The cabdriver Fernando had traded his family’s basement apartment for a full tank of gas and three five-gallon containers of reserve. Carson packed into the cab with Fernando’s wife, daughter, two young sons, and 85-year-old mother.
Leaving the city, they passed throngs of others on foot, rolling suitcases, pushing shopping carts, pulling wagons. The few cars that moved through the streets were crammed with people.
What if the end times allowed people to see and build the world anew? This is the landscape that Kimi Eisele creates in her surprising and original debut novel. Evoking the spirit of such monumental love stories as Cold Mountain and the creative vision of novels like Station Eleven, The Lightest Object in the Universe imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down. It is a moving and hopeful story about resilience and adaptation and a testament to the power of community, where our best traits, born of necessity, can begin to emerge.
The highway was littered with abandoned vehicles, stripped of doors, hoods, motors, mirrors, bumpers, and tires. “Los bandidos,” Fernando said, and Carson remembered Ayo’s warnings. Under the pretense of needing help, these bandits would flag down cars, hold a gun to the driver’s head, and steal the car and everything in it. Fernando didn’t stop for anyone, and they drove all day, out of the city and along the interstate to Fernando’s cousin’s farm.
It took them half a day to travel 150 miles. By the end of the trip, Carson had learned to sing “Las Mañanitas,” the Mexican birthday song, and to say “Erongarícuaro” three times fast. Erongarícuaro was a town at the edge of a lake in Michoacán that Fernando had left behind 30 years earlier when he’d come to the United States. Carson wondered if Beatrix had ever been there.
Fernando invited him to stay on at the farm, said they could use another hand and a teacher, too. Carson considered it, grateful. But he wanted to stay in the river of momentum.
Alone now, Carson stood at railroad tracks, which reached west into an apparent infinity. The morning grass in Pennsylvania was damp, and buds appeared on the expectant branches of maple, birch, and oak trees. Even with the trees, the sky above looked wider without skyscrapers.
He looped his wrists through the straps of his pack and lifted it a few feet off the ground, testing its weight. Easily 60 pounds. He’d been an avid backpacker in his 20s, and back then the push of the pack against his body gave him a strange comfort and a sense of freedom. It had always signaled his entrance into the wild, where all priorities reordered themselves. That was before the job and the farmhouse upstate took up all his time, back when he’d believed in John Muir’s adage that the hope of the world lay in wilderness. Maybe it still did. He patted his pocket to feel the map from Ayo, and then hoisted the pack onto his back and stepped onto the tracks.
By early afternoon, he arrived at a tunnel. Likely no passenger train had passed through in more than a year, after the government ended subsidies to Amtrak and all the commuter services—part of its futile attempt to right the economy. His crossing would be safe. Nonetheless, he found himself trembling. Carson took a few steps into the darkness and smelled something stronger than the decomposition of rotting leaves. The noises were amplified, too—dripping water, wind at either end.
He focused on the ground, trying to keep his eyes on the railway ties, as the light from his headlamp bounced off small puddles and bits of broken glass. Every few feet, he glanced over his shoulder. Soon, the tracks curved and the tunnel opening behind him disappeared. He was completely inside the earth, rock wall on all sides. His headlamp created microshadows on the textured surfaces, and in places, water seeped down and made the walls shine. He heard a loud splash, like a large rock falling into a stream. He clicked off his light and stood in the pitch-blackness, holding his breath to listen. Nothing but the thin trickle of water. His mind went to Ayo’s stories of bandits. He turned on the light again, shining it in all directions onto nothing. Maybe he had imagined the sound.
When the opening at other side of the tunnel appeared—a white circle of light—he began to run, slipping on the ties but managing to stay on his feet. A small group of travelers was silhouetted against the daylight. He stepped out of the tunnel, debating whether to make himself known.
He remembered Ayo’s advice: Read people’s eyes. Notice their movements. Avoid the skittish ones. Carson questioned whether or not he possessed these special skills, unless reading teenagers for the past 15 years qualified as any kind of training. He heard Ayo’s laugh in his mind.
“Hello,” he called out, catching his breath. There were four adults and a young girl. The men wore overcoats, and the women and the girl, skirts down to their ankles.
A hefty man with a dark beard and weathered skin stepped forward.
“Where are you headed?” Carson asked.
“Not much farther and we’ll bed down,” the man said. “Been walking about a few weeks, all said.”
“Where to?” Carson asked again, noting an accent. Canadian?
“We follow God,” the man said. “We look for signs.”
Cult Christians, Carson realized. He had heard about them, their renouncement of the cities, the amassing congregations in the heartland. “Signs?”
“They’re everywhere if you know how to look,” the man said, pronouncing the word “look” as “Luke.” “There’s one now.” He pointed upward, to the west, toward a stand of hemlocks down the tracks.
“The trees?” Carson asked.
“The cloud,” the man said. Sure enough, sitting low in the sky was a large downy cloud. “Just have to know what you’re lookin’ for,” the man said again. “Well then, be good to you.” He tipped his hat and retreated to the group.
Carson nodded, relieved but confused. Wouldn’t they want to tell him about God? Invite him to follow God, too? He turned toward the cloud and started walking, feeling strangely snubbed.
Moments later, the little girl came running. With her ashen pallor, she reminded Carson of a Dust Bowl photograph. But then there was the plastic bag dangling from her hand. “Mister,” she said. “For you.”
The girl’s hair seemed to glow, halolike, around her forehead.
“Sandwich?” she asked, holding out the plastic bag. “Cabbage and onion.”
Carson hesitated, then took the sandwich. “Thank you very much.”
“My dad also said to warn you about the demons.”
“Ah, yes, the demons,” he said. “I know them well.”
“You do?” she said. “That’s why we’re going to the Center.”
One of the men hollered out for her. She made a quick smile and ran back to the group.
“The Center?” Carson called after her. The group nodded in unison. Carson held up the sandwich. “Thank you.”
At dusk, Carson stopped walking and dropped his pack. The night was clear and cold, and already the first stars had appeared. He stood in a clearing, the damp grass and weeds up to his ankles. Exhausted, his body chilled quickly in the stillness. From a nearby stand of pine, he gathered needles, twigs, and thick branches. He set a match to the kindling, and the sparks made tiny mesmerizing fireworks. He added more wood and warmed his hands. He felt like the last man on Earth.
His shoulders ached, and a blister had formed on the bottom of his heel. He’d made it through his first day. No ambush. No weapons. No compound fracture. No fall from a cliff. No dangling by a hand. Lucky. He listened to the hiss of flame and the silence beyond it. The problem with fire was that it made the darkness darker. If anyone else was out there, they could see him, but he was blind beyond the fire line. A part of him wished someone friendly would emerge from the darkness, someone in the know, with smart words to offer. Someone like Ayo.
He opened a can of beans and ate them cold. Soon, he’d be foraging. Mice and squirrels. Berries and weeds. Dumpsters.
You know things, he used to tell his students. Use what you know. The resources are inside of you.
Where were his students now? Had they fled the city, too? Were they holed up in the suburbs? Did they know enough? He felt a twinge of guilt. He’d given them books to read. He’d made them think about cause and effect, how one event leads to another, how the course of history could be swayed by a single person or a collective theory. He’d honed their critical thinking skills. He’d made them explain themselves, articulate their ideas. They had learned about the rise and fall of so many other civilizations: Sumer, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Chaco Canyon, Tikal, Greece, Rome, Spain, Germany. But not their own. How could he have prepared them for this?
He scraped the last of the beans from the can and wished for more salt.
The morning brought dampness and more aches. Carson didn’t want to move. He opened his eyes as a large crow flew overhead. The birds were so fortunate. They could see the sprawl and order of cities. They could take in a long strand of coastline, the blur of white waves crashing. They could drift over the green-gold quilt of farmland. If only he could have that view of the landscape, a more coherent geography, to see clearly where he was going, where he had been.
A crow landed a few feet away, its blue-black feathers shiny like metal. Behind the house where he and June had lived, he used to watch the crows as they flocked to the fields to scavenge for seeds and insects. They’d gather there, a jittery oil slick.
A shadow passed now, and another crow arrived. The two birds stood in the grass pecking, moving with purposeful and sturdy hops. Watching them, Carson had a momentary sense that nothing of any significance had taken place. The world was exactly as it had always been. Earth circled the sun, bringing darkness and light to its surface. Crows searched for breakfast in open fields, devouring grain and insects in the natural order of the food chain. A man could wake up at dawn after sleeping in a field and be covered with dew. As always.
He thought again of John Muir, how he returned home from his wanderings to a wife and child. Carson wanted to go home to that. He wanted to roll over and put his arm around Beatrix.
B., I am like a crow looking for the shortest route. I survived day one. I am green and damp. Even my bones have emotions. I hope I have not made a mistake.
Kimi Eisele is a writer and multidisciplinary artist. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Orion, HighCountryNews, and elsewhere. She holds a master’s degree in geography from the University of Arizona, where in 1998 she founded You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She has received grants from the Arts Foundation of Southern Arizona, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Tucson and works for the Southwest Folklife Alliance. The Lightest Object in the Universe is her first novel.