“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.