"A Dead Sea" Flash fiction originally published in Writer's Digest, December, 2017
(Photo credit: Getty Images)
I see the curve of the coastline, a maw, rimmed by falling down and half-finished buildings that rise up like jagged, broken teeth cutting into the haze-blurred mountains, and I stop.
I pause here every morning as I walk back along this deserted beach toward the city, looking for a spark, anything to validate why, when I moved here from the last place (and the place before that), I thought ocean and mountains might give me more than empty and ugly in yet another form.
But today, something else stops me, too: an old man at the edge of the shore, strong-shouldered but stooped, stripped down to his undershirt, suspenders holding up his dark, baggy trousers shrugged up to his knees, shoes held aloft in one hand. He is frantically scanning the water, wailing and keening like a hired mourner at a funeral, while tiny waves lick gently at his feet as if trying to soothe him.
Something about the man tugs at me. Despite his odd behavior, I am moved—by curiosity as much as sympathy—and I tap his shoulder. When he turns his streaming, red-rimmed eyes to me, I ask with my limited grasp of the local language if he is all right, if he needs any help.
He pulls out a crumpled handkerchief from the recesses of a front trouser pocket and wipes his eyes, then blows his nose with a honk that scares a nearby seagull into flight. He buries the well-used cloth back in his pocket and turns to look out again at the barely undulating blue-black expanse. A deep, shuddering sigh escapes him, then he answers me in my own language.
“No, sir, you cannot help me. All is lost. Gone. Unless you can summon mermaids, capture sea monsters, or conjure a pirate ship from this lifeless sea, you cannot help me.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, wanting to know as much as I don’t, a dreadful almost-knowing sinuous, snaking through my gut.
He turns and steps toward me, away from the too-quiet water, head still hung low like his neck is broken. “Can’t you sense it? There are no more princesses to save, dragons to slay, distant lands to conquer. No more magic.” He snaps his head up then, surprising me, the red veins in his eyes accentuating the watery blue irises so they are practically alight. “It is over.”
I know he’s right. I knew before he told me. I stumble backwards, fall into the soft, forgetful sand. The sun is higher now, blinding me as I look up. I’m exhausted suddenly, my fatigue blurring my vision further so it appears the sad old man is fading into thin air. But then I know it isn’t my eyes—he is truly disappearing, losing substance like those pollution-choked mountains in the distance.
I watch, unmoved and unmoving as he dissolves, thinking instead about how I knew all along that it is not just this vacant city by the sea, no more than the last barren town, that urges me to fill my notebook with meaningless scribbles that vine and choke out those yawning, awful white pages; to destroy their hopeful, naïve possibility so I don’t have to face them, the truth, at all.
Other than footprints where he stood a few seconds ago, the old man is no more. I don’t feel surprised that he vanished into thin air. I don’t feel anything, really, but the blunt certainty, the deep-bone knowledge, that I will never have another story to tell, let alone another book to write.
And neither will anyone else.
Because it isn’t anywhere or anything or anyone. It is everywhere and everything and everyone.
The well is dry. The sea is dead. The mountains are airless. Our imaginations are exhausted.
Nothing is left, except this: