Friday 9 July 2021

Rule 3

by Janet Meisel 

Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer)

I let the locket fall through my fingers and onto the floor, knowing it was gone even as I walked away. The tragedy it contained was now someone else’s treasure.


Before the power disappeared, I hated the subway. It was an airless steel tube, engorged with nervous commuters avoiding each other’s glances, denying each other’s existence. Hurtling through the underground. 
          But we are plodding, the steady click-clack of bullocks on the wooden boards, harnessed in the slavery of human transportation, and the quiet roll and rattle of the carriage soothes. It is a mother’s gentle rocking, a priest’s whispered absolution. If not for the cattle, the dogs, horses, the occasional elephant, nothing in this goddamned city moves. Or illuminates, heats or cools. I am a doctor and the hospital that ran on electricity and compassion, now runs only on cruelty. We try to forgive ourselves, but guilt hangs more heavily on some than others.

            ‘Giddy-up, you stinking beasts, giddy-up.’ A baritone singsong threatens the creatures as they drag us along the tracks. Trainmasters on horses release a rapid hail of cracking whips and raucous insults to keep the carriage moving forward at a steady clip.

‘Stinks bad today.’ I start pleasant chit-chat with the shadowy figure next to me.

‘Yeah. I heard the sewers stopped again.’

‘Aw shit,’ I say, without a trace of irony, ‘I hope the air keeps working.’

The city has an oppressive sweat that hangs heavy in the chasms between buildings. Every available space is jammed with makeshift wooden stalls, vendors hawking their products at fever pitch, struggling to make a coin here or to barter for something better, there.

Before, this was a good day out, strolling through downtown streets shut off to traffic, stopping at a store for one of those fancy pastries and a regular coffee. We browsed for hours and bought for pleasure, not because it was a precious commodity to be haggled and abused over.

I remember how she looked at me when I slipped the heart and its chain into her hand, silent and hopeful, knowing she might cry. And when it hinged open and our youthful faces beamed out of the tiny glass frames, she promised to wear it forever.

As I head home from my shift, the low sun loses its bite, colouring the clouds with a kid’s paint palette. Vermillion, pink, orange and grey layer into an exquisite sky. This is something to value, not the hawkers’ worthless plastic and metal junk glinting on tables as the light fades.

Soon everybody leaves. The vendors pack up their ramshackle shops. Improvised wagons, dead cars sawn in two, beat a path over potholed roads, dragged by more weary horses whinnying in complaint. They are all simple rules. Rule 1 applies at nightfall; Empty the streets, go home, stay there. In a while, the city is silent. The absolute silence of compliance.


I race up the hundred unlit steps to my floor: ten flights of ten. Torches are irrelevant, batteries swallowed up in panic. Generators follow, and now extinct, lay as lifeless husks of hope abandoned in lobbies and on highways, waiting for salvation.

          There is music still on other floors, drifting through the propped open fire-doors as I gobble up the ascent, two, three stairs at a time. And it is actual music, songs born from voices, melodies you can hold, blow, pluck and pick. I am grateful. This is no place to be alone and blinded by the silence.

          I count in flights and landings, feeling the cool steel handrail turn and rise as I pass each level. Keeping count- First… Second… Fifth… Sixth… Tenth and out. Several keys later, the door opens. A ragged intruder in my own life.

The apartment looks ordered and polished, but neglect hides in the shadows. By daylight, it is a museum. Jane might have been intrigued. I recall our conversation only a year ago, but a lifetime since.

 ‘I love this,’ she says. My wife is absorbed in a video; breaks into our peace, eager to share. ‘These guys go into abandoned houses.’

 ‘Then what?’ I ask. Distraction makes me sound churlish.

 ‘Look.’ Irritation enters her voice as she turns the screen towards me to illustrate. Her eyes stare patiently into my face for a response, hoping for fascination.

The men are rummaging through possessions coated in decades of dust. Cherished things left to rot; photographs in shattered frames, scattered jewellery, mildewing books, a rat eaten chair. It is beyond sad, a sudden realisation that everything we have will eventually be rubble and cobwebs.

‘Yeah, I get it. Old stuff,’ I say, dismissive, hiding behind cynicism, too appalled to watch any longer.

            She pulls the device back without reply, re-entering the rank and dusty world of abandoned lives.

            I should have been kinder. I know that now, sitting here with my candles and cold soup. Hell, she was showing me my future: crazy Miss Havisham with matches and a silver spoon.

‘Shut the fuck up!’ A voice screams abuse out in the hallway. ‘Stop that goddamned noise or you’ll be blowing that flute out of your ass.’

‘Leave him alone.’ I shout back.

‘Fuck you, doc. Fuck you.’ He says.

I leave it there unanswered. I have never been one to poke a pit-bull. God, I miss women, their soft voices and gentle conciliation. I miss her.

The music from downstairs stops.


We chose our fate by referendum, a nod to democracy rising out of chaos. We are the family that buys the compact sedan hoping to upgrade later; the fool that marries his first lover. We have settled. We chose the quick, easy fix.

Do you want a Council? YES or NO. Do you agree to abide by its decisions and rules? YES or NO.

Too easy.

The Council, a band of volunteers with loose credentials, stands up to be counted. When the power dies, they make rules, no laws, they reassure us, and we uncomfortably agree to abide. Decisions about food and housing come first, the Rules follow. It seems to be made up as we go along, but we go along without complaint.

Rule 2: Prove guilt and you must handle the punishment. It seems a lock. We are mostly compassionate in these times, but we disregard the hundreds of intricate parts that slam a lock shut or creak it open. And now we are stuck with this insanity, and I go to sleep every night thinking of Jane, her voice in my soul, whispering that it will all be ok, that she will always be with me.


The next morning comes with a surprising lightness. I open the windows and breathe deep, exorcising the foul air of night, of sewage and rotting life. A watery sunshine cuts through the clouds as I gather in the freshly filled containers of rain from the balcony. All over the city, clumps of smoke rise on rooftops, as we burn rubbish, boil water, and, at the western fringes, dispose of our loved ones.

I have been there to the scrap-pile of humanity, where ragged, motherless boys run barefoot over the dead, and bodies pile in pitiless heaps. There is no such thing as mourning or memorial, just a short sharp ride to the top, then pouff! Gone.

The sky, far in that direction, hangs over the tallest buildings in a brown haze.

‘Do we have to burn?’ I ask, already knowing the answer, but I am not in trouble for asking, for questioning. This is not rebellion, this is anguish, and the Council knows it.

‘It’s a matter of space, available space, now.’ A Body Manager pulls out The Map, picks up his wooden pointer, taps the desk for attention.

‘I am afraid they overrun us now. We have so many. The cemeteries, the parks…’ He motions to the green shaded areas with the tip of the stick. ‘But we are cutting down more forests here, to plant food. It’s a matter of balance. We have to keep a careful balance, or… .’ He shrugs, forces his gaze to the floor of The Chamber. An apology.

‘I know.’ I say, absolving the stranger of all pain and responsibility. ‘It’s just so fucking final.’


The rain water, still boiling hot, at least tastes safe. I mix a spoon of long-saved coffee and let it stand, waiting for a miracle that never happens, and drink it anyway. At least I can taste the bitter of stale grounds and feel the rush. One small comfort.

‘It has to be about the small things now,’ Jane would tell me. And I know exactly what she means: waking to fresh rain, indulging in each other’s bodies, the bright birdsong of a flute spiralling up the staircase and creeping in under the door. And the hit of caffeine on an achingly hungry stomach.

The sunrise takes me back to work. The passing shop windows are bare, long emptied, sold out or looted, the pavement yielding weeds that trap an inattentive foot and twist it into agony. I used to run along these streets, but today I am walking feather-footed, an old man that needs to watch his step.

I hold the handrail at the subway entrance, blessing the old men for slowing down our steep descent into the pungent hell of human and animal excrement. I pull my scarf up to cover my mouth and nose, but it does not help.

‘Gidd-yup, gidd-yup, you mangey bastards.’

The Trainmasters’ chorus fills the station, bounces off walls of cracking tiles and running rivulets of filth.

‘All aboard… All aboard. Departing in three… two… one.’

And the lash cracks across the broad backs of the bullocks. They step along the boards and slowly, little by little, the carriage speeds up and the whips fly harder.


Jane wants to do something, a minor protest, not a revolution. We know it is the monumental things that really shatter our spirit in this new abnormal, but we are tied to them, an anchor around our necks. We consent, and abide by each new rule, thumbing our noses at the Council when we can. We are adolescent boys disdaining authority, but we share with our neighbours, leave bread or candles outside their doors, hope that compassion can spread, that kindness is viral.

‘Oh no, not a vegan, those people are nuts.’ I tease about her latest crusade. ‘You’ll have to give up your shoes. No leather, you know?’

‘You shithead.’ She says, laughing. We are down to one pair of shoes each, joking around about having to eat them if things get worse.

The vegan thing lasts for a few months, until summer, when the power in our building finally dies, and the fridge stops preserving. Until the stove refuses to cook, and the only food we can find is wild and raw. Rice and fruit, lentils and leaves, nuts and beans. Like hungry pigs foraging the forest floor for tasty morsels. It all feels impossible and exhausting.

            When winter blows in, icicles grow on the window frames outside, and on the ceiling fans inside. We laugh at first, as nature gives us the finger for daring to exist, and we collect the ice for bathing, and laundry, then for drinking. Still grateful. The Council reassures us they will sort it by the end of the year, and here I am, here we all are, still thirsty and unwashed. And so very hungry.


I wake early that particular day. My wife is standing over a bucket, retching, vomiting, spitting, retching, vomiting again, spitting out the last bitter taste of sickness. I pass her a cup of icicle water, but she declines.

‘No, thank you, I don’t need it.’ Her always soft voice sinks lower than I have ever heard it, barely audible.

‘What’s wrong?’ I answer my question with a guess. ‘Maybe those eggs were bad? I told that guy to check them over. I’ll kill him, really, I’ll—.’

‘ —Stop.’ She says, with a look doctors have when they announce you have cancer. I know this look because I have given it.


The Council proclaims that our future is unfixable; not just the grid but all of us are hurtling like the subway, into catastrophe, caused by god knows what. And there is no solution. We finally have a unified world without borders, without racial divide or political allegiance and yet here we sit, dying from hunger and cold, thirst and heat. We are cavemen again, cowering in steel and glass, waiting until Rule 3: No Procreation is announced.

Jane and I lay awake for months, in terror, as her swollen belly barely nourishes a baby. She hides in oversized pants and sweaters, and coats so voluminous they could fit two of her in normal times. But this is not normal, it is fatal.

On one of the last days, I bring her to the wreckage of the hospital and lock her in my office, as labour pains wrack her distorted body. She fights the urge to scream out, bites her knuckles, until suddenly it stops, drifting away as fast as it started. We go back to the apartment in total silence, knowing what we need to do, and too ashamed to give it a voice. Every night the music plays, muffling the sounds of her breaking spirit. Until one night, it stops forever.


It is the end of another day of playing doctor. No matter the work, we are all frauds. There are no tools left for our trade; each medicine is a placebo, each prognosis a guess.

Rule 1 brings a heavy air of gloom with it tonight. The building has no music as I walk up the ten flights and along the hall. The door of our apartment is unlocked, it gapes open like a silently shouting mouth.

‘Jane! Jane!’ I run from room to room, calling her name but find nothing of her except the gold heart I gave her last birthday, before things went to crap. I pick it up, drop it in a pocket, unaware of gentle tapping on the door. Until he coughs and enters.

The man is ancient, a wizened creature. I have seen him only once before, on the 9th. Floor, waving a flute in the air, yelling curse words back down the stairs.

‘Do you know where she is?’ I ask. My visitor raises his head and fixes me with his eyes.

‘They took her, she’s gone… I am so sorry.’ He says.

‘Do you know where?’ I grab at him, shaking his old bones like a ragdoll, repeating over and over. ‘Do you know where? Where?’

But he breaks his gaze, silently turns his head. Released, he shuffles out and down the stairs. He needs to abide.


Most days I walk to the hospital, but today I need to take the subway. It is the anniversary of her birthday, and the locket burns a hole in my heart. I use it as a rosary, making promises for when I see her next, but that is something no one can guarantee. It is exhausting, trying to remember how life was and, more so, knowing what it is becoming. Before we arrive at the station, I have left the little gold heart on the floor of the carriage. Someone will see it and stop, happy to claim such a bright, and unexpected, small gift.

I had tried to find her, out where the fires burn brown columns up to the clouds, but in this time of men, this cold and hungry world of strangers, it does not pay to ask too many questions. An official letter comes a few days later. I read it and cry, and vomit with the fear I know she must have felt.

We both swore to abide by The Rules; rules created to maintain order until the very last day. But Rule 3 is different. It is not critical to our survival, but to ensure our extinction.

There is an old joke that I cannot remember well. It is about the last man left standing on Earth. He turns off the light and waits to die in darkness. I hope he, like me, will feel gratitude for the small things as he passes.

About the author

Janet Meisel is a retired teacher of more than years. She lives in Sydney, Australia. somewhere between her husband and six grandchildren. Janet has ambitions to be an artist, poet and writer when she grows up. 


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