As it appears in Bad Jokes #3.
“How much more beautiful the sunsets must be from lightless places, incensed with the subtler hues of darkness. And the red of the dawn to eyes more accustomed to invisible things. What warmth they hold for frigid lands, even on winter days; that some small thing may grow in the absence of all else—”
As I watch the day line cross the city below from my window, I consider these words. Scrawled across brittle paper much older than I, perhaps older than all of this, I cannot imagine a hand writing them. The letters are fine, rigid, regular, perfect. They are in an unknown language, are beyond meaning. They are lost like so many things. Wholly gone.
From outside, the white light of the sun has reached me. My head aches at first from the sudden burst of it, but this pain subsides as always. I rise and leave behind this scrap of unknown words, forgotten almost already in the importance of surviving another day.
There is light and dark in this porcelain house. I follow the contours of daylight out into the sun where the thin air has begun to grow warm. The dust is brilliant light, yet the lingering cold pains my feet. The sky remains dark, stars blotted out by the intensity of sun. Below, the city is bathed in day, and a few have taken already to the wide avenues. On the cliffs above, the barrier line of black night recedes along the crags and rocks out into the regolith.
From my home, the highest on the slope, near the place where the vacuum meets our world, I descend into the town, driven by hunger and thirst.
With every step the dust grows warmer, the air denser. I pass my neighbors in silence for words are precious things. They are skeletal figures, tall and very thin. I must be the same as they, pale skin stretched across shards of bone, sunken and slouched, leaning forward down the steep path toward the wells and gardens. There is barely the sound of our bare feet rustling across the surface or the whisper of an exhaled breath.
We enter the city as we do each morning in a mass. We are all there. We have all survived another long night, us outliers. The houses, here too constructed in times long past of smooth porcelain, glisten in the whiteness of day. Not all inhabited. Not as they once were.
Closer to the wells in a wide circle there are one hundred tall and straight trees. They are more sacred to us than words. In the night, one has fallen, its black roots stretched like so many fingers toward the sky, and its frail white bark littering the dust. A terrible omen, there is not even the whisper of breaths as we pass. I picture it tumbling gracefully, the way things do in this empty space. None of us dares to look upward, to brazenly glance at that painful reminder in the space above while this awful sign is so fresh.
In concentric rows inside these trees, tall black grass grows. We pick our practiced way through it with care not to disturb its cultivation, for it ripens delicately in the early light. Beyond in smaller circles, there are some sprouts of fruiting plants and mushrooms. When I was a child, I learned that the very first people in this land created the grove as a gift to us with foreknowledge of our plight. I try to think of these first people working hard to save us, their descendents, but I see only the deep black eyes of my neighbors filled with hunger.
Finally, in the center of these growing things are the wells. Parched from this long descent and still with the long day ahead, we each in turn take gulps of the brackish water pulled from the depths. We make painstaking efforts not to drip or waste. Water is rarer than words and trees.
As a people, we begin to work. The grass we harvest. The sprouting plants we tend to with the nourishment of our wastes, all we have to offer. The fallen tree is mourned by us all before it is carried away to be reduced to some kind of food. The roots leave a wide and deep trail in the dust, as when dragging a sleeping man. It is slow work, hard work.
Away to the side, because they do not know better, some children sit on a hill. They gaze up into the sky at the scarred face of that planet. Some clouds twist around its surface. They imagine, as I once did, that a life stirs there. They shiver with the thrill that down there some awe-struck young one like them is staring up from a warmer place in wonder. And after their hearts pound and their teeth chatter in brief excitement, they return to work, resigned.