The Fourth Horseman
by Jan Smith
Locked here in my bubble, I
can feel the heartbeat of a dying world. It resonates along
bone and sinew, through vessels and arteries frozen like
wintry trees beneath the once-soft snow of my skin. With
every stumbling beat, every throb of that danse macabre,
I can feel my own life force begin to tremble and fade at
It wasn’t always like this. In the earliest days the
tempo was steady and strong. True, I was barely aware of
it then, the pulses of my brain chilled to a near-stop,
but as I adjusted to the rhythm, it was the first thing
that emerged from the nothingness. Like an embryo listening
to the rush of its mother’s blood, I revelled in the
certainty of that sound. It wrapped itself around me and
held me secure. For centuries, I was happy to be held and
Then, gradually, I began to explore the beat, to grasp it
with the fingers of my mind and unravel its components like
a skein of wool; thread by complex thread. To my delight,
I recognised them all. The chatter of children, gasps of
lovers, and beery bar-room chuckles; an oscillation of emotions
along cats’ cradles of telephone cables. I could hear
roots rustling through the earth; tramping hooves on plains;
the crash of oceans saturated with the songs of sea-going
mammals; wings in dark places; the clap of fireworks; the
scratch of the poet’s pen. All underpinned by the
drip of tropical forests, and interwoven with the ebb and
flow of life itself.
When I had unravelled all the threads, I braided them back
together again. That pulse was my umbilical cord; it was
The change, when it came, was such a subtle slowing, such
a surreptitious stumble of the beat, that at first I hardly
noticed it. When I did, my mind strove to explore it once
more, to isolate the cause. I couldn’t believe what
I found. Some of the strands of the sound were gone altogether.
I reached in vain for forests and plants, for creatures
that used to buzz, growl and swoop. I listened too for the
scribble of the poet, but found instead a vacuum filled
with neon pulses stringing out into the ether; filaments
linking beads of haves together among innumerable have-nots.
The sound of the ocean remained, but burdened with oil and
excrement; its lean roar swollen to the suck of molecules
on blasted beaches. And over the top of it all, loudest
and most shocking, was the sound of human suffering. Babies’
cries were sharpened by hunger and woven with the pleadings
of premature death, shot through with the shrieks of the
tortured, the wounded and the starving.
By the time I had completed the second unravelling, I understood.
The earth, my mother, was dying. I knew, too, that I was
losing my mind - a shaved and tubed Ophelia, frozen solid
in her tax-deductible brook. I have tried to ignore that
revelation, to cling instead to the heartbeat, the evidence
of another existence, however poisoned. But in the ebb and
flow of centuries, I sometimes let the pulse fade away from
me, and lose myself down giddy internal paths.
‘Just think, Lianne,’ my human mother whispers.
Think. Think. ‘By the time you are resurrected, child,
they’ll have a cure for old age, for every illness.’
For every illness. Her words are blurred by time. Where
is she now? Dead. Long dead. I cannot remember what she
looked like, just the curve of a cheek, a jut of hip. All
powdered to carbon now and floating in the ether. ‘Imagine
being perfect, being seventeen forever.’ Imagine.
Did you imagine what forever really means, my mother?
Sometimes, as I slip deeper and deeper inside myself, I
build the life I never had. Houses. Children. Lovers. Unknown
fingers caress my frozen flesh and lips press mine, turning
sharp edges slippery. I can feel myself being lifted and
twisted, becoming pliable in those hot hands, being moulded
into a succession of fluid shapes, so different from the
rigid lines I have grown used to. Blood melts, bones curve.
All the places that were once soft, hot and yielding become
so again, and I rock there in that imaginary place for as
long as I dare. But gradually, knowledge slips into Eden
with the grace of a serpent and tugs me back towards the
I wish my mother hadn’t loved me so much. I wish I
hadn’t been so weak, so seduced by the promises of
eternity. I could have had a real life, however short; a
real lover, however cruel. I could be dead now too, free
from the horror that rushes to suck me in.
Of course, my mother couldn’t have known that I’d
be conscious here in my bubble. The scientists assured her
I would know nothing until I was woken, teased from the
ice with the right formula, like Sleeping Beauty with her
prince’s kiss. But they were wrong. There were wrong
about a lot of things.
They were wrong about birth
control, genetics and pesticides. They were wrong about
nuclear power and the end of the arms race. Those blessings,
through some dark transfiguration, have now become Famine,
War and Death. I can hear their hoofbeats echo in the earth’s
dying heart. And the fourth horseman? The fourth waits here
Deep in the wintry cells of my blood is locked the trace
of a virus. In my lifetime, its presence would have been
signalled by nothing more than a sneeze. Over the centuries,
inoculation has smothered it altogether. Few people now
would know its name. And none has the means to resist it.
So Pestilence, my uninvited bedfellow, the only real lover
I’ve ever had, waits with me for release from the
ice. It will come soon, I know. My keepers shuffle in and
out of the room where I sleep, worker ants tending the translucent
bulk of their queen. Through the thickness of the ice I
feel the vibration of their resentment. Although it frightens
me, I can forgive it too; for what am I now, but a monument
to the power of wealth? There is no room for ostentation
in our dying world. Those who possess power wield it in
private, in the safety of anonymous bunkers or reinforced
tower blocks. Either tomorrow or the day after, my workers
will come with crow-bars and pick-axes, and prise their
queen from the ice, smash brittle bone and sinew, and melt
my ice-crazed soul free at last. And, unknowing, they will
also free my companion, scattering him over their boots
in the rubies of my blood. As the crystals thaw and evaporate,
he will slip through their pores and into their lungs.
And so I find myself speculating in my final hours. Do my
keepers know how close we are to the end? Can they hear
the rustle in their mother’s lungs? If not, there
is nothing I can do to warn them. Cassandra’s tongue
is frozen. Even if I could splinter my lips apart and summon
one arctic blast of breath, would I?
The earth is dying. The disease that sleeps in me is just
the mercy blow. There is nothing to do but wait.
© 1996 Jan Smith