On the Government of the Living: A Parable

Matthew Cheney

They had not lived in this place for long, but it felt longer than they had lived there.

They had lived in other places like this place, and they had moved on.

They often moved on, but they never seemed to move.

This place was just like every other place.

They slept in holes and built hovels in ruins; they shivered in shadows; they amassed collections of cardboard and aluminum and shards of concrete; they built fires in barrels and along the shores of oozing rivers and in the husks of traffic jams; they breathed air gritty with the last bits of broken glass and broken bones; they cast off clocks; they seldom spoke; they never dreamed. They were here, they were now, in this place, a place.

They would not give any place a name, or themselves names, because names were gone now, along with everything else.

This place was a place of ash and sand, a place of burned metal, a place of splinters, a place dwindled long by slow decay.

This was not a place, someone said, it was a memory, faltering, fuzzy.

This was not a place, someone said, it was a feeling, muted.

This was not a place, someone said, it was a gash.

At night, chilled and huddled, with eyes squinted against smoke from burning barrels, they named what they had lived, loved, hoped, dreamed: the words they would preserve.

My mother, someone said. Her name was Emily.

(They remembered and imagined their mother, Emily.)

Popcorn, someone said. The smell more than the taste. The sound.

(They remembered and imagined popcorn popping.)

Ben, someone said. I never had, never knew anybody named Ben.

(They remembered and imagined never having, never knowing Ben.)

Night after night, the ritual continued.

Now and then, someone was missing or someone was new. There were repetitions. Nearly everyone remembered a favorite pet, usually from childhood, sometimes from later, never from the last days before they came to this place or the places like it, because everyone knew that those days past, and the pets (and other words) trapped forever in them, must be forgotten.

One night, before the setting sun stole the red sky, someone said, “We need names.”

Murmurs and whispers cut through the ashen air.

“Without names,” the person said, “we will not be remembered.”

Murmurs. Whispers.

Someone else said: “We will not be remembered.”

Someone else said: “We should not be remembered.”

“But,” the person said, “our children–”

“Will die,” someone said.

“Without knowing our names, their names, our places, our stories. Our children–”

“Will die.”


Someone else said: “I have no children.”

Someone else said: “We have no children.”

“All of us,” someone else said, “will die.”

They did not gather together that night. They sat alone, separate, scattered, cold.

In the morning, they did not seek out puddles and streams in which to wash themselves. They walked through the day covered in ash and sand. Their skin was crusty, their eyes stung, their lips stayed dry, caked, salty. The youngest asked for food and water. The oldest sat stoic.

“Is this the end, then?” someone said. “Is this all we are?”

“We are nothing,” someone said.

“We will die,” someone said.

“Without names.”

“Without a place.”



A child stared into older eyes. “Who are you?” the child asked.

“I don’t know,” the older one said. “Who are you?”

“I am not you,” the child said.

“Yes,” the older one said. “And I am not you. We know who we are then, yes?”

“I know who I am because I am not you,” the child said.

“Yes,” the older one said.

“I would like a name,” the child said.

“There are no names.”

“I would like to know about this place.”

“Forget this place.”

“I would like to remember something,” the child said.

The older one was silent for a long time. “There are only words,” the older one said, “and none of them are worth remembering.”

The child walked away. By the next morning, the child knew childhood was no longer viable, that it was, in fact, an artifact of the deep, impossible past, like bubblegum and fortnights and milliners. Childhood was — always was — something else lost.

The adult felt a moment of nostalgia, then moved on (separate still, alone still, but moving).

Others noticed. Others joined in the movement. Eventually, they found themselves swathed in another night, together. The bitterness had somehow drifted off, much of it forgotten. They moved closer, touching elbows, arms, shoulders. After silence, the ritual began again, tentatively, pulsed with pauses.

Blue skies, someone said.

Pause. Pause.

The smell of haybales on a rainy day, someone said.


Toothpaste, someone said.

Night after night, the words (remembered, imagined) accumulated. Then:

Love, someone said.

First love, someone said.

Lost love, someone said.


Laughter, someone said.





Laughter, someone said again. The tone was different this time: urgent, imperative.

Laugh, someone said.


And they did — first almost in silence, as if whispering of something forbidden (like sex in a world no-one would willingly birth babies into, like dreams) — and then with more confidence, more pleasure — chuckles, giggles, chortles–


The sound carried across the dunes of sand and ash, over the tortured steel that slashed the land, through the gritty air, toward the remnants of consciousness out there in a landscape of memory–

And if this were a happy story there would be an epiphany, and voices would rise with their own laughter to meet the laughter, and the whole, desolate world would be united for a moment in human joy–

But here, in this place, in this story–

Laughter cannot penetrate the ash, the grit, the night.



(Someone smiled at someone else, a sheepish smile, a smile for shadows.)


“That’s enough for now,” someone said.

They huddled closer, deeper into the silence, and soon were asleep.

In the morning, they would move again, and in the night they would not talk, for it was too dangerous, too close to dreaming.

They would move again, still seeking they knew not what.

The adult could not sleep.

Tears welled in eyes. Hands quickly wiped the tears away.


There was a moon this night. It had been invisible for weeks or longer, blotted out, but now it had returned to the sky.

The moon burned, coldly, orange.

If this were a happy story, someone would rise with the sun and press on toward something more, something greater, something…

The moon burned.

Tears dried.

No-one slept.

Words crumbled in their minds, each an emblem of the utmost they could know, each now dust.

They were left only with themselves and the universe of night, all unmoving, eyes fixed on sightless eyes, gazing at each other as if admonished from another world.


Cheney profile photoMatthew Cheney’s story “A Map of the Everywhere” appeared in the first Interfictions anthology, and his other fiction has appeared in One Story, Weird Tales, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Wilde Stories 2014, and elsewhere. He is co-editor with Eric Schaller of the (very) occasional online magazine The Revelator, and he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire. He continues to sporadically and unpredictably post things to his blog, The Mumpsimus, and is the winner of the 2014 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press, who will publish his collection Blood: Stories in January 2016.