emily: Hey y'all. Thanks for sticking around for this. I know we've all got places to ... well, if anybody still needs somewhere to go, be sure and speak up, OK? I think Ron's heading through the woods tonight, back to the road, if you want to caravan.
ron: You staying, Em?
emily: For right now, though, we've got some friends to bury.
emily: The Neighbors.
emily: Nikki has a poem, and I have a song.
emily: If anyone wants to say anything, though, um ... I'll go first ...
emily: The Neighbors were kind, gentle, beautiful horses. I used to go on walks with the silver one, out in the woods, by ...
emily: Why didn't anybody ever give them names?
emily: "The Silver One," well, I guess he was gray but his coat looks silver in the light. So I always called him that in my head. And the other one is "the other one." And I loved these horses! But you'd never know it if you heard me talk about them like that.
emily: So I'm sorry, Silver One and Other One. Sorry I don't have better names for you. You deserved better names.
emily: Also sorry I'm so bad at this.
emily: Anybody else have anything to say?
rita: The horses were here before us, you know? They came with the people from Central America. You know, the utopians — the "People of Nothing."
rita: The "People of Nothing" arrived by horseback in October, and their first experiment was to free the horses.
rita: That was generations ago — of people and horses. I don't know when we started calling them the "Neighbors." We should have called them the "People," I think. They were the only consistent residents of this place for over a hundred years. And now they're all gone — who are the "People" now?
ron: I just wanna say these horses used to crap on my floors. But it never bothered me too much. I never mentioned it to anyone, I didn't want to make a thing out of it. But if we're clearing the air, well, that happened and it's OK.
ron: I mean recently, too — I was cleaning up horse crap just a couple days ago. But I'm saying it was OK.
ron: It would've been OK if `any` of you wanted to crap on my floors. I just wanna say that. I would've cleaned up after any of you. If you crapped on my floor.
emily: Thanks, Ron.
elmo: You all remember that? Somebody was calling around with some canned carrots they wanted to be rid of, and I guess Consolidated Power got word of it.
elmo: So these cans of carrots showed up in the mail, and we didn't know where they came from at first. I tried some out; no flavor to 'em. Some of them were gray. Just awful. Rita said that's still OK to eat — like, sometimes carrots just lose their color if they sit in a can too long — but nobody wanted them, really.
elmo: Well, Aunt Connie came on TV with a message like "hope the horses are enjoying their treat!" And we thought "OK, these are for the Neighbors, sure, horses love carrots, right?"
elmo: But the Neighbors wouldn't touch 'em. Wouldn't even look at 'em. You'd think they were canned rocks. We opened a couple dozen and set them all out by the water trough, and they were still there a day later. Even the raccoons steered clear!
elmo: And then of course Consolidated sent us an invoice for every can we'd opened, already made out in company scrip. How do you like that?
nikki: Maya — you and our other visitors might not know about the Out-of-Towner. He came here to work for the company, to dig a ditch. And the company worked him good and hard, and for less than he was worth, but it wasn't enough. They had to use him up completely.
nikki: After that, we became ungovernable. First out of shame, then grief, then anger.
nikki: I used to sit with them, out in the woods. There's a clearing out there, it's about 20 minutes' walk, directly away from everything — I mean there's no reason to walk that direction unless you're going to this clearing. The Neighbors liked to graze there.
nikki: There's a certain grass they like the best. It only grows in partial shade, deep in the woods.
nikki: I'd go out to that clearing and just watch them, in my shame, grief, and anger. And they knew — any of you who spent some time with these horses will remember — they `knew` just what I was feeling. I could tell. It radiated off them like sweat evaporating. Creatures of pure compassion ...
nikki: ... and forgiveness! That kind of forgiveness Frost meant when he wrote "something we somehow haven't to deserve."
nikki: When I go, I want to be buried out there in that clearing, and feed that grass they loved.
nikki: Yeah, we're gonna bury this town today, when we bury these horses. It's the same thing.
nikki: We're gonna bury these horses, and what do you think will happen next? We'll all walk out in to the woods and leave this place empty. No, I guess some of us might stay and build again? That's alright — it couldn't be me, but to try is your birthright.
nikki: If you do stay, you'll be building on top of a grave. But that's true anywhere. The whole world is built on top of graves.
nikki: "Look for me under your bootsoles!" As the fella says.
`(NIKKI clears her throat, and begins reading from the paper she's holding)`
nikki: `I think the grass will never grow again here where it grew so sweet, now only clay will rise to meet the morning air — who would eat grass now, when our Neighbors sleeping lay?`
nikki: `We all leave town, and call that town a ghost. What ghosts gave this town breath, and made it home? And now that breath has gone — we buried it here! What's left is not a ghost; it's just the bones.`
nikki: `For we who stayed, in shame, to penance pay and hoped to mercy find right where we sinned, those hopes are withered. No mercy left. Who could forgive us now we've buried our merciful friends.`
nikki: `Our Neighbors were the best of us — of course! It's always so. Our better selves, clear of our selves, where we can see their glory glow. They glow now underground, our friends, with love.`
Clyde and Cass sat cross-legged in the shade of a light aircraft, Cass shuffling cards and Clyde absently flipping through a stack of unopened letters.
They called themselves the "Dervish Brothers Flying Circus," a name that outlived the Dervish (née Dalton) Brothers themselves, who died within the first few years. So, run of the circus was left to their aunt Cassandra, who everyone called Cass.
Cass played cards, and told fortunes with the same deck. Sometimes she'd switch it up mid-game or mid-divination — until you never knew whether you were winning or losing, or if good luck in the game might mean bad luck in some other part of your life.
She'd predicted the decline of the circus, of course. And of course nobody had believed her.
There were three Dervish Brothers. Two were women. The oldest had flown a reconnaissance plane at the tail end of the war, then returned home to teach his younger sisters the art of trick flying. None of them were gifted pilots, but they were fearless.
Demand for aerial stunts having faded almost completely, and many of their company having died or aged out of the profession, Clyde and Cass found for their remaining pilots a steady flow of contract work delivering mail to remote rural areas. But this place was abandoned.
Clyde lay on his back on the runway, hands folded behind his head, halfway between dreams and the afternoon sun. He entertained the momentary delusion that he'd survived a plane crash, and was vaguely unhappy when the dream faded.
Coming in to land, he'd slammed into a truck. The driver probably thought the runway was another road.
The roads were full of trucks coming and going, these days, filling the town with strangers, ever since ... But he couldn't remember any more of the dream; it was fading quickly and irretrievably, in that uniquely frustrating death of past dreams.
The runway smelled like oil; years of leaky light aircraft taking off and landing.
All the state said they wanted was to knock down some trees — many trees — and build a road tying this small town to the larger web of streets and highways that entombed the rest of the country.
It would bring in new goods, new people, maybe even some cash from tourism. Many of the residents supported the idea.
Six or seven men stood in the sun about a dozen yards from the ditch, and he could hear them laughing. He tried not to hear them. Instead he listened to the shovel punching through the dirt as he shaped the trench. It was wet dirt — mud, really. It made a hungry sound as he shaped the trench walls.
One man was louder than the rest.
He had a nervous laugh that sucked up all the air around him.
Here at the bottom of the hollow there were patches of mud everywhere. Water pooled on the ground or just below the surface. That was the danger.
Glare from the noon sun made his sinuses tingle. The trench was a foot wide now. By the time he was done, he expected it to be about twice that, and run most of the way from the middle of town over to where it could drain off into the creek.
The Out-of-Towner stuck his shovel into the dirt and squeezed the bridge of his nose. He sneezed, took a swig from his thermos.
At first they only observed the truck from a distance. It was an alien carcass — something that made more sense in death than in life. The company had dropped it off in the middle of the day, when everyone was at the plant. They let it sit overnight, alone and strange.
Nikki thought it was ridiculous, but Ron approved. To Elmo, the truck was simply beautiful.
The town didn't produce much garbage anyway, she said. Who would drive it? And where?
The only "road" in town was the old airstrip.
The locals had turned to gardening when the company store stopped stocking canned vegetables, so there was very little garbage to be hauled off anymore.
The truck reminded him of New York City, which he'd visited once by bus and which had made a great impression on him, especially the mountains of garbage that dotted the sidewalks. The truck didn't smell yet, but it would — a glorious patina built up over decades of progress and labor.
In New York, he said, everyone put their garbage out on the sidewalks like they were proud of it, or proud of what it signified: "we have defeated another week, here is its corpse."
Of course, there was nowhere to drive it. Even Ron conceded that.
He thought it was elegant. He liked the idea of passing it every day, observing it from different angles and distances.
He liked boxy things, generally, and especially boxy machines.
He didn't care if they used it or not — anyway, there weren't any roads in town, unless you maybe counted the old airstrip.
Everyone had to agree this was money and attention that would have been better spent addressing the town's drainage problems. Maybe finally get started on that damned messianic ditch.
Still, they had a few things to dispose of — broken flowerpots, empty glass bottles, clothes that didn't fit anymore ... They gradually fell into the habit of collecting waste and carrying it to the truck. Once a month, some shadows would come in from the night woods and haul the garbage away on a cart.
`3A. Lay paper flat.` `3B. Bring bottom left corner up to top right corner.` `3C. Crease, with firm, steady pressure, along diagonal fold.`
Nikki applied only gentle pressure. Looser flowers felt more alive. She rolled her wrists. It was the sixth hour of her assigned company store shift, and she'd made dozens of flowers. Ron had bought a bouquet and cleaned out their stock that afternoon.
`11. Repeat steps 4A-7 for each petal, taking care not to rip the filaments from step 9.`
She imagined the insects that would pollinate paper flowers. Watercolor bees, or wasps that left ink stains when they stung.
`11. Repeat steps 4A-7 for each petal, taking care not to rip the filaments from step 9.`
The company store used to have a dedicated staff, until the Civic Responsibility Plan a few years back. Now everyone took one or two shifts a week, on a mandatory volunteer basis.
`11. Repeat steps 4A-7 for each petal, taking care not to rip the filaments from step 9.`
She put Ron's bouquet down in the sales ledger as "romantic bouquet," but really he was just buying in bulk at a small discount. Since the company started allowing resident workers to donate paper flowers to "Aunt Connie" for Civic Enthusiasm Points, exchangeable for sick days, they had become kind of a shadow currency for local trade.
The Seer huddled in the small cave. The Deer Hunters ran by, shielding their eyes from the torrential rain. It must have looked like she was taking shelter, but she was waiting for the water to rise and envelop her.
She wedged her leg and shoulder into rocky corners, settling in. The floor was slick and muddy, and she had a feeling of drifting with the water, like the cave was a cramped boat. She closed her eyes.
The water was warm. It rose above her knees. It reminded her of the womb. She closed her eyes.
She wondered where The Diver was now, if he had found the end of the route. Was he on his way back? Or had he been lost underground? Either way, it was too late.
She thought back to the first flood, long before her birth, a flood she had only seen in dice rolls. She stayed there for a while, and then opened her eyes again. Now the water was crossing her heart. She took the game pieces from her bag and released them, gently, into the flood.
The Seer reclined high in a tree, carving fine details into a small wooden pipe.
She loved this spot — the height, the distance. She was `always` at a distance, watching everyone work.
She'd done the bulk of the carving over hazy mornings with The Stoneworker. He smoked constantly. She only smoked when she was happy, or very sad, or bored.
She watched him.
She stood in her own shadow. A few Deer Hunters and Talkers walked past but said nothing to The Seer, didn't even look. She studied the path.
He walked deliberately, his eyes closed. He was already remembering the path.
This was the path The Seer had found in her scrying game, a series of private dice rolls and inscrutable diagrams.
The Community trusted this game — it had led them to fish-filled streams, intimate knowledge of the elements and the stars, even here to the cenote settlement. They trusted it without understanding it. And now the game had revealed to The Seer this vital route, which would lead them to safety before the next floods came.
At the end of the route, she'd seen a safe, quiet place — caverns of leathery black birds, a lake of eyeless fish, a towering flame.
Jorge scanned the shelf. He quickly found the book he was looking for. There were only a few dozen left. More shelves than books now — the result of an experiment called the "new selection." Privately, he called it the "purge."
"A Crystal Age." Anonymous. A fairly recent publication. Jorge flipped through the pages for a minute. The binding was stiff.
Frazier didn't trust anonymity — he had an almost pathological need to see everything clearly and plainly. "Transparency."
He hadn't read the book, but had discussed it with Isabelle, the community architect. It was the story of a man who sleeps for thousands of years and awakens into a world without hunger or strife. Isabelle had requested the book, part of a collection she was building called "ecological mysticism." And now it was to be the latest victim of Frazier's reckless experiment.
But only privately, in small groups of reliable complainers. The unspoken rule was to hold back criticism as long as possible. Experiments needed time to unfold naturally, without the interference of doubt. Jorge would have preferred to complain more freely.
Even the scheduled Feedback Circle sessions had been losing their teeth lately, he thought — a trend that coincided with Frazier's increasingly central role in the community.
Frazier proposed and executed experiments just like any other community member, but his experiments had a scorched earth quality. They were all destructive. He moved from one area of community life to the next in search of excess to cut back.
Lately he'd turned his scythe to the library. The "new selection" meant decimating their store of books according to Frazier's own inscrutable criteria. "Now, we are guaranteed something vital every time we take a book from the shelves. No more time lost to printed chaff."
Paints and chalk in the small bag, diary in the large bag, stuffed dog in the small bag, photograph of Chris in the large bag ... no, in the small bag? Sandra couldn't decide — should she keep the photo of her husband, or should Alex keep the photo of his father?
She wrapped the diary in a towel before stuffing it into her bag, feeling slightly silly doing it.
Frazier had been on a tear collecting "all written material" as community property lately.
She was sure he couldn't possibly have meant even a personal diary, but ... was she sure?
Chris had been gone for three months. Everyone was saying he'd deserted the community.
"Deserted" ... before Frazier, people just left. When had it become a referendum on loyalty?
A heated disagreement in Feedback Circle — like the one Frazier and Chris had — was just a healthy argument, not a betrayal. But now ...
She dreaded the separation from her son.
Frazier insisted it was just to help Alex develop independence and community ethics. But she'd seen the same thing happen to Isabelle after criticizing Frazier's new flood control plans.
It was obviously a punishment.
It was obviously a punishment, even though Frazier insisted it was just to help Alex develop independence and community ethics. She knew she was being punished for her complaints in Feedback Circle — when she was the only one who dared to speak against butchering the community's goats. She'd seen the same thing happen to Isabelle.
Isabelle ... where was she now? She and her children just disappeared into the woods ...
She set everything down, closed her eyes, massaged her temples, and wondered, not for the first time, how Frazier had consolidated so much invisible power so quickly.
Rita tore up weeds. Elmo stood next to her with a bucket. She passed him the uprooted weeds, and he stuffed them in the bucket. They worked this way for a few hours. Dark clouds drifted slowly closer, but wouldn't arrive until evening.
Elmo left to get some tea. Rita pulled an apple from her bag and lay her head back onto the overturned dirt. She looked at the sky. For a moment, she looked directly at the sun. Then she closed her eyes and let the afterimage fade.
Elmo came back with a plastic jug of sweet tea. They sat and drank for a while, and then got back to work.
Rita left to get some tea. Elmo sat in the dirt. He pulled up a blade of grass and held it in the path of a ladybug. When it boarded the grass, and Elmo lifted them both into the air. He held the bug close in front of his face and tried to count its spots.
Rita came back with a plastic jug of sweet tea. They sat and drank for a while, and then got back to work.
Rita and Elmo left to get some tea. The bucket of weeds sat warming in the sun. The dandelions wilted and the clover dried. Some wayward insects continued to eat.
When Rita and Elmo returned, they assumed the same roles and continued working.
The garden was coming along as well as they could hope, given months of neglect. When the plant shut down, the company abruptly pulled out of the area and took a large part of the town's population with it. This included the Carver family, who had tended this garden — the largest and most productive in town — for years.
Now the garden would be cared for by a new family, and feed what was left of the town and whatever it became next. They didn't know much about gardening, but they were prepared to learn on the job. They knew for sure they would plant tomatoes. Those had grown well from this garden in the past.
Elmo gave Rita a tour of the cameras and wiring. She'd just been through a certificate program on Public Broadcasting at the community college, so no surprises there. Nikki showed her the Video Databank. James demonstrated the Sandin Image Processor. And then Ron came barreling in with an urgent expression.
Rita had entered the Public Broadcasting program at Fishtrap Lake Community and Technical College with a vague desire to be a newscaster. One of her instructors got her excited about pirate television, and she followed threads through TV and activist communities until she found herself here, somehow, volunteering at WEVP-TV.
It wasn't quite the radical guerilla television crew she'd dreamed of joining. This group seemed more interested in sharing the town's home movies than culture jamming and interfering with corporate stations. But she liked that focus on local concerns.
The station had a great collection of video tapes made by local artists, along with a huge library of what looked like home movies. There were tapes about local politics, the weather, video dream diaries. Rita was eager to start contributing her own work.
The Image Processor was a beautiful machine. James had inherited its care from another artist, reverse-engineering it for maintenance with the help of a dusty, photocopied tome labeled "The Distribution Religion." Rita learned just enough to make throbbing, hypnotic rainbows appear on the screen, which seemed to be the machine's favorite trick. She wondered what they used it for, in practice.
Ron's news was clearly bad news. Rita's heart sank a little as they listened. She knew things were unraveling, knew from experience what that looked like.
Wouldn't it be nice to arrive at the beginning of something, for once?
But as she listened to Ron detail the power company's sudden withdrawal from town affairs, she heard other possibilities. She studied their faces and found concern, for sure ... but also something like relief, hope, an awakening of play. Nikki looked like she might have been daydreaming.