Viruses are strange and daring things. Neither animal nor plant nor fungus, but far more destructive than any of those, or even all combined. They can infect anything, make them bend to the will of RNA strands that command “slash and burn!” It seems only right that a virus should bring the end to all life on Earth.
This timeline marks the end of the reign of man, that precious bookkeeper whose records become the only applicable history. It happened as such during a long Indian Summer, a few years after the world assimilated the agony of menace against monoliths. Unlike the visions of writers or directors, the end of the world was neither explosive nor complete, but the slow letting of air that flattens tires over a long road trip. A virus killed the inhabitants of a planet that considered itself to be the only destination for intelligent life. That virus came from intelligence, or perhaps it was the greatest intelligence of all. At least that’s what those dying humans needed to think; that their downfall had come about through a sinister plan by a superior mind.
Billions of visits to doctors’ offices around the world signaled the beginning. The vegetarians began to show first, wasting away on wheat gluten and steamed broccoli. Thin, though they would continually eat, nothing would become energy, nothing absorbed into the body. The commune members who would sneak hamburgers managed better, held the hands of their more headstrong friends as they wasted into immortality, shoveling plates of God’s Bounty between withered lips. It took nearly a year to discover the trouble, to locate the virus that prevented man from absorbing vegetable matter.
The university men should have seen it when the cows began to thin even with constant feeding, when the last hummingbird died. This virus chose a wide path, through man and beast and pest and fish. The oceans were lifeless in a year, the skies clear a few months later, save for the carrion that thrived and slowly faded as nothing was left to die.
Human survived longer than cockroaches. Everywhere in the cities, where bodegas and supermarkets had been raided for cans of corned beef hash and abalone, millions of cockroaches had wandered into the street. They tried to extend their lives by feeding on the dead birds, the dead men, their dead brothers. After nineteen months, the last man in New York City starved to death, a week after the last cockroach had gone on. Hong Kong had already been abandoned, and Berlin had become more desolate than an Old West studio set when filming had wrapped. Europe’s last man, a cannibal named Henry DeGlane lasted three and a half years with the virus in him, dying of food poisoning after eating a far rotten woman he found floating in the Seine. The last news reports had speculated that the virus came from comet dust, or Saddam’s pre-war biological labs. No answer ever came, no vaccine, no solution other than the death that allowed worms to make a run at some survival.
In Louisiana, the delta of the Mississippi outflow, an animal called the nutria splashed and swam and ate. A rodent like a beaver with a possum’s tail, introduced from South America, had been eating the Bayou vegetation for decades. They had been popular for alligator feeding at roadside five-dollars-a-photo farms. “You can lead an alligator to water if you have nutria on a stick,” said the guides before they starved. The alligators still in the bayou had survived. The families that lived on the edge of the swamps survived as well.
The millions of nutria in Louisiana had made it through, eating and digesting roots and shoots as they always had, unaffected and happily multiplying faster than the alligators could bite them, than the traps could swing shut, than the women and children could skin and gut and cook them. The last remaining proof that life had once run wild across the planet existed on the edges of dug-waters: a few cats and dogs, a couple of dozen humans, some vultures, a hundred or so alligators, small colonies of ants and worms, and several million nutria.
And of course, myself, watching it from the porch of an old hunter who could never stomach the taste of nutria. “Off-chicken,” he called the flavor, even when sauced for days in his iron skillet. I’d been watching since I found the gathering of my distant cousins, chewing on roots and shoots, not noticing the lack of man on land. I may not have their advantages, but I’ve written this and it will likely be the last telling of the fall of the world. I doubt the folks of the White Lightning shacks would, or even could, read my explanation for their position as Omega Men. Even with all my knowledge of the fall, I wonder why my coat isn’t as glossy as my swimming brethren; if there will be enough food for all of us once my superiors discover the ideal conditions of Earth, the scent of the water.
It doesn’t matter much, but I take pause and stare back over my notes. I’ll enter the water and take my fill, hoping that the virus in my blood doesn’t finally make its way to the nutria, cutting off the lifeline to the few who remain.
Because, honestly, who wouldn’t feel guilty if they were listed as the cause of death for every living thing on Earth?