaving her alone I could scarcely complain
if she found solace in his company. "I hope not. I hope I'm going
to find some others."
My raft set
off to the accompaniment of a ragged cheer, although Lyne turned
away with Mel while I was still close enough to the shore to see
her. I watched, the raft heaving sluggishly beneath me, as one
by one my community turned back to their lives. My mother stayed
the longest, and I looked for her figure even when it became impossible
to distinguish from the broken rock of the distant shore. Watching
my island drift away from me, I felt as if I were being pulled
from a reluctant sleep, as the gentle tug of the current and the
indifferent breeze took me out to sea. Just before my island was
consumed by the restless waves, as I stood to glimpse the cluster
of houses that was my island's tallest point, I was seized with
an urgency to return. I spent some time splashing the water with
a board I'd chosen for a paddle, until I collapsed on the deck,
my island lost behind me and nothing ahead except for ghostly
voices from a radio.
I was careful
to ration the water I'd brought with me in fragile dump bottles
capped with plastic bags and twine, but the small store of food
I'd been given was more difficult to divide. I cut open a few
of the precious tins early in the second and third day, although
when my potatoes shrivelled I regretted my earlier impetuousness.
I was still optimistic on the fourth day when a drifting shape
proved to be a large piece of foam. I watched it go by with interest.
It was beyond my reach, so I couldn't add it to the raft, but
as flotsam I felt it was a harbinger of more solid land, the bigger
dump of my dreams.
Once my food
was limited to a few wizened carrots and I'd set out the tins
in hope of gathering drinking water, I began to fish in earnest.
Frank had given me, in his sober way, three of his prize hooks,
and cautioned me in their use, but only now that I was growing
desperate did I trail them behind me. I used fabric from my shirt
for bait and licked it until it was wet with my taste, just as
Frank had taught me. Although the fish I pulled from the water
were few and limp, I devoured them whole so that their fluid might
pass to me. After my clamouring stomach resounded with the numberless
days, I began to question why'd I'd left. I listlessly tugged
on the string that held my remaining hook-the others being taken
by larger fish who'd disappeared with my meal. The radio was bait
for an elaborate trap, I realized, and I drained precious energy
into profanity and entreaties from my cracked lips.
I was facedown, hanging over the water and eating the slimy weed
that accumulated on the underside of the raft, did the urge to
drink seawater occur to me. Although I instinctively rejected
the idea, I found it impossible to set aside, and finally, impulsively,
I dipped into the water and drank from my hand. My lips burned
from the salt, but even thirstier, I drank until I choked from
The many days
that were my raving, as I passed into the final stages of salt
poisoning and starvation, came to an end finally, as I was shaken
from sleep by uncomfortable waves. I turned bleary eyes to rocks
and the splashing that indicated a shore, and was just raising
my hand when I was tipped by the raft upending in the curled waves.
I gasped, summoned energy I thought I'd lost, and thrashed the
water until I was close enough to stand. I walked, picking my
way from delirium to fantasy, until I fell, whirling, upon the
There I was
found by the fisherfolk who live along the beach. They gave me
small amounts of water, and my ravings gradually subdued. As I
regained my strength I began to wonder at the strange faces I
saw about me. I continually expected, when someone approached
the room they'd lent me for my convalescence, to turn and see
Frank's kindly and lined face, or Evans' haughty insincerity.
Instead, the solid bulk of Emma, the wife of Tom, the tall fisherman
who'd found me, would greet my surprised sight. I felt as though
I was continually being shaken awake from one shallow dream into
another one which was only slightly more convincing.
When I was
strong enough on my feet I ventured outside and saw the hillside
leap to the sky behind the village, and the other houses that
clung to the narrow shore. I compared them to the orderliness
of my own island and found them wanting. I missed the stolid good
sense of Frank, which he had learned from many years on the shore,
and the familiarity of my mother. The fisher people were loud
and laughing, and one night, from far away, I heard sounds they
said was music. The island was strange and chaotic, and although
they were very kind, I felt like a curiosity.
I was taken to the mainland and met the people who lived there.
There were no more than a few thousand of them, but for me, accustomed
as I was to my tiny village, they were a bewildering array of
humanity. They lived in brick and wooden buildings, made their
living by lush gardens and fishing, and even had time for forays
into the ruins of cities, which to hear them tell it, were larger
than my entire island. There they would recover working machines
and I was shown piles of old books that were treated with a nonchalance
that would have made my mother cry. Their bustling town was planted
with trees. That felt like a mirage to me, since I'd only seen
such things in pictures. The tallest plant on our island was the
tenderly cared for bush near Mel and Lyne's house that was shorter
than me. Here they made boats, and on the bay in the distance
I saw someone re-learning the use of the sail.
On our tiny
island, living in such mental and physical privation, our only
respite the discarded trash of a former time, we had no idea of
the broad world. When they asked me to explain, I was ashamed.
When they asked me to help them locate the island so they might
rescue my people, horrified, I could not. At their question, the
enormity of what I'd done came home to me. I was blown by this
wind and that for so many days, I was delirious for so much of
the time, I had no idea which direction I'd come.
realization finally hit, I became disoriented. I was caught piecing
together branches from trees, and trying to pull the makeshift
raft into the sea, trying to feel the land with my feet, as I
had the dump when I'd found the radio, but there was no echo of
my distant island. I was gently returned to the shore-side cabin
where Emma and Tom, out of an understanding perhaps, of our common
mariner heritage, they let me stay.
I go with Tom onto the sea in a boat none of my people could craft
because of a lack of wood, and we let out nets the like of which
I had not even imagined. When we pull up the thousands of silvery
fish, we sort those too small and deformed to eat and throw them
back into the sea. Every day I go with him and scan the grey horizon,
straining my eyes just as in his house I strain my memory, trying
to remember the way home, trying to unearth enough about my island
that my description might make sense to the mainlanders.
I have often
fantasized about my return. Frank would see us first, and call
to my mother, and Mel would bring Lyne and Cara. Safely behind
them Preacher Evans would howl of devils from the sea, but we
would go to shore and welcome them, and feed them food they had
only found in tins. We would bring them to the larger world, where
their children might prosper, and learn to have higher aspirations
than a good find at the dump.
now, after thirty years, that Lyne has likely long since given
her children to another, and that my mother, Cara, Osborne, Mel,
and nearly everyone I knew is dead. I am long-lived for my clan,
eating so well here on the mainland, but the price of that longevity
is that I am forced to remember the island. I remember the life
we led there, and that by my leaving, and by the betrayal of my
mental frailty, I have abandoned them to a misery unrelieved even
by their one entertainment-digging up the trash of a former time.
I try to persuade
myself that somewhere, out on the broad reaches of the limitless
ocean, lies a tiny island. Somewhere, beyond my reach, a people
eke out an existence. If I am remembered at all, it is as the
one who drifted away in the wind and never came back.
I send this
message to you, who should have been my distant family, who hopefully
retain enough curiosity about the world to break the bottle that
contains it. In it, preserved from the ocean's careless corrosion,
you will find my hapless explanation and hear my vain appeal.
You have not the wood to leave the island and we cannot come,
but I would wish that you cast your imagination wide, and in that
ephemeral net gather enough driftwood to follow my ill-considered