Indecisive wind moped through the savage trees of Anacortes. Dave and I begged the pitiable sloop to pass unmolested through Deception Pass. Land, as they say, was quite nearly ho. Audra’s icy blue eyes peered out of the cabin at the crags drifting past overhead.
“You ever wonder about the nature of evil, Sam?”
Dave had startled me. I was lost in reverie, pondering the inky boundaries between fantasy, dream, prophesy, and madness. Even when the ocean wasn’t whispering terror into my ears, I often found the lure of introspection difficult to resist when the wind moaned and the waves lapped. “I don’t know. Maybe. I always just sort of reckoned it was a term of approbation.” I shook my head. “No, wait. That means approval, right? The opposite of that. Opprobation.”
“I don’t think that’s a word, my dude.” He remarked abruptly. “Opprobrium is a word; opprobation is not.”
“It isn’t? What am I looking for then? What’s the opposite of approbation?”
“Scorn? Derision? What am I, a thesaurus?” He chuckled.
“Well, it can’t be scorn. That’s a disposition. Approbation is an act.”
Dave’s smile refused to budge. “Yeah, just like evil.”
“Tell me: is evil something you are, or something you do?”
“I’m not a moral philosopher, Dave. I don’t know the answer to that.” I shrugged. “Maybe both.”
“English is lucky enough to have inherited two words derived from the same Latin morpheme, four if you include their antonyms.”
“Morpheme. With an ‘m’. The smallest indivisible part of speech that still retains grammatical meaning.”
“I thought that was a letter.”
“Letters have no grammatical meaning. You know the difference between grammar and syntax, don’t you?”
I didn’t, not in a way I could articulate, but I didn’t want to appear foolish in front of a smuggler in tattered gray socks. “So what are the words we inherited?”
“The first one is like you said: a disposition. That’s malevolence. It comes from the Latin for ill and wishing. Malevolence is all internal.”
“Gotcha. What’s the other one?”
“Maleficent. The first morpheme is the same: ill. The second comes from the generic Latin verb for to make or to do.”
“So that’s one for a disposition, one for an act, and we’ve also got one for an agent.”
He waggled a pudgy finger at me. “That’s right. Malefactor. But how do we assign such an epithet? Is a malefactor someone who is maleficent or does it describe someone who is malevolent?”
I arched an eyebrow. “Don’t the two kind of go hand in hand?”
“Careful, Sam. You’re talking like a human.”
I hesitated, wondering why it sounded as if he were chiding me. “Thank you?”
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You probably can’t help it.”
My puzzlement only increased. “That is correct. I cannot help but be human.”
He was waggling the rudder to give us a little headway as the favorable tide begin slacking off. “Exactly my point. No one can.” His demeanor suddenly grew anxious, stormy. “Brown Alert.” He resumed his brisk, sunny patter. “Humans are well suited to interpreting small band social dynamics. The politics of the clan or the tribe are easily understood, easily applied. Most politics are office politics after all, right? By quantity, anyway.”
I agreed with the assessment. It sounded right, and it agreed with the bit of psychology I could dredge up from old college memory. I grunted agreement, but most of my thinking was occupied with what a brown alert could possibly be. I checked for meteorological and oceanographic threats. “So what?”
“So in little bands, maleficence is primary evidence for malevolence. The two really do correlate well. You’re obliged to judge people by their visible acts. You know, the whole walks like a duck thing.”
“Yeah, okay.” I paused as I gradually became aware of what a brown alert was. The unmistakable aroma of hot butt chowder floated past my nostrils. “Great Holy Terrapin, what did you eat?”
Dave’s rectal vapor smelled like Nancy Grace looked: angry, judgmental, and unforgiving. He grinned sheepishly. “I did warn you, man. And my point is that in bigger and bigger groups, the disposition of strangers is overshadowed by their acts. In a sufficiently large and anonymous society, you might say their disposition is utterly irrelevant to the outcomes they produce.”
“Given enough influence, even a perfectly benevolent person can be inadvertently maleficent through neglect or incompetence. Is that what you’re saying?” I silently vowed to exact my flatulent revenge at the earliest available opportunity.
“Yes. The reverse is also true. Unfortunately, it is a great deal easier for humans like yourself who are disposed to think and feel in terms our forager forbears understood to frame great public figures in small-scale, non-anonymous terms.”
The reek was beginning to fade. My disgust lingered.”Well, when you know someone’s face, the timbre of their voice, and the cut of their posture, it can be difficult to return to thinking of them in that analytical, abstract mode of thinking so well suited to impersonal human intercourse.” At this, I could swear I heard a titter from the cabin.
He said, “that’s about what I was thinking, which sort of makes me wonder whether or not the rise of recorded media helped political and commercial elites play something of a bait and switch with the public.”
“You mean like they can sell themselves as benevolent yet still manage to execute heinous policies?”
“Only Nixon could go to China.”
“That was a good episode, Dave.”
“A classic, Sam.”
“Remind me to keep the cabbage and beans away from you, Dave.”
“You got it, man.”
The tide shifted just as we nosed into the wider part of Skagit Bay. I hoped that Anika, Clay, Brigit, and the rest had made it out. I hoped everyone had made it out. King County was rapidly becoming unfit for human occupation.