This excerpt is part of a series produced via a partnership with the George Town Literary Festival, an annual literary festival taking place this year between November 24 and 27 in George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
You perched on the top of the giant structure, like a gargoyle.
You squinted against the sun. Its unfamiliar rays were ants squirming upon your eyelids. You sniffed the sweet-smelling air; expanded your chest to fully inhale the fresh oxygen. How delicious! You could almost taste the sunshine. Healthy green grass. Cotton-white clouds. The chirping birds. The buzzing insects . . . oh! This is a newborn world, a newborn you. This is paradise—you had forgotten the meaning of that particular word, but it sounded appropriately pleasant, good enough to describe the wonderful sights and scents that you were enjoying.
You stretched your body, relishing the pleasure of straightening and flexing your back, arms, and legs. The muscles have been stiff and bent for so long.
But of course. Twenty-five-odd years ago you fell down the hole on your own, six-times-six feet, a blind manhole that led to a labyrinth of sewers. It was so dark, swarming with rats. Littered with debris from hell, it could well have been one of its pits.
The last thing you remembered—the world was crawling on its belly, gasping with its dying breaths. Nuclear warheads clashed in the air, vomiting monstrous fire that roasted the earth to ashes. The sky was ripped open and you saw thick black smoke trying to patch the shredded clouds. You never really knew why the superpower nations were flattening the globe with such bloodlust. Once you read from a piece of food wrapper that used to be a tabloid, that they were murdering each other and the rest of the planet over a queen, an angel on earth. You laughed the doomsayers off, remained optimistic, while trying to imagine her curves and her luscious lips, which apparently were worth blasting bombs for. You couldn’t believe it. “Aren’t humans still too wise, to kill and to die just for a woman?”
When the poisonous fog came rushing from the northern part of the city, the inhabitants scampered like terrified chickens. The sooty smoke was lethal—inhaling one lungful of it rendered all limbs stiff and brought seizures so intense that bones could break. Eyes bulged red, and blood spurted from the ears and nostrils. Such vivid and three-dimensional deaths have haunted your dreams since the past twenty-five-odd years—those were your final clear memories.
Today, you finally saw the earth after its rebirth. You stood alone, on top of a giant structure. Perched like a gargoyle statue. There was no coincidence.
You were convinced of this miracle. God chose you Himself. Selected to continue the survival of humanity. He threw you in the dark hole just to keep you safe. To keep your superior genetics alive, so you could pass it to your descendants. You were going to father a new generation of humans. The Homo ultimatus. An invincible species undefeated by wars and disasters. Charles Darwin would have cited this as evidence of nature making her selection, and you were the chosen patriarch!
You stretched and tried to straighten your back properly—again. You failed—again. You fell on your fours—again. You couldn’t stand straight on two legs, not anymore.
The quarter-century spent in the narrow labyrinths have transformed your physique. The back was crushed into a perpetually forward bent, and you weren’t walking. You crawled on all fours—like a gibbon, or an orangutan. Darwin would have described this as a post-historic evolution. You knew his theories were mostly bluffs, but you worshipped him anyway. You used to say that only those who successfully adapt were going to proceed in climbing the stepladder of survival. His words now promised a euphoric hope for the dispossessed, dehumanized you. Look, the filthy scruffy hair growing over your whole body after the irradiation of your follicles, dermis, and melanin. Your skin took a dirty charred tone. Coarse to touch. While your back and scalp were covered in patches of crusty scabs.
O new world! Here I come to conquer—you were excited, imagining how Caesar approached Zela, proclaiming veni, vidi, vici. You rushed down the mounds of broken concrete, sharp at the multiple edges, rough and craggy. Your senses were sharper—that must have been another blessing evolution has granted. With your strong and solid leg muscles, you leapt far across, to the other side of the ruins.
You began to wander around. Exploring the post-historic world after twenty-five-odd cursed years. Was not this a place that used to be a metropolis, while you were a vermin crawling on its pavements together with the rest of the civilizational trash. This once-city had been a giant coliseum where you had to face barbaric battles with a multi-headed monster called Life. With no shield. No sword. Blindfolded and hands bound. Onlookers laughed as you were pounded, writhing and thrashing. Struggling to get up. That was what you were—a show animal, whose purpose was to entertain the capitalists, economists, and political royalties on the viewers’ seats. They could barely control their excitement. They couldn’t wait to cheer for the finale when you would finally be wrestled to death.
No. You didn’t die. They never watched you fall to your death. Now you were the one laughing. And you were going to forefather a new civilization.
You leapt swiftly from one clearing to another. You climbed and broke through ruins, rubbles, and decapitated pillars, heaps of misshapen concrete chunks that used to be banks and luxury emporiums. You scrounged for something edible. You need to survive. Your belly was growling louder, reminding you that since exiting the ghastly pits, you haven’t had any morsel to eat.
You saw something glinting beneath the gravelly sand, and picked it up. A strange metallic object. Silvery grey. Your curious fingers clumsily pressed and rolled the small wheel-shaped part—the only part that you could move on the object. A bit stiff, but it was turning. You pressed and turned it again, faster, faster. And pop! A small reddish warm tongue of flame spluttered out from a tiny hole.
You had forgotten how a lighter looked and how it worked, but now you remembered. The flame was beautiful, enchanting. You haven’t seen fire for so long—and this one danced in front of you so gracefully. You could almost feel a cigarette waiting to be lit. You extinguished the flame (you knew you can bring it back) and kept the lighter in your person, it was going to be useful.
Crawling and leaping. Leaping and crawling and swinging. Until you arrived to a greener valley. A delicious aroma wafted from the area, that smell beckoned you there. A luscious tempting scent. You finally saw where the aroma came from—a wide expanse of banana trees. Banana trees bent with ripe bunches, each fruit twice larger than bananas you remembered from the old days. Salivating, you leapt forward, grabbing a hold on the nearest low bunch, snapped it off the tree.
You ate the manna from heaven. Wasn’t the world purged of its past, for you to start a new story? Everything was meant for you now. Goodbye ghettoes of the past, welcome paradise of the future! Nuclear wars scorched the land, turning the earth into a graveyard. From its ashes rose a fertile new world. A new world populated with the most beautiful, the most delicious things. Like the bananas you’re gobbling now. The most delightful food you have had. In the dark pits food was anything you could hold, anything you could bite and chew. You didn’t know what half of those foods were. You never wanted to know. Some squeaked. Some didn’t make any sound. Some were slimy and scaly. Hunger didn’t allow you the luxury to be picky.
The food kept you engrossed. You never noticed the eyes watching from afar, and you definitely weren’t aware of them approaching. There were several of them. Only until their shadows blocked the sun, you noticed that something was amiss—but it was too late. A thump on the back sent you tumbling face first onto the pebbly soil.
“This is my territory! Everything that grows and falls here goes under my say-so!”
You lifted your head to see the originator of the cursed voice, wetly hoarse and stuttering, who was standing before you. Standing on his fours. His body must be like yours—as much as you could discern without a mirror—overgrown with coarse long hair. Only difference was the greyish-white hair on his chest, making him look distinguished and probably charismatic, although this man must be at least half your age.
He was surrounded by similar figures, who looked far sturdier and more masculine. The nearest one, whose head was almost fully covered with red hair, held a gritty stone club. Your head must have been bludgeoned by that.
“How would I know that?” you snapped in reply.
Their response was another hit from the stone club, this time pounding your right shoulder. You were thrown to the left, unable to get up. The red-headed man lifted his club, directly above your head. Did you survive twenty-five years in hell only to get your head bashed to death here?
From After Time, copyright 2022 Fahd Razy. Translation © 2022 by Adibah Abdullah. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.