Fable: Metamorphosis

Some time ago, I began a project called “Dramas and Fables.” It was going to be a collection of short pieces. I left it off, with the demands of work and graduate school. I still have the pieces I wrote, and among my other projects, am turning back to them. Here’s one of them

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One morning—a Tuesday morning, in fact—Allison woke up to find that all her hair had fallen out. It lay spread out about her in a red halo on her pillows. At first, dazed as she was from pulling out of a strange dream, she wasn’t quite sure what was happening. She noticed the room’s cool air brushing over her bare scalp, and thought it odd, somehow out of place. She almost put her hand to her head, but held it back; whether she did so out of fear or just a change of mind she was never sure. She sat up in the bed, and felt lighter, her head not weighed down by the falling locks of red curls that used to grace her. She looked down on her pillow, and saw her hair there, strands and strands of it, almost fully covering her pillow, red hair on a sparkling white pillowcase. She looked at her hair for a long time, the gross reality of the situation barely registering on her mind. “That’s my hair,” she said, in a tiny, almost meek voice—which fit, because she usually had a tiny, meek voice, except now it was tinier, even more timid as the terrible nature of what had occurred to her began to imprint itself. “That’s my hair,” she repeated, as if saying the words, giving speech to the event could make it more comprehensible. She finally brought her hand to her head, running it over her bare scalp; her brow rose in consternation as she brushed her scalp again and again, caressing it the way, well, the way a bald man would, the way she’d seen her father do in times of stress and frustration, from the hairline at almost the base of the skull forward, slowly, over the forehead and down over the eyes, trying to expel whatever disturbing thoughts had collected during the day. Her fingers danced over the supple, soft skin, her palm pressed on the smooth surface. It was as if, of a sudden, the individual strands of her hair had decided collectively to evacuate her scalp, follicles and all, detaching themselves like the stages of a rocket, leaving her head completely, without a trace. It was quite odd, and she had no means by which to process the significance of the incident. What would she do?  Was there some remedy to be had?  Should she collect her stranded hair, perhaps to make a wig out of it—it would still be her hair, after all, just translated to another form of existence. She brought her hand to her chest and clutched at her pajama top, the experience suddenly becoming too much for her, the enormity of it finally dawning on her. “That’s my hair,” she let out in a raspy scream.

She called in sick that day. And the day after. In fact, she took the rest of the week off, pleading a sudden flu, a very bad, intense illness that left her barely able to phone her office, much less actually shower and dress and go into work. Since the office had recently been ravaged by a virus, her supervisors accepted her excuse without question, and wished her a speedy recovery. She would lay in bed, day after day, the shades drawn, her knees drawn up under her chin, slightly rocking. She had collected her hair and put it into an empty shoe box, not really being sure what was appropriate for such circumstances. Surely she wasn’t the only person to whom this had happened?  There must be others!  When energy permitted she would scour the Internet, searching for anything that could hint at a sudden, catastrophic hair loss. Her efforts yielded no results. She couldn’t find her case in any medical literature. She was truly alone.

She kept putting off her boyfriend, Frank. “I don’t understand why I can’t come by and take care of you.”  “I’m contagious, that’s why, and I don’t want you getting sick.”  “But I’m willing to take the risk.”  “I just don’t want you here!” Continue reading

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“Am I lost?” Excerpt from “Man in Landscape”

Oh, this damned cough. Out, out, damned cough. I’ve had it for a year. A year? Good enough. A year. I’m sure it presages my death. One more indication of my time passing. Time still operates in its normal way when death is involved. Death is time’s master. Time is but his handmaiden, marking off the ticks of the clock, the long winding down of another life, chucked off into the nothingness of history. I could go to a doctor. I still have some privileges from my former life of faithful service. (Oh, yes, “faithful service”. I wonder if they know about these words? Do they? Well, if they do, they consider them harmless enough. But they can’t discover them, can they? I never leave the room. This is my world entire.) But, what’s the point? A prolongation of a few months? For what? I just need enough time to finish this. Enough time, and then time will be immaterial. I will surrender myself to the transcendent. (That’s a word which, dear reader, may have been expunged from your vocabulary. But maybe it will be rediscovered. Perhaps, at last, the clouds will part.)

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My mother lived just long enough to see the new dispensation. My father died years before, but not so soon as to not know what was coming down the pipe. It was all quite evident. After a period of spring, winter came down howling, as those who begrudged any openness, any freedom, rebelled. Of course, those who rebelled were those who had the power before the spring: the money men, the men of power, the men of violence, who sought only their own enrichment. The men who had always ruled the world, save for a brief interregnum, when it seemed that yes, things would change, things would go the way of, well, people like me.

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Memory of home, from “Man in Landscape”

It’s not that the times aren’t dark. It’s that they’ve been so for so long that the darkness has become normal. We no longer notice it, or, if we do, we keep it to ourselves. It would serve nothing and no one to make mention of it, save for death. And for all the platitudes which grace television and billboards, don’t be fooled: death is the master here in these latter days, death the only one being served, regardless of what anyone tells you.

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But I remember. Every now and then, lying in bed, at night, I smell cookies. So mundane. But I do catch their scent. My mother made them once or twice a week. It was in a time when people obsessed over their health. She didn’t care. Or, she did—how could she not, being a mother?—but decided that the pleasure it brought us was worth the risk.

I would smell them baking, the oven door no barrier to their aroma. The smell would fill the house, butter and chocolate and sugar giving the house the sweet smell of home. Then they’d come out, done, but we couldn’t touch them. They had to cool down, and we had to eat dinner first. No dessert before dinner. (Remember dessert? Remember good meals? Remember?)

We’d eat the meal, each of us recounting our days—me, my brother, our parents—long and leisurely, not concerned with the passing of time, for time didn’t pass when we were all together, in the kitchen, swapping stories, reconnecting our lives together after a day apart at work and school.

And then, after dinner was eaten and the dishes put away, Mother would bring out the cookies. (I called her Mother. He called her Mama. My choice was not one of formality; it was simply who she was, what fit her. She could be both Mother and Mama. She carried multitudes in her.)

Oh, I don’t know if anyone else would have enjoyed them as much as we did. They might have acknowledged their good taste. But would they have devoured them as we did? With the same fierce love? No. They tasted all the better because, busy as she was, she took the time to bake them. Sometimes she’d prepare the batter the night before, so that all she’d need to do when returning home from work would be to put them in the oven. On the weekends their making would be a family project, even Dad joining in on the work. (To me he was Dad. To my brother he was Pop. There was no formality in him. He was a man who could talk to high and low and treat them equally with equanimity. He was loved by all. Most of all by Mother.)

After we’d had our fill, we separated, to attend to our own interests, strengthened by that time spent together, our rejuvenation. And the cycle would begin again.

Do you remember family? Do you remember love? Do they still exist? Can they?

Opening to “Man in Landscape”

There are no chapters; only life.

If you need to know my name, you can call me Isaac. But, at this point in time, we are beyond names. Attaching a name to anything is the same as attaching death. Death is what stalks the country, taking you and you and you. You who read this, depending on when you read it, may court death. It’s assumed in any endeavor in these latter days. It didn’t have to be thus; but indifference breeds not more indifference: it instead breeds evil; indifference is the soil evil needs to sprout its broad, heavy leaves. And the roots take hold and dig deeply, more firmly than a rosebush.

My room is cold. It’s a warm day, or should be, if my calculation of time is correct. Time is something else that suffers, hijacked for purposes that are better left unconsidered. Although, why shouldn’t I consider them? I’m an old man, and dying. There’s little that can be done to me which wouldn’t hasten a welcomed end. But, whether warm or cold, the world outside is gray, when it’s not violent with horror. No, gray. The world is gray. It’s what they always wanted, to create a world that sapped the energy of most of us, leaving them able to enjoy their power untrammeled. How long will the clouds last? Oh, I don’t ask that question expecting an answer. Not from you, and certainly not from me. I long ago eschewed prognostication or prescience. Both are dangerous activities. No; smile, scrape, bow, and do what is expected. The life of a lackey isn’t much, but it’s better than the alternative. It’s at least allowed me to last this long, and write this, leaving it to… Whom? I don’t know. I don’t think it matters. It is my last testament. It is my history. I have no plan now. But by the end? Smile, bow, scrape—and keep the dagger close to you, just in case, just in case there’s a weakness, just to take someone with you before the final quietus.

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I’m a teller of stories and singer of songs. The stories I tell extol what is to be extolled, what keeps the State functioning in its orderly way. The stories I tell must always have an approved ending, an ending which advances the interests of the State. (Even now it’s the “State”, not the “state”. Even now, as I write this, in the dark, on scraps of paper, I cannot escape it.) Or, I should say, the stories I used to tell. I’ve grown silent, as my health has failed me. My health has failed me because of the stories I’ve told. All lies. A pack of damned lies. Not a single instance of truth in them. But life is life, such as it is, and is precious. Not to them, but certainly to me. Maintaining life—breathing one more breath for one more day—is a middle finger to them, even though they do not see it. They do not see it because they are as giants to us who are merely human. Their concerns are not our concerns. It matters not to them whether we live or die, serve or not serve. But to us, here, down below, one more day of life, in spite of its price, is a special victory. That’s all that matters some times.

If I may say so, the stories I’ve told in my time—oh, that word again, “time”, as if it has any meaning—were quite good. They served their purpose. They made those who read them laugh, or cry, or sing out in joy. There was some flexibility in my craft, even if only that of mechanics. The themes were prescribed; the method was left to my hand—within reason.

That was, in the end, what kept me somewhat sane. I had no grand illusions that I was an artist. I was a craftsman, a mechanic, a tinkerer. An artist soon finds herself in a fine pickle, one from which she could often not extricate herself. An artist often found herself in gulag, or merely dead. Again, I say, life is precious. The most precious gift given to humans. The taking of another breath is worth—what? What is it worth? The world entire? Yes, the world entire. That has been my lodestar since these latter days began. Just live long enough, just survive, and then… Well, now we’ll see. We’ll see what then. As long as breath is drawn, hope lingers, however fitfully.

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Who stares at me from the mirror? I don’t look often. I can’t bear the face reflected back. Someone who has forgotten much. No, not forgotten. No, rather someone who remembers everything, but ignored everything, stuffed everything deep down in the memory hole, locking it away in a place inaccessible. It wasn’t merely safer; it was essential to living that life, to breathing that one breath more. Even this miserable life, this grey death, is preferable to the real death, the final exit. Does that make me a coward? If so, I join the multitude.

Oh, the things I’ve seen. I shall show them to you, unknown reader. If anyone will still read once all is said and done.

This may be the last futile gasp of a dying old man. So be it. If it doesn’t free me, it may make me human again. What else can one ask for, now? As I write, I plot. As I plot, I live. The mathematics are quite simple.

I’ve been a man of plots. Plots for my stories, and plots in my mind, the brave stratagems I devised for freedom. I still remember freedom, even if it was at the tail end of its reign. It’s a sweet, aching memory, more painful than liberating. I wish I could forget it. But the things that stick in the mind are not to be denied, only accommodated, made peace with, so that the present can be tolerated.

I remember it all. My only gift, the only one with which I was blessed, is to tell. Whether anyone listens is beyond my control. But I will exert control over this one small thing. This will be the story leaking out, fragments, for a fragmented world. This will be the truth, the only truth I know—or, at least, the only real truth, not the truth they parrot. Their truth is as death. Life is what I seek.