First there is the smell. A smell that can never be forgotten. Symbolic warnings more portentous than simple DO NOT ENTER signs. The red caution lights: crossed bones, shanks of hair, dried shrunken skulls, some stuck on sticks, others mashed as if beaten repeatedly with baseball bats, tire irons. Helmets streaked by blood long dried and caked into an unsightly mass. The torn warning flags, expired road flares burnt down to the melted pavement, the rusting steel reinforcements showing through; all the amulets, signs from some bad horror movie enactment in real life that must end in a danse macabre for the unsuspecting, for us, forced by circumstances, to be walking here. Long black marks, burnt rubber tires, black trails of smoke and refuse burning; then the first sights of the high rises, reduced by half or more as if swiped by a giant beast or crashed into with intent by suicide bombers, pilotless planes. Something unimaginable. Instantly replayed. In a loop set for continuous imaging, controlling what is occurring inside our heads until disaster becomes meaningless and only the notion of walking on seems real. The further into the city's interiors we go, the more muted the light is, the more we are surrounded by acrid smoke, floating refuse, blown dust, all the effluent of the mind released in a surreal, timeless, floating, clouding motion covering our already grimy skin with an extra layer of something that feels like death. Somewhere in the distance we can hear feral sounds, moaning that comes from within manmade caves, wasted buildings... The moaning, a confused sort of wounded, angry sound, that could be anything that was once a living being released into some confused state of being that could only be construed as hell personified and made real for the most impious of non-believers. Of which I am one. My eyes and face and exposed skin blackened and tarred, my ragged clothing meager protection from the ever harshening elements, but I, we must go on.... None of us should ever question the prime directive. It is as if we can see the ocean, the pristine beaches, warm sand and uncluttered places of certain refuge before us, lurking just beyond this ever widening shadow of a nightmare. Even the clouds we sense above us, have become part of the murkiness, the oppressive weighing stuff of catastrophe circling about us in a painful orbit like some kind of freak, mysterious, exploded asteroid belts; all the disassembled pieces of an inexplicable cataclysmic event, for an unknowable reason. We survive, as if by the luck, having drawn the right number in some cosmic lottery, we are the winners. Or maybe the losers. There is no point in questioning what our actual fate is. There is just this: the burnt sky, the falling white specks, still waters collected in the ruts, the pits, the shelled craters of a post-apocalyptic war over nothing. The dominant ones may be those released to another place, the once human, now dried, now mummified effigies hanging from blackened tree limbs, bent street lamps, telephone poles, or they may be the ones directing the howling our way or the voices themselves. Speculating whether the sounds that beckon us deeper into the unknowable, fogging place is, by design, to prepare us for what lies on the other side, is as futile as not going on. Even those of us who recall the burning water that adhered to our feet, the terror rain summoning the streets to transform themselves into something living, hostile to the walkers, those who refuse to tread lightly on the melting souls of feet hardened to callous by all the walking, no longer clamor to go back to what we have escaped from. There is no need to point out the dread interiors of buildings left virtually unscathed, the exteriors scarred by long black carbonized imprints of things once standing, the once living melded into the concrete by forced, thrusting beings, objects forced with the might of a solar wind. The place settings of diners still intact along with the gradually deteriorating ruins of an extravagant meal. The view from fifty floors high obscured by petrified remains, a black caul pulled down from the afterbirth of death. Some have suggested we find refuge in the sudden caves, domiciles ripped from the heart of skyscrapers, the odd placement of interior superstructures ripped from their moorings and thrust into the pavement to form a spontaneous global village from the detritus of the noblest of constructions. Once inside these ruins, we have experienced the worst kinds of unnatural sights: vast confusions of burning rubbish, a flourishing rodent population, alert to all potential food sources, scuttling, eyeing the movers with greedy, aggressive eyes, waiting for the unguarded moment of repose, a slackness in vigilance none of us can afford. We have seen fires of rare gases, pale flames licking the undercarriage of the once great and mighty buildings, gradually assaulted and worn away by the relentless release of hostile elements. Have seen under wreckage, the interior grottos flooded by unseen sources, gradually pooling, covered by an impenetrable, viscid scum covering an unthinkable depth of noxious liquids, have smelled the almost palpable stinks of these places and become gradually less repulsed, have become inured to the most grotesque visions of death in life this anti-place has to offer.... Still, we have realized that, what waits outside in the real world, is no worse than what waits inside. Even as the last burst piping explodes overhead and drowns the unsuspecting in the worst kind of refuse imaginable, stuff that sticks and adheres and reforms the skin and the bones, of what remains of the body, into something entirely new and inhuman. Seeking shelter there are rains, with no source, underground, in the sub-basements, subway stations collapsed into pockets, cavities of unusable repositories for what is no longer capable of salvation, salvage in this or any other world, quickly realize the folly of wonder in a world such as this. A rain with no source, may be an illusion, some say, as may be, where we are, underground. If it is, this is an illusion that touches us, affects us all. If we choose to stop and wonder, forsaking the directive of moving on, and beyond, at all cost, we will have been defeated. This is as unthinkable. There are also those who claim they have witnessed the truth of these places, that these so-called cavities of being of the dead and the diseased, the stalactites, forcefully thrust underground, the ruined vehicles, carriers and cars of a celestial railroad derailed for all time. They have been struck blind bit insist they can still see. Underground, stalagmites, newly created formations caused by an acid drip, is, in fact, a slow effusion of chemical waste transforming that which already had existed, not a growth, but diminution, an attrition. Negatives. The visions that accompany these places are a spectacular to behold, are wondrous multi-colored objects spread on a black background, in this airless place, a pure envisioning of the non-corporeal changing colors, rainbowing across an adherence of an artificial night; a miraging effect that confuses many, causing them to linger, to be entranced. They are the ones who are never seen again. It is not difficult to wonder why. A glimpse of sky through the deepest of hazes. The memory of what might have been, in the shattered glass of a storefront. The promise of a better life, in the rotted core of what might have been a succulent meal. Many have openly asked, wished out loud to return from where we began, but this is impossible. How can they not realize that there are no maps to rely on in these dark places? How can they not realize that there never will be maps, that the whole concept of mapping, is just another illusion to be bothered by? Onward I command, and those of us who remain, follow. There is no other way.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.