Maculate (iii): Noodle Soup

Theo dropped his cup of ramen. Steaming, greasy broth rushed over his lap, turning much of his lower body into an agonised, lightly spiced floodplain. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and breathed ferociously through his nose until the scalding sensation abated. So much for breakfast. A deeply ingrained frugal instinct stirred, offended at the loss of a perfectly good meal (in the most relative of terms).­ Somewhere, his parents were turning in their wrongly impecunious graves. Even the notion of consuming instant noodles would have sent them into a frothing rage, prompted hours of blue-faced, fiery-eyed ranting about the great injustice that had been enacted upon their line of the family. Theo rarely payed close attention to these diatribes, and indeed they did little to demand it. The coherence of the narrative had flagged somewhat as its tellers progressed through their twilight years, but the basic elements were the same. The death of Theo’s great grandfather had prompted a rift in the family, and his grandfather had been on the losing end – dramatically so. As it transpired, total dependence on the family business was not a synergistic combination with intense, venomous animosity from the holders of said enterprise. His grandfather’s line was left to its own devices, deprived to the fullest possible extent of the social and material benefits that their surname would otherwise provide. Those devices were not particularly good. Living the American Dream in reverse, Theo’s parents had been born somewhat wealthy, to a father who was once much wealthier, and were bordering on poor by time of his earliest memories. From there, they had continued to bleed wealth and prestige, until this exsanguination had arrived at its natural conclusion – their son, sitting in a cheap motel, weeping over lost ramen.

“The best revenge is a good life.” – that’s what they always used to tell him. It was a message that was lost to both sides of the dialogue. He had never shared their bitterness, their need to spit back at those who they felt had wronged them. He was perfectly well motivated to live a good life purely by virtue of its clear superiority to a bad life. No revenge needed. His parents, on the other hand, had been so preoccupied with the idea of succeeding out of spite that they completely sabotaged any chances they may have had at doing so. The past was the past, if platitudes were on the menu, and it was best to leave it there.

That being the case, why was he thinking about all this now? Part of it was nostalgia, of course. For all that he disagreed with his parents’ stubborn misgivings, they were part of the backdrop for all of his formative years. He had an aversion to dwelling on the past, but he would have to admit that childhood influences and their bearers are bound together in a Gordian knot – no way to separate the two without recourse to a sword. The main reason for his sudden train of expository thought, however, was that he was about to attend a memorial ceremony for his great-grandfather: Lucas “Senior” Weaver. For whatever reason, the family had gone all out this year. Gone were the small, cigars-and-whiskey gatherings of the men that knew him, or who used to be the sperm of a man that knew him.­­ This year’s event was to be a veritable matinee, a festival of worship – both to one’s ancestor and to the ideology of wealth. Women and children were allowed, even encouraged, to attend (although Theo rather doubted that either group would have a representative at the podium). The whole aim, he was led to understand, was to put on an indisputable show of reverence to a man who would doubtless have appreciated it. As such, the net had been cast wide, wide enough to snare even Theo, living heir to a pruned branch. A suitably chintzy, faux-renaissance invitation had found its way to him. Stapled to it was a surprisingly candid note acknowledging that almost nobody present would know who he was, that those who did would resent his attendance, and that there was no way that he would be able to muster up the resources, financial or personal, to fit in with the rest of the assembly. All true enough. But life, he felt, was best spent steering towards oddity rather than away from it. He didn’t have a whole lot going on, and if you might as well do something, you might as well do it.

First, however, he would have to change his clothes. He was going to be drastically underdressed for the occasion (partly by necessity, partly by design), but a pair of jeans soaked through with cheap, salty broth would probably be pushing it. He was going with something more like business-casual, in a field that he expected to consist largely of business-exorbitant. Farewell for now, moth-bitten motel room.

Twenty minutes later, he was in a cab bound for ground zero. The event was to take place at the aptly, appallingly named Weaver Legacy Hotel – a building so overt in its purpose, so keen to display its gaudy bluster that it bordered on parody (and yet, remained tidily profitable). Theo had never stepped foot inside, of course. He would probably have been kindly escorted from the premises on any other day, unless the staff mistook him for some nouveau-riche Silicon Valley asshole. Today, he had a piece of paper. As was so often the case, that made all the difference. The driver was pleasantly quiet, leaving Theo with time to ponder his opening move – the manner of his arrival. This event was an exercise in pageantry, and under such circumstances these things mattered more than he would ever understand. The first option was the default. He would have the cab tuck away into a nearby street and walk the rest of the way. He wasn’t there for attention. The second option was to indulge his vandal’s instinct, if just a little, and to take the cab all the way to the castle gate – strut out, puff his chest out and show that he just didn’t give a fuck. Unfortunately, loathe though he was to admit it, he did give something – at least a shit. Plan A prevailed.

His initial impressions of the place and the people were blandly negative. That much was to be expected. The men wore suits, the women dresses, all plainly the output of brands of which he had never heard. The boys wore suits, the girls dresses, eerie little homunculi whose overwrought mannerisms betrayed the fact that their moulding was not yet complete. People looked at him, of course, although they were at least kind enough to wait until they thought he was out of earshot before discussing him. The situation concerning his attendance was a known thing, a little pocket scandal to keep people entertained. He did not engage. He was in a foreign land, didn’t speak the language, and had little to no interest in integrating with its people. Moreover, being fully honest with himself, he was intimidated. He wouldn’t exactly say that he was swimming with sharks, or wandering into the lion’s den, but he found himself at the very least surrounded by cans of worms that he did not wish to prod for fear of opening them. The ushers, powerless to resist his piece of paper with words on it, directed him to the hall where the main event would take place.

The room was… nice. Or, it was making a reasonable attempt to be so. There was a crisp, marble sort of aesthetic, with pervasive, heavy accents of red and gold to everything (very regal). The chairs were aligned at a comfortable distance from one other, fanning out from a stage of sorts at the far end of the room. A chamber group was nested away to one side, its members wearing professional expressions that indicated that this gig was probably going to be more exciting for them fiscally than it would be musically. Taking pride of place was an almost comically large portrait of Lucas Sr., commissioned for the occasion. If his parents’ frequent indictments were to be believed, the man would have loved it.

Theo placed himself towards the back of the hall, and watched as people folded in towards the front. He had the luxury of being the last person that anybody present would want to sit near, which afforded him the perfect little crow’s nest from which to observe things. This isolation made him stand out all the more, and indeed he was at this point keenly aware that he was putting on a sideshow no matter what he did. Every little mannerism or shuffle had become another pratfall. Well, there was no way around that, given the circumstances. There are many, many people who would rather see a fish out of water than in it.

A watery chord from the string section heralded the start of the proceedings. Theo knew almost nothing about classical music (nor, he suspected, did anybody else present), but the musicians did their best to conceal this fact – every piece was something he recognised, performed such that there was no fear of bewilderment, no risk of unplanned artistic expression. If he were feeling cynical (he was), he would have suspected that the programme had been chosen specifically to allow the attendees to feel erudite without ever actually challenging them to be so. To this backdrop, a series of speakers took to the podium to deliver their speeches. These were gestalts of second-hand anecdotes and thinly-veiled self-aggrandisement, chimeras of purported virtue and historical fact, flowery border skirmishes between worship and envy. He drifted in and out throughout this process, catching snippets, sometimes entire passages before once again ducking back behind the sturdy parapet of inattention.

“Lucas was a man who could somehow put both business and family first in every decision that he made.” Went one eulogy. “He despised indolence, but not as much as he adored industry. He was the very model of a kind of businessman that was rare for his day, and still rarer now. His example is one that we should all take to heart, and I’m proud to say that I do my best every day to follow his lead.”

“The history books are going to have a lot to say about Lucas Weaver.” Went another. “Both of them, in fact. But I don’t exaggerate when I say that one day, Senior is going to be in the same conversations as Morgan, as Rockefeller, as Ford. Now, those men may have been wealthier, they may always be more famous, but at the heart of it is the same fire, the same drive to acquire and to expand that defined Senior. Some of us here today may have a higher net worth, may be better known in our particular spheres of activity that Senior was in his, but I can say for sure that not one man present has that vital spark the led Senior to build what he built. The man, to put it frankly, had spunk. Hell, look at how old he was when he had kids. And what fine young boys they were, although we all know how that went…”

“Senior was one of the last generation of American greats. One of the last men from a time that truly embodied the spirit of this nation, the spirit that I believe in so strongly. He did things in a way that just isn’t done today, and I think I speak for a lot of us when I say it’s a damn shame. We’re here in the Weaver Legacy Hotel, a great building and a great business, and yet even as we celebrate the life of our great forbear, the questions can hardly be escaped: where are the monument builders now? Where are the men who are willing not to just to build, not just to optimise, but to conquer? Where are the men who are willing to stand in the light of day and express themselves in the universal language of deeds and capital?”

Etc. etc.

It was… interesting, in its own way. A sort of anthology piece, the themes and elements staying the same throughout, but with each variation being coloured by its author’s particular hang-ups. And as he heard one story about a tough but magnanimous patriarch, another about a shrewd yet unpretentious man of industry, a third about a fiery pitbull who could not be suppressed, he came to wonder at the extent to which the actual subject matter was informing any of this. A no-frills biography of his great-grandfather, by any account an interesting figure if not an admirable one, would have a certain appeal to Theo. This was something different entirely.

These formalities were followed by a wine reception. This was a good thing for a number of reasons – the speeches were over (although the musicians continued their chores), there was free expensive wine, he could stretch his legs, and the possibility of either hiding or leaving entirely was now much more open to him. He wasn’t planning on taking it just yet, mind. Having recently observed these strange, ordinary creatures in monologue, it would be remiss of him not to listen in on some dialogue as well. He drifted about, doing his best to act as a fly on the wall. This was a challenge, since in this case the fly was six feet tall and everybody present wanted to whisper about it behind its back.

Despite these unpropitious circumstances, he achieved some measure of success. He found, much to his surprise, that these people were just that – people. These were conversations he had heard before, an arbitrarily large number of times. The topics and the archetypes were all familiar to him. There was work, leisure and family. There was the loudmouth, the lackey, the smartass. Old skeletons with new skin. The only difference, of course, was status. And it was not an insignificant one. When he had seen these patterns at school, at college, at work, they were defined always in three directions. It was an old oversimplification of his, but he had found it consistently applicable enough to hold on to. A bully, for example, wishes to oppress those below him, impress those on his same level, and spite those above him. This elite were constantly starved of that last element, and so the whole structure became somewhat precarious. Born better than almost everyone (by the rules of their chosen ideology), they had precious few figures to prop up those missing struts, precious few outlets for that upward-facing energy. Their parents, perhaps, or by fabricating legends out of people who were no longer alive to disprove them.

Content with that conclusion, Theo moved to leave. It would perhaps have been entertaining to go hunting for particularly appalling people and phrases, but he didn’t feel any real need to do so. It wasn’t hard to disengage from a social gathering where nobody wanted anything to with him. If anything, he was charitably gifting his absence – no more need for whispers. As he walked away from the assembly, looking (in his mind) like a flea jumping from a pedigree cat, he heard his name. For the first time that day, it was loud, clear, and directed at him.

“Theo? Wait up!”

He turned to see one of the few faces present that he would recognize – Leon Weaver. The heir to the empire, so to speak. The young man who would be next to take the helm, to the extent that there still a single helm left to take. The most privileged among a privileged few. Theo was immediately shocked by how closely this man resembled him, behind the unpronounceable Italian tailoring. For all the vocational and genetic gulf between them, they may as well have been brothers. He had no time to chastise himself for that pathetically sappy thought before he found himself engaging in a handshake.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Said Leon. Somehow, he did not even appear to be lying. His face and voice betrayed intellect, decency, and a few hints of fatigue.

“…is it?”

“Probably. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“What do you think of this?” He motioned in all directions. “The Weaver Legacy Hotel.”

“Honestly?”

“Please. And actually honestly, not business honestly.”

“I think it’s ridiculous.”

Leon smiled.

“Theodore Weaver, you and I have many, many things to discuss.”

The End

Maculate (ii): Chocolate

Champagne truffle.

Henry frowned inwardly. Champagne truffles were a bullshit chocolate, and he resented their existence. Still, it was in his mouth now. He was more or less committed.

“You hate those ones.” Deadpanned Lucas.

“Fuck off.”

How could he even tell what kind it was? Smartass. As he lay, sprawled along the pool chair, Henry conceded that he could probably have actually looked into the box of chocolates on his groin before picking one. That, however, would have been totally contrary to his purpose. He was idling, damn it, a pursuit that he took incredibly seriously. It was his artform. A lesser practitioner might have moved their neck to see the box, or moved their shades to be able to see the chocolate as it meandered towards the mouth. A true amateur might even actually venture into the pool.  Henry would not be moved. For today, he was a virtuoso of sloth, a doyen of indolence, an imperator of inactivity.

Salted caramel. For fuck’s sake.

“You hate those ones, too.” Lucas was still there. Great. “Honestly, I’m beginning to question your whole plan of action here.”

“It’s a plan of inaction, dipshit. Now leave me alone. The wife’s out sleeping around, so I’ve got the pool. We take turns.”

“I’m not going to do that. We have business to discuss.”

“No, we don’t. We absolutely do not. That’s your thing. Go home and have a little finance party with Martha, or whatever it is you two do.”

Lucas sighed. After the first sigh, it was pretty much plain sailing to all the way under his skin.

“Fine. Let me lead with the part you’ll like – dad prefers you to me.”

Well, obviously.

“Well, obviously.” Henry took a brief pause to radiate smugness. “And you’re right. I do like that. But what does it matter to you?”

“It matters because he’s planning on leaving all of his assets to you when he dies.”

That almost made him sit up. So strong was the instinct to move that he was forced to quell it with another chocolate.

Hazelnut praline. Dreadful.

“And none…” he smirked, flecks of gooey, half chewed milk chocolate in his teeth. “… to you?”

“That is correct.”

“Well? That sounds perfect to me. Please leave.”

“I know this is going to be a struggle for you, but please stop and think about this. Dad dies. Everything goes to you. You keep waddling about like you always have done. You end up broke. I’m still rich. You lose.”

Lucas must have thought he was a genuine idiot. Still, it was worth humouring the poor sap, for entertainment if nothing else.

“You’re right. No way in hell I’m giving that pile of musty old papers a moment of my time. I take it you have a suggestion?”

“Correct again. You cede the whole estate to me. I take care of the boring end of things, and you get a cut. A bigger cut than you’re getting now, because dad is incompetent. You get to keep… having sex and failing to enjoy chocolates. Or whatever it is you do. I don’t care, honestly.”

“That so?”

“Yes. Dad wants you to take the business because he knows you won’t do anything with it, and he’ll get to enjoy his chain of posthumous phallic monuments in major cities. I’m just going to make money, pure and simple. Well, it’s actually rather complex, but you don’t need to worry about that part. If we leave all the other arrangements in place, we both come out on top. Everyone wins.”

His elder brother seemed to think that he would be willing to leave his money in the hands of somebody who both openly loathed him and openly loved the acquisition of wealth. Poor Lucas. The fact that he was genuinely quite good at some things had been shockingly effective at blinding him to the many, many things at which he was risibly poor. Henry held no such pretensions. He was arrogant, true, and proudly so. But his air of superiority did not come from any heightened perception of his own abilities. It came from the fact that it simply didn’t matter how competent he was. Whatever he did, be it a stroke of genius or a feat of dazzling idiocy, the outcome was the same. He would still find himself laying in the sun, with another fond memory in his brain and another box of chocolates on his lap.

Almond praline. Ridiculous.

“Well?” Asked Lucas, impatience straining through the sieve of his demeanour.

“Hmm? Oh, I drifted off. What do you want?”

“I know you heard me the first time.”

“… fine. I refuse.”

“What.” Lucas was being confronted with his plan’s failure. His outward features grew all the more staid, which was a sure indicator that he was internally distraught. At times like these, Henry found imitation to be the highest form of mockery.

“I know you heard me the first time.”

Walnut praline. At this point, it was clear that he was the victim of some grand cosmic joke.

“Of course I did.” Lucas’s voice was at a half-snarl. “I’m taking this seriously. Perhaps you should do the same. I’m offering you large profits for no labour. That’s the holy grail. I appreciate that your mind is about as rancid as your personality, but even you can’t be that stupid.”

“Large profits for no labour? You mean… like this?” He made a floppy waving gesture with his hand, to indicate all the chintz and splendour of their surroundings. “Sorry, Lucas. Already got that. You’re coming at me with an offer that I can easily, easily refuse.”

Lucas sighed again. The second sigh was the finishing line. He had given up on attempting to regulate his emotions, even if he was yet to realise it himself. As he always did, he had lost both his cool and his negotiating position.

“Henry, there’s something wrong with you. I swear to god. You must be the only person I know who took their silver spoon and cashed out on day one. Look at you! You’re completely inert. You don’t create anything, say anything, do anything. You’re not real! You don’t exist. You’ve got no…“

“Ambition? Ambition, dear brother, is for people who don’t already have what they want. If you actually want ambition, you’re screwed.”

He picked an insufferable grin from his repertoire and made sure to hold it for long enough that Lucas had time truly to appreciate the craftsmanship

“Well, it’s been working just fine for me so far.” Lucas’ attempts to regain his idea of a strong, composed persona were frankly adorable. Ever since they were children, he’d made a big show out of being above it all. Henry had a lifetime’s experience of deconstructing those particular sleights of hand – not that it was really needed. “Care to look at my portfolio?”

“I think I’ll pass. Tell me – you really think you’re happier than me?”

“Of course. I have purpose. Dignity. I’m a model citizen, a model businessman. You’re… you.”

“And yet I’m the one sitting here, having a nice time. Lazing, you could say, on this sunny afternoon. And you’re the one who came all the way out here to try and con his brother out of an inheritance that you don’t even need.”

“That is not…”

“Yes, it is. I get it. You’re smarter than me. You could easily outmanoeuvre me, but you’ve convinced yourself that it would be so easy that you don’t even have to try. Leave the not trying to me, man. You’re clearly not cut out for it.”

Time, he felt, for a victory chocolate.

80% cacao. The absolute worst. The snake lurking in the confectionery-themed Garden of Eden. This was no mere champagne truffle, no trifling praline. There was simply no way to endure such torment. He spat the partly-chewed mess out with such force that it arced gracefully over his shirt, leaving a trail of dark, brown rainfall from his chin to his knee before reaching its final rest in the shallow end of the pool.

At that point, quite unexpectedly, Lucas’ entire form seemed to pulse with rage.

“That…” rasped Lucas. “That right there is everything I hate about you and your shameless little world. You’ve got no tolerance for anything with character, anything with substance, anything even a little bit bitter to go with the constant, nauseating torrent of saccharine bullshit that you insist on guzzling down. Saccharine bullshit that you don’t even like! Your whole lifestyle is based on the idea that everything needs to be sweet, fluffy and free of substance, except, of course, for whatever substance you’ve chosen to abuse that day. The idea that whoever is living with the fewest savoury notes in their life is somehow winning. And you all just play along with it! What? Who made the decision and why are you all so content to eat it up?”

Henry was forced to raise an eyebrow. This really was a step or two above the usual results for baiting Lucas.

“Let me give you a quick history lesson. Your favourite little treat there started life in central America as a vessel for heat and bitterness. Something that was thought of as medicinal, spiritual. That’s the world people used to live in. And now look! We’ve built ourselves a world of glittery champagne truffles and people like you are tricking yourselves into thinking it’s paradise. Well fuck that, and fuck you. I’m done trying to communicate with you and your gaggle of selfish imbeciles. Dad’s going to give me the assets anyway if I give him a token show of filial piety. Then we’ll see how much allowance I think you deserve. Have a nice day.”

With that, he stood, turned, and stormed away, in the manner of somebody who wasn’t at all accustomed to putting on such displays. So, Lucas had another way of screwing him after all. To Henry’s mind, that fact made the whole song and dance preceding it seem a little pointless, but he had never claimed to understand his brother’s perspective. Perhaps it would work, and he would be left destitute, broken and alone. Lucas almost certainly hoped so, moral titan that he was. Perhaps it would fail, and business would carry on as usual. Either way, he wasn’t about to do anything about it. He had his principles, and he would not be moved.

The End

Maculate (i): Blood

The table across from them placed their orders – wagyū, well done. Both Lucas and Lucas Sr. sneered, the derisory curl of their lips almost identical.

“People shouldn’t be allowed in here if they’re going to ruin the product.” Growled the father.

“Well.” Said the son. “I expect you’re happy to take their money either way.”

Senior grunted and made the first incision into his own steak (rare, of course). Lucas sat and watched the old man chew. That had always been the rule. Father wins the bread, and so he gets to break it first. Senior swallowed with a coarse, disinterested motion that seemed entirely disrespectful of the exorbitant prices that his hotel charged for the cut. Everything’s free when you already own it.

With that little ritual observed, Lucas was free to start. He sliced into the meat, immediately releasing a juicy slick of myoglobin onto his sleeve. Swearing all the while, he made a series of hurried, futile attempts at applying a napkin to the stain.

“Two left hands.” Grunted Senior. “Same as ever.”

“Two right hands.” He quipped. His father looked momentarily confused. “I’m left handed.”

“It’s an expression, dipshit. Don’t get smart.”

Lucas took his bite, giving particular attention to the mouthfeel, the structure of the meat. It really was a good restaurant. Shame about the owner.

“That’s interesting.” He replied, eventually. “That’s pretty much all Henry does, and you don’t seem to mind.”

Henry was the younger son, Lucas’ brother.

“Henry’s a playboy. It’s his job to be disrespectful. You don’t have an excuse.”

“You say playboy, I say profligate.”

Senior plunged his next bite into the jus. “Profligacy.” He said, bringing the fork to his mouth. “Is good business.”

“That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard you say. And believe me, the competition is stiff.”

“Oh? You’re giving me business lessons now? I don’t think you know whose world you’re stepping into, kid.”

“Sure, dad. You’re the big-dick magnate, Henry’s the untouchable bon-vivant, and I’ve got more assets to my name than both of you combined. If we’re talking business sense, you’re both microbes compared to me.”

Senior laughed. A thick, nostalgic, malicious chuckle, like honeyed toast and poison.

“There’s your problem, my boy. You’re narrow minded. Only looking at one thing. You think I give a fuck about money?”

“I think almost every fuck you’ve ever given has been about money.”

“Then you’re wrong. And watch your mouth. Money’s a stepping stone, not a destination. I’m in it for greatness. For dynasty. You boys are extensions of that. And frankly, only one of you is pulling your weight. It ain’t you.”

That remark came dangerously close to getting a rise out of him. He squashed the urge. Pettiness and emotivity had always been the biggest constraints on the family empire. That would change, under his guidance.

“Henry’s a millstone. You’re a dinosaur. I fail to see how I’m the one failing to meet expectations. Fuck, any random handful of items in my portfolio is worth more than this hotel that you seem to think is such a big deal.”

“Uh-huh. Truth is, this hotel, or any of the others, has more value than you do. Wanna know why?”

“Oh, by all means. Please enlighten me.”

“Because people can actually see it. It’s real. It’s got my name on it – our name on it. They can look at it and think ‘gee, whoever owns that fucking matters’.”

“Sure. Or they can look at the numbers and realise what’s really going on.”

“They can. But they won’t. The hotels have presence, legacy. They mean something. Your little numbers games don’t mean shit outside of their own bubble. And hey, the people in that bubble think you’re hot stuff. Nobody else does. Henry, on the other hand…”

“The entire world thinks that Henry’s an incorrigible little prick!”

“And they’re not wrong. But they think that he’s a rich little prick. And they know he exists, and they know he has our surname. Dynasty, junior. By your standards, heck, even by mine, he’s throwing around chump change. But that’s pocket money that makes the world look, makes them think that this family is powerful, relevant, and can do whatever it wants. There are quite literally millions of people who read about him every week but couldn’t pick you out of a line-up. When it comes to respect, the kid’s doing his bit.”

“Respect? They hate him! I don’t know how much of a brain you had to begin with, but you must be running on scraps by now. There is no world where Henry draws more respect to the family, to the ‘dynasty’, than I do. I’m eminently respectable. He’s openly loathed.”

“No world? You’re sitting in it, asshat. Every time Henry cheats on his trophy wife, it’s worth more to us than your whole marriage, every time -”

“You mean my stable marriage, founded on ten years of mutual love and respect?”

“Yeah, that one. Nobody cares. Nobody even knows what your wife does.”

Martha is a professor of economics.”

“See! How dull is that? People don’t know who she is. They know Henry’s wife. They know every prostitute, every drug-fuelled misdemeanour, every ostentatious display of idiocy. And that shit’s practically free.”

“All you’re doing is reminding me of how much of an animal he is. No dignity whatsoever. If that’s the flag you want to fly, you’ve got less self-respect than I thought.”

There was that laugh again. Some people spent hours every day stoking their own resentment. Lucas only needed the memory of one sound.

“Oh, he’s an animal all right. Of course he is. But he’s an exotic one. A showpiece. The crown jewel of the family menagerie. Point is, the little peacock splashing money around in public does far more than you accruing it in private. Come on, now. You know it. You’re a dumbass, but you’re smart.”

They ate in silence for a while. Quietly and inexorably, Lucas’ emotions got the better of him. Powerless, frustrated anger rushed through his skin and muscles, easily overwhelming his inner stoicism but being mostly contained by its outer counterpart. His father smirked.

“Look.” Said the old man at last. “Let’s get down to business. As it stands, you ain’t getting shit when I’m gone.”

“What.” Lucas’ face contorted into the briefest of snarls, a microexpressive lapse. Regaining his composure, he still found himself with nothing more to say. “What.”

Lucas Senior laughed, once again – treacle, whiskey and thumbtacks.

“Thought that might put a little fire in your belly.”

“Then you were wrong.” He retorted, unconvincingly.

“Point is, there’s no point me leaving any assets to you. You’d just chew them up and shit them out as bonds and funds. You’re a fucking tardigrade, kid.”

“A tardigrade? That’s a… creative insult.”

“Who said I can’t innovate? Besides, the glove fits. In financial terms, you’re practically invincible. But nobody can see you and nobody’s ever heard of you. Henry’s like a… a panda or some shit. A pointless wreck of a lifeform that can’t survive on it’s own, but draws crowds like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“And you want to give your money to the philandering, criminal, piece-of-shit panda?”

“Correct.” Senior was plainly enjoying this. “The tardigrade does nothing for me, and doesn’t need any help to do it. The panda shows the world that my empire is capable of sustaining a panda. Pretty clear choice, if you ask me.”

“I’m the eldest.”

“Also correct. Always were the sharpest hammer on the rack.”

“That doesn’t mean anything to an old dragon like you? Primogeniture?”

“You learn that one at college? Anyway, it does mean something. If you were even a little bit less pointless, I’d reconsider. But, as it stands, you’re not.”

Lucas took a deep, growling breath. His father, in his own fundamentally wrong way, was right. He didn’t need the assets. He could generate equivalent wealth in a few short years. And if a self-indulgent desire for legacy was Senior’s concern (as it clearly was), then he was right to be cautious. Lucas didn’t know all the details, but he could be pretty sure that most of these flashy holdings would be better off dissolved.

“Sounds to me.” He said, with a mixture of feigned trepidation and genuine uncertainty as to how the situation would unfold. “That you’re willing to make a deal.”

“There’s my boy. Smartest ant in the farm.”

“Fine. Let’s get it over with. What do you want?”

“Haven’t you been listening? I want you to go out there and make a splash. Make the world know who you are. Show ‘em that our name does whatever the fuck it wants, consequences be damned. Stop being a tardigrade, start being a dancing bear.”

It would have been tempting to attribute that rather unflattering metaphor to Senior’s poor grasp of rhetoric, but Lucas knew that it was probably intentional. His father wanted a public display of bravado, but a private one of subservience. In the more rational corner of his brain, Lucas told his father where he could go and what he could do while he was there, then proceeded to walk away. In practical terms, he had nothing to gain from this arrangement. He had worked very hard, and very shrewdly, to become a tardigrade. He was immensely proud of it. Lucas was not currently residing in that rational corner. He had gone walkabouts. There was a throbbing pain in his hand, a result of having gripped his knife so hard that its handle had broken the skin on his palm. Images of Henry’s consumingly smug face filled his mind, the sound of his permanent and unmerited condescension forming a melody of call-and-response with his father’s  mulled, acidic chuckle.

“Fine.” He said. “Have it your way.”

Rubens saturn.jpg

The End (i)

Bretwalda

Seventeen cycles of revenge, seventeen chapters in the blood feud, and one man left on the throne. One man, old in years and aged beyond them, tired and victorious.

And so he sat, the king, in his court where nothing changes. Peace is stillness, conflict is motion. He had conquered the last attempt at motion. The kingdom lay in pale, breathless calm, not even a twitch or a whimper to disturb his triumph.

The flames of the hearth danced in his eyes, messengers of warmth and comfort wreathed in unfitting livery. His skin roiled at the sight. Memories of hot, pillaging fire came roaring through his mind. In the solitude of the hall, he saw an axe in every stray glint, heard the beating of shields in every creak.

Outside, the wind was picking up. Through the beams, it howled its sombre chants. He wondered briefly if they were those of the old Father or the new. Drums of thunder pealed in the distance. He recalled how, as a boy, he would fear that sound. Those memories had grown strange to him, milky and ephemeral – a fiction.  Those times had passed. He now sat upon the very object of his hopes. His fears had been lashed and scalded into numbness. A false king still feared betrayal. There was nobody left to betray a true one. His old heart would never again beat faster.

He had lived his life. He would die his death. All that remained was to bathe in the nothing in between.

His grey eyes watched, impassive, as a sparrow darted through the hall. From storm, through calm, to storm again, in the space of an eye’s swiftest repose. He sat, unmoved, in the epicentre of his regnal calm. He traced the bird’s path, now empty, from window to window. For a moment too brief to name, the oldest human fear stirred. In the next it was refused, and peace regained its dominion.

The Tomb of the Wrestlers, 1960 by Rene Magritte

The End

Lex Talionis

Apartment 17 – this was the place. There were disconcerting patches on the hallway carpet, with small, many-legged creatures running across them whose names Erin had never bothered to learn. These were one of the particularly ugly sorts. The door to her client’s home would have been utterly charmless even if it were pristine. It was not. The whole affair looked, in all honesty, like a bit of a shithole. The internet had done wonders for the pace of business, but the quality of clientele had taken a correspondingly drastic hit. Probably just another stray failure looking to feel a moment’s power. A sale is a sale, but she was planning on making it a quick one. No point in wasting too much effort on small-time buyers. She gripped her briefcase, straightened her tie, and knocked on the door.

It croaked open. Her initial impression of the client did little to assuage her doubts. About thirteen pounds underweight. Skin pallid, but oily – like a maggot, or one of the other baby many-legged things. Hair slicked in a poor approximation of a style she had seen elsewhere, the excess of product adding nauseous redundancy to the scalp’s own grease. Plastic-looking blazer over a t-shirt with some words on it that she couldn’t be bothered to read. Eyes small, nervous, sad, and feeble.

“Hi.” He said.

“Hello.” She replied. “Mr. Neumann?”

“Yes.” He shuffled awkwardly on his feet. She riposted by remaining almost completely motionless. She wasn’t coming in until invited. He was not obliging. “Erin?”

“You’ll need to invite me in.” She said, pitching her voice with just the desired level of mockery. “It’s a matter of professionalism.”

“Oh.” He seemed sheepish (bad) and resentful (good). “Come in, then.”

The apartment was small, dim, and generally much worse than expected. There was a mound of dirty clothes in one corner, and in the opposite a mound of what she supposed passed as their clean counterparts. Media of various kinds had been hastily ushered into irregular piles, their arrangement revealing that a vain attempt had clearly been made to conceal the more tawdry and disturbing elements of the collection. The air, and everything she touched, seemed to prickle uncomfortably on her skin. It stank. These sorts of living conditions were neither a good omen nor a bad one, business-wise. The specifics of the pornography would probably be elucidating, but she found that asking to look generally ruined the sale. People became either very shy or very excited, and neither was ideal. Neumann had cleared some room at his table, and they sat.

“You’re very pretty.” He said, apropos of nothing. “And you smell nice.”

“Thank you.” She replied. “You’re not, and you don’t.”

The ghost of a snarl played across his face – a hot, shameful twitch of anger before it resumed its default state of vaguely pathetic anxiety. Good. It always helped to identify some buttons to push, and this one was common, sore, and easy to reach.

“May I ask what you understand about my business, Mr. Neumann?” Again, she laced her approach with a calculated strain of condescension.

“You sell revenge, right?” He asked. “But, like…. weird stuff. Occult.”

His small, nervous, sad, feeble eyes looked at her with a mix of pleading and resignation, at once expecting her to laugh and begging her not to.

“Correct.” She said, with only the faintest, homeopathic trace of a smile. “Would you like to see some items?”

“Yes.” His breath caught.

She unclasped the briefcase and set it on the table, opening it such that the lid blocked Neumann’s view. She noted his greedy attempts to steal a glance. At a deliberate, theatrical pace, she began to extract a number of her curios. As she did, she ran through a variant of her standard preamble. It was important to cover the basics.

“There are three fundamental dimensions of payback, Mr. Neumann.” She purred. Here, it would pay to sexualise every word. “Intensity, longevity, and intimacy. We’re going to try and find the right mixture for your needs.”

“All three, please.” He practically vomited the words. Perhaps he would be a big spender after all.

“That can be arranged. Normally, you’d have to compromise. But it depends on how much you want it.”

“What will it cost me?” His lust for revenge was quite heady, pungent even over the stench of the room.

“We can discuss payment once we’ve found what you want.” His eyes were fondling the goods, at once confused and spellbound by the strange collection. “Anything stand out? Use your intuition.”

“What about this?” He pointed to a glass jar. Inside was a squirming mass of thick, long, soot-black limbs. It was not unlike a particularly frantic, particularly bulbous specimen of one of those many-legged things that everybody seemed to dislike more than the others.

“Living curse. You give it a name, and it attaches to them. It feeds on good luck, happiness, and so on. Not very intense, not very intimate, but lasts a lifetime.”

He looked disappointed. People normally underestimated that one.

“This?” A small phial of angry, crimson liquid.

“Bottled trauma. Manifests as something intensely painful – but you’ve got to get them to drink it somehow.”

The second part looked like a deal-breaker.

“This thing?”

“Assyrian ceremonial knife. You can stab somebody with it.”

That one was admittedly a bit entry-level. She only really carried it around because she liked the design.

“None of this is any good.” Cracks were forming. Ugly, petty, profitable rage was seeping through. “I need to really hurt people.”

Erin found that asking customers to pick blindly was an easy way to convince them to relinquish control of the transaction to her. Any feelings of ignorance or submission were a welcome bonus.

“Well, let’s try some more advanced items, then. May I ask who we’re shopping for?”

Neumann eye’s darkened, and shifted to avoid hers. “… them.”

“That’s not very specific.” She cooed.

“Them.” He reiterated, in way that seemed decidedly too plural to be a simple product of relationship woes or bullying.

“So, I expect you’d like something a little more intimate?”

“Yes.”

“A little more intense?”

“Yes.” His nostril flared in some mixture of agitation and arousal.

“Something that keeps going until you’ve had your fill?”

“Show me.”

She curled her finger through the hole of a keyring and jingled it enticingly.

“Keys to your private hell. Room for two. Bit of a double-edged sword, but it’s as nasty and as personal as they get.”

Neumann closed his eyes for a good few seconds, lost in imagination. This idea spoke to him, whispered his own fantasies straight back into his ears. Or at least, his interpretation of it did. People had a tendency to assume that they got to be Satan in this arrangement. They didn’t. Still, when you’re in the business of selling monkey’s paws, you don’t tend to go into the fine print. Whatever he was thinking about, he was clearly enjoying it. She could hear the blood rushing, the proverbial purse-strings loosening, the will becoming ever more pliable.

“It really works?” He asked. Not a particularly probing question, and so one that she was more than happy to answer.

“Oh, yes. Needless to say, nothing’s off the cards in hell.”

Just when it seemed that Neumann was about to take the plunge, one of many possible pennies dropped. She could see the sinking feeling all over his face. Regrettable.

“It’s just for two people?”

“That’s right. You and one guest, permanent or otherwise.”

“Then it’s not good enough.” He looked disheartened, frustrated. “I need to hurt them all.”

“Hmm.” The indecision was, of course, feigned. She extracted two sheets of paper (well, a paper-like substance, the specifics of which are more easily left unexplained). They were covered in a squirming, vermicular text that must have looked like utter gibberish to Neumann. “Contracts of enmity.”

“… what do they do?”

“Well, they’re a bit like cupid’s arrows, but the exact opposite. You choose two groups, I forge their signatures, and they are bound by fate into a bitter, tortuous conflict for the duration of the contract. These ones are drafted up for seventeen million years.”

“I don’t follow. Two groups?”

“Yes. It’s quite simple.” She said this tauntingly. Always room for another jab. “Two groups. Anything that you could reasonably delineate as a faction or category of some kind – I’ll sort the legalese out for you. Rich and poor. Old and young. Men and women. Dogs and woodlice.”

She felt a moment’s pride for having successfully remembered one of the little many-legged things. She was not at all concerned by the fact that their opposition to dogs would make no aesthetic sense to the client.

“And it hurts?”

“Oh, it’s quite literally atrocious.” She gave him her most carefully wrought knowing smirk. Not too knowing, not too smirky, but just enough of both to taste. “Remember the crusades?”

This idea clearly hadn’t appealed to Neumann’s more visceral instincts in the way that the previous one had, but it had certainly caught his attention. He sat back in thought. Erin couldn’t guess the specifics of his cogitation (too primitive), but the basic scent was easy enough to pick out. He was trying to find the right line of division among his hazily defined enemies. One problem with the contracts was that, by necessity, they forced the buyer to think. Neither of them wanted that.

She chose not to employ any of her usual interjections. Neumann didn’t strike her as particularly sharp. Best to let his mind go through its slow motions. Suddenly, and to Erin’s surprise, his small, feeble eyes sprung wide in fear.

“What…” He quivered. “What is that?”

He motioned to something that had not been there before (at least, not from his perspective). Erin turned to look. This particular item took on a different appearance every time she had the chance to sell it. To her left, there was now a huge, jet-black cuboid. It dwarfed both of them, looming from floor to ceiling, and was wrapped in a thick weave of chains, their material unidentifiable. The whole ominous structure rattled with a slight yet constant trembling.

“Oh.” She muttered darkly. “I don’t think you’re going to want that.”

“Try me.” He sounded a little feisty, in a petulant sort of way.

“Well, inside that thing is… I suppose I’d call it a pet. Something one of a kind, and very near to my heart.”

“Whatever. What does it do?”

“Ah… how do I put this in a way that you’ll understand? It’s a thing, an entity, I suppose, that gives exact, exacting retribution to everyone and everything.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, I couldn’t say for sure, and if I’m being honest, even the basics would be lost on you. ‘Weird stuff’, right? It takes something into itself, and then it delivers a precise facsimile of all the hurt that thing has ever caused. Physical, mental, whatever.”

Neumann’s eyes (and pores, and glands) lit up, flaring brighter and more repugnantly than ever before. That was the ideal response. This was her top-of-the-range, luxury item. It simply couldn’t be sold to somebody who was thinking straight.

“It gives everybody exactly what they deserve?”

“Correct.” She tried to put a touch of warmth into the response. “All of them.”

If Neumann stopped to think about how the entity would apply to him, he wouldn’t buy it. If he stopped to think that there wouldn’t be anything left for him to crow over, he wouldn’t buy it. Flawless, universal talion was an idea that required no small print. Its incompatibility with existence was plainly apparent – to somebody who was thinking. Many of her wares were ‘apocalyptic’, in the popular sense of the word. This was the only one that was worse. Time for the hard sell.

“Well, Mr. Neumann.” She said, producing a contract from her sleeve, locking eyes in a way that was both supportive and sultry. “It’s been a pleasure, let me tell you. This isn’t normally for sale – more of a showpiece – but for you, I think I’ll make an exception.”

Neumann was bewildered. Fortunately, it seemed that he was considerably more bewitched by the sum of her sales process than he was bothered by the specifics of the item.

“If you could just sign here.” She motioned, velvety, over the contract and the pen, never breaking eye contact.

“It really works?” He was reaching for the pen.

“Better than you could ever hope.”

“On everyone?”

“That’s right. All of them. Even me.” Well, that second part was an outright lie. Luckily, there wasn’t going to be anyone to call her on it.

With languid, yet plainly excited trepidation, Neumann signed. Erin indulged in a long blink and a warm, satisfied sigh.

“What will it cost me?” He asked.

“Oh, you’re not going to owe me anything.”

One by one, the chains began to snap.

Erin reclined, let her hair down, cracked her knuckles, and took a sip of tea. About fourteen billion of their little years, was it? Not bad, if she did say so herself. Slower than her record, but a decent clip faster than her target, and she’d hit a personal best for minor sales along the way. She had certainly earned herself a holiday, which was perfect – business was going to be slow for a very long time.

The collective invention, 1934 by Rene Magritte

The End

Quantitative Analysis

“Hurry it up, Robert.” Sighed Mara. “We’ve got a quota to meet. Just chuck him in the army or something.”

“You can’t rush these things.” Replied Robert, pressing the words through his teeth with barely concealed impatience. “Please try to be professional.”

“I am.” She snipped. “I’m trying to meet the professional standard of not spending a quarter of an hour on one decidedly average citizen.”

“Tell me, how long have you been working in this department?”

“Two years.”

“Twelve. So it might be worth listening to my advice: you can’t just throw everybody in the army. The Military Board doesn’t like it, the CR Board doesn’t like it, and if they get around to complaining upwards rather than down, the Ministerial Board won’t like it either.”

“I don’t want to throw everyone in the army, Rob. I want to throw this schmuck in so that we can move on the next one, and maybe actually hit our daily target for once.”

“Well, perhaps we’d be more productive if you stopped bickering with me on every case.”

“We’d be more productive for sure if we just took the algorithm at its word, but you don’t like that idea…”

“We have human oversight for a reason.”

“Right. And we have two humans for a reason, too. Cuts both ways. Army.”

Robert scowled. He enjoyed scowling, Mara felt.

“Fine. We’ll run some numbers one more time, and if I don’t come up with anything else, we’ll go with the army option.”

She smiled inwardly, glowing in the anticipation of coming smugness.

“Alright, you shuffle aside, and I’ll take the screen.” She said. “There’s not enough space in this broom-closet for both of us to huddle over it. I’ll feed you the numbers.”

“Fine.” Robert relinquished his place at the computer with an air of wounded pride. Mara moved over with precisely the opposite demeanour.

“Ready when you are.”

“IQ.”

“106. And a third, if you care about the third.”

“Height, weight.”

“178 cm. 73.4 kg.”

“Deviation from standard life expectancy.”

“Negligible.”

“Happiness quotient?”

“Ouch. 92.”

“Disposition quotient?”

“A nice, crisp, 120. Tell me, what are the Military Board’s minimums for those?”

“HQ 85, DQ 115.”

“Thought so. And IQ 105 – 130, as I’m sure you know.”

“Yes, I do. But there are plenty of roles for those ranges.”

“Fine, fine. On to the achievement scores?”

“Correct. Physical, bipartite.”

“64, 60.”

“Social. Just give me the overall for this one.”

“64.”

“Academic. Tripartite, this time.”

“40, 51, 42. No love for the heptadecapartite scores?”

Robert scowled.

“We only use those for IQ 140 or above, and you know it.”

“I must have forgotten.” She smirked. “You’ve got those four IQ points on me, remember? Go easy.”

“Alright, alright. Any Observer comments that we missed?”

“Of course not. When was the last time you saw any?”

“It can happen. Clearly, the designated Observer just didn’t see any need in this case.”

“Or any case, apparently. Must be a pretty cushy job.”

“Careful what you say. The Overall Value Band is 3b, right?”

“3c.”

“Well, you win.” The furrows of his dissatisfaction were slightly more pronounced than usual. Not only had he ‘lost’, he had forgotten the OVB. For Robert, who was strangely resistant to apathy, this was a source of personal frustration. “We’ll say army and be done with it.”

“Oh, are you sure?” She crowed. The smugness had arrived, and she welcomed it with open arms. “I’ve got pages and pages of this stuff.”

“Yes, I’m sure. What did the algorithm recommend?”

“Army, of course. I didn’t come up with that stroke of genius myself. You sure you don’t want to bounce him back for another year in the Supervised Community?”

“A good allocations clerk never does that.”

“So you’ve told me.” Robert was stubborn about this, which was strange, since the option was officially sanctioned. Sometimes you really did just need more data. Equally, it sometimes made more sense to leave a file for the next lot rather than risk a mistake. “Army it is.”

Mara input the appropriate vocational code, and the pair’s decision was beamed off to that all-knowing god of bureaucracy, the (great, glorious, noble, infallible) National Mainframe. Seeing no red flags, the Mainframe dumped Citizen M45QS-S, soon to be renumbered to fit his designated raison d’être, into the lap of a bored Civil Resources employee. This provider of token human oversight scrolled through the case file in search of anything entertaining, found nothing, and confirmed the decision.

Robert and Mara received confirmation of this confirmation, and were duly presented with another citizen ready to graduate from their community. There was a mutual, simultaneous discarding of attention as they scanned the first page. This would be an easy one.

“IQ 98.” Said Mara. “Unlucky, Ms. F82GL-S.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it, Mara. The numbers don’t lie.”

She was about to retort that this didn’t necessarily mean that they were saying anything particularly truthful, but intercepted the thought before it could escape her head. Some things really were better left unsaid.

“Ship it over to the lovely people at the Exceptions Department?”

“Correct. Unless you see any reason not to?”

She scrolled through the file. “Well, not in the scores. And would you believe it, there are no additional comments.”

“Don’t get glib. This is an unfortunate necessity.”

She declined to comment.

Another offering to the Mainframe. It accepted it, ratified it, and rerouted it. A different (albeit equally bored) Civil Resources clerk gave the go-ahead, and the Exceptions Department found themselves with another lump of biomass.

Robert and Mara were blessed with a run of easy calls. There were certain lines in the sand that people in this vocation acquired very quickly, certain numbers in certain columns that, by virtue of their relation to prescribed benchmarks, narrowed things down to just a small handful of options – and that hand was sometimes practically empty. Save for exceedingly rare cases, a single exceptional score (euphemism or otherwise) was enough to determine someone’s optimal fate. It was the average ones who were more problematic, if you insisted on thinking too hard about them. Robert was rather prone to this. It was one of a curious selection of scenarios in which thinking too hard was encouraged.

Armed with their knowledge of these no-questions-asked indicators, the pair were able to allocate citizen after citizen in a matter of seconds each. It was a stroke of good luck, and they were able to make their quota for the day. Robert, as the senior of the two, confirmed their performance data for the shift and sent it to their sub-manager, a man or woman whom neither of them had ever met. The record would show that they had done well. In turn, it would show that the team who had assigned them to the department had done well, and so that their allocators had done well. As had the Observers, whose data had fed these successful decisions, and the sub-managers of all of the previous, and their managers, and their Superior Managers on the Civil Resources Board, and their overseers on the Ministerial Board, all the way up to the very top of the chain. The day’s reports reached the National Mainframe, and somewhere within its whirring, deific networks, the results of untold assessments ticked up in infinitesimal approval.

Untitled © Donald Judd

The End.

Inertia

Woodrow was one of the least remarkable people I had ever met. We moved in the same circles for almost all of my teenage years – went to the same parties, drank in the same bars, killed time with the same cliques. It’s entirely possible that I spent more time with him than with anybody else, although it certainly didn’t feel like it. In the grand sum of all those bored, listless days, nothing was as fundamentally bland or devoid of purpose as Woodrow. Save for a slightly unusual name, he was the most fantastically uninteresting person anybody could imagine. Someone who was present at every gathering, but whose presence was utterly intangible. The sort of friend whose defining trait wasn’t wit, vivacity, kindness, bravado, or really any attribute fit to evoke a response. Rather, to know him was to be in the presence of sheer, inoffensive amicability. He would never tell a joke, never express an opinion, never let slip a spark of passion, and so never give any reason to dislike him. He was just there. The living, breathing god of benignity.

We used to make fun of him, as teenagers are wont to do. We’d say (for example), that he was the inventor of the colour grey, or that trigonometry was first devised in a failed attempt to create something more boring than Woodrow. If a tree fell in the woods and only Woodrow was around to hear it, did it make a sound? Cogito, ergo non sum Woodrow (not my own invention). It would be possible to avert any momentous historical event by replacing one of the key actors with Woodrow, since wars, revolutions and breakthroughs were all far too exciting to occur in his vicinity. Likewise, his status as the world’s only known non-entity positioned him as the answer to many of history’s great mysteries. Any unseen hand or forgotten agent could just as well be Woodrow, since to see him was to see the air behind him, and all awareness of his deeds was immediately displaced by something more interesting. The list could go on for ever, but the point is that we were fairly cruel towards poor Woodrow, behind his back. Of course, none of this was done with any malice. That would require even the first ounce of emotional investment, an ounce that was decidedly unavailable in this case.

Anyway, the years strolled on and people drifted apart. Some of us went to work, others to university, others travelling, others to parenthood, and all on divergent paths. Some adolescent friendships endure, and others slough off. Woodrow was universally the first to be shed. There was understandably little compulsion to maintain contact with somebody who communicated nothing. Woodrow was out of mind even when he was firmly within sight, and there was really no way for absence to make the heart grow fonder of something about which it genuinely didn’t care in the first place. I myself fell out of touch with everybody from those days, reminiscing often but never acting on those thoughts. I was in my early forties before I saw a face from my youth again. A bland and inexpressive face, but one that I would recognize anywhere.

I was walking back from the office when I caught a glimpse of him across the street. For whatever reason, in spite of everything he represented, my eye was drawn swiftly and inexorably towards him. Woodrow looked exactly as I remembered him. I ought to make myself clear – that was no figure of speech. He looked exactly as I remembered him. Over two decades later, and Woodrow hadn’t aged a day, an hour. Not a wrinkle, not a hair more or less on his head. The same expression, the same walk, the same clothes (or close enough). I was looking at the person I had known, precisely as I had known him. No hint of a change, no trace of time. I stopped, motionless, and stared for a good couple of seconds as my brain attempted to reconcile this information. Woodrow, clearly sensing a degree of attention to which he was wholly unaccustomed, looked around in discomfort and spotted me. There was a rare flash of emotion across his face (namely panic) before he turned and began to scurry off, his retreat manifesting as a clumsily hastened version of his usual gait.

With my curiosity piqued for the first time in a while, I immediately gave chase. Striding across the road and around the corner in pursuit, I could make out Woodrow’s unassuming frame, clear as day, turning left off the main street. A considerable head start, but entirely wasted on him – he wasn’t particularly fast, and he was even less imaginative. I found him in a side-alley café, sitting in a corner, facing away from the window. It was a rather optimistic attempt at stealth. I entered, waved half-heartedly at the barista, and joined my old, surprisingly youthful friend.

“Oh. You found me.” He muttered, still slightly winded from what, for him, must have been an epic feat of exertion. To this day, I have never seen the man actually run.

“Yeah.” I answered. “You know, I probably wouldn’t have done anything if you had just kept walking.”

“Oh well. I suppose I’ll remember that for next time.”

He looked at me blankly, as though my desired topic of conversation were not blindingly obvious. He had never been much of a talker, of course. To be caught in dialogue with Woodrow was to descend into a world of overly long pauses and overly short responses.

“You’re looking well.” He said. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was mocking me.

“… as are you. Very well. Impossibly well.”

“Oh.” He sighed. “You noticed?”

“I did. It’s quite noticeable.”

“Right.”

He glanced over his shoulder. The barista was far more interested in their machinery than with us. He seemed content with this.

“This is a bit of a predicament for me.” He said, softening his already taciturn diction.

“I can imagine. But try to look at things from my end. I’m sitting across from somebody who hasn’t aged in more than twenty years, and I’ve got no idea why. You’re going to have to give me something here.”

His face contorted with the first motions of a frown, but this stopped as soon as it started. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and tutted. It seemed like he was reprimanding himself.

“Fine.” He said, with renewed calm. “I’ll talk to you. But I have to ask that everything stays between us. I don’t want any attention.”

“I can respect that.” Deflecting attention came naturally to him, after all. I had no desire to upset the natural order of things.

“Well. Erm…” He puzzled around in his own head for a minute or so. I understood that this was not a conversation he had ever planned on having, and so the words did not come easily. “I’m mostly immortal. Have been for some time.”

“I see.” This seemed reasonable enough. “How long?”

“Five hundred and six years.”

“That’s a lot of years.”

“Yes.”

There was an awkward pause. Woodrow shuffled his feet. I exhaled.

“I suppose you’d like to know more?” He asked, with an air of trepid defeat.

“That is correct.”

Another pause. At this point, I realised that I would probably have to take the reins if I wanted to get anywhere.

“Alright, question number one: what’s the secret? Fountain of youth? Witchcraft? Ambrosia?”

He thought for a second.

“I suppose I was just born this way.”

“That’s it? That’s all you can say?”

“No.”

“… then keep going, please.”

“Well, by the time I was about fifty, I knew something unusual was going on. Of course, back then, people were more willing to go along with these things. And they died more quickly. So, I didn’t have to deal with the trouble of hiding my condition nearly as much as I do now. Anyway, I thought that I might as well go and see a mystic about it, maybe find out what was happening, you know? I was a little bit more adventurous back then.”

“And?”

“They were quite perplexed. None of their divinations or other arcana had any effect on me. They said it was as though the universe didn’t even know I was existed.”

“So… you just kept on doing your thing for the next half-millennium?”

“Yup.” He shrugged. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“And you’re immortal because… because what? Death hasn’t noticed you yet?”

“Something like that.”

“And you’re happy with it?”

“It is what it is.”

I was hit by a sudden urge to laugh, which I supressed in the interests of decorum. Woodrow was so boring that the human condition itself couldn’t be bothered with him. He had surpassed (souspassed?) every joke we had ever thought to tell about him.

“Look, I don’t want to talk about this too much.” He said, in an uncharacteristic display of mild preference. “It’s kind of a risk.”

“How so?”

“Well, I’ve gotten this far by just being me. You might not know this about me, but I’m a pretty tepid person. I like things to be the way they are. I don’t like to go out on any limbs. I’m not comfortable being involved in anything too exciting.”

“I’d noticed.”

“Talking about this out loud is a change for me, and I just don’t want to rock the boat. Even getting worried about possible consequences is a danger. Any emotion or activity that’s unusual for me might burst my bubble, for all I know. That’s all. So please, keep this between us.”

“Absolutely. You can rely on me.”

Woodrow glanced back once again. The barista, oblivious to what they were missing, continued to perform their duties.

“One more question, and then you’re free to go.” I said. “I appreciate that you’d rather just be on your way.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”

“Why spend all that time with us? And, presumably, with thousands of other people? If your goal is to live a nice, quiet life, not to mention to keep your secret, why not just keep to yourself?”

Woodrow looked at me with slight curiosity, as though I had just asked something to which the answer was completely obvious.

“Well, that’s it, isn’t it? I’m just being me, and that’s one of the things I do.”

He was right, of course. Woodrow was defined by his overwhelming neutrality, and self-imposed isolation was inherently too extreme for him. True to my word, that was the last question I asked him. My curiosity was far from sated, but it would have been cruel to keep him there. Besides, Woodrow’s rather dim powers of communication would probably have been an insurmountable barrier no matter what. We exchanged mobile numbers, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.  I walked home in a daze, this little interlude having thrown my day entirely off balance.

In the years that followed, it proved surprisingly easy to come to terms with what I learned that day. The fact that this extraordinary state of affairs concerned only Woodrow, the least extraordinary person of all time, made it somehow acceptable in my mind. It seemed perfectly fair that somebody with no desire or capacity to make their mark on the world be granted an eternity in which not to make it. With anybody else, it would have been an affront to the general nature of humanity. Woodrow, however, was physically (and apparently metaphysically) incapable of affront, and so there was no harm done. It was a momentous, cosmic article of knowledge, and I was privileged to have been gifted it. But I also didn’t really care.

In the times that I have seen him since, he has of course been unchanged. Perpetual, youthful vigour for an old soul that has not once exercised it. I am now in my twilight years, and my own waxing mortality makes me wonder about him. I wonder if some great personal upheaval will ever thrust him back into synchronicity with the rest of humanity, or if he will simply spend all of human existence just being Woodrow. Just being there.

Well, I don’t suppose anybody would notice either way.

 

The End

Humility

Raim did his best to appear unassuming. This was not difficult – wearing plain robes, riding in a plain carriage, he was thoroughly congruous with his surroundings. Still, it was hard not to worry. There were parts of the city to which he was accustomed, and parts to which he was not. The day’s activities would be spent entirely in the latter. Still, it would all be his soon enough. His father ailing, his elder brother deemed unfit to rule, the crown would fall to him in some short months (or maybe weeks). Hence the need to expedite his studies. He had thus been cooped up, kept under house arrest by a procession of tutors, each bearing a marathon of tomes and practica for him to suffer. Statecraft, literature, philosophy (both natural and general), warfare, history, etc. etc. … Today marked the first venture beyond the palace walls in quite some time, and so it stood to reason (in his mind) that it would take him through some of the drabbest quarters his dominion had to offer. There was at least a certain newfound charm to be drawn from all this mundanity, knowing that he was soon to inherit it. The tawdry little trading stalls, the couriers rushing past with news of no importance, the paupers reaching out for alms or skulking in side-alleys. A year ago, they could have drawn no response from him. But as his subjects-to-be, well – it was hard not to feel a touch of sentiment.

With him in the carriage were two others. First, there was “the pilgrim” (as he had been introduced). A gaunt, unerringly taciturn young stranger who had kept his head down and his lips closed for the duration of the journey thus far. Secondly, there was his tutor and chaperone for the day. This was Shahn the Wise, an elder scholar from one of the temples on the city’s eastern fringe. The exposed skin on her hands and face was laced with the script of a secret language. Raim, literate only in modern and historical text, could not even guess as to its meaning, but he did at least know that it was exceptionally rare to meet somebody with tattooed hands. The hands, being the instruments of action, were deemed worthy of symbolic adornment only among the most dedicated and skilled of individuals. Shahn had also barely spoken. There was a sort of stoic patience to her expression that suggested that she would be entirely happy never to break that silence.

“Fine.” Sighed Raim. “What’s today’s lesson? Where are we going?”

“Today’s lesson is in humility.” She replied. “We are going to the Pit.”

“… the Pit?” He asked, attempting to conceal his genuine concern at this revelation.

“Yes. You have read of it, I’m sure.”

“Of course.”

“Then tell me what you know.”

“The Pit, also known as the Maw, the Mouth, the Throat, or to the ancients as That-Which-Threatens or That-Which-Is-To-Be-Watched, or literarily as the City’s Vacant Heart, the Great and Open Wound…”

“Get on with it.”

“… is a pit. A big, nay vast, hole in the ground. Located in the very centre of this city, presumably owing to some atrocious civic planning on the behalf of our ancient predecessors, whom we are to believe it predates.”

“What is its purpose?”

“Anything evil or malevolent is cast into the Pit. Thrown into the unseen depths where it can’t trouble us anymore. This evil can be in the form of a cursed object, the vector of a particularly wretched illness, the purveyor of particularly despicable acts…”

“Who has the right to see it?”

“Proven wisemen and women such as yourself. Members of the order that guard it. People who are about to be sent into it. Sovereigns.”

“Correct, but you have forgotten one. Think of our companion.”

“Pilgrims.”

“Yes. You should find this strange.”

“Should I?” He asked, although of course he did. The ancient texts treated the Pit with an almost spiritual terror. Almost all interactions with it had to be conducted through a sect of dedicated guardians, such that exceedingly few would ever cast eyes on it, let alone set foot at its edge. Its location was surrounded by a wall of tremendous height, always manned, almost never spoken of. This reverence seemed entirely inappropriate for a glorified refuse depository.

“You will soon be taking the throne. It is now your right and responsibility to know more.”

“So, this isn’t a lesson in humility after all?” He smirked.

“It is. But humility is fed by knowledge.”

A tollgate marked their passage from one district to the next. Shahn dismissed the guards with a wave – not even the highest and most headstrong of officials would try to coerce money from somebody of her standing. Moving now into an area rich with metalworks, the wall that surrounded the Pit could be seen in the distance. It was indeed strange that such a visible landmark represented something so obscure to most.

“In your reading, have you heard of a figure called the First Sinner?”

“I have not.”

“That is because all known text concerning him – I shall refer to him as male, although we do not know this to be the case – has been secured in the easternmost quarters, just as all texts concerning the royal lineage are contained in the southernmost. Some knowledge is to be kept where it belongs. Still, we know that some arcana concerning the First Sinner and the nature of the Pit eludes us.”

At this, the pilgrim seemed to smile.

“Who is this Sinner, then?” Asked Raim, ignoring him.

“Somebody from the early ancient period. This much is certain, everything else is subject to much debate. But that does not concern you. As you will know, the Pit existed even at this time, and its function was not dissimilar to now. The ancients used it to dispose of objects or individuals too repugnant to warrant any other treatment. The First Sinner was one such individual. Now, the name is not to suggest that he was literally the first to sin – this would be absurd. Rather, it is to say that he was the first who was meaningful in what was to follow. So, the First Sinner was a truly repulsive individual. Many ancient writers devote whole volumes to his transgressions, and indeed all refuse to do him the honour of referring to him by any proper name – thus our identity woes. When finally captured by a gathering of famed heroes, most of whom will no doubt be known to you from your reading on their other exploits, he was summarily cast into the Pit. Do you follow so far?”

“Of course.”

“And that is where the interesting part, the secret part, begins. The First Sinner was no ordinary wrongdoer. He was, we are told time and time again, preternaturally despicable, but also possessed of an inhuman force of will. So, being hurled into the darkness was not the end for him. Naturally, the details of what follows resemble myth more than history, and are not to be taken at the exact measure of their word. Nonetheless, we cannot doubt their fundamental veracity. Scorned by his peers but embraced by the Pit, the First Sinner ventured down, further down, and yet further still into the dark bowels of the world. The ancients describe in lurid and presumably wholly invented detail the various ordeals of this journey, the alien creatures that waylaid him, the unnavigable darkness that surrounded him, the weight of time, hunger, thirst and isolation that pressed down on him. The First Sinner, being a soul devoid both of human virtue and of human weakness, was undeterred. His descent could not be stopped. However many centuries later, he reached the bottom.”

“Of what? The world?”

“Correct. We can only theorise as to the nature of this ‘root of the world’. Certainly, it is a place where many natural laws cease to apply. Traditionally, it is believed to have been the primordial wellspring from which all life emerged. The First Sinner, by now even more impossibly evil and embittered than he had been before, reached this sacred place, lay down, and abandoned what twisted mockery of his body still remained. This false death released his essence, and the very base of the world was at once possessed by his all-conquering malignance. Since then, he and all his contamination have been growing, reaching upwards. He has shed mortality and become a cancer, a source of untold putrescence, a nucleus radiating insuperable disgust and concealed beneath stratum upon stratum of unthinkable filth, a force of and against nature whose slightest and most fleeting whim is akin to the horror and rot of every plague that has ever ravished our people, a…”

“Shahn! Stop.”

Shahn closed her eyes, performed a cryptic gesture with her hands, and was calm again.

“That is the true nature of the Pit.” She continued, gravely. “It is the passage between us and it. One day, the First Sinner’s tumorous progeny will reach us, and that will be the end of our world. This cannot be avoided. Until then, it is best that we conceal this knowledge. That is why so few are granted access to the area to which we now head.”

“Well, you’re right that it sounds like myth.” Said Raim. “But supposing it were true, why continue to throw things down there? Surely that would just be fuel to the fire?”

“A good question. Indeed, that vileness will consume anything it touches. The more spoilt the food, the better the meal. And yet still we feed it. Some say that is only right that sin be sent below and virtue stay above, that what exists down there is part of a dualistic balance, and we are to play our part in its custody. Anything evil tarnishes an ambiguous world, but it can make the absolute degeneration no worse than it already is – merely larger. But that is just one theory. What matters is that it is done, and always has been.”

“And we are to be content that our city rests on the eventual source of its destruction?”

“Content? Well, yes and no. In any case, there are many ideas on the matter. Some maintain that nothing will come of it. Below will stay below. Others say that the end will come when it comes, and that this would be the case no matter what. Still others search for miracles, for secret arts that will save us when the time comes. Again, it is not your concern.”

Raim knew that the sage could have spoken for hours, days, on these topics, but was instead choosing to offer him breadcrumbs. This frustrated him, but not enough to act on the grievance. Besides, they were fast approaching the gates that led to the Pit, and he was certainly more curious to see it now that he had been before. They were ‘greeted’ by a pair of tall, silent men in turquoise robes. Angular figures in interweaving arrangements decorated their faces. Shahn whispered something into one of their ears, and they were granted passage.

The area beyond the gate was a stark contrast to that before it. After some ordered rows of monastic dwellings, there was nothing. Gone was all the bustle, the inescapable urban trappings. Here, the city momentarily observed the natural state of the plains on which it sat – almost. Abstract geometric totems of towering height faced inwards, standing in seemingly arbitrary but no doubt precisely calculated formation. The grass was sere and the soil loose, both wanting for nourishment.

“We must alight.” Said Shahn. “The horses will not go much further, even under duress.”

And so they did. A sense of smallness nettled Raim in this place, aggravated only further by the indignity of having to walk. They were not five hundred metres from the gate, and yet it seemed that they had entered another world entirely – a world defined by an inexorable spiral towards the wound in its centre, which was out of sight but always in mind. For a short while they walked in silence.

“Pilgrim.” Said Shahn at last. “Tell the prince your story.”

“As you wish, learned one.” Said the Pilgrim. His voice was dolorous, with a lingering accent. “I was born to a clan of herders, on the plains. Life was hard, dull, and pointless. As the youngest and least able of the men, I was the first to be denied food when it was scarce, which was always. I took enough to live by, that being more than I was able to provide. I was beaten and shamed for my failings. Those days ended when we were massacred by a wayward expedition from Kedd. I survived, and was taken on as a menial servant and guide. I learned of the First Sinner from the cleric of this band, but it did not interest me much at the time. Further West, me and the other servants were bartered as slaves to a Felgo clan in exchange for safe passage. I was once again put to manual labour – although I was far better suited to being brutalised for amusement. This went on for many months, until I was able to escape. That is when my pilgrimage to this place began.”

“And why here?” Asked Raim.

“I wish to descend into the Pit. To join what rises from below. To become one with the First Sinner. There is no place for me on this world. I have no voice, no power. But I can echo the sentiment of that cleansing wave. I can lend what little I am, what minuscule worth I possess, to a force that rejects this cradle of my sufferings.”

“Thank you, pilgrim.” Said Shahn. “It is not an uncommon view, prince. It grows each day, just as does the entity it feeds.”

“And we are to allow this?” Raim was incredulous. “This man wishes to destroy us, even if his methods are foolish.”

“The choice is his alone. And he has long been starved for choice.”

“Thank you, scholar.”  Whispered the pilgrim.

Raim did not respond. He was here only to learn and observe, not to pass judgements. That time would come soon enough. Anyway, they had arrived. He now stood before the Pit. It was every bit as vast as he had pictured it, a great lake of black, null space, yawning and thrumming with sheer absence. The winds seemed to swell and chill, whistling and shrieking their way down into the void, their impetus gently compelling the three visitors to follow. All thoughts of the city, his city, fled from his mind. There was only the immediate, the visceral, the Pit. No further thought could be conjured, no emotion raised but some odd relation of awe and despair. With a cry of exultation, the pilgrim sprinted forth and hurled himself into the dark. The flapping of cloth and the screaming of praise could be heard, until they were consumed by unforgiving, unmitigated depth.

“Step to the very precipice, Raim. Look down with your mind’s eye, and you will know that I have not misled you.”

Spellbound, Raim did as instructed. Standing with his toes to the edge of the world, there was not even dirt between him and the downwards passage. He closed his eyes, and observed little difference – each spectacle was just an eyeful of black. He meditated on Shahn’s frenzied descriptions for some time, tried to send his imagination and intuition down the path that the pilgrim had just taken, to picture what existed at the absolute nadir. Then, his heart stopped. In that skipped beat, he sensed it, and he knew it all to be true. He ran ten full steps in flight before fading, spinning downwards into the parched soil.

Shahn and her disciples tended to him in a temple antechamber. A swift recovery was needed, because there was one more thing to see.

That night, he sat atop the highest observation tower of the most esteemed astronomers of the easternmost districts. The starscape lunged panoramically, dizzyingly, in all directions. He had seen these constellations in his studies, he was sure, but would not be able to recall a single one if pressed.

“Behold, the nations and estates of heaven.” Said Shahn. “On each one, towers of uncertain construction stand, facing us. Eyes with indeterminate sight look upon our little dominion. Minds of unknown genius or idiocy contemplate us, devising plans of unknown scope or nature.”

“How do you know this?” He asked, exhausted but intrigued.

“It is not your concern. Know only that great intellects and esoteric methods have deemed it so, again and again. At the Pit, you witnessed the certain destroyer. The force that will end us, but we cannot know when. Now, witness the paragons of all uncertainty. Behold the unknown realms of unknown things. You may rejoice in our ignorance or tremble in it, but you must accept that it is so.”

Staring up, he found himself making contact not with a prescribed astrography, but with an infinite swirl of luminous oculi – and they with him. And though the eyes may be the windows to even an obfuscated soul, he could discern nothing in this embrace of gazes. Only one errant thought, perhaps a fiction, penetrated this unknowing fog. Here he saw another Pit, extending this time not downwards, but in inconceivable ascent. And just as the first, this second Pit harbours only one will, promises only one end.

So ended the day’s lesson.

The End

Amphisbaena

Louise Meynor was dying. She had known this for months. Select associates had known it for weeks. The general public had known only since this morning. They had responded, as she expected, with the unique lack of sympathy of which only populations-as-wholes seemed capable. Her laptop had been regaling her with stories of jubilant responses for the past few hours. For the first time in many, many years, she was finding her gender to be a source of frustration. Contrary to what may have been expected, this was not due to the fact that her cancer was ovarian. Meynor knew perfectly well that cancer, the consummate opportunist, would have found a way no matter what. No, the particular burden of her womanhood stemmed in this instance from the sad truth that, despite all the strides she and her forebears had made to normalise women in politics, nobody had ever found a way to make people tire of using “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” whenever one of them died. She indulged in a rare smirk. It was only fitting that the people’s last expression of disapproval towards her be their most insipid yet.

She was treating this final stretch of her life just the same as the rest of it – calculated, disciplined, and with a point to prove. The ‘leak’ of her condition had been her own doing, of course. She had spent decades controlling the story, whatever the story was that day, and she wasn’t about to let something so trivial as mortal illness break that habit. Some had told her that it wasn’t worth spending the energy, “given the circumstances”. She didn’t appreciate the euphemism, nor did she agree with the notion. It was worth spending the energy precisely because she wasn’t dead yet. Professionally, personally and politically, she had always maintained that giving up was dying. She was already conceding her life to cancer. There was no reason to do the same with her principles.

She closed the laptop, set it aside, and reclined. Becoming immersed into her bed, she was besieged by a sudden urge to rest. She overcame it, as she had done on every other occasion. There was one last task to be done in the public eye, one final item on the list before she could exit the stage and spend her final weeks preparing it for the next in line. An interview – just another step in the media dance into whose rhythms she had been engrossed for so long. Her guest would be arriving shortly. Clementine Ogunsanya. It was desperately fitting that Clementine be the last writer to have her on the record. She was the correct choice, from a pragmatic perspective. Her voice was large, and her readership was likely to be extremely interested in Meynor’s death. An audience that had long despaired at her political invulnerability would relish this story, whether they were willing to admit it or not. In truth, however, Meynor would have picked Clementine no matter what. Call it sentiment, or the nostalgia of the newly mortal, but there was a weight of history that could not be denied.

Clementine had cut her teeth writing vicious thinkpieces at Meynor’s expense. This was not unusual. What made her stand out, more than the eloquence of her opinion or the force of her polemics (both considerable, of course), was the sheer, lunatic volume and focus of her work. From the senate to the oval office, Clementine had clung on, penning fresh invectives to meet every perceived evil. Meynor, in turn, had been glad to have a constant, embittered face of opposition against whom to frame her efforts. It had been observed on multiple occasions that Ogunsanya’s career, for all its outwardly destructive intent, had been a considerable boon to both of them. She had taken her parasitism to such a dogged extent that it evolved into something mutually beneficial.

Meynor found herself indulging in reminiscence when an aide ushered Clementine in. She strode over to the bedside chair that had been set out for her, sat down, and began extracting her materials. Only when content with her full journalistic regalia did she stop to look at her old muse. Meynor watched her face closely, checking for any hint of sympathy, or (god forbid) pity. Much to her relief, she saw in Clementine only a reciprocation of her own vague wistfulness.

“Ms. Meynor.”

“Louise. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“You know, I couldn’t help myself. Forgive an aging woman her habits.”

There was a pause.

“Anyway.” Clementine continued. “I’m tempted to ask how you’re doing, but I’ll spare you the offence. Ready to start?”

“Of course.”

Clementine shuffled into a more inquisitive posture. Meynor did not move.

“So, it’s hard not to look at this as something of a retrospective.  I think that the first question for most of us is going to be…”

“Let me interrupt you there, Clem. No. I don’t regret anything. I believed in everything I did, everything I tried to do. I appreciate that I couldn’t help everybody. That’s government. A lot of people don’t like to admit it, but it’s the way it is. The truth is, there’s no time to feel bad when you’re trying to do good. This is not a story about my deathbed redemption. I don’t need one.”

Clementine smiled. In spite of everything, this was familiar territory.

“Well, I’d like to get back to the notion that you’ve been trying to do good – you know a lot of people don’t agree with that. But first, do you remember my line from years ago about your two faces?”

“Of course. You said I had two faces, both of them ugly. You know I’m a big fan of your work, but I must admit that one was tacky.”

“A little catty, maybe, but you have to put some spice into these things. Anyway, as I’m sure you’re aware, I was talking about your methods of persuasion.”

“Dogma and pragmatism, if I’m to indulge your analysis.”

“Correct. A demagogue to the voters, a master rationalist to the professionals. And yes, both quite ugly.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, I’ve known you, one way or another, for a long time now. This is probably the last time we’ll ever talk. And even now, you launch straight into hard truths and the greater good. Immediately, you start showing the pragmatic face.”

“I think I see where this is going.” Sighed Meynor. “But do go on.”

“What people want to know, with any politician, but especially with you, is what you’re like under all of that. Who is Louise Meynor before she puts on any of her masks? How do you speak when the world isn’t listening?”

“Clem, you’re testing my patience here. I know for a fact that you’re smarter than this. I also know for a fact that you’ve asked me essentially this exact question many times before. But I’ll indulge you, since this is the last time you’ll have the chance. As you well know, politics and journalism are all about communication. You have to speak the language that your audience understands. For you, that’s easy. You have one audience, and it never changes. People who hate people like me, but don’t have the guts or the brains to do anything about it. Talking to that audience means asking questions that you already know the answer to, questions that you’ve asked dozens of times before, as you’ve just done – and there, you’re showing your intelligence. For me, things are a little more complicated. One minute I’m talking to the Supreme Court, the next to a semi-retired plumber in Michigan. It’s not disingenuous that I use different voices to get my message across, no matter what you might like to think. It’s necessary. It’s honest. There are no ‘masks’ involved.”

Clementine seemed to smile. That had presumably been what she wanted.

“And when you’re alone? When you don’t have to communicate anything?”

“How could I tell you even if I wanted to? The private life is just that – private. No way around it.”

“That may well be. One more personal question before we move on?” She had the same wry inflection she always adopted before something blunt.

“Fine.”

“You’ve always been known for your force of will, your bravery, even if it’s often misapplied. Any fear of death?”

“Of course not.” The reply was instant. Too fast, if anything. She hoped that it was convincing. There was a sudden groundswell of pain in her pelvis. Raising her hand to indicate the need for a break, she tried to contain her wince. The effort was futile, of course. Clementine’s eyes made it readily apparent that she had observed the extent of Meynor’s frailty. There was neither pity nor pleasure in them, but a sort of melancholic recognition.

“Ready to continue?” She asked.

“Yes.”

“Then let’s talk politics. Nobody can deny how effective you’ve been throughout your career. But almost all of your biggest successes remain controversial. I’m talking about the multiple waves of privatisation, each more harmful than the last. I’m talking about the devolution of power from capitol to capital, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. I’m talking about refusing to legislate against the worst of human nature or in favour of the best.”

“Ah, yes. Your little army has been calling me evil for decades, Clem. I may be dying, but my skin’s still thick.”

“Don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying that you’re evil, although I wouldn’t disagree too strongly with anybody who did. I’m saying that you are somebody who was been very effective at allowing evil to win. Somebody who has exercised a tremendous amount of talent and energy towards making the world worse.”

“And here we go again. When you’re in power, when your choices matter, every action makes something worse and something better. For every person you help, somebody gets hurt. You can’t spend the same dollar twice. You’re caught in a world of dichotomies, trying to steer a ship that barely responds to direction. If your opponents want to dig up sob stories and point at flaws, they will always, always be able to. And hell, I respect your decision to do so. Clearly, it’s working very well for all involved. It’s what your consumers want, and what you are best at providing.”

She was forced to pause once more, again holding up her hand to indicate that she was not done with this train of thought.

“And to be sure, there are people who are only in it for themselves. I’m not one of them. Everything I do, I do out of belief. I believe in agency. I believe in the market. I believe that the balance of interests and possibilities demonstrated by our miraculous species will chart a course better than anything that can be forced into existence by small-minded regulation.”

Clementine, perhaps in response to Meynor’s own passion, was clearly beginning to fire up.

“It is shocking to me that the author of such an inhumane policy platform could have such blind faith in human nature.” She retorted, with nominal restraint.

“Is that it, then? Is that the root of all your liberal ideals? Mistrust? Misanthropy?”

“That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it.” Clementine was angry. Fine. A heated exchange had traditionally been good news for both of them. “I’m saying that simply leaving the powerful to their own devices does nothing to help humanity. And what’s more, I’m saying that you would have to be stupid, misguided, or wilfully ignorant not to see it. Louise, if you genuinely believe that you have acted in the world’s best interests, then you’ll have be one of those things. My money’s on ‘misguided’.”

Everything is a device of the powerful, Clem. Whether it’s the state, the private sector, the UN, or just plain old individual freedom, somebody is making a decision and something is changing to match it. My philosophy just presupposes that my decisions should only affect me and those who consent to them, and that the same is true for everybody else. Your end of the spectrum would let me force them on society.”

“Don’t be absurd. How can you dare to claim that your administration’s decisions to remove public services were inflicted upon a consenting public?”

“I should think that’s rather obvious. I’m an elected official. Short of anarchy, somebody has to make decisions for others. It’s imperfect, but everybody knows it’s the only way of doing things. The consent is implicit.”

“’The consent is implicit’. Come on. This isn’t you fucking your wife without asking first, Louise. This is you forcing yourself on an unconscious girl and saying that it was fine because she never fought back.”

Good, once again. These things always had more flair when somebody escalated the language. Clementine’s anger was no doubt legitimate, but so was her savvy.

“Spare me your outrage. You’re saying that I raped the American public? That they were helpless before my unwanted advances? Did everybody not have the right to vote, the right to leave the country, the right to protest, the right to provide their own aid and services to their fellow citizens? That’s a lot of power for being ‘unconscious’.”

“The numbers don’t lie. Look at the wealth gap. Look at the gender and ethnic inequality. Look at the subjective quality of life stats, the approval ratings. You and your associates have brutalised this country. For all this good you claim to believe in, the record sure doesn’t back it up.”

“Yet.”

“What?”

“The record doesn’t back it up… yet. Anybody with half a brain knows that change hurts, and that it takes time. Any ideology that actually wants to do something with this mess, whether it’s mine or yours, is going to have to endure some hardships first. The problem is that nobody has the vision, the patience, to let the process happen. The numbers go up and down, and always so slowly that we lose faith and start interfering again. All we do is suffer the first hurdles in every direction, again and again, never reaching any destination. Stuck on this facile roundabout, lashing out at everybody else for failing to do something about it. The world I want, the world you want, the world some lunatic fronting a hate group wants, they all take time. They all take more time than we each have.”

With that, there was another rush of pain. Caught up in her speech, Meynor made no attempt to conceal it. No need to raise a hand this time – her grimace was a clear enough request for an adjournment. Its duration was a clear enough indication that they would not be able to continue.

“Off the record?” Asked Clementine.

“Sure.”

“Come November, it’s probably going to be Leichmann.”

“Yes.”

“He’s probably going to spend eight years putting back everything you took away.”

“Probably.”

There was another pause. No further physical pain, but there was a knot of directionless, insoluble frustration at the back of her mind. Meynor broke the silence.

“I won’t be around to see it. In my world, I’m dying, somebody else is picking up my torch, and they’re going to keep it going until the next person, and the next. And then things are really going to start looking better. You can keep Leichmann. For me, something’s finally happening.”

“Must be nice.”

“Yes and no.”

Clementine looked at her and sighed.

“Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. You can’t get half the audience talking about the opposition.”

“Sounds tough.”

“Tell me about it. There won’t be another you in my time.”

“You’d better make this interview last, then. But I’ve got to sleep now. I’m not feeling too well, if you didn’t know.”

“I assumed you’d be trying to set up a surprise win. Fighting to the last, and so on.”

“I am, but fuck it. You can come back tomorrow if you like. Hell, take the whole week. Both of us want this getting read. Might as well make it a real epic.”

Both women smiled. There was no formal goodbye – it seemed pointless, and if nothing else a little awkward. Clementine simply left, for now. Exhausted but eminently awake, Meynor lay in thought. For all their tensions, some things never change.

The End.

Ego Dominus

It began, as so many things do, with a bad hand. Decisions are both the privilege and the burden of power, but the two edges of that sword were unknown to him. Born poor, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, he nonetheless believed himself the master of his own destiny. He had been told, innumerable times, that each would rise to the measure of their worth, been shown endless galleries of successes to praise and of failures to scorn. There was a war of all against all, and it was skill at arms, not Kriegsglück, that determined the victors. The great and the worthy stood impervious, untouched by the stray bullets and bombs that outrageous fortune, now modernised, counted in its arsenal. To bow was to be broken, to flee was to fail, and to pause was death. The humility of his origin was no excuse, for his merits were products of himself and not his birth. A strong arm clad in rags could seize riches, just as a weak arm in tailored sleeves could surrender them. This was his catechism, and he was a devout soldier of its faith, a crusader whose fervour would surely propel him ahead of the unaware and the impious. The men of modern legend had earned their status just as he would earn his – by baptism in the font of self, by genuflection to no symbol but that of their own design, by being the sole recipient of their own prayers. He set out into the world, armed with his own virtues, armoured with temerity, and all too eager to fight.

His philosophy could endure any amount of success, but was threatened by any hint of failure. How, then, to withstand the inglorious salvos that life would inevitably levy against those of poor, average, or even good fortune? For each perceived affirmation of his exceptionality, he was faced with multiple affronts to it. For each clear success, there were handfuls of weak or mediocre outcomes. For each suitably impressed observer or suitably bitter enemy, there were throngs of men who did not envy him and of women who did not desire him. Around him, he saw victories granted to those who had not earned them, those who were oblivious even of the battles they had won, those who mocked the faith that was his strongest weapon, who preached weakness as strength and strength as sin. Fuelled by anger, he fought on. To pause was death, and he would yet have his glory.

This motivating anger could only persist so long before slumping into bitterness. Trapped in a prison of mundanity, logic would dictate that either he was deficient, or else his perspective was. His dogma would afford him neither compromise. To flee was to fail. With this noose of paradox around his neck, the only path left was an imaginary one – as we know, a mirage is no different in effect to a truthful image until the traveller reaches it. Seeing two harsh desert expanses and one crisp oasis, he naturally ventured towards the latter, not knowing that his subconscious, parched for affirmation, was defining the image for him.

And so, increasingly, he sought out and claimed signs of his own dominance where none existed. He turned his individualist fervour away from the pursuit of victory and towards the denial of defeat, shifting his war chest from armament to propaganda as so many outmatched belligerents before him had, never giving a thought to surrender or peaceful alliance. He married, to a woman who did not love him, but who was timid enough that he could convince himself otherwise. He barked at the weak (in his eyes) to convince himself of his strength, and quarrelled with others who were similarly disposed to him, each walking away the virtuous conqueror in their own histories. He found solace in others who had walked his same path, but only because he could maintain the belief that he was their leader. To bow was to be broken. He ignored the failings that would, in the past, have been abhorrent to him (and still were, when evident in others), denying their existence outright or else claiming them as successes according to his own, superior metrics.

The doctrine of the past was all but gone. He no longer acted on its commandments, and was dependent upon self-deception in order to keep faith in its veracity. Still, the mirage remained, and he was its devout pursuer.

It was in this desperate state, this continued flight from heathen compromise, that he would allow one final heresy, this time disguised as a miracle. He invited an usurper to take his throne, beseeched a saviour that was not himself, praised the words and symbols not of his own design but of a new hierophant’s. Envisioning an indomitable army of one, he took up arms once more as a pawn to the new king.

And so, defeated and in subjugation to this new master, he believed himself the hero of his phantom war.

On the Threshold of Liberty, 1937 by Rene Magritte

The End