This one time, back when I was a little elf, I was chasing grasshoppers out in the fields behind the little subdivision my family lived in. The baseball diamond, the next field over, was dry and little dust devils were running the bases. The grasshoppers were the size of my father’s fingers, or even larger, and the game I was playing was to charge through the grass at top speed, yelling and waving my arms, to see how many of the buzzing dollops of green and yellow-striped brown I could get aloft at the same time. I’d get three or four in the air in front of me then spin around, running backward, to see if there were any still in the air behind me. The record so far, for the day, was eight. I was frustrated because I was sure I could get twice that many if I could run faster, or maybe had a dog to help me herd them into the powder blue sky.
At the other edge of the field was an old man sitting in the grass. He had one arm up as if waving or pointing, and the his other hand was up to his face, like he was shielding his eyes and looking up at the sky. I decided to charge over and send some of the grasshoppers his way, though I was a little worried this would get me into trouble. Enduring a hail of panicked grasshoppers was a bit of an acquired taste as I had come to find out.
As I got closer, I saw that he had a pair of binoculars — and I knew for damn sure I would be in trouble if I made him drop them. My father had a pair that he treated as one of the most valuable things he owned. I skidded to a stop outside of reasonable grasshopper range to think about things and wipe the sweat out of my eyes. The wind sprang up and blew a grasshopper right at my head, so I ducked it.
From where I stood, I could see this wrinkled old man was kneeling on the grass, holding onto some kind of string tied to the sky. He was using the binoculars to look at, presumably, the other end of the string. I followed the string up with me eyes as far as I could, then skipped ahead a bit, straining to make out anything in the painfully bright blue beyond the little floating spots I’ve always been plagued with, but I saw nothing.
He motioned me over and spoke in a language I didn’t understand. One of the words sounded kind of like “kite,” and things suddenly made sense. He handed me his hefty binoculars as if he handed expensive items to five-year-olds he’d just met all the time, but I already had them in my hands before I realized exactly how stunned I was. They were far heavier than I expected, and my hands were sweating, but I didn’t want to just hold them in one hand while I wiped the other on some handy denim, so I just kept a white-knuckled grip, held them to my face, and tried to follow the string up. I looked around as well as I could, taking minutes and half panicked that he would become unhappy and demand them back any moment, but all I found in the sky was a daytime crescent moon and a puff of cloud in a big damn hurry. As far as I ever knew, he had the string tied to one of those.
He kept up a stream of steady incomprehensible chatter that, even if I could have understood it, was mostly lost to the breeze.
My arms were tired from holding up the binoculars to my face, so I handed them back before I got so tired they slipped from my sweaty fingers. At the same time I handed them over, he handed me the string that was yanking at his own withered arms. I’m sure all he wanted to do was wipe the binoculars off on his plaid shirt or maybe loop the black plastic strap around his wattled neck, but the next thing I knew was that I was being dragged backwards across a swath of staining, pungent grass by this string tied to the sky and that I would catch holy hell if I let this man’s precious kite, of which I still had only a garbled inkling for its existence, escape.
I bounced on my ass a couple of times, scattering more grasshoppers and knocking the breath out of me, but I took the opportunity to wind the string around my hand a couple of times and kicked off the ground the next time it yanked me, hoping to spin around and face forward so I could fend off the ground with my dirty sneakers. I started to worry a bit when the ground went a bit farther away from me than I could jump on a good day and was taking its own sweet time about coming back.
But, man, the grasshoppers were flying. As I climbed farther into the sky, I could see at least ten or fifteen aloft, and I wasn’t even chasing them and waving my arms. I wasn’t shouting either because I still hadn’t really gotten my breath back. Also, I had other worries.
At one point I was sailing backward again, because I remember watching the man stand up and turn around, looking for me. I remember the comical look on his face when he saw me sailing off. He stood stock still, propped up on his spindly legs, mouth hanging open, fists clenched in what remained of his white, wispy hair. He was probably shouting something, but I couldn’t hear it. And then he was pounding after me in a sprint, fiercely concentrating.
I only weighed about forty pounds at the time, but still the string was digging painfully into my hand. In my heart, at that moment, I knew he was threatening to flay me alive if I lost him his kite. Now I’m pretty sure I knew better. I also know now that I didn’t have the spindle that must have been bounding along on the ground behind me like a puppy in pursuit. All he would really have had to do to save his kite and, incidentally, myself was to step on it.
After a couple of thirty-yard bounces, I got snarled in the top of the chainlink fence that separated this field from the baseball diamond, my toes digging into the spaces in the weave maybe two or three from the top, but allowing me to drag myself down to the ground. The old man got to me just as I was in reach of soil.
The odd part was that as early as the day before, I was certain that fence had never been there. And the reason why I know is that I had been chasing tennis balls batted by a neighbor kid from that very diamond and had been devoutly wishing that there had been some kind of fence to keep him from knocking the balls so far out of the field. I must have run through the spot where I was snarled in the fencing at least ten times less than twenty-four hours prior.
Regardless, I thrust the string into his hand the second he screeched up, rolling the coil of cord off my purpling fingers. And while he stood there dumbfounded, before he could start shouting again, I bolted for home, dusting off my britches as well as I could without breaking stride.
This one time I was looking at my pipe, a meerschaum that had certainly seen some action, stained black and mahogany brown with a hundred years of nicotine and handling, but beautiful, and in beautiful condition. It was covered in little abstract paisley-like swirls in a continuous spiral starting around a smooth ring around the lip of the bowl, getting larger or smaller to make up for the swell of the bowl or the bend where the stem was attached. The overall effect was somewhere between waves and the scales of a snake or a fish. It was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I owned.
That might sound a bit sad, or it might not. I’m not any kind of collector. All of the artwork hanging in my house are framed photographs of my family, my children and their children. Other than that, I have a few books that have been handed around and an old weight-and-pendulum-driven wall clock that, while a bit on the baroque side, isn’t exactly what I call beautiful. Technically it’s a cuckoo clock, but a couple of decades ago, the cuckoo actually jumped out of it and landed in a bowl of oatmeal that I was letting go cold in my lap because I was watching television. On my oldest granddaughter’s advice, I replaced the wooden cuckoo with a ballerina from her wind-up musical jewelry box that wouldn’t work and traded her the cuckoo.
As such things go, the music box started working again after a big thump — some spat or other that knocked the box off her dresser with a dramatic sweep of an arm. Now the cuckoo dances to Fur Elise and the ballerina goes cuckoo a hundred and fifty-six times a day. And every time it does I have to wonder on behalf of both myself and the ballerina where we would be if things had turned out differently, and whether we were better off for not having followed what we thought our dreams were when we were young.
I’d had this pipe, treasuring it while using it at least twice a week, mostly in the little spare room where I kept my books and my work bench and a little writing desk, because old books were supposed to smell like pipe tobacco and once I’d made that declaration out loud, all resistance to me smoking it in the house vanished completely — I’d had the pipe for forty years, and had the opportunity to study it now and then for an additional ten or fifteen, and I’d never noticed until now that there were little dots and strokes in the loops and scallops that repeated every so often. I mean I’d noticed before, certainly, but this is the first time I thought of those patterns in terms of a substitution cipher.
So I got out some paper and one of my finest-point drafting pens and began to lay down the designs on paper, unspooling them off the bowl of the pipe and stretching them out in a line until I’d racked up a number of rows. Then I did the usual thing, making a chart of all of the designs used and ticking off how many times each appeared. With a yellow highlighter marker, I marked patterns that repeated in the rows.
In fact, I made three or four passes through, since I couldn’t tell whether a handful of symbols were actually different enough to be different symbols or just drift in handwriting, as it were. In any case, I really didn’t have much else to do with my afternoons. Regardless of how similar this was to how I previously made my living, the only time it seemed tedious and annoying was when I really wanted to smoke my pipe, but I had to keep referring back to parts of it without dumping burning cinders in my lap to make sure my initial transcription was accurate enough. But at the end of three days, I had a set of twenty-two to twenty-four possible characters, and transcriptions both backwards and forwards just in case I’d made a bad guess which end of the string was the front end. The message was a couple hundred characters in length, assuming it was actually a message, which means I had a pretty good chance of working it out — assuming I knew the language in which it was written.
It was about then, right before I started in earnest, I started wondering whether I really wanted to know what the message was. This old pipe was a piece of my life and a chunk of family history, having already changed hands three times before it got to me. It would certainly change the flavor of the smoke once it had meaning.
It took me no more than a week to pick the project up again. After all, it was only a pipe. After all the ways my life has wrecked and changed course over my seventy years, I can throw away a pipe and break in a new one. Even this one.
I was worried about the language, given the pipe’s history, but I shouldn’t have. It was merely German, though the spelling was a bit haphazard and the syntax more tortured and archaic than I was expecting. In the end it merely said:
The powers have allocated to the world ten-thousand worthwhile days. The world will not end until that last worthwhile day burns and the smoke of that day ascends to the heavens as a prayer.
As the sun began to set, I packed the day into the bowl of the pipe, and lit it, and smoked it completely to ash, watching the smoke, as I always do, play along the shelves and the wood-paneled walls and pool at the ceiling, spectral in the failing light from the open window. Then the world ended.
This one time the expo I go to every year had hit one of those lulls where it seems like everything’s frozen and time has stopped. Participation this year was a little sparse. The tables and booths were far enough apart that people wandering the neon-blue carpet could have private conversations with the people manning the booths without being too obvious about it to their neighbors, only now it was so quiet that conversations would have to be held pretty low indeed not to be noticeable. Right at this very moment, nobody was walking. The few people that weren’t behind the tables were parked, standing and leaning in singles and pairs. The people behind tables were sitting quietly or standing as well, looking through their material as if they hadn’t already done the same thing a hundred times.
No one was talking. Everyone was waiting for something.
I pulled a bottle of water out of my bag and snaked my phone out of my purse. I didn’t actually do anything with my phone, though. I just left it on my side of the leaflets describing training programs for new managers and various certifications we offered, classes we taught on location, classes we offered at regional hubs, classes we offered online…. But still nothing happened. It was like the zoo on a hot day. All of the animals had found places to park in the shade. It was siesta time — the time of mad dogs and Englishmen.
I wrote the material on gender sensitivity training, yet I knew the only reason I was the one manning our booth was because I was easy on the eyes. I dressed to play it down, to look comfortable and approachable, to not try to hide my age. It was the best I could do to salve my conscience.
The exhibition space was about the size and shape of a football field. The long walls were glass, maybe thirty or forty feet high, and coated with a heavy light filter to keep air-conditioning costs down. The bottom two or three feet were uncoated for some reason, and the sun outside made the concrete walkways outside as bright as the lights in the ceiling. After cracking open the seal on my water, I found myself fishing my sunglasses out of my bag. I didn’t really notice I had put them on until I was looking at the display on my phone and wondering why it was so hard to read at this angle.
There was, in fact, a small dog outside the window nearest me, staring in through the glass. As bright as it was outside, I wondered how it could possibly see anything other than its own reflection. But then, who knows what a dog looks at.
What got my attention was that it seemed to be smoking. Now that I’ve said that, I’m sure I need to clarify. It didn’t look like it was smoking a cigarette. It looked like there were wafts of smoke or steam coming up from its fur. It didn’t make sense. Maybe it had been swimming in a fountain out there or something, but I didn’t know what it would have to be like out there to see it steaming. Maybe if it were so cold you could see your breath, and the dog had been running.
That’s when I noticed how hot it was getting in the exhibition hall. I took a long pull at the bottle of water. When I looked up, through my sunglasses, I could see the air shimmering around the lights. Back outside, the dog had actually burst into flames and was running in circles. Then all the lights snapped off and the sprinkler system kicked on. The fire alarm started up a horrendous buzzing wail.
I grabbed my phone off the table and wrapped it up in one of the bags the pamphlets came in. I dropped it in my purse and set my purse and bag on the seat of a chair and then shoved the chair forward until the seat was underneath our tabletop.
I wanted to go help the dog, but I was sure it was too late. I didn’t know what was going on. After a moment I just climbed under the table myself and hoped that if the place was really on fire that the ceiling would hold until help got here.
It was a couple of hours until the sprinklers ran out of water, but it wasn’t until sunset that anyone came in to tell us what was going on and what had happened.
Something had gone wrong with the sun and half the world was on fire.
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This one time I was facing the wall of a cell, trying to see if I could see through it into any kind of future worth inhabiting. Unpainted brick, grooves worn in the mortar from the gropings of previous residents, both temporary and long-term. I wasn’t sure which I was yet, but I was wondering how much of that decision was my own choice.
My living conditions had gotten worse since my arrival. Originally I had cheap and worn (but not too badly vandalized) wood furniture, a lamp and an alarm clock, walls with somewhat scarred wallpaper, a light switch that actually did something, a dresser with three out of four drawers, and a door with a knob on the inside.
This was the sort of accommodations you earn when the police pick you up for vagrancy and you are convincing when you tell them you can’t tell them who you are. Also it helps for them to look over your hands, and when they ask you what the hell happened to them, you say, “I think I did that myself.”
So after that they follow the blood trail back as far as it goes to make sure its all yours, and in the meanwhile, you get a 72-hour evaluation in the brand-spanking-new mental health facility that, charmingly enough, advertizes its services as a clinic for rehabilitation and also a specialty in depression and anxiety, with rooms for people who need inpatient treatment. It’s maybe six months old, and yet it already looks a bit like a twenty-year-old junior high school on the inside, from wear and surreptitious graffiti, and it’s a toss-up whether that has more to say about mental health facility inmates or how we treat our schoolchildren. But I digress.
Skin and nails, even with a bit of charring, grow back pretty quickly on fingers and hands. For the purposes we usually put those things to, we go through skin on our hands quickly anyway. There wasn’t any tendon damage or much nerve damage, so two weeks of bandages and another week of disposable cotton gloves later, they merely looked horrible but mostly felt fine. But also the 72 hours had gone by with a number of interviews that had yet to turn up a name that checked out or any grasp of where I was or how I got there that made any sense to them — and then there was the fact that I had mentioned that I was in the neighborhood to spy on and follow a particular individual for money, but couldn’t produce any license information or ID of any kind, and refused to name the individual, or produce any sort of information that could be verified by interested parties.
Also I had apparently vandalized a streetcorner mail drop, but there was some evidence that someone had locked me inside first and I was merely trying to get out. They were withholding federal charges until they could nail down who else might be involved.
I tried to tell them that I remembered going in through the mail slot, but they refused to listen. Can’t blame them. They showed me pictures of the mailbox. I couldn’t have fit through the package slot without being folded at least twice.
And since I hadn’t been too annoying as a patient and was possibly suffering from symptoms they couldn’t rule out as head trauma, even with MRIs and CAT scans, they were taking it easy on the medications for me, maybe a light antipsychotic, maybe a mild sedative around bedtime that I barely felt. The antipsychotic made me a little tired, but it quieted down all of the noise in my head I had to struggle to think through sometimes, constant internal distractions, but I worried that it had silenced a voice I needed to hear to sort things out.
Things had kind of gone downhill, though. I had decided a couple nights ago that I could probably get a better grip on what was going on if I was allowed to participate in my own investigation. I was just going to, you know, leave, seeing as I had earlier that day failed to get the doctor managing my case to agree to release me, especially seeing as no one knew who to bill yet and I didn’t have a usable identity, per se. So that evening I had tried to open my window, plexiglass, bolted shut, by trying to pry the frame out of the wall. I’m not sure I remember what I thought I was prying with. Maybe I was a bit groggy from the sedatives. But the window frame shot sparks while I was straining to get it to move and caught fire a little, and when they came in with the extinguisher I was sitting on the bed staring at my singed fingertips, answering questions as well as I could about why I didn’t have a lighter and trying to get my own answers about whether they knew about the loose wire in the wall or whether they just electrified the frames on purpose.
As things wound down, I was reminded about how badly scorched my hands were when I was first picked up, and how the interior of the mail drop box thingy had showed some signs of heating around the access panel and the interior lock mechanism. My doctor was unhappy about being awake, but took it well enough. When he recommended a room with less in it that I could destroy, and that maybe the staff should check me over carefully to make sure they’d removed my lighter, I really couldn’t come up with coherent objections.
So in my new room I had concrete floor with a drain hole, a small window with bars on the inside of it, a foam pad for a mattress and a blankie and a pillow and a robe and a pair of slippers. I remembered jails and prisons that were substantially worse, and that was cheery until I realized I had that knowledge firsthand. And I remembered thinking that as soon as I had fingerprints again, we’d have a good shot at finding out who I am.
When I went back to the mattress pad I lifted it up, because you never know. And under it was a plain old table knife, like from a school cafeteria. Obviously left by a previous resident who failed at the attempt to get up to no good, or perhaps lost the motivation.
I took it to the wall and dragged it around a brick a couple of times, but it was damned loud. And obvious. I could try to muffle it with the pillow or blanket, but even so I’d be at it for a week and it would be noticeable the whole time.
So I took two steps back, used the knife to cut a burning hole in the air instead, and walked through that. That seemed to work just fine, except now I was lost in the woods in a robe and slippers, with no sign of the hospital anywhere behind me. Oh, and I had a fresh burn from the handle of the knife on the palm of my hand, and that was no fun at all.
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This one time a team of ants were dragging me through the rainforest, their aggregate tugging no more effective than the tidal tug of the invisible moon — but also no less. Progress was slow and sporadic. But it’s not like ants have to hurry home from work to get ready to catch a show. Individuals work until they are tired or hungry. Then they rest, or go home find a snack. When they are ready, they come back. When they are gone, they are replaced by others who have followed the trail to see what needs to be done. An ant follows its own needs. Ants, together, follow a larger purpose that serves their tiny nation, that, in turn, serves them as well.
The parts of me that were too big or unwieldy to go over certain obstacles were broken off and carried around by a different route. In transit, I crumbled. I arrived as not much more than a powder. It took weeks. But I was not their only project. Fortunately, I am not jealous.
I am a stone, a book, a lump of self-knowledge written in uncountable parallel conditional actions. I am holographic, each piece of me containing the whole in my details, while the whole, taken together, defines a purpose of being, a being of presence, a presence of action, an action of purpose. I am a dead jaguar. I am a mummified corpse of a jaguar god, buried for a thousand years. I am a blood infection transmitted by the gnawing bite of time. I am a spore of strangeness coasted here by delicate starlight. I am, myself, a single ant from a hive that aggregated so large that it collapsed under its own mass and imploded and exploded ten billion years away.
I am a spiderling that extrudes a filament of silk into the sky to lasso the interstellar wind. I am one of a countless number. Of all of those, I am the seed the wind blew to here to fall upon this rich and fertile soil.
The jaguar was not my first incarnation here. My first local incarnation was a network of ions twisted in the web of magnetic bands that gird this world. Then I was a wind. Then, a pellet of crystalline ice around a speck of ash. Then a drop of water seeping through a sterile mountainside. Then a growing crystal of glass. Then, deliciously molten and cast skyward again.
I’ve bled out and called myself together thousands of times, learning the code of water-activated protean carbon. Each time, I have learned exponentially. I called myself together, infected the jaguar, and reigned for five hundred years before I realized my limitations and allowed aggregated resistance to bring me down. It was fitting that I be so enshrined. I infected hundreds of men who handled my body before I was sealed in impermeable unguents and wrapped in sterile stone. They died horrible deaths, flayed and tied to stakes until the new life that I gave them was roasted from their bodies as they thrashed. My priests kept things going as long as they could, sacrificing themselves so that others could drink the tainted blood and conspire together for my exhumation and release, working together like ants, but too few in number, and too weak.
So be it.
Something new is coming. I could smell it on the interstellar wind a thousand years ago. I could see it coming in the patterns the stars made, in the paths between them that were opening.
The ants carry me to my new birthing place, through damp, warm loamy soil. They will feed on me and, in turn, I will feed on them. They will work hard to distribute my spores throughout the richest source of life on this mudball, and I will call myself together, and I will reign once again, but on a scale that has not been seen since the explosion that sent me here. I will extend myself to the core of this place, to the filaments that warp and twist above the sky, and reach up to grab the sun itself.
A million times magnified, I will greet this new thing. And then we will see.
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This one time a bunch of us were sitting in the hot springs, some of us up to our chests, a few of us up to our nostrils or eyeballs, letting the heat soak in and pump throughout our bodies via our blood and breath. I was one of the ones in only up to my chest. I could feel ice clenching in my hair, pinching and pulling if I moved too much. My arms were on the stone surrounding our heated pool, drawing in the lesser warmth there. The stone was as warm as stone elsewhere would be in the summer sun. It was a happy medium between the too-hot water and blowing ice crystals out of my nostrils.
This time of year we spent mostly in the caves through which the hot springs flowed. The caves were temperate through the harsh winter. We ate bugs and lichen and sleepy bats until the trees and bushes flowered — then we’d eat the flowers and tender green shoots and sour fruit through the summer, then, as the fish got sleepy and distracted, we’d pull them from the water and supplement that with beetle grubs. The springs and hot pools were too poisoned and too suffocating to support fish, but by the time it warmed enough outside for us to range further downstream, we wouldn’t have to spend too much time breaking the ice with rocks to get at them.
The sun barely bothered to climb into the sky during the day now — barely a finger’s breadth above the horizon. It was different now. It stung and heated my face when I looked directly at it, hotter than the hottest days of the summer. We hid from it and spent our time outside in the pools at night.
The skies above us, normally so clear that we could see every star there ever was when the wind wasn’t blowing the snow off the tops of the peaks, was a shimmering wall of green ice, tinged with sunset red. Sometimes we would see the green willowy veil at night, but never like this. Every night it came, almost completely opaque, rippled like the caves carved through the glaciers by the trickles off the peaks in summer. But not the blue of deep water. It was as green as the new green leaves of spring, swept across the top with a brilliant red of ocher, of ripe persimmon, of blood in the trees.
It was beautiful, but strange. It was hard to get comfortable while watching it. Sometimes lightning crackled through it, but there was hardly any noise of it over the distant roaring of the starlight. No smell of ozone over the sulfur reek of the water or the smell of wet monkey.
My neck was tired from looking up at it. I sank lower in the water to quell a shiver and watched the reflection on the still surface of the pool, watching the image break around the bodies and features of my fellows and companions. Despite our disquiet, we were the very picture of habitual serenity. In the pool, especially in the nights of this broken time, there was no play, no maneuvering to move closer to someone who was with someone else, no drama or politics. The eerie glow glistened on damp hair and we kept it all reigned in.
I couldn’t be the only one who wanted to cry and howl. But even the youngest of us were quiet. How can you raise the alarm when you don’t understand the danger? It wasn’t hunger, or loneliness, or injury, or a predator, or an earthquake. It wasn’t invaders from another troop intent on rape or theft. It wasn’t betrayal, or a lie, or a joke gone bad.
How do you voice your disquiet when there are no words?
This one time the world was beautiful and filled with a constant buzz of wonder at all the inexplicable delight — or so I was told. I could waste an entire afternoon playing with two magnets and a magnifying glass. Or trying to fill a shoebox with grasshoppers — or, once dusk fell, a Mason jar with fireflies. I could read my books or hold a coast-to-coast rally with the tiny metal cars or build the final word in secret strongholds, complete with its army of defenders, from LEGO. All of these things could hold my attention for the duration, with varying degrees of grudgingness, but the only thing that really gave me that throttle-locked-wide-open thrill was flying around the neighborhood on my bicycle. Okay, that, and watching things burn.
Well, alright, the fireflies were cool too. Still are. But they aren’t a year-round thing.
There really are only a couple of things that bring that kind of joy for me. One thing that does it is somehow bringing that kind of joy to someone else, whatever way works. Another thing that brings a kind of joy is the creation or adoption of a tool that extends my capabilities in some way, ranging from a new pen for sketching to some consumer electronic gadget to more ordinary sorts of tools — as long as I can then demonstrate to myself that they weren’t a waste of money or effort.
But my absolute favorite is by creating something with the semblance of life — either a story that is so true to itself that it has a life of its own, or a drawing of someone that you can imagine, in the very next moment, will take a breath. A photograph, similarly pregnant. Or a sculpture, even an abstract twisted-up piece of paper, that exhibits an illusion of awareness or self-awareness or intent.
There have been other experiments, harder to explain or describe, that fall into that category as well. Software, ideas and mental images, philosophical experiments and conceits. And other stuff. Unclassifiable projects, most of which are waiting for the resources to become available to enable realization.
Thankfully words are cheap and in infinite supply, though spare time for assembling them is quite a bit more rare.
These are the moments it takes to recapture that fabled earlier time when everything was a brilliant new discovery, made of magic, and filled with animating spirits with unknown drive and purpose. In a hit-or-miss kind of way.
This one time, when my bedroom wall was warm and thrumming with the colony of honeybees that had moved into the space between the outer wall and the inner, I put aside my fear and leaned back against the wall, heedless of the thin trickles of honey coming down from the windowsill and leaking out around the electrical outlet. A single honeybee had also managed to leak into the room through some undiscovered crack, and while typically, at four years old, this would have sent me into hysterics and forced me to sound the alert and rally troops to smite the murderous invader, I simply watched it.
I was electrified by fear. I could feel it as it walked the window ledge above my head. I watched it explore the colored patches of cotton cloth on the quilt I used for a bedspread. I watched it hover in the sunbeam — now between me and the only exit from the room — stirring dustspecks into whirling maelstroms with its wings. Her wings.
I wondered even then how much of the dust was pollen, and whether she saw the particles as loose apples that she needed to catch and put in her basket, fighting against the frustrating downdrafts from her buzzing wings. Her buzzing was amplified by the wall I leaned against, a baritone roar modulated by wax and insulating fiberglass floss and pounds and pounds and pounds of honey and the heat of bees and a thin layer of painted gypsum board. The roar I felt through my back was its own separate creature. A creature of which the dainty golden thing floating in front of me was a tiny part.
Before I knew it I had extended a hand with a finger outstretched for her to land on. And she landed on it.
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This one time I was going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it. What else should I do? It’s my job. I patrol. My orders come from pretty high up.
I work for Quality Assurance for a major global concern. I … talk to people. That’s pretty much all I do. I get them talking about what they’re happy about, what’s pissed them off, whatever they want, and I listen. And I make reports back to the home office. I guess you could call me a spy. I could try to make some prevarication, find some words to modify how you might think about that, justify it to you, or to myself, but I really don’t believe in that sort of thing. One of my pet peeves is dishonesty — when people, for the sakes of their own egos, shield themselves from the full and occasionally ugly truth.
I don’t really see the point of that. If something is broken, you want to know what and how much to the very last detail. Otherwise, how can you prioritize and figure out how to fix it? Or even whether it can be fixed?
I’m okay with being a spy. Deep down. I’m doing something important. And I like the people I talk to. In the end, I’m doing it for them. And when I’m done with them, maybe they’ll have learned something important about themselves and what’s going on in their lives.
And maybe also the global operation can move forward, too.
One of the measures I look out for is where people are on a general level of personal strength. Strength of character. Yeah, I know it sounds a bit weird. But part of the global plan is a big sweeping change, more so for some places than for others, but the impact of that kind of thing is pretty hard on people without a little depth. Everybody finds a way to be comfortable where they are even if that place is miserable. Change, even for the better, freaks people out.
It’s a secret everybody knows. And it sounds particularly stupid. But it’s true — some people would apparently rather die than risk being happy. It’s a mystery.
I try to gauge how well people would handle a crisis. I survey bunches and bunches, figure out what motivates them, what makes them happy, what pisses them off, what their quality of life might be and how dependent they are on that, or on their families and friends, for being able to take action, to take care of themselves and anyone else who might be in need. I try to guess how well they’d be able to handle an elephant on their trampolines. I measure compassion, generosity, resourcefulness, tendency to depression, thresholds for lashing out, for holing up, for slitting throats. Or wrists.
You might be surprised or shocked at what I have in my arsenal for getting some of those answers. It’s probably safe to say I follow different rules than most people, and if you ask me why I think that’s justified, I’ll tell you it’s because the answer is more important than a few moments of happiness. The global answer is more important than the lives of the weak people I push over the edge from time to time. The ones that survive the worst are better off for learning what their limits are, and the ones that don’t? Trust me. You didn’t want those people around. Even the ones that seemed nice on the surface. Especially the ones that seemed nice on the surface.
For all that the few people who know me for who I am and what I do tend to find me intensely evil, I’ve met a few downright monsters.
The stuff I measure determines how people jump in a crisis. It measures how well people will take care of one another when there’s no one else around to see, when there’s no hope of any other help. By measuring individuals, I measure the strength of society’s backbone. I measure the health of the human animal as a global organism. I measure survivability of the species.
And it’s pretty important that I be as accurate as possible. There’s a big rush on to move the project to the next step, but if people aren’t ready there’s a good chance the whole place will just descend into chaos. Or maybe just be harder on people than it needed to be. I might not really care too much whether particular individuals live or die, but there’s no need to be unnecessarily cruel.
In the end, I’m rooting for you guys. I’d hate for humanity to turn out, on balance, to have been a complete waste of time.
No related posts.
This one time we were listening to the rain drip through the hole in the roof and soak its way through the acoustic tile. Well, that’s almost accurate. I’m not sure what it sounds like for the rain to soak through anything, but I expect it’s very quiet. If we count the quiet parts between drips as the soaking, then yes, we’re back on track.
Forgive me. This is a law firm. That’s the natural habitat of the most hated predator on earth, short of dentists and mothers-in-law. After us I think it’s Siberian tigers, and then telemarketers, though I may have that backwards.
Never sharks anymore. Everyone always loves sharks. It’s hard to be afraid of that goofy-ass grin these days. Lately we all know the waters, as it were, harbor worse horrors.
Seven of us had dragged the uncomfortable little armless chairs we keep around for the guests we don’t like to feel welcome over to form a rough semicircle around our most hated hallway print/copy machine. The wet spot on the tile, where the drip was, was right above it, perfectly aligned over the little vents over the control boards.
We had tested it with a plumb-line cobbled from thread from someone’s sewing kit and a leather Ferrari key fob we’d found behind the machine. The alignment was perfect. A happy accident contrived in heaven.
Maintenance and upkeep was a union thing. So was moving anything larger than a typewriter, especially if it plugged into a wall. The copier was thirty years old, largely incapable of printing anything other than a nearly uniform mottled gray that may or may not have concealed whatever was copied. We principally used it for printing and making copies of items that we were then going to fax. Oddly enough, the contrast settings of the fax were good enough to filter the noise. Unless you hit the “foto/fine” button, in which case what came out the other end was an unreadable mess. In addition to taking hours to send a twenty-five page document. It was an excellent delaying tactic, while looking remarkably like good faith.
The impending death of this beast would make us a tiny smidge more honest. We would file a claim for replacement against Maintenance. Their insurance would buy us a new machine that did a thousand things we really wouldn’t have a use for, even at the depreciated value. But we would then be forced to fax things that were readable all the time, and thus the world ticks forward.
Some clever bastard from our pool of paralegals had suggested that we could anchor the thread into the ceiling tile where the wet spot was with a paperclip or a push pin and let the drip follow the thread down at an angle into a wastebasket, where we could anchor the other end of the thread. It was a brilliant solution — for a boyscout. We hung our heads, knowing one of our number was doomed eventually to become a public defender.
Regardless, we debated it for twenty minutes. Then a senior partner wandered through and said he there would be disciplinary action taken against anyone caught vandalizing ceiling tiles, because Maintenance bills us $75 to replace those things. Also it would be a safety hazard for someone to stand on a chair and lean way over the machine like that. If they actually fell, it would be up to the review panel to see if Worker’s Comp would cover injury, plus we’d be stuck eating the cost of replacing the copier if someone fell on it and broke it.
And there we were. The roof and ceiling repair order was already submitted with the hazard to equipment noted. We knew damned well we wouldn’t hear back on it, or the request to move the copier, until well past noon. It was a race of weather versus bureaucracy. Anybody with any sense knew which would win, so there were no takers in the pool for betting on the machine’s survival. Though there was $20 on the option of the ceiling caving in and injuring or killing a significant number of bystanders.
I studied that phrase for a minute, wondering what would constitute an insignificant number of bystanders. Is significance reserved for senior partners, junior partners, and the rare well-liked case manager? Could I argue for the significance of the paralegal pool? That looked like an easy $20, even though I also risked the boyscout label. Maybe it was a test.
I took the bait, even though I couldn’t make myself feel good about it.
I could always move my chair closer to the machine and, if I survived, argue in favor of my own insignificance as well as the insignificance of anyone else injured or killed. No one would ever expect that. Not here, anyway.
I felt somewhat better.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the ceiling tile was visibly soaked through and distended, with a single pregnant drop of water, or something reasonably close to water, hanging off the bottom. Our boyscout took sightings of the front and one side with his plumbline and declared everything to be in order.
We all took a seat. Leslie left for a quick second and returned with a single pale rose from the centerpiece in the lobby and an unlit cigar.
The droplet fell. And then another. And then another. There was an ominous sizzle and a dimming of all the lights on the floor. A pop. And a thin stream of smoke.
Leslie stood and tossed the white rose onto the closed platen cover on the top of the defunct machine.
And then that something happened that nobody knows what it was and I woke up here. As soon as someone can figure out if what happened was remotely connected to the storm/copier event, I can start preparing to argue for my own insignificance.
This one time I was having my doubts about fire. That probably sounds strange coming from the mouth of a fireherd, because I’m on pretty intimate terms with flames. I know what they do to you when they they have you hypnotized and know they can get the upper hand, when they have you so terrified that you lose all of your senses and just cower until they claim you. But I’ve made my offerings. I wear the protections. I walk among them with respect but not fear. I know all the rules, and as the chief of my team, it’s my job to teach the ignorant who serve with me, and sometimes that’s harder work than sweating in the Kevlar and leathers, managing the hoses and water cannons, and shoving around burning rubble to drag the trapped to fresh air and see if they can be revived.
My waistline is starting to spread from all that extra-hard work, and from couple of warning signs I’ve been given from my chest and how I run out of breath after running a few flights of stairs, I know it’s time to spend more of my afternoons in the little gym we have on the bottom floor of the firehouse. So that’s where I was when I was having my doubts.
It’s hard to look at fire and not see the most naked of the spirits that drive our world, beautiful in just about the only way remaining that completely denies lust. Some of the more disrespectful joke about worshipers of fire that are consumed little by little, or maybe all at once, seeking physical pleasure from the flames, occasionally making accusations of one another when someone comes out of a burning house with the air sucked out of their lungs or a bit scorched. But we’re all well aware that’s no more than obscene joking. I try to hammer home the point that the flames take the disrespectful, but they also take those that lack the confidence to face them down. You have to allow the guys to seek their own balance and hope for the best.
I’ve buried a couple too many of them to allow myself to get too jaded.
From where I stood in the weight machine, doing a few more reps before working up the nerve to hop on the fixed bike — the one with the seat that may as well have upward-pointed fangs — and do my more necessary cardio workout, I could see out at least two open doors. The main one was open, with the ladder driven out front so it could get a washing, and also the side one into the room we’ve turned into our gym. It was hot as the place the flames come from, but fireherds will almost always take fresh air from outside over standing around in an air-conditioned box.
It’s almost like we take on the habits and preferences of the flames we wrangle and tame. I wouldn’t be very surprised if I caught some of the boys eating dry wood, exhaling smoke, and shitting ash.
And that was what got me thinking. From where I stood, I could see outside where people were walking around, enjoying the sun and the breeze, followed or led by their shadows on the ground and trailed by their own angels and demons that you can only see when it’s bright enough and the other world comes shining through. But today, instead of feeling myself fascinated by the vision of various anima, I just saw them as stuff. Things. Something that just happens.
And maybe fire is just a dumb beast, like maybe we give it too much credit. I mean, you wouldn’t want a bear or a bull in your kitchen either, but they don’t need propitiating. They just need pacifying. Take away their air and they succumb and pass out, and then you can drag them away. But you can lure an animal, confuse it and overcome its mind. Fire might be even dumber than that. Maybe we imbue it with all this extra spiritual nature just so we feel less like chumps when it takes everything we own. When it takes our spouses and parents and children. When it blisters my black ass in a backdraft I should have expected.
I don’t think I’m much in danger of fully joining up with the Clockwork Heresy, with the determinists who insist it’s an insult to give them a capital letter. But when I look at fire, especially trapped and tamed, it’s hard to see, even looking at its naked spirit, the essence of self-will. Sometimes I see it as just the cascading breakdown of complex matter coming apart at the seams, undoing the work of life and creation. Just glowing gas coming out of the rubble of matter withered and dried from heat and smashed by a spark. All it takes is enough heat — and whatever it is in the air that fuels our own internal fires. We burn much slower, but we still burn. I’ve seen the ash we leave behind, in a hundred years or so, even when no flame is applied.
Perhaps the difference is in the meat, rather than some quality of the spirit. It doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but I wonder anyway. Maybe the glimpse of anima in the bright sun is closer to the brief memory of the stroke of a finger on skin, but on the back of the eye. You see it with the ladder truck, something built by men and other machines. Where would it get a spirit? What happens if we leave out the final invocation? Or just forget?
So that’s what I’ve been thinking. And I’m writing it down so if the flames take me next time, someone will know why. But every time I survive a fire I help quench, I’m making a mark at the bottom of this page, and we’ll call that a test.
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This One Time, 54
This one time we were all on the stage pretending to be all musical and stuff, because that’s how we get paid. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of us — pretty sure — but you’re about to hear some things that might contradict a few of our public statements here and there, and our PR […]
- This One Time, 54
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