Ah, the aftermath. Sort of like the afterlife without the life part – or is that right? It’s a word with soft sounds in its cretic rhythm, but the softness may be the softness of fatigue and the flaccidity of the destroyed. The rhythm could be the echo of distant drums from the army moving on from the scene of carnage, or it could be nothing more than the waves lapping at the battered shore.
There are different kinds of use of aftermath, to be sure. The tone may be light or heavy, literal or figurative, serious or sarcastic. The aftermath may be the scene the morning after a high-school party, where an assortment of friends and near-strangers drank too much vodka and smoked too much grass. It may be the scene after a math exam, when many a mind has been uprooted by roots. It may be the wreckage and crater Wile E. Coyote climbs out of after failing again to catch the roadrunner – when will he learn that he never can mow him down? Or it may be the scene after a military encounter, be it Sherramuir or Agincourt or Ypres or – well, anywhere where many have been mown down for real.
Rather a solemn thought, is it not? It puts me in mind of the section from Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem:
Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras
und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen
wie des Grases Blumen.
“For all flesh is like grass, and all human glory is like the flowers of the field.” (It’s a quote from the first letter of Peter in the New Testament.) But when you mow the grass, it’s not that there is nothing left; there is less, and the cuttings are strewn about, but the cropped blades push up still. And so, too, in an aftermath, there is often some remnant sign of life, something pushing up or simply persistent. The silence may echo, but the violence is gone. I remember the scene at the end of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, in the aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden. They spend so much time dealing with the dead, and some more of them die in the process as well…
And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.
Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.
Birds were talking.
One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”
And aftermath, with a rhythm sort of like poo-tee-weet, gains the aspect of trees soughing with breeze, so calm after the scene when, as Robert Burns put it in “The Battle of Sherramuir,” “My heart for fear gae sough for sough.” Now the blades have cut the blades: the grass is mown; it lies still; new grass will push up. Aftermath.
In aftermath, you see, there is after – which is “after” – and math, which is not mathematics (not even the inexorable addition of casualty counts and the subtraction of multiplying attrition) but mowing: the act of mowing, or what has been mown. This math is in fact cognate with mow. Aftermath referred first to the state after the first mowing of grass in early summer, and to the crop that sprang up thereafter for the second mowing (look: do you see the bent f, the cropped t’s, the rising h, in the field of low letters?). But as mowing is an event, and applied figuratively to people one that bespeaks negative consequence (a wide swath cut down), aftermath came to name the state left by an event, typically one of destruction or unpleasantness. What follows.
And what follows what follows is memory, the last aftermath: when the grass is grown its tops still show the mark of the blade, until it dies and new blades push up the next spring. But memory is an important thing in the aftermath, as Siegfried Sassoon so emphasized in his 1919 poem “Aftermath,” which concludes,
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.
Thanks to @LaSoeur_Lumiere for suggesting aftermath.