(Link to the magazine - https://tinyurl.com/rb5xbv9)
Safe from the high winds, the fallen walls, the sheets of sky collapsing all around—afoot, he carried it in his arms, wrapped in an old coat. It was a fine relic; the last vase of its kind to have survived the turmoil intact.
The earth shook every so often, objects rained at random from all directions at once, balls of fire flared from underneath. Bright and warm like springtime blossoms, he thought, and hugged the vase closer to his chest.
Fewer people ran in the streets these past few days. He saw none today. Could these ruins be called streets? Their ashen breath pushed through his pores. Even the scrawny alley cats had vanished.
Through the shadows he slipped, taking cover when danger loomed. Though most shelters could not be trusted.
The air has been murky for weeks. The once familiar city had turned into a labyrinth. He might have already crossed it from east to west, north to south, a few times over. Or has he been circling the same neighbourhood? Whenever he found any water pooled in the wreckage, he would suck the drops dry. He had yet to find any today.
Exhausted, he ducked into a pit and lay on the debris-littered ground; eyelids shut before his head met the ground, the vase cradled within his emaciated, curled-up body. His once spotless suit was now but rags splotched grey and brown, loosely hanging on him.
Had he fallen into deep sleep or dozed off for a few minutes, he could not tell upon awakening. He peered out from under the struck-down tree that roofed over the pit. It is possible that nobody beyond these veils of acrid smoulder had endured, he thought.
Was the vase still unharmed? He unwrapped it with a feathery touch. In the dim light his eyes followed the intricate, bejewelled ornaments. He brushed his fingers across the silky design, lingering on the embossed mythological creature, half-bird half-beast, whose name escaped him. As smooth as a baby’s cheek, he smiled, and in one piece indeed. Twelve inches tall, adorned with cultural motifs, its value was immeasurable. Recalling its former place atop a glass-protected shelf in the softly lighted hall, he knew keeping it out of harm's way was now his responsibility.
But for what purpose? he wondered.
An earthworm pulsated beside him. He scooped it up. The creature hung from both sides of his open palm, tiny clumps of earth clung to its moist, plump body. Perhaps life underground remained unaffected, he shook his head in amazement. Tickled by the worm’s wriggling, a chuckle escaped his lips. The sound took him by surprise.
Once on the ground again, the worm squirmed away in a sinuous movement. He followed it with his eyes until it was gone. Sunk in thought for a long hour after, deep furrows formed on his brow.
He finally rewrapped the vase with his coat and crawled out, rising to his feet when he reached the open air. He looked up, trying in vain to trace a patch of blue sky, even a hint. Am I trapped in someone’s dream? he wondered before he turned to resume his flight.
Where to, he knew not.