After All

By Carol Emshwiller

(See also the introduction to this story by this week's reprint curator, Gavin Grant.)


It's one of those days, rainy and dull, when you remember all the times you said or did the wrong thing, or somebody else said the wrong thing to you, or insulted you, or you insulted them, or they forgot you altogether, or you forgot them when you should have remembered. One of those days when everything you say is misunderstood. Everything you pick up you drop. You knock things over. You slip and fall. And your nose is running, your throat is sore. And it's your birthday. You're a whole 'nother year older. At your age, one more year makes a big difference.

At least I'm alone. No need to bother anyone else with myself, and my temper, my moods, my dithering and doubts, my yackety-yacking when others want to keep quiet. And my voice is too loud. I laugh when nothing's funny.

Having had a night of nightmares about what might have happened if this or if that bad thing had come about. (Good no one's here, because I would be telling them the whole dream detail by detail.) Stop me if I go nattering on. I talk and talk even when I mean to keep quiet. Especially when I mean to be quiet.

There ought to be something else to talk about that wouldn't be my long, long dream or the weather, where the sunshine, gruesome and garish, causes spots before my eyes. It's time to go somewhere. Anyplace else is better than here. It will be a makeshift journey. No purpose except to get away. I didn't pack. I didn't plan. I won't bring a map. I can't depend on strangers because of my beady eyes. I have a mean smile.

You see, this evening I was sitting in the window of my cottage looking out at my piece of desert with squawking quail in it. (Tobacco! Tobacco!) I was thinking to write a story about somebody who needs to change (the best sort of character to write about), and all of a sudden I knew it was me who had to change. Always had been, and I didn't realize it until that very minute. So I have to be the one to go on a journey, either of discovery or in order to avoid myself.

I won't pack a lunch. I won't bring a bottle of water. I know I don't look my best but I don't even want to. My hair. . . . I don't want to think about it.

If you crawl out the hole in the back fence, right away you're on the road to town. "A pointless coming and going," they'll say, and I'll say, "That's exactly what I'm after." I've lived all this time a different kind of pointless coming and going: Concerts and plays and then reading all the books one should read—that everybody else was reading, so how could you not read them? But this will be a different kind of pointless. I don't care what they think.

They!

Why can't they just take me for granted like most children do? Being chased by your own children. How could that happen? Being followed and watched.

I suppose to catch me out, non compos mentis. Mentos? If that's what it's called. Mentis sanos? If I can remember the words for it, how can it be true? Except I don't remember.

They'll see me if I leave in the daytime.

It's one of those nights with a fingernail moon. It's one of those nights with a cold wind. Who'd expect Grandma to be out in this weather and at this hour? Who'd expect Grandma to be walking down the road to town, leaning against the wind. (It's been a long time since I was allowed to drive.)

That's my son behind the arborvitae. My middle daughter by the carport. (Carport without a car.) I see her shadow. My oldest? I don't know where she is.

"Mama, you're not as young as you think you are." (I am. I am. Exactly as young as I think I am. I'm maybe even a little more so.)

I'll be set upon by this and that. Snarling dogs let free to roam at night. Maybe there's other snarling people like myself out here. Hard rain or hail. Smells that sting the nose. Sky, a preposterous overdose of stars. If I fall asleep behind a creosote bush, what will come get me?

I suppose I ought to trust in some sort of god or other. There's one under every bush. At least I hope so. Feats of faith. I can do that.

Here I am, gone. Forever. So far, forever. I regret my books. The children will keep all the wrong ones. The good ones will get thrown in the garbage. My best scarf—they'll think it's just any old scarf. They don't know I got it from my own grandma. I told them, but they forget.

What I've done for them! It was endless! Of course that was a long time ago.

But after that, what I've done for my art! If that is art. I don't know what to call it. I could call it leisure time. My hard-working leisure time. Most of it spent looking out the window.

But art is . . . was my life. I mean looking out the window so as to think about it was.

I always had plenty of ideas. I didn't exactly have them. They grew—little by little, a half an idea at a time. First, part of a phrase and then a person to go with it. After a person, then a little corner of a place for the person to be in.

Can I make it through town before morning? It's six miles to the other end of it. If I do, I might be able to get my usual nap. I could rest in the ditch by the side of the road.

I've disguised myself. Big floppy hat, sand-colored bathrobe. . . . (I forgot not to wear my slippers.) I had a hard time deciding how I could be unobtrusive and yet not be like myself, because I've always tried to look unobtrusive. There's those earth colors which I always wear anyway.

I already stay in the corners and the shadows. I already never look people in the eye. I already hunch over. Now I'm shuffling because my slippers keep falling off.

I hear footsteps. When I stop to listen, they stop, too. I knew one of them would follow. I wonder which it is? You can't get rid of your children.

"I'm laughing at you . . . whoever you are. Ha, ha, ha. Hear that?"

Well, I can't keep stopping and listening and laughing all the time. I'd never get anywhere. I have to keep going if I want to get somewhere or other in time for anything at all. It's bad enough when your slippers won't stay on.

If I had a diary, I'd write: Next Day, or, Day Two. (I'd have to write the days that way because I don't know the date, I hardly even know if spring or summer, but that's not a sign of non compose . . . whatever . . . because I never did pay attention to things like that.)

I'd write: Had a nice nap by the side of the road, and that I don't know if long or short, but a nice one. (With my sand-colored bathrobe I'll bet I looked like a pinkish/tan rock.) I'd write how I must begin working on myself. They say writing things down is a good way to begin, so I'll do that. Or will when I get the diary.

If I'd brought money I could have bought one in town. Except I went through town at about dawn and the stores were closed. (If I'd brought a watch I'd know when.)

Whoever is following me has not made themselves known except in rustlings and snappings and scuffling sounds. I have to admit I'm a little bit scared. Living in a clearing in a forest might be nice. A mountain pass would be nice, too. I'd like a view. A view can make you happy. And with a view you'd be able to see who's creeping up on you.

I've decided. I turn, sharp left, leave the road, and start straight up. It's hard going in these slippers but I have a purpose. I'm taking charge of my own life. I know exactly what I'm doing, and when, and how much and why, and the time, which is right now.

It's a cute . . . you could call it a cute pass, up there where I'm heading. The cliff walls on each side hug a marshy spot. There's an overhang to sleep under. Old icy snow to chew on. Though it's high, it's sheltered enough for there to be fairly large trees. The ground glitters all over as if with tiny chunks of gold. (If it was gold, it would be gone.) There's things to eat. I'll nibble lambs quarters and purslane. Do they grow up there? I'm probably thinking of the olden days back East. Anyway, there's wild rose hips, so small I wonder that I've ever bothered eating them but I always do.

Even from here, well below that pass, you can see fairly far. I study the landscape. The orange lichen that dots the boulders looks like something left in the refrigerator too long. The sky looks as if it's got the measles.

I see movement on the hillside below me. For sure there's something down there. I catch glimpses from the corner of my eye.

It's inevitable, your children will track you down. There they are. I didn't actually see them, but something is out there, I'm sure of it, creeping up on me. What do they want? What do they have in store for me? If they can catch me. Of course it is my birthday—or was, a couple of days ago. Perhaps they want to have a surprise party. Perhaps their arms are full of presents, paper hats, tape recorders for the music for dancing. . . . What if they're bringing champagne? What a lot to carry! No wonder they haven't been able to catch me.

If they bring me sweets, they'll have forgotten I can't eat chocolate. If blouses, they'll be too big. (A mother is supposed to be bigger than the children, but they forget I'm the smallest now.) If paper hats, I suppose I'll have to put one on. If horns, I suppose I'll have to blow one.

Maybe, if I can get far enough ahead, they'll give up. I try to hurry but it's getting steeper. At least, if they're carrying all those things, they're having a hard time, too. The champagne will be the heaviest. I suppose they'll have those plastic champagne glasses you have to put together, and I suppose they think that'll be a good job for Grandma. I won't do it. They can't make me.

If I did have a diary, and if I did write anything in it, it would be misunderstood anyway, just like everything I say is, so the first thing I'd write (page one, January first) should be: That isn't what I mean at all.

But I'd rather write about how my feet hurt and how it looks like rain.

Once I get up there, I may have to stay forever. I might not be able to climb down. A long time ago when I was still spry, I came up to that very spot to die, but I didn't die after all. I waited and waited but nothing happened except I had my usual dizzy spell. I had to climb back down, though I had to wait until the spell passed. Good I hadn't told anybody.

This time I haven't thought (even at my age!) about what would be the best way to die. I know I should, but, after I didn't die back then at the top of my favorite pass, thinking about it began to seem a waste of valuable time. I was contemplating art. That seemed the important thing to do.

But, from now on, what to hope for out of life (and art)? Or is it the art part that's done with? I'm still full of longing . . . so much longing . . . for. . . . I don't know what, but I'm breathless with it.

I lie down with a rock for a pillow. I rest a long time. When I wake up, I think: Day two or day three or day four? Even if I had a diary I'd be all mixed up already.

But now I'm thinking perhaps my own attic is the best place to disappear into. I could go down to the kitchen any time I wanted. I could get clean underwear. They say, "East or West, home is best."

I start back. It'll be easier going down because I won't keep stepping out of my slippers all the time.

Something streaks by. Lights up the whole sky. Dizzying, dazzling even in the daytime. (Talk about spots in front of your eyes!) Well now, there's something beautiful. One nice thing is happening on my birthday. (If it still is my birthday.)

The ground shakes. Boulders come bounding down—whole sides of mountains. . . . Who would have thought it, the end of the world as if just for me. Right on time, too, before my slippers give out entirely. We're all going together, the whole world and me. Isn't that nice! Best of all, I'm in at the end. I won't have to miss all the funny things that might have happened later had the world lasted beyond me. So, not such a bad birthday after all.


Carol Emshwiller lives in New York City. She has six novels and five short story collections. Her next collection will be put out by PS Publishing in England. It'll be a double book, her anti-war stories on one side and her regular SF/fantasy stories on the other. Also due this year from Nonstop Press is The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller, Volume 1, which will include close to a hundred pieces published between 1954 and 2002. For more about the author, see her website, or her previous appearances in Strange Horizons.