Illustration: “Self-Portrait” © 2007 by Robert Sorensen
The sun was sinking beyond the grotesque spires. There were times when Jacob wanted to topple them. In a few years, maybe the Venus sands will have corroded them enough that a good loud shout would fell them. Somehow, though, he doubted that.
No matter how far he traveled, he couldn’t seem to get away from the spires. They rose into the blood-colored sky like flat-tipped, colored fingers embedded with specks of glass.
* * *
“Didn’t they say there were supposed to be jungles here?”
Stepping off the rocket a month earlier, Jacob had felt ready to slap the speaker, a man named Eddie. Jacob had been ready thousands of miles before they had even reached the planet. Being around Eddie was like traveling in a car with someone who reads aloud every road sign. Jacob would have avoided him, but the others aboard spoke incessantly of the golden days before the War, which had devastated almost all of the world. So long to the countries of leadership; it was every person for himself in the aftermath. There wasn’t a can of food to be found on Earth that one person wouldn’t slay another for in the hours and days following the devastation. Those who survived the War and found their way back to civilization had been lucky enough to find enough canned food — usually in or next to the hands of the dead. It was just two weeks after the War that the first rocket started to be built. They had to start from scratch; the War had turned the other spacecraft into fused pieces of metal.
“They said a lot of things back there,” Jacob replied to Eddie, feeling the hot air on his exposed face and hands, and looking around at the rocky baked ground. Still, not bad, he told himself. The terraformers did a pretty good job, considering the challenge.
“Just over that ridge, there should be a plain,” someone said. Wow, Jacob thought uncaringly, checking his pockets for cigarettes. When his search revealed every pocket was as empty as the next, he felt even worse. They had some supplies on board the rocket, and the skeleton of a city being built was supposed to be in that plain over the ridge. But that was their first mistake — starting over; building cities when they should have done as they did on Mars, and erect villages.
Damn Martians, he thought, resenting their being barred from landing on the planet. “Go to Venus,” they’d said, “they got jungles there”. Looking around, the only close resemblance to a jungle that Jacob could see was that maybe the sky in Brazil bore the same color — of course, that was before all but a handful of people died as quickly as taking a breath.
There was a loud whisper behind them. The door of the rocket was shutting. With a suitcase in his hand (a man on a vacation, millions of miles from home), Jacob watched the passengers shuffle away from the rocket. How long did it take to make the air on an otherwise inhospitable planet breathable? The air here was still faintly thin. I suppose it can only get better, Jacob thought gloomily.
Then, they walked into the city.
* * *
He wasn’t cold. But he was bitter. The thought that none of the others shared in his agony tickled him with jealousy and nostalgia. In the dark room he looked at his glowing hand, the green luminescence revealing the walls, floor, and furniture, while the ceiling remained hidden. And he thought of living on Mars — of getting drunk, chasing Martian women, making glowworm-love in the deep hours of the night. But who was he kidding? He’d never been drunk before in his life, and he’d only made love twice, and it’d been to the same woman.
Despite his insecurities, Jacob had been unable to help feeling a faint sense of not so much marvel, but bewilderment upon setting eyes on the city. What city was built in a place where mountains tower and curve over it like a rib cage? The tallest building was eight stories, but the mountains bested them by at least thirty stories more. This was the other curious thing — the buildings. They were all the same. Towers. Supposedly, they were energy-efficient and saved space, containing living quarters, shopping, dining, and entertainment without having to visit numerous buildings to find it all.
When the morning summoned him back outside, Jacob wandered through the neatly laid-out streets, feeling as though he were walking through the weirdest jungle imaginable. He was in a field of strange trees, finding his way through a mercilessly blasted canyon.
Jacob turned around.
Coming down the sidewalk with a bounce in his step was none other than Eddie. Not wanting to be rude, Jacob raised a hand in greeting.
“You look to be in an adventurous mood,” Eddie said.
The boring phrase went in one ear and out the other just the same. “That so,” Jacob said simply. He began walking again, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he might somehow lose the other man.
“Talk with a lot of the folks ’round here yet?”
“Interesting lot,” Eddie said
“They’ve been here twenty years,” Jacob replied, a little impatiently.
“They say it’s real nice. People going to the jungle don’t come back.”
Jacob stopped. Eddie followed suit.
“If the jungle were so nice — supposing it’s real — don’t you think this city would be empty?”
Eddie opened his mouth, but the words were still coming to him and for a moment he said nothing. In that moment, Jacob thought about how gullible some people were. The words finally came from Eddie’s mouth: “Not everyone knows exactly where it is. Can’t find information on it anywhere.”
“That explains everything,” Jacob said, and continued his walk. Maybe there had been more disbelief in his voice than he’d intended. This time, Eddie didn’t follow.
* * *
“Hum. That so.”
The owner of the small diner where Jacob stopped for lunch put his fingers to his chin. It was still early, eleven o’ eight. Only two other people were at the counter, and no one at the tables. On a white plate sat a club sandwich, with pale blue outlining where a single bite had been taken. Jacob reached for his glass. He wasn’t as hungry as he thought he’d been. Maybe it was just the heat.
“I ain’t saying I never heard of it,” the owner said.
“Why aren’t you there?” Jacob asked and sipped his iced tea.
“Me?” The owner smiled a crooked-tooth smile. “I came here to retire. Next year I’ll be eighty-six. Too old for adventures. I make enough money at this here diner to stay afloat. Figure when it gets too busy I’ll move on to something else.”
Jacob set his glass down, the ghost of the taste of peach in his mouth, tongue sleeping behind his teeth. “You got the right idea, mister,” he said finally. He felt the continuous cool waves from the ceiling fan against the back of his neck.
The owner nodded toward the plate. “You gonna eat up?”
Jacob lowered his eyes, having forgotten his sandwich. “Maybe it’s the heat.”
“Everyone blames the heat,” the owner said.
Jacob smiled, and his facial muscles felt like they’d been motionless for years. “Easy target.” With the dull eyes of the owner on him, his head began to spin.
“You’re curious though, aren’t you?” he asked when Jacob’s eyes lifted.
“Little hard not to be. What else is around here?” asked Jacob.
Reentering the restless heat, he walked down the baked sidewalk, entering and exiting the shadows of the buildings. He didn’t feel like going home, but he also didn’t want to stalk the afternoon. He settled on standing on a sidewalk at the edge of the city, staring out at the great, wide nothingness that stretched before him like an ocean of rock and dust. For a long time, he stood there thinking of what might lie beyond all of it. He thought of the climate and couldn’t believe that somewhere out there was a jungle. If there were one, the city would never have been built where it was.
Going home was not so much a transversal of streets as it was tracing the steps of a long journey. Someone once told him that life was a board game, you had to choose your moves carefully. He thought of the lack of light fixtures in the buildings and smiled gloomily, thinking that they must have all been pretty bad players. After the nuclear fallout they all seemed to glow in the dark.
Sitting in front of his window, Jacob wondered what direction one might walk in to find this mythical jungle. He looked at the few people walking up and down the sidewalks below, who more closely resembled skeletons. Why had they come here? Why had they chosen to essentially lengthen their torture before the merciful release of death?
* * *
Sauntering down the hallway, the woman in white turned and regarded Jacob with a smile. “Mr. Foxe.”
“I was wondering, you’ve been here for two years, have you heard of the jungle?” asked Jacob.
“Where resides the crystal tower?” said Miss Wood, perking up from her original laziness.
Jacob’s brows narrowed. “Crystal tower?”
“Oh yes. They say it resides in the very heart of the jungle. I have never thought of searching for it, but I have seen people go off into the horizon. Perhaps it exists, for they have never returned.”
“Which direction is it?”
Miss Wood studied Jacob. “You don’t mean to chase stories now, too?” she said.
Jacob shrugged his shoulders.
Miss Wood sighed. “I suppose there isn’t much sense in staying here, is there?”
Miss Wood turned her gaze to the window at the end of the hall and looked at the darkening light, and this time sighed because she knew that Jacob wanted to find the jungle. As if speaking softly to a dying loved one, she spoke: “As far as anyone knows, East.”
There was no time for further words. Jacob dashed back into his room and threw his suitcase on the bed and raided his dresser.
Billions of miles away, the last flower on Earth withered and died. *
About the Author: Owen Crawford is the author of hundreds of stories. His most recent stories are collected in his newest book, The Death of Sara.
(c) 2007 Owen Crawford (website link to come)
About the Artist: Robert Sorensen was born in Summit, New Jersey, has lived in Paris, France, and currently resides in Colorado. His education includes studying painting at L’Academie des Beux Arts de Chaville and studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC, followed by professional work in a theatrical touring company and later, work in TV, films, and documentaries. Robert also wrote an SF screenplay about saving planet Earth from an alien invasion in the year 2059, with the title “QUANTEX-Z or ATOMIC VISIONS”. Robert is an avid international voyager whose passion is to visit, contact, and experience the cultures and peoples from all over Planet Earth and has visited most of Europe, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and most recently Mexico. Robert has exhibited his artwork extensively in Paris, once in London, and several times in the United States. In his artwork, Robert most often takes dream images and bites out of his own life and puts them on canvas, paper, or the computer screen. His themes include the hidden aura-energy within all living and non-living subjects and their surrounding environments.
(c) 2007 Robert Sorensen
Poetry website: http://age23-sonnet996.gather.com/