The Earth Moves
The train swung from side to side rhythmically, making other passengers droop tired heads and relax, finding primal memories from times before consciousness. Chen remained alert, excitement holding her shoulders rigid and eyes wide. Sichuan province stretched ahead in miles of green and brown, as familiar to Chen as her own hands. She stared out of the window watching the women working in the rice fields, stooped under the weight of children strapped to their backs. She smiled, thinking of Liang, and the days when her daughter was small enough to be carried in the same way.
Checking her watch, she shifted impatiently. An hour to go, and then her arms would be full of Liang, sating her maternal craving and easing the ache of separation at last. Across from her, a young man sat with two boys, and as always when Chen saw parents with more than one child, she wondered what they had done to deserve exclusion from the policy. Chen herself would have had more than Liang, but the stories of government brutality, forced abortions and beatings had made her terrified of breaching the rule. Instead, she'd gained a refrigerator and a new stove, and lost her womb.
The boys nestled in to each other, whispering and laughing, and Chen smiled despite herself. Perhaps, she thought, changing position and staring out of the window again, one was a perfect number. Whole and complete, it held the power to be unique. Unique things were prized so much more highly than things which came in high numbers. Unconsciously, her hand slipped to her stomach, playing over the scar as the train weaved through lush fields and in to the city boundary.
Soon, Liang, Chen thought, sending her daughter a whispered message. It had been over three months since they had last been together. Chen's work had been sending her ever further away in a quest to earn enough to keep Liang at school. She pictured her daughter's face, with her pale smooth skin and laughing eyes, and the way Liang's hair fell sleek and straight to hide her smile when she was trying to be prim.
They were going to meet outside school, and Chen had planned out a cosy dinner, with plenty of time for talking and catching up on everything before they slept. She glanced down at her bag with pleasure. Inside, she had a number of gifts collected over the past few weeks. A beautiful jacket with colourful embroidery to fit Liang's slight frame. Chocolate, spiced tea, and two novels which Liang would have to keep tucked away out of sight, reading them in secret away from eyes that would report her. She tucked her bag more carefully beneath her feet, as the train pulled in to the station.
All around her, people stretched and startled awake, jolted by the lurching of the carriage as the train squealed to a halt. Standing quickly, Chen took her bag over her shoulder and slipped past the waiting passengers to jump from the train first. Her stomach was roiling with anticipation, making her walk faster towards the taxi rank that would take her the last part of the journey to Liang's school.
The driver dropped her off at the foot of the hill which led to the school, and Chen paused when she got out to smooth her hair and dress, looking up at the cramped building ahead. As with so many government buildings, the school was haphazardly constructed and hastily made, with uneven roof tiles and bowed walls, but Chen was proud that she could send Liang there. She quickened her pace now, striding up the hill. Ten minutes, and they would be face to face.
As Chen walked, she became aware of a deep rumble beneath her feet. She glanced down, uncertain, and suddenly fell as the earth shifted in long waves. She grasped at the grass, trying to gain purchase as for long minutes the whole world shifted on its axis leaving her incapable of balancing. She felt the shudder in her whole body, making her nauseous and confused, unable to stand or orientate herself. For two long minutes nothing was stable or safe, and Chen lay in terror, closing her eyes against the wrath of the earth.
She ducked her head down and raised her hands as debris began to roll down from the hill. Roof tiles scattered around her, and beyond the seismic rumbling Chen heard the unmistakeable groan and tear of a building falling. She scrambled to her feet, and began to run up the hill calling for Liang. Rocks and debris rolled towards her and she leaped over concrete and splintered planks.
As she neared the school, she hesitated. The building was destroyed. Where just moments before she had seen walls and windows, now there was just rubble, dust and devastation. Her heart lurched as she heard screams, and people began to run from the crumbled concrete. Young students were crying out, blood streaming from head wounds, some crawling to get out from the rubble while others were completely still, trapped beneath stones and dust.
Chen screamed out Liang's name and ran haphazardly, searching each young face desperately. She tripped over a lifeless body and fell, scrambling up again blindly. She checked the face beneath her, sickening herself with the surge of relief when the dead student was a boy. Students crawled and screamed from the wreckage, and Chen's voice soared higher, fighting to be heard. She clambered over rocks and splintered wood, her eyes streaming from the dust which clung to her clothes and skin, filling her mouth with grit.
Chen pulled a young girl from beneath some rubble, her hands scrabbling to free the student from the weight collapsed around her. Chen wiped at the girl's face with the hem of her dress, shaking her to try and get her to rouse. The girl turned and coughed a stream of blood and dust, sitting up, and Chen moved further in to the ruins of the building. People streamed up the hill, desperate parents joining Chen in pulling out bodies, pausing only to check the face of each before moving on to the next. The living and dead got equal attention, as each parent worked frenziedly to find their child. Next to her, a mother fell to her knees beside the pale limp body of her son, silent with grief.
Chen worked on, her hands bloodied and caked in dust. Stronger hands than hers helped, moving stone and tiles in a vile rhythm of fear. Behind her, parents were tending to the injured, laying students out on the grass as one by one they were retrieved from under the crumpled building. Chen worked instinctively, responding to the sound of females begging for help, ignoring the deeper voices.
They worked for hours, the parents joined by villagers bringing water and cloth to tend to the injured, ripped sheets to cover the faces of the dead. Chen's mind was blank, beyond tired now, and she moved like a machine unaware of her body as she silently searched the rubble. Finally, she was gripped in strong male arms and dragged from the dust to the field below, placed gently on the ground beside the line of bodies.
A woman knelt beside her, offering a bowl of water, and she drank deeply, using the dregs to wipe her face of blood and dust. The woman shook Chen, and told her to walk the line of children and search each face. Chen nodded mutely, accepting support as she struggled to stand, and the woman gripped her shoulders to keep her upright as she stumbled along the line. She recognised some of the lifeless faces, seeing other's from Liang's class. With each shocking jolt of recognition came the immediate gratitude that another woman's child had died.
A girl's voice shouted - mother, and a dozen desperate women turned at the familiarity of the beautiful shared name. Chen stopped walking, staring wildly back to find the girl who called. She raised a trembling hand towards the voice, and began to stumble away from the bodies, searching among the wounded, the villagers and parents. Hope blossomed scarlet now, feeding her limbs with renewed energy, as she responded to the call.
People stood aside to let Chen through, and then she was kneeling, arms outstretched as Liang fell in to her. Chen gathered her daughter close and held her tightly, checking her face, her arms, her bleeding hands.
"I was waiting for you. I stayed outside so that I could see you as soon as you came," Liang said, her voice scratched with dust. Chen nodded, not daring to speak of what would have happened, had she not been coming for her daughter. They sat, their bodies melding together in a way that Chen hadnâ€™t felt since Liang was growing within her. Wordlessly, they gripped each other, turning from the loss and grief behind them, losing themselves in a long exhalation of gratitude.
Chen traced her daughter's face again and again, silently rocking her close as the sun dropped behind the wreckage of the building, and finally they stood together, instinctively shielding each other from the line of the dead and the dying, and the parents kneeling beside each.
They walked down the hill in silence, arms woven and streaked faces turned towards home.
I am seven years old.
Itâ€™s the school holidays and the summer sun is shining down on the small patch of grass that makes up our back garden. My older brother is there, as are my parents, and weâ€™re all looking at the lawn with varying levels of dismay. Criss-crossing the grass in random patterns, the earth below has erupted through the green stalks, showing where some nefarious creature has been digging tunnels.
Our garden has a mole.
This is the garden where my brother and I play tennis up against the back wall of the house. This is the garden where my mother sunbathes in rare moments when free time co-incides with sunshine. This is the garden where my father begrudgingly mows the lawn when the grass gets too high. This is the garden where we work, and live, and play as a family.
But now it has been invaded by an insidious interloper, who has taken the space for its own.
Iâ€™m actually quite excited by the presence of the mole. Surely, they are cute and furry, and couldnâ€™t possibly mean us any harm. But no, my mother says it has to go, and that is why we are all now standing on the patio, our eyes turned to the clear evidence of our unwanted guest.
There is someone else here with us, too. He is a tall and burly man in dungarees and a stained shirt. He has a bushy beard and big boots, and he is stomping all over the garden, inspecting the tunnels. Thereâ€™s something about him I donâ€™t like but, if asked, I donâ€™t think I could say what it is. His presence somehow feels like more of an intrusion than the moleâ€™s, even though the man is here to restore our garden to us.
The man pays no attention to me or my brother, instead only looking at and speaking to my parents. Iâ€™m listening, though, and it soon becomes clear to me that the little mole is unlikely to survive the traps that will be laid for it.
A classic, seven-year-oldâ€™s tantrum ensues. The man is less than impressed and, after all, he is only trying to do his job. My mother attempts to reason with me, and is probably thinking she should have insisted that my brother and I remain inside for the duration of this consultation. My brother is not making a fuss, but he looks quietly disapproving of the mole-eradication plan.
While the scene is still playing out, something wholly unexpected occurs. The earth moves at the exterminatorâ€™s feet, he bends down, reaches out with the speed of a serpentâ€™s strike, and straightens up with the mole wriggling in his hand.
The mole is smaller than I would have expected. Its fur is deep black, but shiny in the afternoon sun, like an oily patch on the driveway. We all stare as it struggles in the manâ€™s unforgiving grip, its pink feet scrabbling against empty air. My mother is the first to regain her senses, hurrying into the kitchen and returning quickly with a plastic ice cream box. She and the man work together to secure the mole inside, and his job is prematurely completed.
At my motherâ€™s insistence, he promises faithfully that he will drive some distance out into the coutryside and release the mole into the wild, where it can live a happy life, untroubled by, and untroubling to, humans.
I believe him.
I am seven years old.
(True story - I still remember it vividly, even thirty years later!)
"Mark, come and listen to this", she turned the volume up so he could hear in the kitchen.
"What's happening?" he sat next to her drying his hands on a tea towel.
"Once again, our top story tonight, the Earth is likely to experience a shift in rotational axis as a significant meteor shower..."
"Sounds pretty serious.' She wasn't listening to him, she grabbed her phone and starting scrawling through various news reports. "Any info online?"
"Nothing more than what we're hearing on this" she nodded at the TV.
"Well... do you think its dangerous?" She looked at him baffled.
"Yes, Mark. Yes its pretty dangerous."
"But they haven't mentioned anything on the telly?"
"We could end up moving dangerously too close or far in our proximity to the sun, we could all die." He smirked at her.
"You're such a drama queen!" this took her aback.
"We could be burnt up in the suns atmosphere Mark, its not like I can't find an outfit for the evening."
"Yeah but how long is it since you went to uni?"
"The solar system has been around since time began, I'm pretty sure it hasn't changed in six years." She stared at him for a moment. He wasn't taking this seriously. How can he not take this seriously, surely the danger was self explanatory?
"I'm going to crack on with dinner, you want wine tonight?" She sat open mouthed as he wandered back in to the kitchen. What was happening?
Dinner was delicious but she barely ate, she sat mindlessly pushing food around on her plate.
"Are you still worried about this sun thing?"
"You mean the meteor shower that will kill us all? Yeah, you could say I'm worried."
"Susan, they haven't said there is any danger, they're talking about how best to view the meteor shower and whether there will be clouds that night!"
"You're believing the television over your own girlfriend?" He put his glass down with a bit of a thud.
"Its been ages since you did that course, and you dropped out, can't you admit you could be wrong?" But she wasn't wrong.
She barely slept, she kept scanning social media and news websites to see if any more reports came up. The following morning the office was alive with talk about the meteor showers. It seemed to be becoming the social highlight of the year, celebrities were already announcing the meteor tribute concerts, and she'd been invited to two meteor watching parties already. Several e-mails had gone around suggesting that anybody calling in sick Tuesday would likely face disciplinary action. Nobody was worried. How could this be happening?
"Susan, you'd better come in here." She heard Mark calling. She went into the living room and found him watching the news with the volume right up.
"They've got some scientist on, he's talking about the meteor shower." She listened intently.
"Well, its a simple case of gravity. We've been in a careful balance of drag-pull for years with our surrounding planets, and its this drag pull that maintains our current orbit. This current orbit is what is keeping us at an optimum distance from the sun; warm enough to not freeze, and cold enough to not burn."
"Well, Anthony, there's a long distance between us and the sun, surely we're not going to be dragged close enough to make any significant difference!"
"Its true that it we will have to travel a significant distance by our standards to feel any real danger, but we have to remember that we can't predict this new orbit and so we can't predict how much things will change."
"So you're saying is, its unlikely there will be any real danger?"
"No, I'm saying we can't predict if there will be."
"Well, thanks to Dr Anthony Finch, author of Planets: A Journey Through Our Solar System. Our next story tonight, Prime Minister..."
"See, there's nothing to worry about!" Mark nudged her leg and smiled.
"Thats not what he was saying." He still didn't believe it.
"Well the reporter didn't look worried, did she?" He was right there, and that was probably the biggest worry. "Get yourself ready, Mum and Dad will be here in a minute!"
"Well, I told your Dad that we need to start looking in to getting one, don't we Martin?" Jan took a big gulp of wine. "We simply can't do without any longer, especially not if we're all going to burn to death soon!" Everybody around the table laughed. Susan was taken aback. "Oh, dear, Mark told us about your theory about the meteor shower." Jan was smirking and Mark and his dad were trying to not laugh. Susan glared at them both.
"Don't be mad Sue, you must admit it is a bit far fetched!"
"I'm sorry, but I don't think its far fetched, its not like I don't know anything about it." There was an awkward shift around the table.
"Dear, I don't mean to be unkind, but it has been an awfully long time since you left university and its not like you did anything with your studies." The tension was growing and Mark started shifting in his seat.
"Its not like the news reports aren't out there though, Jan."
"Its silly conspiracy theory Susan, don't listen to it" Mark chimed in. She was getting angry now.
"The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We've always thought this is going to be the same, and now its not, so how do we know we're not in danger either?" She could feel her face flush. Jan slammed her glass down.
"Well it jolly well had better not change!" Susan was stunned. "We bought that house for its south facing windows! You're not telling me that we won't be getting the same sunlight! Oh, Martin, think of the market value." Susan couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"I'm going to go and refresh everyones glasses, more wine anyone?" She rose from the table and dashed to the kitchen.
After the guests had left there had been words, and Susan felt worse for it. She sat finishing the last of the wine with a blanket whilst mark licked his wounds in the shower. There was a piece on the news about the charity meteor concert, although nobody mentioned what charity, when Mark came and sat down besides her.
"Looks like your favourite is playing."
"He's not my favourite and you know it, stop teasing. How was your shower?"
"Good thanks. Can we make friends now?"
"Its just that you didn't defend me at all, its like you weren't on my side!" Mark took her hand.
"I am always on your side, but you know how Mum can be." The TV chimed and the conversation came to an abrupt end. There was a busy sounding room on the news, with lots of came flashes and a relatively familiar logo in the background.
"Ladies and gentleman of the world, I am addressing you tonight on behalf of the leaders of all Nations. It is my duty to inform you that preliminary reports suggest that the impending meteor shower on Monday night is likely to present a much more significant danger than first thought. At around 3am, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, it is likely that the significant disturbances to our neighbouring planets will cause our orbit to shift to a path that will bring us dangerously close to the sun. The change in orbit will result in a drastic change in velocity, and is likely that four days following the meteor shower, at approximately four fifteen in the afternoon, Eastern Standard Time, that our planet will have drifted close enough to the sun to cause us to burn up. All life as we know it will come to an end."
"HA! I told you, I kept saying it but now you have to believe me because the President has told you!" Mark looked at her dumbstruck.
"Susan, we're going to die" Susan paused.
"We now return to our regularly scheduled programming."