A long time ago the Earth entered what we now call the Death Cycle: Once every ten years the sky turns brown, the sun dims, the air thickens into a warm smoky soup and everyone becomes shriveled and weak, almost paralyzed. It feels like life itself is drained out of us. We cower inside our houses, gasping from the death-like weakness, and silently weep in despair for a year. Crackling and thunder roars from the skies, huge electric arcs flash upwards from the tops of mountains and city skyscrapers alike, while rocks and concrete slowly erode in the acidic smoke. The streets become still and silent. Open spaces are littered with dehydrated, emaciated corpses of animals and those of people who, for some reason, were not prepared for The Cycle’s onset. It’s important to be prepared for the Death Cycle with large supplies of water, food, and sanitary implements close at hand - if you have to move for more than a meter to reach something vital to your survival, then you are probably never going to reach it in time, such is the weakness and paralysis that engulfs everyone and everything in a Cycle.
I remember my first Death Cycle. I was 8 and my mother had just killed herself. I later learned that she, like many other people, did this to escape having to live through another Cycle. My father took me and my brother aside one evening and told us that something would happen very soon, and that we would all be very sick for a long time, but it would all turn out to be ok if we were all prepared. We went about altering our flat, unpacking strange devices and tubes from storage boxes, stocking up on supplies, sealing doors and windows and putting valuables in safes. During all that time he kept giving us advice, things that he said we needed to remember if we were to survive what was coming. We were very puzzled, because up to that time nobody had ever mentioned the Death Cycle to us, at home or at school, it was like a shared secret of the grown-ups. However, we did not feel privileged to have been included in this great secret; from the way everyone talked and acted we could tell that something terrible was on its way.
It started a week later. One morning I remember waking up and noticing that my fingernails had turned black and flaked off like burnt paper as soon as I moved my fingers. My eyes stung as if I had splashed salt water on them. I tried running to dad to tell him about it, but I felt very dizzy. I spun around the room trying to keep my balance, and as I did I saw, first from the corner of my eye then turning to face it, that the sky had turned dim and brown, as if a dust storm had gone up during the night. Everything was plunged into twilight. I tried to turn on the light but the light switches had stopped working.
It became harder to breathe. I would have fallen down on my face, right then and there, had my father not rushed into the room to drag me to the Cycle Chamber, the room we had prepared with all the supplies. I remember finding it harder and harder to keep my eyes open, but I could hear my father’s labored breathing in my ear as he dragged me across the floor. I could tell that he was also feeling very weak. I wasn’t dumb, you know, I realized right there and then that The Cycle was starting. My dad put me down on one of the three mattresses, hooked me up, and brought the food and drink tubes right next to my mouth. He clumsily kissed me on the forehead and, wobbling and unsteady, fell onto his own mattress, the one next to my brother’s across the room. I could barely keep my eyes open at that point, and the last thing I remember before I fell into my first death sleep was warm air blowing on my face. It felt strangely comforting, like the way my mother’s hair would brush my face when she leaned to kiss me goodnight.
I don’t know how long I had slept, but I awoke into a terrible roar of thunder that boomed all around me. Dad had told us that we would wake, that we would not be able to sleep through it all, but that we should try to stay calm and try to get back to sleep as much as we could. Trying to open my eyes made them feel like they were being peeled: I could feel my eyelids drag themselves over my eyeballs as they moved. My arms and legs felt as if they were buried in concrete. I tried to move but couldn’t. I tried to shout but couldn’t. All I saw was the ceiling of our flat, blurry and hazy as if there was smoke everywhere. I was terrified. I didn’t know how much time had passed, and didn’t know if dad or my brother were still alive and well next to me - I couldn’t turn my head to look at them. My heart began to pound and panic gripped me.
Then I remembered what dad had said: “Remember, it’s not that you can’t move, it’s just that you can do everything very very slowly, so try to make only the movements that are absolutely necessary”. I decided that I was going to see if dad and my brother were OK. I began the long process of looking at each one. In the beginning I thought that my dad was wrong, that I really couldn’t move at all, but then I began to notice that my head was actually turning in the direction that I was pushing it in, just very slowly. I would have to push for many minutes before I would be able to turn my head. I wondered how long it would take to try to crawl anywhere, or even turn my body around on the death mattress.
Eventually I managed to take a look at my dad and my brother. They both seemed sound asleep, and I felt terribly lonely. I wanted to gather my strength and try to make a sound that might wake them, so that I would feel less lonely, but thought about how I would end up dragging them into this living hell. Besides, I didn’t dare move my hands too far from the feeding tube controls. Then I wondered if I was the first one who had awoken: Had either of them, or both, gone through the same thing I was going through, while I had slept soundly? The thunder kept crashing and booming all around: At any other time I would have guessed it was a late evening rain storm, if it wasn’t for the smoky warm air everywhere.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. It was that damn feeling of death all around me. It was as if I was a corpse. I mean, I didn’t feel trapped, or buried like a corpse, I felt LIKE a corpse. As time began to pass I realized with growing horror that I couldn’t remember what being alive actually felt like. It was as if someone had removed the memory of that feeling while I had slept. My life had been reduced to the patch of yellow ceiling that I would be staring at for a year. Even though my first Death Cycle is just a blur in my memory now, I remember those first nightmarish days (weeks, months?) as clearly as though they happened yesterday.
I remember that I had forgotten to eat for longer than I should have, and I still shudder to remember how hungry I became until I was able to put my lips on the food pipe and draw some of the paste into my mouth. How weird that I could breathe and swallow normally, but everything on the outside, even my lips were almost frozen. Moving was as slow as melting through ice. I remember the first time that I managed to look at my hand, and saw how it was all yellow and wrinkled, like it had been soaked in sewer water for a whole month. I never quite stopped hoping that I would one day turn and catch my dad or brother with open eyes staring back at me from their death mats. I really missed them and wanted to make eye contact but it seemed we never managed to catch each other’s eyes, trying instead to sleep through as much of it as we could.
The nights were easier because I couldn’t see and could pretend that my environment changed. On many such nights I would try to make myself sleep, but real sleep never came again that year. For many weeks or months I would drift into a delirious kind of haze, the same one that I suspect my dad and brother were also in. From time to time, when I could schedule it, I would turn and look at them, but eventually even our hair fell out, and we looked like mummies, so I stopped wanting to look.
Dad had told us that we would return to normal at the end of the Death Cycle, but I eventually forgot what ‘normal’ had ever been. I forgot about the person I had been, about the life I had led before the Cycle. It was all unimportant and distant, like a vivid fantasy I might have had once. The only reality was the thunder, crashing and echoing sadistically in my ears, the ceiling, and -worst of all- the terrible merciless pain inside me, that terrible pain that wouldn’t let me stop fighting for breath or stop eating and drinking, no matter how much I wanted to end my misery for good.
There was a reason it was called a Death Cycle I eventually understood: I had finally become a sleepwalker inside my own head. I almost didn’t exist, and what parts of me refused to die screamed with pain. Ironically, what hurt above all else wasn’t that I was almost dead, what hurt most was that I wasn’t completely dead.
But then a miracle happened: As time passed, the tears came. Dad had also told us about that, but we really hadn’t understood him or taken him seriously. Now, lying there as a living corpse, the months passing with nothing but acid smoke swirling in the darkness and thunder crashing over a dead planet, I understood: “Try to cry as much as you can” he had said. I had never imagined in my young innocence that crying was something that I would ever aspire to do, but one day the suffocation and agony of my predicament seemed to overwhelm my paralysis and death, and I felt a sharp spike of pain rip through my insides. It took a moment for me to actually interpret the sensation, but I realized that I was feeling a warm tickling tear on my face, crawling over the ridges of my shriveled cheek. I pictured myself tumbling inside its warm salt water, screaming like mad as I fell into the darkness, screaming all the screams that the deadly paralysis had denied me, screaming at the dead Earth and the dark sky, just screaming and screaming. And in that moment I felt the precious freedom that those tears could bring.
The Cycle ended eventually but nobody cared, at least not immediately. As soon as power returned medical robots began to visit the homes of people, trying to revive us, but most of us had forgotten what being alive was by then. Like corpses missing the comfort of their coffins we just wanted a darkened yellow ceiling to fill our vision and endless thunder to crash in our ears, and all this new light and movement hurt us. Our skin had learned to lie in that warm acid smoke, so that clear air seemed to hurt it. It would take many more weeks of lying still, catatonic and silent, to slowly begin the process of return. Some months later I even heard somebody laugh for the first time.
Of course we came back to life eventually, life always goes on. We go on and work, live and love, we have children just as we always have. We just make sure to have them as far away from the Death Cycles as possible, preferably just after one, so that the children are old enough to survive the next one. And then once every ten years we pack our things and bring out the death mattresses and seal our houses and prepare the feeding tubes. It’s just the way it is.