Sword of Damon Cleese

26 04 2012

[fiction]

Damocles was, naturally, quite enthralled with the prospect of standing in as archon of the day.  Five servants attended him in attiring himself for the evening feast.  It would have been six servants, but the sixth servant was Damocles, himself, and the ruler with whom he had traded places appointed himself to the role of waiting on tables.  It seemed that a direct and literal trade of roles was out of the question.  The real archon still had a job to do after this charade was over, and he still had a reputation to go with it.

Then, it was time.  Two heralds preceded him into the hall, and a train of attendants followed.  The doors opened, and everyone stood, as though for the bride at a wedding.  He appeared before them in his lavender robes, with real gold thread woven into elaborate patterns of what probably was supposed to be olive branches.  Stately, he walked up to the dais and took his place at the table.  Just before sitting, he had a second thought and readjusted the positioning of the salt boat.  Then, he sat, and the rest of the assembly followed.  He patted the arms of his chair with great satisfaction.  Gingerly, he leaned back into the seat, as though the back might give way at any second.  There, in the front row, instead of serving appetizers, was the real archon, Dionysus the Second, sitting on a bench and smiling at him with great satisfaction.  Had the roles been actual, Damocles would have ordered him beaten for his insubordination.  Apparently, the archon had no intention of keeping up more than half of the bargain.  At least he was dressed down for the occasion.  Dionysus locked eyes with him in a hard, unfaltering stare, until Damocles had to look away.

To Damocles’ right sat the wife of the archon, sitting as far from him as room would allow, folds forming in her neck as she held her head back like an adder ready to strike.  To his left sat the archon’s daughter, leaning away from him to talk in low tones with a friend, while surreptitiously hiding her face from him with a hand or a linen head scarf.  Opportunities for lively conversation were lacking.  Near the other end was a friendly cousin of Dionysus, with whom Damocles had chatted often.  He called out the man’s name, and the man sat there, ignoring him, staring down at the table top.

Damocles drummed his fingers on the table with irritation, until a nervous adolescent servant girl arrived with his dinner upon a silver plate.  He tried to graciously accept her service by thanking her, but she gave him a worried look in return, and her eyes, ever so briefly, glanced up toward the ceiling and then down again.  He watched her retreat, and he noticed, again, that the archon was giving him the cold hard stare.  There seemed to be meaning in his look.  Damocles had learned to read what people were trying to say by their looks, especially when there was something unusual about it.  He struggled to understand the stare of Dionysus, until he realized that it wasn’t a stare to give meaning, but it was a stare to hide meaning.  The man was fixing his gaze in order to avoid looking at something else.  He recalled the server glancing up, quickly, and he realized that she was either trying to tell him something, or else there was something up there that she was trying very hard not to look at.

Up above him, Damocles caught a glimmer of something metallic catching the light of the fire that burned in braziers about the room.  Then the object turned and became dark.  Then it turned and caught the light again.  A moment of horror fell upon him, and he dashed his wine and food to the ground in his scramble to get out from under the thing.  At a safe distance, he looked up and saw that a very large sword, possibly the precursor of what would later be known as a falchion, a sword that could double as an axe, seemed to hover high over his seat, suspended point-down by nothing but the air, itself.

“What the…?!  How…?  For the love of life, somebody take that thing down!” shouted the horrified Damocles.  He looked over at the archon, and saw a smile beginning to curl upward the corners of his mouth.  “How did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Damocles,” said Dionysus, “I assure you, it’s very securely held in place by a single horse hair.”

Almost whimpering, the distraught Damocles asked, “Were you trying to kill me?”  It’s an important question, because if the archon wishes to kill someone, he usually gets what he wants.

“Perhaps,” Dionysus replied, coldly.  “It’s just that when you came in here flattering me like the sycophant that everyone knows you are, I felt the need to teach you a lesson.  You think the life of a wealthy man is secure and full of every happiness, but it’s not.  The more I have, the more I have to protect.  The more power I exert, the more people want to kill me.  I couldn’t let you experience all of my wealth and pleasure without giving you a sense of the danger, could I?  You wanted to know what it’s like to be me.  Even though we traded roles, no one would ever try to kill you, because you still aren’t really the archon around here.  If an assassin walked through that door right now, he would still be out to kill me, not you.  So, I added a little spice to your experience.  You want to be an archon?  Okay then!  An archon you shall be!”  Then, he called to a servant, “Take it down.  I want Damocles to have it, so he’ll remember.”

Damocles got his sword and continued to be a servant in the house of his ruler, and Dionysus went back to being a ruler, ever mindful of the constant threat that comes with having what other people covet.  By the way, does anyone know which of the two lived longer?  Perhaps Dionysus was wrong and outlived the other by several years, due to an unfortunate plague.  Perhaps he was right and died a few years earlier.  Both have been dead for thousands of years, now, so the difference in their respective times in the grave amounts to about one percent or less.  They’ve both been dead for maybe two and a third millennia, and one wonders that they ever discussed how one might be likely to die one or two decades earlier.  The difference is negligible.  Even the entire kingdom is entirely dead.  Even their lineage is lost.  The corpse of Damocles has been no safer than the corpse of Dionysus for more than a couple thousand years, already.

It’s really not just a problem for the rich, though.  Our king, God, has set us up in much a similar situation, wherein he watches us pursue and enjoy riches for a time, with the threat of our mortality ever hanging over our heads.  We all have a certain consciousness of it.  For some, it’s a jeopardy that causes us to cast all to the floor in disdain.  Who cares about such things with death barely suspended over us?  For others, it is merely the aging process, a commonplace thing that everyone experiences.  If cancer were universal, then they would be calling that a commonplace process, also.  Perhaps it is time to illustrate the extraordinary life of death, the unnatural nature.

Therefore, we shall extend this tale.  Besides, I concocted the tale years ago when I was just a kid, and it’s still bouncing around in my head.  I might as well let it out, so here it is.

Half a world away, thousands of years later, a similar sword, or perhaps the same sword, appeared once again, floating in the middle of the air.  It was first discovered by a couple of farm boys on a breezy, sunny day.  The way it caught the sunlight acted as a beacon, drawing them near.  This time, there was no horse hair to suspend it.  It hovered about four feet from the ground, over a field, near a stand of oak trees, pointing menacingly toward a nearby town, which will remain unnamed.  The two boys studied it circumspectly, doubtlessly feeling a little intimidated by it.  At first, they tried throwing rocks at it, which is, for some strange reason, always the first thing boys seem to do with most foreign objects.  They probably threw rocks at the first cat they saw, the first bird, the first rusty can and the first girl (a sister, of course).  The sword was unyielding, and they tired of the game quickly.  Next, they tried touching it, then pushing it and hanging on it.  With all of their efforts, it would not budge in the slightest.

The sword was first discovered at about noon by two kids who should have been in school.  Four hours later, the first adults heard of it.  Twenty-four hours after that the first adult  believed enough to have a look at it, when the number of kids who had seen and told of it reached critical mass, which is to say that once every kid in town said that they had seen it an adult finally took them seriously.  Two weeks later, someone from the local news agency heard of it enough times on a slow news day to go out and have a look.  By the evening news, the story had gone viral, and the whole world knew about it.  By dawn of the next day the sword was gone without a trace.

Two days after the sword’s disappearance, the world forgot about it.  Two months later the locals stopped talking about it.  It wasn’t gone long before someone found it again, on the other side of the town, twenty miles away, pointing toward the next town on the highway.  The poor woman who discovered it was lucky enough to have survived by swerving hard at the last second when its golden hilt glinted in her headlights in the predawn hours.  The sword was back on the world stage.  Experts arrived from all over the world to give opinion on it.  Someone brought a tractor to see if it could be moved by any force, which it couldn’t.  The thing just hovered there, indestructible and absolutely immovable.  On its blade was some foreign script, which, when transliterated, said, “mene, mene.”  A quick internet search (insidiously cited by the press as an expert analysis, though it was none other than that infamous site known as Wikipedia) showed that it derived from an ancient phrase, “mene, mene, tekel upharsin,” meaning, roughly, “your days are numbered, and your empire will be divided and given to the Persians.”  By itself, “mene, mene,” only meant, “your days are numbered.”  Of course, no one knew what it meant.  Some doomsday addicts made a great deal out of it.  Screenwriters were already brainstorming it into a full-feature film.

So there it hovered, two miles from the nearest town, pointing directly at that town. The local hotels flooded with curious visitors, and the local residents cleared out as quickly as they could.  Clearly, the town was cursed.  No one knew what the sword was about, but many feared it.  One man, in particular, watching the news from his rented room in the town, did know what the sword was about, and he feared it more than anyone.  After two restless nights and a third that left him swimming in his own sweat, he packed his bags and hit the road yet again.  That night, the sword disappeared from sight and was not found for a few days.

A door to a bar opened, and an eighty-year-old man staggered into the room looking like he could just as easily ask for cyanide as ask for a beer.  He plopped his disheveled self onto a stool and regarded the patron next to him.  “I don’t know why, but it seems like the only place to meet people and talk about things is a bar,” he said.

“That’s not true,” said the other patron, a dumpy middle-aged man who had only just begun his binge for the evening.  “There’s always the confessional booth at a Catholic church.  Then, you have internet chat rooms, brothels, orgies and… I forget what else.”

“Now, I don’t feel so bad,” said the old man.  “Maybe I’ll try a confessional booth, next.  Actually, that might not be a bad idea.”

“Now, don’t go running off too soon,” said his new friend.  “I have ears, too.  Besides, I haven’t heard any good gossip in weeks.”

So the old man told him his story.  Damon Cleese, as he turned out to be, had put a great deal of effort in his younger years toward uncovering a certain cache of stolen treasure.  His friend, Danny Nice, had figured that trains of stage coaches in the area had been robbed all within a ten-mile radius of a craggy region, back during the rough days of the wild west.  The band of robbers responsible had been caught in a trap, possibly because of their predictable pattern, and all of them went to the grave, taking the secret of their stash with them.  Their stolen goods were never recovered,  but a simple analysis of terrain and distance suggested that they probably did have a hideout in the area, from which a person could ride for half a day or less, rob a wagon train and get back by dusk, without overburdening the horses.  Hence, the stolen goods must be stashed somewhere in a narrowed area, and because they were never recovered, those stolen goods must still be there.

With two months of searching, Damon and Danny finally found the cache of goods in a cave, just sitting there waiting for the return of their robber barons.  Most of it was in gold coins and moldy notes.  There were a few rusty guns and other items of interest, but the thing that caught Danny’s attention the most was a shiny, heavy sword with a gold hilt encrusted with jewels.  They counted out the coins and divided the spoil evenly, but a small boulder, not much bigger than a large sow, fell from the ceiling of the cave and landed on Danny’s arm, crushing it badly.  Damon rushed to his aid, rolling the boulder off and wrapping the poor arm in a sling and a poultice.  Danny immediately went into shock, shaking and pallid.  His friend covered him in a blanket and did his best to make him feel better.

By the next day, Danny was feeling well enough to attempt a ride back to the nearest town on horseback.  They took as much of the loot as the horses could reasonably hold, and they headed off down the trail.  A mile down the trail, Danny began complaining of his aches and pains, and eventually he became too weak to remain on a horse.  He noted that his urine was strangely brown, and later he found he had no more urine of any kind.

“Damon,” Danny told his companion, “I don’t know why, but I think I’m losing more than just my arm.  I can’t pee anymore, Damon.  I’m a sick man.  You need to go for help.”

Instead, Damon insisted that they stay where they were for a while, to allow for him to convalesce.  Truth be told, he was afraid of leading rescuers too near the rest of the stash and having to explain how the injury occurred.  By the time they returned, there might not be anything to return to.  The days whiled by, and Danny got worse.  Finally, Damon agreed to go for help, but Danny insisted that it was already too late.  He was about to die.

“Forget about dividing the stash,” Danny said, “You can have the whole thing.  Just promise me you’ll bury me with the sword.  Just give me the sword and you can have everything else.”  Then, he died.

At first, Damon tried to carry the body back, but in the heat of the day it began to smell bad.  He couldn’t just leave it for the vultures, so he opted to bury Danny where he was.  After digging the hole, he was about to place the sword over the body, when he began to think about it pragmatically.  In truth, the dead body could never care what happened to the sword, and it was, after all, quite beautiful and would probably fetch a couple thousand dollars, should he choose to sell it.  Why bury a perfectly good relic like that?  It would be a shame!  So, he kept the sword and buried the body.

“Seems reasonable to me,” said the dumpy man at the bar.  “I would’ve done the same.”

“Anyone would have,” said Damon, “but it would have been a terrible mistake.”

As Damon was turning to repack his things, he heard the voice of his old companion speak to him from the grave.  “I said you could have everything, didn’t I?”

Damon turned around and saw the sword hovering there, pointing right at him.

“Take the whole thing, I said.  Just bury me with the sword, I said.  Was it really too much to ask?  I couldn’t have just this one thing?  Are you so bent on wealth that you would rob a dead friend?!” the voice scolded in rage.

With that, Damon jumped on his horse and rode away as fast as he could.

“Ah, I see.  You’re saying this all has to do with that freaky hovering sword that’s been on the news lately,” the other patron said with a slight slur to his words.

“Yes, that’s the one.  That’s Danny’s sword,” said Damon.

“So why don’t you go back and bury it?” suggested the patron.

Damon eyed the man skeptically.  “I don’t know, but I think it would kill me.  Would you try to take a weapon from a ghost?”

“Have you tried an exorcist?” the patron offered.

Just then, someone stormed into the room, shouting, “The sword!  I just found it, about a mile up the road, pointing this way!”  The bar cleared in seconds, everyone being in a hurry to go find the sword or to get far away from it as fast as possible.

Damon gripped the edge of the bar tightly and whispered, “It’s getting closer.  It’s almost here.”  He looked to the side and found his companion still sitting there.  They and one unconscious fellow in the back of the room were the only ones left.

“Interesting,” remarked the other, “So this thing has been following you all these years.  How long has it been?”

“Fifty-five years,” Damon answered without even having to calculate it.

“Fifty-five years?!  The blasted thing sure is taking its time, isn’t it?  How old are you, anyway?” asked the other patron.

“Eighty years, last June,” replied Damon.

The other patron roared with laughter.  Damon was obviously upset by his reaction. “Sir,” said the other, “You’re not going to die by the sword!  You’re going to die of old age!”

Damon got to his feet and replied in anger, “You might think this is funny, but once it’s done carving me up, it might come for you, even if I have to haunt it myself!”  Then he stormed out.

That night was the worst of his life.  The mysterious hovering sword had, apparently, been covering miles and miles of uninhabited and rugged terrain, slowly approaching him unnoticed for all of these years.  Finally, it happened upon civilization, and nothing anyone did to the sword could stop it, and nothing Damon did to get away from it could increase that distance.  After leaving the bar, he journeyed for five hours to a roadside motel, where he attempted what he figured would be his last chance at sleep before the sword arrived.  Somewhere out there, a mile away or less, the sword was still coming.  He could only guess how much time he had left.

Damon miscalculated.  The sword, like death, does not come by a human schedule.  We can see it coming and estimate the end to some degree, but sometimes it arrives much earlier than anticipated, and it makes no apology for its impolite punctuality.  The door to the room crashed open, split down the middle, with the blade shining in the moonlight that streamed through the window opposite the door.  Damon screamed in abject terror.  Even then, it just hovered in place, stationary, like it never intended to advance further.  The movement was slow, like the movement of shadows cast by the sun.  If Damon moved to the other side of the room, though, it repositioned itself quickly to maintain its aim at his heart.  Needless to say, it was a long night, and he could not get past the sword and reach the door.  Every time he moved, it cut him off.

By dawn of the next day, the sword was less than an inch from his flesh, and he found himself seriously imploring to God for his salvation.

The reader, at this point, will be happy to note that the poor man did not, in fact, die from the sword.  Rather, he died of a stroke, a complication of his old age, just before the sword could hurt him, and the sword had nothing to do with it.  What a relief!  All of this time, Damon feared what would happen when the sword reached him, but instead of dying, as he thought, he died before it could happen.

[/fiction]

Ah, but a mysterious hovering sword is so much more fearsome, is it not?  If we all had hovering swords threatening to take our heads off at every turn, we might consider it a fact of life, and, instead, be more terrified by death of old age.  On a serious note, though, the fact is simply that whatever ultimately kills us, that thing and its destiny are on a determined and unstoppable collision course for our lives.  Whatever it is, it definitely exists, and it will definitely get here in due time, and it will definitely kill us.  Cheery, isn’t it?  The real sickness, then, is not that we fear death, but that some of us are so consumed by our present riches that we do not notice the steady progression of doom.  Thousands of years from now, no one will care what riches we owned, no one will know who we were, and nothing will matter about the fact of our former existence.  All that will matter is whether this human soul, the thing that some people are dumb enough to insist does not exist, is in a place far better or far worse than it is now.

Salvation from death is not an issue.  There is no salvation from death.  It’s the death after the death that we might resist.  This life is just a temporary endeavor, more like a game.  We pass through it briefly, to serve a temporary purpose, and then we enter the afterlife, where the story really begins.  Thanks for playing this game with me, and I hope you find what you came here for, even if it isn’t what you think you came here for.

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Alive in the Land of Statues

21 08 2011

[A parable]

Sybil glanced up nervously at the dark silhouette above her, eclipsing the sun, a great beam supporting the many thick plexiglass panes that separated her from the great and deadly vacancy above her.  The glare of the sun was like a bare bulb hanging from the celestial ceiling, a bright point that cast a harsh light on everything.  Without any atmosphere beyond that transparent barrier, the sky was still pitch black, even in broad unobstructed daylight.  Beneath that ceiling, a vast garden grew.  Sickly carrots lived their puny lives in a line along a long planter box.  One planter box over, a mulch of dead leaves marked an attempt at kale.  The next row contained a relatively successful box of legumes, sprouting from their minimal supply of dirt.  It was a bumper crop this year.  It would be enough to supply a single person with enough food to live, provided she survived long enough to eat it.

Around the perimeter of the solarium, and staggered throughout the farm, were various statues of mythic gods and demigods, carved from native stone,  here an image of Perseus, holding aloft the head of the hated Medusa, there a carving of Neptune, sitting on his throne with his trident in hand.  Sybil’s deceased fellow colonists had carved the images of a former world.  Over the course of a mere two years, she had forgotten her comrades and abandoned her sanity.  The statues were her only companions, now, and her madness forbade her to accept the stark truth of her isolation.  There was no one left in her world, now.  There never would be.  Jupiter was her father, and Mars was her lover.  Venus was the pretty girl in the room, whom she hated with a venomous jealousy.

The plan had been simple enough.  A dome had been erected on the surface of Mars (the planet), and enough room was afforded to grow enough plants to eat, and the plants, due to the natural carbon cycle, always provided enough oxygen to account for their own consumption and catabolism.  The dome was two layers thick, with a sensor in between to detect the leakage of life-giving air, so that a repair could be attempted before a complete breach occurred.  Twelve people were given the order to live upon this lifeless planet, all while exploring its surface for any sign of life.  The plan had been ingenious.  Every pot had a system for collecting excess water, preventing it from dripping to the ground and being absorbed by the planet.  Any new water needed could be scavenged from the painfully scarce crystals of ice that sometimes accumulated about a foot below the surface.  The dome provided a natural greenhouse effect, giving warmth and reflecting excess ultra violet radiation.  Human waste was to be harvested and used as fertilizer.  Cultures of useful bacteria were grown to maintain a seed stock for environmental stability.   Everything had been accounted for, almost.  The walls were perfect.  The roof was perfect.  The floor was nonexistent.  The great law of Murphy came down upon their heads like a sledge-hammer, as the necessary gasses of the dome slowly diffused through the dirt, into the planet upon which they lived.  There was nothing wrong with martian dirt, in itself, but the engineers had been so focused upon remediating the bad air, that they forgot about the bad dirt and the fact that air does, slowly, move through it.  It was a great dome.  It was a splendidly flawless dome, but it was helpless to contain the life force within it.  When its communications equipment failed, the remaining life was, indeed, in a hopeless bind.

Sybil stood from her labors and accosted the statue of Venus that stood gloating over her, surrounded by vines of squash.  Baring her breasts shamelessly, she smirked at Sybil, seeming to know that the live woman would never live up to her eternal beauty.  “What are you looking at?!” the woman of flesh screamed, “For crying out loud, at least get some clothes on!”  The statue, naturally, was unmoved by this outburst.  Sybil approached her slowly, like a cat stalking its rival, aiming for a fight.  She looked closer at this arrogant whore.  Something wasn’t right.  The whore stared back, but something was missing.

Many years previous, the Mariner 2, following up on its embarrassingly unsuccessful predecessor, made an orbit around the second planet from the sun.  The surface of this planet was extremely hot, despite having cool cloud tops.  The scientists back on Earth were sorely disappointed at this fact.  There could be no life on Venus.  Ah, but that was just one planet.  If Earth could have life, then there had  to be other living planets out there, somewhere.  Even so, they inspected every inch of the planet, just to be sure, mapping the entire planet with a later satellite.  No, the planet was still quite lifeless.

Startled by her opponent’s inertia, Sybil scrutinized the statue from head to foot, and back again.  “By Jove,” she whispered, “the wench got herself turned to stone!”  She glanced over at Perseus, holding the Medusa’s head vaguely in this general direction, with a little imagination.  She reached out a finger and tapped the stone object just to be sure.  No, it was quite lifeless.  Finding this greatly distressing, she ran to tell her father, whom she found surveying the aquifer at the other end of the solarium.  “Father!  Father, come quick!  Something’s happened to….”  She stopped mid-sentence, when she realized that her father was not responding.  He stood there with a lightning bolt in hand, as though attempting to catch one of the dead fish that rotted below the surface of the water.  She clawed slowly at her face in sudden realization.  She circled him, slowly, touching his cold hard surface.

Years before, several probes and satellites made their interception if the planet, Jupiter, taking various photos and measurements.  Clearly, there was no life on this planet.  The core was exceedingly hot, and the atmospheric pressure was too intense.  Ah, but Europa was thought to have life, or, at least, the potential for life.  Alas, none of them has any life, though some still maintain the possibility that life may have inhabited, or could eventually inhabit, one of them.

Sybil turned from her cold lifeless father, and faced the nearby statue of Europa, seated precariously on a rampaging bull.  This particular statue portrayed vividly quite a bit of life and movement.  She wasn’t as quick to disregard the possibility that this statue had some life in it.  Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t alive anymore, but it might have been alive once.  One could never be sure.  At least, there was always the possibility that it might come to life at some future date, and Europa would ride the back of the wild bull once again.  Given enough time, anything seemed possible.  It was certainly a very lifelike statue, to be sure.

Everywhere she looked, every possible life form turned out to be nothing but a cold lifeless lump of rock, just like her predecessors, who found nothing but lifeless rock, balls of gas and chunks of ice wherever they turned.  Neither she, nor they, wanted to admit that they were alone in the universe.  There had to be someone out there, somewhere.

Even her dear lover, Mars, turned out to be nothing human.  She cried herself to sleep at his feet.  He stood over her, with a shield in one hand and a spear in the other, as though to protect her.  In the morning, she awoke to find him equally lifeless, but was he non-living, or was her lover dead?  At his feet, she found a strand of her own hair.  “Mars, my sweetheart!” she exclaimed,” You have shed a hair!”  She was ecstatic.  Mars clearly had been alive, once.

Years before, explorers in Antarctica discovered a brown rock (yes, a brown rock).  Somehow, they found a bubble within that rock that they were certain must have been a fossil of a single-celled organism.  Not only that, but they were certain that this rock had been knocked from the very turf of Mars and sent through many long, vast, miles of space to land safely on Earth, only to be stumbled upon by the rare individual who seemed to have enough education to realize that this was no ordinary Earth rock.  That’s one rock, over vast distances, to one tiny planet, somewhere in the vast expanse of an uninhabited continent, discovered by one solitary expert.  That’s one massive coincidence, that and the fact that a single-celled organism managed to leave a microscopic little fossil, despite all odds, and, greater still, that someone managed to find that fossil.  That would have been one lucky rock.

Sybil was, of course, overjoyed to learn that she was not crazy.  All of these statues might have been living at one time.  Somehow, they had been turned to stone.  At least, this one statue was alive at one time.  Perhaps, it could be made alive again?  Perhaps, she could marry it and have children by it?

Five years earlier, the Genesis IV module safely landed upon the martian surface.  Twelve brave scientists set out to prove, once and for all, that life on Mars was possible, and that life on Mars had once existed.  Their mission was a perilous one, fraught with hardship, but through human ingenuity, and a great supply of the necessary elements of life, they managed their first year on another planet.  Half of their time was invested in their own survival, and half of their time was invested in exploring their immediate area for any possible sign of prior life.  However, their fate, ultimately, was a slow attrition.  They were like too many fish in a small fish bowl, and the water was slowly evaporating.  They continued to die until there were few enough people to be sustained by their artificial environment.  Then, when that environment diminished a little more, they died a little more, until there was only one person left, not counting her statues.

Brave Sybil consoled herself, initially, with the pretense that the statues might have had life.  Then, when reality glared back at her, she consoled herself with the possibility that the statues might have had life once, before being turned to stone.  Then, she tried, vainly to have children by one.  Finally, she surrendered to the futility of it and consoled herself that there might be some previously overlooked person somewhere in the compound who had not yet been turned to stone.  She even hoped against hope, that one of these inert things might eventually spring to life on its own.  Lastly, but not by any means least, she convinced herself that she had been a stone statue, once, before spontaneously coming to life.  She was surrounded by human figures, and she was a human figure.  They had no life, and they didn’t even have former life (death), but she did.  In her insane mind, she reasoned that she must have been one of them, once, before happenstance turned her into a living human.

Back on the equally insane planet Earth, people looked out over the vast universe, finding only one non-living planet after another.  They weren’t even dead.  The Earth was quite alone as a living planet.  Against all reason, the people of Earth suggested that some of them might have been alive, once.  No bit of evidence was too meager to stretch.  They even made a futile attempt to bring life to one of these wastelands, as was her own failed colony.  They would have had more luck trying to impregnate a statue.  Having found that too difficult and too expensive, they consoled themselves with the possibility that there might be some other undiscovered rock out there with life on it.  The prevailing thought on Earth was that their planet was just another rock like all of these others, and that it had been a lifeless lump of dirt, once, as were these.  Somehow, by strange chance, this dirt clod sprang to life and became the happy little planet that it now is.  Never mind that the other planets were no more living than statues, and Earth, being one of them, had as little chance of coming to life as a statue might have of turning into a human.  Literally, the comparison is astonishingly quite valid.  The difference between a living planet and a non-living planet is like the difference between a human and a statue.

Of course, Sybil was shocked out of her wits when, while crying at Mars’ feet, Venus turned around and yelled at her, “Oh, will you shut up, already?”  Of course she was shocked.  Statues don’t turn into humans.  They don’t turn into humans after five years, five million years or five quadrillion years.  By that time, they’ve turned to dust, and people stop thinking of how much they resemble a living thing.

Life on Earth is impossible.  Despite the fact that it exists, its coming into existence was impossible by mere physical means.  That’s why we call it a miracle.





The Supralapsarian Dilemma

9 02 2011

“When the Boston Lighthouse was first built in 1716, the Massachusetts Bay Colony forbid the use of a lightning  rod for fear that such an instrument would be viewed by the powers of heaven as intent to interfere with divine strokes.  After the lighthouse was struck and damaged by lightning some 12 times in ten years, twice setting it on fire, a lightning rod was installed.  The justification was that a lighthouse, reaching skyward higher than any other structure, was too much of a temptation for the powers above.  Thereafter, the Boston Lighthouse suffered no serious injury due to lightning.” (Elinor De Wire, Guardians Of The Lights; Stories Of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers, 1995, p.108)

In their humble belief in the sovereignty of God, the authorities decided that every lightning strike was predestined by God and therefore should not be hindered by mortal man.  In their arrogant disbelief in the sovereignty of God, they determined that they were, as well as all of humanity, above and outside of that same power, even thinking that they were capable of hindering an act of God.  Why affix a lightning rod, when it might contradict the intentions of God?  They might as well have asked why they constructed a lighthouse at all, if human innovation against the forces of nature are a rebellion against God.  They neither considered that the lightning rod, as well as the lighthouse, were part of the same course of history, and that every last part of it, from beginning to end, was within his power.  Even the lighthouse keeper was a product of that destiny, moved to guide ships safely out to sea.

[fiction]

And somewhere out there the great cruise liner, the RMS Olympic, passed just close enough to glimpse the intermittent light from the lighthouse.  This massive ship, among the most advanced in its time, slowly chugged along the coast on its pleasure tour of the New England coast.  One might say that it was well-stocked with libations.  Perhaps it was too well-stocked, for a poor hapless passenger found himself in the unlikely position of examining the outer hull of the ship during a very rapid descent into the ocean, and, to make matters worse, the only ones to notice this event were a small collection of philosophers standing at the rail, pondering the significance of his fate.

They were five men of a society of thinkers who came to believe themselves to be merely fictional characters, whose destiny was predetermined by an all-powerful author of some sort.  They were the Authorians.  They were the only members of their society.  It is for this reason that the victim was especially unfortunate.  Had they been merely philosophers, we might fear that these thinkers would spend far too much time thinking about the problem, not doing enough about it until it was too late.  Being fatalists, they assured the demise of the intoxicated swimmer.

This group of five had been discussing the fine merits of their philosophy to one of their newest members, John Basques, who was, by virtue of his need to avert his attention elsewhere, the primary witness of the fall of the man.  The other heads did not turn until the splash was heard, and Basques’ eyes widened perceptibly.  Basques was a wiry little man badly in need of a wife, but his insufficiency in stature was generally unappealing to many women, and the remaining women were already taken or otherwise indisposed to marry him.  This had the effect of lending him far more time for the company of other men, and for a man like Basques, such men were usually either divorced or actively, though unwittingly, in pursuit of divorce.  Such clueless men have many opinions to offer, but little practical handiness around the house, what little time they spend there.  Doubtless, they thought themselves splendid husbands, though they could not understand why their wives were so upset at being left at home alone all evening, every evening, after being left home alone all day while these men were at work.  Needless to say, going on a cruise without their wives didn’t help much, either, but that would be beside the point.  The real point is that a man who had been aboard the ship was now in the water and swiftly trailing behind the ship.

“I say, that’s a bit of a trouble!” exclaimed Basques.  He started forward, when a hand grabbed him firmly by the arm.

“Never mind that,” said another of the group, a mustached man named Calvin Del.  “The hand of the author is at work, here.  You do not think that he would have fallen into the sea were it not his destiny.”

“His destiny?!” exclaimed Basques, “The author did not make him fall into the sea!  Don’t you take me for a fool.”

“John,” said Del to Basques, “It is not necessary to intervene.  Had it been the author’s will, then that man would have been saved anyway, or, better yet, not have fallen at all.”

Basques looked back and forth incredulously between the faces of the other four, noting their silent assent.  Destiny seemed a sturdy and decent thing when circumstances were fair, but calamity shook it to its core, and the proscription to interfere with that calamity made it utterly repugnant.  “You men are mad!” scolded Basques, “We’ll discuss this later, but I will not stand by and let a fellow person die under my passive watch.”  With that, he made haste for the ship’s bridge, running as fast as he could, yelling “Man overboard!  Man overboard!”  A security officer stopped him before he got there, promising to relay the information to the captain.  Painfully long moments passed by, until the guard emerged from the bridge and relayed a message from the captain.

“Captain says we can’t turn this behemoth around and retrace our line of travel.  Would take too long, and we’d likely as not miss our man.  By the time we got turned about, we’d not be in the same place any more.  We’d be going back the same direction, but we might pass by miles.  We’ll be dropping anchor and hailing the Coast Guard.  They can retrace our steps better than we can.  If they don’t find the poor soul by tomorrow, then we’ll continue on our way,” explained the guard.

“Poor soul!” exclaimed Basques, “I wish more could be done.”

The gentle rumble from the boilers ground to a low murmur, hardly impacting the momentum of the ship noticeably.  On deck, shuffleboard games continued, and objectless mafficking continued unabated.  No one noticed the lowering of the anchor.  The captain of the ship, an admirably concerned fellow with a trim white beard and ponytail, emerged from the helm, passing directly by Basques without acknowledgment, followed at the heels by two deck hands.  They made their way down to the deck, where they headed straight to the stern and out of sight.  Two other men stepped outside and gazed back in the direction from which the ship had come, and then they quickly disappeared back inside again.  Soft music that had been playing over the house speakers truncated, and someone announced the situation to the passengers.  All were instructed to return to their cabins promptly, where the floor managers would take role and attempt to discover the identity of the victim.  Even members of the crew were required to check-in.

By the time Basques reached his cabin, his roommate, Del, was already there, waiting.  The other members of the group waited by their open doorways, smoking cigars nervously.  Del eased the door to within an inch of closing, and said to Basques in a low voice, “Now, John, I know you’re only trying to be helpful, but surely you must understand that the will of the author predestines the fate of the whole world, and not just the handful of us who believe.  I know it’s hard to accept, but these things don’t escape the author’s design.”

Basques, still uncomprehending of the man’s utter insensitivity, stammered for a moment and then replied, “But Cal, my man, surely you did not expect me to do nothing?  I could not stand by and let a good and innocent man be left to die out there.  What kind of creed is it that commands us to do nothing?”

“It is not for us to decide who is good and who is evil, ” replied Del.

“Then I claim ignorance,” replied Basques.  “You seem to think the man condemned because he happened to fall into the drink.  You seem to have decided that the man is evil.  I, for one, don’t know.  I only know that he is one in need of saving.”

“Then let the author save him,” countered Del.

“Author or no author, I am duty-bound to serve my fellow man,” replied Basques.  “Now, I don’t know any more whether I like this ideal of ours that all things are under the design of a higher power.  Even so, I like to think that I am under no obligation to sit idly by and let disaster befall my neighbor.  Am I required to do absolutely nothing?  Why do I even bother to feed myself?  If I strike you in the nose, then was it by decree of the author?  Answer me now, because I’m tempted to find out.”

Del took an unconscious step backward.  “Now, John, we are the protagonists.  Not everyone is like us.  We did not fall overboard, because we are the primary characters in the plot.  We are the good guys.”

“Good!  Ha!  Fat lot of good you are!  You think you’re a good guy, because you stood around with your hands in your pockets and did nothing!  You think that the author smiles favorably upon you because nothing particularly bad has happened to you yet.  The cruise is still young, dear Cal.  Misfortune visits everyone, sooner or later.  When it comes knocking at your door, I hope, for your sake, that your neighbor does not ascribe to your beliefs.”  Basques was about to say more, but the floor manager appeared in the doorway and took their count.  Then they were free to leave, which they did, promptly.  The other members of the society were waiting for them outside.  One of them gave Del a questioning glance, and was returned with an evasive look.

“Let’s hit the galley for a bite to eat, shall we?” suggested the leader of the group.  The rest mumbled their assent.

Lunch was an awkward affair.  The members largely attempted polite conversation over the usual heady philosophical debate.  No one wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room, who was Basques.  The leader of the group, a man named Martin Shirr, was about to say something, finally, when a uniformed officer invited himself to sit with them.  The sailor identified himself as Jacques, the first mate of the ship.  “Well,” he began, “The count has been finished.  A couple dozen passengers had to be tracked when they failed to show for roll call.  We finally narrowed down the list to a single individual, a man named Adam Boxer.  His wife, Dora, hasn’t been able to find him since the alert, and she’s worried about him.  He was a tall, skinny fellow in his forties, wearing a solid red polo shirt and white slacks.  Is this the man that you saw?”

“My memory is a little unclear on his attire, but I believe he looked something like that,” replied Basques.

“Well, then, gentlemen, I thank you for your help.  Hopefully we can find this man and be on with our journey shortly,” said the first mate, beginning to rise.

“Is there hope?” asked Basques, eagerly.

The sailor ran his fingers across his close-cropped head and replied, “Well, that remains to be seen.  The captain has, himself, left the ship on a dinghy to search for the man.”

“Left the ship!” exclaimed one of their party.

“Yes, well, he is a man of principle.  He would rather leave the entire ship at my command than leave a single lost soul adrift in the ocean.  I believe he will be out there for quite a while, unless he finds the victim,” explained the sailor, with a subtle pride.

Del looked at Shirr and mumbled, “Our fate is tied with that of an antagonist?”

“What?” begged the sailor, “By Jove, what are you talking about?  Who are you calling an antagonist?”

Shirr chose his words carefully, “Well, you see, sir, we are a philosophical group that believes our world is fated at the hand of an author, of sorts, one who exists in a higher sense than ourselves.  You might call him a god.  We call him an author, because we believe that our destiny, even our own choices, are at his mercy.”

The sailor rubbed his chin and replied, “Ah, I see.  So you have taken it upon yourselves as the heroes in this plot to help save a drowning man.”

There followed a moment of awkward silence.

“Ah, well, you see, sir,” struggled Shirr, “We believe that all things are under control, whether they be fortune or misfortune.  We do not normally presume to alter the fate as determined by one who knows better.”

The sailor had to think about it for a moment, before he replied, “So this is not a normal response for you?  Normally, you would have abandoned the man in need?”

“You might call him an antagonist, sir,” explained Shirr.

“And you are the protagonist?” exclaimed the sailor with delight.  “Why, however could you know that you are not the antagonist, while victim may actually be the protagonist?”

“Well,” explained Shirr, talking mostly to the table top, “We must examine ourselves carefully to determine if we might be among the chosen ones.”

“Take no care at all!” exclaimed the sailor.  “I wouldn’t choose you!  What kind of hero would not help a neighbor in need?  Bosh, man!  If I were like you, I would not need to steer the ship.  Let the author steer it, himself.  Surely there must be enough elect on a ship this size to warrant a safe journey, regardless.  This I’ve got to tell the captain!  Why, we’ve been going about this all wrong!  Why, we’ve been wasting hours at the helm, when we could be down here nipping at the bottle, chumming it up with old friends.  Let your author steer the ship.”  He let out a shameless laugh.  “No, I’ll tell you what.  Your destiny is in my hands, I’ll tell you.  You can move around on this ship all you like.  You are free to do as you choose, here, but I control the over-all destiny of your whole world…at least, until the captain gets back.  That’s destiny for you.  It’s all the destiny I know.  I don’t need a higher power to determine when I burp.  He can tell me when to die, but I’ll do as I choose until then.”  With that, he stood and left the room.

The group of five were inconsolable.  They were a meek bunch, not used to impolite words.  Shortly, they seemed to think that the author was calling them to pursue other ends, so they stood and wandered off by themselves.  Each was certain that he was the only one whose faith was shaken.  They were nearly apostate by sundown, as they anxiously awaited the return of the captain in his dinghy.

All eyes were astern in the darkening dusk.  Hope was nearly gone by the time that boat came abreast of the ship.  On deck were two sailors, the captain and a soaked man in a red shirt and soggy white slacks.  Greeting the victim was a flustered wife, accusing him of his drunkenness.  The victim replied that his wife was to blame for opening the bottle and tempting him to fall off of the wagon.  One would think that at the uncorking of that bottle all of the world’s evils were unleashed upon the world.  A man could hardly be blamed for drinking too much, and, having drunk too much, could hardly be blamed for sitting on a rail and falling overboard.  Even the witnesses claimed absolution from attempting rescue.  It would seem no one was to blame for their own actions.  All were victims of fate.

Basques turned to Del, on his left, and said, “Cal, I must leave the group.”

“Why?” replied the disheartened Del, “Your man survived.  He was not condemned by the author.”

“Yes, but he could have been.  Some are not so lucky, ” replied Basques, “I cannot accept an author like that.”  He began to walk away.

“I believe you are a protagonist,” said Del, to his back, “even if you do not believe it.  I am more certain of you than I am of myself.”

Basques paused, then replied over his shoulder, “Thank you, Cal.”

When Basques began to walk away again, Del called to him, “Oh, do reconsider, won’t you?  Surely you did foresee such a possibility as this?”

“Yes, I did, Cal,” said Basques, “but I was not ready for this.”

“Will you think it over.”

“I will, Cal.  I will.”  And then John Basques returned to his room.

I suppose I should mention that, although they were shockingly wrong in the application of their philosophy, they were also astoundingly correct, at least in principle.  For they were quite right.  They are, indeed, characters whose destiny is in the hands of an author.  They have found it easy to accept salvation by my word, but they would not have easily accepted failure by that word.  Basques would have been no less a protagonist had he failed.  His comrades correctly assumed that the man overboard was caused by the destiny of my choice, which is why they thought not to override it.  However, they incorrectly assumed that they were powerful enough to override that destiny at all.  They were not.  They generally did not see that their intervention was as much a part of their destiny as was the fall of the man the victim’s own destiny.  They did not see that being a protagonist had much less to do with things going right for them, than that they would respond rightly to the things that happened to them.

I suppose I could be blamed for having a man fall overboard, but I could also be credited for giving the man any life at all.  Anyway, this is my story, and I have every right to tell it as I see fit.

[/fiction]





Lawless One; a permanent nightmare

18 10 2010

[fiction]

Our star, Larry Lawson, had a rousing morning slapping his girlfriend to her senses.  She was still moaning over that fetus he pushed her to abort.  Zooming down the parkway, he considered that he might stop by the bar after work and see if he could pick up a new hottie, maybe a Latino chic.  That would suit him nicely.  Who knows, he might get lucky, today.  A light turned red, and he breezed through it unscathed, only to be stopped dead by a stale red with heavy cross-traffic a hundred yards later.  A black kid with an iPod stuck in his ears strutted in front of him, earning a honk and a few nasty words.  Larry thought to teach him a lesson for prolonging his red light with a crosswalk signal.  The kid would probably think of this day whenever he considered white people, in general.  He probably hated white men, already.  Larry had the vague recollection of having honked at this kid before.  Across the intersection stood a billboard photo of some guy in a white cowboy hat holding a telephone, with the words, “In trouble with the law?  Call Jesse!”  He chuckled to himself and made a mental note of the number.  The traffic going straight got a green, but Larry couldn’t waste time for the red left arrow, so he pulled an illegal U-turn and slid into the underground parking lot of his glass-walled high-rise office building.  He did a quick glance into the rearview mirror for cops and mumbled, “Sorry Jesse, maybe next time.”

Out of the car, he hopped into the elevator and waited for it to take him to the top floor, where a coffeepot and a corner desk had his name on them.  Some sappy song played over the speaker while he waited; it may have been called Shooting Stars.

“Like shooting stars we shine and then fade,
Breaking the promises we made, what about the promises?
What about the promises we made?  What about our plans for forever?”

Without thinking about it, he hummed along and counted the floors on the display above the door.  He couldn’t get out fast enough.  He put on his best attitude, taking the long way to the coffee maker, past the desk of that hot new intern.  He tried not to huff when she wasn’t there.  At his desk, he barely had the computer fired up when the guy in the cubicle next to him rolled around the cubicle partition and asked him, “Yo, Larry, you forgot to get a chain of custody receipt for yesterday’s Picasso delivery.”

Larry gave an over-the-shoulder smirk at him and said, “I didn’t forget.”

“Then where is it?” the pest insisted.

“I’ll get it to you.  I’ll get it to you.  Just wait a minute.  I just got here,” Larry snapped,  “Don’t rush me.” As soon as the neighbor wheeled back out of sight, he brought up a blank form on the computer and hit the “print” button.  Strolling as casually as possible to the printer, he snatched the document and slipped into a nearby vacant cubicle.  A few forged signatures and falsified dates written in, and he was on his way back to his desk via the aisle next to the file cabinets.  He learned long ago not to make the falsifications at his desk.  The new guy was too sharp; he’d see Larry strolling back from the printer with a fresh document and pause in his own cubicle for a moment, only to appear with the requested document, which was only too obvious.  Justifying the action was easy.  The delivery had been made, and that’s what really mattered.  This was just a lot of red tape, and besides it was a mistake, after all.  Granted, everyone would like to do things right the first time, but that’s no reason to take heat for a stupid piece of paper, or so Larry figured.  So long as the customer never complained of non-delivery, the document was never scrutinized.

All this was so much fuss over dry paint.  Larry figured Picasso to have created almost nineteen hundred paintings in his lifetime.  Of those, he had personally sold over twenty-five hundred, courtesy of a man on Thirteenth Street, named Joe Guiles.  Old Joe was one of those artists who sold art by the pound.  Larry loved his abstract works.  The need to follow reality set rules that made realistic artwork difficult to forge.  Bad art was bad, whether it looked like the original or not.  Abstract art was the sort of thing that could never be bad art, because it never actually had to look like something real.  It was essentially lawless.  The consumer eye couldn’t tell a Guiles from a Picasso, but it could certainly tell it from a Rembrandt.  No Picasso fan could look at one of his works and identify it as a forgery by its poor quality.  That’s because it was all bad.  Without having the real thing to hold up next to it, no one could notice the difference.  With the advance of the Giclee printer, a downloaded work could be printed on canvass to look like a genuine double of the original.  Granted, there were certain risks.  He had to be careful not to sell any of the showcased works, or anything too famous.  The best bet was always something that Picasso never attempted, yet should have.  These were the “lesser-known works.”  That’s where Joe’s talent really shined.

Well, it wasn’t too hard to rationalize, really.  A painting was as good as the owner’s enjoyment of it.  It didn’t really matter who made it or how it was made, so long as it had the certain visual appeal that the consumer was looking for.  I mean, it’s either worth hanging on a wall, or it isn’t.  In the end, it’s just an image.  If the consumer wanted that image, then that’s what the consumer got.  In return, Larry only asked for mass-produced artwork of dead presidents on rag paper.  That should be fair enough.

The phone on his desk rang.  It was Joe.  He answered it, “Larry Lawson, superstar.”

Joe replied that one of his works was ready, and then he disconnected.

Larry stood, passed the bad document over the shoulder of his coworker and disappeared around a corner.  He had been in the office less than twenty minutes, and already he was headed for the elevator and freedom.  Stopping by the receptionist’s desk, he asked the lady to tell his boss that he was on his way to do a pick-up.  She replied that the boss was not coming in today.  This had “good day” written all over it.  He counted the steps to the elevator, waited for the doors to shut, and then he did his best rendition of a football goal line victory dance.  That stop at the bar would be coming earlier than he had planned.  The elevator car dropped a level and opened to a pretty little clerk that he had gotten to know a month earlier.  As soon as she saw him, she made an awkward nod of the head, mumbled, “Sorry, mistake,” and hurried away.  He made a mental note to study that case.  Clearly, something went wrong with that one.  Maybe he had pursued her a little to aggressively.

The doors closed and the elevator car continued on its way.  “Shooting Stars,” played softly over the speaker.  “Come on, people, we just played that one,” he muttered.  Two lines later, he realized that the words were different.  This one wasn’t about shooting stars, like the kind one might watch on a hot August night.  This one was about shooting stars, as in celebrities and with a gun.  He shifted uncomfortably.  “Odd, that one,” he said to the wall.  His cell phone rang.  It was the jerk from the cubicle next to his.

“Larry,” whined the jerk, “This receipt is a complete forgery!  What the heck are you doing, trying to pawn this junk off on me?”

“Just file it,” Larry answered, “you know no one’s going to look at it, anyway.”

“Larry, I looked at it!  Now we’re both involved.  This isn’t just your butt that’s going to get fried.  I never asked for this.  It’s illegal, you know!” the twiggy coworker cried.

“Laws were made to be broken,” Larry returned, “Get a grip.  You’re not going to get arrested for possession of a fake receipt.”  He snapped his phone shut and continued waiting.  This was taking too long.  He looked at the display above the door, and it showed that he was ascending, instead of descending.  “Drat!” he shouted.  Actually, that wasn’t quite the word he used.  The numbers kept going up.  Then, he was back to his own level, which was on the highest floor.  Then he was on the floor above it.  The numbers rearranged themselves into a little face, just a line for a mouth and two dots for eyes.  “What the…?!”

“So, you don’t like laws, do you?” the little face said, and he heard it through the speakers in place of the music.  The face screwed itself up into various Chinese characters.  Then the display went blank and the doors opened, revealing the roof and all of the workings one might find on top of a high-rise office building.

“This is nuts,” he said with a shiver, “Elevators don’t go clear to the roof.  This can’t be happening.”  But the unnaturally dark and smoky sky drew him outside and toward the parapet.  Looking down, he saw that the whole city was on fire, making him think for a split second that it had caused his elevator to rise to the top, but that would still be impossible.  The elevator still doesn’t reach the roof, even if it malfunctions.  A huge billow of smoke rose in the distance, forming what vaguely looked like an angry face, which turned and dissipated a second later.  A moment after that, the roiling smoke formed another face, which rotated and obliterated.  It was only the sort of thing one sees in clouds, when one looks up and makes believe that the thing is shaped like something familiar, even when it clearly looks dissimilar.  Yet, face after face arose and disappeared.  “What is going on, here?” he wondered aloud.

“At the moment, you’re hallucinating, but that could all change in a few minutes,” said a voice behind him.

He turned toward the speaker and saw a man in a leather jacket, leather pants and leather boots.  In fact, it would appear that every thing he wore required the shedding of blood.  “What’s going on?  What’s happening,” Larry asked.

“This day has been waiting for you for thousands of years, and you have only just now stepped into it,” replied the stranger, “But I wanted to give you a moment longer before you met your destiny.  The world burns like incense to appease the nostrils of a holy God, but one can burn swine meat forever without ever producing a pleasing aroma.  Really,  I don’t think we need more of that.  I like to think that there’s a chance to reconcile you with the law you hate.”

Larry tried to give him a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” that looked more like a terrified, “Man, I sure hope this is just a joke.”  He looked back at the rising smoke, which seemed to look back at him.  “So what are you saying?”

“You need Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for your breaking of the law,” the man in leather said.

“Yeah, whatever.  Jesus overthrew the law,” Larry replied.

“No, you overthrew the law.  Jesus fulfilled it.  He loved the law enough to die, rather than break it.  He loved you enough to die, rather than break you.  Something had to break.  It was you against the law, and….”

“That’s nice,” Larry interrupted, “but I’ve got an elevator to catch,” and he headed back to the entrance.

“Are you really in such a hurry to go down there?” asked the stranger.

Larry stepped inside the elevator, turned, and gave the button for the parking garage a resolute push.  There’s something about insanity that makes people compensate by attempting to be extra sane.  They stand a little taller.  They walk stiffly and talk about anything normal, if they can.  They find themselves looking for any symbol of normalcy to which they can cling, even striding with ineffective slowness from an onrush of doom.  For Larry, this meant resetting himself to the last moment before things went haywire, which meant standing in an elevator and pushing the button for the parking garage with the determination of one who actually expected it to go there.  When the doors closed and his stomach rose into his throat from the descent of the car, he hoped life was as normal as it now looked, but four seconds later, when he became weightless and floated about the interior, he realized with horror that he was better-off on the roof, with the freak, where at least he was free and not trapped in a box.  The display above the door showed the little face again, and he heard its voice through the speakers.

“You know, Larry, I know you think of yourself as a minor outlaw, but I happen to know that you love laws,” said the voice in a synthetic sort of way.  Larry was too busy floating about the cabin to venture a response, so it continued, “Take the law of gravity, for instance.  You love that law.  You like being able to use those little stilts you call legs to pry yourself away from the ground and move from place to place across the surface of a dirt ball.  You love knowing that every day, God happens to follow that law faithfully.  Or, take the laws of time and space, even.  You like, or better yet, are tremendously excited to know that your elevator will get to where it’s going in a timely manner.  You like to be able to cross a room in a matter of seconds, rather than decades.  In fact, it would kill you to know that you might not even get there in your lifetime.”

“Oh, dear God,” Larry mumbled, not reverently.

“Yes, both dear and God, in fact,” said the voice.  “Aren’t you glad God obeys his laws?  Don’t you wish you had obeyed yours?  Oh, but then there’s the Master Law, and this one you love the best.  It’s the law that makes all other laws possible.  It’s the law of consistency.  It’s so universal and so important that most people don’t even know it exists.  You wake up every morning, go to work, come home and go to bed.”

“I do not love that law,” Larry groaned.

“Oh, but you do,” argued the voice.  “You don’t like not knowing if, perhaps, you might wake up one day and find that you are a chicken, strapped to the back of a flying purple pig, singing We Are The World a hundred times really fast.  For instance, you don’t like floating about, trapped inside an elevator that talks nonsense to you.”

Larry resisted the urge to puke, and said, cautiously, “You’re right.  I definitely do not like this.”

“Ah, but fortunately for you God is very good at following his laws,” the thing said.

“Then why isn’t he?!” Larry roared.

“Ah, but he is!” the elevator cheered, “You may think that you are floating, but it only seems like that because your entire world is falling with you.  Your coworkers are falling with you.  Your elevator car is falling with you…and it still only takes four and a half seconds to hit the ground!  Even the laws of time and space are obeyed.  Did you know, Larry, that the terrified mind of a human fires signals so fast that he perceives that time comes to a standstill?”

“That’s great!  That’s just fantastic, you stupid, little, whatever you are!  What about consistency?  What about your freaking Master Law?!” Larry screamed.

“It’s about to be taken from you,” said the elevator, flatly.  “The Master is about to be taken from you, and there’s really no way to have the Master Law without the Master, now is there?  I mean, that wouldn’t make any sense, now would it?

“You mean, I’m going to be stuck in this nightmare?!” Larry panicked.

The elevator was silent for a moment.  Then it replied, “Yes, but this is all taking too long.  We are nearly out of time.”

All at once, the elevator groaned softly, and Larry was flung at the floor, where he stopped, mid-air, spread-eagle, with his nose an inch from the ground, hovering.  He brought his arms and legs down, and he carefully stood to his feet.  The moment the doors opened, he rushed outside, into the parking garage, and for a moment life seemed to have returned to normal.  A short distance away was a small one-person restroom, used mostly by the security guards and the incontinent.  Into this he rushed, either to vomit or to splash water on his face, whichever he could manage best.  It was one of those cold, ugly places, with a steel mirror and a steel toilet and a push-button washbasin.  He got one splash of water to his face before he began to doubt his own reflection.  It didn’t look right.  He worried that the nightmare might be returning.  It was his face, alright, and it even imitated his movements, but somehow it felt like the image of someone else.  The man in the mirror looked like the sort of jackass a person loves to hate, bearing a sneer best removed with a tightly-clenched fist.  Then, he could contain himself no longer.  He fell to his knees before the toilet and spilled his breakfast, which appeared to be a diet of worms.  In between retches he could still feel them wriggling in his throat, which made him retch all the more.  Gripping the bowl with both hands, he felt himself surrender to the panic.  There was no end to the worms within.  That’s when he noticed his hands.  They were covered in worms, too.  In fact, they were so covered that he could not see his hands.  He swiped at them vigorously, knocking them in large clumps into the toilet, taking off whole fingers and then an arm, into the bowl.  That’s when he realized that the worms were not on his arms.  The worms were his arms.  He pushed himself to his feet and examined his body, a seething mass of worms in the general shape of a man.  His right arm flopped detached over the edge of the bowl, spreading in an array of nematodes, until it no longer resembled an arm.

Larry had one thread of sanity left, and with it he barged out of the restroom, up the ramp and out onto the street.  He was going to wake up or die trying.  The street outside was packed with pedestrians, marching routinely to work.  He pushed through them rudely, not knowing where he was going, or why.  He overheard their conversations with each other, normal and unrelated to him, but his mind picked out one word from one person and one word from another, fitting it nicely together into a sentence that was never spoken by a single individual.

“Hurry…call…on…Christ!…now,” said no one and everyone.

Larry stopped at the street corner and looked each way.  It was an alley, crossing with the main boulevard.  The alley had nothing but two old trash cans, a cat, and a homeless bum, who was striding purposefully toward him.  Everyone else was walking or driving along the boulevard.  In the moment that he recognized the bum as the man from the roof, he looked up at the street sign and saw that he was at the crossing of Hell Avenue and Heaven Alley.  “Oh, very funny!  Oh, yeah, this is all just one big hilarious joke, isn’t it?!” he yelled at the stranger.  The people on the street stopped in their tracks and stared.  Even the cars slowed to watch the madman.  Everyone was waiting to see what he would do next.  He was about to say something more, when he heard the whistle of a train.  It was the Seven-Ten, and for once it was right on time.  He knew what he had to do.  He turned up the boulevard and ran madly for the tracks.  The stranger broke into a dead run after him, trying to stop him.  Up ahead, he saw the tracks.  To his left, he saw the coming of the Los Angeles Westbound.  Larry was determined to meet the LAW head-on.  Someone or something was going to break.  With his legs spread, he stood and faced the oncoming diesel engine.  To his left, the stranger kept coming, with a look of horror on his face and his hand upraised in warning.

“Larry!” yelled the man in leather, “You can’t wake up from this kind of nightmare!”  But Larry turned toward the engine and ignored him.  The stranger slowed to a stop when the futility of his effort became evident.  The words barely squeaked from his throat, “Not again.  Oh, for pity’s sake, not again.”

The impact was so thunderous that everybody thought a bomb had gone off.  The doors and large pieces of the elevator car blew out into the cars parked opposite, rebounding with a clatter, a tremendous racket and a billow of dust.  A dozen car alarms sounded, honking in protest like frightened donkeys.  The entire office building came alive with workers buzzing about, trying desperately to know what was going on.

The event was summed up in a news article the next day, that the elevator in a downtown office building had become detached from its pulley mechanism and fallen all the way from the top floor to its resounding demise far below, killing one person in the process.

A clerk from the top floor minus one considered that she barely missed getting on that elevator seconds before the disaster.  Strangely, she was saved by her disdain of the victim, which, incidentally, made the victim harder to disdain.  Had he not been on that elevator, she felt that the victim would have been her, instead.  Somewhere on the top floor, the victim’s coworker made a callous remark that he probably hit the ground and kept going, straight to Hell.  Both were wrong in their own way.  The reason she did not die was simply because it was not her time to die.  He did not go straight to Hell, exactly.  Somewhere along the way life took an unexpected detour, before continuing on into the permanent nightmare.

But it is not for others to know the full story of a man.  His interaction with God is known only to him and God.  He can’t tell, and God won’t.

[/fiction]

Some say that the genre of Christian horror is a self-contradictory and impossible concept.  In truth, those who see the world falling headlong into a permanent nightmare are audience of the ultimate horror story.





The Endless Hallway

16 08 2010

[fiction]

Solomon Leechman failed to live up to his name that day at the bar, when he’d had too much to drink.  He made a friend and accepted a ride home.  The next thing he knew, he was lying in the dark on a cold stone floor, which probably contributed as much to his headache as the hangover.  Several hours passed in semi-consciousness, where he very much hated lying there, but he very much more hated the idea of standing.  Eventually, the sun finally found its way to him, after illuminating his prison several hours in advance, like a prolonged twilight.

Finally admitting awareness of his environment, he observed two things.  Firstly, he noticed that he was in a hallway without a ceiling, letting in the blare of direct sunlight from high above.  At least, if it was not a hallway, then it was an alley between two walls.  Next, he noticed that he was among two others, one man and one woman.  The other man came to his senses hours later, being, perhaps, more affectedly drugged than Solomon.  The woman awoke not long after that.  Upon inquiry, he found that the man’s name was Charles Bessemer, and the woman’s name was Mary Eddy.  Neither of them knew how they had gotten there.  Mary had only sipped a cup of tea on her front porch before winding up here.  Charles had taken such a cocktail of drugs that any of them could easily have been responsible for his unconsciousness.  In fact, he had taken them for that express purpose.  There was no apparent connection between any of them, other than that they were all lacking anything that might have been in their pockets previously, except for a used tissue and a pack of cigarettes with accompanying lighter.  This was immediately put to use by the man called Charles, who took a long drag and muttered, “Apparently, we’ve been robbed.  Well, at least we’ve still got fire.”

Solomon looked around at the cold stone walls and wondered what good a fire would do them here.  Perhaps if they had something to burn, they might have a comfort at night.  “Well, I suppose we’d better be making our way to the police,” he said, without confidence, as he peered down the seemingly interminable alley.  He looked both ways and then picked one at random, following it steadily for about ten minutes before doubting himself.  The others followed him for lack of any excuse to do otherwise.  He stopped in his tracks and looked back.  The way they had come stretched out indefinitely behind them, but the way before them was unchanged.  They might easily have remained in their original position, by all appearances, except for the fact that they knew that they had moved.  Solomon ran his fingers through his hair and said to himself, “Man, what a long alley.”  They continued for a few minutes more, accelerating a little with every passing minute.  When the end of the alley continued to elude them, they broke into a trot.  The trot became a run, and the run developed into a mad dash.  When Solomon finally could run no further, he stopped dead in his tracks and panted, staring down the hellishly interminable lane.  He looked back and found that he had lost his friends.  The insanity of the imprisonment seemed so much the worse without companionship that he panicked and ran back the way he had come, until he reached Charles and Mary, who had given up the chase before him.

Mary sat against the wall and hugged her knees.  Charles smoked another cigarette and gazed down the alley.  Solomon kept looking up at the sky, with the sun now out of sight, wondering if there might be some way to climb over the wall.

“Listen, man,” said Charles, irritably, “This blasted hall can’t go on forever.  Everything has an end.”  He paused to think about it, glanced up and then reconsidered.  “No way, man, we didn’t just get taken into some parallel universe.  This thing has an end, and we’re going to find it.”

“Are you sure we’re not just dreaming the whole thing?” asked Mary.

“You want me to kick some sense into you?” barked Charles, coldly, “I’m not dreaming, and neither are you.”

They continued on down the way between the walls for the rest of the day, until the light faded into dusk, and then the real fear began to set in.  Charles burned through the rest of his cigarettes for the sole joy of having a flame.  Solomon sat staring at the stars, comforting himself with the one opening to their prison.  Mary sat with her back to the wall and cried herself to sleep.

“You know,” mused Charles, “We’ve been marching down this alley all stinking day.  We must have come several miles, yet.  We’ve encountered neither corner nor door, so we can rule out the possibility that either wall surrounds some other area, which means that this probably isn’t the space between two properties, and those aren’t just walls at the edge of someone’s estate.  We’ve been doing the only thing we know, which is to follow this thing in one direction, in some hope of reaching the end.  I figure this is probably a canal of some kind, which means that the top of the wall is actually at ground level.  Otherwise, I can’t see any reason to build two such long walls.  I mean, sooner or later someone’s going to want to cross from one side to the other.  There’s got to be a bridge, or a tunnel or something, eventually.”

Solomon kept looking at the stars.  Cool air drifted down to him from above, which was about the only comfort to be found in that otherwise comfortless place.  At least he had fresh air.  At least he could see an opening above him, if nothing else.  He stood to his feet and called out to the opening above.  Nothing answered him.

Charles rebuked him, saying, “Save it, man.  No one hears you, alright?  Now, I have an idea.  Just wait here.  Don’t move until I get back.”  Then, he walked off into the darkness.

Solomon sat down next to Mary, attempting to comfort her as best he could, which wasn’t very much.  They passed a long sleepless night together, with no event except the movement of the stars and Solomon’s occasional calling out to them.  If they had been in a pit, then their circumstances might not have seemed as dire, but this interminable hall gave it just a devilish enough intrigue to make the place unbearable.  At least a pit was normal.  This was something out of Hell.

In the morning, Solomon and Mary started walking down the alley again, wondering constantly whether they were moving forward, or whether hey were merely retracing their steps.  He resolved not to make the mistake again.  Charles had not returned.  The passageway had swallowed him up with sheer distance.  Somehow or other, he would reach an end, and so would they, if they just continued on.  When darkness fell that night, Solomon removed his shoe and placed in on the ground, pointing in their direction of travel.  At least, if they needed several day’s journey, they would be traveling in the same direction each day and not undoing the previous day’s work.  They spent the night without conversation.  Whatever her thoughts on the matter, she wasn’t sharing.  By the third day, he knew that they would perish without food and water.  Somewhere in this waterless canal, there must be at least a puddle, or they were sure to die.  Mary was an inconsolable wreck.  He had to urge her every step of the way.  When at last they reached a stand of water in their way, probably a slightly low spot in the dry channel, he fell to his face and sucked at what little was there.  To continue this journey might be death of dehydration, but if they remained where they were, they were also doomed.  Forward was the most hopeful thing in the universe.  They stayed at the puddle for an hour longer, and then they continued.

In the distance, barely seen in the darkening dusk, they perceived the figure of a man walking.  Solomon ran toward him, and when the man heard him, he also began to run.  The other man was the first to stop running.  It wasn’t until the other man fell to his knees and roared with agony at the top of his voice that Solomon realized whom he was running at.  It was Charles, finally returning to them after so much time.  He trotted the remaining distance and called to him, “Charles!  You came back!  What’s wrong, man, did you reach the end?”

Charles wept like a baby and said through his tears, “Shut up, you fool!  I didn’t come back!  I didn’t come back, you ass!”

Solomon ignored the slight and inquired, “What do you mean, you didn’t come back?”

“Don’t you get it?” Charles cried, “I went full circle!  I’ve been walking nonstop since I left you people!  This thing is just one great big circle!  There’s no end!  There’s no way out!”  He gasped for breath, “It took me two days to get around it.  If I went two miles per hour, then it must have been ninety-six miles around.  But, wait!  You were travelling in the other direction!  That means it could be even twice that!  What hole have we fallen into?  This isn’t a channel!  This is like a moat around some gargantuan castle!”

After much hugging and weeping, they decided that their best option was to retreat back to the puddle, where at least they had water.  That night, Charles slept like a log, while Solomon lay awake, staring at the sky, hallucinating frequently of people looking down at them.  Once, he thought for sure that a man poked his head out from above them, and he leapt to his feet and yelled at the face until Charles knocked his legs out from under him and told him to shut up.

The next morning, they sat around the puddle and stared at their respective sources of comfort.  Charles stared at the flame of his lighter.  Solomon stared at the open sky, and Mary stared at the back of her eyelids.  Charles was the first to speak, “Well, at least there’s some comfort in knowing that this isn’t a passageway that goes on forever in both directions.  If it’s a circle, then it might as well be a pit.  We’ve been in a very large pit, wandering its outer edge.  There’s nothing too diabolical about that.”

Solomon found no comfort in the thought.  Knowing the limits of his enclosure only heightened his fear, because that meant that there was no way out.  Charles might have been comforted by the taming of its magic, but Solomon was terrified at the setting of its outer limit.  He would have preferred a magical hall with no end, because at least in magic there was some hope of something totally unexpected happening and providing a way out.  For a while, he even argued that it really was a magic hall, and that it really was straight.  He imagined that the magic had caused Charles to reverse directions, or to come back from the other end without actually travelling in a circle.  In the end, though, Charles’ rationality won out.  Yet, there still stood the matter of getting out.  Charles, forever the thinker, worked on various means of escape, such as climbing on each other’s shoulders, climbing the stones, or using a belt buckle to carve a hole.  In the end, though, they were not tall enough to scale it, the masonry was too smooth to climb, and the belt buckle idea, though theoretically possible, would take more days than they could survive.  Even at that, if they were in a circle with no bridge over them, then they might accidentally find themselves inside of the circle with not one but two walls between them and freedom.

Solomon continued to shout at the stars, and Charles continued to yell at him to stop.  “No one hears you, okay?”

“Someone might eventually hear me,” Solomon argued.

“What’s going to make that happen?  No one has heard you yet, and you have no reason to expect that to change.  The stars can’t hear you.  Walk a few feet down the way and scream, and if that doesn’t work, then walk a few feet more and do it again.  Eventually, I’ll be rid of you, and maybe I’ll be able to spend my last days in peace!”

The irony of the situation was that while Charles had brought the hall down from the mysterious to the understandable, he had brought the outer world from the understandable to something rather mysterious.  There was no explanation as to how a trench, or hall, could follow such a huge circle without impacting the lives of other people.  There was no reason it should even exist, and there was no reason why anyone should make it.  Nevertheless, there really was no sign of interference from without, and there was almost no reason to believe that the pit was made by humans, except that it did not likely make itself.  Solomon, however, who had originally clung to the idea of a mysterious hallway, was the last to give up on hope for outside help.  Someone had obviously made the pit, or hall, which meant that human civilization was not only near, but the passage was actually a part of that civilization, somehow.  The walls were built by people, therefore there was a chance of meeting more people.

Solomon and Charles argued about the matter until Mary burst out with her first words in more than two days, “Shut up!  Just shut up!  Keep your beliefs to yourselves.  You want to climb the wall and save yourself, then do it.  You want someone to climb down from the wall and save you, then let them.  Just stop talking about it!”  Then she closed her eyes, plugged her ears and imagined herself in a happier place.

So Solomon continued down the hall, shouting every so often for help from above, to people that he could not see.  It was the only chance for hope.  He wasn’t content to make the best of his short life in the pit.  He wasn’t content with imagining it all away.  If someone outside didn’t hear his cries, then there was no hope, but if he did not cry out, then there never could be hope.  Several times, he hallucinated that people were looking down on him.  With time, he began to imagine even wilder things than people looking down on him.  Then, startlingly, a voice called down to him, saying, “Hello, now how did you get down there?”  He looked up at the smiling ruddy round face at a man, and for a moment, the real thing seemed stranger than the hallucinations ever were.  He stared transfixed at the stranger before he could mumble something only halfway intelligible in return.  When he finally came to grips with the reality of the situation, he wanted to run back and get the others, but then the stranger might go away, and Solomon might not find the spot again.  When the face did disappear, he sat down, afraid to leave the spot, which was rewarded nearly an hour later by the lowering of a very tall ladder.

“Sorry it took so long,” said the jolly man, “but the shed is some distance from here and I had a dandy of a time finding a ladder.”

Solomon scaled the ladder quickly, afraid that the dream might fade.  At the top, he discovered that the passage was a deep trench.  Some distance away was a small building, and the surrounding terrain was quite flat.

“You’re lucky I came by when I did.  They’re closing down the place, and I was the last to leave.  They dug this monstrosity to be an atom smasher, only the funding got cut before it was finished.  They gutted the workings and sold it as scrap, but there’s no money in filling holes, so they left it.  I can’t imagine what you were doing in there,” said the rescuer.

“An atom smasher?” Solomon wondered.  Suddenly, it was all making a little more sense.  The pit contained a massive circle of piping for shooting subatomic particles in a circle, faster and faster, in an attempt at breaking them apart and discovering the origins of the universe.  People had quit trying to reach beyond the universe to the one who made it, preferring instead to live and die within it.  The flat earth with mysterious limits had become a circular prison devoid of mystery, and the ones who shattered the mystery devoted themselves to abolishing any mystery that they could not shatter.  It did not continue in all directions, but it went in a circle.  There was no point in calling for help from the outside, because no one had heard, and no one would ever hear.

While some people, like Charles, tried to defeat the mystery understood by Solomon, others, like Mary, tried to defeat the prison created by people like Charles, preferring instead to take refuge in the ever subjective philosophy of their own imaginations.  If Solomon was pre-modern, Charles was modern and Mary was postmodern.  Charles, at least, had a great deal of understanding the nature of the confinement.  Solomon understood the nature of his salvation.  Mary feared all understanding, and therefore she had none.  In the end, only the wisdom of Solomon could save them.

Perhaps, then, Solomon outlived his first mistake by living up to his name in the end.

[/fiction]





Signet of a Suzerain

10 07 2010

[fiction]

In the drawing-room stood two men, both bald with the same effect of a fully receded hairline.  One was relatively tall, and the other was more than just relatively short.  The tall man was moustached, with spots of aging on his bare head.  The short man was clean-shaven, with a scalp as fresh as a baby’s buttocks, as though he had spent his entire life out of the damaging rays of the sun.  The tall man seemed fairly bored, and the younger man was obviously excited, not to mention guileless, rubbing his hands together and speaking enthusiastically with a mildly piercing tenor voice.

The taller man was a philatelist, a collector of stamps, who had the fate of ending up in possession of a rare gold coin for which he had no interest.  The shorter man was the numismatist, a collector of coins, who had a personal cache of coins worth about a hundred dollars by their face value, which were, due to their antiquity, worth about a thousand times as much by modern reckoning.  There, before them in a lighted glass case stood a mysterious gold coin, by modern standards roughly made, delicately displayed on a clear acrylic stand.

The numismatist clapped his hands together, said, “I….” and followed his pause with the clicking of heels, as though the thought had passed all the way through his body from hands to feet, merely stopping by the mouth for a brief visit.

“You don’t know what to think of it, do you?” said the philatelist, knowing full well that the coin collector was too proud to admit that he had no idea what he was looking at.  If he had been presented with a stamp that he didn’t recognize, he probably would have retrieved a picture book and attempted to solve the mystery on the spot, but the coin collector was out of his element and could not have found a book on coins at that moment, even if there had existed any book in the world describing this coin, which there hadn’t.

The numismatist paused with a frozen mask of excitement, which broke after a second, when he turned to his friend and asked, “What is it?”

“The coin is one of a kind,” said the philatelist, “No writing exists for it, because there is only one of it, and the only people privileged enough to study it have not been coin collectors.  Novices don’t tend to get their findings published, especially when they aren’t at least hobbyists.”  He pointed to the coin and explained, “This coin has been imprisoned within the private estate of one rich fellow or another for several centuries.  The story of the thing is as much a commodity as the coin, itself.  You must understand that a coin is usually a symbol of wealth.  Real wealth is an abstract thing.  The coin, itself, is nothing.”

“Oh, but I beg to differ!” the other protested.

“And I knew you would,” the philatelist cut him off, “Which is why I thought you would appreciate this thing more than I.  Real property is useful for practical purposes.  The coin is just a liaison between what I give you and what you give me in return.  We might think of it as a potential possession, a temporary substitute for what we really want.”

“But….”

“Yes, I know you beg to differ.  However, before it became a priceless historical treasure, it once was just a smashed lump of metal that symbolized wealth.  This coin, however, was the currency of a special commodity.  It was a symbol of power.  You might call it a diadem, of sorts, or perhaps a signet.  When the Roman Caesars paraded about with fasces held aloft, those bundled axes were the public symbols of power and authority, but in private, this coin was the definitive symbol.  Only the people highest in rank even knew about it, and the thing took an almost mythical significance.  Had the Caesar merely dropped it on the ground and a senator retrieved it immediately, it’s not clear but the senator might have become the new Caesar immediately.  Granted, the right of ownership of the coin was no different from the right of succession, so there’s some dispute as to whether the coin followed the power or the power followed the coin.  In the beginning, there were three of them, one for each member of the Triumvirate.  After the death of Crassus, Julius Caesar had his coin fused with the other.  As you can see, this coin has a double edge, being really two coins joined.  The one belonging to Pompey was lost in battle, we believe, though there are some in the family who have suggested rumor that it eventually ended up in the possession of the tsars of Russia.  As far as I know, this is the only one, or two, depending on how you look at it, left.”

The little man clapped his hands together and mumbled, “Amazing.”  The taller man waited for the chain reaction to pass to the little man’s feet, but when nothing was forthcoming, he nearly resumed his story before being interrupted by a click of the heels.

“Well, I don’t know the full details of this coin’s history, but I understand that it eventually ended up in the hands of one named Frederick Barbarossa, who thought that it lent him the authority to retake the full territory of the old Roman Empire.  His attempted crusade to Jerusalem was merely the excuse for his eastward push.  Naturally, he sacked Constantinople as a matter of due course, because he deemed it a natural part of his domain.  He figured that because he owned the coin, he therefore had a right to the land.  After the old fool managed to drown himself in a lake, an insightful general took from his person this coin, before they threw the corpse in a barrel and pickled it.  I suppose some would consider it a shame to have buried this in a barrel under the Dome Of The Rock, where the king’s body was placed.

“Some time after that, it found its way into a Prussian nobleman’s hands, and from there it ended up in the possession of Kaiser Wilhelm.  Naturally, wherever the coin went, the story followed.  Otherwise, I would not be able to tell you this story, and we’d be dealing with a mysterious coin of unknown origin.  Likely, I would have traded it in for something I could actually spend at the store.”

“You wouldn’t!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“Of course I would,” rebutted the philatelist, “How many perfectly good stamps go to waste for the practical purpose of postage every year?  For the same reason, I’d rather use a coin for its intended purpose than have it lying around collecting dust.”

“It’s a precious relic!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“It’s money!” replied the philatelist with matched enthusiasm.  “What good is it if I can’t spend it?”

“But this isn’t money,” objected the little man, “It’s the mark of a king.  It marks the seal of a royal decree.  This is a piece of history.”

“Even so, it is useless to me,” said the taller man.

“Then sell it to me!” said the coin collector.

“It will cost you several thousand dollars,” warned the stamp collector.

“I have stamps!” offered the little man, pulling out a wad of mishandled used stamps.  “To me, they are just pictures printed on stickers, but I’m sure they must be worth a trade.”

“Unfortunately,” said the philatelist with a touch of contempt, “those particular stamps are just a bunch of pictures on stickers to me, too.  I don’t have much use for recent printings of generic postage.  I would much rather sell it to someone willing to pay with modern cash.”

Eventually, the terms for the transfer of ownership were made between the two, amounting to the cost of a new car.  During that time, outside by the numismatist’s car, his chauffeur and the other man’s butler were having a discussion on the matter.  Naturally, the question came up as to the matter being discussed in the drawing-room.  The chauffeur asked the butler what he knew of the matter, to which the butler replied that the little man was being sold a story.

The driver’s face registered a certain shock, and he pushed his hat back on his head.  “Surely you don’t mean the poor little chap is getting taken, do you?”

“Well,” said the butler “My employer tells me that the coin is nothing but the object of a story, and that it is really the story that is being sold, in this case.  He tells me that it is nothing but a flat piece of metal with a vague design.  If it weren’t for the tale that went with it, your master would not have thought it worth anything.”

“But, he’s an expert on coins!” remarked the chauffeur.

“Hence the need for the tale,” replied the butler.

“This is wretched!” exclaimed the chauffeur.

At this, the butler began to feel that he had possibly jeopardized his own employment.  “Listen, please don’t let on.  If word gets out that I spilled the beans, I’ll lose my job.”

“But this is unjust!” exclaimed the chauffeur.  “My boss is getting ripped off by yours, and you expect me to do nothing about it?”

The butler was beginning to sweat profusely, and he raced through his options, scrambling in his mind for a way to save his career.

Just then, the two wealthy hobbyists left the building, talking about this prize.  The philatelist was just then making a final statement.  “Now, I’m not superstitious, but the legend with this coin is that it tends to pass through the hands of great people, anointing them to positions of power whither it goes.  Though it never made me a king, I might ask that if you should find yourself the head of Europe some day that you would kindly remember the one who helped you get there.”  He paused for effect, and then grinned at his own dry humor.

The numismatist burst into giggles and shook the man’s hand, thanking him for the sale, the noise of which just managed to cover a muttered string of obscenities from the chauffeur.  The butler took note of the chauffeur’s response, though, and he turned as white as a sheet.  The little man hopped into the car with his prized possession and admired it for the first few miles of his return home.  It was then that the chauffer broke the news to him.  He told his employer that the butler had warned him that the story surrounding the coin was just a fabrication concocted to sell this worthless mintage.  In a matter of a few minutes, the poor man went from pure joy to a fit of depression.

“It’s not even real?” the numismatist whined.  “I should have known.  Here, I call myself an expert on coins, and I let myself be taken by a fancy tale!”  He knew that he would not have the assertiveness to cancel the check or fight for his money and his dignity back.  Instead, he chalked it up as a learning experience and rudely tossed the coin upon a bible that lay flat on his dresser at home.  There, it rested untouched for many years, until the man eventually passed away at a ripe old age.

The estate sale was a fancy one, garnering quite a load of money for its furniture and valuable coins.  In that sale the aforementioned coin, the signet of a suzerain, was sold for almost nothing.  No one knew what it was, so no one could possibly know what it was worth.  They might have guessed that it was real gold, but one might have difficulty assaying the gold content of a coin while at an estate sale.  They could have guessed it was valuable by who owned it, but the story would still have been lost.  Indeed, it was the story that sold the coin, but the butler had misread his employer’s disdain for the thing as meaning that it wasn’t really worth anything.  The story had been quite true, and it had miraculously survived for nearly two thousand years, only to die at the hands of a disillusioned numismatist.  He had found his treasure, only to discard it as a trinket.  Consequently, the story behind the coin was lost forever.

[/fiction]


It is the burning desire of the modern human to pursue poetry, but it is the staunch habit of such people to accept only prose.  We all yearn for magic and intrigue, yet we only trust the dullest, most ordinary explanation of things.  We think we are more rational for rejecting the miraculous and accepting readily the common.  However, true rationality is a firmly supported line of reasoning leading to a conclusion.  Yet, we jump to accept the prosaic understanding without sufficient evidence, and we so quickly dismiss a history when it offers us too much charm or mystery.  This is the sickness of modernism.  It is pessimism that parades itself as Reason.

But, for practical purposes, we could say that apart from the story the thing really was just a coin.  In fact it was just a lump of metal, which just happened to be gold, an ore more abundant than tin and far more valuable just because people believed that it was valuable.  Take away the subjective belief, and all we’re left with is a dead thing that isn’t really useful for much.  Its practical value is not much.  Everything lies in what people believe about it.  A human can be reduced to a sack of chemicals.  A home is just a pile of bricks.  A planet is just a lump of dirt, and we’re all just a bunch of lucky monsters that chanced to form, that we might crawl over this clod and devour what we could.  This is the most prosaic way of looking at things, and our culture readily accepts it as the most logical truth, even if it is a baseless lie.  This is modernism: if something sounds magical, then it must not be true.

Therefore any history, no matter how true it may be, is threatened with certain death if it offers even a glimmer of something truly wonderful.





Descent into Royalty

18 04 2010

[fiction]

No cell phone for  a week was punishment enough to send my teenage daughter into fits.  Try no cell phone for a lifetime.  We add to that no internet, no text messaging, no blogging, no computer games.  That’s only a half-truth, though.  In reality, I’m stuck with no computer at all.  For that matter, I’m without electricity.  I don’t even have a land line.  I couldn’t call 911 if I needed to, and if I could, there would be no one there to answer it.  I have no car, but at least I have no gasoline to put into it.  When the sun goes down, I tell someone to burn something, and my home, my cold drafty stone prison, is dimly lit by a conflagration that makes my eyes water.  I spend the evening listening to someone play a song on a “stringed” instrument that I’m sure must be strung with actual cat gut.  The poor beast seems to holler with every tortured pluck.  The alleged minstrel hasn’t discovered homophony yet, either.  I’ve tried to teach him, but he seemed to think me mad for suggesting that he play more than one string at a time, and in retaliation he threatened to drive me mad, as if to prove him right.  I wonder often what might be playing on the old plasma screen, if such things existed, if there were any programming being broadcast anywhere.  I’d even take a little black and white cathode ray tube, if I could.  Forget the television.  I would give my kingdom for an AM radio to make me feel that there was life out there, somewhere.

The sun sets slowly, and the cold eats its way through these stone walls, right into my bones.  Tonight, I shall sleep on a sack of grass, the haunt of fleas and mites.  The servants shall have it heaped with lilac and some other flowers whose names I never learned, as if that helped.  My bed will be warmed by the fetid body of another man, my servant, because the men in these parts do not believe in sleeping next to their wives.  My wife seems to agree with that tradition, and so I am condemned to live like a student in an over-crowded frat house.  I spend my days in an uncomfortable hard chair, listening to the droning of stewards and bailiffs giving account of the day’s revenue.  So many heaps of that crop, so many piles of cordage collected.  And for entertainment, there’s a child with Downs Syndrome dressed in a jester’s outfit, doing his best to be silly.  If an award could be given to any person with the highest happiness-to-investment ratio, that kid would get it with no contest.  He’s got even less going for him than I do, but I don’t remember ever having a day quite as good as the one that he seems to be having at this moment.

I didn’t used to be in these miserable circumstances.  There was a time when a domain was something that followed the letters, “http,” a colon and a couple of slashes.  Now those were the days.  I lost hours in front of the computer, playing games and reading stuff I don’t remember.  Then I lost the rest of the time lying on the couch, snacking and staring like a zombie.  Between the two, there was always the MP3 player.  I had a job that I thought I hated.  I had a daughter that thought she hated me.  I was lower-middle class, but I had the world at my fingertips.  At work, I was the bottom of the totem pole, and I hated it.  Now, I’m a king, and I’m wishing I could be at the bottom again.  My biggest thrill is to drink melted chocolate from a small glass cup.  Did you know that glass is scarce here?  That’s why they have to cover the windows with great tapestries that keep out the sunlight.

Ah, but I’m a rich man.  I haven’t had a bath in weeks, can’t remember the inconvenience of having to wait for the tap water to get warm.  I smell like a compost heap.

My name was Edward Aisin.  I met a dope on the net who thought he had a design for a time machine.  I took one look at his plans and recommended a good psychiatrist.  A year later, I realized he was not far off.  At least, he seemed to have the theory of the matter down, solid.  With some spare parts salvaged from the junk in the garage, I made a flimsy hack job of a time machine.  It was mostly tape and glue, an entry for a fifth-rate modern art show.  The on-button consisted of two bare wires that sparked when they came together.  The device roared to life, and I wriggled through it, barely managing not to break it asunder in the process.

The next thing I knew, I was sucking on tepid milk.  Well, let’s not go into details, but I think I lost a month to mental development shortly after birth.  I must have wasted half a year in coming to my senses before I realized what had happened to me.  Oh, certainly, I went back in time, but my body did not go with me.  I was back to being imprisoned in a crib, in a world without satellite television, a world that barely had satellites.  I thought, then, what a wretched soul I’d become.  The freedom of adulthood was lost.  My car was gone.  My favorite songs had not been recorded yet.  My entire CD collection was gone, along with the very idea of a CD player.  I was a man trapped in a baby’s body.  I had to wait half a decade for the invention of the Atari, just so I could make little squares move across the screen and pretend that they were airplanes and submarines.  Science fiction movies had terrible special effects.  The internet had technically been invented, but no one had access to it.  Life had become boring as snot, and the spare parts and junk that I called a time machine must have stayed in the old time.  I imagined it would sit there and hum happily, until someone discovered it and unplugged it…except that it hadn’t been invented yet, so technically, I could turn it off myself if I wanted to…in a few years, but I’d have to invent it first.

But, who wants to drag through a few decades of dull childhood, endure puberty all over again and slowly return to the starting point, just to turn off a machine that I left running when I left home?  If I had known that it would not come back in time with me, then I never would have used the thing.  I thought I would come back as a middle-aged, overweight man, not return to the womb and live a rerun.  The second time around just wasn’t the same.  For one, there was no way I was going to let my mother boss me around.  I may be a child, but for crying out loud, I’m a grown man.  I was ten years old before I managed to scrape enough parts together to build another time machine.  By then, I devised a way to really go back in time.  The previous design had wedged me into the past, where I didn’t belong except where I already belonged, if that makes any sense.  I could only go back as far as I existed.  The new design was substitutionary.  I would trade places with something else.  I don’t know what I thought that thing would be, perhaps a rock, or a gerbil, or something.  I hadn’t considered that I might be stuck living life as a gerbil (oh, what a thought).  I wonder if I’d still want to raise a family, at that.

On the night that I had planned to restore my dignity, my father grounded me for my insolence.  Of course I was insolent.  He wasn’t going to ban me from watching television, because I was already banned from it, so I had to spend the evening holed away in my bedroom.  But, as soon as they were asleep, I sneaked out to the garage and activated the device.  It hummed and lit the garage with its eerie glow.  I could hear someone’s voice coming from it.  Eagerly, though somewhat wary, I crawled into it and found myself standing before a haughty, effeminate pansy, adorned with jewels and lace.  He was flipping his wrist in my general direction and telling me where to go.  Not knowing any better, I did what he told me to.  “Edward,” he said, “There’s a reason why I run things around here.  The sooner you learn it, the happier we’ll all be, so run along to your room, then.”

Being, by now, used to this treatment, I did what he said.  Down the long stone corridor, the servants lead me to my room, where my wife was waiting.  By the looks of things, she was expecting more than just me.  She looked like she could give birth at any moment.  I stared at her dumbly, wondering who I was and how old I was.  Five minutes ago, I was a child.  Two minutes ago, I thought I was a teenager, by the way I was being treated.  Now, with my pregnant wife before me, I wondered just how old I really was.  She looked…ashamed.

Philippa was her name, as I later discovered.  When I had married in my former life, we waited until we were nearly infertile before having a child.  We deemed it greatly important that our children, who turned out to be only one child, be blessed with all the wealth that we had been raised with.  In retrospect, I suppose we overestimated our own childhood.  As kids, we had nothing.  It makes me wonder why we waited so long.  I think it was simply that we could not bear to part with all of life’s trappings and freedom.  We waited and waited.  The house was never big enough, never had a big enough yard, and so on.

Now, I was practically a child, living in a castle, married with a child on the way.  As it turned out, I was still Edward.  I just happened to be a different Edward.  The fop in the hallway turned out to be a man named Mortimer, who slept with my mother and killed my father.  As it turned out, the hat on my head was a crown, but I needed a full month to come to grips with who I was, because I was treated about as much like a king as were the king’s dogs.

To think of it, I was a king!  What a glorious happenstance!  I went from the bottom to the top in a second.

But the joy was short-lived.  As I discovered, the real King Edward was a weakling.  He had allowed himself to come to this place where his mother’s paramour ruled the country while he sat in a back room and played the good little boy.  The father was dead at the hand of Mortimer, the philanderer, the adulterer.  I decided, then, that I would not be the obedient milksop that they had expected.  The moment my wife gave birth, our lives would be in grave danger, for we would have an heir.

Needless to say, I overcame my circumstances.  We killed Mortimer, and I assumed the throne as a real king.  When the real King Edward traded places with me again, he would find his life much improved.

A year later, I found myself bored out of my mind, wondering if I could be developing a case of sciatica, sitting on the throne and staring out the open window at the fading twilight.

Some people think that if they could go back in time that they would change the world.  Certainly, I knew much that the rest of the world did not know.  I knew that the Black Death was coming.  I knew a few things about hygiene, and I knew where penicillin came from.  But all of my advantage could not procure a single television.  Oh, man, I know so much more than these people.  Compared to them, I’m practically omniscient.  Yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember how to produce gun powder.  I tried to explain to some artisans how to engineer an aircraft, but while they could make the wings, they could not fashion the engine.  I told them how to make the engine, but they could not quite shape the steel, nor refine the oil.  I told them how to refine the oil, but they could not find how to drill for it.  On and on it went, one technology building upon another, yet, at the end of the day we still had nothing.  Anything less than a functional plane was nothing but modern art.  If we could not do that, then the time machine was well beyond our grasp.

To my horror, I realized that I was stuck in this world of the mundane, condemned to remain a king.  After a time, the amusement of riding on horses, impaling helpless porcine creatures with sharp metal objects lost its appeal.  After a time, the court musicians and dancers were nothing but a pathetic appeal against lethargy.  I had to get out, or I would lose my mind.  Therefore I outfitted the army with more soldiers, finer armor and handful of newly built trebuchets.  I don’t think that the old Edward had ever owned a trebuchet in his life.

It was a fine day, sunny and fresh.  We stood arrayed against the Scottish castle, ready to do battle.  They watched us from atop the walls, wary and unprepared.  The first shot from the catapult signaled the beginning of the siege.  Blood coursed through my veins with excitement.  This was the first bit of excitement I’d had in years.  In the next moment, the drawbridge lowered and a parley was had.  They wanted nothing to do with this battle.  But I had just spent good money outfitting my men and purchasing the new siege engines.  I would not have my fun spoiled by a bunch of cowards.  We refused their unconditional surrender and made them fight us.

A few hours later, we rode over the broken bodies of villagers who wanted nothing better than to be left alone, to live their ordinary lives.  We took our loot and returned quietly home.  Near the road, I spotted a column of smoke rising from a small knoll.  Veering off toward it, I discovered that it was a dugout home, a mere hole in the ground with a sod roof.  Looking in under the apex of the roof, I saw a young man, maybe seventeen, sitting on a stool and telling a story to a group of children.  His wife sat in the corner, working on some needlework.  When he noticed me, he leaped to his feet and hurried out to greet me, more in fear for himself than because of my celebrity.  “Your highness,” he stammered, “I am your humble servant.”

I looked at his dwelling distastefully and said, “Man, you’re living in a hole in the ground!”

“It is my home,” he said apologetically.  “It is not much, but I am pleased to have a roof over my head.”

I poked disdainfully at the sod.  “And I thought my life was bad.  What are you having for supper?”

At this, a worried expression fell across his face.  “All we have is a loaf of bread and two fish, but we’ll be happy to share it with you.”

“No, I don’t want your food,” I snapped.  “How can you live like this, man?  What do you do for fun?”

“I beg your pardon?” he asked.  “I tell stories to the children.  Otherwise, I don’t have much time for fun.  I am but a peasant.  Much work is required to live, but I am grateful.”

“Grateful?” I scoffed, “For what?  To whom are you grateful?  Me?”

“I beg your pardon, your highness, but I am grateful to God.  He has blessed me with a home, a family, and enough food for tonight.  I thank God because the rain falls from the sky, and the grass feeds the bagots, and there is milk for us.  I may not be a king, sir, but I am rich… in a way.”  He looked to his feet in fear of punishment, probably for claiming to be wealthy with respect to me.

I sat back on my horse and looked around at the fog rolling over the green grass, growing like a carpet over the downs.  A few feet away were a handful of goats grazing on the lawn.  The dirty faces of little children gazed up at me from under the roof.  The wife was watching her beau with adoring earnestness.  They were but kids with kids of their own, living in poverty, and this was all normal for them.  They were even worse off than I was.  They were far worse off, but they were happy.  At least, they were happy enough to marry and build a home and be a family.  They would not have the luxuries of a mere king.  They would not have the modern luxuries that I knew as a child.  They would never know all of the wonders and technology that I had grown comfortable with as an adult.  Yet, here they were, living in a hole, and they were happy because they had a roof, a scrap of food and each other.

I was a king, and I lost sleep over my lost plasma television.  I was never hungry, but I was never happy.  I was at the top of my world, but the bottom of my own heart.  I had everything, but I was thankful for nothing.  I wondered, almost seriously, if the peasant had come full circle.  I could almost stoop to try to live like that.

Almost, but not quite.  “Let’s go,” I commanded my men, and we continued home.  At least, I suppose it was as close to being a home as anything would ever be.

[/fiction]