“Good lord not this dirty, heaving hill again. We’ve been here already, haven’t we?”
“Yes. But maybe this time she’ll show.”
The mouse rolls his eyes and lets loose an officious huff. “I’d like to date you Winnie, that’s what. If I was a lady, I’d like to date you. You’d wait for me all night long, wouldn’t you? I could go traipsing about with as many men as I like and you’d never question my return. Right? Is that it? You’re the most trusting man I ever met. You’ll wait forever, won’t you?” Knobs sniffs around the hill, sending his whiskers in search of a sign. “Ha! There it is! Look! Come on now, follow me gentlemen, look right over here. Do you see what I’m pointing to? THIS. It’s our mark! Look!”
He practically breaks his arm gesturing to a black W with three horizontal lines through it, painted in heavy brush strokes on a stump nearby. “I was right! We have already been to this hill. Come on now, let’s go, let’s go. Enough of this nonsense.”
The two other men stand still, rooted in their silence.
“I said let’s goooo” the little mouse sings. No one moves. He shakes his head and mumbles to himself, “I have half a mind to leave you two here. Pfff. Lord.”
The hare chimes in. “I do so wish you had even half a mind Knobs, instead of the lint that stuffs up your skull. Leave now or put a bottle in your mouth, just shut up. He’s thinking.”
Winston, Terrence, and Knobs stand on a scrubby hill, brittle yellow grass clustering in patches between dry mud pools. Terrence flicks his cigarette butt toward Knobs and watches the embers burn a footprint in the grass before pulling a slim silver case from his vest pocket and lighting another.
“Well, at least we have a good vantage point. In case she drops in, you know?” Winston says it to himself, the others no longer pay attention to his faith. Knobs picks a bothersome pebble from between his mousy toes, weighs it in his hand, and heaves it toward Winston, missing the grand hat by a mile. He swings an arm up to his face taking a deep drink from his perpetual bottle, then falls back onto the hill and-
Terrence turns to catch the wretched rat staring up into his empty bottle, tempting the final drop to join its brethren in his poisoned little body. “You know Knobs, at this rate you’ll likely drain the Queendom of booze within the month.”
“The Queen’s dead Terry. This isn’t Wonderland anymore. Just blow the damned trumpet.”
Winston carries a battered traveling case. The cracked leather is home to an instrument which, for all its age and experience, knows but one pair of lips. Those belonging to Terrence.
“This is the place.” Winston’s gaze is distant, his vision fish-eyed with tears, “I’m sure of it. This is where she was supposed to drop. That’s why we’ve returned.” Winston sets down the briefcase and snaps open two rusty clasps. He lifts the top half of the case and pulls from its plush flesh their storied trumpet. Without looking, he hands the horn to Terrence. The hare stubs out his latest cigarette between spit-licked fingers, and paws the instrument, gently shaking his head.
For once today Knobs is silent.
Terrence holds the trumpet to his lips, the gentle kiss making of me a voyeur in my witness. Drawing in a low breath, Terrence closes his eyes and lets ring one pure note, singing from the union of his lips and the trumpets’, singing out over the valley. He plays well, he plays with knowing finality. He will not do this again.
The three men stand back to back to back now, vigilant and, if only for the length of the note’s echo, a trio once more, united in the search. Terrence finishes the call, lets his beloved horn drop to his side, and closes his eyes against the future.
Queen of Hearts
Dead at 50
I push the microphone from my face and press the next track into service, Poetry Man, Phoebe Snow singing whistle tones for anyone who still listens to the radio. It’s a quiet night, no one bothers to call in with requests anymore. I should shut this thing down. I rub the fur between my eyes until it stands on end and take a timid sip of coffee. It’s too hot. I drink it anyway, inhaling air in a feeble attempt to cool the drink before it punishes my throat for my mouth’s poor judgement. The track ends.
You’re listening to WNDR, whoever you are. If you’re just tuning in, this is Chess After Hours, and I’ll be with you through the night. That last track was the inimitable Phoebe Snow, up next Joanna Newsom.
I press play, the harp strings pluck life from an otherwise flatlined night. I look to the wall on my left, brandish a claw, and scratch another hashmark into the growing calendar of my exile. Waiting sucks. I don’t know how Winston does it.
There was a time when the boys set their table every morning in anticipation: four places, three confirmed guests, two bowls of sugar, and one empty chair. The parties stopped years ago. Now the trio (Winston Sparrow Singh (very tall, hat and all), Terrence O’Ryan (mid-height for a hare), and Knobs (lecherous and generally drunk)) roams the hills, looking for her, wherever and whenever she might be.
Good luck to the night-folk.
“You know, you can pop up whenever you like. It’s safe now. I don’t know what you’re waiting for.”
General Oyster Adams sits in his usual spot, though there’s plenty of space for him to choose another. Infinity Bench has only one end rooted in the grass, the side that isn’t bolted to the ground reaches into forever. An optical delusion.
“Would you like some?” The General unrolls a paper bag on his lap and dips his fist inside. He lifts out a few pistachios and offers them to me. “I know how you love them. You used to sneak them from the little dish in the palace waiting room. Ha! You didn’t think I knew that, did you? Well, here you are then, a handful of pistachios all for you, no sneaking necessary.”
I slink out from behind the tree (as much as a cat my size can slink). I used to be lithe, but in the years since Mab’s death I’ve taken on a slightly larger coat. Mourning can do that to a body. It inflates you with sadness. There are days that I hate her more for her absence than I ever did in her presence. I have no sparring partner anymore. I have no one for whom I should sharpen my sword.
She gave purpose to my life. Her inanity fueled my ranting, her decisions inspired me to action. I was the representative of the people, I argued for the Wondrous, I stood up for their cares and concerns while she blathered on in a grotesque attempt to paint the town and country in her likeness.
I lost my enemy. I lost myself.
“You know, and I’ve said this before, I don’t blame you. I was there, it isn’t your fault. Will you accept my words in amnesty? Will you sit here with me again?”
I shuffle over to the bench and sit next to the General.
“That’s better. Pistachio?”
He taunts my absence with outstretched hand. I reach through the impossible distance, from invisibility to tangibility, and snatch the shelled nuts from his paw.
“That’s better. I thought you might like a snack today.”
General Oyster Adams is the only one here who speaks to me anymore. They used to all come to me with their problems, I was the great unbound conscience of this place. Now I am a collection of thoughts exiled into the ether. They needed me. They needed me against her. They needed me to help them crawl through the ever changing landscape of her ego. They needed a beacon, a light at the end of the impossible tunnel. But then she died. And Pyramid Redevelopment Corporation moved in. And no one needed me. And then they forgot me.
“That’s a nice way of putting it. No one forgot you, dear Chess. They rejected you. They refused you.”
He’s always here to remind me.
“Now you know I mean nothing nasty in that. I just don’t want you to confuse your position. You aren’t forgotten, dear me, no one could forget you. But they were so upset with you, they felt misrepresented, they were afraid you had finally gone too far. Revolutionaries are always in danger of moving too fast and losing their base. The average citizen (even those tied up in revolution) is only ever willing to dip a toe in the future, they aren’t looking for a dive into the deep end. And it’s good that way. Revolutionaries need regular people to leash them back from the edge. You’d charge forward, you’d imperil the nation. A citizen’s apprehension is a revolutionary’s salvation.”
“Don’t be glib, I know that’s how you saw yourself.”
I saw myself as her opposite. But in truth, I was Mab’s twin. We were both extremists. We both fought for our own competing images of Wonderland. We both surfed the waves of unrest to positions of power. My true opposite sits here on the bench.
“I knew you’d come around to that.” General Adams cracks a few pistachio shells, saving the nuts until there are enough for a great chomp, then tosses them all in his mouth at once.
Oyster Adams is everything I am not: methodical, practical, punctual, and pertinent. He is a regimented leader, a scheduling soldier, a skilled diplomat, and above all else, the timekeeper of Wonderland. Does that cover it all Mr. Adams? What did you do in the palace all these years?
“Oh, me?” he shrugs modestly. “Everything. I’m a heartist.”
Truer words have never been spoken. Adams lived for her command. He was loyalty given legs and a brain. Oyster was genuinely a heartist, he was the Queen’s greatest asset and the Queendom’s greatest representative.
Adams tugs on the gold chain looping across his breast-pocket and pulls out a heart-shaped watch. He presses the button on top and the face swings open to reveal a series of hands that only he has ever been able to read. He clicks his tongue. “We’re running late, pick up the pace, will you?”
He inherited the watch when he ascended to his post. No one remembers the timekeeper before Adams, no one needs to. The watch is the ticking heart (literally) of our great nation, and we’re all better for his care taking.
“Why don’t you start up that radio station again? The signal’s been blank since you left. You know, I used to listen to your program? Ha. Yes, it was my guilty pleasure. I hid a little radio in the armory and would pretend to polish the scales of war while I secretly tuned in to your raving.”
I shift away from him and slump down on the bench.
“Oh Queen Mabel hated your radio show, she did. She felt pounced upon by your interminable electronic presence. The broadcast drove her insane, you were everywhere and nowhere! Impossible for her to pin down. Maddening. Ah, but then she loved the chase.
Do you miss her?”
The unfortunate truth is yes. I do miss her. I miss what we had. I miss what I had. I had a following. I had a purpose. Thank gods for Oyster here. When everyone else renounced me he stood at my side. When they chased me out of town, he came to meet me. Here. On this hill. At this bench. I don’t know how he ever found me.
“I heard your weeping.”
“Yes. A cat’s weeping is very distinctive. And what good are these long ears if they can’t pick up on the sorrow of an old friend?”
But were we friends then?
“Oh pshah, of course we were friends. Did you really think, all those years you were fighting Mab, that I actually hated you? Don’t be absurd. Beside the point, you had saved my life and honor, and I had made two promises to you in return. A heartist is loyal to all the citizens of Wonderland, even you dear Chess.”
I ran here in a zig-zag path that day, desperate to escape the crowds. The cards. They all turned on me at once. It was terrifying.
“Well of course it was, they had lost their leader. Suddenly Queen Taxon was gone and the citizenry had no use for your revolutionary spirit. Even worse, they cursed your incendiary speech for her death. You led them to the brink and then they blamed you for their own following. Sad stuff, the mentality of crowds. Despite their alarming sizes they can always turn on a dime. Remarkable engineering, really. How does a crowd work?”
Oh, they turned on me alright. Queen Mabel Taxon shouted at me until her face was the very red of her prized roses, and then suddenly, she stopped. We had been having one of our friendly arguments, she in favor of monarchy, I in favor of anarchy (what, really, is Wonderland if not anarchy personified?). She had just tried to pass a new law, some nonsense restricting the residents of Wonderland to their respective sectors. She wanted checkpoints set up, tolls payed for travel, it was police state business. It had no place in Wonderland’s borders.
And I believe she knew that as well. But you know Mab. Once she starts on a path she’ll see it through to the end before contradicting herself and turning back. This time even her cards, normally obedient to a T, were skeptical of this new proposition. They would be responsible for enforcing the rules as security guards. That they could be guards, with pikes and poles, was nothing new. That they would now have to block the free movement of their friends and neighbors was preposterous. Of course, once the populace heard about the new law they came to me immediately. Even a few cards dared show their faces at our monthly meeting in the basement of the old University (where I had based the locus of our operations).
A revolutionary surrounded by shouting crowd is a creature uniquely warmed. He must be attentive to stoking the fire that brought him to power, but careful not to fan those same incendiary flames that could very well torch him out of command. I strode into the musty lecture hall humming to myself an old showtune on the excellent classification of my species. Remark. Hmmmm. The Cat. Hmmmm. Who Hesitates. Hmmmm. Toward. Hmmmm. You…
I walked deliberately, hesitatingly, stalking down the aisle as our angry residents turned their gazes to me. I was the focus. I was the leader now. As I reached the podium their shouting came to a frothy head. I raised a paw, and cracked a grin like light seeping from behind a door. They quieted themselves, though most still chose to stand.
“My fellow Wondrous, I am here to lead your anger, I am here to direct your fury, I am here to charge the capital with our collective outrage and once and for all not just demand change, but see change through to the end! We will not stand for this latest expansion of Mab’s ego. The shadow she casts with her infected thought has blotted out our sun, for what is freedom but the very burning heart of our country? What is freedom if not the blazing heat that allows us to grow and transform? What is freedom? FREEDOM IS OUR RIGHT!!”
Here the crowd exploded (beware, dear cat, beware those white hot flames near the top). We continued through a relatively boisterous meeting and resolved that on the following Monday I would sail into the palace on a roiling tide of civil unrest to confront our Queen with the people’s refutation of her law. I should point out that this was not the first time I had been thrown into her face by the Wondrous. No, this had happened a few times previously, but nearly every one of those circumstances was ceremonial, purely symbolic. We were generally outrageous, usually disapproving of her decisions, but we also understood (deeply) that our screaming and yelling would lead to no change. We knew that this sort of disruption was merely part of the process. She made some insulting new rule, we would protest, she found her ego fueled by our anger and we found our anger sated by our yelling, then everything would simmer back to normal. Or whatever passes for normal around here.
But this time was different. That core understanding of the futility in shouting had evaporated. This time the people thought they could actually make a difference, that revolution was the only way forward. And I, the people’s revolutionary, was more than ready to surf into court on their fomenting waves.
I wore my best costume, eschewing any and all nationalistic red for the new representative color of peasant blue. I led a charge of people from the capital’s town square up the hill to the palace walls and demanded entrance with a crowd of thousands at my back. The cards folded immediately, some choosing to join their faced brethren spotted in the rabble as we pomped and circumstanced through the golden gates.
Oyster slipped through the front door of the castle and bounced down the myriad stairs, racing toward me as his cards began to form a line blocking entrance into the throne room. He met me on the red carpet for a momentary tête-à-tête. He whispered, “Charles, think about what you’re doing here. You can still turn this around.”
I shouted to the crowd, “He wants us to turn around! What say you my people?!” They roared in response. I took a few steps forward on the updraft of their anger and pressed Oyster back. “Charles,” he said, “this isn’t worth it. Let me speak with her, let me deliver your demands. You know how this works. Everything will even out, just give me some time.” Here he slipped that blasted heart shaped pocket watch out and flipped open the case. “Plenty of time here, look at that, we have plenty of time to fix this. No rush. Just please, please, calm this crowd Charles. We don’t want another Jabberwocky.”
I leaned in and whispered into his ear, “Today’s the day, old friend,” then shouted, “My friends! He’s afraid of us. He’s just told me to calm the crowd, to back down, that he would deliver our demands to Fat Mab,” I remember seeing Oyster cringe out of the corner of my eye as I called her that on the palace grounds, “and that, hear this, he doesn’t want another JABBERWOCKY on his hands!” Whatever was smoldering in the crowd now had erupted into violent flames. Referring to our protest as another jabberwocky was the perfect insult to start this war.
We brushed past Oyster and I skipped up the stairs, crowd at my heels. I leapt over the cards lined up blocking the door and pranced into the throne room. My riotous cohort was kept at bay in the courtyard while I parleyed their requests, nay demands, to the ruling blowhard. I remember, distinctly, seeing Queenie crush the armrests of her throne in the great machinations of her standing upright. Meanwhile (for, indeed, it takes her some time to stand), I did a little revolutionary jig on her royal carpet.
It’s a wonder that cards didn’t tackle me right then and there, surely they had enough reason to. Perhaps, and this is my own ego speaking now, perhaps they had been partially swayed by my prior arguments. Perhaps, this time, they thought their Queen had gone too far. Perhaps they would de-fend Mab if I attacked, but they would not off-end me without provocation. And so I danced. This courtly freedom was as insulting to Her Heaviness as was my intrusion without appointment. By the time she walked over to me Oyster had snuck into the courtroom, squeezing through the heavy doors while cards stood guard outside. But he stood silent. He waited just inside the threshold for an order. He was not to make a move without her approval, particularly now that she was standing and the crimson was beginning to flush her fat face.
I began to recite our list of demands, performed as an ostentatious monologue. While I pranced and hopped and sang each point Queen Mab started to vent her anger. Its prologue was a low sputter, she was befuddled by my dancing and could hardly get out any concrete words. She spit and spat and growled as the thunder gathered in her gullet, preparing for a great storm.
The pressure built and infrequent bursts of vitriol made it to the surface, striking out of her mouth like great flashes of lightening. At this point I registered General Adams inching toward me with a few cards at his back. He was going to try and reign me in for her, he was going to snare me with his whip and pin me to the ground. He was going to break his promise. So I leapt higher.
The great thing about being a misappearing cat is that you can, quite literally, throw yourself all over the place without much harm. I can hop here, dart there, pop under, over, around, behind, and between nearly anything. With a few well placed paws I pressed off Queenie’s head and landed on the grand tapestry behind her throne. I balanced on the hanging rod while I repeated our demands (having already reached the end of the list). I walked lazily back and forth calling out our ideals to the raging bull below and saw General Oyster Adams approach her in a feeble attempt to becalm the turbulence.
She turned on him like a witch and grabbed hold of his throat. He struggled in her grasp, pawing (literally) at her meaty fists as she lifted the stolid general off the ground. I shouted down at her, screaming at her to let him go. I hollered at the cards, “Look you fools! Look at your leader! She’s lost her mind! She’s turned on her advisor! Save him, what are you doing there?! Why are you standing around!?! Save him!”
Queen Mab shook the limp rabbit at me and yelled, “Come down here and stop me yourself. Pathetic cat. Prancing about. Come down here and fight like a man. I’ll even give you the first shot. Come on now, hit me you stupid cat!”
At that she threw General Adams against the wall and I watched his body crackle against the stone and slide to the ground. With claws outstretched I pounced off the tapestry and howled at the Queen. She struck me out of the sky with her sausage fingers, leaving me greasy and bruised on the floor. My hackles raised, I arched my back and began again on our demands. 1. We the Wondrous of Wonderland demand freedom of travel. 2. We the Wondrous of Wonderland expect fair representation in the civic government. 3. We the Wondrous reject rule by monarchy. 4. We the Wondrous, etc… I spoke louder and louder as the storm raged from her belly and swarmed about us. The cards now tried to rush in, but the cyclone of anger between Queen and cat was too strong for mere paper, it spun them out and blew them across the hall like a deck tossed in the air by adolescent hands. At some point in the argument I lost my place and began shouting simply We the Wondrous demand to be heard! We the Wondrous demand to be heard! We the Wondrous demand to be heard!
Mab approached me in the growing gale and shouted her own demands, her own off with his heads and her own furiosity. As we came face to face the storm surrounded us and blotted out the throne room altogether. I wonder, sometimes, what it looked like from the outside. We were swaddled in storm, a hurricane of our own making, all vitriol and spit and ego. It was a terrible thing.
And then it just stopped. Goblets and platters and jewels and shields, all held aloft by the velocity of our anger, came crashing down as the wind was sucked out of the room. Our foreheads pressed together, beady eyes on both faces staring black into each other’s hearts, Queen Mabel’s face flushed a touch too red. I noticed the crimson break its usual uniform blush over her skin and shatter into thousands of tiny capillaries, etching a frightening cartography of hate over her face. But there was no more wind to whirl. She was silent, and I in turn, had nothing to say.
Queen of Hearts
Dead at 50
Queen Taxon the Pompous, Queen Taxon the Monstrous, Queen Taxon the Impossible, Queen Taxon the Heart; our Queen stopped dead in her tracks. Literally. Her neck fell forward as she slumped to her knees and there rested, pitched on her own fat in the center of her courtroom. Cold and dead.
I scrambled backward a few steps while I registered what had happened. The next moments are blurry in my feline brain, I remember the cards regaining consciousness after the storm and filing into an orderly deck. I remember General Adams blinking his heavy eyes against the concussion and slowly putting the pieces together. I remember the cards forming ranks and approaching their Queen as General Adams mouthed to me, RUN.
I did not stay to see the rest. All at once the cards tore apart and chased me out of the throne room and into the courtyard where my loyal revolutionaries cheered in wait. I darted across them, misappearing half a dozen times in the courtyard alone in an attempt to escape the pikes and poles and knives and swords. These cards were out for blood.
I was able to slip through the outer gate and escape down the hill into town. As I did so, I passed that beloved, but infirm, couple, Francis and James (the gryphon and the false turtle) who were strolling along the avenue looking into windows. They tried to stop me for a quick hello (they were always a sociable duo), but I kept running, the animal in me desperate for shelter against the oncoming attack. By the time I reached the edge of town I heard a dull roar behind me. The city was roiling. Unsure of where to go I fled straightaway to my radio station, to the soundproof room below the University from where I had long ago launched my career. I escaped into hiding.
I shook as my finger pressed the one button that would take my voice live over the airwaves, then put my voice to macabre use, reporting the death announcement as I slipped out of Wonderland’s consciousness.
Queen of Hearts
Dead at 50
The city accused me of killing the Queen. They said I pushed her too far, they said I stopped her heart (as if you can stop a bulldozer with a few well placed shouts). And how could she die of a heart attack anyway? How could her namesake suit turn on her in such violence? It wasn’t my fault at all!
I wanted to scream at them. All my work, all the meetings, all the rallies, all the petitions, and all the shouting. All my ego. It was all bent toward her destruction. Of course they thought I killed her. Of course they turned on me. When the heart attacks, sentiment falls in line quickly. In mourning I became the villain of Wonderland. My very presence was refuted. I hid from the public. I slipped in and out, mostly out, of place. I was displaced by their misplaced emotion. I found myself weeping on this interminable bench.
And now I’ve grown slack. My coat hangs limp on these bones.
“They all miss you.”
“I expect you’ve seen what’s happening in town?”
It’s awful, what’s going on?
“Wonderland has been sold. To some strange bidder. Pyramid Redevelopment Corporation. I’ve decamped.”
To the bench?
“And why not?”
You’re going to live out your days here in protest? Why can’t you live at home?
“I have no home. They’ve evicted me.”
That’s ridiculous. They’re going to tear down the palace?
“No, but they’re going to appropriate it. Besides, I had no business living in the castle once Queen Taxon was gone. I’m but a civil servant, housed by the grace of her grace. I can’t very well live in the palace if I’m not working for the Queen.”
Are we getting a new Queen?
“It seems too far gone for that now, doesn’t it?”
I guess so. How did Mab ever take the throne anyway?
“Just so. She took it. Those who desire to rule over Wonderland all come to the throne in different ways, but at the core each and every one is waiting to make her mark.”
Have we always had Queens?
“Charles, did you sleep through civics class? What an absurd question. Yes. The answer is yes, of course we’ve always had Queens.”
No, I mean, were we always ruled by Queens? Are there any Kings of note?
“Well this latest seems bent on leaving a mark.”
I feel like I never met him.
“Surely you did. You just don’t remember him. Not much to the man. Always in search of an escape. I doubt he enjoyed his marriage, though he did like the privilege that accompanied her power. I think he married for the comfort of palace walls and a royal guard.”
“It takes all kinds Charles, it takes all kinds. Can you imagine anything else marrying Queen Taxon? She was quite the stronghold of emotion and bravada. It seems she needed something to balance her boisterousness.”
That’s one word for it.
“I’ll have no ill-speak of our late Queen from her accused murderer.”
I open my mouth to fight back but he’s right. I have no place calling her names anymore. Now that she’s gone it’s embarrassing to think back on our fights. It’s embarrassing to think about her at all. I lift the hat off my head and wave it in front of my face, it’s getting hot in Wonderland these days. It’s a shame there isn’t a new Queen to take over, this weather could use some instruction.
“Queen Taxon was always good with the clouds.”
Why don’t you just go home? You aren’t really going to live on this bench, are you?
“I’m the former Captain of the Royal Guard, I’ll fend for myself thank you very much. I don’t need you worrying about me. Waste of time that is. Giant waste of time. Worry about yourself, worry about the capital, but don’t worry about me. One day I’ll be gone and all that worry will be for naught. Take care of the moment, take care of yourself.”
Calm down Oyster, no need to be bleak.
“I’m not bleak, I’m practical. We’ve things to get done in this life and if you spend your free time frittering about an old rabbit on a bench then that old rabbit will go to the grave with guilt on his pelt. I need you to report for me.”
“Yes. Just so. I need you to fill me in on the changes in the capital. I can’t be seen there anymore. The cards have turned.”
What do you mean the cards have turned? You think they’ll arrest you?
“I know they’ll arrest me. I’ve seen my face on posters. I’m most wanted these days. I’m the last representative of the old Queendom. They have to eliminate me, they’re worried I’ll rouse the country against this ugly reconstruction. They think I have power.”
You do, you know. You are powerful.
“Just so. And so are you. And it’s time you start using that power again. You’ve been moaning and moping too long. It seems you need a commander to whip you into shape and I am a commander in need of a charge. Therefore you will be my whipping boy.”
Well, that’s new.
“You know what I mean Charles. Enough frittering. Enough waste. I want to know what’s happening. I need you to be my eyes.”
Well, you kinda know what’s going on.
“Exactly, I kind of know what’s happening. But it’s your job now to tell me what you see.”
I think about the morning. I saw cards shuffling like zombies, they’re being overworked. I saw signs above doorframes, I saw a new office being dressed.
“What’s the office for?”
“Well, think. Think harder. Your eyes recorded something. Time to replay the tape.”
It was an administrative office. The lobby had pastel couches, short tables covered in used magazines. There was a reception desk, but no receptionist.
“Better. The muscle of memory will get stronger the more you practice.
I’m sitting on the edge of the bench. General Adams is a few feet to my left. I look over his head to the impossible future of this bench and get dizzy.
“It’ll do that to you. Best not search for the end of infinity.”
As he speaks he wiggles his butt a few inches further to the left. I wonder if he’s trying to get away from my stench. I haven’t showered in a few days.
“Just so. It’s time for you to clean up your act. Don’t you know the best way to reinvent yourself after tragedy is to get active?”
“Well, if you’re going to insist on feeling guilty about her death then I’ll insist on calling it a tragedy. But mark my words, that’s the least of the tragedies currently unfolding in Wonderland.”
Why are they rebuilding the capital?
“Money. Isn’t it always money?”
But here? In Wonderland? We’ve always been so detached from that nonsense.
“Quite right. And now they want a piece of our detachment. Distance is valuable. Never forget that. People will pay a pretty penny to get away from their troubles.”
He’s right. I certainly would. I’d trade everything I own to get away from this feeling. Did I doom Wonderland? Did I leave them leaderless? Am I the reason for the construction? For the destruction?
“Report Charles. Don’t comment. Just report. I want details.”
A deal made in silence. Two cards, their dimensionality hiding them from certain eyes, stand in a sliver of yellowed light. Diamond Ace (it’s always an Ace at the top) leans against a brick wall, slightly bowing his back to meet the cold stone. He is unconcerned with the jittering Spade 3 counting out his cash. 3 moves quickly, with the clumsy speed of the famished facing a dinner plate. He drops a bill and I paw it about on the ground, invisibly forcing him to dance like an idiot in chase of his money.
He needs that bill. without it Ace will never hand over the goods. They’re calling it Flush these days, though t’s gone through the requisite name changes of a new drug (trick, shuffle, trump, etc.)
3 manages to stop my catty insensitivity with a heavy foot on the corner of this last, errant, bill. He bends down to pick it up and hands the payment to Ace who never even bothers to look at the poor card. Counting the cash twice and then securing it in his breast pocket, Ace whips out a small bag of silvery powder. 3 is practically salivating, his mouth open and eyes glazed. Ace tosses it to him and turns the corner, obscured by the night’s darkness as 3 splits open the bag and dips a finger inside for quality control. It is rare for Ace to even deal with such a lowly card. (Aces, as a rule, only sell in large amounts to Kings and Queens, making a profit on the batch but keeping their hands clean of the major distribution). 3 must have caught Ace as he finished up with a larger client, desperate for a fix, unable to wait until the following morning when he’d be able to buy from his local King. How nice of Ace to toss the poor bugger a fix.
Before tasting, before gifting his body the sweet necessity of chemical relaxation, 3 holds the powder coated finger up to the humming light (here, even beggars can be choosers). Pure. The powder chromaticizes into a violent rainbow on his finger. Without hesitation 3 rubs the drug on his gums and hangs his head as the first dose enters his bloodstream. That familiar, stupefied, cottony look overtakes his features and 3 shuffles off into the night.
This has become a scene all too regular in Wonderland. The cards are addicted; sucking, snorting, smoking, and injecting Flush into their laminated veins hoping to escape the drudgery of reforming Wonderland into Wonderland Falls. At least when Queenie was in charge they had the constant threat of her nonsense hanging over their stupid heads to keep them in line. They were snappy back then; now they are leaden.
The thing about Cards is that they need leadership. They need to be held, they need to be played. They’re useless on their own, piles of paper full of potential. And when Mabel died they found themselves alone for the first time. The cards, without a valiant leader, were hired to be manual labor by the holding company now in charge of Wonderland. It is odd, now that I think of it, how quickly the reformation progressed.
Queen Mabel died on a Tuesday, royal funeral held that Friday, mourning hung about like still water through the weekend and then on Monday we opened our mailboxes to find an official looking letter sitting lonely inside the steel. I remember this part clearly. I opened the envelope, sliding my claw under foul glue, to find a sheaf of three pages declaring proudly the wholesale transfer of Wonderland to Pyramid Redevelopment Corporation. The ensuing legal jargon informed me, as a resident, that I would have to vacate my current residence within the month as the capital was now zoned for condominiums and shopping centres.
I could hardly believe the insanity of it all. Tearing down the capital for posh apartments? I began to see other Wondrous in the streets scratching their heads and waving these fancy eviction notices in the air. We were being replaced, pushed out.
And the cards went to work almost immediately. Plucked from the sad pile they slept in after Mabel’s death, they now wore drab uniforms. A simple pyramid logo over breast pocket announced their owner and employer. But while they were comfortable having a leader, this wicked destruction of property and the violent building of cheap housing quickly wore on their thin souls. Flush made the rounds (drugs have a marvelous way of defying physics and filling vacuums without any obvious entry point). The cards needed something to push the drudgery away. And now? Now we’re left with a city of addicts and junkies. They work silently through muggy thoughts; they do as they’re told from an owner they’ve never met. Better to be employed than discarded, though Pyramid Redevelopment Corporation is hardly the hand I’d want holding me.
There is an obvious hierarchy in place still (even though beige polos hide the birthmarks of suit and rank, caste is as much a mindset as a physical attribute). It’s the numbers (under 8’s mostly) who are left to manual labor. The Aces are never to be seen wielding hammer or saw, they manage the construction from afar. From so far afar that their employment might be called into question. On the street, Aces head up the wholesale Flush business, Kings and Queens distribute the drug, and Jacks and Jokers enforce the rules, ruthlessly beating the cards who dare to push back. When a card splits, when he’s taken too much Flush in one sitting and goes crazy, there’s hell to pay. The overdosed cards disappear, they are removed from the deck and taken away. Most cards forget quickly, they can hardly be counted on to remember their brethren (they all look alike, don’t they?). The fear only flickers, that looming threat of disappearance doesn’t really stalk them, they just keep Flushing the news away. Meanwhile, their comrades continue to fall between the cracks.
And only I have seen where they end up.
“Ah, Ace, come in, yes come in. Revenue report?”
The shifty card walks in, head hanging slightly. He carries a small bag at his side.
“Well now, come on, out with it. What’s the report, Ace?”
“Mostly good sir, mostly great actually. Great. It’s great.”
“Then why won’t you look me in the eye?”
Osiris hates, among many things, poor eye contact.
“I SAID LOOK AT ME.”
Spade Ace picks up his gaze and I notice a slight tremor in his hand as he drops the sack on Osiris’ desk.
“What is this?”
“Excuse me? Leftovers?”
“Yeah, I, sir, I couldn’t sell it all. This time.”
“What do you mean, I couldn’t sell it all?”
“Well, just that. I mean, I couldn’t find any more buyers.”
“And what do you want me to do about that?”
“Well, nothing, I just thought that-“
“You just thought that you could waltz into my office with half of your supply unsold, drop it on my desk, and what then, that I would give you a refund? Is that it ACE?”
The poor card mumbles. Bad choice friend.
“Well, yes, sir. I thought, maybe I could return that batch. Lower my buy. Or something, you know, whatever is best for you. I don’t want-“
“Let me finish that sentence for you. You don’t want to make me angry. And yet, here you are, returning product I’ve already sold to you, expecting a return because you are too spineless to push it harder on your clientele. Have you ever heard of such a thing?” Here he snaps and a few butterflies emerge from the darkness behind his pillow. “Friends, have you heard this? Have you ever seen such nonsense? This card, this Ace, wants a refund! Ha! What say you, viziers, should we give him one?”
The butterflies encircle Osiris’ crown, a heaving Egyptian dome. His face obscured from Ace, the bugs make a decision. I try, from my vantage point, to paw Ace into leaving. His best option, indeed his only option, is to flee. Now. Run fast! Run far away! Atone for your crimes and escape this fetid fate!
Alas. I am as invisible to him as to everyone on this damned island. Save dear Oyster. He, at least, remembers me. The rest of the country dismembered me, removed me from their thoughts the minute Mab died. I am corporeally ethereal, a halfway house of a cat.
The flies stop their swarming and form a vertical halo behind Osiris.
“My brethren are kinder than I, for that you should be thankful.”
Ace shakes in his boots.
“I said, be grateful. Have you lost your tongue like those damned Twins?”
“N-n-n-no sir. Thank you sir. Thank you sirs.”
“Sirs and madams. Are you so myopically mysogynistic to think that since I, before you, am a man, that my family is populated solely by XY chromosomes?”
“N-n-n-no sirs. And madams. No. And thank you. All.”
“Apology accepted. You see, they are far kinder than I. My wish was to have you burned. Straight away turned to ash. We keep a few matches here for the very act. I have no use for weak employees and I am rash in my decision making. No, my council advised me to spare you the charcoal death and offer you a deal: You will buy back this bag. Yes, I see you shaking even as I say it. You will repay for this half bag, this bag you have already purchased and pathetically thought you might barter for a refund. And then you will sell it before the next pick up date. Indeed, if this is not sold by the time you are due to purchase the next batch from me to take to market, then you will meet your fiery doom. But see? Isn’t that kind of us? We’ve given you a reprieve. What say you to that?”
“Oh stop sputtering and speak dammit.”
“Thhhhank you. Thank you.”
Osiris opens his jurassic ledger and flips through pages until he finds the current date while Ace pulls his billfold out from his back pocket. Spade Ace whispers a few large bills out of his wallet and slides them across the leather lined desk. Osiris looks up.
“What is this?”
“Umm, p-p-p-payment. Sir.”
“For the bag.”
“For the half bag.”
“Y-y-yes, for the half bag.”
“This is a half payment.”
“Y-yes, sir. It’s half a batch. I could only sell 50%.”
“And so you’re offering me only 50% of what you normally pay for a batch from me.”
“Umm, yes, I guess, I mean, that’s what it is, right?”
“Oh… Then, … what?”
“You see, in forfeiting this half-batch back to your supplier, you’ve missed the original pricing. That rate only exists for your regular, weekly, purchase from my stores. Now that you’re buying back from me, the price is double.”
“Oh, do STOP. SPUTTERING. Out with it. I can see you’re upset.”
“Well, it’s just that, it’s just this is half a batch, so I thought I would pay half my rate. I’m already re-paying for something I’ve purchased.”
“Are you getting sour with me?”
“No, no. Sir. Not sour.”
“Then what? Fermented? I detect a distinct whiff of aged attitude wafting about this conversation. Do you think I’m being unfair?”
“Unfair? No, well, no, but yeah, I mean, maybe-“
“Enough. Let me explain things to you very simply. I am your lord. Yes, your drug lord. And once a week you purchase a batch from me. I take your money. It is mine. The drug is yours to sell, and I offer you (a high ranking Ace) singular territory. You have a designated sector, no competition, no rivalry. In the week following your purchase from me, it is your job to disseminate Flush throughout your territory. You can fluctuate the price as you see fit in order to get rid of your purchase, I understand that it is important for my dealers to make a good living. But as you sell, my flies are watching. Should they notice a great bump in the street value, should they find my dealers are raking in the cash hand over fist, then they report back to me and the price I charge you, weekly, is increased. You see, any market regulation ultimately ends in my favor. Now, should you be unable to sell your weekly purchase from me, you have two options: give it away at a loss, or snort it up your own nose. Under no circumstances are you to return that purchase to my coffers. Nor are you able to skip a week. You have an obligation to me, your lord, and should you become delinquent in our dealings, I will find you. Once you’re in, there is no escape.”
Ace is petrified. I graze his leg in an attempt to calm his nerves. This intimidation is central to Osiris’ hold on his employees. Of course there’s a way out. But Osiris won’t let them see that option. He traps his dealers in never-ending desperation.
“Or would you prefer to go back to your job in construction? I hear you were very talented at reading blueprints prior to becoming a local drug dealer. Skilled. I should say skilled. I make that mistake all the time. What you did took no talent whatsoever, merely skill. You are skilled labor. And that is what you offer me as well. Don’t reach above your status. You are not a talented drug dealer, you are a skilled drug dealer. Or should I say, were a skilled drug dealer. Because until you made this brazen error, I hadn’t ever been worried about your territory. But now you arrive in my office asking for a refund, and when I tell you that, indeed, you will have to buy back this half-batch from me to find your offer 50% of the new price, I think perhaps it is time to discard you.
Does that frighten you?”
Ace is pale as cardstock.
“Speak up, I can see thoughts on your face pandering to internal terror. Best let them out before you mess yourself.”
“Well, it’s just that, it’s just, if I buy that half bag back at full price,” here tears begin to pierce his eyes and drip down his featureless face, “if I pay again, my full weekly price for that half a batch, half a batch I couldn’t even sell, then I’m completely under water for the week. I won’t make any money, I-I-I-“
“I fail to see how that is my problem. Here are your options, dear Ace. I can burn you now. Right here. Well, not precisely where you’re standing, I wouldn’t dream of damaging the Persian rug beneath your boots. But in that corner. Go on, look where I’m pointing. See that corner, back there, yes, see the darkened stones? That is my burning corner. Does that frighten you? Does it surprise you? That I should have a burning corner? Ah, then you underestimated me. I am a foul creature. Torching my underlings causes me no grief. Yes, it could be that simple. You could join your idiotic compatriots who’ve made blunderous mistakes in that pile of ash in the corner, or you can pay me your weekly rate for this unsold half-batch. Life, really, is your choice! Isn’t that grand?!
Now, what’ll you have? Another day to play in the sun or fiery finish in the corner?”
Ace pulls the remaining money out of his wallet and steps forward to place it on Osiris’ desk. As he does, Osiris darts forward and grabs the card by his lapel. Pulling the quaking lackey close enough for his sweaty forehead to rest against Osiris’ Egyptian crown, the worm drops his voice low and utters these final threats:
“If you so much as dare to escape, if you should even consider fleeing in the coming days, I will have you cut off at the knees and hung above the warehouse as a warning to your entire species. You are nothing. You idiots have spent too long thinking you’re worth something, that even the higher ranking amongst your cohort are too valuable to be thrown out. Let me tell you this: a card is a card. You are nothing without a hand to pick you, shape you, hold you, and play you. My flies will be following you, they will see that you arrive on time for the next batch’s purchase. I don’t care if you suck the remainder of this bag up your senseless nose the minute you walk out of my office and fall over, bleeding and reeling as the chemistry rips through your veins on a rocketship course through your thin body. Am I understood? You work for me until you die. And then I select another card for my hand. Play your part, play it well, and you stand to last the longest in this game. Cross me again and you’re trash.”
Osiris thrusts the card back on his heels with one hand while he snatches the cash with another (he will never run out of hands for nefariousness). Ace stumbles a few feet back and as he regains balance he turns quickly toward the door before Osiris can see just how much he is crying. He holds the half bag of Flush away from his body, like some toxic waste about to spill out onto his skin. A few flies dance down the stairs after him and ensure he leaves the building with Flush in hand. They will tail him now, a good use for these winged advisors.
Osiris turns his glassy eyes toward the window and absentmindedly flicks through the wad of cash with two ruminant hands lower on his body. A few butterflies still hold court around his head, hovering in the dusky office air. Osiris is furious, though in true form he maintains a calm, sculptural pose as he looks through the window. Bugs are strange like that, able to put their bodies in some sort of living stasis. He is thinking. And then he wriggles back to reality, ready to confer with his inner circle. The attendant wings meet him at eye level.
“This isn’t the first time, is it? That Ace. Other Aces. Other faces. They’ve all been reporting the same thing. Their sectors are saturated. For the record I think that’s complete nonsense. I think these cards, nowadays, I think they’re lazy. I think they have no work ethic.
Well, yes. I do think so. I think their work ethic died with Mabel.
Oh. I see you think their work ethic was Mabel. Ha. I hadn’t thought about it like that. But then again, you must be right. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times. Cards are nothing without a strong hand behind them. A good player. Ah, Mabel, you’ve left us one player short in this card game of life.” Osiris speaks to the heavens, though he is a dastardly creature he has some inherent sense of spirituality and the afterlife. He is, after all, surrounded by his own deceased predecessors. Deceased, annointed, ascended, whatever. I paw at a few of them from the ground, sending their hovering halo scattering for a moment before regrouping around their current leader.
“I blame their work ethic. Because to accept their excuses is to acknowledge that the market here is truly oversaturated. How can that be? Have you ever heard such nonsense? That a population addicted to some heinous drug could simply have had their fill of it? That the users are not clamoring for more and more, but simply content with their current habits? No. Nonsense. Addicts are black holes of greed, they will never have enough.
But can we count on the addicts, the true junkies, to be powering our business? If the market is full, then we have two choices. Halt production at current levels, or seek out new markets.
Well yes, of course there are more markets to plumb. Where? Not here, no. If the capital has had its fill of Flush then the country has had its fill of Flush. Have you seen the nominal populations outside the capital? Thin. They could never support a deep enterprise such as ours.
Which leaves us with but one option (of course I’m not seriously considering maintaining current production levels and being content with that, I’m a business man, not a housewife). We have to set sail.
Well for the mainland, of course.
Across the great ocean.
You didn’t know that? What did you all do during your respective reigns? It seems you accomplished nothing in your years while I’m here burning our image into the country’s history books. The Northeastern coastline would offer us access to ports, we could build along the harbor.
But, of course, that means dealing with the Grand Minister.”
The butterflies flap a nasty response, they’ve all dealt with The Grand Minister. Everyone in Wonderland has dealt with him at some point, and nearly all have chosen to walk away. Hence his relative isolation in the northeast. Hence his untouched Kingdom and pristine coast.
“Yes I know, he’s disgusting. That congregation of his is nothing but a bunch of spineless bivalves. Who else would be so dumb as to follow his lead?”
The flies flap and confer. They do not like this plan, that much is obvious from the shifting patterns on their wings. They communicate without words (these bugs all have some sort of telegenetic connection), these psychotropic bugs have wings of myriad colors and the shapes shift as they converse. Right now things are murky and dark, sharp, angry.
“Well what would you have me do? Rest on my laurels? And let me be very clear, they are indeed my laurels. What did any of you ever accomplish? Ha. That’s what I thought. You’re all chatty and judgmental when you look at my plans but the minute I bring up your track records the room falls quiet. Some advisors you are. I swear to gods I will burn our image into this country’s history book if it kills me. I will not stand idly by while this business slowly withers. We are sitting on a goldmine here and it is our responsibility, yes our responsibility to plumb its depths. We would be fools to let this plateau.
I reject your advice. Do you hear me? I said, I reject your advice. We will build a boat and set sail. We will find a new market across the open sea.”
The flappers pull back into a line and slow their beating wings.
“Oh, that shuts you up? You have nothing to say in response now? I can see you all squirming in midair, you’re pathetic. You have wings, what is there to be afraid of? You think creatures like us, the great insect kingdom, are not meant for ocean travel? Well you’re wrong. As usual. You’ve been wrong far too long, I’m getting tired of this contradictory counsel. We, the bugs of this land, are stronger than anything else that claims life under the sun. We have outlasted them all. We were here first. Aren’t I but the latest in a great line of emperors? Yes! I am! Then stop your insipid flapping and look to the future. Our gold lies across the ocean, and we will bring it back to Wonderland in victory.”
Their wings are black. The room is dark, the mood is tinted grey. They are decided in this endeavor. They will set sail.
I want you to find out when the reverend holds his services, I should like to attend one. What’s that? Oh yes, the Grand Minister, forgive my misnomer. Then we’ll approach him during cake and coffee time. Do find out if they have cake and coffee time. I’ve never known a church that didn’t supply some sort of treat after the sermon, but perhaps his temple is different. Oh lord I hope there’s coffee and cake.”
“Round up the congregation Carlo, I’m hungry.”
A small, mustachioed man scurries across the sand banging two trashcan lids together over his head.
“Louder Carlo, louder!” The great walrus shakes his fin in the air and his body trembles in response. He is not a slim creature by any stretch of the mind. Indeed, he rivals the Twins in size (though their vastness is ethereal while his is grotesque). The sand here, nearly mud, is black as wet cookie crumbs (you know the brand), and supersaturated with water from the mechanical tide washing its hide. I walk across the beach as that lunatic continues his call.
“The dawn has arrived! It is time to answer her call! Great creatures from the sea, JOIN ME!” The Preacher wrestles his ample buttocks into the sand as he awaits his congregation. Carlo, lords help him, continues the cacophony of crashing trashcan lids. He is an imbecile and I am annoyed. I paw around the scene, watching as tiny bivalves begin their journey from watery home to dry land in the name of redemption. I look down at my feet and see the sand here neither squelches nor crumbles, instead it offers a cushion that will erase your footprint in mere moments. It is, of course, for this reason that the Grand Minister chose this coast for his spiritual throne. There is no ground more forgiving to his weight than this bay.
And there is no audience more ignorant than this ocean of shelled things.
“Why hello! Yes, so wonderful to see you again, my how big you’re getting, isn’t that marvelous!” He greets his fans as they file into makeshift rows along the beach. Being a walrus, he dwarfs them in stature. But I think this is part of what draws the little clams and cockles to his ministry. They are used to looking up at things, so buried beneath water in their daily lives. This angle of inspection is no different than the one they take under the sea, investigating the colors and sounds that play across the top of the ocean. Now on land they are comfortable looking up at this enormous presence, he is almost another ocean for them, consuming and comforting at once.
“Carlo, continue the call! We must fill the sand this morning with the repentant!” Carlo had stopped to rest for a moment, huffing and puffing, sending his bushy mustache sailing on breath. He is not the young thing he once was, and these early morning calls-to-prayer are getting more and more difficult. But now he lifts the trashcan lids and obediently picks up the tune where he left off.
I am ready to kill him.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, tiny tots, and the very old, welcome this morning to prayer! I am happy to see you all! And she, aaaaahh, she the mighty above is glorified by your presence! We begin shortly, introduce yourself to your neighbors if you haven’t done so already. We are one family here on the sand, and this is a great morning for redemption!”
His flock turn to each other and chat, creating a tinkling sound of shells opening and closing. They come from all parts of the ocean for these services, his word has spread quite far by now. Of course, he could only ever maintain a temple of the brainless. These bivalves are all muscle and heart, with not a brain amongst the bunch. Shelled creatures like these enjoy being led. They have neither the time nor capacity to think, they bask with a stupid grin in his magnificence. They adore his fellowship.
“We begin this morning’s service with a quote from scripture, I read to you now from the Book of the Bay, chapter 17.3, verse ½: ‘And so it was said, and so it will go, what happens above so happens below! When you sully your sand, and ruin the land, the world turns to dust, every woman and man.’ Do you hear the words of our savior? Here my friends!” He slaps the “book” with his fin, “Here is the lesson! You have come to me in sin, you have all shuffled here for a reason, am I right?” He points to one little mussel in the front. “You, there with the mottled shell, yes you! I see you looking about, do not avert my gaze! Yes, meet me, here, come to me little chip.”
The mussel slowly makes his way to the pulpit and stands at the base.
“Friends! Congregants! Look at this one! Look at this member of your clan! Can you not see it clearly? He is a sinner through and through! He is sullying the very sand here, right now! And we all know that when we ruin the land,” here the congregation echoes the opening quote, “the world turns to dust, every woman and man!”
The mussel is now shaking, his family of shelled things hurl curses in his direction. The walrus holds enormous sway over his adoring, idiotic, fans. “SILENCE!” They are immediately quiet. “You have come here, each and every one of you, not to cast aspersions on this poor soul, but because his soul reflects the tiny pearl of sin inside each of you! Yes! You are all sinners! Look around! Scour the sand! If you find so much as one congregant, one faithful creature who has not sinned even once in his life, bring that angel forward!”
Carlo stands at the back of the makeshift pews and searches the audience. He does this every week, looking for that angelic oyster to rise above the rest and throw his purity at this bloated preacher. Carlo wishes that angel would arrive and deliver them all from this fresh hell, but he is not so lucky. Carlo stares back to the walrus and nods his head.
“Not. A. Single. One. Not one pure soul among the sinners today! As I have foretold, this beach will be the site of redemption for the entire ocean, one shell at a time! You are here, my friends, and you are safe. You are safe from that sin you’ve been hiding deep inside, that tiny secret you tell no one, that little nugget of disaster slowly wriggling out and consuming your whole life. Purity can be yours! The good book tells us so!”
“You come to me in distress, and I am here for you. I have accepted the monstrous task, I am bloated with sin, you see me here before you. You cannot deny my girth. LOOK AT ME! I AM ENGORGED! And do you know what makes me this size? Do you know how I came to be so blubberous? Because it was commanded from above that there will be one great leader, one saintly creature ordered to do the unspeakable. I am that creature! And I am here to consume your sin!”
The shiny shells cheer in response. They are relieved to know they won’t spend a life mired in sin, slowly consumed by the blackness at their core.
“I have accepted this task from on high, I carry the weight of a thousand souls, I bear their sins so they may live in peace! My shells, my pretty shells, do you want to be saved? Do you want your soul scrubbed of all infractions? OF COURSE YOU DO! You have arrived at my doorstep this morning begging for mercy. I hear you! I have been listening, of course. I knew you were coming! I can hear your screams beneath the ocean’s surface. Yes! The consumer of sin is burdened with ears of gold. I hear the heart-wrenching screams of the sinner all day and all night. But I continue on in my quest! I will see this through to the end, I will not let down my lord and savior! I will fight the good fight! I will cleanse this beach, I will cleanse this OCEAN OF SIN!”
Again a riotous cheer erupts. Throughout the sermon more clams and cockles crawl out of the ocean and extend the pews, shell by shell. They are roused by the noise, they are curious to see what all the racket is about. And then they see their species lined up and cheering. They stay, they are engulfed in the hysteria. They feel they must also be sinners. They have no brains.
I stand at the back of this church with Carlo and hang my head. He turns and looks through me, but for an instant I think he sees me, I think he really sees me standing there. Sinner. Of all the crowd here today, I am the most in need of absolution. I am cursed with this invisibility. I am laden with regret. I am embarrassed by my own history. And here I am, on a bright and bleary Sunday morning, at church! If only he could save me. If only I believed in such nonsense. Perhaps these brainless creatures are better off than those of us who can think. We are for-ever investigating our choices, we are for-never happy with the results. I sigh.
“Do you hear that? I SAID, DO YOU HEAR THAT?” The bivalves are quiet. “There is a great sinner amongst us today. Oh! Oh indeed! This is huge. There is an enormous sinner in our midst!” The walrus is frothing at the mouth. He is bouncing on his tail. “I can smell him in the crowd. I can hear his heavy heart. He is ashamed. He is damaged.”
Carlo turns again to his right, looking at or through me, but I know I remain unseen. I look behind me and search for what Carlo sees.
“Oh my dear ones, this is a momentous morning! You are tarnished by this sinner’s presence, you are further blackened by his ignorance, and I will remove him from your company! Come forth! Come to me thou foul fiend!”
Carlo turns his head from me to the pulpit, as if directing me to salvation. I take a step forward, into the aisle between imaginary pews in the sand.
“Yes. YESSS. Come to me great sinner! Approach the pulpit and be cleansed! Give me the gift of your burden today, show the congregation you are strong enough to give in, strong enough to give up! I am your only hope!”
I am drawn down the aisle almost magnetically, his conviction pulling me along like taffy. I stretch toward hope, I pray that my body might snap forward, unhooked from the pike of disbelief that holds me back. I want to be saved. I want to be seen.
The Minister crashes forward. He knocks mussels and cockles and oysters and clams out of his way with both belly and fin.
“YOU! I have called you directly and yet you are glued to your spot. How dare you stain the sanctuary with your reticence! Congregation! Rise up! Bring him to me! You are all damned with this black soul in your presence.”
Suddenly the walrus stabs a fin right in front of me and rips a lobster out of the crowd. Gasps are issued all around, then howls, and finally screams. The parishioners wail “Sinner!” and “Evil!” I am caught there, right in the middle of the aisle, as the riot begins. The walrus drags the lobster up to his pulpit while I shrink into disgust and embarrassment.
He was never calling for me.
Carlo winks as I approach the back of the pews again, either at me or at his boss directly behind me. The action has turned violent in the church.
“Hang him!” they yell. “Burn the red devil!” they shout. “Vile fucking seabug!” “Kill the monster! Kill the monster!”
The seashells fall silent along the seashore.
“This poor creature has come to me in need, he is is here to cleanse his body of the original filth. How dare you ask me to toss him aside! I am the root of salvation, I am the right hand of our Lady and savior. It is my duty to save even the lowliest of animals. It is your responsibility as faithful believers to bear witness to this trial!”
He has whipped the crowd into a stiff frenzy, working them like butter against the steel bowl of his preaching. The lobster is shaking so loud he sounds like a pile of castanets. Poor boy. This can’t end well for him.
At least they can see him.
“Now then,” he stands the lobster before him, “why have you come to my church today?” The lobster does not respond. “I SAID, why have you come to my church today?”
The lobster looks up into his greasy eyes and opens his mouth to speak, but no words come out. A cacophony of clattering shells is his only response as he quakes at the foot of this monster.
“You have no answer for us? Then I will answer for you! You have come to me in need, you are here for salvation. You, the most despicable of creatures, acknowledge your lowliness, you bow to our greatness, you pray to join your brethren here on the sand in praise. But you stand apart from us. You are cursed with the color of the devil, you were born into sin. You are part of that violent clan. You have torn this shoreline apart with terrorism and acts of vengeance, you swear allegiance to a filthy and false god. You are here now to repent for the crimes of your kind. You are here now to stand trial for your species. REPENT AND MY LORD WILL BE KIND!”
I want to rush forward and nab him off the stand, but my incorporeality forbids it. I cannot meddle. I merely bear witness.
“Are you silent in the face of these accusations? Do you dare insult our Lady and savior with quietude?!”
“I-I-I-“ he stammers, “I-I j-just wanted t-to join in p-prayer. I thought your services were open to all.”
“DO YOU HEAR THAT? He just wanted to pray. He thought our services were open to all. Well, dear child, what is it you wanted to pray for? Hmmm? Because your kind has wrought nothing but violence upon our household. Were you here to pray for our death? Were you planted in our midst as a spiritual bomb? Are you here to destroy our assemblage! Your kind does not value life.”
“N-n-no! We do! I swear!”
“HE SWEARS! In my church? There will be no swearing Sir! You do your kind a great disservice to sin again under the canopy of God.”
“QUIET! Unless the next words out of your mouth are soaked in the brandy and cream of repentance and admission do not waste our time. My children! How many of you have lost family members to cruel infidels like the one you see before you today?!”
The seashells are wild now, recalling the invented history of this ethnic war. To hear them tell it you would think the lobsters had decimated their population, devouring an inordinate amount of bivalved mollusks in their quest for Norman victory along the beach.
Their consumption pales in comparison to that of this singular walrus. His saintly appetite could vacuum the beach clean before an entire population of lobsters could make a noticeable dent in the mollusks. But, of course, the wise predator is skilled in the art of misdirection. This walrus has, over centuries, convinced an entire ocean of shelled things to fear for their lives from a rather minor threat: the lobsters.
The walrus asks one more time, “Do you come to me in repentance? Are you here to be cleansed? Are you here in remorse?”
“Y-y-y-yes. Y-yes. Please. Please sir. Please! Save me!”
Well that was quick.
“Children! Bear witness! Today we enter the fire of salvation! Today we have a convert to our cause!”
More cheers, more noise. I’d almost prefer Carlo’s trashcan lid banging to this. The fervor of an uneducated crowd is more offensive to my ear than a thousand tin cans thrown at glass.
“Carlo! Prepare the pulpit!” Carlo nods and excuses himself from our bastion at the back of the sanctuary. He shuffles toward his master and parts the crowd of angry seashells gently with the backs of his hands. When he reaches the walrus he whips out a red tippet and slings it over the beast’s shoulders. It rests limply against his belly. Then Carlo sets to work on building a driftwood cabinet, large enough for the walrus and perhaps one or two parishioners. The cabinet is dressed in seaweeds and plants, it stands as a dark presence behind the walrus.
I had not noticed until this moment how quick Carlo is in spite of his age. The tiny sanctuary seemingly appears out of nothing, but I know his handiwork is responsible. He must build this every week, but still, a man shouldn’t be able to raise a roof in so little time. His work is under-appreciated. The walrus doesn’t bother to thank him when the construction is finished. He merely continues on in his play.
“Brother Lobster, come to me now. Come to me before the church and renounce your faith.”
“Renounce my faith?”
“THIS IS NO TIME FOR CHORAL RESPONSE LOBSTER.”
“No, but I-I-“
“RENOUNCE OR BE DAMNED!”
“I renounce! I renounce my faith! Save me Father!”
A grin so slick it makes me queasy crawls across the walrus’ face. He loves it when they call him “Father.”
“Now we will enter the sacred canopy and I will perform the rite of salvation. If you are pure, we will exit together and you will lead a clean life among this new population. If you are deemed impure, even the love of our heavenly Mother could not save you. Do you believe yourself to be pure?!”
“Yes! Yes! I know! I must be! We all are!”
“SILENT! You speak for yourself, not for your people. Your kind must seek salvation each one on their own. Today you enter the grace of God and perhaps become a new creature. A creature of light! A creature of love!”
Riding a wave of hysteria and cheering the walrus takes this young lobster into the driftwood chapel and shuts out his congregation with curtains of darkest seaweed. They wait expectantly, not knowing what sounds to expect from this ritual.
Under the canopy a different play unfurls.
“You filthy thing, how dare you disturb my parish.”
The walrus dips his fin in a shallow pool of butter resting in a pit of warm sand lined with more sea plants. He sucks it off his skin and then licks his lips.
“I said turn around. It’s time for the ritual.”
“Please. Please forgive me.”
The lobster turns his back to the walrus and closes his eyes. He waits expectantly while the walrus fills a small ceramic dish with butter. He douses the lobster and mumbles something in Latin. The small, red creature begins to cry.
“Ah good. Salted.” His stomach rumbles.
All at once the walrus grabs him by the feet and dangles him over his gaping mouth. He fights and struggles, holding the walrus’ meaty lips open with his claws. When he forces the lobster into his jaws, the crustacean pinches his tongue hard and won’t let go even as he howls and pulls. When finally he manages to rip the lobster from his bleeding tongue, the interloping congregant realizes that this is no salvation ceremony, this is a circus loosely disguised as religion. The lobster spits in his face.
“You’ll never rid the oceanfront of us. One day they’ll all know. One day those tiny mollusks will-“
He snaps its neck with a quick twist of two fins and the skeleton hangs limp in his grasp. He is hungry and wants very badly to eat this miserable corpse, but he needs the body for display. Those that are not fit for salvation must be shown before the parish as Godly sacrifice. The walrus waits a few minutes until the bleeding in his mouth has slowed to a gelatinous thrum, then he parts the seaweed curtains and stands in front of his congregation.
They see the dead body in his hands.
“This young lobster came to us seeking forgiveness, and he is forgiven.” He speaks awkwardly, trying to minimize the pain in his tongue. “I heard his pleas for salvation, I heard his apology on behalf of his kind, but our Mother above did not see fit to absolve him of his crimes. This poor lobster entered the fire of purification and did not survive. Know this! We will not rest until every lobster has atoned for their sins. We will not rest until each and every one of those miserable creatures understands his and her duties to enter our congregation under the light of salvation and seek forgiveness. Some may be taken above, ascended by our Mother in absolution. Others will not survive the ordeal. Salvation is not for the weak, purification is not for the stubborn. Today we honor this lobster who begged forgiveness. Today we celebrate the end of one more miserable life plaguing this beach! Today we are God’s work! Today we are free!”
The walrus wriggles to the lapping water’s thin edge and hurls the broken lobster out to sea. He watches it hit the glassy surface about 100 yards away and float there for a moment before slowly succumbing to physics and sinking.
Behind him the cockles have begun to sing. They chant deliriously, they are overcome with passion in the aftermath of this spiritual ceremony. “Communion,” the walrus says, still looking out to sea. “You shall have your communion!”
He returns to his pulpit and calls the congregation to order. He instructs them that the time has come, they have reached the end of the service and now must decide whether to seek communion this day or head back to the ocean. Nearly everyone lines up at the threshold of his driftwood cabinet, a few lonely clams hopping back to their homes under the wet sand. The walrus is tired. The walrus is hungry. He shuts himself in with the seaweed curtains and calls for the first parishioner to enter his private chapel. Communion is done differently here. One by one the seashells approach the walrus and ask for continued spiritual forgiveness. He does not make a public show of this, he hates to be seen eating in front of a crowd.
Removed to his canopied peace, he is comfortable passing judgement on each and every shell that sneaks inside. They enter one at a time, and exit as two. Two separate shells tossed aside while the next congregant begs forgiveness. On rare occasions the walrus turns a shell away; he excuses the very young and the very old, neither wanting to waste what might become plump nor taste what might have turned sour. The shells are simple, this trick would never work on anything with a brain. It never worked with the lobsters, try as he might have. The cockles and mussels and oysters and clams enter unwittingly, truly believing they are present to receive their weekly blessing. They never remember the scores of family members who didn’t return from the previous week’s sermon. They never seem to notice the pile of shells behind the pulpit.
The walrus is maniacal in his appetite and voracious in his preaching. He has, over the years, convinced an entire population of shells that they must be cleansed of that original pearly sin deep inside. And that the only way to achieve such salvation is to come begging and bereft on his doorstep. The seashells wait a lifetime to attend one of his services, the demand has become so rich beneath the water that they raffle tickets each week. This sort of religious conversion is what we call one-and-done. You spend your youth devouring the stories passed down from the elderly shells sent home after service. You build a mythology deep as the Greeks in your mind. You await the day you are finally called to service (via lottery ticket, of course), and by then you are so sincerely convinced of your own nastiness that you would do anything the walrus asks.
When he commands you to stand in line for communion your heart flutters. Had you any sense about you, you’d realize the ruse. But they never do. And the lines continue as the walrus eats his fill. When, inevitably, one young oyster questions the casings left behind, the walrus begs his pardon and unspools a story of redemption and ascension. You see, according to his tractate, when a lowly sea creature is accepted on high by their Lady and savior the Mother, they are lifted from their terrestrial shells and beamed to heaven on sunlight and love. The pile of shells is left to remind the congregation what might be possible after a lifetime of prayer and commitment.
The religious are such good storytellers.