I sat down to watch the end of days under the thick branches of a pine tree that topped the mountainous ridge of my secluded valley town, its ancient form having surveyed so much over the centuries it had stood; lives filled with unbridled joy and immeasurable sorrow, moments of triumph, moments of defeat. It had listened idly to the lonely stories told by those who rested at its roots; tales heavy with longing and unrequited affection that came from the mouths of starry-eyed youngsters, of dreams they had hoped would fall into the realm of reality, and dreams that had come out misshapen and unfulfilling. It had seen everything.
The pine played an almost motherly role in my life, its branches bracing defiantly against the elements as I took shelter on many of the long walks I took as a teen, having unknowingly lost hours and hours to the lonesome, solipsistic moods I would all too often find myself in. Even its coarse-looking bark had somehow felt like a goose-feather pillow on those nights when my father would drink his poison and spit it back up, demanding that I leave the house and never return, only to mumble a slurred apology the next day.
I drifted off to sleep on the comforting bed of tan-coloured pine needles that were arranged snugly at its base when my first love slipped through my fingers when I was sixteen years old, the sweet scent of the sap drying my adolescent tears. I dragged a hiking pack and a pop up tent all the way up the hillside when I was twenty-six and had been laid off from my job and subsequently been evicted from my apartment. I slept and ate in the shade of that old pine tree for two whole weeks, just reflecting and thinking about how the past few years of my life had led me to that point; losing a close friend who had succumbed to the hardships of life, and teetering on the razor-sharp edge of addiction more than once. It was in the shade of the pine where I always found some kind of solace. The pine was always there.
A strange electricity hung in the air on the day that the end of life as we had known it fell like a guillotine upon the world. It was as though the very air around us was alive, filled with billions of tiny, invisible tendrils that erected all the hairs on your body and pulled your soul from your mouth. It got people talking, of course. Restaurants, cafés, family homes, churches and corporate buildings alike buzzed with conversation about the sensation that had mingled with the air. Yet each of those conversations ended the same way; a shrug of the shoulder, a dismissal of the alien feeling as little more than the precursor to an intense thunderstorm, despite the fact that very few graphite clouds pockmarked the otherwise azure sky. I had paid little mind to it myself, as I had awoken at the very crack of dawn to hike up the bluff and watch the town slowly rise from its slumber, a favourite pastime of mine on many of the still, pleasant mornings in the month of June.
As the bizarre electric sensation began to dissipate, I- and everyone else in my sleepy little town- slowly became aware of a sound; something foreign and impossible to place. It rumbled through the valley like a persistent barrage of thunder, like some gigantic industrial machine, or perhaps a foghorn. Yet, there was something strangely organic about the sound, as though it were the anguished call of an animal of mammoth proportions, crying out from the bottom of a deep, resonant chasm. I had frozen in place as the sound reached my ears, straining my eyes to see if I could locate the source of the sound on the blurry horizon, yet I could see nothing. It was entirely unknown where the sound itself was coming from, whether it was a neighbouring town, the mountains beyond, or from the sky above. Like the sensation that crowded the atmosphere before it, the alien clamour felt as though it were all around us, born of thin air.
I imagined a giant blue whale floating aimlessly through the air, its call to its kin deafeningly loud now that it was free of the muffling restraint of the water. It was a humorous image; had the situation not been so alarming, I would’ve perhaps chuckled at my own imagination. I hiked further up the bluff, occasionally stopping to see if the new vantage would allow me to find the source of the ominous droning that consumed the distant sound of car engines and the chattering of birds. Still, I could see nothing, but I had begun to feel the sound vibrating through my body and the ground below me. It was not painful, nor did it cause any kind of significant tremor beneath my feet; it was simply a gentle but persistent sub-sonic thrum that travelled from my feet to the tips of my fingers. I could see crowds of people gathered in the streets of the town below me, stricken with confusion at the ceaseless noise that was slowly but surely getting louder.
Looking up, I saw the pine looming atop the overhang that I was so well acquainted with; the peak of the bluff, my own personal top of the world. It was now less than one-hundred metres from me. I continued my ascent as though guided by an unseen hand, dodging low hanging branches and precariously positioned rocks in a near vacant state.
The calming aroma of the pine’s sap rewarded my nostrils as I finally reached the plateau, the branches outstretched as though the tree was welcoming me into a warm embrace. I finally felt at home again. My home had always been up there with the pine, never in the town that sat so far below it. The town was little more to me than a slowly decaying carcass, rotting scraps of bitter memories still hanging on to the bones of times past. Somewhere, down in that little valley, sat the husk of the house I spent my childhood in, scorched by a fire started by my father; an inferno that had claimed him and his hoard of worthless possessions before the emergency services reached the house. It had been left in ruins and forgotten on the edge of town. Catharsis eluded me every time I visited that house, for although it was derelict and on the verge of collapse, it still wheezed and groaned with the ghosts of my father’s whiskey breath and fiery disposition.
Up here, the house did not exist. The town did not exist. The pungent aroma of rubber and gasoline was replaced by the scent of trees and crisp air, and the clamour of car horns and the old steelworks were overtaken by a gentle breeze and the chirping of birds. The man-made world was transparent. It was just me, and the old pine. A thunder crack echoed through the valley as I sat down beneath the pine, the sound riding upon the sonic vibration that had raced through my body minutes before. The sound was not of this world, that I knew. As I gazed up to the sky that the child in me believed he could reach up and touch, I saw it break apart in an instant, giving way like a fragile ice sheet to something that man had not laid eyes on until this very moment. It was as though the sapphire expanse had dissolved, and in its place, was a looming shape, its gargantuan size rendering it barely comprehensible to the human eye.
The shape was curved from the top to the bottom, as though I were gazing upon the moon through a telescope. A network of fiery rivers ran from the distant edges of the apparent celestial body that had begun to swallow the Earth, all of them leading to the same foreboding midnight void at its centre. I watched as the world in front of me was cast halfway into shadow, feeling the panic of all of those in the valley beneath. I felt no fear of my own, even as another otherworldly call echoed through the valley, shaking the Earth to its core. I felt myself almost sinking into the mattress of pine needles beneath me, the branches once again hanging over me protectively as they had done countless times before.
Gazing up again, I watched in awe as the void in the middle of the great shape began to shift, and with it, the infernal rivers that appeared to be connected to it. It darted around, altering the position of the inky shadows it had cast on the world like a strobe light. The void that had seemed so cold to me before began to take on a new life, something so unreal and fantastical that it made the wildest fiction believable. It was an eye. A great eye loomed above the world, hanging in the cosmos as though it were another planet. My imagination could not fathom what it was attached to, how gigantic it was or how long it had taken on its journey through the cold reaches of space to get here.
I could picture those below me; piling into places of worship and frantically thumbing through holy books to find some semblance of prophecy; something they had missed, buried in metaphor. News anchors fumbled through their reports as they struggled to come to terms with what they were being told, any air of professionalism stripped away. I felt the bark of the pine soften as I lay back and watched, the branches seeming to fall down even further, cradling me. As the drone grew even louder and the thrum grew more intense, I felt comfort in the finality of what was about to happen. There was to be no one left behind; no one to mourn, no one to ask questions that would be unanswered for aeons to come. Those who carried ill memories and trauma like lead weights were to be relieved of their unfair duties and allowed an eternity of respite, something that their time in this world could never have promised them.
To me, the town below that had been overrun with reminders that I was less than I had wanted to be no longer mattered. My failings no longer mattered, the spirit of my father’s resentment no longer mattered. Those memories were fading fast as I felt the warm embrace of the pine tree; the one pleasant constant in this mortal coil. Tranquillity meandered through my brain, even as the landscape in front of me seemed to uproot with a final deafening cry. My body and soul were wrapped in a blissful cocoon as the end came.