Literary Fiction

The Unraveling


This book will launch on Nov 17, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. đź”’

When President Ebenezer Fudge unleashes the Frosting, it is but one more indignity inflicted on a terminally ailing world. War, famine and disease have ravaged entire continents. Controlled and exploited by fractured governments, opportunistic politicians and shadowy corporations, once-prosperous societies languish in a welter of failed hopes and shattered ideals. Across this benighted landscape wanders a cast of refugees, set adrift from their homes by one calamity or another and united only in a forlorn hope of something better.

Then, rumors of a place somewhere far off across the sea, a sanctuary of sorts where life is lived according to law in the halcyon glow of bygone days. In this last bastion of civilization music still plays, literature and the arts, extinguished elsewhere, continued to flourish, and bounty is coaxed from rejuvenated hillsides and fields. Yet even this utopia is in danger, riven from within by moral questions and threatened from without by a greedy world.

In dense, richly layered prose, this novel tells the story of a future not far removed from the here and now. The Unraveling speaks lucidly and forthrightly about events that are taking place before our eyes. It is insightful, thought-provoking and frighteningly prescient.

What is it that I have attempted, inscribed here on delicate parchment, protected between two pieces of wood I found washed up on the shores of this my home, and whittled with care to safeguard my life’s work? An epic, like The Iliad or The Argonautica or Beowulf, drawing aside the mists of time, sodden with the details of my own imagination; written in ink made from pine sap taken from the thick forests blanketing the base of my volcanic mountain. A myth, some might say. For what is a myth, after all, but a story of bygone days that has descended into a chasm, obscured by shadow and visible only in murky outlines and patterns? Early history, unverified and unverifiable; carvings on a stone tablet, pieces of vellum inscribed with a poem. Where does truth end and license begin? Did Agamemnon justly sail the Aegean in pursuit of a great beauty? Was a barbarous siege laid; did the valiant Achilles truly meet his fate upon the barren shores of Anatolia? Was an ersatz equine in fact the downfall of a forgotten power? These questions were asked even a millennium ago.

Legends, my writings will be considered, for they are my impressions of that which I have read, divorced from human intercourse. But does my pen write true? I could compose anything, you might think, with wanton disregard for accuracy; and rightly so, for who is there left to challenge me?

The guileless reader will perhaps see my work as a collection of short stories unfortunate only for their occurring simultaneously, a disparate set of fables independent each from the next in that haphazard, unfulfilling way of the storybook collections: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Just So Stories, Aesop’s Fables—indeed I have read them all. Misery and woe and warning that are truly told depict nothing more than a nasty set of chance events exaggerated by the bards. Or is my tale that of our collective foreordained fate, finally fulfilled? Yes, the naive reader might then envisage a world of divine predestination, controlled by a petty god inflicting his viciousness upon an unsuspecting world, a bully standing above an anthill with a monocle, his only diversion watching the insects squirm and perish with a short squeal and a tiny pop of blue flame. Alternately, the atheist imagines a cabal of powerful figures huddled distended from gluttony within the enchanted library of a beclouded snowbound castle crowning a quaint village, aged men sipping sacred spirits while plotting world dominion.

The foolish reader will presume that the Unraveling that has befallen us was akin to that amusing pastime of children setting dominos in an elongated pattern resembling a cosmic serpent, then with a flick of the finger marveling at the orderly destruction of their labors. They might even, in a last desperate quest to lend meaning to their misery, search in vain for the villain, the party who at the beginning of it all tipped the first tile in order to sit back and witness the fall, in the hopes of emerging the victor after so great an act of destruction.

But you are not a fatuous reader, of that I am sure. You cannot be if you have been brought to my side at such a time as this, when the books are all burned and the last civilizations have crumbled, and you still have the courage to ask “Why? What happened?”

No, you will understand, I am sure, that while great consuming infernos are occasionally deliberately set, most often they are not. On the contrary, they more usually have their beginnings in a discarded match or a stray bolt of lightning or even the careless discharge of a weapon by a hungry peasant hunting for dinner upon land that no longer eagerly provides; angry as the earth has become at our carelessness, our foolishness, our abuse. You will be aware, too, that although history is at intervals choreographed by dramatis personae, famed characters presiding over events of great significance, it is more often the off-Broadway shows, written by amateurs and enacted by thespians unknown, that tell the story of the end of empires. A troubled boy might leak a secret; that secret might spark a vegetable seller in a land forlorn and desolate to self-immolate; that immolation could cause a rebellion that would spread through the lawless, calcified places and shake the very bedrock of the world. It is rarely the touch of a button, red or otherwise, atop an ornate mahogany desk in an oddly shaped office, a careless act by a careless king, that kindles great wars. Powerful men commune with those unknown, and history does not discriminate.

No, you are not a witless reader; you will know that the unraveling happens not when the sweater is new and the wool is fresh from the loom but rather after a long period of wear and weathering that has left the threads frayed and exposed, poking out chaotically in sundry directions. When they are pulled at from all sides, yes even from Hades and paradise, when children and the aged alike demand warmth and cover from the shabby old garment; that is when the sweater disintegrates, not in a steady, dependable pattern, creeping comically up the torso of a cartoon animal but instead randomly and with no perceivable pattern, dangerously even. Wretchedly, to be sure.

         These are the annals of an unraveling—our unraveling. Of how a series of unfortunate events plunged our world into chaos. When the choices of acclaimed men with loud last names that resonate through history ran headlong into those of unknown, insignificant beings whose actions somehow still reverberate as inaudible sound waves that nevertheless shatter glass and lay low tall buildings. And as you read, wise reader, you might even find that in the accidental threads of this chronicle there can be found some beautiful rhyme, some higher reason—a harmony that could lead to a restitching in the fog of the future, which lies beyond our horizons. At least that is my hope.

So, without further ado, this is the story of how it all came to pass, but more it is a story of how such things affected real people, known and unknown, but mostly the latter, as they sought cover, naked as they found themselves in a world spoiled and ruined and cold. So, take a seat, if you are afoot. Should you find yourself by chance exploring this island, my island, it would be wise for you to begin here, with my tale. Pull open the windows, if they are not all shattered, and let the salty breezes of the sea caress you; perhaps it is now eons into the future, and the tangy smells of fish have returned, rejuvenated after humanity ceased its undersea slaughter. Perhaps new breeds of fish have arisen out of the darkness where they took refuge during the waxing of man’s rapacious greed, returning the oceans to balance following the withdrawal of mankind’s malevolent caress. Find the chair in the corner, the one with the wooden legs, if there it still rests. Pull it toward the light; in the wooden panel beside the great fireplace, you will see a round, carved apple, press it lightly. Did it click? Push aside the panel. Inside the cavity, you will find the last spirits of the island, distilled during the times of sanctuary; apple gin and potato vodka, whiskey product of the barley that once grew on the slopes under the dormant mountain, held in a decanter of crystal blown by the Island Glass Bottling Company on the far side of the island. It is still there I am sure, for I was the last to inhabit this place, and there I left it, for I do not partake of spirits.

Pour yourself a tumbler, wiping away first the years of grime, and sit for a moment, looking out over whatever remains. Then begin to read. When you are tired, or when you are finished if tired you do not become, you may then be permitted to walk the silent streets, the streets I once walked, also alone. Bakeries dusty and quiet; secluded silent plazas between whitewashed villas overgrown with bougainvillea, explosions of orange and purple and blue. Have the lavender fields endured? Are they lush and tall and fragrant? Have the birds returned? Have the pigs from the farm on the far side of the island survived, and if so, are they now feral and savage? Yes, then return here to take the manuscript again in your hands and read late into the night, for you too, I am sure, are hungry to know about the Unraveling.  

Now, before I begin my tragic tale, I envision that you are pondering the question, “Who is this new Herodotus who has come to us after all else has fallen away?” How could you not be curious, you who have come after? “Who is this man, or woman perhaps, and how have they become so well acquainted with the intimate details of our unraveling?”

You must be asking yourselves, “Who is she, who can so fluently narrate the folly of cities that are now abandoned and crumbling; the original purposes of colossal buildings whitewashed by tempests; the skeletons of arteries that still stand amid the regenerating forests and over which must have flown the lifeblood of great civilizations indeed? Whence derives her knowledge as minstrel and scribe, when all the other storytellers have fallen silent and all knowledge has been wiped clean; when the last of the world’s paper has been consumed and the final griot entered paradise?”

It is a reasonable inquiry, and therefore I will answer it; though I will give you only my sobriquet, not out of malicious intent but merely because it is all I possess. I call myself Pythia, a nom de plume to be sure and one I bestowed upon myself upon reaching that moment of self-awareness when one begins to consider identity. Of who I am, from where I hail; I must admit that my provenance is as much a mystery to myself as it is, I am sure, to you who are reading this. And if it is so, where then did I go after my work was complete? Was I the last oracle? If you have found my dried bones neatly seated on the ottoman, which was my favorite, overlooking the west side of the island toward the slopes upon which grow the lavender fields, then you will have your answer. If not, well then, we will both have to puzzle at my destiny. Did I throw myself from these wide windows, the last sacrifice to the gods from a world that considers them no longer? Did I embark upon a great quest, weary of the solitude, and become the matriarch of a new Atlantis somewhere just over the next horizon? This last is not likely considering my age upon completing this, my first and final work. Sadly, not even the greatest of the priestesses have returned from the other side to pen their dying reflections. Thus, you and I both will have to wonder of my fate after I lifted my quill for the last time and closed the cover of this the world’s epilogue.

         Surely, my early years are as clouded in the mists of unknowing as my last ones. The earliest of my memories, hazy as if through a smoky mirror and spasmodic like the antique reel-to-reel I discovered in the great cave that lies beneath my tower, my home, and upon which I would watch the yellowed films of our past, involves climbing on my hands and knees the circular stairway that leads to this room, to sit upon the solid carved oak chairs that still smelled faintly of tobacco in front of the polished oaken table with its perfect circular tumbler marks facing the open windows through which the sun set over the sterile seas. To write, as my arms extended toward the paper and my legs stretched deliberately to finally rest my feet flat on the ancient tile; and to read, carting up the tomes from below in ones and then twos and fours to pour over them as my neck curved and my back straightened—and again to write. An oracle is defined by her influence upon the affairs of men, but mine was a silent world alone forever in this olden tower, adorned with early runes and the lasting frescoes of the Minoans; picture tales of love and lust, feasts and battles and death. Unknown to me except the last which, at least, I know I will experience. As I did with birth, though that singular event was lost in shrouds of infancy; it is a sad irony that those two accomplishments, my only links with the stories of humanity that decorate the walls of my tower or are captured in the books of the library beneath my feet, are lost to me, beyond the clouds that obscure our beginnings and our endings; and my years of sentience between are absorbed only by my own thoughts and the dead who visit me through the pages of crusty scrolls and reels of wrinkled cinema, an unsatisfying intercourse, to be sure.

How I have come to be here, alone, I have been unable to ascertain despite my years of prodigious study of matters great and small from the underfoot archive. The last library, I am confident enough to assert. Did I have a mother? I must have, for I have the requisite parts—a navel, putting not too fine a point on it. Did I have a father? There has of yet been no recorded instance of spontaneous reproduction independent of the efforts of men, well of a man specifically. And a woman. Except of course the Virgin Birth, and a perfect offspring of a sainted virgin I am not, for I have enjoyed no angelic visitation, and no messages from a progenitor deity have come my way, of this I am certain. Perchance I am a nymph; for the tales of the faeries, tucked away in the secluded corners of my cave, do ring true and have often been a consolation of sorts; or a sprite conjured by the powers to safeguard the end of tales; a djinn on sojourn from the arid sands lost in time and place—for the djinn too are born and die, as I have. An elf, yes, the elves are by far the most bookish, lovely, delicate, and true; thoughtful and wise. Yes, perhaps I am an elven priestess.

But alas, I do not know, having never encountered any other entity against which to compare myself. What I do know is that I existed; the proof of which is now in your hands, for your study and safekeeping.

Mine was a solitary quest, orbiting as I did the forgotten knowledge in search of the answer to the question, “What calamity has befallen man?” The story you are about to read, the journey you are embarking upon, is the final product of that inquisition. Taken from the formal histories preserved for safekeeping behind lock and beneath rock. But also from the private journals found moth eaten and moldy, hurriedly crammed in between bricks or under floorboards of the decaying dens of the world’s last civilization; returning as it did to lay overtop the first. The Minoans of old, beginning the epic journey of humanity, who sailed boldly across the seas to march over the mountains only to end back here, in the selfsame place, the selfsame tower built by long-dead architects in granite and marble taken from the earliest of quarries—the sanctuary to cradle life’s frail beginnings serving also as the last haven after the Waterloo of the world. Yes, this is the final story of the sanctuary. Now, and at last, I will entreat you, long-suffering reader, to allow me a certain latitude as I recount for you this tale. For these people I will tell you of have become my only friends, trapped alone as I am on this island after all other friendships have fallen away, and as such I feel I have come to know them, to share their fears and worries and tribulations and even their rare joys. They are my only family.

There, and now we pivot as we must to the heart of the matter. Those who have authored the books I have read are all too fond of avowing that they do not know the genesis of the turmoil, the exact ship aboard which the mutiny began. This may be true—perhaps the uprising did not have a single point of origin—but they did know the time. Of this I am certain. Why? Because it is clear to me at least that those who knew the deluge was coming were not caught unawares, though they might have claimed to be, in order to pretend that they were also not the authors and makers of the madness. To assert that they had no role in the mayhem. It came, of course, in the undoing of technology. That upon which the modern world was built, that most delicate of mortars—bits and bytes and boards, welded precariously with rare-earth metals. Substantial like the pyramids of Giza they were not; and when the Frosting came, when the towers were fried, there was nothing that could save a world built upon so insignificant a foundation.

         Please bear with me as I clarify. For an age, decades in fact, centuries even, human interaction had been changing in subtle ways. Just as the growth of the mega city-states created anonymity of the millions flocking to seek protection in numbers from starvation and the gangs that roamed the ungoverned borderless world beyond, the arrival of the digital age subtly changed the nature of human intercourse. It became two-dimensional, anonymous, mythological almost; an avatar on a screen who perchance was your mother or even a murderer. But human nature does not perform well within conditions of anonymity; there is a gregariousness about man that is essential for the adequate functioning of society. The stabilizing massage of contact, sanding over the rough edges of our dispositions, worrying away the dangerous jagged edges as we are alternately rewarded and punished for behavior perceived as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, right or wrong—social and antisocial. Yet slowly, the cities grew and became more congested and production more automated as the Industrial Revolution reduced man to a tool in the machine of mass production, making him disposable, robbing him of the joy of craftsmanship, of the work of his hands and his mind and the competition against other craftsmen. Quickly prices collapsed, that only measure for a society to guide it by invisible hand to the correct allocation of their scarce resources, the scarcest of which was time and craftsmanship and the human experience.

Then suddenly, a glut of unneeded offal product of mass production clogged the world, bringing down trees and razing forests and digging deep holes in the ground in the search of rare-earth metals for the factories. And who cared? The now-less-poor toiling twelve-hour days, seven-day weeks crammed into the mass-produced houses upon the fringes of the great cities, slums in other words, as they finally had what none of their ancestors had ever had: disposable income. The revolution then advanced, becoming electronic as robots replaced people and people eschewed the associations of communal life for the glorious indiscipline of their slovenly solitude and the wonderful fiction of the screens. Then came the pandemic and the accompanying fear of congress, permanently cementing the anonymity long after the malady had burned away.

A woman named Gloria, who had run a bakery in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and greeted her customers with a smile and a free sample of her hand-rolled, fresh-baked bollo, serving cafecito or a submarino of white chocolate with pride on little round tables adorned with doilies knitted lovingly by her mother, watched with bitterness as the flow of people turned to a trickle. Confused at the metamorphosis, she researched only to find that close by, but behind solid iron doors—and without the little tables or hand-sewn doilies—a factory automated from production through delivery had begun to dispatch bread to the front doors of her erstwhile customers. To be sure, the pastries were of an inferior quality, lacking the yeast of love and pride; nevertheless, those willing to undertake the effort of grooming in order to pay a premium for the kindly smile and the gentle grace of companionship were too few to make up for the increased expenses, and slowly Gloria’s confiteria was ruined. She shrugged, retreating behind her own avatar, and the warm goodness of the aroma of bread was no more breathed along the boulevard.

A budding newsman named Richard, who delivered papers in the morning along the frozen avenues of Elk Grove Village outside Chicago, who would ring the doorbell in order to engage each client on the significance of the stories printed boldly on the front page above the fold, and elicit responses and reports of local happenings for his own town journal, found one day upon arrival that the warehouse that produced his broadsheet had been boarded and shuttered and that there would no longer be paper papers. He returned home, and with no reason to knock on doors any longer, no clients to engage, and no local stories to tell, he cloistered himself in his room and invented his own happenings to be written and splayed across a media become unsocial, spectacular stories that engendered a great readership but all untrue.

There is more. One morning a truck driver called Charles discovered upon arrival at the dispatching center in Nairobi that he was no longer needed to drive the route from Mombasa to Johannesburg, having been made redundant by self-driving cars. Around the same time, Stephania closed her butcher shop, unable to compete with the delivery-based meat of inferior quality dispatched in Styrofoam and shrink-wrap. Unable to assist her long-time clients with the perfect cut of meat tailored for each gathering in return for pride of significance and a role in the community, she shuttered her storefront displays and instead began uploading pictures of products Photoshopped to screen-based menus, automatically dispatched by the digital services requesting this or that cut to the outskirts of Frankfurt from anonymous places unclean and uncared for. Now the “ding” of an arriving order replaced the detailed discussions of fetes and events and the pairing of wines and the advice of the woman who loved her customers. In their off hours, these people would wander aimlessly around their houses or through the streets, electronic devices bonded to their hands or on the inside of their glasses, chasing digital ghosts down side alleys—characters lovingly programmed into technology inserted into the folds of skin slowly replacing the real human who had once existed.

         Without the lubricant of human contact polishing over the rough edges of personalities grown unaccustomed to intercourse and become mean and unruly, the megacities became sad, lonely, suspicious places, while people seeking solace and comfort in companionship turned increasingly to their machines. Out of practice in the art of debate, of argument and contest and without the compassion that stems from the empathy of human contact, unable even to examine in the visages of their peers the silent signals which are so great a part of human congress, people anonymous and coarse turned suddenly and violently wicked. On the streets of the megacities and from the apartments wrapped in obscurity, they hurled insults at each other, digital daggers seeking to wound and destroy. They fought over books and movies and politicians, sports and philosophy and religion; façade against façade in a pitiless contest bereft of mercy.

         That is until the Frosting, when in rolling waves of rage, the devices lost their connections with the towers, which had ceased their communications with the satellites, which were no longer fed from the servers or that mysterious ephemeral cloud. Bleary-eyed and smelling mildly of themselves, the cottage cheese of curdled diaphoresis, the people on the streets bent upward their heads upon hooked necks from their blackened appliances with bloodshot squinted eyes at a world unrecognizable and troubling. The old woman in front of them with a brown paper bag; the boy seated on the bench beside the bus stop; the streetwalker on the corner exercising the last and oldest profession—and something inside the collective mind of mankind snapped.

Perhaps it was too long living in worlds at once fictional and beautiful; or perchance the unrestraint from abiding in a consequenceless realm of naked aggression. One by one, the denizens of these isolated places accustomed only to rage dropped their devices to pick up a rock, a brick, or a broken piece of cement; to pull a branch from the tree above their heads or a picket from the fence beside the sidewalk, and they turned on each other. From north to south and from east to west, in wealthy and destitute countries alike, from cities powerful and strong to those mired in misery, it mattered not. Having exchanged their digital weapons for those of our darkened pasts, they fell upon each other, and the blood ran in rivers to feed the lakes and oceans, turning them a murky redolent brown. What history, if it were to be written at all outside my own etchings, would christen as the “Race Wars” had begun.

But that was not all. For then the sackings began as the invisible hand of digital commerce froze production and suspended distribution in a world once global, in which a man from Moscow would drink coffee from Nicaragua transported on a ship based in Comoros by a crew from the Philippines. Suddenly and catastrophically, people realized that the flow of goods upon which they counted had ended, not trickling to nothing allowing time for the slow modification of behavior, but all at once, and the shock was too much to bear. The wild, dark men in the Ozarks in America and the Caucasus in Russia formed into bands, descending upon towns that had once been affluent, hunting for food or wares. People procured iron doors for their homes, for the alarms had become inoperative; they purchased weapons, firearms long and short, for who would come to their succor in a world gone mad? The gendarmes, without remuneration for the flow of digital currency, had also ceased, had contrived their own ways to profit, forming gangs to battle other gangs on the streets and through the abandoned buildings. The affluent precincts formerly protected by property values turned to building walls upon which patrolled mercenaries from one of the endless wars past and present. Guard posts flaunting an array of weapons rose in an act of hubris against what little authority remained, while a desperate fear of those more powerful returning governed the decision-making processes of men. Around the world, people again sought their well-being closer to home—a potato from a neighbor in exchange for protection, a pile of maize for a place in a traveling caravan—for no one would brave the open roads alone. And with a shock, society returned to the days of prehistory.

         And so starts my story.

About the author

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work "The Unraveling: A Novel", a dystopian story about the fraying of the world. Hirst was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the George W. Bush Institute. Graduate of Brandeis University. view profile

Published on August 17, 2020

Published by

140000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Literary Fiction

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