The Country/The Country

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45. She Saw the Festivals of Money

She was waiting for the sign. But actively waiting. Active in the only way permitted to her. She was searching the corners, the twists and turns in the back stairs and hidden corridors of the mansions of her mind, searching all the places where the voices she called the ‘first mothers’ -- and their occasional male consorts -- might choose to wait for her if they wished to tell her something. Drop a hint. Confide a problem of their own -- even that would do. Gossip a little. Mrs. Nathan was perfectly happy to listen to the problems of ancient beings who no longer assumed material forms, if they ever had. And were content to wait, who knows, for eons maybe, in tiny cupboards or opulent palace lounges known to no other beings, living or dead, unless of course some extraordinary ‘finder’ such as Mrs. Nathan herself happened to discover them.

‘Ah, there you are! I was so hoping. Are the unicorns still grazing by the brook? They’re not? Oh, well, flighty creatures.... Do come in and we’ll have a nice chat....’

They would have tea, so to speak. Or the neural equivalent.

A cellular-level engagement. My cells will talk to your cells. My cells are perfectly content to wait all day, weeks if necessary, for a little bit of insight into how to handle a disturbance that threatens to blow us all to hooey. Or, maybe, nothing so dramatic. Just squeeze the living juice out of us. Chop a few ears off. Send a few of the bigger mouths of our day down the river.

But some of those mouths happen to belong to my friends.

Why? Because we muddle along together, yes we do, and life would be awfully barren without them.

So I’d appreciate it.... Any bit of information, that is. Any few crumbs here and there you’d be willing to scatter in my direction.

The threat?

I thought you knew.

Well, yes, of course you do: What to do about a certain Mr. P.?

You see, sources -- the few that I have -- warn me he will bring storms down upon us the like of which we have not seen since before...

Or at least not in this age of the world.

I agree, surely. You may be right. There may well have been worse. Yes, certainly, in ages in past.

Yes, surely you are right, but this Mr. Pig will do for us in the here and now.

He will do away with, I am quite certain, some people I am fond of. And whole ways of living, and thinking, that are marginally better than the ones that will replace them.

He will divide the pigs from the sheep.

Most people are sheep, I well understand, but sheep can be quite pleasant to be around. You pat them and they moan a little, softly, and desire to be caressed some more, and fed and watered and cared for. You should try it some time.

And sheep will be fed on the green sheaves of the earth. Pigs, on the other hand, will eat your toes in your sleep.

Oh, I know, you can turn one into a pet, and bathe him, and walk him around like a dog. but take another at your feed bill before you decide to increase that herd. They will eat each other, if you don’t fill their greedy snouts, and my Mr. Pig, the gentleman with whose ascension to power I am presently concerned with preventing, has already eaten a few of his colleagues. A fair number of strangers as well.

(He feels fine about it, too, thank you, if you wish to know.)

If you ask him the question in the proper way, he will be quite willing, eager even, to tell you. He has many fine plans for future dining as well. Mr. Pig has some secrets, encounters with other members of the porcine bent that went his way. Fine for him, less attractive for those given one-way tickets to the slaughterhouse.

Bacon all around the next morning.

So, what I am saying is the world, this world -- a world of bodies and material senses -- can afford only a certain number of pigs. And can only accommodate a really big one once in a great while. This is not one of those times. There is trouble, of our own making, surely, on the horizon.

I feel it coming. Yes, I’m sure you do too. No -- hold off a little longer -- I’ll let you talk in a minute. It’s a blank, brainless sort of trouble I’m speaking of. Nothing like Mr. P., whining and conniving. Completely impersonal. Like a chunk of ice. Or an ocean wave. Or a rock the size of mountain peak... falling, falling, on us squishy, material beings who can’t close a door on a finger without howling to wake the heavens.

Yes, you are the heavens. I realize that. But Mr. Pig will not live among you. I am speaking of down below.

But, as I say, I am fond of things -- and of some people -- the way they are. You know: two legs, two arms, a little bit of brain rolling around in the rock they wear on their shoulders.

So if you could see yourself clear to offer any advice on how to deal with this problem, my problem, I would be exceedingly grateful.

Go ahead, now. That’s your signal.

Your turn to talk.

The Bodies lumbered about.

Most of the time it looked like they were shoving rocks from one side of a stage, or flat plain of some sort, to another. Making, often, a gode-awful racket. At other times a huge gloomy silence seemed to settle over all of them. They slept, or perhaps merely brooded. It was hard to tell.

Hard to say, also, who they worked for. Or what they thought they were doing.

A silence was descending now. The creatures shoved their bulk into the corners. Some leaned together. A few even fell to picking each other’s teeth, a significant occupation among those who chiefly passed time. Sometimes great quantities of time... Then the call would come to rearrange the scenery, and the creatures would gather up their limbs, connect them back up to the core muscles. Sometimes disputes would break out over who had some Body else’s arm or leg and would be settled by a growling rolling around dust-fest until the others grew tired of it and began caterwauling in reproof.

Limbs sorted, sort of, the Bodies blundered off to their task, pushing a mountain fast out of sight, unplugging an ocean.

‘What was required?’ someone bellowed.

Voices barked out orders. Clouds gathered, storms rattled the boards. Rain, the Bodies complained, what was the everlasting need for so much rain?

Nuttin’ could ’appen widdout it, one of the smaller sort offered shyly. The one called Stupid because, occasionally, he had ideas.

They like it cause it’s slippery, the others told him. Then shushing him when he had processed this notion and found only more questions in its stead.

What’s all this slippin’ and fallin’ for? Stupid persisted.

Makes a happenin’ was all they told him. Things ’aff t’appen.

That’s whut I alreddy said, Stupid objected.

Nah, yah di’nt, they told him.

And lay down in the mud.

And slept.

The ancient ones said they were ready now.

Nothing worked the way it used to, of course, when the world was young. The world had not been young for some time now. Still, it was there, going on anyoldwhichway. That was something.

Some of the ancient ones were tired of being ancient. Renewal was the only answer, they argued. Build it anew. Time for ‘a new.’

New what? someone asked.

Not up to us, the others demurred. Our job was to do a job we were set up to do. It’s not to knock things over and start up everything from scratch all over again.

Well whose job is it, then?

Don’t know. Probably something stronger, and younger. Like a comet, maybe

Are comets young?

Who knows? Maybe a hole ’nother yoo-niverse young.

So what do we do, just wait around to be destroyed?

Created? Destroyed? All that’s beyond our understanding. It’s not our business.

We really don’t know anything, do we?

No, we don’t. You’re right. We don’t even know what we look like. In order to do that you have to be someone else to do the looking.

Now how can you be someone else and still be yourself?

Can’t. Be like stepping on your own feet.

Swallowing your own tongue, another one said.

Actually, people do that.


Really? Gross!

It had been harder, harder than she remembered, to get their attention. Was that because she was older as well?

But, hey, they were the ancient ones. They shouldn’t have any problem with ‘old.’

Still, she argued (with herself), if you pursue something that isn’t ready yet, you simply push it further away. You cannot grasp the ineffable with both hands and pull it from its hiding place. You only cause it to shrink away and hide deeper in the darkness, which is always there, which is spinning toward the dawn in its own good time. You have to wait.

But it was hard to wait.

Sometimes Mrs. Nathan found it hard as well merely to keep her eyes open. She did not wish to miss the call when, eventually, it came. It was hardest of all to remain powerless as the Leading Candidate moved toward what was clearly meant to be the Last Campaign. The minds of her followers, the workers and messengers of her hive, have supplied her with images enough to show her what was happening in the darker, scheming mind of the One Who Would Be Ruler.

She saw, if darkly, the shadows of his intentions. How they loomed across the country. She saw the smokes and fires in those intentions. She saw the monuments rise to the new ruler. She saw the divisions darken between those who brought great bags of numbers to the tower of the ruler, and those whose fortunes were filled with holes. She saw the sands run through their fingers. Saw the tatters of their communities. Derelict factories, empty houses. Abandoned villages.

The peoples who had not favored the new Ruler separated, willingly or not, from those who did, their opportunities shrinking. She saw masses of the disfavored ‘others’ cleansed from the land. Gathered into herds and driven from their homes toward the borders of other realms, smaller, less powerful countries that the Ruler forced to accept these deportees. Though these lands did not want them since they had people enough of their own. Still, they were driven. Fences pierced. Borders crossed. People herded, forced along by men in uniform bearing weapons.

She saw the Permanent Campaign, leather-lunged followers cheering decorated representatives of ACE, Ass-kicking Community Enforcers, the ruler’s favored arm of government.

She saw other men, armed men, walking the streets of UZ’s cities and towns with the slouching superiority of the conquerors. The New Force with its new uniforms of a dirty northern green, the boreal green of the cold, polar-tending places, patrolling the streets with automatic weapons. Given a wide berth by ordinary folk, the permanently occupied citizens of the Commonhope of UZ.

New armies rise, restless for purpose, domination, spreading the gospel of strength.

She saw the Festivals of Money. Grand, palatial interiors inside the transparent many-storied towers of the New Wealth, mirrored and chandeliered, fitted with ice sculptures and artificial waterfalls; with cascading gardens of hanging flowers made of vinyl, where snowfalls of paper currency floated down from the balconies to the laugh-choking, breathless hysteria of the costumed guests, wearing the gowns and uniforms of Long-Past Eras of wealth and ostentation: the bangles and boas, and feathers and cockades and robes, and caped splendors of the regal courts of ancient regimes... Saw them squealing and laughing and scurrying and squabbling among themselves to gather up huge handfuls of the carelessly dispossessed wealth of the nation.

And of conquered nations as well.

What Mrs. Nathan, the Eye of the Future in the Mind of the Past, did not see was the way around all this.... She looked for it. The path that drifted off among the trees in the clearing. The alley that opened in the dark streets of a haunted city... The furtive men and women who gathered in the fourth floor apartments of the crumbling Tower of Despair, and plotted resistance, built networks, gathered secrets of hidden dealings and made them public, planned secret risings, passed notes in library corridors and church pews. Made eye contact at sporting events, or walking dogs in park lanes, or cheered their children on as they engaged in teamplay, chasing animal bladders across a grassy field.

When would enlightenment come?

Mrs. Nathan squirmed to the left, and to the right, wedging her elbows against her ribs, and struggled herself up to a sort of sitting, sort of leaning, resting point. Sitting at the edge of the bed, slumping, tending leftward, head down holding her insides together. Was she dying? Was that the problem? She had not seriously considered this. No one mentioned the possibility to her. She had never really faced this problem, which everyone else assumed to be a simple inevitability, but Mrs. Nathan herself had always pictured some kind of side door exit to an underground tunnel, built specially for her, through which she would escape this thing called ‘death’ and find some other place to be. Even now she did not weigh it seriously.

When she had caught her breath, she used the chair close to the bed, putting her hands on the seat, not the arms, to lever herself into a forward-leaning half-crouch, from which she slowly rose to an approximation of the vertical. Had it been so long ago that she had slipped out of seemingly closed doors under her own power and fled into Green Hills Park, from which Keel, that strange but perceptive little man, had ‘rescued’ her? Later, yes, she had found another way to rescue herself. Now, after prolonged bed-rest following a hellacious journey from Monro to the bunker in the woods she had glimpsed in her mind -- happy that glimpse had proved prophetic, but ruing the cost to her aging flesh -- she made the belated, but no less unpleasant discovery that she could barely stand.

But she needed to move.

She needed to break the adhesions, physical and material as they were, that collapsed her muscles against her joints. She needed to open blockages. She needed blood to flow. She needed the lymph nodes to lymph. She needed the senses, the physical ones, the ones that lived outside of her head, her brain, not inside of it, to work in something approximating fresh air. Not merely the air of her own breathing.

She needed to take in more than her own thoughts.

She needed to hear the voices of other people.

In the kitchen of the ‘hideout in the woods,’ as the people who lived there sometimes referred to the place, people were boiling up the usual concoctions of roots, dried berries, and dried herbs from older collections of stores that would one day soon be exhausted, along with other edible oddities such as the thin layers of living flesh peeled from the underside of Pinus tree bark.

Sometimes they did this silence. But now, as it happened, they were in conversation.

She listened from the other side of the slightly opened door. Apparently one of the Kevvens, Trench, the elder of the bunch, had suffered some kind of wound.

“It will heal itself,” Trench assured the others.

No one challenged him. But their questions, the tones in which they asked them,

betrayed concern.

Apparently, Mrs. Nathan learned, listening unobserved as the man told his story with a concision that suggested he had told it before: he had been working with his pocket knife on a particularly resistant root when the blade slipped. The root he had found was the one they called ‘angel hair,’ because it had a dense flair of very thin hair-like veins or stems or vines of rooty flesh that resembled the grain-based food of this name. Since the blades of pocket knives, however wilderness worthy, tended not to be very sharp, he was using all the force he could muster to shear the ‘hair’ from the root when the knife slipped and cut into the second joint of the index finger on his left hand.

Yes, he has washed it very carefully. More than once. It bled, and that was good, because blood cleans the wound. He made a poultice, using their herbs for healing. And bandaged it with clean cloth. He drank a pain-relieving tea.

Yes, he had pain.

She heard concern in the voices of the others.

Then one of the others, Fama, she recognized the sharp, precise voice, said she thought what Trench had done was good. She believed he would be all right.

Yes, Fama continued, when the others were silent, there would be pain, there must be, because the walls of the cells had been severed where they were unprotected.

Certainly this was true, Mrs. Nathan reflected. The skin protected the inner workings of the bodies, all those little worker cells, but the skin had been violated and the unprotected cell walls exposed to trauma. Pain was simply the nerves’ way of informing the brain of a problem. An incursion. A break-in. The unfriendly bacteria must be dealt with, consumed. Bring on the phagocytes.

Fama spoke little as a rule. Because, Mrs. Nathan thought, the woman was young and attractive and did not wish to court attention. Just a girl, she thought.

But now she heard the girl’s reluctant voice start up again.

The cells, she said, the tiny, microscopic cells are working to reunite around the shear-wound. They are building new walls. A wall on each side of the cut.

“The walls will unite just as the flesh grows back over them,” she said. “So the wound will be healed... and the finger... be as good as new.”

One of the other Kevvens, the younger ones, sat at his own think-machine and began a modeling image of the process Fama described.

They made a kind of family, Mrs. Nathan thought, listening to them. The aging father with the bandaged hand. They young man at the machine, and the warrior-maid, the lass, discussing how the molecules must build themselves up.

“They build up two walls until they become one,” Fama said. “A wall of flesh.”

Mrs. Nathan knew she was hearing something. Something she had been drawn to hear. Out of all moments, all conversations, she had emerged from sterile solitude to hear this one.

Of course it meant something.

“A wall of flesh.” She spoke the words to herself.

What did that mean? What did it tell her?

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