"And if there's a nuclear war," he says. He's drunk. So is the rest of the band, slumped around the living room at three in the morning, surrounded by a mass of party detritus, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown flickering on the TV set. It's your going away party, and they're the only people who are still here, the rest off to be responsible, get to bed at a decent hour.
You're leaving town because you can't stand Montreal for another winter -- he's still fascinated by snow, but you've never managed to learn to like it. You say you hate the cold because of all those years in Dilmun, how hot it was where you both grew up; he says that's why he loves it. You've been together as long as anybody can remember and sometimes you think you'll never completely understand him.
"We meet up in Wyoming," you say, repeating back the plan and only rolling your eyes a little bit. "Thermopolis." He figures Wyoming's the place in the States least likely to be bombed, because what's in Wyoming, anyway? And Thermopolis, because he likes repeating themes, thinks it'd be a good place for another last stand. You don't remind him that at Thermopylae he was fighting with the fucking Persians.
"What are you guys talking about?" Bowling says, squinting over at you from where he's peeling the label off his beer bottle.
"Apocalypse contingency plans," Adrienne says, rolling her eyes way more than a little. "Zeke's obsessed with them, haven't you noticed?"
"Shut up," Zeke says, throwing a potato chip at her. "How else am I going to find my wife after the Soviet Union bombs the shit out of us?" For a second everyone looks at him. "Yeah, I said it," he says, covering. He's terrible at remembering what year it is when he's drunk. "They did develop time travel technology with their missiles. The CIA's been covering it up for years. The USSR's going to bomb us from 1988."
You try not to smile at him, his black hair shining under the Christmas lights you have taped to the walls of the living room year round, lines of his body relaxed, head propped against the arm of the couch.
Adrienne comes into the kitchen with you to get the next round of beers, standing next to the fridge taking the bottles you hand to her.
"Hey," she says, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "What's Zeke's thing with apocalypses, anyway?"
You pause, a beer bottle cool in each hand. Nobody's actually asked you that before, and suddenly you're remembering the floodwaters rising, the screams coming from outside the boat. You and him clinging to each other, dry inside the pitch-covered walls, the rising water and the terror of the animals and the stomach-churning feeling of the boat leaving dry ground. His mother's voice from outside, drowning.
You shrug at her. For a second you consider telling her you were in a bad flood once, that it kind of messed him up. You could tell her it was Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami in Thailand, some lie that gets across the catastrophe of it. How you emerged from the boat to see the whole countryside wiped clean by flood, an empty plain of dirt, flat and muddy as the roof of a house after a storm, like the split corpse of Tiamat before anything grew from her. How eight thousand years hasn't been enough time for him to get over it. But lies about recent catastrophes tend to invite more questions, and it's late and you're drunk and not really in the mood to talk.
Anyway, if you did tell her that, Zeke would end up inventing some ridiculous story about your daring escape from Thailand or New Orleans, the way he always does about everything, and his stories tend to catch on, get repeated down the years. It's one of the things that annoys you about him, that you need some space from right now, another reason to get out of Montreal for awhile. So instead you say, "Too many zombie movies, I guess."
Back in the living room, you hand Zeke one of the beers and sit on the floor in front of the couch where he's lying, leaning back against it. He puts one familiar brown hand on the back of your neck, warm and lazy, stroking his thumb along your skin as you drink your beer, swigging out of the bottle. Sometimes when no one's around, you and Zeke drink it through straws, remembering sitting around big clay jugs of it in the firelight of the city of Ur, drinking the beer through long hollow reeds. But that's a long time ago now.
He was so annoyed when the Victorians finally translated the Gilgamesh tablets, reading about it at the breakfast table in his waistcoat, eating buttered toast with the newspaper spread out in front of him. "Great Scott, the Babylonian Noah," he snorted, refolding the paper irritably, newsprint on his hands. "They ought to be calling Noah the Hebrew Uta-napishtim."
"What does it matter?" you'd replied. "That's not your name either."
He grimaced at you. "It's closer," he said. "I imagine, at any rate."
The truth is that neither of you can remember your real names. You spent too long at the ends of the earth, just you and him, long enough without other people to refer to that your names slithered out of your heads. Why would you remember his name? You never needed it during those long years of I-and-thou; with no one else around, you never called him anything but "you."
You got so used to the two of you making up the whole world that it was a surprise when you left Dilmun and went back to Shuruppak to find the date palms regrown, the cucumbers and lentils in their gardens and the rivers in their courses, the mud-brick houses the same as they had ever been, children shouting in the streets like there had been no flood. They were saying words a little differently, their accents odd, but you could still understand them, and it was strange to hear those words in voices other than his. You'd forgotten what other voices sounded like.
And you were surprised to find out that they still remembered the Deluge, that there were still stories about what happened. Then you thought maybe your names would be there, preserved for both of you all these years, but the stories called him Life-of-Distant-Days (Ziusudra) and Exceedingly-Wise (Atrahasis) and Life-Finder (Uta-napishtim), titles people give an immortal legend, not names for an actual man, and if they speak of you at all they call you Wife.
Zeke takes you to the bus station in the morning, while the band's still mostly passed out around your living room. "You sure you really want to leave?" he says, pulling up outside the Greyhound terminal. "We're about to work on a new album. You can play xylophone."
"Gee, thanks," you say, trying not to sound as dry as you feel. He writes the songs, mostly; you're too distracted with other things to care. That's how it always is, though -- he's in charge of the narrative, while you get on with what actually matters. "But I need a winter away."
There's a homeless guy out in front of the station, wrapped in a ragged coat with a knit hat pulled low over his dirty hair, shopping cart full of cans next to him. It's making you nervous; you're watching him out of the corner of your eye.
Zeke shrugs next to you. "Well, I'll miss you," he says.
"Yeah, you too, Zee," you say. Zee, for Ziusudra. It's mostly what you call him in private; luckily right now if you accidentally call him that in front of other people nobody tends to notice. He's gone by a lot of names: Noah, sometimes, when he thinks it's funny and can get away with it. Nicholas, for a couple centuries. Al-khadr, Saint-Germain, a thousand other names you haven't bothered to remember. "It's not for long anyway," you say.
What's a winter here or there, a century here or there? Once he took ten years coming back from a war and you barely noticed, though that's not the way he tells it. He tells it with shipwrecks and his crew turned to pigs and fighting a cyclops, and you pining away at home, and you tell him that the last one is the least plausible of them all. "Well, at least the dog missed me," he always says in reply, trying not to smile, and you will give him that.
"Yeah," Zeke says. "And if there's any kind of catastrophe --"
"Wyoming," you say, cutting him off before he can get going. "There's not going to be, though. Remember, God sent a rainbow to promise that there'd never be another flood?"
This is a conversation you've had too many times to count, and Zeke rolls his eyes and says his part right on cue. "Yeah, Yahweh told Noah that," he says. "Enlil didn't promise me shit."
You laugh, just like you're supposed to, comfort in the ritual of it. "No wonder everybody defected to Yahweh," you say.
Zeke laughs too, then says, "Send me your address when you get one?" You nod and lean in to kiss him goodbye.
Out of the corner of your eye, you can see the homeless guy abruptly sit up straight and stare at the two of you with his eyes wide. Oh crap. Zeke follows your look and goes very still. "Shit," he mutters. "Go quick."
You scramble out of the car and try to hurry inside, knapsack bouncing against your back, but the homeless guy has started screaming, a high-pitched, terrified wail, pointing at the two of you. Fuck, fuck, this always happens. Behind you, Zeke throws the car into gear and screeches away, and you slam through the doors of the building, trying to act like nothing's wrong. The screams are muffled when the door shuts behind you, but still audible for a long time after you've bought your ticket south. You huddle in one of the plastic seats and try to tune it out.
You don't know exactly what you look like to schizophrenics, or to anyone who's come a little disconnected from the stream of reality. You just know whatever it is scares them, even though when you look in the mirror all you can see is an ordinary human being, a woman unremarkable in any way.
But you're tied to the stream of reality more strongly than anyone in some ways, though you'd think immortality would make you more supernatural, not less. It just seems like somehow you're bound up with the earth in ways they're not; everyone else eventually lies down and leaves it, goes somewhere you can't follow, but you and Zee and the cosmos continue on, year after year.
Though just once you came a little disconnected from reality yourself, at least for a few minutes. After the flood you saw the gods come down, all too bright to look at except from the corner of your eye. They were shaped like humans with streams of water or weapons coming out of their shoulders, their heads layered with horns, strange monsters accompanying them, and you wanted to scream and never stop screaming, the terrifying radiance of them too much for your senses to hold.
They were the ones who did this to you, whatever it is. Made you like one of them, they said, except all that seems to mean is that you never die; you're not stronger or faster or smarter than you were before. You wonder if never dying is all that made them gods, if that's what lasted after they stopped being worshiped, and if so, where they are now. It's been thousands of years since anyone but you two remembered Enki and Enlil and Inanna and the rest, but if you're still alive, they must be too, right? Maybe they're wandering the world like you are -- sometimes you wish you could find out, that you could get them to explain your lives to you, but any prayers you bother to make go unanswered.
That's not very surprising, though -- Zee's the only one they ever really talked to, anyway.
You get postcards in the mail from Zee pretty regularly, every couple of days. He addresses them to "Ash," which he thinks is hilarious and you do not. Ash, for ashatum, "wife." Funny stuff. You give the postcards the finger, wishing he could see you, and keep the ones with pictures you like, taping them up to the walls of your shitty apartment in Austin.
After you've been there for a month, he starts mailing you cassette tapes of the band's new songs, crackling lo-fi recordings. You text him that he should look into this brand-new technology called the mp3, old man. He texts back to tell you to shut up and ask you what you think of the songs. You tell him they're a little twee. He asks if you're still watching snuff films.
You keep trying to freeze the frame exactly on the moment of death, is the thing -- you'd thought that with DVDs this would be easier, and it is, but you still can't see it, can't see death coming for them. You know it's stupid to expect that there'd be something visible, like it would make a change in the film, like something mystical is happening instead of their bodies just stopping functioning, but you've gotten obsessive about it, somehow convinced deep down that one of these times, on just the right movie, there'll be some indication, some marker that death is there. That when you see it, finally, it'll be like looking down into the depths of existence, the universe's last mystery finally resolved for good.
For a long time it seemed so strange that you couldn't die, but now it seems strange that they can, that every day people just close their eyes in a hospital bed or take a bullet or walk in front of a bus and somehow leave their bodies for parts unknown. Early on, you and he used to test out your undyingness -- jump off cliffs together and then get up at the bottom and walk away. Bungee jumping for immortals, he started calling it after bungee jumping got invented, and tried to talk you into going again, but you'd gotten tired of that in the fourth year of Nebuchadnezzar and didn't have too much of a desire to revisit it in the 1990s of the Christian Era. Two thousand years after someone supposedly died and rose again -- now that guy you'd like to talk to. Maybe he could explain everything to you, what death feels like, where they all go, the final mystery.
For awhile Zee kept joining armies, going on the battlefield to find that spears mysteriously missed him, that he could walk through a hail of arrows and never get hit. You tended the sick during the Black Death, the bodies piling up around you, never getting so much as a sniffle yourself. You studied death from every angle, and the more you studied it the less you understood it.
You and Zee spent some time with the alchemists, calling yourselves Nicholas and Perenelle. Zee told everyone you'd found the Philosopher's Stone, and that was the longest you were ever able to stay in one place, the only time always looking the same age didn't seem suspicious. Pretending you'd found the elixir of life even though what you were really trying to understand wasn't life but death.
Alchemy was about transmutation, one thing turning into something else. You spent time meditating, focusing on spiritual transformation; you spent years working with the seven ancient metals, mixing and purifying, breaking silver and gold apart with salt, burning off the dross, but it was all a waste of time in the end. One thing doesn't turn into something else. You should know. Here you are, eight thousand years old and you're still one clearly defined thing, as elemental as quicksilver, and you can't turn from life to death any more than lead can turn into gold.
You've lived in the world for as long as humans have, and you've never run out of things to do -- if you get bored there's always something new. Start a trade in tin when everyone needs it for bronze, sail a caravel, run a printing press, fly an aeroplane; learn guitar, start a band, solder together some amps and tour the country in a van. All of human history and you'd never been a musician before; it was Zee's idea, him a natural performer, but you like it way more than you were expecting, the charge of it, the energy. It turns out that in Austin you miss it, so you find a couple of girls who play bass and drums, start a girl band, write your own lyrics. Zee's band is a million times more popular, but that doesn't surprise you. If there's one thing eight thousand years has taught you, it's that your stories don't set the narrative. You were born to be the object of songs, not the subject.
Zee sends you a postcard that says, "I'm having dreams again." His handwriting looks panicky, scrawled across the whole back of the card, and you flip it over to see if there's more to it, if he's somehow written on the picture too, but that's all it says. The image is of Niagara Falls on a cloudy day, the enormity of the gray churning water suddenly sinister with that message on the back. He had a dream before the flood, the first time.
You call him immediately -- the first three calls go straight to voicemail, but the fourth time he picks up. "Yeah," he says. He sounds shaky and you can tell from his voice that he hasn't been sleeping. You can picture him on the other end with his hair sticking up from how he's been running his fingers through it, the way he always does when he's stressed.
"What did you dream?" you say.
There's a pause. After a second he gives a shuddery sigh. "It's the same kind as before," he says. "Um. Muddled. I don't know. It just -- it feels the same."
Your grip on the phone tightens and you try to breathe. "What do we need to build? Another boat?"
You want to know if it's a flood, a fire, what to prepare for, but he says, "Nothing." You can hear him breathing fast and shallow. "They didn't tell me to do anything."
"What does that mean?" you say. You're tense all over, the tight muscles of your shoulders starting to ache.
"I don't know," he says. He sounds as terrified as you feel. "I really don't know."
Zee hasn't dreamed like this since the flood -- he didn't dream before the earthquake in Haiti, before any hurricane or tidal wave or forest fire or anything local, anything just affecting one city or one country. Dreaming means this is big; dreaming means everything set back to zero.
After you hang up, you can't help wondering if maybe this time, you're not supposed to build anything because you're not supposed to survive. You've wondered how long your extended lives could go on -- someday, after all, the sun will go supernova, and then what? You and Zee, together, floating through outer space, holding hands in the void till the heat death of the universe?
So maybe this is it. Maybe the gods are just letting you know so you can put your affairs in order, get ready for the inevitable end. All these years following death around, fascinated by and half longing for it, but the idea of its impending arrival still terrifies you.
You dream that bombs hit right over your apartment building, so the flash and the boom are almost simultaneous, so the building collapses around you. In the dream, every other living human is vaporized, flesh and organs turned to steam, only their bones left behind, and you're in the middle of it, perfectly fine amid the rubble, surrounded by empty twisted skeletons.
Then ashes come from the dream-sky in thick white flakes, settling over the debris and the bones and your own body, catching in your eyelashes, your hair. They look like snow, but radiate heat, a miserable, hellish snow, burying everything. You dream the bombs hit and you don't die, that you sit there in the rubble instead, blinking ash out of your eyes and shuddering and left behind once again, the world wiped clean with only you and Zee left. You dream about getting up and walking through a landscape of ashes, walking to Wyoming with only rubble on either side of the empty highways.
You wake up scared of dying and scared of not dying, and on the news, international relations are deteriorating sharply.
It starts on a Tuesday afternoon. The west coast gets hit first, LA and Seattle, and then the missiles start hitting New York and Washington. Austin's a lower priority, but you know it's coming, glued to the television, everyone terrified, the news full of mushroom clouds and devastation.
It goes on for hours, the waiting stretching out, dread deep in your stomach, the whole town silent and anxious as no missiles hit. Then outside as the sun's going down there's the roaring engine of something coming your way, and for a second you can't even believe you're really hearing it, think that you must be imagining it after the whole tense day. But it gets closer, the roaring of the missile louder, and this is it, floodwaters rising. You don't know if you'll live or die, and this is the first time in eight thousand years that you legitimately haven't known that. You don't even know which you're hoping for.
You take a deep breath and wait for the blast.