Hollow Men: Three
When the sun comes up it spreads itself over the hills and trees, tentatively at first then aggressively. It's absorbed by things that got cold and thirsty during the night. But as the day wears on, the temperature rises, and weariness of this horrible sun-thing becomes clear. We are tired of it, that white spot in the sky is punching us, it is a sky weapon. We sweat and plod and hide in the hot months.
The other half of the year is overcast and wet. And sometimes cold enough that you regret living. Cold and wet isn't something you ever get used to. At least I haven't. Mostly we live in extremes, the two seasons each cruel in their own ways. We entered the wet season, but the heat is still here in the afternoons, making it steamy and sloppy.
The first night she stayed in the barn I heard her scream. I guess she found those puppets. I can't imagine what she expected. I suppose she expected the prefabs MegaSoy(tm) farmers live in. Farming CorpLand stuff. At a certain point people became cheaper than robots. Not as efficient, but better than having them being idle in The Sprawl, causing trouble, not enough money to consume properly. Ship 'em out to the big farms to work. I remember once a long time ago I saw one of the ads "MegaFarm(tm)! All lodging provided! Work off your debt in as little as ten years!" I guess the newest methods of debt reduction are more to the point and also cross-generational.
I did not sleep well. The palpable sense of another human being within range, some unsaid definite distance where previously there was nobody, it itched in the back of my head, like a tickle you can't scratch. Dog though, slept like a log.
In the morning we ate eggs from my cranky chickens. Whenever I go to collect them the chickens give me accusing glances. "Thief", I hear them say. Later when I feed them I remind them we've got a deal, a social contract. "Nobody is truly free," I tell them, "freedom is relative, a dangerous illusion created in the 20th century to suppress the principles of functional liberty and well-being." These sermons don't necessarily produce results however and the chickens blink stupidly at me.
"Is that all you eat, Powrbarz?" I ask her.
"No, no. Lts ov difrnt thyngs."
"Mmm. W3int lik3 d33z. Fromabox. D33z taste f3ny." But she ate them anyway. "Ndall kyndsa alg33 thangs. All shap3z, all syzs. D3y gyt3t offa d3 oceans." Chomp. Chomp. "U 3var b33n insyd3?"
"When I was younger, yeah." Maybe I was younger then than she is now. "I wanted to leave the farm, I wanted to do business, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I went down there to live inside the wall."
"N3ntrapnoor! Gotz to knowd3 ryt3 p33ps HA HA ntlyk3 wag3 munk3yz?"
"I guess that part hasn't changed anyway."
"Orlyk3 m33, waytng tob3 harv3std." She seemed sad for a moment then laughed it off. "3y3v run wyld, guez sum orgn farm3r iz gonna b33 lookn f3r m33."
I asked her what they do when one of them runs away. It must happen. Since most people got slugged for corp health programs a long time ago, she said they'd usually track them down that way. But she got hers removed, she showed me the small scar. Barely a scar, tiny, but she was proud of it. It was an emblem, a line of meaning, a liberty scar. Still, I said, you must be worth a lot of money to them, you can't be the first person who's taken out their healthID. She shrugged, laughed. "Wot do u do w3n 1 ov y3r sh33py runz off?"
Sheep prefer to remain with other sheep, I said. They don't usually run off alone, unless they're sick. I scratched my beard, I stopped, I was digging myself into an untenable hole of bad opinions and bad explanations. I thought I was sure of myself after so many years of doing this, what might be said a profession of shepherding. But I didn't know anymore. This is a side effect of age and relative isolation and recent events, and I simply didn't know anymore. About anything. I doubted doubt itself. All I had to fall back on were habits.
"I would go out looking for it. With Dog. I'd try to... I did try I guess..." I stammered.
Like that she said, somebody will come looking. "N d3ll prolly k3ch m33 nd3n 3y3ll h3v 2 giv3m m33 3y3ballz!"
I wasn't laughing like she was. I don't think she was really laughing either, but that's the social template. When the tragedy is your own, perhaps it's the only choice. You can't kill it with laughter, but it makes it sweeter, enough to get it down anyway.
I frowned, she frowned.
"What was your plan? Where are you going?"
She shrugged, seemed reluctant. "Nurth, b3r sum p33ps whu halp, 3y3 h3rd, g3t cropz intu Fr33 Gr33land."
Free Greenland, the land of mud. There were stories, back then, about communes. Up here in our stretches of undesirable lands if we'd ever thought that we were both hearty and isolated, all we had to do was compare ourselves with Free Greenland to feel metropolitan. But I had no idea what was happening there now.
I had to rely on what had been said. Around the stove. Around which stove stories originated, I can't say. I take those things at face value. Things are said. Words come into the Kingdom one way or another and I'm positive the stove chatter contains only proximate truths, everybody adds their own little flourishes. Since I'm not connected I couldn't confirm or deny any of it even if I wanted to. And if I was connected I'm sure I'd still consider them relative truths in the form of propaganda. One way or another we've all been starved of truth, and this gnawing sphere of uncertainty is the age we inhabit. It doesn't bother me anymore.
"You must've had help. I mean you had to get past check points, you had to get over the wall."
More shrugging. This was making her uncomfortable, I can see she'd rather avoid the specifics. What did I care, I wasn't going to turn her in. Who would I hand her over to up here anyway? She had to have had help. The details of that don't matter, questioning it only make her more twitchy. Although since her portable ran out of power and I didn't have any way of connecting it to my antiquated power system, she'd gotten kind of twitchy anyway.
"Let me show you how to feed the chickens."
When I was young I had something to prove. Not content with this northern agrarian bullshit, I took my imaginings of the "world"--meaning the cities--and turned them into something to conquer, and maybe glorify as a thing to set me free. Although, I didn't really know what freedom meant, only that it sounded tantalizing. My parents, who had come from those places, had tried to shield me from any concrete knowledge. Which had the opposite desired effect as I built up intricacies of the fantasy and attainability of phenomenologically leaving.
What I was missing--what I did not, could not understand then--was familiarity with actual chaos. Capitalistic chaos, a billion semi-independent trajectories, a billion unrealistic expectations like my own, fighting over finite, regulated, corp dominated resources. We lost a game stacked against us.
Unless you were licensed and academic you were freelance. Cheap fodder to be worked to death. And with habitual mockery and derision no less. Without the umbrella of a corp over you, you'd die in the edges, the moldy dilapidated housing that had probably seemed so new and shiny a long time ago, had since flooded in a dozen storms. And you'd be traveling five hours a day from job to job, or working from your burrow 24/7, always on, always available, always responsive. If you did get a corp job, that was it, that was your life, you lived it and breathed it, you bought and evangelized its culture unquestioningly. At least, you didn't question openly.
Pretty quickly any plans I'd made were reduced to scrambling and constant panicky flailing to survive. One in a million was rewarded, as an example to inspire the others. And every single one of the others, identical to myself except for the smaller details, believed they could beat the system, believed that they'd be victorious in some sort of mythological battle. What we were all doing though, really, was getting farther into debt. I'd never pay mine off. But beyond the wall, up here, where everyone is poor, and where that currency doesn't matter much, there aren't really consequences of CorpLand debt. None of us can go anywhere else. None of us can buy their things. None of us has anything to offer them, and they nothing for us. You are exiled, a debt exile.
Need a degree? No problem. Want a nicer place? No problem. Need a holiday in the Eurozone? No problem. Doctor? Same. Got cancer? Tough luck. Decent real food? Ditto. Unless you were willing to live in the most abject conditions, everything cost more than you had. That was the rule. How much is this? More than you have, put it on your account. And, after a time, when you couldn't pay down your debts anymore, and you're a kidney short, you'll probably end up having to live abjectly anyway.
The smarter ones put lots of effort into balancing their account score with their negatives. Because if you had no debt it was worse than having a world of debt. Nobody was going to let you do anything if you couldn't prove you can juggle and hustle. Hustle and juggle. People with no debt are dangerous and weird and probably won't buy the bullshit you're selling.
What I remember most though were the bodies. The millions and millions of them. Try as hard as I might to think of them as individuals, I couldn't. It was too obvious who wore what uniform of the week, who was required to talk loudly in a public space about a new 'Cast because they were getting paid to market it. The crush of bodies, I thought, at the time, the moment I knew I wanted to leave, it was the crush of frightened livestock--the movement of herding, instead of fields and mud and winding paths it was crumbling concrete, rusting metal, and advokiosks and medipacks and the glow of candy colors flickering across faces glued to portables and the little whispers to their assistants, that great machine learning conglomeration in the sky, growing tendrils around us then, little whispers of wants and declarations and desperate statuses. Feeding the machines, which in turn fed us, poorly.
That was a long time ago. I couldn't imagine, not precisely anyway, the developments since my short lived and failed excursion, that blossoming horror of the world she was born in. I know, this is a pejorative statement. Unequivocal. I could not conceive perhaps because I was a stupid close-minded farmer, of the terrible pressure and compression on that urbanity ever transforming into anything marvelous and redemptive. I'm not hinting here at spiritual redemption in any sense. I am not a god worshiper or god fearer. You don't need a god to understand the concept of redemption. It can come from anywhere. However, in my own limited experience, it would be the small things. The anonymous redemption, the barnyard catechism, as common and satisfying as a late night piss.
She was OK at feeding the chickens but really her penchant was shepherding. The sheep were drawn to her. They would hover around her in a spiral, a spinning wheel of wool, as if she were naturally their center and she, laughing, HA HA HA sh33py! HA HA. They too appeared happy in their sheep ways. And we went out into the field and Dog didn't even have to herd, or chase anyone down, since they were magnetized to her within an unsaid and well maintained distance.
In a few days I let her and Dog go out alone.
This was an experiment on my part. Less an experiment or trial of her, but of me. As I stayed back, at the barn, I sweat out a shirt in anxiety. I hid in the barn by the puppets, who's glare and gravitas added unrealistic importance to the moment. Always they seemed ready to say something. As I stared at them, they contained pent up words and concepts held down for decades, about to emerge, or burst, with angry relevance. Because they were angry, it radiated from them, all the things they'd warned about and fought against, had now become true, entrenched or institutionalized. They stretched out in the back with supine judgment on nine inch nails and glued together with cobwebs.
This is why I'd been scared of them as a kid. I could sense the emanating reproach and bitterness. As inanimate as they'd now become, they were to me still frighteningly effective overseers. Perhaps laughable in their own age, as relics now deadly serious.
What they did not provide, however, was advice. I'd rarely needed any. But now everything had changed. Almost everything. It felt that way. The world had showed up unannounced, and I didn't want it to, so my impulses were mixed and muddled. I thought, if I hadn't lost that sheep none of this would've happened.
I should visit the beekeeper. He could illuminate this fuzzy situation. He would isolate the important elements, focus my attention, divine the bits and bobbles, the hive friendly trajectories. Also I had some chickens to trade. This was a perfectly feasible pretense with desirable side effects, since we were far from the culture of refined sugar, and I have to admit I've got a sweet tooth or what's left of them anyway.
So we packed up. It was half a day hike there, half a day hike back. She was nervous. I wasn't sure why, since recently she'd become more at ease and learned how to do things around the farm. The woods made her nervous I guess. This in turn made Dog and me nervous, who'd never been nervous in the woods ever--in fact, the reverse. The woods transformed us back from what the buildings had made us. We weren't, thankfully, Us at all in the woods. We weren't anything. The scope was much bigger, much more opaque, a jigsaw puzzle of leaves and bugs and twigs and mushrooms and rotten logs and disgruntled squirrels. Our problems were reduced, we were one more toadstool on top of a million other toadstools. Dog and I found this deeply therapeutic.
Since we were in wet days now the cool damp drips drummed and plunked around us, the sounds we made were softened. Dog was dutifully restrained despite being feet away from pesky chipmunks. We avoided the roads and stuck to the back ways. Going by the roads would be asking for trouble.
Occasionally CorpLand patrols would zoom along and if they saw you, they'd fuck with you or deport you. If they were in any kind of a mood, you'd get deported. No doubt there was some sort of quota or kickback for each harassment and arrest, but I'll bet most of it was fueled by pure resentment and boredom. They never went the back ways since that would mean walking, which a lot of them weren't physically capable of beyond getting to and from the vehicle. They were scared of back country. They were scared of trees. They were scared of it for the same reasons Dog and I loved it, you would lose yourself, and no matter what you brought in with you mentally, or what you purchased from Corpland, you'd end up setting fire to it to stay warm.
The beekeeper's house was hard to find, deep in the forest, not visible until you were almost on it. It didn't nestle. But it didn't crouch, it wasn't camouflaged. I thought it was part of the woods themselves, like it had grown there. And the beekeeper too as if he'd always been incalculably old, and always here in this house. There must've been an age of trolls and heroes and wood sprites and witches that he could trace his lineage to.
"Old man!" I yelled. I felt I had the right to call him an old man since I too was an old man. These are things old men do. We walked the periphery of the house twice, I yelled once more then knocked on the door, which was probably unlocked because why wouldn't it be--but entering without invitation would ruin the very civilization we'd worked hard to retreat back to.
We walked along the path, towards the glade where the bees were kept. As we got closer a bee buzzed around us, swooping in peaceful well calculated arcs above, then in front, then behind. It was only a single bee but it was collecting information before it shot off.
"He'll know we're coming now," I said.
"He tlkz w dem?"
"He made them. He used to be an engineer for BEEEZ, back when natural bees died out."
As we came into the clearing I could see him at the left edge, wearing his old white smock and face shield. The hives were around him, stacked, a couple turned up for maintenance. There was a laughably small and unsteady folding table next to him and a long box, bulky, with a console, one side of this was covered in small holes. As we approached I could see the "BEEEZ" logo and a single faintly blinking light.
"What did you bring this time?"