A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg

David Grigg is the author of just a handful of stories, which were published between 1976 and 1985. This story, the first he ever had accepted for publication, first appeared in the anthology Beyond Tomorrow, which saw him sharing a table of contents with no less than six SFWA Grand Masters. In 2004, it was performed as an audiobook by Alex Wilson of Telltale Weekly, and is included in Grigg’s story collection, Islands, which is available for free download on his website, www.rightword.com.au. Grigg has been nominated for the Australian Ditmar Awards several times, once in the short fiction category, twice as a fan writer, and once for editing the fanzine The Fanarchist.

Grigg says that the seed of the story was a line in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” where Tuzenbach says (of one of the sisters), “Fancy being able to play so exquisitely, and yet having nobody, nobody at all to appreciate it!” It was this sad irony of wasted talent that started Grigg thinking about how the very talented might cope–or not cope–once our civilization was no more. If, as Grigg says, culture is an epiphenomenon of civilization, without civilization, would culture be entirely irrelevant?

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.


A Song Before Sunset
by David Grigg

It took him three weeks to find the sledgehammer. He was hunting rats among the broken concrete and rusted metal of an ancient supermarket. The sun was beginning to descend over the jagged horizons of the city, casting shadows like giant gravestones onto the nearer buildings. An edge of blackness had begun to creep across the rubble that was all that remained of the store.

He picked his way carefully from one piece of concrete to another, skirting the twisted metal, looking for a hole or a cover that might make a suitable nest for a brood of rats, here and there using his stick to turn over a loose chunk in the vain hope of finding a can of food undiscovered after years of looting. At his waist hung three large rats, their heads squashed and bloody from his stick. Rats were still fat and slow enough these days to be caught by surprise with a blow to the head, which was fortunate, for his eye and his skill with the slingshot he carried were not as they had once been. He rested a while, sniffing at the cold wind. There would be a frost tonight, and his bones knew fear of the cold. He was getting old.

He was sixty-five, and the years had starved him. The flesh of his youth had loosened and sagged, leaving his frame thinly draped and his eyes staring from his bony head like some curious troll.

He was sixty-five, and his hair, gray many years ago, now raised a white halo about his leather-colored face. That he had survived so long was a wonder to him, for his earlier years had not prepared him for this present world. But somehow he had learned to fight and kill and run and all else that had been necessary in the long years since the city had died.

The days now, however, were not so foul and desperate as they had once been. Now it was seldom that he feared he would starve to death. But in the bad days, like many others, he had eaten human flesh.

His name was Parnell and he had gone on living. The sun was sinking fast, and he turned about to go back before the dark could overtake him. It was as he turned that he caught the dull shine of metal in the corner of his eye. He peered more closely, put out his hand and heaved a sledgehammer up from the rubble. He swung its mass experimentally, weighed it in his hands, and felt its movement. After a moment he was forced to put it down again, as his arms began to tremble with unaccustomed strain. But no matter: given enough time, he knew this was the tool to realize the hope he had been hugging to himself for three weeks. He tied the hammer awkwardly to his belt and began to hurry home, fleeing the shadow of the city.

It was almost dark when he reached his home, a weather-stained stone house hedged around with the tangled jungle of an overgrown garden. Inside, he carefully lit each of the smoky candles in the living room, calling up a cancerous light that spread relentlessly into the corners. His door was locked and barred, and at last he sat in peace before the woodwormed piano in the main room. He sighed a little as his fingers tapped at the yellowed and splitting keys, and felt an accustomed sorrow as the fractured notes ascended. This piano had perhaps been a good learner’s instrument in its day, but time had not been kind to it. Even if he had not feared attracting the attention of the dwellers in the dark outside, the effort of playing was more agony than pleasure.

Music had once been his life. Now his greatest aim was only to quiet the rumbling of his belly. Then he remembered–his eyes drifted to the hammer he had found in the rubble that day–and his hope came alive again, as it had weeks ago.

But there was no time to daydream, no time for hoping. There was time before he slept only to clean and skin the rats he had caught. Tomorrow he was to go trading with the Tumbledown Woman.

The Tumbledown Woman and her mate lived in the midst of a hundred decrepit trams in an old depot. Why they chose to live there was a puzzle none who traded with her had ever managed to solve. Here she stayed, and here she traded. Her store counter was a solitary tram left on the rails a few meters outside the depot, its paint peeling away but still bearing pathetic advertisements of a lost age. While the outside of the tram offered far-away holidays and better deodorants, the Tumbledown Woman inside traded garbage as the luxuries of a world which had died. Inside, arrayed along the wooden seats or hung from the ceiling were tin cans with makeshift hand-grips, greasy home-made candles, racks of suspect vegetables grown no one knew where, rows of dead rats, cats, rabbits and the occasional dog, plastic spoons, bottles, coats of ratskin and all sorts of items salvaged from the debris of oft-looted shops.

The Tumbledown Woman was old, and she was black, and she was ugly, and she cackled when she saw Parnell approaching slowly in the chill morning. She had survived better than many men through the crisis, by being more ruthless and more cruel than they had ever managed to be to her in the years before. She rubbed her hands together with a dry, dry sound, and greeted Parnell with a faded leer.

“Two rats, Tumbledown Woman, fresh killed yesterday,” he opened without hesitation.

“I give you something good for them, Mr. Piano Player,” she said.

“Then that will be the first time ever. What?”

“A genuine diamond ring, twenty-four carat gold, see!” And she held the flashing gem to the sun.

Parnell didn’t bother to smile at her taunt. “Give me food, and be done with your mocking.”

She sneered, and offered him a cabbage and two carrots. Nodding, he handed her the skinned corpses, lodged the food in his bag, and turned to go. But he was carrying the sledgehammer at his side, and she stopped him with a yell. “Hey, piano player man, that hammer! I give you good fur coat for it! Genuine rabbit!”

He turned and saw that she was not mocking him this time. “When I’ve finished with it, maybe. Then we’ll see.”

His reply seemed to make her pleased, for she grinned and yelled again: “Hey, piano man, you hear the news about Ol’ Man Edmonds? Them Vandalmen come an’ kill him, burn down that book place Ol’ Man Edmonds live in!”

Parnell gasped in shock. “The Library? They burnt the Library down?”

“That’s right!”

“My God!” He stood, silent and bewildered for a long minute as the Tumbledown Woman grinned at him. Then, unable to speak further in his anger, he clamped his hands together in bitter frustration and walked off.

The sledgehammer was an awkward thing to carry. Slipped into his belt with the metal head at his waist, the wooden handle beat at his legs as he walked. If he carried it in his arms, his muscles protested after no more than a few minutes, and he was forced to rest. He was getting old, and he knew it. The slide to death was beginning to steepen and he was not, he thought, very far from its end.