The End of the World

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It is ten o’clock in the morning on a cool Saturday in June. The sunshine is yellow and the air smells like cut grass and flowers. It is the most beautiful morning of the summer. It is the morning of the end of the world.
Nobody knows for sure why or how the world is going to end. But they know when. It will happen at three o’clock this afternoon. Since last night the places of worship have been overflowing with people, the devout and the agnostic, the orthodox and the atheist. They kneel in the grass and the parking lots because there is not even standing room inside the buildings.
Others, those with families, have stayed home. The youngest children do not understand, and their parents try to go about ordinary business. But all the children know there is something wrong: their fathers are grim and their mothers cry in the closets and hug them too tight. Outside, people crazed with panic sprint down the streets in an effort to escape the inescapable.
In one little house, an old man awakes. He puts on his slippers and pours himself a cup of coffee. Then he sits down at his kitchen table and looks out at the rose bushes that his wife planted before she died. He remembers how she’d go outside and water them first thing every day. She’d get down on her knees in the rich warm earth; tap the tender pink buds with gentle fingers. He sighs and picks up her old watering can, its handle worn smooth. Then he steps outside and waters the roses himself.
The old man knows that today is the end of the world, but he does not show it. Just as he has done every morning since his wife died, he makes himself the breakfast they used to share: scrambled eggs and toast and orange juice. He washes and dresses and picks up the old leather-bound book of poetry she gave him many years ago. Then he goes outside and walks for almost an hour in the warming summer afternoon. When he reaches his destination, it is already two o’clock.
His destination is an oak tree which stands in a field at the edge of town. He seats himself slowly in its shade, stopping as he squats down to find the place where his initials are carved in the bark. Hers are there too, and a clumsily rendered heart. The old man traces it with his fingers and then sets his back to the tree and opens the book on his knees. Inside the front cover is her loopy script: “To Rick, with love from Annie.” The old man examines the curve of each letter as if he had never seen it before, as if he had not sat beneath this tree and read those words a thousand times since she died.
He turns the page and begins to read. He reads Thoreau and Longfellow and Wordsworth. He mouths the words, feeling the rhythm of them, tasting them almost as he used to taste them years ago when he read them to her under this tree. He reads and reads and reads. The last hour before the end ticks by.
At two-fifty, he comes upon his favorite poem. “Whose woods these are,” he whispers, “I think I know.” Suddenly the earth beneath him gives a great heave and the tree begins to shake. A vicious wind rips through the stillness. The sky darkens, but there is still enough light to see the words. “His house is in the village, though,” the old man murmurs. “He will not see me stopping here—“ there is a growl of thunder and the sun is red against the darkness. It is two fifty-nine. “To watch his woods fill up with snow. Annie, Annie,” he calls softly, weeping, as the sky explodes in white.
***
The little girl puts down the snow globe she has been shaking and watches the white particles settle on the figures inside. She has always liked this snow globe best of her whole collection. There is something beautiful and sad about the little old man with his back against the tree and a book in his hand, whiteness swirling all about him. She gazes at him for an instant more and then turns and skips outside, into the sunshine of a new day.





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