Razormouth

I was fourteen years old when I finally figured out what that smell was. On and off as far back as memory permitted, I’d encounter a stray waft while playing outside in the California heath or among the crooked hedgerows of Rhode Island. You know the aroma I mean. The one that raises the gorge at the back of your throat. The one that stings your eyes just a little. The one that’s made so much worse because of its syrupy sweetness. It’s a horrid aroma, and until the day I saw the moldering deer carcass producing it, it was also a mysterious aroma. Since that day, I’ve been in the habit of keeping an eye out for carrion birds. An occasional glace for a wheeling wake of buzzards is all it takes to spare me the discomfort of the perfume of decay. 

At least that’s usually the case. Sometimes the carnage is so great that there aren’t enough scavengers to go around. All of the gloomy collective nouns for corvidae: an unkindess of ravens, a murder of crows, a tiding of magpies, a scold of jays, a clattering of choughs—these elicit sentiments of violence, hint that the vulture and the kite to whom have fallen the duty of cleaning up after the lion’s kill are insufficient to the task of tidying a battlefield. Our sword-swinging ancestors knew that only men were possessed of the capacity and inclination to soak a meadow in blood and entrails.

So it was that after the missiles soared and the sirens wailed, I would pass many an unkempt killing field. Always that stench. Shit and rotten meat. What no one ever told me when I was a kid was how that stench sticks to you. It clings to your clothes, sticks in your hair, greases your skin, crawls under your fingernails. Perish the thought you might tread in something unspeakable. Brains are slippery, you see. And because of the myelin sheath protecting the axon from stray electrical impulses, brains are fabulously adhesive. As the brain decays, it both rots and falls apart. But that sheath (specifically, a protein called L1-CAM that binds the actual myelin to the axon) sure stays sticky. For most of my nocturnal sojurn to the coast early on, a pumice stone was my best friend. But that was a long time ago, in another country. There were hardly any left willing to lay bloody conquest to the tatters of the American Republic. I never thought I’d have to once again suffer the inconvenience of a snoot full of corpse fumes.

Of course, I never thought I’d have to wait for two of my party while anchored in a scaphy flotilla.

Brigit: “There is no way in hell I’m letting you go look for Anika and Clay.”

Me: “That’s, funny. I was about to say the exact same thing.”

Brigit: “I’ve seen these guys before. They don’t hassle women and children. I’ll be safe. Plus, you have to finish cleaning the boat. I have no idea how to take one of those things apart.” She pointed at a winch.

Me: “It’s a self-tailing winch, and look, we’ve got proper clouds incoming. A bit of rain always clears up this snotty crap. Besides, I’m no coward.”

For a moment, she seemed dumbstruck.

Brigit: “I am…” she lowered her voice to a mid-range stage whisper. “I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud.” Running her fingers though her recently-trimmed ringlets and resuming her ordinary conversational tone, she continued, “…not accusing you of cowardice.” She was rummaging through the bench lockers belowdecks, searching for anything she might be able to convert into ad hoc breathing protection devices. “Courage and foolhardiness are absolutely not the same thing.”

Me: “Foolhardy?” She began eyeing the spinnaker a little too intently. “Don’t even think about it. You can’t repair a torn spinnaker with shipboard tools.” She glared a little and kept rifling through the shelves. “What’s foolhardy about it?”

Brigit: “Okay, what possible advantage do you have over me in this case? Is your vision that much sharper? Is your hearing more acute? Can you talk your way out of an encounter with these guys better than I can? Besides, I thought you studied economics. Whatever happened to comparative advantage?”

Me: “That’s prudence.” I pulled a few oil-soaked rags from the bilge. “Try these. I’ll wash them out topside. Have you seen any Simple Green around?” I found a bucket and scrub brush stowed above the head. “Courage can complement prudence, but it doesn’t have to.”

Brigit: “Check by the fuel tanks.” She began to cut a few lengths of white line from the forward spool. “I sometimes wonder if maybe men and women have different notions of what counts as courage.”

Me: “Here it is.” There was about half a gallon left. More than enough to tidy up a few rags. “Explain what you mean. Did Aristotle make a distinction between the courage of men and the courage of women?”

Brigit: “I can probably count on one hand the number of times the philosophers of antiquity bothered thinking seriously about the distinctions between how men and women interpret and express virtue. How long will that have to soak? Assuming that they hunkered down during the slime storm, they should be in town by nightfall.”

Me: “I’m not sure. An hour maybe? It seems strange to ignore half the population, but maybe that’s just my modern sensibilities talking. You’ve probably got time to eyesplice that line. I think there’s a thumb-sized fid in a recess in the proper fid.” The stench from the condemned and the dead thickened as a late morning temperature inversion began to set in.

Brigit: “I thought it was called a ‘marlinespike.’ And it’s quite a stretch to say that early philosophers ignored women. Aristotle had plenty to say about women. I wouldn’t call all of it flattering exactly, but he put the household as the foundation of society and he put women as an indispensable element of the household.” Her eyes turned back towards the inlet. I got the impression that if the stench got much worse, she’d haul up the anchor and sail for cleaner air. “I think there’s at least something to that. Have you ever heard of the ‘mothers’ dilemma?’

Me: “A marlinespike is for pleating cable. It’s made of metal. A fid is wood or whalebone or something similar. It’s used for fiber. I haven’t seen a marlinespike aboard. We should probably scrounge one if we make it to a Naval shipyard. They’re useful for repelling boarders.” I heard a loud pop from one of the boats. I tried to pretend I didn’t know what it was, but if you’ve ever heard the sound of a bloated corpse rupturing in the summer heat, you’ll know there’s no other sound else quite like it in the world. I couldn’t help but imagine the conclave of maggots that spewed forth from whatever chamber decided to release its filth into the hollow formed by the twin discount canoes that formed the execution-cum-torture chamber set bobbing in the quay. “What’s the mothers’ dilemma?”

Brigit: “I’m surprised you don’t know about it. It seems like it should be part of the basics of an education in economics.” I was impressed by how deftly she set to work on the splice. A quick twist of her fingers and about an inch of the line was frayed. She wrapped each end with a little piece of masking tape, secured a 3-line bend to prevent further unraveling, and began snaking each strand back through the line above, criss-crossing the origin strands as she went. Over and under, and done lickety-split. A fine backsplice, better even than I first showed her. “Think of a trip to the market. The market transaction part of it is easy enough to understand using ordinary welfare economics. Each household has a budget and a set of exogenous preferences. You may like pork chops more than I do, after all. I may prefer cheese. You can follow all the implications of price changes using indifference curves and budget constraints and all that. I’m sure you did that in class, yes?” Oh yes. Yes I did. I nodded my assent. “Good. And as far as the market goes, that’s the end of the transaction. Both parties walk away better off than they’d have been if they’d not made the exchange in the first place.”

Me: “Yes, that’s part of the First Welfare Theorem. What of it?”

Brigit: “The point that seems to escape most economists I’ve talked to is that’s only a small part of the mother’s concern. Sure, she goes shopping, and that requires she be a shrewd shopper, but it’s just one small step in making sure her family gets food in their bellies, clothes on their backs, and shoes on their feet. Part of the mothers’ dilemma is ‘how much milk should I buy with the money I have on me today?’ But that’s small potatoes compared to things like ‘who gets the milk first: the baby or the teenager?’ She’s also got to know whose sweaters have holes in them, whether or not her daughter’s boyfriend is going to cause the family some embarrassment, you get the idea. It can be easy to underestimate just how much the superintendent of the household needs to know, even now that we’ve all been reduced to living like barbarians out here. Good Lord, is that honey I smell?”

Me: “The honey is for a two-fold purpose. One, it attracts flying, biting insects looking for a quick meal. Two, it acts as a natural disinfectant. If you cut yourself out in the woods, look around for a beehive. Infection might not kill you, but it’ll sure ruin your week.” I pulled one of the less-oily rags out of the bucket to wring out and check to see how well the bath worked. Another ten minutes and it would probably be good to go. “One way to model the allocation decision inside households is to imagine that there are shadow prices, that the mom acts as sort of a dictatorial auctioneer responding to price-ish signals that come in the form of complaints and weeping. Plus, kids barter between themselves all the time. Didn’t you swap toys when you were little? It’s even more like exchange if you imagine that the mother gets something out of it in return: the satisfaction of a well-run household. I’ve been to East Europe, and I can assure you that next to soccer, entertaining guests is the most grueling competitive sport I’ve ever witnessed east of the Baltic Sea. It might not be strictly ‘selfish’ in the way we think of avarice, but it’s a little doofy to imagine mom as getting nothing from the deal.”

Brigit: “Let me introduce you to some immigrant families some time. But that’s still not quite the point I’m trying to make.” She’d finished enough of the splices that Clay and Anika should be able to keep from vomiting on the final leg of the overland trek. “Buying and selling between strangers requires little sentiment apart from ‘let’s make sure we both walk away happy.’ Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of morality in the marketplace. There’s loyalty, honor, fairness, respect…” She trailed off to dig though the toolbox. I handed her my pocketknife assuming she wanted to trim the stray fibers from her lovely splice. “Look at this here. I could have just tied this off in an overhand knot and it would have worked just fine. If you needed it bad enough, you’d buy it just like that. But I take pride in my work. That’s a virtue not demanded by commerce.”

Me: “Isn’t pride the mother of all mortal sins?” I began incubating regrettable memories of arguing sophomoric interpretations of Aquinas with old friends, now likely long dead, incinerated by atomic glare or crushed to meat jelly by this indifferent hellscape. “I’m sorry. That was mean. I know the difference between temperate pride and hubris.” I retrieved the foot bellows to start inflating the dinghy. The vinyl would have to be replaced soon. “I’m still not sure what that has to do with the difference between courage for men and courage for women.”

Brigit: “Men are courageous in the agora. Women are courageous in the oikos. It’s a hard decision, choosing who gets to eat when the shelves go bare. Just as it’s a hard decision to fight or to flee when challenged to a point of honor in public. It’s obvious when men summon courage. Male resolve is clear. Even when the man himself is silent, the content of his heart is announced loudly. Female courage is harder to hear. Harder to see. You might say it’s related to opportunity cost. The hard, frequent decisions women make as household managers aren’t always matters of life and death, but they’re usually close enough. Take Anika.”

Me: “Anika?” I noticed some worn vinyl on the dinghy too. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for a patch kit or some rubber cement should the fates smile. “What about her?”

Brigit: “What have you sacrificed for her?” She wrinkled her nose as the wind shifted and the stench of the recently-detonated corpse reached us. “We have got to keep an eye out for lavender as soon as we get out of here. This is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever smelled.”

Me: “Just ‘possibly?’ I’d say it easily tops my list.” Under ordinary circumstances I would have taken a deep breath to calm myself after a presumptuous challenge like the one I’d just received. Given the prevailing miasma, I decided against it. “As for sacrifice, did she ever tell you what happened to us in Texas?”

Brigit: “See there? That’s exactly what I mean. If you’re talking about escaping from those cannibal cult lunatics, that’s male courage. That’s extraordinary risk. Female courage is found in a series of small rebellions, in giving up an extra bite of food to put a smile on your child’s face. It’s doing something unexpected in a society that adamantly insists on conformity. And female courage is not diminished one whit when compared to the brazen audacity of male courage. If you ask me, it’s the quiet dignity that characterizes the female heart which gives it such great value.”

Me: “I’m not sure I buy it. Men are expected to conform too, and women make terrifying soldiers when presented the opportunity.” I began screwing the paddles together now that the dinghy was inflated well enough for a quick trip to shore and back. “There’s probably more variance within a gender than between them.”

Brigit: “I won’t dispute that. Nor am I claiming that I subscribe to antique virtue ethics. I’m just saying that it’s possible that your understanding of what counts as courage might be a little different than the way I think about it. You want to go gallivanting after Anika and Clay while there still may be Inquisitorial savages ready to pump honey and oatmeal down your throat and up your butt before tying you up in a pair of bound canoes scored with small cuts all over your arms and legs, you go right ahead. Just don’t call it courage. You and I both owe it to Anika and Clay to make sure they get back here safe and sound. Don’t confuse your boys’ courage with some misbegotten pride.” The rags were now clean enough to set out to dry. I started to skim the waste oil from the bucket.

Me: “Maybe you’re right. Either way, I’m starting to feel more like a passenger lately. It’s not a feeling I particularly care for.” I checked the first aid kit. “Looks like we’re out of ammonia capsules. If you pass a pharmacy, see if there still might be a few lying around. You might also try a sporting goods store. They’ve usually got first aid kits.”

Brigit: “No sweat. What are you going to do while I’m gone?”

Me: “The lower reef on the main needs some reinforcement. I’ll be sewing.”

Brigit: “Look, I’m seriously not trying to insult you here. Remember what they say about discretion and valor. This is one of those times when you really do need to let reason overcome your passions. We need you. Anika needs you. We’ve all buried too many people to count. We don’t need to bury you too.”

With that, she slipped over the gunwale into the dingy and rowed off to fetch our friends. Lachesis burrowed her nose further into the woolen blanket she’d appropriated to avoid the fecund reek of spoiled human carrion.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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