Monday, November 5, 2012

Fourth World

I was a young girl when they stopped believing in us.

Or I was what you might call a girl. A girl version of what I am. Girl is the word you will understand.

This was a long time ago. Now I've picked up modern slang. I've learned concepts that will mean something to you. I can tell you how it was near the end, what it felt like. It felt like being in a doomsday cult on their last day of the world -- everyone going around making preparations, lighting candles, saying good-bye.

They see us best at twilight, in the rays of the dying sun. Our grandparents told us this at bedtime when they talked about your kind, about the limits to what you can see. The limits to what you choose to see. Crazy people and children -- those are the ones who see us most clearly. For them the layers of reality are permeable.

We measure age differently, but I was what you might call a teenager. I was no longer childlike. I was in love.

The older ones were the most involved in the preparations, the most invested.

Do you know how much we know about you? I could make the easy analogy -- it's like a person in what you call a Third World country, a country you have never heard of because it's too tiny to show up on a globe without a magnifying glass, or one that's rarely mentioned in the news. It's like a person from there drinking your Coca-Cola and wearing your Nike T-shirt and knowing your president, vice president, and pop stars although you don't even know their alphabet, let alone their language.

It's like someone from there who sings in your language, not theirs.

As a young girl I was jealous of my counterparts in your world who went to universities. We don't have our own; we're creatures of emotion over intellect. I would go in through a window and listen in. No one chose to see me. I liked the Sociology classes, learning about your kind, why you do what you do. You might think I’d be sick of it – after all the bedtime stories, the fables that warned us to stay away from the few who see us, to avoid causing mayhem. (The fables came before the end – near the end, we wanted them to see; we needed them to believe, mayhem or not.) But I couldn't get enough of it. I never tired of hearing about you.

So I knew about things like elaborate burial rituals in Haiti, where a person might spend more money on a crypt than on the house he lived in during his lifetime. I knew about the morbid festivals that celebrated the beyond-dead – Halloween, Dia de los Muertos.

I had been to your funerals.

That night, when the last believer died, I was thinking about those things you do when your kind dies. I was sitting on a tree branch, looking around me, thinking how lovely our world was. That night we went out at twilight, the best time to be seen. We lit candles on lily pads that bobbed down the stream. We wove wildflowers into spiderweb. We did all the pretty things you like for us to do, in the stories you tell but don't believe.

I sat on the branch beneath the deepening sky and listened to the lone low call of an owl. I had been in love with one of our kind who was already dead. He was poisoned by disbelief. We never knew who would go next; those of us left at the end were not the ones who were physically strongest. He had been one of the passionate ones. What wounds us is more emotional than what harms you. It mystifies us, how your kind can hurt and go on living just as before. For us, what breaks the heart becomes physical.

He lived boldly. He felt it happening to him, and he flew up into the sun, into the light. I think he was fighting death, fighting oblivion. You see what you choose to see. I saw a spark—I had never seen anything so beautiful. I saw him fully, for all the people who would not. And then he was gone. Our bodies go when we do. I had been to your funerals, and I was jealous. We don't get to say good-bye to a physical form.

I thought I might die after that. During the day I would look up into the sun – it doesn't hurt our eyes, to look right at it, in all its white glory – and I would think I saw him. It would always turn out to be a bird shadow, or a falling leaf.

Near the end, we held meetings. Those who could see us did not believe, or would not believe for long – the crazy people knew, deep down, that they were crazy and distrusted themselves; the children would grow out of it. There was no hope.

Or so we thought.

We lit candles and cried. In those last days, I watched my loved ones vanish like dew. Those who cried hardest went first, so I held it in. I didn't become hard, just silent. A few of us did that, as if by finely honed survival instinct. I looked away into the darkening woods and thought of other things. Little things. My favorite oak root where I napped as a child. Little white flowers he'd given me. I would think of anything but despair.

A few of us made it. I never knew how. I thought: Perhaps their new God is real and has spared us. Perhaps our own legends were wrong.

There are new believers but it isn't the same. It's no longer passed down, from parent to child in a chain that lasts centuries. Now there are spurts: a child believes for a while and then grows up; a teenager goes through a phase and picks up a book in a library, moving on before the book is due for return.

We have to believe. Maybe that's it, why some of us are still here. We found the loophole: We believe in ourselves. We have to or we die.

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