Instructions for the New World
by Caleb Tankersley
Danielle looks over a field of ash, searching for fingers. They’re hard to see against all the other bones. She’s distracted by the glint of a bent slice of metal. Danielle digs out the rest: a sheet of tin as tall as her body. She wipes away soot until she gets to the script. Her eyeballs are yellow and jaundiced. She has to squint to read the writing, faded from years of buried dust. Historic Downtown, an arrow pointing up. She twists the sign in different directions, trying to find the way. The metal is cold and heavy on her gloves. The people of New World will want to know about Historic Downtown. They’re curious about Old World.
Danielle walks down what she believes is the right path. Tan stone with pebbles protrude from the ground. This is how she knows it was the road. She walks for hours, scans the landscape, flat and almost beautiful in its nothingness. Blocks appear on the horizon, and she comes to the buildings. Their bricks are crumbling, the roofs and walls collapsed to show shells of rusted steel.
Why did Old World build up when they could have built down? It makes more sense to Danielle to have built down. A person can go only so high before becoming flimsy, crashing back. But digging never stops. A person can dig forever. Down is infinite.
She bends, takes off a glove and touches the earth with her real hand, cups a mound of soot in the leather of her palms. She decides to build here in Historic Downtown. They didn’t build like she will, down, but the people will believe it more. People don’t know enough about Old World, what life was like. She’ll show them every horror of the past. She’ll show how they once lived.
On The Beginning
People in Old World told different beginnings. They told of a woman falling from a cloud. Swans catch her beneath her arms, feathers pressed against skin. Their wings guide her onto the back of a giant turtle. We’re still riding the turtle. They told about a flood with a large boat and every kind of animal. They told of dead giants crashing into oceans, our ancestors crawling from the slimy foam. But it only began one way, in one order. It ended the same.
There was darkness, then light. Water. Sky and dirt. Plants and fish and birds. Dinosaurs. Mammals. Us. Then fire. Spears and furs and dancing. Crops and walls and ziggurats. Giant ships. Sheep and swords and aqueducts. Cannons. Rifles, steamboats, trains. Slums and concrete and forests of skyscrapers. Planes, bombs, television. Global interconnection. Then darkness again. Now we have New World. The same world but new.
The ground in Historic Downtown is soft and bluish gray. Danielle pulls heaps of soot with her hands, holds them to her body like a baby and carries them to a growing pile. Several feet down the soot is hot, and she can no longer touch it. It billows up and covers her goggles so that she must keep stopping to wipe. After six feet the ground turns to cold dirt. She bends a piece of metal, secures it to a stick, constructs a rough shovel. She sweats against her head covering. Her clothes are soaked when she returns home. She washes them every night.
She remembers Grandma telling stories of Old World. She doesn’t think Grandma was there, doesn’t know how Grandma knew those stories. But Grandma could talk about Old World for hours. “They lived in a world of mirrors. They were an image of themselves stretching infinitely behind them. They used to wear the skins of animals, as if they would become animals. Sex, for them, was an indoor thing. Can you imagine? Having sex and your family on the other side of the wall. They could blow a hole in the moon or stick a needle in the eye of a gnat.” Grandma would always end by looking up in reverence. “No one knows what happened to them.”
Danielle comes back the next day and the next day, shovels more. She unearths a wide pit ten feet deep. She shapes it into a cylinder large enough for a building, satisfied and not satisfied with the pit. She wants to make Grandma’s stories real.
She sets up a tent and begins to live there. Danielle digs for weeks before creating a deep enough hole. She uses ropes and buckets to move dirt from the bottom. Boulders take her days to remove. Hills of mud surround the hole. It’s round and seven stories deep. She knows they went higher but she can’t go any deeper. She wanders through Historic Downtown, curious about the metal beams collapsed around every ruin. Where did they get these? she thinks. She forages for scraps of metal.
They were a great people, she thinks. But they really should have built down.
She uses a rope to hoist herself in and out of the pit. The metals bars are too heavy to carry by herself. She builds pulleys. The bones in her fingers strain and become tired, poke through her paper skin. She’s growing old.
Danielle uses melted iron to piece the rods together. She uses more pulleys to move them into place. Some rods she melts into metal cubes, fits the cubes together. A skyscraper emerges. It’s going the wrong direction. It looks like an ancient hive.
On The Commute
Upon arriving at their buildings, employees must use a machete to hack through a cow before entering their offices. They must hack through longways, not short-ways. They must slice directly down the middle. Large scissors will be available to help with thick tendons. Employees must begin the day with the cow’s face. The first strike must be between the eyes, into the nasal cavity. This will minimize—though not eliminate—bellows and screams. The hacking must continue in this direction until the back legs fall to the ground in opposite directions. It has been decided that the tail need not be split. Employees are allowed one fifteen-minute shower during their first break. When leaving work, employees must again hack through a cow. They must begin with the back end when leaving their offices. It is recommended that the first strike be to the base of the spinal column. This will minimize—though not eliminate—kicking. Employers are not responsible for clean-up. Cows will release their bowels once severed. Employees are reminded to shower regularly.
Once the cows are severed, the employee will be given a lantern. The employee must carry the lantern seven times between the cow halves. This is the commute.
On New Colors and New Edibles
Grass was once but is no longer green. The sky is black and clouds are blue. There are new colors we do not have names for. Grass is one of these new colors. Water is translucent and orange. We don’t know why. Bones appear gray until they are opened. Then they are a new color but not the same new color as grass. This is the portion we eat. We eat the insides of bones.
In New World, bones are more numerous than weeds. No one pays for food. Every field contains more bones than anyone can eat in a lifetime. Femurs, ribs, and tibias pop from the dirt like blooming flowers. Finger bones are best, but you rarely find those. They’re tiny and hard. You have to crack them on rocks, like the shells of nuts. Or you can use the teeth you find in the field. A smart person uses the teeth. The inside of finger bones is glow-in-the-dark bright, the new color blinding before you swallow it.
Danielle stabs the metal sign with a shard until she punctures two holes, curved like bullet wounds. A chain runs through the holes and holds the sign up in a tree. The tree is ancient and petrified, more a sculpture than something real. The sign sways in the hot wind. It creaks in rhythm with the words, calling out to people foraging nearby. “Historic. Downtown. Historic. Downtown.”
Word travels. People are fascinated. They follow the sign. Danielle has cleared the old road, though the pieces are no longer flat. Slabs of tan stone jut up and down like waves. Bits of rebar poke into the air. The people think, Old World was so into metal.
New World is obsessed with Old World. They’re fascinated by Old World habits. “What a people,” New World says. This is why they follow the sign.
The wind picks up just before the New Worlders arrive. They scurry forward with scarves covering their faces. They come to another sign, this one scratched into the cracked bricks of a building: “Take a walk through Old World in well-preserved Historic Downtown! Capitol of Capitols! Jewel of Old World culture! Historic Downtown! See Old World come alive!” The text is followed by an arrow pointing below to a door. It’s the kind of door that would open a house except it’s on the ground. The people pull the handle and see stairs fashioned from dirt. They laugh to themselves. “I guess this is the Old World way.” They shake their heads and smile before going inside.
On The Grieving of the Dead
It has been judged that the dwelling on celebrity deaths in Old World was unfair. All deaths must be celebrated. They must all receive the same attention. Deaths will take over gossip and news. To die will be to become a celebrity. Soon deaths will be all people talk about. Awards will be distributed. Millions will attend the ceremony. Everyone who died will receive a medal. The medals will be copper and made in the shape and texture of tongues.
The people descend into a large wooden room. Danielle waits for them at a desk. The desk is charred black. She used a pulley to lower it into the room. This is the reception area of the museum.
Danielle sewed new clothes from scraps she found in the ruins. She stitched dish towels, old jeans, and parts of a canvas bag into a tight cloak. The cloth is thick and heavy. The skin of her shoulders rubs raw against the coarse fabrics. Her shoulders hunch from the work of building the skyscraper. The cloak is the first relic she points out. “Note my authentic Old World garb. This was the official uniform of a mayor. This very garment was most likely worn by the mayor of Historic Downtown.”
The people nod in amazement, clap their hands and say, “Well, okay” and “funky.” They follow Danielle down the stairs.
Danielle’s knees are weak. She descends the stairs slowly and with a cane of petrified wood. The stairs are made of dirt. “Dirt is largely comprised of human skin. We may very well be walking on the remains of people from Old World.” One woman snaps a photo of the stairs.
The skyscraper is deep and without order. Rooms are connected at random with saloon doors. Some stairs lead nowhere, others skip floors. Danielle is intimate with every crevice. She lives in the skyscraper’s core. When not leading tours, she spies on visitors from behind the walls. She’s waiting for their eyebrows to go up, for them to say “How did they live like this?”
“Here we have another relic of the past: a bathroom.” Danielle shows the bathroom. The room is shaped like a giant siphon and made of aluminum. “Old World peoples would urinate, defecate, and then bathe in the same space!”
The New Worlders place their hands on their heads and laugh. “Those Old World folks were crazy!” “Wouldn’t they have stunk?” “I’m so glad I was born in New World.” They hesitate to enter the room before Danielle assures them the room is clean, reminds them how long ago Old World was.
Danielle hears the clicks of more cameras. She smiles to herself, straightens the wrinkled sleeve of her uniform. She thinks of Grandma and how she would look in this crowd. She thinks of her father running his hands along the metal, wondering how they made everything so smooth. “The bathroom is fascinating, but there’s more to see. Let’s move on.”
Each part of the skyscraper introduces a new part of Old World. Danielle explains Old World culture to the people. “These ‘playing cards’ were used as legal tender in some regions.” “Old Worlders used hot metal instead of fire to light buildings.” “Dogs and cats were raised indoors as spare food.”
The New World people gasp. They laugh and pat Danielle on the shoulders. “Thank you for teaching us!”
Danielle has never been happier. She feels young, sways her hips in the patched cloak. “Thank you for listening! Come along! There’s more.”
On The Uses of Genitalia
It has been observed that New World has a dangerous surplus of bones. A people can eat only so fast. Rivers and lakes are clogged. The sea rattles with every wave. Bones are piling into dunes. These are not ideal conditions. New World scientists are researching ways to clear the bones. In the long term, they have elected to limit the uses of genitalia.
New World forbids vaginal sex. This creates more bones. We have plenty of bones. Scientists encourage anal or oral sex for all. If New World citizens insist on vaginal sex, there are plenty of bulls and cows. These steps will eliminate the further accumulation of bones.
People come from all over New World to see Danielle’s museum. She wins awards. She’s cited as an expert on Old World matters. Danielle is a beloved New World figure. She is interviewed many times. Every interview ends with the same question: “What happened to them?” Danielle answers with “I believe it had to do with umbrellas, but,” she says looking up, “no one knows.”
Danielle ends each day by dousing the torches. Darkness travels through the skyscraper from bottom to top. At the bottom is a spire extending down to the bedrock. If it weren’t underground the skyscraper would look like a spinning top. Danielle imagines this whenever she climbs the ladder to the bottom of the spire. Using the ladder inflames her joints, but she’s told the New World visitors about torches at the bottom of every skyscraper. She keeps track of every story in her head. Nothing is written down.
After the torches, Danielle crawls to her bedroom, a secret chamber in the middle of the skyscraper. She eats several bones. Her uniform is removed and washed in the sweat of cows. Danielle lies on a sack filled with fine dust. I hope they were as brilliant as I say, she thinks. I want them to be real. I want them to wake up and blow a hole in the moon. She clears her throat, turns onto her side. What happened to them?
On The Brushing of Teeth
The brushing of one’s teeth is to cease immediately. Teeth are not needed in the New World.
Caleb Tankersley has won the Wabash Prize in Fiction from Sycamore Review and the Big Sky/Small Prose contest from CutBank. His work appears in Big Muddy, Gargoyle, Midwestern Gothic, Pacifica Literary Review, Permafrost, Storm Cellar, and other magazines. His chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift was published by Urban Farmhouse Press. He is the Full Length Editor for Split Lip Press and a reader for Memorious.