A Million Shades of White  by Swati Daftuar

Competition: Flash Fiction Challenge 2014, 3rd Round

Genre: Open  Location: An iceberg  Object: A lighter

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

I heard the world fall apart. Back then, when my radio still worked and my satellite phone still had life left in it, news seeped in every day. Tucked between the hissing, crackling blanket of static, I caught words I wasnít expecting. While my foolish mind was searching for stories on my daring adventure, I tuned into reports of crumbling countries and dying people. On my 300th day, the voices stopped. On my 365th, the chopper that was supposed to pick me up and deliver me to an adoring public never came.


I didnít stop counting days though, not immediately. Hope clung to me like a needy childó difficult, demanding, wretched. And then, one day, when I was on my 122nd can of baked beans, it just slipped off, slid into the freezing water and disappeared, like it had never existed.


This suited me fine. Hope was exhausting. Back then, I was still fighting and I needed my strength; needed it to fight the cold, which felt like a thousand paper cuts with stings that crept under my skin and stayed there, needed it to fight a hunger which wouldnít quieten with dry, frozen, rationed food, needed it to watch the triumphant iceberg glow like gold in the constant sun.


After all, it had won. My daring adventure, my bid to spend one year on an iceberg, was so laughably arrogant that I cringe when I think of it now. I was going to save the planet, all the way from an iceberg I was convinced would melt after I left it. ďLook at this, look at how we are destroying nature. Remember to save water, electricity, trees!Ē I shouted at the world, my voice drowning out the ticking clock on its last lap.


Today, I look at myself; I feel the firm, frozen ground I sit on. An unyielding night has long since enveloped the North Pole, which is triumphant even in its darkness. It doesnít need light, but I do. I hold up my lighterís flame, so measly, so unnecessary, and I laugh at myself. Nature wasnít dying. We were.


When I first arrived on this iceberg, my dreams were punctuated by fault lines and glaciers, by disease and disaster. I feared the relentless cold and the pain it brought. I feared death. The blank noise that filled the space around me was intimidating, and I missed people. I clung to reminders; to my little TV, my satellite phone with voices I recognised and loved, photographs of the angry, proud family I had left behind. I was human, and I was lonely.


The planet, though, isnít lonely without us. Soon after the end, the blank noise stopped, replaced by strange, unfamiliar sounds the Earth was remembering and reclaiming. Today, the thin air around me throbs with noises it had forgotten. When they first began, I felt embarrassed by them. Had we been that loud? Had we silenced an entire planet so that we could speak?


I can feel the Earth celebrate, rejoicing in its victory. I wonder if it knows that it isnít over, that I still live on this icebergó the last human left in the world.

 
Surprisingly, Iím less lonely than I was when I first arrived. Already, the memories have faded; the echoes of the life I once lived feel ridiculous. I try to summon images of paved streets and the water engulfs them. I try to recall the shape of my home and the dark sky smirks. I know Iím being reclaimed too, swallowed by the very planet I had tried to save.


And I understand. I am almost grateful, really. During my early days on this iceberg, when I could still see the sun, Iíd been weighed down by my own importance. I had only noticed beauty, had forced myself to acknowledge it. I had praised only the sparkling water, the endless white, spotless ice. I was a foreigner, taking in the sites, storing them up for when I returned to my people.
Instead, my world ended, and it left me behind. My people vanished, and all that remained were the dregs of human life I had brought with me; dregs I didnít need, couldnít stomach.


And so, I started discarding them, one by oneó the cans of food, the books, the TV, the phone. I slipped them into the water, watched them slide under the surface quietly, unresistingly. With each loss, I felt a little less human, and it made me laugh. Is this what I was made of? Stuff and objects?


I donít know how long itís been since I offered my first piece to the ocean. I have nothing left now. Nothing, except this lighter I hold so tightly, so protectively. Its flame is weak, and it looks ridiculous, held against a darkness it doesnít even try to fight. I run my finger over it and the sharp heat reminds me of things Iíd rather forget; of the photographs it has burnt and the ice it cannot melt. I can read my name carved on it, still bold, still unnecessary. I know that it is the last human name left, and I know that when the Sun comes up again, it shouldnít be here.


This little flame, and my little life, must end. I am not arrogant anymore. I donít feel the need to protect; to safeguard the memory of the human race. I know, or at least I think, that I was left behind to watch my world die, and to mourn it. As far as lifeís purposes go, I feel like this one will do just fine.

 

When I enter the water, itís not as cold as I thought it might be. In fact, I canít feel a thing. I choose to slip under first. I hold the lighter above the water as it closes in over my head. At least this way, the last thing we leave behind is a little light; small, inconsequential, but nevertheless, light.

 

---

 

 

Swati Daftuar is a journalist, features writer, compulsive reader and tentative writer from India. She likes short stories, big books, most types of cakes and all kinds of dogs.




 


 

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