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Archive for November, 2012

Another lengthy silence, and you know what that means.

Work, work, work…more specifically, edit, edit edit, as I plug away on my next project, a compilation of the short stories I’ve written since 1997. Over 300 manuscript pages to go through but I’m making surprisingly speedy progress. A fascinating mix of stories, many of them “mainstream”, others veering further off-track. Not sure how readers will react to such a diverse selection of tales. Literary and genre fiction rubbing shoulders.

But I’ve also been toiling away at some new prose, including a 4,000 word tale I’ll be posting on this blog closer to Christmas, a special gift to readers and regular visitors. It’s already passed muster with Sherron, who found it a real treat. I’ll tell you more about it in December. Watch this space.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. I’ve set myself a May 30th, 2013 deadline for this project, which would free me up for the summer. Able to take the time to weigh ideas, conceive new notions, scheme ambitious schemes.

Something to look forward to after all this grinding is done.

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Humanity is on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol and abuse these days.

Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.

It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.

Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

A meteor from outer space.

Alien invasion…

Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!

I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).

Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.

Hey, I get all that.

But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive.  And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space

Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.

Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.

We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.

The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.

Maker of horror and holocaust.

Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

…penicillin and Groucho Marx.

Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.

I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.

But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.

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Among the Invisibles

 

From his favorite hideaway, five storeys above the ground, Little Po is an inconspicuous witness to the chaos below.

There has been talk of trouble for weeks, soldiers and police regularly taking up stations on street corners, stopping and harassing people, making a nuisance of themselves.  Intimidation is the norm with the ruling junta but this time, it seems, their tactics have only succeeded in making things worse.

Shouts and screams, the rattle of automatic weapons and crak-crak-crak of small arms fire.  Smoke drifts over the neighbourhood, a grey, evil-smelling pall.  There are makeshift barricades and men roaming about with home-made clubs and pop bottles filled with gasoline.  The building shudders from a nearby explosion, a crump as a burning car bursts its seams, provoking whoops and cheers from the surrounding crowd.

Little Po is safe or, at least, safer than he would be down there, in the midst of the mob.  Some women have joined in, adding their unmistakable shrieks to the din.  Most of the men are intoxicated, swilling alcohol looted from a nearby store.  They swagger about, brandishing crude weapons, their courage fortified by drink.  The boy creeps back under the overhang created by ducting and ventilation works.  Finds his tattered blanket and slips into an uneasy sleep, sucking his thumb for comfort when the tumult disturbs his slumber.  This sooty rooftop, shared with none but the occasional stray cat and roosting pigeon, is a refuge, shelter from a dangerous and hostile world.

He wakes to dull morning light, the stench of burning rubber.

His hunger is an undiminishing ache, a twisting, voracious worm in his guts.  He spends most days in a surreal netherworld; sick, confused and disoriented.  Bumping into buildings or colliding with passersby, clutching at them for support and being swatted and cursed for his trouble.  He begs, he steals and still only manages to scrape by.

As he descends via the rickety fire escape, he is aware that slowly but surely he’s losing the battle.  Malnutrition is eating his frail body and soon he will be reduced to nothing.  When someone reaches such a state, people say that person has “joined the invisibles”.  One day, they’re simply gone, evaporating into the air, leaving nothing behind, not even an ounce of bone dust to bury or mourn over.

The first person he spots when he ventures out is Old Fania.  Her pet monkey chatters on her shoulder and she makes a warding gesture at him.  He gives the witch a wide berth.  The monkey eyes him sullenly but is constrained by a short leash made of twine.  The little beast has been known to inflict a painful and septic bite.

The streets and avenues have been transformed overnight.  Rubble and debris are scattered carelessly, gutted buildings stripped of everything that can be carried or dragged away.  He scours the ground for leftovers, something to eat or barter.  But he’s competing with other scavengers who fiercely guard the meager leavings, growling and threatening him if he approaches.  He is smaller and weak and therefore must go without.  It is not that ordinary folk are unsympathetic or hard-hearted, it is merely that deprivation has become a way of life to the people in this part of the city.  They have been herded together, marginalized, made to feel they must fend for themselves.  Poor and increasingly desperate, they have lost any sense of shared or communal suffering.

The riot last night followed days of demonstrations, spontaneous protests against the inhuman living conditions. There have been scores of deaths, nervous soldiers shooting into crowds, protesters beaten and dragged away by security forces.

And finally the world press has taken notice.  Reporters flood in and, congruently, the economy goes into a tailspin as investment money dries up, foreign nationals leaving in droves.  It is a familiar, sad story in this region of the world.

Little Po drinks from a puddle and forages from a dumpster behind a restaurant.  He is covered in rat bites and festering sores that won’t heal.  He knows that his situation is increasingly desperate but there is nothing to be done about it.  As he clambers out of the stinking bin, the back door of the restaurant bangs open and an employee toting a five gallon pail of grease and slops spots him.  They regard each other for a long moment and Little Po finally slinks away, what little food he has found clutched in his fist.

There are rumours that local businesses have hired a squad of off-duty cops and given them the job of ridding the city of riff-raff.  Some kids were gunned down as they sat on the steps of a church.  A church.  In the last two weeks, several dozen street urchins have been either killed or spirited off in dark vans, never to be seen again.

Later that morning, Little Po is walking through a park and spots Fish and the Silent One.  Fish has fresh bruises on his face, rolled for pocket change.  And the thing is, everyone knows Fish has absolutely nothing worth stealing.  He tells the joke that he’s so poor, someone once cut him open and stole his heart.  And he’ll show you the long, zippered scar to prove it.  The Silent One glowers behind him, a menacing presence.  His head is squashed, misshapen.  He can’t speak but his dangerous mien says don’t fuck with me, brother.

Little Po falls in alongside them and they head off to the mission together, stand in line for a bowl of watery soup. Supposedly there is a piece of chicken in there somewhere.  Either donations are down or the priests have been dipping into the collection plate again.  Little Po deftly palms an extra slice of bread, the maneuver escaping the sharp-eyed Brother’s notice.

When they finish, they hang out in the graveyard for awhile.  Fish produces three precious cigarettes but smoking only makes Little Po queasy so he puts his away until later.  Soon afterward a cranky old caretaker shows up and chases them away.

Fish says he wants to stop by Ven’s place, that he’s heard something and Ven Ficus is the one to go to if you have information to trade.  Depending on his mood, he’ll either reward you generously or snap his fingers and have you turned in to a human pretzel.  But Taft, Ven’s imposing gatekeeper, says his bossman isn’t in today and hints that it’s in their best interest to fuck off.  Now.

Fish is disappointed but vows to come back later. Taft goes back inside and they hear him say something to the other hoods. Mocking laughter follows the trio down the street.

As they walk, Fish has to keep stopping to retch.  Every time he does, he groans.  He says something feels broken inside. Little Po and the Silent One exchange grim looks.  Who knows when the free clinic will open again. The French doctors who ran it were declared persona non grata and given forty-eight hours to clear out.  No one has replaced them.  Word is the junta was embarrassed to have foreigners tending to the needs of the poor.  This past winter Little Po caught a bug that made him cough until his ribs ached.  He truly believed he was going to die. His lungs still feel tender, especially on cool days.

In the early afternoon he parts company with the others, waving as he angles away.

Despite the soup he is still famished, light-headed.  He thinks about the slice of bread in his pocket, the one he is saving.  Little Po takes out the bread, raises it to his mouth and bites off a piece.  This is the way it is.  You are hungry and when you have food, you eat.

Later he will curse his greed.  This, too, is the way of things.

But for Little Po, time has shrunk, contracted, the future no longer measured in years, months, weeks, but days, perhaps hours.  His skin is transparent, his arms and legs thin, meatless.  His joints ache; pain and hunger and despair are constant companions.  The world around him is losing definition, leaking away at the edges.

Soon he will join the invisibles.  It is almost certain.  He knows this.  Maybe even tonight, on his rooftop haven, under the high, eternal stars.  He wonders what it will be like to be dead.  His undernourished imagination has a hard time grasping the notion.  The priests speak of heaven and hell during the sermons that are mandatory with the free meals they dispense.  In the afterlife our sins are remembered and judged. The worthy are rewarded and the evil ones consigned to an all-consuming fire where they burn forever and ever, a-men.

Little Po steers a course toward the only home he has, occasionally stumbling, nearly falling.  Traffic rolls heedlessly by.  The soldier on the corner stares past him, through him.  A few moments later, Little Po looks for his shadow and can’t find it.

Perhaps it is only the angle and intensity of the sun.  He moves on, seemingly lighter than air, no longer able to feel the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet.

 

© Copyright, 2009  Cliff Burns  (All Rights Reserved)

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“Among the Invisibles” was written the last time I entered a short story competition.

It didn’t even make it past the initial round of readers.

You understand now why I rarely enter these stupid contests?

To read more of my tales (and some novel excerpts), go to my Fiction & Novels page.

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