Among those unfamiliar with the hunting behavior of apex predators, it is a common misperception that great cats are in the habit of piercing the jugular vein and carotid artery when making a kill. Appearances, after all, can be deceiving. The tiger does indeed seek the throat, but the killing bite is mild, almost tender in its affection. Crushing the windpipe or rending the sinew of a muscle-bound water buffalo neck puts those extremely-important lateral incisors and canine teeth at great risk. A cat is neither a crocodile nor a shark: if its pearly whites snap off, that’s all she wrote. Instead, for large game, those big scary fangs straddle the carotids, compressing them in the interstitial tooth gap, restricting the flow of blood to the brain. Unconsciousness comes quickly, which means the cat spends a lot less time and energy fighting a beast much larger than itself. Instead, it keeps the clamps on and waits patiently for brain death. Compared to, say, canine alternatives that rely much more heavily on tearing and bleeding out, death by great cat is considerably less unpleasant.
This passing familiarity with feline physiology and tactics is useful in the event that you find yourself obliged to slit a throat cleanly and effectively. It is unfortunate to both the assailant and the victim that the novice too often draws a pocketknife or other such unfit instrument in a horizontal stroke indiscriminately across the center of the throat. This has the unfortunate effect of damaging the voicebox, meaning that even if the bleedout is effective, a great deal of the spillage ends up filling the lungs, drowning the subject slowly rather than rapidly starving the brain of oxygen. It is an uncomfortable, frothing death that takes minutes rather than seconds. More importantly for the one wielding the knife, it allows the target the time and the alertness needed to summon assistance.
Anika: “I don’t see why I need to know this. We made it all the way from the plantation to Orchardland and we didn’t see a single bandit the whole time.”
Me: “That’s true, but we’ll make it to Chico tomorrow. Things are…”
Look, people. I’m not the most eloquent dude, even under the best of all possible circumstances. Talking to a kid after whatever it was that happened in ’08 is expressly not the best of all possible circumstances. Imagine trying to explain how an internal combustion engine works to a fifth grader when the most work you’ve ever done on your car is to take it to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. This is the challenge I had here.
Me: “…they’re different between Chico and Victoria. I’m not sure why, but they didn’t lose their stories.”
Anika: “What are you talking about? How do you ‘lose’ a story?”
This one I could answer. At least I thought I could answer it. Thinking back, I’m not so sure I understand after all.
Me: “A story is at least two things. At the simplest level, it’s entertainment. The audience enjoys a grand adventure and in return, grants special status to the teller. Authors, musicians, artists, poets… these people have always enjoyed a unique place in society. The rest of us have to be rich or powerful to have access to comforts, but artists easily attract beautiful company and often enjoy fine living even with meager means.”
Anika: “That’s on a ‘simple’ level?”
Me: “It’s the individual purpose of stories. But there’s a social purpose too. Stories are magic.”
The word “scoff” can mean several things. Sometimes, it’s a tilt of the head, a squint of the eyes, a guttural noise produced at the back end of the hard palate. Sometimes, it’s a gesture of the fingers or a tensing of the nape. In this case, it was all of the above, plus some. Anika scoffed.
Anika: “Um, there’s no such thing as magic. I’m not stupid, you know.”
I tried to be as gentle as possible.
Me: “Actually, you’d have to be a little stupid to reject magic.”
Her offended skepticism wasn’t quite ready to melt just yet.
Me: “Think of it this way. Before the… the Thing, you could tell a bedtime story to a toddler.”
Anika: “Big deal, we still do that. Even you still tell me a bedtime story sometimes.”
Me: “Have you ever corrected me?”
Anika: “What do you mean? How can I correct you?”
Me: “Tell me the story of the Three Little Pigs.”
Anika: “What for? What are you even talking about?”
As much as I hated the huffy tone of voice, I kept my tone even in an effort to be encouraging.
Me: “Please indulge me. Tell me the tale. Three Little Pigs. I know you know it.”
Anika: “Fine. A long time ago, there were three little pigs. They left home to make their fortune. The first pig built his house from sticks. A big wolf came by and said, ‘pig pig let me in’ and the pig said ‘not by the hair on my chin chin.’ So the wolf took a deep breath and blew the house over. The second pig built his house out of straw and the same thing happened, a big wolf came by a blew it over. The third pig made his house out of brick, so when the big wolf came by and tried to blow it over, it didn’t work, so the pigs slaughtered the wolf, made boots of his pelt, and feasted on his entrails by the light of the moon. The End.”
Me: “Very good. Now if I had known you when you were still in diapers and I would have tried telling you that story the way you just told it to me, you would have pitched an absolute tantrum.”
Her lycanthropic indolence had now fully transformed in the pale light of the moon into bafflement.
Me: “You got the plot right, even hit some of the themes, but the tempo was missing, the chords were out of place, the order wrong. You didn’t chant the liturgy. In your version, it’s a “bad wolf” rather than the correct “big bad wolf.” And the progression is straw to sticks to bricks. You only did the call-and-repeat once, and even then it was incomplete. You were strumming a guitar with broken fingers, singing off-key into a rusty tin can. That wasn’t a story, young lady. It was the mumbling of a sleepwalker.”
Bafflement turned a scarlet shade of embarrassed miffed.
Anika: “Like you’re one to talk. I’d like to see you do any better.”
Me: “That’s my point. I can’t. Not anymore. I remember how the stories used to be, but when I try to tell them properly, in order, I just can’t do it. They get jumbled. I skip things or tell them out of order. No matter how I try to concentrate, no matter how many times I heard the real version as a boy, they’re just gone.”
Anika: “So what you’re saying is that a wizard cast a forgetting spell on you and that’s why stories are magic?”
It had been a long time since I had laughed aloud. I was grateful to her for this tiny gift.
Me: “I don’t know why I can’t remember the stories. As far as I know, that’s exactly what happened.” I paused to chuckle again. “But no, it’s more like this: a story that everyone knows front to back, or a song that gets stuck in your head, or a line from a movie that everyone can recognize out of context. These things are magic.”
Anika: “Magic how? That just sounds annoying.”
Me: “It takes a lot for strangers to cooperate. It takes a lot for folks to trust each other. It takes a lot to set up the huge global supply chains, the long-duration contracts, the big projects that aren’t expected to pay off for years, even decades to come. I don’t think many people knew it at the time, but the old stock markets needed something else to hold it all together. Hedge funds needed a common understanding of how the world fit together.”
Anika: “And what?” She could lay the sarcasm on like a pro. “Bedtime stories was the glue that held the world together?”
Me: “That’s an interesting way of putting it, but I don’t think that’s quite it.”
The sun would be up soon. I motioned for her to follow me down to the meadow nearby.
Me: “Look there. What do you see?”
Anika: “It’s a spider web. Big deal.”
Me: “Do you actually see the spider web, or do you see the dew on it?”
Anika: “How old are you? Of course I see the web. Don’t you?”
I became acutely aware of how long it had been since I’d had an optometrist appointment.
Me: “Fine. Imagine you don’t have perfect vision. The stories are the dew. The spider cares about catching the fly, but it’s the dew that you can actually see, right?”
I got a blank look.
Me: “Whatever. Look, the point is, whatever it was that kept the world’s faith intact ruptured. It killed international finance markets, and one of the innocent casualties happened to be our ability to share sacred stories.”
Anika: “I still don’t see why this means I have to learn how to slit a throat.”
Me: “Like I said, the stories didn’t die here.”
Anika: “So what?”
Me: “So, road banditry is some of the oldest magick there is.”
Anika: “Um…” I didn’t let her deliver the flat-affect “what” I knew was coming next.
Me: “The handsome outlaw bandit is an ancient trope. Like ancient ancient. Predating civilization ancient. The Sovius myth had bandits, so did the lay of Gilgamesh.”
Anika: “Gilga Mesh?”
Me: “Gilgamesh. Yes. Does the name ‘Robin Hood’ mean anything to you?”
She shook her head. Her ratty pontail waggled under the lightening sky.
Me: “Robin Hood comes from a very old tale. He was a character revisited by dozens of authors. And even though he was represented differently in each telling, a few key features never varied: skill at archery, the life of a forest outlaw, the band of merry men, and a rivalry with the local constabulary. He took from the ‘rich’ and gave to the ‘poor’, though some tellings took certain additional liberties with this point. He was the quintessential English language literary outlaw. And so broad was his influence, so intense the romance of his tale, that brigandry and banditry looked awfully attractive to boys who’d been raised hearing stories of his (and those like him) exploits.”
Her skepticism remained completely intact.
Anika: “So you’r telling me that the reason we haven’t seen any desperadoes is because no one can remember some guy named Robin?”
Me: “Not quite. Remind me to tell you of how I escaped the bombs some time. There actually were bandits early on. A lot of them. But without the romance to sustain them, they probably found that it wasn’t a very easy life with so little trade happening. Most, I imagine, gave up and started farming.”
Anika: “But it’s different up north?”
Me: “It’s different up north. The glamour of the old stories didn’t die. People still remember that it’s actually, ‘not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.’ You’d be surprised how much easier it is to live on ditchwater and moss when you have the buoyancy of a fable to hold you aloft.”
Dawn had yet to fully emerge yet, so I didn’t specifically see her eyes roll at this, but roll I’m sure they did.
Anika: “Whatever. Tell me again what I have to do.”
A properly slashed throat consists of a single, continuous, smooth stroke beginning in a descending motion from the far ear, just under the jawline where the artery is closest to the skin. It proceeds across the front of the throat, as far up as is comfortable. You should seek to avoid the Adam’s apple, as it will slow the progress of your blade. On the ascending portion of the stroke, re-apply pressure as the knife emerges just behind the lobe of the near ear. If you’ve made your cut quickly and cleanly, twin jets of blood will emerge and quickly subside from each side of the throat. By making your cut in a U-shape, stanching the flow will be all but impossible, as you’ve maximized the circumference of the incision relative to the diameter of the blood vessel. It’s the same principle as suicide by wrist cutting: down the road, not across the street. The bleedout will be faster, more humane, and for our purposes here, far more quiet than a ham-fisted hack. Remember to keep your knife sharp and your wits quick. We travel at night.
Previous posts in this series
The Truth Shall Set You Free
It’s Better to Regret Something You Have Done Than to Regret Something You Haven’t Done
That One Time I Met a Bull
Locke and Key
Ich Bin Ein Ausländer
Land of Sunshine
Toward a Model of Efficient Self-Governance