Short Story: Finding the (Extra-)Human in Art

Finding the (Extra-)Human in Art: The Rise, Fall and Return of Eva Bruegger

Aisley Lann, contributor

I’ve been driving for hours through a white landscape, hills, trees and road alike blanketed in winter. Somewhere outside of Albany, though there’s nothing to use as a reference, nothing but the white. I’ve nearly spun off the road twice, and the remoteness of each house to the next means that there might not be anyone nearby to hear me crash. Everything about the trip suggests that the woman I’m visiting has taken pains to make herself less than casually accessible to the world.

I make it, though, eventually, and in one piece. Eva Bruegger’s home is a faux-log cabin at the end of a quarter-mile drive. Less than some of her pieces’ price tags would suggest she can afford, but it seems like a perfect artist’s retreat- two stories, a redwood deck with a Jacuzzi and a grill, enormous floor-to-ceiling windows on every side.

She greets me at the door, a still-stunning woman of fifty-six in impressively ancient and wrecked blue jeans and a green shrug sweater. Her blond hair is tied back in a loose ponytail, and her horn-rimmed glasses are somehow both hip and matronly. She’s holding a scalding mug of coffee, which she hands off to me with an admonition to hurry in out of the cold. I wrestle out of my boots and coat, and she leads me into her living room, beautifully ornate stained wood and fern-green carpeting, the leather couches and coffee tables wearing a scattering of art books and a pair of uncaring cats.

She clears a space for me, a seat near the window, and before I’ve gotten halfway through retreiving my tape recorder and notepad, she’s asking me a flurry of questions that make her seem the reporter and me the interviewee. The conversation meanders through her questions, and I’m content to let it, and to focus on thawing my limbs and my wits. Eventually, after she inquires, with seemingly genuine interest, as to the trip, and to my own work, we find our way to as good an official start as any: her introduction to the art world.

Eva’s first extra-human themed piece, Violent Window, is instantly recognizable, and the story behind its creation has been re-told so many times that this reporter felt it necessary to obtain illumination from the creator herself.

The Manhattan apartment featuring the piece sold long ago, for a shocking ten-and-a-half million, but it’s easy to imagine her standing by the work, even as she stands now at the window of her living room. She holds her own coffee mug, emblazoned with a blue outline of Rimegirl, filled with a pattern of snowflakes. It’s a fair match for the scene outside. (My own mug, I see with some amusement, is similarly decorated with a motif of the Harrier in green. The two look like part of a set.)

She says on the subject of her first work: “I found myself excited, rather than shocked or outraged, as I stood by the hole, looking down at the street below. He’d just come crashing in- as I understood it, later, after being struck by the Golden Giant, I believe- and then stood in the living room, smiling an apology at me. He never said a word, but he left so carefully, trying not to break anything more.”

(She is speaking here, of course, about the Boulder King, an extra-human infamous for the collateral damage his two-ton form caused throughout the 80’s and early 90’s.)

Eva continues, “The wind threatened to suck me out, but I stood there for a full ten minutes, marvelling at how easily holes into our lives, our privacy, could be punched by these individuals. I knew that I was being given a glimpse of a new age, not vicariously or through another’s medium, but first-hand. Yes,” she says in response to my attempt at a question, “the inspiration did come immediately.”

Eva’s famous work ethic meant that she didn’t contract the work out, but learned glass-cutting and framing so that she could do the job herself.

“I didn’t change the shape or composition of the hole at all,” she says. “I tried to minimize the noticability of the frame. There was a shocking aspect to the contrast between my size and his, and I wanted to keep it, to underscore the masculine/feminine divide of my existence and his.” Here she smiles, and there’s an impishness in the lines around her mouth that makes her look much younger than her years. “I confess that I stood a few times at the window nude, or less than respectably dressed, so that I could examine that divide further in the photographs that might crop up.”

Such photographs were common in the year or two after the piece’s creation, thanks to the most famous aspect of Violent WIndow, the permanently lowered fire escape ladder that allowed any member of the public to climb up and view the piece- and Eva’s living room and kitchen space behind it. A few developed some fame of their own, such as Norman Feldhart’s Window’s Grip, depicting a starkly-shadowed Eva clutching an untied bathrobe around herself, Boulder King’s immense outline surrounding her, its ambiguously outstretched arms suggesting equally the possibility of assault, sexual threat or a childish request for affection.

“It wasn’t about the vouyeristic aspect,” Eva offers, again ferreting out my question before I have a chance to ask it. “Not primarily, at least. Others have done that work better- Harlan Ellison in his bookstore window, the students in those glass boxes in the malls. It was more about…” Here she pauses, tapping a finger to her lips, and I’m grateful to see that she’s still willing to give new consideration to a question she’s likely answered dozens of times before. “It was…there was a moment of fear, where the wall of my life was shattered, where the outside world came rushing in, without me inviting it or being prepared for it. And I saw immediately that I could recoil from that moment of fear, or I could do my job as an artist, and find a way to preserve it, to show it to others. Of course I chose the latter.”

I ask her if the lack of security and privacy were difficult for her.

“It wasn’t safety glass. Just ordinary double-pane window glass. But I never had a break-in.” She smiles. “I think people were superstitious. Afraid he’d come back, if they did anything..”

The subject turns to the pieces after Violent Window, a body of work Eva’s followers considered some of her best. She speaks fondly of Too Close, an installation that featured reproductions of the rubble, crashed cars, and other wreckage that ordinary citizens were trapped in after being in the vicinity of extra-human fights. The works were full-sized, with invitations to museum visitors to climb in and experience the survivors’ close calls for themselves. There were a few detractors; Francis Dermott’s statement that “the works are like a jungle gym, a childish approach to a serious subject” was a particularly cutting example. But the majority of critics lauded the visceral nature of the installation and the emotional authenticity of each piece (Bruenner collaborated with a number of survivors on the pieces, questioning each extensively on every detail in order to rebuild each scene as accurately as possible.)

“Those were fun,” Bruenner says with another mischevious smile. “More fun than they should have been, maybe. The idea was solid, I stand behind it, but you should have seen the children when they realized there was something in an art museum that they were allowed to climb on. The adults got it. I have a few private pictures I took, during the opening. I didn’t ask for permission so I’ll never use them for anything, but…” She stands, and goes to one of the piles of books and albums, retrieving one without an apparent perfect memory for where she’d left it. She opens it and taps a particular polaroid. It shows a boy of maybe eighteen, model-handsome with a sweep of blond hair, sitting in the cubed cross-section of a totaled car. His fingers are outstretched, touching the jagged angles of roof inches from his face. His lips are parted; one can almost hear the awed breath escaping his lips. Marcus Ruiz of Hope magazine put it extremely well: “Bruenner has placed artistic methods and materials on the back burner, and reached for a different set of tools- in this case, perhaps those of the theme-park builder- in order to reach her audience emotionally, and sitting in the works, seeing the imprint of a fist in the concrete by my face, I can say they speak for themselves. Groaningly, abusively, in the pit of the stomach.”

But her fame, it seemed, was destined for a downward turn. Most mark her Aftermath series as the point where her creative spark dimmed. Critics painted her rubble-sculptures as ‘obvious’ and ‘underthought,’ and while the metaphors there could be seen as less than subtle, especially in the concrete muscles of Rock and Ruler, they seem to be missing the point, the attempt to make the best out of the ruin left behind in the wake of forces mankind can’t control.

“You’re very close!” she tells me when I give my thoughts on the work, and I can’t help but feel a little swell of pride. “Closer than most. But it’s more about the attempt to humanize these…forces of nature. The hope that because they’re human-shaped, if we examine those outlines, we’ll find the human in them, something that might let us stop fearing them, or worshipping them. Because, as you say, we can’t control them. So it’s definitely about that lack of control, yes.” Here she breathes a little laugh, her eyes far away, in the past. “The funny thing about that is, the pieces themselves were almost too much for me to control. I hadn’t done sculpture work since college, and I’d never worked on that kind of scale.” (Rock and Ruler came in at just under 19 feet tall.) “They fell apart on me more than once; I almost lost a foot to Scrap Warrior.”

After her creative panning, Eva stepped out of the spotlight to recharge creatively and focus on her personal life. Aside from a few small gallery shows, she’s been quiet for nearly a decade. Now, though, she’s returned to triumphant form with Battles and Barriers, a new gallery showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Particularly well-recieved is her series of photographs, entitled Scrape-Ups, showcasing black-and-white closeups of the tears and scuffs in extra-human costumes alongside simple descriptions of the altercations that caused them. Carla Nuvetti of ArtToday says “The nearly museum-level seriousness and critical eye of the work help to remind the viewer of the stark realism of these beings’ presence in the world, even as the formal constraints of the medium, four-inch by four-inch black-and-white photography, brilliantly elucidate the desperation of the public’s attempts to box them in, reduce them to understandable and less-threatening forms.”

Eva doesn’t agree. “t’s not about the public at all,” she says. “Battles is meant to focus solely on the extra-humans themselves, to show their humanity, even in the face of their other-ness. I didn’t just show up and take the pictures- I spent at least a full day with each of them, talking, sharing meals. Some of them I engaged with for longer, wound up staying in contact with, and count as good friends.” She won’t elaborate on whom, though I make a few casual attempts to press the subject. “It would spoil the surprise of my new work,” she says.

We talk for nearly another hour. She doesn’t rush me out the door, and her willingness to share her time and startling reserves of energy is enough to fill this reporter with gratitude. She even allows me to view a few of the current pieces she’s hinted at. “No pictures,” she says with that same girlish smile, “and no telling anyone about them until they’re finished. But you can write that they’re pieces trying to capture the possibility, or impossibility, of mundane life for a few of the individuals I’ve worked with in the past.” This reporter hopes that it doesn’t break the spirit of the artist’s request to say that the pieces are immensely exciting, and even at fifty-six, she’s not showing any signs of slowing down.-

Aisley-
Great piece. You’ve got a lot of potential here. A couple of things:
First, dig a little deeper. You name-drop a few famous folks, without attempting to get any quotes from them. The piece is pretty narrow as-is. Widen your spectrum a little.
Second, try to distinguish between an opinion piece and a biographical piece. Cut the first-person stuff (watch for the difference between ‘I’, ‘this reporter’, etc), and try to scratch the feminist diatribe- let her be the controversial one, not you. Lop off the whole middle bit about the worth of her sculptures- the critics will eat you alive if they think you’re challenging them. Remember that Carla was one of the ones who panned the Aftermath series, and trust me, you do NOT want to call that harpy out on a contradiction. Pull some more from your conversations with Eva to make up the word count- shouldn’t be too hard to pad it out.
Third- and this is the most important one- where are the extra-humans? You barely touch on them at all! Remember, we’re trying to bring the magazine to a wider audience. I’m not asking for pulp stuff, but Boulder King practically begs for interviews nowadays. Maybe ask him if he remembers what Eva was wearing when he busted through her wall. It’s all right to have a little fun with your work.
You’re a smart kid. Learn how to polish it up a bit, and I think you’ve got a bright future ahead of you.
– Frank

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Short Story: Checking In On Cain

Cain trudged down the road toward the borderpost, a line of dust trailing behind him long and unbroken as his sentence. The sun scowled burns deep into his thinning scalp and the back of his neck. The mark on his forehead itched like fire.

On either side of the gate and guard shack, fences stretched unending into the heat-shimmer at the edge of sight, tall and rusty and ringed at their tops with twists of razor wire. No way through but the one forward.

From a distance, the only remarkable thing about Cain was the desert behind him, a half-day’s walk at least from the closest possible human refuge. He was tall, and dark, and his beard was long and knotted. He wore brandless tennis shoes, a simple linen shirt and trousers, both dusty and sun-stained into colorlessness, and a cheap backpack, the kind any tourist trap might have sold at a thief’s markup.

The lizards and adders and scorpions shrank back as he passed, hiding themselves noiselessly in the brush on either side of the blacktop. They had instinct enough to avoid risking even the appearance of a threat.

The soldier that stepped out of the guard shack didn’t seem to have been graced with the same good sense. He took a swig from a gallon jug of water, and smiled as he lowered it. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. Off to his left, another soldier sat in a sagging lawn chair and glanced at the traveler over the top of a newspaper.

“Papers, friend,” he said, his tone suggesting the offer of camaraderie was a very conditional one. Cain mustered the energy to look up from the road. His confronter was dark and sinewy, in a sand-colored uniform strung with belts and pouches. His eyes were shadowed with unpleasant sallow circles, and he wore a thick mustache, shiny with sweat. He carried an assault rifle on a strap, polished metal suggesting its owners unhealthy fascination with it.

The other soldier, similarly mustached but paunchy where his compatriot was gaunt, took another disintereted look over the top of the paper. His own rifle leaned against the guard shack, its butt end gathering dust.

Cain wiped a hand across his face, but only succeeded in smearing around the dust caked there. “I don’t have any papers.”

The man put on a sympathetic smile that was just short of convincing. “That’s all right, friend. Why don’t you come on through, and we’ll get this sorted out.” He reach around into the booth, and the gate began to roll open with a squeal.

Some unpleasant motive sat swelling in the soldier’s skull. Cain could see it bulging his eyes, practically hear the gears grinding sand. But the other side of the border was where he intended on going, and he could only hope whatever would play out here wouldn’t take too long.

As he crossed over the line, the soldier casually stretched out the barrel of the rifle; it caught in the strap of the backpack.

“Oh, that’s contraband, that’ll have to stay here.”

So that was the angle. Cain looked at him with an expressionlessness born of utter sweat-steeped exhaustion. “It stays with me.” There was no challenge in the tone, just fact, but the soldier’s face twisted into the challenged grimace common to stupid, angry men.

“Look, friend, I’m letting you across with no problems, don’t give me any.”

“It’s mine.” Again, a simple statement of fact, no energy for either petulance or angry defiance.

“You believe this? He really wants some trouble, doesn’t he?” The soldier glanced at his seated partner; if the paunchy soldier had an opinion, it didn’t cross his lips. “Give it over.” He raised his rifle, then seemed to think better of risking damage to his prize. He unhooked the button closure on a squat black leather pouch at his waist, and removed a dark rectangle with a pair of shining prongs at one end.

Cain didn’t try to move away, offered the man no better warning than an exhausted sigh. It was too hot for charity, and if a man born in this land couldn’t even be bothered to notice the mark that still throbbed angry red on his forehead all these ages later, he didn’t deserve any.

The stun gun’s sparking tip struck home, and Cain grunted, twitched, the sweat dancing charged over his skin. He fell to one knee. His backpack slid off into the dust.

The soldier grinned down at him, eyes bright with animal malice. He licked the moisture beaded on the edges of his mustache. “Didn’t like that, did- ”

His taunt trailed off. There was a moment both instantaneous and unbearably long, the desert holding its breath in pause.

The soldier’s eyes widened in horror as he felt the gaze fall on him from above, an attention of infinite weight and inevitability. He might have started to mouth an apology.

The lightning fell from the empty sky with a rolling crack that rattled pebbles down the nearby hillsides, arcing from the blue void to strike home at the perfect center of the top of the soldier’s head. For a mile around, the glaring yellow of the dunes turned briefly blue, too bright to look at. Cain squinted wearily against the glare, shielding his eyes with a hand.

Six more bolts lanced down from the sky in a holy cavalcade, thunder enough, it seemed, to shake the desert apart. Every one found the same spot at the crown of the soldier’s head. His skin lit up from within, his bones glowing fluorescent. The sand beneath his feet ran like water, ran together into a field of black and shining glass. The edges of his mustache sparked alight and burned like fuses.

He gaped, eyes smoking, teeth black in his open mouth. There was a soft tintinnabulation, like a breaking lightbulb, as his boots cracked free of the obsidian pool, and an even softer shudder of final breath as he fell lips-first into the dust.

His seated compatriot stuck his pinkie in an ear with a wince, wriggling it until he was satisfied the hearing wasn’t shot. He glanced skyward for a moment, wrinkling his mustache at the whirl of ozone on the air before turning to the next page of the paper. Cain nodded at him as he hoisted himself from the dirt. The soldier offered only a moment’s raised eyebrow in return.

Cain steadied himself, blinking at the adrenaline that ran hard and sharp through his veins. At least he was a little more awake now. He spat out a metallic mouthful of spit and kicked the stun gun away into the ditch along the roadside.

His pack had done a complete roll through the dust. He gave it a couple of slaps before abandoning the attempt, shouldered it, and stepped through the open gate.

After a few feet, he turned back, went into the guard shack and took the jug of water. A long swig, and then he stuffed it as best he could into the pack. The lizards and adders and scorpions shrank from him just the same on the far side of the border, and he continued on, down the blacktop so cracked and broken it was like cobblestone, in the absolution of his circle of solitude.

Short Story: Cycle

Frost ate at the girl’s hair, the dirty strands of blonde escaping the scarf bundled around her face. She could have been fifteen, or thirty- the lines around her eyes spoke of aging that came from the passing of events, not years. She carried a large pack on her back, and her boots were sturdy and made for hiking.

The place she was in could only barely be called a forest. Copses of trees like matchsticks, their needles lying in dead brown drifts around them. Scattered among them were small dark objects. She thought they were pinecones, but when she got closer to one, she saw a beak, eyes squeezed forever shut. The tiny bodies of birds, slain so quickly by whatever had passed this way that they fell right out of the trees they’d been perched in.
She looked at the drifts again, and tried to feel sad.

Two years. Two years of looking. Two years, crawling over the mummified remains of the world, trying to convince herself she had purpose. Suicide chewed occasionally at the edges of her thoughts. She persisted in surviving for reasons she wouldn’t have been able to articulate even if there had been someone to explain to. Sometimes she would think about those who had already died, and wonder if they watched her with sympathy, or raged at the fact that she had lived when they hadn’t.

She no longer held hope of finding anyone else. Or if she did, it was in a place so far down that she had no sight of it. She just continued, like a wind-up toy, wondering when her cogs would finally tire down.

The trees only went on for a few acres. At their edge, a farmhouse, faded, peeling. perfect companion to the anemic sky above it. Outside, the dry, sprawled body of a horse, as untouched by rot as everything else. Even the microbes were dead.

It looked like rain. It looked like rain most of the time now.
She went in through the front door. Stealth was as useless a concept now as ownership. Everything was hers. At first, her newfound wealth was a source of joy. She tore through department stores trying on whatever caught her eye, whooping like a Mongol raider until her own echoes made her uncomfortable. She made campfires with piles of money and walked with millions of dollars in jewelry stuffing her pockets. For a while, the destruction of all that had abandoned her was a source of vitality. Now, though, such things were only reminders of that abandonment.

She was glad to see that wherever the owners had died, it had not been in the house. She could not sleep in the places where people still were. Too many houses had blanched white bodies tangled up in the bedsheets, faces still caught in beartrap grimaces. Or worse, sitting up on couches and in recliners, as if their rest were not eternal but something they’d just get up from in an hour or two.

She knew they were dead. Most of them would break apart if she touched them. The knowledge wasn’t enough to stop her imagining. She was afraid she would wake up in the night to find someone standing in the doorway, watching her with dusty, disapproving eyes.

This place had no such mummies lying in wait for her. Maybe the owners had died in the barn, out with their animals. Maybe they’d been in church- she’d been startled badly once before by an entire congregation, dead in the pews, many with brittle arms cracked off where they’d been holding the hands of those next to them. She’d avoided such places after that time.

There was some comfort to be had in this home, with its simple wrought-iron frame bed and checkerboard quilts. It was uncomplicated. It didn’t feel laden with memory like so many objects did. She set the small oil lantern up on the nightstand, although it was hours still until dusk, and she curled beneath the blankets and slept.

In the morning she sat in the kitchen and examined the rooster pot-holders and copper pans while she ate from a can of peas and carrots. Eating was a ritual now, done not out of desire but habit. The canned food had survived, sealed away from the killing waves that had grayed out everything else.
She debated staying for a while. The house was the closest thing to a pleasant place she’d been in for some time.

Then she looked out the window and saw the arm, hanging over the chicken-wire fence, chambray shirt rolled up to its elbow. She sighed, and started looking through the cupboards for anything worthwhile to take with her.

***
The girl sat along the concrete wall, watching the waves. She liked the ocean. The gray of sky and sand here were normal. The constant wash of the tide was a relief from the silence that pervaded everywhere else. There were few dead- the pound of the surf broke apart the brittle bodies of fish and gulls, leaving only bones that looked no different from shells and driftwood. She could sit, on railings and on piers, and feel, if only for a while, that nothing had changed.

Still, she knew she needed to leave the coast soon. She’d been up and down it a handful of times now, and no new hopeful signs had arisen. She had to go inland.

***
The freeways were the easiest things to follow, clear lines drawn between places that had food and shelter. Along their edges, the exemplars of a bygone age smiled down from their signs, designer underwear and summer blockbusters faded nearly incomprehensible. Blackened patinas spread on the faces on traffic lawyers, the dust left behind by one bomb or another. Radiation was only a word to her, and even in places that still smoldered, she hadn’t vomited out her insides or grown extra arms, so she’d decided she must have been safe. It wasn’t as if she had any way to protect herself.
She picked her way among the silent hulks of cars, squeezing onto the shoulder when they were packed too densely. There were bodies among the cars. Some were still in their seats, black bones fused to the plastic, and some had gotten out, and were sprawled over the ground a few feet from their open car doors. The burnt forms weren’t anything to her anymore. They were just landscape. She realized then that the dead were only frightening because they contrasted the living. She was the contrast now. She was the wrong piece, the thing that didn’t fit.

The girl sat on the burnt remains of a car, on a hill overlooking the burnt remains of a town in the burnt remains of a valley. She kicked her feet, banging them against the headlights. She tried to tell herself- rats could live anywhere. If she was still alive, maybe a rat could be too. Or cockroaches. Mold. Something. There was no way the destruction could have been that total.

But she knew it wasn’t true. Two years, and nothing had ever been alive that whole time. The world was gray and brown now. Smallpox had crossed influenza had crossed manmade things without names, passing each other as they carved swathes of death across the world. Every paper had a different story when it started, every news program reported a different country’s guilt, even as their crews got sick and died. The only thing that was clear was that the job had been done. Very, very well. The animals, the plants, the people- all of them had died. There had been bombs, too, when countries started blaming each other, but they hadn’t mattered. Just the blackened period at the end of the sentence.

She no longer doubted the existence of a God. His reality was implicit in his absence. He’d turned his back from the world, and it was a cold place without his gaze on it.

She’d tried to restart it. She’d read books and planted packets of seeds from home and garden stores and waited for months for a sign of anything green coming up out of the ground. Nothing ever did.

She didn’t know why she was still alive, when nothing else was. Maybe she was supposed to bear witness. Maybe she was kept alive as a final, small focus for God’s wrath. Or maybe she was just a small thing God had missed when he’d walked away from the world.

She turned on a highway leading away from the torched valley. Maybe there’d been a military base down there. Something to make it a target. Whatever the reason, there was nothing for her down there.

***
The girl sat in front of a convenience store, legs crossed under her, a black day planner open in her lap. The sky was a slab of concrete, unending gray in each direction. She flipped through the filled-in pages until she reached the last check-mark. She tapped the days with her pen, counted her fingers. She tried to remember. She punched the sidewalk and tried to remember if it had been two days or three. She punched it again, and made a choking noise in her throat. Then she flung the notebook away and held her face in her hands and cried through her dirty fingers.

She slept in the store that night, too exhausted to do anything more than crawl inside against the wind. The doors stood open all night, and the wind blew in, effortlessly finding her hiding place behind the cash register.

***
She slept a lot. She worried that that it might be some kind of sickness, or malnutrition, but she did not feel sick.

She dreamt of sex. It was all that passed before her eyes while they were closed. Some of the dreams were wonderful, with beautiful men and women worshipping her body as if she were a goddess, bringing her to such heights that it wounded her to awaken. Some were strange and guiltily erotic, like the one where she was in a jungle, pushed face-down into the kudzu and hot flowers by a great black panther that ravaged her from behind, its claws sinking into her shoulders with a sensation that was far more pleasure than pain.

And some were terrifying, dreams of trees impaling her with their branches, of great reptilian beasts that raped her with organs nearly as large as she was, members that should have split her in half but instead just filled her, fuller and fuller, until the greatest horror in the dream was that she should have so much space within herself. Those dreams she awoke from covered in sweat, shaking, knees so weak it was minutes before she could stand.

***
Winter was beginning to turn. The rain still fell, but it no longer held the stinging edge it had while it was colder. The clouds actually had shapes some days, not simply featureless blankets overhead. Best of all, she could throw her blankets off in the morning without the cold overwhelming her and driving her back under them again.

The runs of houses broke ahead of her the next day. Civilization gave way to another place where the trees held sway. Even dead and leafless, they held a certain undeniable majesty. Their symmetry against the sky spoke of a creator who had once cared about the lines, the art of the world he, or she, or it, had made.

She slept in the trees that night, bundling herself against the cold. She wanted to be away from the wreckage of people for a while. She mused for a while as she drifted to sleep under a turtle-shell of blanket and sleeping bag, thought on the way she had to justify everything, explain everything to herself, in the absence of anyone else to hold her accountable.

When she woke, there was a live thing next to her. She wasn’t sure what it was. As soon as she sat up, it ran off into the graying underbrush. It was small and brown, a squirrel, maybe, or a groundhog.

She stumbled to her feet, wakefulness coming in an instant, and dropped to her knees at the spot where she thought it had vanished. She dug through the rotted shards of undergrowth until her arms and knees were black, but she found no sign. She tore her hands raw on the branches, shouted and screamed in the hopes of scaring it out, but nothing emerged.

A dream, she decided. A little piece of her dream, carrying over into her first waking moments.

It was a long time that morning before she could bring herself to get up and move onward.

***

She did not know the name of the town she’d come to. She could have found a piece of mail to answer the question, but its anonymity appealed to her. It was prettier than most of the places she’d been in. The storefronts were quaint, old-fashioned. Mountains rose up in the background, and the sky was clear, staggeringly blue after the grey of winter. The bite in the air felt good, sharp against her face. Her head was clear and her limbs felt graceful. Maybe happiness was too strong a word, but there was some satisfaction in the morning.
***

The girl shifted, trying to find a place for her feet that was not covered in fragments of glass. The shattered sliding doors yawned in the silence, victims of violence perpetrated by some desperate hand in those last days.
The light only went as far as the registers. The beginnings of the aisles swam in shadow, and the back of the store was a yawning abyss.

The stillness only made it worse. Her eyes conjured things- narrow fingers closing around the edges of the shelves, hunched forms scurrying between patches of shadow. She couldn’t even make the certain claim that she was imagining the things she saw. There was no television to turn on, no crowded street to walk along. There were no ordinary moments left to expose her foolishness.

She squinted and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to read the signs in what small spent light managed to reach that far back. She knew what she was looking for. CANNED VEGETABLES. SOUPS. READY DINNERS. Any row where the food was safely sealed away.

She’d tried to find food outside of cans before, in other towns. Everywhere it was the same. The bread was the consistency of concrete. No mold marred its surface. The apples and pears in the produce aisle crumbled like chalk.
Those things in airtight containers had avoided destruction, and they did not rot on exposure to the air. Her guess was that the diseases had all burnt out in the absence of anything to feed on but themselves.

In the early days, she’d gorged herself giddy, trails of fruit juice bottles and bags of cereal in her aftermath. After a while, the juice became rancid, the cereal stale and flavorless. Now all she had left was soda, creamed corn and Chef Boyardee.

There. Swimming up from the dark, a black letterboard hung from the ceiling, the white letters spelling READY DINNERS.

She knew that she was rapidly approaching a threshold. If she didn’t make a move now, the fear would overtake her, and she would go hungry until she could find another store. She dropped her pack to the ground, tensed the muscles in her legs.

She sprinted for the aisle. A skid, a misstep, and she crashed to the floor. Her thigh slammed hard into the corner of a display, showering her in dust and boxes of fossilized pastries. She cried out, though she knew the noise would bring the beasts lurking in the pharmacy and the meat department.

She was up on her feet again in an instant, and she gasped breath as she scooped up an armful of cans from the shelf closest to her, not seeing or caring what they were. She dared not try to find something to drink, though her throat burned like cinders. The imagined things were after her, right on her heels, and she wouldn’t be safe until she was back in the light.

She collapsed on the bench out front, wiping the sweat beading on her face. She looked down to see what she had managed to escape with. The letters swam in her vision. The heaving in her heart followed in her stomach, and she vomited over the back of the bench.

It was hours before her stomach settled enough to let her eat. The gut-wound of color in the ravioli can did little to raise her appetite. It hurt her eyes. She picked a few disconsolate forkfuls before she left the can on the bench and re-shouldered her bag, taking some solace in its restored weight.
After a dozen steps, she turned back. She found she couldn’t leave it there. The color made her think of bones protruding from skin, of gashes infected with tetanus. It made her think of how there were no more doctors left, anywhere. She picked the can up, trying not to look inside, fighting the rise in her stomach, and threw it in the trash.

She walked into the treeline on the other side of the street, desperate to stay away from any place with the possibility of a darkened interior.
The sound of the wind between the trunks was hollow, melancholy without the rustle of leaves to accompany it. Without their sound, another soon became clear to her. She followed it without thinking at first, then began to chase it, breaking into a run, until she stood at the top of a small rise. Beneath it was a stream, rolling fast with spring runoff. Its banks were smooth and inviting, pebbled with colored rocks.

She peeled off her jackets, her shirts, the layers of pants and leggings, until she stood naked on the bank. There were black and brown layers on her hands, on her feet, and the rest of her was dappled with dirt. How long since she’d taken a bath, or stood in a shower? The water had stopped working soon after the electricity had.

She set her jaw as she looked down at herself, and splashed forward into the stream.

The water was a miracle, clean and cold, nearly strong enough to knock her over. She threw herself under its surface, attacking her hair and face with clawed hands until all the remainders of her long road were washed off. She kept scrubbing, carving at the layers of grime with her fingernails, laughing and dancing in the cold. The current carried the dirt downstream, into the distance.

She stepped from the water, shaking her limbs. She looked down at herself, and smiled. Malnutrition had not claimed her. Her breasts were full, her hips curving. The years of walking had given her legs she would never have imagined having in her old life. Her skin was pink and clear beneath the dirt. Maybe her hands were rough, her feet callused, but she found she was proud of these marks.

She only examined her clothes for a moment before throwing them into the nearby branches. She would find new, clean things to wear. She laced herself back into her boots and hoisted her pack again, liking the way the shoulder straps rubbed against her bare skin.

***
She was no longer able to sleep indoors. Being inside of walls when the sun set brought her to inexplicable bouts of panic that didn’t recede until she was out beneath the stars once more, trailing her blankets behind her like a child.
The weather was more than accepting of her neurosis. Each day, it grew warmer, each evening requiring fewer covers. Eventually, a single blanket over the soft scatter of leaves was enough.

She didn’t know why things had turned, or why this place was inviting her like it did. She wasn’t about to refuse it, though. She couldn’t bear to walk away from the first thing she’d encountered in two years that had meaning.
So she slept out in the trees, and swam in the river, and felt something like peace.

***
The girl woke from a dream of an old boyfriend. She couldn’t remember his name, but her body remembered his. She slipped a hand between her legs, luxuriating in the space between sleep and wakefulness, avoiding the broken world for as long as she could.

A painful cramp brought her out of the reverie, and she sighed as she realized the wetness was more prevalent than it ought to be. She ought to mark the passage of months by her own cycle, she thought idly as she reached for a distant corner of blanket to wipe her hand off.

She froze halfway towards the blanket, looking at her hand with a quick thrill of terror. Her fingers were slick with color, not red, but a thin green.
She raised the hand, trembling, to her face. The liquid smelled like crushed leaves, or tree bark. Only later would she think back to her dreams, connect them to here. At the moment, her thoughts were only on disease. The sicknesses had surely completed their loop around the globe, and finally come back to finish the job.

But she didn’t feel sick. She poked and prodded at her body with frightened hands, but nothing hurt anywhere she touched. She examined the symptoms further, but whatever the sap-like substance was, there was little left of it after she washed herself in the river again.

She wandered nervously, circling her camp, waiting for some further sign of her body’s distress, but nothing came.

For the rest of the day, she sat in camp, waiting for more symptoms, but still there was nothing. The cramps had receded, and there was no trace of the strange liquid.

She lay under the bare branches in a tank-top and underwear, book hoisted above her head, like the whole forest was her bedroom. She couldn’t remember why she’d chosen the title, but it was a comfort, like having someone to talk to, even secondhand.

The afternoon passed with no further sign of distress. Fear muted to nervousness, and then, eventually, to sleep.

***
She hiked the woods a lot over the next few weeks. She reasoned that civilization hadn’t netted her any sign of meaning or hope, so maybe nature would. She had no idea how readily her hope would bear fruit.

She was stopped in front of a tree like any other. At first, she wasn’t sure why her feet wouldn’t let her move on. Her eyes couldn’t register the color. It had been so long since the trees had been anything other than dead and gray that her eyes simply did not take it in. But after a moment, memory forced its way up from the lightless places it had been sleeping, and she saw the side of the tree was green. A tiny patch, barely a foot across, but green.

She walked up to it, reached out. Fear and hesitation had no place in her mind. There was only the need to touch the moss that grew soft and somnolent against the trunk. She laid her hand against it. Tears rushed to her eyes. Not tears of joy at the sign of life, but tears of bewilderment at her complete inability to know what it meant.

She returned to the patch, again and again in the next few days. It took on a near-totemic significance, filled her with emotions too great to fully comprehend.

It was a sign, she was sure of that. She had no room left in her for the idea of coincidence. But what it meant, what she was supposed to glean from it, she had no idea.

***
The hunger was crippling. It sank claws into her abdomen and wrenched her from sleep. She sprawled over her backpack, pawing for the can opener, swearing as she fumbled open a can of fruit cocktail. She shoveled the contents with a scooped hand, uncaring of the sharp edges. She tipped the can back, gulping at the juice that ran into her mouth, overflowing down her neck, her shirt.

She tore open another can, feral in her hunger. Dinosaur-shaped pasta cascaded down her front, leaving red spatters. She paid the mess no attention.

She ate everything in her pack- four cans, a crumbling candy bar, a stale box of frosted wheat cereal. She drank an entire two-liter bottle of soda without pausing for breath.

The impossible hunger only became worse as the days went on. She went through a dozen cans a day. Things she’d never liked before- kidney beans, tuna fish, stewed tomatoes- were delicious to her now. She brazenly marched into the supermarket, her need stronger than any imagined monstrosity.
There was a word for what she was feeling, an explanation for her impossible appetite, but she did not speak it to herself. The implications were overwhelming, nonsensical.

Spring turned to summer. She slept naked now, curled catlike in the center of the grove she thought of as hers. Her skin grew golden and taut. She did not swell, only grew in the feeling of weight. There was a gravity to her now, a heaviness that hadn’t existed before.

She cleaned the shelves of every store in town, and many of the houses, of every item that was still edible. She slept more and more, waiting for explanation, for whatever was to come next.

Her dream was an explosion of light and color, like someone trying to paint the Big Bang. The rending cacophony built, not outside her, but within her, until, with a single, shattering pulse, she was thrown back into wakefulness. A raucous volley of sound assaulted her ears. The colors were still there, pinwheeling across her eyes, and she tried to shake her mind clear. Then, abruptly, she could see again.

She could not stand, could do no more than gape, paralyzed, at the life that surrounded her.

There were animals. All around her, animals. They filled the clearing in impossible numbers. Squirrels raced tamarind monkeys and lemurs through the trees. Dogs and wolves snapped playfully at branches. A thousand birds tried to out-sing each other. The air was thick with a buzzing profusion of iridescent insects. At the edges of the clearing, somber and quiet, a bear watched her. The clearing was a riot of life that should not, could not have existed in one place. There was a whole world’s profusion of animalkind here.
And the trees…

They were alive. They bloomed with leaves and blossoms and vines hung thick between them. The air was wet with their fragrances. The place that had been firewood the night before was now a rainforest.

She could not understand it, but she couldn’t disbelieve it. The smells flooded her nostrils. The feel of it, the life of it, was a thrumming thing that had been absent the long years past. It flowed in her skin.

The animals, one by one, noticed that she had awoken. The dogs rolled onto their backs, baring their throats to her. The monkeys covered their eyes as if they were not worthy to see. The great bear tipped its nose to the ground.
Clarity came with sadness, with the realization that she felt empty, hollowed out. As the tendrils and shoots began to weed their way up out of the ground and wrap themselves around her, she understood. The dreams had been so much more than nighttime wanderings. She wasn’t kept as a joke, or an object of vengeance. She’d been a container, a literal vessel. As the loam turned to receive her, to pull her back into itself, she understood. She’d been protected, kept safe from the radiation and the diseases and her own clumsiness.

God might have been the one who passed judgment, the one from whom the proclamations were issued.

But life…life came from mothers.

***
At the center of the clearing, a small hand grasped ineffectually at the blankets, its owner murmuring her complaint at the lack of attention. The infant was utterly helpless. Any one of the animals present could have made it a meal, but none did. They understood the sacrosanct better than any human could.

Garden might have been a better descriptor than jungle, but it made no difference to the animals as they spread out across its surface, resuming the scatter of life and death like it had never been interrupted.