Our ninth-grade literature textbook included the post-apocalyptic short story “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The story follows a young boy, the son of a priest in a primitive society, as he journeys far beyond the borders his people have long honored. His long and dangerous quest takes him to the city of the gods, where he stumbles across the ruins of the great towers that once filled the city. Two of the rocks have words written on them, words he doesn’t understand: UBTREAS and ASHING.
I remember this part of the story particularly well, probably because Marcia Lanier quizzed and prodded and cajoled us so thoroughly on what we thought those two words might mean. Probably because the entire story turned on those two strange words. Probably because when we finally put it all together and figured out that the words were really only parts of words, it became clear that the stones were fragments of landmarks in New York City, the United States Subtreasury building and a statue of George Washington, and that the story took place not in the distant primitive past, but in a very possible not-so-distant future.
Just the other day, I found myself remembering “By the Waters of Babylon” and wondering what a young priest or priestess who came tip-toeing through the wreckage of one of our cities might find. She might stub her toe on a large piece of signage on which was written ART and be led to think that the tower over which such a designation had hung had once been dedicated to truth and beauty. Or he might trip over an equally large section on which was written ALM and think perhaps that the place had been a temple where care was provided for the poor and ill. Both of them, of course, would be wrong.
Because, of course, both ART and ALM would be broken-off pieces of a Walmart sign.
That’s right, Walmart — the store into which I walked two weeks before Halloween to find Christmas decorations already available for sale and realized two things. First, the date upon which I have to stop going into Walmart until after Christmas (the actual December 25th Christmas) in order to avoid crowd-induced anxiety attacks and general ill-temperedness has reached a record early date on the calendar. And, second, when the apocalypse does come, most of the bodies will be found inside Walmart supercenters under mounds of flat-screen televisions, cartons of 500-count LED Christmas lights and Dora the Explorer pajamas.
OK. Maybe mine is an extreme reaction. Maybe there are those who don’t mind, who actually enjoy navigating a maze of aisles lined with plastic holly wreaths and Lady Stetson gift sets in search of candy corn. Perhaps there are people who are not disturbed by the odd juxtaposition of a jack-o-lantern with the Baby Jesus on the end-cap of the express lane. There is even the possibility that, living here among my own people, there are folks in whom there is not created a sense that can only be described as the heebie-jeebies when one is accosted by the voice of Bing Crosby crooning away about a white Christmas from behind a rack of Darth Vader masks.
Extreme reaction or not, I couldn’t help wondering, when our end comes, if it is in the nature of a cataclysm, whether we will be leaving behind anything worth rummaging through, stumbling over. For the ones left behind or coming after, will they think we were dedicated to truth and beauty, that we provided for the poor and the ill? Or will the evidence of our existence leave them thinking — as the young boy in Benet’s story thought — that we had lived in a place of great riches but had squandered their magic?
I want to believe that somewhere, between the racks of Spiderman costumes and the shelves of scented candles, between the fun-size candy bars and the needle-pointed stockings, behind the scarecrows and hay bales, under the blow-up snowman, those great riches still exist. I think we can find them.