Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 61

As Far as the Eye Could See
Pauline Holdstock

There was once a king and queen of great age.

They lay in their chamber both night and day, day and night close side by side on two high beds, or so they called them. They did not like to say biers.

On the other side of the oaken door, the halls were as silent as the chamber and beyond the castle walls the land was still. 

The queen sighed. She could remember waking to birdsong. Though perhaps not recently. And come to think of it she must have been a mere babe—an infant, you understand—at the time. But never mind. The memory was very sweet. To wake to birdsong was to slip inside the gates of Paradise. As if the stars had fallen to make their music in the day. Ah, the graceful arching woods, offering their bounty of nuts and berries. She used to like them. When she was little. Come to think of it, she used to like everything when she was little: the bright fish leaping from the silver waves, obedient fields of wheat bowing to the summer sun.

She could remember the sweet voice of the boy who watched from the shade of the buzzing hedgerow as she knelt beside the stream to quench her thirst. All this will be mine, he said, his arm outflung as if it bore a sword. All this will be mine when I am king. She can remember the rabbit that hung by the ears from his closed fist. 

The queen sighed again. So distant it seemed. So long ago. She had stopped keeping track the year the pharmaceuticals she bet on collapsed and, along with them, her face. She broke all the mirrors. She might be a hundred, perhaps more. Who knew? All of it gone now, the woods, the fields, the silvery threaded waters, even the mountains despoiled. Broken. 

Everything was different now. Everything. The king and queen could not remember when it had changed. The king said it had crept upon them. The queen said no, it had been one day to the next, sudden. In the fields beyond the stinking moat, the last of the blighted crops lay where they had fallen. The stench of swollen carcasses hung in the air and no birds came to feast upon the eyes. The king and queen kept all the windows sealed. No more summer breezes wafting through. Beyond the fields, the last trees in the land stood scorched against the sky and the silent rows of fresh filled graves rolled as far as the eye could see.

It had been quite the party, oh indeed. Sometimes in the long day the queen sighed at the memory, sometimes the king. They did a lot of sighing. There was little else to do. How they had revelled. Day and night. Abandon. That had been the word of the day. Gay abandon. Oh yes, they had known how to party and they did it long into the night, into the dawn, abandoning all care for the state of their domain, all thought of reckonings to come. Such a time of plenty they had been, those heady years. 

Plunder? Who would not? It was almost a duty. So much there for the taking, not only the fruits of the ocean and the green mantle of the earth but the earth itself—the gold! the copper! the mind blowing lithium!—and all that it freely offered. Freely! Impossible it not to take it all. And endless trees there were—or so it seemed—to fell for storehouses. Then so much space to build upon once they had fallen. Delightful cycle! Food? Always an excess. Drink? Let’s just say drunk. And drugs of choice. So much choice. They had made all their best decisions on drugs. They caroused, they consumed. They danced like decapitated chickens and they copulated with anything that still twitched, while outside emaciated labourers, working to keep the coffers full and the granaries overflowing, dropped to their knees in the attempt. It was not as if the king and queen kept it all to themselves. Any peasant, vagabond, or dirty foreigner, any orphan, any leper, the halt and the lame, all could hear the music from afar. The king’s speakers were second to none when it came to boom.

But so busy were the king and queen in the headlong pursuit of pleasure that their eyes were blind to the coming peril. There had been signs: skies massed with black smoke, whales beaching instead of breaching. The king read the signs for himself: industry was booming; mother nature was offering her bounty as she had time out of mind. He would not hear otherwise. Indeed, when a bold young matron came to report that the last of the forests, all of them, were on fire, he ordered her throat be filled with burning pitch. The queen wondered whether he had gone too far. But only for a minute. Next to come was a white-haired worthy telling how one million living beasts of different kinds had been extinguished. She treated him for a liar, cut off his tongue herself and had it braised that very night. It made a fine accompaniment to the last lamb’s kidney in the world.

The queen sighed long, long and slow at the memory and did not draw another breath. Beside her the body of the king was already cold.

Many a long year they lay side by side in the cold, dark chamber with not a soul to record their passing nor to witness the turning of the earth in its orbit through the infinite field of stars. Their flesh fell from their bones and their bones turned to dust inside the fine threads of their garments and then the fine threads too fell and then the biers, until all that remained was a darkened patch upon the floor of stone. 

Outside, beneath the castle wall, a grey-green lichen began its slow embroidery across the rock.


Originally published in Canadian Notes & Queries, no. 108.
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