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Home > Station Eleven(11)

Station Eleven(11)
Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Oberon watches her with his entourage of fairies. Titania speaks as if to herself now, Oberon forgotten. Her voice carries high and clear over the silent audience, over the string section waiting for their cue on stage left. “And through this distemperature, we see the seasons alter.”

All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.

12

THE AUDIENCE ROSE for a standing ovation. Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest. A man in the front row had tears in his eyes. In the back row, another man whom she’d noticed earlier—he alone had sat on a chair, the chair carried up from the gas station by a woman—stepped forward and raised his hands over his head as he passed through the front row. The applause faded.

“My people,” he said. “Please, be seated.” He was tall, in his late twenties or early thirties, with blond hair to his shoulders and a beard. He stepped over the half circle of candles to stand among the actors. The dog who’d been lying by the front row sat up at attention.

“What a delight,” he said. “What a marvelous spectacle.” There was something almost familiar in his face, but Kirsten couldn’t place him. Sayid was frowning.

“Thank you,” the man said, to the actors and musicians. “Let us all thank the Traveling Symphony for this beautiful respite from our daily cares.” He was smiling at each of them in turn. The audience applauded again, on cue, but quieter now. “We are blessed,” he said, and as he raised his hands the applause stopped at once. The prophet. “We are blessed to have these musicians and actors in our midst today.” Something in his tone made Kirsten want to run, a suggestion of a trapdoor waiting under every word. “We have been blessed,” he said, “in so many ways, have we not? We are blessed most of all in being alive today. We must ask ourselves, ‘Why? Why were we spared?’ ” He was silent for a moment, scanning the Symphony and the assembled crowd, but no one responded. “I submit,” the prophet said, “that everything that has ever happened on this earth has happened for a reason.”

The conductor was standing by the string section, her hands clasped behind her back. She was very still.

“My people,” the prophet said, “earlier in the day I was contemplating the flu, the great pandemic, and let me ask you this. Have you considered the perfection of the virus?” A ripple of murmurs and gasps moved through the audience, but the prophet raised a hand and they fell silent. “Consider,” he said, “those of you who remember the world before the Georgia Flu, consider the iterations of the illness that preceded it, those trifling outbreaks against which we were immunized as children, the flus of the past. There was the outbreak of 1918, my people, the timing obvious, divine punishment for the waste and slaughter of the First World War. But then, in the decades that followed? The flus came every season, but these were weak, inefficient viruses that struck down only the very old, the very young, and the very sick. And then came a virus like an avenging angel, unsurvivable, a microbe that reduced the population of the fallen world by, what? There were no more statisticians by then, my angels, but shall we say ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent? One person remaining out of every two hundred fifty, three hundred? I submit, my beloved people, that such a perfect agent of death could only be divine. For we have read of such a cleansing of the earth, have we not?”

Kirsten met Dieter’s gaze across the stage. He’d played Theseus. He fiddled nervously with the cufflinks on his shirt.

“The flu,” the prophet said, “the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood. The light we carry within us is the ark that carried Noah and his people over the face of the terrible waters, and I submit that we were saved”—his voice was rising—“not only to bring the light, to spread the light, but to be the light. We were saved because we are the light. We are the pure.” Sweat ran down Kirsten’s back under the silk of the dress. The dress, she noted absently, didn’t smell very good. When had she last washed it? The prophet was still talking, about faith and light and destiny, divine plans revealed to him in dreams, the preparations they must make for the end of the world—“For it has been revealed to me that the plague of twenty years ago was just the beginning, my angels, only an initial culling of the impure, that last year’s pestilence was but further preview and there will be more cullings, far more cullings to come”—and when his sermon was over he went to the conductor and spoke softly to her. She said something in response, and he stepped back with a laugh.

“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “People come and go.”

“Do they?” the conductor said. “Are there other towns nearby, perhaps down the coast, where people typically travel?”

“There’s no town nearby,” he said. “But everyone”—he looked over his shoulder at the silent crowd, smiling at them, and spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear him—“everyone here, of course, is free to go as they please.”

“Naturally,” the conductor said. “I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. It’s just that we wouldn’t have expected them to set off on their own, given that they knew we were coming back for them.”

The prophet nodded. Kirsten edged closer to eavesdrop more effectively. The other actors were receding quietly from the stage. “My people and I,” he said, “when we speak of the light, we speak of order. This is a place of order. People with chaos in their hearts cannot abide here.”

“If you’ll forgive me for prying, though, I have to ask about the markers in the graveyard.”

“It’s not an unreasonable question,” the prophet said. “You’ve been on the road for some time, have you not?”

“Yes.”

“Your Symphony was on the road in the beginning?”

“Close to it,” the conductor said. “Year Five.”

“And you?” The prophet turned suddenly to Kirsten.

“I walked for all of Year One.” Although she felt dishonest claiming this, given that she had no memory whatsoever of that first year.

“If you’ve been on the road for that long,” the prophet said, “if you’ve wandered all your life, as I have, through the terrible chaos, if you remember, as I do, everything you’ve ever seen, then you know there’s more than one way to die.”

“Oh, I’ve seen multiple ways,” the conductor said, and Kirsten saw that she was remaining calm with some difficulty, “actually everything from drowning to decapitation to fever, but none of those ways would account for—”

“You misunderstand me,” the prophet said. “I’m not speaking of the tedious variations on physical death. There’s the death of the body, and there’s the death of the soul. I saw my mother die twice. When the fallen slink away without permission,” he said, “we hold funerals for them and erect markers in the graveyard, because to us they are dead.” He glanced over his shoulder, at Alexandra collecting flowers from the stage, and spoke into the conductor’s ear.

The conductor stepped back. “Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s out of the question.”

The prophet stared at her for a moment before he turned away. He murmured something to a man in the front row, the archer who’d been guarding the gas station that morning, and they walked together away from the Walmart.

“Luli!” the prophet called over his shoulder, and the dog trotted after him. The audience was dispersing now, and within minutes the Symphony was alone in the parking lot. It was the first time in memory that no one from the audience had lingered to speak with the Symphony after a performance.

“Quickly,” the conductor said. “Harness the horses.”

“I thought we were staying a few days,” Alexandra said, a little whiny.

“It’s a doomsday cult.” The clarinet was unclipping the Midsummer Night’s Dream backdrop. “Weren’t you listening?”

“But the last time we came here—”

“This isn’t the town it was the last time we were here.” The painted forest collapsed into folds and fell soundlessly to the pavement. “This is one of those places where you don’t notice everyone’s dropping dead around you till you’ve already drunk the poisoned wine.” Kirsten knelt to help the clarinet roll the fabric. “You should maybe wash that dress,” the clarinet said.

“He’s gone back into the gas station,” Sayid said. There were armed guards posted on either side of the gas station door now, indistinct in the twilight. A cooking fire flared by the motel.

The Symphony was on their way within minutes, departing down a back road behind the Walmart that took them away from the center of town. A small fire flickered by the roadside ahead. They found a boy there, a sentry, roasting something that might have been a squirrel at the end of a stick. Most towns had sentries with whistles at the obvious points of entry, the idea being that it was nice to have a little warning if marauders were coming through, but the boy’s youth and inattention suggested that this wasn’t considered an especially dangerous post. He stood as they approached, holding his dinner away from the flames.

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