Happy birthday, J. A. Tyler! Celebrate by reading this Tyler fiction we published in 2019!
I told them a story. I went to tell them everything, then I wasn’t sure, I hesitated, so instead I told them a story.
I told them how she’d had a bird, a pet, a canary. Bright yellowish, a little tennis ball of a bird and how its cage was a web of gilding.
I told them how she worshiped that bird, and I thought, peripherally, I saw some of them flinch at the word worshiped.
I told them she spoke to it, called it Little Charlie Chaplin, and how it would flit and flounce when she came in the room.
I told them how one night, when we’d only started dating, she’d told me they were a package deal, how she wouldn’t go anywhere without Little Charlie Chaplin.
I told them how I’d asked why she’d named it that and she asked if I’d seen City Lights and I said No and that was almost a deal breaker too.
I told them how we’d stayed up that night and she’d shown me all of them: Charlie eating his boot. Charlie at the races. Charlie as The Great Dictator. Charlie falling in love with the flower girl.
I told them how months later she opened the cage’s tiny door, and Little Charlie Chaplin flew out into the apartment, winging around the room, a burst of yellow like a fearless star.
And I told them how that was the same afternoon I’d been sitting by the window, enjoying the autumn cool, and how I’d forgotten to close the window before the bird plunged from its cage.
I told them that story. I told them how it felt like the beginning of the end, when the bird flew as a gust into the world, disappearing yellow on blue, never to return.
How to Play
Pretend You’re Something You’re Not
This is probably the easiest of all the games, and can be played by any age or skill level, and with any number of players from one to one hundred (or more).
Stand somewhere. The middle of a stark field. The middle of a broken street. The middle of a half-charred living room. Stand (or sit or walk or run), and while you’re doing so, imagine everything you’ve never been. Imagine being an astronaut or a poet, an engineer or a plumber. Imagine being a woman if you’re a man or vice versa. Imagine as far away from yourself as you can. Then, when your imagination is really humming, start telling everything about it, about the new you, the you you weren’t before but are now, the you this burned-down world has created. Tell everyone, and keep telling them until you no longer imagine it but believe it, down deep, where it becomes untouchable and frank. Keep telling it until it becomes everything you are, every last particle inseparable from the you that once was.
Play until you don’t imagine you are playing anymore, until you’ve forgotten the game entirely, then play some more. Play until the sun falls from the sky. Play until the world is no longer the world you knew. Play until it hurts, then keep playing.
The Cultists’ Handbook
Lo, grant us the men and women who are lost and wandering, give their bodies and their hearts to our cause, to our robes and our homes, to become part of how we will change the world, how we’ll part these apocalyptic curtains to reveal the reason for this destruction, the purpose of our loss, and where we’ll go from here.
A Resource Guide to
the Emergence of The Cultists
As with any large-scale changes, there come people willing to take advantage of the rest, to strip from them what little is left, to shape them in some new image, one made for their own benefit.
“The Cultists” as they are becoming known have arisen from the ashes of our great nation and are striking out in all directions, devouring the fragile and humble survivors of these past events, and doing such with silent violence and without remorse.
They have begun to take the shape of a uniform, and their dark hoods and robes are arriving everywhere this tragedy has strode. To them, nothing and no one is off limits. Worse, they are driving victims to their arms by all means: coercion, recruiting, the flickering of a candle set in a seemingly harmless window.
Do Not Be Fooled!
These people are a blight and a danger, and they will stop at nothing to gather and reshape those around them, building an army of believers from the ashes of your suffering, from the heart of your longing.
If you encounter any member of these “Cultists”, run, hide, fight back. Get away as fast as you can, or risk being lost to them forever.
I remember it, so clear and vivid. I can see the colors, hear their breathing, feel the cold of the room under kerosene lamps. There were so many corpses in the room.
I’d told them my story that was really only a story, ignoring their refrain about the planes and the loss, as if a bird escaping a cage could really be the impetus for all of my wandering, for my loss of love and the rest of this worldly tragedy.
After my story the quiet barricade-party of the room quieted even further, and their disbelief jostled the otherwise careful balance there, putting it off-kilter in such a way that I had to be removed from the space, their host insisting I see the rest of the house.
The windows in every room were boarded tight, small candles glowing in corners, directing shadows onto the walls, the furniture either cleared or sparse in each room, hollowed to accommodate the large group they had bunking here, the large group left to mock-party downstairs, where I’d left my false-story ringing.
But this wasn’t a Rat Gang. Those tend to group in cities, burned out as they are. Gangs of Rats won’t stay in the landscape, won’t huddle away from everyone else. They prefer too to sleep mounded in a single room, one on top of the other, and they’d never stay in a building like this, so easily made to catch fire. The Rat Gangs choose only green-bricked buildings, where the walls are at least halfway burn and bulletproof.
The host waltzed me to room after room, more than I’d imagined possible in a space almost quaint-looking from the outside, pausing at one in particular where a half dozen men and women sat sewing hooded robes out of the darkest material. Their machines hummed and the generator in the corner flourished.
The last room the host showed me was where the bodies were piled, a room of corpses, where I realized I would become one of the stack, laid quickly and quietly atop the rest who’d rejected his offer of a truthful story in exchange for asylum.
Journal Entry CCCXIII
Sometimes it’s like wearing a shroud, a dark covering, a blackened cloth dampening our love. Because I know we love each other. I know there is more underneath than all this rumble above, but the rumbling continues. Why? There are so many answers to that I’m sure, but I don’t feel like I have any of them. Today, it’s only a covering of black, the heaviness of sad-draping. We’ll make it, but we’ll have to fight against the failures, we’ll have to work to right this world.
The host, after touring me through this filled-full shell of a house where I was now acquainted with the bodies, he held up a dark hooded robe in one pale hand there in the corpse-room doorway, candlelight underscoring his eyes.
Here is one choice, he said, jostling the robe in the flame-width of light. There’s the other, he went on, nodding his head to the stacks of bodies garnishing the floor.
There’d been the rifle at the doorstep when I arrived, making the idea of escape moot. What was left did seem a simple dichotomy.
Tell us who you had on the planes, he said, soft and indefatigable, Or, how else you lost them. The robe taunted me from his hand, empty yet of my shaking body.
If you choose the other, he said, we’ll at least make it fast, the promise rolling out of his mouth like a black carpet of invitation.
The room full of pseudo-party goers downstairs, now seemed, in retrospect, more menacing than I’d given them credit for.
Corpses were something I knew. I’d seen innumerable ones since the inauguration of flightlessness, since the world was devastated. I’d seen bodies in every shape and form and state of death and rot and decay, but the robes were new territory. I could feel their heft without wearing one, could understand the smother and burden that accompanied them before they’d even been laid across my back and shoulders.
Yet I didn’t answer straight away. I kept the host waiting. Because it wasn’t the robe that was daunting, it was the story that had to go with it. It was the relinquishing of my truth to someone else. It was the thought of having to say how it had really happened that was like an airplane to the apartment complex of my heart.
It’s not about being sorry, she said. She stood with her arms folded, looking through the glass of the balcony door, looking into the gesture of orange streetlight outside and soft lamplight within, her partial reflection sandwiched between the two.
Whatever I’ve done—
It’s not about what you’ve done, she said, her eyes only slightly acknowledging me there in the reflected loneliness of our apartment. A plane flew overhead in the darkness of night and neither of us had any real appreciation for it.
What can I do then—
You can’t do anything, she said, and we stood there, like that, the still frame of a relationship leveled, bent near the ground under winds of the unknown, the pressure of without.
I can change. I can—
You don’t need to change, she said, and turned back to me, neither sitting nor moving elsewhere. A tableau. And I could see she was poised to say something I didn’t want to hear.
What is it then? What—
I love someone else, she said, and it was like all the buildings in the world came down. It was like birds disappearing. It was like whatever had ever been was no more and now, only decimation.