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Eight Minutes and Nineteen Seconds

The minute you start reading this, the sun may already have gone out, but you won’t know it yet. You’ve been granted a whole eight minutes and nineteen seconds before news of its death reaches you. That’s how long it takes for the light to travel from there. After that, it’ll get dark. Nine seconds have passed so far. What can you do? Jump up, grab the most important things, your phone, money, passport. Wait a second, where do you think you’re going? Drop that luggage now. Call your loved ones, they don’t know yet. Inform them of the end of the world and this gift of (now less than seven) minutes, which they have no inkling of. Tell them to leave immediately if they’re nearby… to go where?… so you can be together… but seven minutes isn’t enough time. Better to stay wherever they are and hide under the table. Everything seems ridiculous. You don’t have any experience with the sun going out. It’s not like the power going out. Tell them you love them and that you’ll find each other in the darkness. What else? – you want one last taste of all your favourite things, but you only have time to grab a spoonful of cherry jam out of the fridge. The cat is hiding somewhere. It knows, too. You open the window. Outside, people are frittering away their last minutes of sun. You feel like screaming. God damn it, can’t you see that this light isn’t the same? But you don’t do that, either. And what will happen afterwards? Will the planets scatter, will the oceans overflow, will an eternal arctic winter fall? And will it happen immediately, or will we be granted a little more time? A few more minutes, an hour in the impenetrable darkness. Are you still there? Let’s count down the final seconds together – thirteen, twelve, eleven (I’m purposely writing them in words to stretch out the time), ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three (hold tight and farewell, if we don’t see each other afterwards), two, one…

 

If you’re also reading this next sentence, that means the sun didn’t go out. Not now, at least. But when? We’ll find out in precisely eight minutes and nineteen seconds. Now there’s even less time left. As a person who has lived through one apocalypse, you can now afford to count the seconds of sun. And to cast an eye over this story for the remaining eight minutes. I tried to make it last exactly that long, so it ends on time.

 

***

 

A cloud slowly started covering the sky. It wasn’t clear whether it would rain or whether this was the end. Those pre-apocalyptic days were indescribable. Chaos, commotion, dithering lost souls, families packing their bags, as if they had somewhere to go. A strange vanity fuss of sorts, more like a scene from two centuries ago, Thackeray, Dickens, shouts, movement, uproar, true liveliness before the looming dead silence. And despite previous prophecies that hadn’t come true (two whole failed attempts at apocalypse), now everything seemed to be pointing ever more convincingly in that direction, towards termination. Besides, there was no way to hide it anymore. Even the appearance of two global veterans – the now grey-haired Mr Obama and Mrs Merkel, that iron dame, didn’t change much of anything. They both promised that the end of the world would be put off for as long as possible through a carefully controlled postponement process. ‘A controlled end of the world’ – what could be more ridiculous? Apocalypse drop by drop.

 

Everyone was waiting for the Sunset of the Final Day, that’s what it had come to be called on the streets. Rumour had it that the sunset itself would be celestially beautiful, like euthanasia, like anaesthesia, after which the end would come. There were also sceptics, of course, who had already experienced several aborted apocalypses. People who were more likely fed up with this infinity that kept dragging on. On the whole, everyone was starting to get sick of it. Besides, life on earth was no longer so enticing. But in any case, on the appointed day by force of habit or some vestigial instinct, everyone had tried to hide inside the old bomb shelters from the last century or at least to barricade themselves in the basement. The rich had special underground capsules.

 

D. J. had decided to meet the end in the town of Z. He arrived early to wander through the old streets, to feast his eyes on the commotion. He had worked with sunsets his whole life. I turn their gold to green, he liked to joke (ever less often) at his ever less frequent meetings with friends. Sunsets had brought him his daily bread, tobacco and fame. He was a photographer who could also write, on the whole a rare combination in that field, so the good papers had snapped him up as a young man. However, the town of Z. was precisely where his career as an expert appraiser of sunsets had taken off so many years ago. Yes, such a profession exists, and he was its creator. In a certain sense, it had happened accidentally. He had been sent to Z. to shoot a sub-Alpine lake and the dwindling population of Eurasian coots that lived there. He had finished the job quickly, but his hosts had insisted that he stay the evening for the ‘third most beautiful sunset in the world.’ Later he wondered at himself for staying, he had been twenty-something, full of ambitions far removed from Eurasian coots and sunsets. Perhaps he was intrigued by that ‘third most beautiful sunset’ – how ridiculous was that! He asked them who was in first and second place. They didn’t know. For them, it was enough to be third, Z. wasn’t Copacabana, after all. The sunset was a free tourist attraction, which the town had already cashed in on. A special boat with doubled ticket prices shuttled back and forth across the lake at sunset. Tourist brochures also did not feel shy about mentioning – with a sheepish wink – their sunset’s third-place ranking. Who decides these rankings, anyway, D. J. swore under his breath. And at that very moment it occurred to him that he could be the one who decides. There are experts on water, air, oil and minerals, and of course, those fields are rife with cash and experts, but look, sunsets are wide open. Anybody could assume all sorts of titles. He decided to do it mostly as a joke, why not give it a try? Well, of course. Somebody has to manage these rankings. To go around, make comparisons, think up criteria and nomenclature for sunsets. Price Waterhouse Sunset, auditing and consulting services…

 

He didn’t think it would take off so easily, it really was like a joke. Cities were falling over themselves to invite him to appraise their sunsets. Mysterious deposits began appearing in his bank account. He assigned points, worked out a rating system. He couldn’t believe that a local sunset could rouse such passions. Local tourism, patriotism and business hurled themselves into the fray, it was to everyone’s benefit. He wondered how far he could take it and did things ostensibly to push the joke’s boundaries, but he always struck just the right chord. Especially when he announced the European Sunset Championships. Who would buy in to such horseshit? Immediately insane amounts of cash came rolling in from both the Americas and Africa to buy into the franchise. And soon it became a world championship. Before he knew it, the business had surpassed all his expectations, as well as his enthusiasm. He no longer gave interviews, he started getting irked by titles such as ‘Sunset Magnate’, ‘The Empire of the Setting Sun’, ‘Sheikh of Red Gold’, ‘the heavenly D. J.’ and other such hogwash. He decided it was time to stop, signed everything over to two friends and bowed out. Twenty years had passed imperceptibly. The world had started falling apart like an old woman, who, despite all her plastic surgery, can no longer hide the advanced stage of her illness.

 

He was wandering through the streets of Z., the town where he had begun turning gold to green. Today was the day and if something was going to happen, then let him see his final sunset here. There were still a few hours left, the streets were almost deserted. Some person in a wetsuit was trying to run, his flippers slapping the sidewalk. He had surely gone out for just a short time and was afraid that the flood might catch him on the street. He was also carrying a harpoon, just in case. A little further up the street, on a small square at the foot of the hill, one of the prophets of the Sunset of the Final Day was rambling incoherently and shouting after the ever rarer passers-by who were hurrying home: ‘Where are you rushing to, you miserable bats? What are you running away from? What, you’re not afraid of the sun, are you? Come join the celestial illuminations, cowards. You won’t get another chance… And they won’t be showing it on your crappy old TV sets. Don’t you get it, morons, that every sunset is a parable for the Apocalypse? You say it’s kitsch, don’t you, you snobs, like a cheap postcard, eh? But now, not colours, no sirree, not colours, but blood will drip from the clouds, because the lamb has been slaughtered, just as it has been written, you blockheads in your malls. Every evening the Virgin herself bleeds up there, it is virginity, you twisted lechers. There are no innocents among you. Where are you hiding? The lamb has already been slaughtered and his blood is flowing down the seven rivers. What are you staring at me like that for…?’

 

D. J. unwittingly smiled, the prophet hollered at him: ‘Wipe that grin off your face, you’ll see the Apocalypse on prime time, idiot…’

 

He slowly set off up the slope. He knew he was no saint. He had made money from something that didn’t belong to him. But then again, what was so bad about making more people stand in front of sunsets? Better that than in front of their stupid TVs, the guy was right about that. Advertisers surely hated him, he had stolen quite a bit of their audience. A whole movement for sunset gazing had cropped up. Some called them ‘sun-eaters’. Others dismissively called them ‘the gapers’. Rumour had it that they ate mainly sunshine, which was the most nutritious precisely during the sunset. The sunset as organic food.

 

He reached the hill with the best view of the final sun(set). There were very few places left in the world for watching a true sunset – slow, unfurled in time, with its whole lingering aftertaste, shadows and glimmers. Having a clear corridor to it and good visibility without micro particles in the air was now an absolute rarity. He realised that he was now at exactly the right place and exactly the right age when he finally could experience a sunset calmly, drink it down to its depths and truly appreciate it, after all those he had experienced in passing. He had taken his camera and even a small pair of opera glasses. It’s like I’m going to a premiere, and not a season closing, he said to himself. He looked around, he was not alone as he had expected, a handful of other thrill-seekers were scattered over the hill. A small group of ‘sun-eaters’ swayed, stretching their bodies upwards towards the sun. He thought to himself that without it, starvation awaited them.

 

He also remembered his father holding his hand, walking him to school and telling him about those eight minutes and nineteen seconds granted to us after the sun goes out. The most terrifying and most comforting thing in the world.

 

A moment before the sunset washed over everything, a visible shudder rippled across the monitor-blue sky. The light no longer seemed the same to him.

 

The colours were somehow pale, he took out his opera glasses, even with their pathetic magnification his eyes could make out… a bitmap. Clouds suddenly appeared, which seemed to spell out in huge, puffy letters: ‘The third most beautiful Apocalypse in the world.’

 

‘Who the hell is judging them?’ D. J. thought to himself and closed his eyes.

 

*

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


lives and works in Sofia, Bulgaria. His latest novel, The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter), was a finalist for several international awards, and has now been longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize in the United States. Other publications in English include Natural Novel (Dalkey Archive Press) and And Other Stories (Northwestern University Press).

Angela Rodel is a professional literary translator living and working in Bulgaria. She holds a BA from Yale and an MA from UCLA in Linguistics. She received a 2014 NEA translation grant for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, as well as a 2010 PEN Translation Fund Grant for Georgi Tenev’s short story collection Holy Light.


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