Won’t You Come Out To Play?

Even with the most sophisticated medical interventions devised, five-year pancreatic cancer survival rates don’t exceed 5%. It’s aggressive, tends to metastasize rapidly, and it has a nasty reputation for being brutally painful. Pancreatic cancer, its symptoms, and the misery induced by its treatments tops the “yea” column of moral arguments in favor of allowing elective euthanasia. If I’m to die anyway, it is a small mercy to be relieved of months of torture prior. Yet for all that, pancreatic is not the cancer that frightens me. True horror lies at the end of a small cell lung cancer biopsy needle. Breast, prostate, bowel, and lung cancers are the most common. Most of these are operable. The ten-year breast cancer survival rate is over 75%. Small cell lung cancer kills nearly as reliably as pancreatic cancer, but it comes with a few additional horrors. One possibility is that the small cell carcinomas could be hiding out inside a batch of squamous cells, and if the physician happens to miss them, that might lead to the most terrifying result. Attempts to surgically remove a small cell carcinoma cause the cells to multiply and spread extremely rapidly. By “extremely rapidly,” imagine the speed at which cockroaches can scuttle when you turn on the lights in a tenement apartment. The cancer can overtake the entire lung before the surgeon has adequate time to react. Not only are you fucked, but your thoracic cavity could end up as a prop out of a Cronenberg movie.

Don’t smoke.

The beach was littered with the refuse of the dead sea. Anika learned with one curious finger that even a dead jellyfish still bears a wicked sting. The three of them, lumbering Clay, lithe Anika, and loyal Clotho forged northward to doomed Coos Bay.

A dewy dawn gave way to a morning that begged to be basked in.

Anika: “Now my whole hand hurts.” She shook the offended appendage in vain. “How long does this last?”

Clay: “Is it turning red? Are you having trouble breathing?” His attention was focused not on the girl, but rather toward the horizon. The town should be in view by lunchtime, he expected.

Anika: “No. It just hurts is all.” Attempts to rub the affected area had only spread the discomfort to a larger area. “How could it make it hard to breathe? I got stung in my finger, not my chest.”

Clay: “If it’s a box jelly or if you’re allergic, you can have a bad histamine reaction that could swell your throat closed. I didn’t see any box jellies down there, and it doesn’t look like you’re allergic. Normally, you can rinse it off with vinegar to kill the cells that might still be on your skin, but I don’t have any vinegar on me.”

Anika: “What do you mean? They were dead already. How can you kill something that’s already dead?”

Clay: “The organism is dead, but that doesn’t mean that its cells stop working. You can run an electrical current through a cadaver and it will twitch. Same principle. There’s enough leftover energy in the stinging cells for them to operate autonomously even with a dead creature. I hope you learned a useful lesson here.”

Anika: “Eh, it could be worse. There was a guy on my farm lost half his foot to a snapping turtle.” She was now holding her hand above her head. The reduction in blood pressure provided a small measure of relief, but it came at the expense of inconvenience and a small acceleration of fatigue. “Hoppy Dave.” She visibly winced. “You know what the funny thing was, Clay?”

Clay: “Hm?”

Anika: “His name wasn’t Dave.”

Clay: “What was it?”

Anika: “Cotton. No one made the obvious joke though.”

Clay: “It’s only obvious here though. Did you ever tell a joke inland? Ever laugh?”

Anika: “I don’t know. I’d have to think about it. Not that I can remember. I know what jokes are, but there’s not much point in telling one if they aren’t funny.”

Clay: “Don’t be too sure about that.”

When not otherwise attending to the rigors of the trail, Clotho kept his attention on hunting. Coyote populations were still recovering, so rabbits and other vermin of the fields were plentiful. Despite a life of table scraps and tummy rubs, Clotho was of hunting stock. Keeping such a beast at heel when a hare has been flushed can be vexing. Despite the trouble, Clay found it prudent to allow Clotho his occasional forays. Every now and again, he would trot back with game between his jaws. Game overpopulation was so dire that even household pets could enjoy hunting success on favorable days. Today was one of those days. Two medium-sized taupe-furred rabbits met their end at the point of Clotho’s muzzle. Two rabbits that would later be stew. And maybe a pair of gloves. It’s never too soon to be preparing for winter, after all.

Anika kept her hands busy on the overland trek by plaiting dried rushes she’d tucked under her belt. I had taught her the basics of sailors’ macrame while the wind was light, and adapting the lessons to materials besides ship’s service line proved relatively straightforward. At least such was the case after sensation returned to her insulted hand.

Clay: “What are you making?”

Anika: “I don’t know yet. A hat maybe? Maybe a, uh, a basket? The…” she paused, searching for a word she thought she knew, “are these cattails?”

Clay: “Rushes, I think.”

Anika: “What’s the difference?”

Clay: “Cattails are edible, and they have the fuzzy thing at the end of the stalk. Didn’t you grow up in the bayou? How can you not know?”

Anika: “Maybe I was testing you.”

Clay: “Uh huh. Testing me.”

Anika: “Anyway, it’s better to have a hat and not need one than to need a hat and not have one, right?”

Clay: “I think that’s a saying about guns, not hats.”

Anika: “Seems to me the argument works either way.”

Clay: “Says the girl who touched a jellyfish this morning.”

Anika: “What’s that got to do with it?”

Clay: “Prudence.”

Anika: “Prudence?”

Clay: “Prudence.” He wiped his rabbit-bloodstained hands on a tuft of grass in passing, pelts swinging jauntily on a fresh-cut bindle. “Prudence lets us know whether or not that aphorism makes sense.”

Anika: “I thought prudence meant, like, dressing modestly and not spending too much time with boys.”

Clay: “For girls, that’s the common interpretation.”

Anika: “Just for girls? That’s stupid.” She looked chagrined for a moment. “Sorry. That’s silly I mean. Why would a word mean one thing for boys and something else for girls?”

Clay: “Land ownership, title, and lineage used to be so important that it was worth elevating the derived virtue of chastity to the same status as the primary virtue of prudence, upon which it is primarily based.”

Anika: “Huh?”

Clay: “Suppose your family owned a farm a couple hundred years ago.”

Anika: “Okay. My family owned a farm a couple hundred years ago. Got it.”

Clay: “Now suppose that you had a… what’s a good word here… a slatternly daughter.”

Anika: “I don’t know that word.”

Clay: “It means ‘promiscuous’ but with more negative connotation.”

Anika: “So my daughter has sex with lots of different boys?”

Clay: “Right. And now suppose she gets pregnant and no one knows for sure who the father is.”

Anika: “I’m not sure why that matters, but okay. So what?”

Clay: “Well, there’s two problems with that. First, it makes inheritance tricky. There were all these complicated rules about dowries and if a bride has a child out of wedlock, that’ll represent a real economic burden to her family.”

Anika: “But that’s not a reason for having chastity.” Emphasis on ‘for.’ “That’s just a way of making sure it happens.”

Clay: “Yeah, I think you’ve got a good point there, but from the point of view of the families in that system, it was basically the same thing. That’s what makes it an effective institution. It’s self-reinforcing.”

Anika: “I don’t know about that. It sounds like a cruddy institution to me. You shouldn’t have to marry a boy just to kiss him.”

Clay: “I said ‘effective.’ I didn’t say ‘good.’ Haven’t you read Hume on the is-ought fallacy?”

Anika: “You’re kidding, right?”

Clay: “Remind me to get you to a library when we get to town.” He flicked a spiderweb out of the way with the end of the bindle-stick. “Anyway, the second problem is that by sleeping around, your daughter-”

Anika: “My hypothetical daughter.” She put a great deal of stress on “hypothetical,” stretching it out and somehow adding an extra syllable.

Clay: “Your hypothetical daughter” he mimicked her pronunciation without mocking it, “would send a message to your neighbors that your family is untrustworthy. Either they can’t keep their daughters in check or there’s something wrong with the lineage. In a world where wealth comes from the land, which is not particularly mobile, trust and trustworthiness is so important that it has to extend past individual traits. Your hypothetical daughter’s promiscuity reflects poorly on your ability as a parent, and on your ability to properly manage your household. If you can’t be trusted to keep your daughter’s legs closed, maybe you can’t be trusted to keep track of your crop rotation.”

Anika: “Are you even serious? Did people really believe that? That’s such nonsense.”

Clay: “Eh, I’m not really sure. It’s tough to say what people actually believe in their heart of hearts, especially when there’s a lot of pressure to avoid acknowledging deeper motivations. People like to lie to themselves a lot. All I can really say for sure is that chastity was at least superficially important. There’s a lot written about both in popular fiction and in scripture. And also that as far as virtues go, it has lasted a long time. One of the most important canonical works in Western literature centered around a chastity violation.”

Anika: “Which one?”

Clay: “The Iliad. The whole war started because Paris stole Helen from Menelaus. Lots of men died because of a king’s stubborn pride. And the catalyst was an unfaithful wife.”

Anika: “Hmph.” She scoffed as dismissively as only a child of her years was able. “Pride. Boys and their pride.”

Clay: “At any rate, it is kind of interesting that the chastity part of prudence is more of a substitute rather than a complement to the other meanings for women. For men, prudence means being shrewd in negotiations, or not taking excessive risks without the promise of excessive rewards. For men, prudence means not being a dumbass. Forgive my language.”

Anika: “No, it’s okay. But it means those things to women too, I think. We sort of take those things for granted. It’s not hard to keep a girl from doing dangerous stunts. We don’t have to impress anyone with feats of daring.”

Clay: “Says the girl who touched a jellyfish.”

Anika: “I didn’t say we were perfect. Maybe it’s just that people need moral advice in the areas where they might not be so good on their own. Maybe men are more likely to take reckless risks with life and limb and women are more likely to, you know, be… what did you call it?”

Clay: “Promiscuous?”

Anika: “The other one.”

Clay: “Slatternly.”

Anika: “Yeah. Slatternly. What a funny word.”

Clay: “Or maybe it’s a combination of those things. Motive and opportunity, plus the downside risk. Men and women may have similar sex drives, but only one ends up pregnant.”

Anika: “It doesn’t seem very fair.”

Clay: “It never is.”

Anika: “I miss Brigit and Sam. I hope they’re doing okay.”

Clay: “If we’re lucky, they’ve fixed the reef line on the mainsail and are cooking us a big welcome-back feast. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I can’t wait to get back to sea.”

Clotho could still taste the sweet blood on his chops. He was a good dog. Yes he was. Such a good dog. Who’s a good dog? You, Clotho. You’re a good dog.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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