112814 Homecoming

November 28, 2014


the dull roar of the diesel engine banged and echoed with futility against the soft fog-enclosed silence on the ascent.  we both glanced nervously at the gas gauge as it neared empty.  we had one reserve can of fuel left.  after that, nothing.

we’ll make it.  we’ll never make it.  we had to try. thoughts chugged around like a compression engine in our own heads.  the light on the bus guage came on.  about a half-hour left of fuel in the tank.

We both felt very tense.  Did we make the right choice?  Our decision came from days of intense discussions about our next steps.  We had each-other.

“How close do you think we are?”  I asked.

“I don’t know…” she said, eyes steady on the rocky, rutted road, to prevent any further mishap.  The condition of the road didn’t help our emotional state.  It looked more like a widened dirt path.  We spent most of our time chugging along at less than 20 miles per hour in second gear while carefully navigating hazards such a large rocks and downed trees.  Some of the rocks seemed like inherent features of the landscape.

On occasion, we stopped the bus, pulled out the pry bar and chainsaw and set about moving and then replacing downed trees covering the entire width of the road.  Each fallen tree took about a half-hour of hard damned work to pass, even with the help of the chainsaw.  We assumed nothing, and left everything as we found it.  We had no way to tell the story and intentions behind their fall, so approached each soldier with the same blanket respect.  Thank you on the approach.  Apologies for the disturbance.  Thank you for letting us pass.

“Do you think we’re headed in the right direction?”  I asked for both of us.

“I don’t know…” she said, replying for both of us.  The dense treeline appeared and disappeared out of the fog like a ghostly line of thousands of silent sentinels, watching our approach.  Watching us while we walked the thin line, waiting to see which way we would fall: with, or against them.  They were getting larger.  Heavier.  More difficult to move.

I felt hunger swell and burn in my gut.  “How much food do we have?”

“Why don’t you go check?”  she said.  I carefully made my way back to the food storage area, looking through and updating our inventory.  Two gallons of water left.  Dried beans and rice.  About a gallon of fermented vegetables.  Three pounds of cheese.  About the same in salami.  A few heads of garlic and onions.  The root cellar contained a few carrots and beets.  A couple of bags of dehydrated veggies left.

I made my report.  Without saying anything, we both thought the same thing:  Plenty.  Not enough.

The engine sputtered and died.  We got out to refuel, and took the opportunity to eat a little snack.  We had no clock, no way to tell time apart from the vague cycles of light and dark that made their way to us through the dense fog.  We took turns sleeping and driving or watching.   We measured time and distance in snacks and cans, watching our provisions dwindle, hoping we had made it far enough into the void between civilization and wilderness to avoid our pursuers.  Hoping we had kept enough distance and respect for wilderness to avoid attack from our hosts.

We looked at each-other in knowing silence, and made our way back onto the bus.  Our last push.  She got back into the drivesr seat, and turned the engine.  It sputtered at first, then chugged back to life.  I breathed, and for some reason, the Wallflower’s One Headlight started playing in my head as we made our way forward again.

It happened all so long ago, I don’t remember when
That’s when they say I lost my only friend
They say she died easy of a broken heart disease
As I looked up through the cemetary trees…

Come on, try a little
Nothing is forever
There’s got to be something better than
In the middle
Me and Cinderella
Will put it all together
We can drive it home
With one headlight…

Daylight waned into dusk as we passed the last barrier of fallen trees.  We didn’t know it was the last barrier until pulled up in front of the next:  a tangle of fallen old growth.  It would take days, maybe even weeks, to clear something like this.  The end of the road.  She turned the engine off.  Headlights off, dimming the road in front of us only slightly in the early dusk.

We looked at each-other with the same question.  What now?  Get out, take a look around.

We climbed the barrier.  It stood about twenty feet tall.  It looked like there might be ways to go through it somehow, but we didn’t want to risk it, danger enough that climbed on top of it.  Reverence grounded us.  Thank you.  Sorry.  Thank you.  Right or wrong, we also believed it offered us some protection.  From the top I could just barely make out the road as it continued again on the other side, about fifty feet back and another twenty feet down from the approach.  We suspected as much with the past barriers.  We started to see more design, more intention.  More warning.  This pile of debris made its message quite clear to anyone who cared to listen:  keep out.

We descended from our pensive perch in the dwindling light, as two dark figures with rifles materialized out of the fog.  We stood there, watching each-other for a couple of minutes.  With faces covered in shrouds, hiding all features but their hardened eyes.  Stupidly, I had left our weapons on the bus.  Our host/pursuers might have already confiscated them.  Sudden moves will get us killed.  On the other hand, if we didn’t make it far enough, we might die anyway.

Three more figures materialized, flanking us.  All clearly armed.  I grabbed her hand and squeezed.  This is it.

I remembered weapons training.  “Never point your gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.”  They didn’t intend to shoot us, yet.  But the muzzles did point menacingly in our general direction.

One of the two original figures stepped forward.  Movement out of the corner of my eye.  Someone in our bus.  Shit.  I raised my free hand, palm open, facing outward.  No point in trying to make enemies yet.  The figure approached us.

“You came alone,” she said. A female voice. Strong.

We both nodded.

“We typically disable vehicles before they make it this far.  Sometimes we shoot the people inside,” she told us in a steady, dry tone.  “We did exactly that to a couple of vehicles following you.”

I felt a wave of relief wash over me.  Tears welled in my eyes.  I squeezed my partner’s hand and we both relaxed our grip.  She knew.  I knew.  We all knew.  Our actions had kept us safe.  For now.  I took a deep breath.  The air underneath the dissipating diesel fumes felt cool, clean, thick, moist.  It reminded me of how bad things have gotten.  Breathing didn’t come so easy elsewhere…

“Why did you come?” she asked us.  My partner spoke this time.  She told them in brief terms,  bullet points.  Just like we had talked about doing should we ever make it this far.  Life.  Asylum.  Aid.  Death.  She did better than I did with unfamiliar faces, alien voices.  We don’t know whether the Others understood how we tell each-other apart, or whether they ever would.  We hoped they had grown fat and complacent, but did not expect or assume it.  They sent two vehicles.  How many did they usually send after liabilities?

The woman nodded, and pulled down the shroud covering her face.  Her eyes softened.  “We can use the extra help,” she said, nodding toward the bus.   “You can stay, too,” she smirked.

i broke from my partner and hugged her, buried my head in her shoulders and cried.  i said, “thank you.”  To her, to the trees, to my partner.  The bus.  She hugged me back, then pulled away.  Her eyes and voice hardened again.  “We need to get moving, lots of work to do.  Time to disappear.”

We spent the next several hours working together, covering and erasing tracks, constructing new barriers, putting everything back the way we found it.  Making every sign of our presence disappear.  Finally, we followed them, together melting and dissolving back into the treeline and all-encompassing fog, turning from solid to shadow.

112014 friendsgiving

November 27, 2014


“三猿…they came separately and stood separately…Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.  They taught us the quite common and fragile conditions for slavery and liberation.

“We ignored them.  At least, the vast majority of us did, and most of the rest of us might as well have, considering the damage that our ignorant meddling did, like someone stuck in quicksand, struggling in a way that only makes the situation worse.  Only a handful of us took it upon ourselves to explore something closer to the entire spectrum of meaning and possibility they presented us, and only some of those people and their progeny will survive to read passages such as this — assuming these words survive.  All in all, a fraction of a percentage of the human race.  I wish sometimes that I were one of them…

“Sometimes freedom comes at the expense of sanity, just as often as connection and grounding require targeted alienation.” — JFF, memories of the Fall.

The drive was uneventful.  Wet, warm, windy weather — the type of fall he had grown used to over the course of his years in the valley.

He felt nervous.  He didn’t want to go.  But he went anyway, for the two hosts — a good friend since the 2nd grade and his friend’s significant other — and then for himself.  But by way of her, a friend of the hosts.  He needed to know.  He wanted to know.  So he forced himself to go.

He hated feeling nervous.  He rarely did, these days, learning to relax into the performance and have fun with it.  Can’t please everyone all the time, so he might as well play for himself.  Feeling nervous threw him off his rhythm, though.  It made it about them:  their opinion of his performance, and by way of that, their perception of him.  Nervousness enslaved performance.

He had started feeling nervous about the event early in the day, and that feeling grew and doubled back on itself, making nervous sweat inevitable.  Several hours later, he found himself airing out his armpits during the entire drive, hoping for some magic remedy.  Divine intervention sometimes comes in the simple form of substances known to lower inhibitions.  Careful, measured doses.  He identified with alcohol, in a lot of ways, on a very personal level.  It explained his near-constant feeling of loneliness.  Careful, measured doses.

He parked his car, now spending nearly all his mental energy like a slave, trying not to appear nervous.  Something in him doubted his efforts.  Car parked.  Straight?  Check.  Close to curb?  Check.  He unfailingly felt weak playing by other people’s rules, and reminded himself that he chose to enter this situation.

I’m only doing what’s necessary to maintain the delicate balance of safety and integrity, he told himself.  Breathe.  Stay grounded and focused.

Out of the car, dish in hand for the gathering, he walked to the door.  He heard voices inside.  It fed his nervousness.  He disliked gatherings.  People hanging out awkwardly around food.  Trying to find things to talk about despite living in circumstancse of near-complete alienation.  Conversation tended to fall toward common consumption habits:  TV, movies, sports, establishment politics, and their desperate fallback: the weather.

People don’t overeat during the holidays because the food’s so good.  People overeat, first and foremost, because it’s the easiest thing to do whenever the conversation flounders and falls through.  In those situations, the food tastes pretty darn good, and it rests comfortably in its place as a powerful player in the manipulation of emotional states.  He wondered what sort of food would exist in a society based upon functional and healthy relationships.  Different food?  Same food?

Deep breath.  He saw the doorbell.  He didn’t like doorbells, so he didn’t use it.  If he chose to use it, he would make sure to do so in the most annoying way possible.  Sometimes the newer ones with printed circuitboards didn’t allow that.  He didn’t know what type of doorbell they had. So he knocked, making a note to confirm the doorbell before leaving.

He heard someone coming to the door.  A woman’s voice.  The door opened, and his heart nearly jumped out of his throat onto the threshold, where she stood.

She was beautiful.

Well, at least that justifies my nervousness, he thought…and then realized that she stood there with an expectant look on her face, waiting for him to introduce himself instead of just standing there in the weather with a stupid-looking half-open grin on his own face.

Snapping out of his momentary stupor, he said, “I’m, uh, a friend of Vince and Debbie’s…I’m here for the get-together…”  He’d visited them several times and knew where they lived.  Still, several voices over his shoulder laughed at him for getting the address wrong.  How groundless he felt, wishing for any sign at this point that he had knocked on the correct door.  Of course he had…hadn’t he?

She smiled and relaxed.  “My name’s Pinaz!”  He had prepared himself for this moment, and strangled an immature giggle before it left his throat.   She seemed quite bubbly and eager to get to know people.

“I see.”  He cleared his throat, speaking loudly and clearly:  “IS THAT A COMMON NAME IN YOUR PEOPLE’S CULTURE?”

Her expression darkened noticeably.

“I’m just kidding,” he said, dropping the rude tourist voice before she could say something reproachful.  He held out his hand.  “Pinaz, nice to meet you.  My name’s stephen.”  She looked at his hand, then shook it.

“Nice to meet you.  So, is ‘stephen’ a common name in your people’s culture?” she shot back as she leaned against the door jam with her arms folded.  Testing each-other…good.  His nervousness melted and went the way of last week’s snow.

“Um, the WASP culture?  Yes, it’s been trending fairly positive for the last decade or so.  Though I doubt many people know what it actually means…such is life in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, ha ha!”  The “I’m half-joking” laugh.  He examined her expression but couldn’t tell what she made of his comment.  Something, obviously.  He broke the silence, again.  “So, would you like to invite me in?”

His question snapped her out of her own momentary stupor.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I–”  She felt part guilty, part embarassed, which confused and fluster her even further.  Zombie apocalypse?  He took the opportunity to continue.

“I promise I’m neither vampire nor zombie,” he said for further encouragement.  “And I brought a beet salad.  It has beets, dill, dressing, and cheese in it.”  He held out the dish for her to inspect, as if she had reason to disbelieve him.  No, he wanted to show her he was following all the rules.  She humored him and looked.  The beets were shredded.  Curious.  It did kind of look like blood and guts, but it also looked and smelled appetizing.  He tried to follow all the rules, at any rate.

“How can I know you’re not a werewolf, though?” she asked as she looked up from the beets.  Rules, after all, are rules, which led her to develop tendencies to escalate challenges and hang out close to the door at parties.

“I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep,” he said with an earnest tone and pursed lips she found disturbing, frustrating and funny.

She ignored him in her response.  “Sorry for taking so long to get the door.  You know there’s a doorbell, right?”

“Oh, is there?  What’s it sound like?”  He pressed the button.  A melody played somewhere inside the house.  He pressed it again.  The melody continued playing uninterrupted.  Printed circuit board.  No go.

She saw the furrowed frustration on his face and smiled.  He seemd harmless enough.  “Ok, well, come on in, stephen.  Vince and Debbie mentioned you were coming.”  She stepped aside to permit his entry and closed the door as he entered. He followed her down the short hall into the living room, where she made her brief announcement to the others.

“Everyone, this is stephen.  He’s not a zombie or a vampire, but he might be a werewolf, and he brought a beet salad.”

He held out his dish toward everyone.  “Beet salad,” he confirmed.  A couple of people waved hi.  He recognized a couple of more people.  They gave each-other nods of acknowledgment.  She noticed him trying to smile without forcing it, and felt a wave of pity for him.  Poor fellow.

She offered to take his coat.  He accepted, reluctantly, leading her to think that maybe he had something of value in the coat.  She insisted the coat would stay safe as she helped him out of it. He said his friends probably appreciated having an entry closet to put their friends’ coats in.

She returned from the closet to find him where she left him, like a lost puppy dog.  She felt some sort of responsibility to get him settled.  “You can put the salad over here,” she said, leading him toward the buffet spread on the dining room table.  Tucking her hair behind her ear, she helped him make room for the dish.  Someone else had brought another beet dish.  Roasted, cubed and drizzled in creme fraiche.  His looked less appetizing than the competing, established dish.  Hopefully someone will eat it.  Nothing worse than bringing something to a potluck that no one else likes.  She felt embarrassed for him, and tried to put the two dishes as far apart as possible.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No problem.”  She didn’t want to discuss the salad issue, and changed the subject.  “So, what does stephen mean, anyway?”

“It’s, uhh, Aramaic for ‘firm and unwavering,'” he said.

“Does that describe you?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.  Sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” she laughed with a little frustration, feeling conversation getting a little thin and he didn’t seem to be reciprocating much.  “How can you be firm and unwavering only some of the time?”

“Because of irony, I guess…” he said as he glanced at something behind her, attention clearly elsewhere.

Her gaze followed his and fell on Dick as he lumbered over to them with a giant, comedic grin on his giant, comedic face.  He seldom moved without some sort of mischeivous purpose driving his sizeable frame.  To that effect, he positioned himself most of the way between the two smaller figures, so he could pretend he was talking to both while denying them the ability to continue their conversation with one-another.

Whatever, she sighed.  She was starting to get bored with the conversation, anyway.  Maybe she’d pick it up later, if nothing better came along.  Maybe he’ll be less nervous then.  Dick probably did him a favor.

He saw it coming.  Dick turned to him.  “So, neither vampire nor zombie,” he said.  “What the fuck are you doing here, then?” he asked with layers of sincerity and mock hostility while extending his hand in greeting.

She threw him a quick glance as if to say “see you later” and then wandered off before he could respond.  Damnit.  Dick’s grin widened.

He answered Dick, eyes still following her as she walked away.  Their hands met in the middle for a shake.  Dick made his shake deliberately limp, for effect — as limp as his grin was wide.  Both hands were cold and clammy, one limp and lifeless, the other tense and rigid like rigor mortis.  “Not sure, Dick.  You?”

“Oh, the usual,” he said.

“Is that zombie or vampire?  I often have a hard time telling the difference.”

Dick laughed without breaking his grin.  “Oh, snap.  Here’s a question for you:  Does it matter?”

He looked at Dick and smirked with respect.  “Wow, a comedian and a philosopher, huh?”

“That’s me,” Dick said, his face configured proudly in that complex layering of desert-dry irony and simple earnestness that some comedians seem to love so much.

As he thought about Dick’s simple yes or no question, he remembered something his mother had once said to him, to all her kids, just as he really started paying attention to the subcurrents, subtexts and externalities of civilized existence:

“All I want for my children is that they become neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.”

He saw her, in his minds eye, crying with frustration.  He heard her voice, sad and strong.  He wished he could turn back time and do things differently.  The Others had groomed him, despite his mother’s intentions.  Somehow, he broke Oath.  An unforgivable offense among offenses.  They made his Awakening a suitably painful and drawn out process — one without any obvious end or purpose other than punitive intent.

He turned back to Dick with his answer.  “Yes, it matters.”

“Great!” Dick beamed even more widely like a banner declaring “mission accomplished,” and lumbered off, making his own opinion on the subject clear in the process.

At least, it matters to me, he sighed as he stood there alone.  To my family — the one I know, and the ones I have yet to find.

He leaned against the nearest wall, folded his arms and looked at the spread on the table:  Turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, veggies in cream sauces, various desserts.  Mostly made in home kitchens in private, presented in public with artifice and pride.  Food’s so easy these days.  Domesticated prey.  They didn’t know any better, like cattle in the feedlot.  Too busy stuffing faces in isolated misery to notice something awry in taste, color, nutrition, origin, inputs, process.  A few promising acolytes emerge from the meat farm out of the many.  He thought about his own history.  How early they’d started shaping his thoughts and beliefs.  How quickly collective consumption turns from plague to way of life among vampires, zombies and their food.  A few thousand years, a few hundred generations.  A drop in the bucket with a hole in the bottom.

He started to wonder whether the Others had more tricks up their sleeve.  They must have.  Even though the boring status of their food threatened to lull them into complacency, something else always threatened the status of their comfort and control.  They must know, he thought, and he wondered how long they would last on this diet, and what would happen when that time came…Garbage in, garbage out.  He thought of worms.  Digesters and detritus feeders.  The only known exception to that rule.  He needed to find their Order.  They might help restore balance.

His best friend had noticed him standing alone and came over to investigate, offering his hand and a brief hug.  “How you doing, buddy?  So glad you could come.”

“Thanks, man.”  They both meant it.  He appreciated the interruption before he went too far down that path and made anyone else either suspicious or uncomfortable.  Even the self-styled anarchists in the meat farm had their own version of re-education camps.  All substance, no structure, like a sack of flesh without bones.  No wonder why this all happ–

He caught himself again, packed his thoughts away for safe-keeping and turned his concentration to the task at hand, following his friend back to the feast.  For now, focus and food would keep him safe.

110314 living death

November 3, 2014

seeds present themselves to me as the unborn children of trees.

all life has intelligence, much of which we civil remain
too ignorant, too arrogant, too afraid to understand.

as a result we fail to see the full spectrum of life
coexisting with death to bring us biodiversity.
everyone’s life depends on the deaths of others.

a question lingers in my mind, asking me
whether we civil can live, kill and feed ethically, and with respect?
this question includes, but far transcends, matters of diet
to encompass matters of domestication and Living Death

and explains in small part why i strive
to give thanks for everything supporting my short life
a list that includes, but far transcends, appreciation
for food, water, air, shelter, friends and family
for every word spoken and heard in between every breath.