At the harbor, the fleet lies at anchor.
Waiting for you.
When will you come?

The signs are unmistakable now. The burning West, the flooded South, the rotting heartland. The slack, mottled flesh of the remaining townsfolk.

As the woman picked her way along the lakeshore, she suddenly remembered an earlier time, when she would scavenge driftwood at the water’s edge. In her house, she would arrange the twisted shapes artfully, nestling candles in glass jars and vases of wildflowers among them. She would hold dinner parties for witty, successful people--had that really happened?

Back then, the lakeshore park had been overrun by geese. Beautiful when stringing along in the sky, they were ugly awkward things when grounded--mean too, and their green tubular shit was everywhere. Children couldn't play on the grass. But that didn't matter now. The geese were gone and children were few.

Why was she here at the lakeshore? She didn’t know, but she had dallied too long. As she scurried homeward, through the labyrinthine streets of her town, she kept her head down and her features impassive. So intent was she on watching her feet moving along that she almost tripped over an older man sitting on a corner, sobbing quietly into his hands. He looked up at her, his scarred, tear-stained face contorted in alarm. Had anyone seen? She hurried across the street and up the steep hill to her building.

In her apartment on the second floor, she lit just the one candle and went to stand at the window, peering out between the curtains. No one was about. The sky was a pearlescent grey. Soon night would fall.

At her feet was a bulging drawstring bag. Of course--that's why she had been near the lake. She’d gone to the market and then taken the footpath back through the park.

She glanced over to the house next door, where a young family--mother, father, daughter--had lived. Until the black van had come for them. The back door to the house, accessed through the weedy yard, stood open.

Immediately she wanted to go there. Curiosity was dangerous, but no one was on the streets and it wasn’t curfew yet.

Down the stairs and across the lot she went to the neighbors'; backyard and entered the house. In the hall, a single coat hung on a hook, a pair of muddy boots beneath. In the kitchen, dirty dishes were piled in the sink and she caught the odor of fried food. Someone had cooked here recently. As she opened a cupboard to see if they'd left anything, a cough startled her and she whirled about.

A figure sat at the table by the window--the father, she realized, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. That glossy black hair, shorn on the sides, but long on top, falling over his forehead. He looked at her, but without any sign of recognition.

“The back door was open,” she explained.

“They're gone,” he said. She sat down across from him.

“ is a good thing?”

“Maybe,” he echoed. Then he focused on her.

“You live next door."

“I do.”

He leaned back and looked out the window into the backyard. “It’s dark. You should

leave. You should not be here.”

“It’s OK. It isn’t curfew yet.”

“They will come for me now.” He put his head in his hands.

She reached across to stroke his hair. It was silky and fine, like a raven’s wing.

“I remember something,” she said. “When I was a child, I wanted to know the difference between a raven and a rook and a crow. I don’t remember the answer, but someone took me into a field where crows were roosting in the crowns of tall trees, cawing and raising a ruckus as they tended to do. The person with me called out ‘Begone!’ and they all flew up in a great cacophony and swirling of dark wings and then sorted themselves out and flew off. I was so scared. But also impressed.” She smiled.

“You’ve stopped drinking the water, haven’t you?” asked the man.


“That’s a bad idea. It helps.”

“That’s what they say. But maybe I don’t want to be helped anymore.” The moment the words came out of her mouth, she shrank back, astonished at herself for saying such a thing.

“You should go,” he said again.

She stood and extended a hand to him.

“Come with me,” she said, summoning up a voice that could command crows. He took her hand and let her lead him out the door and across to her building. The foul-smelling darkness was descending over the town and coyotes bayed from distant hills.

Just in time, they climbed the stairs to her apartment. For when the coyotes begin to howl, the searchers will soon follow. And so they came, whooshing past windows and swooping over the rooftops. Their high ululating calls always chilled her blood.

Had she had a family once, like the man’s? wondered the woman. The other day, as she stared at herself in her bathroom mirror, another woman’s face had shimmered into view. The same chestnut hair, the same brown eyes. One that had called her “darling.” One that had taken her hand and led her laughing down the beach. Where was that person now? And another time, she had looked at her body, seen the scar just above her pubic hair. Something had been taken out of her.

When the cries of the searchers faded, she lit a few candles and directed the man to sit at her table.

“Come, you need to eat something.” She set out cheese, unleavened bread, and the pale, watery tomatoes she’d gotten at the market earlier.

They ate in silence and she became uneasy.

“You shouldn’t do this,” said Ravenwing. “They'll be looking for me.”

“I know.”

“You feel good now, maybe. The memories coming back. But it will not last. It is horrible to remember. It’s all....” he hesitated. “It’s all loss, only loss.”

“That may be, but I cannot, will not, go on like this,” the woman said, and as she uttered these surprising words, she believed them, completely.

“I’m leaving,” she announced. “Tomorrow, first thing."

“Leaving? Where would you go?”

“I will go ... north. To the coast.”

“Nothing's there,” he said. “Nothing good. You are better off here, in a sanctuary town, where you can still get food, have shelter, be warm. At least, for a while longer.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.” She stood up and cleared away the dishes. Then she handed him a bottle of fizzy orange soda.

“This is what I drink now,” she told him. “I found several crates in an abandoned store. You’re welcome to some.” He took it and popped the top, drinking it down quickly.

“It’s awfully sweet,” he frowned. “But thanks.”

“You can sleep here, on the couch.” She left the room and returned with a pillow and blanket, which she handed to him. Then she walked over to the window. All was quiet and dark, except for a red glow dancing along the horizon, beyond the town. Something was on fire. Nothing surprising there.

“You're welcome to stay on after I leave, but...” she hesitated, feeling shy. “I hope you will come with me.”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I hope to remember it soon. You might as well call me Hope, then, for now.”

“All right, Hope.” For the first time, a smile lit up his face, as he extended his hand and shook hers. “Thank you.” He did not offer his name, but she had already determined what to call him, so that did not matter.

Hope rose in the early morning grayness and stuffed two backpacks with food from her meager larder and as much of the orange soda as they could carry. A knife for each of them, and blankets, which Ravenwing rolled up and strapped to the top of their packs. They left the house and descended into the old town, keeping to the shadows, making their way to the northern gate and beyond.

The main roads were in bad shape, crumbling after years of neglect, split apart by the frequent quakes. So they stuck to back roads and dirt lanes, heading northward. Everywhere lay the dead, the discarded, and the destroyed: people, animals, abandoned cars, ruins of houses, piles of reeking trash, weed-choked farmland, stretches of stunted forest where the wild pig and coyote now ruled. Although they sometimes discovered a stash of canned goods and preserves in farm pantries, foraging was time-consuming, and as they walked on, day after day, finding food grew more difficult. Soon they were down to a half-loaf of stale bread and a clutch of windfall apples they’d hurriedly scooped up in an old orchard while wild pigs watched them from the forest’s edge.

They came to a broad river, its sluggish brown water hiding all manner of dangers. There was no choice but to follow it upstream in the hopes of finding a bridge or a shallow place where they might risk crossing. Hope feared this detour westward would cost them dearly, but for Ravenwing's sake, she knew she must keep her resolve strong.

“Not much further,” she told him that evening, as they sheltered inside an abandoned pick-up truck at the edge of a field. Ravenwing turned away from her on the seat. Little by little, the spirit was ebbing out of him.

“I should not have come with you,” he told her the next morning. “I am going back.”

“Is it your memories? Are they starting to return?”

“Yes, and I have been through this before. I know how it will end. I don’t know why I came with you.” He looked at her and she saw something in him she didn’t like. A distrust. A malice. Would he harm her? Maybe she should let him go. But then again. Maybe she would need him. Who knows what they might face when they reached the coast?

“You know why you came with me. Please, let's give it one more day. If we don't get across the river and see something that gives us hope, some kind of sign, you can turn back. I will understand.”

“One more day,” he muttered. They climbed out of the truck into the steamy morning and began the slow trudge through shrubland along the river.

Her heart leapt when she raised her head and saw the bridge.

“Look,” she called back to Ravenwing, pointing ahead and increasing her pace. “See it? We’re in luck.” It was an old railroad bridge, mostly intact. Up the gravelly bank they scrambled and began to cross the bridge, stepping over the gaps where ties were missing.

From the bridge they spied a road and made for it, pushing through an overgrown cornfield with brittle diseased stalks sharp as knives that raked their arms bloody. A commotion reached their ears and they emerged from the cornfield to find a coyote tearing at something. It glared at them with yellow eyes and lowered its head menacingly. Screaming and waving her bloody arms, Hope scared it off, while Ravenwing knelt to see what it had been eating. A bird--nothing left of it besides a handful of bloodied dark feathers and its head, one black eye open, fixed on nothing.

On the roadway, they stood for some time, staring up at a billboard. The words “Your Next Vacation” were scrawled in a cheery red script across the bluest of blue skies. Below, on a sandy beach, a couple lounged on beach chairs, watching a child build a sandcastle down by the water. Blue sky, green waves, golden sands. But the billboard was damaged. A long swath had been ripped away, diagonally, bisecting sky and sea, and a brownish-red substance—paint? blood?--had been tossed over the couple, blotting out their faces and obscuring the name of the resort.

“We must be getting closer,” said Hope. Ravenwing sat down, slumping against the billboard post.

“Let's take a break,” said Hope. She pulled out an orange soda from her pack and opened it, noting that there were only three left. They had been limiting themselves to splitting one bottle a day. What would they do when it ran out? Any water they'd find was likely contaminated. After taking a deep swig, she handed the bottle to Ravenwing. He shook his head and drew his knees tightly to his chest. This was it for him, she realized. She set the soda bottle down next to him and walked on. He didn’t even raise his head to look after her.

As she trod the broken road, guilt pricked at her conscience. She should have let Ravenwing be, back in the town. Then she remembered what distinguished the black birds from one another. Rooks had grey beaks. There were no rooks in this country, but she knew she'd seen one somewhere, once. Ravens were larger than crows. With shaggy neck feathers and uneven tail ones. Crows honor their dead, gathering around them and cawing laments. They also remember human faces and avoid those who threaten them. The dead bird by the cornfield--what kind had it been? It seemed so important to know. She wished she had looked at it more closely, taken it more seriously.

Other memories came tumbling back, in disconnected flashes of color, sound, and emotion. These were painful, causing her to drop to all fours, gasping, sobbing, until the agony passed. The way the earth, no longer able to absorb the toxins of humankind, had retaliated with a vengeance. The way they had turned on each other. The iron rule of the plutocrats, the sanctuary towns that became prisons.

All day, she labored under the burden of memories. Toward dusk, she spotted an abandoned cottage by a stream. She huddled in a corner, wrapped in her blanket, plagued by dreams of those she had loved: her daughter, taken by the virus early on. Her husband, stoned to death in the first uprising. Her brother, her parents, her friends—all gone. She remembered everything now, all their deaths, and it was all terrible, yes, but also purifying. The memories burned through her, leaving nothing behind. In the morning, she set off again, determined to carry on.

Would she reach the deserted coastal town, ghost through its sand-strewn streets, past boarded-up stores and cafes, down to the reeking harbor? Would she see the fleet of sailing ships anchored farther off in the bay, white sails furled, waiting for her and for anyone else who remembered enough to come there?

No, that could never happen. There were so many dangers. For instance, the wild pigs. They had been tracking her and Ravenwing for days. Such clever beasts. One night when, too tired to seek shelter, she curled up in an open field, they set upon her. It didn’t take long.

Or maybe not the wild pigs. Nothing that dramatic. Quite simply, it proved too far to walk. The land wasn’t flattening out, as it should have if she were nearing the coast. There was no change in the quality of light, no salt tang in the air. Instead, mountains—jagged, dark peaks--appeared on the horizon. Despair now sank its talons into her, while hunger and thirst trailed at her side. Eventually, she gave up, collapsing at the side of the road, crawling into the weeds and laying her head down. Her blue eyes open, fixed on nothing.

Even if, by some miracle, she did reach the coast, which of course could never happen, there would certainly be no fleet waiting there. That was impossible. Who would send such a fleet? And where would it take her? Face it. The truth is, there is no escaping this misery.

But you, poised in the doorway, your eyes fixed beyond the town’s dark silhouette, you see yourself reaching that harbor and running to the end of the derelict pier.

Clare McMillan began writing, fiction and poetry, in the early days of the pandemic. “Begone” is inspired, loosely, by the Kafka parable “Die kaiserliche Botschaft” (“The Imperial Message”) and is an attempt to express the stubbornness of hope in dark times. Clare lives in Ithaca, New York.