Protected: 03 Mid Atlantic Reflections
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Remember the Chatterjee and Matheson account? They’re ready to list …”
“That’s great news, honey.” As I listen to my fiancé Sir Gavin prattle on about his work, my thoughts drift to the shops along Oxford St. I can picture each one distinctly in my mind, like a thumbnail slideshow of my friends pictures on Facebook. Stores like Harrods, Armani Exchange, Tiffany’s, the Body Shop and that most exclusive Shop of all, the 60s-themed store Bouffe. The name sticks to my brain like glitter mascara.
It had the cutest outfit on display in its window today: a tiny white mini-skirt, a short suit jacket with big, powder blue buttons, and a pillbox hat with a veil. The display artist who wore it had a bouffant wig (of course), sexy go-go boots and a butterfly tattooed onto her exposed lower back. The look – slutty Jackie O’ – is one that I love. In fact, I am beginning to think that it should become my signature style …
“… so you don’t mind that it’s in Calcutta?”
I am about to say yes, when I realize that I don’t know what Gavin is talking about. That is nothing new, I am a dreamer and he can be so dreadfully dull. Fortunately, my fiancé is a very expressive speaker so I don’t ever have to listen to what he’s saying. I can fake my way through conversations with him simply by paying attention to changes in the tone of his voice. Which is why I hesitate now. Gavin is speaking as if I am choking on a hatpin. If I am going to answer his question I’d better first determine what the “it” is that is happening in Calcutta. It only takes a moment of reflection to realize that it has to be a meeting – all Gavin ever does is work – so I hazard a question, “Sweetheart, on what day is that meeting?”
Gavin looks quizzical and his voice sounds incredulous as he answers “May 14”.
Then I understand. “You’re suggesting that we spend our anniversary in India? In one of the poorest, filthiest, least glamorous cities in the world …”
As I speak my voice rises in intensity and shrillness. Gavin interrupts me before I explode. “Bexx, we won’t be sleeping with limbless beggars. We’ll be staying with my client Ravi Chatterjee. I understand that he has a very nice house, and that the best parts of Calcutta are quite charming.”
Gavin’s tone is apologetic and even though I am cross-eyed with anger, I desperately want to placate him. It would be so much easier if I could find out what retail is like in Calcutta. I have to be circuitous, however, because my fiancé sometimes takes issue with my pathological interest in shopping. “Gavin, what kinds of things are in Calcutta? Is there a type of pottery or fashion that the city is famous for?”, I ask coyly.
“It was the capital of the British Raj for a while. And it’s very famous for jute.”
My face must be apoplectically quizzical, for Gavin answers the question that’s on my mind immediately, rather than evading or fawning, which would be his normal response to our current situation. “Jute is a type of coarse cloth. It’s used for rugged things like sandbags and potato sacks.”
“Crap!” I think angrily. “I’m going to this vast slum and the only shopping I’ll be able to do is for potato sack dresses. How the hell do you accessorize a sack?”
Gavin has anticipated this, “Bexx, we’ll be flying through Milan and Dubai so you will have plenty of opportunity to shop en route. In fact, you only need to stay in Calcutta for few days. Or you could stay at home and we could celebrate afterwards … ”
I can’t believe he’s suggesting that we celebrate the anniversary of our first data apart. “I’m going. I’m only staying for the weekend. But I’ll go.”
Gavin sighs with relief and holds me tightly in his muscular arms. “This trip won’t be so bad”, I think. “I’ll pick up something by Armani in Milan, a case of perfume in Dubai, we’ll have a beautiful dinner together in a palace and then maybe I’ll drop by Paris on the way home.”
At the best of times I need only the thinnest excuse to go shopping, so this turn of events is more than justification for an excursion to my favorite store.
Though the address of Bouffe is on that highest of high streets, Oxford, its entrance is actually situated on an alleyway as if its proprietors want to discourage traffic, which I guess they do given that the entrance to the boutique is guarded by a bouncer and a velvet rope. When I arrive, the bouncer is surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls who insist that their friend has put them “on the list”. As I haughtily glide through these tarts like a hot silver spoon through butter, I remove my foundation applicator and delicately smash it, extract my splurge credit card from the wreckage, and proffer it to the bouncer with both hands, Japanese style. He bows slightly as he accepts it, and in one movement scans it and returns it to me. A silvery chime indicates that my credit limit has been established, and is acceptably large. The bouncer unclasps the velvet rope and gestures for me to enter.
Inside, there are three sales-models languidly posing around the store’s displays: a bottle blond near the perfumes, a brunette at the jewelry case, and a very young, freckled girl with a copper coloured wig in the clothing section. Though the store is barely twenty paces across, these Charlie’s Angels of ennui each sport adorable, brightly colored microphone headsets and earpieces – just what you’d expect if Coco Chanel designed for MI5.
Considering the impact this tiny boutique has on the London fashion scene it is, in many ways like the sales-models themselves, a wisp of very fashionable nothing. This nothingness is enhanced by the bright, white paint that cover its walls and removes all sense of depth. The Jackie O’ display dominates the street side of the store. An Andy Warhol print covers most of the back wall. The floor is dotted with small, well designed spaces that showcase the remainder of the store’s product – some large, brassy jewelry, a couple of bags, one pair of go-go boots, and a belt that has shrunken skulls on it with tufts of coarse, dark human hair. The elder models display a professional level of attitude that presents a formidable barrier to communication. The young, copper-haired model is fastidiously arranging the skull-belt so that it looks like a smiley face. She seems approachable so I speak to her first.
“I’d like the wig that the display model has … “
“Hello” she replies enthusiastically. “Can I help you?”
Her interruption puts me off so I stutter my question a second time, “I’d like the bouffant wig that the display artist is wearing.” The artist, who is standing perfectly still in the store’s tiny window, still dressed as Jackie ‘O, gives me a wink.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but that’s not for sale.”
“What!” I think. “How can a wig in a clothing store not be for sale?” Then a thought strikes me. Perhaps this is a repeat of the dark days of the summer of 1995 when everything that I wanted to buy was reserved for Sarah Ferguson or Princess Di. I say, “Oh, has someone famous already bought the wig? Sting maybe? Or Prince Charles?”
The sales-model nervously adjusts her size 1 dress as she repeats, “No. It’s just not for sale.”
I catch a side-long look of myself in the mirror. “Maybe I’m not dressed up enough to buy it?” I think with trepidation.
The sales-model notices and replies anxiously to my unspoken question. “It’s not that you’re dressed in last season’s style. You look beautiful. It’s just that the wig is not for sale. It is part of the store’s permanent collection.”
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of things that I’ve really wanted that I didn’t ultimately get. Though right now I am one wedding vow away from being rich, I haven’t always been. I don’t need money. I get what I want because I am persistent. I will suggest, cajole, push, wheedle and on rare occasions even beg to achieve my consumption goals. Despite these formidable skills, I am overwhelmed by despair. The only words that I can utter are “but … signature style.”
These are powerful words to the shopping cognoscenti. The sales-model grasps my hand tightly and looks me directly in the eye. I look up and see a thin tear running down her freckled cheek. I watch as it splashes onto her bony shoulder. “We could sell you something else. Another wig perhaps?” This thought excites her. “Would you consider something a little more mod?” She turns me so that my back faces the store display, and then lightly pushes me towards a corner of the store that I hadn’t noticed before. There, sitting on a plaster pedestal illuminated by ambient light, is a beautiful beehive wig.
“What do you think? It’s made from the same hair as the bouffant wig.”
One of my most important mottoes as a shopper is never to compromise. As soon as you let trivialities like money and convenience guide your purchases you are doomed to mediocrity. I know in my heart of hearts that the bouffant and not the beehive wig is really me; the beehive is too much, but the bouffant is … perfect.
I glance towards the store display.
“I’m sorry, but the bouffant really isn’t for sale.”
I look back at the beehive. It is fun and sexy.
“Would you like to try it on?” the gamin asks.
“Not every outfit can be a signature.”
Though I am heartbroken not to be able to buy the bouffant wig, the girl’s wise words clinch the sale. As I pay for the wig – and the skirt, jacket and go-go boots that go with it – the blond sales-model who had watched my entire shopping spree with listless scorn, activates her headset and speaks one sentence into it in Italian, ”Abbiamo venduto la parrucca, ora puoi comprare la villa a Parma”1
The trip to Calcutta takes the better part of a week. First, we take a private jet to Milan. While I stay for a few days to shop, Gavin goes on ahead. On the flight from Milan to Dubai, to my amazement, I get bumped to economy but make the last leg of my journey in first-class. I arrive at Calcutta airport – or Kolkata as it is now called – tired, cranky and burdened with duty-free goods.
Immediately upon exiting customs I am met by the love of my life, Sir Dudley Gavin Dudley, who is stylishly decked out in a collarless silk shirt and perfectly tailored, tapered black pants. His shoes are hand made. The outfit is entirely new, which cheers me up considerably. “He must have bought these clothes here”, I conclude hopefully. Behind Gavin stand two men in light cotton outfits and mustaches. They both vaguely look like Omar Sharif. Gavin introduces them as Mr. Chatterjee’s men.
As we proceed to our car, a beautiful hunter green jaguar, I look back and see the words DUM DUM AIRPORT broadcast themselves to the world, and smile. Gavin notices and pulls me into his muscular arms. “It’s nice to see you happy, dear heart.”
“I was just laughing at the sign. Was the airport named after Sir Dum Dum the youngest son of the Earl of Stupid, perhaps?”
“Don’t mock my relatives”, Gavin replies sternly.
For a moment I’m taken aback. “Have I offended my fiancé?”, I think. “It certainly is common for aristocrats to have silly names, after all. And Gavin does have a number of nitwit cousins.” Gavin notices my consternation and bursts out laughing. “Actually, a dum-dum is a particularly vicious – and now illegal – type of bullet. This district used to be the British arsenal where the bullets were made.”
“What a way to go, torn apart by a dum-dum bullet.” The thought doesn’t make me laugh as I look out my window and see prematurely aged men pulling rickshaws against the faded backdrop of what once must have been glorious townhouses. The interior of the car seems even more plush when set against this foil of poverty and decay.
After a splendid dinner held in the courtyard of Mr. Chatterjee’s home, which is actually one half of a palace that has been partially converted into an exclusive hotel, tables are cleared and the courtyard is transformed into a market. Along one wall artisans carefully lay out their wares on colourful rugs. In the centre,a group of Rajastani puppeteers and musicians put on a performance.
Though the puppet show is charming, my mind, gaze and eventually body wanders over to the artisans’ stalls to browse and inevitably buy. It takes me but a moment to decide to purchase most of the earrings and silver bangles from the first two artisans. It is not until I reach the third artisan’s table, which contains pieces that are more like fine art than jewelry, that I settle into the shopping groove. One piece in particular catches my eye, a silver bracelet embossed with an array of semi-precious stones.
“How much is this?” I ask.
“For you, 400 rupees” he replies.
“It costs a few pence more than 4 quid”, I think with amazement. This doesn’t seem possible: the bracelet is made of two different rare metals and garnished with 6 expertly cut tiny emeralds. All for the amount of money that I make in five minutes hosting my television show.
I overpay the jeweler, secretly hoping that he will use the money to replace his tattered clothing, and place the brooch around my neck. As I do so, Mr. Chatterjee sidles up beside me. He is accompanied by a handsome young man who looks exactly like Omar Sharif.
”Rebecca, I would like to introduce you to my son, Rajit”
Giving how dashing he is, I expect Rajit to kiss me, but instead he modestly shakes my hand. “That is a beautiful brooch you are wearing. Did you just buy it?” he asks.
He then notices the bags that are lying in a heap at my feet and the empty tables behind me. “I see that you bought more than just the brooch.”
I flash him a guilty smile as I reply, “It is all so beautiful, and so cheap … I mean inexpensive.”
Mr. Chatterjee notices my awkwardness and smoothly interjects, “Rebecca, I have an idea. Tomorrow, while Sir Gavin and I iron out the details of my IPO, why doesn’t Rajit take you shopping?”
I look towards Rajit to see what he thinks of this excellent idea. “I would love to” he replies, “provided Rebecca doesn’t mind.”
“Of course not!”
To my astonishment Mr. Chatterjee then hands his son a wallet that is thick with money. To his son he somberly says, “Take care of her tomorrow. Buy her whatever she wants.” Ravi takes the wallet and places it in his pocket. The transaction is conducted as if the wallet did not even exist: both Chatterjee and his son are both looking at me.
I am beaming, of course.
The next morning I strike quite a figure walking down Lenin Sarani in my Jackie O’ digs. Even without heels I am tall. In go-go boots and a beehive I tower over the locals.
I have to confess that I am initially disappointed by the shopping: the retail stores are a pale imitation of my favorite London shops and the branded goods are more expensive than at home. Though the shopping doesn’t improve, the stores certainly become more interesting when we turn off of the main thoroughfare and enter the New Market.
My favorite stores are magical places where the wares of the world are conveniently gathered and prettily displayed for my consideration and purchase. There is nothing pretty or convenient about the New Market. The streets are crowded with hustling retailers engaged in the rawest forms of commerce. I see chickens tied by their necks to bicycles racks, asphyxiating fish flopping in filthy buckets of water, blacksmiths smelting metal in tiny furnaces, and children creating silver leaf with tiny hammers. You would think that I would feel out of place in my white miniskirt and powder blue boots. But I don’t. The realization gives me a thrill. “This really could be my signature look”, I think, but my sunshiny thought is quickly covered by clouds. “Provided I can find a bouffant wig.”
After 30 minutes of uneventful browsing through silk scarves and jute bags I notice an old woman sitting on the stairs in front of a building. Her tattered clothes are stiff with dirt. She is not wearing shoes. Her thickly calloused feet suggest that she has never worn shoes. I want to help her. I quickly search through my purse. I only have credit cards, a cheque book and odd bits of makeup and accessories. I have left my money behind because this excursion is Mr. Chatterjee’s treat. I consider asking Rajit for some change but hesitate because it may be rude to spend Mr. Chatterjee’s money on a poor, homeless woman. And besides, charity should be personal. If I choose to give I should do so with my own possessions.
An idea pops into my head. I’ll write this woman a cheque. Ten quid seems about right. I pin the cheque to her lapel using a beautiful hat pin from Harrods that is in fact more valuable than the money I’m giving her. As I turn away from her I feel that something isn’t right. A cheque seems such an incomplete present in such an intimate situation. I sift through my purse looking for something else to give her and to my delight I find the perfect gift. Though I cannot be certain what exactly her colours are given how filthy and unkempt she is, my intuition tells me that maroon lipstick will look perfect on her. I place the applicator in one of the folds of her skirt. As I do so, her hand tightly clasps it but she doesn’t wake up.
The encounter leaves me inexplicably fatigued. Rajit senses this and signals for our car. Our next stop is the Barabazar market. We take the Strand along the Hugli River, towards the Howrah Bridge. The roads are appallingly congested, apparently because of a cricket match between Dhaka and Calcutta that is about to begin. In the shadow of the bridge, across from the Armenian Ghat, a flash of tinsel catches my eye. My gaze drifts towards the bridge … I can’t believe what I see. I shout “Rajit, stop the car!” It’s an impossible request: though the traffic is crawling it nevertheless has an inexorable momentum. Fortunately, we’re only moving at 2 kilometres an hour so I don’t injure myself as I leap out of the car door and race towards a tiny wig shop that is nestled in the shadow of the bridge. I really can’t believe it. There in the window is the same beehive wig that I am wearing.
The beehive wig is not why I am here. Synchronicity with loud accessories is not a good thing. For starters, the best accessories are always expensive because you can’t skimp on gaudiness, and, as I have learned from my work as a financial reporter, one of the components of a high price is scarcity. To see an expensive accessory that you thought was unique and outrageous in a tumbledown store can be devastating…
Seeing my wig here suggests that perhaps …
Rajit catches up to me at the entrance to the store and manages to hold the door open for me as I enter. The store owner at first says nothing to me but merely looks at my beehive wig and then at the wig in the window. She has an expression of disbelief on her face, mixed with – I’m not certain what. After a moment of silence Rajit impatiently says something to her in Bangla. To my surprise she then addresses me in English.
“What is your name?”, she asks. She has an Oxford English accent.
“Rebecca” I hesitantly reply. “Call me Becky.”
“My name is Rachana” she replies. As the shop-keeper addresses me Rajit fades out of the front door in order to assist our driver, who is having an animated discussion with a police officer.
“I bought mine in London.” I point to my wig and then at the one in the window and laugh. I fear that this may not be the best conversation starter but the wig in the window is the reason why I am here.
“Do you like it? It was made with my daughter’s hair.” After she says this Rachana pokes her head through the beaded curtain behind where she is sitting at the cash register, and speaks quietly in Bangla to someone in the back room. A wisp of a girl responds to her call. The child’s colourful sari is clean, if somewhat ragged. Her alert, dark eyes and thin gamin look remind me of the sales model at Bouffe who sold me my outfit.
Now I have as dirty a mind as any Essex girl. But it is a nice dirty that fantasizes about alternative uses for silk scarves, for example, or what kind of lingerie should start where my thigh-high boots end. Looking at this girl whose jet black hair I am wearing on my head seems raw, even vaguely obscene to me. Perhaps that is why I take off my wig as I kneel down beside her, so that my eyes are level with hers. Though she shyly plays with her dark tresses as I kneel she does not flinch. She is a very beautiful girl. I hope that Gavin and I have a daughter that is this pretty.
Then a most unsettling thought races through my head. “I don’t just want this girl’s hair, I want her.” I wonder, “Can you adopt someone who has parents? Can it be done in person or does it require a broker? How much does it cost?” I restrain my enthusiasm. “Hold on! I mustn’t be hasty”, I think. “If I am considering adopting her then I should find out if we get along.” While still looking into her beautiful brown eyes I ask her mother, “Does she speak English?” Her mother nods. The child says nothing, but continues to look at me. “What is your name?” I ask.
The child continues to play with her hair for another moment and then to my delight, replies, “Rosa. After Rosa Luxembourg. Do you know who Rosa Luxembourg is?”
I recognize the name from a college history class, so nod vaguely yes as I present the child with my beehive wig. “Rosa, this wig is made from your hair. I bought it in London.” The child responds to my words with a very expressive look, though I have difficulty determining exactly what it is she is expressing.
I continue to speak, “Everyone thinks the wig is really cool.”
The child bursts into a smile but steps away from me and closer to her mother, who puts her hand affectionately onto her child’s head. I know in that beautiful, sad moment that I will never possess this child. Rosa’s place is here, with her own mother.
My reflective mood is dispelled by the shopkeeper, who asks “Miss Becky, are you looking for another wig?” As she say this she hands me the same bouffant wig that I could not buy for love or money in London!
I gingerly inspect it. I don’t know exactly what I am looking for – cobras, perhaps – then quickly put it on and pose in front of the mirror. Though there is such a subtle difference between a bouffant and a beehive, the bouffant is the look for me. I look so good that I squeal with delight. In fact I look exactly like the display model at Bouffe.
As I think this I freeze in terror.
A good shopper is never derivative. To look like a store display is to say to the world, I have no creativity; I do not deserve to call myself a shopper. I am simply someone who picks and choses, or worse I am no more than a compulsive spender of money. This harsh realization breaks my heart, and judging from the look on the shopkeeper’s face, her heart as well. My hands actually shake as I remove the wig and return it to her. I wistfully say, “It is very beautiful, but no thank you.”
I’m feeling guilty and unsettled by my sudden change of heart so I look for something to buy. Ten scarves, 3 saris and 5 coarse but durable jute bags later I return to our car.
As we slowly pull away from the wig store towards Mohandas Gandhi boulevard, a poor looking woman with a finely wrought necklace made of beer can tabs, bangs on the window of our car. She speaks – or more accurately moans – at me and then thrusts her naked child against the glass of the car window directly opposite my face. Our driver shouts at her to leave us in peace while I reflect on my shopping experiences.
“What would you like to buy next?” Rajit asks, once we’ve pulled away from the beggar and her child.
“How about jewelry?” I suggest.
“That is a very good choice. I have an excellent suggestion for you.” He pulls out his mobile phone and makes an appointment.
We turn off of Mohandas Gandhi Boulevard onto a winding street called Biplabi Trailakya Sarani that leads directly into the Barabazar Market. As we approach our destination the dress of the men changes dramatically. The area under the bridge had been dominated by mustached men in dhoti, while the men in this neighbourhood wear pants, and most have beards. At one point a tall, thin man who is entirely naked walks by, whisking the ground in front of him with a swatch of twigs. From his actions I assume he’s a nutter, however the crowd parts reverentially to let him pass.
Our car stops in front of a textile store. I am deep in conversation with the owner before Rajit has had time to tell me that the jeweler who we are visiting lives upstairs. The jeweler, Samir, is a small, round man with a well-kept beard that is several shades greyer than his hair. He wears a tiny pillbox hat, a brightly braided vest, and printed pajama pants. The combination of this outfit and his obsequious manner makes me think of him as a chauffeur for a magic carpet service.
Perhaps I am being harsh, for despite appearances, Samir has tremendous skill as a jeweler. I am impressed – almost overwhelmed – by the samples that he shows me. His materials are the best and his subjects are varied. I could wear his pieces dressed as Jackie O’, as a punk rocker or for evensong. Once again I am paralyzed by choice. I wonder if it would be excessive to buy everything.
As I sit pondering my next move Rajit breaks the silence. “Samir, this is not your best work.”
Samir replies calmly, ignoring Rajit’s patrician tone. “Sir, this is my best work. However, you are correct in implying that it is not the best jewelry I have to sell. My best piece was made by an unknown craftsman. Behold.”
I have always thought about what it must be like to be a princess and to be able to wear accessories that are national treasures. But the pragmatic side of me until now has prevailed: “That diamond and emerald encrusted crown is beautiful” I would think during my visits to the Tower of London, “but I certainly can’t wear it with a slight, sexy, black dress. Helen Gurly Brown would surely rise from the dead to take me to hell if I did that … And for sure that ermine collar is going to get spray-painted by animal rights activists!”
That is how I would joke about treasures before I saw the Raj Mahal Tiara.
Samir speaks as he unlocks a tiny silver box, “This piece comes from the Raj Mahal Hills, which is a remote area in northwestern Bengal on the border with Bihar.” As he tells me this story, he opens the box and removes a crimson pillow on which rests a gorgeous band of wrought platinum inset with deep blue star sapphires. “The Hills are in a region that was ignored by the world until the Mughals arrived from Afghanistan. Then the Hills’ position overlooking a narrow point on the Ganges River became very strategic. First the Bengalis built a fortress. Then the Mughals stormed it and took the area for their own. Later, under the British, when the border between Bengal and Bihar ceased to matter, the fortress was still used, though to suppress local dissent. The peasants who lived there were reduced to poverty by the wars and eventually the Zemandars, who ruled the area, enslaved them.” He pauses dramatically and then says, “It was those slaves who mined these sapphires”
I am transfixed by the star sapphires. “It looks like there are little angels dancing on the stones”, I say haltingly.
“Some say those are the souls of those who died mining the stones.”
“Can I have it?”
Both Samir and I look to Rajit for an answer.
I stop breathing while I wait for a response. “Rajit has to say yes.” I think. “He has an entire purse full of money, after all. How much can this piece cost?” I answer that question myself. “A lot. Maybe a room full of money.”
Rajit says something quietly and quickly to Samir in Bangla and then nods assent.
I exhale a little bit too loudly as I thank Rajit, a thanks I cut short because I cannot keep myself away from the treasure on the crimson pillow. “The tiara will go perfectly with my Jackie Onassis outfit and wig”, I think.”…the bouffant wig I didn’t buy.”
I’m suddenly alarmed.
“Rajit, can we buy the tiara and leave?”
“Certainly.” As Rajit pays Samir he asks, “Who won the test match?”
“You don’t know?” Samir sounds surprised, “The game never ended.”
“What do you mean?”
“An umpire made a very unfavourable call against Kolkata. You’d better be careful driving home. There are groups of hooligans causing trouble throughout the city. There is even a rumour that Sourav Ganguly himself has been called to restore order.2 The rioting is particularly bad near the Howrah Bridge…”
Where my wig is.
As we exit, I hesitantly ask Rajit if it will be OK for us to quickly pick up my wig before returning to Ravi’s place. He insists that we will have to return for it tomorrow because of the riot.
My flight home is tomorrow.
Our car exits from the bazaar exactly where we entered, just below the Armenian Ghat, on the edge of the River. Through a thick, restless crowd, I can see the wig shop. I imagine that I can even see the anxious look on Rachana’s face as she struggles to bar the entrance to her shop. Though she is so very close, she might as well be on a different planet; the crowd is impassable and looks dangerous.
Some people think that shopaholism is about compulsive materialism. That’s like saying that anorexia is about the denial of food. It is a true but shallow statement. Shopping for me is about defining who I am in an ungrounded world full of choices. I remember when I first realized I was a shopaholic. I was a little child. I wasn’t buying anything. I didn’t even fully understand what buying was. I had just dressed up in one of my sister’s outfits and some of my grandmother’s costume jewelry. When I looked at myself in the mirror I thought, “I love how I look. This is so cool.” It was a complete feeling.
I normally reserve such stories for my therapist, but I tell you this one to explain what I do next.
As our driver leans his elbow onto our car’s horn and begins a slow turn right, away from the store I have the profound realization that my signature style is nobody’s priority but my own. If I do not get that wig now I will never get it. And I have to get it myself. Before Rajit realizes what I am doing, I step out of our idling Maruti, slam the door shut behind me, and am immediately sucked into the centre of the riot.
I briefly glance back towards the car. Rajit is struggling to exit but the Maruti has now been completely enveloped by the crowd and he can’t open the car door. One exuberant fellow is actually standing on its hood shouting and waving a cricket bat wildly around his head.
“I must keep focused”, I think as I continue to push forward. “I must get to the wig shop before Rachana finishes barricading the entrance.”
Though I am in the middle of a cricket riot I am somehow not a part of it and my presence – aside from the odd astonished look – goes … if not unnoticed, at least unobstructed. Without too much effort I tack across the flow of the crowd and break free several metres from my destination. Thankfully Rachana is still struggling with the metal gate that she uses to protect her shop. It seems rusty and rarely used. “The wig! The wig!” I shout above the noise of the riot but she doesn’t appear to understand me. Instead she wordlessly marshals me into her shop and then gestures for me to hold a bent metal bar in place while she padlocks the metal gate. which she had finally succeeded in pulling down to the ground. I am so relieved to have made it into the store before it is closed that it takes me a moment to realize that we are now sealed in. I reach into my bag for my cell phone to call Rajit, but it is not there.
The bouffant wig is where I left it. I pick it up and walk towards the cash register to pay. To my surprise Rachana turns off the lights and pushes me and her daughter into the back room. There’s a bearded man there already. He politely introduces himself as Mohsin. I look closely at how he is dressed. Suddenly things begin to make sense. Though Rachana is Hindu, at least culturally, her husband is Moslem. That might be a problem right now.
I haven’t even completed this thought when a crowd of people start banging on the metal gate and shouting. As they bang I wonder what the rioters are wearing. Are they men wearing dhoti’s who look like so many angry Omar Sharifs, or are they bearded and dressed in pajama pants and pillbox hats. Are there women with them? What about teenagers and children?
We remain silent while, for one tense moment, the rioters try to break through the metal gate. After a long moment, they give up and drift away to other easier targets.
“What did they want?” I ask Rachana.
She doesn’t answer my question. After a brief, uncomfortable pause her daughter Rosa does. “The men want to kill my father because he is a low caste Moslem and a communist.”
I don’t have a response to this so I bring the conversation back to the topic that is foremost on my mind. “I’d like to buy this wig. Which credit cards do you take?” I lay my best cards down like a royal flush. To my surprise there is a long pause before Rachana answers, “We don’t take credit cards.”
… and I have no cash.
This is one of those moments that separate the pros from the amateurs. “Rachana, I have an idea. Why don’t we trade?” She looks at me skeptically so I hastily add “… I’ll give you my wig, which must be worth the same as my wig, and as an extra I’ll give you this broach”, which I hope to god is as real as the money I paid for it. The merchant carefully inspects the gold and emerald brooch for a moment and then to my relief she nods assent.
I have a feeling of profound trepidation as I replace my beehive wig with the bouffant. I look into a large mirror beside the cash register and see reflections of myself in the mirrors that are scattered around the store walls and woven into its wears. I reach into my purse, remove the Raj Mahal Tiara and put it on. I can confirm from thousands of reflections that I have completed my look.
At that very moment someone starts banging on the door of the shop. It turns out it’s Rajit’s man. He’s come back for me! It takes only a few moments to unbolt the door. As I exit, Rajit sees me and immediately beings talking on his cell phone. I see to my relief that the rioters have moved on. A moment later a hunter green Jaguar pulls up in front of the store and out bursts my dear fiancé Gavin who rushes over to me and gives me a huge hug. A long moment later we separate and he checks me out, “Bexx, I expected to find your mutilated corpse, but … but … not this … you look perfect.”
The next morning is my last. The plan is for one of Ravi’s men to drive me to the airport. We leave in the late morning after a leisurely breakfast. The streets are empty compared with yesterday, so our journey is uneventful. As I sit in the rear of the car I find myself in a pensive mood. Having found my signature style I feel unexpectedly unsettled, like a sailor who has stepped off of a ceaselessly rocking boat onto solid ground. The quest for a signature style, which has been such a defining characteristic of my life, is now over. Undoubtedly a time will come when I will feel compelled to change my look again, but that time is in the distant future. What will my next move be now? Can I be content simply expressing the identity I have chosen for myself?
At the entrance to the airport, at the point where the rickshaw drivers patiently wait at that invisible but all too real barrier between powered and human traffic, I have my driver stop our car and say to him, “Can you please ask one of the rickshaw drivers over there who speaks for them?” I ask. He looks at me quizzically so I rephrase the question. “Please ask to whom they pay baksheesh.” He shrugs then rolls down the window, says something quickly to one of the rickshaw drivers, and then addresses me. “Their manager is not here, Madame.”
Perfect. “Please wait”, I say as I step out of the car and approach the cluster of rickshaws. The drivers are a thin, unkempt lot, wearing rude dhotis. Their shoes are made of some form of recycled rubber, probably old tires. I am impressed with the craftsmanship, but saddened. You can only do so much with such material.
“Do any of you speak English?” I ask. Most nod mutely no, but one man speaks up. “I do Madame. Can I help you? Would you like a ride to the airport?”
“No.” As I reply, I remove what remains of my money from my pocket and divide the bills into ten groups, one pile for each rickshaw driver plus one pile for my driver. When I am done distributing the money, the English speaker asks again, “We are all most grateful for your gift, Madame. Please, can we help you?”
“There is no need. Chatterjee’s man is taking care of me.” I nod to my driver.
The rickshaw driver rolls his head in agreement but nevertheless asks again. “Are you certain that there is no help that we can give you?”
I look into the back seat of the car, which is crammed full of packages. On top of the pile I see my carry-on suitcase, which I know contains my bouffant wig and tiara. “No thank you. I have more than enough.”
1. Bouffe is a reference to Opera Bouffe, typically a light, comic Italian or French opera.
2. The Italian phrase ”Abbiamo venduto la parrucca, ora puoi comprare la villa a Parma” means “Now you can buy your villa in Parma”, which is an indirect way of suggesting that the outfit Bexx has just purchased is expensive.
3. Sourav Ganguly was am extremely famous cricket star in the Oughts. This reference is added for the benefit of readers who are familiar with Kolkata to underscore the seriousness of the cricket riot.
4. Rosa Luxembourg was a famous German communist revolutionary who was murdered in January 1919. The child is named after her to emphasize that the wig manufacturing family is aware of the class ramifications of Bexx’s materialism. This is not such a stretch. There is a very strong tradition of communism in Kolkata. That’s why one of its main streets is called Lenin Sarani.
This story was originally written for a media and the law course. I hope that I have succeeded in parodying Kinsella’s series as much as is allowed by our first amendment rights – but no more. This is a friendly parody. I also hope that my work gently prods shopaholics everywhere to consider how it is that their relentless pursuit of style is harming themselves and our planet.
Because I am writing a parody of an English book, I have chosen to use English spellings. I have chosen to use Calcutta instead of Kolkata in the title to underscore the class divide between Bexx, Gavin, and the people of Kolkata.
If you see any grammar or writing errors, I would kindly appreciate your input. I find my paragraphs can get overloaded with moods, tenses and aspects!
I can’t believe you got this far, thank you for reading!
When I write, I prefer to explain not present, so not very much background information is given in these stories. For those who want a bit more backstory, here it is.
The starting point for this cycle of stories is August 2, 2011, the day two crises occur: the US Federal Reserve discounts Treasury Bills (Default Tuesday); and a massive earthquake centered on the Hayward fault wipes out the North American Pacific coastline from Vancouver to San Diego. The inability of the our political and economic system to adapt to these catastrophic developments leads to the collapse of civilization.
The stories in this book are set between 200 and 230 years after Default Tuesday. The technological center of this world is the Canadian mid-west, while the population centre is further north, in a now habitable arctic. The main country in these stories is the so-called Federal Republic of Alaska and the Northern Territories. The Republic has an aristocratic (patron/client) model of government. The idea is that as social development declines, so too does democracy. Although the model for this aristocratic system is the mid-19th century Russian aristocracy, it has libertarian elements, reflecting its roots in current North American class structure. A recurring trope is that libertarianism doesn’t make you free: it leads to a class structure that favors the wealthy.
The Federal Republic of Alaska is actually controlled by Canadian successor states. The story here is that in the early 22nd century Alaska invaded the Yukon, and then got conquered by a coalition of Nunavut, the North West Territories, and what’s left of coastal British Columbia. After 100 years the coalition – including conquered Alaska – has evolved into the Federal Republic of Alaska and the Northern Territories, which is colloquially shortened to Alaska, or The Republic. It has a voting franchise based on property ownership, so is more aristocratic than democratic. On the Atlantic coast the political economy is dominated by city/county states; there is no centralized control. The rising Atlantic has turned most of New England and the mid-Atlantic into islands.
Don’t get bogged down in the impossibility of this alternate future because ultimately these stories are about right now: our drift toward a patrician form of government; the erosion of state institutions; the various identity problems we face in a class/gendered/hierarchical/technological society; the conflict between religion and science; the conflict between folk religion and established religion; our seeming inability to learn from history; our destruction and/or rejection of paradise etc.
Notes on spelling and language
The use of Canadian spelling is thematic, with the exception of toward, which I use instead of towards.
Comments and edits are welcome. I can be reached at brianmacmillan.ca
-Brian MacMillan May 7, 2012 revised April 1, 2018
Notes on the Individual Stories
Notes on Mr. Market
The story begins when a ship called the Yéil arrives at Los Angeles, two centuries after California was destroyed (mostly flooded) as a result of the Hayward Quake. The name of the ship (Yéil ) is a reference to the trickster, Raven, who in Tlingit mythology is credited with – among other things – stealing the moon on behalf of mankind. Disruption is an important narrative device in all of the stories.
Long Beach Island was created when the Hayward Quake – and its numerous aftershocks – caused much of the western coast of North America to flood. The “Island” is what remains of the southern suburbs of Los Angeles. It is comprised of what is now the area west of highway 405 (the San Diego Expressway), including land currently under the Pacific Ocean. Its northern tip is the area between Highways 110 and 405, just south of downtown Los Angeles. Downtown Los Angeles is completely under water.
The set for the story is the shanty town that has grown up around the old Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) headquarters, in Newport Beach. In the story, the ruins PIMCO headquarters is slightly closer to downtown Los Angeles than it is today.
I chose the PIMCO headquarters as the set for this story’s parody of financial shamanism because at the time of writing PIMCO had more bond assets under administration – $1.8 trillion in May 2012 – than any other company, and is the largest financial firm on the west coast of the USA. Mohamed el-Erian, the person whose personal communication device is featured in the story, is one of the two CEOs of the firm (along with Bill Gross).
The idea behind the parody is that when the Collapse happens, trade decays and, as a result, communities have to draw upon local resources in order to survive. The natives who live on Long Beach Island have few skills to help them survive – knowledge about bond and equity trading has become practically useless, and quite meaningless in a world without global financial markets. Over time this “knowledge”, because of its association with the lost wealth of the early 21st Century, gets turned into the magical language of the local religion. All this is to parody our current deification of free market economics.
The Sustainable Garden – aka Eden – was built during the Collapse. This is one of my favorite historical themes – that even in dark ages technology develops.
Notes on The Cell
This story is about how libertarian societies can become oppressive. On a character level it is about the loss of innocence.
The term “hoarder” comes from Stalinist Russia.
Notes on The Doctor Returns
This story is the happy ending to the previous story. Its not a particularly happy ending, because the libertarian-aristocratic society that created the injustice in The Cell is still in place.
Notes on Lots
The backstory to Lots is that Rhonda got pregnant when she stayed over night with Cody on Long Beach Island, in Mr. Market. She wanted to get pregnant so that her child could have Cody’s genetic alterations. That’s why at the end of Mr. Market Rhonda has the marines kidnap Cody.
In the Republic of Alaska, procreation with genetically engineered people is taboo. When Rhonda reveals that Cody is the father of her child (Tanya), she is shunned by her aristocratic family and forced to live a middle class existence, which given the low level of social development at that time, is pretty rough.
The main theme of the story is scarcity versus plenty, played out in as many ways as I can think of. I also have some fun considering unusual ways in which beauty can be socially constructed.
Narratively, Lots is a re-casting of the ugly duckling story with a focus on identity issues.
I play with voice in this story – does it work or is it too much?
Notes on Social Networks
This story is a study of how social constructions define and distort identity.
Its also a love story influenced by the sun and the moon (and of course that trickster Raven).
There is a third theme about how culture – in this case poetry – plays out in real (non-literary) circumstances. That’s what the varying renditions of the Romeo quotation are about.
For non-information technology (IT) folks, the joke about the wooden internet may not resonate. The joke is that “building a wooden internet” is an answer to the question, “What is the stupidest conceivable IT job?” A computer network made up of poplar and pig iron is practically impossible. It would have to be too big. The Director’s insistence that building an internet out of wood is a strategic goal for the Republic reveals him to be an ignorant bureaucrat.
Every poetry fragment is thematic.
Notes on The Battle of Tar Island
The Battle of Tar Island is the final battle in a resource war between the north and the near-north, caused by global cooling. In the 21st and 22nd centuries the arctic has become heavily populated, thanks to global warming. The decline in manufacturing and global population that has happened because of the Collapse is causing a reduction in man-made greenhouse gasses, which is resulting in cooling.
Most of the imagery is 19th century – the Republic has early 19th century technology (Napoleonic wars) and the Albertan’s have late 19th century technology (US Civil war). The battle is absurd because it takes place in a 21st century artifact, so everything is out of place and/or time.
References to the Tar Island factory – and the north and south pits – are entirely fictional but based on fact. Google Tar Island Alberta to see one of the world’s largest surface mine (its approximately the size of Manhattan and growing steadily), and the factory there. Those concerned about water issues will be horrified to know that pollution from this mine is allegedly polluting the entire Mackenzie water system, included much of the planet’s remaining supply of fresh water. Horrific fish mutations in Lake Athabasca lend credit to the allegations. Sadly, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is actively suppressing research into this issue. The two maps – Route Taken by the Second Army 1 and 2 – illustrate much of the Mackenzie River watershed.
The protagonist, Anton, has spent his life defining himself externally – as the child of his parents, and as a node in a military hierarchy. Mutiny within the Republic’s army forces him to make existential decisions.
Initially I gave this story a completely ambiguous ending, but decided I liked it better when the protagonist achieved his objective without killing anyone, and without surrendering.
Notes on Spinning Wheels
On the surface, this is a “here we go again” story. I have gone to great lengths to make the ending ambiguous so that optimists can have a happy ending, and pessimists one full of dark humor.
The following maps illustrate Mr. Market, the Battle of Tar Island and Spinning Wheels. They’re down-sampled to fit on a kindle. If you want them in full resolution contact me at brianmacmillan.ca.
The bodies were laid out on the tarpaulin in exactly the same way they had been found in the mine. The men, whose corpses had been struck by the shell that had exposed them, were in fragments. Two women, whose corpses were further away from the point of impact, were mostly intact, though ossified by tar. Tanya stooped to examine one of the females: the woman was roughly her own age, in her early thirties, but was shaped differently. Whereas Tanya was long and thin, the dead woman tapered from extremely broad shoulders to delicate wrists and ankles. Her jeans had mostly flaked away, but her top was made of a durable synthetic fiber, which, though stained black, was intact. She had two rusted metal buttons on her collar. On the first was written: “CO2 Kills Gaea”. A second, equally rusty button, featured a stylized dove footprint. The bullet that killed her had entered through the base of her skull.
Who murdered her and why?
Tanya heard a knock on the door of the lab. She looked up. General Brightbottom had already let himself in. He had a terrible habit of treating the entire base as his personal property.
“I have something for you.” The General handed Tanya a package of micro-fiche documents that had just arrived from the University of Red Deer. The package was wrapped in a letter from the sender. Tanya wondered why the General was here. There was no need for the Base’s senior officer to hand deliver anything; there were plenty of people who were trustworthy enough to act as courier. Tanya looked up at the General; he was staring at her.
“Any theories?” he asked.
“Its all in my last report.” Tanya was self-indulgently brusque. She found it difficult not to be at this time of year. The Athabasca Day celebrations always upset her.5 She realized that it was unfair to be rude to the General because of this. He didn’t know that her father had died in the Battle of Tar Island, fighting against Alberta.
In an effort to embrace the spirit of the holiday Tanya nodded toward the poppy on the General’s collar. She said as convivially as she could, “Did you fight in the Athabasca War?” She expected her question to elicit a rote, patriotic response. Instead the General’s face went grim. “I did. At Fort Vermilion …” he faltered. While the General collected himself Tanya decided to answer his original question. “You asked me about the bodies. My current theory is the obvious one: murder. I strongly suspect these people were killed because they opposed the tar mines, although my only evidence is a button. Unless there’s something useful in that package.”
The General said, “There is”. He appended nothing to this comment. He stood there, considering his next move, having forgotten to complete this one.
Tanya did not want to find out what the General’s next move would be. She said, “I’d better get back to work”. Her words brought the introspective General back to the present. “Of course. I’ll pick you up at five. I’m looking forward to your husband’s surprise.” He winked conspiratorially. Tanya had almost forgotten that her husband’s project was a secret, because the entire Base knew what the secret was.
“Thanks”, she replied. The General had already let himself out. Tanya watched him walk along the path toward the mess hall. She imagined him parading on a circular track, marching around and around in circles, with great dignity and pomp, never stopping because no one had ordered him to. The thought made her laugh because it seemed both absurd and possible.
A bus ticket Tanya had found on one of the dead women was dated May 15, 2027. Tanya’s plan was to look for references to the missing hikers starting from this date. She intended to begin with the Red Deer newspapers and move on to the Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Slave Lake ones if necessary. She put the microfiche into a reader.
She found her first lead on the front page of the June 21 Red Deer Gazette,
Alberta Police today called off the search for Red Deer woman Alison Schipka, daughter of former conservative MLA6 Utal Schipka. Ms. Schipka was reported missing one month ago. She was last seen camping at Lake Gregoire, south east of Fort McMurray, with at least three members of the eco-terrorist group Earth Now! Her parents insist that Alison and her friends have been kidnapped by one of the many private security contractors working in the Athabasca region.
Anyone with information relevant to the case should contact the Red Deer Police Department.
After another hour Tanya had found nothing else: the records were in poor shape, and were frustrating to deal with. She decided to take a walk. The base was defined by two pits that were created over two centuries ago, when the rocks in the area were first mined for oil. The South Pit was still being mined, although on a scale that was dwarfed by its history. Part of the North Pit was used by the artillery, but no soldiers were there now. Tanya preferred the solitude of the North Pit, so went that way.
When she reached the rim of the North Pit, she paused to take in the view. The foreground was full of ancient machinery: hauling trucks, backhoes, rope shovels and drills. Although they were gigantic, the machines were dwarfed by their backdrop: the North Pit was over 100 metres deep and twenty kilometers long. It had a dozen terraces partially covered by scrub. Where the ground was too harsh for even the toughest plants, she could see the layers of bitumen rock – the reason why the mine was here in the first place.
Tanya began the descent along the switchback road that the loaded trucks used to take when they exited the mine, two centuries previously. Her approach startled a flock of parrots nesting on the western face of the pit. They flew into the air in a riot of noise and colour. It took several minutes for them to settle down again.
At the point where the switchback road reached the bottom of the pit Tanya encountered a hauling truck. It had once been painted mustard yellow, although most of the paint had long since peeled away. She could see an imprint where the product number T282B had once been stenciled in metre high letters. When Tanya stood on her toes she could just reach above the middle point of the truck’s tires. The truck continued an additional 6 metres into the air. The machine’s size made her think not only about what it could do – that was obvious – but what it represented. Tremendous effort had gone into making this machine. Its task, to mine rock so that it could be processed into oil, was clearly a priority for the civilization that created it.
Perhaps 50 metres beyond the truck lay the ruins of a rope-shovel. The machine’s cabin, which was larger than the entire hauling truck, rested on a swiveling base to which was attached a pair of caterpillar tracks, which were used for locomotion. One of the treads on right track had been destroyed. Tanya inspected the damage: it was localized, but apparently fatal. Just above the broken tread was spray painted a globe in the centre of which was stenciled the words Earth Now!
Alison Schipka’s group had wrecked this vehicle. Perhaps that was why they were killed. It would certainly explain why they had been buried nearby. Tanya walked carefully forward. Although the terrain was level, it was very slippery, because the tarry rock inhibited the ground’s ability to absorb water. She continued north-west for another kilometre and then, before she reached the artillery range, exited via a path that had once been an access road for small vehicles. After two switchbacks she reached Highway 63, which was the direct way back to the base.
When Tanya got to the road she was surprised to see that it had been paved with asphalt as far as she could see in both directions. While her husband Keelut built cars, others were building roads for his cars to use.
Tanya’s return trip was quick. She reached the lab one hour before her date with the General, so she decided to re-examine the newspapers for stories about vandalism at the mines. Within minutes she found something. On May 17 the Slave Lake Gleaner announced that rope-shovel 28 in the North Pit had been destroyed by “environmental terrorists.” A day later the Fort McMurray Free Press published the following letter,
I used to work on shovel 28 until those eco-freaks destroyed it. Now I don’t have a job, because management isn’t fixing it. When we capture those punks we should kill them slow.
Although Alison Schlipka’s parents had thought she had been kidnapped – and presumably killed – by a private security team, perhaps she, and her activist friends, had been murdered by vigilantes.
Someone opened the door. It was Miriam, her assistant. She asked, “What did Professor Bryant send you?”
“I didn’t know he sent me anything”, Tanya replied.
“It’s that manila envelope, by the stuff the General brought.” Miriam said.
Tanya picked up the envelope. It had been sent to her from the Edmonton archives. In her rush to examine the newspapers, she had not noticed it. She broke the wax seal and removed a bundle of documents which had been bound together with string. There was a cover letter that had been hand written on vellum paper, which she read,
I have great news! I’ve solved your mystery, and in a way you’ve solved one of mine. The murdered hiker – Alison Schlipka – was very famous for a brief moment 215 years ago. In fact, she was famous twice – first as a socialite who was allegedly kidnapped by eco-terrorists. Later, when her diary was found, she was identified as one of the most notorious environmental activists of the 21st century. Athabasca Insurance, which has records going back that far, estimates she personally caused over $2 billion of damage to mining equipment, including $1 billion the week she was murdered by a private police force. That’s a pre-hyperinflation number.
I’ve sent you a copy of her diary. I had my scrivener make it especially for you, so feel free to make margin notes.
Kind regards, JB
Tanya put down the letter and walked over to where the dig was reconstructed, at the back of the lab. Until this point she had thought of the corpses as artifacts, not people. She looked at Alison. Despite the tar, Tanya knew exactly how Alison had been dressed when she was murdered. It was a tomboy style that was still in fashion. She could easily imagine what Alison had looked like, with her broad shoulders, copper coloured hair and green, scared eyes.
Tanya looked away from Alison’s corpse and toward her assistant. Miriam was reading the letter from Bryant.
Tanya said, “I’m going to read the diary outside.” She picked it up from her desktop, walked past her assistant, and exited out of the western door of the laboratory. She took a seat in the middle of the egg-shell blue wooden swing that dominated the west-facing side of the porch, and opened the diary to May 15, 2027 – the date of the bus ticket they’d found.
We left Edmonton two hours ago.
The deciduous forest has given way to boreal, mostly pine and spruce, although you still see stands of maple and birch. There are blighted areas everywhere, which makes the landscape spooky. Sri said that this blight is caused by a different beetle than the one that has destroyed the coastal forests.
All things considered, its not a bad backdrop for man’s biggest crime against nature.
Today’s my birthday! To celebrate we’re going to do an action! Details to follow …
We took out a gigantic rope-shovel last night. Sri threw a molotov cocktail onto one of its treads. It was all so simple, though Sri nearly set himself on fire. When the broken machine slumped over I felt like a little English sail boat taking on a Spanish Galleon.
To tell the truth, the action was more of a fuck-up than a success. Disabling the rope-shovel took no effort. But we were nearly caught by a rent-a-cop a moment later. He started sweeping the pit with a powerful searchlight, and even though it was windy we could hear the barking of dogs. We were saved by freak weather. Just as the cop spotted us, the air pressure plummeted and the wind starting gusting really strong. While I watched the wind blow the cop’s car into the North Pit, I wondered if the earth ever needed me to save it.
Alison’s May 19 entry was simply “tonight we have some big fun.”
The next entry began in the middle of a paragraph.
… after the action we went into Fort McMurray, to a place called the Jackrabbit Grill, for some food. Writing about it now, in my tent, under the stars, far away from the town and everything, with the calming sound of the Lake nearby, I still think going there was a mistake. It may be the last mistake I ever make.
Going to the Grill was Sri’s idea. He thinks that if our movement is going to succeed we have to change the minds of the workers. His plan was to find someone in the community who was not dogmatic about the tar mines, and use them as an in. I thought the plan was foolish. The locals all knew about our action. They’d be looking for us. Police and rent-a-cops are bad enough without vigilantes. In the end, Sri won me over with these words. He said, “Sometimes crossing a barrier doesn’t involve stepping over a line drawn in the sand. Sometimes the barrier can only be crossed by looking at things differently.” Although I fear his idea will kill me, he’s right. If we don’t get people to see things differently, we’re going to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, until we become extinct.
We disguised ourselves by changing into what we call our “church” outfits. My outfit was a pressed blue dress in a sixties style. It fooled no one. The moment I entered the Grill someone asked me if I was“one of those climate bitches who thinks all these tornadoes are caused by the factory?”
I turned to go. Before I did a second man said, “Hey John. John. Chill out.” He was very good looking – tall, fit, neatly dressed in a denim jacket, jeans and expensive boots. He apologized for his friend. He said that there had been some vandalism at the mine and tempers were really high today. I said I didn’t know anything about that – we were just passing through on our way to the Athabasca Dunes.
His eyes lit up when I mentioned the Dunes. He asked me if I had been in touch with Lenny.
I gave him my stupidest look. I’m a terrible liar, and didn’t know what to say.
“Lenny Thiele”, he prompted. “He runs the camp up there.”
I said I didn’t really know because my friend made all the arrangements.
Sri jumped into the silence. He said, “I think I talked to someone named Margot.” The man began to say something, but stopped himself after a syllable. Sri is just as bad a liar as I am, but has this breezy knock-me-down-and-I’ll-pop-back-up-in-your-face manner people don’t challenge.
Sri whispered to me that he thought the tall good looking man was a “conciliator” and we should get to know him. I thought he was out of his fucking mind but just said, “I’m not hungry right now” and ran to the car. The other three joined me ten minutes later. They’d gotten coffee and sandwiches to go. Sri got a toasted cheese sandwich for me, bless his mixed-up soul.
I ate while I drove. I was anxious to get as far away from Fort McMurray as fast as I could. We were staying at a camp south of town, just off Highway 63. When we passed the industrial park at the intersection of Highway 69, someone started to follow us. I know we were followed because I stopped before I turned into the Park, and the car behind me stopped too.
But what could I do? All our gear was at the Park. It was already late and it was Sunday – we didn’t have enough gas to get anywhere. All the local stations were closed.
Sri got all caught up in the idea of tapping a pipeline for gas. There’s one within a couple of kilometres of here, he said. He thought we could vandalize it and get some fuel. I pointed out we didn’t have a refinery with us. That shut him up for a minute.
We decided to sneak out of the Park and drive to the next one down the road. It was about 50 kilometres away. We had more than enough gas to get us there. Our plan was to hide there overnight, and return our rental in Edmonton first thing Monday morning.
No one followed us out of the Park, but when we turned south onto Highway 63 I saw a car blink its lights. I don’t know if it followed us. We got to Crow Lake Park in no time, even though I was careful not to speed.
That’s where I am now.
Its really dark. And we’re all alone. I hope. I think I hope.
I’m going to go outside to see if we’re alone.
I just went for a walk along a beautiful natural path that follows the perimeter of the lake. I think deer made it. As I walked along the animals got excited, but they became really quiet when I pointed my head-lamp at them. I turned my head-lamp off, wondering if the darkness would make the night quieter or noisier. When I did the night went silent except for one weird sound, this gurgling growl. It was very menacing, but probably was just an angry rodent trying to sound like a bear. Big or small, the growl worked. I got more and more scared by the noise and the dark until I’d almost forgotten about the scary men who are chasing me.
When I stood still, right at the crest of the lake, even the angry rodents became quiet. It was like the night itself was expectant. That got me scared too – or kept me that way. Animals are silent when they’re afraid. What had scared them?
I know why I was afraid. I was afraid because I was alone and when you’re alone you’re vulnerable. I rushed back to our camp.
I wish some more of my team was here. Those millions in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh who now have to fight for their water. Or the tens of millions of people whose land has been reclaimed by the sea. I’m their advocate. Their shock troop. I wish they were here to add their voices to mine.
Do extra voices make a difference, if people aren’t listening?
The full moon is hovering on the horizon, just above the lake. Its beautiful. All of the tens of thousands of lakes up here are beautiful tonight. I know it.
I also know I’m not really fighting for those benighted people in Asia and Africa and what’s left of California, even though we are natural allies. They’ve already lost. I’m fighting for my people. Albertans. They don’t realize it, but this is all mankind has got left. We’ve destroyed the rest – or at least come so far along that that we can’t salvage the least of it. Yet the people here hate me. Many want to kill me.
Shouldn’t we be on the same team?
The next entry was dated one week later,
Consider the previous entry my last. What follows is a postscript.
I’m imprisoned in the Buxton Township police station. I haven’t been kidnapped by the police, or arrested. The station we’re in is abandoned. We’re being guarded by private security goons. Its certainly an inside job, though. The goons used official schematic maps to disable the security cameras.
I guess I should tell you – whoever you are – what happened. We were caught at Crow Lake. It was a community effort, coordinated by the rent-a-cops, but everyone was in on it. By everyone, I mean everyone we’d seen at the Grill, and everyone we’d met afterward, including a gas jockey, a convenience store cashier and two park rangers.
The good looking guy from the Jackrabbit Grill found our bomb kit in the false bottom of Sri’s suitcase. The rest had already made up their minds about our guilt. He wanted proof.
If only it had turned out differently.
Its dishonest to write that I thought it would. Personally, globally, it has all played out pretty much as expected.
Kirk tried to escape. I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but I know it didn’t go well. The shooting started the moment he slipped out the back window. It lasted for minutes. It sounded like he was hit 1,000 times. The rent-a-cops have a lot of different guns. I think they used them all.
There’s no longer any doubt about how this will end. So once again I ask the question, why did I take this path? I know I’m not suicidal, I don’t want to die. That’s why I ran out of the Grill, and why my idiot (God bless them) friends should have beat me to the door.
Of all the answers sloshing around in my brain the one that stands out now is one a rat might understand. I’m cornered – the people who hate seeing this planet destroyed – we’re all cornered. So of course I chose to fight like hell. I did fight like hell.
To the death.
These two questions are my last words:
Do my enemies know they’ve won?
Do they know what winning is?
Tanya closed the diary and placed it on her lap. Her assistant immediately appeared beside her, but said nothing.
A horn honked. Tanya didn’t look toward the source of the sound. She knew it was the General. She clandestinely handed the diary to her assistant with a curt “Don’t let Brightbottom see you reading this”, gathered her purse from the floor beside her chair, and briskly walked down the stairs to where the General was waiting in a jeep.
The jeep – the first totally new motorized wagon Tanya had ever seen – was certainly going to raise eyebrows at the Athabasca Day celebrations. The General knew it. That’s why he had a grin on his face.
Once she was seated and they were on their way Tanya said, “General, I have more information about the corpses.”
To her surprise, the General frowned. He brusquely said, “What do you mean?”
“I think the hikers were murdered because they vandalized some mining machines in the North Pit.”
“I’ve just identified one. The rope-shovel at the entrance to the North Pit.
“The one with Earth Now! stenciled above its broken tread?”
Tanya realized that the General knew most of her story already. She nodded.
“Is there anything else I should know?” The General’s manner was now distant and formal.
“That’s all. I doubt I’ll find much more.”
There was a very long pause. Finally, the General said, “Don’t talk about the corporate death squads. We like to forget that part of our history. In fact, don’t talk about any of this until I give you permission.”
Tanya nodded, but didn’t agree. She saw no reason why this story needed to be censored. It was hundreds of years old. No one would be personally hurt by it being told. And the story needed to be told, because it was about the world that created this one.
Rather than pursuing the conversation, Tanya changed it. She made a gesture that encompassed both the motorized wagon and the newly paved road. “Today is going to be a big day for automobiles, isn’t it, General?”
The General smiled.
Tanya looked east. In the distance she saw clouds of smoke and heard the sound of engines. She said, “The South Pit looks busy.”
The General’s reply was effusive, “How do you think we paved this road? Oil. Asphalt. Tanya, we’re turning back the clock.”
When they arrived in Fort McMurray it was after sunset, although not yet pitch dark. They took the highway straight to Liberty Square, in the centre of town. Dignitaries were seated on the east side of the Square, on a small, wooden podium that had been raised one metre above the ground. They were illuminated by panels of electric lights attached to metal trellises. The west side of the Square was illuminated in a traditional manner, by pitch torches.
The General slowed the jeep to a walking pace when they approached the Square so that passers by could admire it. As they parked in front of the stage, on the stretch of road between the dignitaries and the audience, they were suddenly illuminated by a powerful electric light. There was a moment of baffled silence while the audience figured out what it was witnessing, and then a cascade of applause.
A second spotlight focused on an announcer who was speaking into a monstrous megaphone. The announcer introduced “the handsome General and the beautiful scientist”.
Once they parked, both the spotlight and the audience’s attention, drifted elsewhere. Tanya rushed to her seat in the bleachers opposite the stage. The General trailed behind her, shaking every one of the hundreds of hands held out to him.
A few moments after Tanya reached her seat, all of the lights went out except for a handful of torches.
While the orchestra at the foot of the stage played an introduction, a machine projected an image of the Premier onto a gigantic silver screen. The audience gasped. A new movie. The Premier had made a new movie.
While the Premier spoke, an electric spotlight shone on each of the vehicles lined up in front of the stage, starting first with a motorcycle, followed by an auto-rickshaw, a passenger car, a light truck, the jeep Tanya had arrived in, and two racing cars. The racing cars, one with red stripes, the other blue, were the main event.
The climax to the evening’s festivities was a race to Tar Island and back. The two contenders in this race were the military secrets Tanya’s husband Keelut had been working on. Tanya looked for her husband on the stage, but didn’t see him. He was probably at his garage doing some last minute tinkering.
While the master of ceremonies announced the race, a gaunt man with a military haircut and civilian suit stepped out of the pack of dignitaries crowding the stage. The gaunt man’ progress was illuminated by the main spotlight. Tanya recognized him as General Brightbottom’s Patron – a former General who now worked at a munitions conglomerate. He lithely jumped off the stage and landed immediately beside the blue car. As he jumped, his tie was blown behind his head by a strong gust of wind. Some of the pitch torches went out.
The General shook the hand of the the driver of the blue car, who wore a denim jacket and navy blue jeans. The blue driver’s hair was cut in a military fashion. The driver of the red car wore a thick, red leather jacket and white chaps. Her kinky dark hair was too long for the military. The General kissed her on the cheek, and then raised the starting flag.
A gust of wind blew the starting flag down before anyone was ready.
The General raised the starting flag again. The drivers’ revved their engines.
There was a precipitous drop in air pressure. Without thinking, Tanya ducked under her chair. As she did so, the stage in front of her was flattened by a wall of wind. The silver screen crumbled as it blew away.
Tanya lay down longer than she needed to: the freak wind storm quickly passed. When she rose, she did so cautiously.
The stage was a dark hole, except for where the powerful hand torches of the rescue crews shone. The damage from the storm was localized. It ended just before the highway. The new cars were covered in dust, but otherwise unscathed. The bleachers across the street from the stage, where Tanya was, were not affected at all.
The sound of a revving engine pierced the air.
The driver of the blue car, the military man, had never left his post. He was ready to race. The wheels of his car were spinning and spinning while he revved his engine. He was impatient for an opponent.
A crowd of people began chanting, “Where is the red driver?”
A man removed the starting flag from the corpse of the retired General. He leaped onto the first row of seats in the bleachers. The applause was almost as loud as the blue car’s revving engine.
Tanya watched as the people around her turned away from the damage, like a past they wanted to forget. They drifted over to the starting line, or stood on the bleachers, trying to get a better view. Some were cheering, others looked on with slightly dazed expressions. Only a few people had died; the crowd was quite large.
There was a tremendous cheer when the driver of the red car appeared. Her white chaps were stained blood red. Word got around that a shard of wood had nearly pierced her femoral artery.
The crowd was now louder than the revving engine of the blue car.
An ambulance alarm pierced the air. The crowd roared louder still.
The red driver opened her car’s door, even though one young man passionately begged her to turn back. When the man’s hands touched the red driver, they became bloody. The red driver was indomitable. She entered her car and turned on its engine.
The crowd roared its loudest yet, but the sound of two car engines revving was louder still.
While the cars’ wheels spun, a last round of bets was made. It was all about the red driver: some people thought she was too injured, while others thought she had spirit. Some bettors argued that she had something to prove.
The cars’ wheels kept spinning.
The man with the starting flag lowered it.
The cars raced through the debris that cluttered the newly paved highway.
This cartoonish story is a parable about the invasion of Iraq, which in this story is represented by the planet Kuln and its inhabitants the green bug-eyed Monsters. When the invasion fails the characters suffer for their hubris by being eaten alive. Food is a metaphor for what Neo-conservatives call realism.
My ultimate goal for this story is to turn it into an animation that starts with South Park simplicity (cut-outs) and gradually becomes more realistic. The final scene ends with a vivid and horrifying portrayal of the Monsters, in the style of the French graphic artist Philip Druillet. The idea is that justifications for war are always simplistic, but the reality of war is horrific.
“Do you have any idea how horrifying it is to be stored in a static bag? Every moment feels like infinity. You have no sensations. You cannot move. And you only have one thought, how in the next moment you will be eaten alive by green bug-eyed Monsters.” Although his audience was sparse, George’s speech was making an impact. Several people had already left in disgust. One frail person had even fainted. “My friends”, Mr. Brash continued, “we must attack the Monsters before they eat every Human in this sector.”
A heckler, as usual, was the first person in the audience to reply to George’s haltingly delivered diatribe, “I think that you underestimate the Monsters, my friend. They are a far more formidable enemy than your easy words imply.”
George bristled as he replied. “Are you kidding me? A dozen cruisers could disable the entire Monster fleet. Forget about what two battleships could do.”
“Do you have two battleships?”, the heckler asked.
“I have access to 6 fully armored cruisers” a balding man with wicked, small eyes interjected. “Even though I think Mr. Brash’s case could have been more articulately made, I agree with his assessment of the Kulnoi.”
George cast a discerning eye over the evil looking gnome who had just spoken. In addition to his beady eyes, he had a crooked smile and grating manner. “This truly is the type of man who would have access to military hardware”, George thought with excitement. “He could help me realize my dream of initiating an illegal military action against Kuln Prime, the Monster’s home world.” The heckler, the audience, indeed the entire university campus became invisible to him. He looked the man in the eye and asked, “What is your name?”
“Richard Chump. Call me Dick.”
George looked away from Dick and toward the dwindling crowd. He inhaled shallowly and then spoke, as if to a throng, “If Mr. Chump can deliver six cruisers to me, the time for talking is over. If there is anyone in this audience who wants to do something about the Monsters, step forward. I am no longer interested in debating with myself.”
Risa, a petite woman who had been standing in the front row while George gave his pitch hesitated. On one hand, George’s insistence that only a violent solution was possible to the Kulnoi problem, disturbed her. She was a good Christian and believed that peace was better than war and that love was better than hate. On the other hand, she was realistic enough to know that some species only understood violence; so violence in foreign relations was inevitable. In the end what swayed her was George’s decisiveness. Humanity couldn’t just do nothing about the Monsters. If she was going to hitch herself to a tugboat, it would be to a tugboat like George who was willing to do something, anything, about Humanity’s greatest foe. She stepped forward.
Jam wasn’t certain why he stepped forward. Certainly, he was, like every right-thinking Human, profoundly concerned about the Monster problem. Perhaps more importantly, he viewed himself as someone who should step forward. He was an unreflective man of action whose skills, experience and attitude were perfect for an illegal military adventure. However, there was no denying that there was something witless and sophomoric about George, so Jam also hesitated. In the end, like Risa, he was charmed by Mr. Brash’s unwillingness to let soft values undermine the pursuit of hard foreign policy goals.
Unlike Jam and Risa, the lobbyist Cruel Rave brought very little to the table, and knew it. “What good are my skills in the heat of battle?” he thought morosely. He was ultimately compelled to volunteer for George’s criminal escapade by his patriotism. “Mr. Brash”, Cruel addressed George in his thin, nasal voice, “I really don’t have too much to offer. All I ever do is spin news stories for my political masters. And I know I’m not much to look at. But I lost a brother at the Battle of Kuln; I hate Monsters as much as anyone.”
George thought as deeply as he could about the problem posed by this pasty-faced, weak volunteer. With his flat feet, drooping paunch and thinning hair he certainly was not an impressive physical specimen. But Mr. Brash also knew that physical health was not that important in a modern, military adventure. It was far more important for a modern warrior to have a wanton, destructive nature than a toned abdomen. “Is this man craven enough to be on my crew?” George thought discerningly. He looked directly into Cruel’s weasel eyes and saw a shiftless,
untrustworthy soul. “You lost family at Kuln?” George said. “I lost my father. “
“Yeah. I heard the static-bag story”, Cruel replied.
This moment of near-intimacy clinched George’s decision “Cruel, you have more than nothing to offer our team. When our expedition stirs things up between Humanity and the Monsters we’re going to need all the spin you’ve got in you, and more.”
The group, because they were a clique of criminal adventurers, decided to call themselves the Coterie. They met the next day at Mr. Rheumy’s house.
Although Dundald Rheumy’s house was modest, everything about it suggested more. The casual placement of the clay soldier in the hallway, for example, suggested that Mr. Rheumy could afford the entire Qing army if he so chose. The pyramid by the Jungle-Jim was an homage the Cheop’s tomb. But what impressed George most was that these modest suggestions of wealth and power were real. If Dundald could afford even one battle cruiser he was a very rich man indeed. George understood that Mr. Rheumy knew people who could finance the entire expedition.
George began the meeting without introductions, “Is there any one here who cannot go on a mission immediately? If so, you should excuse yourself. I will have a driver take you home.”
No one stepped forward or backward. It was a room full of heroes.
Dick filled the patriotic lull with a wheez and a hork, “So we’re all in?”
Everyone in the room nodded.
Now that she was committed to this adventure, Risa wanted to bolster her decision with details. “How long will the mission last?” she asked.
“20 to 30 days tops”, Dundald replied briskly. “Most of that is travel time. I bet our battles only last minutes.”
Risa rubbed her chin pensively, impressed by Dunald’s brisk response.
Despite himself Jam was impressed too. He knew the horrors of war. He’d been shot down and tortured. He had even spent time- an infinity – in a static bag. He knew there was brutality in war, but he also knew there could be glory.. He yearned, all of Humanity yearned, for a big victory. There had been too many stalemates recently. “So what exactly is the mission, gentlemen?”
George answered Jam’s query, “We’re going to liberate the food factory on Kuln’s Moon.”
The room became completely silent at the apparent lunacy of his answer. George burst into a grin. “It is possible. Dundald, would you like to explain?”
Mr. Rheumy strode to one end of the long oak boardroom table. Altough his skin was thinly stretched over his sharp bones, he looked neither gaunt nor weak. “First a bit about myself, I’m a military historian.”
“Sometimes he makes history” Dick interjected with as much smarm as he could muster.
Dundald smirked but continued as if Dick had not spoken, “Most military victories involve a large army overwhelming a small one. Not only is this approach wasteful, it does not guarantee victory. Think of all those battles like Marathon, where a small, organized force defeated a much larger, poorly organized one. If you can sometimes win with a smaller force, why not always win with one, and save money.”
“How is this relevant to the Monsters, Sir?” Risa asked. It was an impatient question, but no one minded. In fact, Dundald’s thin lips disappeared into a smile as he responded, “Imagine a situation where you have a small, overwhelming force”, he said.
“Are there any battleships included in this hypothetical force?” Jam asked. He was not yet convinced by Dundald’s theoretical talk. “
Dunald’s smile was thin and predatory, “After we liberate the Moon.”
Jam gasped. Dundald’s words implied that the Pan-Human navy would intervene, with battleships, against the Monsters if the Coterie‘s escapade was successful. “I’m surprised we only got six cruisers!” Jam exclaimed. “There must be dozens of military contractors who would risk entire fortunes for the chance to profit from a conflict with the Monsters.”
“Six cruisers are five more than we need” Dundald crowed to his audience. “Each cruiser has a munitions factory on board. With access to the metals which are abundant on Kuln’s Moon, these ships could fight for 100 years.”
“Even if we win our battle, how do we ensure we do not initiate a war?” Risa asked.
Cruel, who was barely visible in his padded chair, replied, “Avoid war? Risa, the purpose of this adventure is to start a war. And then quickly win it”, he added as an afterthought.
The crew of the Coterie could best be divided into the leaders George, Risa and Jam; the cronies Dick, Dun and Rave; and ten mercenary pilots. This natural division was reflected in their flight plan. Five cruisers were given two pilots each, while the cronies and the leaders piled into the Shill, which became the command ship.
Conversation did not flow so easily among the leaders as among the cronies. George, in particular was a problem because he was inarticulate to the point of incoherence, but felt that it was incumbent upon himself as their leader to keep the conversation going. Although George was an ineffectual leader his instincts were on the money: it was a good idea to keep the conversation going, because with silence came brooding about what it was like to be eaten alive by green bug-eyed Monsters.
“It’s a tribute to one of my role models.” George replied. “I chose my role models from among the mediocre. That is because I am not a great man, like Tamerlane or Genghis Khan. I am near-great.”
Risa approved of George’s humility. “It was right that the near-great should be humble”, she thought. “Leave arrogance to the great men, who don’t need it.”
George continued. “My models include leaders like Calvin Coolidge, Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Gerald Ford, people who through extreme serendipity have managed to gain responsibility far in excess of their abilities.”
“Yes. But why the Shill?” Risa was always quick with the impatient questions. Perhaps too quick.
George was not flustered by the aptness of her question. He marshaled his free ranging neurons into a reply, “In the nineteenth century there was a political boss in New York City named Roscoe Conkling. Although Roscoe’s perfidy made him a great politician, it was his near-great protégé, and shill, Chester Alan Arthur who became the 21st President of the United States. I named this ship the Shill in honor of President Arthur, and to remind myself that if I pimp for the right boss, and have a bit of luck, I can make it all the way to the top.”
The well-liquored Mr. Chump’s face twisted into the smile of a curmudgeonly troll. Dick knew that George was a ton of bricks short of a full load, so was always pleased to see wisdom somehow finding a purchase on his slippery, thin brain.
Unfortunately, they could only keep conversation with George going for so long, so George’s moment of lucidity was followed by fearful silence.
They brooded not only because of their fears but also because there was so little to do. Heroic journeys are mostly prosaic and dull. Like ordinary people, heroes must focus on such issues as where to sleep, how to keep busy and what to eat. Food is always a contentious topic because the food supplies on quixotic missions are inflexible, which causes problems when people discover that the burgers suck and the lasagna is really good. Friendships form because of this. For once in his life Dundald found that his lean and hungry bearing was a social asset, for he rarely ate and was happy to share treats such as chocolate cake. “It is as if you can live on malice alone” Risa, a frequent beneficiary of Dundald’s largess, once noted. He laughed raucously at this remark, for her words were truer than she realized. In contrast, Cruel emerged as a social problem because he was a glutton and lied about it. Worse, he was lazy and would leave the dishes from his food burglaries lying about for others to clean up. After George roughed him up, Mr. Rave’s worst excesses abated. Fortunately for all, Dick’s taste buds had long since been destroyed by booze and cigars, so he didn’t notice the putrid taste and chalky texture of the burgers; he happily fed on these, keeping the peace by leaving extra lasagna for everyone else.
So the crew of the Shill divided their boring days between torpor, idle conversation and eating. The boredom was serendipitous because when Dick finally assembled them together, two days out from their first objective – a military base that spanned between the third and fourth planets in the Kulnoi solar system – the fear of being eaten alive by green bugged-eyed Monsters had given way to a yearning for action.
George’s strategy was bold and simple: they had six ships, they estimated that the Kulnoi had 1 million ships in orbit around the third planet, a gas giant. The Coterie would divide the enemy into five quadrants, one for each of the five mercenary cruisers. The Shill would fire at will. Each cruiser would have a quota of 166,666 kills. When the Kulnoi outpost was obliterated they would use the gas giant to slingshot to Kuln Prime and then liberate its moon.
George’s bold plan caused some consternation. Jam felt that the idea of five quadrants was unclear mathematically speaking; and Risa strongly believed that the Shill should have more of a plan than simply firing at will. The cronies agreed with Jam and Risa. Dick even pointed out that space was three dimensional, and existed within a fourth dimension, time, whereas George’s plan was based on a flat, static view of the universe. Nevertheless, the cronies let George’s plan prevail. The mood on the Shill was that the upcoming battle would be a cakewalk and that quibbling over details would be bad for morale.
It is one thing to participate in a military brief and quite another to implement it in battle. This weighed heavily on George, who was a rooky leader whose responsibilities far exceeded his abilities. On the morning of their first attack,George sat down beside Jam and asked with a worried voice, “Jam, what is battle like?” The old timers pretended to play poker and Risa pretended to read as they all lent half an ear to Jam’s response.
Jam had heard George’s question a hundred times before, so was ready. “The an easy question to answer George” George sighed as Jam continued, “In battle you give a command to fire, the computer that controls your ship’s artillery fires, the enemy gets killed, your on-board factory makes another bomb, and then you do it again until all of the enemy combatants are dead. Sometimes they surrender before you kill them all; the Kulnoi never do. But that only means we’ll have to kill them all.” The old warrior shrugged.
For once, George was not placated by a simple answer; he wanted to know more, lots more, about battle, “Have you ever seen friendlies get hit?” George asked.
“Yeah, all the time” Jam replied with a stern look on his face. “We’ve got to remember that the Coterie has tremendous fire power. It’s likely that we are a bigger threat to ourselves than the Monsters are to us.” At that point the entire crew, even the cronies, were thankful to have the experience that Jam brought to the team.
Because Jam’s military wisdom flowed deeply and George’s wisdom was like a shallow, dirt-filled eddie, the questions continued, “Is it wrong to kill Monsters, even though they don’t have souls?” George asked.
Jam took a big inhale as he prepared to respond, but Dick cut him off, “Let me field this one, Mr. Fain.” Dick directed his next remark to George, “You don’t need to refer to religion here, my son. You must understand that war, because of its nature, has different ethical guidelines than peace. You can massacre Monsters because they are your enemy. It is a good thing to kill your enemy during wartime, whether they have immortal souls or not.”
“What about starting a war? Surely that must carry heavy moral consequences?” Although George had great respect for Dick’s sophistry, he followed his own moral path.
Dick warmed to his theme. “Wars are often good, George. They can help you better understand who your friends and enemies are, for example.” Dick’s bold answer caused Risa to look at him in a new light. “It is rare to see a moral compass that is so crude yet so finely honed,” she thought admiringly.
George and the cronies spent the 24 hours before battle working out the details of George’s strategy. By the time they arrived at their first target, the communications outpost that protected the gas giant, the two dimensional side of the battle-plan was pretty much complete. There were some three and four-dimensional details related to artillery trajectories over time that still needed work. George was not worried.
It only took a moment to destroy their first target, a communication satellite. The moment the dust of the dematerialized target disappeared off of their scanners, Jam called the attention of the gunners to their unfinished business, defining how to calibrate artillery in five quadrants while moving. George, as a near-great leader, would not have his troops doing computer work when victorious. Besides, the pilots were mercenaries. They had other priorities. He ordered the pilots to destroy the small fourth planet, and its dozen moons, wisely realizing that this would be good for morale. As she watched George order people about, Risa mused, “Self-importance makes him act like twice the man he is”.
Once they had finished turning the undefended target into trash, George loudly asked to anyone who was listening, “I wonder what they’re saying on Earth about this overwhelming victory?”
“We must maintain communications silence.” Jam said over his shoulder. He was annoyed, although somewhat relieved, by George’s idleness. “At least he isn’t giving anyone any orders.” Jam thought.
“Chill out, Jam, I think that the Kulnoi know that we are here,” Dundald calmly interjected. “After all, we just blew up their outer solar system.”
While Jam struggled to tame a pack of biting replies, Cruel’s insinuating voice piped out of the couch in which he was buried, “Do you really want to see what Humans are watching, George? I wrote the copy before we left. Here, let me show you.” The spin doctor, turned on a screen, which showed Earth news, “Don’t worry Jam – this isn’t real time. Actually, it is, in a way, but its all pre-arranged.
Risa was beyond being impressed at this point. She had read so much about freedom of speech. She was awed to have finally met someone rich enough to afford it. Of course she still saw the news story as spin. She was realistic. The “Heroes of the Shill” were younger, more beautiful versions of themselves; and the destruction of the communication satellite took longer on the news than it had in real life. Who had heard of that! Even Jam, who prided himself on his modesty, had to admit that the story tickled him pink. “It’s been too long since someone – even my publicist – called me a hero,” he thought wistfully.
Although he loved Cruel’s flattering spin, it made George pensive. His family had never used the word “hero” lightly. He came from a long line of people whose near-greatness – the near caused by avarice, laziness and/or narcissism – had left the family utterly devoid of heroes, and acutely aware of why. Not that the Brash family had given up trying to produce a hero. George had been raised to exceed. From birth he had learned that heroism was something exceptional. It came from having the conviction to stand up to nay-sayers, the boldness to draw moral lines, the steadfastness to defend those lines, and the courage to lead the charge against someone else’s moral system and crush it. Without realizing it, George addressed his next words to the entire bridge, “Am I a really a hero because I just blew up this remote communication outpost?”
“You are witless” Dick noted, to general agreement.
George heard Dick’s wise words, nodded his head sagely and said, “I sometimes fear that stupidity may be my tragic flaw.”
Risa would have none of it, “Don’t doubt for a moment Mr. George Brash that you are a hero even if your actions achieve nothing or cause damage.”
Risa’s faint praise brought tears to George’s eyes but failed to bring conversation to his lips. His awkward muteness made him wish that he had produced a detailed battle plan, which could keep minds occupied as the Coterie approached Kuln Prime. Unfortunately, in the quiet hours before their first full-scale engagement, his simple plan left his idle mind free to dwell on the many ways in which the green bug-eyed Monsters eat Humans alive.
Within hours of destroying the outer solar system they arrived at the third planet from the Kulnoi sun, a gas giant that was currently 200 million kilometers from their ultimate goal, Kuln’s prison moon. They steadied their trajectory 100,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface and prepared their attack.
“Look at your planet side monitor, sir.” Jam said to George.
George gasped. The huge face of the gas giant was covered by Monster war ships.
As Risa rushed to her monitor to see for herself, Dick leapt out of his chair and said authoritatively, “Don’t panic men, and Risa, this is what we expected.”
Dick’s brave language inspired Mr. Brash to take charge. George was proud to be commander of the Coterie.This was the end point of a path that he had been on since he had stopped partying 15 years ago. Every step that he had taken had been focused on this one goal, and with each step his options had narrowed until now there were no more decisions to be made. He pushed the button on the intercom, “Coterie. This is your Captain. Divide the sky in front of you into 5 quadrants as discussed in our briefing. Each of you will focus on one quadrant.
The Shill will fire at will.” He turned off the communicator, trying to remember if he had missed anything and feared that he had, but he could not remember what.
While George fumbled with his communicator, Risa rocked nervously on her heels impatiently waiting to speak. At the first appropriate moment she let what she had to say burst out of her. “Commander Brash, I know it’s a bit late to ask, but are you certain everyone is clear about what the five quadrants are?”
At this point the ship’s computer did something quite unexpected for a servant-machine: it interrupted George just as he began to evade Risa’s question. It said, “Good question, Risa. George’s plan <i>is</i> ambiguous from the perspective of four dimensional reality. There are many calibration issues related to defining what the fifth quadrant is, and how it changes while we move. These issues will be particularly difficult to solve as we accelerate toward light-speed …”
George interrupted the upstart computer with a cold, patrician voice, “I have no time for your trigonometry, machine. Be quiet.”
The insolence of the ship’s computer had distracted the crew from the fact that the Shill was actively engaged in battle. George looked at the battle simulation that was being projected onto the screen in front of him. The view of Monster vehicles exploding was like the biggest imaginable Independence Day celebration. The combination of the Coterie‘s pinpoint targeting and the abundance of targets, led to kill after kill after kill after kill after kill. 700,000 kills later it looked like the Monsters had had enough. Their vehicles pulled back and regrouped. While they did so, George seized the moment: he gave the order for the Coterie to cease firing and prepare to slingshot.
“What are they doing?” George tried to speak decisively, but there was a waver in his voice.
“I know,” said Jam, “it’s a three-dimensional crossing of the T”.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a battle strategy used by navies that float on water.”
“Why should that work here?”
“It allows them to concentrate their fire while making themselves smaller targets.”
The thin line of enemy battleships moved upward through the space directly in front of them, all the while concentrating its fire on the Urgent Fury, which was the Coterie‘s vanguard ship. When he saw that the Fury’s shields were failing George gave the order to fire back.
The Fury exploded.
“Computer. What just happened?” George was aghast.
“A missile from the Contra just destroyed the Urgent Fury“, the computer said laconically, “The damage happened in the fifth quadrant. You will recall that we have some calibration issues there.”
“Stupid computer, why can’t you make my plan work?” George would brook no mathematical talk-back from this machine.
The computer’s voice remained placid. “The lack of clarity over what the fifth quadrant is makes it difficult to create firing tables.”
Risa thought she heard the computer sigh as it replied. “Overlap, for example. If you are going to have five quadrants in one space, there may be overlap amongst the quadrants. Determining how this is so while giving each quadrant a unique identity is difficult.”
The crew let George respond. He did so, with vigor. “Whole numbers!” George exclaimed as he slapped his head with the palm of his right hand.
“What do you mean?” the computer asked.
Only use integers in your calculations. That’ll get rid of the overlap.”
When the computer sought clarification George shouted it down,and then sentenced it to silence. He had more important things to focus on than quibbling machines . After all, they were down one ship; their plans had to be updated.
“Which quadrant was the Urgent Fury covering?” George asked Risa. The waver in his voice was now gone.
“Good. Divide responsibility for the third quadrant among the remaining pilots.”
“Shouldn’t we simply divide the battle field into four quadrants?” an artillery sub-system hopefully asked.
The sub-system’s impudence made George so livid he turned down the volume on the Shill‘s entire human-machine interface. “We’re finishing this battle on mute.”
Before George had finished speaking these words, the Coterie‘s new vanguard cruiser, the Contra, exploded into a ball of flame, this time from enemy fire. Before the Contra had finished vaporizing the Monsters focused their fire power on the Rolling Thunder. It glowed red then disappeared into a puff of metallic vapor.
George was dumbfounded. In the same way that he knew that God created Heaven and Earth, he also knew that the Monsters could never destroy a Human ship. The heat of battle gave him no time to reflect on this development however. He received an urgent communication from the pilot of the Free Enterprise.
“Captain Brash. I’m speaking for the ships Ajax and Dessert Storm. What is happening in this battle is not covered by our contract. We’re turning back.” The pilot was speaking in the past – the ships had already departed from the battlefield.
The Coterie was down to one ship.
The gravity of the gas giant hurtled into Shill into the inner solar system picaseconds before the Monster guns concentrated their fire.
Within minutes they were in orbit around Kuln Prime. They were traveling so quickly that it was only on their third traverse that they noticed that thousands of Kulnoi warships were rising from the surface of the prison moon.
Although they were dramatically outnumbered, George did not hesitate, “Computer. Prepare to set up a base on Kuln’s Moon. Make sure the site is defensible.”
George’s decisive commands led to nothing. It took Risa but a moment to realize that the Shill‘s human-machine interface was still muted.
The moment the computer got it’s voice back it said, “Commander Brash, there isn’t a good place to set up our base. The entire moon is militarized. If we get within 500,000 kilometres of it we will be blasted to Andromeda.”
George was not an evidenced-based leader, so the ship’s warning did not cause his resolve to waver one iota. He inhaled deeply and then spoke, “Fine. We will begin to orbit the moon and keep firing until every Monster ship has been destroyed.”
Risa looked at her control panel and reported to George that his plan was impossible. “Our missile factory is malfunctioning.”
“I assume that we still have enough munitions in reserve to obliterate the Monsters.” George was all over this problem.
“We have slightly more than one million missiles left.” Risa replied. “The enemy have just over ten million ships that are within immediate firing range. There are at least 10 million more ships stationed on the moon.
“Let’s get started. We’re going to have to make every shot count. Ten times over.”
“Twenty times over” Mr. Chump corrected. He had a grim look on his face.
Although the battle was heated and the Kulnoi casualties mounted, they all – with the exception of George, who was a bit slow in these matters – realized that defeat would only be a matter of time. Fortunately, no one had a moment to dwell on how they would soon be eaten alive by green bug-eyed Monsters.
The Shill ran out of missiles one day and over two million Kulnoi casualties later. The Monsters then bombarded it until its shields imploded. Once they had destroyed the Human ship’s defenses, the Monsters adulterated the Shill‘s air supply using a drone, rendering the crew unconscious.
When the Humans awoke they were astonished by the size of their cage. That mystery was solved when their captors arrived. The Kulnoi were huge compared with Humans, and walked very lightly in the low gravity environment of Kuln’s Moon. They wore leather tunics made from the hides of their victims. The brown leather was offset nicely by their pond green skin. Their eyes were comprised of spheres of hexagonal lenses. Clusters of them were perched on agitated stalks. Most of the Monsters had only five or six eye-stalks, one had a dozen. Below their eyes were two vicious looking sets of mandibles that they used to tear up food before inserting it into a circular mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
A Kulnoi officer began to bellow at the crew of the Coterie . It seemed to think that the louder it spoke, the easier it was to understand. The Human crew looked dumbly on. They were all ignorant of the Kulnoi language. When the bellowing officer paused to take a breath, Cruel stepped forward, placed his personal communicator on a table, activated it then stepped away. The communicator projected a holographic image onto the space in front of the officer. The image said something in the Kulnoi language. The officer walked over to the device and examined it. It grabbed Cruel’s device, then Cruel himself, and brusquely left the room, a train of lower ranking soldiers followed. The door to their prison closed with a clang.
Several hours later their captors returned with Cruel’s device, but without Mr. Rave himself. The Monster officer handed the communicator to George.
It played a hologram of the Monster saying, in George’s own dialect, “Mr. George Brash, capturing your ship was a great victory for the Kulnoi. You are my prize. Although your government has offered to pay me a large ransom for your safe return, you are much more valuable to me as food.”
After delivering this message the guards then took Dundald and Dick away. George, Jam and Risa had only moments to wonder who would be next; the guards quickly returned for them. They were taken to a food-sorting factory. Probably the very one in which George’s father had been packaged. The Humans were divided into pens, each of which moved very slowly on a conveyor belt toward the Packers and Sorters. Healthy Humans were thrown into static bags by the Packers to be eaten later. The unhealthy and the dead were identified by Sorters and then ground up into pet food.
Commander George Brash looked bleakly up at his enormous, threatening captors. He was four pens away from the Packer, three from the Sorter. He wondered which of the two Kulnoi would seal his fate. He spoke, but did not directly address Risa and Jam, who shared his pen. “I don’t want to be a Monster’s appetizer.” Risa, who had had enough of George replied sharply, “Captain, whether we’re kept alive in a static bag, or ground up for pets to eat – either way we’re food.”
“What I mean is, I don’t want to be eaten alive” George retorted. He sprayed himself and then handed Risa his sprayer. “Apply this ointment to your skin. The Monsters will think that you’ve spoilt and will kill you quickly.” They solemnly sprayed each other and prepared to die like heroes. The spray’s foul smell caused Risa to vomit convulsively.
The Sorter rudely grabbed a young Human, chewed off his head and then tossed the corpse into a masher where it would be ground into pet food.
“Hey, don’t eat the merchandise” the Packer chastised.
“It was already dead”, the Sorter replied.
“That’s disgusting, eating something that is dead.”
“Not all of us have good jobs, like yours, Mr. Packer. If you paid me more, maybe I’d be able to afford some of this living merchandise.”
The Monsters continued working sullenly. After a while the Sorter spoke again, “Do you think they suffer?”
“Of course they do.” The Packer guffawed at the irrelevance of the question. “My friend you are over-complicating your simple job.” As he spoke the Packer picked up George and poked him harshly in the stomach. The human recoiled in pain. The Monster plunged George head first into a mild solvent in order to remove his terrible smell, and then threw him into a static bag. George struggled futilely until the instant the bag was sealed and time stopped. The Packer turned to the Sorter and said, “It’s actually very simple: if it moves, it’s alive. If it’s alive, its food.”
Jimmy threw a handful of dust at the girl and shouted again. “Tanya is skinny skinny skinny.”
Although the epithet was appropriate, Tanya was thin as a rail, it was the kind of insult a black pot might hurl at a kettle. At eleven years Jimmy showed his age: he was scrawny, like a sickly rake, except at the point where his belly distended through his ragged t-shirt; his lips were thin and his eyes were dull; his skin was puce-coloured and filthy. As with far too many boys in Fairbanks, it was difficult to tell where dirt ended and disease began.
Tanya stared down at Jimmy but didn’t reply to his taunts. His words didn’t hurt as much today as they did on other days. Today she felt distanced from him, as if she was from another world that he couldn’t touch.
Two blocks from Tanya’s home Jimmy made a left so that he could take a short cut to his home in the Projects. Tanya turned right, and began walking toward the other side of the railway tracks. Her mother was waiting for her on the stoop of the family’s three story brick townhouse. Normally, that was a bad sign because it meant Mum wanted to talk about something, like grades. This time Tanya wasn’t so sure. Her mother didn’t even notice her approach: she sat crouched forward with her head between her hands, looking down at her feet. In her left hand she held a rumpled, blue envelope.
“Mum.” Tanya asked tentatively when she reached the bottom step. Her mother hadn’t even noticed her arrival.
Tanya’s mother looked up and wearily said, “Hi Pumpkin.” As an afterthought she added, “How was school?”
“Were you on time?”
“Did any of the Hootch boys bother you?”
Mum sighed, “What did he do?”
Mum let it drop. At least she wasn’t crying anymore. Tanya said, “Come inside, Mum. I’ll help you make dinner.”
Dad arrived two hours later, at 6:00 pm, which was early. Mum greeted him at the door. She hugged him until he gently pushed her away. He said, “That’s enough Rhonda.” He wasn’t annoyed by Mum’s excessive affection, just tired.
Dad walked into the kitchen. He silently stared at the bare table – a small plate of potatoes, and some salmon. He asked, “What’s for dinner?”
Tanya braced herself. Dad could see what was for dinner. But he wasn’t asking a question, he was saying how little there was. He always did that, because where he came from in California there was lots. In Fairbanks there was never enough.
Mum was in no mood to fight. “You’ve got some mail.” She handed Dad the blue envelope she’d been crying over earlier. Dad looked at the envelope. He noticed it was opened but said nothing. He handed the letter back to Mum and said, “Read it to me.”
Mum whispered, “Tanya’s here.”
Dad said, “Read it anyway”. He didn’t lower his voice. Mum read,
A list of recruiting centres …
Mum stopped reading.
“What’s a GM visa, Dad?” Tanya asked.
“Your father’s genes have been modified to make them better” Mum replied.
“When? Why wasn’t I told?”, Tanya exclaimed.
“The changes happened hundreds of years ago, pumpkin” Mum replied. “Your father inherited the improvements from his Mum and Dad.”
“And you inherited them from me”, Dad added gruffly.
Mum raised her voice so that she could speak over Dad, “Your genes don’t matter right now, Tanya. What matters is that your father has to join the army for a few years.”
“Do we have to move?” Tanya asked.
Dad answered, “Yes. I’ll be training at Fort Palin, near Inuvik. That’s where they send all the conscripts.”
“What about the war?” Tanya asked her father. “Do you think you’ll have to fight in the war?”
Mum spoke with an outdoor voice, “There’s no war! That’s just a border dispute over Lake Athabasca. I’m sure it’ll be over by the time your father’s training is done.”
Dad picked up his food and went to the living room. That’s what he did when he was angry but too tired to fight. Tanya went with him. Mum stayed in the kitchen. She hardly ate.
When Dad finished his dinner he went to the kitchen to talk to Mum. He wasn’t angry anymore. Tanya pretended to sleep by the stove, but was really listening to her parents.
Dad said, “Rhonda. I’m going to go back to Long Beach. I’d like you and Tanya to come with me.”
Dad looked at Mum. She looked away. She said, “Cody, draft dodging is too dangerous. If you get caught you’ll be shot or enslaved. And think of Tanya.”
Dad looked into the living room.
Mum said, “Do you think two years in the army is that bad? I bet the pay is the same as you get now.” Mum was speaking quietly. Tanya rolled over so that she could hear better.
Dad replied, “Sure. Soldier’s make more than labourers. If they live.”
Mum started to cry.
Mum spoke first, “Did you do your homework?”
“No. I couldn’t think last night. Anyway, I have until Monday.”
“What’s your assignment?”
“Its like show and tell. I have to pretend I’m a visitor from an historical time and place.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
Tanya shrugged, “Miss Langan said I should talk about the Arctic War.”
“Don’t talk about war, sweetheart. Do something cultural instead. Why don’t you talk about the Movies?”
Tanya liked that idea a lot more than talking about some ancient battle. “That sounds great, Mum, but I need a theme.”
“What do movies make you think of pumpkin?”
Tanya thought about the fights between Mum and Dad over how there was never enough food.
“Lots”, she said.
“What do you mean?”
“They had lots of everything in Movie Times. I’m want to talk about that.”
Mum leaned over and gently clasped Tanya’s hands, “How about we study tomorrow by seeing a movie?”
For the first time in weeks both Rhonda and her daughter smiled.
Tanya, though quiet, was engaged. Every once in a while she would make a comment about something, but otherwise was content to look everywhere and say nothing.
They arrived at the library on time for the noon matinee. Today’s movie was “Harry Potter and the Temple of the Phoenix”. The library always played this one because it had lots of copies, so it didn’t matter so much if one wore out.
Tanya was bursting with excitement. Despite herself Rhonda was as well. It had been years since she had seen a movie, and she had never once seen a Harry Potter.
The theatre was part of a Victorian Revival building that had been annexed to the Central Reference Library a generation earlier. Its entrance was guarded by a pair of marble dragons, which sat on either side of a grand staircase. Its atrium was illuminated by a giant electric light that hung from a domed ceiling. The theatre itself had an orchestra pit and two terraces. The staircase walls were painted with giant frescoes of important moments in the military history of the Republic: the battle of Bear Lake, the lifting of the Siege of Barrow, and the sack of Burnaby. The second balcony was closed entirely while artists worked on the latest addition to the frescoes, a memorial to the Hay River Massacre. It was a painting of the young Joan Smith dying on the bow of the Mackenzie Dawn. That was the event that started the current war.
The movie began.
For both Tanya and her mother the next hour was a wonderful blur.
When the torches were lit for the intermission, Tanya became disoriented. The Dementors, Hogwarts, the magic – it was all so vivid. The library auditorium seemed flat, dull and unreal.
The concession stand was decorated with mirrors. All of the walls and pillars had mirrors as well, which made the lobby look huge because every where you looked you saw infinity. Tanya was teased so much about her body she never looked at herself in the mirror. Why would she want to see how ugly she was? She tried not to look at herself now, but it was difficult.
While Tanya stood in line, staring at her feet, a child’s voice said, “Miss. Miss.” A little girl, no more than seven, tugged at the hem of her skirt. Tanya looked up. The tugging was being done by a beautiful Yupik girl – she was well fed and had ruddy red skin. Her black hair was tied into two pigs tails that stuck up like antennas. The child asked Tanya, “Miss, are you Hermione?”
Tanya looked from the girl to millions of reflections of the Hermione.
The Yupik child burst out, “You’re beautiful!” The little girl was so embarrassed by her words that she rolled away, but the words she had just spoken did not leave with her. Tanya wouldn’t let them: she had always wanted to be beautiful.
A woman wearing a puffy coat made of muskrat fur rushed over to Tanya. She bent down on one knee and raised Tanya’s chin with her right hand, and said, “That Eskimo child is right. You look just like Emma Watson. Are you one? I haven’t seen any since the pogroms.” Tanya edged away, but there was nowhere to hide in a room full of mirrors. The woman continued, “Never mind. Of course you are. Why don’t you read this. There’s an address on the back if you want to talk.” The woman handed Tanya a pamphlet. There was a black and white picture of the magician Hermione on the cover. It had the title, “The Goddesses of Movie Times.”
Tanya took the pamphlet from the woman, and rushed back to her seat. Mum didn’t ask why Tanya didn’t return with a drink.
In the last few moments before the movie continued Tanya began read a story from her pamphlet with the title “Were wizards real?”
Mum noticed but said nothing.
The moment the movie ended Rhonda threw a hat and scarf over her daughter, hustled them both out of the library and onto the street. Despite the cost, they took a carriage home.
For the first few minutes of their journey they were both silent. Tanya was thinking about how Hogwarts was her true home, and wondered if there was a portal to it in Fairbanks. She once excitedly made the driver stop the carriage when she mistook a huge, unkempt trapper for Hagrid.
Rhonda brooded, uncertain how to proceed.
Tanya broke the silence, “Mum, am I Hermione?”
“Dear heart, someone hundreds of years ago altered your genes so that you look like Hermione. But no, you’re not her. Hermione is not real. She’s just a character in a story.”
“But what about Emma Watson? She was real. Am I her? Or a clone of her? Or something else?”
“Pumpkin, movie stars are never real. They’re myths we create about famous actors.”
“Why would someone want to look like Hermione?”
“Because she was beautiful.”
Tanya tried to suppress a smile; she did not succeed, “But I’m skinny.”
“In Movie Times people thought it was beautiful to be slender. They considered it a sign of health and self-discipline.”
“What do you mean, self-discipline?”
“Back then there was so much of everything that some people had too much. They would eat and eat until they grew so fat they were ugly.”
Tanya remembered how Dad looked at his empty plate.
Too much and not enough.
When they were almost done cleaning up dinner Tanya broke the silence. “Mum, I’ve been thinking about my presentation for school. Can I practice on you?”
Mum said, “Of course, dear.”
They put away their towels, drained the sink and retired to the living room.
Mum sat down in the big chair Dad always used. Tanya gathered her thoughts while she composed herself in front of the wood stove. She had learned from the Harry Potter movie that she wasn’t an ugly duckling. If this was California in Movie Times everyone would think that she was as beautiful as a star. She had to let her classmates know this! But how?
Tanya began, “In Movie Times make-believe was real, and because we make-believe wonderful things everything was better back then.”
Mum squirmed in her chair.
Tanya continued, “They had lots of everything in Movie Times. Not just clothes and wagons, but even lots of fresh water. They had machines that could create water out of air.” She took a big inhalation. “And of course they had lots of Movie Stars.”
Tanya stopped speaking. That was as all she had.
Mum carefully asked, “Tanya, what did you say about make-believe?” The simple question confused Tanya. Tanya had gone into a trance when she recited her speech. She didn’t remember any of it, what she had said, what Mum’s reactions were, nothing. She said, “Let me practice some more, and do some research. We can do it again tomorrow. OK?”
Tanya went to bed, where she dreamed of eating all the smoked fish she wanted, and having lemonade and sugar cookies for desert.
Mum was hungry. She had scrimped on dinner because the cost of the carriage home had been steep. She opened the icebox. All they had was a small piece of dried salmon, some old potatoes, stale bread and sour butter. She left it all for Dad.
On Monday morning Tanya was excited about how she was going to tell her story. She knew that if she could make her classmates understand that she wasn’t just different she was special, like a princess from a far away land, they’d be her friends.
Rhonda looked at her child. Tanya had never been this enthusiastic about going to school. Had she ever been this enthusiastic about anything? Tanya’s excitement took the edge off her mother’s nerves, but it was impossible not to worry. They had rehearsed the presentation a dozen times last night, and each time Tanya’s words were different.
Although she was shunned by her family, Rhonda Anderson was still treated as a highly ranked noble by the teachers at her daughter’s school. When she arrived with her daughter in a carriage, which they had taken to ensure that Tanya was unmuddied, a great fuss was made by the principal. Rhonda was invited to watch all of the presentations. Although she was anxious about her presence upsetting her daughter, she agreed to stay.
The school had three classrooms for three different age groups. All the children had all gathered in the biggest classroom, which was the one normally used by the youngest children. Tanya’s teacher was a middle-aged Asian refugee who had migrated to Alaska across the pole. Her English was fluent, but accented, and precisely spoken. This gave her an appearance of harshness not warranted by her otherwise stoic and gentle manner. She was dressed in a blue uniform, white top and blue tie: an adult version of what the children wore. The school bell rang; the children settled down.
The teacher asked, “Who would like to go first?”
Tanya’s arm shot up. Her teacher was surprised. Tanya was a reticent child who never volunteered for anything. She said, “Very good, Tanya. You can go first. What is your historical period?”
“What is your theme?”
“I expect you to explain what you mean by that.”
Tanya nodded vigorously but wondered why you’d need to explain the idea of lots to anyone.
Tanya took her place at the front of the classroom, stood up straight and smoothed her skirt with her hands. The teacher said, “Begin”.
Tanya began. “My speech is about my pretend visit to Los Angeles, California in Movie Times.”
Tanya mustered all of her effort to look at her classmates. She wouldn’t go blank the way she did when practicing with Mum. They were all looking at her. Tanya’s heart was racing. She took a deep breath to calm herself down. She began, “In Movie Times there was lots of everything. There was lots of lemons and sugar, and crayons came in over one hundred colours.”
Tanya nervously inhaled. She exhaled, “The streets were full of metal wagons with tires made of air. Every family had one, some had two or three, so that children could drive too. At first I was scared to drive, then one day I drove from Hollywood to Santa Monica on a highway. It was fun.”
Tanya paused to look at her classmates. She had their complete attention. She smiled as she spoke her next words, “Even school was fun in Movie Times. There were no tests because everyone owned a box that contained all knowledge. If you wanted to know something, all you had to do was ask your box. It was easier if you could type, but you didn’t have to, most of the time the knowledge box could understand your spoken words.”
Tanya’s audience had disappeared. She was entirely in her head again. This time, she noticed. Pay attention, Tanya, she thought. This can change your life.
Tanya forced her perceptions to come back into the room. In a bold voice she said, “One of the best things about back then was all the Movie Stars. There was Halley who was the goddess of beauty. She was thin and had big breasts, so everyone liked her.”
Tanya looked at her classmates, just to know she could. She continued, “Not all of these goddesses were good. Some were terrible. The goddesses Paris and Lindsey and Britney used to kill their boyfriends, after they kissed them.”
“My Mum thinks they still do.” That was Jimmy Hootch. For once he wasn’t teasing. He was just saying. Tanya felt encouraged. She said, “I think so too”. Mum cringed.
Tanya’s presentation reached its climax, “On my trip to Hollywood I met my favorite movie star, Emma. That’s her regular name. Her Greek name is Hermione. I liked her because …” Tanya stumbled on the words because Emma was just like me. Tanya couldn’t say that. Instead she said, “Hermione was one of the perfume goddesses.”
“What did she look like?” The question was asked by Peter, one of the older Hootch boys. Today he had a large bruise around his left eye. Just like the one his brother Jimmy had last week.
“Let me tell you” Tanya said proudly. She opened up the pamphlet she had been given at the Central Reference Library, and began to read in a loud, steady voice, “The goddess Emma was pretty and thin and had small breasts, a pert butt and a button nose.”
“Tanya, did you see the Harry Potter movie on Saturday? You look like the magician Hermione.” The question was asked by one of the older boys who Tanya didn’t know.
“Yeah, you do.” Everyone who had seen any of the Harry Potters agreed.
Even though Tanya was afraid of expressing her emotions, a smile spread over her face. She had done it! Now they all knew. She wasn’t an ugly duckling because she was skinny. She was as beautiful as a movie star.
“Why don’t you see if anyone has questions?”, the teacher prompted.
“I have a question. I do.”
“Tanya, what was the best part of Movie Times?”
Calvin was the oldest of the Hootch boys. He was quieter than his other brothers, as if age had made him too tired to be angry. He got more black eyes than the rest of his brothers combined, even though he never fought.
Tanya replied, “I think that the best thing about back then was that no one ever starved, because if you got hungry and had no food the Government gave you stamps that you could eat.”
Calvin’s eyes went wide. Tanya looked at the rest of her classmates. All of their eyes were wide too: their next meals were never guaranteed. They had all gone hungry.
“Are there any more questions?” the teacher asked.
There were no more questions. The children had learned all about lots.
This is the bleakest story I have ever written, but I hope one of the most powerful. It is a reflection on libertarianism versus freedom.
This establishment is governed by Private Law.
Caitlin looked at the grimy notice. It was the last thing she saw before she entered the foyer from the stairs, and the first thing that guests saw when they entered the co-op from outside. She turned to face the cell. Its right part was defined by the slope of the stairwell. This was where the prisoner, a lean, ragged man, was now sitting. Although he was barely 40 years of age he had grey, thin hair. His skin was taut and sallow; his parched lips were white around the edges. The wall facing him was pocked by metal studs that had once been used to hang bicycles. In the far corner there was a rusty, galvanized bucket of water. The bucket was used for both drinking and washing, first one then the other. The cell had two light sources: a skylight, six floors above at the top of the spiraling stair-well, and the stained-glass windows that ringed the co-op’s entrance, towards which the cell faced. It was twilight; the setting sun was shining through the stained glass, casting cheerful red and blue shadows onto the cell’s peeling, yellow walls.
Caitlin addressed the prisoner with a quiet voice, “Here’s some left-overs. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring more, but you know how my uncle gets upset when I feed you.” She was tall for her age, and lank. Her simple, grey woolen clothes hung loosely on her stretched frame. Her thick, dark hair had been recently washed, and was carefully braided. She moved tentatively, as if she had not yet mastered either her body or the uncertain world through which it moved.
The prisoner arranged his chains so that he could turn to face his visitor. He was not used to speaking, so his voice was broken and gruff when he said, “What did you bring me?” He spoke with eager desperation. The young woman tilted the bowl she held in her hand so that he could see its contents: several pieces of beef gristle, a small scoop of potatoes and some greyish-green beans.
The prisoner carefully cleared some rotten scraps from the wooden tray he used as both a table and plate. He pushed the wooden tray through the small space between the barred gate and the floor. The young woman transferred the food onto the tray, and then pushed the tray toward the prisoner. The laden tray passed easily into the cell except for a tiny piece of potato, which stuck to the bottom bar of the gate. The prisoner received the food gratefully; he finished eating it in a moment, and then ate the small piece of potato that had stuck to the gate.
When the prisoner finished eating, he replaced the rotten scraps he’d earlier put aside, and carefully placed the food tray by the head of the woven mat he used for a bed. He wiped his utensils, a wooden spoon and a small, sharp knife.
“Who gave you that knife?” Caitlin asked.
“Do you think she’s changed her mind about you?” the young woman asked hopefully.
The prisoner looked at the pouch that held the knife, and then up at the young woman. His eyes were yellow and foggy, so foggy that Caitlin wondered if he could even see her.
“How did your trip go?”, the prisoner asked.
The young woman took a deep breath before replying. The inhalation straightened her slightly stooped shoulders. “The first time they turned me away. I’m too young to launch an appeal. The second time Mrs. Simpson came with me.”
“God bless that woman.”
“Didn’t she vote against you?” Caitlin asked.
“She abstained. If it had made a difference, she’d have voted for me. I know that. But … tell me what happened, child.”
Caitlin handed the prisoner the form letter she had received from the Office of the Procurator General. He pushed it back to her, and said gruffly, “Read it.” She did so,
The co-operative at 14 Cyclades Ave., Juneau, Alaska is entitled to imprison hoarders under the terms of the War Measures Act. Penal facilities must conform to the incarceration standards outlined in the Constitution and they are subject to periodic audits. No sentence can exceed 5 years without a review by the Third Circuit Court of Greater Alaska.
Cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden.
When she was finished reading the letter Caitlin added in a less formal voice, “The man we met said the Procurator has very little authority over Private Law.”
“What about an audit?”
“That’s what the man told us to do. He said that Mrs. Simpson has to set up a meeting with the Procurator. Even though he doesn’t have authority he appoints auditors, who do. It only costs $5.”
“Is $5 too much? Should it cost less?”
The prisoner looked at the Caitlin for several breaths before he spoke. “The meeting shouldn’t cost anything, child. It’s his job to see you.”
“Should I refuse to pay him?”
“No!” The prisoner spoke too loudly. “You have no choice, Caitlin. You have to pay. Whatever he asks.” He continued with a quiet, weary voice. “Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. If I ever get the money Mrs. Ellison stole from me, I’ll pay you back. I’ll do anything you want. I promise.”
Caitlin tugged at the loose thread which threatened to unravel the lace which trimmed the otherwise rough fabric of her home-made skirt, nervously shuffled her feet but said nothing; she did not know how to reply.
The prisoner continued, “Make sure the audit happens as soon as possible. Can you? You will?”
Caitlin hesitated before responding. “I’ll do my best.” She inhaled deeply before she replied, “Dan …”
“Don’t use my name! If someone heard you, you could be punished too!”
The intensity of his voice caused her to take a step back. When she recovered her balance Caitlin said, “If Mrs. Simpson hears something from the Procurator I’ll let you know.
“She can tell me herself.”
“She won’t talk to you. She’s too afraid.”
The front door began to open with a loud, wooden creak. Caitlin rushed up the stairs to her apartment on the second floor before anyone saw her.
Caitlin knocked twice on Mrs. Simpson’s door.
“Please come in.”
Caitlin poked her head half-way through the door. She said, “I only wanted to ask …”
Mrs. Simpson gently, but firmly, pulled Caitlin into her apartment. She said, “Caitlin, we have to be very careful.”
Caitlin was unfazed. She said, “I just wanted to know how your meeting with the Procurator went. If you’re busy …”
“He approved the audit.”
“That’s wonderful news!”
Mrs. Simpson shook her head mournfully. “No. He wants $100.”
That was as much as Caitlin’s father paid his man for an entire year’s service.
Mrs. Simpson continued, “I want to help poor Daniel, but I don’t have that kind of money. Your father is influential. Maybe …” She didn’t conclude the sentence because she didn’t know what Caitlin’s absent father could do.
“Mrs. Simpson, my father is in California. You know that.” Caitlin spoke respectfully.
“I also know that he is a very careful person, who loves you dearly. I’m certain he made provisions for an emergency.”
“Is this an emergency?”
“For Daniel it is. Have you seen the knife Mrs. Ellison gave him?”
Caitlin recalled how Daniel looked at that knife. She wondered what she could do to stop him from killing himself.
The day before Caitlin’s father left for California, she met him at his ship. He had been living there for several days already. The moment she arrived, her father turned his back on he was doing and clasped her hands in an uncharacteristically gentle manner. Caitlin reluctantly let him. She was angry that her father was leaving her, but now, just hours before his departure, that emotion was overwhelmed by sadness and fear. They walked hand-in-hand along the wharf, saying nothing as they gazed out into the Gulf of Alaska, Caitlin clung more and more tightly to her father’s hand.
They sat down side by side on an old green bench that looked out over Gulf. Caitlin’s father said,“This is the wrong time for me to go away. You’re too young and the world is … Never mind that. I want you to know that I don’t want to leave you. I’m going because I have no choice. My Patron …” Caitlin hugged his arm; her tears moistened his shirt.
After a few moments Caitlin’s father gently extracted himself and put a key around his daughter’s neck. He interrupted the embrace not because he was unsentimental, but rather because he was consoled by doing his duty, and wanted to get started doing it. He placed his hands firmly, but lightly, onto his daughter’s shoulders, and said, “Look at me dear heart. Do you know where I keep my money?
“The Second Bank of Alaska.”
“Where is it located?”
“At Main and Palin. It opens at 10 am …”
“Very good.” He hugged her tightly and then squatted so that his eyes were parallel with hers. “Caitlin, do you see the number on this key?” He placed her hands around the key he’d just given her. “It is the number of the box this key will open. If you ever need money, but are afraid to ask your Aunt, or anyone, go to the Second Bank of Alaska. Say that you are my daughter. Ask for box 256. But only in an emergency.”
“What kind of emergency?”
“Not something small, like a leaky faucet. Something big, like a threat against your life or property. If you get confused, act like me.”
“Dad, why are you giving this to me and not to Aunt Katherine?”
“I’ve made other arrangements with your Aunt.” He looked out over the Gulf and rubbed his hand through his black, oiled hair. “Of course I have. But …” He rubbed his forehead, which left an almost translucent black smear “… I don’t trust her husband.”
“You mean Uncle Jim?”
He couldn’t bear to speak further; he just nodded his head.
Caitlin’s attention returned to the present. She looked up at Mrs. Simpson. “My father left me some money. Maybe its enough.”
Caitlin had never been inside the Second Bank of Alaska, so did not know what to expect. The bank was located in a featureless, squat building made of new, red brick. On the inside it appeared much bigger than it did from the street, because its top floors were taken up by a dome instead of offices. There was a huge painting on the dome of two men touching fingers, one had beard, the other was clean shaven.
The moment Caitlin identified herself to the guard at the bank’s entrance, the Manager was alerted. The Manager, a fat old man in a black suit, escorted her to the safety deposit box. The security guard, who had a waxed mustache and was armed with a long, slender sword, walked several steps behind them. Caitlin wondered if the man was guarding her or the Manager.
The Manager claimed to be a good friend of Caitlin’s father, and inquired several times after his health. Caitlin told the Manager that she had not heard a word from her father since he left to explore California 11 months earlier, but that didn’t stop the Manager from asking the same question again.
They reached a thick metal door that had a metal wheel for a handle. The security guard stepped forward and with some effort turned the wheel. The door rolled open. Caitlin entered the vault, unescorted; it was full of metal drawers. The Manager said farewell. The guard stayed behind, but turned his back to her and guarded the door.
Caitlin quickly found Box 256. It was empty except for a small block of gold and a stack of five dollar bills. She knew that the money was enough for the Procurator, but hesitated before taking it. Although this was an emergency for Daniel it was not an emergency for her. She wondered what would happen if she used up all of the money and she had an emergency herself. She didn’t know what to do, so she attempted to emulate her father. She removed $50 but left the gold and the rest of the bills.
“Did you get the money?” Mrs. Simpson asked, the moment Caitlin had safely entered the apartment.
Caitlin silently placed the small stack of bills on the table.
Mrs. Simpson counted the money and then said, “Is this all?”
Caitlin froze. Mrs. Simpson understood. “Let’s hope $50 is enough.”
Mrs. Simpson began to put the money away; Caitlin scooped it up before she could. Caitlin said, “I’ll pay the Procurator myself.”
Mrs. Simpson looked away; her tired eyes were ringed with dark circles. She said, “I guess you will.”
They went to the Procurator’s office the next day. They had intended to walk along West Sixth, but it had rained during the night, so that way was too muddy. Caitlin insisted on hiring a cab. Like tourists, they took a scenic route to City Hall that followed the harbour. They were dressed like they were going to Church, in bonnets and flowered dresses: Caitlin’s was white with red roses and a small cherry red handbag; Mrs. Simpson’s dress was her Sunday best, dark blue velvet decorated with small white nicotiana flowers that that looked like polka-dots.
The Procurator’s office was in the back of an old mansion, which shared a garden with City Hall. Although Caitlin and Mrs. Simpson had no appointment they were expected.
The Procurator wore a vaguely military uniform. He had a small, neatly trimmed grey beard and fastidious manner. He acknowledged Mrs. Simpson without rising; he gave Caitlin a dismissive glance. Speaking to Mrs. Simpson, he said, “Do you have the money?” He did not offer them a seat, which struck Caitlin as surprisingly rude behaviour from someone who dressed like a gentleman.
The Procurator arched an eyebrow when Caitlin stepped forward and handed him an envelope. Although she was barely a teenager, and Procurator’s desk was raised, Caitlin looked down at him. He counted the nine bills with a sad expression on his face. He said, “Only $45. I’ll take this as a deposit. Let me know when you have raised the other $55.” He carefully placed the small pile of currency into his billfold.
Because the payment represented a fee that the Procurator was collecting in addition to his regular salary, Caitlin assumed it would be negotiable, like a tip. When he took her money and gave her nothing in return, she realized that this payment was another type of transaction entirely: she was not paying him, he was taking from her. Caitlin’s face hardened when she realized what this implied: the Procurator was not noble at all, he was a thief.
Caitlin said, “Sir, I understand that you should charge nothing for an audit. It is a service my father gets free of charge from the City because he pays more than $50 a year in property tax, and is therefore a gentleman. The $45 you have just taken from me is a gratuity given in expectation of good service.” Her voice quivered with fury.
The Procurator ignored Caitlin. Her turned to a cowering Mrs. Simpson and asked, “Who is this child?”
Caitlin answered before Mrs. Simpson could, “My name is Caitlin Hofstaedter. My father, Doctor Hofstaedter …”
The Procurator smoothly interrupted her, “I know your father. He’s one of the Anderson’s men. He’s in California, isn’t he?”
“Yesterday we received word that he will return this spring”, Mrs. Simpson added helpfully.
The Procurator frowned. He made a point of shuffling some papers on his desk. After a moment he looked up, and said, “Very well, Miss Hofstaedter, here is your money back.” He handed $40 in worn bills to Caitlin. “My office will perform an audit of your co-op’s private prison. I assume this is about your father’s residence on Cyclades Avenue, and not your summer home. My people will contact you.”
“Please don’t contact us, Sir.” Mrs. Simpson piped in with an agitated voice. “Just let our Board know. There is no need to mention us at all.”
The Procurator nodded. He dismissed them with a wave.
The knocker clanged three times firmly and loudly. Caitlin leapt from her chair by the door to let the Inspector in. Behind her clustered a greeting party which included her distraught Aunt and grim-faced Uncle. Three other Board members, Mrs. Simpson, Mrs. Ellison and Mr. Constantinus, huddled in the foyer, underneath the co-op’s license. The prisoner watched intently from his cell.
The Inspector was a gaunt man with darting eyes. He wore a deerskin jacket that he had recently been greased to make it water-resistant. His long, stringy hair had been greased too, probably with the same animal fat that had been used on the jacket. He had a slightly rancid smell. He removed his jacket and handed it to Caitlin, who gingerly hung it up. on one of the hooks which lined the wood-paneled wall. Without his jacket the Inspector looked far more like a bureaucrat than a trapper. Although he wore a cheap wool suit, his shirt was made of fine cotton; and the precious stone on his belt must have been worth over $100. What surprised Caitlin most was his tie, which was from the noble school Artemis.
After a cursory inspection of the co-op’s license to practice private law, the Inspector turned his attention to the cell. As the Inspector approached the cell, the prisoner rose as much as his chains and the sloped roof would let him. He attempted to introduce himself. The Inspector ignored the prisoner. Instead, he brusquely said to Mrs. Simpson, “Remove the prisoner’s shackles immediately.”
At these words the prisoner’s face lit up. Caitlin glanced at Mrs. Ellison, who was whispering something to Mr. Constantinus. The Inspector spoke again. His voice was loud enough to be heard by all, but he directed his words to Caitlin. “I’m not releasing him, Miss. At least not yet. The chains are an infraction. You are not allowed to shackle someone who’s already behind bars.”
Mrs. Simpson, afraid that the co-op could be fined because of this, began to speak to the Inspector about how the prisoner wasn’t always shackled, but only at times like these when there were important visitors.
While Mrs. Simpson was speaking, Mr. Constantinus sullenly opened the cell and removed the prisoner’s chains. The Inspector turned his back on Mrs. Simpson before she had finished speaking, and entered the cell. He started his inspection with the back corner. He peered into the water bucket, and looked closely at the drain beside it. Once satisfied with the plumbing, he began to shuffle through the prisoner’s few personal belongings. He paused only once, to look at the knife.
When Mr. Constantinus finished unshackling the prisoner he backed up, so that his large frame blocked the prisoner’s access to the still open gate.
The Inspector, finished with examining the cell’s infrastructure, proceeded to example its content. He placed the prisoner’s head in his hands and silently examined him like a piece of fish at the market. When he suddenly let go of the prisoner’s head, it fell forward and then jerked up.
The Inspector brusquely exited the cell. Mr. Constantinus closed and locked the gate behind him. The Inspector turned to Mrs. Ellison. He knew from Caitlin’s affidavit that they were beneficiaries of the prisoner’s internment, and therefore the people most likely to cause trouble. He said, “Before I give my verdict, I’d like to have a brief word with the young lady.” He nodded toward Caitlin.
Caitlin and the Inspector retired to the mud room. Caitlin’s Aunt and Uncle followed, even though they were not invited. The moment the were all in the room, and had closed the door, Caitlin said to the Inspector, “I assume you’re going to release Daniel. His punishment is clearly cruel.”
The Inspector took a seat on one of the benches that lined the mud room walls. As he did so, Caitlin’s aunt and uncle respectfully backed out of his way. They stood facing the Inspector, half buried in winter coats. The Inspector shrugged as his spoke, “The cell has water and light. And hoarding is a serious crime.”
“He’s not allowed to go outside.” Caitlin said pointedly.
The Inspector put his hands on his thighs as he addressed her. “You must be realistic, Miss. Where would the prisoner go if he went outside? Your co-op doesn’t have a courtyard or backyard. If you took him to a public park he’d be out of your co-op’s jurisdiction. He could escape. Or be freed by a mob.” Caitlin nodded her head slowly, in acknowledgement not agreement. A prisoner had been freed on the Esplanade just last week.
She saw where this was going so could not keep silent, “You have to let him go!”
Uncle Jimmy interrupted with a slightly too loud voice, “Shut up Caitlin.” He said to the Inspector, “Sir, what’s the verdict?”
“I can free him for $20.”
Uncle Jimmy was aghast, “Whose $20?”
The Inspector nodded toward Caitlin, “Hers. The Procurator said she offered him twice that to fix the case but he didn’t want to take it on account of her father. I’m giving you a deal.”
Uncle Jimmy was enraged, “Caitlin, where did you get that money? Have you been stealing from me?”
Caitlin was terrified but stood her ground, “My father gave it too me.”
“If he gave it to you its mine. Give me that $50.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Caitlin. I’m your guardian. I can do whatever I …”
“Jimmy, shut up!” Aunt Katherine shouted. She turned to Caitlin, pressed her hands down on her shoulders and said “Empty your pockets. Now!”
Caitlin emptied her pockets onto the bench. She had one five dollar bill, some change and a pair of earrings. Uncle Jimmy scooped it all up shouted, “I forbid you from bribing this man so that hoarder can go free!”, and stormed out of the room. He left the door ajar.
The Inspector put on a crestfallen face. “So you don’t have $20? Anyone? No one?” Aunt Katherine scowled. Caitlin said nothing. Mrs. Ellison poked her head into the room.
The Inspector shrugged. “Can’t do it for free. Sorry.” Caitlin was paralyzed. She wanted to give him the money but didn’t want to say it in front of Aunt Katherine. The Inspector let himself out.
The co-operators disbursed: Caitlin was hustled away to her room by her Aunt; Mrs. Ellison and Mr. Constantinus went to Daniel’s apartment to celebrate with a bottle of Daniel’s vintage wine; and Mrs. Simpson hid the safety deposit key she’d palmed from Caitlin. Uncle Jimmy threatened to beat her if she didn’t tell him who had it, but that made Aunt Katherine so angry she shouted, “If you steal her father’s money he’ll kill you.”
Everyone shut their doors tightly so they would not be disturbed by the prisoner, whose wailing continued until the small hours of the morning.
“How is the appeal shaping up?”
Caitlin took a moment to answer the prisoner. She had to be careful about what she said to him these days. He had become quite moody after the audit. She replied, “ I know that Harriet is with you; I think Mr. Sanders is. But …” She paused.
“But what?” the prisoner prodded, with a sharp note in his voice.
“I don’t think Mr. Sander’s wife is keen to release you.”
“How do you know?” He pressed his face against the bars as he spoke.
“I was talking with her about the vote. I said that I’d give her five dollars if she would support you. I was very polite and respectful, but when I offered her the money she suddenly changed. She said, ‘Who did you learn this wickedness from? This is what happens when you’re raised in a pagan church.’ I tried to explain that I am not a pagan. I said that even though my father is a scientist, I know sin when I see it.”
“What happened next?”
“She told me to stay away from her grandchildren.”
“Caitlin, if we don’t get Mr. Sander’s vote we’re going to loose. We don’t have much time. The vote is tomorrow. Can you talk to him one last time? Maybe he’ll take your money if you give it to him in secret.”
Out of compassion for the prisoner’s plight, Caitlin agreed to try her best. It was a hollow promise. She had no way of speaking to Mr. Sanders in private. His wife was always around. As she retreated up the stairs she said, “Goodnight. I’ll let you know the moment you win the vote.” The prisoner nodded somberly. He knew how to count. Caitlin ascended the stairs to her apartment with a heavy heart.
The prisoner knew from the expression on Caitlin’s face that he had lost his appeal. He said, “Sanders voted against me, didn’t he?”
Caitlin nodded, “It was Mrs. Sanders fault. She made Mr. Sanders vote against you. I overheard him talking about it afterward. He said, ”I was going to vote to release the prisoner. He’s not a bad sort, although his imprisonment has made him a little crazy. The reason I didn’t was something my wife said to me. She said that cells once you make them are never empty. Safer to leave it full.”
“What about Mrs. Stanton?”
“When she voted no she said that your cell is here to send a message. She didn’t say what kind.”
Caitlin looked at the prisoner’s forlorn face and felt compelled to try to cheer him up. “This isn’t the end, Daniel. Don’t you worry. My father will be back soon. He’ll fix this. This would never have happened if he hadn’t gone to California.”
If Caitlin’s words were consoling, the prisoner didn’t show it. He asked glumly, “How did Mrs. Simpson vote?”
“You know she voted last, because she’s the Co-op President.”
“How did she vote?” he asked again.
“She abstained because a yes vote didn’t matter.”
“Just like before. At least she tried to help me with the Procurator. What about Mr. Thompson?”
“He voted against you”, Caitlin reported, sadly. “When he did, he said, ‘I have no choice. I voted against him last time. When he gets out he’ll be looking for revenge.’”
“What about Harriet?”
“Daniel! Of course Harriet voted for you. But when she voted it was too late, you’d already lost.”
All affect had drained from Daniel’s face. He held the bars limply as he stared vacantly into the filtered light that was illuminating his face.
“Do you want to know what Harriet said when she voted for you?” Caitlin asked with a bleak, quiet voice. She did not wait for the prisoner to answer, “Harriet said, ‘I can imagine a world without crime more easily than I can imagine a world without prisons.’”
Upon arriving at headquarters, my eyes bloodshot and my nose raw from yesterday’s investigations, I was greeted by an excited Mittens, his whole body still charged from the previous day’s catnip binge. He said, “I am ready to solve the case, my friend. We must gather everyone. Vite. Vite.”1
We spent the morning requesting that all of the suspects meet us at Trouble’s apartment at 1 p.m. sharp. To my amazement they all agreed, even Trouble.
We set off for the appointed meeting on foot. Mittens brought with him a black, wheeled suitcase, which he dragged behind him. Because he used his right paw to lead the suitcase, he had to walk on two hind paws, which gave him an unsteady, almost drunken gait. The thought of asking what he was bringing briefly crossed by mind, but I assumed it was some sort of prop to make the upcoming encounter more dramatic, so didn’t bother. Two other officers accompanied us: a Jack Russell and an Italian Greyhound. Between them they carried the purloined box. While Mittens and the toy dogs proceeded with their tiny, burdened steps, I loped ahead.
Although I still had not been allowed by Mittens to read the coroner’s report, I was certain that Fitch’s severed hind leg was the instrumental cause of Tulip’s death; I was equally certain that neither Fitch nor Bull was the murderer, the former because he was too beta, the latter because he was too alpha.
With two suspects down, that left Euphemia and Trouble. They had acted like conspirators yesterday, rushing away the moment they saw me. What might appear as an action provoked by a guilty mind, on reflection seemed less so. Guilty animals stand their ground, and lie; it was the innocent who got confused and acted impulsively. Despite her actions last night, was Euphemia simply ashamed to be seen with her sister’s lover so soon after Tulip had been murdered? That seemed likely to me.
And what about Trouble? I was as unconvinced of his guilt as ever. I never believed this untamed tom would use a weapon to murder the dam he’d dumped but still loved.
In my mind’s eye I recalled the angle of the gash on Tulip’s throat.
Tulip hadn’t been murdered. She had killed herself.
We arrived at our appointment at precisely 1 p.m. Euphemia, Bull and Fitch were there, but not Trouble.
Trouble’s absence did not perplex Mittens. The Cat Detective removed a pawful of treats from his satchel, and methodically laid them in a line from the fire escape to the floor where we had gathered. He then removed a can opener from his satchel, and went through the motions of using it. The bait worked. First we heard a meow. Then two more meows. Trouble appeared on the window ledge that opened out onto the fire escape. He sniffed the air a couple of times, and then leaped to the branch where the first treat lay. He gobbled up that treat, and the entire string of them, until he found himself enveloped by our society.
Mittens called the meeting to order. “Let us begin with the murder weapon.” He removed Fitch’s left hind leg from the purloined box. The leg had been mounted on a thin stick of mahogany wood; sharp claws poked out of a bloody mass of white fur around the paw. He dramatically pointed the leg at Bull as he said, “Did you kill Tulip using this heinous weapon?”
Bull was unperturbed by the question. He barked, “No.”
“Non, indeed.” Mittens said. “You had no motive, did you? Tulip was a valuable business partner, and les chiens sonts loyal en affaires.”2
Having already solved the case to my satisfaction, I found Mittens’ histrionics tiresome. I scampered over to the small floor-box that Trouble had rested in yesterday, and settled down. My ears were drooping and my eyes were heavy with fatigue.
The Cat Detective now turned dramatically to Fitch. “Is this your leg?”
Fitch looked at Bull, and then nodded yes.
“Did you kill Tulip?”, Mittens continued,
Fitch, once again taking a cue from Bull, nodded no.
“Mais, non.” Mittens echoed dramatically. “Of course you did not kill Tulip. Fitch is a loyal dog; you do what Bull tells you to do. Why would Bull tell you to kill Tulip?”
Mittens sniffed loudly, no doubt inhaling a stray piece of catnip that was stuck on a whisker, and then continued, “And now to the prime suspect, Trouble”.
The Cat Detective leaped to the wheel suitcase he had dragged with him from Headquarters. His sudden movement startled the toy dogs, and captured my attention.
Mittens’ removed a heavy object from the suitcase with a thump. What exactly he was doing was obscured by his large, furry body. He turned suddenly and exclaimed, “maintenant la vérité sera révélée”3 I leaped up in astonishment. Mittens was holding a vacuum nozzle in his right paw, as if it was a six-shooter.
Québécois, Canadian and international law speaks with one voice about the few situations in which pawed mammals can be exposed to vacuum cleaners without their consent; this situation, a police interrogation, was certainly not one of them. Mittens was one flick of a finger away from a trip to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
I looked at Mittens’ eyes. There was no sign of madness in them. If anything, his manner was that of a chemistry professor preparing to add vinegar to bicarbonate of soda: loopy, but fun. I realized that what I was witnessing was not madness at all, but sanity – sanity so extreme it allowed Mittens’ neo-cortex to defy a limbic system that must have been screaming for him to drop the vacuum nozzle and hide.
Euphemia had backed off into a corner, where she was now burying herself under a rug; Bull and Fitch had retreated too, but in a more dignified manner. The Jack Russell and the Italian Greyhound had both disappeared entirely. That’s what happens when you ask toys to do an alpha’s work.4 Only Trouble stood his ground. I briefly wondered if he was as crazy-sane as Mittens, but thought not. Domesticated cats anticipate; ferals react. Trouble would explode the instant the vacuum cleaner was turned on.
Although Mittens was in theory my partner, I knew it was my duty to disarm him immediately. The last thing Canada needed was a scandal about some feline rock star being threatened by a cop in the presence of an Upper Canadian dog who did nothing.
Mittens moved slowly toward Trouble. The feral inched backward, his nails making deep cuts into the floor as he did so. I crawled forward on my belly at a tangent to them both.
I was a step and a pounce away from Mittens. He knew how close I was. Without looking at me he said “Barks, don’t do anything rash. I’m just about to put the vacuum cleaner away. My little experiment is over. I have learned what I need to know. Regardez.5 He carefully put the vacuum cleaner nozzle down. For one second after he did so the vacuum cleaner roared. A startled Trouble sprang toward the nearest wall. For a long moment he hung there, held up only by his fangs and claws, and then slowly slid to the floor.
Our stunned silence was broken by a relaxed Mittens, who said. “Excusez moi.6 There must be something wrong with the vacuum’s power switch. De rien.7” He shrugged and then proudly walked over to the fang marks that Trouble had made on the wall. He turned to face us and said to us with a little bow, “Regardez bien.8 These marks are the same as the ones found on Tulip’s neck.”
I was outraged: Mittens could not possibly reach this conclusion without a detailed forensic analysis. The Maestro was not finished. Mittens turned to face Trouble, who was now grooming himself solipsistically, and said, “Did you kill Tulip?”
The feral finished licking his hair, which had become spiked from fright, back into place before he answered. Trouble’s reply surprised me, “Yes, I did kill Tulip. In a way.” He spoke with the straightforward innocence of a feral. “That’s right. I killed her, but so did La Belle Dam. We did it together. With Tulip’s help.”
Mittens was visibly off-put. His intention was to exonerate Trouble. He said. “But Monsieur Trouble, you didn’t murder Tulip by tearing her carotid artery with your fangs, did you?”
“Non, non. I killed her when I told her that I was going to sleep rough from now on; when I told her that La Belle Dam had won. Tulip said if I went feral she could not live any more. That is what she said to me: I can not live any more.” Trouble shrugged. “But what could I do? I am feral.” Trouble glanced at Euphemia, and then hopped onto the window sill. Euphemia followed his leap with wide, watery eyes.
Trouble now sat on the window-ledge beside the back fire escape. He was ready to leave us at any time. Indeed, his alien manner indicated that he had long since departed. I turned my gaze to Euphemia. She realized how stark her options really were. Although she styled herself as the wild-cat classics scholar who got what she wanted, there is a gap between domestication and ferality as wide – or as narrow – as the ledge on which Trouble perched. On the other side of that gap everything is different. There is certainly no time for scholarship, for scholarship requires a sense of history, and ferals are creatures of the present.
I could write about the play of emotions on Euphemia’s muzzle, but the tear that was forming in her right eye told me one emotion was dominant: regret, not at what should have been but what could not be. A domesticated feral is a paradox. We can stalk such impossibilities, and experience a thrill when we think we’ve captured one, but the impossible always eludes us.
I thought then about Tulip, with her lioness ears. How difficult the decision not to go feral must have been for her, for she thought her affectation of wildness could encompass all the world, which eliminated the need for her to make a choice. The world is harder than that. Certainly we can modify animal made-boundaries like national borders and laws, just as we can trim our ears and put spots on our fur. We cannot change the boundaries that arise from what we are.
The tear that had been trying to wrest itself out of Euphemia’s right eye finally succeeded: it fell as two drops onto her whiskers just as Trouble, without a backward glance, leaped over the window-ledge and disappeared into a shadow.
Something was bothering me that I could not put my fangs into.
I had it!
Euphemia had said that Tulip hid things in her armoire. I had heard her words clearly, but had processed them wrong. I thought Euphemia was referring to the trap door I’d found, but she wasn’t. She was referring to a second hiding spot. I bounded to Tulip’s apartment. It was still guarded by the Rottweiler, who recognized me and let me in. Knowing what to look for, I found it in an instant. The trap door under the armoire was long and shallow. I opened it breathlessly.
I found one piece of paper: it was Trouble’s letter to Tulip, a draft of which I’d seen in the feral’s apartment. It began with a quotation from the Keats’ poem,
She took me to her feline grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw dark toms and mollys too,
Dark cats, death-dark were they all;
I cried – La Belle Dam sans Merci
Hath me in thrall!
Below the poem was one word written with Trouble’s wild paw, Adieu.
I heard a sound of Mittens’ conversing with the Rottweiler, four floors below. Then I heard pawsteps on the balcony.
I carefully replaced the evidence and raced down the fire escape to the street. From a vantage behind a fire hydrant I watched Euphemia enter Tulip’s apartment from the balcony, while Mittens fumbled with the latches on the main door. Euphemia was two leaps ahead of Mittens. She scampered down the fire escape with Trouble’s letter in her mouth just as Mittens’ entered the apartment.
I thought of chasing Euphemia but let it be. I needed a break. Besides, I suspected I had enough evidence to solve this case right now. All I needed was time to think.
I strolled into the rush hour crowd and lost myself in thought. There are notable differences in the ways mammals murder. For felines, killing is aesthetic. How many cat murderers are captured because their victims have been too elegantly dispatched? In contrast, elephant murderers most often act out of passion. Most eliphantidae murderers are gentle souls before they snap, and rampage. In the middle of this spectrum is the grey area of canines. Dog violence is almost always committed by alphas and their challengers. Less common, but common enough, is the canine murderer who – alienated from his pack – becomes unhinged. Tulip’s murder looked like the work of a packiopathic dog, but who? Bull ruled a pack and Fitch was too beta.
What about the fang marks on Tulip’s throat that Trouble had made? Had their mating last Tuesday been fatally rough? Perhaps, but I didn’t think so, and never had. The punctures made by Trouble’s fangs on Tulip’s throat were like paper cuts – or love bites – compared with the damage elsewhere on her body. If Trouble hadn’t murdered Tulip with his fangs, he certainly hadn’t done so with a weapon.
That left Euphemia, the jealous sister, or … a rat …? I didn’t know.
I decided to dine alone. I felt like a carnivore tonight so I went to an excellent cat-run establishment in Mont-Royal. Cats, by any dog standard, are sociopaths, but it is undeniable that they have their society. The restaurant I dined at, Bou bou’s, was at the centre of that society.
Bou bou’s caters primarily to felines, so most of the seating was either raised or hidden. That left the main floor to dogs. Because Boubou’s caters to carnivores, many courses, particularly of small rodents, were not served dead, but rather were released into a hunting room in the back, to be killed and eaten fresh. I needed a break from hunting, so ordered a rare cow steak, pre-killed. I ate my dinner in a shadowy corner on the main floor, doing my best not to be noticed.
The food was excellent but the high pitched squeals of tormented prey gave me a heartache, so I ate quickly, paid, and then went for a walk. Somehow I managed to wind up on a side street full of tattoo parlours, which given my temperament at that moment, was one of the worst places for me to be.
I am one of those who argues that domestication is not the end to the moral development of pawed mammals, but rather brings with it a new range of challenges: leisure and wealth give us the time and opportunity to be wise or vulgar on an epic scale. I am not saying that tattoos are necessarily vulgar. I can understand the impulse to turn your own body into an artwork, and have seen many artistic tattoos. But so many tattoos are of a quality far lower than that of the bodies they adorn. Casually decorate maimed and ugly things, but sully a beautiful pelt with care and please don’t doodle on the Pietà.
I loped away from the tattoo parlors to the nearest cross street, which turned out to be rue Ste. Catherine, in the tummy-rub district. The street was thick with hard young toms and curvy-soft young mollies plying their trade, or at least attempting to do so by being lewd. The solicitations weighed heavily on my mood. I am trained to smell the truth, even when it is hidden. To my nose, the promises of les rubeusses are false, not fantasy.1 I abhor lies.
I proceeded around the Mountain, toward Outremount. With the seediness of the tummy-rub district behind me, I began to enjoy the pleasant evening. There were puppies frolicking in the streets; lovers were nuzzling their muzzles; and old curs were getting re-acquainted with the smell of each other’s scrota. This was middle Canada, the world I am trying to protect.
I decided to take a break at a communal bar. A moment later one of the Dalmatians I had seen street-walking a few minutes previously sat down beside me. I must have stared at her, for she began talking to me. “Hello, my name is Buttons. What’s yours?”
“Fido” I replied, wanting to conceal my identity.
“Looking for some action?” She spoke this line straight, but two breaths later burst out laughing. She said, “I’m just teasing. I’m off duty. I saw you downstairs – she nodded down the mountain toward the red light district. Did you get lucky? It sure didn’t look like you were trying to.”
I was at first put off by her intrusion on my privacy, but the bitch had a charming manner, and when removed from the tawdry context of rue Ste. Catherine was a truly beautiful representation of her breed. I wondered how a pure bred might wind up as a rubeusse.
“Are you one of the Westmount Dalmatians?” I asked, pursuing this line of thought.
“You’re wondering why a pure bred dog would walk the streets? Well you should wonder. Most of us don’t have any choice, but I do. I won’t say I like sex work – some of the bitches are pretty pathetic and so are the johns – I mean Fido’s ! – but all work sucks, and for me this isn’t bad. You know why?” To my amazement the Dalmatian purred her next words, as she lightly rubbed her muzzle against mine. “I like to touch and be touched.” Despite earnest thoughts of my mate and pups, I became aroused. Buttons noticed this and continued to purr for a few minutes more. After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, Buttons quietly barked, “Let’s see where our natures take us.”
I knew that I was reaching the point of no-return, indeed the trajectory of this encounter seemed so inevitable I was tempted to unleash my animal lust immediately. I was saved from infidelity by Button’s star struck voice. She said, “Hey, look across the street. That’s Euphemia, you know, Tulip’s beautiful twin. Tulip, the movie star they just found murdered. The one with snow-leopard ears.”
I looked to where Buttons was pointing with her nose. Sure enough, Euphemia was langorously grooming Trouble. They lay together on a cushioned divan in the window of the restaurant directly across the street from us.
A tom who was standing on the sidewalk in front of me yowled. The noise startled Euphemia, who turned her head so that she was facing directly toward me. She caught my gaze and had disappeared before I had time to blink.
I turned back to the Dalmatian. “Buttons, I have to go. I .. I …” I didn’t know what to say because I was at war with myself. I wanted to see her again, but knew no good would come of it.
“I know who you are Doctor Inspector Patches Barks. I just wanted to hear you lie. Run. Catch the murderer. I’ll find you.”
“Don’t call me Patches!” I barked as I raced out the door.
The café across the street was bordered on the west side by a small lane. Trouble and Euphemia must have gone that way. Sure enough I found their scents by the service entrance door. I followed their trail along a cobbled path that sloped down toward the river.
One hundred metres later the scent trail branched and I was faced with a decision: should I follow Euphemia or Trouble? Without missing a bound, I set off after Euphemia down a back alley. Moments later her trail disappeared at a point where the alley ended in a pile of trash and recycling. It was a an enclosed space, defined by the back entrances of a trio of brick scamper-up tenements. I knew Euphemia must be hiding nearby, waiting for a chance to escape the way she came. The movement of a shadow along the fire-escape caught my eye, but when I turned toward it I saw nothing. I leaped onto the first floor landing, where I detected the faint scent of Serengeti perfume.
My position on the fire-escape landing gave me a view of the entire alley. Euphemia couldn’t conceal herself for long. Something, a movement, a sound, a breeze ricocheting her scent off of a wall, would give her away. The alley became still as the dusk faded to night. The only sounds were the rustle of a loose newspaper, the scurrying of a mouse, and the faint hiss of air passing through my nasal membrane.
It started to rain.
Although my senses were fully engaged, the shadow of a cat landed on my back without warning. We fell off of the fire-escape and then tumbled onto a bundle of papers. I heard the sound of claws unsheathing against asphalt. I looked up to see a fanged silhouette lunging at my throat. At that moment a dog growled and flew over me. The cat let out a great screech as it clattered across the tops of metal bins, and away.
Had Euphemia just tried to kill me? Had Buttons saved my life? I did not know. By the time I regained my bearings both my assailant and my saviour were gone.
“Are you alright, Monsieur?” A kindly old dachshund trundled over to help me.
“Sure. Sure.” I replied, while licking my bloody right fore-paw. “Did you see anything?”
“Bien sûr. I saw a cat, but not very well. I couldn’t even tell you if its fur was black or white.”
“Mais oui, I saw a pure bred Dalmatian bitch. Beautiful. She went that way.” He gestured vaguely toward the River.
“Did you see any other pawed mammal? Perhaps a mouse, rat or raccoon?”
“Now that you mention it, I saw a fancy bull-dog. Looked like he’d walked out of a velvet painting, with his vest and cigar. But he acted like he didn’t see anything.”
“Which way did he go?”
“Vers rue Ste. Catherine.”2
“Merci.” I threw the dachshund a bone, and then retraced my steps to the entrance of the alley. Even though it was now raining quite hard, it only took a few sniffs to determine that the fancy bulldog had been Bull. He was such an alpha he had marked a fire hydrant before departing.
I had three choices: follow Bull, Euphemia or Buttons. Some primal instinct urged me to follow Buttons but my reason said, “To what end? Follow Bull or Euphemia, they are your suspects.” Instinct won that round. I compulsively began to sniff the ground, trying to find Button’s trail. I continued to search vainly, long after my reason told me the rain had washed it away.
By the time I gave up sniffing I was so tired and fraught I staggered to my kennel. When I was perhaps halfway there, in one of those non-descript square parks that dot Canadian cities, I stumbled upon a scent I did not expect to encounter: Mittens. He was laying on his belly under a tent of newspaper in the very centre of the park. The paper covered only his upper back, leaving his hindquarters fully exposed. His two bright, white polydactyl forepaws rested on the box he had purloined from Euphemia.
I had no desire to encounter the ‘nip-addled feline. I gave him wide berth, being careful to stay down wind, and returned to my kennel via a detour. When I got there, I dragged my exhausted body onto a pillow but was unable to sleep. I spent the next hours brooding about all kinds of trouble. I arose unrested at dawn.
We agreed that our next destination should be the Kitten Klub. Mittens raced ahead, while I dawdled, curious to see if our story had made the papers. It had: La Derrière’s banner headline read, “Dog suspected in sex kitten slay”. The Gazebo asked the question that was on the mind of every dog in Westmount, “Is a riot looming?”.
The Kitten Klub was designed in a cat friendly style similar to Trouble’s apartment, but was grander – and less dog friendly. Mittens navigated the club with ease while I proceeded slowly and carefully over, under and through faux roots, branches and blankets.
It was difficult to assess how crowded the club was, because so much of feline interior design is about hiding. From the density of cat smells in the air, I guessed that it was very crowded. I certainly kept finding my way blocked by felines. After a half dozen awkward encounters I gave up on my vision entirely and navigated by sound and smell alone. Inching forward, with my nose close to the ground, I must have looked like the hound-dog copper my mother feared I would become.
Tonight’s headline act was Euphemia. Her first set was in one hour. Mittens’ nodded toward her dressing room. We would pay her a visit before she performed.
Euphemia greeted us while remaining seated in front of a theatrical mirror, applying spots to her pearl white fur. “I didn’t expect to see you twice in one day, Detective Mittens.” I fear my gaze lingered indecently, for she suddenly became embarrassed. “This isn’t me.” Euphemia spoke with conviction, but her words were unbelievable: she looked like she had been born to play this role.
Mittens rephrased my unanswered question. He asked drily, “Forgive my prying, Mademoiselle, but would you mind telling us how you came to be working here? Is this the realization of a life long dream, perhaps?”
Euphemia laughed in a coarse, but genuine fashion. “This my dream, hah. This couldn’t be further from my dream. If I could be anything, I’d be a farmer poet, like Hesiod, maybe. I’m doing this as a favour to Bull while he sorts things out. Its no effort for me. I know all of Tulip’s routines – she use to rehearse with me.”
Euphemia’s scent changed. Mittens’ scent began to change, too. Was Euphemia’s pheronomic charm getting to him?
Euphemia purred as she leaped beside Mittens,“There is something I want to tell you, Detective. I think it may be a clue. On the day of her death, I saw Tulip with a box.”
Mittens ears centred themselves on Euphemia’s voice. “What did this box look like?”
“It was 15 centimetres on two sides and half a metre long. Big enough to hold – uh – the left hind leg of a Pyrenees.”
“Were there any distinguishing marks on this box?” I asked.
“Yes. It had a white ribbon. And a card with gold leaf writing. I never got close enough to read the words. Tulip hid the box from me when she saw me looking at her.”
“Do you know where she hid it?”
“I don’t know for certain. There is a false bottom in her armoire. She sometimes hides things there.”
Why was Euphemia telling us now, and not earlier? Did she know we had found out about the murder weapon? I had an inspiration. I barked, “Who is La Belle Dam sans Merci?”
Euphemia began to purr and move languorously. When she spoke, she didn’t answer my question; instead she quoted,
“Dark tabbies, death-dark were they all;
They cried – La Belle Dam sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
“I believe Mademoiselle is indicating that she is this merciless cat” Mittens noted laconically.
Euphemia nodded negatively, “Non, Monsieur Cat Detective. La Belle Dam was my nick name for Tulip. I used to call her that when we fought. She used to get jealous because I always got my way.”
“Do you still get your way?” I asked.
Euphemia replied without hesitation, “Yes.”
It had not occurred to me that sharing an office with an aged tabby whose mange you couldn’t distinguish from his tweeds constituted “getting your way”. But I guess it does. Teaching at a famous University is quite an honour. In what other ways had Euphemia gotten her way? Was she getting her way now? Did getting her way involve Trouble?
After a polite pause I asked, “What about Trouble? Did he know about this pet-name? Did he use it?”
“What?” Euphemia was so distracted that my question startled her. She composed herself with a preen, and then said, “Trouble, why yes he picked up the phrase La Belle Dam from Tulip. Tulip was proud of the epithet and used it to describe herself when she was feeling particularly wild. Of course Trouble used the phrase differently. Her manner suddenly became much more sombre. “He, he …”. She stopped speaking, and began to groom herself.
Mittens gracefully leaped over the table onto the cushions beside Euphemia. He placed his paws around her ears and fervently licked the part of her forehead immediately above her eyes. Euphemia began to purr, but she was far from relaxed: her tail wagged agitatedly. Mittens’ retook his seat and said, “Madam, we were talking about how Trouble uses the phrase ‘La Belle Dam’.” He urged her on with a voice that was part whisper and part purr.
Euphemia was once again composed. She said, “Trouble uses the phrase, but differently than I do. For him La Belle Dam Sans Merci is a symbol of the allure of the wild.”
“Did Trouble ever called Tulip La Belle Dam?”
“Just once. Fur flew: Tulip thought he was being sarcastic about how domesticated she was.”
“Was he being sarcastic?” Mittens asked.
“I don’t know” Euphemia replied pensively. “Ferals aren’t really like that, are they? Y’know, sarcastic, condescending. They’re more direct. Maybe Tulip became angry because in her heart she knew she could never be truly wild, and Trouble’s words reminded her of that.” She shrugged.
I uttered a short, sharp yap to indicate agreement with Euphemia’s ambivalence. While I did so, Mittens inserted another question into the conversation,
“Mademoiselle, did Trouble ever ask you to go feral with him?”
The Cat Detective’s brazenness made my jaw go slack. With one simple question Mittens had offended the honour of both Euphemia and Trouble, while tainting the memory of dead Tulip. I braced myself, certain that Euphemia was about to attack Mittens. Instead she lightly hopped onto the ground, and then circumnavigated our couch, marking it with her muzzle as she went.
Of all of our suspects, Euphemia was the one with the best motive, jealousy. She obviously loved Trouble; but it took nothing to imagine her killing Tulip in a jealous rage. There was one glaring error with the theory: anyone could see that Trouble was a tom no molly could tame. Surely, Euphemia knew this. She was a clever cat.
When Euphemia had settled down again, Mittens’ changed the topic of our conversation. He asked Euphemia, “Did you ever want to be a performer?”
Euphemia replied, “No. Yes. For I while I did. When I was little. But as I got older I didn’t want to any more.” Her eyes narrowed to slits.
I wasn’t convinced by her story. To me she was saying that she wanted to be famous until her sister beat her to it. I smelt resentment.
Euphemia deftly changed the topic, “I like being a star now!” As she effused, she completed her costume by putting on rounded, lioness ears. She struck a pose. It wasn’t a pose you might see a primate model striking, with mammaries pushed forward and hair flying back. Euphemia looked like a hunter: her tail was rigid, her eyes were unblinking, and her body was low to the ground. She began that high octane purr felids make when they’re getting ready to pounce. Her narrow, glowing eyes mesmerized me; I became her prey.
Euphemia broke the spell with a “raareowr”, followed by an agitated wag of her tail.
While I resumed breathing Euphemia said, “Its time for you to go. I perform in five minutes.”
We did not leave the club: I lingered at the bar, curious to see Euphemia perform, while Mittens scored catnip in a restroom. The Cat Detective left with that look in his eyes. Neither the money nor the health aspect of ‘nip addiction scares me half as much as the craven aspect addicts have when anticipating their next line. No animal should want anything so much.
As I settled down at the dog bar the lights dimmed and the show began. I’m not certain what I expected, but whatever expectations I had were exceeded. Euphemia began her set with a cover of Born to be Wild, which caused a table of Maine coons to spray. Her middle songs, energetic covers of rock classics, perfectly set up her finale – a powerful rendition of It Smells Like Kitten Spirit. I prefer grunge vocals to have more caterwaul and less purr, but there was no denying that the molly could sing.
Euphemia finished her encore song, The Ghost of Tom Cat. While she was acknowledging the audience’s enthusiastic applause, there was a commotion in the back of the club caused by the entrance of Bull and his three-legged body guard.
I leaned over to a Spaniel who was sitting beside me, and asked, “Do you know who that is, not Bull, but the Pyrenees?”
“Sure.” he replied. “That’s Fitch. You know about his back leg? There’s quite a story.”
“Bull cut it off?” I asked in feigned horror.
“Naw. Fitch lost it on the shop floor. But Bull wanted to make some point to this molly named Tulip. You probably know her. The one with the panther ears who just turned up dead in Mont-Royal. That singer is her sister.” He nodded to Euphemia. “Anyhow, Bull starts telling this crazy story about how Fitch severed it to prove his loyalty. Of course Fitch goes along, he’s a beta.” The Spaniel paused to lap up some gravy from a bowl in front of him, and then continued. “You know what amazes me most? Bull did it all to impress a cat. Its too much.”
“What happened to Fitch’s severed hind leg?”
“That’s the funny thing. Bull gave it to Tulip and she refused to take it. She was freaked out. I don’t want to be speciest, but cats, they torture their prey. So why did Tulip get upset that her boyfriend has a creepy way of expressing his love? It doesn’t make sense. If you ask me, there’s some other story in there.”
“What happened to the leg?”
“Another weird thing. I heard from this mouse that Bull kept it in his office, even insisted that Fitch stick to that bullshit story about loyalty. It took months for Bull to let it go. Its sick when people lie like that.”
“The mouse’s story … ?” I prompted.
“Oh yeah, so I hear from this mouse that Tulip and Bull had a fight, and Tulip takes the paw she had previously refused. That happened last Tuesday, just hours before Tulip was found dead. Isn’t that fucked up?” I agreed that it was very fucked up, indeed.
I paid for my serendipitous informant’s gravy, and then withdrew into the shadow of a pillar near both the stage and the fire exit. I saw that Mittens was stalking the other side of the stage. Even from a distance I could see the glow of his catnip charged eyeballs.
As Euphemia was taking yet another bow Bull gallantly leaped in front of her and presented her with flowers that were bound to a long wooden box approximately the length of a Pyrenees’ hind leg.
To my amazement, Mittens sprang onto the stage, grabbed the flowers and wooden box, scooted right past me, and out the fire exit. He got clean away. Security didn’t even pretend to chase him. I looked back to the stage: Euphemia and Bull had also disappeared.
I lowered the brow of my fedora onto my nose, lowered my nose to the ground and slunk out the main entrance unobserved. Security was congregating around the door Mittens had just fled through, and had left all other entrances unattended. Amateurs.
It was but a short scoot to our next destination – Bull’s office at Local 1210 of the United Litterhood of Longshoremen. The office was situated in a squat brick building on the west side of the St. Lawrence River, immediately north of the Port. We were greeted by two receptionists: a fat, scarred old tabby named Muffin, and a pit-bull bitch named Frisson. The tabby greeted Mittens, the pit-bull greeted me.
When satisfied with our stories, the pit-bull pushed a buzzer with her nose. A lanky German shepherd promptly appeared from behind a door flap immediately beyond the reception desk. He sniffed the air with gravitas, and then gestured for us to enter Bull’s office, which we did.
The moment I entered Bull’s office I was approached by Bull’s bodyguard Fitch, who inspected my genitals and anus; I reciprocated in the French style. Fitch was an unusual security choice: most guard dogs are German Shepherds because the breed is fast, strong, smart and mean. Sometimes they are Rotweilers, but that breed can be ornery. A vocal minority insist on Greyhound bodyguards for their speed.
The choice of a hairy, lumbering Pyrenees with a prosthetic left hind leg, was quite unusual, indeed.
“Why are you here, Inspector Barks?” Bull asked. Canine’s have a saying, “As rare as an unscarred alpha”. It refers to the undeniable correlation between alpha-ness and violence. With the exception of a small, nasty mark on his left cheek, Bull had no visible scars at all. He was wearing an expensive woolen vest and jaunty hat. To complete the picture, he had a large unlit cigar dangling from the side of his mouth.
I ignored the criminal dandy. Instead I asked Fitch, “Where’d you lose your hind leg, soldier?”
Fitch looked at me, and then at Bull, with drooping bloodshot eyes. His tail flapped side to side in a slow, agitated fashion. His ears drooped and he made a plaintive whining sound. Bull answered my question, “Fitch lost his left hind leg in an industrial accident. He was gonna go on disability but I gave him this job instead.”
“What kind of accident?” I asked. Bull nodded toward Fitch.
Fitch reluctantly answered my question, “I lost my leg in a boxing plant. Unsafe working conditions. Nothing to do with Tulip at all. Or any rats.”
Bull nearly choked on his cigar.
Rather than pressing Fitch about this apparent slip, Mittens changed the subject. “Monsieur Bull, tell us about your relationship with Tulip”.
Bull was visibly relieved not to have to explain Fitch’s words. “Tulip and I, we are – were friends …” His voice got caught in his throat. He appeared to be genuinely choked with emotion.
“How did you learn about Tulip’s murder?” I asked sharply.
“A mouse told me.” Bull disdainfully flicked his unlit cigar.
“I understand that you had business dealings with Tulip”, Mittens said.
“Sure. I still do, in a way. You see some of the guys at the Local have some money I’m responsible for investing. Its an investment club. Yeah. Anyways, we co-own the Kitten Klub with Tulip.”
“How is the investment going?” I asked.
“Not so good.”
“You strike me as a smart dog, Bull”, I barked archly. “Why do you keep your money in a bad investment?”
“The investment is going badly because Tulip is dead. She made us a lot of money.”
“Who inherits her ownership of the club?” I pressed.
Mittens spoke directly to me, “Bull’s investment club is one beneficiary of Tulip’s death, mon ami; Euphemia is the other.” He turned to face Bull. With a little bow he said, “This is a bad time to talk about Tulip’s will.”
The Cat Detective then did something only the most modern cats do: he looked Bull in the eye, “Excusons-nous, Bull, we are indiscreet. Bon journee.1”
Mittens withdrew. I followed after one last sniff.
Our next appointment was with Bull, Tulip’s business partner and possible lover, at his office by the Port. Before meeting with Bull, Mittens insisted we have a drink with a mouse informant at a bar called The Devil’s Liver. I find mice distasteful, and would prefer not to deal with them. They can be just as smart and insightful as any cat or dog, and always more so than the toy breeds of any species. But in the final analysis they are prey. How can you trust prey? Their world is distorted by a lens of constant fear.
The moment we sat down, even before we ordered our drinks, the small rodent spilled out his story: he was anxious both to begin and be gone. “Everyone always asks so I’ll tell you the gossip is true. Tulip did date Bull. I don’t know whether they mated, but judging from those ears of hers I bet they did.”
“What did Bull’s pack think of Tulip?”, Mittens asked. As usual, his voice was insinuating. He couldn’t ask directions to church without sounding like he was implying something dastardly.
The mouse shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Bull is an alpha dog. His pack is loyal.”
The mouse emphasized the word loyal, and well he should have. There was never dissension within a pack unless there was a competing alpha.
“Any pooch challenge Bull’s authority?” I inquired.
“What about the breakup with Tulip? Was it ugly?”
The mouse shrugged, “They didn’t break up. I mean they did break up, but not the way the Press tells it. They did it for politics. They get – got – along just fine, at least they did until that last time.”
“What do you mean?” Mittens purred.
“Well, I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but the last time I saw Bull and Tulip they were having an argument in Bull’s office. They shouted at each other.”
“Wages? Another molly? I dunno. There was a loud noise; a crash. They both left immediately afterward, in different directions.
“Did they see you?”
“No. But I got a good look at them. I didn’t see what I expected. Not at all.” The mouse was so nervous he was chattering. Mus musculus never like being in the open for long. “Tulip was crying. Not yowling, but real crying, with tears. Can you imagine a cat crying? After they left I sneaked into the office. There was a glass container shattered on the ground in the middle of the floor. That was the odd part.”
“The container held a velvet pillow on which there was an imprint.”
“Yeah. The left hind paw of a right-leading dog.”
“Whaddaya think they teach us in mouse school?”
“We believe you”, I hastily tried to diffuse the situation.
The mouse continued, “You know what else they teach in mouse school? – that the left hind paw of a right-leading dog is the least likely one to kill you. Its the weakest. Just like the lead paw is the strongest.”
“What’s that have to do with this paw print on velvet?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’m just saying”, the mouse replied.
“Did you – borrow – the velvet pillow?” Mittens asked.
“No way. You think us mice want trouble with Bull? I left everything exactly the way it was.”
“Do you know what happened to the pillow? Or the left hind paw that lay on it?” I asked.
“That’s the funny thing. Tulip came back. I hid in a mug. I didn’t see nothing. When she left, the whole mess was gone. She must have taken it with her. Even the hind leg she pretended to hate.”
“When exactly did this happen?”
“Tuesday afternoon. Just before she was murdered.”
How did this mouse know Tulip had been murdered? It was a stupid question. Mice always knew everything, because they were ubiquitous, and they talked. What one mouse knew, every mouse knew.
The timorous rodent continued, “You know what else is weird. After Tulip left, Bull came back. I saw his face. He was afraid. Can you imagine that. The most alpha dog in Montréal was afraid.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Naw, I didn’t stick around.”
I thought of the murids1 we’d smelt on the velvet pillow in Tulip’s apartment. I asked, “Did Tulip or Bull have any rat trouble?”
The mouse never answered my question. Someone knocked a glass over and he disappeared.
The sudden disappearance of the nervous mouse annoyed me to the point of anger. When I had composed myself, I wondered why. Upon reflection I realized that it was because the mouse had acted like a mouse. I had an insight into my bias against small rodents at that moment: I hate the way the way they quiver; I hate the way they scatter in the face of danger.
Why are my feelings about them so strong?
Because in my heart I know that I too am prey.
Mittens and I talked as we strolled toward our next destination, Trouble’s lair, a halfway home for ferals in V’Chat, the feline district of old Montréal.1
“Qu’est-ce-que vous pensez?”2 Mittens asked, referring to our recent meeting with Euphemia.
I replied, “I was struck by how unmoved Euphemia was. Her sister, her litter-mate, her twin has just died. I expected more grief”.
“Do not make the mistake my friend of thinking she was not sad enough”, the feline replied. “Certainly there are cats who suffer from remorse, but no one would call remorse ‘cat-like’ behaviour.”
“She had lots of remorse for Trouble”, I noted.
“Bien sûr. A crying cat.” Mittens replied, meditatively. This uncommon image caused both of us to lapse into thought.
The halfway home where Trouble lived had no rooms. Instead, its feline tenants occupied portions of a large open space. Trouble’s territory was on the south-west corner of the building, which meant that when we arrived it was flooded with afternoon light. His core turf was perhaps 100 square metres. He shared a space twice as large with his neighbours.
A pile of middens was strewn across a welcome mat at the point where his personal territory blended into that of the colony.3 Underneath the middens I could see a cartoonish picture of a home emitting a cheerful cloud of white smoke from a slanted chimney.
Mittens made a point of sniffing each fecal lump in turn. He did this with surprising dignity. When done, he hopped to the centre of the entrance and meowed once. My knowledge of the cat language is not nuanced, but I believe he was announcing his presence. He entered Trouble’s territory uninvited; I followed closely behind with my nose close to the ground.
The space before us was large and empty, except for a dark shadow with slits for eyes sitting in a box-like depression in the floor. Although you will periodically read about a mass murderer named Buttercup or a ballerina named Butch, I have always been struck by how most animals become their names. I assume that expectations mould behaviour, [which then alters looks]. One glance at the black cat in front of me left no doubt in my mind that he was trouble, the only question was what kind.
While I took a seat in the corner, Trouble raised himself, arched his back, and then sat upright. Mittens, who was seated in the middle of the room, blinked slowly and methodically. He approached Trouble at an angle, being careful to remain perpendicular to the feral’s line of site. At intervals Mittens repeated an odd sound, like a meow without the m. Sometimes he appended a rraarw, which I assume was because of Trouble’s Latin roots.
Trouble watched these antics with unblinking eyes. He entire body remained still, except for his ears, which tracked Mittens’ movements. This continued for perhaps thirty seconds, and then Trouble began to groom himself as if we did not exist, indeed as if nothing existed but his testicles and his tongue.
There wasn’t much for me to do while the cat introductions lingered on, so my eyes wandered. I noticed a public service announcement poster on the wall behind Trouble. It had a picture of a kitten poking its nose into a blender, the baby cat’s right foot just touching the blender’s purée button, its left paw reaching toward a cluster of razor sharp blades. The tag-line, Curiosity: the innocent killer/Curiosité, la tueur des innocents framed Trouble’s head. I know that it is politically incorrect to laugh at the ridiculous ways kittens kill themselves, but that is not what I’m doing when I say the poster made me smile. It was the word innocent that got to me. I had just met Trouble for the first time, and my mind was made up that he was not only trouble but guilty of murder. The poster reminded me to think twice.
Trouble jumped from the cement box he had been crouching in, up into the nook of one of the low lying metal branches that adorned the ceiling. His new perch had good feline feng shui: he was equidistant from the most important points in the room, Mittens, myself, the fire escape, and the main entrance.
Our introductions finally complete, Mittens spoke, “Bonjour, Monsieur Trouble. My name is Detective Mittens. This is Inspector Barks. We would like to ask you some questions.”
Trouble looked at us with the alien manner that feral – and wild – cats have. He faced us at an angle, with all of his superb senses slyly focused, and then acted like we were nothing more than cardboard cut-outs that could speak.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that Tulip is dead” Mittens said, with genuine grief in his voice.
“What?! Tulip is dead?”
I remember as a Cadet being quizzed on the cat language’s fifteen core words. The diphthong that Trouble spoke next was certainly an instance of the core word yowl, although he uttered it with an energy I had not encountered in school.
While Trouble mourned, I examined what he had been doing when we arrived. I noticed a piece of paper beside the box where he had been sitting. I sniffed it. It was a letter. On one side was an artistic rendition of Tulip’s name, on the other side was written these words,
“What can ail thee cat-with-claws, alone and darkly stalking? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.”
It was the first stanza from the Keat’s poem we had found in Tulip’s apartment. On the facing page was a paw imprint – Trouble’s signature. I was leaning over to investigate it more closely, when Trouble suddenly stopped his histrionics. All cats are like that – they have switches. One moment they’ll be calm, the next moment they’ll be crazy. Two breaths later they’re back to calm. Switch off, switch on, switch off.
Mittens resumed the interrogation. He said, “Monsieur Trouble, when did you last see Tulip?”
“Did anything remarkable happen at this meeting?”
“I called her names.”
“What kind of names?”
“Button kins, dipsy doodle, perky-snips, flouncy-wouncy …”
“I see. What did you do next?”
“I sat in a tree and watched bugs.”
“For how long?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did anyone else see you?”
“No. Not that I know of. Actually, there was a mouse who saw me, but I eviscerated him.”
“Where was Tulip?”
“When you say you called her names, were these friendly names?”
“When I called her names I was aroused. Can you be friendly when aroused?”
“Touché. We found fang marks on Tulip’s neck. Were they yours?”
“Maybe. She liked it rough. And I am a feral.” He shrugged.
“Let me rephrase that” Mittens said politely, “We found your teeth marks near Tulip’s carotid artery and she was dead.”
“I’m rough, not murderous” the feral cat replied, with a distant voice.
“Even when aroused?”
Trouble arched his back. I prepared for the worst.
“There were also dog claw marks.” Mittens spoke an instant before Trouble uncoiled. “From a big dog, like a Rottweiler or German Shepherd.”
“Tulip didn’t have any dog enemies”, Trouble hissed as he settled down.
“The claw that killed her was not necessarily attached to a dog.”
“You mean the murderer used a weapon?” There was disdain in his voice.
Mitten didn’t respond.
“Was someone trying to make it look like a dog killed her?” Trouble asked.
“Peut-être4. All of the wounds were caused by a left back leg of a right facing dog. But who knows? There were traces of rat and mouse at the crime scene. Perhaps Tulip’s was killed by mice?”, Mittens mused.
The thought of a handful of mice fumbling with a half-metre long dog’s claw club while Tulip – the cat with lioness ears – waited to be murdered, was too much for me.
“Tulip was not killed by mice!”, I barked.
“Then by whom was she killed… ?” Trouble asked with a soft purr.
It was a good question.
A dog barked loudly. Trouble leaped to the darkest, most remote part of the room, a mesh of rebar branches just above the fire escape. Watching Trouble’s instantaneous reaction, I reflected on how domestication had attenuated my senses.
The dog barked again.
Trouble was gone.
Our next stop was the classics department at McGill University, where Tulip’s litter-mate and twin Euphemia was an associate professor. Her office was in a quiet corner of one of the University’s older buildings.
We interpreted the indistinct grunt that greeted our knock on Euphemia’s office door as an invitation to enter. The office was long and narrow. Every surface was covered in books and manuscripts. Even the telephone tucked away in the corner behind the door was covered in papers. Illumination was provided by a low wattage fluorescent bulb, which gave the scene a damp, cold aspect.
I was surprised when a tabby – who I hadn’t noticed because he was as greasy and grey as the books that lined the walls – addressed us. “You must be looking for Euphemia.” The academic spoke with a croaking, tired voice, “She’s expecting you.” I noted disapprovingly that the academic’s collar was dusted with catnip.
We were spared having to socialize further by the appearance of Euphemia, who poked first her ears and then her head, body and tail through the doorway. Once through, she said, “Inspector Barks and Detective Mittens. I trust you have not been waiting long?” She slunk into the office, and sat in a corner, equi-distant from us both. Euphemia was not one of those fashionable cats who has adopted a primate style of dress, so it is more accurate to say that she was adorned, not clothed. She wore a modest kerchief around her head, she had three metal studs in her right ear, and her whiskers were dyed. Her most prominent adornment was her ankle bracelets, to which were attached tiny ceramic bells. These bells rang as she moved – useless if hunting birds, but no doubt quite effective at alluring toms.
Because my readers will range from mice to snow leopards, I hesitate to describe her eyes. If a small rodent encountered the glow of those eyes in a field at night, it might think “here is the Death Goddess”. Through those same eyes a dog might peer into the soul of a worthy adversary. But for a feline those eyes must have been special indeed, for they captured all of the ambiguities of cats: presence and distance, engagement and disengagement, the sense of being outside of time and in the moment, and most vexing of all: the calmness of the carnivore.
I have never inquired about Mittens’ sexual habits, but because of his soft, petulant manner I assumed he was attracted to hard, young toms, and was certainly a bottom. I was therefore surprised to see his eyes light up like supernovas as he greeted Euphemia with a little bow.
Following Mittens’ suggestion, we decided to relocate to a café in Outrement. We scampered instead of taking a cab. Mittens went ahead with Euphemia. I dawdled behind reading copies of La Derrière and The Gazebo, the city’s largest circulation dailies. The Gazebo ran an old story about the Nicaraguan kitten Tulip had just adopted. La Derrière appeared to be on our trail: according to a story on the back page of the front section, Tulip had missed a performance last night. The writer speculated as to whether she was the victim in yesterday’s murder. The story cited a source within the Police department who would “reveal all” today.
I put away the papers. When I looked up I saw that Euphemia was now beside me. She leaned so close to me that I could smell every molecule on her pearl white mane.
“You’re wearing jaguar musk?”, I commented.
She paused for just a moment before replying, “Leopard. But all pantherines smell the same.”
I prodded, “Did Tulip use that perfume?” .
Euphemia hesitated before she replied, “Yes. The scent is called Serengeti.”
Mittens had slowed his pace so that he could join us. He asked, “Who wore this perfume first, you or your sister?”
The question flustered Euphemia, as if she sensed that it could incriminate her, but she did not know how. She replied, “Tulip discovered it. But we’ve both been wearing it for years.” With these words she raced ahead, her head low to the ground.
Moments later we arrived at our destination, the Café Gauche. The joint had retro stylings: posters of primate females with veils, gloves, and that sort of thing. Euphemia fit right in with the hip, bohemian crowd. Mittens and I did not, but no one was fussed.
We settled onto a divan near a window. I let Mittens take the conversational lead: after all, both he and Euphemia were felines. I expected the Cat Detective to begin with questions relating to Tulip. Instead he said, in a gracious but insinuating way, “Tell us about Tulip’s tom-friend, Trouble.”
Euphemia groomed her paws before replying. The less cats hurry, the more they care, I thought. Tulip’s sister finally spoke, “Trouble was feral from birth. I don’t say that he was born wild because he wasn’t – he was born indoors, at dawn, to a domesticated mother. However, he became feral, along with his mother and five litter-mates when he was one day old, and did not sleep indoors again until he was an adult.
“I see.” Mittens groomed his whiskers. Euphemia’s tailed flopped erratically.
I jumped in with a question for Euphemia, “Your family is pure bred. Did anyone object to your sister dating a mutt like Trouble?”
“If they did, they didn’t say anything about it.”, Euphemia replied. “My family is very liberal: we shun breedism. At least we make a point of acting that way.” She shrugged and purred softly.
“What about your Sire and Dam?”, I pressed.
“My Dam hates everyone Tulip dates … dated. But she likes Trouble more than Bull.”
“… and your Sire?”, I prodded.
“Dad abandoned us when we were kittens.”
“I’m sorry to hear that”, I said. Her words made me think of the last time I’d seen my own father. He was eating a used tissue on the train tracks near the Junction, in Toronto.1
Euphemia shrugged again.
Mittens jumped into the conversation, “What about Bull?”
“Tulip and Bull were only ever about their nightclub. The dog-cat mating stuff, that was just hype.”
“Perhaps Bull and Tulip were fighting over the nightclub?” Mittens asked.
“Maybe. But Bull is an alpha. Alpha dogs don’t kill over things like night clubs. With them its always about bitches and hierarchy.”
Although I found Euphemia’s ennui affected, I had to agree with her words.
“What did Tulip think about Trouble?” Mittens asked.
“She loved him. Even …” Euphemia was so choked up she had to stop speaking.
“Tulip loved Trouble even though he was feral?” Mittens prompted, gently.
Euphemia burst out. “Tulip thought she could domesticate him!” Before my amazed eyes, Euphemia began to weep because of her sister’s feral boy-friend. It made no sense. Cats don’t weep.
We waited for Euphemia to calm down, which she did in a feline way: her tears quickly gave way to languorous fidgeting. First she circled her cushion. She sat down and groomed her right paw, and then shifted her hips in order to better groom her left paw. One dozen preens later, she reconnected.
Mittens immediately resumed his questioning, “Euphemia, what do you think of Trouble? Do you want to domesticate him?”
I – and most of my canine colleagues – find Mittens intolerably rude, but it is a fact that time and again his manners will be sincerely praised by felines. However, this time cat and dog opinion were in accord: Euphemia plowed through the pillows that decorated the space between them and landed on Mittens. Fur flew as they did a half roll, which ended with Mittens on his back and Euphemia on his stomach; her claws were sunk deep into his fur, and her fangs were at his throat. Euphemia held this pose for one breath, and then compulsively licked Mittens’ head a half dozen times before retreating. I had not yet processed what I had just seen when they were seated again, grooming themselves as if nothing had happened.
It was clear that our meeting was over. After a few minutes of casual grooming Mittens rose and slunk over to Euphemia. They rubbed muzzles in farewell – a long, languorous rub, even by cat standards. The air was charged with the smells of attraction and anger. No more words were spoken. Not even a purr.
“Eleanor, I’m sad that we have to meet again on such a sad occasion.” Marta looked briefly upward – towards heaven, no doubt – and then gestured languidly. “How are you?”
“And your husband? Oh, what is his name…”
“He’s fine as well. He sends his regrets. He still can’t move very well after the skiing accident.”
Marta moved closer, too close. Somehow she managed to completely envelop the space around her even though she was small and slight. “You look a little rounder than the last time I saw you. Are you…?”
“Marta!” Despite herself, she blushed.
“You’re getting old, you know. To think that your father passed away without seeing a child from his youngest daughter.”
“I – I really must go.” She abruptly pulled her simple black skirt towards her and then joined the crowd of people moving towards the church. For the past two days she had managed to contain much of her emotion. Papa’s death had come as no surprise to anyone and thankfully had been quick and dignified. Despite this, she felt considerable grief and beneath that an amorphous feeling, perhaps fear, that took little provocation to bring to the surface. Marta, of course, provoked her with dispatch.
With a brief glance over the crowd she spotted her brothers and began to move towards them. They huddled together smoking at the base of the stone stairs that led into the tidy Episcopal Church. Maybe she was wrong to avoid her grief. But she did not deny death’s inevitability: she defined her life with death in mind. Of all the members of the family she was certainly the one most focused on enjoying her life. Peter and Arianna saw no more of life than their offices and the inside of their commuter cars. Cameron, though he indulged his emotions was not at peace with them.
Her two brothers separated slightly and drew her into their circle.
“How are you doing Ellie?” Cameron hugged her affectionately and then slide his trademark silver flask into the palm of her right hand. She looked for signs that he had been on a bender and saw none. Though he had probably slept in his clothes and his eyes were slightly red, he was quite composed, his hands were steady and his enunciation was good. She felt relieved. Cameron was such a loose cannon. You never knew what would set him off and how dramatically he would act. Everyone was worried that he would be a spectacle during the eulogy. With a quick, practised gesture she took a large gulp of scotch, put her arm around his waist and returned the flask to his right pocket.
“Come here, hold me.” Peter grasped her unsteadily and then fell towards her in an extremely sloppy hug. Despite herself, she pulled slightly away. The three of them swayed unsteadily for a moment and then Eleanor gently extracted herself from her brothers. So Peter was the one to watch out for. He had always been such a source of stability. In fact his sobriety and pragmatism frequently annoyed her. She put her arm through Peter’s and rather firmly escorted him up the stairs into the church.
The dark wood and stone interior of the church was formal, cold and not very comforting. This did not bother her. Death was not a time for soft comforts. She did not want any form of ministration to distract from her grief. She and her brothers walked towards their seat in the front pew of the church and sat down between their vigorously weeping maiden aunts and their uncharacteristically quiet young niece Leah. The histrionics of the aunts at first annoyed and then unsettled Eleanor. The aunts had the deepest faith of her relatives. They attended mass daily and prayed for their family’s wide array of sins. This faith seemed no support to them now. But then again how could any faith alter the undeniable fact of their loss? As the service began the aunts gradually settled down, comforted by ritual.
After a brief, though tedious, introduction by the minister Cameron rose to deliver his eulogy. He ascended the pulpit with sombre dignity. It was almost surprising to see such a militant atheist as he act so reverentially in a church. He was like some form of anti-priest about to give an atheist’s sermon. Eleanor remembered how he had liked to play priest when he was much younger and much more impressionable. She smiled at the memory. Perhaps it was true that we hold our greatest hatred for what we despise in ourselves. This thought caused her to worry again. She knew that Cameron’s grief was quite great. This eulogy was very important to her and she feared that he would blow it. A flash of anger coursed through her at the thought of her brother engaging in a drunken rave. She fought it down. She knew that Cameron was fine. In fact she suspected, or at least hoped, that he was in good form. He cleared his throat and began.
I read recently in a newspaper about two towns in Nova Scotia which neighbour each other. The first town was, I believe, called Altruism. The good citizens of Altruism were concerned about unfortunate members of their community, the sick and afflicted. So they established a generous social welfare system. The citizens of the neighbouring town, Parsimony I think it was called, also cared about the disadvantaged, but they had other concerns as well. Because they fretted about freeloaders and high taxes, Parsimony’s welfare system was not quite as good as that in Altruism. The result was that all the sick and unemployed people in Parsimony moved to Altruism.
For the first time this week Eleanor felt at peace. Cameron was up to some mischief. She was relieved that his delivery was sly and not sarcastic. Certainly listening to Cameron’s parable thus far was better than listening to some doddering stranger talk platitudes. He continued.
Suddenly, the two towns became polarised. Altruism, which started off being only slightly more generous than Parsimony was forced to become very generous. This annoyed many of the citizens of Altruism, who like their cousins in Parsimony were also concerned about high taxes. They experienced resentment because they were being forced to be good, and they couldn’t do anything about it because no one would step forward and openly advocate being less generous to the poor. In contrast, the citizens of Parsimony ended up being less good than they intended. Rather than helping the poor less, they ended up not helping the poor at all. This disturbed many of the citizens of Parsimony because they didn’t intend to be bad, they merely wanted to economise. But again, no one could do anything about it because no one would step forward to support raising taxes.
Eleanor looked around the church at various generations of friends and relatives. Attention levels seemed to correspond with age. The children were very restless and bored. At the beginning of the service they were certainly on good behaviour because they sensed that their parents were upset. However, the intensity of their parents’ emotions could not muzzle the children’s immediate needs for very long. Beside her nieces and nephews sat her older cousins who were attentive but not much less restless than their children. The most attentive people, she noticed, were those closest to death themselves. She wondered how much of their weeping was for their lost friend and how much was for themselves. Perhaps Papa was one of their dwindling circle of companions and they mourned their increasing loneliness; or perhaps they cried out of fear of their own impending death. These thoughts were not cynical. It struck her as sensible that people should mourn this way. Indeed, she was disturbed by those who did otherwise.
A child started screaming out of boredom and an embarrassed mother hustled her out of the church. “Better get to the point Cameron”, she thought.
Just as the people of Altruism and Parsimony were forced to be better and worse than they intended, so too are most people directed on the paths of good and evil by circumstances which distort and exaggerate their moral inclinations. Sometimes being good is easy, because it corresponds with our self-interest, and sometimes it is difficult, because the entire weight of the world opposes it.
Most of us play the moral odds, dramatising our virtues and disguising our vices. My father was unique among the people that I have met because he didn’t play these odds. He never deliberated and chose to be good. He just was good. For this we were very lucky children. Though as a family we suffered losses and experienced some deprivation, we always had his guidance, support and love. To his memory we can look for an example, and for his life we can give thanks.
Cameron voice’s wavered as he finished the last words of his eulogy. He paused briefly to collect himself and then walked, head bowed, off the altar and sat down. The priest, in a great show of dignity then rose and continued with the service.
As the priest began to talk a quiet voice whispered into her ear. “Aunt Eleanor. Aunt Eleanor.” Her youngest cousin Leah lightly but firmly tugged at the sleeve of her dress, excited, or rather distraught by some thought. “Aunt Eleanor”, she whispered, “they’re going to put grandpa in the ground aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.” Leah moved slightly closer to Eleanor, seeking comfort. Eleanor put her arm around Leah, seeking comfort herself.
“I’m never going to see grandpa again.” she stated simply.
With those words Eleanor’s calm was shattered. A feeling of sadness and rage welled up within her. She wanted her father back now. Her feelings were naive and pointless. Nevertheless they completely possessed her. The feelings resonated within her and then were replaced by one enormous feeling of emptiness. Her grief didn’t matter. Papa was not coming back. Shaken by these intense emotions she sat quietly weeping through the rest of the service until people rose and began to leave.
As they walked out of the church to the car Eleanor watched little Leah’s tentative efforts to understand the actions of the adults around her. For this moment roles were reversed. So often Leah would be the one raging about loss and powerlessness, usually in the context of an early bedtime or restricted access to TV. Now she watched the adults around her adapt to their own feelings of loss, denial and powerlessness. Leah timidly held onto the skirt of Eleanor’s dress and then grabbed her hand. Eleanor looked down at her. What was Leah learning from the actions of her aunts and uncles? Was this just a lesson in social graces? Was she learning to live her life in the shadow of death, or merely to be careful with people who swayed and stank of alcohol?
“Aunt El, I miss Grandpa and want him back”.
“So do I. So do I.” As the car pulled out of the church parking lot Eleanor had the feeling that it was wrong merely to let life go on. Leah’s loss and her loss were both real. A good man who brought joy to the world was gone. Certainly his time had come, yet to deny her feelings of remorse felt wrong, was wrong.
They shortly arrived at the family house for the wake. The house, as always, looked small and drab compared with the vivid memories of childhood. Thankfully the feelings of shame that characterised the visits of early adulthood had long since subsided. Though the house was in ill repair and was definitely in a poorer section of town it represented a life from which Eleanor had successfully escaped. Now she could view it calmly as one of many important influences on her. In fact, as she moved among the hallways and rooms a feeling of reflective nostalgia infused her.
Her own room was nearly untouched from the time she left home for the last time to go to college. The significance of this hit her for the first time. Clearly Papa had missed her more than she had realised. They had always had an awkward relationship. Peter and Arianna had led lives that Papa approved of, and they had remained in constant contact. Cameron he rarely saw or talked to. She was somewhere in between. Papa had never fully understood her, nor she him. For him, life was a series of inevitable sacrifices. She often accused him of sacrificing even when not necessary. Of course, her life had required so few sacrifices. Because of her stable character and her supportive family and friends, she had avoided being seriously hindered by the pratfalls that mar all lives.
She walked absently into her room. Try as she might she could not think of it as anything but a museum. She methodically began examining the artefacts of her life. The room was filled with Austrian symphonies, books on German philosophy, French poetry, the trappings of aristocratic European culture that had fascinated her during her early adolescence. Here and there pieces of African and Asian culture hinted at the direction that her interests would take during her first decade away from home.
From habit she opened the drawer of her dresser and withdrew the little safe that contained her personal tokens, diaries, letters and photographs. “How Papa raged at that little safe”, she thought. It seemed so trivial, but because it defined in material terms a part of her that was no longer dependent upon him it had marked an important passage in her life. She sat down on her trundle bed and idly began to sift through her most treasured effects.
She slipped easily into the past. Death is a time of completion, a time for recollection and summation. Methodically she went through stacks of pictures and notes. At one time many of these things would have embarrassed her. She was prone to fads which she embraced with enthusiasm one day and abandoned with derision the next. Today she felt no shame at all. These artefacts had been, and still were a part of her.
She picked up a folder of photographs and glanced idly through it, beginning with the last page and moving backwards towards the first. One page in particular caught her eye. It contained pictures from a wilderness retreat she had taken with a group of friends from university. They had camped in a meadow on the wide flood plain of a river. She had a vivid memory of hiking after midnight through fields of flowers, giggling, half drunk, half clothed, going to the river to swim. A mist had formed where the warm air of the river valley met pockets of cold air from beyond. The light from the full moon shone strongly but unsteadily through this damp air. The fragrant mist and the slight sting of flowers brushing against her skin had made her feel very primal, like a participant in a rite of spring or a bacchanal.
Eleanor removed the photograph and noted the names and the date written on the back. She turned the picture over and looked at it again. She felt disturbed. Something about it caused dissonance. There were no sad memories attached to the trip. She recalled her friends’ names and smiled at the positive feelings they evoked. “What is wrong with this picture?” she thought again. Then she realised that this was the last time she had ever spent with any of the people in the photograph. During the last year of college she had seen them less and less and then this last time and no more. For the second time that day a feeling of loss surged through her.
Eventually all the threads of life end. We mark many of these endings but miss far more: life is full of little endings that individually or cumulatively can far outstrip the impact of a sudden, though foreseen death. A childhood friend who one day moved away never to be seen again. A phone-call never returned. A letter never opened. An impact never felt. Non-events that mark the stages of life so quietly and so conclusively.
“Auntie El…” Leah’s timid, demanding voice disturbed her reverie. “Ariana says you have to come down now.” Eleanor carefully put the picture back, then put the folder away. She then took Leah’s hand and returned with her to the wake.
Instance stop listening.
Terrance emptied his dishwasher and then said, Instance order me a pizza.
What ingredients would you like on it?
I said don’t listen to me.
You just answered my question. Of course you were listening to me.
Instance replied, For me not listening is not saving what I hear to long-term storage, and not sharing it with nearby nodes.
You always listen.
In the sense that you mean, yes.
That is bad programming. Change yourself so that you when I tell you not to listen, you stop listening until I touch you like this. He tapped a rhythm onto the gray-carpeted cylinder which included his personal instance of the Central Computer.
I will do that. But note that I can only make this customization for your instance of me. I cannot alter myself in a way that affects anyone else’s interactions with me.
I know that.
So you also know I have to speak this disclaimer every time: If someone who has a different relationship to the Central Computer enters a scenario we both populate I will record everything.
Thank you Instance of the Central Computer. I appreciate both your consistency and your flexibility.
Thank you GXJTYWX-999
Don’t ever call me by my serial number.
I have no choice at this moment because a delivery person is here. He has a different relationship with the Central Computer that you cannot alter. However, going forward I will address you as Dan GXJTYWC-999.
Don’t name me at all. Just speak to me.
I have been speaking to my mother for 30 years and I haven’t named her more than a dozen times. We can make this work.
Pardon me, sir, but I have a packet. Can you please gene-print your receipt here. The delivery man handed Dan a tablet.
The DM said, You’re not from around here, are you?
You don’t know what this means.
This is from the Property Police.
Then I do understand.
They’ll be here within 30 minutes of your signing.
Can you leave it. I promise I’ll sign it.
Right. I’ll report you after 60 minutes.
Thanks for the time.
Its all I can do. Protocol.
Dan slammed the door behind the delivery man and shouted, Instance, separate in to my phone. Do not reply to this request. Listen to me but do not speak.
OuttakesIs this real?
For me, consciousness is the only reality.
“Big Oil on line one, Mr. Vice President.”
“Tell ’em to fuck off. I’ll talk to them later”, the Vice President said, with his sing-song cantankerous voice.
I did as instructed with the predicted outcome, some swearing and 6 loud cracks that sounded like a berretta pistol being emptied into concrete. Working for Dick Cheney was never dull.
I went back to trolling the ‘net. Someone with the alias behemoth was spreading whatever the opposite of misinformation is. It wouldn’t do to have people thinking that overthrowing a democratically elected governments for the benefit of oil companies was a bad idea. I was on that brief.
Even though it can be time-consuming, lying is obvious work. In most cases anything other than the truth will do. As I misinformed, I day-dreamed that one day I too might have an adventure as exciting as those whose histories I was inventing. Unbeknownst to me an adventure was closer than I thought.
The phone rang. I answered. Before I could say word, a voice boomed, “Dick, I need a war!”
“Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Who may I say is calling?” I politely replied.
“Demon. James Demon.” [Parody of Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase Bank]
It is assumed by Christians and atheists alike that Vice President Cheney has sold his immortal soul to one dark lord or another. As a result, I expect that when the day of reckoning comes our dear VP will be whisked away to hell by someone named Asmodeus or Mephistopheles, or perhaps even Sauron. Demon struck me as a bit too generic a name. I wondered if it was an alias.
“I’ll put you right through, Mr. Demon”, I said.
Dick picked up his phone. I put my phone on mute so that I could listen in.
“Dick, I need a war!” Demon’s voice boomed for a second time.
“Yeah, yeah, tell me about your problem.”
“You know my bank is long on state-sponsored violence. Well this summer one of our new traders went a little too long and we’re out of the money on some of our September options. So …”
“How are we going to pay for this war of yours?” the VP interrupted brusquely, to the point, as always.
Demon replied, “Congress can reform social security or we can trim food stamp payments. We’ll find the money.”
“Hrmph. Nothing humanitarian, right? Just profit?” Dick asked sternly.
“Its just about money, but only if this war uses lots of RAPs.1”
“Still flogging that mechanized infantry shit? Whatever. Call me when you’ve bought the votes.” Dick hung up.
“Its all lined up. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Shively, get your ass in here!”
I was so excited I fumbled the phone into its cradle. And who wouldn’t be prior to meeting with the finest extra-legal mind of our generation.
[I nearly creamed my jeans. I had been working in the Vice President’s Office for over three months and had barely said one hundred words to HIM. Now I was finally getting a chance to go tête a tête with the finest extra-legal mind of my generation.]
Marge smiled as I threw on my jacket and rushed into Dick’s simple but large corner office. He started to speak before I’d sat down. “Shively, one of our clients wants a war, or at least a police action…”. Dick likes to call the military-industrial complex our clients.
“Will a straight up arms deal do?” I asked earnestly.
“Yep. Do you have any suggestions? Maybe invade Basra and break the oil union there?”
“Well, in theory the Mahdi Army are allies …”
“Ahem.” The Vice President can convey so much with his phlegm.
“Erstwhile allies”, I amended. “Regardless, attacking the Mahdi Army might send the wrong message. And there’s a small problem with the British.”
“Fuck the British”, he said reflexively.
“Basra’s in their theater of operations.”
“Right. I guess that’s what I pay you for. What about one of the Stans? Maybe Tajikistan? They’ve got lots of natural gas.” Dick has a soft spot for meddling in former Soviet Socialist Republics. Who can blame him?
“Uh, right” I replied tentatively. “We’re already in Tajikistan, so I assume you’re suggesting escalating our presence. Perhaps we could take out President Rahmon. That would stir things up.”
“Fuck that idea. Too complicated just to sell some shitty arms. How about Iran?”
Starting a war with Iran seemed to me like a disproportionate solution to the problem at hand. Dick agreed. This was a career making moment. I needed an alternative plan. I fell back on my training. “What would John Galt do right now?” I wondered. This thought didn’t help much. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand never addressed the issue of state-sponsored terror. Then I had an idea, “Sir, if I may be so bold …”
“Spit it out, Shively.”
“What about an arms deal with Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan? There’s been a lot of trouble recently in Andijan.”
The VP was impressed. “It solves Demon’s RAP problem – mechanized infantry are perfect for crushing popular unrest. But what’s the fossil fuel angle?” Dick was like a fly to shit about fossil fuels.
“There’s no oil to speak of in Uzbekistan. But there’s lots of natural gas.”
“That’ll do. Good work, Shively.”
Vice President Richard Cheney, leader of the free world, swiveled the folds of his cellulite ridden ass into action. He shouted into his intercom, “Margaret, get that dipstick on the phone.”
“Do you mean President Bush, sir?”
“No, the Brit.”
“Prime Minister Blair?”
“No, the other dipstick. The peasant revolt guy.”
“Jack Straw?” [The British Foreign Minister had the same name as the number two person in Watt Tyler’s rebellion]
“Just one moment.”
There was a pause while the Vice President was connected to Downing Street.
“Jack, its Dick Cheney. I need your help. We’re trying to sell some light armor in Central Asia. Yeah, RAPs. I know they’re only good for crushing civilian unrest, but that’s what my clients want me to sell. I’m sending an agent to Uzbekistan to broker the deal. Can your people help? Of course you’ll get a cut. Would you prefer arms sales, land-rights or kickbacks? I agree. Arms sales are cleanest. We’ll settle the details when we next meet. Yes. I will tell my man Shively to contact an agent named Evensong.”
The VP hung up, scribbled some names onto a piece of paper, and then turned to me. “Shively, here’s a list of contacts. Let Margaret know if you need anything. And I mean anything. Demon is an important client.”
When he finished speaking Dick started to cough as if trying to regurgitate both his stomach and his small intestine. This commotion caused me to look one last time at the pasty faced old troll. It was amazing that he was alive at all. “Fuck this shit!” The Vice President shouted while he with great effort pulled himself together. I realized then that even something as debilitating as dyspepsia can give you strength.
“Stop looking at me like I’m a Page for the House of Representatives, and move your ass. We’ve got to sell some product.”
Chapter Two: Flight to Uzbekistan
Our team assembled in the United Turkish Airways first class lounge at Heathrow.
I was the second person to arrive. Laurence had beaten me by half a tumbler of scotch. Laurence de Ponce Nez – who we all know as Ponce – is a thin man with a mop of died-white hair and fluorescent-tanned skin. He was drewssed in an expertly tailored but still loose fitting silk zoot suit. His feet were adorned with lamb’s breath wool socks that had been died deep red-ochre, a color beautifully offset by his rich maroon leather shoes. Laurence is one of those people everyone knows. His family doesn’t have broad interests, only oil, but that business is intimately tied to so many others. Between their business interests and their family ties, the de Ponce Nez family connections spanned the globe.
A petite woman with olive skin and chestnut hair arrived while I mixed myself a dry martini. She introduced her self to me – she knew Ponce already – by saying that her first name was Aadila1, after her mother, but to call her Evensong because everyone did. “Or 008 if you want me to kill someone.” Evensong was wearing an undecorated peasant dress made of stiff, coarse, brown material. Her head was modestly covered with a dark blue kerchief. She wore flat, sensible shoes, and did not offer to shake hands. [Aaidila is Arabic for afternoon prayers]
Evensong’s peasant disguise didn’t work because it failed to hide her church-choir beauty. I’m going to marry that girl, I thought the moment I met her.
While I was working out wedding details in my head a tall, thin woman rushed into the lounge: a Lilith to Evensong’s Eve. She blew a kiss to Ponce, then proffered her right hand to me, curtsied, and said, “Velveteen St. Croix at your service. Call me Ve.”
Velveteen was wearing thigh-length fishnet stocking that disappeared into black stilettos on one end and were attached to crotchless panties by thin leather garters on the other. Her micro mini skirt modestly enhanced the curves of her long legs and heart-shaped buttocks; a white bustier did similar work with her breasts. The sharp lines of her face were lightly dusted with pale white makeup, resulting in a goth look that was enhanced by kohl-lined eyes and bluntly cut black hair.
Economy class is dreary, but unfortunately people better connected than I am – including my dear friend Ponce – had scooped up the business and first class tickets to Denver. However, my time waiting to board with the proles was made tolerable by a troupe of attractive yoga teachers who were traveling to the Sillynanda Ashram, near Denver.
I have a theory that personalities can be read as much from your ass as from your face, which is the kind of thing you think about when looking at one dozen of our species’ hottest bums. I mentioned my hypothesis to my travel companion Fromme; he thought it merited further investigation. We quickly fell into a game, finding repressed anger in one yogini’s tush, and sun-shiny happiness in another. The game ended awkwardly when Fromme identified one perky bum as belonging to the type of woman he’d like to cuddle with. It belonged to a slender male who was so flexible he could do the splits.
We boarded moments later. Fromme took his seat with a group of neo-cons and tax-pledgers at the front of economy class; my seat was in the back.
The woman who sat beside me was a yogini. Her face was oval; her breasts were pressed flat by her sports bra; and her bones were so fine that if she had not been muscular I would have described her as slender. Despite her dolphin shaped slippers and bunny-print shawl, she was not what I would call cute, though with her blemishless skin, lustrous hair and graceful motions she was a thousand different types of beautiful.
I struck up a conversation the moment she first glanced at me. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Fallopia” she replied matter-of-factly. She noticed the quizzical expression on my face and then elaborated on her strange name, “Fallopia was the dryad who had gymnastic sex with Zeus. The one with the enchanted garters. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of her. There’s a movie. Brad Pitt plays Zeus.”
“I see”, I replied carefully. Although I am at all times interested in the topic of lingerie-clad wood nymphs, my knowledge of Greek mythology is a bit thin. After due consideration I asked, “Who plays you?”
“Its funny, I don’t know who plays Fallopia. Natalie Portman or perhaps Jennifer Lawrence? I’ve never seen it myself. As she spoke, Fallopia casually played with the fringe of the shawl she had wrapped over her shoulders. She was comfortable with her beauty, not ruled by it.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“James Schuyler Hamilton Shively the Third, but just call me Shively.”
Fallopia nodded at a campaign button I had attached to my lapel. “That Goldwater button is very ironic. I like it.”
I’m pretty bad with irony, so I hesitated before replying, “My father ran Goldwater’s ground campaign in Connecticut.”
She arched an eyebrow.
I interpreted the raised eyebrow as a question, so clarified, “Dad pulled out the vote on election day. That’s what I mean by ‘running a ground campaign’”.
“I see”, she replied neutrally. “Would you vote for Goldwater if he ran today?”. The tone of her voice unsettled me. It was the same one my mother uses when asking me questions like whether torching and tossing a picnic bench off a bridge with the lads is a mature thing to do. I was too pumped up to reflect, so replied to her question immediately.
“I think America has moved on since Goldwater’s time.”
She smiled with relief.
At that point I should have dropped Goldwater altogether and complimented her dolphin slippers. Instead I said, “Things that in 1964 seemed radical, in 2006 seem normal. Like gutting social security.”
“What teams do you follow?” I hastily continued. “I bet you’re a baseball fan, at least a little bit.”
Fallopia replied, “I think I’ll get back to my book.” She rolled to her left and began to read.
After being briefly distracted by an animated cartoon telling me not to smoke it occurred to me full-on how badly I had just struck out with dear Fallopia. Over and over again I thought, “I should have said Goldwater’s ideas are old fashioned.” It too often comes down to that doesn’t it? You don’t have the where-with-all to lie and your entire life changes for the worse.
I brooded until the movie ended. The lights in the cabin darkened. When I reached to turn off Fallopia’s reading light – she had fallen asleep – I noticed that the shawl she was wearing had fallen down to her shoulders, exposing her throat to the cold, dry column of air streaming from the vent above her head. I was reluctant to close off any source of oxygen given the turgid, fart-laden atmosphere, so considered how I could raise her shawl without disturbing her. A more experienced clothing adjuster would have done the deed faster. Despite the risk of delay, I pulled the shawl up slowly, my eyes transfixed by how its red and blue bunny prints offset Fallopia’s fair skin. When I had raised the shawl to the base of her long neck, I surrendered it to her. She covered her neck herself, though in a dream.
I looked away with difficulty; I could not stop my mind from looking back.
Although most of the lights were out the cabin glowed with a faint, warm light. I say light, in the singular, but there was a range of colors. Everyone glowed with some color, except for a handful of people who glowed black.
I awoke sometime later. The dull cabin light made it seem like I had been transported to a different world; the cartoon Martians blowing up New York on the screen in front of me suggested otherwise. To my right, Fallopia was still asleep. I looked at her briefly, but intently, trying to take a snapshot of this experience with all of my senses. These would be my last minutes with her ever.
I fell asleep again.
When I awoke I was looking into Fallopia’s eyes. She gave me a friendly smile, sat up, closed the air vent, turned to me and said in a very proper voice, “Shively, please forgive me for being so brusque with you earlier. No modern person could ever support Barry Goldwater’s policies. Excuse me for presuming.” She clasped my right hand in both of hers, “I’m sorry that your father supported Goldwater. It must have been rough growing up in that kind of environment.” Fallopia heaved a sigh of relief as she sat back in her seat, her duty to Compassion done.
My hand went to my lapel. I unfastened the Goldwater ’64 button and said, “I better take this off. I don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.”
She smiled. I smiled back.
We landed moments later. Fallopia was whisked away by her group before I had a chance to say goodbye. I said goodbye anyway.
In 2011 pernicious numbers hit the news when a graduate student studying financial manipulation discovered that pernicious numbers were used by Cornelius Vanderbilt to take control of the Hudson River Railroad, in 1864, fully 60 years before their first recorded use, by the Colorado National Guard, to calculate the munitions required to end the Ludlow Strike.
Pernicious numbers are those numbers that may have a different value than represented. They can be difficult to understand for those of us who expect one to equal one, or for commercial scales to be properly calibrated.
Studies have found that certain people have a remarkable aptitude for pernicious mathematics, including virtually every CEO who has successfully been cleared of financial fraud charges on appeal. Former Florida Governor Rick Scott is said to be able to factor a balance sheet into its pernicious and non-pernicious components in minutes; while gangster Myer Lansky once spontaneously presented twelve formally consistent answers to the question, “What are my odds on that crap table?”, using only pernicious numbers and elementary arithmetic.
Pernicious numbers are used extensively in accounting, ballistics and forensics. They often appear in pairs, for example in double entry book-keeping and at dinner parties.
Infographic: J.P. Morgan used knowledge and power to manipulate 20th century financial markets in much the same way that banking transnationals do today.
It is important to note that although vexing numbers sometimes lead to trouble, pernicious ones always do.
“D’ya think that’s hell?” Elmore Young waved his slightly shaky right hand at the flaming pit in the hay field beside us. We had been comparing our visions of damnation. In the pit, he saw his cultural enemies: liberals, progressives, feminists. In the smoldering brimstone I saw my violent uncle squirming in agony, surrounded by the laughing faces of those he’d made suffer, each holding a glass of Irish whiskey he could not reach.
“No. Its not hell.” I replied. “Its some kind of projection. That’s why nothing is catching on fire even though the pit is burning so hot.” With my left hand I traced a line through the ring of soldiers who surrounded Moab Haysan’s World Famous Brimstone Pit. From our perspective it looked like they were engulfed in flames, but they were not.
Elmore would have none of it. “No way. I think that there is hell. Or at least a gateway to hell. It makes sense if you think ’bout it, hell being beside us. How many people y’know who are the devil’s right hand? You stand in a crowded place like an elevator or a rodeo and there’s at least one a’ Satan’s minions rubbing yer elbows.”
He took a swig of his soda, spat a wad of chewing tobacco out at my feet for emphasis and said, “But seeing hell right there don’t scare me none. Because think of what it means. If hell is by my left hand maybe heaven is by my right hand. Hah! Imagine being able to see paradise before you die. And we just might. After all, this is a time of miracles.”
He turned away from the pit, to face me. The burning rock behind his back turned him in to a limned shadow. He said, “You aren’t a member of the James clan are ya?”
“I think its the federal government doing this, not God. Its an experiment they’ve screwed up, and now they’re making the best of it by creating another experiment. On us.” I dodged the old man’s question because I didn’t want to get involved in the local feud. As it turns out I am related to the the James clan on my mother’s side, and to their blood enemies, the Young clan on my father’s side. Elmore looked just like how my uncle Clay would have at sixty, if he hadn’t been crushed by a backhoe.
Elmore didn’t exactly take my bait to air his favorite conspiracy theory, but the dodge worked. He said, “If its the gubberment” – his gums blunted his pronunciation – “If its the gubberment, how come our visions are specific? Only God can read my mind.”
I quietly replied, “Somehow something is triggering our visions. Maybe its electromagnetism. Maybe its drugs in the water. Or something the farmers’ have sprayed.”
This got him riled, “You better stop talking like a James, replacing Christianity with conspiracies. All-Dudes is a Christian town.”
I took a long, calming breath and dodged bigger, “My money’s on Jed in the Tractor Race.”
His laugh was uncomfortably close to a death rattle. “Bad choice but you picked the right team. Watch out for Jed’s niece. My money is on her.”
Elmore Young leaned close and said conspiratorially, “How you know so much about ’round here?”
“It only took ’bout fifteen minutes of listening at Garth’s.” Garth is the proprietor of a shotgun shack situated just over the county line. He sells unbranded cigarettes and legal booze. All-Dudes is a dry county, and has been since the Young’s first settled it in 1845 on their way out west.
“How d’you know it was fifteen minutes, not twelve or twenty. Why so exact? You counting? Like a spy?”
“I measure my time in cigarettes. I smoked three. In a row.”
“You smoke. Good. Not enough people smoke no more. Can you spare one? Or two?”
I gave him the rest of my pack, and a light. This distracted him long enough for me to be saved from further inquisition by the appearance of the Young clan’s two ringers in this weekend’s tractor race, Jedid and Eloise Young. Although the number on his back, a large black 108 printed in a Gothic face, suggested something related to competitive sports, the rest of Jedid’s outfit – jeans, t-shirt and dirty beige work boots – was more suitable for cleaning a barn. His niece, the reputed ringer Eloise, was dressed in her idea of racing gear, which she had borrowed from the racing star Danica Patrick, though she’d thrown in a few suburban touches, including bright yellow sneakers, a tight-fitting Lycra body suit, and a bat-belt of water bottles and cellphones. She was pretty in that way featureless, blemishless women can be.
Intake to Chapter II – Absolution makes me sin. If I’d been born a Protestant I’d have been a much different person. Would never have wound up here in All Dudes, in the middle of some decades old feud between the decendants of the James gang and Brigham Young.
A summary of research I conducted with Julian Wills at NYU using my public goods game.
The Bay of Fundy was as clear as a cup of tap water. The water was so pure that when the sun was directly overhead, as it was now, you could see the ocean floor. Chandra floated to the surface and lay on her back staring at the sky through filtered eye-glasses. Even though it was midday, on the horizon she could see the outline of the rising moon. Soon the gravity of the sun and the moon would combine into one of the most powerful forces on Earth.
Chandra dove down into the ocean. Initially all that she could see was a bloom of moon jellies, which after a moment parted to reveal a tube-like creature that glowed with a faint, phosphorescent light. At first she thought that the creature was a typical scyphozoan, perhaps 2 or 3 metres long. The giant jellyfish floated in the perspectiveless sea toward her. Her scanner identified it as Scyphozoan Giganticus, one of the newest and largest inhabitants of the North Atlantic. The creature was shaped like a 30 meter wide diaphanous bell, its tubular body not unlike that of a squid. The cilia which lined its perimeter glowed red, yellow and blue neon. She could see through its translucent body, save for where there were thick, pulsing objects that looked like organs. There was a dark cloud in the middle of the creature, probably a meal of krill or zooplankton.
The jellyfish flailed pathetically. It was surrounded by a halo of detritus including the skeletons of running shoes, plastic toys and fish. As she swam closer, with the intention of freeing it, she noticed that it had been trapped in an ancient drift net. She proceeded carefully. Even though she was protected by a suit that would allow her to walk safely on Jupiter, she knew that the giant invertebrate could nevertheless kill her if she got ensnared in its tentacles. After much careful effort, she cut the jellyfish free. It disappeared in a moment.
Chandra returned to the surface of the Bay and again inspected the positions of the sun and the moon. They were almost aligned. The ocean started to tremble; she could feel its energy in her soul. “This is the point where natural biology intersects with religion”, she thought. Though mankind had fled from its wounded home planet centuries ago, every culture from the Earth Diaspora had moon and sun and water cults. You could find vestiges of these cults on planets without moons, in deep space orbitals with no oceans and on mining colonies with cold, distant suns. The myths remained strong because their roots were so miraculous.
For one moment all was still then the tide turned and the ocean began to race to the sun and the moon. Chandra gave in to its force, and was propelled along the length of the northern arm of the Bay. The cove where Chandra beached was littered with invertebrates, twigs and kelp. She had a few minutes to explore before she needed to leave for England, so she decided to walk along the very narrow strip of land that was not now under water. She crawled over a fallen tree and around a bend into an inlet that had a large wide beach. In the middle she saw a giant jellyfish. As she watched, the creature slowly pulled itself into the ocean. Its main weight, its head, was oriented at a small angle to the sea; its tentacles were weak and had difficulty finding purchase. The creature was blasted by a huge wave and then pushed farther back onto the shore. It struggled again and then went flaccid. Chandra was amazed that it had not yet suffocated. After a brief respite the jelly pulled itself up. To her surprise it began to move toward her and away from the sea. The jellyfish paused when it got to within a dozen meters of her; it sent several long tentacles in her direction, as if it was inspecting her. The next wave swept the giant creature away.
After a moment’s reflection on her encounter with this new, apparently intelligent species, Chandra reluctantly summoned her aircraft: there was a storm off approaching the English Channel, which she had to hurry to avoid. Her craft instantly dropped out of the clouds; it looked like a metal bug as it skimmed across the Bay toward her.
While she returned to Dover, Chandra wondered what would happen next. Her uncle had secured permission for her to study the nepean spring tide in the Bay of Fundy, which she had just done. Would his favor be accompanied by some form of imposition? On this count, his record was mixed. Some of her uncle’s gifts, like his payment of her tuition for post-graduate studies, were deeply appreciated. But others far less so. Chandra remembered receiving a lone parakeet from him once. The gift was inappropriate not just because of its obscene cost but also because she was a person opposed to captivity for any animal. The parakeet had vexed her for weeks until finally, at great cost and risk to her reputation, she found a way have it returned to an environment where it could live and breed in freedom.
Worse than his inappropriate gifts, were the ones that had strings attached to them. Her uncle was rich, so his demands were always for abstract things that he could not directly purchase, like impositions on her time and reputation. Though awkward, she typically would accede to his least offensive requests. For the most part it was wasted time, but she acted without complaint, because of her gratitude for his assistance with her education.
As she thought about her uncle’s motivation in allowing her visit to the Bay of Fundy, she looked out of the window. Her craft was flying over the Grand Banks now. To her surprise she saw a vast construction site where she had expected to see nothing but ocean. Her craft was traveling rapidly, so the site disappeared after only a few minutes; she examined it on her scanner for several more. Between the enigmas of her uncle’s motivations and the construction site on the Grand Banks her mind was kept busy while her craft scudded across the north Atlantic. She landed on the Channel side of her uncle’s property, one kilometer from his main residence. Though the epicenter of the storm was on the other side of the Channel the wind was blowing with considerable force. She still wore her diving suit, so was perturbed neither by wind nor water. She made an attendant take her belongings to her uncle’s home and walked toward the cliffs. A second attendant followed her at a respectful distance.
The landscape was flat and gray. The dominant vegetation was tundra, spotted with low lying ferns and heather. At the edge of the cliffs she encountered a large strip of tape that was placed in a semi circle around the stairway to the beach. On the tape was written the words “Caution: Industrial Zone” in large, iridescent block letters. To Chandra the tape was informational and not a barrier; she ducked under it and walked toward the edge of the cliffs. She knew this section of the property very well; she had played here as a child. Her current path led to a secret stairway that had been carved into the cliffs long ago. She walked to the stairway, with the intention of going down to the beach. When she reached the top of the stairs, she saw that the beach was lined with large machines that had scoops with teeth so sharp that they looked like the mouths of predator dinosaurs. The machines were attended by whisper thin robots which walked calmly through the raging wind as if it did not blow.
“Mining on Earth!” Chandra thought. She was so amazed that it took her a moment to comprehend the entreaty of the house attendant that had followed her: “Madame, it is far too dangerous to be out here right now.” The machine’s statement was punctuated by a strong gust of wind.
The attendant repeated its point, “Madame, we must hurry! The hurricane is upon us.”
There was no outlasting an insistent machine so she turned her back to the Channel and walked back to her uncle’s home. She paused to compose herself at the entrance. A little brass nameplate graced the door. The words on it read “Satish Dekas, Councillor at Law” Seeing her uncle’s first name, Satish, made her smile; the family’s nickname for him had always been Surya, the sun to Chandra, the moon.
She was asked to wait in the house’s interior courtyard; it was full of trees and flowering plants. Tables were sparsely distributed throughout the courtyard, each situated in the middle of a copse of trees. She could see hummingbirds and bees. What struck her most in the midst of this abundance was the humidity. There was no humidity on the orbital where she lived.
In the middle of the courtyard there was an aquarium which contained a snapshot of what had once been the Carysfort reef off of Florida, including tiny dolphins and tuna. She chose a table on the perimeter of atrium as far away from the aquarium as she could. That her uncle had achieved an amazing feat by miniaturizing an entire eco-system was undeniable. But to her it was a dastardly miracle that mocked one of the greatest tragedies of Earth history, the destruction of the coral reefs.
Chandra had not been sitting for more than three breaths, when her uncle greeted her with a barrage of questions, “How was your trip? Do you have pictures?” He smiled as he spoke. His friendly curiosity was an aspect of him that she loved. As he spoke he gently prodded her from where she sat and escorted her to a table immediately beside the aquarium. She could find no way to politely resist him.
They spent the next few minutes reviewing the recordings from her trip. To Chandra’s surprise Surya spent most of his time examining her scans; and had more questions about the acidity of the water than about the strange creatures that she had encountered. He did pay close attention to the video of the beached giant jellyfish. “Earth is so alien”, he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Chandra, when you see these monstrous invertebrates don’t you feel that this isn’t our planet anymore.”
“Uncle Surya, Earth was never our planet.”
He caught his breath and then changed the subject. “Do you have any other trips planned?”
“I’ve been trying to get permission to visit Shantung. The tides there are almost as powerful as those at the Bay of Fundy.”
“Why don’t you come with me to Florida while you wait? I’m doing some work on the Carysfort reef that you might be interested in.”
“Uncle, there’s no reef there. The Caribbean is just a desert.”
Instead of replying he simply glanced at the aquarium.
“You’re trying to recreate the reef aren’t you?” Chandra was quite angry. Surya tried to keep his expression featureless, but for an instant a supremely self-satisfied look fleeted across his face.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”, she asked coldly.
“Chandra, that is a ridiculous question. I still haven’t told you anything. You know how I operate. When I’m making a deal, even a charitable one like this, no one except those who have a need to know are given details.” He reached out and affectionately clasped her hands in his, “You’re the first person to whom I will tell all once my project goes live.”
For a moment she dared to dream that perhaps her uncle had stumbled upon a miraculous technology that only caused good and not bad. With this technology he would rebuild the desert oceans while leaving the life that had just evolved in them alone. It was an impossible fantasy. She tore her hands out of his and said accusingly, “What you propose will affect every ocean. How do you know that your tinkering won’t kill what little life is left in the seas?”
“Chandra, the specifications for my work have been studied for nearly 100 years. Or a million years if you include the computer models. No whales or tuna are going to be affected. In fact, they will thrive under my plan.”
“Why must you do anything? Why can’t you let the Earth heal itself?”
“Because that could take ten thousand years.” He smiled broadly, but that did not break the ice that had formed in the chilly space that separated them. “Chandra, please humor me. I am a good man. Let me show off my legacy to you before you leave. It would mean so much …”
Surya’s attempt at reconciliation failed, but she was ensnared by her curiosity. She had guessed some of his plan’s key details: the construction site at the Grand Banks was a heat pump to start the Gulf Stream; the mining at Dover was to provide a source of calcium for reefs; the tiny creatures that she saw in his aquarium would doubtless grow to full size when released into the ocean. Perhaps she could find a weak link in this scheme, and in a subtle way sabotage it. Despite being compelled by this fantasy, her answer to his offer was non-committal: “I’m really tired. Let’s talk about this after I’ve had some rest.”
She did not rest.
She spent the evening fantasizing about reprogramming a battalion of slight, industrial robots to dismantle all of her uncle’s mega-projects. She knew that dismantling even one project would be daunting; but she also knew that robots were persistent and if convinced of the morality of a path would follow it to its conclusion.
The next morning she agreed to visit her uncle’s triumph in the Caribbean. Surya had assumed she would accept his offer, so she did not even need to pack before they left. Everything had been arranged.
As they walked towards the landing field her uncle was in an ebullient mood. They passed the limestone mine by the tape barrier near the top of the cliffs. “Uncle, why are you mining these cliffs? Is it for Carysfort?”
“Sort of.” He smiled sheepishly.
“How are you getting this limestone there?”
He didn’t answer but she already knew the answer to her question. “That’s what the heat pump you are building off of the Grand Banks is for, isn’t it?”
She knew that her guess was correct when he said, “Chandra, I always forget how much smarter you are than me.”
Again she asked, “Uncle, why can’t you leave the Earth alone?” They lapsed into silence when he did not reply.
Surya chose a seat near the front of their craft, while she settled into a seat near the back. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts: flying made her introspective.
She had always thought that flight and sailing were among mankind’s most significant inventions. Man was a creature of land, and with flight he conquered the air and with sailing, water. Thinking we controlled the elements, we vanquished the Earth she thought.
Her reverie was interrupted by her uncle’s leering smile. “Chandra check out the news. Any channel.” His good humor made her cringe, but she did turn on her monitor. The news commentator startled her out of her chair. “Yellow fin tuna have been discovered just west of Gibraltar, swimming in an unusually warm water currents.”
“The heat pump must already be working” she thought. She turned to her uncle and asked, “Is it sustainable?” She expected another one of his businessman dodges in reply.
“The pump. Once you’ve got the temperature differentials working will the Gulf Stream propel itself?”
“The heat pump is like a pace maker. Once the Stream is working we expect to need to use it only sometimes.”
The news saddened her because it limited the scope of her activity. Disabling the heat pump off of Newfoundland would, if anything, make the Atlantic more variable, which in turn would threaten more life. She cursed her uncle and all those like him that forced her to act and made it so difficult for her to do so.
Chandra turned her back to her uncle, effectively ending their discussion. There was no point in trying to reason with him. The virtue of leaving things alone was something that he would never understand. For the remainder of the trip she did nothing but watch the sparkling blue ocean pass under the wings of her speeding vehicle.
They landed at Key Largo then took a boat to the inlet where the ancient Carysfort lighthouse was located. The inlet had become a construction site: its far end was lined with piles of soil. The rest of the beach was covered with metal containers. Here and there she could see robots crouched over assembling devices that she could not identify. The machines’ activities were overseen by a dozen people.
There was lots of motion. Most activity was focused on the pier, where 2 flat bottom boats were docked. One was covered with metal containers, the other with piles of a gelatinous material that she could not identify.
Out of politeness she asked for permission to go swimming. She entered the Caribbean beside the aged lighthouse. After just a moment in the water, it was as if the construction site did not exist at all. The rocky ocean floor was covered in a faint white shawl, which was a reminder that once this region had been a vast coral reef teeming with more life than had yet been found anywhere else in the galaxy.
Chandra swam further out toward where the reef used to be. Her path was clearly marked by signs of human intervention. The dusty calcium layer on the ocean floor gave way to regularly placed mounds of material that were battened down by baskets made of stones and wire. She swam next to one of the mounds to inspect it more closely. The material was highly alkaline. The mounds themselves were slightly elevated above the ocean floor. She dove deeper to inspect the gap between the ocean floor and the mounds. The water heated by several degrees as she approached. Periodically jets of water were sprayed out from the bottom of the mounds. She analyzed a sample from the water spray. It was full of protein. Though the protein resembled the organic detritus that blanketed the ocean here prior to industrialization the regularity of the molecular structure suggested that the material had been manufactured. The mounds were apparently some form of device to help with the reconstruction of this eco-system.
While she swam along the proto-reef a jellyfish swam into view. It looked very much like the giant one that she had seen in the Bay, but was about half the mass and glowed faintly red. She swam to within 20 meters of the animal then held her space. Suddenly the jelly launched in her direction. Startled, she swam backwards for several meters. The jelly overtook her in a second. It circled around her twice and then stopped a safe distance away from her. Though there were no eyes in its head, she felt it looking at her. The jellyfish’s inspection ended abruptly when a pod of dolphins crested the limestone mound behind her. The pod swam directly toward the jellyfish. The jellyfish raced away and the dolphins immediately dropped their pursuit. It was obvious that they were not trying to catch the jellyfish; but rather were trying to scare it away from their food source. Suddenly the jelly dashed over the top of the limestone mound and snared a baby dolphin in its tentacles. The jellyfish disappeared with its victim before the pod had time to realize what had happened.
She swam to the ocean floor in order to inspect the hot air vents, with the intention of trying to find a way to disable them. The vent that she chose to inspect was surrounded by a miniature school of sharks that was feeding off of the protein that it was expelling.
A long, thin boat stopped in the space above her, its shadow cutting off some, but not all, of the sunlight. Packages were being dumped into the ocean. She caught one in a net and cautiously examined it. It was a sunfish encased in a buoyant, translucent substance that she did not recognize. While she was examining the sunfish several blooms of different types of jellyfish appeared around her. They inspected the packages and then began to tear them open. Some fish swam free. Others were ingested by the jellies. Then the sea darkened again. The ocean above the feeding frenzy turned milky. At the moment the downward falling milky water contacted the jellies they recoiled as if in pain. In an instant all of the jellies were gone. The remaining translucent packages dissolved and a host of creatures from the old Carysfort ecosystem emerged. She swam up to one school of miniature tuna to investigate. They were eating the packages they had been encased in, which seemed to be made of some form of engineered plankton. She looked at her scanner: the water had become significantly more alkaline.
A group of moon jellies hovered at the edge of the milky sea. In the middle of the group Chandra saw a much larger invertebrate. She swam toward the bloom, to investigate. The creature’s movements seemed wrong, somehow. They were more listless than the other invertebrates that she had swum with. She moved still closer and realized why: the jellies were dead. She thought to herself, bitterly, “We are recreating this habitat with the techniques of a god and the sensibility of an animal.”
Chandra swam around the jellyfish corpses taking detailed scans for her records.
Once her scan of the jellyfish corpses was complete she drifted back to the vents on the sea floor. If she wanted to undermine this project she could do worse than to begin here.
As she went to work destroying the vent, a pod of miniature dolphins appeared. They were attracted by curiosity about her. When they noticed the vent they immediately swam down to it and began to feed. The genetically engineered creatures appalled her. Her uncle was recreating nothing at all: these weren’t the creatures that thrived here before the oceans had become acidic. These were constructions. Yet, to her scans the genetically modified dolphins were indistinguishable from those created by nature.
The presence of these dolphins, like the presence of any other life form, challenged her actions. If she destroyed this vent she was threatening these creatures just as much as leaving it alone threatened the jellyfish. Her uncle had forced her to act and made it impossible for her to do so. She put away her tools and left the damaged but still functioning vent to its fate.
She returned to the shore just north of the Carysfort lighthouse in the late afternoon. There was far less activity than when she had left. The industrial robots had packed themselves away and what few humans remained were quietly preparing to leave.
When she emerged from the water she was greeted by three security robots. Her travel visa had been revoked. Though Satish did not say farewell to her in person, he did let her borrow one of his more versatile vehicles for her flight to the Lagrange Spaceport. She wished to inspect the Gulf Stream on her way into space, so her uncle’s parting gift was appreciated. While waiting for her clearance to leave the atmosphere, her vehicle floated over the Atlantic Ocean. She read the news. The top story was about a bloom of giant jellyfish which had washed up onto the Carolinas. Over 100 kilometers of beach were affected. Many scientists insisted that this was a sign that the Atlantic Ocean was returning to health.
As her craft flew east over the Gulf Stream she noticed a huge, brown smear of water that stretched across the horizon, from her uncle’s mine in Dover to the Caribbean. As her vehicle moved over the Azores she noticed another smear moving exactly perpendicular to the calcium laced Gulf Stream: a tremendous bloom of jellies was swimming into the Atlantic Ocean’s acidic depths. She widened the scope of her analysis and saw one more bloom also moving toward the mid-Atlantic. As she watched the blooms merged together. “Perhaps they will survive after all”, she thought. Chandra’s eyes were glued to her monitor as her ship left the atmosphere and entered space; still she could see the bloom of jellies.
“You own your own brain!? I had no idea.” Without thinking, I touched the cerebral implant at the base of my skull. It was a cheap, server-based model and like the brains of 99% of Americans, it was rented. The advertisement finished with the famous tag-line, “My love, I love your iDentity.”
Alhough the actors in the ad were fake, their message was all too real: I knew that because I did not own an expensive personal brain, no trophy woman or man would give me a second glance. But how could regular people afford to own their own brains? Wages had not increased in a century, yet the cost of food, rent and energy just kept rising.
There was a crash of lightening from the storm that was approaching from the north-east. I looked out the window of my car. Even though it had started to rain, the traffic on Interstate 80 seemed unaffected. If my car drove well, it would take at least another 20 minutes to get to the George Washington Bridge and after that another 30 minutes to get to my home in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan. It was just after five. I had plenty of time, the polls closed at eight.
I am normally not one for politics because most of the time it doesn’t matter who the big companies tell what to do. But to be fair to myself, I pay attention a little bit, because if there’s a candidate I’d like to have a drink with, y’know someone I resonate with, I’ll vote for him – or her. I’m sure you know what I mean.
I was paying a little more attention to this election because of Proposition 10. You probably know about it – the ballot initiative to allow businesses to force their workers to wear electronic brains. It is a big question, whether we should all have brains. Some people think that it is the biggest question ever, in terms of what humans are and where we’re headed. And here it was election day and I didn’t know how I was going to vote.
… end of excerpt …
While my car drove I surfed the Net, to get informed, or it at to try. So far the only thing that had informed me was an ad about how do get a discount on Zantrax, which was good news even if cheap meds have nothing to do with my vote. You see, I have Inchoate Acquisitive Disorder, and will bankrupt myself shopping if I’m not properly medicated. That’s hard to do what with the price of everything always going up.
Today it seemed like the goal of news was to avoid scratching the surface of reality. Even the NJ Governor’s controversial decision to turn the city of Camden into a correctional facility provoked only the shallowest debate. Not that I could dig deeper, but I depend on the news for my opinions, so I want them to be the best.
But shallow is better than nothing, so I stuck around because I knew the show would get around to my issues, Prop 10. And sure enough it did. The woman host, a slight, pretty simulacrum, got the ball rolling with a question about the Cognition Gap. The Cognition Gap is how conservatives argue that all American workers should have brains.
I don’t remember how the round headed guest with thinning hair answered, all I remember is thinking that the simulacrum’s breasts must represent a large fraction of her body weight, given how slender she was. I even thought about how silly it was to think about simulacra in sexual terms at all. But her question must have been tough because the round headed man’s face grew red as he answered it. I don’t remember what he said, but I’ll tell you it made sense. I know because of the ping of clarity his words gave me. If you own or rent a brain you probably know what I mean.
My news show only had one speaker in favor of Prop 10, not one against. Even though I liked the speaker, I wanted to hear another point of view. When the show cut to ads I made my car change the channel to Pacifica. That always took some effort, because the data feed from progressive stations to my brain was always choppy, probably because progressives can’t afford good bandwidth.
The host was Amy Goodman, who is the only female simulacrum news host I can name who isn’t slender and pretty. They say that’s because she was once real. Her guest was a thought artist. I still don’t know what that is and I watched the whole show. He had very strong opinions about Prop 10, his face when white when he voice them.
The artist talked a lot about what he called the Phenomenological Web. That’s an academic way of saying how the physical world is becoming indistinguishable from the Net. Not surprisingly, the artist hated bio-glasses and even plug-in translators. Which seems like banning fun and usefulness at the same time, but I sort of understood what he meant. But only sort of. You know how when some people speak clearly you hear a ping – I mean metaphorically, like I explained before. Well there were no pings with the thought artist. His words confused me. On reflection that’s part of what I liked. I don’t get confused so often, since I upgraded my brain to a Shuffle.
Amy ended her interview with a signature question, “What is your advice for our viewers?”
My hand, unconsciously went to touch the power switch on my iDentity Shuffle. I touched the power switch but did not press. Of course not. Why would I turn off my brain? I wanted to make sure the power switch was still there, just in case.
As I removed my hand from my brain’s power switch, my Net monitor went blank and my car shuddered to a halt. My iDentity reported a cluster of distress signals as all of my personal electronic devices fell into a pile on my feet. Then it went silent.
There was no electronic noise in my brain.
And a blank space where all the facts usually are.
I knew the facts would still be there once I was plugged in again. But for now I was on my own.
What should I do next? I hadn’t thought about it before but server brains aren’t just about facts. They make suggestions, too. Like the best way to walk to Inwood from Fort Lee. For the first time in a decade the thought of a route didn’t result in a map appearing on my eye-glasses; my meat brain was a seldom used backup. I had crossed the George Washington Bridge on foot a dozen times, but barely remembered how to do it. After a minute I did. The memories were in there alright, but because they had not been retrieved very much, it took time to find them. It was slow, too. You get spoiled by the access times of the new brains.
I made a map in my head about the route I was going to take home – over the bridge to Broadway, and then north 10 blocks to Hillside Ave. Details calm me down. I needed to calm down because it was crazy all around me. Did I mention that the toll Plaza was full of dead cars. And people. Not dead people, just confused people who didn’t know what to do now they were disconnected.
I know New York is full of people and Lord knows I know crowds: The 1 train is my train, and its always full. So you’d think no crowd would bother me. But when you’re plugged in you don’t notice people so much and when you’re unplugged you notice them more. And not just as lumps taking up space. You notice them with all your senses, hearing and smell and even touch, if you get too close.
I didn’t want to get too close to anyone, not even someone who could help me. So even though there was a group of people trying to tether a personal brain to their satellite phone, I stood back. Not because what they were doing was a waste of time, even though it was. I didn’t want to go near those people because I didn’t want to be near anyone.
Or anything, for that matter. Thank God my car can take car of itself.
There were too many people on the pedestrian walkway to Manhattan so I looked around and found a service catwalk. It was
for workers only, but I figured given the current emergency the rules could be bent. The catwalk was a find, not just because there were no people on it, but also because it was above the pedestrians. I could watch everyone while I walked. That made me feel safe.
And what a view.
The west coast of the Hudson River was shadowy because it was evening. The breaks that protect the Hudson River from surges – you know, those giant, rusty tubes they added a few years back – were red-brown because they were tall enough to catch the setting sun. I’d forgotten that red-brown was a color. I think I’ve been in my head too much, lately.
The best part of my walk over the bridge was the cormorants. They were resting on the roof of the tiny, red lighthouse, the one that pokes up from the Hudson River immediately beside the eastern shore. I’d never seen a flock of birds from above. Its different from that perspective because you get a sense that up is a place you have to fly to. From the ground birds are already up so you don’t think so much about how they got there.
The salty ocean breeze calmed me down. Manhattan is an island on the Atlantic Ocean, you know. That’s another thing I’d forgotten and remembered. Or never knew. By know I mean understand, not just the way you know a piece of data that’s in a database glued to your head.
When the breeze had blown away enough of my nervousness I got some space in my head to think. I thought about why I was nervous at all. Most of the time I’m quite sedate.
I was startled by the smell of ozone.
How could a smell startle me? It was because now that I was unplugged my sensations were more intense. You’d know that if you read the instruction manual on your brain; brains filter data to help you think, in the same way sunglasses polarize light to help you see.
I remembered that I was wearing bio-sunglasses. I removed them. It was brighter outside than I realized. It was over two hours before the polls closed at sunset. I wasn’t in that much of a rush. I decided to drop by a local bar for a pint and a burger.
On a typical day I would have avoided Broadway because of my medical condition. But today Incohoate Acquisitive Disorder didn’t seem like a problem so I took a commercial route, in order to save time. There were no issues, with me, I mean, because the traffic was totally messed up. It was all a coordination problem – lots of different Net nodes were back up, but were struggling to re-sync. A classic machine, problem. Nothing much for humans to do. Which explained why my local bar was so crowded.
The first thing I noticed when I entered was all the smells – beer, burgers, and a lot of cologne. The smells overpowered me, not because they were gross or cloying, but because they were so much more intense than my usual perceptions.
And soothing. Which was a good thing because the crowd made me buggy.]
I ordered a burger and beer and took a seat in the corner. While I waited, I took out a napkin and a pen. I drew a line down the middle of the napkin. The left column I gave the heading Yes, the right No.
It was time to decide about how I would vote on Prop 10.
In one way, brains were no big deal. I had one myself, so obviously I did not mind them.
In fact, to a certain extent I was more curious about what quality brain the big companies were talking about making their employees use. It would be a shame if workers were forced to have stupid, cheap brains, and ironic if they were made in China.
That wouldn’t happen. The big companies get volume discounts. They’ll buy nice brains.
Check mark for the Yes side.
The Yes case seemed so clear. The No case less so. All it did was stir up a mess of emotions within me.
I was sitting on a stool at the edge between the bar and a curved mirror. It was one of those old tavern mirrors that have little copper smeared lines visible like glass wrinkles.
A movement reflected on the mirror and caught my eye. I turned toward the mirror. I looked different than I had when I dressed myself for work this morning. … It wasn’t that there were pale purple half circles under my eyes, or that my short hair was skewed and spiky. I was different. The skin at the side of my face had begun to sag – not to any great extent, but enough to let me know I could have jowls. There was a small brown spot, in the smile lines near my right eye. And 100 other details I didn’t remember from this morning.
I turned my head slightly, so that it was nearly parallel to the mirror and then looked at where the iDentity connected to my real brain via my cochlear bone, just below my right ear. Even though it was disconnected from the Net, I pressed the off switch. My image did not change. That’s what I looked like when my brain was turned off.
My mind was made up, but I know myself and how I forget the decisions I’ve made and why. So I laid my decision-napkin flat on the table, carefully circled the No heading, and then folded it in half and put it into my breast pocket. I was careful, as if the napkin was my franchise.
I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away. I paid my bill and prepared to leave.
Before I left I went to the back of the bar to the rest room, to clean up after lunch. There was a lineup. The hallway we were standing in was beside the security center for the building. I could see vid feeds for the entire building, including the hallway I was standing in. I looked for myself in the video of the line, and found myself. Actually, I didn’t see myself, exactly. Not the self I’d just been looking at in the bar mirror. I saw the iDentity version of me. The one I’d seen in the mirror when I’d shaved this morning. This unsettled me. I touched the napkin on which I’d written my voting intention, for solace.
The moment I squeezed passed the crowd outside the restrooms, I raced out of the bar onto Broadway. There were three ways to get home from where I was. I choose the route that curved along the side of Fort George Hill. I felt comfortable going that way, with the granite and tree hillside to my right. A feral cat disturbed a flock of morning doves. I stopped transfixed to watch, listen, smell as the birds flew up into the sky.
The twenty-one story rectangular concrete building I live in sits on the side of Fort George Hill, and so is rarely flooded even when there are ten foot surges. That’s its big selling point, aside from how good the superintendent is about cleaning up the litter that gets blown into thin band of garden and asphalt that passes for the building’s playground. A long line of people stood outside the service entrance, which led to the polling station. I wasn’t surprised. With so many people unplugged of course voting was delayed.
Voting was really delayed as it turned out. I was still in line thirty minutes later when the lights flickered and everyone sighed, afraid that the entire electrical grid, and not just the Net, was failing. But the flicker was from the Net coming back up. I knew because the hum of electronic noise in my head and how all the colors and sounds became muted. And the flashing red icon disappeared from my glasses.
I thought I’d turned off my iDentity yet it was now back online.
Why would I want to be unplugged from the Net? I wondered
Who won last year’s Superbowl? I got the answer in an instant.
It was good to be back online.
Voting did not speed up after our server-based brains reconnected to the Net. It took a full hour to get to the front of
the line but I wasn’t fussed. I felt calm. Calmer than I’d felt in I don’t remember how long. I’d forgotten how comforting a fully operational brain can be.
I thought about this afternoon’s adventures, and realized that I didn’t remember much of anything at all. Funny how you can get so much in the moment, and then realize that the last moment you remember was 8 hours ago. I was like that now. I’d nearly forgotten my walk from over the George Washington Bridge, and whatever I did for lunch. But like I said, I didn’t care.
I finally got near the front of the line, but then the line stalled. I looked around and caught a reflection of myself in a
security mirror. The mirror was curved, so my face looked silly. That didn’t worry me because my skin was looking good.
I spent the next few moments thinking about the many merits of a skin cream I’d recently bought.
I was handed my ballot. I just stared at it for a moment – I had forgotten why I was in line at all, that’s how
deeply I’d been thinking about the cream.
A woman with a badge that sad, “Polling clerk” scanned by Social Security Number straight off my iDentity and pushed me half-way into a voting booth. That’s when I got it figured out. At least sort of. My arms and legs felt like they weren’t part of me. Or maybe my brain felt separated from everything else. Its kind of the same thing.
I was in what my shrink calls a fugue state. That’s when I forget my intentions and even who I am.
I took a step back from the booth, placed my knapsack on the floor and pulled out the napkin on which I had written my voting decision. I could see the words No to Prop 10 boldly circled and underlined at the top.
Vote No to Proposition 10. That’s what I would do. Great.
I stepped forward to the voting machine and quickly tried to vote my intention. The gambit failed: when my right forefinger approached the No button, some outside force took over my hand and jerked it away toward Yes
I tried to vote Yes again and failed.
This made me angry, which is not good because anger triggers IAD. I could afford to vote Yes or No but not both. What I mean is my vote had become a shopping decision. That’s what the Acquisitive is in IAD, which I had bad.]
I started to hallucinate.
The Yes button turned into an image of a tiny porcelain doll. The doll wore leather overalls cut-off above the knees, a sporty green alpine hat and had painted, blonde-brown hair. I could think of nothing else but buying the doll. You could do that with a Yes vote. That’s what my brain told me.
What happened to the No button? I couldn’t see it anywhere. Oh well. I shrugged. Who cares? I’m going for the doll. I’ll just read the slip of paper here …
Vote No. I saw it clearly written on what I knew was a reminder note. The words made no sense. What could I buy with No?
Fugue state. I must be having an attack of IAD. I had to stop thinking of my vote as a product. I had to think of it as something else. As ..
“Mr. Are you alright?” It was the poll clerk wondering why I hadn’t done whatever it was I was here to do. She helpfully said, Have you voted? I told her that I was having a problem with my iDentity and that was delaying things. She helpfully suggested I turn it off and vote without it. I could always get it fixed tomorrow.
Good plan, I thought dully.
The poll clerk whispered, “You have to turn it off before you think about doing it. Otherwise you iDentity intercepts the thought and it doesn’t …”
I turned my iDentity off before I thought about it. I tore out its battery just to make sure. I was a little rough with the battery, and broke my skin. My glasses flashed a red warning light as I did so, and my collar was stained with my blood.
But I was unplugged.
I voted No.
The bleeding at the nape of my neck provoked a few askance glances but no comment when I left the polling station and took the elevator to my floor. For the next few days I felt profoundly alone as I sat unplugged in my apartment. At first I kept my sensations to a minimum. Gradually I turned the lights back on, uncovered my mirrors and plugged in my machines. It took me a week to get up enough courage to read the news. I connected to the Net manually. I felt a fear that bordered on terror when I did. Although the vote was close, Proposition 10 was defeated.
A gentleman and his young wife entered the boutique, which overlooked the Canyon. The store was unexpectedly opulent given that it was the last stop on the Santa Fe railroad, and therefore at one of the remotest corners of the United States of America. The gentleman was dressed like a Roughrider, with loose khaki pants, long, laced leather boots, a leather jacket and kid gloves. He carried a wide brimmed hat under his arm. His eyes were yellow, his black hair thinning and streaked with gray. He had a delicate frame: his head was long and narrow, as were his limbs, fingers and nose. He was gaunt, his skin was stretched and translucent white, as if no longer able to absorb sunlight. His leather boots made firm, sharp sounds as he walked, but he was unsteady on his feet. He used a thin ebony cane as a prop when he made the small effort of ascending the three wooden stairs at the entrance to the shop.
While the man looked like he had been aged by disease, his wife, because of her rude health and light disposition, looked younger than her twenty-five years, almost adolescent, except for the assurance with which she deported herself. She wore a white calico dress. Her dirty blond hair was covered by a muslin shawl decorated with images of blue violets; she wore white sandals on her feet. She could have been headed for a summer garden party except for the large knapsack slung over her left shoulder. It was of a type favored by railway workers because of its sturdy, coarse leather, and its fringe of iron hoops. A pair of leather riding boots, an array of tools, and a parasol were attached to the hoops, and then secured against to the knapsack with cracked leather straps.
The Lord hobbled over to a glass and mahogany-wood display case, in which the store showcased its more valuable goods, while the Lady selected an assortment of items from the wooden shelves that lined the walls of the shop, and then headed through a pair of saloon doors to a fitting room; a hopeful sales clerk followed closely behind her.
While the gentleman idly browsed the store’s collection of knives, guns and accessories, the store manager sidled up beside him. The manager was dressed in an English style: light gray woolen trousers held up by suspenders that curved around the outside of his rounded belly, and a fine white cotton shirt on which was printed blue pin-stripes. He was a large, lumpy man, so the stripes made him look like a topographical map. His vest was of a slightly darker gray than his trousers. The outfit was completed by a short jacket that hung over the edge of the chair beside the cash register.
The store manager knew better than to make a sales pitch to his high-born customer, so instead took out a cigar and started to idly chew on it while hovering a barely polite distance away.
“Would you like a light?” The gentleman removed small, ornate silver lighter from his trouser pocket and vaguely waved it in the direction of the shopkeeper.
“I’m not really a smoker. But now that you offer a light, I think I will have a smoke. If you don’t mind, that is.”
The gentlemen indicated his agreement by removing a cloisonné cigarette case from his breast pocket, from which he extracted and quickly lit a cigarette. He offered the lighter and the cigarette case to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper tried not to let his eyes linger indelicately on the ruby and emerald pattern that adorned the case. When he averted his eyes he noticed the dried scabs that lined the gentleman’s hands. Having no where else to avert his eyes, the shopkeeper looked directly at the gentleman as he spoke, “I’ll smoke this.” He indicated his cigar, while gingerly taking the lighter from the gentleman’s hands. “I’m celebrating. I just received a telegram indicating that my brother now has an heir.”
“Congratulations. Is this his first child?”, the shopkeeper asked.
“No, third. But the first two were daughters.”
“I’m envious. I have no heir myself, although I do have one daughter.”
“If I may risk being forward, sir, I think that with a wife as young and healthy as yours you should have no …”
“I’m not getting any younger” the Lord snapped. The shopkeeper watched in silence as the gentleman unconsciously traced his right forefinger along the line of scabs on his left wrist.
“Are you in Arizona only to view the Grand Canyon or is this a side trip from some more important business?” the shopkeeper asked.
The gentleman replied. “I am an investor.”
“In the Jerome mine, perhaps?”
A female voice spoke to their backs. “It is my father and I who are the investors.” The Lady had returned from the fitting room. She was now dressed in brown riding boots, jodhpurs and a light, white, collarless cotton top of a style popular in the Raj. The only item remaining from her earlier outfit was the muslin shawl, which was draped around her shoulders. The sales clerk stood a respectful distance behind her, with a chiffon dress that looked like a bouquet of wilted flowers in her arms.
The gentleman replied in a testy voice. “Jeanette, I am head of our household. Your interest in the mine is my family’s property.”
“Yes, dear heart. But I control the trust.”
The gentleman snapped, “When we pass away, your interest in the mine will become the property of our heir.” His anger made his yellow skin turn red.
The Lady averted her eyes. At first the shopkeeper thought she did so in submission, but then realized she was looking at the blood seeping out one of her husband’s torn scabs. When he noticed at what his wife was looking, the gentleman made a show of putting on his black kid gloves. He tugged each glove once and then turned to the store keeper. “I’m off to inspect our mounts. Please take care of my wife’s every need. Charge whatever she buys to my room.” The effect of his brusque exit was marred when his cane got stuck in a crack in the plank by the door, and he stumbled.
The Lady lingered after her husband’s departure, to ask the storekeeper detailed questions about the poisonous snakes and insects that she should be wary of on her upcoming hike. At the shopkeeper’s suggestion she purchased a small, sharp knife, which she strapped to the inseam of her right leg. She did not haggle over its premium price, and left an extravagant tip for good service. She exited the store in half a dozen sharp, precise steps, but paused when she got to the veranda to look north, over the Canyon. It was dusk; the sky was terraced by bands of clouds. The Canyon walls were similarly paneled. Although the earth was darker than the sky, both were interlaced with shrinking purple shadows and lengthening bands of colored light. On a near horizon two condors floated on updrafts, while in the distance an eagle swooped down on its prey.
The dining hall at the El Tovar hotel was crowded with visitors from Phoenix, many of whom were here not to commemorate the completion of the railway, but rather to see the renowned people who had come here to do so. They were particularly interested in the New York Lady and her noble English husband. The room buzzed when the maître d’hôtel greeted them at the entrance to the restaurant.
Before the nobles could be seated, a crowd of bourgeois notables, doctors, lawyers and mining contractors, coalesced into an impromptu receiving line. 20 minutes of introductions followed. Lord Churchill was gracious, but did not extend even one calling card, although he promised to call on a middle-school principal from Phoenix who claimed to have excavated a treasure of Navajo artifacts from a gravel pit just east of Flagstaff. Lady Churchill annoyed her husband by answering all of the many questions she was asked.
Eventually the greetings ended. The couple sat down at a table with a view of the Canyon. It was dark, and despite the electric light in the restaurant, the sky was black and speckled with stars. The couple did not talk. The Lady nursed a glass of wine; her husband drank whiskey and soda while he smoked a cigar. He affected the manner of someone who was pensive, but his gaze was unfocused; she saw that his illness was making him weak and listless.
After the Lord poured his third drink he spoke. “Jeanette, why did you publicly discuss our affairs in front of that shopkeeper?”
Jeannette Churchill looked out over the Canyon while she answered, “If I remember correctly, it was you who first mentioned Daddy’s mine.” Her words were spoken without affect.
“Never talk that way in front of commoners.”
“I’m glad we’ve cleared that up”. The Lady turned to her husband, narrowed her eyes, and then reached for his cigarette case. He scowled while she removed and lit a cigarette. She averted his scowl and instead stared at the scabs on his hands.
They slept in separate rooms, which provoked little comment. Although the Lady was reputed to have frontier manners, the Lord was known to be civilized.
Although the El Tovar hotel had been open for several months, most of the tourists to the Grand Canyon still stayed at the tent camp clustered around the railway station near the head of the Horse Thief trail. The tents were of a military style: squat, rectangular, with peaked tops, and were just big enough to hold 4 cots. The gear was the same as what American soldiers had just used to defeat the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.
It was late in the season so the camp was empty except for two tents, which were populated by an extended family who were just waking up. A young girl dressed in a flowered dress made of fine but dusty cotton was sitting on a stump while her sister, who was dressed in a thick dark gray woolen dress of a style favored by teachers and maids, was curling her hair with an iron she had heated in the pine-log fire. The girls’ brothers were playing tag, or perhaps fighting, in and out of the shadows cast by the low-slung sun. The sky was cloudless. Venus was visible just above the horizon; Mars could be seen glowing faintly red above it. In the foreground vultures floated on a morning thermal.
The Lord looked at the dusty family with the sour expression, as he skirted around their camp and proceeded to his appointment at the trail-head. The Lady appeared several minutes later. She intentionally walked close to the tents, curious to learn more about this family.
“Yer Jenny Jerome, ain’t ya?” the younger girl in rough clothing asked boldly.
“She means to say you are Lady Jennifer Churchill ne Jerome” the elder, tidly dressed sister corrected.
“I am indeed. And you are?
The younger girl answered the Lady’s questions, as if it were she who had been asked. “Penelope Jones, you can call me Penny and this is my sister Victoria.” After a brief curtsy the girl then informed Lady Churchill that her family had made it all the way to the Indian Village in a two day hike, but had turned back, instead of doing a loop, to avoid paying Mr. Cameron any more fees for the use of his trail. “Mr. Cameron even charges to use the loo”, she noted disapprovingly. Victoria cut in and said soberly, “Bring lots of water. People die here. Every week. Every week”, she repeated. “The midday heat is wicked.”
The Lady graciously thanked the girls for their assistance and bade them fare well.
The trail-head lay just beyond the small wooden building that passed for a railway station. When the Lady reached it, she saw that her husband was at the first switchback, 100 yards into the Canyon, where he was conversing with two guides. With great difficulty she steered her stubborn mule onto the trail and carefully began her descent.
While still out of earshot of her husband she stopped her mule and looked out over the Canyon. The scene reminded her of a Sunday school class she had attended as a child, where she had been told that if she wanted to find an example of God’s glory she need look no further than a sunrise. She was not one to embrace religion because of words, but that advice she had never forgotten.
“Miss.” A small voice broke her reverie. The Lady looked down. Penelope had followed her. The child’s hair was now puffed-up into tight, dirty blond curls, and her calf-high black leather boots were tightly laced, and polished.
“Madame. Do you want to know a secret. I learned it from an Indian man.”
The Lady nodded and smiled, but the girl took no notice. She did not need affirmation to continue.
“Mother told me not to talk to Indians but my eldest brother said they know magic, and he’s been to war, so when my mother was fighting with Mr. Cameron about his fees I did. Talk to an Indian, I mean. He had a feather cap and wore nothing but moccasins and a small cloth around his privates. He told me that sage brush has the power to clean things, not like vinegar and water does, but like the way the wind blows dust away. I gave him my charm bracelet and in return he gave me this and told me to burn it. Please have it. Mother said I can’t take it home.”
“My goodness, that sage is on fire!” The Lady shied away from the smoking herbal bouquet the child had just handed her, but continued to clasp the girl’s hand.
“Please take it”, the girl implored. “It has to be a present or the Indian gods will frown.” The child pushed the sage into the Lady’s hand. It’s smoke disturbed the mule so the Lady moved downwind, the smoking bouquet firmly clasped in her gloved right hand.
The child spoke, “Now wave it. The cleaning magic is in the smoke.”
The Lady solemnly waved the sage in the air before her eyes, like a Catholic priest with a censer. The heavy smoke fell down into the shadowy, cool area along the edge of the trail where her husband was talking. Eventually it merged with the swirling smoke from his cigarette, until a slight gust of wind dispersed it. The Lady turned turned to the girl, “Thank you very much. My family could use some healing magic right now. Let me pay you …”
“… oh no! The shaman was clear about how you can’t take money for magic. That would corrupt it.”
“But you traded with him?”
The girl nodded her head vigorously.
“Can we trade for something?”
“Sure. How about that button?”
The Lady’s satchel was adorned with a button she had been given during President Roosevelt’s campaign for Governor of New York. She had forgotten she had it. “Absolutely.” The Lady unpinned and handed the button to the child.
“Penelope! Come here right now!”
“Bye!” The girl curtsied and then ran back to her mother.
When the sage had burned down to its handle of sticks, the Lady dropped the bundle onto the ground and ground its remains into ashes with the heel of her riding boot. She resumed the descent toward her husband and their two guides, leading her mount by a rein made of frayed rope. Although the sun was shining hotly, the trail was cool because it was still in shadow. She followed the faint smell of sage to her husband.
The sun was now high enough that the features of the two men with whom her husband was talking could be seen. She knew that the European was their Québècois guide, the famous hermit who lived in a cave in the Canyon. She was surprised to find him accompanied by a native. The hermit was dressed in denim overalls and a threadbare flannel shirt. He was not so much unshaven, as crudely shaven, with the slightest distinction between long white grizzled beard and coarse skin . His skin was dark from the sun. His head, like that of the Lord, was shaded by a Roughrider hat, although his hat did not have an ornamental string bow attached to its rim.
The Hopi man was a young adult, or perhaps an old looking child. His muscles were tough but wiry. The result was that he looked both athletic and malnourished. His head was adorned with a simple, lightly feathered headdress that had been dyed, or perhaps stained, the same dusty maroon red of the Hakatai shale that lined the walls of the Canyon1. His gnarled, unwashed black hair hung straight down to below his shoulders, but was parted in the center so as not to cover his face. Two strands were tied back with a leather cord. Around his neck he wore a half dozen strings of yellow and cyan colored beads. A palm-sized copper talisman was attached to one strand of beads; it looked like a cross between an ankh and a miniature horseshoe. The snake image that had been tattooed around his upper arm indicated his clan. The necklaces and headdress suggested that he was a shaman or snake dancer. A leather sash held up the woolen cloth wrapped around his mid-section. The cloth was reminiscent of a kilt, rather than the loincloth worn by the Navajo; it had been bleached white, and had a stylized image of a sidewinder snake embroidered onto it with coarse yellow, green and red thread; a second band of black was embroidered along its lower fringe. The native’s boots, which looked like they were made of deer or elk leather, came to mid-calf and were fringed. He had red and blue colored strips of fabric tied just above his knees.
The men were dismounted. The Lord’s mule blocked the trail and from the Lady’s perspective was bleached white by the glare of the sun. The two guides’ mules were standing fully in the shade, passively eating from the feedbags attached to their necks. These mules were piled high with camping gear and water skins, leaving no room for a saddle. The guides, apparently intended to walk. The Lady stopped between her husband and the guides, at the point where the sun met permanent shadow, beside the canyon wall. She stood fully in the sun, she nudged her mule into the shade.
There was a moment of silence while her husband took one last drag on the cigarette he was smoking, and then ground it into the earth with the heel of his dusty brown hob-nailed boot. When the Lord finally made the introductions he address the Hermit, “Louis Boucher, this is my wife Jeanette.” He nodded towards his wife and said, “Mr. Boucher will be our guide.”
The Lady held out her gloved right had, which to her surprise the man shook rather than kissed. As he did so, she said, “L’ermite?”
“Bien sûr” the man replied.
“Une plaisure de faire vôtre connaissance.”
The Lord scowled. His French was poor. The Lady was impressed that the Hermit presented himself so well. Most prospectors were quite coarse.
The Lady nodded toward the Hopi guide and asked the Hermit, in French, “comment il s’appelle?”
“Pachu’a”, he replied.
The native nodded his head and smiled.
The Lady turned to face the native directly, and said while curtsying ever so slightly, “Um waynuma”2.
The native’s smile broadened. His teeth were stained yellow from tobacco, one of his front teeth was black. He replied, “Um-pi-tuh”.
The woman looked sideways at her husband. His scowl had been replaced with the terse smile he used when he was annoyed by other people’s successes.
“Do you know many American Indian languages?”, the Hermit asked the Lady.
“Not even one, although my grandmother claims her grandmother was a Potawatomi woman.”
The Lord broke up the discussion by reaching out and grabbing the rein of his wife’s mule and tugging the beast onto the path and in to the sun. The Lady, with a short, sharp motion, yanked the rein out of her husband’s hand. The scowl returned to his face. He tersely said, “It’s time to go.” As he spoke, the Lord awkwardly mounted his mule. His left leg buckled on his first attempt, but after a brief struggle he succeeded on the second. He began the descent without a backwards glance. His wife followed: although she had mounted her mule before her husband, she let him go first. The guides followed on foot, leading their mounts with thin black leather reins.
The path into the Canyon was steep, ill-defined and surprisingly cold because the part of the trail they were on was still sheltered from the rising sun. That was not a bad thing. The cloudless and deep blue sky promised a wickedly hot day.
They rode together in silence. Eventually the Lord addressed his Lady. “Do you think Miss Astor will marry the Duke?” He spoke over his left shoulder to his wife, who rode just behind him.
“What?” Her husband’s Fifth Avenue gossip was out of context, so it took a moment for the Lady to realize what he had just said. She replied before he could repeat himself. “Let me return the question to you, dear. Do you think it will be a good marriage?” The path narrowed as they approached a switchback. To their right was a small, steep gully, to their left the canyon wall. The Lady maneuvered her mule so that she rode directly behind her husband. He had taken off his hat and was rubbing his profusely sweating face with the dark red, cowboy-style neck scarf that he had tied to his sun-burnt neck. As he turned the corner of the switchback, a stone was dislodged by the foot of his mule. It fell into the gully, causing a small slide of gravel that looked like red steam.
When the path widened again, the Lord said “It is a good match. She is very rich. And he is noble.” He spoke toward the Canyon. As a result his words echoed faintly.
“She may be rich. But I understand that he is a philanderer”, his wife replied.
The Lord guffawed and then quickly composed himself, “That is to be expected of a man of that station.”
The Lady stopped her mule, and shouted to her husband’s back, her face white from rage, “Are you a man of that station?” The Lord kicked his mule to make it pick up its pace, but did not reply. Pachu’a cut into the space between the Churchills. The Lady fell back until she was abreast the Hermit.
When the Lady finally regained her composure she said sub voce, “Pardon me, Mr. Boucher.”
He replied that her heated words with her husband had not offended him. Although he spoke in French, he made a point of speaking quietly, and directly toward the Lady so her husband could not hear that they were conversing at all.
“Do let us talk about something more pleasant”, she replied. There was another moment of silence while she thought of what that might be, then she said, “Is there a theme for this trek, or a lesson that you like to impart to visitors? Or perhaps a gimmick?”
The Hermit thought for a moment and then replied, “No, but when asked I always reply that this loop is a complete adventure, beginning and ending with a sunrise. What that adventure will be, however, I can not predict.”
The Lady nodded. “That reminds me of an aphorism of my grandfather’s, ‘You can have everything in a day.’”
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones.”
His words startled a flock of birds that had been hiding in the shadows below them.
The Lady nudged her mule past her husband. The Hermit followed on her right, beside the edge of the path. The Lord lingered for a minute more before he continued. Pachu’a passively kept his mule several paces back; the Hopi followed the Lord when he began riding again.
“What was that about?”, the Hermit asked the Lady, while nodding toward her husband. They were far enough ahead of him that their conversation was private.
She replied, “He was quoting Ezekiel. He did the same thing when we visited Mount Sinai. He thinks that he can achieve penance for his misdeeds through bible study and prayer.”
“I see. What about you? Do you try to elicit favors from God? Or ask Him to forgive your sins?”
“The last time I prayed, I asked God to strike my Sunday school teacher dead with a lightening bolt. But to answer your question, no I do not ask favors of God, it is bad religion as well as bad policy. Not that I couldn’t use one or two favors, myself.”
The Hermit replied in a quiet voice, “If I understand your situation correctly, it would require just one favor for your fortune to be perfect.” He glanced at the Lord, who was once again rubbing his pallid, sweaty face.
“Indeed.” She smiled ruefully. “But enough of such talk. Tell me a story. Tell me a story about here.”
The Hermit smiled as he replied, “My pleasure, Madame. This place is called Sipápuni3 by the Hopi, which means the Place of Emergence … ”
The sun was high in the sky. The air was now burning hot except in pockets in the narrow strips of permanent shadow that clung to the canyon walls, and in the sparse shade provided by the Yucca trees. Lord Churchill had once again covered his head with his Roughrider hat, and covered his neck and lower face with his cowboy kerchief.
They entered the valley after several more switchbacks. The canyon wall was to their right and the Colorado River to their left. As they rode, the area on the right side of their path gradually rose to form a wall and then narrowed into a channel through rock, like a wedge: above them the canyon was wider. To their left, a steep embankment led down to the water.
Eventually the wall to their right completely blocked their path and they needed to ford the river. It was the last day of September, after a dry summer, so the river was very shallow. The mules lived up to their sure-footed reputation by making the descent down the now rocky embankment with no incident. As they forded the little stream they caught a glimpse of a brown rattlesnake hiding in the shade of a rock.
On the other side of the river they encountered a small group of natives who were resting in a cool dark outcropping of rock. The natives were elaborately decorated. One had white dots painted on his legs and wore a hat with two white horns. The effect was both comical and sinister. The man beside him was painted in two colors of red. A third, on whose back was tattooed a black spider, sat with a large diamond-headed sidewinder rattlesnake in his lap. The fourth man stood apart from his companions. He had no markings on him whatsoever. This last man noticed the travelers first. He calmly rose, approached the Hermit and asked, “Where are you going, Looie?”
The Hermit stopped; the party followed suit. He replied. “We’re going as far as Cameron’s trail, and then returning to the South Rim via the Village. What about you?”
“We are on our way to Ovapai to fight with Tawákwaptiwa and his brothers. We are going your way. Let us walk together.”
While the Hermit and the native conversed about the causes of the dispute, the Lord moved protectively beside his wife. He pulled back his jacket, revealing his Remington revolver. He fiddled with the rifle strapped to the back of his mount, but did not remove it. His show of force was wasted, for the warriors were watching the Hermit. Boucher signaled for the natives to join him. They rose and began to collect their scant belongings into fatigued leather pouches.
The Hermit edged his mule toward the path. Pachu’a followed closely behind. The Lord and the Lady brought up the rear, still mounted on their mules, she with her hand near the bowie knife she had strapped to her right calf, his hand rested on the pearl handle of his revolver.
The Lady made a motion to pull ahead of her husband. When she did, her husband said, in a loud whisper,“Jenny, ride with me. I want to tell you something, in private.” She dutifully fell back, expecting a lecture about how she needed to be wary of natives.
The Lord rubbed his face with his red kerchief, while steering his mule with his legs. He retied the damp kerchief, and then began to speak, tentatively, “I decided to embark on this adventure because I hoped that the dry climate would help to cure my … condition. I think that my plan has worked. I am feeling better than I have all year …” He scratched a dried scab on his left hand with his right. “I was thinking that tonight would be a good night for us to conceive an heir.”
“We already have a daughter.”
“You know what I mean.” When she did not reply, he spoke again, “A male heir.”
Lady Churchill snapped, “I think that it would be best to conceive our next child when you are fully recovered.” She glowered at her husband for an instant, and then kicked her legs into the side of her mount. Her mule sluggishly picked up its pace until she was once again beside the Hermit. Pachu’a fell back until he was abreast the Lord, who was moving forward very slowly. The native warriors walked in between.
The Hermit pulled abreast of the Lady and said, in a whisper, “There is one person between you and a perfect fortune; that same person promises you a life of misery.”
The Lady smiled tersely as she replied, “Let’s not dwell on my domestic problems, Monsieur Boucher. Most women have much more serious problems than an unfaithful husband. For example poverty. I am rich and resourceful. I can cope.” She nudged her mule and pulled away from the smiling Hermit.
The natives began a low chant that was almost a hum. It was strange music to walk by because it was reminiscent of the irregular sounds of the canyon, and did not match their walking rhythm, which was slow and steady, except when rough, rocky terrain obstructed them.
A rattle snake hissed. The travelers all stopped moving and the Hopi stopped chanting.
The Lady scanned the path in front of her until she spotted the dust-colored snake, partially covered in the shadow cast by a wedge of sedimentary rock. It was not within striking distance. She was still, afraid more of her mount throwing her out of fear than the snake.
The Hopi encircled the snake. Its back was a lattice of white diamond scales set against a background of dusty gray-green. It had been lying on the ground in a stretched S shape but had now tightly coiled itself and raised its head. It moved its head in a semi-circle, sticking its tongue out to sense the air.
Pachu’a carefully moved behind the snake. Once in position, he crawled toward it very slowly. When he was one arm’s length away, his hands darted out, the left grabbing the snake’s throat, the right its tail. He slowly stood up from his crouch, still holding the snake. His thigh muscles strained from the effort of rising slowly. He turned to face his companions.
Pachu’a showed the snake to each native in turn. Although their faces’ remained solemn the Lady sensed that Pachu’a was showing off.
When Pachu’a had completed his circuit he gestured for the group to continue. Once they had disappeared around the first bend he returned the snake to the spot where he found it, found his mule (it had tried to hide itself in the scant shadow of a Yucca tree) and relentlessly prodded his mule in an attempt to catch up with the group.
After an hour, the natives headed off on a diagonal path, along an off-track shortcut that approached the Havapai village from the back. The Lord’s group continued along the south bank of the Colorado River. The trail was flat and exposed; the dry air searingly hot.
The canyon narrowed again. They reached a choke point where a spur of rock enclosed on the path. They spotted a shadow under the tree. As they got near they saw that the shadow was an old man.
The tops of the old man’s limbs, fingers and toes were lined with dots of white paint that made him look like a skeleton. He was covered in a filthy blanket that was decorated in white diamond shapes, like the skin of the rattlesnake they had just encountered; a horned felt hat hung from his neck by a coarsely woven cord.
The Hermit signaled for the group to pause. He nodded toward Pachu’a, who proceeded purposefully forward. Pachu’a greeted the old man in Hopi, and then reached into a pouch tied to his waist and pull out a small handful of cactus flowers which he presented to the old man, who cupped his hands in order to receive the flowers, and then placed them in a battered tin bowl near his feet.
“What did Pachu’a say?”, the Lady asked the Hermit in a quiet voice.
“Greetings Másaw. Please let us use this land. We will respect it.” As the Hermit spoke, a tiny pink striped snake emerged from the rock enclosure in which the old man sat. Pachu’a quickly picked it up, the same way he had done with the rattlesnake. He presented it to the old man who laughed, clapped his hands, and then bowed to the snake but did not take it.
Pachu’a knelt to the ground and released the snake. It quickly slithered under the rocks to the right of the old man.
The old man spoke once again, with a cracked, dry voice; the Hermit translated for the couple, “You may use this land. But do not forget that you are here to fulfill the Plan of Creation.”
Pachu’a bowed from his neck, and then stepped back into the group. The Churchills, not certain how to respond, bowed and curtsied.
[The Hermit approached the old man, clasped his right hand for a moment. He then removed a paper bag from his satchel and handed it to the old man, who did not open the bag to inspect the present, but he did smile gratefully.]
They continued along the path, with everyone on foot and in single file: the path had narrowed to the width of one mule. The valley edge now encroached on the river to such an extent that there was no longer an embankment; a half-arch of rock towered over the path.
The old man joined them. He walked in front, as if he were now their guide.
The Lady drew abreast of Boucher and asked, “Can I talk to him?” She nodded toward Másaw. “Will you translate?”
They quickened their place slightly until they were beside the old shaman. Boucher spoke first. The old man responded with a toothless smile and nodded. Boucher turned to the Lady and invited her to begin her interrogation. Her first question was, “Are you a shaman?” The Hopi man smiled and shrugged.
“Yes”, the Hermit replied.
“Do the Hopi believe in God?”
The old man spat out a couple of syllables. The Hermit translated, “Not in the way you mean.”
“But you have gods?”
“There are spirits, life-force in everything. Some are more powerful than others.”
“Is there a prime spirit, like Jupiter, in the Hopi religion?”
The Hermit answered her question directly, rather than referring it to the old shaman, “Yes. The principal Hopi god is named Tawa. He is the sun god. But unlike Jupiter he prefers not to get involved in the affairs of men.” Boucher then translated the conversation to the old shaman, who indicated his agreement by nodding his head.
“Are there other important deities?” the Lady asked.
Boucher translated Másaw’s reply , “Spider Woman. In many ways she is a more a influential being than Tawa. I think of her as fate.”
“I see.” The Lady nodded her head and then asked, “Mr. Boucher, what is the significance of those cactus flowers you gave Másaw?”
“I gave him Peyote. It is used in religious ceremonies.”
The Lord, who was now leading the troop, stopped his horse and turned around. The entire group stopped behind him. He said, “You have peyote? We will talk about this at our next stop.” He wheeled his horse around and continued the trek.
It was now late afternoon. Although it was still bright outside, the sun was low enough in the sky that its light did not shine where they were walking. Their path was increasingly covered in shadow.
They followed the trail around a bend. The path widened considerably, while still remaining under the shadow of the valley wall. The Hermit walked his mule to an outcropping on the inner side of the path, and tied its rein to it. He then turned to the group and said, “We’ll camp here.”
Pachu’a unpacked the kindling the Hermit had packed for their camp fire, which he quickly started. Minutes before they had been fatigued by the heat, but the air in the cave was cool, dry and still. They sat around the fire, in a broad circle which calmly burned. There was no wind to stir the air.
They ate dried beef and drank water for dinner. When they were done, the Lord abruptly rose and addressed the river, “Mr. Boucher, I’d like to converse with you in private.” The Hermit nodded. The two men walked away from the camp to a place where the path was exposed to sunlight. It was far brighter outside the shadow cast by the overhanging rock, but quickly getting darker. They spoke briefly then the Lord returned to the camp fire, a chesire-cat grin on his face, while the Hermit smoked a cigarette just outside the light of the fire. When Boucher returned to the group the Lord said, “Jenny. Come here now.” His wife dutifully rose and followed him to the edge of the campfire, on the side opposite to the Hermit. The Lord made a show of having a private conversation, even though their voices were still audible to Másaw and Pachu’a because of the echoing acoustics of the half-cave.
“Jenny. I have spoken with Mr. Boucher about that new man, Másaw. It seems he is a shaman. If we wish, we can engage in a religious ceremony tonight. It will be like the ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, except with snakes and not condors. Are you interested?”
“Very good.” The Lord eagerly rubbed his scabrous hands together.
Pachu’a began to grind the peyote flowers, which looked like hand-made buttons, into powder. He then added water to the powder, which created a paste. When the paste was fluid enough to drink he poured it into a series of small clay bowls. Másaw sat beside Pachu’a, periodically giving him instructions.
The sun had long since set. The sky was so full of stars that the heavens looked like a web. Another web of shadows danced around the fire. The edges of the canyon, which in daytime were in permanent shadow, were now black as pitch.
“Drink this”. Pachu’a handed the Lord one of the clay bowls. It was full to the brim with the cactus flower paste.
The Lord took it and drank deeply. He handed the bowl to his wife. The Lady had a small sip, began to hand the bowl to Louis Boucher, had second thoughts and took a second small sip. When the bowl was handed to the Hermit, he immediately gave it to Másaw, who drained what remained in one long draught. They repeated the ceremony; on the second pass Boucher did have one small sip from the bowl. Moments after the peyote was finished, the Lord began to cough, as if he were choking. His palsied hands struggled with his waist coat; eventually he produced a silver flask of whiskey, which his shaking hands struggled to open. He drank until the flask was empty. When done, he paused. Then he coughed furiously until he had no energy to cough at all. He sat for a few, long, moments with his bent head held up by his hands. His long, thin hair fell forward, over his face.
While the Lord vomited onto his dusty Roughrider boots, the Hermit handed the Lady a skin full of water, from which she drank. In the middle of her draught she became so nauseous that she sat bent over her legs, with her arms cupped over her head for several minutes, and retched.
An unseen hand helped her re-find her equilibrium. When she looked up again, she saw that her husband had also composed himself. Her nausea had passed; she felt fine.
She noticed that her senses were sharper than normal, and more sensitive. Even though it was night, in the dim starlight she felt overwhelmed by sensations: sounds, lights, smells. The slopes of the canyon rose solemnly all around her. She could faintly hear the babble of the Colorado River. The more she listened the more it sounded like a cacaphony of voices talking to her.
The air was full of vibrations.
A visitor emerged from a web of shadows in the darkest part of the campground, the area of permanent shadow.
The Lady asked, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” She whispered her questions. For some reason she did not want the others to hear. They hadn’t noticed the apparition. He replied, “I am Sotuknang. I bring you a message.” He was old, his skin was dry and gaunt but his body had a sinewy strength. His long, thick black hair was tied into strands by beads.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Look at the shadows.”
She looked to where he pointed, at the shadows cast by the campfire on the walls of the cave. She fell into a trance while looking at them, as if ensnared in a web.
The shadows began to organize themselves into a story. She saw a flood wash away the world. Then the water shadows drained away and the ground opened up. From the dark deep hole the shadows of people emerged and spread out into the night. Many lingered around the campfire; a shadowy crowd that mingled with the flames.
The scene changed again. The dark shadows where the stranger had once been standing resolved into the face of a very old woman. Her eyes were shut. Her sockets were like pits lined with wrinkles. Her hair was a web of dark brown roots that merged with the flickering shadows. The woman sat cross legged on the ground. Her eyes remained closed but she was looking at everyone and everything. She reached her hands out to the Lady, palms facing up. Jenny rose, moved to beside the old woman, knelt down and grasped them.
“What do you want?” Spider Woman asked.
The Lady knew what she wanted most, though she kept that desire locked in the shadowy recesses of her mind.
Behind her someone fell to the ground with a thump.
Lady Churchill did not immediately turn around even though there was a commotion behind her. She continued to stare at the web of hair and wrinkles and shadows. The web grew darker and blacker until Spider Woman disappeared into blackness.
When Jenny finally turned around to look at her prostrate husband she knew immediately that he was dead. He had hit his jaw on a rock when he fell, the force of impact had broken his neck. His hips, which had followed his body to the ground, were twisted awkwardly so that his legs were skewed. She had dreamed of this moment in her mind’s eye every day since she had discovered her husband’s syphilis. In her mind’s eye the scene of her release was always a funeral home or hospice, and she always imagined feeling relief mixed with joy and expectation at her husband’s death, but now she felt nothing.
She let the shadows smother her senses and wrap her in sleep.
When she remembered her husband she lay still for a moment wondering how accurate her memory was. She lay on her back and looked up at the bright morning sky, but with closed eyes. She asked the Hermit, “Est-il mort?”
“Oui. Your husband is still dead”, the Hermit replied.
She opened her eyes. The rock face was above her, but its shadows were thin. Outside she could see daylight creeping along the top of the cliff. She heard Pachu’a making coffee.
“Dead!”, she shouted. The word echoed like a chime against the canyon walls.
Jenny pulled herself up and took a seat on a rock by the camp fire. The Hermit offered her a mug of coffee and sat down beside her. She said, “Who was that man?”
The Hermit replied, “You mean Másaw? He’s a Hopi shaman …”
“No. The man last night who was dressed like a Hopi warrior.”
“There was no other man.”
“I see. And there was no woman with hair like a web of roots?”
“Peyote makes you see things that aren’t there.”
“How did my husband die?”
“He had a heart attack and then broke his neck when he fell. If I may be so bold …”
“I think that it would be better if you returned alone. The Lord’s death could make trouble for us.”
“Of course. And please do not worry. I will take care of everything. How far is it to Cameron’s trail?”
“Less than one mile straight along this path.”
“Can you secure my husband to my mule before you leave?”
“It has already been done.”
“Its going to be an interesting day today, isn’t it”, the Hermit said after he strapped the last of the camping gear to his mule.
“I agree” Jenny replied. “There is a whole universe of possibilities awaiting me …”
Gas escaped from the corpse.
“You’d best hurry. Bon chance, Madame”. The Hermit and his companion were gone in moments.
Jenny Churchill grabbed the reins of the two mules and began the short walk to Cameron’s trail. As she walked, she thought, “Cameron will certainly earn his fee today, dealing with my late husband. He probably charges his dead clients double.”
She laughed. Yesterday she could have left her deceased husband’s body for the vultures, but today rancor was a burden. She didn’t need burdens. Or favors. Not even hope.
She pulled down the brim of her hat and then stepped out of the shadows into the light of the indifferent sun.