POETRY: The End Of The World by Scott Cairns

The End Of The World by Scott Cairns

The end of the world occurs with the first thaw. Waking from his first
restful night in many months—a night without shivering, without cramp-
ing muscles—the last man lifts his head from the straw, hears snow-melt
trickling, sees morning light through the window’s ice, smells the scent of
earth, lies back, and dies because he cannot bear to go through it all again.

But that is a very limited view of the event. The end was more than the
final exhaustion of the last man. Actually, some of the most interesting
events of human history occurred just prior to this last gesture, which is
not surprising if you take into account the fact that, in the last years of
human experience, irony flourished.

The last man was a Jew, a fact that he ignored for many years—most of
his life, really. But as years passed and he came to realize his status as last
man, the fact of his Jewishness became an insider’s joke. The first time he
laughed in his adult life was related to his Jewishness; he was picking rust
from a can of peaches when he remembered Torah, the covenant.

But, as you might suspect, there were many years when the last man was
not alone, was not, in simple words, the last man, not yet. Twenty years
before the end of the world, the last man was married to one of the last
women; they even had a son together and for several months entertained
hopes of survival. Later, they parted, mostly out of bewilderment.

If you must know, the last man thought he was the last man some time
before he actually was. Many miles away, the second-to-last man lived
quietly in a shopping mall. He cut his foot on something in the hardware
store and died of tetanus. All told, there were about two years when the
last man was mistaken, but that had no effect upon perceptions concerning
his lastness.

The last man was the last for about five years and three months, though
you could argue he was last for seven years and three months, depending.
Anyway, one of the more curious outcomes was that he forgot his name.
There is no reliable method for determining when, exactly, he forgot his
name; by the time he realized he had forgotten his name he’d also forgot-
ten when he last knew it.

Even so, it is safe to say that he was without a name for the better part of
his last year. This was the beginning of an astonishing freedom. The last
man had always enjoyed books; that was fortunate. Following the loss of
his name, and having acquiesced to lastness, the last man became the first
reader. He shrugged off identity and became multiple, embracing all.

He became the author of many great works, indestructible works. The
loss of his name was the beginning of this translation, and the loss of his
name brought about the loss of many other limitations. He looked up
from his canned peaches, looked around, saw the end of the world, and
felt pretty relaxed.

As an agnostic, the last man had seldom prayed. But as his final days
diminished, he began to address God. He also prayed to answer, to
respond to his own petitions. As God of the last man, he was compelled
to deny every request—the plea for companionship, for understanding,
for true wisdom, for a pure heart. He denied the last man everything, but
always with good reason.

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