Thorn

Perhaps it is a physiological idiosyncrasy peculiar to me alone, but I have despised hiking downhill for as long as I can remember. Controlled descent requires keeping seldom-used fine muscles under tension for the duration of each step, and the consequences of poor timing or inadequate control are considerably more severe than a comparable uphill misstep. 

Me: “Anika, have you ever heard this before? ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All.”

Anika: “No. It sounds like something you’d have to say in a cult.”

Brigit’s giggling drowned out my follow-up comments. I waited longer than should have been necessary to continue.

Me: “How are you feeling this morning?”

Anika: “Better, I think. I still don’t know exactly what happened out there. It was like I was in outer space or something, and there was this voice talking to me.”

Clay: “What did it say?”

Anika: “I can’t remember. All I remember was that it wanted to show me something important, something about a ray.”

Clay: “A ray?”

Anika: “I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t want to get back on the boat for a little while. Can I walk and just meet you up the coast a little ways?”

I despise walking downhill, I really do. But neither am I about to let a little kid go gallivanting off on her own. We talked it over and decided that Clay should accompany Anika on a three-day overland trek while Brigit and I sailed up a day and awaited their arrival. Coos Bay was just shy of 20 leagues north, so we agreed to meet back up at Pigeon Point. Patrols here would be sparse, but prudence is still wise even on this dead planet.

Clotho decided to stick with Clay and Anika, though not without a display of canine anxiety. Lachesis was the very model of feline indifference curled up in the forecabin. To this day I still don’t know if either of them heard the same whispers that sang to us those long, languid days ago.

Unfortunately, it was a slack ebb tide, so after hauling in the anchor, our prow was pointing shoreward. So it took a little rudder wiggling to get us pointed in the right direction before he hitched the main halyard and rode north. Anika and Clay were already out of sight over the hills before conversation resumed.

Brigit: “So what was with the Pledge of Allegiance?”

Me: “In 1992, I took another oath, this time of my own free will: ‘I, Samuel Lawrence Wilson, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.’ At the time, I don’t recall giving it a lot of thought, but it does crop up from time to time.”

Brigit: “How so?”

Me: “I was seventeen when I took that oath. The whole of my education to that point had been what I got in government-run public schools. The civics and history textbooks I learned from had been approved by state and local politicians or their designated representatives. The rhetoric, the framing of the classes I took didn’t focus on the philosophy behind Constitutional jurisprudence. I was 30 years old, already six years finished with my active duty tour before I was even exposed to the suggestion that the primary purpose of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was to constrain the power of the sovereign.”

Brigit: “Sucks to be you, I suppose. What did you think the Constitution was for then?”

Me: “Summarized? I think it was something like ‘this is a blueprint for how to make a government ex nihilo.’ I think I remember a lecture or two on how bills pass through Congress, but I might be mixing that up with old Schoolhouse Rock episodes. I think the closest I got to the real reasoning was when we covered the separation of powers. I was even taught that the… crap, which one was it? The sixteenth? The direct election of senators one.”

Brigit: “That was the income tax one. I think you’re looking for 17. Close though.”

Me: “Yeah, we were taught that the 17th was a step towards greater democracy, and ‘democracy’ was always synonymous with ‘good’ somehow.”

Brigit: “That’s not the impression I got from my primary school. We had to read the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson’s notes, even all of the Federalist Papers. We even had to pick one to write a report on and recite in front of the class.”

Me: “Which one did you pick?”

Brigit: “29. I liked the way ‘posse comitatus’ sounds. Still do. I got a pretty good appreciation for federalism and for the important differences between a republic and a democracy. Were you poor or something? Is that why you went to a terrible school?”

Me: “Wow, dude.”

Brigit: “Sorry. It’s this fucking ocean. Sorry. But really, what was it?”

Me: “Ultimately? Hard to say for sure. Somewhere along the way I think there was an unconscious conspiracy to conflate nationalism and patriotism and everything else continued from that. When you confuse the government with the nation, it’s easy to forget the philosophy of rule. And when the state provides the education, it’s just as easy to stop teaching it altogether.”

Brigit: “Here I thought I was the paranoid one. Did you also think the government orchestrated the September 11 attacks?”

Me: “I don’t think ‘paranoid’ is the right word. ‘Conspiracy’ isn’t right either. It implies some sort of conscious, directed effort. But I don’t think it is. I don’t think there was a ringleader out there bound and determined to undermine the Constitution, the rule of law, and the Enlightenment jurisprudence reflected in the Bill of Rights. My best guess is just that all it takes is a few people here and there who legitimately believe that government is the font of legitimacy.”

Brigit: “Is it ‘font’ or ‘fount?’ I never knew the difference.”

Me: “Hm. I never knew either. I’ve probably read it both ways. It’s not something you hear that often.”

Brigit: “Like ‘coif.’ Most of the time I run into that word, it’s in print.”

Me: “There’s nothing illegitimate about the idea that everyone in a democracy should have at least a working knowledge of government. And early proponents of mandatory primary schooling were probably right that many communities had more pressing concerns than building schools and libraries and such. I might even be okay with the idea that governments could not just fund and mandate schools, but to actually run them.”

Brigit: “Why’s that?”

Me: “Mobility, mostly.” I noticed a swirl of gulls off the port bow. That usually meant whales were hunting nearby. I resolved to steer clear. “It’s easier for local governments to get too big for their britches when they know they have functionally captive constituents. Minimal universal standards give people enough options to flee an overambitious village council. If everyone in town could pull up stakes and head for the Big City, the mayor would have to think twice about signing a bill turning his police force into a pack of thugs.”

Brigit: “I take it you haven’t heard of civil forfeiture.”

Me: “That’s the problem though. That survived a Supreme Court challenge. The honorable justices let the whole country down on that one. Ditto the controlled substances act. Ditto the 18th amendment. If it’s the law of the whole land, whether by central command or by universal adoption, that sort of geographical competition is useless.”

Brigit: “So you also didn’t much care for the whole No Child Left Behind thing I suppose?”

Me: “Well, that didn’t help, but the trend towards federalizing public schools is older than that. Point is, it’s easy to overlook the social purpose of public schools, just as it’s easy to overlook the social purpose of having constitutional constraints on government when you’re close to the day to day problems in the system.”

Brigit: “And you were close to the day to day problems? You don’t look like the PTA type.”

Me: “That’s just it. I wasn’t. At least once I got out of the system. I also can’t blame anyone in politics for endlessly trying to patch holes on the sinking ship of state.”

Brigit: “I think you mean ‘couldn’t.'”

Me: “It’s harder out here to keep my tenses straight. It barely even seems like that stuff happened. We may as well be on an afternoon fishing cruise, heading back to put in a 40 hour workweek on Monday.” I eased out on the tiller just a tad. The maelstrom of gulls was strangely silent. “Think about the worst insult you can sling at a sitting Congress: ‘do-nothing.’ Well, to a Congressman, doing something means passing more legislation, and that means further curtailing the scope of human activity. When they have incentives like that, it should be no surprise when we end up with more legislation than can be counted, even with sophisticated computer assistance.”

Across the water, across the waves, a man, a girl, and a dog slouched toward Coos Bay.

Anika: “It’s my turn. You wanna hear a story?”

Clay: “Sure. Shoot.”

Anika: “Shoot? At what?”

Clay: “I mean go ahead. What’s your story about?” Walking on asphalt carries with it the twin summer disadvantages of being hotter than a dirt track and eating the soles of harder-and-harder-to-come-by shoes. It might have been a little slower, but I think they made the right decision to stick to the shoulder of 101 and the adjacent farm access roads. “Please continue.”

Anika: Once upon a time, in a beautiful kingdom far far away, there was a prince. No, wait. A princess. And she was very fair and very smart.”

Clay: “Sounds like a catch.”

Anika: “She was. She looked a lot like Brigit, except she had a big pretty dress and she carried a bow and arrow.”

Clay: “That’s kind of impractical archery garb, don’t you think?”

Anika: “Quiet. It matters for the story.”

Clay: “Got it. My lips are sealed.”

Anika: “On the day she was born, the evil fairy queen.”

Clay: “Who is ‘she’ in that sentence?”

Anika: “What? I thought I told you to stop interrupting.”

Clay: “You said, ‘on the day she was born, the evil fairy queen’ and I just want to know if the ‘she’ refers to the princess or to the evil fairy queen.”

Anika: “To the princess. It doesn’t make any sense for the fairy queen to be evil when she was born, does it? You can’t be born evil, you have to work at it.”

Clay: “Are you sure about that?”

Anika: “On the day THE PRINCESS was born, the evil fairy queen put on a magical disguise and went to a woodcutter’s house and gave him a basket of magic blackberry seeds. She—I mean the evil fairy queen here—told the woodcutter that if he planted the seeds along the road, the thorns would keep people from falling into the nearby swamp where they could be eaten by all the crocodiles and snapping turtles and boggarts that lived there.”

Clay: “What’s a boggart?”

Anika: “How do you not know what a boggart is? It’s a um, it’s a… it’s a nasty man with a poop hat.”

A curl of wind licked the wild grass, tracing living runes across the dune cover. Anika shifted her pack to move the weight higher on her shoulders.

Anika: “The woodcutter, being a man of good conscience, gave thanks to the woman who gave him the seeds. The more he planted, the more the vines grew. Before long, he married and had children and they all worked together to plant more of the magic blackberries. The blackberries from the vines were so delicious that the woodcutter was able to quit his job and become a full-time blackberry farmer. He invited his neighbors to join him and they would sell the blackberries on ships to far-away lands. They were the best blackberries in the whole wide world. Pretty soon, the whole town was planting blackberry bushes along the road through the swamp.”

Clay: “Didn’t they plant them elsewhere? It seems inefficient to just plant them along a single road. Agriculture is a matter of maximizing yield per acre.”

Anika: “Weren’t you listening? These were MAGIC blackberries. They only grew on this road.”

Clay: “Well you didn’t SAY that, did you? You need to check for plot holes before you start telling a story.”

Anika: “No I don’t. It’s my story.”

Clay: “We’ll see how far that gets you.”

Anika: “Anyway, I told you to be quiet and listen. This is the important part. On the princess’s fifteenth birthday, she was to go to the next kingdom over for her big birthday party where she would get to dance with all the handsome princes and eat cakes and jelly and listen to a concert just for her. And YOU KNOW WHAT?”

Clay: “What?”

Anika: “The… only…road…to the other kingdom…was… through the… …swaaaaamp.” She dragged the word out as ominously as a ten year old could.

Clay: “Spooky.”

Anika: “I know. So she got in her royal princess coach and was on her way when the rear axle snapped going over some rocks. A turtle came out of the swamp and warned her to turn back, but she didn’t listen. He then said, ‘if you won’t turn back, at least take me with you and I’ll protect you from harm.’ The princess thought this was a very nice thing for a turtle to offer, so she agreed and put the turtle in her, um, what do you call it, petticoats?”

Clay: “That means her underwear.”

Anika: “It does? I thought it was like a coat that you wear on top of your clothes.”

Clay: “I’m not sure what she was wearing. Maybe you mean ‘shawl.'”

Anika: “Sure. She put the turtle in her shawl and kept walking. The blackberry thorns got higher and higher and thicker and thicker the farther and farther… wait. is it ‘farther and farther’ or ‘further and further?'”

Clay: “Use ‘farther’ when you mean actual distance and ‘further’ when you’re speaking metaphorically.”

Anika: “This is real distance, so I have it right, right?”

Clay: “Right”

Anika: “Right. So the farther they went, the further the thorns got thick and high and the darker the swamp became. Soon it was too dark to see.”

Clay: “Where was the rest of the princess’s retinue? Didn’t she have a royal guard? Ladies in waiting? Anyone? A cook?”

Anika: “She was a very brave princess and she could take care of herself.”

Clay: “Bravery is often indistinguishable from foolishness, you know.”

Anika: “Yeah, I know that, but I’m not the princess. Now just hush because I’m getting to the good part.”

Clay. “I’m listening.”

Anika: “So on she walked, deeper and deeper, and pretty soon she couldn’t see anything at all. She got scared and decided to turn back, but the thorns had gotten so thick that she couldn’t even see the road anymore. She fell over and the thorns scratched her eyes out and she landed in the swamp and it ruined her dress. Just then, the turtle crawled out of her shawl and said, ‘princess, you are in peril. It is my duty to help you.’ So the turtle grew bigger and bigger and he got big enough to push all the thorns away and reveal the road below, now free from all obstruction.”

Clay: “So she got away?”

Anika: “No, the turtle got so big that he crushed her and she drowned in the swamp. The woodsman and the townsfolk burned all the thorns down to honor her, but it was too late, and her ghost still haunts the road to this day.”

Clotho chased a pheasant out of hiding and they watched as it flew off.

Clay: “I don’t get it. How did she die? Was she crushed or did she drown?”

Anika: “Can’t it be both?”

Clay: “Not normally. There’s usually only one cause of death.”

Anika: “Well, this time there were two.”

Aboard the Ἀπόκοπος, we watched in wide wonder as a massive figure slid above the surface just long enough to hint at the indescribable bulk beneath.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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