Science FictionStrange

The Ashes With Which We Paint You

By Wendy Nikel
700 words · 3-minute reading time
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They say that our kind never forgets. Here are the things we remember.

One year ago....

I remember the thunder of applause and the gasps of surprise that surrounded us when you first taught me to hold the brush and put the paint to canvas.

Yellow and red splashed across the page, a shock of color where before there was none. I cried out in delight at discovering my natural artistic abilities. I painted my family, my home, and you. I basked in your admiration. I shook my head with pride and stomped my feet. I called to the young ones and elders to join me—Come on! It's fun! You laughed as our young ones waved their brushes, splattering paint on the gathered crowd.

Your young ones leaned over the iron fences with sugar-sticky smiles and wide eyes, and when they waved, I happily returned the gesture.

One month ago...

I remember watching the streaks burn across the heavens, those bright balls of fire and light that I didn't recognize, didn't understand at the time.

They came at night, waking us from our sleep, and the flames that followed the explosions lit up the horizon. We'd never, in all our collective memories, seen anything like it. From our frightened huddle beneath our lean-to, we watched the ghostly shadows of the skyline crumbling like sand on the horizon. That which had seemed so permanent, so solid, like the great white mountain over the savannah, was now but a smoldering pile of rubble and ash.

The day dawned with a burning haze that choked our lungs and stung our eyes. It made us thirst for clean water, but no one came to bring us any. We waited in timorous silence, but no one came to our aid.

One week ago...

I remember the scent of filth and blood, the day we realized you weren't returning for us.

Our waste piled higher, untended and riddled with flies. Worry grew sharper in our elders' eyes. We gathered tightly around the young ones, renewing an instinctual, protective stance against the predators prowling the once-friendly paths, stalking through the jungle of iron and concrete. How they'd escaped their enclosures, we didn't know, but we could hear them, smell them, sense them with a wild instinct that had laid dormant in our memories for long years.

We were safe here, the elders reminded us. Our walls were too high for them to leap, and they hadn't the strength to break through.

That night, the sharp scent of blood kept us all from sleep.

Yesterday...

I remember the taste of grain on my tongue, tainted with dark spots of mold.

We broke through the door that you'd so often used, and there we discovered the last crate of food. Together, we dragged it into the open and crushed it beneath our feet and tore at it with our teeth to unearth the golden provisions inside. The young ones ate first, for their hunger was greatest and their grasp of our situation the poorest.

The elders gathered and debated in low voices that echoed in the empty spaces of our home — our home which had seemed open and free but now yawned before us with too many shadows, too many piles of filth, too many places that no longer felt safe. We'd have to leave soon and march north, where the scent of fresh water was strongest, where the vegetation might yet be uncharred. We all agreed. We'd break down the walls, tear down the gates, and find our way to freedom beyond this broken, deserted place.

Today...

I remember the brittle chalkiness of ash and the feel of rough concrete.

We painted the walls of our home, reaching high over our wrinkled heads. The paints were gone, so instead we used the charred pieces of the city left behind to write our goodbyes. We filled the empty spaces with all these memories, so that someday, when your young and our young return to this place, when the world has healed and they can laugh and paint and live together once again, they will know what we know.

They, like elephants, will remember.

This story originally appeared in Zetetic Record.


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Author: Wendy Nikel

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