At the end of this world there is no god but the Reverend’s child.
They crouch with stick figure dolls between the metal crates that are stacked and stacked and stacked in the compound, reaching to high gray heavens. These crates contain all the gifts of the world; they are slowly being loaded into the ship. The rain is coming, the Reverend preaches to a rapt congregation, distilling down the private messages of her visions. In this cavern it does not matter which side of the compound you come from—everyone stands at attention when the Reverend speaks.
Now the child crouches beneath a makeshift pulpit, a ceiling of solemnity and righteousness above them. One doll hits the other. They do not apologize. The rules of play are fickle and sudden and harsh, bending to the whims of the hands that move them. It is the end of the ceremony, and the child is being dragged out from beneath the dusty cobweb roofs of a precious hiding place by the firm hand of their mother. She places them before her and lets the people see her truth — that she is a mother like them. A parent like them. A parent of them.
“I told you to stay out of the dirt,” the Reverend tells her child after, ushering them along in front of her. She calls out a greeting to this person and that; the stainless-steel walls of the compound are a mirror, a trap, a horror.
The child does not answer, stick figures clutched tight in greedy fingers.
“Were you listening this time?” the Reverend asks.
One doll hugs the other. They are forced together by the vise of a chubby hand. “It was good,” the child says.
“It was good,” the Reverend confirms. “I was good. Next time, little one, try and smile.”
In their quarters the child can hear the hammering. Plink plink thud. Plink plink thud. One doll stands watch at the door. On the wall is a painting of a garden. There is a tree in the middle that still knows what green is: it rises to cup the ceiling and there in its hands is a perfect rare orb of red.
The Arc rises up, bit by bit, an animal trapped by the confines of a steel-barbed fence and the armed guards wielding holy guns. It’s for the best, the Reverend repeats, mornings and nights during the sermon. The rain is coming, she says. We will be delivered.
Dead trees wither and wither and wither. Something is coming, coming close, the promise of a deadly flood barely held off by the guards and the steel and the guns. The child watches, thrilled, as the congregants load a long cylinder from a metal crate into the Arc. One of the animals, of course. There’s another, its pair. And another and another and another.
“Come inside,” the Reverend says when she catches the child watching the steady upward rise of the Arc. They are not the only child wandering around but they are the only one whose clothes aren’t torn.
The food the Reverend gives her child is plain and tasteless, but at least it’s food. The little girl who lives on the other side of the compound says there’s no food for them. She’s sickly thin, thin as one of the stick figure dolls. The reverend’s child smuggles her an apple. She shines and shines and shines it. Where did you get this? she asks. Will there be more in heaven?
Plenty more, the Reverend’s child says. Enough, enough for all of us. Right now the world is overrun with people and there are so few apples, but the Reverend has some because she reached up and plucked them out of the sky, and the sky, the child doesn’t say, is a thermally insulated greenhouse fed by automatic sprinkler systems nestled in the secret heart of the compound.
When the child next goes to the other side of the compound, the girl asks for another apple. I just want a taste, she says. She is dirty. The Reverend’s child is clean, their mother insists on that. She scrubs and scrubs and scrubs her child until their skin is raw and prickly while the dolls sit on the edge of the tub and watch.
Haven’t you had a taste? I gave you a whole apple.
Don’t be greedy, the girl says. There’s no more. Her bottom lip sticks out. My brother took it before I got a chance to take a bite.
Don’t be greedy, the girl says, but the Reverend’s child has no more apples. There was only the one, a shiny gift from the Reverend, and her child had given it away.
I’m sorry, the Reverend’s child says. There’s no more. We’ll have to wait till heaven.
The girl’s eyes are hungry and big, like the animals outside the gleaming steel fence. She lives in the shacks made of dead and dying wood instead of in the gleaming metal compound. Her parents and her brother work and work and work to build the Arc. You’re lying, she says.
The child is afraid. They drop their dolls, pick them up, run away. When they uncurl their fists, they realize they have broken the arms of one of the dolls in their tight grip, and there is no repairing this, certainly not, but perhaps everything will be fixed in heaven.
Inside the Arc is shiny and smooth. The reverend’s quarters are big, enough room for a whole village of dolls. “How was it?” she asks, after they’ve walked around the bare room.
The child nods. “It was good,” they say.
“It was good,” the Reverend agrees. “And it is ours.”
The Reverend has such wild black hair, so curly and long, not like the child, whose head has been shaved close. The Reverend has such a big booming voice, so loud and strong, not like the child, who speaks in whispers. The meek child and the loving mother, that is the picture they paint to the compound. It is pretty and false. Wicked and twisted and believable enough that when the child slips away to run outside the people reach out hands to touch them, hoping for a blessing. The Reverend’s child. The Reverend’s child.
When it is time to sleep, the Reverend seats her child on her lap and hugs them close, chin on their tiny pointed shoulder. “What do you want to hear tonight?” she asks.
The child thinks for many long moments, dolls clattering in their hands. “Tell me again about the trees and the apples.”
The trees used to be green, the Reverend explains. There are so many stories about how things used to be, the free sweep of land before the press of bodies became too much. We’ll fix it, the Reverend says. We’ll make it better. We’ll breathe again.
There were trees and they were green, birds and they sang songs, little children whose wide eyes didn’t beg so hard for apples.
Now there are just armless dolls, who click and clatter in childlike hands, unable to hit or shape the world. They break and snap and in the fresh wounds are the whorls of an age untold, an age unfolded, an age reshaped into little stick dolls.
When the Arc is finished the congregation assembles, a polished crowd up front and the grey torn uniforms of workers in the back. The child has been instructed not to play in the dust today, but it’s no matter, there’s no dust left because dust interferes in the delicate specificity of mechanical parts. The child stands in a pristinely pressed white outfit behind their mother. All the faces in the crowd are nothing anymore. Individuality is a sin. The Reverend is preaching about destiny. The child knows it is good.
When she finishes, there are solemnly nodded heads and the crowd is split by the cruel hand of god’s workers, who wear shining guns and part the sea — white on one side and grey on the other. Some will go to heaven. Some will stay, to be moved on the next trip. All the most faithful are to go now. They file into the behemoth, two by two, up and up and up. The child thinks that the flood has come and the fence is not strong enough to keep it in.
The Reverend grabs her child’s hand. They are to board last, the last image of the vanguard. The steel curves of the ship cut through the air. The door hisses shut behind them, just as the guards go down beneath the press of the people from the other side of the compound. These people of the earth are furious and red as apples and the tide of them is barely held back by the fence and more guns. They grapple with both and go down but the Reverend pays them no mind and the door delivers its final damnation, closing firmly on the earth.
The Reverend takes the child to her rooms and straps them into a chair by the window. Beneath them the earth quakes and rumbles and shifts, the fires of hell revved and revved and chained to move the Arc, drawn to the beginning of its great trajectory.
At the end of the world, the only true god, the last vestiges of any semblance of morality, is the Reverend’s child, who struggles ineffectually against their seatbelt. The dolls tangle in their hand. They are too young to know better than this, but they do. “Are you okay?” the Reverend asks.
“There’s a little girl,” the child says. “There’s a little girl and she just wanted an apple. Will she be okay?”
“She’ll be okay,” the Reverend says. “She’ll end up clean as the rest.”
“I’m not clean,” the child says.
“Yes, you are.”
“Because I said so.”
The child doesn’t feel clean. There’s an apple, a little baby one, stuck in the pocket of their loose clothes. “I think she’s clean,” the Reverend’s child says. “I think she’s clean as me. I have her apple.”
The Reverend is distracted, typing away on something. “That’s your apple, my sweet,” she says. “Go ahead and eat it. It’s good.”
The child fishes out the apple and bites into it, but it’s sour and wrong. It is the girl’s apple as much as it is his. The ship grumbles and shifts and rises. It takes off, blurring clouds together until it’s in the Heavens, ready to unload its righteous cargo on the world below. The cylinders drop out of the bottom of the ship, all the animals returned to the earth, to wipe it clean, to make it good.
The ship shudders. The dolls are jolted out of the hands of the child, to smash to the floor. One loses a head. One snaps in two. Outside is lit up by the hazy red glow of the end of the world and the beginning of the next. They’re in the heavens, they’re touching the stars, everything is good and the rains have come. The rains have come.