The apocalypse comes in many forms. Oh sure, there is acid rain and there is drought, the crops dry up and the world moves on, but what happens when you’re alone with your wife or husband? Nature takes over, as it always does, and always will. And what becomes of the children? In Matt Bell’s haunting portrayal of twenty-six moments in the afterbirth of a world gone wrong, Cataclysm Baby (Mudluscious Press), we get to see how those days and nights roll on, when the waters are poisoned and furtive slick flesh seeks out a moment of passionate respite in many a dark and restless night.
These stories are short, only a handful of pages each, but they are not slight or thin. They are filled with fantasy and mythology that seems familiar and personal both in depth and scope. But what has happened, exactly? Bell gives us some clues, in “Rohan, Rohit, Roho”:
“There are some who say it’s the earth that’s gone wrong, and some that say the seed, and it is this my wife and I debate after she pushes my wheelchair up to the dining table, after she sets the brakes my fumbling ﬁngers are too weak to work.”
There are glimpses of this world outside the broken shacks, the houses turned to islands surrounded by murky moats and poisonous skies. But it is the eventual births of the deformed and altered children that reveal how much the world has changed in the shadow of destruction, and certainly, our lives of sin and depravity. This, from “Kidd, Kier, Kimball”:
“At dawn, we extinguish the ﬂames so the candles will be there to relight tomorrow, and then again we pray: Oh lord, just once. Just once, deliver us a child not wrecked from the beginning. Grant us a son not lousy with fur, not ruined with scales or feathers. Give us a daughter made for the old world instead of this new one, this waste of weather and wild.”
As you work your way though this collection of fables and future histories there are moments that resonate with the imagery of past tales, the wolf and the serpent, the lamb led to slaughter, ghosts with whispering voices that flit and puff against your ear. These stories invite you to revisit the lyric voice of Cormac McCarthy in The Road and Blood Meridian, as well as a lost girl bent on survival, in Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. There is a pinch of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” tossed in with a smidgen of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” But Bell is his own voice, paying homage certainly, as much to the Brothers Grimm as the Holy Bible—his is a unique siren song in a world of regurgitation and pale imitation.
To all of the parents out there, this collection will be especially painful and daunting, but do not turn away from it, do not fear transference. Instead, light a candle, and let the wind howl outside your window—let the frame rattle and the hard rain patter at the glass. Because you should be grateful that this is not your fate, nor will it ever be your destiny, God willing. To witness the horror, the suffering of one set of parents after another, as they face the impossible decisions set before them, is unsettling. But it is also powerful and fearless in its depiction of morality, parenthood, and the ways we love and lose.
One of the most brutal stories in the collection is “Isaac, Isaiah, Ishmael.” A father has trapped the only woman that exists, as far as they know. And he has set out, with the aid of his brothers, to procreate—to keep humanity alive. Unfortunately, every child born from this woman comes into the world with bones of dust, splintered and fractured by the pressures and contractions of the birth. These men feel their work is noble and needed, regardless of the horrors that are presented:
“Even at birth they were already damaged, their brittle bones opened and crushed, powdered by their mother’s powerful organs, her pressing canal: All those thin ribs snapped and splintered upon the stainless steel of the operating room. All those skulls crooked and cracked, all those twisted greenstick limbs. We lifted each child out from the mother’s body and into surgeries of its own, did our best to splint and screw our prides together.
Unimaginable, the work that is being done in the name of the human race:
“And then, Lie still, I say, and then, Hold her, brothers, hold her, and then, I will plant again in her this seed, until at last we grow the world we desire.”
While the overwhelming feelings in this collection are helplessness, despair and loss, there are bright moments as well. There is hope mixed in with the sacrifice. Beasts and monsters are loved and embraced in spite of what they are. In “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana,” Bell shows us a trio of daughters that have been turned to earthworms, burrowing into the ground, seemingly trying to escape. But like all of the stories in this book, the children, the creatures, are not shown to us simply as sideshow freaks, to shock and appall, they are here to teach us about ourselves. These girls dig their way out, abandoning the father and his sick wife for days. But they return. And in that moment, the eternal love we all have for our families, it is evident in this moment:
“See how I crawl down into the dirt, into the sunken ruins of our home. See me whisper into the center of the earth, see me beg them to come back, to visit their mother once more before she is gone.
See the day they emerge together, clothed only in grave-dirt.
See how they’ve grown, how their toddling days have ended, how some new age is upon them.
See next their ﬁsts clenched around ginger and burdock, around echinacea, around licorice and marshmallow. See me gather them up onto my chest. See me carry all three at once in my arms.
See me take them into our bedchamber, their hands stuﬀed with the medicine they traveled so far to ﬁnd.
See until you cannot see anymore.
Listen: Their ﬁrst words in turn, three broken intonations of cure and mother and save her, save her. What stories they tell then, of places they have gone, of the things they have seen! What hard hurt of my heart follows, what ungrantable wish shaping this trembling ﬂesh, this poor gravedigger again made quaking father!
Listen: The sound of herbs hitting the ﬂoor is a whisper, then a word. Roots collapse, tubers tumble, and what sentence can follow? What good noise can I make for my daughters then, clinging reluctant to my body, this earth they no longer love?”
These stories are not for the faint of heart. But that is certainly a good word to dwell on for a moment—heart. Each of these stories tells a tale—a fantastic, magical story of horror, struggle and perseverance. But it shows us these moments with a love, and a passion that must be counted on in dark times like these. It shows us how family comes together to survive, and it shows us our undoing, how fragile we really are. There are lessons to be learned, images that will never be erased, justice dispensed, and parents left clinging to each other as they search for the strength to do better—to survive and evolve. In this world that Matt Bell has created, each day is a challenge, but the eternal truths remain as beacons of hope, rays of light that split the darkness and chase away our fears.