She could not comprehend what had happened, what those princes from another star had intended to accomplish, whether they had in fact accomplished it, or why they had gone.
A flicker of alarm trembled her heart when she glimpsed movement in the sky, but she saw that this, too, was good and right. Overhead a hawk turned in a widening gyre.
The bark of a dog, not one of theirs, drew her attention to the north end of Main Street. The Irish setter, first seen the previous day, led three adults and a group of children toward the bank. The number of kids in that procession had increased since she had waved at them on Marine Avenue.
Another bark, this time from a curly-coated mutt of many breeds, announced the approach of another group from the south end of Main Street. One adult, seven children, and a golden cat that guarded their western flank.
Molly felt Neil’s gaze, met his eyes, moved to him, and took his hand.
A third group—four adults, more than twenty children, and a host of dogs—called out as they approached through the small park across the street.
Of all the shocks and astonishments of the past thirty-six hours, none had affected Molly more profoundly than this, and certainly none had lifted her heart as this lifted it.
In a quarter of an hour, the last of nine groups arrived, and Molly was able to tally the surviving population of Black River, where once more than two thousand people had lived. Twenty-two adults, most of them parents. One hundred seventy-six children, more than half of whom were orphans now. Forty dogs, seven cats.
THAT GATHERING ON MAIN STREET OCCURRED on Thursday morning, and by the end of breakfast, all twenty-two adults agreed that they must move the children out of Black Lake, to a more comfortable location in the lowlands to the west.
This was September, and winter would soon come to the mountains. With no electricity, with no natural-gas supply, and with no long-term source of fuel oil, they needed to establish a settlement in a more accommodating climate.
They spent that day assembling a caravan of vehicles and packing for the journey. Food, drink, clothes, mementos. Weapons, too, though they hoped they would never need them.
Thursday night, they bedded down throughout the bank, in every room but the vault. Most slept, but some could not, waiting for the sound of torrential rain.
The night passed without a storm.
Friday morning, they set out from Black Lake in a caravan of three school buses, two eighteen-foot box trucks, and fourteen SUVs. All the fuel tanks were topped off, and if they needed gasoline en route, they expected to be able to siphon it from abandoned vehicles.
They had no idea what to expect, but what they found to the west was more of what they had left. Blue skies empty of everything but birds. Sodden landscapes slowly drying out. Deserted towns.
To Molly, as to everyone, the War of the Worlds appeared to have ended in greater mystery than it had begun. Where had the victorious armies gone, and why?
Some freeway bridges should have been washed away; but none were. Molly saw little evidence of flood damage, even in areas where rivers would have overflowed their banks, drowning whole communities.
Occasionally they encountered snarls of abandoned cars, which had to be moved, but for the most part, the highways were deserted and offered easy travel.
During the westward journey, they encountered three caravans much like theirs. Many children and their tutelaries, numerous dogs, some cats, and even one pet parrot that had been taught some scraps of Emily Dickinson but no T. S. Eliot.
In the lowlands, where many millions had lived—and died—Molly expected to encounter suburbs that had become charnel houses stacked with corpses, the air thick with the stench of decomposition. But they saw not one cadaver, and the air was sweet.
Each of the other caravans had its own destination, and in time the Black Lake group proceeded on its own again, all the way to the Pacific coast and Newport Beach, where two of the tutelaries had family about which they were concerned.
Like the children of the mountains, the children of the coast had survived. The only adults were those who had rescued and protected the young. Many were parents whose sense of responsibility extended beyond their own families.
The residents of the coast welcomed newcomers. There were empty cities to be filled, a vast loneliness of streets and parks and malls and suburbs.
That Friday evening, Molly walked hand in hand with Neil to the beach and stood near the surf line to watch the sunset. A few ships lay broken along the shoreline, but none were visible on the sea.
What of China? Europe? England? Empires gone. And yet Earth abides.
Knowing the comfort that she took from the poet, Neil quoted two lines of Eliot: “‘Between the conception and the creation.’”
She continued: “‘Between the emotion and the response.’”
“‘Falls the Shadow,’” he finished.
The sun painted a benediction on the western sky, first gold and orange, then fiery red, then purple, which ushered in, but only for a few hours, the night.
SHE AND NEIL, VIRGIL, TWO OTHER DOGS, AND eight children took for themselves an abandoned house on a bluff above the sea.
In the early weeks of this new life, they had little time for contemplation, for puzzling out what had happened to them and to the world.
Supermarkets and warehouses stocked with canned food would last the reduced population for years, though not forever. Strategies for long-term survival had to be devised, and much hard work had to be done to implement those plans.
Remarkably (or perhaps not), the only adult survivors, the tutelaries, proved to be a diverse lot with a surprising breadth and depth of knowledge and experience for such a small number. They were doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, architects, carpenters, skilled mechanics…. When a complete directory was compiled of those living on this immediate section of the coast, it seemed as though every surviving adult had been chosen not just to save the children but for the talents he or she could bring to this larger purpose.
In mere days, selected public gathering places had electricity provided by portable generators. The grand scheme promised electrical service to some neighborhoods within a year.
Medical clinics were established. Drugs were scavenged from pharmacies, to be rationed until a simple pharmaceutical industry could be reestablished.
The millions of dead could not be found, nor any smallest example of the alien ecology that had flourished so briefly.
For a long time, the stars would be regarded with suspicion, and perhaps for even longer, dogs would be treated less like pets than like family.
Every day, in a thousand small ways, civilization was pulled back from the brink.
In October of that year, hardly a month after Armageddon, Molly became a teacher and discovered greater joy in this work than she had ever known on the other side of books.
Once a priest, Neil had left the Church when he reported his rector for child molestation and discovered that his bishop lacked the wisdom, the will, and the strength of faith to purge the offender from the priesthood. Here along the coast, he first served this new community as a first-rate cabinetmaker, but by Christmas he found himself with a congregation again.
Molly had met him on the last day of his priesthood. On an afternoon when her heart had been troubled, she’d gone into a church just to sit, to think. Eventually she’d gone forward in the deserted nave to light a votive candle in her mother’s memory. Quietly saying good-bye to his church, Neil had been standing in the chancel, in the complicated geometry of colorful light from a stained-glass window. His face had been so perfect, his eyes so kind, that she had mistaken him for a statue of St. John the Divine, until he moved.
The New Year came and was marked by only quiet celebrations in respect of the dead, but there was pleasure in life, more by the day.
Through the winter and into the spring, Molly continued to be intrigued with the healthy psychology of the children. They had not forgotten their loved ones, and spoke of them often, but they seemed to be under a dispensation from grief. And from nightmares. They did remember the terrible things they had witnessed, but almost as if they had seen them in movies. More so than the adults, they were able to live in the moment, at the still point of the turning world, where the dance of life occurred.
In April, Molly learned that she was pregnant.
ON A WARM DAY IN JULY, IN HER FOURTH month with child, when school was in recess until September, Molly sat on her patio overlooking the sea, in the shade of a whispering phoenix palm.
On the glass-top table before her was one of her mother’s books, which the world had forgotten even before the world had ended, but which she treasured and reread from time to time.
She had set the book aside after discovering a reference to Noah and the ark.
When Neil appeared with glasses of iced tea on a tray, she said, “‘The flood, the ark, the animals loaded two by two, all that Old Testament bullshit…’”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m quoting Render in the lavatory at the tavern. But Neil…besides sin and selfishness and stone idols and that sort of thing, does the story of Noah suggest any special reason that the world was wiped clean?”
Settling into a chair with his own glass of tea and a biography of W. B. Yeats, he said, “In fact, yes. A tolerance of murder.”
She wasn’t sure she understood.
“Most people had become too tolerant of murder,” he elaborated, “punished it too lightly, even excused it when it was in the service of utopian visions. Why?”
“There’s a reference in Mother’s book.” She indicated the volume on the table. “I was just wondering.”
He sipped his tea and lost himself in the life of Yeats.
For a time, Molly stared at the sea.
Hitler killed more than twenty million. Stalin fifty million. Mao Tse-tung as many as a hundred million. More recently, two million had been murdered in Sudan, another two million in Rwanda. The list of holocausts went on and on.
In the name of religion or political justice, in the pursuit of a better world through one ideology or another, mass graves had been filled, and who among the murderers had ever been punished, aside from a few Nazis convicted at the Nuremberg trials more than half a century ago?
No clouds were gathered over the sea. Blue met blue at a nearly invisible horizon.
Every day in the old world, so recently vanished, the news had been full of stories of suicide bombers, street-gang shootings, men who killed their pregnant wives, mothers who drowned their children, teenagers who shot their classmates. She remembered reading once that the average time served for murder in the Old United States had been seven years.
Render had never seen a prison, only sanitariums with counselors and rose gardens.
The more she thought about these things, the more she realized that the children’s psychological recovery and their reluctance to dwell on their ordeal was matched by the adults’ strange disinterest in discussing the ETs. Why had they traveled thousands of light-years, murdered millions, begun to reinvent the earth, but then departed?
Surely this should be the primary subject of discussion for the next century. But as the children were under a welcome dispensation from grief, the adults—including Molly herself—seemed to have granted themselves a dispensation from reason and from curiosity, at least in regard to the end of the world.
Rather than interrupt Neil, she went into the house, found a thick book of famous quotations, and returned with it to the patio.
She remembered something that she’d heard on the speakerphone when Neil had been talking to his brother, Paulie, in Hawaii: “—having great wrath because he knows that he hath but a short time.” Those words had come through amidst static when telephone service had begun to break down.
As her key word, she looked under wrath in the index. She found the reference quickly. The quote was from Revelation, chapter twelve, verse twelve:
Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea, for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
Come down unto you? Was not Hell thought of as a place below?
In the bedroom of their house on that night in September, when Molly had awakened Neil from a nightmare, he had stood gazing at the ceiling, feeling the passage of the leviathan for the first time, and had said, “…sift you as wheat.” When she’d asked him what he meant, he hadn’t remembered speaking those words.
Suspecting that this, too, was a quote, she spent a quarter of an hour with the fat volume on the table before her, and found the source. Luke, chapter twenty-two, verse thirty-one:
And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.
Molly gazed at the sea.
When she picked up her glass of tea, she was surprised to find it empty. She didn’t recall finishing it.
She went into the house, got the pitcher from the refrigerator, returned to the patio, and poured more tea for herself and for Neil.
“Thanks, honey,” he said.
She remembered something the scar-faced psychopath had said in Bradley and Allison’s house, regarding his intention to “sacrifice” those children: “Them that rule the world” wanted the children, the innocents, more than anyone, but “kids ain’t for sifting.”
Although the day was hot, a chill found her here in the shadow of the phoenix palm.
After a while, she said to Neil, “I’m going to take a walk on the beach.”
“Enjoy the biography. I’ll be fine.”
Switchback stairs led down from the bluff to the beach. At the bottom, she took off her shoes and carried them.
The astrophysicists say there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth.
They say that our universe is one of many, perhaps one of an infinite number.
She walked on warm galaxies of sand, strolled across universes, stooped to pick up a shell: a small nautilus with a chamber that seemed to curve away to infinity.
They say God made the universe. The astrophysicists don’t say it, but perhaps wiser men do.
They say that Heaven is another realm apart from this one, which might mean that it is another universe.
She scrunched dry sand between her toes. It was hot. She moved to the edge of the surf, where the sand was hard-packed and cool.
They say that certain arrogant angels rebelled, and that God threw them out of Heaven into Hell, which is a realm apart from both Heaven and Earth. Another universe?
She walked south along the beach, and the lapping surf washed her feet.
Astrophysicists—them again—tell us that black holes, which are collapsed stars of incredible density, are most likely doorways between universes.
Is death perhaps its own black hole, through which we change universes?
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