The New World
By Dennis Tafoya
Illustration by Maarten Wydooghe
There are about six of them hiding under the wreckage of a building that might have been a church, and she’s trying to tell them about the dreams. She’s not making any sense and anyway they’re all exhausted and terrified and some of them are hurt. A little girl wriggles in through a small gap between the collapsed roof and the ground and when an older woman brushes the dust off the little girl, Dora can see she’s wearing a green backpack. On the back it sports a face, a red face with yellow and green eyes and a blue button nose, and Dora remembers it, vaguely; it’s from a children’s book her nieces loved. She begins to say it, the very hungry caterpillar, but when the woman helps the child squirm free of the pack the two antennae flex as if it were alive and Dora starts to scream. A man in the uniform of a bus driver has to hold his hand over her mouth. Up close she can smell the man and he smells like ash and sewage and sweat and his coat is streaked with something foul.
Dora feels something digging into her ribs and has to shift her position to move off the hard object, which is a sign that reads, “Please turn off cell phones,” and there is a diagram of the church that has collapsed into the rubble where they’re now hiding. Periodically there’s a rushing, rumbling sound and dust pours through the holes in their shelter and the bus driver says, there goes another one, meaning another building coming down.
The little girl asks, “What are they?” but no one knows what to say except Dora, and they’re all pointedly ignoring her because of the screaming, even though she’s quiet now. She looks at the diagram with its antique terms — Nave, Sacristy, Apse, Chancel — and remembers when she had visited Seville during her semester abroad and the Cathedral where Christopher Columbus was buried. The guide told the group about the 15th century diocesan bishops who drew up the plans, who said we shall have a church so great and of such a kind that those who see it built will think we were mad.
Later the nice woman who helped the little girl is sitting next to Dora. Somebody had gone out and found water bottles, so the woman wets a bit of rag (Dora can see it’s a piece of a blue jacket and retains two brass buttons) and cleans Dora’s face gently, smiling, or trying to, but her eyes are wet and her lips tremble. Now that she’s sitting close, Dora can see she’s not old, really, it’s just the dust coating them all has made her appear decrepit, dirt caught in every fold so they are exaggerated, like wrinkles on kids trying to make themselves look older for a high school play. When the woman dumps a bottle of water over her head the gray streams out of her hair and leaves streaks on her white cheeks so that to Dora she looks like a stone angel in a cemetery.
Mrs. Carlucci had lived in the next apartment down the hall, but she got sick and her kids moved her out. She had lived in 4A and Dora was in 4C. There was no 4B, though she and Peter used to joke about an apparitional room, so that 4B became their shorthand for any remote place, the home of lost socks and misplaced keys. Dora was there the day Mrs. Carlucci left and helped her family carry boxes down to the car and she got a good look at the apartment, which was smaller than hers but very nice, with a better view of the city and the river. She even thought of asking about changing places, moving her stuff in and getting the change of scenery and the fireplace but the very next day the new tenant was in place and she missed her chance. She saw him from a distance, turned away from her, a small man cocooned in an oversize coat. She barely caught his profile but came away with the impression that he was dark, Mediterranean or maybe Asian, not Chinese or Japanese but something else. She thought of the designation she’d seen on census forms, ‘Pacific Islander,’ and wondered if people from Pacific islands thought of themselves that way or only with the very specific identity of whatever island they were actually from.
For a few minutes there were some battered crates propping the door of 4A open, a wooden and metal machine that looked like one of those old projection TVs, something her father had in the den at home. Then the door was closed and the hallway was empty. She came home from work and saw him in the hall that once, but never spoke to him. How close did she ever get to him? Not very, catching him as he disappeared around corners or watching him cross the street toward the river from her window. The coat, a hat, dark complexion. Glasses? Yes, maybe. And that first night (as she remembered it) the dreams started.
In the first dream, Dora is standing back in the shadows under dark mangroves looking out at white sand and that blue sea you only get in the islands. A pale blue tinged with green, clear and still so that you can see things gliding in the water, giant shapes that might be turtles or rays. She’s not alone, there are other people hiding around her in the heat, people like her, and they’re all intent on a three-masted galleon anchored beyond the desultory breakers. They watch, muttering to each other, whispering in the crude language of fears and wants that is the language of her people. A small boat is making its way to the shore, oars moving in a broken rhythm that reminds her of something scuttling, and she gets a glimpse of the blue steel helmet of a conquistador catching the sun like the carapace of a beetle, and she wakes up.
She thought she knew what it was about; it wasn’t mysterious. She was months late in picking her dissertation topic and the guilt pricked at the back of her neck all day and kept her awake at night. So it was no great stretch to think of a PhD candidate, trying and failing for months to come up with some new angle on the clash of civilizations now having nightmares about exactly that. Her brain, unfocused, was picking things up and dropping them all day long. Her intellect betraying her at the moment of her greatest need, failing to grasp firmly the right straw and hold on, come up with something, anything that will hold her interest for the months of research ahead.
Her life was falling apart, and that was to be expected, too. Peter had finally moved out, off to an internship in San Diego, but (they both knew) he wouldn’t be back. It was the time in their lives when they had to start committing: to jobs, to people, to living in one place and thinking about next steps. Student life was losing its appeal, the feeling that she was pitching a tent instead of inhabiting a space. Dora had become aware that she was the oldest hostess at the diner down on Second Street. Now that the apartment was hers alone it felt strange, the scale of things off, the gaps where Peter’s furniture had been throwing off the geometry of the rooms. He had left two framed butterflies, a blue Ulysses and a Common Leopard that she’d loved when he first hung them, but that now looked to her like dead bugs under dusty glass.
She spent her days reading about the 16th century Americas, the encomenderos and caciques, the enslavement of millions as the Spanish and Portuguese flailed at the Taino and Maya and Aztec, driving them into the fields and mines. She saw that it all turned on the words, the definitions of humanity and legality and the interpretation of God’s will in the world. Gentle De Las Casas, preaching against the tyranny and cruelty of colonialism was no match for Juan Sepúlvedas and Diego De Landa braying about idolatry and greasing the wheels of torture at the auto-da-fé. And the news every night, so full of torture and ongoing exploitation just remote enough to seem unreal? She saw it all flowing out of the causes for just war ordered up by the children of Ysabella as plain as if a map had been drawn, a diagram laying out how the centuries would go. From God to the civilized man to the lesser, darker men who crouched in the fields and hid in the dripping forest. Could she write that? Was there a way to make that new?
The next night a sound woke her, something that ended as she came into consciousness. She had the impression of a kind of electrical snap and a flash of light and when she sat up she swore she could smell something like scorched metal, the kind of deep pungent tang that was more taste than odor, as if she’d had a hot electrode on her tongue. The room was silent, the building quiet except for its usual ticks and raps, the city beyond mostly asleep. It had taken her a year to get used to the night noises of the city, the cars, the midnight drunks, the sirens, but now she was so used to a constant hum that she found it difficult to sleep when she spent the night at her parents in Mays Landing. She heard voices, muted, coming from 4A, the new tenant. The TV, from the sound of it, the lower registers distorted into a kind of buzz. She dreamed of a hive at the edge of a golden field, a drone like music, low chords tuning and detuning.
Dora tells the beautiful lady with the streaked face that she remembers she went to work, she came home. She made notes, spent hours on the internet. She knows there were the regular things of life, but it was her dreams, vivid and strange and seeming to go on hour after hour that stood out for her. Now, huddled under the dead and burning city, she knows how it must sound, that she’s just been driven insane by the things she’d seen, but she needs to tell someone before their crumbling shelter collapses or the things on the street break in.
She dreamed of a line of men with wings and horns emerging from a hole in a stone wall, of ships burning at night, bits of sail carried on the hot updrafts and then dropping into the sea with a hiss. She dreamed of the hives, of a vast blackness and distant, unfamiliar stars. She woke to see the wall of her apartment glowing slightly, a glow that faded from green to black as if something had been projected there, on the common wall with 4A. She began to stop at the door whenever she passed, her head bowed and ears alert. She heard voices, the TV again, something too low to be picked out.
A few weeks after the dreams started Dora woke to find a line of ants moving across the linoleum toward the kitchen. Queasy, irritated, she found an ancient can of bug spray and saturated the trail of dark specs where it crossed onto the matted carpet and along the wall with 4A. The ants scattered and writhed, small brown dots quivering. She wadded up a comically large ball of paper towels and tried to dab the lifeless bodies from the floor and then threw the ball of towels away. She repeated this several times, wasting most of a roll of paper towels, and then cinched the plastic bag and ran it down to the trash chute.
The ants returned, and not just ants. She bought more spray, something harsh that burned the tissues in her nose. When she squatted, rocking on her thin haunches to look closely at the insects, they were nothing she recognized, with multiple segments as if they were assembled from many bodies fused together. Green and red and brown bodies and dots of yellow and white. She called the building superintendent, who promised to have an exterminator come.
The voices from the TV, the dreams, the reclusive tenant, it all meant something, it was all tied together, she knows now. She felt the dreams weren’t in her head, or not just in her head, but had been thrown, somehow, projected like shadows and light on a wall. Now in the shelter there’s a shuddering march, an echoing pulse that grows louder and louder until it’s a physical force that resonates in her limbs and chest and shakes dust and bits of wood and plaster onto their heads, the deafening, crushing sound of something gigantic moving through the smashed and burning blocks overhead.
Now a massive foot strikes the pavement outside the hole where they cower and they all make a sound, something more moan than scream, and Dora watches as the foot lifts, a translucent crimson thing the thickness of a tree trunk that ends in a glistening black spike that leaves a perfect, terrible hole that goes down and down. The spiked foot passes out of sight as it lifts, up and up and up, the body it serves far above them in the smoke that blankets everything, the block, the city, the river beyond. She wants to tell them that this isn’t the most terrible part, that the real horror will come not as siege and war but when the things on the street try to coax them from their holes and lead them to the new churches they’ll build over the dust and crushed stone of the old cities.
As the next leg appears (the very hungry caterpillar) she tries to tell them the end, the thing that woke her up on the last night, the last dream that wasn’t a dream. The wall of her room that wasn’t a wall anymore but a thin screen of light, and as the roof shifts and falls she tries to tell them that it wasn’t just the many-legged thing that made her scream as it climbed through from the world beyond 4B, but what she could see over the creature’s red shoulder: The small figures in helmets and behind them the smaller ones in robes who brandished not weapons but the crosier and scepter. The ones who would throw them screaming into the pyres, clicking and hissing to summon their teeming, chittering angels and shepherd their souls to heaven.