Kurt knew how to walk lightly over the forest’s delicate carpet, but didn’t. He moved westward through spindly ponderosa pines scrunching dried litter under his feet and avoiding the sprawling prickly pears, though their needles had grown rubbery and harmless. He scouted for hope, any sign, of a returning natural world. There was no hope. Kurt knew it, and he assumed he knew why. They had all made up their minds to leave Earth.
The last, the vultures, the slugs, the maggots, even mushrooms and molds, and all the rest, left after the feast. The world’s population was reduced to the humans and any tree or shrub that could be easily sown and kept alive; that was, until the soil became useless and other methods of creating oxygen had to be invented. The very last to go were the vultures. Kurt wondered about this. The vultures’ bodies, and any human who died after the extinction, at the absence of any species useful at decomposition, remained on earth unchanged. He wondered why the vultures should be chosen, if a choice it was, to mock the last species clinging to the end of life. The old poets had reserved the raven, or the swallow, the thrush, and sometimes eagles as the birds of great change. Perhaps the poets were afraid of being too trope-ish or cliché to assign so obvious a symbol to the changing worlds in their poems. Whether or not it was cliché would never matter anyway, this cycle was the last laugh of the natural world as it left earth for good.
The extinction was eerily quiet in the news. For a while, after the oceans dumped their dead on the shores of the still, sort of, living, the conservationists and the scientists argued on CNN and Fox about the causes and coming affects, but new news happened and human life seemed to go on much as it always had. Though, without the need for ecological based restrictions, industry spread exponentially.
For one, since human bodies could no longer decompose, and there seemed to be something gravely unsettling about planting a person in the ground to remain unchanged for ever, there was a great demand for crematoriums. The sharpest businessmen jumped at the demand, purchasing all the permits and rights to cremation and with an oligopoly over the disposal of human bodies set to creating a new and lucrative economy.
The morgues, at first, grew to be the worlds largest private economy, it was assumed that from their wealth could be found some panacea from the extinction. They became like banks. They loaned money, provided funeral insurance, and of course collected the dead to be cremated. The human compulsion for control remained as blindly ironic now as it had before the purge.
For a while ashes were spread ceremoniously by the families.
Crematoriums were discovered to be greedy fat bodied scavengers, bodies were piled and burned by the dozen. Once the families of the dead learned that inside the precious urns were little more than soft white orgies people’s sentimentality slowly waned. They stopped trusting the insurance services provided by the crematoriums. They forfeit their memberships. There was still great need for cremation. But the people wouldn’t pay for it. So the crematoriums wouldn’t burn. Some folks built their own furnaces. They were arrested. It was dark.
It was the work of a small group (a million or so), the last remaining members of the old Tea Party, who thought to arrange the bodies of their members at the steps of the crematoriums, watching endlessly (the eyes were the worst part, they would not stay closed. The common theory was that the eyes remained a window into our world when the soul had left). It would be the catalysts to the crematoriums’ backslide. They would become more like disposal facilities.
The mortician-businessmen, owning all the necessary permits and rights to human disposal, hadn’t counted on a ruling by Judge Mary Abbey which lay responsibility for human disposal squarely on those who owned the rights to human disposal. The once lucrative business became a duty, the permits were non-transferable, not that anyone would take them, and the businessmen became public servants.
Kurt was moving into the dead silence of the forest to go the way of the rest of the animals. If a forest it could be called. The air, if air it could be called, held the motionless scent of plastic. The ground squeaked like Styrofoam. He passed an ancient stock tank; a pocked, frozen, tub mould. Even in his childhood it wasn’t useful to its purpose, it was just a muddy pit, he walked there with his mother some evenings. His mother thoughtfully named it Travis Lake which offended his father whose best friend inspired the naming in his declining phases of alcoholism. Travis died a shadow. He was dying for a long time until one day he wasn’t dying anymore. It came as a relief to his friends who had watched his slow death, helplessly.
The only eyes on Kurt were those of the fat, still, vultures perched as timeless sentinels on cardboard remains of colorless pine trees. Kurt would find his own perch; and there remain.