Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Whimper: A story about the birds and the bees and the end of the world as we know it.

[A story about the birds and the bees and the end of the world as we know it.]

by Scott Lefebvre

     It was the year the bees died.
     But first it was the bats.
     But no one cared about the bats because they dismissed the scientific evidence by ignorantly indulging in the old analogy that bats are just rats with wings.
     Or maybe mice.
     But first it was bats and then bees and then birds.
     But people only really started noticing when it was the bees.
     Although it’s true that bats devour tons, literally, tons of insects every year, most people didn’t notice when entire colonies of bats died off.
     Because most people associate bats with vampires and Halloween and maybe in their heart of hearts they didn’t really feel that badly about the dying of the bats.
     I’m sure they would feel differently if it was cats, but it was bats and they didn’t.
     And those that did feel badly about the disappearance of the bats watched helplessly.
     The year the bats died was the year before the bees died, but people only really noticed when the bees died.
     You see, bees provide a service.
     Aside from helping to weed out those few people that are allergic to their stings, bees also play an important part in the world.
     Bees collect pollen to make honey and various other bee byproducts, and while going about their business they carry pollen from flower to flower which cross-pollinates the flowers, which is how flowers have sex as near as I can figure.
     The bees and the flowers have developed a delicate inter-dependence.
     Without the bees, the flowers can’t have sex, and there wouldn’t be any more flowers.
     Or at least not nearly as many flowers.
     Flowers might not seem very important in the grand scheme of things, until you stop and think about how almost every fruit begins as a flower on a tree.
     Apple blossoms.   Orange blossoms.    Cherry blossoms.
     You get the idea.
     When the wild bees started to die, the few people who made their living being beekeepers were very busy.
     Farmers paid the beekeepers to bring their bees to their fields to collect pollen from their flowers, thusly helping the flowers to have sex and make fruit.
     But there weren’t enough bees to go around.
     So that year there wasn’t as much fruit as there would usually be, and what little there was, was scarce and went for inflated prices in accordance with the rules of supply and demand.
     All of this caused public outcry, and the people looked towards the people that knew about such things and demanded to know why the bees were dying.
     The people whose field of expertise was bees mostly gave complicated answers, which, in layman’s terms, basically meant that they didn’t know why the bees were dying.
     Every now and then one of them would compare the dying of the bees to the death of the bats, but that footage was edited together to make the person seem eccentric.
     People didn’t care about the bats, they cared about the bees, and they didn’t want to be reminded about the bats because they were already in a bad mood because fruit was scarce and expensive and someone, somewhere, had to have the answers.
     And if it wasn’t bad enough about the bees, then it was the birds.
     Spring arrived as it does every year, but this year when rosy-fingered dawn crept upon the horizon, people didn’t hear the incessant chirping of chicks in the trees outside their windows.
      It felt like February long after the weather had warmed, but still the days grew longer and the birds were nowhere to be found.
     There were no robins.   There were no blue jays.
     There were none of the miscellany of wild birds whose real names only avid bird-watchers knew.
     In the cities there were no pigeons, and the people that lived in the cities didn’t really miss them, but subconsciously they noticed, and they knew that something wasn’t right.
     Every night on the news, the talking heads would talk about the absence of the birds and the bees, because no one cared about the bats.   Remember?
     The birds and the bees and the flowers and the fruit.   But not the trees.
     The gist of it was that the birds were sick and dying or dead.
     The shells of their eggs were too thin and most of their eggs didn’t hatch and those that did hatch gave forth chicks that were too weak and sickly to survive so when the old birds died, there were no new birds to replace them.
     People started to get the notion that maybe somehow we had accidentally done something very bad and maybe we were being punished.
     Around the world those that believed in God thought that it was his doing.
     Some of those that believed very strongly thought that the man upstairs was sending us a message.
    That it was a warning.   That the end of times was near.   That the end was nigh.
    And maybe it was a warning, but it doesn’t seem fair to kill of all of the bats and birds and bees because we had thoughtlessly taken everything for granted.
     So without the birds and the bees, the farmers were out of work.
     There was no fresh fruit.   There were no fresh vegetables.
     Most people didn’t really notice.
     They were aware that there was a problem, but so much of our food is artificial that the change for most people wasn’t very drastic.
     Except for those that had made it their habit to eat mostly natural food.
     And those people are generally viewed as eccentric, so it’s fair to say that most people didn’t notice.
     The government knew that without the raw ingredients used to make processed food that, in time, even the processed food would run out.
     People weren’t scared.   Not yet.   But they were nervous, and people discussed the whole thing in their daily conversations.   Small talk when you bumped into someone you knew in the hallway at the office.   Small talk with strangers while waiting for the bus or the train or the plane.   At least they weren’t talking about sports, politics, or the weather.   Not that they weren’t talking about sports, politics, and the weather, but they were talking about them less now that they had something more important to talk about.   Maybe they were spending the time that they used to spend talking about terrorism and nuclear power and nuclear bombs and global warming and worrying about the impending melting of the polar icecaps and contemplating what the world would look like when sea level rose ten feet in one year, talking about the bees and the birds and joking about what’s going to happen when all of the food runs out.
     Those that knew, made “Soilent Green” jokes and felt smugly superior to those that didn’t get the reference.
     The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration secretly knew that the problem was much worse than the average person suspected, but took great pains to not let on how much worse things would get in order to not inspire the public to panic and riot.   Widespread civil disobedience and martial law was something that the powers that be would like to avoid if at all possible.
     Scientists were collected and sworn to secrecy and research was commenced and whenever someone at the lab made a “Soilent Green” joke, everyone got the reference, but as time went on, the jokes stopped being funny.
     They all knew that humans can survive on a minimum of water, protein, and a small amount of vitamins and minerals which can, for the most part, be artificially synthesized.
     But who would want to?
     The supermarkets became more and more picked over as time passed.
     All of the good stuff was gone and even the stuff that nobody usually wanted was becoming scarce.
     But you weren’t worried.
     When the bats all died, you were one of the people that noticed and cared.
     You’ve always had a place in your heart for bats and vampires and Halloween.
     The next year when you heard about the bees dying, you knew that something was wrong and it would only get worse and you wondered what would be next and you weren’t surprised when you heard about the birds.
     You had seen a lot of movies about the end of the world.
     Post-apocalyptic films in which, in the absence of civil order, humanity devolved back into savagery.
     You had seen “Soilent Green”.
     You knew you didn’t want to have to get in line and wait to be issued government rationed food stuff that looked and tasted like play-doh.
     So you stocked up before most people realized that there was something wrong.
     You bought dozens of cases of Chef Boyardee and Ramen Noodles and stacked them up in your basement.
     You figured even if it wasn’t the end of the world, it was a good idea to have them anyway, just in case, and you’d get around to eating all of it eventually.
     You had a friend that was in the Army Reserves and one weekend you drove up to the barracks and he helped you load a pallet of M.R.E.s onto the back of your pick-up truck.
     The military has a habit of overspending and no one would probably notice, and even if they did notice they wouldn’t care.
     It’s not like it’s their money.
     Well, it is, but it isn’t.   It’s government money.   So who cares?
     When the supermarkets ran out of stuff, they closed and locked their doors.
     All of the supermarket people were out of work because they ran out of food to sell, and the truck drivers were out of work, because there was nothing to bring to the supermarket, because the farmers were out of work, because there wasn’t any food to farm, because there weren’t any bees to cross-pollinate the crops.
     The government instituted a program.
     Everyone received a ration card and were issued rations.
     Your ration cards were distributed according to the last number of your social security number, which, in turn, determined which day of the week you were allowed to show up and wait in line to get rations at the government appointed distribution center.
     The media was instructed to make it sound like the rationing was universal and voluntary and necessary.
     The television announcers tried to sound upbeat when they would read the teleprompter which fed them a comparison to the rationing of the war effort during the world wars but no matter how hard they tried, the look in their eyes was most decidedly not light-hearted.
     They were just as scared as everyone else was, but they didn’t want to criticize the government.
     They didn’t want to bite the hand that fed them.
     They comforted themselves at night by reassuring themselves that they were doing their part to help, and that unnecessarily panicking the public would serve no purpose, and they thought about all of the wonderful foods that were no longer available and tried to pretend to themselves that they weren’t scared that those wonderful foods would never be available again, and eventually they fell asleep.   Just like everyone else.
     But everyone knew that rich people still had plenty of food.
     Everyone knew that there was steak and lobster to be had, but not by them, and everyone complained about it but nobody did anything about it.
     Eventually, even the stockpiles of generically packaged cheese and rice and macaroni and cheese ran out, but the government knew that this would happen and they were prepared.
     An announcement was made that there was a solution, and everyone was made aware of the fact that humans can survive on a minimum of water, protein, and a small amount of vitamins and minerals, which can, for the most part, be artificially synthesized.
     A protein-based nutrient was being produced but no one really thought too long or hard about where the protein was coming from.
     Except the people that researched and designed it, and they were being taken care of by the government and still had good food to eat, and didn’t have to eat the protein-based nutrient and didn’t want to risk their personal comfort by making too much noise about it.
     The birds may have all died and the cows had all already been turned into food.
     But there were still horses.
     And cats and dogs and rats and mice and elephants.
     The pet shops and the animal shelters and the zoos closed and then all of those people were out of work too, but by then people were more worried about food than work.
     People were getting sick.
     Those that were the most likely to have a predisposition to illness weren’t receiving adequate nutrition and they were getting sick.
     Colds and flus became pneumonia.
     If you cut yourself, it took much longer to heal.
     The social mechanisms designed to handle the deceased were overwhelmed and conventional burial was discontinued, replaced by a newly created governmental system for the disposal of the dead.
     The system had a few problems when it was begun, but it quickly adapted to meet the new demand, and no one really worried about where all of the dead people were going if they weren’t being buried, because they were too worried about their own destiny and distracted by the constant growling of their stomachs.
     The protein-based nutrient continued to be produced and distributed and those that didn’t die from illnesses brought on by weakened immune systems lived on as best they could.
     The protein-based nutrient continued to be produced and distributed even after all of the animals were gone.
     We really should have known better.
     Wasn’t mad cow disease caused by cows that were fed with food that contained ground up cows?
     People started to act weird.
     Surviving on protein-based nutrient and water and an artificially synthesized nutritional supplement of vitamins and minerals, everyone was tired all of the time.
     People didn’t have any energy, and although they hadn’t lost the will to live, they lost their lust for life.
     Then people started dying.
     Sure it’s true that living on the brink of starvation, everyone was in poor spirits and those that were predisposed to depression and suicidal thoughts were that much more likely to decide to end their own lives, but that wasn’t the reason that people started dying.
     On the news, the announcers announced that millions of people were dying, but they weren’t really dying, they were just getting really sick and instead of dying they just looked like they were dead.
     And maybe they had died, but they were still breathing and moving and if they were dead it was a death unlike any we had ever known.
     And they stopped showing up for their rations, which didn’t worry the people that hadn’t died, but not died, because there was precious little to go around, and they figured since they hadn’t died it wasn’t their problem.
     Those that still had jobs, made jokes at work about zombies, those that didn’t know who George Romero was soon knew exactly who he was, but after a while they stopped making jokes because it’s not funny anymore when it happens to someone you know or someone you love.
     But you weren’t that upset, because your parents had died before this whole thing happened, and although you have a few friends, everyone was too busy surviving to really worry about anyone else, and the one person you ever truly loved decided that they didn’t love you as much as you loved them, and they went to college, and they moved away and married someone else, last you heard.
     You call that one person, “The One That Got Away”, and every now and then you think about them and you wonder how they are and you wonder if they’re dead and that’s about the only time you ever get a little sad, but you smoke another cigarette and the sadness goes away.
     One day you get up and walk to work.
     On the way to work, you realize how quiet it is without the birds and planes flying overhead and without cars and other vehicular traffic on the streets.
     Gas has been rationed like everything else, and only governmental vehicles are allowed to use the roadways and even those are heard less and less frequently.
     Those people that aren’t dead, or are dead but not dead, are so malnourished and exhausted that they spend most of their time in bed.
     The sound of children playing is now something you remember but do not hear.
     You get to work and the doors are closed and no one’s there.
     No one called you to let you know not to bother coming in and you almost let yourself think that there wasn’t anyone left to call you but you stash that thought into the back of your mind for some later day because you don’t want to think those thoughts.
     Not yet.
     The TV doesn’t have live shows anymore.
     There are no studio audiences.
     It’s just reruns of sitcoms and news updates and even then the news updates aren’t delivered by people anymore.   It’s just a station identification card with information scrolling across the bottom.
     All of the production assistants are too sick, or dead, to go to work.
     There’s no one left to make TV.
     This doesn’t really bother you, because you never really watched TV anyway, preferring instead to watch movies from your collection.
     You’re proud that you thought ahead and got lots of food and cigarettes before the shit hit the fan and since you eat fairly well you’re not as sick and tired and dead as everybody else.
     One night you’re watching a movie and the power goes out.
     All of the generators in the basements of the stores kick in and the city is filled with the sound of alarms, but you’re not worried.
     The power has gone out before and you know what to do.
     Just hang tight and wait for the power to come back on.
     You go to bed early that night because it’s dark and reading by candlelight makes you sleepy.
     You wake up the next morning and the power isn’t back on, but you can still hear the store alarms going off in the distance and for a second you think that maybe they’re still going off because there’s no one that cares enough to go and reset them.
     Or maybe there’s no one left to go and reset them.
     And even though you’ve always said that you hate people you feel a chill in the back of your neck and you shudder, but you shake it off and open a can of beefaroni for breakfast.
     The power doesn’t come back on the next day.   Or the day after that.
     You adapt.
     Doing what you have to do by light during the day or in the early evening by candlelight.
     Weeks go by and the store alarms die out, one by one, retiring from the discordant chorus and when you wake up one day and feel that something’s missing and realize that what’s missing is that the last store alarm has died out, you realize that your cell phone hasn’t rung for weeks and you shrug and make a non-committal face to yourself.
     You wonder what happened, but you don’t want to go into the city, because there’s smoke on the horizon.
     You imagine the city on fire, and for a minute you’re excited and you’re almost overcome by the urge to walk to the city and check it out.
     But then you think of what a long walk it is, and what a pain in the ass that would be.
     But then you remember that you still have a car and you probably have enough gas to get to the city and back, but you check yourself, telling yourself that maybe you’d better save that gas because maybe someday you’ll need it.
     When and for what you don’t think too hard about.
     Because that’s not the real reason you don’t want to go and watch the city burn.
     You know that somewhere out there, there are millions of people that are dead, but not dead, and you almost laugh when you think, “undead” because that’s for zombies and vampires, right?
     But the dead walk the earth, and they’ve got to be surviving on something, and up till now, nobody knows you’re out here, alone, with a lifetime supply of food.
     So you think that you’d be better off leaving well enough alone.
     You spent so much of your life feeling disappointed by other people and you really don’t mind being alone and the quiet is quite relaxing.
     In fact, you can’t remember when you’ve felt so relaxed.
     Maybe this is just what you needed.
     Every now and then you miss what was, but it passes and you think about it less and less as weeks become months become years.
     Then, one night, you realize that you haven’t been keeping track of the time, and you’re reckoning the passage of time by the passage of the seasons.
     You furrow your brow and wonder if that seems right.
     Then you take a deep breath and let it out slow and accept it.
     Accept everything.
     You think maybe this is what was meant to be.
     You stop fighting.
     You’ve been fighting all of your life and it feels wonderful to finally let it all go.
     You smile to yourself and close your eyes and before you drift to sleep you remember.
     A part of a poem that they forced you to read and try to interpret in school.
     You resented it at the time, but now that you’ve accepted everything, even your resentment has faded like the petals of a flower in the pages of a book on the dust-laden shelves of an abandoned library.
     Unattended.   Unmourned.   Unremembered.  
     You remember the fragment from the poem.
     And in your mind you repeat the lines to yourself as you fall asleep.

     “This is the way the world ends
       This is the way the world ends
       This is the way the world ends
       Not with a bang but a whimper.”

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