Last Man’s Lullaby
He sat on the coast and watched the waves of the Atlantic roll. He remembered as a child having to travel hours from his home in Alabama to see such beauty. Here he was, however, on his front porch in Huntsville, watching the tide rise. The waters encroached on the land just as everything in this dying world had done: gradually. Gradually, the crops died; gradually, people abandoned their homes and moved inland; gradually they ran out of space; gradually corpses piled up.
It became clear he was smart to just sit and watch the waves move closer and closer by the day, as he forgot his name from lack of use. He was he, his name having washed away with much of the world.
And he believed he was the only one left.
Not that he cared. He had always preferred to be alone. He had spent his life in this house, in the suburbs of what was once called Rocket City, USA. A place where men achieved the impossible, making a rocket strong enough to break out of the earth’s bubble and head into space. Nothing was achieved here anymore. No one was left and he had no motivation. He just sat on his porch and awaited the waves to finally take him away.
He exhaled and picked up his coffee mug to find it empty. It hadn’t had any coffee for months, just water boiled with tree bark; a big cup of make-believe. He enjoyed the imagined coffee, the comfort it gave him, so he went inside his childhood home and headed for the kitchen.
In the hall, on the way, there was the family photo he had passed a million times before. Usually, he ignored it, the memory of his mother and father’s passing too painful to think about, but today he stopped and looked. It had become askew on the wall at some point, so he straightened it; and while he did he reminisced to the day it had been taken. His mother straightening his ever-mussed hair, his dad tying his tie, putting on his best sweater vest and going to Sears. The part-time teenage photographer was disinterested, but they did their best to smile. They ate McDonald’s afterwards; He was thirteen.
That was a long time ago.
He stared at the photo for a few moments longer, entranced by his memories and the sound of the waves moving closer. Then he remembered his “coffee” and headed to the kitchen. Walking through the door he ran his hand over the notches that marked his height as he grew through the years.
The kitchen hadn’t been remodeled like most of the homes. His parents toyed with the idea of updating their home, but they were pensioners and had a limited budget. They could never afford to put in new appliances and a new floor. It looked the same as it had during every meal he ate there with them. They always apologized to the few guests they had, as though they were embarrassed that they couldn’t make everything new like their friends could. He never minded, though; the kitchen was the heart of the home, after all, and this heart gave comfort.
He lit the propane stove and began boiling the little water left in his only pot. As he waited, he looked out the kitchen window at the surrounding vista. His parents had bought this house in the early 1960s for almost nothing; it sat atop Green Mountain and it looked down upon the valley. The view was a wondrous one to grow up with; if he had been of a poetic bent it would have filled his mind with many words. He was not, though, so he just thought of the beauty in silence. Now, no matter what room he looked out of, it was water as far as the eye could see; the valley filled up like a rich man’s soup bowl.
Once the bitter brew was complete, he filled his mug and headed back to the porch. The chair he had been using only fifteen minutes earlier had floated off, the porch was no more. He closed the door and started up the stairs. It wasn’t that he was trying to survive, just that he wanted more time to reminisce before the inevitable.
He put his hand on the bannister as he started up. He didn’t know how old he was, he had stopped keeping a calendar years before. He must have reached what his father had called, “that certain age,” he had taken to sleeping on the living room sofa, as his knees began to ache more and more walking up the stairs. Looking at the water coming in under the front door, he could tell the sofa wouldn’t be an option tonight.
The groan of the steps was no match for the creak of his knees. They were old steps, made of oak. They protested each step ever taken on them; but they held strong through the years of PF Flyers running up and down them, his mother’s growing girth punishing them, his dad’s final fall down them.
He hated to think of that day: the day he woke up to hear his father whimpering at the bottom of the stairs. Maybe he fell because he had gotten lost on his way to the bathroom, or maybe he forgot there were steps at all. Father had been long gone with dementia by then, so there was no knowing. He ran down the stairs to help, but the same wood that made the stairs strong made them deadly. His father died of a fractured skull in his arms.
Tears were streaming down his eyes as he reached the second floor. He looked down to the spot where his father had expired; it sat under water an inch deep. He sat on the top step with a grunt and wept.
When he finished, he turned from the water creeping up the steps and walked into his bedroom. It was musty, having been closed tight for months. He walked over to the window and drew back the curtains, allowing the sun’s bright rays to flood the room. As he opened the window, his hand brushed up a snowdrift of dust, scattering it into the air. He watched in wonderment as the small specks caught the sunlight. They danced joyfully around: pirouetting, finding partners and occasionally switching them, flying to the peak of the sun ray and quickly darting down, as if afraid of the darkness that awaited. The dust’s dance was a thing of beauty. The tears on his cheeks dried as they began to ache with the wide grin that had replaced them.
A cloud covered the sun again and the dust was once again in darkness; nothing but dirt to be wiped away. His smile faded with the sun’s rays and he turned to look around his room. It was just as it had always been: Crimson Tide posters, a clutter of dirty clothes in the corner, his old guitar. Walking over, he picked up his guitar. The sound that came out as he strummed it sounded foreign; it had been a long time since musical notes had entered his ears. He strummed again and began to tune the ancient Martin guitar. The sound that came out of it became sweet and true as his calloused fingers twisted the tuning pegs.
Once the notes sounded right, he put the guitar down and wandered back into the hallway between his room and his parents’. As he wandered towards their room, which he had not been in since his mother had passed quietly there fifteen years prior, he looked down the steps. The water was now halfway up the stairs, the hall filling with a thick saltwater smell. He didn’t worry, didn’t sweat as he opened the door to his mother’s room.
He was taken back to the last time he had been in the room. His mother had died in her sleep, but he didn’t notice her absence until lunch time. She had been sleeping in more often since his father’s death, so it was not unusual for her to miss breakfast. He finished his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then went up to check on her. When he found her, she had the most peaceful look on her face, a look like an angel. It was the most beautiful he had seen her in years and he knew she was gone. He kissed her on the forehead and backed slowly out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him. He called the ambulance, they took her. He had her cremated and threw her ashes into the Alabama breeze one bright, blustery March day.
Even now, staring into her room that he hadn’t been in for years, he did not cry. He missed his mother, of that he was sure, but he would never have wanted her to see what the world had become since her death. All of the hatred and anger, all of the death and despair. He was glad she went when all was beautiful, he was sure not many died looking peaceful since the waters rose and it all went to hell.
He backed slowly out, his feet splashing in the water that was now filling the hallway and closed the door quietly. He looked at his feet and jumped up, making a large splash. He loved splashing in puddles as a child and figured he may get one last splash in.
He sloshed over to his room and picked up his guitar. He looked at the water rising and strummed out a defiant chord. Then he sat on the bed, closed his eyes, and played. It would be the last song heard on this drowned planet, so he played the one closest to his heart. He played in true and he played it sweet. It was a lullaby his mother sang to him every night before bed. And as his voice came out of his mouth to sing the words, his eyes filled with tears; not of grief, but of joy:
“Sleep my baby on my bosom
Warm and cozy will it prove
Round thee mother’s arms are folding
In her heart a mother’s love
There shall no one come to harm thee
Naught shall ever break thy rest
Sleep my darling babe in quiet
Sleep on mother’s gentle breast.
Sleep serenely, baby, slumber
Lovely baby, gently sleep;
Tell me wherefore art thou smiling
Smiling sweetly in thy sleep?
Do the angels smile in heaven
When thy happy smile they see?
Dost thou on them smile while slumb’ring
On my bosom peacefully.
Do not fear the sound of a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.”
The last note lingered as the ocean reached his bedroom window. He set the guitar down and watched it float out into the hallway. The smile on his face beamed as he laid down on his bed and closed his eyes. He thought of the beauty of the world, of how much he missed his parents, of how he could not wait to be with them again. He thought of his mother’s beautiful death mask and let all of the ugliness of the world wash away as the waters rose to take him.