Descent, by Keith Holyoak


I. The Bank “ It goes in ninety seconds!” I heard a voice
Half shout, half whisper, turning my head to see
Who called; but all the people standing close   Were caught, like me, inside the machinery
Of the city bank, an ordinary crowd
Of clerks and customers lining up for money   From automated tellers. Crisp bills flowed,
Cash to prepare for New Year’ s holidays,
And no one spoke. The hands on a wall clock glowed   A minute to five. A man’ s eyes met my gaze
From down a corridor, one lupine glance
Before he disappeared inside the maze.   Chill from an open window seemed to pounce
On me. The clock showed thirty seconds left
Until.. Unsure, I had to take a chance.   My wife and daughter, lined up somewheres past
My view, right then were lost, too far away
To reach in time. Already I felt bereft.   I seized my son by the hand and cried, “ Neil, stay
With me!” Turning, I fought my way out through
The throngs and reached a stairwell. Fearing delay,   I ran downstairs and out to the avenue. II. The Street My boy ran too, thinking it all a game.
He laughed as we reached the sidewalk, paused and turned.
Across the street, the bank tower looked the same   As when we’ d enteredno one seemed concerned.
I felt quite foolish at my overreaction.
But through the next few moments my stomach churned.   Time seemed to stop dead cold, the real turned fiction.
Vague blue smoke oozed through the high bank windows;
Electric lights went dead, section by section,   Leaving gray twilight. And then my heart froze.
I stared along the darkened city canyon
Buildings, shoulder to shoulder, leaned to enclose   The empty corridor; and from each one
Blue wisps drifted, and each had fallen dark,
As had the streetlights, and the forgotten sun.   I heard no explosion, saw no firework
Display, but simply sensed the sudden silence.
The boulevard might well have been a park:   Traffic had stoppedno, disappeared, the dense
Urban clutter gone, leaving the people
Mouthing their puzzled murmurs of suspense.   Neil held my hand, and cried, “ Oh, what wonderful
Thing has happened?” I answered, “ I’ m not sure, ”
Then realized I had to somehow grapple   With our situation. We crossed to the further
Side of the street, and found a row of public
Telephones all in use. I asked one caller   There if anyone might have sent a quick
Word to police, who surely would soon arrive
To take control. The man replied with a flick   Of finger to lips, as though he meant to give
Some sort of warning. Over at the bank
The scene resembled pictures I’ d seen live   On television, news to make me thank
God I lived in America, not some foreign
Land far across the sea. Along the flank   Of the tower, through windows, I saw within
Dim figures dressed in black scanning the street.
Each appeared to hold an assault weapon,   And some had electronic gear complete
With headsets. Though blue haze obscured their faces
I felt their stares. I heard the man repeat   His warning, whispering, “ They have devices
To listen in on phone calls.” Taken aback,
My wife and daughter caught up in the crisis,   I’ d hoped police knew of this brazen attack.
Remembering I had my own cellular phone
With me, I dialed emergency to check   When help would come. But though at first a tone
Sounded, the line was busy, then went dead.
I wondered if these strange events were known   To police, the mayor, the President, who need
To serve and protect the honest citizenry.
I beckoned Neil, and turning the way that led   Out of the city, began to walknot flee,
More like a Sunday stroll, but hoping to find
Some shelter against the growing adversity.   The night turned colder; I felt a gnawing wind
Sting my face as we walked. Later I carried
Neil on my shoulders, humming a tune designed   To lull him sound asleep. Some others hurried
Along the street as well, but fewer in number
As time passed; all grew more anxious and harried.   Then the street narrowed; our eyes began to blur,
Lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood
Where boarded windows and strewn garbage deter   Outsiders from passing through. I understood
The risks, yet hoped to find a place to rest.
Just then a bearded man emerged from a crude   Cardboard tent on the sidewalk, dirty and dressed
In rags. He shouted, raised an arm and waved.
I hesitated; but then I thought it best   To march on by, for though my body craved
Its sleep I also knew I had to guard
My son. A hazard missed beats a hazard braved   I held to the prudent way; but the way was hard. III. The Halfway House My instincts served me well. In normal times
The city offers refuge and soft comforts;
It shelters us from drought and rain, and brims   With earth’ s rich bounty. Humankind diverts
Rivers, fields and forests to build the city,
Drying flood plains, watering harsh deserts,   And somehow holds in check its greatest enemy
Fearfear of the stranger by every other.
When things first fall apart the great calamity   Starts with dissolution of social order,
And then the city turns from home to cage,
A piercing look a mere knife thrust from murder.   Lines of hungry mouths become a rampage
Through the shopsthe city devours itself.
When fear and want conspire to unleash rage,   Break free at once before the floods engulf
You and those you love! Escape while you can,
And hide yourself from the tooth of the uncaged wolf.   We fled the city before mobs overran
It and blocked the roads, and came to a house
Out in the country. Slipping inside to scan   The rooms, I found the house brand new and close
To finished. Furnished and stocked with food,
There was no sign of owners. It seemed their loss   In these changed times would be our gain, by rude
Law of possession. Oddly, the house lacked doors
Doors, that final touch, still left to conclude   Construction and bar unwelcome visitors.
The great miracle was that my wife and girl
Were waiting there, as if unconscious force   Had drawn us all together despite the swirl
Of bitter decay and loss. I kissed Patricia,
And she hugged Neil, as I gave a joyful whirl   To baby Vanessa. But through the window I saw
A sight that cut our jubilation short:
A well-armed gang, some newly-formed militia,   Was camped outside. The members, wearing a sort
Of uniform, all black, were swarming around
The street and yard. We could not hope to thwart   So many attacking us, as they seemed bound
To do. I slowly drew the blinds to hide
As best we could, hoping not to be found   Just yet, and told the rest to stay inside.
Searching the kitchen drawers I found a knife
And tucked it in my belt to maybe provide   Protection. Through the doorway, after a brief
Respite, some men came in. Their heads were shaved.
Although they came unarmed, I told my wife   To wait in another room. I was relieved
To hear the eldest say the four were brothers,
Wandering homeless, caught by the gang and enslaved.   Before, they all had lived in their father and mother’ s
House, but it had burned in the first outbreak
Of violence. They wanted to join with others.   Were we to take them in, it could well make
The gang attack us all. “ We’ re only a small
Young family, ” I said, “ so don’ t mistake   Our open door for help.” Just then a tall
Man dressed in black strode through the open doorway;
Somehow familiar, his red beret showed all   He was the leader everyone had to obey.
I took due note of the gun he kept in his holster,
Thankful he left it there. His hair was gray,   His name was Virgil; his manner conveyed some culture.
“ A cup of tea, perhaps?” I dared to ask
Virgil’ s restraint somehow seemed to bolster   My flagging courage. Laughing, he raised a flask
Of brandy. My wife brought glasses. In the kitchen
The three of us shared a drink. It was fine to bask   In lively conversation, indulging my yen
To talk about the times in a thoughtful manner.
With just a jerk of his thumb he sent the four men   Slinking out the doornone dared to demur;
And then he told me I must join with him,
Bring my family and be his follower.   I said, “ My wife and I need a little time
To think it over.” At that, though Virgil replied
With a nod, his eyes narrowed and smile turned grim.   “ You have till morning, but then you must decide
To follow or leavethis house is my headquarters.”
He went his way; Patricia came to my side.   “ Do we stay, ” I asked, “ and take this strongman’ s orders,
Or go?” She paused, then said, “ You make the choice.”
I thought awhile, for such a decision alters   The future in many different ways, sets loose
Consequences that cannot be undone.
“ We leave at dawn, ” I said in a steady voice.   We sat by the window and watched the setting sun. IV. The Refugee Camp There’ s much I don’ t remember. January
Was mildit snowed a time or two, I think,
But no real blizzards. Nights were often starry;   I’ d wander from the campfires, stare and blink
At galaxies across the dark vastness
Of time and space. The night sky seemed to shrink   The changes we endured. I must confess
I clung to hope the changes would be reversed,
The army would come, clean up the sordid mess.   But no one came. We had to slake our thirst
For knowledge with loose rumors: maybe a coup
Had toppled the government, or at the worst,   Civilization had ended. No one knew
Anything solid; all the computers were down
And televisions stayed blank. No story rang true.   But after a shipwreck, when ocean waves maroon
You on an island, it hardly matters which rock
The ship had struck, so long as you did not drown.   Nations feel no pain, nor armies the stroke
Of the sword: each man and woman alone must bear
What comes in life. Though those we love may walk   With us some part of the way, at last we stare
At our own fate. And mine was to go to hell.
Some argue if hell is fire or ice. I swear   That hell is mud. We called it Mud Motel,
The camp where freezing rain had left us stuck
Beside the road, where thick black ooze would swell   As more refugees came. We slept in the muck.
The name was a jokethough mud there was, alright,
“ Motel” meant plastic tarps for those with luck   And bags for those without. People would fight
To escape if a passing truck was spotted.
Food was scarce; disease increased the plight   As winter dragged. The thing I especially hated
Was mud gracefully merging with shallow latrines,
The stench soaking your boots and clothes as you squatted.   Yet through the winter Patricia found some means
To keep us decent, washing clothes in the river
Upstream, using a strong solvent that cleans   Well enough, but burns the skin. And she would never
Let go of her long black hair, always washed
And combed each day. I knew how it must grieve her   To see the changes worsen. She never lashed
Out at me or the children. Money meant nothing
Just barter or steal. I saw a man’ s head smashed   With a rock, blood and brains splattering
Black mud, turning it a purple color.
I pulled my knife; the killer took a swing   At me as well. That ended my bit of valor
But also the killer’ s rage; the man spat
In the mud and then backed off. I heard him holler,   “ He won’ t eat my potatoes againthat’ s that!”
Was I to judge which man was really wronged?
The law was a rock, a knife, a baseball bat   A gun. One afternoon, some boys had ganged
Up on another. It looked like a game of tag,
Except one hunter fired as others thronged   Around their prey, who quivering knelt to beg
The gunman to stop. When I dared intervene
The gang turned, and came after me like a plague   Of locusts. “ He’ s `it’ now!” one yelled, and then
The pistol was aimed at me. I ran for my life,
Through some woods and down a small ravine,   Dodging bullets as I clambered up a cliff
To the camp. Exhausted, I fell face down in the mud.
I heard my children cry, and felt my wife   Throw her body on mine; those who pursued
Me stopped and turned away. But I lay broken;
Tears poured out of my heart in a bitter flood.   Then someone laughed; I felt my shoulder shaken
By some strong hand. “ Get up! You two are blocking
My fleet!” I knew that voice, and was not mistaken:   Virgil rode in a jeep; his trucks were flocking
Behind him. “ Then I told you, `Follow or leave; ’
Now follow or stay.” His eyes stared down, mocking   The eyes of a wolf that had no need to deceive
His prey. I hesitated. “ Patricia, ” I said,
“ This time you choose.” My wife was not naive,   Nor Ilike a deer, I froze between dread and dread.
His boots were clean, and his crisp black uniform.
And then I recalled that man first glimpsed as I fled   The bank with Neil, my wife left behind in the storm;
How she and Vanessa had made their way somehow
To Virgil’ s house. Her eyes met hisa swarm   Of demons devoured my guts. “ Get in now!”
He ordered. The children and I got in the back
Of the jeep while Virgil opened a door to allow   Patricia to take the seat beside him. The brake
Was released, the engine surged. “ I am your guide, ”
Said Virgil; “ This is the road you need to take.”   I watched the twilight glowing red, and cried. - Keith Holyoak

Keith Holyoak