The moment that we saw the black liquid spring forth from where we were digging, we decided in a second’s silence that it had to be oil. Ideas of how we would spend the money sprang into my head like flowers blooming on a hillside. Each one becoming more lush and lavish with every passing second. The first order of business, was of course, to make our way back into town and buy steaks as large as our faces and spend the rest of the night drowning in women and whiskey. I could practically see both of us strolling back into town with our pockets already overflowing with newly gained cash. We would stop to throw a few dollars at the shoe shine boy while picking our teeth and gleaming excitedly from our newly acquired importance.
It took only a few seconds, of course, to realize we had simply drilled into some pocket of wet mud pooling deep in the soil. Our smiles dripped off our faces along with the mud and grime that had accumulated in the afternoon’s work. We smelled the defeat that hung in the air within that pit.
“God damnit, Jeremiah,” mumbled Edgar. “I really thought we were about to make it out of this muck with something to show for all of our work.”
“Well that wouldn’t be very befitting, would it?!?” I screamed in response. “It just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t break our god damn necks in the pursuit of more dirt! Whose plan was this anyway?”
“As much as I would like to say it was yours I have to admit that we agreed on the idea together. Drunk as skunks sitting in that god forsaken bar in Cheyenne. If I remember correctly we overheard someone at a table nearby telling what I am now sure to be a bald-faced lie of striking it rich this way.”
“Ah, Cheyenne. We should have stayed there. As miserable as it seemed it beat Dakota the month before. And it damn sure beats standing in this hole in Abilene.”
My brother and I had left Frankfort, Kentucky six months earlier to head out West. I was surprised when he decided to come with me as he had always been the responsible one. I was the drinker, the gambler, the overall waste of my family name. I spent my days doing odd jobs that never lasted longer than a few weeks, drinking in the local saloon, chasing women, and putting an overall smudge on the good name my family had built around Frankfort as hard working and decent folk.
But once mother died, I could see that Edgar was itching for a reason to move on. There was nothing left keeping either of us in that town, so he sold his workshop and we hatched a plan to head out West where the real money was. Ever since then we had been drifting with no direction from town to settlement finding work where we could. We had been barely making it. I didn’t mind the life but it was quite noticeably wearing thin for Edgar. When we got roped into drilling for oil we mustered our last bit of energy and got excited about the prospect of amazing treasures. But now here we stood defeated again. Almost penniless and covered in filth.
We helped each other out of the hole and frowned at our current employer Mr. Phillips. He turned and walked back to his horse. The other workers cleaned up their ladders and tools and slowly began loading their gear. We did the same and made the way back into town. By the time we had gotten there, it had begun to rain quite hard. We checked our pockets and found that we, between the two of us, possessed a mere three dollars. That was enough for both of us to get a bath, a few glasses of whiskey, and a room for the night at Rosa’s. We tied up our weary horses and marched our way to the saloon with which we had become very familiar in the last few weeks.
The doors swung open in front of us and noise slammed us in the face like a drunken punch. Smoke hung thick in the air and jovial laughter could be heard blending with the piano player’s music.
“Bath first or drink first?” Edgar asked. My response came in the form of a simple look. Both of us turned and headed to the bar. We took a seat both covered in defeat as the bartender came and poured two glasses of whiskey. He looked at us both and began chuckling quietly to himself as he strolled back to the other end of the bar. We both lowered our heads and sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Well I guess there is always tomorrow,” I finally remarked.
“And you feel as if that is a good thing?”
“Oh, come now! We will still get paid the day after tomorrow, and maybe we can paint some fences or something tomorrow morning and use that to win a few games of cards…”
“How do you do that?”
“Do what dear brother? Keep an optimistic nature despite such hard times?” I showed Edgar a smile to reassure him that even though these weren’t our brightest days, surely our luck would change soon.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I am doing out here.”
“I can answer that in a word Edgar. Living!”
“I hardly call this living.”
“There you go being negative again. And was life better in Kentucky? Can you honestly say that you wanted to spend another day in that death trap of a town after watching mother being lowered into the earth?”
“Well no … I suppose not.” Edgar’s head hung so low at this point that his hair was practically touching the bar. I put my arm around him for comfort.
“I was more than surprised when you said you wanted to come out West with me. Even after mother’s passing.”
“As terrible as it might sound, it was not just her that made me come out here. Do you remember the Perkinson girl? That lived down by the bank?”
“Why Edgar! You had something going with her?”
“Well I thought I did. Until I came to surprise her with a Sunday picnic and I could hear her and Roger Weathers having quite a good time. I could hear them calling each other’s name from the porch! I threw the flowers in the well and walked home. The next day, when you sobered up, I told you I was coming on this trip.”
Now it was I who hung my head low.
“I’m sorry brother. But at least we have spent this time together. And I know our break is coming.”
After this last statement, Edgar finished his whiskey in one large gulp and stood up. He gave me a look of utter disappointment before telling me he was going to get us a room and take a bath. He walked away from me slowly.
I continued to nurse my whiskey and listen to the conversations from the nearby tables. After a few minutes, I saw Elizabeth walking towards me. She looked even more beautiful than usual. I didn’t care in the least that she made a living laying with strangers, I would ask her to marry me if I thought she would even consider it. In fact, I had several drunken memories of asking her to marry me already, but I doubt she had said yes. She smiled as she took a seat next to me at the bar.
“Big day?” she asked with a grin.
“Depends on definition I suppose my dear.”
“I know what that means. Busted flat, or are you getting a room tonight?”
“Edgar went to get us one but I am afraid that we have to share it this evening, and I couldn’t afford your magnificent company anyway.”
“Well I think I could swing by free of charge tonight, handsome … that is to say, if you manage to clean up a bit.”
“I think I could arrange such a task.”
“How is that brother of yours doing? I noticed him looking pretty pitiful the last few days, and I am sure today couldn’t have helped.”
I finished my whiskey before responding. “No, it certainly didn’t. I think he will head back to Kentucky within the month’s end.”
“And you?” she asked with the smile I could spend a thousand years trying to hold onto.
“I will be moving on, sadly. Just let me know when you are ready to come along. I cannot guarantee riches but I can definitely guarantee no boredom.”
“That, I believe! No, I better stay just where I am. I don’t know anything else. And something about strangers puts me at ease.”
“Sounds lonely. And that is coming from a professional travelling stranger.”
“Why is it that you enjoy travelling so?”
“Why is it that you stay in your current line of work?”
“Excuse me?” she responded while straightening up quickly in her bar stool. I realized I had not made myself clear and had inadvertently offended her.
“No, no, my dear. I meant no disrespect. I only meant that I am driven by uncomfortable fear.”
“Yes. Many years ago, before my father passed, I was helping him tend our field. He began coughing hard, something he had been doing more and more of around that time. Finally, once he had regained his composure, I saw the streaks of blood on his handkerchief as he lowered it from his face. He looked at me and uttered a phrase I will never forget. He said, ‘Farming this land will kill me my boy.’ It was right then that I decided I would never stay somewhere long enough to have this revelation. When my time comes, I want to blame no land. No job. No responsibility except the one I have kept to myself. Living day by day. That is the only way for me.”
It was at that moment that we heard the scream from upstairs. I ran up the stairs to the room where several of the girls crowded, shocked, in the doorway. I made my way through them to find Edgar hanging, lifeless. I don’t know what scared or saddened me worse at that moment. Whether it was my brother’s body swinging slightly with the rope around his neck, or his slowly swaying shadow drifting on the floorboards below him. It seemed to me the perfect image to sum up his life. A slowly moving shadow dancing in silence. As I said before, I do not know which image haunts me more, mostly because I cannot seem to bring myself to think of either long enough to draw a conclusion.
So, that is the story of how I came to be digging a grave for my only brother on a rainy night seven hundred miles from the place of our birth. I have dozens of stories that follow this one but none seem nearly as important to tell.
I left the next day on a train for California. I had heard that there was work there building some sort of new railways, but it didn’t matter. With tears in her eyes, Elizabeth forced the money into my hand to buy the ticket. I still believe that in another time perhaps she could have been the one to ease my wandering desire, but we both knew no matter the circumstance I could never settle in that town. I had lost more than she could even conceive during my stay in Abilene. She knew that if had I stayed, there would never come a day that I didn’t look towards that patch of earth behind Rosa’s with pain in my eyes.
I stared out the window at the flatlands that seem to stretch on forever and imagined that the great brown fields beyond the windows were a hardwood floor. The sections of fields were the planks, and the rain clouds that had begun to move in cast the swaying shadow that, no matter where I travelled or who I met, I would never be able to un-see.
Don’t know what woke me. Some sound that had already dissolved before its vibrations could jangle their way through the gauzy layers of my sleep. I lay there with wide eyes and shallow breath, waiting for the intrusion to resound, even as I sensed there would be no instant replay for a bump in the night.
Groggily, I realized the bedroom walls flashed a familiar, rhythmic semaphore.
Wrestled out of my tangled bed linens, I stood at the window. Through thumb-parted Venetian blinds I watched my quiet suburban neighborhood pulse to a garish strobe originating from somewhere beyond my present perspective. Even so, I recognized the ominous signature. Ambulance.
Shrugging on a robe and stepping into my old, boat-shoe ersatz slippers, I scuffled into the living room. I yawned gracelessly while pulling at the cord that parts the picture-window drapes.
Diagonally across the street, parked in front of the Fatal house, a Plainville police cruiser and an ambulance alternately pulsed the international code for: Nothing good is happening here. Now I knew how my neighbors must have felt during all those harrowing years leading up to my mother’s overdue passing. Years when I slept on eggshells and kept the EMTs on speed-dial.
I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and my lighter from the coffee table and stepped out onto the dark front porch. I lit up. I knew Mom’s death and my decision to resume smoking were somehow related, but I wasn’t ready to unravel that thread quite yet. Having given up my dead, perhaps, I reckoned it time to put my own demise back on schedule. Ah, damned pop-psychology, the know-it-all of modern psuedo-sciences. Maybe I just want a smoke. Ever think of that, Sigmund?
Aside from the flashing lights, there was no activity in front of the Fatal place. It appeared that every bulb in the house was lit, and the front door gaped a wide-open yellow rectangle. I remembered how I felt when the ambulance parked, pulsing, in front of my own house. When it was my mother who was in trouble. When my door stood agape. When I felt as thin and transparent as Saran Wrap.
I told myself that whatever was going on in the house across the street was none of my business. I ordered myself to go back to bed. Instead, I squeezed through a narrow-gap door and stood among the front porch shadows. As I smoked, I spied through the film of the Fatal's Saran Wrap.
I wasn’t the only voyeur on the scene, but easily the most inconspicuous. Many of my neighbors from up and down the street--their slumber evidently disturbed as mine had been--stared openly. Some from lighted porches. Others in huddled clusters out on front lawns. They wore pajamas, robes, and various other forms of sleepwear appropriate to this unseasonably mild April night. Almost every house on the cul de sac offered at least one representative to the night-gawkers’ vigil. There were several congresses of five people, and more. Clusters of concern? Or merely cliques of the curious? I noticed we all kept our distance from the subjects of our interest. Out of respect? Discretion? Or, some anciently-embedded superstition? Visit not upon the ill, lest illness be visited upon thee.
My mother's image returned. I couldn’t remember this kind of turn-out for her emergency room pick-ups. Evidently, an a.m. ambulance in front of the Steifel house had lost its novelty somewhere along the way. Not for me, though. I could still taste the copper from each time I had to speed-dial for help. Hello, Jenny, it’s me again . . . Conscious, but disoriented . . . No fever, but her heart-rate is elevated . . . Thanks, Jenny. The door will be open. Tell them to come right in, I'll be with her in the bedroom.
Once more, I told myself, 'This is none of your business; time to go back to bed.'
Instead, I lit another cigarette.
"Sam! Hey, Sam.”
Under my breath, I cursed the damned lighter for giving me away. Evidently, not all the pitfalls of smoking show up on chest x-rays.
“Jack,” I called back with all the enthusiasm of a dull brick. I spit a shred of tobacco off the tip of my tongue. That gesture never failed to make me feel like Lee Marvin. Score one for smoking.
Jack scuttled across his front yard, stopped at the road edge, looked both ways as if he was trying to cross Fifth Avenue during the Macy's Parade, then came ahead until he reached the bottom of my porch steps.
Damndest thing, huh?” He wore plaid flannel dorm pants and an anciently-stained wife-beater that may have started its life white, and might have covered his paunch once. His feet were bare and paler than a frog’s belly. He carried a drink in a red plastic cup. The reek reminded me of my tequila days.
Jack gestured toward the Fatal place. “So what do you think’s goin’ on in there?”
All I could think of was a rube hoping to sneak a peek under the tent flap of a carnival side-show. I leaned against my house. “Just somebody sick, Jack. Ambulances in the middle of the night aren’t that hard to figure. Might not be the best time to throw a jamboree.”
Jack wasn’t listening. “Heart attack. The old man. What do you want to bet?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
He must have registered my tone, because he adjusted his excitement-rheostat down a few lumens. “Shame, isn’t it?”
I flashed on all the ambulances that had graced my driveway during the last several years. Garrulous Jack had always kept his wary distance. Probably why I'd never broken his nose. “Shit happens,” I said.
“Amen to that, brother.” He climbed the porch steps and leaned on the wall next to me.
“So, Sam, how’s it going with you? Really.”
Really? You want to bond over an ambulance? Like I can level with you, and only you?
I walked to the rail and stubbed the cigarette butt into the sand bucket I'd recently placed there. “Me? I’m on top of the world.”
Jack nodded and was about to take a sip from his cup when he suddenly stopped and pointed at me. “But you’re afraid of heights, right? That’s what you were going to say, huh? You’re on top of the world … but you’re afraid of heights, am I right, or am I right?”
I fought to keep my voice steady. “You’re right, Jack.”
“See? Always with the jokes, you. Even after all you've been through. I listen, eh? You can’t slip anything by ol’ Jackie boy. Go ahead, say something else funny.”
This time Jack took a long draft from the red cup. The smell sent a sympathetic tequila-shiver through my body. I dearly wished it had been the real thing. I resisted the symbiotic urge to light another Marlboro.
A woman in a mannish EMT uniform stepped through the Fatal's open front door and jogged to the ambulance.
“Dollars to doughnuts she’s fetching the paddles. What’d I tell you, huh? Heart attack, for sure.”
“Give it a rest, Jack. Somebody in that house, one of our neighbors, is in trouble. Least we can do is pry quietly.”
The EMT wrestled a large black case out of the back of the ambulance and lugged it, two-handed, into the house.
I surrendered, lit another cigarette while Jack sipped from his red cup.
The gawk-clusters grew and slowly migrated in from both ends of the street as everyone tried to get closer to the action--a classic pajama pincer maneuver.
The two pre-adolescent Fergeson boys darted up to the ambulance, touched it, then, giggling, ran back to the group that included their parents. They turned and were about to launch another sortie when Dick Fergeson latched onto their pajama collars and toe-walked them, in squirming protest, to his porch steps. He watched until they disappeared through the front door, then by-passed his cluster and shuffled up my walk.
“Sam. Jack. Quite a night, huh?”
“Dick,” I said.
“Bet the old man had a heart attack,” offered Jack.
Dick put a slipper on the bottom porch step. “Could be,” he said. “Art Whitney says he heard the Fatal’s fighting earlier tonight.”
Jack took a step forward. “No shit? Fighting?”
Dick made a slow down gesture. “Arguing, Jack. You know, like you and Phyllis do most days that end with a ‘Y’?”
I made a show of looking exactly nowhere.
Jack leaned back on the wall, crossed his ankles and sipped. “Does Art know what they were fighting about?”
“Arguing,” Dick repeated. “What do married people always argue about? Everything, and nothing much. Annie'n me'll argue over a sigh if we're in that kind of mood. Best not listen to Art Whitney. He likes inserting himself into the middle of things. Besides, marital arguing doesn’t draw a straight line to an ambulance. If it did, Jack, you'd have spent the last ten years in the ICU. Or worse.”
The back of a male EMT filled the Fatal’s yellow doorway. He pulled a gurney. The female technician I’d seen earlier pushed from the other end. Mr. Fatal came through the door and caught up with his wife, who was strapped to the wheeled stretcher. He held her hand and spoke into her ear while the medics wheeled her down the driveway. The male EMT rested the stretcher on the lip of the truck and disengaged the front supports while his partner slid Mrs Fatal into the vehicle like you’d shove a pizza into the oven.
Mr. Fatal leaned into the ambulance until the male EMT urged him aside and closed the rear doors.
As the ambulance pulled away, Mr. Fatal smiled weakly and waved to all his gawking neighbors, then hurried back into his house.
I’m not sure why, but I felt profound shame. Okay, I do know why.
The lights continued to blaze through the Fatal’s windows as I watched my neighbor’s silhouette flit back and forth, room to room. I knew what he was doing. Packing. Pajamas, robe, slippers, toothbrush, comb, favorite book or magazine. Most importantly, ID, insurance papers, and a current list of medications. He’d be leaving for the Emergency Room soon, bringing her everything she’d need, but frantic he'd forgotten something. Praying she’d still need it all, once he arrived.
I wanted to remind him to bring her eyeglasses and her dentures. Easy items to forget--especially for a man who'd probably never packed a bag in his life. I had actually developed and copied a check list for just such events. I wanted to cross the street and offer Mr. Fatal my expertise, but I smoked instead. Cool efficiency in the face of dire emergency is best left to the professionals. Disorientation and disarray are every loved one's rights. When the chips are down, no one wants to hear from a smart-aleck.
Before getting into his cruiser, the cop scanned all the gathered neighbors. It appeared to me he wanted to say something, but he drove off without a word. I guess there's nothing in the Cop Manual that covers the morbid attraction of ambulances in the middle of the night.
With the bait of flashing lights gone, people, including Jack and Dick, wandered back into their homes. I lingered on the porch long enough to watch Mr. Fatal rush out the front door toting a suitcase. He hurried to his car. He threw the bag into the backseat and was about to climb in when he spotted me. Our eyes locked and we exchanged conspiratorial nods. He drove off, and part of me wanted to be with him. To offer him support? Or just for old time's sake? Whatever, I remained rooted to the porch . . . feeling as though I had passed a torch. Or maybe a kidney stone.
On my way back to bed, I stopped at the door to my mother’s bedroom. I turned on the light. She wasn’t there, of course, but something of her still was. I took a deep breath and told myself it was time to bag up her clothes for Goodwill.
I turned on every bulb in the house and left the front door wide open. I walked to the kitchen and dropped the cigarette pack into the trash. In the pantry, I found a box of plastic trash bags.
Jackson Sera was armed with only his books and his knowledge, which his whole life he believed to be the mark of a learned gentleman. He was a prideful man, and he had every right to be. At twenty-years-old he was the youngest man to get two different doctorate degrees in History, and he was instantly the University of New Andover’s most esteemed alumnus.
UNA was the most prestigious institution light years from Earth.
That was ten years ago, and now his five-hundred-page doctoral thesis was taught in every history class offered on the moon Vyasa, the same moon that the University of New Andover called home. What made the thesis so useful was its efficiency in morphing the studies of anthropology, sociology, and geology into one revered scholarly text. But nothing was more relevant to Sera’s time than the chunks about the indigenous race of Vyasa.
They were raptorial in appearance. They had small, needle-like teeth that complemented their meat-eating habits, but evolutionarily assisted them in their consumption of plants, which were largely coarse and callous on Vyasa. Their clawed hands still allowed them to write if they wished. But they didn’t. And that’s why Sera dedicated his life to studying them.
He didn’t learn about them until he was in the fifth grade. At ten-years-old, half his lifetime away from becoming a distinguished scholar, his teacher Mrs. Leopold showed his class a virtual presentation of the life of an everyday Vyasan. The room become drenched in the dusty sweet smell of a substance the skins of Vyasans excreted. It wasn’t rank, but based on the look of Mrs. Leopold’s face, they subconsciously learned to hate it.
“And that’s how they hunt.” she said, halfway through the interactive presentation. “Such a pity. Sometimes their clawed hands are so disfigured and worn that they have to lunge with their feet on all fours.”
The animal the Vyasan caught resembled most an earth fox, except it was furless and had four eyes.
Young Jackson Sera raised his hand.
“How come there aren’t any Vyasans in our class?”
The boys and girls of his class fell to a fit of giggles.
“Because they’re animals.” Mrs. Leopold responded sternly. “Didn’t you see how they don’t bathe and how they have to hunt? Pay attention.”
“But they can talk, right? They were just communicating in the presentation weren’t they?”
Her chin drooped and her mouth was agape. “You can make nonsense sounds even without proper levels of consciousness. And they don’t write, as you’ll read more about in your homework tonight.”
It’s not that Vyasans couldn’t write. They refused. Early colonial settlers on the moon initially tried to communicate with them. They sensed they were sentient enough, and a biologist among them noted that they had a complex verbal language. After months of studying and learning the basics of conversation, the men approached them.
Their initial meeting and the countless meetings that followed all went the same way. Sometimes the settlers tried to tell them about their religion or about how increased urbanization would benefit them. They were competent enough in the native language for the Vyasans to understand what the men were saying, but every time they either subtly coerced or tried to extort them the Vyasans always replied with what translates to English as “You’re tainting our ground. Leave us.”
The stages of peaceful diplomacy were hundreds of years ago, and the Vyasans were largely wiped out from earth illnesses like the common cold and the flu. What remained of their population was far on the outskirts of New Andover, the capital of Vyasa, between various smaller towns that had equally rough histories with them. And Jackson Sera knew all about it, and now he was going to do something.
The city limits were twenty miles behind him, and he hadn’t looked back once. There was no doubt in his mind about the justice in his plans. He was going to show his old-ways-thinking teachers like Mrs. Leopold that they were wrong about the Vyasans. He was going to teach them about his book. They were going to become learned just like him.
The human sense of smell has the most potent ability to reignite memories. Suddenly Sera was right back in his elementary school, and the presentation on the natives had just been clicked on. He could smell the sticky, sap-like sweat that Vyasan bird-like bodies released. He knew he was getting close.
Hoping out from the back of a large stone, or what was probably a Vyasan berry bush, was one of the natives. By the larger size of her beakish mouth, he identified her as a female, and based on the necklace she wore made of a rare opioid plant, she was of high status to her peers.
Since in the ten years since the publication of his thesis, Sera had become fluent in the native language so he had no trouble greeting her. “Hello.”
She cocked her head like an inquisitive cat. “Hello.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, so Sera didn’t waste any time with useless formalities.
“My name is Jackson Sera from New Yale College in the city. I’m the moon’s head historian.” With the way he said it, he was expecting her to be impressed, but from her steady unblinking stare, his efforts were futile. “I’m here because there is a lot of misinformation about your people, and now I’ve come to alleviate it once and for all.”
She wasn’t cheery and didn’t look remotely pleased. But he had her attention.
“If you’re a historian, I assume you’re familiar with our species’ reason to withhold the written word.”
“Indeed I am.”
“And you still want to try to make a case for it?”
“I got my own work in my bag right in here.”
She nodded, sitting down and crossing her talons over her bipedal legs.
Sera took a seat a few feet in front of her. Ordinarily the would have been the time when he asked a human female for her name, but Vyasans didn’t give each other names. If you didn’t write, then you didn’t need them. All you needed were good eyes and a sense of smell.
He leafed through his leather-bound thesis, landing on a page somewhere in the middle.
“I’d like to start here. A-hem. So your culture doesn’t keep any written sources down, so you don’t have accurate ideas of your own history. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Not the least.” she was pleasant to talk to, but her ignorance was irking him.
“But surely you can imagine the benefits to your people it would give you.”
“I disagree. We have oral traditions. They’re the most reliable way to keep a society going.”
Sera almost couldn’t stop himself from scoffing.
“That’s where you’re wrong though. Relying on one generation to pass on accurate information to the next and expecting the truth his like playing a game of telephone with a whole city!” he paused, not wanting to explain to her what a telephone was.
“The truth means nothing unless it has practical application.”
“When wouldn’t it have practical application? Knowing and respecting the customs of the past enables you to move forward. How else would you teach the next generation?”
The Vyasan blinked a couple times, fiddling with the dirt between her feathery ankles. Finally, she replied, “Does your society execute criminals?”
“No.” Sera replied, getting defensive.
“Did your people ever practice cannibalism?”
“Have you ever?”
“Yes, some cultures. But we’ve evolved passed that. We have history to analyze the errors of our ways, whereas you just have word-of-mouth tales that you have no way of verifying.”
“You’re assuming the act of verifying is synonymous with evolutionary progress.” She made a sound that was something like a sigh. Her vast unmoving eyes were the color of outer space. Any reflection the captured might have had the density of a neutron star, but weightless as a skin cell. “Our culture is not static, and we rely on our elders to inform us on wisdom and morality.”
Sera had unconsciously shut his book during the conversation. “But you need written knowledge for that!”
The Vyasan breathed a sigh once, twice more. “Your problem is that you think there is inherent dignity in the past. There isn’t. Mating rituals, hunting habits, and tools will change from generation to generation. We will judge things by their efficiency because we are fortunate enough for the mistakes of people ages ago. Our elders’ duty is to instruct us on what works and what’s real in the present. We need not even be aware of the past, because why should we trouble ourselves with the burdens of ancestors?”
The university felt like it was on a different moon now. Sera’s home, friends, works-in-progress may have well been in another star quadrant. In the presence of this savage he felt like an infant, and he did not appreciate being talked to like he was one.
“So you’re saying my life’s work is pointless?”
“I apologize if that makes you feel ill.”
“It doesn’t! Okay!”
He scrambled a hand back into his shoulder bag. He never went anywhere with just his own work. The wisdom of writers before him, his citations in his historical epic that was his thesis, was the backbone of the modern intellectual field. The power they wielded was sorcery compared to his.
“You can’t seriously tell me that it helps you not knowing all this: two hundred years ago a settler murdered one of your own for encroaching near their fruit tree. One hundred sixty-three years ago your people started being isolated into camps because of urbanization. Ninety-nine years ago you started getting closer and closer to our city and the military had to take action. Seventy-two years ago relocation campaigns started after thieves of your species started raiding crops. Forty-four-.”
“That’s not how we know it.” she inserted with repose.
“Because we have the words to prove it!”
“And they aren’t magic. Anyone can write anything down. Tell me, has your society faced any national opposition since colonization was completed?”
“No.” he said, sounding like a misbehaved toddler.
“Seems a tad one-sided to me. Don’t you think your society of men might be pushing to publish histories so they can feel like they have the first and only say of what happened?”
“Of course not! You wouldn’t understand, but history is a very dignified study. It’s important to get all the facts right and know where your sources come from.”
“If all your sources come from the same civilization, why does so much need to be written down. Do you people feel like they need to constantly justify their own actions, and even the actions of their forefathers?”
He was unaware that his fist was tight in a clammy clench. “Yes! How else do we know how to properly and ethically live?”
“Do what makes people happy.” She began to rise, dusting the dirt off the side of her legs and feet. “Talk to them. Listen to their concerns. See results with your own eyes. Live for God’s sake. Use all your senses and really live your life.”
Frantically, Sera rummaged through the rest of his bags. He turned the whole thing inside out looking for his smaller volumes. All of it. Everything he loved and cited and studied and worshiped and dreamed about passing on for himself, it was all being devalued by something that didn’t know what a keyboard looked like. She knew nothing! She knew nothing of his labors and hard work, of his honors and his importance as a lecturer and an author. What did she know? Nothing! And that’s what he came to alleviate.
“I can’t in good consciousness allow you to keep being blissfully ignorant. I must have something here that will convince you!”
Pages and book covers started crunching away in his frenzied passion. Bits of bibliographies and indices glittered down to the ground. The Vyasan recoiled, kicking up some chunks of dirt to bury the man’s fragile possessions.
She turned away and her tail stiffened in defiance. “You’re tainting our ground. Leave us.”
He did so, starting to weep from anger. He dragged his arm across the sandy ground, collecting a pile of dirt into his bag along with fallen texts. The books, moments ago clean and white on the creases, were an ugly lifeless red. And no violent sweep of a duster would return them to their former state.
With his shoulder bag tight to his breast he ran back to his vehicle. Never again would he print new books when he can give electronic copies to civilized humans. Never again would he talk to a Vyasan and try to justify his passion to them. They were stuck in the stone age, he told himself, and were always going to be exactly that! It made no sense to think about their views when no intergalactic law or council gave a bat of an eye in consideration to them. They’d never be worth it.
Mrs. Leopold was right all along, he thought on the drive back to the city. Animals. That’s all they are.
Cory Arnette currently lives in Richmond, VA where he enjoys writing, reading, and playing music. He studied English at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, NC before spending several years living in northeast Pennsylvania.