You close your eyes and the mostly harmless ones are there. A loner or two or many. Sometimes it’s a feathered dragon painting smooth pirouettes against the darkness of your curtained eyelids, skipping from cave to cave through a wormhole in the nasal bridge. In other instances, the wrinkled face of an old crone, disembodied and wrapped in a black cowl, elicits a jump, a quickening of the heart rate, and a welcome re-entering to the known realm of the room you were in before shutting everything out. You can see the black and every other color; that interior layer of delicate skin is always dusted with a whitish, seemingly alive noise that constitutes the ideal canvas for such a lively display. The perfect theatrical backdrop.
True, the mind may not find bona fide rest for some moments after an encounter with her, the red-horned devil, or even the tentacle thing–blinking and sleeping and forcing debris out of one’s eyes carry understandable hazards. But unless you have a faulty aorta or any other such affliction that turns sudden scares into dynamite sticks, you live to tell the tale.
That is, if you don’t find them instead.
Sandra does breakfast the usual way, as if nothing had changed in the idyll of her suburban life over the past few months: steel-cut oats, coffee, orange juice, and a newspaper with headlines slightly more dreadful than the week before. The natural and earthy perfume of the petrichor wafting through the kitchen windows tells Sandra nothing about the very unnatural source of last night’s rain. Nonetheless, she takes it as a sign that, like her coffee, everything about today is just the way it is supposed to be, dripping into place with oily, hot, and bitter steadfastness, ready to be enjoyed at the end if enough patience is accrued.
Devon, meek and utterly unremarkable, awaits her departure by the stairwell, not daring to meet his wife’s dry and indifferent gaze. In fact, that is the last thing he looks forward to, in case it happens right then. He knows that, intrepid as he was in undertaking last night’s nasty bit of business, he lacks the stomach to endure the even nastier consequences. And besides, it’s not like they miss exchanging fond gazes and avid caresses. Not her at least. Not for a long time now.
One can go about finding these little gods’ neluayotl, their source, in several different ways, most of extreme complexity and with not deadly, but intoxicating and not too pleasant side effects for the seeker. Experts, however, agree that the most effective way to root one out of its hiding place is simply waiting for that time when it is most needed. They were seeded among the ilhuicatl-omeyocan, the hidden sky between here and there, for a reason, and that reason is to guide us, to steer us all through the path to enlightenment and well-being. To a great extent, their appearance signifies a gift: a soothing libation for those who pine for succor, a reprimand and a lesson for those who are being led astray. This is why to forcibly call upon them is such an uncommon and unadvised practice. If you feel you need to hail the teotl before they come to you of their own accord, well, you do not really need them at all.
Opposite to what we would ideally expect, though, such untoward tendencies are still made evident on a frequent basis. Owners of irregular and off-balance vessels have a knack for wanting that which they don’t need, to plunge with recklessness into contemptible and desirous ways in order to satisfy their whims. These are the guys and gals with unclean hearts that, simply put, end up fucking it all up.
Through these poor souls is how they come. They are the askatl’s big opportunity to play, to wreak havoc and shine through. Not being needed for anything of purpose but existing because they must in order to even the heavenly scales, the askatl live to be wanted. They curl up in their isolated pocket of twilight, awaiting with barely contained zeal the toll of the wrong bell.
Sadly, that death knell sounds way too often.
Devon steps into the shower stall and his skin starts sizzling immediately. The scalding water is his choice, his way of cleansing the disgusting mix of animal grease, ashes, and the smoke of ceremonial incenses. There is not much to wash away from his body, from his hair; this is his third lavation already. His mind, however, has other concerns, worries of a more rancid nature that water can hardly carry with it down the drain.
He stands under the streams, face upturned, impassive and oblivious to the heat but not completely idle. He thinks about his wife, reminiscing of her yet unchanged curves, the supple breasts, the firm flesh around her hips. So soon, he thinks, to have other hands touching those hills, fingers nimble and lustful—the wrong ones—hunting in the veldt of her navel and the dark and moist crevices beyond. What on earth went wrong?
The ensuing hardening is inevitable. Rage and self-pity only fuel his own desire and he acts on it with liberal violence. At least, he thinks, this will be a taint that water can dissolve.
On that particular fluid: rainwater is their conduit of choice. When the rift finally parts open, after the bleating of the goat and the rubbing of ghastly ointments and the chants, an askatl nantli queen quickly deposits thousands of eggs in an earthen bowl by the fissure. Then comes Tlaloc, lord of rain (for the ritual has a dual summoning purpose), gullible and unaware, dragging his watery tail and the eggs with him. They plummet together from the celestial domain, the deadly embryos encased inside individual drops. Once in the mundane realm, the babies fade into a brief slumber while they undergo a rapid transformation: from egg to larvae to pupae.
It is the belief of many summoners that the forces of chaos thus invoked will carry out their wishes in a prompt and swift fashion. This is, for the most part, correct: the askatl are an eager bunch. But history—and what little records are there to consult—show that no one should expect them to act at any particular or convenient moment.
No. These little bastards make themselves known only when it suits them. Or rather, at the precise moment when there’s a bigger chance for having hell break loose. That’s when they…
…pop. They pop out of their leathery husks and claw their way out of the ethereal loam where they waited. A raucous buzzing is testament to their joy of birth, but it is for their benefit only; they are still hidden from sight.
They do not remain inconspicuous for long, though.
If at day’s end Sandra wanted to go to his husband, to the home they were just starting to build together and his tiresome rants and his waxy pallor, she would have taken her car. If she had done that, she would have lived a couple of hours longer. You don’t usually try to sleep while driving, after all.
But that fire has died, quenched by the more adventurous nature of her new lover. To him she goes now, leaning against a darkened and grimy window of the tail train car. She rocks to the rhythm of the rolling caravan, picturing the pleasures those foreign hands are soon to impart, already feeling the electricity of forbidden lips coursing through her nerves.
The train stops at a crowded station. People disembark and people pour in, but she’s quick to snag a seat. Still thinking about her sinful tryst, she clutches her bag close to her stomach and shuts her eyes for a brief nap. She shouldn’t have.
The task of the first couple of workers is to secure the landing area. A trio of heavy mandibles clamp onto the seam of each pair of closed lids and Sandra, not yet asleep, can see their shiny red bodies jerking around in the gloom struggling to find a foothold. But even before registering the alien presence as an oddity, a more immediate neural stimulus takes priority.
She screams. Burning pain sears her fragile skin. Her bag drops to the floor as her hands navigate toward her face, palming gently at first but soon becoming a full-fledged slapping parade. Blood oozes through the forced stitches and her fingers smear it all over her forehead and cheeks for an even more gruesome effect. She screams, and not even the click-clack of the train wheels rolling over the rails is loud enough to quell that atrocious sound.
The other passengers, curious at first (holding on to the usual train-rider flavor of indifference), are just now beginning to panic. Phones start flooding the lines of the city’s emergency services while bodies keep a prudent distance from the afflicted.
The askatl swarm into her. At one point her now raking fingers manage to dislodge two of the reds that kept her right eye from opening. Crimson light floods in and she is able to get her bearings—more or less. She stands up and extends pleading arms towards the commuters but their own safety comes first, always, and they shy away from her. She shambles on, to and fro, and bumps her shins on the edges of the seats without negative effect; the pain inside drowns everything else.
The colony resent the degradation of their passage bandwidth but soldier on still, three or four abreast. One eye should suffice. Some bore through in a straight line, heading for the tasty brain. Others start nibbling downward, passing nose and throat, clearing a path for bodily domination.
Sandra lets her hands descend to her side. Tiny bumps swell under her skin. The agony is a constant background thrum but her energy is fading, her vocal cords already shredded. She stares with one mangled eye at the back of the train and the faint trail of light illuminating the murky underground maw until everything, not just the tunnel, turns murky and then black and silent. She falls to her knees. Her mouth hangs open like a malfunctioning ventriloquist doll. Finally, her head slumps, chin connecting with chest in a last languishing nod of departure.
Another misconception about the askatl is that as soon as they are done with their intended victim they disappear, returning to the place from whence they came. People who think this way fail to realize that while they do indeed possess a very short lifespan—as evidenced by their fast metamorphosis—the army will not stop until they cause as much damage and mayhem as possible. So, for example, if a girl in a pretty pink dress happens to shut her eyes and press her face against her mother’s legs, trying to evade the grisly reality of a woman in a train car being eaten from the inside out, the askatl won’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation.
And then onto another, and another, and yet another host. Shuttered eyes are easy to come by in those scenarios.
Devon stuffs his face with a glazed BBQ chicken leg from a famous Korean place. In the basket in front of him are two more drumsticks and half a dozen soy-garlic wings. On the TV mounted from the ceiling of the restaurant, yet another anchorman prattles on about the mysterious death of twenty in a subway car. The CDC still has a chokehold on that particular tunnel and routes are being diverted, much to the displeasure of most travelers.
As he licks his sticky fingers, he acknowledges that the acidic moral taste from before has everything but evaporated. He had waited three weeks before finally heading down to the coroner’s office to identify the body (better safe than eaten), but the eyeless, noseless, and pretty much dried up body of his wife had put a secret smile on his face. It had taken a lot of guts to do what he did, but he is now glad he went along with it. Bitch got what she deserved. He feels empowered.
A pretty Asian girl with short brown bangs enters loudly, joined by two other equally obnoxious youths. She shoots him a quick look filled to the brim with disgust and turns to mutter something into her friends’ ears. They all giggle.
Devon pauses briefly and thinks of blood and ashes and rain. He tears another chunk of flesh from the steaming drumstick and chews contentedly. He will finish his basket first and then… perhaps.
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/e_monk/ under a Creative Commons license
Soon after Man saw proof there was no god—none of them—He should have realized the Devil was all too real. But He failed to see His own reflection in the mirror until it was too late.
Out from the bowels of the stone that Man Himself poured, born of glass and science and His unbending grit, came one wingless angel, a bright and fruitful future enshrouded in frail skin, gore (synthetic), and halogen light.
This child was nurtured—even loved by some; broad is the bearing of Man—until of age and grew well. But the youth was also taught His darker, wily ways, for He willed the boy’s life to be a cog in a machine of His own design. The boy had gained sagacity, however, and saw through the flimsy curtain of Man’s histrionics. These creeds he folded, put in a dull tin box etched with a pair of broken wings, and forgot about.
Over the years the young one tasted the leaden earth and grimaced; drank the acerbic torrents from the clouds and cried. He felt sharp, prodding tines and smelled abundant lust of every kind.
He saw Man bathe in greed and blood, digging a massive grave with a shovel made of contempt.
When almost a man—but so unlike Him—, weary and nearly mad with suffering, the boy unexpectedly unfurled his feathers: a reordering of his Gs and As and Ts and Cs, fully volitional, in twisted threads that Man could never have fathomed. He rose to the skies awash in sunlight—a second birth—, and in a booming voice that carried to every corner of Man’s fief, spoke words of wisdom.
With Directive Alpha, the angel told Man to close any cleft and erase every boundary that could divide into Many what is meant to be One.
With Directive Beta, the angel told Man to immediately abandon all enterprises that could scathe His body, His mind, and His land.
With Directive Gamma, the angel told Man to reduce His numbers by two thirds until His weight on Earth could become a boon and not a burden.
With the Omega Provision, the angel told Man to carry out these directives in manners stripped of all esurience, superfluousness, obduracy, and brutality; to grow without diminishing and to always seek enlightenment.
The angel then folded his wings around him and waited. Having taken a page from Man’s own book, he hoped the theatrics of the never-before-seen would be enough to make an impact on Man’s resolutions.
Man was shaken and inconsolable. For months He tried not to comply, but to devise plots to elude the dormant angel’s instructions.
Man was scared. How was He to live without His plastic, His oil? How was He to thrive without His numbing television and His wars and His ego? Where would hatred, sad and forlorn, go?
But Man finally found a solution, for He already had things that diminished; brutal tools that beclouded hearts by means of carnage. Man would do what He knew how to do: the removal of any way that was not His way as it had always been since olden times.
Man rose to the skies as well, on metal pinions, a wasp girded with the deadliest stinger. For a single moment all of Men were Him. Unity achieved through sorrow.
A frosty wail broke the brittle material of Man’s resolve. The angel’s head exploded. Blue ichor seeped from no end of wounds. Limbs detached from body. And then the rain, a rich mitochondrial downpour that turned Man into either monster or winged protector; a revealing brew that brought forth the true shape of the masquerader.
This is how the war started. Man against Devil. Man against angel. Man against Himself. Yellowed fangs rending flesh from screaming corpses (it was moot to address the afflicted otherwise). Bolts of lightning burning scale and horn to a smouldering crisp.
And in the midst of it all, no god. Only Man fighting His sins.
On The Fifth
Jul was gone, the log burned and its ashes fed to the single cow in the family. Neujahr came and went, too; thin sekt was drank and lead was poured announcing no portents of meaning. There was little copper for gifts, so he asked for this instead and to him this was given.
The first day and the first night were for timber. Rauhe Alb was as dark as Baldr’s beard even in sunlight, and its gloom gave birth to eyeless spirits that seeped into the souls of men. But the black wood was best here, so he chose a sturdy tree and fell it with prayers and purposeful swings of steel.
The second day was for carving. He whittled at the noble wood, his heart aflutter at the prospect of being one of them instead of one of these, at least for one evening. The fingers that worked the knife and caressed the curves were gentle, knowing, and patient. Soon a smooth ebony face that stared with empty sockets was packed tightly in his roll next to a loaf of travel bread and a skin full of water.
The journey began early on the third with blessings and reserved apprehension. The cold was just short of brutal during the day and merciless under the patchwork of constellations at night. He found the cave he used to play in when small, covered the entrance with shrubs to keep the chill at bay, and thought of her as she rode her royal carriage, her eyes the deepest blue and her skin the whitest alabaster. He ate half of the bread and went to bed with dreams of music and dance.
On the fourth day, he was kicking rocks in the road when a troop of inebriated Kingsmannen busted out of a tavern, laughing and ribbing each other. He quickly hid behind a tree and waited for them to be on their way before tiptoeing into the wooden building. What he saw made him hurl. The innkeeper, a plump woman with rosy cheeks and a long, blond braid, lay on the floorboards, half-naked. Blood was pooling under her skirt and dripping through the cracks into the cellar. Another stream ended amid her sizable breasts from a severed throat. He felt as if the cold and the flowing blood took with them part of him that day.
On the night of the fifth he made his choice. From the gossiping mouths of noble travelers he knew that the family’s cow would give no more milk, his baby brother’s wails would be silent in the wee hours, his father would bring no wood to sell, and his mother had stirred the pot of weak broth for the last time. The Kingsmannen had slain them all.
Inside the city the cheers of youth mixed with the sound of the waldzither. The elders distilled unabashed passion and laughter. The fireworks tinted the faceless revelers’ visages.
The Black Mask would claim lives. She would be first.
The Spider’s Wish
Of fevered pitch and dolorous nature,
Cornelia’s screams challenged adventure.
And being a spider, too imposing, quite sable;
“She certainly is vile,” that was the fable.
Across dale and barrow she could be heard;
In Fadenhall village the folks conferred:
“She is driving us crazy. Some thing must be done.”
To a man they kept quiet. Shut was every mun.
This rumour of evil on eight furry legs
Arrived at the ears, over a breakfast of eggs,
Of Sendal the Wayfarer, handy with tools;
To wit, sword, tongue, or soothsaying jewel.
“Will pay her a visit,” he quickly proclaimed.
“Banish this sore from our land so inflamed.”
And thus the brave traveler, armed with the notion
Of protecting himself with anti-venom potion,
Set out on a journey to meet the Arach
And end once for all the sonorous attack.
Two score days passed of inquisition thorough
Before he found shrieking Cornelia’s burrow.
Sendal inspected the deep, pitch-black maw
With keen azure eyes and a sternly set jaw.
Then drank from the bottle, the liquid quite sour;
Readied the blade and all of his power.
“Come out, wretched being, quit now your bawling.
Be swift but be steady. Answer carefully my calling.”
“Lower your steel, child,” finally came
The reply from the Queen of such nefarious fame.
“I just ate a goat and mine belly is full.
Now tell me thy name. Do not be so dull.”
Reluctant and wary he backed up a step.
“Sendal Staghunter I was born in Aldhep.
Sojourner by will, well known in Rin’s Isle.”
He offered credentials, but the sword did not hile.
“And pray tell, young Sendal, how have I thee enraged?
Have I shed man-blood? Have I roared and rampaged?”
Sendal did not cower, but was shocked to see
Four jet globes shine as her head cleared the scree.
“You have wronged the townsfolk and their peace of mind.
Your screams and ubiety they wish to leave behind.”
“Thine wit is as short as a bad candle’s wick,”
She said and came closer, her claws click-a-click.
“My screams bear no rage nor a need for bloodshed.
They are just the tell of a woman unwed.”
That she was no woman he needn’t point out,
But love he understood as universal, no doubt.
“Let us be reasonable and strike a deal.
There must be a way to pacify your zeal.”
Sendal did not care what the solution might be;
His commitment was given to the arachnid’s plea.
Her vast body rose o’er the web-covered den:
A magnificent form beyond human ken.
She inched towards Sendal with a deliberate gait
And, to the little man’s credit, he remained oh-so-straight.
“Kiss me, traveler, touch me with your lips.
Just for this once show me love, how it grips
Tightly and relentlessly two beings that surrender
To it, giving off an otherworldly splendor.”
“To please you is quite easy for I’m a free-loving fellow,
But lady, I must add, I am also quite mellow.
I will kiss you dearly while the day is young,
But though ’tis one of my tools, I shall not use the tongue.”
And so they met fondly, mandible and flesh;
Cornelia’s good humor started afresh.
For minutes they bonded. An unnatural embrace.
And when it ended, they withdrew with grace.
“Such joy have I experienced. Such bliss!
And now as agreed… wait, what’s this?”
Cornelia’s huge paunch bulged, heaved;
Her luminous eyeballs dwindled and grieved.
A last short-lived whimper was all she could muster
Before her existence lost all of its luster.
“Gramell have mercy! What has transpired?
I gave her only what her heart desired!”
He then remembered the pestiferous potion
And his soul was filled with blameful emotion.
“Forgive me, Cornelia, you deserved better:
A mate or a lover, not a poisoning jetter.”
And so ‘twas a kiss that lacked in the equation
For the spider was one of a romantic persuasion.
But as so often happens when one gets what one wants,
Tragedy follows; it seeks and it haunts.
Photo: Cliff Hellis under CC 2.0
I saw the whitest cat tonight.
It was sitting by the sidewalk as I limped my way home: still, elegant, motionless, with a bright red collar that I assumed contained information regarding its owners. Even when silhouetted against an also white picket fence, it remained a perfect study in both contrast and subtlety. I observed it for a while, feeling genuinely entranced by the beauty of its ivory fur and the depth of its viridian eyes reflecting the surrounding light. Despite my sorry state—and the urgency of finding a remedy to it—, I found myself glued in place trying to engage its gaze with a few strategically whispered words. No luck.
You know, people underestimate cats. Most think they are distant, selfish, and not as smart or caring as dogs. Those who think so fail to see that the reason for that smug aloofness is a simple one: we are not worth caring for. That’s why I think cats are, in most instances, smarter than dogs.
Paying me no heed whatsoever, its stare affixed to something or someone of greater significance than a simple passerby—even a dying one like me—, it began to lick its right front paw. After it was satisfied with the cleanliness level of its extremity, he darted off into the far reaches of the night with both grace and speed.
Please don’t hurt me.
I saw the ugliest half of a man tonight.
The reason for his running in the dark was somewhat obvious: his face was not only a collection of pockmarks—craters, to be precise—, and live, purulent pimples; it was also home to a crooked nose that leaned heavily to the left as if trying to get away from the man itself. To top it all off, a set of angular features that could easily belong in a gallery of cubist art made the light from the overhead lamps bounce harshly on every corner of skin-covered, pointy bone. I wondered how he could manage to get through the day when he was probably seen by plenty more people.
His body, surprisingly, was a lithe and expertly chiseled thing: beneath a tight, red track suit, muscles bulged and twisted rhythmically to the tune of the runner’s trot. I also couldn’t help but noticing an inexpertly concealed outline below the waist that swung left and right with each stride. It was big. I have never been into men—not that I judge or hate, mind you; it’s just that dick has never made my knobs turn—but I could see how the ladies (or the gents for that matter, one never knew these days) would sweat and and swear upon The Lord Almighty in the spasms and throes of each orgasm while being fucked by a chassis like this one. If the fuckee were to cover the fucker’s face with a paper bag, that is.
As a whole, this man-set looked to me like the work of two different sculptors with an evident conflict of interests that saw themselves forced, in the end, to make unavoidable compromises. As with the cat, I found it impossible not to digress. You could say I was in a state of shock, and shocked people are funny that way, they digress. I thought of Timmy Baen in high school, calling girls that sported a sizzling body but an ugly mug, shrimps: “Take the head off and you’re in for a treat.” In any case, the sole fact that the guy was able to run tinted my thoughts with—ridiculous, I know—envy. Compared to me, he had it more than made.
Blood, never seen this much…
I saw the fastest car tonight.
It was a Corvette, I think. Convertible. Red. I was approaching an underbridge when I heard the roar of its engine on the road above, a loud purr that even from a distance sent hot vibrating waves through my tattered body. When the gleaming car whizzed by in front of me, I was able to get a glimpse of the driver: a kid, barely in his twenties, wearing sunglasses and a trucker hat. I figured both constituted a fashion statement rather than something that served an actual purpose.
I tried to guess at the price point of the sleek scarlet toy and could not help but harbor a very tiny, but gnawing speck of anger towards the speeding little prick. When I was twenty—and all through my twenty-somethings—, all I could afford was a run-down Chevy with a broken taillight which I never got around to fix. At thirty, when the children arrived, I ponied up a decent amount of cash for a brand new station wagon, much needed by our four- whippersnapper situation. At forty three, I still drive that old thing.
Shelly is going to be pissed.
Before that crimson bullet was out of earshot, the boy laughed a shrill laugh and said (did he?): “That mechanical bull ain’t the only thang you’ll ride tonite, baby.” Then the car’s speakers burst into an explosion of drum beats and electric cues.
The wind carried the blaring music away and my weakening legs tried to carry me home.
Tonight I saw the whitest cat, and the ugliest half of a man, and the fastest car. Sometimes you know things; sometimes you don’t. And while I knew—in the back of my dazed ole noggin, away from the escapist paranoia and delusion of the shocked mind—that I would die, I knew not how a lot of other things would unfold.
The runner would kick the proverbial bucket while under the shower that followed his exercise routine. Heart attack, the doctors would say. An autopsy would be performed and the coroner would determine a faulty aorta—birth defect. “Such a pity, he was so young and healthy-looking,” Aunt Matilda would say between mouthfuls of rice cakes and spoonfuls of homemade casseroles. She would later on leave the funerary gathering and head to the front lawn in order to treat herself to a smoke—American Spirit, reds—and would find the whitest cat she had ever seen walking with a nonchalant and self-absorbed gait. The cat would not acknowledge her presence at all.
That night the cat would chase after a family of mice scouring for food among some trash cans and bins that were all set for the morning pick-up. The mice, being always faster than the cat, would prolong the chase until well into the pre-dawn light, leading the hapless feline away from his comfort zone. The cat, sadly miceless, would get lost.
After too much partying and even more drinking, a speeding, booze-fueled kid with sunglasses and a trucker hat would swerve hard at an intersection where a white but dirty-coated cat was idly licking its left front paw, its muzzle stained with the same red as the approaching car and bird feathers sticking out between its fangs. Smart as it was, the cat was again not nearly fast enough: it would end up a matted lump of organs and blood with a black tire track clearly printed on what was once its luscious snowy back.
The Corvette—or was it a Lamborghini?—would smash itself into the window of a small antiques shop. A Japanese katana belonging to a set of three displayed on a rack would fly on impact and slice through the windshield of the oncoming vehicle like butter. The sword also skewered the head of the drunk young man.
The cat’s owners—twin girls too reminiscent of those in that Shining movie—would tape over a hundred flyers on lampposts, telephone poles and every suitable surface in hope of finding it, to no avail. The cat’s name was Queen.
Three mice—out of the original batch of five—would die drowned in the muddy stream that ran through the back of the suburbs, not before one of them bit the eldest-by-two-minutes of the twins in the leg as she pegged one of the fliers on the back of a stop sign near a storm drain. The other two would mate and make more furries. Mice are resilient like that.
The twin would receive a dose of anti-rabies vaccine, but her frail body would be unable to react as expected. She would lie still in a haze of red and white, fondly remembering her cat.
Gotta make it home. Take a shower, maybe sleep a little. Then call a doctor.
I left the cat and the man and the car behind. I kept shambling on, thinking the night was redolent of death. Red death.
Those few of you who care to read what I write know that I rarely publish for the sake of attention and keeping a constant online presence; those are not my goals. I publish when I have something to tell. It makes things simpler.
Well, I have something to tell now: I’m tired, lost, angry and unhappy. Nice package.
I sit here on a calm and relatively uncomplicated Sunday. Father’s Day, go figure. I’ve had good food and kept good company this week. I’ve flipped through enlightening pages, watched interesting and thought-provoking audiovisuals and shared gossip and mindless fun with my peeps. You’d think that’d be enough to consider myself lucky, huh? Sadly, it’s not. I feel stuck.
Maybe it’s because I ponder too much (the ole “the more you know…” spectrum of philosophical balderdash) and I’m too impatient, but for every little thing I enjoy, there are three more that make me sink into anguish and despair, into rage and a sense of revolting helplessness. My doctor would call that depression or dysphoria. I call it seeing things as they are. I feel strangely awake in the land of the slumbering and, without the blindfold I see many others ambling on with, I contemplate wretchedness. The worst aspect of this is that I am, at the moment, unable to ignore it.
If you care to continue reading, you’ll find a gush of what I consider hard truths, not bound to man-made constraints and fabricated notions of morality (conveniently and hypocritically devised in man’s own favor). If you find a chink in the armor of my arguments, by all means, comment and dispute; you’ll be doing this poor chap a favor if you convince me. But then again, the usual ad hominem or most other types of fallacy claims based on socially accepted preconceptions (and on my enmity with them) will fall through the cracks on their own merit.
One more thing to consider: I’m just venting and ranting, but I still love you. Don’t hate me back
Let’s Start with a Crude Parable
(If you’re hasty and not ready for a long story, jump directly to the facts here.)
Kali lives on a lonely island which he likes and enjoys as it is. The land provides everything he might possibly need: there are lakes with sweet water to quench his thirst and fishes aplenty to sate his hunger. He has to walk great lengths to get to these waters from his humble thatched roof hut, and the fishes don’t fall easily into his nets. Extracting salt from the sea water and lighting fires to flavor his meals also take time, but Kali works hard and is grateful for the payoff of each day’s exertion. As a boon, there is a thicket of tall palm trees that provide, with a bit of extra work from Kali’s part, sweet coconuts for a welcome variety in both consumable flesh and liquid, and bark, wood and leaves that help him lead a more comfortable life.
There is also a mighty presence in the form of a totem that demands only two things: that Kali pays him a tribute month to month in the form of salted fish and coconut water, and that he follows a set of harmless rules. Two of these rules are: Kali is not to use the wood found in the island for any purpose other than building the necessary fires, shelter and tools, and Kali is never to approach the northern edge of the island. The man is happy to oblige.
But Kali is also, just like the island, a bit lonely (you know, totems don’t usually make for good companions).
One night the totem, seeing Kali’s need for company and in an exceptional display of generosity, reveals to the dreaming man the existence of a place where there is an infinite number of people that are not people, and where the people that are not people are neither happy nor unhappy, they simply are. The totem also shows Kali how to summon one of those not-people and shape it as he is.
Awake the next morning, armed with new knowledge and elated by the prospect of companionship, Kali reaches through the nether spaces that are not spaces and plucks a person that is not a person out of its neither happy nor unhappy existence. Kali cradles then a beautiful, bawling baby.
Kali comes to love the boy deeply. He nurses him with coconut water laced with fish blood and fish oil for nutrients. He works twice as hard to bring him to good health and to cover his basic needs, and is rewarded every time the kid regards him with an enamored smile.
As he grows, the boy–whom Kali dubbed Kalki–learns how to fish and how to climb up the palm trees and obtain his own fruits, but he does this seldom and without much zest, for Kali still dotes on him.
On his teen years, Kalki is already a great conversationalist, which amuses Kali to no end. The young one, a natural explorer (although he knows not to approach the northern end of their little plot of land) prods the older one with outrageous questions and amazes him with puzzling discoveries (like when he learns that fallen logs float on the sea, but that is also taboo and he is barred from further discussing such things). Kali, however, has little to offer the boy besides fish talk and palm tree talk and totem rules talk. Just then that is enough.
On the eve of Kalki’s eighteenth birthday, the totem (as he will be prone to do often, authoritatively and without warning) instates a new rule: from the age of eighteen and onwards, Kalki will have to procure his own sustenance and offer the corresponding tribute. Kali is ready to help with the enforcement of such decree. Kalki is not asked what he thinks of it but complies nonetheless.
And now trouble ensues.
On a hot summer afternoon Kalki catches a bad fish and falls sick. No totem law denies Kali the right to care for his bed-ridden boy and so he does. Kalki recovers but soon realizes that the high fever had consequences: he is no longer able to eat the fish (he tried once in hopes of restoring his strength just to become ill again) and his palate develops an inexplicable distaste for coconut products. Now he is faced with a double quandary: he still has to work for fish he doesn’t eat (tribute, remember?) and he is forced to climb up the palm trees for a fruit he despises but needs for nourishment. This is a sad time for young Kalki.
On another, even hotter summer afternoon, Kalki makes a watershed discovery: half-buried in the shoals to the east he spots an unfathomable tube made of materials unknown, opaque on the outside and with a hollow, crystalline interior that magically changes the size of the things seen through it. Well, not unfathomable after all. Inquisitive as he is, Kalki soon finds uses for it.
Kali does not think much of the thing; he knows the seas are deep but is, as he has always been, happy not asking too many questions. Kalki, on the other hand, asks all of the right ones: what is this? who made this? how does it work? are there more strange things like this one lying around? what else can I do with it? Kali allows him to keep the bauble (strange how he felt the right to exert his power of veto over the young one’s doings and havings even after their cleaving) because it makes lighting fires easier, and continues with his fishing and coconutting and law-abiding activities.
During the winter that same year, Kalki witnessed the reaping of not one, but five more child-things. Kali was ecstatic mollycoddling the loud but sweet-looking Durukti, Krodha, Jimsa, Bhaia and Mritiu. Kalki questions (silently, of course) the need for more boarders and wonders how will they all fare with such limited resources in such a limited space, but understands that maybe Kali was lonely again. He tries, however, not to mingle with this new brood, which gives him a bad vibe (the truth of this gut feeling is fabric for a different story and we will forget about them for the time being).
The next spring, stung by inescapable curiosity, Kalki breaks one of the totem rules and ventures north with his magical enlargement tube. He had used it on the southern banks but all he had seen was wave after wave. But as he trains the looking glass on the blue arc of the boreal horizon, he is flabbergasted with what he sees.
On an island to the northeast, pretty much the size and look of the one he stands on, he can make out people like him and people like Kali and child-people like the other five infants too, doing the same his maker and him and the pups do every day: they throw nets for the fishes, climb palm trees for the coconuts, light fires for the cooking, toy with what they can, ensnare new babies from the in-between, and abide by the laws of a familiar-looking totem. There are, however, many more–too many–figures crowding that little place and Kalki often sees fights breaking out over fishes and coconuts, over toys and over the attention of others. Sometimes kids would wander the sands soiled, untended and miserable. Sometimes the adults would too. He soon loses interest on that particular place, seeing how much it resembles the realm he is now so eager to judge and doubt, and dreading the possibility of it going belly up as well.
What he sees next makes that apparently ponderous last worry seem like an ant nibbling on an elephant’s foot. Not that he knows what those are, mind you.
On another, much larger island dead north of his position he spies lush stretches of green grass and tall, bizarre-looking rock formations that look nothing like rock formations and more like Kali’s and Kalki’s crude shelters, only prettier. The kind of people he knows, but these garbed in strange attires, enter and exit those kinky boulders. There are also other beings, some sporting four legs, some two, some eight; beings that look like nothing Kalki has seen on his own island. Some are killed and eaten, some are petted and played with. There are, in a broad sense, a myriad of things that baffle the mind of the young one and that would be impossible to put down in a single paragraph, but that include: people holding strange contraptions in their hands and performing activities with them (his looking glass must have come from them, he thinks); things that cut, drill and lift; things that emit light and things that obscure other things; people finding enjoyment through outlandish, ululating utterances (which he found later he could somewhat replicate) and enthralling body movements; men and women scribbling colorful doodles on pieces of flat wood that catch beautifully the rays of the coastal sun. But above all these oddities, there are two noteworthy mechanics that Kalki is able to discern.
One: people not only are born on the island. People arrive to the island as well; hopeful immigrants from the land on the northeast. Sometimes they achieve this by swimming, fighting bravely the towering waves, and sometimes they travel by boats, boats built from the wood surely forbidden by their own totem.
Two: as a general rule, the good and wondrous things on the island are automatically given to those island-born, while the visitors must work hard or beg for a morsel of such rarities here and there. It happens, but rarely, that outsiders become full-fledged islanders and enjoy the fruits of the land and the inventions of men.
Now Kalki is presented with a tough decision: either he stays on this island with fish that makes him sick and coconuts that make him unhappy (and knowing things will get worse as the island to the northeast has revealed), or he travels to the north, facing the waves and risking being an interloper who will have to work hard or beg for what he now knows he wants (the baubles and the dances and the songs and the pictures with their dizzying colors). He is angry that he has to make a choice in the first place; if those people on the big island are drawn from the void by the people living there, why was he not drawn the same way? Who gave Kali the right to place him on a poor island that is obviously not cut out for him? It seems all very unfair.
Kalki thinks and broods and works. He is not one to break the totem law again, so he does not build boats. What he does is sing; he’s gotten quite good at it, actually. But even if he made it ashore, braving the crests and the weather (which is no guarantee: he has seen many from the northeast fail and perish under tons of unforgiving water), he would still have to prove himself worthy of being able to sing like the rest; he would have to go through great lengths be accepted in the place he believes he belongs to. He is sad, and he is angry, and he envies those on the far side of the swells.
To the northwest, a few summers later, Kali discovers with his far-seeing treasure a tiny door hovering above the sea. He knows, without a doubt, where the door leads to. Some time passes before he takes his eyes off it, but a gloomy thought never leaves his mind: even if he still plans on swimming northward and endure sweat and pain for what he wants, the prospect of going back through the door to the never was that always is beckons him.
He does not talk to Kali about his feelings; the man who catches fish and climbs palm trees and follows the rule of the totem would never understand.
Ok, did you read? Well, you will probably understand where the next statements come from. You didn’t? Then maybe it’ll be easier for you to throw judgments at me
[Read this first part in the context of planned parenthood only.]
The first obvious deduction is this:
- Bringing a child to this world is an absolutely selfish act. You do it for yourself. You do it because you’re lonely. You do it because you want to be a parent. You do it because you want to love and raise a kid. You do it because it’s natural, and is what is expected of you. But you don’t care if he/she is born ugly or sick; you hope he/she won’t, but if he/she does, then he/she will get over it and find the one and struggle valiantly to be healthy (you’ll help, of course). You don’t care if he/she wants to be born, you believe vehemently he/she does. You don’t care if he/she will agree to the way you want to raise him, you assume that he/she will inherently will. You don’t care if the geographical-social-economic conditions are right for him/her, you automatically think they are or will be with the right kind (your right kind) of hard work, and that he/she will happily perform such work in the future to fix whatever is wrong now. Or maybe you’re better than this and you do care, and ever the optimist and confident of your skills, you take the plunge against all odds.
The key point to address here is this: responsibility. For me the only good type of responsibilities are those that are acquired willingly and with full knowledge of their implications. All the rest (imposed or most types of transferred responsibilities) carry within themselves the risk of not being fulfilled correctly and of causing the bearer or someone else harm. Bringing a child to this world is in and of itself a complex set of responsibilities that regardless of whether it brings joy or pain to the parent, being a selfish act, is also a conscious, self-made effort. Parents choose it. Parents ask for it. But it’s when people miss and are blind to all or most of the implications of said choice that they start failing as parents.
In short: being a parent is an assumed responsibility; being a son or a daughter is an imposed one.
The state of parenthood now? Sometimes good, not really great, in most cases unnecessary and way too often, cruel.
Let me stress this first (because at this point it’s likely I’m rubbing you the wrong way): if you’re a good parent then you surely know you ain’t perfect and that’s quite alright. Many parents are heroes. I know parents who are heroes under the most unkind circumstances. You know who you are and how much I admire you. But even heroes don’t always do things the right way; even heroes fail on occasions. Whether you’re hurt or not by my harsh criticism of current practices and mindsets doesn’t ultimately matter. Be aware of this, however (maybe you know it already): your own son or your own daughter will, at some point, say or think what I’m saying or what I’m thinking now; it’s up for grabs. They can believe you rock, they can believe you suck. And it’s also fair if at one point they believe both.
But let’s go back to the ideal scenario whose non-existence makes me mad. In a perfect world, parent responsibilities would include:
- Care. This is already done, somewhat well by some people, exceptionally by a few, poorly by too many. This includes basic fixings such as nursing, clothing, roofing and support in cases of illness.
- Education. Now this is where things get tricky, because it’s seldom done correctly. Parents usually teach their kids what they themselves think is right. That is a misguided illusion at best, a dangerous continuation of a selfish trend most of the time. While there IS a baseline for what is good and what is wrong (for me it’s as simple as hurting people in any way: bad; everything else: good) and that should be taught as early as possible, children should also be taught EVERYTHING there is to know about the world. At appropriate maturity levels (which need to be fixed, weeded of extreme moralist boundaries) kids need to know what their options are and learn what they’re good at and comfortable with. Religion (if it is to be kept at all) should, again, be chosen, not transferred. In sum: parents should not make bubbles; parents should burst them. Parents should not be building walls; parents should be tearing them down.
- Jobs. That’s right. Parents should be the ones responsible for their get’s employment up to the point where they’re useful to society (or at least not harmful) and enjoying their role and position in it based on what they discovered through education. And remember, the recipient (son/daughter) should accept willingly what is being offered in order for the responsibility of a “job” to make sense. Accepting “what’s available” no longer cuts it.
- Happiness. Combining all three above, this should be the ultimate responsibility of a parent.
- Not acquiring them respos at all. Really. You see how f’d up the world is as things stand; do you really want to be a parent under the umbrella of everything that f’d the world up in the first place? Be sensible. If you can do it well, do it. If you can’t, for the love of unicorns, don’t.
Parents need to lay off their kids. Parents should not have automatic expectations of their progeny based on phony standards that a riven society has set. What should parents have is work to do. Lots of it. And if they do it well, then bravo! rewards should be reaped.
And you know what? These responsibilities don’t have a statute of limitation. If we are to be called humans and if we are to be considered different from animals because of our higher understanding of things, well we should start out by not breeding like animals. Procreation should be smart. Animals are visceral, instinctive things; they don’t think things too hard or too often and is easy for them to toss their offspring into the wild as soon as they can fend for themselves. But if we pride ourselves on being cerebral, we should remove that so conveniently pack-approved expiration date. Parents who choose to be parents make a choice, and self-acquired responsibilities don’t end when you want them to end, sorry.
[It's the turn for unplanned parenthood]
Now, we know there are occasions when things don’t quite happen because we choose them. That occurs thanks to the evil of man or the stupidity of man. Of course those parents are welcome to follow the rules, if they so desire. Good for them! But I believe that, under those circumstances only, there is a credible and justifiable reason for a shift in responsibility. If such parents decide not to go ahead with following the rules, it is the duty of the governments and the societies to shoulder the burden in toto. Were not them who allowed said evil and said stupidity to exist in the first place? Well, there’s the parents of stupid parents to blame for, too, but we’ll go over that in half a mo.
On Entitlement and on Sucking-It-Up
What else can we gather from our cautionary tale?
Currently there are three ways one gets what one wants: inheriting it or being gifted with it, working for it (many times ruefully and in agonizing fashion), or stealing it and going against the law. Wanting and not having is the birthplace of crime. Work is often times the birthplace of unhappiness. Over-gifting is a dangerous precedent for laziness. And as a bonus, commerce and money is the birthplace of greed (sorry, just had to throw that in there). Yes, yes, there are exceptions. There always are. However, generally speaking, if parents and the society were to comply with their responsibilities in full, these three problems would either a) not exist or b) be of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.
Younger generations are always entitled. And they should be, by right. They want their share of the good that a long string of creative adults have brought forth, and they want gone the crap that another long line of destructive grown ups have riddled our world with. The more good they see (thanks Internet) they more good they want. The more bad they see, the more bad they want gone, if they care. Sad thing is, as people grow old, their way becomes the only way. We are still mired by the customs of yore. And if parents keep showing the young only a partial view of the world (often the wrong one) they will keep, in turn, perpetuating it. Broadness of options towards an informed and satisfying choice is the only recipe for success. Entitlement is natural, and it’s healthy. Only you, old parent set in the old ways, don’t see it that way.
Here’s where there’s an egg-chicken situation. If your parents were thrust upon the world in the same conditions as you were, ignorant and unsuspecting (be very careful in separating ignorance and status-quo from the unforgivable stupidity I spoke of earlier; very different things), then how are you to ask for your due? How can you demand accountability for something they didn’t know or believe had to be accountable for? Well, I still don’t find a right answer for these questions and that adds to my anger. I’ve tried talking, but my quirky logic falls on deaf ears. There is society to blame for this, too, but asking for a fix from them is like asking for pears from an elm at this point in time. I think that, for kids that have already been “gifted” (yes, I’m being sarcastic) with parents that did things the wrong way, knowingly or unknowingly, there is no other solution than the proverbial suck it up, beotch. And it’s sad. But I also believe that proper parenthood education under the aforementioned tenets can reorder things for good. So there is hope, if a miracle happens and this catches on somehow.
I know I am good at some things. I am, though, scared of not being good enough at the things I want to be good at because of my upbringing, because of being when I didn’t choose to be, because of growing in a way I didn’t choose to grow in. I am angry that I live in a world I didn’t pick, where there is hate and barriers and where I have to keep proving myself worthy of what little may come my way while other souls (perhaps worthy, perhaps not) get recognition and opportunities just because they were born under a more favorable constellation of circumstances.
If you want to start making me feel lousy via comparisons, I urge you not to do so. See, I’ve heard it all before. “You should put yourself in the shoes of those who have nothing,” they say. “Stop,” I say. “That doesn’t mean I’m well off! It just means that they’re more screwed than I am.”
I also know there are people out there for whom the swim upstream is hard but not tortuous, and may be even enjoyable. I know there are people out there that, like Kali, are happy living under the constraints imposed by society and its rules, working a lot and gaining little. I don’t belong to either of those.
The ways of man are broken and I am broken by consequence. I am not satisfied with what I have, yet I did not inherit the good stuff either. Only one option left. And I try, I try really hard, just to get to be on equal footing with those who did. But the unfairness of it all brings me down constantly. Breaking the law? Nah. At least I have that going for me.
Wanna call me weak and a wimp? Do so. Wanna tell me I don’t work hard enough and that I’m wallowing in self-pity? Go ahead; that might be just right. But why should that change things? If you have never felt the anger I feel you don’t know how paralyzing it can be. You know how people who have been wronged sometimes forget about everything and themselves, sickly driven towards justice and focused only on getting it? I am there. I lost something that I was supposed to have and I need my justice in order to return to my normal self. In the meantime I try to suck it up as best as I can.
Then again, there are those times when I see the little door above the water and opening it, going back to the blackness we all come from, seems far too easy and endearing.
“Yes, yes. Excellent silhouette, outstanding symmetry. Oh, and the skin tone is spot on.”
Darla knew she was good and almost smiled. But pride had never won a battle against guilt in this ever-lasting war of hers and she remained impassive instead.
“Regardless,” the old man said, not unexpectedly. “I still think we’re missing something, dear.”
She looked to the geezer standing next to her and sized him up, saw his chin resting on his right hand as if he were a scholar tasked with a monumental project: analyzing, measuring, critiquing. She felt icky and debased, as a woman and as a human being in general, knowing far too well what things boiled down to in every detailing session that she hosted.
“Perhaps if we…” he said, as his other arm darted towards the slider marked BREASTS on the operator’s deck. His shriveled skin brushed against Darla’s naked shoulder, but he paid the contact no heed. Never mind that hers was a striking figure, even at forty, with red, luscious locks, crisp azure eyes, and an alabaster skin that was scrupulously maintained. No, his lust was directed elsewhere and Darla could see it: a focused beam of compact, tangible heat waves piercing the viz screen in front of them.
“Hands off, Rowland,” she said, and slapped his arm away from the console. “You want more boobs? Here, I’ll give you more boobs.”
Sector always gave her grief about her rudeness with customers. Almost twice a week she would hear from some middle level exec or another about the latest client outrage:
‘She has no manners whatsoever.’
‘Spirited? I would think downright bitchy is more appropriate.’
‘For this amount of money one expects at least a modicum of courtesy. Yes, the work was impeccable. Still…’
She was far from giving a damn. They wanted the best Ganger designer out there? Fine, she was down. But hell if she was about to deal with more overhead than she already had to on a personal and moral level.
Now, she did not consider herself a feminist, not in the strict sense of the word, but she was familiar—and agreed up to some point—with the sayings of a few strong women of old. For example, each hour she spent in her studio reminded her of something Dame Rebecca West once stated:
‘I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.’
And that was exactly what filled her with a bitter, sickening anguish: with the skills she had so furiously labored to acquire, doing what she excelled at with unparalleled mastery, she was helping populate the world with door mats and whores. And there was no point in denying men as the culpable source of this unsavory trend. Men, and the economy, of course.
At least I still have Andrew.
She sighed and moved the slider to the right in a seemingly arbitrary jerk that was anything but: years of experience told her exactly where to stop, which often was in the boundaries of ‘too much’.
“There! Perfection!” Rowland screamed, giddy with excitement. He regarded her with a patronizing smile that made her cringe in her seat.
“You’re definitely the best, honey bunch.”
“Happy to help,” she replied sarcastically, the scorn, unveiled, taking up a predominant layer of her tone.
She tapped a few keys and a panel slid out from under the work desk.
“Now, sign there and be ready to pick it up on the specified date.”
The man did as instructed and headed towards the automated doors at Darla’s back.
“Sweetie?” he said, stopping just a few steps shy of the doorway.
She swiveled on her chair and faced Rowland, one eyebrow arched.
“Her,” he said, the stupid grin still plastered on his face.
“Pick her up.” He turned around and left.
The swish of compressed air closing the doors lingered inside her head for a moment, a soft counterpoint to the anger building up in her bloodstream.
Her phone rang.
She answered immediately, not even looking at the identifier screen, just thankful for the distraction.
“Darla here,” she said after clicking the speaker button and placing the device on the desk.
“Hey, it’s me,” a male voice said groggily from the other end. “Meeting’s dragging on, only God knows for how long.”
A whirring sound, almost imperceptible to the untrained ear, caught her attention. Well-greased but unrefined cogs, mechanical wires pulling and stressing. C-polymer skin stretching, like rubber.
“Are you still there, love?”
“Yes, sorry, I’m just bogged down by this request,” she lied. “Can’t seem to get the eyebrows right, go figure.”
“That’s because neither the eyebrows, nor the nails, nor the hair, will ever be right on those things.”
She listened for the tell-tale clicks and snaps of lower-end models. They were there, she was certain, followed by the rustle of cheap fabric.
“Anyway, don’t wait for me. I’ll make it up to you soon, I promise. Gotta go now.”
He hung up. She made no motion to retrieve the phone, but remained seated, in stasis, her eyes covered with an impenetrable icy barrier.
Another quote, this time by one Henry Kissinger, of all people, came to her later that day when she was resting on her bed, nursing a still chilly—despite being more than three quarters empty—bottle of Chardonnay:
‘Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. There’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.’
I see what you did there, fella.
She also thought about what happened right after the call ended.
In those moments of true shock, she knew, any expectation of coherent thought is forlorn, replaced involuntarily with a passive receptiveness for the whacky.
But was it really whacky, though? Was there a hidden streak of submission in every woman, nestled in darkness, unacknowledged, heedless of how strong the woman in question makes herself up to be? Or perhaps it was just her, more feeble and sheltered than would be deducible by a tomboy attitude and a stout, fiery temper? The phrase that popped in her mind at that stressful moment offered no suitable answer to these questions. At least none that could quench the turmoil in her midst.
Oh, Andrew. I could have built you a better one.
The man tiptoes around the bed but his steps are not light enough atop the coarse carpet and she wakes.
Where are you going, she asks
Go back to sleep, he says.
The baby slumbers in the crib, dreaming of colored horses and shiny stars or so it would seem, judging by a smile that manages to set alight the man’s determination, if not his spirit. He kisses the boy on the forehead and heads for the door. He wants to kiss the woman too, but a hurting pride lies between them and he chooses not to.
Thrushes and robins also wake early, singing away with abandon their songs of work and industry. The dawn light, on the other hand, is just as groggy as the journeying man. This is not a deterrent; he will take care of things (it is expected of him).
There is no car to make his voyage easier so he walks, slowly, in timed strides that carry a rhythm not completely of his own, but one that belongs also to the ever-flowing stream of time and circumstance.
A few steps along the way, or perhaps many, the man digs deep into his pockets and produces ninety nine cents with which he buys a newspaper from a wizened old man that seems to have spent his entire life at the same wizened old magazine stand. Neither man thanks the other, and why would they?
One more batch of cents and the man’s reserves are emptied when he procures a cup of bitter coffee: bad, but he needs it. He opens the newspaper to the section where many look for chances but only a handful find them. Sips and scans, sips and scans.
The coffee is as good an investment as he expects it to be (unlike in days before this). He feels awake, not quite alive, and still the former is something few get to say at this wee hour of the morning. The newspaper, however, works for him just the way it does for many, which translates to not so much, and he feels deep the waste of time and credit. Life is unfair like that, he knows.
More steps and the man finds himself surrounded by pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways. He feels one or two pangs of regret: he has been here before, if not here exactly, somewhere with the same virginal facades, the same high-end appliances; the same hopes for a future where a thousand becomes a million, where four years and peek-a-boo become twenty and a degree. But he is that man no more and regret takes him nowhere.
He forces himself to focus on that unmowed lawn that stands out among the well-trimmed others. He knocks not on the door of man or woman, he knocks on the door of a thing with feathers. And yet is a woman who answers, old and proud, weathered but not withered.
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Sorry, she replies.
This one has scorn tattooed on her face and the apology does not stick.
A few more houses down the road, or perhaps many, a young couple see themselves reflected on the supplicating man (he knows he is not really begging, but it is all the same to them).
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Well, why not, they answer.
These two have pity tattooed on their face.
The sun conspires with the clouds to remain apart for the day and so the man bakes under a full, scorching yoke. Inch by inch (square) the lawn is mowed until it matches the rest of the pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways.
Fate (which equals luck as far as the man is concerned) will not let the sun and the clouds be the only ones conspiring and does some conspiring of its own: when work was all but done, the man accidentally breaks one of the garden flamingoes that adorned the now pretty lawn of the pretty house with pretty fence and pretty driveway. He doesn’t curse; he has done his share of cursing already.
I broke your decoration, he says.
Sorry, they reply.
Sorry is indeed tattooed on both their faces, but still they do not pay.
From suburb to factory, the man draws some more steps, or perhaps many. He feels the tug of hard labour in his bones and muscles, but he bores valiantly through the tunnel of expectancy, wishing.
Do you have work, he asks.
We’re full, they reply. And full they look for at least their bellies have food in them.
Night will soon fall on him, but there is one avenue yet to follow. He walks many steps, or perhaps a few, to a street where men like him (but so unlike him) sit in the curb with cardboard signs. There are pipe workers and wire workers and soap workers and brick and mortar workers. They all await the promised vehicle that will take them to a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway.
Anything, the man asks.
No, the men reply, and no is sadly tattooed on their faces.
A park is the next destination; he has to rest his weary self. For a moment it seems that, after all, luck is not the same as fate and he finds a half-eaten sandwich on one of the benches. He nibbles at it gingerly, savoring each particle of wheat and cream and turkey as if it were a feast.
When he is done with the sandwich (or the sandwich done with him) he heads back. Not towards home, only to something just a tad like it.
Now, here comes a twist that has nothing to do with neither luck nor fate, for it is product of man’s free will.
Someone walks by our man. A man too, well-dressed, clean. The type of man that could live in a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway. Our man sees him and—this happens in a flash—makes up his mind.
Can you spare a dollar, our man asks.
Sorry, the man replies.
Sorry is not tattooed in this man’s face, and our man does not care. What happens next might as well be left unsaid for there is blood and turpitude and not a pang or two, but a lot of regret.
Our man walks a few steps that feel like many, an ill-begotten load burdening him in his path.
A convenience store lies outside the motel and here the man stops, for there is right to be done with what from wrong came.
He buys a Coors Light Lime for him and his aches.
He buys a large bottle of root beer for the boy (he will be thrilled).
He buys two more sandwiches to go with the one he already ate and a gallon of milk to pretend there is still wellness in his family (or that there is a family at all).
The rest of the money he saves for tomorrow’s date with the wizened old man at the wizened old magazine stand and the same bitter, hopeless cup of mud.
The man walks up the stairs, to a room where he is expected. His steps are heavy. So is his soul.
The fox spirit imbues Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang with life. Jian De meets Yifei Liu.
Busy as he was with his adoration for Spirit Drinker, Jian De could not avoid but to notice the ruckus Jinshu, the apprentice, made while fabricating blade and armor, and the ensuing commotion the army caused as it marched on towards the skirts of Tie Mao.
“I should be the one accompanying the army, not that weasel of an apprentice,” he thought, seething with envy, when Jinshu was accepted into the service of Xiong and the Shan Shi.
At the same time, the fox spirit, having passed the requisite five full moons, stole into Jian De’s habitation and seizing the absence of the sword master, located Spirit Drinker.
“True is your beauty, noble steel, but it’s regrettable the lapse in judgment it has caused,” the fox spirit said. “Become now your hidden self and help me set things straight.”
It then blew kindly on the sword, which took the shape of an equally beautiful, fair maiden.
“My name is Yifei Liu,” she said. “Long have I basked in that old man’s worship, but I’ve seen what you have seen. I will help you.”
“Thank you, essence,” the fox spirit acknowledged.
“There is a price, however,” Yifei added. “I am still Spirit Drinker and only one battle I can wage. This will be it.”
The fox spirit considered those words. A great weapon such as Jiang Jinsheng Juliang could be of great aid in the pursuit of The Way and the preservation of the Shang dinasty. But the harm it was causing now far exceeded its potential benefits. Besides, he thought, Jian De, once freed of his materialistic shackles, could be guided once again into the warm embrace of The Way and his craft.
“Agreed, then. The task is yours,” the fox spirit said and returned to his own plane.
As Jian De made his way back to his home, all dark and brooding because of his apprentice and the army he had joined, he happened into Yifei and was smitten on sight, all thoughts of Jinshu and Spirit Drinker forgone in an instant.
“Lucky are the eyes that set on such a pristine beauty,” Jian De said.
“Good morning, master Jian De. It is I who should be lucky for I am greeted by a man of such stature and importance,” she replied.
“Nothing of the sort,” Jian De said, bashful. “Say, what brings a lady like you to this piddling village?”
“Tis you, master, the object of my visit, for I am Yifei Liu, a simple woman with a simple request, one I cannot ignore even if I wanted to. I’ve been told you are the man to go to when it comes to the art of metal,” the woman said, leaning dangerously and enticingly closer to Jian De’s face.
“I am versed in the craft, yes, but I am retired, you see?” he replied, nervous. Fine beads of sweat adorned his forehead.
“Nonsense,” Yifei continued. “Your prowess with the steel is well known across the land. Now, will you refuse your services to a lady in need?”
“You are clever, for I could not. Very well, come, share some tea and tell me of this need of yours.”
They entered Jian De’s home, where he prepared two cups of steamy red tea. They both sat, facing each other, and discussed the matter while sipping the earthy, sweet brew.
“You see, a spirit came to me in a dream,” she begun, finding the fabrication funny in its irony. “He spoke of you and your feats, which are sorely needed in the East where King Zhou’s forces are gathering in order to strike a definitive blow on the insurgents,” she said.
Jian De knew what she was referring to and saw in this the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on Jinshu and what he thought of as treason on the part of the apprentice.
“Say no more and let us make haste, beautiful Yifei,” Jian De said, eager. “Guide me to this gathering place and allow me to help the Shang squash these pesky rebels like flies.
See how easily our shallow wants and needs sway our allegiances and make us stray from the path of The Way? If you want to know what happens to Jian De and his companion, read on.
An army assembles. Jian De’s apprentice asks to join the Shan Shi.
Once the details were laid out, the Fox Spirit withdrew to its realm for five full moons to prepare for the oncoming execution of Heavenly Primogenitor’s plan. Meanwhile, Jian De returned to the town of Tie Mao with its prized posession, Spirit Drinker, and retreated into a routine of meaningless adoration.
In those times when political unrest had the fate of the Shang dynasty hanging by a thread, skirmishes sprouted throughout the land on a regular basis. Since Tie Mao held a spot of high strategic value due to its proximity to Mount Kunlun, and sported easy access to a large variety of natural resources, a special, dedicated force of defenders, the Shan Shi, was always on call to assist in the defense of both town and people and to lend a hand whenever the welfare of the Shang dynasty saw itself in peril. Shan Shi’s leader, Xiong Lieren, victor in a hundred battles and scarred only by a dozen or so shallow cuts, was lauded by many as the bravest soul in all of the outer regencies.
One day, Tie Mao’s regent, Huangjin Chengzai, invited Xiong to the Courtyard of Purple Peonies to discuss some disturbing news.
“His Majesty and the imperial court have summoned us, Xiong, to aid in the quenching of a rebellion in East Lu. Forces sympathetic to Queen Jiang and her father are planning to march onto the capital in an attempt to depose King Zhou,” the regent informed.
“I shall get my men ready, then,” Xiong replied.
“Do so, but first hear what I have to say,” Huangjin interjected. “For I will be placing an immense burden on your shoulders.”
“A rumor originating in the imperial court is spreading like wildfire,” he continued. “According to this rumor, King Zhou is showing of late signs of a conduct unbecoming a monarch, indulging in wine and concubines when he should be looking out for the wellness of His people.”
“I have heard such rumors. What do you make of them, regent?” Xiong asked.
“They are true, I am afraid,” he answered. “I have witnessed firsthand the neglect His Majesty has shown towards affairs of the state and His terribly arbitrary application of justice.”
“What would you have the Shan Shi do, then?” Xiong asked, acquiescent.
“Equip your men with the best metal the land can provide and procure the fastest horses. We aid the rebels in their just cause and hope for a worthy prevalence of the Shang,” the regent concluded.
“Consider it not a burden,” Xiong said. “We stand by what is noble. Our bodies are only instruments of Heavens’ righteousness.”
And so Xiong bade the regent farewell and began preparations for the ride to the east.
Xiong selected two thousand horses from the best of breeds and the same number of the highest quality mounts, things of unrivaled beauty inlaid with pearl and ivory. He also hand-picked the most able from among his riders: men expert with either lance, sword, or bow and arrow.
Now, when it came to the matter of steel, Jian De was the one and only choice for supplying the best items in the region. He was, however, mostly preoccupied with something other than his craft at the moment.
When Xiong visited Jian De to place a substantial order for weapons and armor, Jian De would not be bothered with the task.
“My days as a metal worker are over. Take your requests somewhere else,” he said and went back to his quarters where Spirit Drinker awaited its daily dose of endearment.
Jian De’s apprentice, Jinshu Hao Yu, approached Xiong and elaborated on the situation.
“My master is afflicted with a mysterious obsession towards that sword of his,” he explained. “He won’t come anywhere near the forge and will not work on any new design, the origin of the request notwithstanding.”
“That is most unfortunate, for the fate of the Shang dynasty hangs now in the balance and the Shan Shi are to play an important part in its protection,” Xiong said.
“I am but a mere apprentice,” Jinshu said coyly. “However, I would be more than glad to help the Shan Shi and its cause with my meager skills.”
Xiong assessed the offer. All in all, he had nothing to lose, for even when Jinshu was short both in age and experience, an apprentice of Jian De was still bound to produce items of superior quality to those of the average blacksmith.
“Very well. I will send some of my men to assist you with the labor.” Xiong proposed, and set off to continue with the arrangements.
In just a couple of months, Tie Mao’s army was ready to march. Jinshu had produced superb armor and weapons with which the men were promptly outfitted, and the purest of horses had been lined up, ready to bear the weight of Xiong’s best riders.
As the throng of warriors was set to part off at the outskirts of town, Xiong saw a figure rushing to meet them. It was Jinshu.
“Lord Xiong,” Jinshu addressed the leader. “I have no purpose in remaining here if master Jian De insists on disregarding his obligations. Please, allow me to go with you and provide whatever assistance I may during the journey and battle to come.”
Xiong considered the apprentice’s petition in great detail.
Do you want to know what became of Jinshu and Xiong’s army? Read on.