Animal Tendency: Or, Why Zootopia is Miraculous

Is Judy Hopps a woman?

Well, duh, no. She is a rabbit. She has a Sylvaligic tail and an expressively Lagomorphic nose and when she’s frustrated she drums one foot against the ground Thumper-style.

No but really: is Judy Hopps a woman? I mean: is she just a metaphor for womanhood or is she actually a woman? Is there the idea of womanhood, even, in the world of Zootopia? It’s a bit fucked-up, having to figure all this out, but it’s all very tangled.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

So basically what I’m going to argue is that Zootopia is a kind of crazy intellectual + artistic triumph[1] of the kind that you wouldn’t really expect to come from Disney.[2] Zootopia is a Great Bit Of Art. Like up there with the Appassionata & Las Meninas – that kind of a GBOA.

Actually there’s one particular thing about Zootopia is which makes me think it’s a GBOA, and that’s that it’s by far and away the most eloquent, moving, rich, warmly imagined, and ferociously intelligent argument for liberalism[3] I’m ever come across.

Well. Since I’ve committed myself to the claim that Zootopia is a GBOA, I’ll have to mention the many other things that Zootopia does perfectly or near-:[4]  the animation is gorgeous,[5] the world construction faultless,[6] the score bright and finely delineated,[7] the humour consistently on-point,[8] the characters well-defined and incredibly sympathetic,[9] plus the plot takes some vertiginous lurches that all make sense and the film runs roughshod over genre boundaries with improbable swagger.[10]

But let’s talk about Zootopia and liberalism.

Context: we don’t live in a good time for liberalism. It’s not surprising. Liberalism is lame.[11] In its political guise it constantly looks like it’s underpinned by a basic intellectual cowardice and/or incoherence.  We don’t know what’s right but it’s definitely right for to let people discuss what is right + We don’t know what forms of life are good but it’s definitely good to let people pursue which forms of life they think to be good. Liberalism is political philosophy for People Who’d Much Rather Skip The Vote On This One, Sorry.[12]  Which is why political liberalism’s commitment to pluralism on the basis of all human beings being free and equal[13] is so easily attacked the moment something real, tangible, urgent – like fear or terrorism or illegal immigration or whatever – pops up. Liberalism runs against the grain of our animal tendency. Also does not help that freedom and equality are, at first blush, wildly contradictory and counterintuitive[14] premises to adopt, but there you go.

And if political liberalism looks like weak pansy-ass nonsense social liberalism looks to the non-liberal dangerously totalitarian, having answered the old chestnut re What We Should Do About the Non-Liberals In Liberal Society? with a solid ah, fuck ’em. And it’s spun out a weirdly alienating discourse using words like “decolonise”, “trigger”, and “space space”, which words are applied so flexibly and indiscriminately that they’re now drained of real argumentative force. Liberalism in its social guise seems to have lost its ability to be happy about anything, even an imagined vision of its ideal future.

So it’s against this backdrop that Zootopia makes its case for one of the (not-so-many) things which political and social liberalism agree on: we should be good to people who are different from us. And it does this, incredibly, by performing an argument for liberalism[15] whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates.

Maybe you don’t quite get what that last sentence meant. Never mind.

Let’s talk about Judy Hopps, the rabbit.

Do you notice that she’s a woman? I mean, sure, the film makes a lot out of the fact that Judy’s a rabbit, but what about the fact that she’s also a woman?

Let’s tease this out. There are some facts about Judy that are not directly drawn from aspects of womanhood, and better interpreted as facts about rabbit-hood. The fact that she’s seen as a token bunny in the Z.P.D., or the fact that she resents being called Carrots. The bit where she tells Clawhauser that it’s OK for bunnies to call other bunnies cute, but not for other species to do so. Those things are interesting commentaries on affirmative action, casual slurs, and the delicate mechanics of word reclamation,[16] but are not really parallels to womanhood in specific.

Then there those things Judy is told that directly mirror things which are said to women in this world. Judy is told (among other things) that she “throws like a bunny”, and is asked if “all bunnies drive badly.”[17] These are stereotypes in our world about women. If you can’t throw well, you throw like a girl, and if someone takes a long time to park it’s gotta be a woman – which makes it really tempting to believe that rabbit-hood is an analogy for womanhood, and so of course Judy is not actually a woman. She doesn’t need to be, for Zootopia to get its point across. Rabbit-hood covers all the (analogical) terrain of womanhood.

Except nope. Nope nope nope. It’s part of the genius of Zootopia that – almost without you noticing – it construes Judy as Woman in the world of the film. By which I mean – as a woman, in Zootopia, she is discriminated against. She is given a little (pink) spray canister of fox repellent to protect her from foxes.[18] Can this be explained by bunny-protection-logic, as opposed to woman-protection-logic? Sure. But we’re starting to slip away from pure rabbit-ness here. And sometimes Zootopia is quite explicit: her father calls her (once during MuzzleTime, and once after she returns to Bunnyburrow in shame) Jude the Dude, which is a pretty explicit way of saying that Judy has transgressed lines of both rabbit-hood and womanhood by becoming a cop. And it also seems kind of significant that so many animals refer to Judy as meter-maid with such dismissiveness. And that she’s put off by the aggrieved masculinity she encounters from the rest of the (male) Z.P.D. police officers in the bullpen. Rabbit-hood is not an analogy to womanhood, it’s the product of a different kind of discrimination that happens to intersect with womanhood.

Here’s another idea: if rabbit-ness is (even a partial) substitute for womanhood, then why is Judy Hopps female? One possibility: because it is easier for us, as an audience, to accept and therefore believe an oppressed character who is female.

This is Part One of how Zootopia makes the case for liberal pluralism so well: it’s subtle. It takes an idea from academic intersectional theory, recognises what is clean and compelling about it (we are defined by more than one feature about us – we are an intersection of traits, as it were), and twines that so delicately into the analogy it is drawing that the idea remains both discrete and just beneath conscious awareness. Judy is oppressed: both as rabbit, and as female.

And this is all so playful: Zootopia gives you an obvious analogy (rabbit=woman), and then turns around and reminds you that Zootopia is its own world, with a real existence totally independent of analogy, but the proof of that independent existence turns out to be an idea which anchors so much of our social experience. The rabbit-metaphor really says something like this: no oppression is a metaphor for another kind of oppression. Which is true, probably, and complex, and somehow expressed in a film nominally meant for kids. (It’s important that Judy’s constructed as female in the film, by the way, precisely because she’s whip-smart & brave & determined & compassionate, a not-at-all-half-baked S.F.C., and you can’t have her be a role model for girls unless she’s actually female.)

Anyway: you see it all through the film, this commitment to the complexity of oppression. You are first introduced to Judy Hopps as victim (of a fox  + the general expectation that she cannot be who she wants to be). Then she encounters Nick Wilde the fox when he’s being refused service in an ice-cream shop, in a scene so replete with segregationist-era subtext that you expect the sign the elephant references to read: WE SERVE WHITES ONLY. So fox=victim, fine. Then it turns out that Judy, because essentially kind and good, has herself become the victim of that fox’s machinations, but not before she calls Nick “an articulate fella”.[19] And then later on it turns out that Judy is also (because naive) the oppressor: her disastrous press conference sparks calls for the mandatory quarantine of predator species[20] and initiates the sort of microaggressions against predators which almost any racial minority will find eerily familiar.

Here’s another bit of complexity: there’s a moment when Chief Bogo (initially introduced as something of a bigot) disdainfully tells Judy, when she insists that a black panther has “gone savage”, that “maybe to you rabbits every predator looks savage”. Which sounds unutterably mean, until you realise that actually that’s quite an accurate description of the views which Judy’s parents hold (there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie which outlines beautifully a racist-parent & embarrassed-kid dynamic going on between them). Which in turns suggests that Bogo’s is racist/speciesist precisely because he stereotypes rabbits as racist/speciesist. The real-world equivalent of this would be assuming that, say, every Southern Republican is racist. Now this is trivially true, but the actual emotional weight of this wrongness is almost impossible to feel – except that Zootopia makes you feel it.

Part Two of Zootopia’s genius is this: it’s racist.

By which I mean: a racist could watch the film and walk out with all of their views affirmed. I mean, the film does rely on stereotypes about animals for a lot of its humour. Sloths are slow, rabbits breed fast. It’s no defence to point out that many animals don’t fit their stereotypes in the film; it’s precisely because of the stereotype that the relevant jokes are funny: Mr. Big, lord of the criminal underground, is a tiny arctic shrew, and Clawhauser the cheetah is terrifically unfit.[21]

But this is how the real world works. Racists and non- look at roughly[22] the same set of facts and derive radically different conclusions. Remember how I said above that Zootopia is an argument for liberalism whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates? Well, here’s one thing: as an argument, it does not compel.[23] The film offers a refutation of intolerant social liberalism by inviting the audience to participate in stereotypes, to revel in them even. You are clever, the film says, but you’re probably not wise.

And it’s the possibility of racist interpretations (because Zootopia relies on stereotypes) that also lets Zootopia offer a refutation of political liberalism – at least, as it’s often understood today. If political liberalism is committed to the factual claim that all people are actually equal then it is horrifically weak. Will it have space for those who are less mentally or physically able, for those who need our aid, for those who decide not to contribute to our social project?  Zootopia says: why give a fuck if people are actually unequal? Work from the moral premise, not the factual one. Hence: Clawhauser and Flash, let alone Judy and Nick, are fully realised characters that we like, independent of whether or not they conform to stereotypes about their species. Zootopia offers as a remedy to worries about whether or not stereotypes are true or not a robust empathy: what matters is that these other people are fully alive, not that they are alive in certain ways.

Zootopia underscores this point pretty effectively, I think. So Judy (who’s more or less a perfect analogue of the university-educated, uber-socially-aware twenty-something) is revealed by Nick to be naïve in her refusal to accept any stereotypes at all, as when Nick teasingly asks her when she realizes that all the workers in the D.M.V. are sloths: “Are you saying that because he’s a sloth he can’t be fast?” And then think of the moment when Nick is confronting Judy after her press conference: think of the blind fury and sense of betrayal with which he repeats (snarls, more like) after Judy, “Primitive, savage, instincts? A biological component?” Judy is naïve, Zootopia says, because she both refuses to accept that some stereotypes can be true (sloths are slow), and because she applies some stereotypes where they shouldn’t be (foxes are dangerous). She says to Nick: you’re not that kind of predator, and you’re not like the others. But Nick knows already he has been absorbed into that other, and recognises what’s wrong in saying, you’re my friend, and not like the other [black people]. 

Another last problem with the Zootopia-as-racist idea is that Zootopia does suggest that stereotypes are self-fulfilling. Nick is sly and untrustworthy because his attempt to be something other than his stereotype was rebuffed, and he recoils into the stereotype (as he admits) for protection and stability. This is the least sexy (because least subversive) of all the responses to the Zootopia-as-racist accusation, but might just be the most important: it is probably the case that our essentialist generalizations are consequences of functions of the way people are brought up, of the cultures we imbibe, of the different pressures of living we are subject to.

It’s crucial to all the stuff above working that Zootopia’s world is gorgeously imagined, that the details are so exquisitely rendered, that the characters are so expressive, and that their forms of life so closely mirror our own, down to the smartphones and iPads and all the absurdly exuberant puns about Bearberry + Zuber + Fur Fighters. It’s a world that is fully alive. The argument being performed is an optimistic one, and therefore a persuasive one: this is what pluralism looks like, Zootopia says, and it looks like a good world. It draws out an intuition that is hard to articulate well about how we value difference in the people close to us: think of how you value your friends because they are not who you are.

Of course it’s possible to see in Zootopia an endorsement of essentialism, since it concedes that in the distant past predator & prey used to fear each other, and it even insists on applying the terms predator and prey to its present. But it’s kind of silly to expect a metaphor not to break down. If a metaphor didn’t break down at any point it wouldn’t be a metaphor, it’d just be this world. The point is that a good metaphor breaks down interestingly. And this metaphor does just that: Bellwether exploits precisely the predator-prey binary to stir up speciesist animus in Zootopia,[24] so that the film eventually offers a critique of its own language. Plus it’s probably true that we’re all racist by default. Any creature[25] not preprogrammed with a basic aversion[26] to living things which look different from it probably didn’t get to travel too far down the evolutionary tree. Liberal pluralism might well be right, but it sure as heck isn’t natural, just as Zootopia, eminently and gloriously, isn’t natural.

There’s another potential problem with Zootopia, and that’s the idea that in its eagerness to point out the complexity of the idea of oppression it buys into the cheap trope peddled by Avenue Q – that oppression is function not of systems and architectures but of individuals: Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. But racism, the argument goes, is prejudice plus power. A film can’t discuss The Other if everyone in the film is The Other. The central message of Shakira’s Try Everything, the public callsign of the film’s marketing campaign, is really a placatory lie: you cannot succeed if you just try, because the world might be arrayed against you.

So is Zootopia some neoliberal shitshow – all individual, no system?

Well, no. For a start, Zootopia is pretty aware of problematic social structures: there’s a reason that it’s the lemmings that work in the banks.[27] And there are structures of oppressive power that the film introduces and does not resolve. Take the office of the Zootopia Mayor. Is it entirely a coincidence that it’s occupied by a lion? Or that Lionheart treats the Assistant Mayor, Bellweather, like crap, having put her in her position purely to get the sheep vote? Isn’t it disturbing that at the end of the film the pandering asshole Lionheart looks like he’s well on the way back to power, despite having placed predators in need of medical treatment under custody to further his political ends, and that Bellweather, who has suffered so much under Lionheart, remains imprisoned? Well, OK, maybe. I find it hard not to detect in Zootopia the suggestion that certain types of animals have an advantage when it comes to political office. It’s definitely true that Zootopia is well aware of the dangers of identity politics, however, and that’s why even if it does not go out of its way to talk about structural racism I’m not particularly bothered; Zootopia’s discussion of structural racism happens on the analogical level.[28] The point is that in this world, many structures of oppression are buttressed by appeals (from politicians like Lionheart & Bellweather) to our prejudices, our animal tendency. This is kind of obvious, but there could not be a more important time for Zootopia to be released.[29] Liberal pluralism is a good thing, Zootopia says, look at it.[30] It’s seriously moral without being condescending, and there’s little criticism that you can throw at it that it doesn’t immediately and joyfully subvert. It’s a GBOA,[31] all right. And – bless it – it’s out to save us all.

 

[1] I should clarify: everything I’m writing here is based purely on my memory of what I saw in the cinema, since it’s obviously impossible to buy Zootopia as of the time of writing. I’ve probably misremembered some things, but there shouldn’t be anything major.

[2] Indie-ish filmmakers have produced animated masterpieces (Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), as have Japanese animators (Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children), but I don’t think a true capital-G Great animated film has emerged from the main current of Western animation until Zootopia. Plus a lot of Disney’s stuff is pretty dismal: both Frozen and Inside Out are either mediocre or terrible, depending on my mood.

[3] Well, a specific bit of it.

[4] GBOAs aren’t just good at one thing or another, after all.

[5] If you think about it, it’s kind of obvious that film is just the greatest art form out there, at least in the (vaguely defined) sense that the Best Possible Film must be greater than the Best Possible (e.g.) Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. I mean, the BPF has got to contain everything good about the best possible Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. The BPF has got certain words in a certain order – so that’s the Novel covered; it’s got a score – that’s the Symphony; it’s got a camera placed at a certain angles capturing certain objects designed in a certain way [what colour?  shape? texture?] and positioned in a certain way – and that covers [lots of stuff]. And then there’s lots of things specific to the filmic medium, like camera movement and kinetic mise-en-scène and obviously the coordination of all the previously mentioned things into a single experience. Which is why a film isn’t really a kind of over-there art but more a re-experienced world. I mention all of this not to say that most films are great, because they aren’t: more opportunities for artistic exploration also equals more opportunities for artistic failure, and for a film to succeed on all the dozen+ levels it inevitably operates on is more or less a miracle. I mention this to highlight that the animated film really ought to be the pinnacle of the medium because of the sheer control it offers. You can engage in wholesale world-creation without getting bogged down by lousy real-world constraints like physics or having a certain set of actors you can choose from or needing to render useless whole chunks of Manhattan to film a car chase or whatever. You can decide, quite literally, how many hairs you want to have on a character’s head. The only real limitations the animated medium have now are purely technical, and mostly stem from the fact (1) rendering (texturing and lighting, mostly) is really computationally intensive, and (2) the human brain is stupidly good at face-recognition, and so any tiny anomaly in a non-stylised CGI face is picked up and blown into monstrous proportions by our temporal lobe – which means that, for now, we still need real actors and can’t do everything on a computer. It’ll be an awesome day when all actors are replaced by CGI models, though: no more bad acting.

[6] If your heart didn’t quicken at least a little during that bit in the end of the first act where Judy takes the Zootopia Express and the virtual camera does these long arcing swoops over the different precincts then you’re not human. Actually this seems to be one of the things which animated films are quite good at: sequences which elicit pure joy. HTTYD was dense with those flight scenes, Wall.E had the bit with the fire extinguisher, The Lion King has that opening, and so on.

[7] It’s a proper score: Nick and Judy have their own themes, as do some of the more emotionally resonant sort-of-recurring motifs. None of this Zimmerian rubbish where a score is written before the film’s done and all you get is aural mush (if you see the word minimalist, run) and abused church organs. Some bits of Zootopia’s score are also quite interesting: Nick’s theme is a surprisingly Latinate, woody thing in the G Aeolian, and another theme (heard only glancingly until the credits) features lots of passing Neapolitan harmony and borrowed IV chords from the parallel minor – which is quite typical for big action blockbusters, actually, but not animated films. (There’s a twist in that the borrowed IV chord resolves upward, into the major IV, which works better than you’d think, and is nicely in keeping with the film’s upbeat tone.)

[8] There’s an extended parody of Marlon Brando that’s coruscatingly brilliant, and a bunch of sleeker-than-usual pop-cultural references (it’s the execution that prevents Zootopia from descending into the vapid cocked-eyebrow faddishness of The Lego Movie, which is enjoyable but not great), but a lot of the humour is also quite subtle. E.g.: at one point Nick tells Judy that the way to deal with questions at press conferences is to respond by asking your own question and then answering it; after that you start to notice that some of the more high-profile denizens of Zootopia consistently answer questions this way. (As in when the Mayor goes: “Did I imprison those animals? Yes, yes I did.”) And riiight at the very end of the movie, Judy says to Nick (platonically!): “Do I love you? Yes. Yes I do.”

[9] In part due to some bold-ish decisions by Howard/Moore/Bush. The scene where a young Nick is muzzled when an initiation to the Junior Ranger Scouts takes a very bad turn is one of pure Murnauesque horror, all darkness and Expressivist shadow. There’s a moment when the [beaver?] play-interrogating Nick suddenly asks Nick, right after he’s repeated the oath (about promising to be good, and kind, and brave etc.): “Even though you’re a fox?” You’d expect, given that Nick likes his friends in the Junior Rangers, to laugh, maybe nervously, and say of course, maybe add on, what’s going on, guys? But the face staring into the flashlight is stunned, shocked, speechless: and then the muzzle comes on. And this is how you realize that Nick, as a child, does not yet understand what it means to be despised – how does not know how to react to the fact of discrimination because at that moment it’s something totally alien to him.

[10] Wikipedia, with the stoic unselfawareness that makes it so endearing, describes the film as a “computer-animated action buddy comedy-drama neo-noir adventure film”.

[11] And this is a judgment completely separate from the issue of whether or not liberalism is correct.

[12] Rawls explicitly premises most of ToJ on ethical philistinism, which he disguises by insisting that there’s a difference between the right and the good and that he only wants to talk about the former.

[13] I’m adopting the Rawlsian axiomatization here, since it’s the most influential.

[14] Because, as a matter of fact, people are obviously not equal in most respects, and they are obviously unfree in many respects.

[15] Covering, inter alia, essentialism, affirmative action, childhood bullying, racial segregation, racial profiling, word reclamation, microaggression, sexism, workplace harassment, police brutality, and the politics (+ media) of identity (+ fear).

[16] It’s OK for a black person to call another black person nigger, but not for a white person to do so.

[17] Although many of these quips, especially those towards the end of the film, are spoken by Nick with genuine affection and irony. This is quite typical for a film that strenuously resists easy characterization of anything, even a word as simple as “Carrots”.

[18] The parallels with pepper spray and sexual predators are obvious, and chilling. But in this case it’s not so much a parallel, really, as much as an intermixture.

[19] This joke came from the mother of one of the (white) writers for Zootopia, who often applied the word to nonwhite people she admired.

[20] Actually the way the film deals with press-induced panics is quite elegant. After a heartwrenching scene where Nick confronts Judy over what she said (itself an amazing study in animated facial expression and the struggle between Nick’s tribal (fox) identity and the fact that Judy had only acted in goodwill), the press crowds around. “Were you just threatened by that fox?” they ask? “No,” Judy says, frantic. “He was[is?] my friend!” “Can we not trust our friends now?” the media scrum cries. “Are we safe?” The scene is fucking William Golding-levels of depressing and accurate, that’s what it is.

[21] Think of how crazily offensive a joke whose punchline was “a smart black man” would be. Now how about “fast sloth”? You get the point.

[22] Of course there’s a lot of divergence in the specifics, what with the political siloization of different media outlets, but it’s also true that a lot of disagreement re (e.g.) illegal immigrants don’t really stem from a different understanding of the facts: they stem from a different understanding of where our obligations to non-citizens come from.

[23] In this way the film succeeds where Animal Farm fails, in that Orwell, while presumably writing about the dangers about brainwashing, himself ends up creating work which is aimed at precisely that: creating a world so devoid of moral complexity that it subverts your ability to think for yourself by burying actual thought under a outraged moral smugness: think of how unbelievably stupid Orwell must make the farm animals for the allegory to work, or how much time you spend inchoately thinking goshNapoleon’s such a bastard.

[24] Think of Trump on Mexican rapists and Hillary on “superpredators”.

[25] Not living on an isolated island without large predators, I should clarify.

[26] And note that this aversion just needs to almost immeasurably slight when it comes to atomized interactions for it to have extremely large society-wide effects.

[27] Lemming Brothers. You’re welcome.

[28] Also probably true that if Zootopia got more explicit than it already is it would significantly undermine its persuasive power vis-à-vis those people who most need to be persuaded of the benefits of liberal pluralism.

[29] Not entirely a coincidence; the plot of Zootopia was drastically revised in the last 17 months of production. Originally, Nick Wilde was the protagonist, and Zootopia was some kind of dystopian hell where all predators were fitted with collars to shock them into submission should any of their predatory instincts emerge. It’s stunning to think how something as amazing as Zootopia nearly succumbed to the banality that infects every dystopian film being made nowadays.

[30] The idea that the film is an extended fuck-you to Trump & Co. is lent a lot of weight by the fact that, in the film’s credits, Gazelle cheers her adoring crowd on in Spanish. Plus Bellwether’s rant really might as well serve as the executive summary of the Trump playbook.

[31]Afterword: two slightly odd issues which Zootopia (inevitably, but probably unintentionally) raises.

First: remember how I said earlier that to premise liberal pluralism on the factual equality of all people is dangerous, and we should not care that some stereotypes might be true? You might find that outrageous. In which case: what about animals? They are not the equals of humans, in many ways. In many ways they are weak and stupid. In many ways they don’t contribute to your society. Still kind of seems to me that they deserve our moral caring (at least, if they know they exist, and if they can suffer.) In which case one question we must confront is this: how do we deal, morally, with real predator-prey relationships? Hah.

Second: Furries. I mean, somehow, weirdly, despite all our concern re not despising people for who they are, it’s kind of OK to mock them, isn’t it? The number of misconceptions people still hold about them is pretty incredible. If you read the comments underneath the trailers for Zootopia you’ll see some quite disparaging stuff being said about furries. I just thought this should be mentioned, as the irony of people watching Zootopia, a film about accepting difference, complaining about or mocking furries is rather painful.

 

Letters: 2

John:

Now I am crossing the seracs. The worst of the icefall is behind me. I cannot tell you what this place is like and how terrifying it is. The grinding ice moving in the matchless dark – bergs that have come down the broad valleys between the mountains – that have stayed too long and too late on land – all wrongfooted and impatient all foundering towards the sea – all this cruel seething rock in the cold.  This place is bigger than Lyskamm or Kanchenjunga. You cannot imagine the sounds that come at night – sometimes a great crack will ring out and I will startle, thinking it is a weapon. But it is only the ice. From where I am – I am on a thin ledge of ice, and I am following it around the glacier to reach the station – you can see the scale of this scene. Each moving block of ice is the size of a skyscraper leaning brokenly. When the glacier heaves these blocks turn and topple – it looks slow but that is only because of the distance. Some of them, even though they are a  very pure chalky blue, reveal undersides dirty grey and brown with the rock they have crushed beneath them. Such majesty – that is the word – but this also brings with it a certain sadness – not the sadness of a tragedy, but a different kind of sadness that continues all the way down – sadness that occupies the same space as breathing – if you asked me now I would tell you it is the fact of witnessing this kind of destruction, but on all honesty I cannot truly tell. Two days ago – before I started the crossing – I saw from a ridge a section of the sheet the size of a city, miles and miles of grinding and broken ice, collapse in on itself, into the water. The sound of it – it was shuddering – it was of the great order of noises – like the Cannons at Toven. It was like birth. I couldn’t tell when the calving began at first, but the movement caught my eye and I stood for a long time to watch – I wish very much that you were here to see this. The whole place reminds me of you.

Remember me,

Ary

Machine Anxiety

In Wilcox, that is the Wilcox of 2987, although the timebound nature of the subject of the following is surely subject to dispute, there was a tractor. It was green and had a yellow stripe running down the side of the cab; it was a fine tractor. It was big and semiarticulated and had a four-wheel drive and its wheels with their grooved tires were nearly twice the height of a man. It had a big nose that elegantly sloped like a dog’s snout tipped with sportish headlights flush with the surface and it gleamed unnecessarily and greenly in the light although it was well-used. Its model name was 3623TR. Its demeanour was friendly and its disposition unassuming. It had 400hp (300 for the PTO) and was powered (initially and possibly only ever) by an 11.2L RRO with variable and fixed geometry turbochargers and supercooled manifold systems, evidently a new industry standard, and had infinitely variable transmission. Its hydraulic capacity was 370L/min and its hitch-lift capacity was just under 11,500kg. The front axle had a high-capacity wet clutch splined to the transmission output shaft consisting of one large coned-disc spring, six separator plates, and six friction disks. The torque transfer was demonstrably excellent.

In the autumn the tractor began killing people, indeed, consuming them really was closer to the truth of it, so vital was the sequence of events, and carried out with such lithe atavism. The first ingested subject was found on the morning of the 23rd with his head popped like a grape under the front left tire and his body mushed into the soil. The manner of the death was obvious but the sequence of events that could have encouraged or compelled a grown and largely sensible adult to lie in the path of a tractor, and such a fine tractor at that, was never made out. Indeed the local police never figured out after two weeks of their tracers going around everywhere who had been driving the vehicle with the variable and fixed geometry turbos when Stu had been creamed. Nobody had the heart in them to blame the tractor, since the very sight of it filled one with virility and hope. And in any case the thing moved too slowly for it to surprise anyone. It bore its majesty with great weight. A 3623TR weighed nearly twenty tons. Stu’s fault.

The tractor was cleaned and placed in the garage. The owner considered selling it but there was no good reason to part with it and so it was not sold. It was inspected and it was dutifully noted that there was nothing amiss about it. The second person  was found pulped in the fields a week later and there was nothing new about it except that the tractor had apparently gone over her and then back again and so she was cut all the way through the middle. The owner insisted that he had locked the garage and that he had the key and was asked severe questions but no reason for his murdering his wife could be reasonably discerned since by all accounts their relationship had been uncommonly healthy and numerous individuals of good standing in the community testified to this effect. It was while the owner was in custody that the third thing happened, which was that the tractor which had been placed in a cordon evidently left its place in the field and rumbled several kilometres through the adjoining field, leaving muddy troughs in its wake, and rolled over a full family of four, which family was spread or smeared or ground over a patch of field about twenty metres by fifteen across. The cordon had not been broken and the tractor was a bit muddy. How it managed to run over an entire family was altogether beyond reckoning.

A serious manhunt began, the owner was released, and he stopped using the tractor after people stared at him when he tried to do so. Nonetheless everyone said it was a pity, truly a pity, that he had to stop using it, because of course it was an excellent vehicle and surely the objection to its open use was only a gesture of respect for the victims’ families (owner included.) Children sneaked into the garage to look at the tractor with the yellow wheel rims and the gorgeous rhinal slope and four-wheel drive. But the tractor’s violence did not stop with its permanent confinement in the garage, for in a month it appeared in an entirely  different town quite some distance away and again there was a squelching; a man who had decided to take a walk early in the morning. How it arrived there no-one knew as this time there were no tracks although the folding mechanism on the garage door did whine and wrench and give out when the owner, hearing of the news, staggered out to see if it was in fact true that the tractor he did not use had appeared nearly sixty kilometres away. There was no sign that the tractor had been occupied at the relevant time. The media called it a rampage.

No-one ever saw it happening. No-one saw the tractor move, even if the necessity and the traces of such movement were plain to see. No-one saw it escape the garage and no-one saw it come trundling after people. People became afraid. In the evenings people shut the doors and at night they looked across the fields and the roads to watch for a gleaming that came around like murder, luminous green and yellow executions. No-one thought that if it came there would be a sound to alert them: for surely the tractor came silent footloose through the halls of the night. The tractor’s prowling spread, its circle of territory grew. It fell through the attic of a nondescript white building on the outskirts of the city into the nursery on the first floor. It got people in fields. It got people on roads, proper roads and small dirt roads. It got a woman in her car who had come back from shopping tired and had fallen asleep at the wheel two metres from her front door. The body never got retrieved, properly speaking.

The police took the tractor away. They put it in a room with blastproof doors and they looked at it with cameras, or rather the cameras looked at the glowing semiarticulated thing with the impressive hitch-lift capacity and then people looked at the records afterwards. There were movement sensors and heat sensors and sensors that sensed radio waves and infrared and UV besides. The tractor did not move. The cameras said it did not move. The sensors sensed nothing. The tractor did what tractors, even good robust tractors, did when not being driven, which was sit virginally where it was.

The tractor’s range grew and the sporadic attacks became more frequent. It made excursions into the city. It appeared in a basement where there had been a party of some sort. Its appetite must have grown for even all over its soft nose there was human muck, and its back too, not just the sturdy 2057mm wheels with the mobile supercoefficient treads. The tractor had moved back and forth in the small space … sweat and loud music, fuel injections and machine purring. The pictures were vivid and beflecked.

One notable case involved the tractor crushing to death a well-to-do couple in a gorgeous flat in Hold Ave as they were in the act of copulation. The thing had evidently just dumped itself right on top of them because the weight had taken the couple still locked together right through the floor into the apartment below. The man and woman or the pieces of them rather had Vs from the treads embossed into them really deep and at points right through them. The man’s only slightly flaccid penis poked with minimalist intensity from the mess even though it was blue in death. People didn’t say it, of course, but you could imagine … the soft sounds or loud sounds, the traffic muted by the expensive windows, the sounds all here near and far away, clean fleshy sounds and bright sounds of pure locution, darkness and reflexive arcs, the bed interpreting all this as simple harmonic motion, and then a light bright as a god, two shining headlamps bearing down with metaphysical brilliance, the deep recursive roar of the 11.2L RRO, the oil and shift of the front axle coming down. But why wouldn’t people imagine? Could one not imagine being pinned under that great weight of love, all that blatant metal, unashamed of the need to maintain some distance between the signifier and the signified, that grinding and breaking under the weight, like the grind and break of orgasm… But such thoughts would only be entertained.

This was all impossible because the tractor was with the police. The media speculated: there were many tractors. And indeed there were. But the police took in the bloody hulks wherever they found them and said that all of them were the same tractor because the signs of wear and tear were same all the way down to the atom. They had pictures with three tractors lined up: the original, and another that was the same, and another that was the same (this was not yet cleaned and so there was a little blood on the hood.) The police hounded the tractors and put them all in the room. But then at some point  there was only one tractor on the room, and the cameras said only one had ever been there, while everyone involved clearly remembered taking the rest of the tractors in, and the people who had been killed remained dead, so something must have happened involving tractors, green and yellow tractors with spacious cabs and fine raised leather seats, and death.

A possible lead emerged when a man had both legs severed by the tractor but otherwise remained conscious throughout (it was assumed) the whole ordeal. He was a gibbering mess inside his head however and only insisted that he had seen a terrible light and a vast weight come over him, a firmament of sound entire, and when asked if a tractor had been involved said only it had been Maman.

Eventually a mob attacked the tractor where it was found even before the police were told. A fire was built around it but some immanence in the thing kept it lustrous in the flames even after thermite was poured on. The second mob took it to an industrial recycling facility where it was taken apart but no effect was discerned on the thing’s murderous forays. It appeared, mulched people, and was sated and still.

There was a cult of the tractor now; this was to be expected. It was a thoughtform, it was entangled, it was projection of postmodern anxieties, it was an emanation of nascent and antinomic industrial restlessness, it was a structuralist metaphor for the internal alienation of mechanistic capital; a poet wrote a thing about it in the paper, some morbid and observant individual demonstrated a statistical link between the tractor’s confinement and the range and wildness of its excursions, and Greengage Plc. fended off calls for recalls and stopped manufacturing 3623TRs.  They rapidly became, for a select few, treasured collectibles. They had stories to tell.

Running through the names of things

The going was not difficult but the land did not make it easy either. An hour passed. “It’s further away than it looks,” Ary said. They continued walking in silence. After more hours John stopped.

“You can almost see the sea from here.” He was looking out over the vast plains. A flock of small white birds passed like a respiration of the land over the dry grasses.

“Yes,” Ary said.

“Although it is difficult to tell where the sky becomes water, exactly. Sort of blur.”

“I don’t know,” Ary said, smiling.

“Yeah. Well.”

And almost as evening came a bird fell down the plane of the mountain soundlessly, wings syncopated into the body, wide symmetrical Vs. It went over their heads and disappeared very fast around the edge of the bulge in the mountainside. Ary and John watched it. It was strange to see something so small move so fast over such a mass of basalt. The speed of it was such that they turned while following the bird from looking at the sky to looking at the mountain and the lands beneath its shadow so quickly that there was a moment of disorientation when it disappeared and the rock and the soil became unbearably still. Not a moment of disorientation. That was wrong. Rather realignment. Of knowing more clearly, this is a mountain.

“Pretty late. Shall we eat here?”

“As good a place as any,” John replied.

“It’s quite cool.” You couldn’t quite see your breath in the air.

“I’ll get the thermo going.”

“I’m okay. Really.”

“We’ll be better with it.”

They ate in silence. The sun was very yellow and great gouts of it came through the clouds.

“Do you hear that? Hissing?”

“What?” Ary paused. “No.”

“Hm. I can’t hear it now either.”

“Wait. There it is.”

“Yeah. What is it?”

“It’s over there.”

Several feet from them in the dimming light something moved among the stones and the short plants.

“Does it have the ridges?” John asked.

“No. It’s got these big brown lines down its side. Kind of blotchy.”

“It looks young. Juvenile maybe.”

“I don’t think we can tell.”

The squat scaly head raised itself and the forked tongue quivered and flickered in the air. The pupils like black channels did not move. Did it blink? No, no. The snake has one transparent scale over its eye, to protect the delicate sclera. This specialised scale does not move. The eyelids at the top and bottom of the eye are fixed. They also do not move. The sudden pale cloud that comes over the eye is the nicitating membrane, a third eyelid drawn horizontally across for moisture, to keep the eye clean. This is all known.

“It’s still hissing,” Ary said.

“Is it angry?”

“It certainly sounds angry.”

“Maybe we’re in its territory.”

“There’s a lot of space around here.”

“It’s really angry, isn’t it?” John reached out to grab it, crush it. There was a rule about these things.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“It’s not going to hurt us.” Ary brought his head close to the ground, to peer at the snake. “Is it? You know what they always say which is that these things are more afraid of us than we are of them.”

John looked at Ary and sighed and leaned back and flopped into the wet grass. A stream burbled nearby. The snake hissed again, loudly, not a metre from John’s face. It made as if to strike and then settled back down. A long pyritic gleaming glare. Well. At least looked out at them with those unreadable eyes and did not blink.

“I think it came because of the warmth.”

“Yeah.”

“We should switch to internal heating.”

“I don’t think anyone will see us.”

“Really?”

“I’ll see them before they see us, at least.”

John sat up. The snake lay in dark coils near him and made no sound.

“Ary.”

“Hm?”

“You’re a strange person.”

“Why?”

“Never mind,” John said. He looked at the sun. He looked at the plains. He reached out to touch the snake, and it did strike this time, arched up and stuck him with a strange flinty noise. John stared idly at the spot on his suited elbow where it had struck. It was dry. “We’ll let it stay the night with us, I guess.” He made something like a dry smile.

“Okay.”

Ary was thinking. He thought, a person could live all his life studying this world and yet for all his knowledge and time he would never guess that things like this live in it. He could not imagine the flight of a mountain bird or the unblinking recoil of a snake that lies in the grass. Such is the mystery of things. Ary tried to tell John this.

“Who would have expected this?” he said.

“What?”

“Us being here, stranded, walking up this mountain.”

“All the deployments are scrambled.”

Ary wanted to say no, that’s not it, but then thought that was truth enough. He fell asleep running through the names of things: Crotalus, Sistrurus, Bothrops. He remembered they signified things but not what the signified were. The sounds were strange and made him think of movement. More he could not say.  

Approximate prayer

The long arc of a bird that flies over a field and does not see the fences beneath. In the far distance a barn, something made of brick, undulating in the heat. Messages in the thresh of air. Rusted machines standing constellated, abandoned, intimate. Gangly limbs and their doleful postures maintained even after all this time. Between here and there a path intervenes, less a road really than a desire line, unstaked. Look up and there the fume of summer coils around the fields, going on and on.  A small river, old trees at the edge leaning over. A birch kneels. Kingfishers like prayers unweaving water. Tight clots of life thrumming the fibres of the air, startling even now into the stippled divinity of the branches. Days end on end moving and quiet and livid though surcharged with sweetness.

                    (Heaven & Earth—)

Warm bodies like planets rolling in the deep. Heavy with an age like water, generous with the blood they carry. The vastness of that breath, going out like a white hand before the sky, emerging with a concussion of noisy and resurrected air. The shining declension and the katabatic voice. The black ribbed body lifted and plunging like a hieroglyph. A clock of blood. An eye, a scotopic bead invisible in the monument of the head. The balaenic jaw fit to house a mountain. Something that is its own estuary. A pale continent of fin cutting the hem of a wave and raised and if in greeting and then withdrawn. An ordnance of spray immediately caught and carried away by the wind. All enkindled and fathomed in water.

                    (Heaven & Earth—)

It brought the man’s face close to its own, and embraced the body, pulling it close to him, feeling it break and crumble against its flesh.

                    (Heaven & Earth are full of your glory. Forgive us our trespasses etc.)

Two Interrogations [sic]

No.1

Q:

A: I’m really not sure what you are asking and so I’ll start rambling until I hit something. Is that okay. Okay. I’m supposing you know the details of the I suppose you could call it attack.

Q:

A: Look, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just –

Q:

A: Well it was hard to tell because it was so early in the morning. It wasn’t bright. All the stuff looked kinda bluish, I’m sure you know that, right? When it’s dim and you only see the taillights.  And – I had been sleeping. [] had been driving for most of the night. And then we saw the truck lying in its side, and the thing was actually dragging someone out, like right through the windshield, it was pretty fucked up. There was a bloody mess all right. Maybe there was actually someone else –

Q:

A: Yeah, I thought I saw someone else, maybe two or three bodies on the road. I was. No. I think I was. It was pretty dim remember so I think I got out and that was when the thing went from being over there to suddenly being right here, beside me. I think I had been yelling, I don’t know, maybe yelling for help or yelling at the thing, or whatever. I don’t remember but it attacked me and I just ran, man, I just ran. You see how it mangled my leg –

Q:

A: I shouted for []. I don’t remember his reaction like immediately. As in not when [] saw the whole scene. I think some people had gathered. No. No, no, that was later. I’m not sure, [] must have been in the car the whole time. But I shouted for him and he came out. I was on the ground, I think by this time it must have taken off my fingers. I mean it must have been toying with me or something. After what it did to – I mean, it was a truck and everything, it got through the blastproofs. [] came out of the car and it was strange because I was sure I was dead. Like. I’m sure that at that moment I was thinking or at least a part of me was thinking I seriously can’t believe it because I am actually dying here. Accidents don’t just happen in the Kingdom, you know? And really accidents on Hakon of all places, I was sure P. would have sounded a warning at least. Where was I? Uhm. Yes. So [] came out of the car. Do you know, I was totally terrified at that moment but I might remember [] smiling or something like that. He had that kind of look where his mouth was smiling but his eyebrows were scrunched up like he was worried or amused or. Like he was going inside, oh dear me oh my. I’m exaggerating but. I mean maybe I can’t remember, or maybe my brain is all fucked up right now but I get that impression. He came over and he wasn’t shouting or anything even though I was screaming. I don’t know how, I mean look at my throat. And the thing was even though I obviously didn’t like register this at the time was that [] came over and pulled the thing off me. By which I mean, he just did it, took it by the back and just yanked it off and then the thing turned to him and he raised his arm to block, you know, the natural instinctive thing to do, and then there was this cute moment where [] laughed like he was thinking what the fuck am I doing this thing can’t even scratch me. At that moment I didn’t see anything weird, I was screaming kill it kill it kill it. Of course people had come by now, imagine them looking at me, I was murdertastically bloodied, screaming like, like just some insane idiot. I didn’t even stop when it became clear what [] was doing to the thing. I mean I wasn’t thinking at all but it was getting torn apart. I mean clubbed to death with its own – limb, something. Just. Utterly annihilated. Can I say something that probably sounds fucked-up and weird? Okay. Well remembering now I really feel pity for the thing, really. It was making these really begging sort of noises and was trying to get away but [] was just dismantling it limb by limb. I mean the violence was totally personal. Okay don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I wasn’t happy at the moment or that it was like they knew each other or something but rather that the way the entire episode, you know, played out, it was strange and intimate and people were just staring and screaming. Okay no I have it. The thing is that [] really seemed to be enjoying the power. The whole situation was strange though. This living, defenceless – not defenceless, but you know what I mean –thing which had tried to gut me yes I know, but it was getting pulped and I was shouting kill it kill it even when I had lost like a good fifth of my blood, at least that is how much it eventually was I was told later. And then when it was dead? I don’t know, uhm, [] said something like, hey, thanks for asking for help. While I was lying there I thought he said something like I’m glad to help or something but when I was in hospital I remembered that he had said something different, and now I’m relatively certain he said thanks and then fairly certain after that he said for letting me help or for asking me to help. And then right after he said that the ambulance came. [] didn’t mention the whole thing that had just happened, he went back to his car, people were staring at him because he was covered with – unspeakable fluids. Sorry, sorry. I’m not laughing because it’s funny or anything. But now when I remember it, it was so absurd.

Q:

A: What’s going to — am I okay now? Is everything okay?

No.2

Q:

A: I was walking along the bridge. Evening on a weekend; not so many cars. I came to the middle and there was this person standing beside the big metal support. The sign was a weathered blue and had CRISIS COUNSELING in white on it. Underneath that was written THERE IS HOPE / MAKE THE CALL, and then, in smaller font, THE CONSEQUENCES OF / JUMPING FROM THIS / BRIDGE ARE FATAL / AND TRAGIC. Under the sign there was a yellow box with a phone in it. There was a man standing before the box and he had the phone pressed against the side of his head. He was hunched over the box with his shoulders closed and his other hand was gripping the top of the box really tight. He was really leaning into it and it was quite heartbreaking. He was wearing a hoodie and his forehead was pressed into the hand holding the box and the whole position of his body spoke to a kind of anonymity.

Can I make some comments about this? I will make some comments about this. Don’t you think the entire thing is absurd? For example: why THERE IS HOPE? Surely the person who goes to jump does not feel hope. Telling this person THERE IS HOPE is – well, it’s a lie, isn’t it? Okay, so maybe this person looks at the sign and thinks there is hope, but then that’s just circular, isn’t it? The sign hasn’t really pointed outside itself, or to the person, and made that person deduce something good. It has merely declared the existence of HOPE and if that mere declaration is enough then it must be fake. It’s authoritarian, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’ve always thought a PLEASE somewhere would help, but then maybe that’s too pathetic or otherwise too reminiscent of the sorts of vicious vocab that the person will undoubtedly been subject to and that affects the whole fucked-up inside of the mind of the suicidally depressed in a manner to subtle for me to grasp. Maybe. Also: why THE CONSEQUENCES OF? You could easily phrase that away, give the sign a bit more, you know, I suppose profundity. But alright. Maybe the jumpers just need to see CONSEQUENCES. But are they that stupid? Or maybe there’s something too comic about a sign that goes DEATH IS FATAL / AND TRAGIC. Nonetheless CONSEQUENCES as a word just looks highly apathetic, almost. Threatening, as in: THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES. It just strikes me as a highly manipulative way to treat a person. Guilt-tripping people just before they die, that sort of thing. And needless to say there is no need to point out that jumping is FATAL because, presumably, that is the whole point. TRAGIC is also an odd thing to put on. My guess is that it is meant to remind the person trying to kill himself/herself that he/she has, I don’t know, a family, a child, a lover, friends etc. But from the little I know people who try to kill themselves often come from those sorts of backgrounds where this will make little difference to them because, say, the point is that they have been so strangled of functional human relations in life that a state of perfect neutrality might just actually genuinely be better than the sort of anguish they endure on a daily, second-to-second basis. I keep coming across an analogy which is that you are locked in a room where there is nothing but pain and you know, really know, you’d like to get out, but there is this key a couple of metres away from you and somehow the journey from here to there looks totally insane. The very thought locks you up. Now that I think about it though of course many people walk up there because it’s quote unquote a cry for help, or quote unquote a confrontation of the self, and I suppose for these people it works. Nonetheless. TRAGIC is so crude. The word’s already bound up in all kinds of aesthetic theorisations, the big dramatic sort, it seems a little distant, a little overused. I mean if you wanted people to think a certain way why not just ask them to, as in REMEMBER YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY? Maybe that’s not good, I guess, since some people will be up there because of FRIENDS AND FAMILY. Maybe the sign’s just a – well – sign, I suppose, of the usual compromise between the need to help on something that feels like an intimate, individual, level and the need to do this to a large number of very different individuals. Maybe I’m being picky.

So many other things, though. Why a phone? Anyone could just call, anytime they wanted. They could just go to Petr. Is there something about really old technology that is more, maybe affectionate, somehow? Bit more compatible with grief? Maybe. Or maybe most people leave having turned their implants off. Maybe it’s the visual confrontation – yellow box, blue sign, red support. No idea. How hypersensitive the brain becomes when you decide to kill yourself I don’t know.

Here’s another question: why do people choose to die this way? Dying this way is not actually calm or painless at all. 6 seconds of acceleration. When you hit the water you die of impact trauma, usually. You go from maybe 180, 200km/h to 0km/h in a second. You can tell who has died of trauma and who has died of drowning. The ones who drown get little bubbles, foam really, mucus, around the mouth and nose. But that only happens rarely. Typically the impact fractures the sternum and compresses the heart so violently it pulls away from the aorta. Inside the skin everything lacerated. But say you hit the water feet first – even then, vertebrae crushed, tibia broken everywhere, internal bleeding. If you live through that how do you swim? Do you know that the vast majority of people say their favourite colour is blue and that they find it calming? Maybe death by water is what they want and people are just ignorant about how you really die when you go off a bridge. Maybe that’s why the hotline sign is blue. Someone once shot herself on the way down. She was already dead when she hit: ergo, something about water, something about big empty air, the view. It turns out that if you look at the thousands of jumpers most of them jump from the centre of the bridge. You get a normal distribution and the peak is right at the middle support. Why? Maybe they want dying to be pretty, somehow. Symmetrical. Six seconds of falling and then water, you know, without being morbid I can say there is something about the image. I have a thought which I find quite compelling. If you want to kill yourself, and you start out walking along the bridge, you won’t jump immediately because you can’t really. You want a little more time, you want the walk. But once you reach the middle you realise that you are actually getting closer to the other side, to land that does not shake, and you can’t go on because going on would make you feel cowardly. It would defeat the point. Lots of people pick up the phone and are quiet. Then they say, “Hey, I’m gonna jump.” And then they do. My guess is that once you’ve said that to the people who are supposed to save you you’ve made a commitment. You can’t disappoint them.

Anyway, why aren’t there more signs near the middle of the bridge? If people are drawn there that seems the logical thing to do.

The point is there was this guy with his face hidden, and he was talking over the suicide hotline and asking the person there if he could help him call someone else. Maybe the hotline phone only went to one number. Would you really ask a person in that state to key in a long string of numbers? Anyway: I went over and picked the guy up and threw him over. He didn’t shout, I was pretty quick. Maybe he said, briefly, “Hey,” or something along those lines. He fell and became small and it was totally quiet. I think I put the phone back; that was it.

Q:

A: I am going now.

Q:

A: No, I don’t think you understand. I am going now. Sorry.

Something had come finally justified

“Salix sounded like he was afraid of you. I’m not sure. But I thought he was.”

Erth looked surprised. But she said: “Yes.”

“He did not seem like the kind of person who would be afraid of anything, really.”

“He comes across that way, yeah. Nowadays.”

“Why?”

“What with being –”

“Why is he afraid?”

Erth made a gesture as if she was brushing something away with the back of her hand. “Reasons. Well. Okay. The main thing I guess is that he thinks my ability lies in making people do things, but in a way they are not aware of, and he has no way of knowing if the things he does are because I am making him do them, or if anyone does things because he wants them to or because I’m making them do those things.”

“Oh.”

“It’s not a very bright idea. The stuff he does – you know the kind of stuff he does. You’re a sort of – direct casualty – so. If I was making him do stuff do you think he would have started the War?”

Ary laughed and felt strange. “ ‘Not a bright idea.’ ”

“He’s – clever. But he’s paranoid. They’ve always been, actually.”

“Salix says that all he is trying to do is make people happy.”

“He really believes that.” Erth did not say this approvingly or disapprovingly.

“You don’t agree with him.”

“You do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm.” Erth turned up the heat and put a pan of water on the stove. “I just don’t think people are designed to be happy. It’s not a complicated thing.” A small blue flame. Zeidgrebe had to be a very old boat. Or maybe Erth was that sort of person. “Do you remember a time when you were happy? Actually happy.”

[During their second Break Ary and John went to Canis I. They hired a sturdy car with generous windows at the old port at Stettal and simply drove in a straight line across six states through the height of summer. Just a car trip. Once they were driving through something that must have been an orchard, although they were not sure what kind of tree it was. Thousands and thousands of rows of thousands and thousands each. Apples or some variant thereof, fruit that messily spangled the grass and smelled sweet with rot. Ary picked out one tree that he could see ten columns or so back standing there in the middle of a row. One in a billion. He thought that was what he was.

John was driving, and didn’t speak much, but he was in such a mood that once he laughed at something Ary had said. Ary couldn’t remember now but he knew that he had not said anything funny. He thought it was something about how they were doing to get the car back.  They both did not want to waste their allowance so at night they pulled over deep into the unkempt grass and slept on the seats and woke up smelling a like vinyl with one cheek pressed into crevassed maps and divaricate lines. Ary often woke at night but did not turn on the light because of the insects. They sinewed into being everywhere, quietly but persistently, and would not go after the 14-watter incandescent was turned off. When he did wake Ary looked at John, perfectly expressionless in sleep, no smile or frown or impression of a dream, and thought how he looked like something freshly born or elsewhere wanted.]

What he said now was, “Yes. CM didn’t leave us much to be happy for but we could be happy.”

“But were you happy then?”

“Then.”

“At the time you say you were happy – when you were living it, did you actually feel happy? If I had asked you then, would you have said, yes, I am happy?”

Ary thought. “No. No, I was – worried. I was thinking – it was hard not to think – that soon we would both be dead.”

“You see. That’s the thing. The truth is that almost all our happiness is remembered. It’s not in the moment. No-one is actually happy here, in this precise moment, in this stupid uncatchable now-ishness. Sometimes you feel it like it is in the moment, very rarely, but even then you are lying to yourself, because what you feel is the idea that this moment can abstract itself into some higher otherised realness and continue. It never does. You know the feeling right after those moments. I’m sure you know it. Like the days are coming out from under your feet. Sand pulling away with the tide from just under the balls of your feet. That kind of feeling.” Erth waved her arms awkwardly, imitating a person losing balance.

“That sounds incredibly cynical. That is incredibly – sad. I don’t know. Maybe just remembering is good enough. It’s not a lie.”

[Ary and John did nothing of interest on the trip. They moved though the uncontoured fields and lines of standing crop. No human demarcations apart from the line they moved along. A million years before or something like that glaciers had come and sheared the land flat. They found an abandoned building and without really agreeing to do so they stopped the car and went over to it. The roof had fallen in. Just as they had done in Tityra after the massacre they climbed to the top of the wall and watched the evening. They sat on the callused brick and put their feet out into an the abyss in which people had once breathed. Twenty-wheelers generated seismic ripples as they dopplered past and sent out washes of diesel air whose warmth survived all the way from the road and broke against the walls.

Sometimes in the afternoon huge storms gathered. They could get very bad. The ozone first, not quite electric and not quite metallic in the air, and milky wall clouds bulbing and turning. A swathe of leucistic grass on one side of the road, or just ahead, would suddenly bow and turn white and a second or so later the car would shudder and skid left or lean over crankily. They put on the attractors to get through the worst storms, although this drained their fuel fast. Afterwards the air for miles around would reek of geosmin.]

“Does it sound that way? I don’t think it sounds that way at all. I’m not trying to say it’s bad. I’m just saying, happiness is difficult. Sal’s whole – thing. Maybe we should look for something else. I’m not saying anything not experienced as happy is not good. Maybe many things are good, as in capital-G good.”

Erth took the pan off the heat and poured the water, into two cups. She opened a can and spooned something amber in. There was a faint hissing sound.

“It’s quite nasty the first  time, but all the boaties have it. Pretty good, actually, really keeps out the cold.”

It was nasty, and burned, but it had a good aftertaste.

[After one storm Ary and John stopped at a town for food. The person serving them took the CM credits and walked away from the table and then turned back and said, “You guys are fucking us all up, you know that?” He was the type of person who smiled when he was angry. This afternoon he was smiling a lot, and he kept his eyes on John and Ary as they ate.

When he came to take the plates he said, “I mean it. I hope you all die fast so that we lose this properly and you stop taking our money. We’re all dry here, all bone dry. You motherfucking bastards.” He laughed. Ary said thank you and stood up to go. The man actually put his hand on Ary’s shoulder and said, “Just give me a moment.” He turned around and shouted, “Got a couple of cammers here.” People looked up from their tables. Some looked emabarrassed on Ary’s behalf. Many did not. The waiter turned back to look at them and spoke, loudly, grinning now. “You want to blame someone, folks? Look here. Oh yes look at these quiet ones. I’m thinking when they are all dead—”

John broke his glass on the table and stood up fast. The first blow opened a red gorge through the centre of the waiter’s face from the bottom of the left cheek through the nose. The waiter went down immediately, less because of the force and more because of the shock. He tried to shout but managed a whistling burble that was only savagely comic. John stepped hard on his face twice, putting the weight of his body into it, and the waiter stopped moving. John bent over him and stuck the glass in his face again and again. Then he used the other end and started pounding, very precise and very brutal. Ary stood there and Inside his numb head he counted. At n.6 the nose went and around n.11 the face caved in crunchily. John ignored Ary’s shouting and the pulpy mess got all over his front and face. When the others came out of the kitchen screaming and tried to get him off John pulled out his Botze and shot one of them in the knee. And then he finally got off the waiter and stared at the other man writhing on the floor and shot him in the knee again. Ary got in front of him and faced the people and said something like I’m sorry, I’m sorry and left the signoff for all his remaining credits on the table.

John had shouted something as Ary took him out, something like, “Don’t we die well? Don’t we die well? I I I see.”

They got back in the car, John dripping with blood, and moments after Ary slammed the door shut John started making a high-pitched jerky sound that was like crying but turned to huge shuddering laughter. Ary looked at him with horror and then started laughing as well. He went on and on. He couldn’t stop. There were slivers of bone on him. He thought of Tityra and all the people dead there and he felt something had come finally justified, something all aligned together. It was a clean and good feeling. You nearly took the leg off, he said, wheezing.]

“It’s good,” Ary said. “Where do you get this?”

“There’s a small market near the station. It’s an hour’s drive.”

From the window Ary could see that it was getting dark outside, fast. “I’m not sure I agree with you. Still.”

“It’s always the same problem once Salix has talked to someone.”

“He’s very persuasive.”

“Of course he is persuasive. When he was on Stize. You should have seen.” Erth looked a bit sad. “University life. How are you feeling now?”

“Pretty warm, actually, I’m—”

“No, I mean—”

“Oh. Oh. John’s dead. All the people I got to sort of know, for a while. I’m not sure – I am not sure what I should say. What do you think I should say.”

“You know what I think? I think that a long time from now you will remember these days and you will think that you were happy.”

“If I. Why would you. No.” Ary waited for a while. “If I am happy now how will I know that this is not just you.”

“You could ask.”

Ary sat like a crippled thing. “And?”

“I’m not doing anything. Well I am doing something but only what everyone is doing all the time. I’m trying to make you feel a bit better.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“You see? It’s happening already.”