A latter day work of
Written as a new chapter to “(t)h(i/e)m: exercise in fiction” [Entropy Press, 1998], on the occasion of it’s digital re-release by Macska Moksha Press . “Russ” was my nom d’arte for the project, so I took it on one more time for this addendum. I thank N. for inspiring the title.
T. was in anguish. Again. But he knew the drill: wait it out. All emotions come and go. Even the ones that strike with an intensity that seems like they will last the rest of your life. The ones that arrive without warning (but do they ever really?) like a roaring storm on a calm day (does that ever actually happen?) pelting you with heavy drops of misery, whipping you with biting winds of despair, deafening you with the thunder of your insistent self-hatred. “Oh Jesus,” T. suddenly said out loud, interrupting his own thoughts. “How fucking melodramatic! Where do I get such pathetic, sophomoric, mopey shit?”
“Like a fucking cry-baby. That’s what I sound like. What the fuck?” He shook his head, but nothing went away.
A stirring in the branches above T. broke his spell. (He was right: wait it out and it goes away, but in this case, so sudden was the transition that he didn’t notice it and had no conscious realization that he was no longer in anguish.) He was on his hands and knees, under a Single-Needled Pinyon tree, harvesting pinenuts off the ground. He leaned out backwards to get his head beyond the drip-line and look up to see what was going on. Up on the topmost end of the tree—where you put an angel or a star on a Christmas tree—was a bird, white breasted with grey wings. He (or she; T. couldn’t tell) was inserting its beak into a pinecone and dislodging the seeds. It’s movements were quick—too fast for the eye to follow—but absolutely precise (or seemed so to T.). With a tiny hop and a re-cocking of its head on its neck like a rapid card flip, it made a jab at the cone and knocked it right off into the splayed hand of a branch below. The bird ignored it and turned its attention to another cone, making scritching noises as he poked and gamboled. “Was that a ‘mistake’?” T. wondered. Does a bird make “mistakes”?
Tree. Bird. Cones. They’d been together a long time, since long before any human “its” (hes, shes or others) showed up. They were ancient and immutable. The dark green stripes their groves made on the mountain sides between 5000 and 7000 feet above sea level—starting somewhat above the salty expanses between the gill-like lines of parallel ridges that echoed each other like cupped parenthesis from West to East across this part of Nevada, and ending in a neat line somewhat below the taller peaks, and in one of which he was now camped by himself—these trees were but the islanded outliers of what was once a widespread forest through which squirrels jumped tree to tree for hundreds and hundreds of miles, and over these grey birds flocked, alighting to harvest, eat, and move on, with no one or nobody (the trees and the animals, that is) feeling any internal perturbation whatsoever. “Lucky them!” thought T. to himself, and was plunged back into “anguish”. (So sudden was the transition that he didn’t notice and, in a flash, forgot the enjoyment of the undistracted interval he had just experienced.)
A wave passed through T.’s head, warm and prickly, but a thermometer wouldn’t have registered a fever. This was the heat of neurons firing in the brain. Memories (bruised), imaginings (aching), thoughts (painful). Everything was at once both sharp and suffocating. Desperation began pressing in on the margins, and it felt like his skull was being pierced in many places at once—”like a fucking crown of thorns, for chrissakes!” T. burst out, and then rolled his eyes at himself.
“Man, I’m tired of this!” T. hissed at himself. “Why doesn’t it go away?”
Stretching out on his back and straightening his legs, he threw his hands above his head on the sandy ground and stared up at the sky (he was too full of turbulence to “gaze” at it). The sun was low in his circuit at this time of year, never shining from directly overhead, always at an angle, and tracing the day around the trees by moving their shadows.
Out there, somewhere in the world, was S. They had parted nearly two decades before, but she still came into his head sometimes. He rarely remembered the daily details of living with her, though they had shared both a bedroom and (more telling, in some ways, as a measurement of intimacy) a kitchen for three years. The joys and the dramas were thick fuzzy strokes of blue and red on a visualized timeline in his mind’s eye, and lacked specificity. What came into his head were particular phrases she had spoken. He plucked them from the blurs like seeds out of duff and each with its own weight, shape and coloration.
His recollections, however, were highly suspect as far as he was concerned. If, as he believed—that to hear what she was saying clearly had clearly been a problem—then what insult or wisdom could be taken from her words now? They had long since become his words. He knew that his mind (he supposed that’s what to call it) had created its own stories of what had happened while it was happening and then other stories about what had happened after it had stopped happening—in confusing, non-consecutive layers—so that any alleged “memories” straining to pass through the sticky membranes would inevitably take on the weight of narrative, and there the truth is lost.
Arms to be held by and arms to hold with: this had been the goal of those days, and thankfully he had moved on from that one years ago. “Holding” is exactly what will kill it (yes I know that’s an unclear antecedent) every time. Not that things don’t die other ways, and of course, everything does (in that way of thinking about things, which is not how everybody thinks) but one can try to crush freedom anyway, for yourself and for everyone around you. This, indeed, is a defining characteristic of the social-fascism of our techno-agrarian society.
Strength is a concept that had often (though not always) eluded T. What was it? Not perseverance or dedication or sacrifice or stubborness or stoicism. Those are all different words so they all mean other things, themselves. None of them means “strength.” This is not merely a matter of lexical concern; a lack of care with words reflects a lack of care with living. Language matters and not only because it is currently essential to our survival as individuals and as a species. It is not part of us as deep as the roots of our teeth but it is more than cloak we throw over our shoulders. Maybe language is like our skin—it is a membrane that must be crossed before we are reached. Perhaps the result of this process is that which we call “culture.” Language was, after all, borne of fire; taming the gift of Prometheus required it. An expression of strength, then, could be one’s ability to live life freely of culture, to be a fully autonomous human being, holding nothing—like the bird—other than food on its way to the stomach.
In that instant, something happened (but actually, of course, nothing at all, which is the point): the bird fluttered up from the tree and started flying toward another tree and T. sat up and watched it. He was utterly engaged with the experience of looking at it: observing its movements, trying to guess its goal (which is what it departed to seek, naturally). His eyes followed the bird until it lit in another tree, maybe 50 feet away, and he could hear it scritching in the branches, though faintly over the distance. He shifted his hand and felt a pinenut. He picked it up and held it on an open palm a few inches from his face. It was shaped like a tear-drop and was dark brown blushed red and mottled black. The weight told him there was a fat oil nut under that skin, creamy white and sweet. It was perfect.
Openness surrounded T., like he had walked through a door from one world into another. Had hope or doubt (is there a difference?) departed? Nothing logistical had changed; the material world remained the same; certain energies not of his own making still ebbed and flowed. (Or that is how it was so claimed, and who could he trust if not a participant in those very energies?) Yet here he was, feeling a distinct change. He started to stand up and it was like one of those backwards videos you see where people are coming up out of water dry as they emerge. Or it was like rising up through a heavy blanket that had been smothering him but suddenly it was shredded, insubstantial, and fell away with hardly the weight of shadows?
Sacrifice, he saw now, was pointless. Its nobility was conferred by the Abrahamic religions, with their “brutal Bronze Age books,” their plows and their levers. Always they had been ripping up the earth and raising towers, attacking the mother and deigning to reach the father. It was all a load of complete shit, and T. was exhausted from being enslaved. He still bore scars from his long captivity. But—he mused—perhaps the point wasn’t to heal his scars (after all, permanence is their nature) but to simply know them. If he could do that, couldn’t he release himself—himself? Who else could? No one, nobody. T. realized it was time to start.
(Portland, Oregon: 10/13/15)
“(t)h(i/e)m: exercise in fiction“—an entire multimedia book to which this story is merely an addendum—is available as a download, free-of-charge:
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The book is in the form of a website. All the files (including the MP3s of the music) are packaged in a .ZIP file you will need to uncompress. Then, simply open “home.htm” in a web browser and you will have opened the cover, so to speak. (Also included is this new story, as “bonus-chapter-2015.htm.” In the download format, it is full of hypertext links to the original book.)