This is the story of a people who made a dead world. Whoever you are, I hope in your time things are different from ours. I hope you will not understand this story.
When we first walked on our hind legs, we recognised we were more intelligent than the other animals, wanting more than survival from life. It was this need that led us to separate ourselves from the animals, learning to take, to destroy.
Make no mistake: ours was not a story of creation.
The air tasted of ash and burnt rubber as the general laboured up the narrow incline. He favoured his right leg, his breath coming in painful gasps. His cheeks slowly took on the greyish tinge of the dry, stilted trees, their roots locked deep in a dry, cracked earth.
We grew and multiplied, covering and conquering every corner of the earth, bending every species to our will. Though we owned all the world, our hearts remained unsatisfied.
“What is our purpose in this life?” we asked each other for the first time. When we disagreed, we learned to conquer each other.
We raised kings and cheered as we tore them down. Our fragile empires rose and fell to the swift beat of revolutionary drums. Our alliances could not last. We carved out a place for ourselves by common consent: I am your ally, I am your enemy. Neither we considered a friend.
Refugee families looked up in vague suspicion as the general passed their place on the ragged island, but none moved to block his way. There was hardly much point in hatred here, at the end of all things. Hardly much point in anything.
They were all of them waiting beneath this grey, patient sky.
At some point, looking at the peaceful animals we had left behind, we began to question ourselves.
“Is there something wrong with us?” we whispered to the stars at night. “Why should the dumb beasts be happier than we?”
“It is blissful ignorance,” our pride murmured back. “They cannot understand the world as deeply as we do. We are far too intelligent to be happy.”
We nodded and slept.
Although we saw the patterns of our bloody wars, recognising that their tragedies only spawned more conflict, we somehow still had to fight. This would be the last time, we swore again, the war to end all wars forever.
We wanted to believe that ours was not a story of death. I think on some level we feared what we were becoming.
The general reached the cave where he now passed the world’s last days, finally allowing himself to slump to the ground. For the first and last time, he had made the hike to the cave without a break to rest.
“I have finally conquered this mountain,” the general thought with a bitter twist to his mouth. “Here, on my knees.”
We tried to resist our own impulses, building cities and laws in a facsimile of the peaceful co-habitation we witnessed in nature. We made art, wrote stories with morals we dared not live out.
Beneath our new flag of civilisation, everything changed, and everything remained the same. Our peaceful countries birthed armies and charged to war against each other. Each new generation learned the unspoken rules of our society, dutifully doing to others what we expected to be done to us. We were far too intelligent a species to risk kindness.
Scholars disparaged us, saying we fought like dumb beasts. They were wrong: we were intelligent beasts, for an animal fights only when it must, without hatred or regret. We fought as only humans could: so afraid of our own violence that we hid our faces even as we innovated new and exotic ways to destroy one another.
This is not a story of morality.
On entering the cave, the general lit candles and crossed to what served as his desk, the flames casting uncertain light over the slim volumes on the floor. They each bore the same title: The History, then a roman numeral up to ten.
A final page lay on his desk, white and blank as a new beginning. This one would be different, the man decided as he took his place before the sheet. A final message.
‘Mutually assured destruction’ was the shield we wore, that we would choose the death of the earth itself, destroying every bud and seed and grain, before accepting defeat. Some thought I was too weak to go through with it. Others that I was too wise. Apparently they were both wrong: I was too foolish to accept a world where enemies could thrive, too weak to admit I didn’t want to be strong.
We have tried to find a way back, to resurrect the dead earth, to force it to take seed once more. We have wondered if we could have prevented this slow starvation. But my war was one among thousands, among hundreds of thousands. Perhaps, eventually, we would always have forged our own end.
This is not a story of redemption.
The man went to sign his name, then stopped. His candles were guttering, his paper almost full. The world was out of food, out of time. The general would not leave this cave again.
I think there really was something fundamentally wrong with us. No matter how we resisted, our first instinct was not to be good, but to be great. For every person who would die for the truth there were a thousand who would kill for a lie. We recognised each new guise our hunger took too late.
This is not a story of cruelty, but of simple, foolish pride. In fact, this is barely a story at all, or else something would have changed by the end.
We do not seek forgiveness, but perhaps a portion of pity: we were only human. Maybe this was all we could do.
At the bottom of the page, he simply wrote, ‘The General’.
- Laura Wrigley-Carr
- Words: 998