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You: a clumsy accretion of missed opportunities & beautiful blunders. A misshapen hill of barnacles, like a Schwitters construction, precarious and absurd. A blue castle of felt, up in the attic. You love everyone you've loved, you miss everywhere you've been, you're still everyone you ever were, you're every mistake you've made, it's all there, layer upon layer upon layer, permanent as radiation in the soil. All that you’ve cared for and done and been settles with black finality in the foundations, like skulls in the cellar; settles and fixes in the belly of the brain, leaden and constantly nauseating.
You have won the prize. You have defeated your enemy. You have stood over the prostrate forms of the fallen; you have cracked vague jokes to the dead and ailing to show you are a magnanimous victor -- and, soon, a benevolent ruler. You have consoled the women, you have ordered retainers to sing lullabies to the puling babies. You have hired one of your more persistent foes as an advisor for your next campaign into his homeland; you have pretended not to notice his conflicted conscience. You have bitten back many, many smiles. At night your mouth fills with blood.
Yesterday you finally sealed the wood with resins and oils, feeling a pang of regret for the beautiful fibers that now could not breathe, locked into being like some ancient museum document encased in a plastic cube. You had also painted what your father taught you to always paint on the hull, the bow and the stern: a red spider on a crescent moon. A neighbor sailed by in his outrigger, looked at your boat, looked at you, said nothing, rowed on. Your heart swelled with pride.
When you woke today the floor was littered with twenty dead gopher snakes.
Startled, you murmured aloud: Father, what omen is this?
But after listening for a time, you heard nothing, just the hum of river bugs in the tall grass. So you rose from bed and stepped among the snakes, concentrating on avoiding the already-mouldering husks. You took your pole from against the wall and entered the sunlit morning.
You approached your boat, your heart clenched. Inside, in a pool of green liquid, was a goat bladder. Flies pocked it in gleeful agitation. The reek surrounded the boat like curtains.
You came back to the boat with an axe in your hand.
It took less than an hour. When you were finished you stood among the splintered planks, breathing hard. You sprinkled the debris with powdered orange peel (to signal forgiveness) and little pieces of flint (to signal resolve).
You did not lift your gaze once during the process. The coward, you reasoned, could be lurking among the trees, or hiding in the tall grass, waiting to lock eyes with yours and thereby satisfy his desire to be recognized. Perhaps several of them were anxiously waiting, shivering with the delight of insult and trespass, hungering for disovery, sweating and fidgeting like children.
That night you sat before the fire you had built with the ruins of the boat. The flames popped and hissed with the gums and the resins, like some beast loudly cracking bones in its jaws.
A rock turtle, made curious by the glow, emerged from the river and approached.
“It was my boat,” you said, gesturing at the fire.
The turtle said nothing. You sprinkled some pine nuts on the ground before her, and the turtle slowly tilted her head down to regard the offering. Then she turned and walked to the river’s edge, where she sank without sound.
For the next week you worked hard on constructing another boat. The river was rising every day, and you knew if you took as long to build this boat as it took to build the last, you’d be forced to work with water up to your waist.
Every night you slept by your handiwork, guarding it. Sometimes the rock turtle would emerge from the river to guard with you, always bemused at the pine nuts you’d offer her.
You imagined you were casting the food before her much like a velvet carpet is cast before a ruler to walk upon.
One night you climbed into the boat to sleep, knowing it was nearly completed and strong enough now to bear your weight. You felt foolish at first, awkwardly negotiating your limbs so you could rest. But soon you were breathing deeply, the moon shining above like a woman’s pale, naked shoulder.
The boundaries between sleep and waking quickly grew porous. The sound of reeds being brushed by wind became in your dreams the
of yellow silk curtains whipping against your body as you ran through a tunnel. The river’s murmur became your father’s laughter, low and very far away.
The day you finished the boat, the river had swollen to your ankles. Little gliders shot by, sometimes up against your legs, moving in heavily accented pulse. The rock turtle, seeming happy about the flood, emerged from the water once with a moccasin in her mouth.
You, like everyone else in the valley, knew that the river was swelling, and had been for the last two months. But this was unanticipated, this sudden surge. Although you knew never to ascribe pattern and measure to the desires of weather and water, the willfulness of the river still managed to disturb you.
At noon you became wracked by hunger. Still, you wouldn’t allow yourself to forage for roots, or hunt the quail which lived nearby. To do so meant leaving the boat behind. What’s worse, you could not depart until after dark, as custom dictated.
How beautiful the boat seemed, dark and supple, hungry for the water. You sensed its impatience.
Squatting against your hut, in the shade of its roof, you kept watch, occasionally pulling up thick grass and eating it like an animal.
Unmoving, smudged with filth and darkened by shade, you were like a stone sentry, eroded and grey.
Sure enough, a few hours later, a man approached the clearing. He walked with a curious lurching gait, never taking his eyes off some fixed point ahead of him. You tensed with dread as he approached, even though his path was taking him away from the boat, even though he seemed completely unconcerned with anything around him.
For a moment you relaxed, then you became alarmed as he came near you. His eyes were filmed over and glowing. His pale face shone with sweat. He murmured continuously, his voice alien and guttural. His left leg was engorged with gangrene.
The stink of his wound made you wince. You closed your eyes to focus. When you opened them he had passed and was standing still a few feet beyond you.
“Do you believe in the Floating Cities?” he asked.
You said nothing.
“You will see their beauty when your boat takes you to their Gate,” he said.
“Listen,” you said, standing, “there is a doctor in the next town, unless he has evacuated.”
The man shambled on, singing an old yearning melody. You recognized it: the Cloud Song.
You would sing it with your brothers when staring at the sky.
Soft boats on a river
Your hulls are like paper in water
We are the small crabs
Looking up at your drifting white shadows
Where are you going and who do you carry?
Where are you going and who do you carry?
“Oh the Floating City has sent us to seek you
And bring you the jewels of the rain.”
The poisoned man was gone.
Dusk was approaching; your body was electric with anticipation. You had watched your boat for so long that it had begun to lose meaning, like a word will when too often repeated.
Just as daylight started to fade, and just as you were unfastening the boat from its frame and readying it for travel, two peculiar things happened.
The first was amusing: you felt something bump your foot, and looked down to see the rock turtle staring at your ankle as if prepared to attack it.
She then began to meander, as if drunk. You were in the midst of testing her vision when the second peculiar thing occurred: hundreds of small white papers began to fall from the sky.
They bore the message:
“His Sovereignty Announces an Alliance with the Machines."
You were accustomed to these little gifts from above, but rarely understood their meaning. Sometimes they conflicted with messages dropped a few weeks, or even a few days prior. Sometimes several months would pass without any falling.
They were occasionally marked with just one word, like “North” or “Victory.” In rare cases they were inscribed with baffling symbols and glyphs. And sometimes they were blank.
A few of the older residents of the village you were raised in would gather in the marketplace to discuss the leaflets. Most, however, used them for kindling, or, if they were homeless, for bedding.
When there gathered a group of “paper chasers” -- as the leaflet-discussers were derisively (and affectionately) called -- it was somewhat of an event.
Passersby would pause to listen, entranced by portentous talk of famine, of distant negotiations, intrigue and fortune, and other concepts less understood, like “Nuclear,” “Robots,” and “Satellites”. Some considered it a charming form of storytelling, some cried out against “sorcery”.
Usually the villagers were too preoccupied with work or family to dwell on slips of paper which, to most concerned, were simply a prank of the gods, as worthy of discussion as the snow or rain.
What’s worse, the leaflets were printed in what was at that time already becoming an obscure dialect. This fact, compounded by the illiteracy typical of the populace, led to the gradual erosion of respect for the Paper-Chasers’ meetings.
You remember enduring insults and mockery from your schoolmates when it was discovered that your father participated in Chaser meetings. You were caught between a desire for acceptance in the schoolyard and a growing recognition that there was something to these little slips if your father, a man of distinction in the village, would invest so much time and emotion studying them.
But whenever you’d ask what the slips meant, and why he reacted as he did to them, his explanations were too much for your tender age. As you tried to retain his patient words you felt like a thimble trying to hold vasefuls of water.
You began to take pride in your Father’s scholarship, convinced that he possessed rare knowledge and vision. Each insult only served to cultivate your martyrdom.
But as time passed, you succumbed to the pressures of youth, and stopped trying to understand the leaflets, and, by extension, the entire universe outside your own which they suggested.
As you gathered the leaflets for later use as a pillow in your boat, you remembered one evening when you were a teenager. You and a posse of boys were riding bicycles, approaching some of the few Chasers left. This had happened before, and you’d always managed to contrive an excuse to leave before getting too far.
This time you were caught off-guard. The boys began jeering and throwing wadded up leaflets at the Chasers. Just as you were raising your voice in half-hearted protest, you saw your Father among the Chasers, staring back at you with blank, steady eyes.
The memory was so vivid it made your stomach clench.
You remember having your mouth half-open in a diplomatic smile, trying to get the boys’ attention, ready to carefully suggest they “ease off” a bit. Did he see it as a look of shared amusement? Or did he recognize it as protest, but condemn it for being lukewarm?
You did not discuss it that night, or any other night. The leaflets were rarely brought up again either. Father became secretive about his study. What little of the obscure leaflet-dialect you had learned through his teachings slowly faded from your memory.
You made a quick survey of your possessions before embarking:
1. Your wooden staff
2. Two strong oars
3. A metal device worn around the wrist which, according to your Father, was designed to track the Sun’s progress across the sky. Yours, however, had ceased functioning long ago.
4. Some crude drawings executed by a travelling artist at a fair some summers ago, showing various sexual positions
5. A small cedar chest containing your Father’s ashes
6. A jagged fragment of mirror wrapped in thick red cloth
7. A bone flute
8. Fishing equipment
9. A burlap sack of mangoes
“Come now,” you said quietly as you reached over the starboard side of your boat, gently lifting the rock turtle. You placed her in a pile of the leaflets, where she rummaged around before falling into contemplation.
You suspected she had become blind somehow during the last few days, judging from her bizarre behavior: wandering into the forest (which she used to shun), clumsily knocking into objects.
You looked back once through the thickening dark at your hut, uninhabited for weeks now. You imagined it engulfed by the river: your bed a nest for eels, the stove occupied by urchins.
The night peeled back like an onion. Everything was open to you. You hardly needed to row, the boat seemed to be doing all the work. The red overquarried hills of your mind became softened over with rich gray river-mud. Let the river keep rising. Into the infinite hull of the night. Escaping the core of earth like a breath held for far too long.
An owl called to another owl. The scented curtain of the air offered no resistance. A woman on the banks waded out into the water, dignified and graceful, like a ghost-bride forever locked into ceremony.
(you had to keep your eyelids closed, if you opened them your eyes would drip out, your fingers were stained with blue strands of eye, your retina was distributed among innumerable rivulets and drops, and these eye-portions somehow could still see; even with eyes closed you perceived shapes, colors, objects, depth, and light from a hundred different angles and concavities and convexities, until the visions made you mad, so you opened your eyelids and poured out your eyes and scooped up the drops and flung them away or buried them deep, hoping to annihilate vision, but you still saw everything)
You awoke from your dreaming in the middle of the night. Something was bumping softly against your boat from behind.
You turned around and made out the shape of another boat, a rickety little vessel. A skinny old man lay sleeping in the boat, his mouth open, head lolled, threads of drool escaping his lips. His hands and forearms were splattered by a dark liquid.
“Hi.” You squinted in the darkness, startled at the sound of a child’s voice. A scruffy little boy sat huddled under some garbage bags in the bow of the other boat, playing with a beetle.
Before you had a chance to address the boy, the old man awoke.
“The child idiot,” he said in an unfamiliar dialect, “you do not talking him.” He smiled, showing his infected mouth, wheezing out a meager laugh.
You introduced yourself as is customary for any river encounter, giving your name, touching your forehead and then the prow of his boat. You noticed his boat carried no insignia.
The old man didn’t return the gesture. In fact, he was amused by the ritual, and seemed on the verge of an explosion of laughter. He was either ignorant or simply insolent.
The child meanwhile ignored you both. Somehow he had acquired two more beetles, and was letting them wander down and around his fingers. In the night it looked like globs of animate darkness had clung to his skin, like condensation.
The boy looked up at you and smiled.
The old man suddenly slid into a languid sprawl, stretching his skinny legs out. As if the boy’s tacit approval had been all the old man needed to completely relax what little guard he’d had. In fact he no longer seemed interested in you at all, and he began to scratch himself.
Still feeling curious about your new neighbors, you mulled over how you might reinvigorate the old man into some sort of conversation. You hadn’t even learned his name.
You thought briefly about settling back into sleep, but you were too alert now to do so without considerable struggle. What’s more, the old man was making no move to disengage his boat and row away -- what if he tried something sneaky while you slept? You almost started to row away yourself, but curiosity got the better of you.
“So what are in those garbage bags?” you asked the old man.
The old man stirred from his torpor and paused for a bit, blinking, before answering.
“Money.” he drawled with satisfaction.
He gestured toward the boy with his stained hand. The boy, excited, waved you over. You used your pole to maneuver your boat closer and peered into their boat while the boy undid the string to one of the bags.
When you saw what was in it you drew back instinctively, your stomach churning. The bag was full of beetles: a shiny chitinous mass of black, teeming and writhing and clicking.
The boy plunged his arm in to the elbow.
You learned from talking to the old man that he and the boy were travelling to sell the beetles to workers on barges far upriver near the Sugar Provinces. Apparently the barge-hands favored them as delicacies. “They all the time are wanting,” said the old man, grinning.
You saw the old man’s eyes dart to a spot behind you and fix on some object. You turned and saw that the rock turtle, smelling or sensing the beetles somehow, had been trying to scramble up the side of the boat, making very little headway.
“How much?” hurriedly asked the old man.
Alarmed by the old man’s obvious fascination, you gave the rock turtle a gentle nudge back to her leaflet mound.
The boy too was jostling in his garbage bags to get a better look at the turtle, obviously a creature of some significance for them. Their boat swayed with their hasty movements.
“The turtle isn’t for sale,” you said simply.
Enchanted by the turtle’s movements, they both disregarded your decision and quoted reasonable offers in the sum of beetles. The old man even began resorting to I.O.U.s for various insects: jewel beetles, fire hoppers, mildew chits, stinkbugs, Brazilian Roaches, etc.
The Tip Jar