After the Apocalypse There Will Be Memory Poems
by Julie C. Day
Some memories are like scars—
A knife-sharp Mobius strip in the brain
Peter and his Raiders of the Lost Sharks t-shirt
That mixture of citrus and musky end-of-day sweat
“It’s a dishwasher lemon-meringue pie, not a disaster”
Peter had laughed
As the foam flowed across the kitchen floor
And of course he was right
Disasters saved for another night
That apartment in Lawrence was almost ten years ago. These days there were no arms, with their scattering of dark hair and honey-brown skin, twirling Kiara above a soap-slicked kitchen floor. No dirty dinner dishes and bottles of Free State IPA. Instead, Kiara’s new life involved standing on a narrow platform supported by five stories of scaffolding next to an enormous self-sustaining dome. Kiara was one of the lucky ones. The height of the five-story-high entrance was meant to deter strays from getting in.
Stop stalling, Kiara. Go inside.
The dome entrance provided Kiara with her last and best view of the Kansas prairie: the fenced-in building site full of canvas tents and construction equipment sat huddled next to the dome’s lower level, while the desiccated Cimarron National Grassland, that once-vast prairie, stretched out to the horizon.
Move, woman. Move forward or die.
How many times had Kiara forced herself to listen to that inner voice? How many times had she pretended Peter stood next to her, holding her hand as she left yet another home behind?
The tight curls of Kiara’s tiny ‘fro didn’t waver as she stepped through the mechanized air-curtain and entered the dome. With the relentless drought, she kept her hair as short as her well-worn scissors could manage.
Inside Kiara found herself on yet another narrow ledge of scaffolding. Below, tall grasses covered the ground along with specks of white and purple that surely must be wildflowers. An actual fucking meadow. Peter would have been awestruck in that totally Peter way. But he wasn’t. Couldn’t be. It was just Kiara and his imaginary hand.
Beyond the meadow, a stand of narrow-needled pines rose up toward the false-dome sky. A bird cried out. Dear Lord. An actual wood thrush. The Habitat’s 1500-foot deep well meant Kiara and the rest of the residents wouldn’t have to concern themselves with the rationing of water. Still, a desert ecosystem would have been so much easier to bear.
Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered at all.
“Hehey, up th— there,” Mosie, the second member of their team, called from the base of the scaffolding. Despite the tremor in her voice, the woman sounded steadier than Kiara felt by a cold-sweat mile.
“Hey, yourself.” Kiara managed to stretch her lips into a smile. “Hey, Helen.” She half waved at their third-and-final teammate.
“Time climb down, yeah?” Helen’s voice carried the usual amount curt.
“Yeah.” Of course, Helen didn’t bother with “hello” …the ass.
Helen stood a few yards from the base of the scaffolding, paper map in hand. On the building site, Helen had been scrupulous about protecting her skin from the sun. Now her baseball cap had been set aside, revealing the older woman’s sparse gray stubble. And why not. Quantum dots imbedded in the dome’s glass panels filtered and adjusted all the incoming light. Yet another one of the dome’s features that provided absolute physical protection from the world outside.
Tightening her grip on the platform’s railing, Kiara swung her left foot onto the first of the metal rungs that ran down the scaffolding.
Just one step forward followed by another. All right?
“All right,” she murmured. And then she was moving swiftly to the ground, the moist earth yielding beneath her feet as she finally faced her two companions.
Each of them carried weary lifetimes of experience—and it showed. Kiara had chopped her shoulder-length braids soon after she’d split from Peter. What hair she did have was streaked with gray. Meanwhile, Helen’s arms could best be described as troubling. Below her short-sleeved shirt, her olive skin was overlaid by a constellation of darker misshapen scabs. And then there was Mosie with her almost constant vocal tremor and the spiderweb of sunburn and worry lines that had spread across her once-pale skin.
“I guess we better get started—.” For once Mosie’s voice was actually tremor free.
“I don’t know why a welcome committee is even necessary.” Helen raised one sparse white eyebrow. “This place is a crazy pastoral wonderland. All that’s missing are the milk maids and Guernsey cows.”
All three women started laughing far more than the almost-joke really warranted.
“We’re just three lucky girls from Lawrence, I guess.” Kiara could feel the tears readying themselves to fall. Tears were never a good sign.
Helen cleared her throat, her gaze suddenly fixed on a cabbage white moth darting across the field. “I’m a crone from Parsons—not Lawrence.” She knelt and spread the map across the ground, flattening down some of the tall meadow grasses in the process. “It seems this is our assigned residence.” Helen pointed to one of the many small colored circles printed across the map.
“Any good spots for our Poetry House?” Kiara saidas a hand broader than her own was held hers, as a deep voice whispered words meant only for her.
Don’t let it go.
Unlike everything else in the dome, the Poetry House was completely unsanctioned. Kiara had spent the last few months selling to Helen and Mosie on the idea–as they sifted through the applications, as they turned that old couple away, and especially as they pretended, yet again, to smile.
Some truths never changed: survival required more than new surroundings. It required biochemistry. It required, if people would just listen, a goddamn room, a pen, and a pile of blank paper. “Let’s check out our new home first, and then it’s building time,” Kiara declared.
“Of course.” Mosie nodded her head in agreement
Helen remained silent.
Move forward. Look back. Don’t die.
They had six days to get the Poetry House ready. Six days before the residents arrived, along with a Kansas-prairie’s worth of memories.
A Prose Poem of the Time Before
Two year of drought.
Outside dogwoods flowered a delicate champagne pink.
Peter and Kiara sat studying on Granny Alma’s old couch.
The one they’d had to haul up from the basement.
“What did you say?”
Peter entwined his bare left leg with her right. Pulling closer.
Heat rising from his flesh. Peter’s words about to follow.
“Researchers write all these papers and articles.
They understand the biochemical pathways of how memories change.
Yet somehow they don’t notice the deeper truth.”
“A deeper truth, huh…”
The scent of apricots and sandalwood.
Kiara’s skin close to uncomfortably warm.
“Kiara Russell, heart of mine, with memories, facts aren’t the point.
All that August heat,
Kiara waited for what came next.
“We can change a moment’s meaning just by holding it in our consciousness.
All those PTSD drugs and talk therapies.
All those biochemical jump starts.
Our brains are designed to heal, rewriting one memory at a time.”
Kiara allowed herself to finally look away from her computer screen
Take in Peter’s brown eyes, that small mole on his left cheek.
Love my baby…Focus on the moment.
“So we’re constantly remembering—
Even the act of thinking, remembering words.”
“Definitely, on point.”
Both Peter’s legs were now entangled with hers,
his left hand lingering on that soft spot just above her collar bone.
Goosebumps rose along Kiara’s arms, her words following.
“Babe, our memories,
They’re a biochemical book of memory poems.
When I remember this moment, I’ll redraft.
Memory is an act of creation—like poetry.”
Peter leaning closer.
And then, finally. they kissed.
The Three Post-Apocalyptic Crones
Small in the way of an actual settler’s log cabin, Kiara, Mosie, and Helen’s assigned habitat-house stood in the middle of a stretch of maple and birch trees.
“All that’s missing for the complete Baba-Yaga affect,” Kiara said, “is the chicken feet underneath and a pile of kidnapped kids.”
“Home sweet home,” Mosie said, then went silent as she opened the front door. “I kind of like it,” she continued after a too long pause.
The interior was an entirely alien environment, dimly lit with a fireplace and rough wooden furniture. The world had been canvas tents, dry earth, and sunlight for so damn long
“You know, Kiara, six days really isn’t much time to construct this Poetry House of yours.” Helen’s gruff voice was a challenge.
“Of ours,” Kiara corrected, taking in this latest version of not-home. Older images skirmished their way into consciousness: poppy-red curtains, a rocking chair with one missing slat, and always Peter’s damn hiking gear piled in the hallway.
Move forward, Kiara.
Just hold my hand.
“Look, I know it was our job—the interviews, the choosing—but surely we can do something more?” Do something better, she wanted to say, but didn’t. Couldn’t.
Mosie tugged open the nearest set of shutters. “This place isn’t all bad,” she said as the room immediately brightened. “After we open up all these windows, we’ll need to start weaving the Beltane crowns.” As though that last thought logically followed from the first.
“Crowns? What?” Why did nothing ever seem to make sense? Suddenly, Kiara wanted nothing so much as real Peter laughing, real Peter leaning down to kiss her shoulder, real Peter telling her another one of his corny jokes. “What the heck are you talking about?”
Mosie smiled. Mosie who never smiled. “Look, the damn crew built us a witch’s hut, and Kiara, you tell us we can transform everyone using poetry? I don’t care what season the engineers intended. As far as I’m concerned it’s May Day. Rebirth and Poetry House time. And I’m not doing a thing without some Beltane crowns and long-ass strands of ribbon.”
“May Day. I love it.” Helen let out a bark of laughter. “I guess crowns are as reasonable as anything else.”
In the end, despite Helen’s focus and Kiara’s initial vision, it was Mosie who laid out the details of their plan. It was time for rebirth. It was time for a Poetry House.
Kiara, Mosie, and Helen stood at the base of the scaffolding, watching their selected applicants enter the habitat and climb down the ladder.
“A community meeting,” Helen told each resident as Mosie and Kiara handed them their individualized folder and house keys. Inside the dome, electronics were discouraged. With a finite number of residents and a dome to maintain, low-tech household items were preferred. “Tomorrow. 2 PM. In front of the meetinghouse.”
“It’s on the map,” Kiara added each time. “Inside your folder. I’ve highlighted it with yellow.” She tried not to flinch at the sleep-hungry, shadowed eyes of Amil, a man whose baby face belayed his experience in laser nano-manufacturing. The dome’s quantum dots weren’t going to fix themselves. The entomologist that followed, Betina, had sun-blistered lips and matted-black hair. She was just as necessary.
And then the platform was empty, the last resident on the ground.
Kiara watched as Amil and Betina made their way across the meadow toward the village path and the waiting cluster of bungalows.
“Payload complete,” the foreman called down from the entrance. She paused, and then after a moment, gave a brief wave and stepped back outside.
Their Arrival Day duties complete, the Welcome Committee turned and followed the path back toward their solitary cabin in the woods.
The banging and clattering of metal on metal lingered for long minutes as the crew sealed them inside, away the desolate world. And then, finally, the noise died away.
The Day After
The meetinghouse stood at the southern end of the dome’s sole village next to a mown field and a dry stone wall. For the first community meeting, a few folding chairs had been set near the front of the meetinghouse, all filled. The rest of the residents stood or sat on the soft almost-overwatered grass. Despite the beds and the food and—oh my, God—the actual running water, they somehow looked more exhausted than on Arrival Day.
At the edge of the field, just feet from the crowd, stood a rough ten-by-ten foot structure made out of sapling and a bent piece of corrugated tin. It had taken Helen, Mosie, and Kiara all week to finish the dome’s first Poetry House.
“Better light for writing and reading,” Mosie had declared when Helen complained about the gaps between the tree trunks. And the tin roof will keep out the rain.” Mosie was most definitely all in.
There was something about actual practical work, attaching that corrugated roof, making sure the door could close—for the first time in months, Helen had smiled as they laid out the Poetry House’s supplies.
Now Kiara faced the dome’s three hundred residents, while Helen and Mosie stood off to one side. It was Show-and-Tell time.
“Write whatever occurs to you,” she repeated. “Your brains will do the rest.”
“I don’t get it,” Betina, the entomologist, called out from her spot near the back of the crowd.
“A Poetry House,” Kiara repeated. Her voice sounded so damn strained.
“Are residents required to write sonnets or something?” Sevine, the only resident with strawberry-blonde hair, asked. “There’s nothing about it in any of our instruction manuals.” The look she gave Kiara fell squarely between paranoid and skeptical.
“It’s a private place,” Kiara tried again. “Anonymous. A place for biochemical change. We all have stories that need…processing.” Processing. God. What a stupid Industrial Age word.
“Shouldn’t we be going through those manuals first?” Franz Jacobi, an older man with a bald, freckled pate, and an MD-PhD, was seated on the grass in front of the folding chairs. “I don’t even know how my home’s heating system works, and for once I’m actually cold,” he attempted a chuckle, but it quickly petered out.
Franz’s ears stuck out—just like Peter’s.
“Provides me with my superior hearing,” Peter liked to claim, that madman grin spreading across his face, but in the end ears hadn’t mattered. It was Kiara who woke up that last night.
A stifled cough from one of the residents.
That look of unease spreading across the watching crowd.
Kiara had the sense she’d been silent for some unknown too-long length of time.
“All manuals need to be reviewed.” Helen’s expression was carefully neutral as she and Mosie came to stand next to Kiara. “Technical competence is definitely important.”
“Thank you for your time,” Mosie added, officially calling the first community meeting to a close.
Most of the residents walked straight past the Poetry House as they crossed the field and returned to their new homes. One woman though, Portia Sen—a physician’s assistant with experience at the CDC—opened the wooden door and looked inside, but that was all.
“It’s their first full day,” Mosie said, slipping one arm across Kiara’s shoulders. “You spent months explaining it to us.”
Helen, surly Helen, reached out and took Kiara’s hand. “Some things take more than a second to understand.” Kiara could feel the warmth of Helen’s voice, the heat radiating through the fabric of Mosie’s grass-green shirt. She could feel the pressure of her own tears. Not yet willing to let go.
In the Darkness of Night
“Did you guys hear that scream?” Kiara asked.
“How could I not.” Mosie expression was hidden by the darkness.
It was close to midnight. The only light came from Helen’s flashlight and the bedside lamps that shone from a handful of nearby homes.
“Their nightmares aren’t any better now that we’re inside…” Kiara’s voice trailed off as Helen opened the door to the Poetry House.
A series of clotheslines festooned the house’s interior, while a stack of unlined paper and a metal canister full of sharpened pencils rested on a small wooden table. Everything was exactly how they’d left it.
In the beam of Helen’s light, Kiara could see that one thing had changed since their last visit: three pieces of paper hung suspended from one of the lines to the left of the door.
Kiara stepped around Helen and quickly unclipped the first sheet. staring down at the scrawled words.
“What does it say?” Mosie pressed.
Helen remained silent as she shone the flashlight down onto the page.
All that neuroscience, Peter sitting next to her on that worn floral couch, and it all came down to this, anonymous words on a single piece of paper.
Kiara started to read, her throat tightening around the words.
Tomorrow morning I’ll make cereal. I’ll put sliced peaches on top. I found some in the cupboard. I used to know how to cook. Suddenly, I remember what it is to take everything for granted.
“Huh,” Mosie. “That doesn’t sound very meaningful.”
Kiara moved to the second sheet.
I am an old man now. Why not admit it? I’m glad I was chosen.
The sound of Kiara’s breathing sounded too loud in the confined space. The supposed poem didn’t even contain a memory. “Fucking—why can’t I explain—”
“Stop.” Helen interrupted.
Kiara took a breath, steadied herself. “Last one.”
Let the purpose of my life unfold. Let the Lord speak through me. I have been chosen for His purpose. I am filled with His grace. He has blessed me above so many others.
“Well,” Mosie murmured, “at least it’s confident.”
Kiara’s heart felt like it was battering itself against a cage of bones. “God damn it! What’s the fucking point of me? I can’t help. I can’t help. I can’t—” She dropped the papers and started to yank the clothesline from the wall, only to have Helen grab her hands.
“We’ll fffigure this out,” Mosie said. “Survivors, remember?” The too-slender woman bent and collect the three sheets of paper, smoothing them against her arms’ sunburnt skin.
“Sure…Okay.” But Kiara felt anything but okay. For the first time since they entered the dome, Mosie actually sounded tired.
Friendship and Biochemistry
“I’ve got one.”
Kiara could feel the heat emanating from their cabin’s wood stove, the flames calling from inside the glass.
It was hours after their Poetry House excursion, yet Kiara and Helen still sat in two of the armchairs set near the hearth while Mosie lay stretched out on the woven rug, her face to the fire.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea—” Mosie started.
“I said, I have a goddamn poem.” Kiara slipped off her chair and settled herself on the rug.
“Kiara, what Mosie’s trying to —” Helen started.
“A memory poem,” Kiara repeated.
“If you’re sure.” Mosie’s voice sounded subdued.
“Sure has nothing to do with it…Do you remember Lawrence, Mosie? The Lawrence before—?” Kiara paused. “Bumper stickers everywhere. Make poetry, not war. Do you remember that one?” Kiara scuffed a foot against the rug. “The three of us don’t even talk about what happened…”
“Scoot over,” Helen settled herself next to Kiara. “Maybe talking isn’t so bad.” She slipped an arm across Kiara’s shoulder, pulling her close.
Mosie remained silent.
“Peter had that bumper sticker, the one about poetry,” Kiara settled her head on Helen’s shoulder. “He got it for me. A kind of private declaration.” She paused, took a breath, waited for the next line to begin.
“In Parsons, the skies burnt for seven nights, once the wildfires started.” Helen’s voice was a deep rasp. “Those who couldn’t leave burned. Not enough water to put out the flames. As if the blights weren’t enough.” She sighed, shifted slightly until her right knee pressed against Kiara’s left.
“Kiara, are you sure?” Mosie sat up and turned away from the flames, her frown now visible.
“I came downstairs to check if the winds had changed.” Kiara didn’t remember having balled her hands into fists. “Most of our neighbors had already left. All that dried grass and those half-dead trees.”
“Yes, it was so dry,” Mosie said, shifting closer.
Kiara’s cheeks felt flush. “I heard a crackling. It must have woken me up. I had a choice.”
“No good ones.”
“I let Peter sleep while I went down the hallway to check. The balcony and the staircase. All those flames. No alarms. No water. No one to call.”
“Parsons burned for seven nights,” Helen repeated. “That wasn’t a choice.”
“And then the walls were on fire. Smoke everywhere. Somehow I pushed myself out a half-open window.” Kiara throat felt like it was constricting. She had to force the words. “Didn’t even realize there was a screen until I looked back.”
“So much screaming.” Mosie this time.
“There was nothing but the crackling flames and the heat.” Kiara could feel the heat of Helen’s shoulder against her cheek. “My hands covered in blisters. I couldn’t get back inside. I wanted to try…”
“What else?” Helen pressed as she wrapped Kiara in both of her arms.
“Even later, days later, I didn’t go back. I didn’t check. I was too afraid.” Kiara forcing the words out.
“And you loved him.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes. Love.” Mosie reached out, her arms forming a circle, with the other two women, of shoulders, and elbows, and arms.
“So a poem…” Helen’s voice trailed off.
“Our memory poem.” Kiara slipped an arm around Mosie’s waist.
“And the Kansas dome’s first poetry group.”
“The first of many.” Kiara replied, feeling the steady pressure of connection.
Julie C. Day’s dark fantasy novella, The Rampant, is a 2020 Lambda Literary Award ﬁnalist. Her genre-bending debut collection Uncommon Miracles came out in 2018. Julie has published numerous stories in magazines & journals such as The Dark, Black Static, Podcastle, Interzone, and the Cincinnati Review. Wearing a related hat, Julie is Editor-in-Chief of the 2020 charity anthology the Weird Dream Society, whose mission is to raise money for RAICES. Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. Café writing and long walks with ebooks are a definite non-quarantine thing. You can ﬁnd Julie online at @thisjulieday or on her blog stillwingingit.com.
Photo source: Thomas Layland/Unsplash