When the pregnant earth contracts and the ground trembles as though it were afraid…
The homeless man flipped to his second piece of cardboard. I nervously glanced away. This red light was taking forever. Glancing back –
When the clouds are angry in the sky and rolling darkness chokes the world…
The traffic light turned green. He was switching signs again though, and I really wanted to see where this was going.
When the blood rain churns the oceans red and cresting waves rear above the land…
The cars behind me were honking. I couldn’t just sit here, but neither could I drive away from this sense of looming dread. I decided to pull off onto the dirt beside the road where the homeless man crouched.
Me in my white prius, on my way back from downtown where I worked. Him and his stained clothing, jagged fingernails biting into the cardboard he clutched. Our eyes locked though we were worlds apart. I felt myself flinch for no reason at all when he smiled, that yellow gaping smile, and when he started walking toward my window I almost slammed my foot on the gas.
Instead I sat there, waiting until he tapped my window with his dirty knuckle. I took a deep breath before rolling it down.
“Dollar is good,” he mumbled. “Whatever you’ve got is fine.”
“What’s with those signs though?” I asked, fishing around for my wallet. “What happens next?”
He squinted at me, then up at the clear blue sky. Back to me, holding out his hand to take the dollar I offered.
“It isn’t raining blood,” he said matter-of-factly.
I leaned out the window to look up. “Nope. It’s not,” I agreed.
“Then how am I supposed to know what happens next?” That yellow smile was back. Up close I could see his remaining teeth haphazardly jutting out from bleeding gums, almost like they’d been hammered in.
“Why would you write that stuff then?”
“Didn’t write it. Just copied it down, that’s all. But people keep stopping, so I keep on holding it.”
This was going nowhere. I just wished him an empty ‘good luck’ and merged back onto the road, the yellow smile fixed on me until he disappeared in my rear view mirror.
Three things happened the very next day. The first was an earthquake, around 4:30 in the morning. I woke immediately to the sound of the jiggling books on my shelf. Nothing severe, only magnitude 4, but there were several pulses and I couldn’t go back to sleep after that.
Next was the storm, taking everyone by surprise. I left the morning news playing while I got dressed, and even the weatherman admitted that the clouds came out of nowhere. There shouldn’t have been enough humidity in the air for them to form overnight, he said, and there weren’t any storms within fifty miles that could have blown in.
“I guess whacky weather is just something we’ll have to get used to as the planet keeps getting hotter,” droned the voice.
I tried not to think about the homeless man, but it was hard while driving to work through the surreal morning twilight. I couldn’t even see the sun through the thick rolling clouds.
I pulled off the road again at the same spot. There he was, crouching exactly how I saw him yesterday. He started walking toward me the moment I stopped. I jumped as he knocked on the passenger side window this time.
“Where are your signs today?” I asked, rolling down the window next to him.
“It don’t matter.”
“I want to know. Look, you can have five bucks this time.” I leaned across the passenger seat to hand him the bill.
“It don’t matter because it’s too late to warn people. It’s already begun. And I don’t want your money, but I wouldn’t say no to a ride. I hate getting caught out in the rain.”
“It’s not raining…” but the words died in my mouth. Flash goes the yellow smile, rotted teeth sprouting from that graveyard of a mouth. A thick red drop landed on his cheek, sluggishly weaving its way into his matted beard.
“Sorry, wish I could help -” I muttered. The rain was coming harder by the second. Great red drops drizzling down from unseen heights. Splattering on my windshield, running down the gutters like freshly opened veins.
“If anyone is causing this, it’s people like you, not people like me.”
I opened my mouth. Then closed it. He snatched the door handle, but it was locked. The blood rain was pouring over him now, streaming off his face and hands like the victim of some gruesome accident.
“Just tell me what’s going to happen next!” I shouted over the mounting wind.
He reached through the window and unlocked the door from the inside. I tried to lock it again, but I was too slow. He was already inside, blood flying with him, splattering across my face and soaking into my seat.
I rolled up the window as the storm raged around us. He didn’t look at me – just stared straight ahead, hands folded in his lap like he knew he didn’t belong.
“Well? What’s next? What’s happening?” I demanded.
“That was rotten of you, trying to lock me out like that,” he said, still not looking at me. “We’re all in this together now.”
“Well you’re here now, so just tell me.”
“Just drive, okay? You’ll see.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but the words caught in my mouth as the yellow smile blossomed. “I said drive!” he bellowed, blood cascading off his sudden ferocity like light scattering through a prism. I slammed my foot on the gas and lurched out into the street.
It was getting worse by the second. Trees were buckling under the weight of the howling wind. Cars inched along the roads or were pulled off to the side, visibility reduced to nothing from the bleeding wound in the sky.
“You said you copied the words,” I managed at last. “Where from?”
“It was carved in a tree,” he said. “I thought it was cool because the tree was bleeding where it was cut, like it was carved in skin instead of bark.”
“There was more, wasn’t there? More than you copied.”
He nodded. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Turn left here. I’ll take you there.”
We didn’t speak much for the next five minutes until he told me where to stop. The rain had already dried up, and there was even some light sneaking through the roof of the world.
“Right there. That’s the tree.” He’d gotten out of the car and was already walking through a dense grove of white aspen a little off the road. There was no uncertainty about which one he was talking about.
It would have been identical to the rest of the grove if it wasn’t trembling in an unfelt breeze. Long red streaks wound down its base from a wound about half-way up. The trembling grew more violent as I approached, until standing before it the wood seemed to ripple and contort before my eyes. Random, violent movements, like an animal trapped under a blanket trying to beat its way out.
“It wasn’t doing that last time,” he said.
I spotted the bleeding words, but they were shaking too badly for me to make them out. I didn’t have to wait long though. Within a minute I saw a crack begin to emerge running down the entire length of the trunk.
The tree was opening, but it wasn’t opening by itself. Long, thin fingers slithered out from the trunk to grip either side of the fissure, forcing it open wider. Blood was flowing freely from the , running into a small stream by our feet. Soon an eye glimmered somewhere from the darkness inside, blinking away the flowing blood to stare at me.
“When the pregnant earth contracts and the ground trembles as though it were afraid…” The homeless man’s eyes were closed, reciting from memory.
The crack in the tree was wide enough for an entire hand to fit through. Twice the length of a human hand, white shining skin beneath the blood.
“When the clouds are angry in the sky and rolling darkness chokes the world…”
The hand retreated, and a second later the whole head burst through. Eyes like a frozen hurricane, uneven gaping mouth like a canyon, panting rapid excited breaths. It felt like staring into all the raw magnificance of nature, only being aware that it was staring back.
“When the blood rain churns the oceans red and cresting waves rear above the land…”
I was running back toward my car. A loud crack rent the air, and glancing back I saw the whole tree splitting cleanly in two. A final rush of blood gutted the length before the two halves fell like corpses to either side.
“Then I will be born into a world that deserves me. And all the words which have been carved into my skin will spell the name of my defiler, and we will sing all words until his name is forgotten, and we will dance until I dance alone.”
The homeless man hadn’t moved since he began recounting the verse. Now it was too late. I watched in awe as the creature caressed the man with its long white fingers. He shuddered as if in esctasy, looking up at it with the reverence of a spectacular sunset.
The fingers dug into my companion and ripped him in half exactly as it had done with the tree, only this time was much faster and much, much messier. A slop of organs slid down his separated legs, the creature wasting no time in stooping on all fours to lick them up. It seemed to have forgotten about me for the moment, and that was all I needed to get back to the car.
I saw it staring at me in the mirror as I ripped down the road. As horrific as that yellow smile was, it was nothing compared to this white shine that grinned over its fresh kill. All the blood had already slid from its body as though it were stainless steel.
Something like that? I get the impression that it could kill any number of us and still be as bright and clean as the day it was born. I wonder if when the last of us is gone, the Earth will be clean like that too. Or whether we’ve cut too deep for the wound to ever heal. I know we’re all in this together now, but looking at that feral avatar I’ve never felt so helpless or small or alone.