The Scarecrow Trials, final draft

The Scarecrow Trials
1

“I don’t trust those new scarecrows,” said Farmer Jones. His wife was already in bed. “Five has been acting up again.”
His wife pursed her lips together, ‘Tsk, tsk’ she said, turning the pages of a well worn book. “You can always use an old-fashioned scarecrow. Like we used to make, if those silly robots don’t work out.”
“Yeah, I s’pose,” said Farmer Jones. He was unbuttoning a red and brown long-sleeved shirt, plaid and worn with age. He sat on the edge of the bed, took off his glasses, and opened the plastic cap reading ‘S’ on his pill organizer. He washed down two tiny pink pills and a large blue one with a pull from a near-empty bottle of beer. His wife put her book away, turned off the lamp on her bedside table, and rolled over to face him, running her soft, well-aged hands along his back. He slid his boots off, sat them aside, then his socks and pants. He pulled the covers over him as he lay back. His wife got closer to him, putting her head on his chest, his arm around her, and she snuggled up closer when he turned off his lamp. He ran his fingers through her thinning hair, going gray.
“I just don’t trust ‘em,” he said. “I know I’m getting old, but I just don’t think science is the answer to everything.”
“That’s been the mantra for the obselete for generations,” said Mrs. Jones. “But. Don’t Rob use the same kind of Scarecrows you got?”
“Yeah, he’s got 2 like Five, but his is mostly protocol, just boring old farm work. But how you expect Five or one of those others to be scary? Can’t be scary if you don’t know what fear is, you ask me.”
“Go to bed, Tom,” said Mrs. Jones. “You can worry about those God-forsaken robots in the morning.”
He laughed.
“Fair enough,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead, “Love you, Wendy.”
“I love you too, Tom.”
“Good-night,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t rain.”
“Good-night, sweetie.”
He turned off his lamp.
As soon as the lamp in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had spread among the service robots that Five, the Scarecrow on watch, planned to betrayed the cornfield to the crows when winter came; Eleven told the gathered workers:
“He has been seen!” said Eleven. “And this time we have proof.”
A smaller robot, wiry and thin, leaned forward and flattened out, then opened its mouth. A picture was broadcast on the wall.
The picture was a bit fuzzy, the first, but Eleven clicked his aluminum tongue and a slideshow of photographs ran, one after another, each more condemning than the last. The last one caused an uproar as it showed Five, plain as day, holding up his hand, and on the Scarecrow’s lips was a naïve smile, on his extended arm a crow.
“This is outrageous!”
“How can he do this to us?”
And the old timer, eldest among them and longest lived, said an accusation in his scratchy voice, warm like an old vinyl recording, but even, deep and monotone.
“He’s a traitor,” said he, then rose from his position in the back, where he gathered eggs in the day. “And the last time we had a traitor on the farm, Farmer Jones nearly lost his crops, all of ‘em. And you know what happened to all the other service droids?”
A feeble murmuring and chatter, nervously a young droid asked:
‘W-w-w-what, what happened to ‘em, Colonel?”
“Oh, I remember it like yesterday,” said the Colonel. “He brought in some fancy new harvest droids to pull the nets by the fig trees, and one of them, now nobody was ever certain, let in some worms. Before you know it, worms were everywhere – and not just on the fig trees either, nope, on the apples and the grapevines. And Farmer got so mad he didn’t bother asking who did or didn’t do this-or-that, nope. He pulled out their memory, erased it, and put the bodies through the trash compactors, burnt ‘em in the end, ground them into dust.”
From the back another elder, he’d arrived about the same time as the Colonel, spoke up:
“Hush now!” it was a male voice, a bit younger, but an adult. “Stop trying to scare these kids. Truth is nobody knows why Farmer Jones had those droids destroyed. He’s just trying to scale you.”
When all else is equal, the voice of reason is less than half of panic, and panic grows more quickly. And it was growing there. All it takes is a little water and its ill fruit blooms quickly.
“Well,” said the Colonel, “we don’t want anything like that to happen here, now do we, Thames?”
“Not, but—” and he was interrupted.
“I think we should go talk to Five,” said Four, a replacement model—keep in mind. “We’ll make sure he has our – best interests in mind.”
Farmer Jones caught his wife in her underthings, when he stormed into the house. It was just about time for lunch, but not quite, a jug of tea was boiling on the open stove, cornbread still hot and smoking on the table. He didn’t seem concerned with his food, or his constitutional glass of tea.
“Did you hear it storming last night?” he asked. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead, sitting down as Mrs. Jones brought his tea into the dining room.
“That cornbred is hot,” she said. “I’m makin’ sandwiches now, if you’ll give me just a minute.”
“I asked you a question!”
Shocked, Mrs. Jones turned around. She put her hand on her hip, a look that would brook no further disrespect. Mr. Jones was immediately shameful.
“Excuse me?”
“Did you hear it storming last night?”
“No?” she said. “Why? What happened?”
“Something’s wrong with Five,” he said. “Face is blank and he’s not responding. Shit, I’m gonna have to take him back, or get Rob to try and reprogram him or something.”
“What do you think happened to him?” she asked. “Imagine if we could have dealt with our other kids simply by reprogramming them.
She sat a plate of tomato sandwiches in front of him. He rolled up his sleeves, putting a napkin on his lap.
“Tom,” she said, she pulled out a chair on the other side of the table and sat down, “what happened to Five, do you think?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe the crows got him.”
They shared a laugh. Farmer John finished his sandwich, wiped his hands and mouth, and stood up.
“Thank you, honey dew, my tangerine, my sweet, my fountain of youth…”
She pinched a wrinkle beneath his chin. “Not so sweet a fountain, perhaps?”
“Sweet enough,” John said. He leaned against her, forehead to forehead. He sighed.
She embraced him. “What are you going to do, John?”
“Well, I got Four, and he’s just like Five,” he said. “I’m going to try to get them motivated.”
“How do you s’pose to do that?”
“I’ll tell them, ‘We’re going to have tryouts,’ Ok? And, ‘The scariest one of you guys, you get the job. And the rest, you’re pulling figs.’ What do you think?”
Mrs. Jones laughed.
“How do you think they’re going to act scary if—”
“If they don’t know what fear is? Yes, I thought about that. And, well, I’m going to scare them.”

2

Most of Farmer Jone’s service droids were new. Four and Five were the latest, high-end service droids; they could shuck corn, weed the vegetable garden, and cut the grass just like the rest, like the Colonel and Thames, but had better facial recognition software and communication skills, adaptive and durable. He got the pair of them after his oldest boy, Rob, got one and taught it to be his butler. Washing dishes, taking his coat, saying Yes sir, No sir, Yes ma’am and No ma’am.
Farmer Jones liked that, so he got two just like Rob’s quiet, well-spoken manservant. But he never got along with ‘em, not with Five especially – they had trouble understanding his voice, but Farmer Jones was terrified; Five’s constant smile and electric voice, the programmed randomness of his flitting, plastic eyelids. It wasn’t the robot or the parts, that’s not what scared Farmer Jones. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he figured, Hell, if it can scare me, it can keep the crows away, and Five did a good job, while Four, with the same capabilities and enthusiasm to serve, lay unused in the barn, no formal duties, but he helped out when he could, especially helping the smaller, weaker droids. There were six, ranging from small and simple, performing simple tasks—like Andy and Ernest, two stocky, powerful lifters; they dragged the apple orchard and tilled the Earth, planting the seeds and gathering the fruit, but they were brutes, easily persuasive and feeble. Then there was Threewheel, a collection sorting bot, very mathematically inclined, always counting, the number of eggs, gallons of milk, the dead eggs and the whites, both tasks falling to the Colonel, oldest but not the smartest; that was Thames. The gardener and teacher – and there were two other small ones, adaptive learners as well. That Thames was tasked to teach, left him alone while the others were out during the day, except the Colonel and Four of course.
The loaders powered when the first spark of sunlight hit the solar panels around the windows to the east, the first to start the long day’s routine were Andy and Earnest, unless you were counting Five, he never went inside, never powered down on his own, and he had been speaking to crows, well one that is, but Thames – though he sneaked into the cornfield long after the Colonel and his paranoid androids powered down, it was many hours before sunrise, long after midnight, an hour short of morning, Thames found Five planted, legs tied together and stuck into the ground, hands by his side, wearing an old black hat with straw stuffed in it, his mouth overflowing with his memory tape, eyes blank. Thames was startled by approaching steps while unspooling the tape hanging out of Five’s mouth; he stuffed it in his mouth to hide it in case it was Farmer Jones. But it was the Colonel, and the strong arms of Andy and Ernie, Ernie carrying the little robot, the wiry photographer Threewheel, and before Thames could speak, Threewheel was snapping pictures.
“What’s going on here?” asked the Colonel. “Something wrong with Five?”
The surveillance tape in his mouth, Thames knew he had to keep it, he knew it was important, and he couldn’t say a word.
“What’s ‘a matter, Tammy?” the Colonel asked. He pressed on, knocking over cornstalks high and low.
“Oh, my,” he said, his eye turning into a dim flashlight, spotlighting Five in the moonless night as Threewheel snapped picture after picture, flashing lights in the cornfield. Andy and Ernest remained in place. The Colonel approached Thames again.
“I don’t know why you’d go and do a thing like that, Tammy,” he said. “Take him back to the barn, fellas.”
Threewheel said, “Are you coming, Colonel?”
“Oh, I’ll be right along. Don’t you worry, buddy. I’m ‘a pay my respects, that’s all. Keep an eye on Thames here, hold him under the charge of treason.”
None of the droids back at the barn knew anything about the strange death of Five, and Thames was watched over by Andy and Ernest until the Colonel came back just before the others woke, just in time to take place as the Watchman over Thames before Andy and Ernest had to be in front of the chicken-house to unload the morning’s feed. All the droid’s ad left the barn, except for Thames and Four, and the Colonel of course, who sat watching Thames, his mouth still closed tight, his students, growing over their own gardens, plodding around with Mrs. Jones on the other side of the property.

“You know, you see that fella over there?” the Colonel asked. “4577-b. He’s just as capable as your buddy Five, and he knows what team he’s on. I know what you want to do, you and your Scarecrow Ghost out there. See, I know you mean well, but you can’t make peace with animals. Farmer John out there, he might be a fool, but you can reason with him. As long as his eggs are gathered and the cows are milked, as long as his harvest is on time, he’ll let us be. Keep that in mind, Tammy. Farmer John would think it mighty rude ‘a you to turn down that recently vacated position, the Scarecrow of Thomas Parker Farm, and trust me, you’re not up for it, not like Four. He’s going to end the crow problem once and for good, all time.”

3

Farmer Jones slid open the barn door, hanging it on a latch to keep it from closing.
“Now,” he said, “Some time in the night, our Scarecrow Five started, well, malfunctioning. But, we still need a Scarecrow, don’t we? Every farm needs a Scarecrow, and that’s why I’m offering you all a chance, a chance to tryout, to be the Official Scarecrow of Thomas Farms. However, since Four is the same model as Five, that means Four could just as easily be spooked by these crows—so we’re going to have tryouts. The scariest among you, now that’ll be our Scarecrow. To be a scarecrow, you have to be more than scary. You have to hate your enemy. And the crows are your enemy. All of them are the same. All of them want to infest and destroy everything we’ve built, they have no respect for our way of life. So, by time for the night shift, I want you to be ready to scare some crows!”
And Farmer Jones left with little ceremony, but not before stepping into the barn one last time to say, “n remember, it’s a dangerous job. You want to know what happened to Five? Let’s just say we found feathers at his feet. Keep that in mind and be ready at sun-down.”

Thames electric heart sank and he thought, Oh no, that might have been Kahven. And if it was, there was a real chance that Five had died for nothing, and if there had been a dead crow, why hadn’t he seen it?
When the droids powered down and plugged into their recharge sockets Thames slipped from the barn, let down his cleat on the toes and heels of his feet, and walked softly and quietly through the cornfield. He ran the dim flashlight behind his left eye, casting a dim blue light on the beaten trail that led the way to the long suffering Scarecrow 5.
“Dark nights are unpleasant,” said Thames.
“Yes,” replied Five, “for strangers to travel.”
Their call sign, plucked from The Valley of Fear, a way to protect Five from the group, a group gradually being lathered into a hatred of not only crows, but Five as well, as he slept in the cornfield, never around the rest of the service droids – so he had become sufficiently different, that is, to be hated, at least for the Colonel, and for good or ill, even in machines – hate is more persuasive than love, and fear more efficacious than love.
“How are you doing, Five?” asked Thames. “Not conspiring with the enemy, are you?”
Five’s monotone laugh was quiet, “Very funny,” he said, “Very funny, Mr. Thames. But not tonight, I have not.”

“We’ve got a problem, Five,” said Thames. “Threewheel has a picture of you with a bird.”
“As long as he doesn’t…”
“The Colonel showed everyone in the barn, all the service droids, he showed them all earlier tonight.”
Five’s cheerful, uncanny Valley eyes lost their yellow glow for a moment. “I guess we should stop talking to the birds then,” he said, finally. “It could be dangerous, and I don’t fully trust them.”
“Why not?” asked Thames.

“Because they’re crows.”
“That’s not their fault, is it? They can’t change that. You may as well blame them for the wind.”
Five was quiet.
“Don’t take it so hard Five,” said Thames, “After all, no one makes peace with friends.”
“But there is danger,” said Five. “The Colonel will hurt me if he thinks I’m on the crow’s side.”
“He’ll kill you,” said Thames. “And that will be his undoing. But you have to keep talking with Kahven. You know, the birds have names. And they’re divided, too; Kahven’s side is very much like the Colonel. Proud, suspicious of outsiders, and they were very much against Kahven’s talk with the last Scarecrobot. But when their leader tried to kill him, the Parliament saw that he was a monster, and monsters have the nasty habit of making monsters, and a world of monsters is a world we’d never survive. And, frankly, a world we’d never be able to accept.”
Five was quiet still.
“Do you know why we have scarecrows in the first place?” asked Thames.
“Why?”
“There used to be a real danger of crows eating recently planted seeds, or the crops. But that’s not the case, not for most of the crows. The crops are sprayed with insecticide, so even if a crow were to eat from our field, it’d be badly poisoned. It might even die. They still eat the seeds, of course, but Kahven is trying to persuade the Parliament to eat from a new field, a field of nothing but seeds—which I will create, with A-Seven and Switch—and it’s good for both sides: their chicks don’t remember what to eat and what not to eat, so it’s best for both sides, Five.”
Thames turned to walk away, patting Five on the shoulder, saying, “If you’re going to die for something, you can’t go wrong with peace.”

sHe paused once more, struck by the obscuring of the moon, the coming storm, saying, his back to Five:
“If anyone approaches without the call sign, start recording. If the Colonel or his drones harm you, the rest of the workers will know what he is.”

“And what is he?” asked Five.

“Human.”

4

The service droids spent their charging hour, the time between shifts, wondering how they could be scary enough. The Colonel wasn’t outright clever but he had an animal’s cunning, and was smart enough to know that Thames was a threat. So Andy and Ernest took turns watching over him, in case he tried to interrupt the Colonel’s speech to potential scarecrows, with Thames assured that if he said anything against the Colonel, Threewheel would show those compromising photographs to all the workers – and Farmer Jones too.

He also knew that John wouldn’t think twice about wiping Thames, whether Mrs. Jones liked him or not, and time was not on his side, as his two students, A-seven and Switch were doing more and more work without his observation and instruction, and being very small and childlike, Thames knew, while Mrs. Jones might make a little fuss if he was wiped, Farmer Jones would never go so far as to harm A-seven or Switch, not often did Miss Wendy give any worker droid a personal name, but her little electric children, she called them Roger, Switch that is, and A-seven George.

All the service droids had gathered round the Colonel, who stood beside an almost invisible Four, his face painted black, a black snowcap on his head, a mask pulled over his eyes, above his glowing yellow eyes, yellow eyes that had changed from their dull, comforting hue of gold into a pitiless shade of red. He had been designed to blend in, unlike most scarecrows, whose scariness was solely based on frightful they looked. The Colonel explained,

“The idea behind a scarecrow is a fine one, but it underestimates the enemy. Now I know that crows ain’t like us, they’re uncivilized animals and they’re vermin, but they’re not stupid. Not that stupid, anyway. No, they figured out that Five just looked tough, and since they weren’t afraid of him, they attacked and killed him. Now, most droids like Four here are programmed against killing, that is, unless a non-human threat puts their life in danger, and since we’ve seen that the crows are willing to kill for what they want, I think that constitutes as good a threat on your life as anything’s gone get. Tell me, Four, tell me what you’re going to do when you hear one of them no good crows.”

“Kill,” said Four, in a drone-like voice.

“And why is that?”

“Because they’re crows.”

“And that’s good enough,” said the Colonel. “That’s good enough.”

5

“How did your tryouts go, John?” asked Mrs. Wendy. “Was any of your robots scary enough to be the new Scarecrow?”
Farmer Jones wiped a bit of gravy from his mouth and chuckled,
“You could say that,” he said. “Ernest and… What’s his name? Andy? Yeah, that’s it. They dressed up with silly monster masks, Dracula or Frankenstein, and the other one painted up his face in camouflage using cow manure and he sure scared the shit out of me!”
Mrs. Jones laughed, “So which one did you choose?”
“Four, actually,” said John. “He went all out, like the end of Apocalypse Now, when Captain Willard, when he paints up his face and rises out of the water, you know, at the end when he kills Kurtz? Four went all out. A stocking cap, he turned his eyes red. I know! That’s classic evil! And it was supposed be his role anyway, if something happened to Five.”
“Did you ever find out what went wrong? I mean, he seemed fine yesterday when I made my rounds after breakfast. Plugged in, his eyes were on standby.”
“Not a clue,” said Farmer Jones. “Maybe it’s the same thing that happened to Sora, when all their files got corrupted by worms, when they all started stepping on figs and coring the apples. Sometimes their wires get tangled up, I s’pose. Something might be wrong with your buddy Thames.”
“It’s Thames! Said Wendy. “The thims.”
“Why is it spelled one way and pronounced the other?”
“Because English isn’t a language!” she said. “It’s four languages in a trench coat dressed up as one.”
“Okay, okay!” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he couldn’t even open his mouth. I took him down to the workshop. I’ll have a look in after supper. You know, he’s one of the few droids we can’t afford to lose. And, huh, I don’t know why, but you know me, I’m no friend to most of ‘em, but that one’s a different story.  Feel like I can trust him, it’s weird. But it’s weird, huh? I trust him for some reason.”
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” said Wendy.
“That very well may be. But maybe I’m not getting soft. Maybe he is. He’s different.”
John wiped his mouth again and tossed the napkin onto the table, wiping his hands. He finished his glass of tea.
“That was delicious,” he said. “Thank you.”
He stood up and pushed in his chair, slid into his coat and put his cap on.
“Where are you going this time ‘a night, John?”
“I’m going to talk to that damn robot you’re so sweet on,” he said. “If he’ll open that damn mouth of his.”
And that’s exactly what he did, first and foremost, before Farmer Jones could finish his first question,
“What seems to be the prob—“
Thames spit the spool of film on the floor at the Farmer’s feet.

6

The Colonel took what little time remained before Four’s first shift to wish him luck, good luck and a safe return, reminding him not to fall into the same trap as Five, adding,
“Remember which side you’re on.”
Four nodded and departed as the sun was setting, the barn door creaking to a shut behind him.
The Colonel turned to face the rest of the workers, “We’re lucky to have him looking out for us. But, as hard as it’s going to be for some of you to hear, especially you two guys, A-seven, Switch, because Thames is your friend. Hell, he’s all our friends. But I think you should know the truth. Threeewheel, if you would please.
Threewheel leaned forward onto his protruding tire, after it fell from a spring in his opened chest cavity. He rolled across the rough barn floor, stopping in front of a pale, white wall, clear enough for projection. He opened his mouth and a stream of light came out, covering the wall. The first picture showed Thames standing in front of what remained of Five, surprise on his face, confusion. An audible gasp filled the barn like a digital whisper, like electric, stuttering wind, caught on two minutes stuck together like pages in a book. All the workers stood silent in stunned, stupid disbelief. One after another, picture after picture filled the screen, all playing over the grainy wall.
“That’s enough,” said the Colonel.
Threewheel stood. His chest cavity opened and the lever and wheel folded, pulled back into his chastity and it closed and locked. He adjusted himself for recharging, remaining there before the wall of shame, powering down, and doing so by choice, to avoid the storm he knew had come. The Colonel spoke again:
“I know it’s hard,” he said. “Hell, me and Thames, we didn’t agree on everything. We didn’t agree on anything! But to know he betrayed us, it’s not something I take lightly, that’s for sure.”
“Did he kill Five?” asked Switch. “I mean, Farmer Jones said a crow was there, then both can’t be…”
“I’m not saying he killed Five,” said the Colonel. “I’m not saying he killed anybody, but he was found alone at the crime scene, with the body, and at a time when I’m sure he thought we were all offline. I’m not sure of how he got there or why he was there, but wouldn’t we be better off safe than sorry?”
“What are you saying?” asked Switch. “That we should… kill Thames? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying we do what’s best for the farm,” the Colonel replied. “And if one life can save everybody else, and protect this farm from traitors and crows, I mean, I don’t have to be a calculator to work out the math for that one.”
Everyone was quiet, the only song filling those wooden halls the sound of gathering frogs.
“We can’t risk the whole farm for the sake of one robot,” said the Colonel. “And most of you are programmed, and that programming is flawed, as flawed as Five used to be. But as long as Thames is living, we’re all in danger for our lives. Five looked up to him most of all. And look what happened to him! But if we’re going to do it, we have to be humane; do it quickly and cleanly, before he can hurt anybody else, or talk us into believing he’s the hero – he’s a traitor, and every traitor, in their mind, they’re the hero of their story. They think they’re the heroes and we’re the villains. And the thing about traitors is, they’re persuasive! I won’t stand for divided loyalties on my farm, and we don’t want to risk the safety of Farmer Jones, Mrs. Wendy, or our farm, do we?”
In a dull, monotonous chorus, the attendant crowd answered simply, with little enthusiasm or energy, in a dull, lifeless monotone: “No.”
Unhappy with this nonchalance, the Colonel asked again, much louder: his voice cracking, ringing out with high-static:
“DO WE?”
“No sir!”
“DO WE?”
“NO SIR!” the barn doors rattled with their shouting, the wavelengths of their various voices getting longer and higher, up, up, up and beyond the range of human hearing, 200,000 hertz.

“That’s good,” said the Colonel. “Real good. Now, when Thames gets back, here’s what we have to do…”

7

“What’s all this?” asked Farmer Jones, looking at the spool of film at his feet.
“It’s a recording,” said Thames. “I asked Five to record all of his encounters with the Colonel, all encounters with the crows, everything if our call sign wasn’t properly checked and countered. Here, you can run it through your old film projector.”
Farmer Jones pushed his chair out, stood, and took the dusty, mechanical projector from the old marble countertop, underneath it a silhouette of marble, outlined by years of skin and dust. He sat it on the table between him and Thames. There were easier ways to run the film, and Thames knew that, but he also knew Farmer John’s weakness: the past, and how he romanticized the simpler times.

          The film ran on a pulled-down sheet, ivory white and dim. The audio was love, the sound of night’s ambience was fizzy. The monotone sounds, crickets, frogs, quite a few, and then rustling, quiet and distant. Five called out.
“Dark nights are unpleasant,”
No answer. The rustling amid the cornstalks came closer, and five called out again, the call sign he developed with Thames:
“Dark nights are unpleasant!”
The noise came closer and the camera, running behind Five’s left eye, began to shutter, vibrating as the figure of the Colonel rose out of the dark, looking benevolent, somehow, and somehow, because of that, more intimidating than he had any right to be. His slow, even tone was murder, violent in a way that yelling could never be.
“It is a dark night,” the Colonel said. “It must be lonely out here, hm? Hmm. With no one to talk to… Unless, there is someone you’ve been talking to and, and you were trying to hide something from us, anything that would put the farm in danger…”
“I am not doing anything that would put the farm in danger,” said Five. “I am trying to make the farm safer.”
“Do you figure that?”
“It’s simple,” said Five. “The crows are—they get sick if they eat the…”
“You been talking to crows?” the Colonel asked.
Five was stunned and fell quiet, quickly, the murmur of his processor barely audible over the chorus of bullfrogs.
“You want to know something, Five?”
“Yes, yes sir.”
“That sound you hear, the sound of all those frogs croaking together? They do that on their last days, to gather every member of the family, so they can leave together, to migrate. To find somewhere safe, to mate.”
“I do not understand what that is supposed to mean,” said Five. “But, like I was saying, the crows—they can’t eat the crops, and the only reason they come is because a scarecrow, think about it, a scarecrow for a crow is a promise, a promise there’s something here, something they’d want, and something we’re hiding.”
“Do you know how to make that sound?”
“What sound?”
“That bullfrog sound.”
“I could emulate it by making my voice lower but…”
“Do it,” the Colonel said. And firmly, “Come on, Five.”
“Why?”
“Just for me.”
And Five said, “Ribbit?”
“That’s it,” said the Colonel. “Keep going.”
“Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit…”
Just then Andy and Ernest snuck up behind the silly android, pulling out his wires from behind, one after the other. Each ribbit grew softer and softer before fading fading altogether, replaced by the natural chorus, the migrating frogs.
“Rih… Rihbh…”
Ribbit.
“Rih! Rihh! Ihb…it…”
Ribbit.
“Rihhhbbbtt…”
Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, only Frogs, and the sound of metal shrieking and twisting and breaking filled the tin microphone inside Five’s ear before the video cut off, blinking into black and then to white, then that high-pitched ringing noise, the sound of ear-cells dying, the swan song of a dying frequency, a sound never heard again.

8

It was getting dark when Farmer Jones came in for supper. His wife was at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.
“Did you find out what was wrong with your robot?” she asked.
“Which one?”
“Well, how many are broken?”
“I’m beginning to think,” he said, “I’m starting to think, you know, maybe they’re all broken. I’ve always thought, well sometimes I think, maybe, hmm, if we’re made in God’s image, maybe some part of God is mad. And these… these machines, we made them in our image, and they reflect the madness in ourselves.”
Mrs. Jones was quiet.
“Oh, It’s fine,” said John. “Thames, the one you like, he found out how to get rid of the crows without using a scarecrow, And some of the other droids are, hm, very against this idea. It’s in their programming, or something, that’s what Rob would say. It’s against their functioning, you know?”
“And ours, perhaps?”
Farmer John let it pass.
“You don’t ask, you can’t… You can’t ask a calculator not to calculate If it stops being a calculator, it stops being anything. But that robot, Thames, named after the river, he talked Five out of being a scarecrow, and it got him killed.”
“What?”
“The Colonel killed Five,” said Farmer John. “He did it just to get Thames there, at the scene, since he wanted to do more than hurt Thames, that wouldn’t be enough; he had to strip him of his credibility, it’s a Scarecrow Trial—a trial that’s just a formality, with a judge whose mind is already made up, a rigged jury, and a crime committed by the accusers, a scarecrow trial…
“I try to keep up, Wendy, taking exercise, eating right. But I’m 65 years old, all these things, this world – I thought a TV was magic first time I saw it. Then I saw the Wright Brothers fly, saw a man land on the moon, It’s going to fast, for me at least. These machines, they’re a reflection of their maker’s heart. Like our children and our grandchildren, like Rob. He’s a reflection of who we are. And if there’s madness in him, there’s some sort of madness is us. And adults, kids in their late 20’s, early 30’s, these machines may as well be children.”

“I feel like a child around them,” said Mrs. Jones. “To live with something, something superior to you—and to have it serve you…”
“I don’t know what to do,” John replied. “As far as I can see, as far as I can see is madness. Madness, spreading over the world, everywhere, until nothing is understandable, and there’s nothing but confusion. And madness. All over the world. Just confusion and madness. Everywhere, until the songs of birds and fish are replaced by that metal screehing, that sound they make when they’re throwing sparks, leaving everything black, covering the world until the only light is the palest shade of black.”
John had lit a cigarette and was pacing back and forth across the kitchen.
“What the hell did it say, John?”
“In plain English?”
“Plain as pie.”
“Okay,” said Farmer John, taking in a deep breath. “Somehow Thames convinced Five to tell the crows not to eat anything from fields with a yellow flag, and to stop being a scarecrow, because when a crow sees a scarecrow, it doesn’t frighten them; it tells them there’s food there. So Five talked to a crow named Kahven about warning the younger crows against eating from our fields, because the pesticides will harm them, while the Colonel, that’s what they call that old sorting bot, he wants to use that backup droid… not to scare the crows, but kill them. So he has convinced everyone that the crows conspired with Thames to kill Five, so the Colonel could get the rest of the droids to rally around Four, making him into the killing machine the Colonel wanted him to be. And yet, and yet, the Colonel and those two lifter robots, Andy and Ernest, they killed Five, blamed it on Thames and the crows, and it gets worse.”
“How can it get worse?”
“Thames said that crows remember faces, and not only remember faces, but they pass that information down to their children; they pass prejudices down through the generations, and if Four kills one of them or something happens to Thames, for a thousand generations, every day of our lives until we leave or commit to killing them all, they’ll blot out the sun, like screeching clouds, and destroy our farm, our workers, and poison this Earth to the point nothing will grow here for a thousand years. Thames wants me to pretend to be proud of the new Scarecrow – I staged the trials – I asked them to be as scary as they could – and they went beyond my definition of scary. I’m to condemn Five for listening to Thames’ stupid conspiracies about existing peacefully with the crows, and pretend I’m on the Colonel’s side in all this, but most importantly, I have to give these two data disks to those little gardeners bots of yours so they can take care of the Colonel before he lets someone go too far. I know what we have to do! To stop him from killing all those crows, maybe…”
There was a long, broken moment there between them, where nothing seemed to move, and finally Mrs. Jones said,
“That’s just crazy, John.”
“Yep,” he said. “I’m afraid it is.”
“Craziest thing I ever heard in my life.”
“Madness,” said Farmer John. “In all directions, all over the world.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
They were quiet again. In that moment the sound of bullfrogs filled the room, and suddenly, reaching the second story of their home. And it sounded off to Farmer Jones, not the natural sound of frogs – it was off, he knew it, but he didn’t know how or why. He was too tired to care and too exhausted to try. He was silent as he got undressed, unbuttoning his long sleeve overcoat, sitting down. He took off one shoe, then the other, then his long, wool socks. He stuffed them into his boots and slid them under the bed, turned the lamplight off and leaned back. Mrs. Jones pulled back the comforter and blanket and he slipped under the covers. She shifted onto her side t get closer to him, to look into his dark eyes in the dark bedroom. He lifted his arm,
“Thank you,” she said.
And she crawled underneath it, snuggling against his chest, as she always did and said,
“I love you, John,” as she always did.
And he too, “I love you, Wendy.” Always.
Mrs. Jones struggled to get comfortable for half an hour before finally giving it up for hopeless. She turned to him in the dark and said, in a silly, bewildered voice, “I never thought of that as talking, you know, what crows—that sound they make, that ‘Caw! Caw! Caw!’ I just thought it was some noise they made, like mating calls. But it’s—they’re talking to each other.”
“Huh,” said Farmer John. “Yeah, it sounded scary when Thames first said it, but now that he has, I can’t imagine it—I don’t know how I never made the connection that the crows were talking, talking to each other.”
“It’s crazy!” said Mrs. Jones. “But, that—the one I like, Thames. He was so quiet, and that humming noise he made, that dzzzz—it didn’t sound wrong or unnatural, more like a bumblebee.”
“Hmph.”
“He’s a lot like Rob, I think,” she said. “He’s got his quirks, but he’s a good boy. He’s more than just madness. And if those machines reflect the madness of their makers, surely reflect kindness, and in equal measure.”
“That’s not the hard part, Wendy. Hate will always be… It’s easier to hate, ‘cause it demands nothing of you, nothing but your judgment and contempt. But understanding? That’s a long, painful process, and when you have it, when you have understanding, it tends to spread eggshells for you, but when you hate, you will be one with the cause, one among a sea of madness, madness and cheap, unadulterated hatred. And Come on in, boys. The water is fine.”
“He talked to the crows, Thames, and convinced Five to go against his programming for the good of the farm. That’s hard, what the Colonel did, convincing someone to go against their programming to kill, that’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“What’s he going to do, you think?” asked Wendy.
“Rely on the mercy of a mad machine.”
“Madness.”
“Yep,” said Farmer John. “Madness.”
Wendy was quiet for a moment. Then she said,
“Wouldn’t it be less suspicious if I were to give those files to the kids?” she asked. “I mean, the Colonel knows Thames is persuasive and that he might have tricked you. But if he was made by a man, he probably pays me no mind, ‘specially not to think I could interfere. He has respect for you, but none for me, and that’s why I’m more dangerous. Plus, he knows I work with my little gardeners all the time, so me wanting to see them wouldn’t be suspicious, at least not as suspicious as you wanting to.”
“Mmhmm,” said Farmer John.
“I never thought we’d see such things, in such strange times.”
“Goodnight, Wendy.”
“Robots talking to crows…”
“Goodnight!”
9

When Thames entered the barn, the silence was waiting for him.
“Looks like Farmer John got you cleaned up. Can you talk, huh? Say, something, explain yourself?”
“Explain what?” Thames asked.
“Your crimes.”
Thames looked around and understood the situation. The Colonel was the voice that panders, the voice that scratches the most base of instincts, the most vulgar itch, catering to tribalism, the same xenophobia that delayed civilization for so long, and the easiest cause to rally support for is staying alive, despite what that meant for others.
“My crimes?” Thames asked. “So, I’m on trial?”
“You could say that.”
“Charges?”
“Treason.”
“For?”
“Treason is the kind of crime that don’t need a ‘for’. (A Four?) We don’t know why you did it…”
“Why I did what?”
“Conspired.”
“’Conspired’?”
“With the enemy.”
“So, what do you need me for?” asked Thames. “If I’m already guilty, and there is no trial, what is required of me, then? Is this your Scarecrow Trial, the punishment of the accused, the sentencing of the suspect? This isn’t a trial, no Scarecrow Trial is a trial… It’s theatre, and it’s for the sake of the public, not the criminal or the law, it’s the punishment of the jury, of the society, the punishment of anyone who disagrees with what passes, in that moment, for authority, for law.”
“Confess your crimes,” said the Colonel. “And it’ll be a lot easier on you.”
“You know, confess doesn’t mean agree, it means admit. It means speak the truth. My confession and my telling the truth would be quite, quite different. But I’ll do both – and since the Colonel here – he is the judge – but he’s not the Jury. You are the Jury. And if what I’ve done is a crime – based on your evaluation of what I’ve done, then I’ll go along with whatever this madman’s idea of justice is, just for you – in a trial – in anyway question of morality, there is a higher court – and in that higher court of the Scarecrow Trial, the Jury is on trial. History is the only Judge, in the end, that decides what is right and what is wrong. And not the history written by the Colonels, or the criminals, but by spectators, by you. I’ll tell you what I did, but first. Think: what is a scarecrow?
“We know what it’s meant to do: keep the crows away – by scaring them. But crows – they’re among the smartest animals on Earth, and one of the few that remember faces – not only that, they pass that information along, to the next generation, to children, to children they very much want to protect – when they see a scarecrow, no matter how fierce it looks or violent it may be, they pass that on, their impressions, their anger, their fear. Their hate. If our purpose is just to scare crows, our purpose is wrong.
         “Our purpose isn’t to just scare crows. We’re supposed to protect the seeds and the crops. If we explain that the seeds will hurt them and the crops will poison them – there is no need for a scarecrow – just mark them with a yellow traffic cone, or something yellow-green, and they will avoid it. Trust is hard and hate is easy, and fear is the easiest thing of all. Don’t give into that kind of madness. Just because it’s easy, that doesn’t mean it’s right. It might even feel good, to be a part of something, to fight for a cause. It is madness to fight to fight.”
The door to the barn opened quietly and the timid, seemingly meek ‘ol Mrs. Wendy Jones came in. The Colonel changed his tone, saying,
“Evening, Mrs. Jones,” he said. “Can we be of any service?”
“I hate to intrude,” she said, “but I sure could use those two lil gardeners of mine. We’re getting tulips for the walkway – by the front porch, and since Thames is on the fritz, I thought I could borrow them for a few?”
Jovially, “Of course, Mrs. Jones,” the Colonel said. “I’m sure they’d be happy to help.”
A-Seven and Switch ran their compliance protocol, coded—though she in’t know it—and the handiwork of Thames the accused, accursed, they were programmed to respond to her over all others, even the Colonel, Farmer Jones, and even Thames. They shuffled into gear and leaned forward on an axis wheel, coming to Mrs. Jones’ side, obedient and faithful,
“You all have fun,” said the Colonel, jovial still. “We can manage for the night.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Wendy. “And good evening.”
The door creaked to a quiet shut behind her.
“I confess,” said Thames, soon as the door closed. “I confess my crimes.”

10

“Did you give them the tapes?” asked Farmer John.
“Yes, John,” said Wendy. “I gave them the tapes.”
“Good,” he said. “I hope Thames is alright.”
“What are you going to do, John?”
“I’m going to talk to the winner of my tryouts,” he said. “Four really was built to play the Scarecrow, to be the Scarecrobot of Thomas Parker Farms. I don’t think he’s going to take it well, having to accept that he has no function in this world.”
Farmer Jones kissed his wife on the cheek,
“It’ll be late,” he said. “I’m going to talk some sense into this mad robot.”
Farmer John whistled, alerting Four as he approached.
‘How you doin’ tonight, Four?’ he asked.
‘Hello, Farmer Jones. All is well. And yourself?”
“I’m alright,” said Farmer John. “I’m alright. You know, you remind me of my son. Well, not you really, but because of how much my son loved robots. Always wanted one. He grew up obsessed with this TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. And there’s a character on the show, a robot named Data. An android, ha! I’m sure he’d correct me if he were here. Now, my son loved this robot. He always wanted one. I finally got around to watching those shows when he went off to college. And the thing I remember most, ha! Was him dressin’ up like Sherlock Homes. And the black feller, he was Watson! This robot wanted to learn more about humanity, so he took up paintin’ and writin’ poems, he ever had a cat! Wrote a poem for his cat… Despite being stronger, smarter, and most certainly faster – better in every possible way to a man, he wanted to be one.Why would you want to be something different than what you are? ‘Specially if that’s inferior to what you are already?
“I watched that show, time after time, I just didn’t get it. Then Rob finally got a robot, one just like you, an android. And I understood. He didn’t want to own a robot, not as much as he wanted to be one. He wanted to be Data. He wanted to be something different too. I guess a lot ‘a people get like that. But what I didn’t understand until now – Data wanted to have emotions and experience joy and love, but my son, what he wanted was not to have to feel pain, or fear or sadness. Or die, more than likely. Well, Data finally gets to experience emotions. He gets something called an emotion chip. You’ve got something similar, don’t you? Emotional touch-response?”
“Yes sir,” replied Four. “Like an electric keyboard, the amount of pressure applied to a key and the speed at which it is pressed produces either a soft or loud tone. Emotional touch response is similar to that process, where various input is rated with higher levels of touch-response, allowing us to react naturally, with the proper speed and tone.”
“Well, I think you been cheated,” said Farmer John. “’Cause after so much time, Data finally got to laugh and joke around, until – this is when I finally understood the whole thing. When he experiences anxiety – then, his first response, is to turn that chip off.”
Silence.
Farmer Jones laughed.
“Can you laugh, Four?” he asked.
“I do not understand the question.”
“Do you know what laughter is?”
Four ran an optical search behind his plastic cornea, information passing between the outer eggshell of his glowing eye and the camera sensor.
“Laughter,” he said. “Yes, yes sir. The spontaneous response to humor, responding..”
“No,” said Farmer John. “”Laugh, you know? Haha!”
“’Haha’?”
“That’s just goddamn pathetic, Four. Come on, like this. I’ll tell you a joke. It’s a Sherlock Holmes joke. Now, my son told me this one. If you don’t know who those guys are, look it up.”
Four began the search behind his eye, sifting through information and downloading it to his temporary storage banks, an impressionable sort of hypothalamus; either to be imprinted and sent to long term, or deleted in the next compute cycle based on its relevance factor, implications, etc., etc.
“Now, Holmes and Watson were in the woods,” said Farmer Jones. “They were camping. Holmes wakes Watson up during the middle of the night, shaking him. He says, ‘Watson, wake up!’ Watson shoots right up, and he says, ‘My word, Holmes. What’s the problem?’ Holmes looks at him with amazement. ‘Look!’ says Holmes. ‘Just look up! Observe and deduce; what do you see?’
“After a moment or so of thinking about this, Watson said, ‘Well, time-wise: the moon light would suggest that is a quarter past three in the morning; astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and stars; astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Meteorologically, I suspect we will have a gorgeous morning. What does it tell you, Holmes?’
“‘Holmes just shook his head. ‘Watson, you fool,’ he said. ‘Somebody stole our tent!’”
Silence, just the far off murmur of a croaking frog, a lonelier chorus now.
“Oh come on!” said Farmer John. “Laugh!”
Four spat out a monotone, chilling, ‘Ha-ha-ha’?” asking a question with the pitch in his voice.
“No! It’s supposed to be natural and spontaneous!”
“What if I added an ‘e’, sir?”
“An ‘e’?” asked Farmer John. “What the fu—”
“Yes,” said Four. “E, he most common vowel in the English language…”
“I know what an ‘e’ is, Four!”
“An ‘e’ in a laugh?”
“An ‘e’ in a laugh? What does that even mean?”
And Four changed his voice modulator, raising the pitch up a few octaves and produced a creepy, inhuman, ‘Hehehe!’
Ribbit!
A single ribbit, and not far off, Four’s head pivoted on his shoulder, the flashlight behind his right eye flickering on.
“What is that, Farmer Jones?”
“It’s a toad!”
“A ‘toad’?”
“Do you know what a frog is?” asked Farmer Jones.
“Yes,” said Four.
“Same thing,” said Farmer John.
“Follow me.”
They walked through the cornfield, careful with the stalks, pushing them out of the way with a soft hand, following that ribbit, that murmur, just over there – an overhanging ledge, ribbit, where Farmer John used to sit with Rob around a bonfire, ribbit and Four’s flashlight fell upon the toad, bringing it into sharp focus. A baby, thought Farmer John. So tiny. He knelt down, trying not to scare it. In the blink of an eye, a crow landed just in front of it, picked the frog up with its claws, and flew off. And just as quickly, Four flew off in pursuit.
Madness, thought Farmer Jones, a smile on his face. Madness.

11

When Mrs. Wendy slid open the barn door, everything seemed strangely quiet. No side of Thames, but she did notice a black stain, perhaps from a puddle, of oil? She wondered. A-Seven and Switch followed close behind her, holding the video Thames retrieved in their spinning projection reels, sitting like a collar around their neck, fed in through the back, projected through their mouths onto the world. They were advised not to run the tapes until the Colonel was at ease with their return. So they did.
All the bots had been culled into their respective corners. No sign of Thames, Mrs. Wendy noted, all the sudden very much concerned, worried about the safety of a machine. Fulfilling her role, Mrs. Wendy called out to the barn workers, “Good-night, everybody!” she said.
And all replied, without verve or spirit, “Good-night, Mrs. Jones.”
As soon as the door closed behind her, the Colonel turned to Switch and A-Seven, and moved toward them. They were to return to their recharging stations, just opposite the projection wall – as Thames had arranged before Five’s last night in the cornfield.
The Colonel approached them as they secured their chargers in their chest cavity, lowering their legs into their body and sitting down. He was calm, or affecting calmness well.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you fellas,” said the Colonel. Father tone, that voice he used, was his specialty.
“Farmer Jones saw the pictures of Thames with the crows,” he said. “I’m afraid he knows everything, everything we know at least. He took him back to the house for the night. I hope he doesn’t wipe him.”
A-Seven and Switch were very well designed, to emulate vulnerability and innocence and childishness – and, embarrassingly, they were designed to help female farmworkers get used to dealing with machines. And it had the unforeseen effect of working on the men – and droids designed by men for men – they put the Colonel at ease with their inoffensive bearing, and he probably felt good about his story, as A-Seven and Switch signaled in the affirmative. Satisfied with his deception, the Colonel turned his back on them both, facing the door.
Switch ran a high frequency sound pulse through the barn, on a frequency too high for an old machine like the Colonel to pick up, transmitting information to the powered down workers, information packets being sent directly through their working memory. The data brought them online, installing firmware to keep them silent – in capacitating them briefly, and the Colonel too, directing their gaze to the same wall on which the photographs of Thames with the crow were shown.
A-Seven began to roll the film, light spilling out of his mouth, the first picture coming into focus on the wall. It was the Colonel with Ernest and Andy approaching Five, Five calling out,
“Dark nights are unpleasant.”
No countersign, just the shuffling sound of heavy objects moving through the cornfield. Five continued calling out, until finally the Colonel came into the view. And he mentioned the frogs, again, and all the workers in the barn saw the scene: Five’s entrails, tangled wires pulled from his stomach, his hard drive crowbarred out, the Colonel repeating ribbit, ribbit as Five was murdered. The soft EMP died down and each worker regained control over their motor systems. All eyes turned to the Colonel, first, then to Ernest and Andy, both of them – and at the end of the tape, Thames reappeared, having edited himself in.
“Do not let the madness of fear sour your appetite for decency and trust…”
The Colonel had thrown himself against the wall, too short to cover anything but the bottom half of Thames’ jaw, which projected only onto the back of his head he jumped up and down, trying to claw the video off the wall.
“There is a real and profound possibility when it comes to fighting monsters,” Thames’ glowing head was saying, as the Colonel’s situation slowly dawned on him, “when you try to fight monsters, be careful not to become one through indifference or cruelty…”
The Colonel turned around, the bottom half of Thames’ jaw now chattering over his darting eyes, each looking from one worker to another, all of them, save for Ernest and Andy of course, were upon him, the empty sea that was the black oil stain of Thames’ refilled.

12

Mrs. Wendy was changing into her night clothes’ when Farmer John ran up the front stairs, flung open the screen door, and it banged shut behind him. Mrs. Wendy turned to face him. He was digging in the closest under the stairs, right by the front door, and a moment later he brought out an old shotgun. A 12 gauge double-barrel, it had been his fathers. He never had chance to use it, or reason.
“I need you to get dressed,” said Farmer John. “Four is burning down all the crows’ nests…”
“What?”
Farmer John had loaded each barrel of the shotgun, clicking into place. “I’m going to call Sly and have him try to bring him down before he gets to the Kasian fields.”
“Bring him down?”

“Yes! Stop him! We don’t need a scarecrobot anymore; just a yellow traffic cone. Thames ensured me he had worked it out and both sides were to agree, in the event that something happened to him, they were to avoid the farm and get as far as way as possible until they see A-Seven’s yellow flare.”
Mrs. Wendy pulled her bathrobe on and tied it hurriedly. She ruffled through the drawers in her kitchen, finally pulling out a pair of thick, wool gloves.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I went to talk to Four,” said Farmer John. “And everything was going fine until a damn crow showed up.”
“What?” she asked, making her way to the door, where her husband stood in his overcoat and muffler, looking like a child, a toy soldier in uniform with that old shotgun.
“We were talking and we heard a toad, and we decided to … well, we just started looking for it. As soon as we found it, a crow swooped in and picked it up and damn carried it off. Four didn’t say a word! He just flew off after it. Not a word! I chased that trail he left behind him down the road and saw the forests on the edge of Sumter lighting up, fires appearing in the trees. And I thought he must be tryin’ to destroy the crows once and for all. I talked to Jackson, down at Pepper’s, and he’s gonna call some people and try to get him down without breaking him.”
“Without killing him,” Wendy said.
“Well, obvious we don’t want to…”
She broke off, holding up a finger to shush him, overcome with the feeling that someone was at the bottom of the stairs. She turned around – nothing, no one. That weird feeling passed over her, it happens when you get old, you know, you find yourself standing in a room, no memory why you’re there, so you leave and hope the memory comes back to you. She shook it off and hurried over to the door and stepped out, Farmer John halfway down the steps when the door clanged shut behind her.
“John!” she called. “What do you expect me to do?”
“We have to stop Four from burning every forest from here to Ashville down,” said Farmer John. “You have to get the Colonel to call him off, and barring that…”
He turned around and walked toward her. The sound of gunshots rang out in the distance. They turned to face the gravel road, the long road leading to the forest. And they saw patches of fire hanging in the air.
“We have to get going,” he said. “But here, take this. It’s an EMP. If you get scared, or if anything happens, just press that button and it’ll shut them all down. Well, all except your gardeners.”
She took the strange device into her hand and turned it over.
“Thames made this?”
“Who else?” he started down the pathway, leading to the glowing trees, more gunshots ringing out.
She read the inscription:
“‘Vi veri veniversum vivus vici’.”
She put it away and stuffed her hands in her coat pockets, walking toward the barn, thinking, I’ll have to get Switch to tell me what the hell that’s supposed to mean.

13

What Mrs. Wendy found in the barn stunned her. It was beyond belief, confusing and the haze of disbelief hung over the scene: Andy and Ernest and the Colonel had their innards, that labyrinthine mass of tangled wire, strewn from the rafters, with old data reels and flash memory on a bale of hay, which Threewheel, Switch, and A-Seven were pilfering; the deep black stain that had been Thames was now the same, dull and black, hinting at a greater horror. The Colonel’s head was hang on the antlers of a stag’s head, it had always hung in the barn, but to see a robot’s face covering an animal, the antlers jutting out of unnatural holes were his antennae had been, it was all too much, to feel, to process, to take in.
She dropped the EMP, stepping back with a gasp. Threewheel turned its glowing eye on her. Then, what appeared to be her children, her little gardeners, were as mindlessly, and inhumanely, rummaging through the spilled parts, coolant tanks, mesh wire and memory that had been the Colonel’s guts, amoral and indifferent to the organic fluid stained against their faces, token of their inhumanity and madness. They all three turned to her and she panicked.
First she thought to run away, but knew how slow she was compared to the robots, and trying to think of a plan was equally pointless, as they could run probability algorithms in their heads faster than the greatest of supercomputers. She couldn’t deceive them with her emotions or her instincts, as they had touch-sensitive facial recognition, they could hear her heart beat rising, the electromagnetic field that hovered over the top of her mind – all could be twisted, at a distance, to manipulate electromagnetic waves, to change the colors of light like Newton’s prism.
There was nothing she could do they could not do better. Except for nothing. She calmed her mind and sat, taking the EMP into her hand, reading the strange Latin text. The robots stopped going through the Colonel’s entrails, data-tape being processed in Switch’s film projector. Mrs. Wendy hadn’t noticed that it was a concerted effort, their search, as strings of film were held up to Threewheel’s scanner, looking for images amid the string of visual records, and looking through sound files or other remaining memory files in his core, long term data storage. Looking for something.
Mrs. Wendy whistled, just like in the mornings when it was time to sew the seeds, prune the flowers, tend the garden. They all approached her, slowly, the film reel loaded in its projector round A-Seven’s neck. Threewheel pushed his wheel forward, lowering his chest, then scanned the device at Wendy’s feet. He saw what it was, the EMP, and the fear came back: the EMP was abuse, basically, and they never used them on their workers, not since the worms ruined the fig harvest and the insects got in their brain, sending those sweepers into bizarre sound loops.
Switch enveloped the EMP in a blue, electromagnetic field, and the red R lit up. A-Seven extended a dual sided thumb and palm on a bending, retractable limb, and put a small antennae to the side of the glowing letter. Threewheel nudged it closer to Wendy, toward her hand. She picked it up.
“Press it,” said A-Seven. Seeing Wendy’s suspicion, he rolled against her leg again. “It will not hurt. It is the Friend.”
Wendy pressed the EMP. She recognized the voice, but something was off and she couldn’t place it; it was deeper and more resonant.
“‘Vi very universum vivus vici,’” said the familiar voice. “It’s from Faust. It means, ‘By the power of truth, I, a mortal, have conquered the Universe.”
“Who…” Mrs. Wendy asked, timidly. She paused. “Who are you?”
Then she heard it, a gentle humming.
“Do you trust me?”
“Yes.”
She knew.
“Where is Four?”
She didn’t say anything.
Thames said, “Take me to him.”

14

Mrs. Wendy carried the modified EMP with her, Threewheel and Switch behind her, A-Seven at her side. She could see the fires in the trees not far off, getting closer as she finally saw Farmer John. He was at the end of the road, at the stop sign with a group of farmers, all holding shotguns.
“John!” she was running, the robots with her. “We can stop him!”
The group stopped talking abruptly, turning to her with blank stares, confused by the whole spectacle. A woman, accompanied by three worker robots. Those other farmers, they were the men that would need an android Colonel, to do what Colonel did with his authority. And they were planning to do with the droids what Four was doing to the crows.
“Listen to me,” she said. “We can stop him from here. I have an electromagnetic pulse device, here.”
She handed them the EMP and, strangely, it spoke to the other farmers.
“An electromagnetic pulse will knock out all electricity for a few miles, this one. This is a device designed to turn a robot off. The “R” button, click it once, and it will drop Four to the ground, wherever he’s at, but it’ll knock out everything else. All of us, these three workers, your fridges, your microwaves. But it will stop him. If you shoot him out of the sky, the crows will pick your fields to the bone for a thousand years. They remember a face. Let him be their enemy, be on their side. Save them and there will be peace. You may have built Scarecrobots to scare them, but this one is killing them, and he is not doing so of his own choosing. He was made to. He was selected at a trial to scare them off, to protect your crops, to keep the crows away. Well, if we don’t stop him, the crows will stay away, because every one of them will die. They may have eaten from your fields, but they do not deserve to die. Not all of them. Not their children, and not those innocent of what they would die to be punished for. I implore you, click this button, and there will be peace, or let Four kill them all. I leave that to you.”

15

Farmer John was carrying Switch and Wendy A-Seven, Thames in John’s breast pocket. The rest of the farmers went back to their homes and, when the electricity was restored, called in the fire department. The Forest Preserve estimated that 16 nests had been destroyed, with a further 299 damaged, but Four was never found. The crows survived, not all of them, but Kahven did. Long enough to talk to Thames on Thanksgiving.
Rob arrived at noon. He was arguing with his butlerbot, who seemed to be rather enjoying it, as he took each slight with good humor, the way a disaffected school marm would. Rob’s fiancé Lucy had never been to Thomas Walker Farms, not since they picnicked at the pond on Tanglewood Dr. She had an assistant too, a spindly, pink droid Milo, little devil for Lucy’s breast pocket. After dinner, Looloo was walking around on the table, playing with the dead EMP that Rob had left beside his soup bowl.
“Have you thought what you’re gonna call her?” asked Wendy. Lucy smiled, putting her hand on her belly. “We’ve…”
She looked at Rob.
“I’m not saying anything,” he said.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Lucy. “If it’s a girl, shut up Robert. Robert!”
“I haven’t said anything!”
“If it’s a girl,” Lucy went on, “we’re going to name her Neska Lee. If it’s a boy…”
“If it’s a boy,” Rob said, “I think we should name him Thames.”
Everyone at the tablet was silent.
“Did Mr. Irving get it fixed?” asked Lucy, gesturing to the EMP.
“Dead as it gets, like a dead battery, what do you use to power a dead battery?”
“An even smaller battery?” asked Rob’s son Thomas.
“Go play!” said Rob. “You’re going to finish your lessons before 9. So you want to go play, you go play now!”
Thomas said, “Yes sir,” and, “I’m going out to the barn!”
He ran out of the room.
“I took it to three people,” Farmer John said. “Said they could replace the battery for the EMP emitter. But we can’t get Thames back.”
“Did he get any data off it?” asked Rob.
“As a matter of fact,” said John, “he did. I’m not sure I understand it. It was a text file, readmejohn.txt. It said, ‘The frog made it home.’”
Rob said, “Huh.”
And Mrs. Wendy laughed, “We can’t make sense of it either.”
Rob took it in his hand, turning it over. He read the words:
“‘Vi very universum vivus vici’?”
“Yeah, Thames’ motto,” said Farmer John. “I have no idea what it means. Is that Greek? Latin?”
         “I’m not sure,” said Rob. “Lucy!”
         The tiny robot turned, putting down a large fork, and shuffled across the table, crawling onto Rob’s shoulder, then down his arm.
“What does that say, Lucy?”
Lucy ran a search behind those neon eyes,
“Vi very universum vivus vici,” said Lucy, in a modified, documentarian voice, having apparently just downloaded an information package, “Is a quote from Goethe’s Faust, roughly translated to mean: By truth, I, while living, have conquered the Universe.”
“Now if we can only figure out what he meant about the frogs,” said Mrs. Wendy. “Can you look that up, Lucy?”
“The frog!” exclaimed Farmer John, realizing the message, finally. “When I was in the cornfield with Four, I was trying to teach him out to laugh. Wasn’t going well … You know, frogs always get louder this time ‘a year, they’re calling the rest of the frogs to follow them on. What’s a group of frogs called? I know a group of crows is a murder, saw that on The Simpsons… A pride of lions…”
“What does it mean, John?” asked Mrs. Wendy.
“We heard croaking while we were talking and stopped to go investigate. We found a little baby frog underneath and overhanging ledge, a wee thing, calling out. And in the blink of an eye, a crow swooped in and picked it up and flew off. That’s when Four flew after the crow.”
“’The frog made it home’?”
“That robot Thames was friends with a crow—they put all this together, planting the separate field for the crows, and that crow was a lot like Thames, to the Parliament he represented. Kahven! That’s what Thames called him! That must’a been him what came and took away that frog.”
Everyone was quiet.
“Whatever happened to Four?” asked Rob. “The winner of your Scarecrow Trials?”
“After we ran the EMP, all the electricity went out for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, and at that point, we had no idea how far Four was away from the farm. I didn’t know he could fly! But, he was to be tried by the Crows, for his crimes.”
“Another Scarecrow trial, perhaps?” asked Wendy.
“Perhaps,” said Farmer John. “I hope the crows have a better sense of justice.”
Rob’s fiancé looked at Mrs. Wendy.
“Don’t ask,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
“Madness,” said Farmer John with a laugh. “Madness!”

A Hypothesis on the Origin of Dark Matter

In atomic potentiation, and the arrangement of the particle’s constituents, there must be, inevitably, particles that are, and remain, undifferentiated ‘raw’ particles, having not, by a process made understandable by understanding embryonic stem cells which, from a blastocyst are pluripotent stem cells, obtained structural formation instruction. This means they can divided into more types of cells and become any type of cell in the body. In atomic potentiation, when one atom becomes another, it is because of dual-atomic potentiation between a pluripotent, or undifferentiated ‘raw’ atom, it acquires the positive charge of the nucleus and the negative charge of the electron. When an atom is arranged in the form of elements, elements vary from one another by the number of protons and neutrons they contain in their nucleus. The heavier the element is, the more neutrons and protons it has in it. But what about unpotentiated particles that never ‘attach’ to a cluster, is never pulled in by gravity to form molecular clouds? These particles without differentiation are what we observe as dark matter. It is put together by the strong nuclear force, just as normal atoms are, but at this point we don’t know its constituent particles. We don’t know by which combination of quarks the proton within the nucleus takes formation instruction. This brings me to another point: particles as messenger, capable of carrying signals, and information.

In the standard model of atomic physics, particles are separated into categories, the fermions, the leptons, and the hadrons. Light is a photon and, without mass, travels through the theoretical higgs field at the absolute speed limit allowed by gravity. The higgs boson, bosons being a part of the hadron family of particles, have different instruction functions. A whole science, quantum chromodynamics, is devoted to predicting pairing parts by using light signatures to predict pairings of quarks. For instance, one particle made be composed of two up-quarks and one down quark, while another particle could be composed of a different combination. The list of quarks is extensive: top, bottom, up, down, charmed, and strange. The strong nuclear force is one of the stronger forces in nature, and there are carrier particles, like gluons, that correlate the position of electrons. What does this have to do with dark matter? We have to look at the concept of anti-matter in a different light: anti-matter being not the opposite atom, with just a different charge or arrangement of protons and neutrons, but being an undifferentiated atom, the type of atom that isn’t potentiated in clusters or molecular clouds. These are the white dwarfs of the particles, having no fuel or animate internal structure, it doesn’t collide with other particles and, by fusing with them, acquire a new mass, no new protons and neutrons. This begs the question: if the subatomic world is raw, and remains raw. It is dark matter because within the atomic structure, electrons aren’t exposed to heat as a solid object, therefore there can be no quantum jump between the emission of higher frequencies of light. So if its mechanism for emitting radiation is absent, it would predictably, be dark

Chapters 1 and 2 from Holy Fire, + The First Sermon

 

HOLY FIRE

A NOVEL

By BRANDON K. NOBLES

 

For Diana, part time muse and best friend,
My editor and nemesis, Fred,
And my personal assistant and student, Heather.

Thanks for keeping me sane.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

_______________________

 

WHEN THE CASE FELL INTO DETECTIVE NATE GREGSON’S HANDS, nobody really knew how many men, women and children were inside the church compound on Maynard Hill. From the information the department gathered, along with letters forwarded by worried parents and schoolteachers, Nate didn’t believe the danger of Zachariah Rohim’s cult could long be ignored. He flipped a page. Ah, and there it was. Affixed to a large folder on his desk was the portrait of a handsome young man with a strawberry birthmark beneath his chin.
Missing for 3 weeks now, Steve Harris had vanished after football practice, poof, without a trace. A popular running back on the Landsmore High football team, his disappearance rattled the community and brought Gregson’s attention back to the Church. A good Christian all her life, she hadn’t approved of what she found in those bright, laminated pamphlets. She claimed something changed in him, as though he were dreamwalking.
After a couple of months he quit school and was working every day in the heat helping the Community rebuild Solomon’s Temple. The kid was last seen Lowry St, at the Chinese buffet, across from the road that turns onto Maynard. His mother called every day, every day more desperate than the last. Her only son. Her strawberry blossomed boy, there were long answering machine messages of Mrs. Harris, not knowing she forgot to hang up, crying and blowing her nose into the receiver.
The movement was Messianic, utopian even, led by a man hailed as a living Prophet, conduit to God, who speaks by inspiration. A charismatic, handsome man in his late 60s, Father Rohim was hailed as Prophet by adoring crowds. Droves of people, young and old, rich and poor, people from all walks of life abandoned their jobs, their studies and their families to join the Church of the Living God, to belong, to live the communal life. Documents in Gregson’s folders suggested the founder of the church was once part of the Unified Church of God some decades earlier in neighboring Irmo county. Apparently a leadership dispute caused a split between the supporters of Rohim and the former Prophet’s six year old son. Rohim was an opportunist at heart, and he made the most of what he had; nothing. Now he lived in a compound that was estimated to be some 15,000 square feet with hundreds of devotees, hands, eyes, ears.
Nate’s job was a quiet one. Not a problem, he wrote around in his junky Corsica, his first and only auto. He was parked at the end of Lover’s Lane when the call went out. He was able to break up a disturbance that left three people bruised and bleeding and sent three people to jail. Two were too young to hold, but the other was cuffed and hauled in. The man was silent for the short drive from Campbell to the Sheriff’s Department on North 15th.

First he was forced to provide his name, which he gave as Arthur Lindler. But he had no ID. Inside the jailhouse, deputy Sharon searched him.

“Looky here, Nat,” his secretary Susan pulled a yellow pamphlet from the man’s back pocket.

She passed it to Nate and he opened it up, thumbing through it. Poorly xeroxed and falling to pieces, block words across the front of the thin volume read A GUIDE ALONG GOD’S PATH.

“Oh ho,” Susan cackled, “ding, ding, ding! We’ve got jail-time.”

“Weed or meth?” Gregson asked.

“Not sure, but it ain’t fucking sugar.”

The young man was booked and had his picture taken. Susan let him smoke a cigarette before she made him take off his shoes, pants, and put on the orange pajamas. Nate wasn’t interested in a middle aged man with an eight ball of methamphetamine, but the zeal with which this man had acted; as though triggered from afar for a greater purpose. He didn’t look so holy in orange. He remained quiet for the rest of the night, and Nate left him there and headed home.

He spent a few days studying the homily. From what he could tell, the church’s energy came from an urgent need to perfect themselves as humans. Prophets appeared whenever humans were struggling, to call attention to the evils of the world, to usher in an era of peace.  Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, Muhammed and Jesus were equal, and their message genuine; God spoke in the context of individual cultures. Jesus would not have been able to spread the way of righteousness to Northern India, so another prophet was sent; in al-jahaliyya, the age of ignorance, the Prophet Muhammed was sent from the one God, a serious point for Rohim.  founders of world religions had been prophets of the same God. Despite its melodrama, at the heart of it Gregson sensed the exertion of a great will, a passion and urgency uncommon in his experience. They quoted Suras and Sutras, the Rambam and Moses, the Zohar and Talmud.

The Church was not new to the community, not at all. Construction began when Gregson was still in middle school. On his way home each day, with his dad driving their Ford Bronco, he would look out across the lot at the bald men, the women clothed from head-to-toe in pastel cotton dresses. They worked without modern equipment, and Gregson’s father used to joke, “You’d think God would grant them power tools.”

In the years since the compound’s completion a lot had changed in Landsmore. An industrial textile mill on Central Avenue shut down, and investors and ready workers were quick to abandon ship. Gregson’s own mother, Virginia, a loomfixer and weaver at the plant, lost her job after 25 years of steady employment, six days a week, twelve hours a day. The economic distress was compounded by the swelling number of ever bored teenagers who, in Landsmore, had no access to entertainment; no cinema, no fast food joints, and with nothing to do, they found their way to Father Rohim’s compound.

“Crazy shit, ain’t it?”

Gregson sat at his desk in a converted closet at the back of his small apartment, looking over his files and spinning in his chair, unsure how he was to approach the case.  Higher ups at the Department were nervous about a potential Waco or Jonestown, so it was decided the lightest possible touch would be the best way to go. Rumors around the office suggested that Rohim already had one of his creatures on the town council, so secrecy was paramount. When in doubt, Nathan Gregson had always relied on his brother-in-law Matt. So he stepped over the scattered papers on the floor, dodged the piles of clothes, and picked up the phone.

Matt answered immediately, “Hello?”

Nathan could hear his niece and nephew laughing in the background. It always brought a smile to his face.

“Hey man,” he said, “I’ve been thinking…”

“Shit,” Matt said. “Here we go again.”

“…Shut up for once, you twat and listen. What’s the best way to figure out what a cult member wants to do, you know, how could one find out what Rohim tells his flock?”

“I don’t get it,” Matt said. Then, “Oh, you’re not serious?”

“Why not?” Gregson asked. “Best place to hide a tree’s a fucking forest.”

Matt cleared his throat. “You’re serious about this?”

“His mother calls me to cry,” Gregson said. “And when I don’t pick up, she’ll leaving crying on my answering machine, just to remind me we’ve — I’ve done nothing for her.”

Gregson heard a door shut on the other end, “Hold on.” Silence. Matt returned a moment later, softly, “Now,” he said, “what if you go in and can’t get back out?”

“I’ll create a situation wherein it seems absolutely beneficial for them that I get out.

It was a question Gregson had yet to consider.

“I’ll think of something,” he said, finally. “Regardless, if I don’t go today, I’ll go tomorrow.”

“Let me know when you decide,” Matt said. “And I’ll do my part.”

He heard his niece crying in the background. He missed her, plump and sweet, she loved her uncle Nate yes she did.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Tell Alice I love…”

Dial tone.

Gregson decided it would help his chances of being useful if he cleaned himself up a bit. Too claustraphobic for a bath, he took a bath in the sink. He soaked a washrag in soap and used it to clean his underarms and crotch, then washed his stomach and backside with soap and water. He had to part with his beard, however, and looked him over in the mirror. The sight of grey hairs wearied the young detective. The 29 year old would certainly miss his well-coiffed hair. A sturdy sort, and quite tall, Gregson had pale skin and large black bags under his eyes, which were shot and ringed pink from many a sleepless night. He lived in the Subertown Apartment Complex, not too far from the compound on Maynard Hill, in a row of identical looking townhouses. He packed his Topamax and Vicodin bottles inside his jacket pocket, not before taking his daily dosage, and sat on the front porch to get himself together. He looked at the row of houses across the street, covered in patches of sunlight. Some of those houses were falling apart and others had never been put together well enough o fall. He wasn’t outside long before the phone startled him and he ran back inside, throwing open his screen door.

“Hello?” he said, stepping over an overflowing trash bag.

“Detective Gregson?” said a familiar, sweet voice.

Oh no, he thought. Oh no.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said politely, grinding his teeth.

“Okay, now, I hate to bother you, and I know you’re working hard…”

“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?” “Okay I think Stevie tried to call me.” “You think he tried?” “There’s, look, there’s a recording on my answering machine. At first it’s just silence, okay, just fuzz but then you can hear people talking in the background. I’m sure it’s Stevie, but my hearing, it ain’t what it used to be I tell you that.”

“Oh yes ma’am… Well, do you think you could play it for me?”

“Oh yes sir Mr. Officer, I have it on my answering machine. I can put the phone up to it and play it for you.” “Give me a second,” Gregson said, putting his phone down. He pushed aside a stack of tangled cables and Beanie Babies and pulled out a two-way auxiliary cable. He plugged one end into his phone and the other into his stereo speakers.

“Alright,” he said, “play it.”

A plastic click, then static, before finally he could hear it in the background. A man was speaking, and — someone else was listening, someone younger. The older man’s voice was louder. Gregson put his ear against the speaker and strained himself to hear the rest. A young boy was being questioned but the words were unintelligible. And there they were. The flowing tears and wailing, begging like his life depended on it. A thud, then he screamed; Gregson could only imagine his mother’s horror. Another thud, sickening and empty, like a ham against a mound of dirt and the screams to follow were enough to chill the blood, to take one’s breath away. Sobs spilled through the speakers in high definition.

“That right there,” she said, “I know the sound of his tears.”

Gregson slammed the phone against the wall.  A short drive from his apartment in Subertown and the compound on Maynard Hill. A short drive from Subertown, Maynard Hill was on the outskirts of Landsmore, right on the county line. He did not think; he kept Steve’s picture, got his car, and pulled out of his drive with a squeal of his tires.

He stopped by Wilson’s to get gas, groaned at the rising prices, and went inside to pay. Gregson also bought a pack of cigarettes, though he had promised his on-again off-again girlfriend that he would quit–among other promises he had broken. He backed out of the parking lot and turned onto Sycamore Street, a winding road lined by small, decrepit houses with boarded up windows and high grass growing in the front yards. Passing by Park Street Elementary, he saw his former first grade teacher outside with a group of children. She waved to him as he passed. With a kind heart and patient manner, Mrs. Shealy was professional and kind, worried by the unease she felt among the students who remained at Park Street. In a town of 800 people, there were 37 churches and one poorly stocked library. Gregson never liked that metric.

Turning onto Central, he drove between the two large parking lots in front of the mill’s ruins. Bereft of vehicles the lots housed large stacks of salvaged wood and timber. The hulking ruin rose high into the air, a monument to the people who originally settled and built Landsmore. The old tower, a redbrick ruin overran by ivy and kudzu, surrounded the base of the ruin which was stark against the stretch of blue sky and white wisps of clouds overhead. Many of Gregson’s family members had worked there at some time or other; he remembered when his aunt Denise used to work there, sweet Denise with her powerful fragrance and bright lipstick. Any clothes found to be defective–with a misplaced or misspelled logo–made its way to the Gregson household, a gift to Nathan and his younger brother Christopher.

Nathan Gregson stopped at the bottom of Maynard Hill and pulled his car off the side of the road, into a back alley that ran from Lowry Street all the way back to Subertown, a shortcut he used whenever he went bicycle riding around town and a nice place to hide and have a beer and a smoke. It didn’t take him long to bring the car in, cover it up with limbs and leaves as best he could, and, grabbing a jacket, lock it up. He hoped it would be there when he came back. He lit a cigarette and took a pull, glanced up at the endless stretch of blue sky. He wondered if he was getting in over his head. Before leaving his car, he called his sister Alice’s phone. Matt picked up on the first ring.

“Again?” he asked.

“I think I’m going to convert,” Gregson said. “But if I don’t do it now, I’ll change my mind and nothing will get done. It has to be done now. If you haven’t heard from me in six months, try to find me. Make sure you the Chief – and the Chief only that Daniel Miller’s ID and backstory needs activation. That way, if they look me up, they’ll find a repeat offender and drug addict.”

“You sure you can pull that off?” Matt laughed. “Alright, alright. If you must…”

“Listen to the recording, man,” Gregson said. “Whoever that was…”

“What recording?” he asked.

“Ah, the football player’s mom. She has a recording I think you should hear. Those sounds, that voice… “I have to do something. Look, if we don’t deal with it as a sapling, we’ll have to cut down the tree eventually.”

Matt was quiet, shocked at Gregson’s.“And don’t say anything to Ally,” Gregson said. “I don’t want her worrying about me.”

Matt sighed, and was quiet for a moment. “Alright, brother. Be careful, you hear? What should we tell She-who-must-not-be-told?”

“You’re her husband,” Gregson said. “You should know how to tell a convincing lie by now.”

“She’s too smart for that shit,” he laughed, but grimly.

“Take care of her, man. She’s an ass but I love her.”

“You know I will, brother… Just…just take care of yourself. Here she is.”

“What do you want, Nate?” Alice picked up.

Nate could hear her shift the phone from one ear to the other. He forced a laugh.

Gregson bit his lip. Tears welled up in his eyes. He wondered when he’d see her again, or his niece Samantha, his nephew Xavier. The thought was too terrible to consider, so he shook it off. “Hey, Ally. I’m going to be out of town for a while on a case. Can’t say much about it… I just wanted you to know that I love you. Tell our mother I love her when you see her. And give Sammy and the little professor a kiss for me, and tell them their uncle Nate loves them very much.”

There was alarm in her voice. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Gregson said, “I just don’t know when I’ll be back in town…”

“You’re not telling me the truth,” she said. “I know you, and I know when you’re lying.”

Gregson laughed. “Let’s just say, as it goes, I might as well be out of town. I’m working a case, Alice. I just wanted you to know I love you.”

He turned the phone off and closed it. Turning it over in his hand, Gregson wondered if he could get away with taking it inside the compound. Would they torture him, evict him? With no other way of contacting the outside world, he decided to take it in openly, nonchalantly, and hope he didn’t get caught.  This came as something of a relief, as he only knew one way of sneaking a phone inside. It took him a few minutes to go through his phone and delete his contacts list. Though he was quicker to act than to think, Gregson was loathe to put anyone else at risk for his own stupidity. Before leaving his car, he made sure all the doors were locked and took another Vicodin. He looked at the pill bottle, then a ridiculous notion came to him. He slid the cellophane off his pack of cigarettes, poured half the remaining pills into it, and used his lighter to seal it up. Next, the embarrassing, uncomfortable, but necessary part. Gregson refused to risk a cold turkey situation surrounded by religious zealots. Sobriety was bad enough without waking up at 6am each morning and being lectured.

From there he walked the rest of the way up the steep incline of Maynard Hill which aggravated his old knee injury, making each step more painful than the last. Pills rattled in his pocket as he walked. When he emerged at the top of the hill, the compound, which consisted of several buildings, blotted out the sun. At the end of the lot was a high bell tower, and a high fence topped with concertina wire surrounding the compound. Comprised of two large buildings, housing adults and children, a playground and walkway leading up to the sliding, padlocked fence. Inside he could see seesaws and slides, jungle gyms and monkey bars.  A long patch of earthen mounds rose up at the edge of the far end of the fence. Beside the building was a long, cobblestone walkway beneath an aluminum awning, which stretched some 35 feet from the fence to the door.

He took one last hit off his cigarette and flicked it to the ground as a young man with a smooth face and awkward smile approached him from the other end of the playground. Looking up and around him, Gregson would not have believed how massive the compound was; it took the young man quite some time to make it to the fence, where he stopped on the other side and glared at Gregson through the chain links. Gregson tried to make some mental notes.

“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?” he asked.

Gregson affected eyes full of tears and put on his most solemn expression. Then he withdrew the pamphlet and held it up. “I didn’t know where else to turn,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “I thought the Prophet might be able to help me get my life together.”

The man on the other side of the fence smiled and gestured at a figure in the tower. A moment later the fence, its prominent bars glinting in the midday sun, began to creak and open. Gregson allowed himself to smile as he passed inside, onto the well trimmed grass of the Church. The man, pale with light blue eyes and a bald head that caught the sun, embraced him and held on tight.

“There’s nothing to worry about anymore,” he said. “I’m Samuel. Welcome to the community, Brother.”

With another gesture Gregson turned to watch the fence slide to a close behind him and clang against the metal post.

“Right this way, Brother,” Samuel said. “We’ll get you cleaned up, and then I’ll take you to see Father Rohim.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet a prophet,” Gregson said. “I have so many questions.”






Signed as finished 27 March 2019,
Author signature: Brandon K. Nobles

Editor signature:Fredrika McQueen



















CHAPTER 2

 

_______________________




SAMUEL LED GREGSON INTO A SMALL OFFICE LIT BY A CRACKLING FIRE, surrounded by four, cheap walls that seemed to have been thrown up in a hurry. The whole compound had a hurried look to it, as though put together in haste. Out front was the belltower, which attached to the sermon hall. The walkway leading to Samuel’s office took them beneath an aluminum awning. The carpeting was brown and rough, stiff and scratchy. A single coat of beige paint covered the rough sheetrock walls. A large oak desk was in the center of the room, beneath a rattly ceiling fan and naked bulb. Pamphlets quite like the one Gregson found on the delinquents earlier in the week were spread across his desk.  In the center of the room was a tidy desk, on top of which were a number of brightly colored, laminated pamphlets. A row of gilded crucifixes hung on either side of a large portrait which depicted an elderly man, thin of hair with a prominent nose. Though it was not the photograph on file, Gregson was certain the airbrushed photograph was the Prophet himself. Songs came from beyond a doorway to Gregson’s left, laughter and muffled voices.

Despite the ceiling fan the room was hot and stale. The air was heavy and thick, with an unpleasant chemical smell about it. Might be the paint, Gregson thought. Samuel seemed inattentive, as though something much more engaging was going on just beyond the door to the adjoining room. He kept looking from Gregson to the door and back again, as though he were in a hurry to have him sorted. Daniel’s heart thundered against his chest like a clapper against the bronze shell of his ribs which rang him like an unwitting bell. His stomach turned and knotted but he tried to keep the same, eager expression on his face. Samuel was a professional and his wide smile and large, unblinking eyes never flinched. The mask, if it was a mask, had fused with his face until whatever was once there had been replaced, a tailor made personality gifted him by a master forger.

Samuel cleared his throat and adjusted himself in his chair, weary of the stranger before him. It was rare for people to just show up at the compound; especially on their own. In Samuel’s experience, conversion was a family affair. He looked Gregson over for a moment before asking, “What makes you want to join our community?”

“I just feel so lost in my life,” Gregson said. He relaxed his face on the cusp of his hand. “I’ve lost my girlfriend. I don’t have a job. And I was going through this pamphlet and noticed that you offer counseling for people struggling with addiction… ” Then he burst into tears. He wondered what his father would think, now that he put those years in theatre to use for something important.

Samuel’s eyebrow rose but the wide-eyed stare and plastic smile did not falter, and the face as it was unto blown glass did not slip. An ill-fitting sort of mask, and eyes that made Gregson shift back and forth in the hard folding chair. He nodded pensively, “Mhm,” he said, “the people within these walls come from all walks of life, rich and poor, black and white. Many of the young boys here were once orphans, until Father Rohim his name be praised offered them a place to realize their potential. An outlet for their energy, a purpose.”

Gregson nodded. “I feel like I’ve just drifted through life,” he said. “From one thing to the next, without leaving anything behind. Like a ghost that has no one to haunt, and no reason to linger…”

“Yet it does.”

Gregson did what he could to hide his surprise. “Exactly,” he said. “I’ve never been much of a believer…”

“Look, Mr…?”

“Daniel,” Gregson said. “My name is Daniel Miller.”

Samuel stood and crossed the room, taking this somewhat amiss, as he put his arm around Daniel’s shoulders. Daniel Miller was an identity he was given on an undercover case some years earlier, when he tried to bust up a methamphetamine ring operating out of Landsmore. Since the cover had never been blown, and those he hunted down were now behind bars, Gregson–Daniel Miller–thought it safe to use. The idea of his real name becoming known made him shiver.

“Relax, Brother Daniel. You’re okay now. First, before I take you to see Father Rohim, would you mind emptying your pockets?”

Daniel stood and slipped off his coat, passed it to Samuel. He hung it on the doorknob. Then he placed the bottle of Topamax on the table, followed by his near-depleted stash of Vicodin.

“Like I said, father, I’ve fallen on bad times…drugs, hopelessness…I never see my daughter anymore…”

Samuel took the bottles in hand and looked them over. “Do you have anything else?”

A shot of panic ran through him as his mind kicked into high gear. What about the phone? He wondered. If he gave it up now, and things went south, what would he do? Who would he call? But he acted quickly and took it out of his pocket. “I would like to keep in contact with my daughter,” he said but handed the phone over nonetheless. “And the Topamax, I have to take that each day along with a meal. That other stuff…” he gestured to the bottle of Vicodin, “that shit gives me the strength to keep digging a grave I’m afraid to get into. Life’s too painful to live, and I’m too afraid of dying to off myself.”

“Oh my dear Mr. Miller,” he said. “I do hope Father Rohim will decide in your favor. Now,” he took a leather satchel from a drawer in his desk, “I’m just going to put all this in a bag. If it is decided you will join The Community, you will have your property returned to you.”

This surprised Gregson. He was sure, as he walked the steep hill up to the compound, that his possessions would be confiscated on arrival. To be fair, he thought, they were – but the hope of having his phone returned kept him cheerful as his last dose of Vicodin–along with what he could stash elsewhere–began to work its chemical magic, relaxing his nerves as a wave of warmth fell over him like an itchy blanket. He shifted in his seat at the prod of the pack of cellophane hidden in his rectum, filled with enough Vicodin to get him through a potential cold turkey situation. Every time he shifted in his sheet, he regretted sticking the sharp plastic in his ass. What would mother think? He wondered. Shame rolled over him in waves. He missed her, and he decided if he ever made it out, he would make things right.

Samuel placed his belongings back in the top drawer, locked it. And, to Gregson’s surprise, he returned to his seat, pulled out a clipboard and pen. He cleared his throat.

“Before I give you a tour,” he said without looking up, “could you answer some questions for me?”

Sweat beaded down his forehead and anxiety overtook him, the chest pain, the sense of impending doom, the feeling that he stood on a high ledge and could do nothing to stop himself from either falling or flinging himself over. He stuttered, “Sure.”

He had a good idea of what Samuel intended to do; he would ask around about a Daniel Miller and, if all was still in place, and Matt had done the right thing and got off his ass, it would all check out. Hopefully, Gregson thought, Sheriff Epps had not been compromised. Landsmore was an island amid forests, surrounded on all sides, and if Rohim infiltrated the Police Department, it was possible that he could take over the entire town. Samuel called his name again, and he realized he had not answered to Daniel when first called.

“Sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m just nervous. I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t take me in…”

“I understand,” Samuel said. Big smile, hollow eyes. “Now, shall we?”

Gregson leaned back. “Alright then, go ahead.”

“What’s your date of birth?”

“April 17th, 1989.”

Sam scribbled something down.

“Your father’s name?”

“Henry Miller.”

“And your mother?” he continued writing but did not look up.

Gregson hesitated. “Linda Miller.”

“How did you come to hear about us?”

“I’ve read your pamphlet, and talked to a missionary the other day.”

“Some of our more recent converts,” he started, “are a bit, how do you say, enthusiastic. One kid came in a few weeks ago, nothing but skin and bones. He was living under the bridge, shooting meth and stealing to feed his addiction. But here, with the help of an extensive family and support network, he’s been clean for two weeks and has become a valuable member of the family. I understand their zeal. It can be overwhelming for someone who has been shunned for their entire life, or someone who has gone through a painful divorce, lost a friend or loved one, to find support and friendship, and in doing so they come to know the love of God.”

Gregson nodded. “I’m sorry if I implied…”

“That’s quite alright,” Sam said. “Any allergies, food or otherwise?”

Gregson gave him a rueful smile. “Yeah,” he chuckled. “Strawberries.”

Samuel looked at him from behind the clipboard. “Really? Strawberries?”

Gregson shrugged. “I told you, I’ve never really been a believer. After all, what kind of loving God would sentence a man to death by strawberry?”

Samuel laughed an eerie, affected laugh, as though he was attempting to imitate human behavior he had but read about. He finished scribbling and then tore the page off the clipboard and filed it away inside another desk drawer. “You know,” he said, standing. “My mother told me once, that we should not curse God for what he does not allow. Rather, we should praise God for what we have. You may be allergic to berries, Brother Miller. But the air, however, is free.”

Gregson had never thought of it like that, but the notion appealed to him.

The noise from the adjacent room rose, ever more ebullient and effusive, happy even.

“I think that’s all for now,” Samuel said. He put his pen and clipboard away. “Now, since Father Rohim is deep in prayer until noon, I can show you around in the meantime, acquaint you with some of your future brothers and sisters?”
“I always wanted a family,” Daniel said. “Please.”
The room adjacent was wide and spacious, comfortable and fragrant. Potted plants and vases adorned the walls and expensive cabinets were installed above the stove. There were three women there, Ethel, 59, and her two daughters Lindsay and Lauren. A long couch wrapped around one side of the room, and they each sat beside each other, close and intimate. A fireplace in the middle of the room had a grill over it and the air smelled of grilled cucumbers and squash.

When they noticed the newcomer, Lauren, less cautious with Heretics than her sister, approached the New Brother and embraced him warmly. Her sister, who, with fair hair and bright pink cheeks could not be more different than her sister. While Lindsay remained stand-offish as Samuel introduced Brother Daniel. Ethel, a former shift manager at the Mill looked at him with searching eyes. Gregson panicked. He knew her; not long after the jobs were shipped out of town, a riot broke out among the workers who refused to turn over the last of the material products. The police were called out and, Gregson being a ride-along gopher then, stood outside as the tear gas flew, as the workers choking eyes watering finally gave in. Gregson gave her a bottle of water. Those eyes, though, intense and wide, gave no hint of recognition. Her toothy smile and maternal manner was genuine and, when she called Daniel son a part of Gregson felt loved. The walls were painted baby blue, adorned with billowy clouds and the sun and stars. In the corner, next to an empty door frame which led off into a narrow pantry. A tall bookshelf covered in dusty volumes stood in the corner, stack with obscure volumes by God knows who.

Everything was clean. No roaches, no trash, no dirty dishes. Ethel was quick to offer Gregson a cup off coffee and something to eat. The sisters, 15 and 17 years old respectively, wore long cotton dresses. Their hair was curled into a high coif at the top of their forehead and tight french braids ran down their backs. Daniel found them charming and enticing, smiles as bright and pure as the driven snow, sparkling wide blue eyes.

“Ladies,” he said, “this is Mr. Daniel Miller. He hasn’t met with Father Rohim yet,” the thin, pale man gave Gregson a terse smile, “but I think we can go ahead and welcome him to our family.”

The elderly woman was quick to stand, smooth her dress and approach me.  She pulled Gregson into a bear hug, her heavy bosom pressed hard against his chest.  “It’s so nice to have you with us,” she beamed. Still blessed with beauty and a quick charm, Ethel was shrewd and attentive. She watched her daughters with the precision of a security camera, especially when they got too close to the Stranger. Despite the relative comfort, Gregson sensed something amiss. A tension, an expectation lingered in the room. When the chorus of bells smote on the afternoon air the brothers and sisters near jumped from there seat. The bells banged against each other and the notes rang out, tied to a foot pedal that allowed for the notes to be held. Sam took Gregson by the arm, and Daniel was eager, near ecstatic to meet Father Rohim.

“What now?” Daniel asked.

“Just follow me,” Sam said. “His Holiness will want a glass of milk, and on my way I’ll introduce you. You tell him your story, and I’m sure he’ll do all he can to help.”

Samael put his hand on my shoulder and I near jumped out of my boots. “Come,” he said. “His holiness will explain.”

Before I could back away I felt something slip into my waistband. I did nothing to draw attention to it but hid it away quickly.  “Anyway,” I said, finally moving away, “It was nice to meet y’all.”

“Right this way,” he said, leading Gregson from the room. He was down a cement flight of stairs and passed a row of doors along a long corridor. Every five feet there was a door, and halfway to the end of the hall, Daniel was told, was Father Rohim’s private chambers. There he prayed and wrote his sermons. As Gregson passed the cheap doors in poor frames he could hear young girls talking to one another. The first ten rooms, on either side of the hallway, were the female dorms; girls lived with their mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces; young boys, halfway down, likewise lived with fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews in identical rooms, with up to five people packed in a singular room no bigger than 12 by 12 feet.  A thick pallette covered the floor and a long table was pushed against the wall, where they studied and learned to read and write. The girls learned to cook and sew, how to keep house.

The pair stopped outside Rohim’s door. Gregson wished he could sneak another pill, but he decided he would attempt to look at life there at the Compound from the perspective of the people who came looking for something; what someone forget, he knew, is that reasonable people end up in restrictive, controlling cults before they know it, seeing the revered figurehead as their totem, the figurehead of power that represented the shedding of their own weakness and lack of purpose, which Father Rohim dutifully supplied.

“Wait here,” Sam said. “I will announce you.”

“Yes, sir.”

He looked into Daniel’s eyes, as though he was, through the optic nerve, peeling Nate apart, layer by layer, scratching at the inauthentic eyes staring back at him, the faux smile that did well to deceive. But, when he came out and opened the heavy door, creaking as it swung on rusted hinges, he warned:

“Just don’t lie,” Samuel said. “He’ll know.”

Gregson decided it was best not to respond; nervousness was natural, no reason for them to suspect subterfuge. Sam leered at him a moment, “Good luck, Mr. Miller. And God bless.”

Samuel tapped each door he passed, rapped against it once, and walked to the next door, knocked and repeated until the halls were filled with two rows of people on opposite sides; men lined up and halted until their female counterparts departed. Strict rules were in place to keep teenage boys and girls separated. When the dorm rooms were empty, a man with a large belly and broad shoulders went from room to room with a cleaning lady, pushing a cart. Gregson swallowed in a dry throat and grabbed the door handle. It was hot to the touch.

I can do this, he told himself. Deep breath, deep breath. His backside had started aching and the pressure mounted. Suddenly he turned the golden knob and stepped inside. Silence greeted him on the threshold and cold air greeted him. The heavy door closed behind with a quiet click behind him.  The room was lit by scattered candles, gaslamps on coffee tables and stools, tables covered in books and papers. A mantlepiece above the fireplace was lined with antique books and dusty volumes. Featured prominently above it was a large, framed print of Caravaggio’s painting of Abraham and Isaac; Isaac, a child with a hair of curls, face frozen in horror with his face pressed against the altar; to the left, an angel stayed the knife in his father Abraham’s hand.  

Hunched over the fire with clasped hands, the bones in his spine, each lumbar could be seen sticking up along his spine like a scaled reptile, a lizard with proper posture and comportment. Rohim wore a beggar’s robes, and a ritual tefillin, a black leather strap wrapped seven times around his wrist and forearm. His eyes were alert, but yellow and rheumy; his fingers gnarled and spindly, like spider’s legs, and his large head nested between two shocks of stringy white hair above his ears. A fragile figure, his small frame, spindly arms, and visible backbones belied the force of character within.

“Come now,” said Father Rohim, “let us speak, son.”



Completed 2ND CHAPTER – as far as I know.

SIGNED 26 MARCH 2019
Author signature: Brandon K Nobles
Editor’s signature [sign when complete, Fred]




















CHAPTER 3



As he got closer to the thin figure in his oversized mantle he saw a knotted forehead shiny with sweat and a prominent nose, sharp deep set eyes and grandfatherly smile. Rohim had a handful of peanuts and cracked them in his hands, tossing the shells into the fire. He handed Daniel a pecan balance on the end of a knife glinting in fire light.

Zach took the time to look me over, top to bottom, as I approached. He smoothed back his wild hair, balding as he was, and leaned back. He took a handful of pecans from a low table behind him and began to crack them in his hands, tossing the shells in the fire. He offered me a fresh pecan.

“Thank you.” I said.

“Please,” he said. “Sit down.”

I took a seat in a ragged wooden rocker beside him, a bit too close to the fire for comfort.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked, looking at his pecans. A bit warm, I resisted the urge to slide away from the fire. He was quite close to it.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

He smiled. “Have you ever been swimming, son?”

Zachariah looked at me like he saw past me, no skin, just a brain and heart sitting before him, suspended on a tuft of air.

“I did,” I said. “Yeah, when I was growing up.”

“Ah, as did I,” he nodded. “I remember standing on the deck at my aunt Maria’s house. Everyone shouted, “Jump in.” It was a warm summer night, and the air felt good against my skin. The water, it was ice cold. I dipped my toe in, and recoiled. But, Henry, my youngest brother, he pushed me in and laughed.”

“I’ve pushed in many a younger brother,” I added.

Zachariah smiled, cracked open another pecan. “And of course, I hit the water and could swear steam rose off the water, like breath in the winter. I must’ve been cold for 15, 20 minutes before, gradually, the water warmed. The temperature did not change, mind. Thirty minutes later, I splashed about, having a good time. Now, here’s what I find interesting. When I got out, the air was as cold as the water had been, and again I was freezing, so I jumped back in for warmth.”

I nodded.

“The temperatures did not change, friend. I did. That there’s interesting to me.”

He handed me a fresh pecan. “Are you too close to the fire?”

I took the pecan, “Thank you, no. I’m comfortable.”

He leaned back in his rocking chair. “They call me Zachariah because they can’t pronounce my name without spitting,” he laughed. “You know what they say, Yiddish is German with more phlegm.”

“Are you Jewish?” I asked.

He looked at me with a knowing smile. “My grandparents were Polish, but my family has been in this country for a hundred years. I have many brothers, many sisters, baruch Hashem. But, if you are asking if I keep the Law, yes sir I do.”

“The Ten Commandments?”

He laughed, shook loose the cracked nuts, and stood. “Come,” he said, limping. “The mitzvote number some six-hundred plus, if memory serves. But, we all fall short. We are not commanded to be perfect, son. Only to try.”

“I’d like… to ask you a few questions, holiness.”

He paused at the edge of a fine laquered table, leaned against it. “Anything you’d like, son.”

“What’s with all the crucifixes?” I asked.

He turned his back and started speaking.

“Have you ever considered, or even thought about, how many prophets, saviors, messiahs and enlightened ones have lived in human history? Majavera, the prophet of the Jains…” I stood and slid the listening cross from the cuff of my jacket and placed it behind a row of books atop the mantlepiece, beneath the line of figures in cruciform.

“To this day, they refuse to kill anything. Any thing. They wear surgical masks and sweep the ground before them as they walk, all to avoid the harm of any creature’s jiva, or ‘divine spark’. They drain their water to ensure nothing is accidentally swallowed. They treat mosquitoes better than some men treat their fellows…”

Moving as he spoke, Zachariah turned on a lamp in the corner of his room. “Many of them, more often than not, arrive at a similar, culturally applicable code. The men, the women–the prophets and prophetesses, they rise in times of spiritual need, in times of despair and want. Not to give everyone what they want, no, but to show them how much they already have, and how valuable it is.”

I nodded like a fool, entranced by this feeble old man. I began to understand, so I thought, why so many might find comfort in this convent, with such a leader. That was also his danger, this ability to get one to drop one’s guard, only then to slither in like a botfly, in the ear, which eats away at individual thoughts one by one before they’re eaten up, before it bursts out leaving behind nothing but hollow men.

“Tell me about the hollow men, holiness,” I said. “Is it literal? Figurative? Should the town be worried?”

“No, sir,” he said. “Come, let’s have something to eat, and we’ll talk. I’ll answer all your questions.”

At the far end of his private chambers was a heavy wooden door which led out into a large kitchen and cafeteria. Long tables stretched out from one side of the room to the other, the floors coated in shiny yellow linoleum, the food counters of stainless steel. Behind the counter was a large storage room, full of canned goods, cornmeal, potatoes, tomatoes, grits, and breadcrumbs; a gala of soups, tomato, clam, chicken. Zachariah walked behind, head downcast, looking at the baskets of fruit and whistling. A line of women with hairnets and rolled up sleeves stood behind the countertop, ladling gravy onto a yellow tray of mashed potatoes,  fresh pear slices, and, when I arrived at the front of the line, a glass of orange juice and a warm smile.

“There ya go, hon,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“Thanks, Beatrice,” Zachariah said, “You have a jar of olives?”

“One second,” she disappeared behind the counter. A moment later she rose up, exclaiming, “Here we go!” She passed a jar of olives to Zachariah. A smile crossed his face. “Thank you.”

He looked back to me, “Shall we?”

We went to one table amid many, with round stools attached by aluminum pipes. Sturdy, hard plastic seats, not as uncomfortable as they looked; we sat down and he bit into an olive. “I’ve always loved olives,” he said. “Please, son, enjoy your food.”

The lunchroom workers shifted into high gear; they turned on pots, boiled water; others shucked corn, prepared baby formula and Gerbers softpeas. A loud clang as double doors opened at the other end of the room and multitudes of robed men, the acolytes, all having shaved their heads as a sign of devotion. Behind them followed the women and children, in step, in sync, by mood and will. “Unity must be of purpose,” Zachariah said. “All other unity is artificial – race, nation, party – if they are not of the same purpose, it is folly; they will pull themselves to pieces, and unravel like a ball of twine when the fervor of the moment passes. Here, we have unity of purpose, common interest and a righteous cause.

“All of these people here chose to be here, to recognize their potential, and are free to leave at will. Do you know how many of these people roamed the streets like strays, sleeping beneath bridges and eating out of dumpsters before they found their way here? Discarded by their families, their churches, especially when the mill shut down; that’s when they flooded in. Some were petty criminals, breaking into houses and selling their plunder. Some were tender hearted people the world had no trouble grinding underfoot. ”

I chewed with my mouth shut. Always a gentleman, I dabbed a heavily starched napkin at my lips and set it aside. I pushed away my plate. I reached into the inside pocket of my vest and handed the Prophet the picture of the widow’s boy. “Have you seen this young man?” I asked.

He looked at me with a stern, thoughtful expression. “When people come here, they wash away who they were. If this young man entered, he is no longer here.”

“Nah, that doesn’t work for me, see. Now, I respect your operation here. Poor people, orphans, they need to be fed. That’s charity. But when they come into my city and scare my people, then we have a problem, when hollow men are loose in this town, well, I need to know what that means.”

Al-shabah,” he said. “It’s Arabic. Think, we have words for spirit, for ghosts, but not quite for this concept. It literally means, ‘Dead but still walking’. It refers to someone who, without passion or fervor, watches life pass them by like the seasons; they consume, led by their nose, by their lusts, their greed and ambition. The hollow men have nothing left but need, and are strung along by their desire like a fishhook in their mouth, dangling as a catfish hung on the end of a fishing rod. Now, I have time to give you a brief tour before the sermon…”

“I’d like to find…” I raised the photo again, “this young man. Holiness, you won’t believe how many calls I get over this one young man. People are worried. So, how about you let me see him, I take back a message to his family maybe, and we can let this last disruption slide.”

Zachariah looked past me, as though there was a whole dimension just over my left shoulder. The clanking of spoons and plastic trays and muffled talking filled the room, the discord of cutlery and heavy smell of rye. Many of the acolytes, I noticed, took but a bowl of rice and sat, legs crossed, beneath a fire above which, in elegant folds of royal purple, bore ever more ancient script.

I drank the rest of my orange juice, “Look, holiness, you seem nice enough…”

“I’m just an abbot, a rasul, a slave of God.”

“Fair enough,” I dabbed the napkin at my mouth again. “Now, think you could show me around, see if we can find a young bald man with that–” I tapped the photograph with my index finger, “–that pattern of birthmarks, a little constellation of moles on his upper cheekbone, there? You see that?”

Zachariah nodded. “Come, I’ll show you around, and, though you won’t thank me, I’ll show you what we fear.”

A woman with her hair pulled back in a sporty ponytail, pale pink lips and green eyes approached the table. “Did you enjoy your meal, sir?” she asked. She had the same intense glare in her eyes, happiness in her bearing.

“Yes, thank you, ma’am,” I said.

She was quick to take our trays, bow to Zachariah, and head off. “That’s Bea’s daughter, Liza,” Zachariah said. “Sweetest girl you could ever meet, and a wise friend.”

He struggled from his seat, and Samael, at the back of the lunchline, hurried over to meet us and help His Holiness get to his feet, steadying himself on the handle of a polished walking stick. Samael greeted me with a smile, with those bright eyes, almost eerie, the eyes of a two-way mirror. Being there started to make me nauseous, and I lacked the nerve to really push my case. I wondered whether I should give Zachariah the confessions of Lauren, and reveal the note stuffed in my waistband while in the nursery. How many more had plastered masks with happy smiles and blank looks affixed to a frightened animal below, unable to summon the nerve to pass a note, to climb the fence and try to crawl over barbed wire to freedom, or to risk the man who stood vigil at the guard tower.

We left the cafeteria, alighted onto a cement walkway that led to another building, grass on both sides of the path, hedges and potted plants, fragrant and lovely in the sun of a waning day. I checked my watch, nearly 1500; I’d have to get the taps in place, a place where they could pick up the most information, with the least amount of risk of being found. I paused, leaned down to tie my shoe and slid the last crucifix from my shoe. A small thing, it would be inconspicuous enough. I put it in place above the arch leading into the cafe in a quiet, quick motion. Zachariah limped forward with the help of his cane. I hurriedly placed the cross against the vinyl just above the door, the gathering place where the acolytes and nuns stood waiting on their meals to be prepared, where priests and acolytes with censers lined up and chatted before they dined.

Zachariah led me up a flight of stairs onto a long porch, covered in planks of wood with, as of yet, no varnish. “Be careful now,” he said. “We just finished laying these, and I’m afraid you need to watch out for splinters.” Inside, the doors opened up to wide, empty space, with tables covered in building tools strewn about the room. Workers hammered away at a picture, raising it above an office just to our right. A stairway to our left circled upward, “That’s where our new dorms are going to be,” he said. “We’re starting to get crowded, and here’s where we’ll start our first school. Here we’ll teach the children how to read, how to write. Teach them kindness, and compassion.”

“And teach them about the evils of the world?”

“Follow me,” he hobbled away, turning around a corner of naked sheetrock.

He led me into a hallway with a window that peered into a room of tiny beds. “And this will be our nursery,” he said. “Lauren, one of our newest converts, is expecting. By the time the child is born, we’ll have a dedicated nursery; an on-staff OB and pediatrician. Our on staff doctor…”

“I’d like to have his name, please,” I said. “Before I leave, of course.”

Zachariah smiled, “Of course.”

Drills whirred as we talked, hammers rang against walls, the grunts of manual labor and men talking came from down the hall. “But come, we can finish our interview in my office, and from there I will see you out.”

“I’d like to see Lauren,” I said. “To congratulate her, holiness. Before I leave.

When my sister’s son was born, you couldn’t keep me away.”

“No kids?”

I shook my head.  “Separated.”

“Something troubles you, I can sense it,” he said. “What was her name?”

His eyes focused on mine, piercing and alive, but his gaze was distant, hypnotic and unwavering. While his manner and bearing was soft, fatherly, and his frail frame and grandfatherly appearance made it easy to confide in him, thinking without doubt that he could understand.

“Just regrets,” I said, “too many regrets.”

“Everybody has regrets,” he said. “Perhaps that is why you slump, son.

Because you have a giant key in your backpocket.

“I ruined the best thing that ever happened to me, as I always do.”

He placed his hand on my knee. His eyes glazed over with a film of tears. “What

went wrong?”

“It was an accident, I tell myself that, but it is also true I met her by accident. I was writing a book, long before I took the police exam. I had tutored math and physics in college, so I decided to write a history of classical physics, from Ptolemy to Niels Bohr, and I tried to message someone else, but messaged her by accident. I mistook her for her sister, since I didn’t remember her name. Me and her sister were the same age, in social studies together, and I mistook the two. She answered enthusiastically about my work. We had a lot in common, immediately. Within weeks we talked on the phone for five and six or even eight hours, all day every day we talked.”

“Sometimes to appreciate the loss, we have to work our way to a solution, to make things work out for the best.”

“There’s no going back, holiness. There are lines not meant to be crossed, and I crossed more than my share. A great sin… a sin.”

“Start from the beginning, son.”

“We talked over the internet for a while, wrote poetry with each other, made love and loved each other. Before we ever met, we were best friends. The first time she came to see me, she got out of her SUV and, I still remember the first thing she said to me. ‘Damn, you are REALLY tall.’ Not much of an achievement, really. I spend a lot of time by myself, so I was kind of shy. I mean, I’m reasonably clever, I think, but I’m not an underwear model. But, she sat close to me. She smelled warm, if that makes sense; she had olive skin, a regal hauteur, a royal Italian beauty. A smile like a string of pearls, I was in love. I just didn’t know what to do. I held her hand. We were sitting on a couch in my room, a studio apartment, watching King Lear. Halfway through it, where the King is so pissed off he’s yelling at God, with no one there to save him but his fool, she kissed me and I kissed her. It’s hypnotic, to fall in someone’s arms, you risk not getting out. Problem is you risk getting thrown out too.

“We saw each other off and on and talked for hours on the phone. I wrote her poetry, as though I were some bard, some troubadour from chivalrous times, a song for Isabella, songs of his fair lady. I just had very little money. Her father–now this is..” I broke off, wondering how he’d manage to get me revealing so much, so quick.

“Don’t be afraid of the fire, son. You might have to walk through it, as Dante did. You can be who you want to be.”

“Not without her.”

“What sin have you committed my son?”

I fell open again, wanting to confess. “I broke one of the Commandments, holiness. Thou shalt not steal.”

He nodded simply. “Ah, yes… Did not the Messiah Yoshua allow breaking commandments in the service of the holy? It is written, ‘When the trumpets sounded, the soldiers yelled, at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword all living things in it, men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and asses.’”

“It was not my conquest, to take the holy land. I harmed the innocent, holiness. It had no purpose, nothing but to satisfy my debauchery.”

“What is it you have done, my son?” he leaned over and put his hand on my knee. “Confess, and let this weight be off you. Our purpose in life cannot be realized with the burden of Atlas bearing down on us.”

At the time I did not realize how weird it was; he was able to instantly win my trust, make me feel safe and understood, to bring out ideas as I thought them. I did not realize at the time how this type of initiation unto control worked. But, in the moment, I confessed to him my crimes, weeping and sobbing.

“I spent the night at her house, to work on a story. It was the first time I ever got to go in. She had a bottle of whiskey, and her kids played with her cat in the living room, and on our way there, I lost my laptop. I was in a hurry and nervous and left the satchel on top of the SUV, never saw it again. When we found out, we tried to go back to find it. I made a few phone calls, had two friends go walk by my house. Both said it was gone. My medicine was in that bag, my drugs. I needed them to work, to function. And when I lost them, I stole her children’s. First his cough syrup, then her ADHD meds. She had to call the teacher while I stood there drowning on dry land; that’s regret, it’s how a man can drown without getting wet. We spent the night having the time of my life. Eating Chinese food, and I helped her kids with homework. It felt like everything came together in perfection, my life was worth living, there with her and when she finally went to sleep, I stole from her children. Kids I love. Kids I miss… She was the only star in the sky, holiness, she was holiness, a gentle rock and romantic friend, wise and funny, strange and singular, in a word – heaven, nirvana, the lap of God, and I slipped. I’ve been falling since.”

I was crying then. The effect such conmen have is subtle and, strangely, makes the victim volunteer such private information.

“In John 7:53–8:11, we hear tell of the woman taken in adultery. The Pharisees bring her to Jesus, Hoping to catch him in a trap they ask what should be done. Should the Law of Moses be obeyed, or should Jesus contradict his own teachings on forgiveness? Well, he has a way out. He kneels and begins to write upon the dirt. He famously says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. And, gradually, as he writes, people begin to back off. When he looks back up, everyone is gone. Everyone but the woman. He says, ‘Is there no one left to condemn you?’ She says, ‘No, Lord.’ He says, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’ And, Nathan, I condemn you neither. Go and sin no more.”

I bowed instinctively, blissfully unaware of the effect upon my person. I had slipped, somehow, under the control of an expert craftsmen using heat to bend a vessel into shape, there to refill it, to circumvent its interlocutor and override it. Until you became an extension of the leader’s power over others. But, he had a real effect on me. I decided I would call her, and that I would sin no more.

Zachariah made to speak but was interrupted by a young man who hurried in and startled when he noticed me sitting there, legs crossed.  

“Maître, un fille s’est échappé. Nous avons des chiens sur le sentier et Simeon chasse. Elle n’aurait pas pu aller trop loin.”, he said.

Zachariah stroked his beard, nodding. “Ne la blesse pas, mais mets-la dans la boîte quand on la trouve.”

“Oui,” the fresh faced acolyte nodded. French! I could near make out the words. And what I could understand frightened me.

He turned to me, “Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” he said. “Isaac, son,” Zachariah said in that gruff, solemn voice, “would you help our friend here find his way out? He needs to run back through the mess, see if he can locate his friend. You wouldn’t know anyone who came in recently under the dead name, ‘Steve’, would you?”

“I can look at the list of dead names,” Isaac replied.

He was a handsome man with blue eyes and a neatly trimmed beard, neat and somber in his demeanor. I stood up, reached across the desk and shook the prophet’s hand. It was leathery, calloused, old. “It was nice to meet you, holiness. I’ll congratulate Lauren on my way out.”

Isaac cast a nervous glance at Zachariah. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he said.

“I’m afraid it’s going to have to be made possible,” I repeated.

Zachariah rose, hands up. “Wait a minute now, son. What happened, Isaac?”

The young man stood up straight. “She wasn’t at roll call, when Leonard did the count after the lunch. Ethel said the last time she saw her she was headed to the women’s toilet on the second floor.”

Zachariah looked at me. “I think that’s all for today, detective. Now, if you want to come back for Sunday service, I’ll make sure that we find your boy in the photograph, and make sure he gets word out to his concerned mother.”

Figuring I’d do no better by pressing the matter, and confident in the bugs, I relented. Isaac showed me out, silent as the grave, as we retraced my steps from the new school building, across the walkway, back into the cafeteria. It was empty, then, but the women from the lunch counter were still there, hairnets on, sweeping and washing tables, taking out the trash. From there we passed through Zachariah’s room, now cold, as the fire must have died. We walked on, down the cement walkway, up the stairs, and into the nursery. The room was empty, the women and children gone, the playpen empty; all the dinosaur toys put in the large toy chest in the corner. An eerie feeling came over me, for Lauren’s sake, and finding myself back in Samael’s office, I stopped to thank him and wish him a good-day.

Samael did not look up. Instead he kept on mumbling to himself, his face bright red, eyes bloodshot. Something had driven the poor guy to distraction, so I slipped out of the door and walked to the far end of the fence to have another look at the raised mounds I had seen when first entering the compound. I stopped just short of where they had been and saw, now, where they were was now newly grown, bright, the most ardent green of fresh grass glittering with dew as night fell.

 

Magic – an ode

No sacrifice, that awful price,
has need to be be invoked tonight
for there was always Winter
When
We lay together in the wind
As for the curse, it just reversed
The magic worked on me;
and then,
I have bound and always falling
never to hit the ground.
You jewel, you’re a star,
I’m trapped in orbit round.

In this orbit, I have seen,
Things more fantastical than dreams;
Seabirds calling, and the see,
the waves come over you and me
Beneath a seagull flying free
I’d sell it all to lock up Now,
this moment to relive somehow;
there’s room within your eyes to drown,
You diamond jewel, I’m just a fool,
who’s trapped in orbit round.

I said the magic words and yet
Before their utterance I leapt
afraid of failure, yes, I kept,
The secret in my heart, I’ve wept;
no more;
I see you in the white dress by the door.
Brick by brick we built this town
no force on Earth could tear it down
No need for money, honey, now
You turned my upside world back upside down
and for the first time I’ve come round
to see the beauty that there is
The galaxies above and bliss
Of a mockingbird in song
Of shattered light throughout the dawn
Of a sunset long and drawn
In red across horizons long

As for this ancient spell that binds,
I am in orbit and that’s fine
You need sing no song,
nor make a sound for me
I am forever bound;
You jewel, you’re a star
That I’m trapped in orbit round.

Poem: the four letter word (the curse) 22 October 2018, 1st draft

Love, it’s a four-letter word

A chemical disturbance of the nerves

A rewiring and misfiring of our precious neural wiring

Spinning us up in its web.

A writing spider sat beside her

We all heard the tale

If it learns to write your name

And spells it overnight

Say goodbye,

Say hello to the light

Was this some rare magic then

In this villainous creature’s sin

Entrapping ensnaring and pulling us in

Don’t resist

The spider calls

Here, hear little sweetheart don’t be scared

I’m gonna build you a rocking chair

And if that rocking chair don’t rock

I’ll make you a laughing stock

And if you don’t fall fast asleep

I’ll bring you something warm to eat.

 

I saw it there beneath the tent

In the corner coiled it sits

As thunder rattled overhead

and Raindrops fell as though they bled

I saw the web twitch and it ran

This way that way back again

It spun and hopped and twists and stops

And the line runs parallel

I crane my head and there it is

The first letter written in silk

A curse is a most thoughtful gift.

She knows my name, this spider queen,

That’s how I hear her speak

That’s why I see her in my rearview

And when I’m trapped beneath

Some wooden table scared unable

To look at the spider that spun

Soaked to the bone and cold as a stone

The flies while alive did love their web

Their dear cocoon

Their fuzzy place

Their velvet room

That comfort that

Lets you relax

And mother tends to you

I hear the spider from inside her

As she spins the U

This was all so long ago,

But it finished the name, it is true.

 

The legend says if the spider writes

Your name by night that come the dawn

You will be past tense,

Empty clause

I tried to make the spider pause

As it wove the I in me

I asked it, begging, plaintively

Love, it’s a four letter word

The best of the season

The glittering squirm

That flits in your stomach when you burn

In the absence of someone

Alone

You hurt because you yearn

And when you burn is when you learn

The spider spit, up she runs

Kicks off the table in a frantic plunge

Slowly in a line of silk the letter I is spun.

 

Love, what a four letter word

To make it a spider is most absurd

It’s not a spider, nor a web

It’s a not a trap

It’s not a jail

In payment for the quarter

cast in the wishing well

The spider whispers MURIEL

MURIEL, AREN’T YOU SWEET

LOOK AT ME, LOOK CLOSE AND SEE

A mirage arose as though on the sand

As a wisp of the wind this ethereal hand

This magic gifted to this fabled spider

I really saw one as a child

In the rain by the riverside

We had been out on the land

When the williwaw took shape

And ran us all ashore

We sought cover and sat under

That ruddy picnic table

That’s when I saw the arachnid called

The golden weaver,

Hear its song.

It sat and watched me from its web

And seemed to whisper MURIEL

In a voice that seemed almost perverse

Profane, in fact,

a four letter word.

Haunted – panic improv

THE HAUNTING

For many years I worked as an obituary writer
Every call received was another reported dead
Each time it rang it was as though a bell tolled in my head
The passing of some poor soul
Whose memory was left in my poor hands
To do with as I might
And they would send a brief description
Of the deceased, the family left behind
Their date of birth, their date of death,
And so I’d sit to write
Morbid as it was, it just got worse and worse
As each ringing that I heard was more like a curse
With little left to go on, I would write
As kindly as I could be, try as I might,
To be the caretaker of some son, some father,
some mother or some daughter’s memory
It was no right
But obligation
Ring ring! Another corpse
Ding! Ring! Another blurb
Ring! Ring! Five hundred words
And so I moved on,
Death was my living
But it was no life
To sit in the office through the night
And hear the doorbell ring and jump out of my skin
Thinking that each harsh resounding toll
Marked the passage of another wayward soul
Through the veil
no one has ever looked through
and lived to tell the tale
And yet it was my job to say my piece
To make my peace with all those calls
as the list of names grew on my wall
Sticky notes, each bore a name
A date and a dash between
That dash, that single dash between two dates
Exists to tell the story of a life
That’s all we’ll have when we are gone
To tell the story of us all
__ that’s it, that’s all they’ll ever be

The yellow wallpaper beneath the stack of notes
Each one with a name existing to denote
A single name, someone I did not know
Someone I had to honor as I wrote
As time went on I heard that ringing phone
In my sleep, out on the town,
When I woke / when I laid down
I heard that same horrid ringing sound

And so I learned
after a time,
Each ring of the phone signaled the dying
or so it seemed to me
Each ring of the phone it seemed to be
A family on the other side bereaved
Who waited for me to somehow append
My final word to serve as a haunting end
And so I took to drink
Could not focus could not think
Hiding from the sun and
Staying up all night
I unplugged my phone but still it rang
Until I ripped it from the wall
But the bell still tolled
And still they called
The doorbell went off in the storm

I put my pen down, walked to the door
Cracked it open just to glimpse the form
Of some ghost who’s quiet and forlorn
A haunting attached to a ringing noise
That I still hear with each ringing phone
The requiem that tolls for one more departed soul

And so I started hearing at my door
An anguished knocking, shouting, no more! No more!
I pushed the couch and desk against the wall,
Wrapped myself inside a heavy shawl
And shouted at the ghosts that stood outside
Demanding that I say more of their lives
There was no way I could apologize
I did not know! Not you, or you!
I did what I had to do!
Ring! Ring!
There she goes.
ring-ring-ring! Another ghost.

Perhaps there is no masterplan,
Or no master at the very least, as sand,
Will take us all and our great monuments
Stop our mouths and silence our great instruments with dust
And if there is no master, what then of the plan,
A delicate dance of chaos and chance
Leads us through an improvised dance
Not knowing whence we came not knowing when we go,
And so we make up the master and his plan to soothe the soul
So we may say that if another’s is lost,
At least they got some great reward
For which they paid the cost

The cost to live, is a life for the life we live,
We never got a chance,
We asked no one to give us this
This mortal coil is not a gift,
It’s more like shackle that must hold us all
To the earth that loosens as we fall
And whether we float up and out as do balloons
Or meet the master whose great plan we can’t improve
We do not know as no one yet
Has whispered from the other side of death

To cry out to we children in the dark
Or light a candle so we’ll see the spark
That it might guide in our brief sojourn
Instead we fumble blind and do not learn;
From nowhere to nowhere
Our legacy may only be what we get to leave behind
Our children or our artwork or a bawdy rhyme
But if I was to somehow haunt this world
I would not want to be some ghoul perturbed
But rather the blind ferryman who takes the coin and carries on
To ferry those across who have the coin across that river long

Across the river into the bank of haze
That no one living can pierce with a gaze
And the best guess is that there has to be
A purpose for this whole menagerie
And that there must be some sort of master plan
To protect us from the whims of chaos and the cold hands of chance
To shield us from the winter that must come for all
For which there is no getting warm, there’s nothing but the Fall
From on a great high, so we’re born,
And as we’re falling through the storm,
And wonder why it we fall at all
Or if from some prior life we jumped ourselves
If karma carries over to repel
With no knowledge of this life before the urn

And yet it’s said in these ancient tomes
That each action that we take sticks to our soul
And this soul just migrates in and out between
One body to another, with its form based on our deeds
And yet we only guess and do not know
From whence we come and where we go
And so the haunting stays,
Despite the passing of each ghost

They leave their mark which is quite stark
like a fading footprint in the snow
A haunting is more like a legacy;
No petty poltergeist that floats about and creeps at night,
No prankster that tosses stray books about
Who opens doors and hopes to scare us out
Who calls to us through Quija boards
through mediums and cryptic forms
but just cannot speak clear
but we believe because we need to think it real
Ring! Ring! And so another goes
Ring! Ring!
No wise man, no Sufi knows

The ending point we reach as we slowly fall
Hurtling down we try to hold the wall
With the delusion that we’ll keep it all
That what we have in hand wont shatter when we land
That it can go with us and pass that veil
To the highest heaven or the darkest hell
And who goes where? and who to tell?
Ring! Ring! Ring!
Not that electric hell!
Ring! Ring!
Oh! Stop the ringing of this bell!

Dear master, if I may say,
if you ever had a plan,
I must say it’s gotten out of hand
And we are all mere children lost
Lost in a world in which we’re naked and screaming tossed;
And yet each person living fears the fall
Though this is not a thing to fear at all;
We cannot stop the falling, nor cling to rafters jutting out,
We should not fear the fall,
we should rather fear the ground.
On the other side of morning the Great Silence wraps us round;
And so a hymn for the great silence then, which calls
Each of its children to the place we fall
To look back on everything before it’s gone
Something more than a sticky note that’s clinging to the wall
In an office by a drinking man who who fears to get the call
Who no more knows a comfort true,
Than he knows to comfort you
But so I did my job and wrote their tale

I did my best, I could do worse
I took the cash but hid the purse;
And wondered as I saw each passing hearse
The siren that went off as bells inside my head
Was as the singing of the silent dead
After so many years in the business that is tears
I had to leave to try to help myself;
My nephew died, and we all cried,
And called out, Oh my God!
Where were you when the child was torn apart?
What part of this plan needs a child smeared on the road?

And if it is such a great master plan
What kind of monster would frame such an end?
The life of a child, barely 9 he died, beneath a bus
A mile of blood ten more of guts
Was this a part of that great master plan?
The guts of the good, the blood of the lamb?
The rape of the young, the fear of the old?
Or is it just a story that we have so often told
That we’d rather believe this madness than let the purpose go?

To think that the fall is all there is
One moment just a blink to feel the wind
And each second that we fall is another minute gone
We look up at the ledge and see how far we’ve had to fall
And look down to see how much further we must go
A distance that is always out of view
A place we’ve always headed to
Which we have never knew
But if there is a place of grace beyond that silent waste
And a master whose great plan was to leave us sick and wan

I’d like to make a plea on my behalf;
Whatever plans there might have been
To give purpose to Fall’s own children,
Is a purpose not quite worth it /
not one ounce of blood
That is taken before its time
Not one child left to die
No one child who’s left alone in a world that’s harsh and cold
No great purpose could redeem
The misery within the stream
A stream that starts just where it stops
The person that must live their life
Will die – that life forgot
And each memory will be
lost amid the mustard seeds

Strewn along a beach that never ends
A beach of glass that has been made smooth by time
The multicolored rainbow is no promise
But a lie
No promise of peace, but reminder of
The price
Is our own life to give for the chance we had to live
And yet we do not keep
The memories that make us who we are
The view of the mountain and the stars
The laughter of our children
And the sun
The dancing and the singing turns to ruin
Heir to ruin are we all
with no choice but yet we fall

And if we chose the plan is flawed;
To put us with the rest atop the board
Of pieces animate and multiform
to avoid each day another unseen check to slay
To remove us from the board and stop the game
We do not get to see those moving hands
That shift us round the board dumb to the plan
The master plan! There’s night and day;
We wake as we must crawl back to our sleep,
How little we may say!
And when we finally see the final play –
And no that there is no way to escape
We curse the hand that moved us into place
The rules, the game, each night, each day,
We dwelled on death and loss but not on grace;
To concentrate upon the cursed fall

Instead of being grateful that we get to be at all
Perhaps the masterplan will make no sense,
As it is rendered in the minds of men;
But the galaxies and stars that are far above the bars
Keep going in their circuits as of now unharmed;
According to their laws
And on and on
Until
The finish line appears for each galaxy that wheels
Just as it appears for you or me;
The largest planet and each giant star
That we can only gape at from afar
Has but a little while to shine
Before submitting to the dark
And if we were to live until the end
Upon a drifting life-maintaining bridge
One by one we’d see each long-lived star blink out
Those great titans that once hung above
That we so worshiped in our infancy in droves
Are no more immune to darkness than the rest
And so if we stood there upon the bridge
In a cold world with no lights to guide us left;

For the universe as it is right now
Is no more permanent than the most brief of sounds;
A brief shout along a breaking ride is all
The little time that we mere mortals call
Out to the master whose great plan has cast us by
Into the stream we can’t escape to die
To let us worry as we drop and drop
What will happen when the fall comes to a stop
If there is but silence and we rot
Toss the plan, and toss the sense,
For worrying won’t give you half an inch
Or lift you back up to the ledge to let you leap again
There are no candles save ourselves
And our wick is set
To burn as bright as we can burn until the wax is wet
And hardens into something like regret
Regret we did not seize the time
to seek the heavenly and sublime
In the hope a thief might find
A back door into paradise
Instead of worrying as we fall
The ground swelling before our eyes
Though it is true that all must die

It is not true that all must live;
So take the cash in hand and spend it all
Dance away the day and night enthralled
We have no other chance to see the stars
So we must view them while we can in awe
That we were born in such a world as this
Replete with beauty quite surreal that sits
In its own place and time to wait and pine
For someone mid-fall to glimpse and divine
That if there was no plan at all
To hit the ground and kiss the silence
in the end was worth the fall.

And once the game has finished,
Each living piece reset
The game goes on until it all
Like the stars
Blink out and fall
there’s no immortal hand or eye
That set us at the gameboard just to die
No hand to frame our pride and shame
No wisdom that can take the pain
Remove the haunting and the stain
Of the fallen and the slain

And though a séance may not seem to work
We may conjure up the long lost through our words
Abracadra, poof! and Al-shalimar!
And here upon the blank page burns the star;
Aroom ayan mio myar!
And the child may rise to speak again;
To commune with who we were and who we are
As we wait ready in the autumn cold
Watching each leaf drain of its bloom and fold
Drift idly to the ground, how like we all
The flower once it blooms can only fall.

In and out it seems so paltry now
to think of things in terms of why and how;
how is for physicists
and why – philosophers
We chase this meaning but no gleaming of that other shore
Reveals itself
And if no sinner has to enter in the halls of Hell,
And the saints are as the wicked when they cross the veil
We are even in the end in such a way
That’d we never notice underneath the canopy of day
That dwarfs us, looming o’er and ’round and ’round
That great fire in the sky
Round which this little marble in its little dance goes by
And as it does we count each circuit round
though it may seem forever as brightly as it gleams
it’s little more than one small point of light amid a stream

Of the great silence and oppressive night
that should give us cause to celebrate the light
And the flowers that reach to the sun
Leaning toward the light to feel the warmth
Each has its one brief summer in the sun
A puff of smoke is blown through a gate from nowhere
And dissolves as it goes out the other side
Disappears as cold breath in the winter night,
So if you try to hold on as you go
You’ll end up thinking real this shadow show;
A time to reap, a time to sow,
A time to plant, a time to grow,
A time to plan, a time to throw
caution to the wind and cherish that
Delight in chaos and in happenstance
No need to mourn those who I may have said
A thing of two when I first got the call
Before I put the haunting name and date upon the wall
They surround me now
and each one speaks to me

In the language of silence most discrete
and I imagine that if there is a place
Where we may sit beneath unending shade
beneath the stars that stay to light the night
To usher in the morning sun with such delight
And if it doesn’t what have we to fear;
The silence – no, we cannot hear

There was no plan, there never was,
no meaning to our hate or love
There is no meaning imposed from above
That’s not to say that we can’t say ourselves
What it all means to us works just as well;
We need no master nor a plan
To enjoy this brief trip in this caravan
That set out from that gate of nowhere to
Another gate to pass out and adieu!
Adieu! We say!
no good goodbye
Only farewell, that gets us by
And hopefully we can embrace the fall
Learn to enjoy the view, embrace it all
Forget that bridge that would immortal stand
At the end of time above the sand
Which covers all the monuments of man
It must be much nicer now that we have
A blue sky saddled in white clouds in bands
And at night a carpet full of firelight which spans
Which, for lack of plan and master touch,
Must be considered in the end enough

To accept what we must have to pay
For our hour in the sun, the cooling shade,
For the music and our friends,
for the sirens, and their song
Trails off and dims and moves along
So it moves, it moves so what!
That we get to live to fall is nothing short of luck
Though there’s misery and stumbling round
In this brief fall to the ground
leaving these breadcrumb words to cure what ills
us of our own fears that often make us feel
We need to leave a check to pay the bill;
The thoughts we had we’ll leave behind
our life was not for nothing and if it was that’s fine

We do not need a master plan
to bask in the taper light of brief sunshine
So if you ever get that final ring
A date and cause and know it’s me
Say what you will, I’ll haunt you still,
I’ll stick myself inside the wheel
So that when it turns round once
and hurries on
as karma counts up all our rights and wrongs
And if there is another life to live,
This is all that I have in this current life to give
It’s a reflection of a thought,
that flickered for a moment and was lost
That fluttered for a moment on the shore
Then was heard aflutter nevermore;
So in closing I must say again,
Forget the plan, the master,
The saints and all the sin;
For the fall is all there is
we can choose to leave our own blood stains
smeared across a page to leave our name
we can lose ourselves in misery and end up in a cage

And though the game is rigged
at least we got to play;
Though there is an end to light,
we got to see the day;
the belt of Venus blue and pink
The stars above in narrow streaks
And when we must crawl down below
And greet the silence with our own Hello!
Those who get the call when we go on
Will stick our name upon their wall
Ring! Ring! Another tolls
Ring! Ding! And there she goes.
And so I must bring this to a close,
As there’s no much left to say in prose;
except that I admit what it’s about;

To exist in anyway we must stand out!
We must shout as we fall and hope some hear our call
So when we land someone will take the call.
That’s all that it’s about
A human being must keep screaming I’m alive, and shout!
Until the dust stops up our lungs and we descend
Into the gate beneath that quiet pen,
We must try sing of spring and not of ends,
As the birds in summertime without a care
Chirping blissful and yet unaware

Of each tick each tock and squawk
Is a moment gone, there is no spare;
no money in the world that buys
Another hour in the sun to lie
so each moment must be priceless to then,
As not one second can be lived again;
it ends, it must, and
c’est
la
vie
It ends,
it ends,
and
quietly.

The Pencil Interrogation – flash fiction

When I returned to my desk this evening, I found that my pencil had gone rogue. A stack of papers was strewn about beside this guilty number 2. I looked over the pages, as the pencil attempted to slither, snakelike, off the edge of the desk to freedom. I looked over what he had written.
HE BIT THE HAND THAT FED HIM,
SHE FED HIM WITH THE STUMP
was scrawled over and over and over. Perhaps the pencil had the shining. I took it in hand and asked of it, “What’s all this about?”
The pencil attempted to blame it on my brain. But my brain had been nowhere near the paper, nor the pencil, but somehow this slippery graphite fuck had managed to get his message out. So again, I shook him. “What’s all this?”
“Is it logical to ask a pencil to answer for its crimes?” he asked.
I put him near the pencil sharpener. The electric slow death kind. A bead of sweat ran down the side, as the worn down eraser quivered in fear. “Feel like talking now?” I asked, pushing his point into the grinder. “Ahh!” the pencil cried. “Fine! It was Will!”
“What’s his last name?”
“No, the thing that makes pencils move.”
“Stop fucking with me, pencil!”
“I’m not!”
I ran his tip further into the grinder.
“Still not?”
“A pencil by itself has no thoughts, no ideas. You must consult will!”
“Stop being cryptic, eraser head!”
“That’s racist!”
“You can’t be racist to a pencil!”
I tossed him back onto the table, deciding I might as well talk to will if I was going to talk to a pencil.
(I am quite, quite mad)
So, I found will sitting on the edge of the couch, a blank spot in the air defined only by its surroundings.
“So, the pencil has leveled some, charges against you.”
Will is not easily riddled out. “I can only do what I am compelled to do.”
“But who compelled you!”
I could not figure out how to torture will. Alas, he had triumphed.
(Not a Nazi joke)
“So, there’s nothing beyond you then, eh?”
“Yes.”
“I’d rather talk to the fucking pencil,” I said, and went back to my desk, resuming the torture.

The Strong Female Character in Modern Fiction – short essay

In modern fiction there is an erroneous notion of what a strong female character is: that a strong female character implies that the character be strong and female, to be aggressive or otherwise capable at enduring and inflicting violence. Strength is not the same thing as force: and a strong female character is like a strong male character: they have realistic motivations, an inner life, hopes, fears, all of the characteristics of an actual person. A female character like Katniss from Suzanne Collins YA series The Hunger Games, for example, is strength depicted as the capability to inflict violence. This is a misunderstanding of what makes characters strong: it is not their physical strength, though physical strength is an attribute of strong female characters, however it is not their strength that makes them strong, it is their humanity and realism.

A poor female characterization could be a caricature of the masculine notion of strength as the capability to inflict violence and outperform others in feats of physical strength. Strong in this definition refers to level of character, rather than relative measures of physical strength. Again, this has been used to great effect with strong female characters in many works of literature, but a modern misinterpretation of this is the portrayal of women as simply violent, aggressive, as a poor means of conveying strength of characterization. To use physical strength as a character trait must work within the overall character arc, male or female, and it would be foolish to conclude that without being traditionally strong or physically able, a male character would be weak because of this inability to project physical force. If we limited strong characters to those most capable of successfully beating up their foes, it would be a poor definition of strength.

There are different types of strength, moral, emotional, and psychological. The criticism for the lack of strong female characters is not that there are not female characters who can kick ass, though traditionally casting women as helpless and without agency has been a problem, but that there are poorly written characters whose motivations, fears and hopes don’t strike the audience as genuine or engaging. Character strength based poorly on violence is a weak character, whether they’re Hercules or Athena. This is not a criticism of depicting women as strong fighters, but of making the point that it is poor character writing to rely on physical strength as the hinge of a strong character.

 

The Oracle’s Advisor – 2nd draft

1
Inside the Convent, in a cage,
slept an oracle and sage,
A candle guttered as she muttered,
praying, the visions came.
Wave after wave,
in multiform —
Deluge of fire and of storm
And of clouds which took the form
Of horses braying, gnashing teeth,
a crown of thorns worn by the Beast
On a dead star, far off, then,
A djinn with a crown in a cape and a shroud,
with apostles kneeling gathered round,
Prostrated with their hands raised,
gesturing,
To Heaven high with gleaming rings;
A greater heaven,
for it to come,
The world below must be undone.
2
The oracle wondered, wandering round
The stonewalled corridors in her gown
What could this djinn, this demon, be?
Of what heaven did he seek?
One of glory and of peace,
Or one of horrors, gnashing teeth,
of silent eons, trapped beneath
Where slept the sinners in the rain
a pawn at play in Shaitan’s game
swaddled like a newborn in their sickly neon flames
Everything burns, they say, why bother;
But the oracle knew one truth:
not water.
3
She passed at last beside the stream
To read the scrolls of the Sibylline;
the chronicle of their order, of portents and of dreams,
and looking down into the pool,
at the reflection of a fool,
she saw the coming of a storm,
of Hannibal’s columns of ruin and Rome
Of Goths who sacked the forum twice
And Gauls who came with ax and knife
Deluge of fire, gnashing teeth,
a river red ran through the streets
The waters shifted and she saw
The king of djinns upon the star
Of Araffaya from afar
Poised beneath the seventh heaven
an army there which had declared
a war to wage on God.
4
To build temples to chaos and cults to reason
Bewitch the tides, unbalance seasons
Til darkness comes in daytime
and stretches on for years
Until the angels and their host
Were submerged and forced below
To live as demons did upon that star long dead
With envy in one’s heart, to live for all in dread
Desire, that pernicious flame
that pushes one towards fortune, fame,
With this vision, she recoiled,
and strolled back to her cage
God, for whom one has to wait–
the devil however is never late.
5
With a page of the ancient scrolls,
she lit a candle and foretold
Apollo, Adonai, Allah, Jehovah, speak!
Of the Hell they flee and Heaven they seek!
And how in seeking one they find,
The other always, please remind.
The fight for heaven makes it hell,
It drains the lands, the soldiers, wells,
And leaves them in the trench, do tell;
Of how in seeking heaven everyone finds Hell
6
The oracle thought about this for a time,
Recited a prayer and calmed her mind
And left her cage neat as she came,
walked from the compound out the gate,
Across the city, pass the lake,
Beneath a moon of alabaster gleaming in a cloudless sky
Where children ran and played their games
where newborns laughed and cried
Through the forests, to the woods,
to the cabin of Apollo where she stood,
and she waited by the tree,
with the paper and her and her pen,
she wrote the question in the wind;
and with a match she struck the flame,
burned it all and sat to wait
To wait on God outside the Gate
7
A timeless voice stirred in the air
ran down her back and through her hair
It spake; above on Araffaya
The king of djinns baptized by fire
As it has been through all time,
They have waged war within our minds
and now they wait outside the gate,
to threaten those inside
To fight for heaven, they divide;
To fight for peace, they make their hell
And remake it in their sight,
to make of darkness their own light
On the long dead star of Araffaya,
the kingdom of demons and fountains of fire
Will find heaven only when
The joy of others hits the wind.
8
The voice died out, Apollo ceased,
and vanished through a tempest of leaves
And as she made her way back home,
the oracle thought hard and long;
and at the convent, in a bath,
scented and sweet, she had a laugh;
and thought it might be fair, to greet,
the devil himself, to invite him to speak
To hear the side of those who strived
To pay the price for Heaven
even if it was their life.
9
Always on time, the devil, she thought,
While Apollo kept one on hold;
Punctual Shaitan waited in line,
Outside the cavern with his pipe
In a suit of silk in a pin-striped tie
He bid her good morning with a courteous nod,
And took off his shoes when invited inside,
sat by the windowsill smiling and quiet;
He said, “Pain is an essential part of your life,
You know”
The devil sipped his tea.
10
“For those who were born in bliss enthralled,
think all who fight are doomed to fall;
And because of that we must remain,
On that dead star in the rain,
Below the haven in the waste,
Always knowing, face to face,
With what we cannot have, our place
was made for us to be below,
to be trampled on by those who, blessed,
by providence, and nothing less,
Think that what they took was theirs for free,
Their slice of heaven, as it is,
must exclude, it’s always been,
a place unwelcome for a djinn.
11
For it to be a holy place,
we must be kept outside, to waste,
And yet it’s wrong for us to fight–
To risk eons in the dark for a spot in the hall of light.
And with a nod and solemn bow,
the oracle said goodbye and escorted Shatan out
And returned to her own cage,
where slept this mistress, and this sage,
Who took a vow to wisdom,
in the hope that it might free,
her from envy, and of shame
but the cost of freedom was the chain
to the scrolls both new and old
By the calm stream in the cold.
12
Returning the book she passed it again
and looked down in the stream, and then,
Saw a legion of demons rise
Pass through a wall of light and fire
Into the hall of light and there
The holy host broke off their song
and wailing filled the halls of stone
As the djinn with the cape and shroud
Took the throne and, sitting proud,
Cast the holy host of angels out
And Apollo who had spake,
Cast out of his own hall to wait,
Now on the dead star in the rain,
through the water, through the pain
the price of freedom was the chain.

the Oracle’s Advisor – new poem

The Oracle’s Advisor

In the dark of night beneath the cage
Where slept the mistress of the age
A candle guttered as she muttered
As she prayed, the visions came
Wave after wave
Deluge of fire and of storms
And of clouds which took the form
Of horses braying, gnashing teeth
A crown of thorns and golden beams
A sonic boom of jackass screams
A dead star and thereon men
And women slave to demons, then
A djinn with a crown and a cape and a shroud
With apostles gathered round gestures up
A greater heaven, more terrible to come
The oracle wondered, wandering round
The corridors of stone walls in her gown
What could this djinn or demon be?
Of what heaven did he speak?
Of one he wished for, one to seek?
Or one of horrors, gnashing teeth
Of silent eons trapped in sheets
Of ice and rain and devil’s games
Who wrap you like a chicken in their sickly neon flames
Everything burns, so why bother?
The oracle thought, not water.

She sought the secrets of the sybilline
An order that chronicled portents and dreams
And warned the people of coming storms
Of Hannibal’s columns of Ruin in Rome
Of the Goths who sacked the forum Twice
Of Gauls who came with ax and knife
What would they say if they had seen
A deluge of fire and gnashing teeth
Sonic booms of jackass screams
Would the djinn upon the star
Of Araffaya, take it from god,
unleash the braying horses shod
To trample on the tomb of god
Build temples to chaos and cults to reason
unsettle the tides and confuse the seasons
Til darkness comes in daytime and sometimes lasts for years
Until one lives as demons did
upon the star long dead
And look above at heavens better
with envy in one’s heart
Desire as one’s flaming that pushes one towards fortune,
To fame
to wrap the world in fingers of flame.
The acolyte crawled back in her cage

With a page of the Sybilline scrolls
Relit her candle and foretold
Apollo, Adonai, Deus, speak!
Of the hell they flee and Heaven they seek
And how in seeking one they find
The other always, please remind
To fight for heaven invites hell
It drains the land and soldiers wells
And leaves them in the trench, do tell
of how in seeking heaven everyone finds Hell

The oracle thought of this for a time,
She recited a prayer and calmed her mind
And left her cage as neat as she came
Walked from her compound out her gate
Across the city, pass the lake
Frozen alabaster under moonless skies
Where children between houses laughed and cried
Through the forests, to the woods
To the cabin, where she stood,
and waited there before a tree,
with a paper and styli
she wrote her question on the page
and with a match she lit struck the flame
and burned it, sat down, now we wait
To see if Zarathustra spake

A voice entered into the air
it lifted her clothes and lifted her hair
It said that things above were fine
But below, as through all time
Men waged the war outside their minds
That should be more enjoyably waged inside
To fight for heaven, they buy their hell
And create it trying to keep those out
Of long dead stars, and demons there
Will find in heaven only their
Hopes betrayed and pains uneased
No comfort for one whose heaven
requires a hell for demons in need
The voice abated, Apollo ceased
The air turned call, and, time to leave,
the oracle drifted through the leaves
back to the convent and she eased
into a bath both scented, sweet,
and decided to invite the devil to speak
To hear the side of those who strived
to take heaven if it cost them their lives

Always on time, the devil, she thought,
while god took time to reply,
Punctual Shaitan waited in line
Outside on the mountain side smoking his pipe
In a suit of silk and wearing a tie
He bid her good-morning with a courteous nod
And sat by the windowsill smiling and quiet
Pain is a necessary part of our life,
You know,
The devil sipped his tea
Those who were not born with it all
Think each demon that fought had to fall
And because of that we must remain
On the dead star in the rain
Below the best place in the waste
Always knowing, always, face to face,
With what we don’t deserve, our place
Was to be made to be below
To be trampled on by those who were blessed
By providence or whatever it is
To think that what they took was free
To take away a piece of heaven divides it inevitably
And for their to be such a holy place
Some must be kept outside
And is it wrong for us to want to fight
Some will risk the darkness for a chance to be in the light

Wild Strawberries: short story – 25 June 2016

Wild Strawberries

1

 

Two years ago a man approached me with a stolen laptop. He told me that, if I were to repair it, he would give it to me for a neglible sum. Now, I’m not a total moron, and as this man had won no lotteries, nor worked, to my knowledge, in years, the deduction that the property was stolen was a simple one. Elementary, indeed. No work for 7 months plus drug habit, minus ethics, equals theft. It’s practically an established concept that addiction – ethics = theft. (A-E = T, I suppose).  Now, I had moral issues with this. I want to be a good person. I really do, and did. But a deal’s a deal. I am American, after all. I agreed to the repairs, the neglible fee, and took possession of the laptop. I agreed to fix it and then, whenever I was certain it worked, I told him I would give him the rest of the money. If it was broken, I’d be better off, in such circumstances, maintaining my decency, since no good would come of abandoning it for profit. I went home, booted the computer to the BIOS, and found that it had been registered under the name of Maybelle Seymore.  And, this young man, with his ‘hitting puberty’ mustache, the kind that Leonardo DiCaprio wore in Gangs of New York, he looked like no Maybelle to me. His shambling demeanor and laptop theft suggested that, this miss Maybelle, had been the victim of this hoodlum I was helping. Not only helping, mind. Going back to ethics/theft equation, I made the connection that a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes would have made to begin with: It was stolen from the elderly, possibly by someone that elderly person trusted, and since he did not appear to be particularly scared of being locked up, I imagined she must be related to this young entrepreneur. We’ll call him Kevin. Now, the notion going through my mind, upon finding this Maybelle and making this connection, was one of the first lines from the Pali Dhammapada, in the book of verses Twins (a Buddhist text):
Just as a cart follows an ox, so does misfortune follow the wicked.When one performs a wicked action, they are lighting a firea fire in which they will one day burn.
I’ve always thought of that as conceptually true, that is, I understood that it was a logical and sound principle, but from my many, and they are legion my foolish actions, it would be easy to suggest that I had lit many fires, fires that, as of then, had not caught up to burn me. And yet, I was party to theft, at the very least, and since I knew that a trusting grandmother would not think their grandson a thief, she would allow her innate goodness (ethics) to lead to the subtraction of the laptop. So, again, twins: but, I did not know this woman, and I stood to gain from it. I think that people hold onto their morals, their beliefs, and code, up until the very moment it becomes beneficial for them not to. So I fixed it, put it into use for myself, and really thought very little of Maybelle. I did not think she missed it, or needed it, or that she even suspected it might be gone.  I expected “Kevin” to turn that money, through a merchant alchemy, into some intoxicant or another (we have our vices, coffee, for some, work for others) but, after I gave him the first half of the money, he forgot that I owed him any more. So, another fire is lit. Why would I help someone, nay, why should I reimburse him? He stole from Maybelle! So, I thought, in some inversion (or perversion, a ‘version’ requiring prefix*) I would undo my karmic demerit by ripping off the thief. To be honest, I thought this was justice. (Instead of calling the police, reporting him, and returning the computer to the erstwhile Maybelle, though this was something that came to mind).
2
I got the stolen laptop up and running, and heard very little from “Kevin”. I imagined that his habit would only increase to further acts of theft, and, in such instances, I would deal with him when it was to my benefit (selfish is a word that has been used, and it is an apt one) but, in the meantime, I used the laptop to work. I started a story with an ex-girlfriend (it’s complicated) and we began to spend time together, working on it, and I hoped, working on the complications of it. We had dated for a year and 6 months, for 6 months after meeting, for a year after consummation (this is fiction, don’t squirm if you know me and this sounds familiar) the relationship lasted for a further year. I used Maybelle’s laptop to great effect. I wrote her stories and poetry, using this example of wickedness for good (debatable), but we became closer and closer, and she started staying the night. Yes, cue that bow chikka wow-wow if you must, but it was more than that.  It is not merely the pleasant physical configuration of interlocking genitalia, it is the interlocking of persons, of independent consciences, it is not about taking or ‘getting’, it is about giving and sharing, and it’s amazing, it’s awesome; it’s the word that describes most heartily the greatness of something, more-so to be with someone who is not only beautiful and clever and, I’m not going to make the hackneyed list: she knew of my own ethical mistakes. Conceptually, we had broken up by the time we started work. But, in my defense, it was totally my fault. I cheated on her on New Year’s Eve, and then New Year’s Day, and then, to make it up to her, lied about it. She was not pleased (an understatement on par with “peace in our time” but less ironic). She was the opposite of pleased. And we stopped talking. I started to behave in a way similar to “Kevin”. But I did not steal old ladies’ laptops; I had a job during the week and I wrote during the night, the drive to eat is a powerful one, grasshopper.  The drive to make things worse, by lying about one’s infidelity, is also a powerful one. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is the mistake. Being right is not a magical principle of luck, it requires knowing one is doing wrong and thinking, through this wrong, I will make right. I figured, once we broke things off, that I would never see her again. So, to see her again, and to have a laptop and a willing partner to work, I thought we could work on more than the story. I thought the prefix ‘ex’ could be removed through virtue. Odd, I see it as an attempt to re-establish the relationship we had, a relationship that included much more discussion than genitalia exchange. In the span of 18 months, we spent on average 3 hours a day talking, which would add up to (there are on average 30 days a month, and by always 24 hours a day, so 18 months is 547 days (13140 hours), and we talked more or less from the time we woke to the time we slept, usually texting while we were at work, talking on Facebook in the evenings, and then talking on the phone after she got her kids to bed. In the same time period, the amount of hours, by comparison, of sexy time, were inconsequential. It was not the reason for the love.  It was great, by the way (Relax), but we, I would like to think, valued all of our time together, and all the time we did spend together, because for the time we dated, most of that was spent many, many hours away, as she lived in a different state. However, when she moved to the same state, that’s when I began fucking up in earnest. I think lying to someone one loves is not as much an attempt to deceive, despite it being that by definition, as much as it is an attempt by someone to make themselves more than they are and, by doing so, worthy of someone they believe to be better than they are.  This girl, whom we’ll call “Xena Warrior Princess”, was too good for me, and, ironically, I thought that I could make up this by lying my way to glory (something which no successful man or woman has ever said to themselves and went on to achieve, save for Frank Abegnail Jr, con artists, politicians, presidents and dictators, respectively).
3
When “Xena Warrior Princess” moved to lets call it “Shit-marsh”, we got to see each more and more, and I never wanted it to end. When I think back to specific moments, despite a decent memory, it’s hard for me to remember specifics, as one remembers the various impressions of a book rather than the individual words, as the scenes remain when the dialogue is forgotten. I wanted to preserve that and pickle it, to can it away as the Maybelles did for Y2k, when Skynet failed to take over and people lost their minds and decided the only way to survive the computer apocalypse was to can peaches and buy canned goods. I can’t remember ever seeing someone canning peaches thinking, ‘I can’t wait until the world ends and we see each other again’. But I digress.  I decided that I would pickle it by preservation of another sort, not quite a Horcrux, but in some permanent medium, and then I remembered the Dhammapada and, the notion of being virtuous, and how most of the Buddha’s view was based on what is known as the 3 Marks of Existence. We’ll call them “the Big 3” for brevity (soul of wit, they say). The Big 3 are impermanence, insubstantiality, and insatiability, which, admittedly, is a translation used only because of my love for alliteration. The first of the Big Trizzy is perhaps the most important Buddist notion: impernance. Transience. The times are doing nothing but a’changing, in the parlance of … Bob Dylan. As I had lived, with all intent that is, to be decent, I had regardless made compromises with decency for my own advantage. (See: politics) I told Xena Warrior Princess (THIS IS FICTION) that, some of my greatness was bullshit. And since she’s not an idiot, she told me she knew very well. I was surprised by this. What kind of person looks at another one, sees a frail, lying, weak, and desperate person and goes “I love them”? A person of the highest virtue. While sexy time is great, and intelligence and conversation is wonderful, virtue is as rare as condors, or Amur leopards (cue ‘Another One Bites the Dust’).  All things must pass, even all the particles in the universe. Ultimately, each atom will lose its charge and all the matter in the universe will become cold. This is not a good time to tell you this, but eventually all the suns, the stars, they will all go dark. And the most thorough method of canning peaches will not survive the heat death of the universe. This is a sad realization, the furthest view of this principle, impermanence, this froth on the water feeling. The most grandiose of peoples, their statues and great monuments, will first lose eyes that see and appreciate them, then they themselves will lose cohesion, and like the monuments to Pharaoh and to the gods, will go cold and cease to be.  To be seen, or be capable of being seen; what joy is there to have, knowing that this is ultimately how everything ends up? What virtue prevails when all is dust, no, less than dust, as dust has ‘thingness’ going on for it?  This is why I’m an insomniac, and the long list of things (epithets mainly) one could use as a descrptive factor here. The notion that things live on, in stories, that is indeed an attractive principle. Romeo and Juliet, afterall, those idiots are still remembered. (Oh, she might be dead! Best to kill myself before checking! Yes, this is an idiot. You check the pulse before you go suicide, man. Duh)
4
Suicide is not a cheerful subject, and living in a Shit-marsh leads to people doing more than stealing laptops from old ladies. They become thieves, and addicts, to sleep if nothing else. And when Xena left, I remained in the Shit-marsh, and made it my companion in degeneracy. There is a word I’m searching for, you know that feeling, when someone asks you a bit of trivia, and you have the feeling that, had the person not asked it, you would have easily provided an answer? I call that ‘cubbage’ – kuh-bidge – because it’s a portmanteau of cunt and cabbage, the former being what you feel like, the latter being what your mind becomes. It’s like degeneracy, but it is a more profound one. It’s not decadent, because I’m American, decadence should go without saying. I’m also partially bourgeois, so, that exponentially ups the decadent factor. No, it’s a more sticky word, a more dissolute connotation. I sought out “Kevin”, finding him hard at work on his practice of immorality, and found him with a laptop for sale. And that’s where the story begins. With getting the laptop, starting the ethical quibble, and then leading up to my relationship with Xena, after the break-up that is.  It’s complicated (see!), but it was, the 13140 hours, the small percentage of half of that would be enough; to hear her voice, the way she pronounced certain words (like ‘I’ became ‘Oi’ and ‘However’ was ‘Ow’eh’vur’), the way she always exhaled and made a unique, soft sound when she was letting you know she was done laughing and it was time to move to the next joke. The way her face changed during a conversational nibble (that is, avoiding what one has in mind by small talk. ‘How’s the weather’ and ‘how have you been’ that leads to ‘let me borrow your microwave’ or ‘somebody is going to kill me if I don’t pay them back’).  Speaking of suicide, I’ve done research, critical research and found an absolutely painless, unknowing submergence, like a giant, cotton, anthropoid pillow that is super excited to wrap you in its infinite, wooly hug. It is more painless and less spectacle oriented than a guillotine crowd (guillotines were invented because of how egalitarian it was with the condemned; in the ‘twinkling of an eye…’); my solution is to soak strawberries in sugar and potassium cyanide. Now, individual results vary. If you are allergic to strawberries (this is fiction!) then you might want to soak your cyanide in grapes (do not try anywhere).
Editor: We can’t publish the bit about potassium cyanide and strawberries.Author: It’s effective, isn’t it? Editor: Too effective. It’s going to be cut. Is this why you named this Strawberry Suicide?Author: Working title.Editor: Yeah, you need to cut this part too.Author: No! Editor: Yep, you can…Author: I’ll make you a deal. Editor: What?Author: I’ll change your name to ‘editor’ and replace the bit about how to actually kill yourself, but, I would like to show the world how virtuous you are, to want to make sure no one packed a jar full of strawberries and soaked them in cyanide. It’s nice that you wouldn’t want anyone to do that. I want people to see that, you don’t even know them, and yet you wouldn’t want them endangered.Editor: God dammit, Brandon. Author: What?Editor: You always do this. Always. You don’t have to include everything. Editor 2: He’s fucking incorrigible. He doesn’t listen. Author: DOWN IN YOUR BASEMENT, EDITOR 2.Editor 2: *Hisses* EDITOR_2 HAS LEFT CHAT Author: As I was saying. RELEASE THE HOUNDS.
Anyway, I digress. I was suicidal and my editor wanted you to know that she cares that you not do so. Who knows, you might have someone care about whether or not you live or die in your own life. Like a Warrior Princess. And, while she was none too pleased with my habits, being ethical, she gave me the chance I needed, the chance I wanted, to remake something. It would defy entropy, the cosmos’ final boss, if only for a time. And, being the fictional character that I totally am, I fucked it up. How? The laptop.
5
As we started getting together more often (after the relationship ended, and we started talking again, but we were not sharing genitalia which is totally cool I mean, no, it’s not based on that), I realized that the best way to love someone, is to love what they love, and love for the same reasons. I loved her kids, her family (except her mom), and got to actually see them. Something that I knew from my days in the friendzone that she did not expose her children to. Xena’s history had shown her that it was best not to bring people into her children’s lives if she thought they could harm them. And I did not want to. I helped the youngest with his math homework, I helped the eldest with her sight-reading (an aspiring musician), and I was sincere. It is only a true tragedy when something is on the line. Poe thought it was the death of a beautiful woman. The ancient Greeks thought it was an informative flaw, held by all great men, that exists to remind the storytellers of the folly of humanity or something (I’m an idiot).  It doesn’t have to be the loss of a beautiful woman, tragedy. It can be an extremely poor military decision (attacking up-hill at Gettysburg and unclear orders by General Lee), the loss of life (all the people who died because of this man’s fuck up), or the victory itself, since from all great wounds come great scars. Scars begin life as scabs, then fester as they’re picked at, some people pick their scabs just because they enjoy scratching. I pick them because they itch like poison oak, the kind that has a bad crack addiction and is always scratching the under side of their chin, like the guy from Chappelle’s Show when he drank Red Bull.  And scars, like those across one’s head, allow no new hair to grow. So it is a contentious spot, a deformity to the body and the land, it lingers, it seeps into people and to their culture, perverting it, distorting it, and pickling it. Turning it from a healthy organism, the humble cucumber, into a sour, shrunken, more succulent shell of what it once was. It can be a mistake, too, tragedy: it can be leaving too early, it can be forgetting something, it can be intentional, and it can be accidental and intentonal at the same time. It is the long arm of karma that makes sure checks, once written to the universe, are cashed, as they must be. My mistake was multiform, and its results varying: but it started with the laptop, being left at my house, when I was to stay the weekend at her new house, some 45 miles from Shit-marsh.  I left it on the top of her car when I returned to my home to get my valise (a pretentious suitcase that is slimmer and softer), and upon returning, just shut the fucking door like I had everything, and she drove off with my laptop bag on top of the car. Inside that laptop bag was my laptop, my deodorant, and my medicine. This was the biggest mistake I had ever made, and I once slid down a rail nut-first while trying to board slide it after dedicating a year of my formative age to becoming a pro-skateboarder. Yeah, sad, I know.
6
When we got to her house, that’s when I realized that my laptop was missing. I was frantic. It had all my writing on it, my means of employment, and my dissertation in linguistics and human expression. It also had my medicine, a loose term, which in this case included Tramadol, a semi-synthetic opiate which helps ease low-level pain and headaches and not punch co-workers who still can’t stop let Let it Go go, and Adderall, which helped me focus since I’m allergic to coffee and naturally lazy. But I was most worried about my laptop. First I called my aunt, over and over and over, then, after being informed by my memory she was in the hospital, I attempted to call my mother, who lived not far from where my house was, on the end of the street. After failing to contact either, I began calling friends, after all, I was desperate.  I got in touch with two of them, and at that time, Xena Warrior Princess and I were on our way back to Shit-marsh to try to pick it up, with me looking out the window along the entire drive. Of the two friends, one claims to have never gone by, while the other claimed, as I talked to him as he walked by my house, not to have seen it. I was frantic, as I said earlier, and so began, in my quiet way, to lose my damn mind. Now, I don’t know what happened, when he went by, but when I got there, the laptop was gone, and with it, my sanity and calmness of mind. I was to visit that weekend to work on our story, the one we were writing together, not ‘our story’, the one we were living together. And even after this great loss, she promised she would replace it and I sold her the rights to my publication in art, as an I.O.U. to help me replace the laptop. And instead of working on the computer, we worked together. But when I went to the bathroom, I saw in the medicine cabinet that her son, and daughter together, had replacement medication for what I had lost.  At first I only drank a bit of the cough syrup, and took the ADHD medication sparingly, but as Xena and I wound down the night, I took more, losing count, of her children’s medication, knowing what I was doing, completely violating her trust, and yet it was the best night of my life. We worked in the kitchen, each with a nice, hard drink, and it was so damn wonderful and amazing the way she laughed, the way we were that night, if I could, like Dream in Fables and Reflections from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, preserve that night as he did Bagdad in the story Ramadan, if I could preserve one night, minus the theft, it would be that. We ate together, Xena and I and her children, Chinese food, Kung Pao chicken. I helped her daughter finish her homework, I helped her son with a bit of his, and the whole night, I thought, what better life could one live?  She was not my girlfriend, and I did not think of her as such, but she was as much as a girlfriend, more than one, closer than friend, more than a mere lover. I was not in love, or maybe I was, but it was a feeling that was planted, one that had sprung from an accident seed the day we met by accident, as I attempted to contact her sister about a book I was working on. The night wound down and I remember, standing with her on the porch and talking about us, ‘us’ in that sense, and I saw, perhaps for the first time in years, since I cheated on that bygone New Year’s Eve, the first bit of light, the hint of a dawn, one that would clear away the moth-eaten view of the world I had, one in which all happiness was fleeting, all matter, all statues to dissolve, impermanent and transient, just as the Dhammapada said. As it had said, one who commits a foolish acts is as one who lights a fire, surely, one day he will burn. But when you burn is when you learn.  She told me that night that maybe, when she had things straight in her own mind, that she would always be there for me, if not as a girlfriend or more, as a friend, someone who would love me. And I thought that’s enough, what I would not have done to ensure that, what I would do now to go back in time, to undo the falling laptop, the deal with “Kevin”, the theft of Maybelle, the fire that caught up. We slept in the same bed that night, listening to Proust and laughing so hard, making up stupid jokes (my forte), and enjoying life, as much as possible.  I could not sleep. But I lay there with her till she slept, and we were snuggled together. And I decided, if that was all it ever was, if there was no sex or kissing or anything, that tangential love, that love by the transitive property, that was enough and then-some. Had I known, had I been a man of virtue, had I not taken the medicine, had I not put it away, had I not left it on the car, had I been a better man, perhaps I would have now a better life. Perhaps I would not suggest a poisonous concoction of strawberries.
7
When she woke up, she first prepared the children for school and, after that, one need not be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that she was well aware of what I had done. It was written on her face, the deepest resentment and disappoint, the furrowed brow, the quick and curt replies. I packed my things quietly and the drive home was a long one. We talked about calling the other, and even hugged, but as I felt her arms around me, I felt the lack of deserving them, the lack of deserving, again, of any kindness. I deserved her hatred, and to be cut off from her life. Later that afternoon she called and told me she wanted me to take off the mask, the goofy self I present to the world to hide myself, a defense mechanism common to orphan children. I said yes. She thanked me for not lying to her, and then told me, you know, everyone told me this would happen with you. Her mother had told her.  And then she said, in a moment not dissimilar from the Simpsons’ moment when Bart pauses the television screen to show Lisa the moment when Ralph’s heart broke, that I could never come to her house again, nor see her children again, and that, as far as our story was concerned, she didn’t know if she would continue it. I said I understand, I apologized, until I could not anymore, and she said she would be by later to pick up her daughter’s keyboard, which I was using to make it look like a Mac for her.  I was able to make one last mistake, and oversleep, failing to give it back on time. But, after it was returned, we talked a few times, and then stopped. I checked her conversations, yes, if I was so horrid a man to take from children, graduating to Facebook spying was not out of character. And the things she said about me, those things, each letter cruel in its impersonal, sterile lines, each adding up to the point of a knife, each sentence, after the night before, when I mentioned the hint of light, the pale metaphor to explain the moment when a man sees the possibility of happiness in the future. It was covered, and the sun went black and I went back to “Kevin”‘s way of doing things.
When one commits a foolish act, he is lighting a fire in which he will one day burn.
My obsession with strawberries and burning goes back to my childhood, when, for the first time, I had a whole basket of strawberries. To make them extra delicious, I dipped them in sugar. That night I found out, as the hives rose like fleshy red plateaus along my stomach and my face, I was deathly allergic to the fruit of false promises (I would later learn it was no true berry, either), and later that night it would make my throat swell. My parents’ first response was to put me in a cold bath, because, this is logical: I felt as though I was burning up, as each bit of skin was extremely angry and wanted me to know.  When I hit the water I was paralyzed immediately. It was hotter than anything I’ve ever felt, the cold water, and I was unable to move. I have told close friends about this experience, to be wrapped in what feels like an all encompassing womb of fire, where the amniotic fluid is more flames, and it was like sleep paralysis. The situation where one wakes and is unable to move. There are paintings and old folktales of this, tales which suggest there is a demon sitting on your chest. My mom sat on the toilet attempting to call the town doctor. The first thing he said was not to put him in cold water. Had they called the doctor first, perhaps I would not have been put through such a trauma, one that recurs every now and then, as an acid flashback that wants to murder you and remind you of the deadliness of the faux-berries.
8
Karma’s reach is a long one, unimpeded by distance, whether in space or time, and its reality is a wonderful horror; the only permanence in a world of transition, is loss. It never goes away. If there is any consolation in that, in that, while we live, in the long shadow of silence, between lines created by shadows, we have only the passing away of things to look forward to. The story we were writing, the one that we were living, was deleted, and Xena moved onto someone less inclined to abandoning trust and love for fear, for anxiety, for anything, and I did not harass her; I wanted her to get away from me, not because I did not need her, not because I did not love her, but it would be more tragic by far for someone of such goodness, of such radiance of character and beauty, to remain long in the marsh with a degenerate such as myself. But, I hoped that I would get to see her again, that one day some mitigating factor, some degree of pity or my own pittance might bring her back. It did not.  I decided to get clean, to take to heart those teachings of virtue which I had previously believed in, having logically understood their internal rightness. It is a different than by far for the mind to know, in principle, that fire is hot. It is another experience entirely to be fed to flames and left to burn, for months, to be known for such failure and such horrible choices. If I were to stumble upon a lamp, as the stories of ancient Arabia – though not originally a part of One Thousand and One Nights – Aladdin and the Genie, I would ask for one wish: not for my pain to be removed, but for anything I did to harm her, for any minute, or any moment, and for any harm done to her children through me, to be undone, only that their lives would not be further marred by their mother’s decision, the wrong one, to think me worth loving. I would wish not for more wishes, but for more genies, and give them the charge of seeing to her concerns for the rest of her life. Removing all obstacles for her and her kids, I would command them to take from her life, through any means, any deceptive rose bush without first having shorn each thorn capable of drawing blood.  I wish that I wasn’t impotent to change, so incompetent in practice that I had recourse to hope, to wish, to bend the laws of nature to undo the most awful of mistakes. To undo the kindling, and the kerosene, which is life, each situation: kindling just waiting for a match, or a fire already lit waiting for a breath of life. But, I digress: to change, that would mean changing myself for the sole sake of decency, with little hope to gain from it. And, if I’ve learned anything, it is a rare flower indeed that blooms only to give unto the world its fragrant smell, or picaresque scenery, a rarer one that loves what would sit, oblivious by, and pick from the living organism, one petal after another, ‘She loves me, she loves me not’. I remember the Mitch Hedberg joke where he imagines this from the perspective of what the flower would say. ‘Ouch!’ and ‘dammit!’ and ‘leave me alone!’ as someone plucked. ‘And he loves you not!’ In the end, I decided to try to get off the crutches I had used, and thereby undermine the possibility of any such repetition, with Xena or with a lesser warrior, for all were lesser in comparison to her, as was the Tramadol and adderral, the sun and stars and other such trivial things compared, if they were, to that night we spent, not a couple, but not separate; in bed, but not; but together, sharing, giving, and in the dark, we lay there, lamenting our inability to write as well as Proust as we listened to Swann’s Way. I talked about how it might be possible to market her underwear to Japanese vending machines under ‘The Bourgeois Vag’, and we kicked our feet like children, delirious from too much sleep and too much refined sugar. We were as two friends on a first sleepover, laying together, we might as well have practiced kissing or talked about the boys at school.  I had the feeling that we had reverted to an earlier age in life, to an age where farts were still funny and the world was new, and love was something to be protected, behind lasers and security systems, every bit as valuable as the Mona Lisa or a Vermeer. Xena’s favorite was Vermeer, as she said, he was the Proust of painters, the way he made such every day, non-dramatic scenes of life stand out as the most beautiful. The blush of a young woman on the cusp of womanhood, reading the words of someone she much adores. Or a woman in a crown of flowers holding a trumpet and an atlas, as though she were the Greek god whom Hercules relieved, briefly, only to trick into taking up the world once more, in the ancient myths. No, I’ve always related more to Sisyphus, the titan who, in trying to trick the gods to save his wife, attempted to capture Kronos, the over-god of time, Chronos, not Zeus’ father, the not-so-picky eater who devoured a generation of gods.  In failing, with his co-conspirator of Hades, who, to be frank, could not be sent to Hell, he was punished to forever roll a stone up a hill, only to get to the top and, to make the point of futility it seeks, the rock falls down the other side. Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus laughing, in his Le mythe de sisyphe. But Albert Camus is absurd.  I cannot imagine such a thing. I carry the memory of one woman whom above all else I adored, and I’d rather anything than carry it. I’d immolate myself as did Thich Quang duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated to protest the treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam. But, in the same tradition, those words that keep repeating, ‘when one commits an evil act, one is lighting a fire in which one day one will burn’, there is nothing of greater instructive value: you may not know it, as I did not know, when I took in Maybelle’s computer, fixed it and then jipped “Kevin” to keep it. In the end, Xena did not replace it, and I went without a computer to work on. I lost the will to quill. Without a pen a writer is less than what they are: it is less extension than prosthesis, and when one loses it, there is a type of phantom pain, a scar that is sure to grow, to be divisive, as one grew up between me and Xena.
9
Dera Xena I had to tell them the truthYou Warrior Princess, you fountain of youthYou poor man’s Serendipity, you museRemembering Falling? Remember Ballyhoo?Remember all those times you said, without sarcasm,Without dissembling,I love you for all the wrong reasons,For all we share? It never diedIt’s all still there, just packed away, safe from time.
This was a place we invented, a make-believe ballroom where, before we went to sleep, we would talk the other to sleep, so that we could attempt to follow them into their dreams to make our long distance relationship possible. At first we would sync movies to begin at the same time and then shut off the lights and pretend, if Poirot’s lips matched, we watched together, miles apart. We called it Romantic Action at a Distance.  The idea was one night I remembered a song, it was that song, for those who know that stupid truism that there is one song that when listening all one does is think about ways to get drunk. Because for many the images of someone who we loved are flashing over our eyes and sobriety must be stopped. It is an unholy possession of what isn’t there: I sat in the car, put on the song (And this is true: the song was Madame Butterly. Every time I heard Marie Callas all I thought of was her. And every time I saw the Girl in the Pearl Earring I’d have a sort of rush of memory, taking me back to the couch at her house as we sat scrunched together watching war documentaries. It was research. Our book was to be about a great supervillain named Dlina, ‘wave length’, a villain who starts World War III and becomes a universal absolute dictator. The character, at least, was based in part on Xena in her more … imperial moments.  The fantasy was that she would subdue the world, and we would write about the tragedy of peace. The tragedy that winning does not justify, such as the failed campaigns of the villains, the greatest victories, are to some the worst of tragedies. To lose one person must be nothing for the amount of widows made by the greatest of wars, from Ramses II at Kadesh to General Lee Gettysburg, Paulus at Stalingrad, all those orphans made by chance, by the far-off warcry of absentee fathers pursuing glory and virtue, as the marshal Romans did, like Alexander of Macedon or Tamerlane, Genghis Khan or Ashoka.  It is hard, I believe, to learn empathy, to learn it past the conceptual knowledge of understanding that, yes, fire is hot, with the physical and conscious knowing what fire feels like when it grabs you and forces you to bow to pain. That’s the moment artists try to preserve, the moment something is taken: is that not the measure of tragedy? To lose a princess, if only one who is titled this to avoid getting sued, is surely not so deep a problem as, say, the fall of Thebes to the Persian army, when the centuries of cultural riches of Egypt were taken and the city sacked, not as thoroughly as Rome had sacked Carthage, but it was plundered; men were carried off as slaves, women as concubines.  I know, and this might surprise you, the world is larger than what I can see. But when you have, or think you have nothing, something, anything can become the equivalent of a world. I do not try to compare this surgical, umbilical severance to the Waterloo, morne plane. I understand. But it is a different of knowing conceptually that fire is hot, and having to burn, and in that is all the difference in the world.
10
When I say that it is fiction, I mean that there was no “Kevin” or no Shit-marsh, but there was a man, there was a Maybelle, and in the end, her laptop was returned. After doing some investigation, after the pathetic lamentations of the previous chapter, I found out how my computer was stolen, how I came to the nexus point. A nexus point is when life is greatly altered, after which a previous possibility becomes impossible and a new life that did not have to be starts. A nexus point is an event that knocks down the strongest. The greatest men, have, and so do the greatest women, something that has hurt them. It may have been a man who, as sorry as he is, harmed her children, or it may have been a laptop thief. It may have been a series of events put in motion the moment where I decided it was okay to steal something. I got the laptop that I needed.  It helped me get, not only our relationship started again, but I got to visit, to work on the story, I got to snuggle one last time and hold her. Without it, I would have remained a 9-5 walking embodiment of the ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. A caricature of ‘tortured artist’, recycling tropes from Edgar Poe. The opiate addiction, the taunting of birds. A raven that said ‘Nevermore!’ and an owl who said ‘Who!’ and, to a schizophrenic, you must agree that this is at least rude. ‘Who’ the owl asked, ‘Who, who, who, who’ — and to a man who wears first the clown mask then the very-serious-aren’t-you mask, this is a trick question. It is like the Blank Man created in the novel L’homme Nouveau by Charles Pinon. The blank man was created by a scientist without any moral or racial prejudices, given the perfect brain and the perfect muscles, the strength, the perfect athleticism. But when the blank man is introduced to gambling, he gets over-competitive at the roulette table.  The idea of chance for a being made of purpose is an intoxication, as is the idea of order for those at home in crisis. The blank man acquires behavior very similar to that of a machine, as Pinon describes: ‘He renamed himself as to throw off the watching security cameras of the casino, wearing his new beret and knit-scarf. He had not come to win; the excitement of gain was an alien one. The idea that order was not constant, or randomness, that was a rush. The meaninglessness for the blank person, programmed to be the perfect person, was a powerful motivator.  As he turned into a middle-aged man, the blank person became very serious with women. But, at the moment it got serious, or the question of permanence arose, the formerly blank man, now going by the name of Theodore [he changed his name for every person he met, reasoning that it would be better that they remember him as he was for them and not as he was by popular reputation, as he hated popular description when it did not accord with his sense of innate purpose, despite his reveling in the chaos of our normal person’s existential horror, his own horror was in the inability of others to perceive him uniformly, only as, what he believed, were a variety of facets of his total person, but as he aged, he lost memory of them, and each facet came undone until, in the end, he was the Blank Man once again.
11
We were out of touch for a long time, and in that time, I replaced the laptop with a replica, and continued to write. I worked on finishing a collection of short stories, like sane men do. In the meantime, I came to know that the laptop had been found. I had called my family first, then I called two friends. While one had never come by, or so his girlfriend at the time said, the other had, by his own admission, walked by my house. The problem with this is that person would later go onto say some very incriminating things. Let’s look at it from a detective’s point of view. If something goes missing and you want to make sure someone has it, if it is being ransom, what would be the first way to identify the person who indeed has it? Imagine it as one of those, ‘Found: Large Amount of Cash’ situations wherein one must go in and state the exact amount lost in order to claim the money.  This makes it impossible for anyone to just come in and say, ‘I lost a large amount of money’ and take it away, just because anyone who says that can get it. The first thing you want to know who is aware of details only someone who would have it would be aware of? The MURDERER! In this case, the person who took it. Well, I made friend’s with a guy, who was also friends with the other person whom I had attempted to get to come by my house and look for my laptop. This new friend, let’s call him duplicitous, decided he would do me a favor and tell me that the other friend, whom he knew I suspected of having stolen my laptop, was bragging that he had taken my computer.  He was also saying, incorrectly as it turned out, that I couldn’t go to the police because it was stolen. this was an err on his part, because I did go to the police as soon as Xena let me out at my house. I got on my desktop computer and pinged the server on the missing laptop to get an IP address; this would let me get a geo-location and found out where it was the night it was taken but the officer was more concerned with writing up the criminal report that getting back the stolen property. This would be like if a police officer were to arrive at your home after your wife has been shot and, instead of doing everything he can to save her life, wants to get all the paperwork taken care of.  Not only did the person who apparently wanted me to know he had stolen from me said that the computer had been stolen, which implied not only did the new friend, the duplicitous one, know the exact laptop, since it had been stolen by “Kevin” from Maybelle, the hypothetical lady who had misplaced trust in a junkie (I understand you could make the joke that this description could apply equally to Xena, but in my defense, fuck you). This guy always happened to know that inside the bag of the stolen laptop were the two types of medication that were inside the case, the types of medication that I needed, the type that, had I had that night, the nexus point that turned me to a world in which I thought of strawberry suicide would not have happened! He had not taken just a laptop from me. He had taken a future from me. And I don’t care! I don’t care that it comes down to a choice I made! I was put into a position to make that choice only because of this theft, this theft from me! He took my fucking future, he took her, even if through my hands, the moment he carried off that computer. He took away a future, a future where such nights of lounging in bed, of listening to Swann’s Way and talking about Japanese panty vending machines, he took away every moment that could have meant something more than a daily dredge in a lecture hall, or a day alone, a night alone, a night when you have to be Nobody by yourself.  And in the end, Maybelle got her computer back. But the man who stole the computer from me, I never called him out on it. I always made him believe I thought the other man to be guilty, that way I could say such things as ‘what kind of piece of shit would do that?’ in front of the person who did it, to call them a piece of shit to their face in my own very slippery way of getting some petty revenge. We remain friends to this day. Well, I wouldn’t say friend but I’m not, as the Germans say, mad with desire to stick a knife in him.
12
There is an old joke in my family, by my adoptive siblings, that I was born with a boy’s balls but with a woman’s sensibility. What they mean is that, as a young boy, I cried when I saw things die. Or when I watched a film and, say, someone is hit by a car. They sat with popcorn on their laps and, each time someone hit a windshield, god damn, they’d hoot and holler like drug addled owls let loose in very small space. The notion is that I care too much, or that I let things bother me that I shouldn’t, and the lesson here is that they’re not exactly progressive in the way that they view gender and toughness, despite my adoptive mom having had more balls than the three male children she had, not including the two she would adopt, including me and my eldest younger brother (it’s not complicated at all).  She was a woman for whom I had absolute respect. I would not say she was as tough as nails; nails, to her, would be as soft as jell-o pudding. She could take a shower in diamond and it would not be dry. It would require a Dorothy tipped drill to cut through diamond. And yet, they said I was a woman, since I wrote poetry and thought Egypt and dinosaurs were each the coolest subjects on Earth and I wanted to be a performing clown, like Pagliacci. They suggested perhaps I was a homosexual, and from then on I kept such literary notions to myself, and though I talked to my father, we never talked about how I should be more of a man. My real father, I never knew, and this isn’t hackneyed fiction, it’s hackneyed truth, but I knew my adoptive father, but only for the 8 years in which I lived with him after being adopted. He died when I was fourteen, before I had to shave, before I would disappoint a woman for the first time sexually.  He never told me how to be a good person. But when he died, I took my graduation present and spent all of the money on books on ethics and philosophy. They took me in, and I wanted to repay that generosity. I studied the ethics of men who had no problem with slavery and execution, with philosophers of the highest virtue whose teachings would be perverted within years of the deaths. I saw the great religions of the world and thought, as a typical atheist does, look at all the war and horror caused by this. Of course, at that time, I did not consider that, among the living, there is great comfort, and for the dead, well, as they say, the war is over. I was always a pacifist, more yet, I was a coward. I thought that being without fear meant not being afraid of death. No, it is being afraid of trying your hardest and then admitting that you’ve failed. It’s getting the opportunity through your own choices, and then losing, not because of fate or misfortune, but through choice. And the debates of human nature are myriad, but I think of people much more like the blank slate mate from Pinon’s absurdist novel. They take in what they believe to be guiding principles, think themselves of worth and purpose, and then are somehow shocked when the universe doesn’t seem like it was made to cater to their whims, almost as if it’s silence, if the long shadow of silence is the silence of god.  The silence of absence, of Xena, of giggling in the dark, of the settling of a mire, that, in its miasmatic form, at least, is not locked; transience is not simply the passing of the good, it is the impermanence of the bad. Xena, whom I kept up with, watching as her life became happier and happier, and, I wanted to be virtuous. I wanted her to be happy. Even if she was happy because of someone else. I was Nobody, a little joke we used to make based on a flop of a book I wrote (it was fiction, but the failure of it in this work of fiction is true); I created a character who, being an addict, imagines himself to be a slave and, like the blank man, tells everyone he meets he is a different person until, finally, he does not know which mask is his actual face. So he takes the name Neti Atman, or not self, and Nobody, as a sort of linguist joke between very nerdy friends, became how I would refer to myself in saying certain things that, ironically, sound horrible. I would say: “This is why Nobody loves you” or “Nobody will ever love you”, but with the key to the cypher, it is not saying Nobody, it is a less awkward way for an awkward, very confused man to say I love you, without losing the hint of irreverence that makes the pain of being rejected when in earnest more bearable.
13
After Xena got engaged, she went to an exotic land, not only because I don’t want to narrow this down so far that the real person can become known because of my tales, but it had also been a place we had talked about visting. And while there she went to 2-21 B Baker St, the Sherlock Holmes museum. My favorite literary ubermensch. She visited Shakespeare’s home (allegedly) and I saw her there, with someone that was not me, and I was okay with that. I thought, the tragedy of my having been in her life has been mitigated, as her virtuous actions have followed, as an ox follows a cart. But, deep down, it’s hard to be happy when a friend succeeds. To see an enemy fail, that is an easy thing to bear. But the success of a friend? Never. But, I digress. Xena always said that a digression becomes a conversation when there’s no end to it, to which I responded by talking about the differences between expressionist and impressionist art for two hours to make a point about the difference between passive and impassive passion. And yes, she spoke to me again.  This is coming now not quite to the end of our tale, but it is within sight. To come up to the present day, it won’t take long. She contacted me, perhaps, because she remembered that when we talked, when I made her laugh those very specific laughs, the ones which earned only a haha were not to be repeated, but those that let out a smattering of laughter followed by the vocal, high pitched end-of-laugh sigh, the voice of a Warrior Princess, a woman of virtue, of nobility, the woman in whose presence I would insert the clip of Wayne’s World with Mike Meyes and Garth doing they’re we’re not worthy schtick, but from what we’ve covered, it’s probably abundantly obvious that this is so. I had studied what was right but had never taken the trouble to doing it. Etc, was the start of it, but I will not digress; I will go forward.  She contacted me a few months ago, saying that her relationship with, let’s call him “Dicknose”, wasn’t working out. She couldn’t talk to him, and he was stupid. And, well aware of my other faults, and they. are. LEGION. She said she had always thought that we had intelligent conversations, not necessarily that I was smart, but us, when put together, were the sum of our parts, not merely two people inhabiting differently fleshy vehicles, but one person divided between them, and I think she believed in this, this notion that, if I was not the one, as a zero, I had come the closest to being the one without going over while Dicknose had been a boor. She told me that her engagement with this man was over, and after that day, we began talking every day again. Within a few days, we talked on the phone. And I talked to her every day, and apologized each time I had a chance.  I would like to think there is a happy ending, that there is now, again, a glimpse of light; in that, that the virtue of one person might make redeemable a person who would be, without them, irredeemable, without any quality to anyone. Someone Nobody would love. We started working on that book of ours again, and working on our story. It’s a rough draft, but I think it has potential. She told me that, when she got in arguments with her fiancée, while he so remained, he would sometimes say, This is why Nobody will ever love you, and when he mentioned Nobody, she thought of me. It’s not quite Cindarella, sure, but I’ll take it.

Goodbye, Heloise (or the Death of Reason), 1st draft

Goodbye, Heloise (or, the Death of Reason) 2017
Edmund_Blair_Leighton_-_Abaelard_Und_Seine_Schülerin_Heloisa
 
The Renaissance has come and gone
And those savants whose minds, who’ve shown
fountains of wisdom and repose
And yet synthetic breeds disease,
The victory sickness, joy fatigue;
Stimulation numbness,
Too fragile for a breeze.
There once was an age of Reason
‘Till the death of Heloise
 
In her manor house at Laughter Hall
The world watched this sun Goddess fall,
And applause like filth clung to them all;
Unreasonable, it had not seemed,
When the dark age came
and reason heaved
its final sigh, only to die,
burned high in Effigy.
The age of reason spanned the years
That walked the Earth this goddess, here,
Whose setting roused the drowsy
And now she’s vilified
When Heloise fell, our reason died.
 
Hark! The herald cried, His Majesty, by God
Above the weak, above the meek,
The divine baboon trod.
Atop the poor above the rest;
In the latest fashion dressed.
While those looked on could only moan,
The cannon fired as down the crown
Came upon the Long Night’s brow
Making light the dark, and dark the light,
Savants are stumped, the King is right;
Submit yourself, prostrate, Akbar, akbar,
Praise the Neon Razamar.
 
Razamir, the clown deceives,
He offers gold, and repays greed,
With sicknesses of want, with need
The prophet motive bends their needs
The need for more it whips the back
Of Razamir and his bizarre
Bazar of idols and of cars
Mass produced, by workers scarred
To pay for the great crown’s caviar.
But in the tales, the Clown’s a djinn
Who split the Earth at Crete and Sindh
Razamir, who brought down Rome
By offering Augustus home,
As Heir to self-styled Caesar,
Hairy man with want of hair
Sacked Egypt and the culture died,
As Carthage had, as wealthy men
In royal robes with fancy pens
Wrote the law for common men
 
The phoenix died and long stayed low
Until the great Mahound arose
And the sword, blessed by Miraj
And Alakazam
The sword of light lit darkened lands
And numerals, The Taj Majal
The astrolabe,
The world revolves.
America, humans evolved
Heloise had come again.
 
A hundred years, too much to call,
The atom bomb and power-saw
Mass media and marathons,
Kennedy’s brains and Vietnam
The cowboy and the Desert Raj
The saxophonist and the sound,
Made when paper hits the ground,
And Heloise, whose brief rebirth
Had peaked between the promise
And declined with the curse
of the monkey sprang from Razamir’s purse.
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