Master Lee sits just there yonder upon Traveler. They is the only ones not muddy, not hunkered down in the ground. I hope there ain’t no sharpshooters across Union way what can see him and be good enough at shootin’ to put a ball in his brain. Master Lee’s about all we still gots.
Funny me seein’ him now I’m fixin’ to vamoose. Maybe I’m only seein’ him ‘cause I’ve already made it far enough back. Come night, I’ll be gone. Me along with about half the army, done tricked away, gone home. Home where’s we should’ve always been. Ain’t just that we’s hungry, though I’m here to tell you powerful damn hungry we are. I actually managed to get myself in on a bit of coosh some nights ago but had barely aught before and hardly aught since. Men down to catchin’ and eatin’ what rats still be around.
Thing is, lookit Master Lee over there – clear to me he been eatin’; maybe not high on the hog but starvin’ he ain’t. Getting’ by fine, it seems, and got a couple slaves attendin’ him besides. And see, that there’s the thing; ain’t just that we’re hungry. We been fightin’ and dyin’ and now starvin’ to hold on to some sort of a life we ain’t had and ain’t never gonna have anyway. I’ve been doin’ this from the beginning. I got whooped up into a ruckus early on and I was there in Montgomery with my troop and I heard Jeff Davis and that Stephens vice president get up there and lay their hands on the good book and then go speechifying, and I heard them say then, right then and there that this here war is all about the slaves. That Stephens guy got up there and went into a tirade over how bad the Negro is and how this slavery stuff was a God given right and ain’t no Yankees gonna tell him different. That be close to four years back now and I admit it riled me up, but the thing is I don’t see now how this slavery thing is my affair at all. They got all us poor whites fightin’ so’s the rich whites can have slaves that just makes them richer and look more so down on us poor whites doin’ they biddin’. And I don’t see no more how they biddin’ matters a hoot in hell.
So I’m a gonna get; leave this Petersburg place in its mud. Hell, I dunno what’s gonna happen. Don’t know how those rich whites‘ll manage without their slaves or how the slaves will manage without them; don’t believe they know either. Don’t know that anybody’s really thought about it. Don’t know how we’re all gonna treat each other afterwards; don’t know that I care. DO know that it cain’t be much worse than I been gettin’ treated, basically lied to and used from the start. Not all a us figured that out, but a bunch have and I’m off to join ‘em. Home to my Mama; guess she’s still there, anyways. (I know Pa ain’t – saw him fall). See how the farm still is – hear’d there’s been lots of destruction. If it ain’t; if it’s all shot up, well hell, I hears California’s nice.
“Fifteen minutes out,” said the navigator sitting next to him in the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule as it moved towards the International Space Station, glimmering some distance ahead of them. That distance, he could visually see, was slowly closing. Mission control chimed in, said, “Approach to ISS nominal”. Higher and to the left in the small capsule window a three-quarter Moon hung, and to the right of the moon, a bright dot. The bright dot was moving.
“I have a visual on asteroid 680671 Sinole,” he said, “Right where we expected to see it”. After a minute of silence, Mission Control again, “Astronomy section reports 680671 Sinole continues on course well beyond the Moon’s orbit and will not cross Earth’s path. No worries.”
“Twelve minutes to ISS dock,” the astronaut to his left, the navigator, announced. “Approach continues nominal,” agreed Mission Control. Two more astronauts to their right and left completed the row of four, three men and a woman. Behind them, he could sense the silent fifth astronaut in the row behind them, which could accommodate up to three.
Wait, wait, he thought. Five astronauts? I only remember training with four, including myself. Why were five there now? He couldn’t remember a role for a fifth. He thought about turning to look but knew the seat wouldn’t allow him to turn his head that far. He remembered the fifth astronaut boarding the capsule, assisted by the ground crew like the rest of them.; nobody thought it unusual. He hadn’t thought it unusual. Why was he confused now?
Disorientation might indicate a problem. He checked the gages on capsule oxygen and pressure levels. Everything looked fine. “Ground, what’s your read on crew health?” He felt his navigator turn slightly to look at him, curious why he’d make the request, then check the gages himself. “Crew health is nominal, commander. ISS approach also continues nominal,” ground reported.” Navigator turned back to his own station. “Eight minutes,” he said.
“Everybody awake?” he asked, only half joking. The other three in front chuckled and responded to the affirmative. “What about you back there?” he asked.
A couple seconds. “Fine”, came an acknowledgement.
He thought, this just feels weird. He looked again at the asteroid. Its course seemed to have curved. Now this is just too weird. “Control … “, he began, then came an unexpected flash of intense light. “What in the hell!” someone cried out. They squeezed their eyes tight for the several seconds it lasted. Static burst through their headsets. “Control!” he shouted. The light faded away.
The ISS was gone.
“Control!” He looked for debris. There was none. No sign of an explosion. It was just gone. “Control please acknowledge!” He looked to the asteroid again and saw that it had moved closer to them. Much closer, and it suddenly seemed too artificial to be an asteroid. “Control!” Static.
“They’re no longer there,” came the voice from the back row, the fifth astronaut, speaking so calmly, even soothing. “No one is.”
He let that sink in a moment. The other three astronauts next to him seemed to be unconscious. He tried to switch frequencies on the radio.
“It’s not the radio,” the voice came once more. “They’re gone.”
Very peacefully the voice said, “It’s okay. It’s alright. It wasn’t your fault. We made a mistake; design flaws. We decided to undo.”
“Nobody felt, even thought, a thing. We simply returned everything to a previous state. Like it never happened.”
He shook his head, fought back nausea. “Like what never happened?”
“Humans,” the voice said. “We made mistakes in the design.” He looked at his hands, quickly turning them, examining. “No, not in the physical,” the voice said, “Although we should have given you greater tolerance to radiation variance. No, you were too resistant to diversity, too resistant to change, too self-delusional, among other things. We left too much to what you would call ‘survival of the fittest’, and it proved ultimately maladaptive. Homo sapiens were soon to be replaced. We didn’t like how it was evolving so we decided an undo was in order.”
His head spun. He had to fight to control his breathing, then felt a calming wave engulf him like a tranquilizer taking hold. “But we’re still here…”
“Yes, as are the crew of your ISS. They are safe. You and your colleagues will be as well, shortly. You will live perfectly comfortable lives; we wanted living examples in case we decide a redesign is possible.”
“Who are you?” he asked, No answer. “Were we really that bad?”
“No,” the voice said. “We kept all your literature, all your art, and all of your music. THAT part was unexpected. And frankly, because of it, we don't know what the hell to do.”
Sheer exhaustion likely simply took over as he stood leaning on the axe handle, leaning the direction towards his cabin down the hill, towards his pregnant wife preparing some meager something for supper as she sat on a chair out front, towards the open ground leaning towards the river a quarter mile beyond. A light breeze lovely with autumn scents ruffled his hair and cooled the sweat dripping over his body. Six months since he spied this section of ground. He’d cleared trees to add to the open ground that he could cultivate in the spring. Four months since he’d completed the tiny 10x10 foot cabin that would protect them through the winter. Three months since they’d exhausted the last of the dried beans and cornmeal they’d brought with them. Two months since he completed the small smokehouse in which he could cure enough meat to see them through the winter. Two weeks since he’d seen his nearest neighbor who worked a farm a couple miles distance, and that only close enough to wave. Six hours since he’d climbed this slight rise, intent on felling and chopping up one more tree, adding one more tiny bit to what he might one day call a farm. One more tiny bit to his world. And two hours since he’d swallowed the last of the water he’d carried up with him.
He gazed at the scene in front of him and he tried mightily to see in it the pastoral scene his sister had painted to hang over the mantel of their father’s home back in Connecticut. A beautiful scene of a neat farmhouse and barn, straight rows of healthy crops and fat livestock, all happy under a blue sky and a yellow sun. It had captured his imagination as a young man; he’d felt drawn into it. He could see himself as part of the artwork, contentedly nurturing its little world. It had so enraptured him he’d felt compelled to bring his young wife west to coax from the wilderness just such a paradise. He’d stood near to this spot many times over the past six months and thought of that painting and projected it onto his little farmstead, and he tried now to do it again.
But he couldn’t.
The world before him seemed only roughly hacked out of the earth, ragged and torn, a propagation of toil and poverty. He felt lightheaded, dizzy; he felt as though he were somehow above himself, floating like a spirit, trying to grab a vision of present and future perfection that refused to achieve focus. He felt so tired; so worn out. He let his head drop. He wanted more than anything to simply lay down, close his eyes, and let the world go dark.
He walked slowly back to his wife, instead. Plopped down on the ground next to her. “You worked yourself too hard and didn’t drink enough water, didn’t you?” she asked him, and he just nodded and reached for the water jug next to her. “I told you, more clearing can wait. You needs spend your days foragin’ and huntin’ and fishin’ and adding to our food stocks. Trappin’ a pelt or two might also bring a few dollars we could surely use.” He shrugged. “Darlin’,” she asked, “Wouldn’t you like to spend a couple days down at the river just fishin’? Just fishin’ and sittin’. Look how tired out you are.”
He took another swig of water. “D'ya ever wonder if I’ve brought you to ruin? If this was the right thing to be doin'?”
She gave him that look of hers; that look that strongly suggested foolishness on his part. “You’ve seen me getting’ sick many a morning of late?” she asked. He nodded, slowly, because he always proceeded cautiously when foolishness on his part was being suggested. “Well, that’s what all this is right now,” she said and swung her head in such a way as to indict the land around them. “Just a little morning sickness.”
Five thousand drones were looking for him. They hovered over the city in a persistent hum, sniffing the twilight for a particular electronic signature they were programmed to read as his, no idea who or where he was or what he looked like. They were programmed to detect what he was thinking.
They could read every signal from every device. Everything was connected. Every computer, keypad, monitor, SSD, appliance, lightbulb, plumbing fixture, door lock, garage door, thermostat, security camera, etc.; by rigid and harsh laws, everything every human being touched was connected, every action communicated to the immense databases that categorized, analyzed, and judged. Every word or brushstroke from every artist was in particular noted. The Authoritarians brokered no deviance. Their databases programmed the drones to look for specific signals that had been targeted as indicators of inappropriate thought – in particular, words as they were being written, images as they were being created – and then to move rapidly in. Anything tagged to his writings were tops on the list.
But he had a way to hide.
The device was so illegal its detection would result in his disappearance into a permanent quarantine facility first established during the pandemics of half a century earlier; “unhealthy thinking” being the Authoritarians current version of a pandemic. He had determined the best time to use the device was between 6:30 and 10:30 PM – that was when residential sections emitted the greatest electronic signatures, the density of which could help hide him. Every apartment in his building and every building around him was crackling with activity. He took the 1 inch by 2 inch by .35-inch device out at 6:50PM and placed it on his keypad, effectively blocking electronic impulses from getting through and storing them. He moved his fingers rapidly across his keypad; each position represented a letter, each series of strokes represented words. Every sentence added to his newest paper. He’d been working on it for several weeks, no more than 30 minutes a night in case the block turned out not to be perfect. Tonight, he finished the paper and prepared to upload it.
He was not a writer by profession; he was a social scientist. Almost a year ago, he had become an outlaw by publishing a 10,000-word thesis with the following title and synopsis:
Factors Contributing To Homo Sapiens Evolutionary Failure
It broke the status quo in several ways. First, it suggested that diversity, which The Authoritarians discouraged, was actually good. Second, that acquiescence to change and adaptation was actually good. Third, that ideas of inferior peoples were a superstition. And lastly, it suggested that human beings under the leadership of The Authoritarians would one day be supplanted by The New Ones.
The New Ones, who had begun emerging with the pandemics would replace Homo Sapiens, just as Homo Sapiens had replaced Neandertals.
He had written three more papers after the first; this would be the fourth. Each reinforced and documented the premise. Each paper had rapidly gained support, including many other scientists who wrote their own papers confirming the premise. Increasingly, people were coming to believe that human’s maladaptive behavior could be changed; they could coexist with The New Ones. Just not under The Authoritarians.
This, of course, put The Authoritarians right out of their water.
He effected the ‘send’ command; the new paper began attaching itself in tiny snippets to every electronic signal it could find. Every time a light switched on, a channel changed, a toilet flushed, every keypad stroke, refrigerator opening, toaster popping. Every signal had a bit of the paper hiding in it. Even if a drone sniffed it, it couldn’t track it, and certainly couldn’t track it to him.
Took about five minutes to upload. He hid the device once more. He wanted to peak out the blinds covering the windows to see if drones were moving towards him but knew such an act would look suspicious. He sat, quietly, and listened. He could hear their hum in the background. There was no change in them. After a while he got a beer from the fridge. He wondered if The New Ones drank beer. He wondered if there would be any cross breeding, like there was with Homo Sapiens and Neandertal. He wondered if The New Ones, so unaffected by any Authoritarians malfeasance, knew of his papers. But he also knew, from their point of view, that it wouldn’t matter.
He had opened a canvas in his mind many miles back, sheer luck he’d been pushed against the side of the railcar where the gaps between its wooden planks gave him a narrow view outside, albeit a freezing one. How many hours now? Six? Eight? Maybe not that long? Maybe even longer? Men packed standing up like frozen fish in a box, shoved in tight until only half of them could inhale at any one time, then the door slammed closed. And locked.
No escape but to ride the train along the Volga to wherever it was going.
He was just a timid 15-year-old taken from his father’s farm near Ural’sk, given a uniform (but no rifle) (or heavy coat) and drilled with thousands of other young men to run at something; essentially, to charge. Their training lasted no more than a week before the train came for them. He was not athletic. He was not strong. He enjoyed drawing, was often in trouble with his father for doing just that instead of his farm chores. His father chided his mother for “coddling” him. The train would go for a time, then stop for a bit. Then go a while more, then stop for a bit. He knew other young men were being loaded into other railcars. His own car stank from sweat and flatulence and piss and he could guess what else.
He drew, in his mind, as the train jerked along, profiles of the men around him. When that got boring he drew landscapes or the occasional dilapidated buildings he could see between the planks. He was glad for the fresh air, but shivered from the cold, cold bite of it. One side of him was frozen as the other sweated against the men next to him. He would close his eyes and let his mental palette create his newest art. When it was finished, he’d file it and peer again between the planks for his next subject. Over and over and over.
And he saw her when the train stopped again. No older than he, the loveliest bronze hair leaking out from under her scarf. Huge blue eyes and red lips. She was there with an older woman and a younger boy; who knew why. She looked hungry, and yet peaceful, contented even. Like an angel. She looked over his railcar and he wondered if she could see him gaping at her. It lasted no more than thirty, maybe forty-five seconds before the train shook forward again, gradually gaining speed.
He closed his eyes and this time, this time he created a different art. This time, he created a life. He saw himself emerge from the railcar and walk towards her. She smiled, so glad to see him. They took each other’s hands and gazed so warmly at each other. Page after page rolled off in his mind. He saw them walk together towards a neat and tidy cottage surrounded by wildflowers on a summer day. He worked land and tended goats and she mended his clothes and caressed him each night. They never argued. They had no worries. They grew more deeply enamored with each other with every passing moment, and more affectionate. He could feel her warm face on his and felt them surround each other like blankets tangled together. They lived, oh goodness they lived in a most glorious world with the sun always shining warmly and bountiful harvests and no winter and undying love for each other. Page after page after page of the most wonderful colors drew themselves in his mind. An entire portfolio of life.
Then he heard thunder, not far in the distance, and the train lurched several times before stopping, and the door of the railcar was thrown open, and the freezing air was like ice water dousing his creation. And he emerged in Stalingrad.
From his table just outside the café on the Rue de la Tour, the agent could see across the busy Rue de la Pompe as the plan unfolded. He could also see that the plan was in trouble.
He calmly sipped coffee from its small cup and added the variables. The writer, his wife and their 20-year-old daughter had emerged from the Le Chalet following lunch and were now strolling with their handlers up the narrow and crowded Parisian street, cloudy with encroaching rain in the air. But there was not a single handler as was expected, there were three, plus the driver waiting at the double-parked Citroen. Two of the handlers he recognized as specialists of the security service; tough nuts to crack, but he doubted they would recognize him, giving him a small advantage. The writer’s family moved slowly, happily gawking, as might be expected having been shut away under house arrest for a decade-plus. Reviled by his country’s authoritarian government for his criticisms, the writer was internationally recognized and respected – that’s why he was still alive. Allowed, after international outcry, to attend a literary symposium, it was the job of the handlers to make sure he and his family were returned to their country, and to house arrest, without incident.
The agent’s job, as he placed his coffee cup on the table and dabbed a napkin to his lips, was to facilitate their escape.
He folded his newspaper under his arm and strolled towards the scene, suavely stepping around pedestrians, nonchalantly reaching quickly into his jacket to hit the safety on his Walther. Right on cue the writer’s wife seemed to spy something in the window of a small art gallery just past the Franprix Paris and backtracked towards it. The writer and daughter followed. The handlers tried to discourage them and move them into the double-parked Citroen. A minor argument ensued. The wife dismissed the handlers with a wave of her hand and entered the gallery. The writer and daughter followed. The handlers shrugged. They indicated to the double-parked driver he should circle the block, then the two specialists he recognized followed them inside leaving the third handler to stand guard outside.
By now, the agent had reached the gallery. The handler raised a hand to slow his entry; the last thing they wanted was a crowded gallery. He gave the handler an angry look, barked at him in his most annoyed Parisian accent that he had business inside, and the handler eased back. He entered. The extremely attractive gallery attendant, who was not really a gallery attendant, was already attempting to distract the two agents. His other colleague – if there had only been one handler he could have taken care of this himself – was nervous off to the side, trying to signal to the family towards the little side room. He’d be spotted in another few seconds. The walls of the gallery were crowded with modern art hung almost on top of each other; the window facing the street likewise mostly obscured. One of the specialists seemed to be scanning the art, his back turned to the second as the attendant flirted with him – that was the one about a half second from figuring this out, he thought. He pulled his Walther and smashed its butt behind the right ear of first specialist, knocking him cold to the floor, then quickly turned the barrel against the temple of the second. “No”, he told him, and the specialist’s initial muscle twitches towards the gun in his own coat froze. The attendant gasped, her eyes fixed on the specialist whose own eyes were moving rapidly back and forth. “Go”, he told her as he reached into the specialist’s coat and disarmed him. She did. In back, he knew she’d be slipping through and then closing the panel that had been cut in the back wall which, hopefully, the writer and family had already been escorted through by his colleague – it would be difficult but not impossible to find the panel later. They would exit the building, cross a courtyard, and meet their escape car waiting on the Avenue Henri Martin. “Look at the painting,” he told the specialist, who had seemed to calm after his initial shock. The agent knew the specialist would be calculating a counterattack. It would take the family roughly two minutes to cross the courtyard and find the escape car; perhaps longer if they were addled. He doubted he had two minutes before this unraveled. “Some people”, he said to the specialist, “Get a headache looking at modern art,” and with that he smashed his Walther against the back of his skull, sending him unconscious on the floor as well. Handler outside the window still hadn’t noticed the activity behind the obstructions. The agent pulled the weapon from the coat of the first specialist, put both their weapons in his coat as well as his own.
A painting was already wrapped against the counter, and he took it and left the gallery. He gave another angry frown to the handler. “Pig,” he called him in Parisian, then turned his back and waked back up the Rue de la Tour. He reached the corner with the Rue de la Pompe as the Citroen returned. He looked towards the intersection with the Avenue Henri Martin and saw the escape car move through it. He’d been supposed to be in it. He’d have to make his own way back.
Figured he had another several minutes. He ditched the painting, crossed the Rue de la Pompe and entered the Café de la mairie, and was at a window table with a vodka martini, ordering the foie gras de canard maison as the handlers, one with blood dripping down his neck, began a frantic search along the streets.
The bear ambled along an old game trail 200 yards upwind from the hunter lying prone and hidden in a tree stand on a rise. It did not appear to be threatening anything, least of all the hunter, who was more interested in the elk herd grazing peacefully another 800 yards further down the trail. But if it were offered, the hunter would take the bear, not that he needed it. He’d shot plenty of bear but found it didn’t bring much. Too many people were shooting bear. Elk, shot exactly right, was finding a better market. All those hunters who go home and want a trophy of the elk they think they shot or thought they were chasing on their annual hunt with their drinking buddies.
The rise gave the hunter a perfect position over an expansive meadow, the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre mountains in the background and sunlight brilliantly illuminating the peaks. The late-summer air was sweet and warm; conditions were perfect, simply perfect, but the clock was ticking. The calendar was rolling. The Earth was spinning. In another 45 minutes, tops, the sun would rise high enough that the mountain peaks would no longer be illuminated in the right way. The hunter needed the elk to be roughly where the bear was.
This was the third day the hunter had arrived at this position before dawn, set up his tripod low to the ground, just above the grass, and attached his Nikon D5600 with the 200-500 f/5.6 lens. He looked now through the viewfinder towards the elk herd – it made for an attractive landscape with the perfect lighting on the mountains in the background, but he just wasn’t close enough for the striking individual portraits he wanted. Besides, he had taken pretty much exactly the same shot the day before, and the day before that. He clicked the shutter a couple times anyway. He scanned to the bear, the tripod rotating the camera smooth as silk. He adjusted the zoom a bit – man, it was perfect. Snap, snap. But the bear wasn’t doing anything but schlepping along with its head down displaying all the enthusiasm of a government employee on a Monday morning. He took his eye from the camera and scanned the meadow; possibly he could establish a blind further up, spend the night there and be better positioned. But better positioned only if the elk returned to the same spot, which was unlikely. No, he thought, this little tree stand is the best spot.
Eye back to the viewfinder, he began scanning the meadow itself, looking for possibilities, moving between the bear and the herd, and held his breath as his camera framed…
Just grass. He eyeballed the far mountains, looked to the series of boulders running towards, if not close, to the meadow; zoomed in maximum, and there he beheld…
Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, if a creature of some sort came charging out of the boulders towards the elk? Something with creepy orange hair on its head that looked straight from the gates of hell. What a series of shots that would be! He eyeballed the blue sky thinking maybe an eagle or a hawk soaring above. Nope. He remembered a time in the Ozarks he was surprised by a formation of half-a-dozen B52’s out of Whiteman flying at just a few thousand feet that came out of nowhere, likely on a training run. Got some great shots out of that! Man! Man, he thought, scanning the entire horizon, the meadow, everything around him, open to another fantasy. Only reality existed. By now, the good sunlight, its golden morning beams, and the little bit of pink in the sky, was gone. The bear was ambling from view. The elk herd was actually starting to move further away.
Staying low he pulled his gear back into the tree stand until he was better hidden, then picked everything up, tripod and camera on his shoulder like a rifle, and began the trek back to his camp a half mile away. He knew the creek where the bear was likely going; no chance it was coming back towards him. He’d spend the rest of the day shooting wildflowers and birds, mainly just killing time. He had another location scouted closer to the Sierra Madre he wanted to hit, but it also provided a narrower range of targets. Give this one a couple more days, he thought, as his boots swished through the tall, bronze colored grass, thousands of dollars of camera gear pressing down on him. Contemplating deeply on finding the money shot in the golden light.
His wife sent him to the store on a bright Sunday afternoon in November to buy a can of “Spicy Corn”, which, as he understood it, was just corn with peppers that she intended to use in the chili she was making for dinner. She’d been given the recipe by a friend who’d won a local chili contest and swore it was due to the corn. Football was on, but he hadn’t really watched for years after being turned off by the constant domestic violence and aggravated assault charges the players seemed to collect, and he was just basically putzing around, so he didn’t mind. Slow drive on a sunny day through the sleepy town sounded like a thing.
He loitered in the bakery section of the store for a bit just ‘cause he felt like it, and picked up a box of cupcakes, all brightly frosted in oranges and yellows and reds to mimic the Autumn colors. Kids would love it, he thought, unaware that his wife was already working on cherry turnovers. She always got annoyed when he did something dinner-wise without checking, and as it happened he’d end up eating most of the cupcakes himself in a day or two after they’d gone stale. But at that moment, he thought he was doing a good thing.
He’d rounded the corner into the canned vegetables aisle when he saw him: his old high school American history teacher. He slowed, checking up and down to assure himself it was him, and it was, what, twenty years older now? He had to add up the years. The teacher had been a robust guy, but the skin sagged, and he stooped a little – seemed to be trying to decipher the label on a can of something as he held a can of something else in his other hand. Memories came flooding back; this had been one of the cool teachers, always with a story to tell, always laid back and empathetic. This was the teacher, he believed, who had instilled in him a love of history. He’d minored in it in college and still avidly read histories and biographies. He remembered how wise the teacher had seemed; how he could recite details and knew trivia that brought history alive and made it an adventure. He’d always felt a bit in awe of the man.
Turned out, though, that about ninety percent of what he’d been taught by him was wrong.
He’d had to completely relearn everything once he got to college. Facts and especially context the teacher had utterly misconstrued; why the electoral college came about, the nature of conflict with native peoples, the premise of the Confederacy and the Civil War, why Prohibition failed, why we went into Vietnam. On and on. Worse, he knew friends from high school who still took everything the teacher had said as gospel, trapped in the old fables. Yeah, he still respected the guy and remembered him fondly, but, c’mon, as a knowledge base it was crap!
Should he say ‘hello’? The teacher noticed him gaping at him but didn’t offer a sign of recognition, looking instead back at the label. Then eye contact again with a bit of a frown, waiting for him to say something. “Hi,” he blurted out and called his teacher by name and said how good it was to see him. “I had American history classes with you in high school” he said and told him the years.
The teacher still offered no recognition, looked a little vacant as though searching through years that blurred before him. “It’s good to see you again,” he said finally with a slight hint of pleasantry if still not the least bit of familiarity. “I don’t think much about those days; it was long ago.”
Pretty much the end of the conversation.
Later that night, after the kids had gone to bed and he was trying hard to digest the corn in the chili, he thought at length about the old teacher. Did he know, now, how flawed his lessons had been? Did the phrase “long ago” apply to the years or to vastly evolved perspectives now becoming more a matter of common knowledge? Did he not “think much about those days” because he saw his life’s purpose as having been fundamentally flawed? Or did he believe those evolutions were lies and resent their implications?
His old teacher was himself, he decided, a victim, spoon fed a mixture of prejudices and superstitions that had been passed along as legitimate history for generations. A kind of systemic insanity wherein history merely rationalized the reigning status quo until it unraveled. It always seemed, eventually, to unravel. And he wondered, despite feeling a bit superior, if he himself were somehow insane.
Why It Matters
We’re walking in a group, about 25 of us, in orderly columns. We’re supposed to be marching, but none of us have the strength for that anymore, and as far as that goes our columns are none too neat as we shuffle along in our cardboard shoes or bare feet. It seems they’re anxiously organizing more of these little “marches” of late, as though they’re hurrying to finish something and can’t possibly get it done. As though there’s someplace else they’d like to be getting too. As though none of us want to be here, are just forced to be.
What others are able watch our progress are slumped against the sides of the huts or sitting on the ground, offering what sincerities they can. There; I see my friend, sallow-eyed and somber, but with such a look of love in his eyes it seems to embrace me. He is holding the gift I have given him, scrawled onto what used the be a piece of the cardboard sole of my right shoe (I’m still wearing the left one) no more than an irregular 20 square centimeters. He had been in such despair over his wife, pulled from his grasp and supposedly sent on to the next camp so many months ago. I asked him to describe her to me in detail; not just her appearance but her spirit. So many conversations over the months until I could close my eyes and see her clearly in my mind. She became a living being, as familiar to me as the back of my hand. And then I took what was left of my shoe and used it as a canvas. I’d sharpened a small piece of char I’d found into something like a point. As I scrunched close to the cardboard it was like I was back in my studio, standing in front of the big bay window bathed in northern light, creating a new portrait, self-absorbed, the rest of the world blocked from existence. Slowly, because my hands tremble so now, I created life on my tiny canvas. I brought my friend’s wife from a place of dark dread to a brilliant vision he could hold in his hands. His eyes lit up and he sunk back as he beheld the image, overcome by the emotion flooding over him. “It is her”, he gasps in a whisper, “Her very essence!” and just as I had felt the last of my strength flowing into the portrait I can see it returning to my friend like a wave of sunlight. “How did you know?” he gapped wide eyed, unable to look away from the image. “I knew”, I told him. “I am an artist.”
We move past, we weather-beaten pajama-wearing scarecrows, and I am so happy as I think of my friend. So thrilled! I lift my head higher and I do lapse into something resembling a march. I know, no matter what happens, my friend will persevere. My friend will have the power to side-step these little walks and carry on because I have shown him ‘possibility; I have reignited ‘hope’. Decades from now he will still carry the vision with him. And in an instant I realize, I have won! I have beaten them all, despite everything! I have emerged on the highest plane of humanity! And I am beaming like a madman as they use the muzzles of their rifles to direct us into the showers.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.