Thursday, December 29, 2011

Big Three-Headed River

A single dusty lamp lights a long hallway in an old woman's mansion.
She sits in the living room by the firelight in the evening, knitting a sweater for someone with knobby fingers, but the neck doesn't look quite right. You wonder if it's poor lighting or maybe your eyesight or your mind, but you look closer and no, your mind has not slipped and it’s not the light or your eyes; the sweater has three holes for three heads. You want to put your hand on her delicate shoulder and reassure her, but you fear that whatever it is that she contracted is highly contagious and you pull your hand back and put it in your pocket. “Nice fire.”
Jack walked out of the living room and shook his head. He took off his bifocals and held them up to the lamp. "I swear I saw the fellow who wears that sweater in a temple in India. Had a cup of rice in front of him." He rolled up his sleeves. "Poor fella didn't touch it. Didn't move a muscle. People had to carry him around on poles."
I always liked listening to Jack. He was like an old leather suitcase with decals from faraway lands, a walking travel brochure, and he had an easy way of conversation. You could ignore him for a while as he exhumed tales of colonnades and big game and tribes and fever and then jump into the conversation for a while and then ignore him again as he described man-eating reptiles and jungle kings and he never seemed to notice or care. "I thought the sweater would have six arms."
"That's probably right. Maybe I saw the guy at the state fair. Or up front in a cathedral. That’s right." He held his glasses at arm’s length and swiped a lens with his right thumb. "It must be this. All I see is dust."
The flooring creaked beneath my feet. "Which state fair?"
"I can’t recall." He blew on his glasses. "Oops. That dust was the original owner of the house and there, away he goes, off into the air, maybe all the way to heaven. I must show proper respect." The old woman started to cough.
“I think the original owner is everywhere.”
He did a slight bow before his glasses. “That’s what you call omnipresence, my boy.” He looked at the firelight down the hall, "I'll go stoke the fire," and walked into the living room.
As he walked away, I thought about the forgotten state and wondered why it would be such a likely place for three-headed people. Jack always had the appearance of being hot on the trail of something, even if he wasn’t; sort of like a toothless old Labrador retriever barking up a tree full of abandoned squirrel nests. But if there were more triune people in that state why would they be considered such an oddity as to display to gawking mobs at the fair? Maybe there were fewer three-headed people there than the average; they were a vanishing species, a real rarity. I read about a gated community once where everyone had recessive genes dangling from their mortal shell in fantastic ways. So I wondered which states were surrounded by gates. I knew some city-states had moats. Out here they used levees. But they didn’t stop anything; just as soon as we built them, the river cut across a gooseneck upstream and changed course and ambled about the land behind the levee, filling up Main Street so many times we renamed the town Venice. I felt the urge to move wherever that state was and find out for myself. Maybe I would get a job as a freakish one-headed man housed behind glass in the front of a cathedral, chained next to the marble man with three heads and six arms, fed balls sweet rice on banana leaves by pilgrims bearing candles. This is when I began to wonder if there was such thing as a phantom head.
The noise of Jack rattling the fireplace utensils interrupted my deep thoughts. This was Jack's first time in this house in twenty years, since he was in college studying liquor. The old woman muttered something about the fireplace and Jack replied loudly, "Destroyer. The destroyer." He must have been talking about his days with the Merchant Marines off the Atlantic coast. I could see the fire reflecting off of the walls of the living room, bright enough to signal planes flying overhead. "Hey!” I shouted. "Save some light for tomorrow." A few hours later he fell asleep on the sofa in front of the fire, which had retired as well, reduced to a few shy embers, winking like red stars on a summer night.
The following morning crept into the sky slowly, no sudden, bright, sunny fanfare as one would hope, more gradual, like the way color fades from a fish washed up on a beach. Jack was standing in the back yard. "Where is the light? Is it cloudy here all the time? You forget to pay the electric bill?"
I shrugged. My shoulders felt heavy, both of them.
Rubbing his hands together, he surveyed the skies. "Man, it looks like a burial shroud, clouds from horizon to horizon. Nothing can see out and nothing can see in." He looked down at his feet, old deck shoes decorated with grass clippings, like parsley flakes on two cod filets. "As much as I want to see what might be up there, I can't imagine anyone wanting to see what was going on down here."
I thought about the old woman knitting. "Like the door to her basement."
"Yeah. We just think that there’s something valuable in there."
“I don’t want to know.” The old woman had lived in that house all her life, the daughter of the first owner, Mr. Shaunheunessey, who ran a lumber mill down by the river. She never married. I could see her sitting at her window knitting ever since I could remember. Sweaters and more sweaters and socks, hats, mittens, and scarves, I suppose. She must have made thousands of them over the decades, but nobody knew what she did with them. There were as many rumors as there were mouths. She gave them to charity, she sent them to orphanages, she clothed the monks at the monastery on the hill. She had relatives back in Europe. Maybe they were peasants and would have nothing but stiff, black rags to wrap around their feet and hands were it not for the package of woolens they received every fall. That wasn’t a house, it was a textile mill. The windows reflected the grey skies like cataracts.
The smoke rising from the chimney caught Jack’s attention. "Maybe the clouds are coming from us."
Something splashed in the river down below and we both turned. Nothing.
He put his hands in his pockets. "Or someone just closed the lid on us. How would I know?" We plodded across the front lawn toward the river.
He stopped. His face tightened. His open hand swept from right to left. "There!"
I followed the sweep of his hand and my eyes drifted to the river. Bleach bottles collected in an eddy. I started thinking about bleach bottles and I wondered what would happen if they were given enough time and given ideal conditions - an ammonia atmosphere with electrical discharges and some giant, strong, benevolent, philanthropic scientist hovering over the whole affair making sure that random events wouldn’t interfere with the rigorously controlled experiment and send it spinning out of control, destroying the atmosphere and engulfing the scientist in a superheated ball of ionized ammonia gas - I wondered if they would replicate. Bleach bottles laying eggs in the muck at the bottom of the river, laced with heavy metals. Prime habitat. The bleach bottle eggs would feed on the heavy metals and grow into nymph stage, then emerge from the primordial soap and shed their brittle, UV-degraded casing and float downstream. Adulthood is reached in two to three months and the males accumulate on the banks of the river in the stiff, phosphate foam, displaying for the females, expanding and contracting their cylindrical bodies, emitting hypochlorites, drawing the timid females out from the overhanging brush and tires and rusting cables and washing machines and -
Jack broke in. "Over here. The Lilliputian Forest, the industrial lawn, the engineered turf, managed for sustained yields, millions of dollhouse board feet, harvested every week by pale, flabby suburban farmers on toy tractors, a cheery, iridescent-green, like the felt on a pool table, an Irish festival, thatched with battle-hardened European and Asian strains, bathed in surplus chemicals produced in the last Great War." He pointed at the lawn.
Now I was looking at the lawn.
"This chemistry of war has a long history - in fact, you can quote me, it was conceived exactly twelve minutes after the discovery of fire, just enough time to finish the roast leg of auroch."
I squinted and for a second I thought I saw many small aurochs munching in the grass. "There!"
I don’t think he heard me, he was on the scent of something. "I suppose two men discovered fire but each one wanted the discovery for himself. Here, my friend, was the birth of the marketplace: First, a new and exciting product - Fire! But then, who would be the producer and who would be the consumer? Thus, the need for another product, one which determined market positions. And the market does not disappoint! The second new and exciting product - The Fire-throwing Device! After working out the glitches with a few trial runs, the market moves again! Now we have but one producer, and the consumer, well, he -he was, shall we say, consumed...but! The producer would have many, many children. And the marketplace grew and grew and lived on and on." Jack smiled broadly.
"Hey, Jack,” I asked, “Did you ever invent something?" We were at the river's edge.
Jack shook his head. "Nope. But I worked in a patent office in England once." He picked up a head-sized piece of concrete and heaved it into the river, sending up a fountain of greenish-grey.
"Maybe we can - "
"I think, if there was a patent office back when fire was introduced into the market, the proliferation of fire would have been prevented." Two fish surfaced near the splash, dark grey backbones rolling along like knobby tires. "I mean, I know that there was a day not too long ago when enemy assaults on castles and walled cities were repelled by dumping boiling oil from positions above the gates. Then naval battles were won by the feared Greek Fire; fountains of burning pine resin and sulfur vomiting from the mouths of brass lions on the prow of the ship. Terrifying. But consumer demands were strong, so naturally the markets produced new and improved terror: Jellied gasoline raining down from clear, blue skies, the Devil’s Thunderstorm, liquid fire that consumed palm-leaf villages and paper houses and their sleepy inhabitants. It's a growth market, this destruction business."
I looked out across the water, sudsy, like pureed avocado. "They always come up with something." I thought about a one-headed job opening in Indiana and traveling the byways in a circus caravan jammed with one-headed freaks, the eighth wonder of the world, arms dangling out the air holes, and then I thought about fishing from a boat that burns the surface of the water away leaving the fish on the hot lakebed roasted and ready to eat. We would have to use olive oil for the fuel, pressurize it and spray it across the glassy surface, light it with a torch, maybe before we spray it we mix it with some capers and salt and pepper, then heat it to about 450 degrees and sprinkle with crushed flat leaf parsley, and bake the lake for about 30 minutes until the skin is golden brown, but you could lay them on a banana leaf in which case you rub the fish in a mixture of lime juice and salt and then serve on a bed of rice and coconut milk. This is naval war on the low seas and it has no Geneva Convention rules, as far as I know, but it does require a license and the ability to keep a secret under torture because once your friends smell those fish they will twist you like a dishrag and bend you so hard you enter four dimensions in three pieces until you confess the name of the lake that you were burning away. I was getting hungry and I swallowed at the sight of the salad of lawn clippings, the loaves of firewood in the woodshed by the old woman’s gingerbread house, all the while rubbing the hams of my hand, prodding the sugar sand, my hands shaking at the sight of the beer-colored foam. I wondered if they had food detoxification centers; I was ready for a relapse.
"Here?" Jack laughed. "Are you kidding? Not 'till we burn everything in sight."
I frowned. "You did that last night."
“No, not there." As he scanned the skies, the deck shoes sank into the green mud. "If you could see far away, up there beyond the scattered, brilliant, blue light that lettered men tell me lies above the endless clouds in this dreary, stratus opacus gloomscape you call home, they say that large stars will burn through sequences of fuel, starting with hydrogen, then, in succession, helium, carbon, neon, and oxygen." Two fish surfaced again. Or was it three. "In the last, they will burn silicon."
"And?" I watched the low clouds slink across the treetops like a grey cat.
"Silicon is last," he continued. "It takes about a day and it is gone. Once that is burned up, nothing can be fused, and within a second” – snapping his finger - “the star collapses. Just like that. Sometimes it explodes - a supernova." He scanned the skies again. "Out there. It's pretty, bright, and short-lived."
Like a fight, I thought, when the fist hits your temple and the whole world turns bright white.
"There is where is next."
"You say where? There?" I pointed at the grass.
"Right. At our feet are tiny palm-leaf villages with paper thin homes and sleeping inhabitants, the sly nematodes, brave arachnids, honorable springtails, dutiful dung beetles, cheery sowbugs, and millipedes, centipedes, slugs, and snails - regiments of hardy exoskeletal creatures which, were we reduced to their scale, would exterminate the whole race of us – revenge killings - each and every soft, pliable man, woman and child, using our gelatinous remains to grow bales of fungi that they would feed to their fertile queens."
That was no auroch I saw in the grass; it might have been a giant scarab beetle. I stroked my throat with my fingers. "I want to fight back."
"Sure." Jack gave me a nod. "We all do. They go about their day unaware, oblivious to what positions itself above them. And then we ambush them, dropping out of thin air. We attack these things with the same ruthlessness that we attacked enemy infantries of old as they marched across pastures and farmlands beneath happy, blue skies. The heavens opened up and we rained down vats of hot chemicals like brimstone and boiling oil and napalm." He kicked the grass. "Today, innovation and efficiency have created yet another superior product: we open the bomb bay doors on the enemy and unload a witch’s brew of hydrodynamic fronts, electromagnetic pulse, ionizing radiation and thermal flash." He paused. "The sky is the limit, son. If you can't compete in this marketplace, you have no place to be and no place being." He folded his arms and glared at the lawn.
A splash. There were those two fish – no three fish - again. They were fighting over something. But back to the lawn. "The lawn?"
“All my life this world has been a playground, my backyard. But there are only so many things to burn. We have gone through pine tar, saltpeter, naptha, quicklime, sulfur, niter and now plutonium." He pokes a dead bird on the shore with his shoe. "It's not 'What's next?' It's 'What's left?' Something is out there that is the silicon of this cold, iron stone that we live on."
“Maybe we already burned it.”
Jack turned his head toward me, squinting. He studied my face. His mouth was open and he wanted to say ‘What?’ but no words were coming out.
We stood looking at each other. A minute passed. I didn’t know what to say, he didn’t say anything. A hundred fish could have walked out of that river and set up communal living with the dung beetles and flatworms but we wouldn’t have noticed. “Jack?” My neck felt hot. Still no words, but I knew what he was trying to say. “Jack, I mean, I don’t know, maybe we used it up already.” I thought about that Labrador retriever barking at an empty squirrel’s nest in a dead tree in the winter at night by himself in an atmosphere depleted of oxygen and a blackened sun unable to give warmth or light. I think the dog was blind and deaf and a seizure was coming on. And I thought about beaches, that the beaches are covered in silicon. There is no end to sand. I find it in my clothes and shoes and food. It blows and carves out rock sculptures and it stacks a thousand feet high in deserts and buries ancient cities. They say the number of stars exceeds the grains of sand on earth. Hourglasses are filled with sand and the glass is made of sand. If you burn sand it turns to glass. I didn’t know what to think. My eyes focused on Jack but he was gone, heading up toward the old woman’s house. “Jack. Hey. Hey, where you going?”
“The old woman.”
There was that splash again. A fish chomped onto a bleach bottle, shook it back and forth and pulled it underwater. A sound, like sloop and a few bubbles and it was gone. Two minutes later bits of plastic rose to the surface and then some large bubbles. Alligators do the same thing; they shake the victim, drag it underwater, dismember it and drown it. Or is it the other way around. That’s when I noticed that the sand at my feet was very big. It was mixed with millions of bits of broken plastic bottles, oxidized, irradiated, abraded, and I was standing on a semi-man-made beach, very colorful. Too much quartz to call it an unspoiled, anthropogenic man-scape, but give it a few more years, just a few more years of this synthetic saturation-bombing, this mad-chemistry, and imagine what it would look like. And two-hundred years in the future, why, with all the sand washed away - it was going to be pristine, pure, a breathtaking polymeric paradise. A thousand automatons in a laboratory somewhere turned their faces toward me and smiled.
Eons beyond, into the distant future, after a zillion floods and channel diversions, and tectonics elevated the landscape upstream an additional two-thousand feet above sea level, this old beach would be buried beneath a thousand feet of debris. Then, some sunbaked paleontologist would unearth the hardened strata and, wafting away the chlorinated outgasses with an old, cotton towel, find my fossilized footprints and declare me primitive man. I could see the vestigial fingers on my left hand fumbling with the vestigial fingers on my right and I could not bear to look. Rudimentary, degenerate, like fat, pink crayons. Stop it. I turned away. They might as well have been hooves. But I had to wonder just what they were doing. I had no ready answers. And yet, this thought did not stop them from doing whatever it was that they were doing over and over again and for a moment I considered tossing one of them away for simplicity. This is not where I wanted things to go and I quickly rubbed my footprint out with my left foot. Wilderness ethics, Leave no trace, right? Of course, the right foot quickly made a new footprint and I knew I could not control my feet either. I could see an automaton in the lab, smiling and I was hot with jealousy.
Upstream somewhere, tiny particles of quartz sloughed off in the raging battle between water and rock and drifted downstream. The sales pitch is that plastics are maintenance free, no thought or effort required, and soon I was going to fit right in just like -
A splash. The fish broke the surface, snagged a plastic bag out of the air and cut back into the river and I swore it had three heads.
At that moment, I heard Jack shout as he ran back from the house. “Hey! I had to ask the lady. I had to ask her what she did with all the sweaters.”
He beat me to it; I had always wanted to ask her that question. “And?”
“She said, ‘What sweaters?’ I thought she was being coy, so I said, ‘I know how you’ve helped so, so many unfortunate souls. What’ve you done with all the sweaters you’ve made over the years?’ She said, ‘I only make this one. Only this one.’ I said, ‘But what about the others?’”
Words jumped out of my mouth, “Charity, she must have given them to charity.” Come on, lady, I thought, Say you gave them to charity.
Jack took a breath. “Then she said it again, ‘I only make this one, only this one.’ I don’t get what she means. And so I looked closer, and I see that she was taking the sweater apart, unraveling it knit by purl, one knit by one purl, one knit by one purl. And then her hands, they are calloused like a sailor’s and full of Gordian knots and pock marks, like yellow golf balls melted together. And then she said - get this: ‘And when I am done, I only make this one again, only this one, and when I am done I only make this one again, only this one, and when I am done...’ She kept saying that over and over and over and I see she is going to make that sweater all over again and I had to get out of there so I jumped up and ran out the back door.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. "I didn't see this. Did I really see this? This is uncharted territory.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” We stared the house. “What is she doing?”
His body leaned slightly, away from the house. “Let’s get out of here.”
I looked up. It was almost noon but it was still a dreary grey. I felt like we were being watched. Maybe it was the old woman, maybe someone else. I didn’t know. I looked at the river. Then the treetops. I could barely speak. “Jack. Look." I pointed. "Those aren’t clouds up there. It's smoke. All this time it’s been smoke.”

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