Read time: 12 mins

Human

Visions of the Anthropocene

by Tahnia Barrie
24 December 2020

I. AVIAN MALADY

Human felt liquid blackness taint his sclerae, as would a capsized ink-pot slowly swallow the caramel-brown of old parchment, and his hazel irises became a cold metallic gold. He felt his limbs grow increasingly heavy until the bed was water and he was sinking and going nowhere at all. He knew this was what the last few moments of life felt like; the sudden kind of death that would stick its foot out in front of you during your early-morning run. But the world inside him was operating in slow motion and his face and body dripped with stygian oil and fresh blood.

Time stopped. He knew it at once and it made more sense to him than anything had in a while. Then his mouth flung open.

His tongue twitched and he gagged, eyes widening. A sudden odour had overtaken the air and, try as he might, he couldn’t shut his mouth; his mandible was unresponsive. The smell lay thick on his taste-buds and crept into the back of his throat. Panic and claustrophobia set in, heavy and unmoving, like obesity or depression. It was a putrid stench of festering flesh and fresh faeces. His nose led his eyes up to the sight of talons. Small talons on a bird too innocent to be in Human’s nightmare. Its tiny wings flapped slowly but it was clear the bird was frantic, confused by the slowness of its descent; it had not yet learnt to fly but in Human’s bedroom, in the absence of time, gravity seemed schizophrenic. The little creature’s rib cage was naked and exposed and it seemed she had grown plastic bottle caps and cigarette lighters for organs. She was dead now, but still there, still fighting.

Human could feel her distress, and agony, so viscerally he knew it would haunt him for years. As she descended, it became noticeable to him that the bones in her neck were exposed with bits of dried skin still attached; her odour became more pungent than Human had thought possible. She was going to crash into his face, he was sure. But she didn’t. She landed gracefully and perched on his mouth as though by instinct. Her talons dug past Human’s bottom set of teeth and right into his gums, drawing a substantial amount of blood that began to pool beneath his tongue. She twisted her head until it lay vertically, her right eye staring directly at Human’s increasingly bloody tongue. She was starving, with nowhere to store food in her decaying system. Several maggots, just under a baker’s dozen, with all the moving and shaking hadtipped over the edge of her brittle ribs and right into Human’s mouth. The change seemed not to bother them in the slightest; they instantly began to wiggle in the blood, delighted. Seeing this, she stirred and began to scale Human’s face, her head still in the same bent position and with every slow step she took, the terror that lay dormant within Human slowly awoke. Now, perched on his forehead, she saw Human. She saw him with his gold and black eyes wide open, breathing just in the way she wasn’t and could never again and craned her neck of bones forward until they saw each other, eye to eye. In the meantime, the maggots had been growing, feeding with delight and swelling with Human’s blood. They all, it seemed, had made a unanimous decision to wriggle to the very base of his tongue and there they slid down into his throat with glee. And thus Human began to choke, unable to move, hands gripping his satin sheets and, as his face turned purple, the bird’s eye turned red. Like fire.

II. AMAZONIAN NECROPOLIS

His mind grew blank with sensory overload and all that tethered him to a semblance of reality was the sound of screaming. Screams of torment and anguishso incomprehensibly loud and encompassing, Human didn’t realise they were coming from him. They ripped from his stomach and through his throat, hoarse and piercing, with so much force the blood vessels in his vocal cords ruptured and began to bleed. He was on his knees. His hands clutching the ashen, blackened twigs below him. He was on fire but there were no flames. The pain he felt only grew worse and worse as the fire ate through the top layers of his skin, through the second, through his muscle to lick his bones black. He whispered and wheezed and roared but the only intelligible thing that he wouldn’t stop repeating through his menagerie of inhuman sounds was ‘Make it stop. Make it stop. Please make it stop.’

Time was alive and well in this place the little bird had sent him to and for hours on end Human burned and screamed and burned some more until his nerve endings were all taken by invisible flames and he felt nothing. And, for the first time since the fire came, he opened his eyes. He saw the sky, pearl-blue and beautifully cloudless. Endless. He felt nothing. He fought his way up onto his feet, looked out and, perhaps for the first time in his life and, a little too late, really saw. He saw acres upon acres that rolled into one another, endless as the sky, as grey and black as it was blue: the Amazon. Or the nothingness that was left of it. Hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses littered the expanse, all burnt, most unrecognisable. Nothing alive in sight, no plant life, or anything that made it what it once was. The sight horrified him. To his left lay a giant tortoise. Its shell so burnt it looked like a pile of spent charcoal and its head lay limp in the ashes, mouth ajar. He walked endlessly through that vastness of death, his weight increasing, a few pounds for every step, with the heaviness of depression. Earth’s lungs had been reduced to ashes by those who would die without it.

Human walked, without rest, through eleven blistering days and four winter nights. He walked and prayed for the ultimate release he knew he would never be awarded; in death a man has a limited array of opportunities to suffer. There was a figure in the distance, a man walking towards him. And so they walked towards each other until the man was a boy or perhaps a girl between the ages of seven and thirteen. And it was only now Human’s feet were finally given permission to stop. The child was, truly and sorrowfully, a ghastly thing to behold. She was a fourth-degree burn in human form; a walking corpse that had somehow escaped death. Not an inch of the child’s tiny frame hadn’t been affected by the fire: her chest was a network of charred tendons and her fingers, toes, shins and left shoulder-blade had been burnt down to the bone. Her head was the least affected; she even had a small patch of singed hair on top and some skin on her face. He looked into her eyes and they were a cold vacuum; windows to a violent nothingness. Her stare was blind and unfocused. A tiny piece of crumpled paper dropped to the floor and rolled towards Human. She had been holding it. Human picked the paper up and opened it. Showers of something uncomfortably warm washed over him: guilt. He began to cry, a nasty, grating and heaving thing that choked him and spewed out over and over; it was a cheque addressed to Human’s business firm. A cheque for six million U.S. dollars that he had received three years prior. The girl, it seemed, had saved her dying breath for him and so, with that, she fell. And Human with her. The world rotated and his tears fell to the sky, everything went black and nausea hit him like a truck. Then it all stopped, and he was cold and wet.

III. ANTARKTIKOS IN A SWIMMING POOL

He was standing in a swimming pool that was half empty, or perhaps half full. It was the size of his deceased grandmother’s house and lined by miniature palm trees covered in ice. Human’s eyes scanned the pool and his eyebrows furrowed. Melting ice sheets and what looked like tiny glaciers spanned the pool; a microcosm, if Human ever saw one, but he knew they were just as vertical as they were in the Antarctic. He was shivering and only when he tried to move did he notice his feet were cemented to the floor of the pool. He had been fitted with cement shoes that were beautifully designed and a size too small; he was sure his toe nails had been pushed into his skin and that he was bleeding from all ten toes. This was a pain that was easily bearable now. He sighed, his breath on the air, and began to really take in his environment. He was standing in the middle of the pool in direct view of a mansion. It was ten times as big as his own and ivory-white with golden lights adorning the balconies. It was covered in rock-hard ice that doubled the size of the mansion and made it look unnerving. Every inch was covered in ice and long, dangerous icicles dripped all over.

However, it was all melting and at a dangerously fast rate. Ice-cold water flowed down into the pool and, little by little, it began to fill. The water level rose even faster as the glaciers and sheets melted too. Human smiled and a deranged giggle escaped his lips as realisation smacked him around the back of his head. So this was it: today, he would suffer a horrible drowning and possibly his water-bloated body would float into another nightmare. The hot sun scorched the back of his neck, an odd sensation all things considered, and the mansion glistened in its bright rays. Someone was watching him. He felt their eyes on his skin and thought of the little girl with the marred face and horridly vacant eyes that accused him of so much. He didn’t look up until he was forced to. Compelled by the voice in the wind; it spoke through a strange and melodious silence. Human finally lifted his gaze from the thawing ice sheets. His eyes gained brilliant vision akin to that of binoculars and he was faced with the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She was on the mansion’s portico, reclining on an ancient Egyptian bed of pure gold and sipping the finest wine time had ever grown.

The water was up to Human’s chest at this point, his lips were blue with hypothermia and his hair ladened with ice. He quivered and quaked and stared. She was in a sheer figure-hugging dress of silver mesh and a million tiny diamonds and, beneath that intricate beauty, she was naked. Wondrously naked and obviously warm, oblivious to the icy universe around her. Her stomach was slightly swollen and perfectly round; she was with child and it made her look more beautiful than Human ever imagined beauty could be. On her feet, she wore dancing shoes made of ice that were eight inches tall with rusty daggers at the heels. They made her legs look endless and dangerous. And she was bald. Bald with a rotting scalp of festering holes that hosted too many maggots and repulsive things that lived only where death thrived. Human’s stomach retched and heaved. The water was at his neck now, and his heart rate had slowed down to just a few beats per minute. Her picture-perfect eyes surveyed Human and slowly she poured her wine down her virtually exposed breasts. He felt sick. The water had stopped rising when it got to his chin but the mansion was still mostly covered in ice. When he opened his eyes, for he had shut them tight for fear of throwing up again, the lady was standing on the steps of the portico.

She looked like an angel as she glimmered and shone in the sun. An angel dripping with fine wine and the fluids of putrefaction. Her shoes had begun to melt. She smirked seductively; her eyes, glazed over with wanton lasciviousness, never left Human’s blue face. Then she raised a delicate hand and blew him a kiss that grew into a dollar note. It glided with precision and grace towards him, and stopped, floating right in front of him. The lady, satisfied, turned and walked back into the mansion, the sound of her daggers clinking against the ice floor echoing long after she had disappeared. Human stared at the note. It was an odd thing; where the president’s head was meant to be was, instead, a moving picture of a heavy and curiously orange snake. It was obvious it perceived itself to be a dragon. Blue flames rent its mouth and the flowers around it smouldered. The exact scene repeated itself over and over until the dollar was certain Human had seen all he was supposed to and floated away behind his head. The voice in the wind was there again. Everywhere and nowhere all at once. Her silence was gone, replaced by something audibly ethereal. And so she began a slow, steady and euphonious whisper that filled Human with dread, and then hope.

‘The problem is that elsewhere is always so much closer than you think, Human. But there is still time. Do what you know you must.’

With those closing words, all the ice within, on top and around the mansion melted away under the sun’s rage and the water, in continuous waves, filled the pool and filled the garden and covered that magnificent ivory-white structure. Needless to say, Human drowned.

IV. ATLANTIS TODAY

Human’s eyes fluttered open and watched as a fish swam unreservedly through his chest. It was alive in the way spirit creatures often were. It was handsomely iridescent and glowed brightly, illuminating the dark waters of the ocean. It wasn’t alone. Hundreds of its kind swam about, a happy shoal, and the waters were alive with radiantly glowing sea life: sea horses and large stingrays that flew, bottle-nosed dolphins and sea turtles and jellyfish as large as cars, squid and coral of all kinds and it went on and on. It was bursting with life and the ghosts of before. The fish all instantly parted as a whale, or perhaps a cousin-species, swam by. It glowed blue like the moon and was the largest living thing he had ever seen. Human was in awe. As it passed, he noticed something oddly-shaped that sat on its back. He swam closer to get a clearer view. It was a car seat and in it sat a child of approximately four months. It was asleep and looked peaceful in the same way a grieving mother always means when she says ‘she’s sleeping now’ over her daughter’s open casket. In panic, Human pushed through the water towards the baby. He hit an invisible wall right before he could reach out, and then caught the eye of the whale. And understanding more than he would have liked to, he let the whale and the baby pass by. His heart was heavy as he watched them disappear in a hint of blue light. He let his gaze drop and, as he did so, he saw a city below him, silent, nestled on the ocean floor.

About the Author

Tahnia Barrie

Tahnia Barrie is a twenty-year-old poet and writer from Sierra Leone and from her country’s capital city, Freetown. ‘Human’ is Tahnia’s first short story and published work; it reflects her emotional response to the current global climate crisis. She recently graduated from a sixth form-college in London and began studying English Literature and Creative Writing […]

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