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Authors: Karen Thompson Walker

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BOOK: The Age of Miracles
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I felt a wave of loneliness, as we drove. It occurred to me for perhaps the first time, as the car lurched forward, that if anything were to happen to my family, I’d be all alone in the world.

We were passing the fairgrounds now. The county fair was scheduled to open its gates in a week. Hanna and I had been planning to go on opening day.

Usually, the construction workers worked nonstop every day to get the rides up and running. But I saw as we passed that the construction had ceased. I imagined the workers and the carnies had fled to their hometowns, too—everyone wanted to be close to their families. The roller coasters stood half built, colored skeletons in the wind. The log ride, incomplete, was a suicide leap. The Ferris wheel stood only partially erect: A single red bucket dangled from a single spoke like the last fruit of summer, or autumn’s final leaf.

7

For a while the days still felt like days. The sun rose and the sun also set. Darkness was followed by light. I remember the cool swell of morning, the slow burn of afternoon, the sluggishness of dusk. Civil twilight stretched for hours before fading finally into night. Time slunk lazily by, slower and slower as it passed.

With each new morning, we fell further out of step with the clocks. The earth still turned and the clocks still ticked, but they now kept different times. Within a week, midnight no longer necessarily struck at some dark hour of night. The clocks might hit nine
A.M
. in the middle of the day. Noon sometimes landed at sunset.

Those were chaotic, makeshift days.

Every morning officials announced the minutes gained overnight, like raindrops collected in pans. The totals varied wildly, and we never knew what to expect. Our school start time was decided at sunrise each day—it was always different, and I remember watching the local news channel with my mother in the mornings, waiting to hear what time they’d choose.

More and more kids stopped coming to school.

Extra hours emerged between the cracks in workers’ shifts. Planes were grounded for days, and trains were halted on tracks until new scheduling schemes could be invented and put into place. Timetables had to be tossed out and reimagined every day.

We improvised. We adapted. We made do.

My mother slowly packed our cupboards full of emergency supplies. She accumulated them gradually, a rising tide of condensed milk and canned peas, dried fruit and preserves, four dozen cans of soup. She never returned to the house anymore without a package of batteries under her arm, or a box of tapered candles, or more dehydrated food sealed in plastic or aluminum—the unperishable, the unending, the never-ever-to-expire.

Meanwhile, my soccer team practiced mostly as usual, and my mother’s drama students continued to rehearse their production of
Macbeth.
All across the country, events like these were held as planned. Shows
had
to go on. We clung to anything previously scheduled. To cancel seemed immoral, it might mean we’d given up or lost hope.

New minutes surfaced everywhere. Time was harder to waste. The pace of living seemed to slow.

Some say that the slowing affected us in a thousand other unacknowledged ways, from the life expectancy of lightbulbs to the rate at which ice melted and water boiled and human cells multiplied and human cells died. Some say that our bodies aged less rapidly in the days immediately following the start of the slowing, that the dying died slower deaths, that babies took longer to be born. There
is
some evidence that menstrual cycles lengthened ever so slightly in those first two weeks. But these effects were the stuff of aneċe, not science. Physicists will tell you that if anything, the opposite should have been true: It’s the man on the speeding train who experiences time more slowly, and not the other way around. As far as I could tell, the grass grew as it always had, the bread in our bread box molded at the usual pace, and the apples on Mr. Valenica’s apple tree next door ripened as they did every fall, then dropped to the ground, rotting among the weeds at what seemed the traditional speed.

All the while, the clocks continued to tick. Wristwatches went right on beating faint beats. My grandfather’s antique clocks chimed their ancient chimes. Church bells rang every hour on the hour.

A week passed, then two. Every time the phone rang in our house, I hoped it would be Hanna. She still hadn’t called.

The stream of new minutes continued to flow. Our days were soon approaching thirty hours.

How quaint the old twenty-four-hour clock began to look to us, how impossibly clean-cut, with its two twin sets of twelve, as neat as walnut shells. How had we believed, we wondered, in such simplistic things?

8

In the second week after the start of the slowing, something began to happen to the birds.

You’d find pigeons scrambling on sidewalks, wings dragging, feathers scraping the pavement as they walked. Sparrows were dropping on lawns. Flocks of geese were seen traveling great distances on foot. The bodies of seagulls were washing up on the beaches. Birds were found dead on our streets and our rooftops, on our tennis courts and our soccer fields. The fowl of the air were falling to the earth. It was happening all over the world, and no one knew why.

You were supposed to call animal control whenever you found a dead one, but my father refused. There were too many, he said, so we just threw them away, like that first dead bird on our deck.

I remember those birds as well as anything else from that time: the rotting feathers and the raisin eyes, the fluids staining our streets. And there were rumors even then that the affliction might soon spread to us.

Sylvia, my piano teacher, kept finches. They were small and fat, and they lived in a bell-shaped metal cage in the corner of her living room. Here was where I spent half an hour every Wednesday afternoon, learning—or failing to learn—to play the piano. And here, just minutes after me, was where Seth Moreno sat as well, his lesson always immediately following mine, his fingers brushing the same keys mine had, his feet pressing the same pedals that my feet had so recently pressed. Often the idea of him hung over my whole lesson. But on this day, it was the finches that distracted me: I was listening for signs of the sickness in every sound they made.

“You haven’t been practicing, have you?” said Sylvia. I’d made a slow, pecking attempt at “Für Elise.”

Sylvia sat beside me on the glossy black bench, her slim bare feet resting near the brass pedals below. She wore a white linen dress and a string of large wooden beads around her neck. I liked the way she looked. She was two kinds of teachers: She also taught yoga down at the Y.

“I practiced a little,” I said.

That was how my lessons always began. Maybe if I had known that this was one of the last times I would ever sit on that bench, I would have tried a little harder.

“How are you ever going to improve if you don’t practice?”

One of Sylvia’s finches cried out from the cage in the corner. They did not sing so much as squeal, each chirp like the squeak of a rusting hinge.

Officials were reluctant at first to connect the deaths of the birds to the slowing. There was no evidence, they said, that the two phenomena were linked. Experts pointed instead to more familiar causes, like disease: avian flu, a worldwide pandemic. But tests had come back negative for all the known strains.

However, we, the people, did not need more proof. We did not believe in spurious correlation. We rejected random chance. We knew the birds were dying because of the slowing, but as with the slowing itself, no one could explain why.

“You should be practicing now more than ever,” said Sylvia, gently pressing her palm to my lower back to make it straight. My posture always melted as the lesson wore on. “Art thrives in times of uncertainty.”

Piano lessons had been my mother’s idea. I didn’t like the piano much, but I liked Sylvia and I liked her house, which was the same model as ours but unrecognizable to me on the inside. Hardwood floors instead of carpet fanned out across the rooms. Leafy houseplants thrived in every corner. Sylvia didn’t believe in chemicals or air-conditioning. Her house smelled like tea and birdseed and incense.

“I’m going to play it through once,” she said. “And I want you to close your eyes while I’m playing, and memorize how it’s supposed to sound.”

She set the metronome to a certain speed, releasing a smooth stream of tick-tocks. I could never learn to properly knit my notes to those clean, steady beats.

She began to play.

I tried to listen, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was worried about the finches. They seemed quieter than usual, and they looked a little less fat. They were named for musical terms, and the one called Forte seemed to be teetering on his perch, his corny orange feet unstable and unsure. The smaller one, Adagio, was hanging around on the newspaper on the floor of the cage.

Doomsdayers were reading the bird die-off as one more harbinger of doom. I’d seen a heavyset televangelist discussing it that morning on a talk show. To his mind, the bird pestilence was a warning from God, and it was only a matter of time before the disease would spread to humans.

“Your eyes are open,” said Sylvia. She was always genuinely surprised when I failed her. This was part of her charm.

“Sorry,” I said.

She caught me staring at the birdcage.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not affecting domesticated birds, just wild ones.”

At the time, this was true, though the nation’s poultry farmers had been advised to watch their flocks for strange symptoms.

Experts disagreed about what was causing the syndrome. Some blamed the slight alteration in gravity. Perhaps it was interfering with balance and thus hampering flight and navigation. Or else it was a problem with circadian rhythms; the birds’ sense of day and night had been disrupted by the change, sending metabolisms awry. They’d lost track of when to sleep and when to eat. They were starving or they were sleep-deprived, confused and less alert.

But the real bird experts, the ornithologists, kept quiet. It was too soon to say.

“They’re fine,” said Sylvia. “Right, guys?”

The finches were silent. The only sound was the faint tapping of a tiny talon poking through a layer of newspaper.

Something similar had happened once to the bees. This was only a few years before the slowing began. Millions of honeybees had died. Hives were found abandoned, inexplicably empty. Whole colonies had vanished in the breeze. No one ever did conclusively pinpoint the cause of that collapse.

“Do you want to know what I think?” said Sylvia.

She had dark, serious eyes, and she never wore makeup. Her skin was smooth and tanned, her limbs dotted with freckles, the kind that seem submerged beneath skin, like crumbs sinking into milk.

“I think the slowing of the earth is just the last straw for the birds. We’ve been poisoning the planet and its creatures for years. And now we’re finally paying for it.”

I’d heard this argument on television, that the causes of the bird die-off were multiple, long-standing, and our fault: pesticides and pollution, climate change and acid rain, the radiation emanating from cell phone towers. The slowing, some said, had simply tipped the balance in exactly the wrong way, leaving the birds more vulnerable to all the man-made threats they’d been battling for years.

“I believe the planet has been out of balance for a long time, and this whole thing is its way of correcting itself,” continued Sylvia. She was a woman who grew her own wheat grass in a greenhouse out back and then squeezed her own wheat grass juice. “All we can do is give in to it. We have to let the
earth
guide
us.

I didn’t know what to say next. But the slow turn of the doorknob let in another awkwardness—the next student was arriving, and I knew who it would be. Seth Moreno hadn’t spoken to me since the eclipse.

A wind chime made of seashells rang and echoed from the porch and was followed by the soft clench of the door meeting the doorframe. I could hear my heart pounding in my head. Usually, Seth and I overlapped for only a moment or two, slipping quickly past each other in the entry hall, letting small nods of the head stand in for hellos.

“I wasn’t sure when to come,” said Seth. His tennis shoes squeaked on the wooden floor. He flicked his head to the right to clear his shaggy bangs from his eyes. His hair was damp, fresh from a shower and, I happened to know, from soccer practice before that. “Because of the clocks and everything.”

A walnut grandfather clock in the living room reported a nonsensical time—ten o’clock—but it was midafternoon. I had learned to ignore all the clocks.

“So I just sort of guessed,” he said, shifting his music books from one arm to the other.

“This is fine, Seth,” said Sylvia. “We’ll only be a few more minutes.”

He sat down on a worn leather armchair in the corner beside the birdcage. A potted fern hung from the ceiling above his head, suspended from a ropy net of macramé. There must be certain details that I no longer recall about the interior of that house, but when I close my eyes, it seems to me that the entire house and its contents remain to this day intact in my memory, preserved like a crime scene, exactly as it was.

Sylvia cleared her throat, and we were back in the lesson. “ ‘Für Elise,’ ” she said, resetting the metronome. “One more time through.”

I’d played only the first few notes when the telephone rang in the kitchen. Sylvia ignored the phone, but it rang again. The ringing seemed to aggravate the finches, who screeched and called out from their cage. Sylvia stood to answer, but the machine caught the call and then projected through the house the first scratch of a man’s voice.

Sylvia picked up the phone and shut off the machine. She seemed to know who it would be.

“I’m teaching,” she said, as if annoyed. “Remember?”

But she looked pleased and embarrassed, her face the face of a woman much younger. Sylvia was about forty at the time.

I’d never seen her with a man. I imagined a dusty outdoorsman with a ponytail and beard, calling on a cell phone from a pickup or a van.

Sylvia laid the phone on her shoulder and motioned to Seth and me that she would be right back. Then she went upstairs, the phone pressed to her ear, the hem of her white linen dress brushing the backs of her legs as she moved.

Seth and I were alone in the living room. Neither of us moved. He rearranged his music books on his lap, letting the pages slide against one another. I stayed on the piano bench and studied the keys, too embarrassed to look in his direction.

Eventually, Seth fished his cell phone from his pocket and began to play a game with his thumbs. Tinny music radiated out from the phone like the sounds of a distant carnival. I wondered if this was how he passed his time in hospitals while doctors operated on his mother or injected toxic chemicals into her blood.

I pulled the rubber band from my hair and remade my ponytail, smoothing out the tangles. I was breathing fast, but I tried to conceal it.

In the distance outside, I could hear the shouts of younger children. A cherry ball was smacking the pavement. Through the window, I thought I saw something dark fall from the sky.

One of Sylvia’s finches let out a loud screech. Seth turned toward the cage. He studied the birds for a few seconds. The music from his game played on.

Finally, I said: “Do they look okay?”

Seth shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

I slid off the piano bench to see for myself.

Inside the cage, a bowl of chopped apples sat untouched, the fruit flesh browning in the air. Two mealworms, which I knew from Sylvia were also part of the finch diet, wiggled freely in the bowl.

“They’re not eating,” I said.

“Maybe she just fed them,” said Seth.

“Or maybe it’s the sickness.”

Up close, Seth smelled like detergent, but his T-shirt was badly wrinkled—as if, in his home, the folding of laundry had become a lost art, an outmoded custom turned obsolete by suffering.

I heard the creak of Sylvia’s footsteps moving back and forth upstairs. The metronome continued to click, segmenting time in its ancient way.

Adagio was sitting like a miniature hen on the newspaper that lined the bottom of the cage.

“That one looks really bad,” I said.

Seth tapped on the bars with one finger. “Hey, little guy,” he said. “Over here. Hello?”

The tapping upset the healthier bird, whose head darted toward the noise, but Adagio did not react.

Seth glanced behind his shoulder, checking for Sylvia. Then he unlatched the cage door and swung it open. Slowly, he reached inside, touching Adagio lightly on the back. The bird wobbled like an egg under his finger, and Seth pulled his hand away.

“Shit,” he said. “It’s dead.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Definitely.”

“It
is
the sickness,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said. “Or maybe not. Maybe it just got sick with something normal and died.”

We heard the upstairs bedroom door snap open. Seth shut the cage door. We looked at each other but said nothing. We made a sudden silent agreement.

The other bird remained at the top of the cage, uselessly flapping his wings. I felt sorry for that bird, all alone in his world.

We heard Sylvia’s feet on the stairs, her hand on the banister, the cordless phone landing in its cradle on the kitchen counter.

“What’s wrong?” she said when she appeared, unclipping her hair and then tying it up again.

“Nothing,” said Seth. He sat down in the old leather chair, his long arms dangling on the sides.

“We were just looking at your birds,” I said.

“Stop worrying about them,” she said. She waved her hand as if shooing an insect. “They’re fine.”

Sylvia apologized for cutting my lesson short, but she thought she’d better start Seth’s.

As I packed up my things, I tried to catch Seth’s eyes, but he wouldn’t look in my direction. I gathered up my books and left the house, not knowing then that I would cross that threshold only a few more times in my life.

I was getting used to it, to the sight of lifeless things. I’d been learning, since the slowing, about the qualities of the dead, the way a bird’s body deflates after a few days, the way it drains, growing flatter and flatter until only the feathers and the feet remain.

Outside, the sky was a pure, flinty blue, streaked by two delicate clouds. In science, we’d begun to study the atmosphere, and I’d memorized the names of all the different types of clouds. These two were cirrus, the highest, finest kind.

Higher still than the clouds, two hundred miles above my head, I knew that six astronauts—four Americans and two Russians—were stranded at the space station. The shuttle launch that had been planned to retrieve them had been postponed indefinitely. The complex calculation, the giant cosmic slingshot, that for decades had brought our astronauts back and forth from space, was judged, for the time being, too dangerous to attempt. Whenever I looked at the sky during that time, I thought of them up there, stranded so far away from earth.

BOOK: The Age of Miracles
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