Issue 4 [Summer 1996]

The Fourth Horseman
by Jan Smith

Locked here in my bubble, I can feel the heartbeat of a dying world. It resonates along bone and sinew, through vessels and arteries frozen like wintry trees beneath the once-soft snow of my skin. With every stumbling beat, every throb of that danse macabre, I can feel my own life force begin to tremble and fade at last.
It wasn’t always like this. In the earliest days the tempo was steady and strong. True, I was barely aware of it then, the pulses of my brain chilled to a near-stop, but as I adjusted to the rhythm, it was the first thing that emerged from the nothingness. Like an embryo listening to the rush of its mother’s blood, I revelled in the certainty of that sound. It wrapped itself around me and held me secure. For centuries, I was happy to be held and nothing more.
Then, gradually, I began to explore the beat, to grasp it with the fingers of my mind and unravel its components like a skein of wool; thread by complex thread. To my delight, I recognised them all. The chatter of children, gasps of lovers, and beery bar-room chuckles; an oscillation of emotions along cats’ cradles of telephone cables. I could hear roots rustling through the earth; tramping hooves on plains; the crash of oceans saturated with the songs of sea-going mammals; wings in dark places; the clap of fireworks; the scratch of the poet’s pen. All underpinned by the drip of tropical forests, and interwoven with the ebb and flow of life itself.
When I had unravelled all the threads, I braided them back together again. That pulse was my umbilical cord; it was my hope.
The change, when it came, was such a subtle slowing, such a surreptitious stumble of the beat, that at first I hardly noticed it. When I did, my mind strove to explore it once more, to isolate the cause. I couldn’t believe what I found. Some of the strands of the sound were gone altogether. I reached in vain for forests and plants, for creatures that used to buzz, growl and swoop. I listened too for the scribble of the poet, but found instead a vacuum filled with neon pulses stringing out into the ether; filaments linking beads of haves together among innumerable have-nots. The sound of the ocean remained, but burdened with oil and excrement; its lean roar swollen to the suck of molecules on blasted beaches. And over the top of it all, loudest and most shocking, was the sound of human suffering. Babies’ cries were sharpened by hunger and woven with the pleadings of premature death, shot through with the shrieks of the tortured, the wounded and the starving.
By the time I had completed the second unravelling, I understood. The earth, my mother, was dying. I knew, too, that I was losing my mind - a shaved and tubed Ophelia, frozen solid in her tax-deductible brook. I have tried to ignore that revelation, to cling instead to the heartbeat, the evidence of another existence, however poisoned. But in the ebb and flow of centuries, I sometimes let the pulse fade away from me, and lose myself down giddy internal paths.
‘Just think, Lianne,’ my human mother whispers. Think. Think. ‘By the time you are resurrected, child, they’ll have a cure for old age, for every illness.’ For every illness. Her words are blurred by time. Where is she now? Dead. Long dead. I cannot remember what she looked like, just the curve of a cheek, a jut of hip. All powdered to carbon now and floating in the ether. ‘Imagine being perfect, being seventeen forever.’ Imagine. Did you imagine what forever really means, my mother?
Sometimes, as I slip deeper and deeper inside myself, I build the life I never had. Houses. Children. Lovers. Unknown fingers caress my frozen flesh and lips press mine, turning sharp edges slippery. I can feel myself being lifted and twisted, becoming pliable in those hot hands, being moulded into a succession of fluid shapes, so different from the rigid lines I have grown used to. Blood melts, bones curve. All the places that were once soft, hot and yielding become so again, and I rock there in that imaginary place for as long as I dare. But gradually, knowledge slips into Eden with the grace of a serpent and tugs me back towards the suffering heartbeat.
I wish my mother hadn’t loved me so much. I wish I hadn’t been so weak, so seduced by the promises of eternity. I could have had a real life, however short; a real lover, however cruel. I could be dead now too, free from the horror that rushes to suck me in.
Of course, my mother couldn’t have known that I’d be conscious here in my bubble. The scientists assured her I would know nothing until I was woken, teased from the ice with the right formula, like Sleeping Beauty with her prince’s kiss. But they were wrong. There were wrong about a lot of things.

They were wrong about birth control, genetics and pesticides. They were wrong about nuclear power and the end of the arms race. Those blessings, through some dark transfiguration, have now become Famine, War and Death. I can hear their hoofbeats echo in the earth’s dying heart. And the fourth horseman? The fourth waits here with me.
Deep in the wintry cells of my blood is locked the trace of a virus. In my lifetime, its presence would have been signalled by nothing more than a sneeze. Over the centuries, inoculation has smothered it altogether. Few people now would know its name. And none has the means to resist it.
So Pestilence, my uninvited bedfellow, the only real lover I’ve ever had, waits with me for release from the ice. It will come soon, I know. My keepers shuffle in and out of the room where I sleep, worker ants tending the translucent bulk of their queen. Through the thickness of the ice I feel the vibration of their resentment. Although it frightens me, I can forgive it too; for what am I now, but a monument to the power of wealth? There is no room for ostentation in our dying world. Those who possess power wield it in private, in the safety of anonymous bunkers or reinforced tower blocks. Either tomorrow or the day after, my workers will come with crow-bars and pick-axes, and prise their queen from the ice, smash brittle bone and sinew, and melt my ice-crazed soul free at last. And, unknowing, they will also free my companion, scattering him over their boots in the rubies of my blood. As the crystals thaw and evaporate, he will slip through their pores and into their lungs.
And so I find myself speculating in my final hours. Do my keepers know how close we are to the end? Can they hear the rustle in their mother’s lungs? If not, there is nothing I can do to warn them. Cassandra’s tongue is frozen. Even if I could splinter my lips apart and summon one arctic blast of breath, would I?
The earth is dying. The disease that sleeps in me is just the mercy blow. There is nothing to do but wait.


© 1996 Jan Smith


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