But all of that presupposes that there's a happy ending. After all, there's nothing but point of view separating a comedy from a tragedy. Nothing in my introduction promised that the end would be a source of joy or even comfort.
Remember Little Red Riding Hood, and wonder, how desperate the life of a wolf on the brink of starvation, the middle of the coldest, snowiest winter on record. No voles, no woodmice, no rabbits: a wolf at that moment has only one desire. He sneaks into the kitchen of an abandoned cottage, looking for any type of scrap. Perhaps Granny wasn't even there, the winter had been long and cold and she had left her cottage to visit the warmth of another village, the wolf is caught, exhausted and ravenous, and snatches after Red Riding Hood's basket. Even wolves know that humans are unsatisfying prey. It's all in the point of view, whether justice is served or the tale skews in an altogether different direction.
Remember everything that you once forgot. Remember placing fists in a circle: one potato, two potato, three potato. Breath held, hoping, hoping not to be It in the game of tag. That's the ending, there: note it well. It is evening, not yet twilight, summer stretching long ahead, endlessly, a game of tag about to begin, the first seeker unchosen.
What happened to bring all of this to fruition? There is a void, heaven and earth separate, atoms and molecules bond and coalesce and soon we can walk on land, and soon we leave the trees and walk upright, and then the rivers swell and all is water again, but we have forgotten how to swim. That, there, tragedy, so many lives lost, for not having gills and fins: the tragedy of the last surviving member of a tribe, having watched, in horror, desolation and drowning all around.
But remember the ending, a game of tag, a summer night.
More time passes. Men discover geometry, astronomy, trace their fates in the palms of their hand, wander lost in the desert searching for fig trees and wine, and, out of nowhere, the Crusades. The Crusades, the Black Death, kings and soldiers as pawns across the chessboard, the tragedy of ambition. Change the point of view, the pre-industrialized world filled with Venetian palaces and crystal goblets and a clear morning in a gondola, a tryst, a feast. Point of view is in the particulars: life, full of promise and beauty, except for the gondolier, whose wife died in childbirth, who has a household of young children to raise, whose extended family fell to the plagues sweeping across the country.
Time passes. Venice sinks, Atlantis is lost and rediscovered and lost again, the library at Alexandria burns, a thousand ships sink in the stormy Mediterranean.
Time passes. Smallpox is exchanged for syphilis and tobacco and gold, the duck-billed platypus is discovered, there is no Northern passage, but everywhere, the wind blows into internal combustion engines, there is the cotton gin, there is the potato famine, there is a tax on printing, there is a banishment to a small island in the middle of the storm tossed Atlantic, empty and barren.
I have forgotten to tell you of the expression in the whale's eye as it is separated from the pod, as it watches the harpoon's lancing its calf, the ocean stained with blood, so much blood, an ocean of blood, so that oil lamps can be lit and corsets tightened. The sailor returns home, weary, does not recognize his daughter, grown tall from when he left for the Pacific so many years ago. On his way from the docks to his cottage, he passes the fashionable houses lit by candlelight filled with women, tightly laced, waiting for their futures to unfold. They, too, will die in childbirth, although not as in times past, hands are more often washed, doctors less frequently move from the cadaver to the lying in room without taking suitable precautions.
The sailor may return to sea again, where his ship may be torn apart in a monsoon, or he may remain ashore, too old to knot ropes and raise sails and throw a harpoon as he once did. He never believed in old age, and now that it is here, he isn't certain what to do, unsure how to fill his day before the pub opens and after he wakes. His wife takes in laundry, her knuckles swollen, her hands raw and worn. She worries about her daughter, the dangers of the no-good lad that is making promises he'll never keep, the very real possibility that there will soon be another mouth to feed and no money coming in.
Time passes. Lands change hands from aboriginals to explorers to the church to settlers to politicians to businessmen. Railroads fill the sky with the heavy smoke of coal dust as they cross as far as civilization extends. There are assassinations and revolutions and armistices and famines and fabulous wealth, underneath it all the pipe organs plays a counterpoint inflected Requiem as the Holy Roman Empire shrinks from all of Europe down to a neighborhood in Rome so condensed it can be crossed by foot in an easy afternoon's stroll.
Remember, you know the ending: it is a summer evening, a game of tag is about to start, but whether this is comedy or tragedy, whether this is a play of one act or five acts: it's all in the telling. Everything works out in the end, it all comes to a conclusion, but somehow I had forgotten how much bloodshed, how many deaths, how many broken hearts, lead to this point. Everyone who has ever lived has died. Everything that has ever lived has died. Whether the mountains are alive or dead I cannot say.
The scientists would like to interrupt and say that the mountains are almost certainly not alive. However, as the scientists have a long, long history of being very, very wrong about a great many things, I will repeat: whether the mountains are alive or dead I cannot say.
Time passes, the continents drift a bit further apart, volcanoes erupt, earthquakes rend, ships sink, and man grows wings and takes to the sky, soaring in trails of white above the clouds. Mountains are bulldozed and fields are cracked apart to inject heat into water which spins turbines and energizes atoms: when I press a switch the world is lit in a soft glow, even on a cloudy, moonless night. The whales begin to sing again, although they are much declined, but they have forgiven us. On an island, a family sets down its tools, walks away from a vineyard, boards a boat. Farms are tilled, cement is poured, a cloud erupts over a country we know nothing about, a country we have never seen and will never understand, and everyone stops breathing. This is the end. Newspapers circulate headlines in bold.
Except you know this isn't the end, because the world can't end yet. You know somewhere, up ahead, there really is an ending, an ending that has nothing to do with mushroom clouds or poisoned wells or armored tanks or dysentery in covered wagons or gangrene from battlefield wounds or blighted crops or drafted sons or absent fathers or a rat escaped from a trading ship carrying something that strikes in the dark of night.
There is an ending that doesn't smolder in ashes or crumple on shattered foundations. Out of all of these lives and out of all of this time, molecules joined together to form the twisting chains of A T G C nucleotides winding through every convoluted system in the body, they survived, separated, recombined, separated, joined, twisted, grew, and then it is summer again. The air is filled with fireflies and the nervous held breaths of children, counting out one potato, two potato, three potato, four, a game of tag stretching across the yard, around the oak tree, down the street, children poised to scatter like dandelion seeds in the wind, as soon as their fists reveal their fate.