Hollow Men: Two
The tribes of the north and south aren't that different. Some folks will disagree with that, but disagreement appears to be the foundation of human existence, so I take it for granted. Nod a bit, accept that strong opinions are the sea we swim in. Even this, itself, as a statement, surfaces contrarians.
And so on, and so on.
The chickens disagreed strenuously as well.
I felt off-center and harassed. Dog gave me the cold shoulder, wandering off in Dog time doing Dog missions, which I would never fully know. This was his allowance. As long as Dog didn't eat my rabbits or chickens, Dog got to roam on Dog time. But the hollow sighting had left me in a state of unease, anxious and unsure of the immediate order of things. Had fundamentals changed in the greater world, was my blissful unawareness merely dumb ignorance? Had we presupposed that isolation can stop time?
The tribes of the north and the south aren't that different. We recognize the boundaries. We respect the territory. We share a quiet dislike of The Sprawl. We negotiated with the corporations. As long as the shoe factory stays open and those MegaSoy(tm) farms remain operational we are temporarily unmolested. After the previous period of absolute oversight and absolute oppression, there has been a collective realization that people are perfectly capable of monitoring and oppressing themselves.
The Sprawl tolerates our silent existence as an area of low threat, low commerce, and low desirability. And we hide resources. And we hide education. And we hide our culture. And we hide improvements, and power sources.
However, my chickens were being a pain in the ass.
I know a little about the nature of tribes and the history of it all because my parents were involved in it before they moved up to The Kingdom. They'd worked for OverCorp, that's where they met. Once OverCorp was calling the shots instead of the government there were a few years of explosive and completely unsustainable prosperity. Deliriously unfettered capitalism. Of course when the crash came this whole side of the continent was sold off bit by bit to other corporations. Big corps eat smaller corps, ad nauseam, a recycling process that accrues power over time into potentially a single terrible idea. I think OverCorp ended with a one small office somewhere, purchased and left to die on the rocks slowly sapped of life, having sustained the larger maw.
I remember arguments. My parents said they knew what was happening. Said they'd seen it all coming. But now that I'm older I don't think that's true. I think they were like everybody else, only being strung along, being fed the necessary information. I think they were pragmatic enough to get out. But deep down I think they believed they were smart enough to stay in and play the OverCorp games. Competition, hyper-winning, hyper-losing. My parents thought they would hyper-win. I'm not sure what that means, the jargon of that time. They were fervent about it, infected by it. It is utterly bewildering to me. I see it now as a fog of delusion and arrogance.
The land I have is split up into hill, forest and meadow. Into threes. The hills keep water flowing, the forest keeps wind and soil from destroying the meadow. The meadow provides grass for the sheep and open space for farming. Like this I also conceptualize the rest of the world. Each third is crucial. If I level the hill I will ruin the forest and meadow. If I clear the forest I will isolate the hill and expose the meadow. Like this, thrice.
I went into town to hear the chatter. To jaw by the stove. Used to be a general store. I imagine they had all sorts of things here, packaged things on shelves from different places. Things in boxes, assorted goods and wares, all factory made and ready to go. Now we do all the buying and selling in the market row, under the tent. I'll trade you this for that, I'll help you re-roof if you give me those rabbits, and so on. The general store didn't do so great after money went away. And all the power drained to generate new coin.
There was the usual news. So-and-so's barn burned down. This-or-that crop did well, or did poorly. And there were a couple of craggy ancient veterans from the war who occasionally chimed in, remainder voices echoing back from that second Civil War. They were kids then. They liked talking about it. Surely, they say, you don't remember the time when everything was spotless and clean and full of helpful robots and there was a constant outpouring of free opinion and all that food, my god, they would say, their eyes glazing over and their tongues audibly smacking around on the insides of their heads, the food! There were meats, they would say, and different kinds of fruits and vegetables, all fresh! And from all over the world! One of them said, I remember going to a restaurant with my parents and they had a different thing to eat every single day! You mean not just potatoes and carrots and MegaSoy(tm) and canned greens? All kinds of things! They said. And lots of it! And everything was so clean, they would say. Not covered in mud and shit like we are now. Shiny, sparkling. People even used to have a condition where they compulsively avoided things other people touched. That didn't seem to save any of them from the flu of 49 I'd say. Nope, they said, didn't seem to make any difference.
That day I got some batteries and a box of fat.
When I'm out, I'm out. Me and Dog. Walking the land, plunking down at night. I lay there, I'm looking up at the stars and that inky bit of over-landscape, deeply stretching, I know I can feel it all the way around and behind me, and I have trouble believing in the long term viability of humanity. By comparison humanity feels like falling down a flight of stairs. Maybe I used to be angry about that, about people wrecking every single fucking thing they get their clutches on, but recently, laying there looking up at infinity I feel a little sad. The rest has washed away over the years, eroded my anger. The stars still spin, and the inky top bits still go on and on, and I wonder how so many temporary things can be considered so important so temporarily.
Dog and I would go on these trips like this, for a spell. I would pack up my little observations on the nature of things and store them away since they did nothing to help herd the sheep or feed the chickens. And I wondered, looking at the occasional furrowed brow of Dog if he too did this, with his own ancient Dog mythology, did he capitulate to the incomprehensible universe. Or did he personify nature in only a way that made sense living side by side with the enormity--Dog's universe spans from here to that goddamn squirrel. Which may also effectively, in its way, contain an infinity.
But the matter at hand. When I got back I discovered she was living on my porch.
It was early. Dawn was creeping up on us. Night air still hanging around, not yet burned off. I went up the couple of creaky steps of the porch and I heard scrambling from within. A serious flutter of movement and maybe a zipper, the rip of velcro. I suppose for a second I assumed a bear got into the porch. Although in retrospect this is of course ridiculous. But I do find the image of a bear struggling to get out of a sleeping bag entertaining. Dog bristled. Bears have never scared us. Overgrown raccoons. Shoo them, shoo them away. So we slapped open that minimal porch door fearlessly.
"O Hai!" she said, standing up and straight, "Sry iz y3r place?"
She was next to my sleeping bag. I could see a water bottle and a pack of her own gear, disjointedly modern compared to my own often patched worn and grubby belongings. She must've slept here, I thought. I didn't say anything. I don't know why. I stared at her with whatever intensity lived there in my brain, behind my eyeballs, screaming mentally. However what came out of my mouth was nothing, not a peep.
"Sry, sry, erm... 3y3 waz coldndstuff 3y3 knockd nd b3ngdn the dur... sry, sry sry..."
The "sorry" had an urgent quality, it was genuine and despite everything that she stood for, being here on my own porch, something about that "sorry" stopped my internal yelling, squelched it off instantly like a switch, like an electric shock, and I realized I had a real problem on my hands. This was something I couldn't ignore. It was an unfortunate suddenness, knowing things had changed for me. Changed from my consistency, my siege-like life here on the farm.
My parents had bought this place from an old puppet maker. An anarchist puppet maker who fought in the resistance. If that makes any sense. It didn't to me. But it was a different time, I believe the demonstrations, protests, riots, were purely partisan. The history of how all that had worked is beyond me as far as the exact particulars. Chaos I guess. Apparently people protested a lot of things because it was legal. Once fighting broke out that changed of course. I mean I don't think he fought with the puppets themselves, maybe that's when they got shelved in the barn, when the guns and tanks and planes came out. Bigger, badder puppets.
Seeing the old puppets in the barn, some almost ten feet tall, what I imagined was a festival of bizarre anger. A rejoicing of resistance, as a sort of circus. A reflection on the absurdity of social and political structures. That must've been appropriate to the age, weird and pointless now. Creepy. Opaque. I also have a feeling it was too subtle to have helped much. I mean, guns and tanks in the end anyway. We all know what happened.
As a child these ancient monsters were the center and epitome of total horror. To be told to go to the back of the barn was a fate worse than death. Hung up back there, some disassembled and their limbs and heads scattered on the wall on pegs mutely threatening, they were sentient to me. But my parents, year after year, would say they were going to get rid of them "really clear out that barn". They never did. As I grew older, and my parents passed away, I too kept thinking "well now I can finally clear out that barn", and of course I never have. The old carved faces and claw like hands and rusty hinges sit there as they have, always, waiting for me to do something maybe, waiting to be challenged again perhaps, waiting for the return of resistance and absurdity.
I no longer hate them, I think, I have an emotion closer to pity, since they've been prisoners all this time, after their years of glorious ring leading and influence. Still, when I'm in the back of the barn, their presence may at any moment, without warning, startle me and I am overwhelmed with fear and must flee. As a grown man, I flee.
OK, I thought with a degree of resignation, I've got to get her off my porch. She can stay the night in the barn but Jesus when she sees those old puppets she'll run for the hills. Maybe that's for the best actually.
"Did you steal my sheep?" I asked her.
"My sheep. Did you steal my sheep?"
"Did you... eat my sheep?"
As I asked it and I looked at her I knew this wasn't true. She was thin. She was hollow. The Sprawl didn't teach you how to do stuff like that. She'd have no better idea of how to kill my sheep than to start a fire.
Then on her face was the recognition of what I was saying. "No! No! 3y3 dintate y3r sh33py! R3alz! 3y3dint!" This too disarmingly genuine and my ingrown sense fostered by a week of paranoia and vigilance was deflated and disappointed by the realities of my guest. What I wanted was that encapsulation of anger I could swallow and digest with long grumbling satisfaction.
This discrepancy was compounded by Dog, who with evidently no sense of loyalty whatsoever, put his head down, wagged tail, and sauntered over to her looking for a real good scratch.
"O Hai Doggos! Nyc Doggos!" And she vigorously but not too much gave him an up and back behind the left ear in the way Dog loves. And Dog's acceptance of her broke down my indulgent grumpiness and all I could do is let out a long sigh. "Sry, sry" she said again, "... totally n 3mpty, pr3tty hungry, haz Powrbarz? Sry, sry..." And she looked like she could fall down, probably out there in the woods with nothing to eat for days other than the evidence of wrappers I'd discovered. Sighing again. I believed this constant cycle of reconciliation, anger, then resignation, was going to produce the noise of sighing. Like some long belabored conspirator who passively suffers another's direction and guidelines. I would sigh again. Dog wagged his tail. Food, he understood that part.
"No, there are no Powrbarz here. What did you think you'd be eating in the woods and fields? Here, come inside, I have food."
I fed her, although at first I'm not sure she knew what the stew was or how to eat it. The variety, the actuality of the components were momentarily overwhelming. I saw her study it trying to figure it out, trying to understand or come to terms that this was not squeezed out of a machine but from the dirty ground and from the living creatures and from the suspect hygienics of my own modest kitchen instead of something covered in AdvrtWrap, blinking the latest offers and propaganda. I believe after the confusion she was repulsed. But then she ate it heartily probably entirely out of necessity.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
She looked up from the stew, her spoon in midflight. "3y3dnno. N3rth 3y3 gu3z."
"It's going to start getting colder soon. And wet. Lots of rain in the cold month."
"OK OK 3y3 dunno, n3rth, 3y3m headn n3rth."
"Why? Why leave The Sprawl?"
And the spoon went down and came up, and its payload delivered she chewed with the multicolored teeth that must've been in fashion.
"3y3 haz d3dt." She looked at me and could tell I didn't understand. "3y3 haz d3dt. Sp3cl d3dt." And her eyes returned to mine looking for reaction or comprehension, neither of which I displayed. "3y3ma host." And she turned her head a little bit, just enough to show, that I saw a brand on her neck below her ear.
The dolt I am. I blinked. Living up here I know only stew and sheep and trees.
"Mafolkz whathadm3 pudt m33 in d3dt, t3y sold m33 aza host."
"You mean... for, like, organs?" And she nodded and refilled the spoon.
"3nythyng. Skyn, blud, eggz, org3nz. T3y syn3d d3 contryct b3fur 3y3 waz born."
It dawned on me, as things suddenly do, because I'm an idiot, how long it had been since I'd heard anything specific about The Sprawl, or anything about outside The Kingdom at all. In one important sense this was by design. We cut ourselves off, as much as we could. And while it might have been shocking that there were people used as livestock, I can't claim it was surprising. Perhaps it should've been. But at my age it did not create a surge of disgust and anger, that it might have when I was a young man full of the contrary purpose of a kingdom built from dissent. The puppets in the barn sighed, as I sighed. We were rusty. How much had the world changed? Half of me didn't care at all, the half that had lived here without tragedy (other than the sheep) for many years as intended, away from the spectacular society, the self-interested misdirection, the towering institutions of inequality, the flailing limbs of power strangling itself, fighting everything in its path. And because of this distance I'd felt superior. Right or wrong. I was above--or more accurately out of range, not permanently, but so far, camouflaged by wool and manure. Hiding in the thicket. And I'd perceived hiding as a superior response.
With her sitting there as the reality, the representative of that organism, I doubted and wondered if maybe that confidence due to remoteness was not an illusion but an affliction. With her sitting there, I felt weak and old. The world will move on without you. It will become worse.
"Look, you can sleep in the barn. There's a shit stove in there. The barn will keep the rain off."
Dog, that reliable telegraph of internal states, came up to our laps happy and slobbering.