The world’s last night came as a black surprise with its low groan, its fiery canisters, its torch-bearing ants marching. It came ribbonless, boxless, a series of presents carried in the bellies of airplanes. It came and unwrapped itself.
Poppy lived in the building tension before the world’s last night, the years then months then days then hours then minutes that tremored like an old man’s hand. Slight as she was, she felt this tremor though she couldn’t name it. How do you name an inkling, an intuition?
Patron, her father, was one of the seven governors of Urdun, an unimportant man with an important title. He was the manager of the Waterworks, the plant at the mouth of the river that bore the town’s name. The Chancellor had once called Patron an honorable man at the annual Convocation, though even at twelve, Poppy knew these were the simple platitudes given to ordinary men at Convocation or funerals. That was the day the Chancellor pinned Patron with an unshiny medal, a bland brass star, named him a governor, and gave him the task of overseeing the purification of the waters piped into the city. The people at Convocation clapped automatically before making their way back to their brick buildings, their businesses of necessity not choice.
Patron—not his birth name, but the name everyone called him, even Poppy—spoke to others only on rare occasions, and then only when necessary. The girl once asked why he was so often statue-silent. He saved all his words for Poppy, he’d said, which made her blush and beam. She knew this to be true; Patron was a man of his word if anything. So, in the evenings, after supper and a bit of reading, he’d make his way to Poppy’s bedside, tuck her in, and spill all those saved words. With them, he’d spin stories of the Ballerina.
Each night the story began the same. The Ballerina was a figurine, Patron said, a tiny ceramic dancer in arabesque. The first time he told this story, he’d attempted to demonstrate the position—left leg extended behind him, head forward, arms out like the wings of a silly bird. The Ballerina was made of glass and crafted with such delicacy, he said, that if you looked closely, you might think her dress was folding, flapping, blowing in some invisible wind. This was, of course, an impossibility, because the Ballerina was on a wooden pedestal, covered by a glass dome. There was a crank on the side of the pedestal, and when turned, a simple song played while the Ballerina spun in a counterclockwise circle. The music, Patron said, seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Surely it came from the pedestal, Poppy said, but Patron said no. It came from the air.
“Each evening, the lady of the house lifted the glass from the wooden pedestal,” he said, “and placed it on the bookshelf next to the Ballerina.”
Poppy closed her eyes, imagined the lady turning the crank, could almost hear the music filling the chamber.
“Music in the air, the lady settled into sleep, and when her snoring was deep . . .”
“Ew. She snored?” Poppy asked every night.
“This is not the point, Poppy,” he responded each night, laughing as was the routine.
“When her snoring was deep, when the music ended, the Ballerina woke. Imagine it, Poppy,” Patron said. “She was lifted as if by strings into the air before her glass arms and legs became flesh, before her delicate dress cottoned up. Full of twinkling evening life, the Ballerina flitted out of the lady’s window on the evening breeze. These were her hours to explore the town, Urdun.”
The introduction was the same each night, but when the Ballerina made her escape, the stories took new life. Night after night, Patron told of the Ballerina’s travels. She explored the workshops, the market, the wax museum. She wandered onto the beaches of the Urdun River, spoke with mudskippers and fireflies. In the forest on the edge of town, she met a stupid but speedy tortoise and wise but plodding rabbit. She explored Urdun and the surrounding countryside that cradled the coal-gray town.
There was one place, though, the Ballerina never visited—the Waterworks. Why? Poppy could not say, and she did not ask.
On the world’s last night—the night which only Patron anticipated—the governor of the Waterworks came through the doors of their tiny house. He was sweating, Poppy would later remember, an oddity since the Waterworks were only two blocks away and the springtime whether still cooled the alleys of Urdun. Poppy was in the kitchen, stirring stewed tomatoes and basil.
“Yes, Patron,” she said, reaching for the knob of the oven and turning it to lower the fire.
“I have a gift.”
Poppy turned and saw him holding a papered package. Its bottom was flat as a box, its top shaped like a half-egg. She ran to the man, still in his gray topcoat, and took the half-egg with such excitement that he quipped, “Careful, Poppy. Careful.”
As the governor hung his outer garments on the rack, he watched as Poppy set the half-egg on the table, tore the brown paper at the top, and pushed it down around the edges. The half-egg top was glass, a dome, and underneath it was a Ballerina extended in arabesque.
Poppy stood in the moment, eyes fixed on the figurine. The figurine’s hair was purple, like the crest of some exotic hummingbird, and Poppy could almost make out glinting individual strands. The Ballerina’s dress was yellow, a sun-dress, dotted with the tiniest red poppies. The tendons and muscles in her glass legs were so meticulous they seemed to quiver.
Poppy’s eyes worked every detail of the little glass Ballerina, and transfixed as she was, she did not hear her father calling her name until the third time.
She looked across the table to where he sat, smiling.
“Aren’t you going to wind the music box?”
Poppy looked at the pedestal, and there at the base was a tiny crank, a impossibly gilded knob. She turned it, and turned it, and turned it, then waited for the music.
This was Poppy’s experience of music filling a room: there was a suspension, a moment so brief she might never remember it; there was a tightening of the air, the pulling of her inner ear out, her skin searching for sound; there was the tightening of time, of guts, of attention; then came a sound so small, so sharp and gentle that Poppy mistook it for the way silence rings in the ears; there was a crescendo to that gentle sound, a growing, growing, growing, as if from a seed; there was a stem of sound rising, a flower of melody blooming, reaching petals into every corner of the room, perfuming the walls, the counters, the table, Patron, and Poppy with sound.
“How,” Poppy started, then stopped covering her mouth with both hands.
“Is such a thing possible?” Patron tried his best to finish her sentence.
Poppy closed her eyes, smiled.
“No. How could anyone imagine so much beauty? How is such a thing makeable?”
The music ended, and Poppy leaped to Patron, threw her arms around him with such force that his chair tipped back, spilling both onto the tile. They stayed there, spread their arms and legs wide, and reached toward the walls that had just been filled with so much music. They were two starfish thrown onto a beach by an ocean of beauty, and for the first time, Poppy thought she could see the blue true sky, even with her eyes closed.
Patron stood, though Poppy didn’t notice, and he peeled her from the floor, hoisted her into a hug so deep she thought she might have felt a hitch in his breathing, maybe a tremor of sorrow. But when he set her feet back on the tile, when she looked at him, he was just Patron. His face was plain, kind, and dry.
The governor of the Waterworks patted the small of her back, scooted her toward the oven where the tomatoes still simmered. She stirred the pot, smiling, still trapped in that music. Patron retreated to his room, and Poppy heard the bedsprings chirr as he sat, then noted the clop of his shoes hitting the floor. The jays outside the window were screeching, Poppy now noticed. She heard, maybe, the hum of the sky outside, somehow. She heard, and heard, and heard, and everything joined with the simple melody of the music box, now soaked into Poppy’s skin, now playing in the ears of her imagination.
And this was that simple melody: four notes, rising in quick succession, then three falling notes, then one note sustained for four beats before falling back to the first. The pattern repeated and repeated, adding twinkling harmonies, and countermelodies, and overtones, and undertones. There was joy in the tune, sorrow, too. There was euphoria, and madness, and motion, and rest. There was memory and the absence of all memory. It was music so fine, so permanent that the hairs on Poppy’s arms shivered just thinking of it while she stirred the pot. This was the song of everything, she thought, maybe of all creation.
Does creation have a song? she wondered.
Poppy looked back to the table where the Ballerina balanced on point above the source of all that beauty. Could there be a luckier girl, even if she was made of glass?
Ink and Strand
Patron dabbed the corners of his mouth, folded his napkin, and placed it in his empty bowl as if napkins were meant to be folded and placed into empty bowls. What message would this send if, years from now, this bowl and napkin were dug from ruins? Would the excavator extract some meaning from the bowl and napkin? Would he assume it was some sign of satisfaction after a good meal? Would the bowl be intact, the napkin hold together, even? Would there be nothing but glass dust and cotton thread?
When he was a boy, Patron’s father carried a handkerchief made from threads spun by his mother. Patron could not remember his mother, but often recalled how his father carried the ever-unused handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit coat, corner spilling over the seam’s edge. It was a relic, his father once said, of the days when more things were handmade. It was a relic left to Patron after his father’s death.
Patron reached into his pocket, felt the frayed edge of that same handkerchief. This was his only real treasure besides Poppy. It was an icon of his mother, a window in his imagination through which he could see the woman he’d never known. Poppy was a different sort of icon, a window to his wife, now gone. Now, he’d given an icon to Poppy.
Pulling his hands from his pocket, he pushed the half-domed Ballerina across the table to his daughter. An icon late received is an icon nonetheless, he thought.
“This was your Matron’s,” he said. “She stored it in the bank vault just before the Third Great War of Urdun. It was the thing she loved most, the thing she wanted you to have if she passed.”
Poppy realized, now, that she was covering her mouth again. Her ribs pounded, her heart tried its best to reach from its cage and take the thing on the table. She wanted to hear the music again, to see the Ballerina spin its slow circle under the glass, but she did not wind the tiny crank.
“There is a note,” Patron said. “Look on the bottom.”
Poppy held the pedestal above her head. Careful not to let the glass dome topple, Patron said. Poppy moved a hand up to steady the top.
On the bottom of the wooden base was a piece of yellowed paper torn into a tiny square. On the square, small looping letters locked arms.
“To Poppy, for your 13th year. Be always free.”
Those letters. Poppy read the message, then tried to see a message behind the message. How were the upstrokes of her Matron’s handwriting so delicate, somehow thinner than the down strokes? Connected letters. A connection. A cord across space, through time. This handwriting was the ghost of Matron. Micro-fibers from Matron’s apron, DNA dust, skin cells—were these things mingled in the lettering? Were pieces of Matron washed in red ink, scratched across the surface of this paper fixed to the bottom of the Ballerina? Is this the way a soul carries on forever, in ink and strand?
“Tonight,” Patron said, “I will tell you the last story of the Ballerina.”
“The last?” Poppy asked. “Surely there are eternities of stories? Say this is true, Patron.”
Patron laughed, then his mouth straightened as his hand, now back in his pocket, brushed the frayed edges of his own icon.
“The world outside is charcoal without choice,” Patron said. “Want as we may, we don’t decide how many stories our characters tell.”
Poppy wasn’t smiling.
“Stories end, child. And now that you have the Ballerina, perhaps it’s time for the two of you to create your own stories.”
The Last Story
Patron stood from the table, asked Poppy to clean the dishes and get ready for bed. She did, dutiful as she was, and then put the dish of milk out for the nameless attic cat. In the bathroom, she ran frayed poplar over her teeth, washed her face in the Waterworks basin, and then returned to the table for the Ballerina. She gathered it to her chest in one piece, holding the base with one hand and steadying the glass dome with the other. She carried it as if it were an extravagance, maybe her own infant, and she ran her fingers over the skin of the note on the underside of the pedestal.
In her room, Poppy set the Ballerina on her bedside table, noticing how the tiny figurine cast a dancing shadow on the wall in the light of the bedroom candle. The electricity was on the fritz again, a thing she’d come to expect these days. The governor of the Electricworks was a lazy man, Patron had once said when he’d had too much wine. Perhaps this accounted for the outages.
Patron entered, sat on the edge of her bed, still in his charcoal suit pants and off-white shirt, now yellowed by six months of bathing in the Waterworks’s ever-present chemical plume. Off-gassing, he called it. And tonight Poppy noticed the yellowing of Patron’s skin for the first time. He’d been stained by the off-gassing, too. Poppy wondered whether the whole town had.
“This is the last tale of the Ballerina, he said.”
Patron paused, asked Poppy to wind up the music.
There was the beauty and joy again. There was the sadness, too. How could one song hold so many emotions?
“The world’s last night was gentle just after dusk.”
This was a new beginning, but Poppy didn’t stop him.
“This is to say it was like any other night in Urdun since the electricity had gone on the fritz. The town’s children had brushed their teeth, fed their cats, and were tucked into beds. Those who could read by candlelight did. Those who couldn’t listened as parents spun old and new stories between sips of tea or honey wine. The breeze of Urdun blew fresh lavender into every window, spring as it was, and the people—all of them—were lulling to sleep or at least to quiet.
“As stars twinkled on in the Urdun sky, the people, or most of them anyhow, had fallen asleep on their couches, in their drawing rooms, in their beds. The lady was no exception, but as the Ballerina woke into the night, the glass figurine noticed something just beyond the lavender wind. It was a low hum, a growing grumble. This is how it goes before the end, she thought, the world groaning and grumbling and shaking strange.
“How could she know? She wasn’t sure.”
Poppy squeezed Patron’s wrist just above his suit-pants pocket. What was in his pocket? Why had his hand been there all night?
“Patron,” she asked, “is this a scary Ballerina story?”
Patron smiled. “No, no. This is a story of something sad but also beautiful. This is how the world is, really. It goes from ash to beauty to ash again and then one day back to beauty. Just listen, Poppy.
“The Ballerina did not go to the window’s edge that night, but stood above the lady of the house, the lady she’d come to call Matron in her daydreams. This woman’s father had made the Ballerina from spun glass and song in the age before Matron’s hair grayed; the Ballerina remembered this much. How was it possible that he’d created her tender glass life from sand and heat, though? How had he woken her with nothing more than the music of the universe? Why had he made her? Was it not to keep watch over Matron?
“The hum grew on the horizon. The air tremored with such slightness, you could feel it only if you were made of glass, which she was. And knowing how the hearts of men grumble and rupture into violence, having seen it before and before and before, the Ballerina flitted to Matron’s cheek.”
Poppy was at once aware that the room had grown darker. The neighbors’ flats were black as dye. There was little light coming in through her own window, just enough to note the shadow of a passing dog.
“The Ballerina stood above Matron’s cheek, squeezed her tiny glass eyes as best she could, and managed a single glass tear, which split into shards and cut Matron right above the cheekbone. Matron woke to pain and blood, and looked at her father’s creation floating in midair above her head. She might have mistaken it for a wonderful dream, maybe. But wasn’t the blood real?
“The grumble grew, and the glass dancer felt the heat of a moment. She danced a tiny circle around Matron, who was now sitting up in bed, and then danced to the door with a quickness Matron could not help but follow. Matron swung her legs over the side of her bed, and when her feet touched the floor, she noticed the tremor, the now-creaking wood. This night was not right, Matron knew, but she also knew, somehow, this Ballerina carried a message from her father.”
Patron stopped, looked out the window. He brushed Poppy’s head.
“The Ballerina led Matron through the streets, down an alley, and to the caves overlooking Urdun. From the mouth of one of those caves, Matron watched fire fall from the sky. She watched the market, the baker’s shop, her home, burn to coal as tiny torches marched into Urdun on the south road. No one ran from their homes. No one fled. There were no screams or cries. Her world, her people, slept through it all, even to their end.
“Matron wept and wept through the night, and as the sun rose, she saw men in red, tiny fire ants filling the town. It was morning, and Matron noticed the tiny Ballerina, frozen in arabesque and now resting in the folds of her nightgown. She looked across the black ruins. She saw the fire ants, already dragging remains to the river. Knowing she was a homeless woman, she sprawled across the cave floor, sank into its cold stone. Just before falling to sleep, she felt the walls of the cave humming with her father’s voice. Was this possible?
“‘Go. Find. Recreate the new world.’
“Those were the last words she heard before the cave welcomed her into dreams.”
Patron noticed Poppy’s eyes, now glassed over with tears.
“This is how the Ballerina saves a life, Poppy. She shows herself at the decisive moment. She leads her Matron to freedom, even when the night grows dark, or groans, or the sky fires up. She is the most special gift.”
“Did she make the new world?” Poppy asked.
Patron kissed her on the forehead.
“We will see. Good night, child.”
“Good night, Patron. See you in the morning.”
“You are a gift, child,” was all Patron said.
The World’s First Night
Urdun slept through the sky’s growing moan, through rumbling of the planes with bellies full of death canisters. They slept as those anesthetized, or drugged. By what? Maybe comfort, or ease, or the notion that nothing in the world ever changes. Not really.
Even Patron slept, somehow.
The canisters fell from the bellies of those planes and smashed against the base of every home. They split wide, spilled fire and force from their guts in a singular synchronized eruption. This is how it goes on the last night of the world, everything ending all at once.
A canister marked “Patron” struck near the base of Poppy’s room and erupted with such force it blew Poppy’s bed against the wall, then through it. The glass half-egg along with the music box base was thrown from the bedside table, and the dome shattered midair from the concussion of the blast. The walls, the roof, maybe even the sky came down on Patron’s house before a second detonation sucked everything inward, pulled Poppy’s bed, the glass shards, all of everything into something like a miniature black hole. Urdun was becoming blank, except for a few buildings—the Chancellor’s mansion, the Waterworks, the Electricworks, the Teleworks, the Agriworks.
Poppy’s Ballerina floated in midair just at the edge of Urdun’s north wall, watching the cruelty of men suck everything into nothing. She watched and watched until she could watch no more. There, she lit on Poppy’s shoulder. Poppy, who’d woken just before the bowels of men spilled fire and fury on Urdun. Poppy, who’d noticed her Ballerina hovering above her cheek. Poppy, who’d watched the Ballerina retreating through the open door. Poppy, who’d followed as if she were in Patron’s last story. Now, the slight girl stood at this same wall, weeping herself dry.
Torches marched from the south road, and Poppy now saw how men appear as ants at such a distance. She heard them singing some small and dumb song, as men who march like ants are prone to do.
She turned to the wall, this place where the glass Ballerina led her. There she saw a crack just wide enough, and she squeezed through. On the other side of this crack was a path but not to any cave. It was a narrow path that hugged the wall, that led to the river, past the river, to where? Poppy didn’t know. Patron had told her no stories of the places beyond the river. Had he known any?
Peeking back through the fissure in the wall, the girl saw the line of ants spreading down the arteries of Urdun. It was an odd sight, the starkness of that near-blank canvas, the uniforms filing past the boundaries of what had once been her neighborhood. Streets now led to nowhere. Not to buildings. Not to market stalls. Not street carts. Not to anything but empty patches of dirt. There was no rubble, no Urdunite people, no anything except the tiny men with their tiny torches and tiny songs.
First light seeped over the river’s edge, and Poppy could almost hear it humming. She noticed the slight weight of the Ballerina, glassed again and resting in the front pocket of her nightgown. The clop of boots came nearer to the north wall, echoed against it. Above the clop of boots, the wind sang.
“Go. Find. Recreate the new world.”
And so, Poppy ran.
Cover image by Hudson Hintze.