Sunday, August 26, 2012

Making History

Gregor lived in a house beside a vast, rambling abandoned factory. He lived there with his wife, an invalid who spent her days in a room on the second floor staring out the window at the horizon. A local girl came in three hours a day to care for her. At other times it was Gregor who answered the bell, or did not answer the bell, according to his mood. Mostly he answered the bell and the errands resulting from the answering were simple ones – two eggs fried and toast, a glass of orange juice, a trip to the library run by an old crone three fields away on the bank of the river. Occasionally he would be required to listen to his wife’s chronicle of aches and pains but he didn’t mind. When they were young she was beautiful, ravishing and he loved her with a great passion. Now they were old Gregor loved her in the way an old man loves his wife – a way having more to do with agape than eros.

The factory had once processed sugar beets. Financiers had decided they could buy sugar  cheaper from another country. The old beast – evil smelling and belching clouds of stench laden air - had limped on for a decade or two and then slowly ground to a halt. Afterward neighborhood boys had occupied it as their fort and castle for a generation but now even they were gone – off to join the army or dig in the mines or get drunk in seaports and sleep in alleys. Bats slept their days away in the lacing of the high roof girders but other than they and insects who live everywhere, no living beings entered the building, excepting Gregor.

The girl came at seven in the morning and as soon as she came into the house Gregor, after a polite good morning, left through the same door she had entered and walked across the yard into the front door of the factory. This led him onto the main floor, a vast area as long as a football field. After walking this, the hollow sounds of his footsteps hitting the concrete floor echoing off the walls and ceiling, he came to spiral stair made of dark, rusting metal. This he climbed slowly for it rose four stories and there were many stairs. At the top there was a foyer leading into a large room, once the office of the factory manager. The rest of the building was crumbling to ruin but oddly enough, because it was under a section of roof covered with steel still proof against the snow and rain, the office was in good shape. The outer walls were concrete, then insulation, a surprising amount for the construction techniques of its day, and then wood paneling, peeling in a few spots but essentially sound. The floor was covered with linoleum, worn and in the corners peeling back but still serviceable. The only furniture was a gigantic oak desk sitting in the very center of the room. The floor was clean and the corners free from cobwebs. In one corner were a mop, a pail, a broom and a dustpan.

Each morning Gregor walked directly to the desk, sat down in its chair and began to work. And what would an old man be doing working at a desk in an abandoned factory, you might ask. He was writing a history. Most likely it was a history which no one but himself and a few friends would read but Gregor was of the opinion who read it or who didn’t read it was of no matter. It was necessary that he have something to do, otherwise he would go mad. Even if the writing of his history was only an avoidance of madness then that would be enough.

At seven fifteen in the morning the sun poured in a long bank of windows on the east wall so there was no necessity for electric lights which was good for there were none. Sometimes in the evenings when his wife had gone to sleep for the night he came back carrying with him two storm lanterns. These provided more than enough light for night work and Gregor had a love for the yellowish light they produced. But the supply of kerosene was limited so he could not come at night as often as he would have wished. Beside the desk were three tall wood filing cabinets jammed with papers. The desk held a computer, covered when Gregor was not there by two layers of plastic sheeting. He did not trust the roof.

Gregor had money and not the script issued by the present regime which gave you the right to stand in long lineups, an activity rewarded in the end with things you did not want but had no choice but to take unless you wanted to starve – half rotted cabbages, mouldy rice, bread so hard it would break the teeth of a rat. Until the authorities shot him through the head’ Gregor’s son was a successful thief. Besides being a successful thief he was a careful man who saved a portion of his profits in the form of small gold ingots, one quarter of an ounce a piece. Several plastic buckets of these ingots, wrapped in plastic, were hidden in secret places only Gregor knew. Twice a year he took some out and traded them for script on the black market. The amounts of script he was given for the gold enabled him to buy on the black market – food, clothing, tools, computer gear, paper, etc.

What kind of a history was Gregor writing? A dangerous kind or at least if you were associated with the government you would consider it dangerous, not because it was anti government in any narrow sense but because it considered governments to be small islands of human effort floating upon a great sea of human energy. He was writing a history which included as many things about the human beings as possible. And what was his training? He didn’t have any which meant, of course, that he was the perfect person to write such a history. There were official historians who worked in an old building in the center of the nearby city, but they were bought and paid for. They often spent a lifetime ‘writing’ the official history of a small section of ‘historical events’ assigned them. The wise ones, by various subterfuges, managed to make sure their histories were not published in their lifetimes. The unwise were often arrested, tried and shot. It was not that the authorities objected to anything they said, especially since what they said was so guarded and obscure as to be incomprehensible, but that they said anything at all. Reality was something created by the government and if this was so then a historian publishing was tantamount to treason. Treason was the catch all charge in those days. Even thieves were convicted of treason rather than stealing.

When the present government took over power there remained remnants of the old elites which they systematically eliminated. This was the government language. They did not kill people, they eliminated them, a much more scientific and hygienic term denoting a passionless objectivity which did not exist. In actuality these people were killed by thugs and sadists who thoroughly enjoyed their work. After this period of wholesale slaughter, the government, very wisely if you have read Machiavelli, rounded up most of its thugs and sadists and killed or eliminated them. They were not the kind of people who would succeed at the next stage, that of ‘pacifying the people’ and they were not the kind who went off quietly into retirement. They were replaced by more moderate types who beat and tortured people only on the direct request of government ministers. This was heralded by the government as a return to ‘due process’ and trumpeted as a triumph in ‘the fight for the rights of the people’.

But there were many of the old elites left and even some who had morphed from being an enemy of the people to being their tribune and protector. The later were to be found in government offices and on the whole to be avoided. The former lived quiet lives most often in the rural areas where they farmed and raised animals. They kept a low profile and the government, other than spying on them in a desultory sort of way, left them alone. These people were the source of most of Gregor’s information.

Private vehicles were not allowed in or near the cities but some exceptions were made. By astute bribery Gregor recieved a permit for his motorcycle under the pretence that he used it to do Christian work in the outlying areas well known to be in need of an input of Christian energy, for they were, on the whole, wild, wooly and lawless. This, of course, was a fiction. He drove his motorcycle around the country all summer talking to people.  In the fall he organized his recordings (he took no notes rather recording with a machine hidden in his clothing). Through the winter he added new chapters to his book. He had been doing this for twenty years. All of his informants knew he was recording but most thought it for an anecdotal history the compiling of which was a private pleasure. Only a few old friends knew the real scope of his project and he trusted them implicitly.

As a cover, behind his house were two small barns housing sheep and goats. During the warm season these creatures roamed about grassy fields fending for themselves but in the winter they were brought in. Two hired men looked after them, slaughtered, made cheese and supplied the meat and cheese directly to a store for members of the government only. Officially Gregor did the work himself and there were no hired men. He made the monthly deliveries to the store himself and signed all receipts, bills of laden and other documents having to do with the business.

Yet one September, five years into his project, he was paid a visit by an army officer, a young man of twenty-five. There were rumors the young man told him, that he was constructing a history. It was forbidden, the young man told him, for private citizens to write histories. Such things were reserved for the proper institutions funded and overseen by the government.

No, no, Gregor replied, there was a misunderstanding. He knew very well it was forbidden to write histories and would not even dream of doing such a thing. Probably there was some misunderstanding of his summer activities. He went about the countryside on his motorbike doing good work among the rural people using some small amounts of money raised among his good hearted neighbors. This work involved talking to people in the villages, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in Inns and Hotels. Perhaps people watching this activity from the outside misconstrued what he was actually doing.

Ah, said the young man, this was indeed possible but he had in a dossier at his office a copy of a report that Gregor was overheard in a certain Inn in a certain village, speaking of politics before the Great Change and the young man wondered if he was doing Christian work what he was doing speaking in this manner.

Unless he was given the village and the Inn and the date then Gregor found it impossible to answer such a question in detail but in general he was an old man often talking to old men and it was only natural that they occasionally spoke of events which occurred in their youth. He realized that the officer, being a very young man, would have no direct experience of this yet if he consulted his memories of the conversations of his uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, he would see that what Gregor was saying was true. But this kind of talk about the past indulged in by the older generation was very different than the construction of histories, very different indeed. Rather it was the sharing of personal reminiscences from the past, the most natural thing in the world for those who actually lived the sad days before the Great Change.

After a few similar exchanges the young officer left, leaving behind him a copy of the regulations dealing with historical public discourse. Gregor thanked him profusely saying that although he knew the general drift of the law he had never seen a copy of the regulations and would treasure them dearly. Perhaps, he said, the next year before going off on his rounds the officer would like him to submit an itinerary but the officer said this would be unnecessary and made a joke about the filing cabinets already being filled to bursting at which they both laughed, Gregor perhaps a little too robustly.

When the officer left Gregor’s wife’s bell rang and, as it was afternoon and the girl gone, he went upstairs to see what she wanted.

“Who was that?” she asked when he came into the room.

“Just a friend,” replied Gregor.

“Do you think I’m so dumb that I can’t look out the window and see the official car in front of the house?” his wife asked.

“Ah. Well, I didn’t want to disturb you, dear. It was an officer from some Directorate or other who came to explain the new rules for pig marketing. Apparently the Directorate is concerned piglets are being sold on the black market and shipped to the north where it is against the law to have pigs. I, of course, informed him that no such thing was going on here. We are the most law abiding farm in the whole district I told him, which is true. All of our piglets are accounted for and grow to slaughtering size here on the farm and the meat delivered to the proper store as is required and expected.”

“Then why did the car have on the door The Ministry of Information?” his wife asked.

“Because it is that institution which deals with providing the public with all information, including that concerning pigs.”

His wife looked suspicious but as she had no knowledge to contradict what he said she said nothing.

“Please get me a glass of orange juice,” she said.

“Of course,” said Gregor and he went off down the stairs.

It was after this visit by the officer that Gregor moved all his files, etc out of the house into the old factory. He also took the precaution of creating a code for his book and even created a computer program which translated his prose into the code. After typing his summer recordings he translated them to code and destroyed both the recordings and the original prose.

“You are becoming an paranoid,’ an old friend in a village one hundred miles to the north told him.

“Perhaps,” Gregor replied, “but that young man was very intelligent and I don’t think he believed a single thing I told him.”

This was true but as well as not believing a single thing Gregor told him, the young officer didn’t care that he was lying. In his experience everyone was lying. The file was a routine affair which was not expected to turn into an investigation and he saw no reason to make it otherwise. So what if the old bugger was writing a history? Who cares? Let him write all the histories he wanted. No one would publish them anyway and when he died the papers would be dumped into the garbage along with the rest of his personal effects. He had bigger fish to fry and they included building a base of people well disposed toward him. Some day the old bugger might be of use. Every year after his visit, Gregor received a Christmas card from the young officer. On the front was a picture of himself with his wife and three children.

On the eve of the twenty-first year of writing his history Gregor’s wife died, of a heart attack, apparently, although it was unsure for there was no autopsy. Gregor found her one morning cold in the bed, her face arranged in repose as if she were sleeping. The death of her son was her death really. It was after that she took to her bed and never left the second floor. She was a maternal woman and when her only son died she had little to live for. There were no grandchildren. The daughter in law, after her husband’s shooting, moved away and they lost contact with her. Gregor was of little use to her, an old man who disliked personal reminiscing and seldom spoke a word excepting if they had to do  with historical subjects. In the last ten years he had sat for an hour a day in her room in the afternoon but most of that had been spent in silence. When they did talk usually it was her wife speaking of her childhood in the province she came from far off to the east and Gregor listening.

She was buried from the local church for she was a believer. The old neighbours who remembered her came and a smattering of relatives not too far off to make the ceremony. She was laid to rest in the churchyard on the left side of her son. When the time came Gregor would be buried on the other side. Gregor was surprised how much he missed her. He would wake in the morning and be halfway up the stairs before he realized she was gone. He dreamed of her when she was young and beautiful and they were making love. Sometimes, in the afternoons at the time he once visited her he would allow his mind to construct imaginary conversations with her. This always ended in his weeping and he would end this by lying down and taking a nap.

Much of Gregor’s history had to do with gruesome events – massacres, torture, mass starvations, etc. When he gave chapters (digital copies in code with a separate decoder) they would often say to him after they had read it, “Why so gruesome? Why so tortured?”

“Because so may died,” he would say, “and the ones surviving carry in their bones the memory of all that brutality. What do you want, stories of heroes?”

This would insult his friends and he had few enough to begin without insulting them but in this he was relentless. It is often this way in the world – it is friends wanting to protect us who can do us more damage than the enemies who want to destroy us. Some of his friends dropped out of the readings and avoided him thereafter. He couldn’t blame them. The real possibility of being strung up in a jail cell and beaten to death was not something to be taken lightly. The pressure in families for its members to avoid anything implicating was enormous. Most of the friends he still had left he met in out of the way places, places they had a legitimate reason to be in, in other words an alibi. Gregor was sometimes followed as just about anyone was who moved about on a regular basis but he was an expert at detecting shadows (very easy for the most part for they were amateurish and lazy). His method of dealing with them was to veer off his planned itinerary and lead them on a merry goose chase through the outback using the tent and food he carried on the bike to avoid talking to anyone. After a day or two of his playing the lover of nature in mystic union with streams and forests, the followers would disappear. Sleeping in a cramped car and eating bread and cheese they bought along the way from farmers was not enjoyable to them.

Twenty-five years after starting his project Gregor finished the first book. He envisioned three books but as he was already old and creaky and as it took him twenty-five years to complete the first he considered it unlikely he would finish more than a few chapters of the second. He was not discouraged by this but rather was happy he had managed to complete at least one book and would have, if lucky, time to do some work on the second.

Then things changed completely.

His Christmas card sending army officer raised a rebellion in the west of the country, succeeding in taking over all the western provinces and then moving on and taking the capital. Strangely there was little blood spilt in all this because the old guard had lost the support of the population and when the officer and his troops appeared before a town the local militia charged with defense would throw down their arms and join the uprising. When he arrived at the capital the rulers had deserted it in favor of melting into the rural areas and the officer led his forces through the main streets to the cheers of the populace.

Two months later Gregor received a letter from M. Kafka. He knew M. Kafka in a sort of way as a friend of a friend of a friend. He admired his writings and occasionally would give a copy of one of his books to an old friend whom he knew would enjoy it.

The letter asked for a copy of his history book. M. Kafka had backers both in the government and among private financiers and intended to publish it along with several other ‘new’ books of history. If Gregor wished the book would be published anonymously or under a pen name.

Strangely this request threw Gregor into a terrible crisis. He had never thought such an offer to be even remotely possible and had always thought of his project as a kind of private solace. The possibility of it being published widely and read by many thousands astounded and flattered him but it also made him think deeply about exactly what this would mean. He no longer thought the facts of history, even when they had long been suppressed and distorted, could lead to a ‘freeing’ of anyone. He had come to the conclusion, as had the Greeks many years before, that the terrors of history were both cyclical and inevitable and could not be avoided by cerebral epiphanies, no matter how desirable and individually satisfying, among the intellectual elites. He had also came to the conclusion that all histories were ‘used’ by someone. In other words, leaving aside the odd bookworm reading an old history for his own pleasure, and the rippling effect that such a pleasure could have on the people around him, they were pushed by people who had a purpose in mind and that purpose had to do with authenticating a new ‘view’ which was the foyer of, the introduction to, a new tyranny.

How he lamented that this offer had not come some ten years before when he was still possessed by the sureness of his historical intent! It was rumored that M. Kafka had connections to the new regime. It was said that the book would be published illegally but that those arrested by the authorities for doing so would be protected and used as a wedge to destroy the legitimacy of the judges, a pack of murdering gangsters if ever there was one. This would be a desirable effect thought Gregor but then there would be no shortage of books which could achieve it as well or even better than his history. M. Kafka’s own works would be a much better choice and since they were imaginative and mythological, they would be less open to the fermenting of a ‘new’ round of thought control which in turn could lead to a new round of demonizing and murdering. He realized what they would do with his book. He had lived too long to have illusions about the endless human capacity for vengeance, self-righteousness and self-justification. To tell the truth about the suffering of those now dead was a noble thing but to have that truth distorted to justify the visitation of more suffering upon the living was not worth it and he knew in his bones that this is exactly what would happen. No guessing, no apologetic, Pontius Pilate-like washing of the hands; he knew.

It took Gregor two weeks to transfer all the files and computer paraphernalia to the old factory’s concrete floor. He was an old man and could work only an hour or so at a stretch. At the end, instead of carrying an armload of files down the spiral stair, he tied them tight with string and tossed them over the balcony and loaded them into the wheelbarrow at the bottom. He made a great pile in the center of the main floor.

Gregor met in the early morning, one bright August day, with the two brothers who did the work on the farm.

“I have made arrangements with the authorities (bribes in other words) for you to deliver the produce yourself and sign yourself,” he said. “They will not make difficulties. They pay for the last shipment when you make the next. They decide how much so you don’t have to worry about that. Cash the check at the bank leaving a small amount in the account and work with cash. That’s what every one does. Just keep a record of how much they give you and all the expenses. The tax bill goes to the bank and you pay it there. It’s not difficult. You just have to make sure you record things as they are paid in and out so you don’t get confused. The old records are in the office in the barn. If you get mixed up about something, consult them. There is a yellow file in the file drawer listing the gifts given to the people at the office. No cash excepting for the Director once a year. The rest are by the month in produce. With all these takeoffs it’s a wonder anyone in this country produces anything. But it is the way it works and if you are diligent in the payments you will have no trouble. Occasionally someone lower down tries to squeeze. Tell them you will see and then report it to the Director. He will take care of it.”

“And your salary?” asked the older brother.

“Split half of it between you and put the rest aside. I may contact you with an address to send it to and I may not. If you don’t hear from me then it is yours. As well, eventually I will make an arrangement to transfer the title to you. We will create a little fiction of a payment to me so the relatives cannot claim fraud. But we will have to see how things go generally before the details can be worked out.”

That evening, after the brothers left, Gregor loaded the motorcycle trailer. Then he crossed the field to the factory, entered through the main door and walked to where the pile of files and computers were in the middle of the floor. He doused the base of the pile with gasoline and then threw a lighted match onto the gasoline soaked paper. Whoosh!

Three years later the brothers received a notarized transfer of the farm’s title into their names. Included in the envelope was a copy of a fictitious receipt signed by Gregor for the sale price. He never sent an address for his half of the manager’s salary, so the brothers got to keep it. This was no doubt because the last of his dead son’s ingots, glued to the inside of the rear motorbike tire, was more than enough to keep him wherever he went and for however long he lived.

There were rumors; there always are. But since Gregor contacted no one from his past life they were mere tales made up by those who like to pretend they are in the know.

He died very far away in an obscure place living among people who measure time in millennia rather than historical epochs. He died peacefully and without the slightest regret.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Harry and Frederick

Harry and Frederick

He was a kind man, no doubt about that. He had a high forehead running into a collapsing hairline and it was wrinkled with concern.

“Perhaps if you fill in a new 714-233?”

“I already did that.”

“With no results.”

“With no results.”

“Perhaps you could appeal.”

“Filling in the new 714-233 and waiting meant the time for appeal on the original 714-233 elapsed. The regulations allow for an appeal only on the first 714-233. No appeal is allowed on the second.”

“Dear, dear.”

Harrington Bringwater was weary but he was used to being weary. It seemed to him that he had been weary for many, many years but as he was only twenty years of age then it could not have been that many. He thought of his grandmother who was eighty-three. If she had became weary at the age he was now she would have had sixty-three years of weariness. But he doubted that this was the case for grandmother even in her old age seemed a tireless woman. If she wasn’t in the garden digging she was in the kitchen cooking or on the porch knitting. Every stitch of clothing he wore was made by his grandmother, even his underwear. Underwear she made out of the better parts of old flannel shirts she bought at the second hand store. Winter underwear she double layered; summer underwear was only a single layer. Even then on hot days, like today, the summer underwear was warmish.

“I could give you a food bank voucher,” said the man behind the desk.

“That would be nice,” said Harrington.

The man made out the voucher and Harrington left.

He walked to the food bank rather than use the bus ticket the man gave him along with the voucher. The bus ticket would take you all the way across town and, if your errand was a quick one, back again. The walk to the food bank took only thirty-five minutes.

Since it was Monday morning the food bank was almost empty but, unfortunately, so were the shelves. The woman at the front desk gave him the small box you were allowed to fill. But Harrington’s grandmother had taught him from the time he was a little boy what to choose, what to stay away from. Rice, flour, sugar, molasses, lard first. No boxes; no processed. They got their vegetables from Nan’s garden which was big enough to supply them all year, with the cold storage. Luckily that day there was bulk rice and lard so he loaded up mostly with these two. No sugar so he took two middling sized containers of molasses. When the woman at the front looked in his box she raised her eyebrows. Unless they knew him they always did. A young man his age usually took boxed junk – macaroni dinners, hamburger patties.

The walk home with the box used to be tiring until he learned his trick with the two ropes. He cut holes in the cardboard with his jackknife, threaded a rope through on either side and slung the box onto his back as if it were a backpack. It took an hour to get home from the food bank. Halfway there he lowered the box to the ground and had a rest. The spot he chose was on the riverbank where the river slung itself east in a wide meander. Sitting here you could see across to the corn fields on the other side, fields surrounded with chain link fence topped with three rows of razor wire. Harrington often wondered why the razor wire. Everyone he knew, including himself, slipped through holes they cut in the fence at the very bottom where you were hidden by long grass. Every July and August since he was nine he and one of his pals made the trip four or five times a season bringing back bags of corn they ferried across the river in an ancient canoe. His grandmother frowned when she saw them in the porch the next morning. She was an ethical old woman but then one had to eat, ethical or not. She frowned but said nothing and when he came back the following evening the corn was gone, stored in the cold cellar in the basement.

At one time people got jobs in the cornfields, hoeing and picking. But machines did all that now. The people who drove the machines were from the outside. They came for the work and then went away. None of the corn went to the local markets anymore. It was loaded onto boxcars and driven west where it was processed and then loaded onto ships and sent across the ocean. The Company who owned the cornfields nobody had ever heard of before. Some said it was owned by rich men in another country where the corn fetched high prices and there were whole buildings filled with agents ready to buy it. But not all the corn went this route. Sometimes the papers were filled with stories about corn thievery, not the penny ante kind he and his friends indulged in, but the derailing of whole trainloads with vehicles suddenly appearing and a small army of thieves emptying the cars. His Righteous Rigorousness threatened dire action. He said he would burn whole counties, hang the ringleaders but this was bluster for the most part because His Righteous Rigorousness hardly had a pot to piss in when it came to enforcing anything. His old tracked vehicles had engines whose pistons sloshed around like a spoon stirring gravy and even if he managed to patch up enough for a punishing expedition anyone in front of them disappeared like ghosts so there was no one to punish. Once, some years ago, when they burned empty houses, it so angered people that they dug holes in the roads and spent all night shooting at the trapped vehicles, ping ping, the bullets bouncing of the armored plates. This scared the daylights out of the soldiers who escaped on foot the next morning. When they came back two days later with bulldozers the vehicles were all gone. Not a single bolt or sparkplug remained - all cannibalized and carried off to God knows where. But this didn’t stop His Righteous Rigorousness from taking to the screen once a month, banging the oak table he was sitting at and shouting so loud spit flew out of his mouth like he were a human rainstorm.

When he arrived at the house his grandmother was washing the front steps. She did this once a week excepting, of course in the winter when the water would freeze. She looked into his box and patted him on the head.

“Good for you!” she said. He took the box into the kitchen and put the things away in the cupboards.

Two of Harrington’s uncles lived in the house along with he and his grandmother. The uncles were simple. Even if there were jobs for them, which there wasn’t, they would not have been able to work. For them to do anything sustained they needed someone at their side telling them exactly what to do. But they were big and strong and did all the heavy work in the garden and around the house with their mother, Harrington’s grandmother, directing. They were kindly, gentle men but sometimes they did become difficult. Once in a while, Harry, the oldest, managed to buy a bottle of bootleg whiskey. When he was thoroughly soused he would sit up late on the back porch singing old love songs at the top of his voice, so loudly that no one for many houses around could sleep. If any one tried to stop him he would become violent which was a problem for he was very large and had tremendous strength. His mother, Harrington and the neighbors had learned, through trial and error, the best thing was to leave him be. He ran out of steam around two in the morning and stumbled off to bed. The next morning he apologized to everyone.

“Don’t give me that!” his mother would say to him. “If you were really sorry then you would stay away from that rotgut booze.”

However there were enough people around to listen sympathetically to his apologies that he spent the whole day going from house to house. The women would give him coffee and pie and Harry would do his best to explain to them how it seemed that he was taken over by another man when these things happened but he was sure that it would never happen again and so on. As they were kind and motherly women of good heart his hosts clucked sympathetically and gave him another piece of pie. Harrington thought Uncle Harry got two things out of his occasional bouts – firstly he got drunk and sang love songs which he dearly loved to do but was too embarrassed to sing when he was sober and secondly the next day he received pie and sympathy. Harrington did not begrudge him. A man who, because of his condition, had never had and never would have, sexual relations with a woman, had to have an outlet of some kind. Even God would not be so cruel as to deny him that.

Frederick, the other Uncle, never got drunk and sang love songs. This was because he was an obsessive masturbator and his obsessive masturbation left him no energy to indulge in such goings on. Frederick had his own room on the second floor which in turn had a bed with creaky metal springs. No amount of lecturing from his mother had any effect whatsoever on the noisiness of his masturbation technique. Although Harrington had never actually seen his Uncle in the act, a fact for which he was grateful in the extreme, from the sounds which came from his room several times a day Frederick had no concept of quiet, mewing pleasure. The bed springs creaked so loudly it was hard to imagine that Frederick was accomplishing this act in his bed alone. They sounded so loudly, so piercingly that it seemed as if three or four people were involved thrashing about in a great fire of mindless pleasure. His arrival at ejaculation was accompanied by a rising crescendo of bear like grunts which one could easily hear at the very end of the garden in the back, some one hundred feet away from the house.

When he was a young boy Harrington was mortally embarrassed by these daily gallops of Uncle Frederick. Adults would not mention them to a young boy but his fellow children brought them up in the eternal one upmanship of childhood, at least his enemies. But Harrington was a robust boy and by the time he was twelve no one would dare mention his Uncle’s activities in his presence. Among his intimate friends, however, those who were like members of the family, the occasional mention of Uncle Frederick’s romps was allowed, indeed even welcomed, as comic relief. Frederick himself never spoke of what he did in his room and his mother reached the point where she was accepted it as a great, unstoppable force of nature and ceased trying to reform him. Besides Frederick in the past few years (he was now fifty-five) had slowed down considerably so that now there were even occasional days in which the bedsprings did not sound at all and instead there came from Frederick’s room the sound of loud, bear like snoring.

Form 714-233 was an application for government relief. Anyone could make one as long as they were eighteen or over and unemployed. However whether the application was accepted was another matter. This, as far as Harrington could make out, was entirely arbitrary. The rules said that it was a rigorous rational process and that it was as if the details were fed into a great omniscient computer which made an objective and Godlike determination but everyone knew this was untrue. The truth was that there were so many slots, so to speak, and when they were filled that was that. The available slots were taken up by people who had some advantage  - someone inside who spoke for them, relatives with influence, etc. Perhaps twenty percent of the people who applied received. The rest were sent to an appeal which merely a formal second denial. No one was allowed to know who sat on the appeal board or indeed if there even was any such thing as an appeal board. Harrington suspected there wasn’t. The appeal board was a fiction, a bureaucratic placebo.

Harrington did not mind this himself. If it were up to him he would make his way on his own. But he could steal so much and there were others to consider. His grandmother received a small pension but his Uncles were considered ‘undesirable’ and thus not eligible for any government funds. In fact in his last two speeches His Righteous Rigorousness had suggested that the government might soon place special taxes on people such as his Uncles who HRR considered to be ‘superfluous’ and a ‘hidden tax on successful production’. HRR said that the state had suffered long enough from the ‘invidious excursions’ of these ‘undesirable elements’ and the time may very well have arrived when they would be ‘incised from the political body’ as one would incise a useless growth from one’s own physical body thus protecting its health and vigor. HRR became incensed when he spoke of issues like this. His face reddened; his eyes became filled with aggressive fervor. He sometimes moved his hands about as if he were strangling someone or at least throttling and shaking them about.

Harrington and his grandmother watched these speeches together. His Uncles were not allowed to watch for HRR scared them. They had a limited capacity to understand what he was saying but the aggression and frightening gestures were clear enough even for them. And Uncle Harry knew that he and Frederick were what HRR called ‘undesirable’. He had friends in the neighborhood who told him all about HRR.

“Mother, he’s a bad man,” Harry said one day at the breakfast table.

“Don’t talk about him, Harry, dear,” his mother replied. “Bad things happen to people who talk about him. Promise me you won’t.”

Harry promised but a week later he was still calling HRR a bad man and his mother told him some of the nasty things which happened to people who did so and then he stopped. When Harry was gone Harrington said to his grandmother, “You scared the shit out of him, gran.”

“Exactly,” replied his grandmother.

A year after this Harrington’s grandmother received a letter from the Directorate of Internal Hygiene. The letter said that she, as the legal guardian of ‘two of the unfit’, was required to attend at a certain address in one months time to register them with the Directorate. Failure to do so, the letter said, would bring ‘immediate enforcement activity’ which she would no doubt wish to avoid by complying.

His grandmother showed the letter that night to Harrington. Fortunately Harrington, an astute and no nonsense lad, was ready or at least ready enough.

“We’ll have to go,” he said.

His grandmother didn’t put up a fuss as he thought she would. Eighty some years living in the same house meant far less to her than the safety of ‘her boys’.

HRR was the power in the clusters as they were called, the large centers with remnants of productive capacity still hanging about them. But he could project his power outside the clusters only to a very small degree. Harrington had contacts in places to the north, which nominally paid taxes to the center but largely ran their own affairs. There were, even in these far places, a HRR administrator, etc. but he was essentially powerless and reliant on the tolerance of the local people for his survival. Survival is the word for many unwise HRR administrators who tried to enforce directives from the center had completely disappeared and were never seen again. ‘Bogged’ was the term used for these disappearances, presumably because the officials in question were weighted and dropped into one.

“Where are we going?” Harry asked when they were on the boat sailing up river.

“On a nice trip, dear,” his mother replied.

“No bed, no bed,” Frederick said, a kind of chant he had taken up now and again ever since they left the little dock outside town.

Harrington was seated in the stern with the boatman, a grizzled man who seemed to be able to see in the dark.

“Mom will get you a bed when we get there Fred,” said Harry, “so be quiet and stop going on like that.”  

Sunday, August 12, 2012


The long black lines had appeared one morning and slowly worked their way across the far green of the prairie, moving from west to east. At first they seemed almost imaginary, perhaps even a malfunction in the Hibson’s eye - five or six of them moving steadily forward until they created uninterrupted streams from horizon to horizon. Then the five or six became ten or fifteen and then more until they filled in a broad river of black Hibson estimated to be miles across, a swath in which they completely obliterated all but their own colour as if they were a single strange, sinuous animal driving its dark body across a sea of green.

“What on earth are they?” he asked the elder when he arrived back in the tiny village.

“They are the beginning,” replied the elder and then, refusing to answer any more questions, sent him to work in the summer garden.

“They will come from the east carrying with them the high mountain berries. Their devastation will be as a single devouring maw moving eastward. Death will be their marching call and they will spread it about them like an ink stain until the earth shrugs its shoulders and annihilates them and they become a memory, no more. True men will see them as an abomination, a stink. “Gaia,” they will cry out and Gaia will hear them. The green will devour them. Gaia will open herself and consume them as if she had suddenly become a giant mouth of grinding green.”

This was the text the elder read before the evening meal. The younger men were astonished. They had read Devastations of course, for it, along with the entire body of the Sacred Text, was the basis for all learning in the community but they, along with their teachers, had thought it a metaphorical extravagance, a dark meditation from the time when the ancient teachers, in their search for learning, ingested drugs and drove themselves into the beyond by dreadful fasts and sensory deprivations. To have it quoted in the dining hall, at the end of a clear, delightful day of sunshine and soft breezes, was extraordinary.

The next morning Hibson thought he would be again sent to the garden but no. He was told to climb onto his mountain pony and go off like he did every morning of the warm season searching and counting the high grazing sheep. Except that today he was given new instructions.

“Bring them in dear brother,” the foreman told him. “In through the high pass where they will out of sight from the plain as soon as possible.”

They sent four mounted brothers to accompany him. “Take the low trail to the edge and then herd them from the south,” said the foreman. “The elders want them gone by dark. Your packs have extra provisions. Don’t come back until the animals are all through the pass. Let there be a last man who goes back when the main body has been driven before you. If the stragglers run they must be shot. There must be none left on the face of the mountain.”

“Why?” asked Hibson.

“Because the evil ones will see them you dolt!” said the foreman. “ And what the evil ones see they lust after.”
Try as they might it took them longer than one day to herd the sheep through the pass. Sheep are creatures of habit. The sun was high, the grasses long, the mornings without chill. That they were being driven from their traditional high pasture months before the usual time confused them. But the brothers rode hard, even shooting their pistols into the air until, by the end of the second day, the great bulk were through the pass and crossing the rocky ravines leading to the lower pastures in the north. Hinson sent his four companions to follow and herd while he turned back to search for stragglers. He drove for the edge and made it by nightfall. He camped in the lee of a giant boulder, and, after two long days riding, slept like a dead man until the hot sun roused him in the morning.

“Do not show yourself!” the foreman had told him. “The evil ones can sense presence from hundreds of miles away and will come with sharp teeth to devour its flesh and blood. They are wild beasts. The cougar, compared to these, is a kind mother to all. Beware!”

Taking his instructions to heart, Hibson snaked on his belly around the boulder until he came to a twisted shrub growing from a crumbling run of stone. He inched himself forward until, parting the leaves, he looked down onto the prairie. The black river had broadened. It stretched from east to west as far as he could see. It seemed to Hibson very strange that he could see how vast was its movement, how almost endless its parade, and yet he could not hear it. It made no sound at all; it was like a great beast stuck dumb. Its body was not all attached to the ground. Small specks flew above it like the birds of carrion the teachers claimed followed armies in the times of war and hatred. Eaters of the dead, the Text called them, devourers of souls.

When he brought his glass to bear he could see the flying specks more clearly. They were strange creatures indeed, giant dragonflies flitting from one place to another above the heads of the great marching throng.  Sometimes fire erupted from their bellies, blue and yellow fire. Clouds of smoke suddenly erupted from the earth. The dragonflies dove into these clouds more fire spitting from their bellies and then they suddenly rose and moved on. The dead lay on the ground; the living moved on. Sometimes the dragonflies landed. They sat on the ground, great wings partially folded while figures did things to their bellies and then they flew off once again.

“They are of the Devastation. Brothers and sisters, listen. I tell the bold truth which rocks to the core. They are merciless; they have no heart; they revel in cruelty; they devour as the beasts devour. Gaia hates them. Gaia will crush them like a dog crushes bones.”

Devastations, 6, 11.  

Yet Gaia didn’t seem to be crushing them right now. The broad river of the evil ones flowed in a seemingly unending torrent and above them the dragonflies flitted and spit  fire. There were also crawling things like fast moving spiders with two mouths full of terrible revolving teeth smashing everything. They twisted and turned and destroyed in packs like mad dogs, cutting paths through the throngs. But there were not enough to change anything essential. A temporary stoppage, a brief scattering was all they could manage. When they moved on the throngs closed ranks as if they had never been. The dead were stripped. Those coming from behind trampled their bodies or tossed them out of the way into a hollow. Perhaps when darkness came they would be devoured thought Hibson.

“Oh they are vicious snakes! In the darkness when they think Gaia is not watching, they devour their own. Oh how hideous they are Brothers and Sisters. They are like ten day carrion, foul and covered with bloated insects.”

Devastations, 25, 11.

Hibson could not bring himself to shoot the uncooperative stragglers. Instead he roped three mother yews and trailed them along behind him, lambs in turn following along behind the mothers. Occasionally small groups came from out of the tall grasses or from behind outcrops and joined the procession. By the time he reached the pass he had a herd of fifty or so. Hibson left his companions to guard the pass to prevent the sheep from retracing their steps and rode down into the village, reaching it on the fourth day.

“What did you see?” asked the foreman.

“A great river of black moving from west to east,” Hibson replied.

“Ninny! I know you have a glass.”

“It is forbidden,” replied Hibson.

“And so is fornication. Yet the village is filled with children. What did you see?”

“Flying dragonflies shooting fire. Spiders with two mouths with great flat teeth grinding and crushing,” said Hibson.

“They are, strictly speaking, not creatures at all,” said the foreman. “They are made of metal by servants of the dark, in a place now flooded by the sea. Gaia has arranged this in her anger and disgust at the abominations of the evil ones. You will remember Devastations, 4, 10. “The sea will scour the shore. Gaia will raise the water and cleanse abomination, leaving the rock as white as washed wool, as white as scrubbed bone.” What else did you see?”

“A great spread of brown coming from the south east.”

“Ha! Just as the elders say. That would be the rivers backing up and spreading. What you saw is coming from the Irgle, no doubt. Do you know what the Irgle is?”

“Gaia’s spittle.”

“Ha! That would be one way of putting it. When I was a boy we called it her stream of pee. Gaia drinks rains in the mountains and pees it out onto the plains. Watch you don’t repeat these things to the novices. They will be scandalized and report you.”

“I’m not that stupid,” Hibson said.

After looking at him suspiciously for a moment the foreman replied, “No, you aren’t. But I have to be cautious. Some of you young men are incredibly dense. How far had the brown spread?”

“One third of what I could see, coming from the south.”

“Well it won’t be long now,” said the foreman.

“Until what?” Hibson asked.

“Until it washes away the evil ones of course. What else?”

“Drowns them?”


“Won’t they move onto higher ground?”

“I doubt it. They are too busy killing one another. By the time they wise up it will be over.”

The next day the elders sent Hibson back to the edge to observe. They sent a cage of homing pigeons with him so he could send back messages.

1st day: Brown half way up. Black river moving to the northeast.

2nd day:  Brown over halfway. Black river moving directly north.

3rd day: Black river overtaken. Chaos. Spiders and dragonflies abandoned.

4th day: Water in front and behind Black river. A great circle gathered on high ground being slowly eaten away.

5th day: Everything is water. Bodies floating.

Perhaps a dozen rafts reached the rocks. There they were met by the Elder’s Purity Guard. The survivors were helped off the rafts, given a drink of clean water and then lined up against a rock face and shot dead.

“They were of the dark side, servants of evil, abominations,” the foreman said to Hibson who said nothing in reply.

“They were a bacillus,” said the foreman. “They had to be stopped dead at the edge of the water.”

Unlike the foreman, Hibson had witnessed the executions. Those who ran, rather than wait for the bullets, were chased down and bludgeoned to death with iron bars. The white robes of the Purity Guard assigned this task became splattered with blood. The commander ordered them to strip naked and toss their clothing into the waters.

The foreman was still talking. “To allow them to mingle with us would have brought contamination. Thank goodness we have the steel of the Purity Guard who did not flinch at such a gruesome task.” After saying this he looked at Hibson but Hibson refused to meet his eye.

Some of the survivors were children. Most were with parents or relatives who held them close and spoke words of comfort to them as the Guard raised their rifles. But there were a few unattached who ran. The guard used their iron bars on one, a girl of about ten years of age, for what seemed to be an eternity before she stopped moving.

When the foreman was gone Hibson got up and walked across the field to where his ponies were hobbled. They snorted when they recognized who he was and came to nuzzle him. Each of the six he rubbed about its furry ears and kissed on the forehead. Then he laid his own forehead between the ears of his favorite, a dappled, shaggy creature with immense, intelligent eyes and wept silently. Large, hot tears rolled down his cheeks and fell from his chin onto the pony’s head.

“No, no, no, it was a terrible sin,” he told the pony. “He is a liar; it is he himself who is the abomination.”