Paper Lotus

Enkidu. Iolaus. Robin. Wiglaf. Patroclus. Jōtarō. Tonto. Watson. Short Round. Samwise. Little John. Without the sidekick, the hero dwells in a void, defined only by the story’s adversity. The second fiddle is the alternative. The reader is invited to don the mask of the doughty Gilgamesh, to shoulder Frodo’s burden, because in the real world that is, that was, in the world that invited us to read, to forget for a moment our frailties—in this world the sidekick is us. The old stories weren’t told to give the few Bruce Waynes that exist nor the occasional Gandalf in our midst insight into the secrets to living a life of mighty import. Rather, the audience is assumed to be the unwashed wild man sitting at the feet of the immaculate hero. The author’s bitter moral lessons are sweetened when sipped from the hero’s chalice. Only when the epilogue is finished and the credits roll does the audience resume their grim toil, buoyed a little perhaps by a lingering lesson. A thousand browbeating sermons can’t match the persuasion of a single story, well told. Virtue is an aspiration, not an obligation. And aspiration is a hardy weed.

In the world that was, I enjoyed end-of-the-world fantasies the same as anyone else. My favorite book of the Bible (after Philemon, of course) was the Revelation of St. John the Divine. I used to play Road Warrior with my schoolyard chums out in the San Diego scrublands as a child. Or imagine that I was Don Johnson and I had a telepathic link with Gordon Lightfoot, the neighbor’s Pekingese. I had a crystal embedded in my chest that was beginning to dim and I had to get away lest I be annulled. I even enjoyed that Kevin Costner movie with the guy who named himself after a car dealership and had a cameo by Tom Petty. But something always struck me as silly about nearly every tale that featured a civilization-ending event. There was seldom a transformation of basic underlying human nature. Wrecking an empire is trivial compared to squashing the vast, distributed engine of civilization. To really return humanity to a grasping state of nature, it is insufficient to kill a great many people in a short span of time, or to inflict upon the land a great plague, or to render barren fields of agriculture, or to set men to ferocious war. Humanity is too cunning to suffer long such depredations and will work tirelessly to restore that most treasured of all luxuries: idleness. To tell a plausible story of the end of the world, authors must take seriously what it is that builds great, intricate webs of commerce in the first place. Every lich has a phylactery. The phylactery of civilization is a vessel of faith capped by a lid of hope.

With faith, we looked to our past, we honored the choices of our forebears. With hope, we looked to the future, seeing our children romp in immaculate gardens. To get humanity to give up, both tethers must be severed. In high school, I was tasked with writing an epilogue chapter to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The correct answer to this task is trite and boring: the boys return to civilization and are re-integrated seamlessly. The savagery on display in the novel persists only so long as the children remain callow, disconnected, free from the dipteric buzz of conscience and the long arc of history. To get actual adults to behave boorishly in similar circumstances, television producers had to work diligently in both the field and the editing room to present even a sliver of the chaos described by potted despair authors.

Anika: “Brigit, tell me a story.”

This was not the idle indulgence of a child asking for a tender bedtime diversion. Anika’s request carried the insistence of a heroin addict in the early stages of withdrawal. I felt it too, an ache soothed only by the rhythm of a classic story arc, an itch scratched by Aesop’s fingernail. The further north we sailed, the more the tales insisted to be told, to be heard. The words crawled through our heads and out of our lips, richer, more detailed, more arcane and ancient than we rightly understood. The Fox Who Sold the Sun. Eglė Žalčių Karalienė. Seasons 2-9 of Firefly. Dead stories. Stories never written. Stories with alien morality better suited to the lives of our hut-dwelling hardscrapple ancestors. Stories of ourselves.

This is what Brigit chose. A story of herself.

Brigit: “A long time ago, back when the rain would still burn your skin if you got caught outside too long, back before I joined up with the Militia, before I met Clay, I hid out in an abandoned nickel mine in a region of Canada… well, former Canada… called the Labrador Trough. Happy Valley it was called.”

I could see some whitecaps kicking up to the southwest. Today’s leg would be long and probably a bit arduous. My ankle was on the mend, and the crew was shaping up. I entertained the stray thought that we might be able to secure the boat north of Astoria and continue on foot if this trend persisted. But then, I’ve always been a bit of a fool.

Brigit: “The mine itself had become too contaminated to use. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember, but the acid in the rain was hell on anything metal. So all the shaft elevators and the outdoor machinery was in no condition to work, even if someone could have fixed all the electronics.”

Anika: “But there was no one left to fix the electronics anymore, right?”

Me: “Wrong. I was an electronics technician in the Navy. It’s been a while, but I know how to solder, how to diagnose faulty circuitry, and how to rig up a working generator.” My attention was on the incoming gusts, so my remarks went unacknowledged, probably unheard.

Brigit: “You’d be surprised. A couple of families had already taken refuge there. The Canadian Maritimes are no place to live, even under the best conditions. Most of the residents scattered. Ten of them holed up at the mine…”

Anika: “What are the Maritimes?”

Brigit: “A trio of islands in the North Atlantic. They used to be called New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and um.”

Clay: “Nova Scotia”

Brigit: “Nova Scotia, right. I don’t know if they kept their old names. As far as I know, no one goes there anymore.”

Me: “The closest I ever got was backwoods Maine. The sky was still green, but the killer rain was done. I can’t imagine getting any closer than that.”

Brigit: “At any rate,” interruptions were partly welcomed. If you’ve ever scratched a bad itch for a long time, you’ll know what I mean. Extending the tale-telling means greater relief, at least as long as the thread of the yarn stays intact. “The two-plus families there answered to a guy calling himself Hambone. Hambone was a more-Hemingway-than-thou-”

Anika: “Hemingway?”

Clay: “The last man to walk the earth.”

Me: “A terse poet.”

Brigit: “A beard in a gray woolen sweater. Hambone used to let everyone in earshot know the requirements of a Life Properly Lived. Everyone must know how to deliver a baby, set a bone, repair a flat, chop wood, fish, whip meringue, lead while dancing, join cloth, clean fowl, prepare mortar, clean and fire a sidearm, till soil, sow seed, and harvest crops, maintain good order and discipline, write clearly in her native tongue, forage, spin wool, code, extract metal from ore, play an instrument, tell one story perfectly, and rest. And that was just for the women. Men had this list plus at least another dozen things. I asked him once if he objected to specialization and exchange to see if I could rile him up a little.”

Anika: “Did it work?”

Brigit: “No. I guess he studied economics, because he quoted an extended line from Adam Smith at me about how specialization was great for factory work, but at home it made people thickwitted dullards or something. His point was this: know one thing well, but don’t let that expertise rob you of the many basic human skills you need from time to time.”

Clay: “Solid advice.”

Brigit: “His one thing he knew really well was insurance adjustment. I asked him what he knew of the other things on his list, and he went and showed me half of them. The one about extracting ore was really cool. I still remember how to make pig iron. Nickel is harder though. With iron, you can go as far as pulverizing the ore before smelting, but with nickel, you have to pre-refine the pulverized dust by mixing it with water so that the rock settles out. Hambone said gold miners used to use mercury for similar purposes, except it was the other way round. Gold floats to the bottom and the rock floats on top.”

Anika: “Mercury?”

Me: “Quicksilver. You ever see an old thermometer or a thermostat switch?”

Anika: “Oh yeah. That stuff is fun to play with.”

Me: “It’ll kill you or turn you crazy if you play with it too much.”

Brigit: “The one that stuck with me was ‘tell one story perfectly.’ For the life of me, I can’t remember the details of his story, but he told it perfectly. It was a story-within-a-story, the kind that was sort of cliche after Kurosawa and Mifune did first Rashomon and later Red Beard. But from him, it wasn’t a cliche.”

Clay: “So what was his story?”

Brigit: “It’ll sound stupid coming from me, but he told the story of a man named Raunchy Mike Vale who stopped to comfort a dying man. The dying man was slouched against an old war monument erected to honor the fallen of a war no one remembers anymore. Raunchy Mike told him of a sea captain who had sacrificed first his family, then his friends, then even his own name to hunt and kill his prey. The sea captain, whose name now belonged to the surf and the dreadful crustaceans beneath, sought vengeance for the beast who slain his son. Lamp-lit leagues across the still Sargasso Sea did the lone hunter prowl. And when the weary Leviathan paused-”

Anika: “What’s that?”

Brigit: “It means to take a little break.”

Anika: “No, I mean ‘Lev-i-a-thon.’ I don’t know that word.”

Brigit: “Strictly speaking, it’s a mythical giant beast, or a metaphor. Long ago, sailors would see huge shapes passing beneath the hull and fear unknown monsters of the deep. They turned out to just be whales, but I’m sure you can imagine what months without seeing land might do to your imagination.”

Me: “Try a submarine sometime.”

Anika: “Okay. Thanks. You can keep going.”

Brigit: “That’s magnanimous of you. When the weary Leviathan paused, the sea captain struck. The beast pitched and yawed and thrashed and twisted, but the harpoon was deep into the skullbone, and with each spasm, it worked its way into the uncanny folds of the deep-dwelling brain. Soon the beast was still and the old sea captain looked on not with triumph, for there is no triumph in vengeance. Nor with sadness, nor regret, nor melancholy. The glare of the sun and the salt of the air had scoured all meaning from the hunt. All that remained was the kill. And now that the creature lay dead, the sea captain’s story was done.”

Clay: “Fiddlesticks.” I snickered a little at the old-timey exclamation. “That’s not how life works.”

Brigit: “You’re right, Clay. That isn’t how life works, but it is how stories work, particularly stories to comfort the dying. Raunchy Mike reached down to hold the dying man’s hand. With his other hand, he brushed aside the man’s hair to reveal the small-caliber bullet hole just above the man’s right eye. ‘I have followed you so long I almost forgot what you did. Now that you take your last breaths, know this: your chickenshit cowardice doomed an innocent girl and I am Justice in a silk tie. There will be no hell for you, no heaven. Only darkness, only void. Your life is at an end, beast.’ And with an expression of horror, the dying man’s eyes glassed over and the last spark in him went dark. Raunchy Mike took the wallet from the dead man’s pocket, found the deputy’s badge inside, and flung it over the railing into the cold river below.”

Lachesis began purring and slunk over to sit in Anika’s lap.

Anika: “I don’t get it. What are you supposed to learn from that story?”

Brigit: “Stories within stories are supposed to unfold. Like a paper lotus.”

Anika: “I don’t know what a paper lotus is.”

Clay: “Don’t worry about it too much, kid.”

It was time to break camp anyway. The sun was up, our breakfast plates were licked clean, and Clotho had just returned from his morning constitutional in the bushes. I was pensive, mulling the frayed ends of Brigit’s story, wondering how many Leviathans had already been slain. We could still smelt iron, still change a tire, but we didn’t. Faith was dead on the point of a harpoon.

Anika: “Have you ever killed for revenge?” She peered at me as she loaded up the picnic basket with the ship’s mess kit.

Me: “Not yet.”

We sailed in silence that day, terrible beasts muttering incantations out of sight in the sickening depths.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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