Beyond Comprehension

by Tim Hildebrandt

From where he stood in the vestibule, he could see the mirror reflecting the other room. He heard the clink of glass, the festive chatter. Even though he knew it was real, it looked like a dream. Too often, he felt like a stranger in his own life. But tonight was worse; unseen fingers twiddled dials trying to interpret motivation. His parents were as elusive to him as he was to his kids. A mother’s sister he never knew, a brother who died young. They all wrote their history on his mind without permission.

Light rain fell as he stood on the steps outside. He would sit in the car and wait; she would wonder where he was and come searching. The gun is still in the glove box.

There she was, tiptoeing down the steps to avoid twisting her ankle in those stupid shoes. Bracing his arm on the open car door, he would sight down the barrel and put a bullet right between those gorgeous breasts. Thank God we don’t act on these screwball fantasies. Imagination must be a mechanism for disarming our worst impulses. Or he could go back into the party, the gun in his pocket. Seek her out among the glittering mob, catch her with somebody. Of course, she’s with someone, anyone. But not him, of course — flirting, drinking, laughing, basking in the light of their eyes.

There she is, pausing by the fireplace, tilting her pretty face at his boss, the head of the NGO where he worked. He would stroll to the center of the room, ten feet away. She wouldn’t see him until he raised the gun; everyone gasped and backed away. “Oh, sweetheart.” he would say. Then an abrupt explosion as her head pops and a spray of red colors the face of the one guy he most wanted to impress tonight.

“Where have you been?” she said. “Your boss is a jerk. I’m ready to go; my shoes are killing me.”

When Mike and his wife got home, the front door was open. Neither had closed it when they left hours ago. If they had a dog, it was long gone. Lights ablaze throughout. Check the stove, he thought as his wife ran upstairs to change. He stepped into his office, a desk, a computer, a mess, stacks of papers, and no attempt to order: open books and broken pencils. No one knew about this room. Secrets written late at night — and the sweat — he won’t admit it was hard. There is no context appropriate for the merest mention. A cabinet in the corner holds volumes of scribblings over years of work. Tomes defying characterization; he doesn’t call it a hobby — or an occupation. It’s his contribution to the art of the last decade of human life on earth. It has no working title. He put the gun in the drawer.

During the day, he sits in a cramped office downtown and writes survival manuals for the destitute and downtrodden. A budget for food, clothing, and shelter is his to disperse how he sees fit to a growing homeless population — thousands of men and women who sulk and shuffle all over the city. The river is famous for its network of hiding places. Tents take a good portion of his budget — bright colors scattered through the woodsy riverbank. Late Tuesday evening, he found Vanessa facedown under an old rowboat. She had smiled at him that morning. “David,” she said, “God will thank you for my new tent.”

His wife didn’t know him as Dave; she called him Michael, his given name. Why did he pretend to be someone else in his interaction with the dispossessed, as deprived of identity as they were of homes? They didn’t care what his name was. His wife never gave it a thought. Mike sat on the glider on the back patio and thought about these things. He often pretended he was someone else. Someone in a foreign city, with a different name. Was he trying to run away from his life? He could admit he had no love for his wife. Vanessa was younger and roughly attractive. Her eyes revealed an honesty he’d never seen before. But she had nothing, no familiar identity he could ever claim. She had no education, no money, and she was dead.

At three a.m. Mike was crouched over his keyboard. He locked the door; his wife was asleep. Typewritten pages littered every available surface and the floor along the wall. Mike had assembled hundreds of resources. NASA climate reports, Siberian temperature charts; altogether, the whole mess amounted to a ruthless assessment of humanity’s stewardship of the planet. His motivation was shambolic, but his rage was that of an injured leopard. Blood thickened by emotion. Rationality was Mike’s biggest problem; he wasn’t a scholar. Putting words together was an unknown skill, and the issue’s complexity was far beyond his ability to simplify. He read about the last extinction that swept the planet 65 million years ago. Hypothetical illustrations of prehistoric creatures stumbling over a smoke-blackened landscape. Pictures of birds, crippled insects, screeching, fluttering broken spiders, falling to the stoney ground. The oceans were the strongest evidence of first life, covering most of the planet as deep as the sky, moaning with weight and wildness. Humanity didn’t emerge until later, more animal than human, fur-covered, unable to talk. Crawling on hands and feet, they murmured guttural sounds that weren’t words. A dull fear smoldered in the base of their skull that guided all action. The first man was the offspring of raw instinct in the dark bowels of caves. Violence was the default reaction to competition: for food, women, and power. Fear sparkled like hysteria in their wild eyes and wracked their bones and tortured sleep, and capitalism first raised its black head. The awakening of man’s free will and the ability to conceive good deeds versus bad is not available to everyone. Duty is only gained in hindsight; it must be grafted onto the intellect as one earns a scar.

The last global extinction was 64,995,000 years ago. And five thousand years after that, as ancient man struggled erect, some sub-primitive consciousness started blinking awake. Fear is the embryonic fluid of our birth. Animals have two default reactions; flight or fight. Decisions to eat and sleep are natural; sex and survival are levels of skill. A vision of Vanessa flashed briefly through Mike’s thought, face down. There has never been a human extinction in the history of life on earth. Humanity has never lived without a future.

Mike feels the struggle in his own life. He knows comprehension is hard won. The penalty for irresponsibility is pain. We all know that, and love stands useless in the corner. Vanessa taught him that, by accident of her brief existence.

His hand was shaking. Every night at this point, the act outweighed the actor. He shuffles downstairs to the kitchen: a cold beer against his forehead. There’s still time to write words no one will ever read, to jerk man’s neck from the guillotine just in time. No pressure.

Mike glances into the darkened living room. Moonlight glowing across the oriental carpet. Peace. Calm. A lifestyle so refined it seems natural. But the child slaves in Calcutta whisper in the back of his mind. “We are hungry; we don’t have water.” Their tiny voices are like crickets in the forest. Their whole life is the cobalt mine; they know nothing of Disney and billionaires in space. Their bodies are thin and stained blue. The young ones, too near starvation for the mines, lay in the shade and eat their fingers. Back upstairs, it is five-thirty in the morning, the first breath of light outside. Thank God Mike’s cloister has no windows. He locks the door.

Every sentence must describe the thing so even the mindless can know the truth. What recourse does suicide provide? Can the bullet be unplugged from a brain? What is the gain? No single human is better or worse than the rest — no more deserving of praise or blame. As a citizen, he has absorbed so much toxic sludge it’s altered his biology. At birth, he was a petri dish, a pretty fearless child with bright eyes. How soon he fell from grace. He quickly learned he was alone. His parents, abused as children, knew nothing else. Baby wolves got better treatment. So how must we identify the nightmare? How dark is the bottom of the hole? It’s a monument to misunderstanding: a great mistake, a crime against humanity, against all imaginary gods.

The true measure of iniquity is the ageless attempt to rewrite history. And so Mike will expose our sordid truth. He will confess the hidden crimes: from the genocide of the American Indian and the slavery and subjugation of African Americans to the imperial wars of colonialism from the 14th century to today.

The prosecution of capitalist manipulation made American politicians rich and the weapons industry the envy of the world. Those were the crimes we could see — the crimes committed in broad daylight. History holds still others. A far darker inheritance, on whose shoulders we stand to commit the crimes of today. Man’s predatory aggression to gain power has spawned religion and invented war. How can we justify unlimited freedom? Entitled by white skin, armed only with ignorance and greed, we take over the planet? Man does not deserve freedom he has never earned. He has proven himself oblivious to responsibility. The whole of human thought, the pinnacle of human achievement, has still not earned the gift of life.

After trashing the planet, Mike devoutly believes we should sense an obligation to apologize. Part of that apology is a meditation on the folly that led us here. We should soak our guilty brains in Polyvinyl-chloride for a moment and reflect on our blunder. The list would be long: starting with abandoned teenaged girls, with our willingness to watch Yemeni children starve, with the fact that we blame others for our misdemeanors; there is no end to the empty promises, pretense, lies, graft, and misdirection.

Mike considered his own life for a moment. His mistakes were too many to count. His regret was so deep he couldn’t look into the pit. But he could imagine a master list of charges. He saw all the names of the criminals and the saints and all the children. Even the dead were written in a calligraphic script. He saw them inscribed on a long piece of parchment, made from the skins of animals that once grazed the dying meadow. It would take all the multi-stomached creatures of the cloven hoof to provide the material record. And when it was totaled and tacked on the tallest tree. As our turn came up, we would stand and read in a secret whisper to ourselves and our brethren the essential message ignored by our imaginary gods. The answer to our adolescent questions the philosophers never offered. That life has no meaning. It is not a humorous joke on an unsuspecting race of idiots. It is not some ethereal, spiritual quest granted after death, and it is not even a tragedy of Homeric proportions. Yes, it was all those things, but it was also something else. Mike pauses for drama. In its finest reduction, all reality is a small spark of energy, snapping its tiny fingers: infinitesimal particles of a larger assembly, a congregation so huge it calls the universe home.

Mike hangs his head; his imagination slips out of gear. I tripped over the goal myself; he thought. I passed over the massive failure I wanted to atone for, and somehow, the universe tricked me. The appreciation of our crimes is too much for our tiny human brains; that’s why we hide behind madness. So we don’t have to explode in a fiery ball of shame and embarrassment.

Mike knew insanity would be a hard sell. The common person will refuse to face the mirror. But he will willingly believe The American Dream without realizing that to do so is to be complicit in the great crime; the death of human life on earth. The dream is a system of clever tricks, lies, and propaganda to dress slavery as freedom, to suppress education, and promote misinformation.

Was there ever a transition from animal to human? Did man ever stand vertically, unafraid of his mortality? Depravity must be a natural step in evolution. The wolfman growled at the others over the first fence. Self-interest itself might be the most potent evolutionary motivation. Man was never sane. Objective rationality is fiction. The brief history of modern man is a story of oppression. People more easily exist within their own pretend narrative. But this new truth of imminent extinction is breaking through the bullshit. Generation X is not having kids because they don’t see a future. They are right. How does a young person accept that the carelessness of their ancestors cheated them out of their full life? How can they admit that the glorious human race is a failure? Madness is the only reasonable reaction to an insane age.

Mike was sweating again, dripping on the keyboard. Too many conflicting points to make. What good is yelling fire after the theater is a pile of steaming ashes? The size of the failure was overwhelming. Mike was afraid of the rage in his belly and disgusted by vanity. Hope is just another form of fear, another way to deny the truth. Insanity never held still long enough to recognize its reflection in the glass.

Electricity? Even if we are bits of energy crashing into each other, it doesn’t matter. We believe what we see. Human passion is the currency of life. Instinct is the first state of mind, and if we’re lucky, intellect might eventually participate. But not only has humanity foundered as a species, but it also rejects the courage to admit it. By any measure, we have a profound obligation to witness the dimensions of our failure. To mourn our potential and to understand what we lost. We should be shaken by the neck and forced to stare at the cold fact that we killed the earth. And worse, that we hired the rich as assassins. We let them erase the future for our children. That is unassailable; if there ever was an absolute, that ought to qualify. Exxon, Mobile, Shell, Monsanto, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and a handful of other monster industries have plundered the planet for hundreds of years. They bought the government and the media, emptied the public’s mind of critical thought, and refilled it with garbage and self-defeating propaganda: all this needs to be known, Mike told himself. The task is to contradict a culture of lies with a profoundly unwelcome truth. It’s a fool’s errand.

The largest crimes are the first to be suppressed with brutal finality. Knowing the thing means facing great peril with no defense. We have weaponized the planet against us. The collapse of the global ecosystem will be a long-term event. Life will never get better than it is right now. It will get worse until the earth is a lifeless rock. It won’t stop degrading and will never restore itself; even we stopped beating on it. On top of all that unpleasantness, the transgressors will go unpunished. Congress won’t be held accountable for conspiring with a treasonous president and destroying what’s left of our crippled democracy. We will watch the fall of humanity as the planet declines. They say it will happen fast. The economy and the government will fall, police will become rogue, and crime will cover the country like a wave.

Humans have added tens of billions of tons of CO2e annually for the last fifty years. In 1990, it was about 35 billion tons a year. Now, it’s over 50 billion and not slowing down despite lies and empty posturing. The corporate state will continue business as usual during the collapse. Runway shows will strut through battlefields; fossil fuel reserves will far outlast drivers of cars. TV specials will pursue the last animals on earth. Then, finally, it will be a wasteland. No amount of sacred mumbling and looking heavenward will assuage the blame we own. Punishment will be ours. We must welcome it with open arms. Together, we’ll stand on the observation deck of the tallest skyscraper and cheer as the billionaires tumble from orbit in their vanity spaceships and crash to earth. They will die as we will. There is no escaping our well-earned retribution. Perhaps some souls in a faraway jungle will survive, but they will struggle mightily and won’t try to procreate. Why did it happen? We will never know.

As positive as Mike wants to be, he falters. His proof, the beauty of nature, and the part we play as natural citizens of the universe cannot reach out to help him. In the back of his foggy mind, he sees the last moment. We are all standing under a red sky, watching the fire over the horizon. The only answer will be the fire. We will see proof that energy is real and that our long history is fiction. It was a mistake to think anything we did was worthwhile. It was a pathetic ego trip. All the Greek statues carved from white marble, symphonies composed by deaf children, even the pyramids, as sublime as they are, were not a grand accomplishment of humanity. They were a small fraction of the wonder of the universe.

Mike opened the drawer and held the gun in his hand. His heart felt lighter as he spun the cylinder. Maybe apathy is the last defense of the doomed. He no longer felt the urgency to finish this misguided narrative. Writing for an audience somewhere in a future that doesn’t exist seemed utterly hopeless. Words will serve no purpose when the sky falls. Literature needs time to fulfill its promise.

Mike didn’t have time. None of us do.

Tim Hildebrandt is a writer in Indianapolis, Indiana. His short stories have appeared in The Corvus Review, The Boston Literary Magazine, Bending Genres, and others. He also paints pictures. You can see his work at:


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