I can see him now that I’ve reached the summit, though he’s still a bit away to call out to. He’s as nonchalant as I expected but far more handsome. I wave and he waves back. His dark skin is like a beacon against the white rock. Not much grows up here (though I’ve been assured his olive tree is close by) so it really is going to be just the two of us: me, him and our Apocalypse Stories. That’s not my word, by the way. That is a word the people like to use. How many times they have prepared for ‘The Apocalypse!’, the ‘Coming of the End of Time!’ and look; they are still here. For now. I thought they felt trapped by Time and I said so. I said we should be calling them ‘Hero Stories’. After all, we’re the cause before the effect. Usually, there is high drama. This time, it’s different. It’s getting frustrating and I won’t lie, I’ve been a little aggressive with everyone. That’s why I’m here I suppose, because I’m young and impatient. We’re not supposed to see ourselves as heroes but we are encouraged to understand the honour bestowed on us.
“You found me.” He calls out and as I walk the last few steps to join him, I can see beyond him the twisted tree that still bears fruit. It’s gnarly and stunning against the backdrop of a deep blue sky but I wonder why he keeps it.
“It was old even when I perished on it,” he says, reading my mind, “I don’t blame the tree.”
We stand looking at it for a minute and he says, “When it does die, I can go.”
“I thought olive trees live forever.” I say and he chuckles. Imagine Judas Iscariot chuckling, if you can, but his teeth are straight and white and his wide smile would make me blush if I were an ordinary girl.
“An interesting touch,” he says, “to take a young woman’s form. Isn’t that a bit...much?”
“How do you think I should have presented myself?” I ask him, and stand back so he can admire how pretty I am. He shrugs.
“I don’t know; I’ve never encountered a virus before. Certainly not a virus as special as you are.”
He walks back to sit on the flat white boulder and actually pats the stone beside him, to indicate I should join him. I think again how thrilling this experience would be to my human form, but she isn’t here of course. She is the last breath I stole. I’m still working, infecting the people, but I’m not aware of any of that right now. I’m here for what I suppose a human would call ‘counselling’.
There isn’t even a whisper of wind and the heat is intense. I would have my work cut out for me in this place, but I’d manage. Humans are drawn to each other like breath to a lung. It’s not enough for them to see each others faces, they need to touch each other and smell each other and the more they love one another the more intimate they are and the easier for me to slip in unnoticed. It was glorious for a while, when I thought I was doing what I was born to do, multiplying and travelling and justifying my reason for existing.
He hasn’t spoken since we sat and in this form I’m aware of the smell of him. He is a heady mix of salt and earth, of human sweat and the oil of the olives. He points to the tree.
“They grow back from the roots when you cut them down, the olive trees.”
“So I’m right,” I say, “they never die.”
“Oh they die,” he says through a yawn. “They just take an awfully long time. Talk,” he says, “I’ll listen.”
And so I talk. About my birth and my rapid growth and the joyous freedom of expansion. I talk about hiding in snot and tears and droplets of saliva, gliding from one body to another, and how I rode on the invisible particles of a sigh, a human breath, about how they carried me from loved one to loved one even as they laughed, even as they cried. Everything they touched had the delicious potential to turn to cold; welcoming surfaces that held me while I waited for the touch of one more warm hand, patient while they transported me to their eyes, their nose, their red watery lips; forgetting for a moment, between the putting down of one thing and the picking up of another, meaning to wash me away; picking away a piece of fruit lodged in a tooth before remembering, in vain, to try to undo the damage. I talk about the confidence I felt, absolute surety that mine was the noblest of missions; I would travel the world until the inhabitants ran dry. The earth with no one to drain it, replenished. I’d be old then, and near my own time. A life well lived, my work here, done.
I notice he has his eyes closed, though he’s not asleep; he is listening as he said he would. He rolls a piece of twig between his finger and thumb, a slow, deliberate act that puts me in mind of a pendulum, keeping the worst of human trappings – that of time – to a long lazy everlasting beat. But every beat should end sometime, so I snatch it from his hand and he opens his eyes.
“I would have given it to you, if you’d asked.” He says. “Viruses have no manners.”
I flick the olive twig away and stand up. I’m upset to be honest.
“I thought I was supposed to eliminate mankind.” I say. “What’s the point of it all if they survive?”
He stands up.
“You got their attention.”
He is moving towards the tree again and I resign myself to following him. He taps the trunk and nods his head. When he turns around, his lips pressed together in a half smile, but his eyes reflect something I don’t recognize immediately.
“Hear that?” He says. “Hollow.”
“So it’s dead?”
“Almost.” He says. “Almost.” And I understand now that he is full of joy.
“I am Judas Iscariot; the people have hated me for two thousand years. That was my sacrifice. What if I had said no to that sacrifice?”
“Well what if you had?”
He gestures towards the valley below, to the buildings and the farms and the people.
“The world would be a different place. I don’t know if it would better or worse. That was not my business. It wouldn’t be what it is now; it wouldn’t be what it has been since. That’s the only thing I know is true.
He breaks off a small branch of the tree and it comes away easily with a dull snap. Handing it to me, he says,
“That’s sweet.” I make sure to sound sarcastic. “I’m still none the wiser. Am I to sacrifice myself? Is that what you’re telling me? Because I have no plans to die before I’m ready.”
He takes my human hands and studies them: small and slim with good nails and soft skin. I like the black and the white of our hands together. He traces the lifelines slowly and deliberately, back and forth, as he did before with the twig. I regret throwing it away now; I know I was simply reacting because I didn’t understand but it pleases me when he presses the small branch into the palm of my hand.
“She is the sacrifice.” He says. “This girl. Her grandmother. All the grandmothers; all the grandfathers and the sons and the daughters, the mothers and the fathers, sisters, brothers…all of them. They have been sacrificed so the earth might breathe. It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
We are standing very close and I look into his handsome face. I think about how we look standing together like this and I have a notion I might touch his cheek, but he is fading before my eyes. I have a flash of an idea; I could travel with him – within him, if I was my own self. His eyes are wet; his lips are just within my reach. He sees me thinking the thought and laughs so loud it startles a white bird that had been resting on the branches of the tree.
“Now that would be ironic!” And that is how he fades from this place, laughing and shaking his head, his eyes full of joy and tears, while a bird takes flight and I am left alone.
Of course, I’m not actually alone; that would kill me. I need to expand and multiply and travel. I will always want more. I’m like the humans in that way; we need to be with our kind. But for them, tangibility is only love. For me it is survival. Alone I am dead. Apart they are surviving.
We’ll see. I come from an ancient line: we’re here longer than the first humans and the earliest beasts, even the bees, even the trees. Our line stretches from Primordial times; it is not ending any time soon, though I will die eventually. I know that. It will have been an honour. I’ve been taught that the world will never thank me. But the Earth, that is a different matter. I use my human toes to make marks on the burnt-red dusty ground. I draw a crown, and the earth whispers ‘pretty’.
Even Judas Iscariot said I was special.
Perhaps I will not make it to the end. It’s possible humankind will divide us by keeping us apart, my crowned sisters and I. The question is, who will last longest, the people or the virus? When all of us together crave the simplest of things: a human touch. I’m still so young; I have so much more that I wanted to do. I feel a flutter, ever so faint, where my heart should be, and a girl’s voice in my ear, a tiny echo: “I am still so young”. I thought he was giving me the olive branch as a peace offering because I was upset. I see now it was a symbol of hope, a memory kept alive from Noah’s time – another glorious rampage of destruction by my ancestors until they were divided by floods of tears, washed so far away from the beasts, kept away until we drowned in isolation, our crowns sinking to murky depths. To wait.
Yes Judas was right; the white bird may yet come back with a fruit-bearing twig in her beak. There is always hope.
This is my story, my hero story.
I look at the hands that were held by a stranger at the very end, by hands in a plastic glove that still brought comfort, for there is something in a human touch that makes its way through plastic and reaches inside, to the warmth of a waning heart; that says, I am with you. I will not let go until you do.
I think of Judas and I curl my little fingers around the olive branch.