Monday, February 08, 2010

Killing Fields

A yellow-throated vireo falls to the ground without our knowledge.
Each year, on a Saturday morning in early October, an airplane would fly over our town and drop pastel-colored leaflets - pink, yellow, pale blue, pale green. This was part of the "Fire Prevention Week" festivities, held on the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The leaflets had a drawing of a fireman looking at a sheet of paper he held in his hand. He had this expression of shock and determination. Something on the front of the paper disturbed him, but it was out of view. I always wondered what the fireman saw on the front; I imagined it was some fire-crime in progress, maybe a picture of a child playing with matches. The backside of the paper was usually blank but a few of the leaflets had the word "Candy" stamped on it. If you found one of these, you could turn it in for free candy at the fire station. So, on this morning, hundreds of schoolchildren would fan out in the neighborhood, rummaging through hedges, fields, backyards, treetops, looking for a winning leaflet. I found thousands of leaflets, but I never found one with the word "Candy". Nor can I find one today.
One hundred years earlier, two men had played with matches in a barn near the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. In the aftermath, people wandered about, stumbling through the ruins of their homes, stunned, despairing, helpless, picking through the bricks and mounds of blackened studs and plaster and paneling in search of something valuable - a child's toy, a kettle, a pocket watch. I do not know if they ever found anything either.
So, six weeks ago I stood in a market in southern Africa, looking at animal hides and carved soapstone and ebony elephants and wooden masks and East Indian spices and bone necklaces and something to shade my iridescent head. As I paid for my items, the shopkeeper, in gratitude for my patronage, gave me a gift. It was a bank note from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. I have it here in front of me right now. The note says "Special Agro-Cheque" on both sides. It is signed by a Dr. G. Gono, Governor. Dr. Gono is the head of the Reserve Bank. The note is valued at 100 billion dollars. Or so it says. The result is this: a box of tissue paper is smaller than the stack of paper money required to buy it. The note actually has an expiration date on it, "Pay to the bearer on demand...on or before 31st December 2008." It occurred to me that if I looked, I might find them scattered across the veld, caught in acacia trees, floating in rivers, drifts of them behind granaries.
This is what is called hyperinflation, when the winds of the economy become hurricane force. There are those that say that this hyperinflation was the result of a rapid expansion of the money supply in Zimbabwe. Some say that there is a direct connection between prices and money supply; others contend that there is no direct connection. Others take a middle ground. Others say it depends. Theories abound - Quantity Theory, Fiscal Theory, Real Bills Doctrine. These go back hundreds of years. Self liquidating paper with forthcoming productions on monetary aggregate real values and net national product or structural deficit on the equilibrium price level. Sixteen men playing with matches. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans rummage through the ruins of their lives searching for bits of aluminum to sell for scrap. Eventually, they will start using bits of aluminum as currency - and eureka! somewhere, in some laboratory, an economic theory is born. Make that seventeen men. Another idea blows around in the wind.
And another vireo falls. There could be millions of them falling for all we know. Vireos and northern parulas and Acadian flycatchers and hooded warblers and wood thrushes and scarlet tanagers. Now let me postulate: I suppose that this could be a function of the total supply of birds multiplied by their velocity or a function of the demand for birds, a constant aggregate supply, or projected reproduction, while some always remain in reserves, and besides, if we are wealthy, the birds can be traded for bird credits and divided by their demand on the exotic pet market. It might be the function of seventeen men talking.
I have spent years chasing down valuables in hedges, fields, backyards, treetops, looking for something, anything - and what do I find - another man with a shocked expression holding a blank piece of paper. Tonight I hear thumping on the roof of my house. What is it? Is that the sound of embers or is it birds?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Folded up like origami, strapped into position like a man in an electric chair, fed 5/8-scale replicas of food, and forced to stare at an unblinking screen showing an endless loop of a man struggling to break free from his seat might seem to be an attempt by security apparatchik to extract some vital information about an impending act of faith-based schizophrenia or how one in custody might break free from legirons or my maiden's last four digits or the name of my favorite social security card, but the comparisons to prison life find more parallels in prison life than those actually found in prison life. I asked the man across the aisle if he would trade a package of filter-less crackers for a place in the line leading to the lavatory. Or maybe a seat by the emergency exit. He looked at my face and said the price just went up three hundred percent. I recalled statesmen before me and their phlebitic struggles in air flight and I wondered if I had been elected in absentia. "Oh boy!," I thought, "I'm going to Absentia."
I always wanted to go there. Why, I spent most of my childhood daydreaming about the place. And now, the day had arrived. I thought about my family back home. I grew misty. They always said I would end up there. How did they know?
I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes, and smiled. This was no tiny, airless cell, it was a universe of possibilities. A new world. That baby in row 29, why, he howled like a hyena. The coughing man was calling wild game. A woman walked by balancing her luggage on her head. The man with the hairy neck in 34A bounded from his seat and swung from aisle to aisle. The engines roared like lions. Women gathered in the galley to collect the day's water and scrub their laundry. Newspapers rustled like palmettos. Nobody spoke my language. There was laughing in the back, where men were carving wooden bowls. Somebody hung a woven mat from a tree. A woman walked down the aisle, sweeping it with a straw broom, followed by a line of stewardesses singing in four part harmony.

Move fast
On those mountains
You are running away
On those mountains

Just then, somebody must have chopped open a pineapple; I smelled pineapple, I know it. Where was it? Then a woman appeared at my side and put a plate of antelope stew before me and I scooped it out of the bowl with my left hand. It was delicious. Someone grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes.
It was still dark.
Stars faltered in the moonless sky. I stretched out in my chair. Somewhere out there in the darkness I had seen a herd of hills that followed a dry valley lined with fever trees. The hills were like the backs of cape buffalo, migrating to the western horizon. Now, I could hear the hills moving quickly. Everything moved quickly. This night, the wind charged out of the west, fierce, snorting, stampeding up the valley and the slope in front of me, scattering everything in its path, swinging everything around like a weather vane - even the sky had turned. I tilted my head to see. Orion was now standing upright, directly overhead. Dim and scintillating, he trembled like an aging warrior, red and shrunken, a wrinkled, dying man. I tilted my head again and he was now the reflection of the faint civilization below, where idle men sat in the dirt beneath umbrella trees poking sticks into campfires that sent a plume of orange stars to replenish the night sky while old women folded their hands eleven different ways. An old man nodded. The acacia were swept up by the wind and their thorns fell into an argument, chattering across the valley. The wind burst over the hilltop, full of urgency. My hat blew away. The thatched roof rattled like bones. Wooden masks shuddered against the walls. Chairs walked across the grass. Termites fell from the sky. Predators, gloved and silent, stalked the bush. There was a muffled cry beneath the roar of the wind. I thought I heard a body fall to the ground.
I jumped from my chair.
The wind carried the blackness above like an animal skin, rippling, with swirls of smoke from distant cook fires and the scent of acacia blossoms and wild lemon. That smell, something like pine and peppermint and vinegar and whiskey and creosote. I wanted that wind. I reached out my hand. The savanna arched and hissed, waterless, thirsting. It was said that in the bush, lions patrol the boundaries, swinging paws like scythes, sweeping the edge for men who stray too far from the village.
This was not home, but in the darkness, it looked the same. I stepped closer to the edge. I couldn't see anything, but I heard women singing. Something grabbed my arm and I was gone.