To the Reader: Along with the Dylan quote below, note that the nickname of the first nuke set off by India in May 1974 was “The Smiling Buddha.” The two make up my title.
Also, I should note that this story has been submitted to an American sci-fi magazine and the decision is still pending, but I’m reasonably certain it will never be published, and it doesn’t matter now.
“Can they imagine the darkness
That will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them
And they won’t be able to die.”
Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”
The Buddha Will Smile and Death Shall Flee
By John Kendall Hawkins
They called their cave ToraToraTora, after the battle cry of “kamikazes” back in some long forgotten war, before even the Terror Wars, making it either a precursor or pointless, depending upon your point of view. But there were no more wars now. Indeed, one was tempted to say, ‘war is history’, except that there was no longer a need for history either. No cataloguing of ferocious events, no heroes or villains, no more “need” for historical progress, no more squabbles over dialectical materialism, liberty, or campaign contribution reforms. Everybody had what they most desired. And then some.
Well, maybe not everybody; not yet. Not the five denizens of ToraToraTora, who were wise, in a way, and wizened, but not yet accomplished in their mission; they weren’t even sure what “mission accomplished” would look like, such was the ruthless inscrutability of pure chance. However, Bud and Buddi, and the three Mitochondriacs, formed a little cell of catalytic conversion, and as they sat in the dimmed space, and studied the 3D wall of holographic images moving before them, images of people and places, they saw not the equilibrium and homeostasis they had expected, although there was stability and order, but a kind of malady or madness, which made Buddi and the Mitochondriacs gloomy, their souls filled with shadow dances. The Mitochondriacs knew what must be done. But Buddi was not as sure. While he trusted the three holy oracles implicitly, the 3Ms, as he called them, he still believed, as another old wise man once said, that what you observed was to some extent changed by the observation itself.
‘Your caution is noble,’ said the Mitochondriac named Messala from a secluded place beneath his hooded robe. ‘However, you need to consider that you may be giving into sentimentality in this instance.’
‘Are you saying the observed is not changed by the observation? Is that wise observation wrong?’ asked Buddi, conscious that he was slipping on his own banana peel of irony.
‘No, of course not, Buddi,’ said Mehmet, his nose in the light creating a sundial-like shadow on the table before him. ‘But Buddi you were born there — a long time ago –’
‘A long time ago,’ chimed in Moises, the most volatile of the three and the most prone to wisecracking.
‘So, maybe your emotional separation is incomplete,’ Mehmet continued. ‘Maybe it would do you some good to come into the physical presence of some your syngenes.’
‘Maybe,’ said Buddi. ‘But, look, don’t get me wrong. I mean, I know how stoma work and I believe in the processes of photosynthesis, but it would be good to hold in my hand the leaf one more time before I draw final conclusions about the tree.’
Bud had sat there listening, allowing the others to sort out an understanding in their own way; he knew what would have to happen, and just to speed things along, he said to Buddi, ‘Just go. Your closest syngene match is in Sydney. Go there, Buddi, and decide. We must be unanimous on this. So Mehmet, Moises and Messala, you head to the Dome of the Clock and be ready. And just remember, Buddi, sometimes you can’t always see the forest for the tree.’
A silence of reasonable assent fell over the cell. Buddi looked across the table at Bud, with a deep love born of unmitigated trust. When Buddi had been a small child the 3Ms had, in a moment of profound compassion, rescued him from the conclusion of the Terror Wars and brought him back to ToraToraTora. Bud (not his real name) had taken Buddi (not his real name) under his wing, raised and nurtured him, and at a certain stage of Buddi’s development had manipulated his genes, implanted him with triangulators that altered his perceptions and sensations, and Bud had grafted onto him a plasma pod that had nurtured him and filled him with the green slime of near-immortality. Buddi was aging, but very slowly. Nevertheless, even years later, he felt a small, but significant gravitational pull toward the world of his origins, humanity. On the other hand, the 3Ms felt no such stirrings, having started life in a petri dish and then brought to their current fruition by the masterful hands of Bud. And given the mission they were assigned to accomplish, they were either angels or terrorists, or something beyond all that, depending on your point of view.
At a bar on the promenade looking out at the harbour, not far from the opera house, they could hear the yodels of yabbos and hoonies priming their lungs for The Show. Brentfield and Viola sat at a table, musing toward the sky, where solar drones flitted back and forth in great waves, like swifts or swallows switching this way and that, performing their tasks – personal satellites, corporate messengers, cloud routers, Eyes™, whatever. The couple sat there disaffected and bored, nursing their alcohol-free Dramamine-based cocktails – Bullet-to-the-Temple, as the news service Some Pundits Are Calling It ironically referred to the drink, without humour. But everyone was bored, and everybody was stricken with a kind of vomitus seasickness; it had become a permanent condition since the onset of the pandemic – The Great Nausea, as Some Pundits Are Calling It had nicknamed it — so many moons before. It wasn’t a lethal pandemic (there were none of those anymore); it was just profoundly boring. And all you could do was drink your grog and mind your own business and try not to think about it.
You wouldn’t have known it from the way Brentfield and Viola carried on with each other in public, with the rude yawns and twisted expressions they sometimes taunted each other with, but they were, in fact, deeply in love and had the battle scars to prove it. The night before, Brentfield had solidly cold-cocked Viola, sending his partner sliding across the sensory linoleum, which lit up, on her impact and slide, to ask if an ambulance was needed. It was in such moments of raw affection that she realized how much he still cared for her, and the growing shiner she now tenderly pressed was far more precious to her than any glowy finger mineral. And she had risen from the floor and returned the favour, gliding up to him and biting a small chunk off his ear, pressing into his doughy cheek with the sharpened fingernails of her right hand, being careful not to give into the aching impulse to rip at his face, ever-cognizant that they were reaching the monthly limits of their healthcare coverage for such “lovesickness”, as Some Pundits Are Calling It were calling the condition.
‘Well, Viola, aren’t you the high-strung one,’ he had snarled like a pussy cat through gritted teeth, as he held her claw grip against his face.
‘And you, dear, are my resin de etre,’ she’d punned back, her loving desire to hurt him flashing like barbed wire stars in the firmament of her deep blue eyes.
But they could hardly be blamed, such impulses built from kindles to bonfires in the phases leading up to The Show, and affected nearly everyone to some degree, and by the time the Day arrived the digi-stim of the social media was so intense that it was all the average person could do to keep his or her fingers from gouging the eyes or throttling the throat of the nearest passer-by. Thank heavens for insurance limits! People thought twice before acting. It was unseemly to go out in public showing off the battle scars of love. Brentfield and Viola weren’t so very different from the hooligans ululating outside the opera house, and they knew it. But they liked to put on airs; it was something to do; a way of warding off some boredom for a while, and they had a lot of whiles to go before they’d sleep.
Noisy news from the bar’s widescreen shook Brentfield and Viola from their empty reveries. They gave each other angry smiles and then turned to watch the report. They were showing the festivities outside the opera house. The camera shot was from an old-fashioned ‘blimp’, looking down at the crowd, the zoomed-out figures moving around in the video frame like bacteria viewed through a microscope. There was an organic quality to the crowd’s movement that was oceanic and aesthetic, and which the couple found both mesmerizing and repulsive.
‘Jackson Pollack puked up his Dramamine dream, that’s what it would like, I reckon,’ said Viola, the more loquacious of the two.
‘You do so have a way with words,’ he snarled and, sharply pinching her ear, added, ‘And I’m sorely tempted to have my way with you, right here, right now.’
They locked leers for a moment. She was what Some Pundits Are Calling It referred to as a Classic Beauty, the black hair and blue eyes of the Elizabeth Taylor Persona™ she was wearing suited her to a tee. And he with his complementary Burton – well, people stole peeks at them walking hand-in-hand , and smiled, knowing there was some serious bruising going on underneath it all that make-up could not always hide. And who could blame them if an obsolete pang of jealousy briefly swept through them? After all, not every couple had been so lucky with their random hexa-love profile match-up; some couples were drearily compatible. But no one felt sorry for long, realizing as they did that such insufferability could easily visit upon them at the next random match-up at the end of The Show. But everywhere in the world on this day of days, this Show day, people were decked out in their Persona™ best, and nothing could subdue the excitement of the good times to come. Nothing.
On the television they were showing the opera house from overhead, the blimp moving around in a circle.
‘If I’ve said it once…,’ she began the Common Meme.
‘I’ve said it a thousand times,’ he finished, and they laughed.
‘The opera house doesn’t look so much like sails as it does a lotus opening, silent, still,’ she waxed, with a wistful poesy she’d picked up somewhere she could not remember.
‘Why opening? Why not closing?’ he asked, rather facetiously.
‘Maybe I’m a glass half-full kind of gal, and maybe you’re a glass half-empty.’
‘Maybe. Although I’d be inclined to say that I’m somewhat more than half so.’
She was moved by this candour and gave him a hard slap to the face that brought tears of pain to face and a smile of gratitude.
‘Ahem,’ began the waiter who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere and who was now hovering over their table. ‘May I get you another drink before we close for The Show?’
The waiter was tall, lean, green and pony-tailed, and his name tag read, ‘Buddi.’
‘No, thanks,’ said Brentfield. ‘I suppose we should get going.’ And, indeed, they could hear the distant voice of the emcee inside the opera house firing up the microphone, calling out ‘1-2-3, testing,’ which further roused the crowd.
‘Okay, I’ll get your check then,’ said Buddi, and was just about to move off when Viola thought to have some fun.
‘Say, Buddi,’ she said. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Ben Kingsley, or Osama bin Laden, one of those old-time actors, playing Gandhi?’
‘Why, yes, just yesterday,’
‘And the day before that, right?’ laughed Brentfield.
‘And the day before that,’ Viola howled.
‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,’ the couple laughed together.
‘No, I mean, are you really a Buddi, underneath all that green greasepaint, you know, or are you just a terrorist dressed in words?’ Viola teased, flirted. She was playing with the fact that “Buddi” was a generic name assigned by Some Pundits Are Calling It to a long-ago sect who yearned for nothingness and tried to escape from the cycle of what they called reincarnation by killing off desire and putting an end to suffering.
But before he could answer the couple broke into a monkey chant. ‘Om mani padme hum.’
‘If I’ve said it once… ‘ laughed Viola and slapped Brentfield hard again.
‘In deed,’ muttered Buddi and walked off. At the swinging door to the kitchen, Buddi turned and gave a long, absorbent look at Brentfield, to whom he was genetically related somewhere along the great chain of double-helixal events.
On the television they were showing people pouring into the opera house, noisily taking their seats, eyes keened with excitement, as if they were about to attend the finals of a football match. Brentfield sat there, the gathering spectacle on the widescreen and the widening gyre of near-hysteria building up from the mob outside the opera house, and he felt a pang not felt much anymore, a kind of regret that he could not put his finger on, as if it did not quite belong to him, and which made him seem pensive. When Viola looked over and saw his lost and searching expression her immediate reaction was jealousy. Most people relied on others to get their fix of sweet sorrow, but Brentfield seemed to have a small inner reservoir he could drink from occasionally, like what they used to call a poet in the old days. It was a pity, she thought, because he’ll probably lose it at the Hex Exchange at the end of The Show, when everyone had to turn in their Persona™ for a fresh one. He looked over at her and shook himself loose from his bracketed state.
‘Viola, do you rememer when we first met at all?’
‘Vaguely,’ she said. ‘My memery is not what it used to be. It’s become clouded and cluttered and clotted with time.’
‘With time?’ They looked at each other and laughed. ‘Well, that’s an interesting slip, dear.’
‘What I mean is: When we first met, do you rememer how structured and composed and understood everything felt between us?’
‘Yes, like two symphonies merging.’
‘Yes, how lovely. But two clashing symphonies. I was Stravinsky to your Mozart, as I rememer.’
‘Such sweet discord. Your percussion practically raped my string session.’
‘Yes,’ she smiled, and then paused as if she almost rememered something else, something important. ‘And yet, at the same time, even with all that wonderful cacophony, there was already the sense of something diabolically dialectical at work, something beyond the sounds themselves, something relational, mathematical, that worked to – ‘
‘Yes,’ he said pensively, and this time he so moved her with his look that she reached across the table and pinched his cheek hard enough to bring blood. A murderous look flashed in his eyes, but he continued. ‘And then, suddenly we started to bore each other; there was all that ennui and indifference. I started to feel like I didn’t care if another man beat the living shit out of you.’
‘But, you know, Viola, there was something else. Some shard of – ‘
‘No, not memery. Something unique and mine, a feeling.’
‘Shh!’ Viola was suddenly terrified, but in a way that brought no joy to Brentfield. ‘That word “unique” is in the Threat Disposition database. If they hear you! Oh love, do you want to see us stuck with each other another 10 years?!’
‘Certainly not,’ he said, ‘you couldn’t be any more boring if you were a hydraulic drill.’
‘Yes, well, better luck Hex time,’ she smiled, and slammed her fist down on his right hand.
Buddi was in the kitchen alone, as all the other barkeeps and help had run off to The Show, leaving him to close up shop. The closer it got to Show Time the more Buddi became ill, his green skin draining of its lively colour and turning yellowed, jaundiced even, and he had a look of sag about him that made him seem both limp and sad. And, indeed, standing there, leaning against the deep freeze door, he did not think he’d ever felt so sad. He remembered when he was young, so very green, but ‘a cut above the rest,’ as his brother/father, Bud, was fond of saying, albeit not without self-interest, and he had vivid dreams that were like dark forests of midnight mysteries or like living, breathing jungles of energy and animation, fields, plains, densities of desire promiscuously alive and forever becoming anew in themselves, the destined otherness of their own raw being. So, yes, he wept, or rather glistened in sappy distress, to see it all now accounted for by the disposition matrices, engineered by the fuck-knuckles who couldn’t leave well enough alone, and, in his growing rage, rising in his consciousness like a quick time-elapsed Sahara sun, he snapped off the pinky of his left hand and threw it in the Fry-o-lator, where it sizzled, grease bubbles swarming, and quickly lost its colour and form. Driblets of green sap glaciered into the palm of his mutilated hand. That was the problem with Buddi: He was always so emotional, so serious about such things, so human-all-too-human.
To restore his flagging confidence he decided to talk with Bud, who was always as cool as a cucumber, even in times like this, even in this approaching moment of do-or-die decision-making. He made a gesture with his right hand and his holo-phone appeared before him, his thought-ping autodialling Bud, who appeared almost without delay. The holograph that emerged from thin air displayed a frame at the centre of which Bud sat forward on a stationary bike, pedalling away, while behind him the Wall of Shadows displayed televised images of The Show, and its lead-up, being broadcast across the Some Pundits Are Calling It global network.
‘Buddi, are you alright?’ asked Bud, glancing over at the camera, still pedalling.
‘Just having that “black petals of the ancient rose” kind of feeling; just a little dark that’s all; a little nauseous,” said Buddi.
Bud stopped pedalling and the Wall of Shadows lost its images and turned grey. ‘Oh, brother, you always get that way when you’re among the Same-Same,’ said Bud, calling his fellow, though fallow, human mates by their dispositional matrices label. ‘Will you be able to go through with it?’
‘Yeah, look,’ Buddi started, but Brentfield was at the swinging door, wearing a smirk, and shaking his thumb and index finger together, as if ringing a tiny bell. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Ringy. Ringy,’ said Brentfield. ‘The Show waits for no man. You got our tab, so we can go?’
‘Right. Sure,’ said Buddi, immediately shepherding the smirk back toward the bar. ‘I’ll be right back, Bud,’ said Buddi to his brother, leaving the hologram lit up as he went with Brentfield back to his table.
‘Wow, what was that awful smell in the kitchen?’ asked Brentfield. ‘Smelled like burnt spinach.’
‘Oh that, yes,’ said Buddi. ‘Yes, that was burnt spinach. Overcooked my lunch.’
Brentfield was about to respond, when they passed a table on the way to sidewalk area and heard muffled screaming and a serious physical altercation taking place. Buddi went over to the table and lifted up the tablecloth and saw two hetero lovers biting and scratching and punching each other with gay abandonment. He was dressed, clearly, as Humphrey Bogart, and she was apparently intended to be Lauren Bacall.
‘Stop it, you two,’ said Buddi crossly. ‘Save it for The Show. It’s unbecoming to behave that way in public – oh, and I see you’ve gashed each other pretty good too, so now you’ve broken the law, too.’ Buddi was about to draw a look of commiseration from Brentfield, who stood their gawking at the couple, when he saw that Brentfield had a tiny rivulet of blood snaking its way down his cheek. ‘You, too? Okay, all of you out of here, get thee hence, and take these with you,’ he said, throwing a wad of napkins at the three. He looked over at Viola, who was standing there with a vicious grin on her face, pretending to claw the air like a cat. ‘More flirting,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Look,’ he told the group, ‘They have started. The Royal Philvagina Chora are singing the global anthem.’ And, indeed, on the widescreen you could see dozens of hovering drone marionettes mechanically tugging strings attached to the very large 3D vaginas, printed out just minutes before The Show began, that were seated primly before the crowd, their labial manifolds crooning, shrill and shrieky, ‘If I’ve sang it once, I’ve…’ The crowd almost beside themselves with nails-on-chalkboard ecstasy.
He shooed the group off and watched them walk away, the four of them, picking up their pace, clearly excited, as they neared the opera house. He could hear Viola drolly chanting, ‘Om mani padme hum,’ looking back at him a couple of times with a girlish laugh. When they were almost at the opera house, Humphrey Bogart lurched toward the harbour and dry-heaved. ‘Nerves,’ Buddi said. There were no more people passing by, and with a sigh, he dropped into the seat recently occupied by Brentfield and, looking out at the harbour, he made a wrist gesture and transferred the holograph call with Bud to his current locale. His brother seemed to emerge out of the harbour view.
‘Everything all right there, Buddi,’ said Bud intently, but without much emotion.
‘Yeah, sure, just some celebrants getting carried away early.’
‘Right. So listen, Buddi, tell me about this darkness. Is it –’
‘—Yes, Bud, it’s the same. Same as always. I watch them. I see them. I am them or, at least, one of them, and you can see behind it all this kind of yearning. Yearning.’
‘And you get caught up. Is that it?’
‘Yes. I get caught up. I do. I see this condition and I want to reach out and shake them and show them what we know.’
‘But – ‘
‘I know. I know, Bud. It’s no use. It’s just that I pity them sometimes –‘
‘You mustn’t pity, brother. It could undo all the work we’ve done. All the work to come.’
‘Yes, I know. But sometimes I forget. I mean, literally, I look on them and lose my memories and a Now creeps in unlike any others, a Now full of fathomless unstillness.’
‘I understand,’ said Bud, and then paused, almost grim, for a moment. ‘But you must remember, brother, because you have a decision to make, soon, and it is the most important one you will ever make. The 3Ms are waiting. Let me send you something that will help. A memory. One you cherish more than all others.’
‘The Smiling Buddha?’
‘In deed,’ said Bud. ‘The Smiling Buddha.’
And even before the memory had reached him, even in that flash of light speed, Buddi’s face lit up in a smile and his teary eyes ran, like twin chalices overflowing with the nectar of joy.
Coming out of a reverie as profound as the Smiling Buddha was exceptionally difficult for Buddi to do, mostly because he didn’t want to come out. It was a state, he’d read, that only some old Confucian monks in the grasp of an opium vision could relate to; it wasn’t like your Self dreaming, but rather your being, naked, without the clothing of selfhood, and yet, as a contemplative moment, still a product of consciousness and the senses, for rising out of Buddi’s bowels and rising to fill his chest cavity was a sensation, a kind of paralyzing ecstasy, that he would stay with forever if he could. But, as always, he did come back to consciousness, the endless puzzles of his species urging him on with its suffocating yearning and restlessness. He opened his eyes and looked out at the harbour. The memory had only been with him seconds and yet he felt its energizing light; there was buoyancy in his spirits, a bounce in his gait as he made his way toward the opera house.
As he came in the presence of the celebrating crowd he felt a sudden pull back toward dark spirits. It wasn’t just the small puddles of blood here and there, and signs of maiming and uncontrol, but the sensation of appetency that seemed to sweep through the closely-packed throng. The camera shots from the blimp mesmerized you with a kind of design at work, as if you were looking at the splashes and daubs of some kind of animate abstract expressionist painting. But up close, the unicyclists, and clowns on stilts, and all the assorted nutty-eyed revellers wearing costumes were like crazy-quilt tribes out of psychedelic jungle stories. Their smells and voices raced through his brain; their collective energy filled him with a tension that an ancient poet once aptly described as being ‘like a madman shaking a dead geranium.’ He pushed aside the carnivalesque vibrations, the giddy laughter on the edge of hysteria, and panned to locate the 3Ms hovering in 3D holography over by the huge outdoor screen where they’d said they be. Michael saw him first and raised his right fist, which delivered a location ping to Buddi’s implant. Had it not been for the distracting busy bodies every which way before him Buddi would have recognized them immediately, as they were garbed in monks’ robes with hoods, and their stillness amidst the ocean of human movement stood out blatantly. Moises held up his arms, as if to say, ‘What’s your decision? How hard can it be? Look around.’ But Buddi did look around, and still he could not decide.
On the big screen the Royal Philvagina Chorus was into their third or fourth song and people were starting to get restless, letting loose catcalls (one guy actually threw a cat toward the singers.) Overhead, the blimp updates from its news ticker. A groan went up as a statistic rolled across, indicating that life expectancy had risen .03% in the last quarter. Then people oohed and aahed as stocks for companies with carcinogenic products went up and down, not it seemed, to most of them, that it really mattered, although it was worth the effort they supposed. And then the festive mood was all but destroyed when the ticker told everyone that six elites had ‘successfully committed suicide.’
‘It’s like they live just to give us the middle finger before dying,’ observed a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood to her mate dressed as the Wolfman.
Buddi was tempted to watch the rest of The Show on the large screen, joining the overflow crowd outside the opera house, but he felt he had to see the acts without the mediation of a camera. Plus Bud had gone through some trouble to procure a ticket to the event for him. So he gently pushed his way through the crowd, presented his ticket, and was, moments later, standing in the doorway, looking down at the stage, perhaps 25 meters away. There was an electric buzz inside the opera house, as they knew nothing about the blimp data bits and so had no break in their collective passion. The chora had stopped singing and sat there on stage slightly steaming in the chilly air. There was a sense of great anticipation, such as it must have been at a Roman coliseum just before they rolled out the main event, “The Christians meet the Lions”.
Finally, just as the crowd began to stamp their feet (and each other’s), the emcee came onstage to uproarious applause and went directly to the microphone. ‘People,’ he began, ‘we start off tonight with one Victor Fennel.’ He waited for the oohs to settle down. ‘Now Victor comes to us from the not-so-ancient past of the 1990s – 1997 to be precise – when he had himself cryogenically stilled, hoping to come back when there was a cure for his peculiar heart valve malady that threatened to cut his life short.’ Wild laughter broke out in the crowd. ‘Some Pundits Are Calling It says we should refer to him as The Ice Man Cometh Yet Again.’ More laughter. ‘Well, Victor,’ the emcee snarled comically, ‘If I thawed you once…’ He held out the mike to the crowd, who responded with, ‘I thawed you a thousand times.’ Two orderlies wheeled Victor out on a gurney. He was strapped down and gagged and he held a book, The Forest People. Victor was stout, had grey hair and wore glasses. He was astonished and bewildered. Though he’d been brought back to the living with his heart ailment fixed shortly thereafter, and had spent a few days working his mind through the ramifications of waking into the future, he was now clearly rather puzzled and maybe a little terrified to find himself bound, gagged and being wheeled before a sea of hungry faces staring up at him from the dimmed interior of the opera house.
‘People, some of you may recall, although I doubt it, that ten years ago at the last Show our cryogenic guest was a playwright and poet, and, by goof, did he not entertain us with his lines of verse and verve?’ There was a smattering of applause, as most people could barely recall anything clear so long back as ten years. ‘Well, no matter. Tonight we have before you a cultural anthropologist!’ There was an even slighter applause, as the crowd looked puzzled. ‘Victor’s going to tell us what he got himself up to before he got himself ice-cubed.’ The emcee made a gesture to the orderlies and they removed Victor’s straps and ungagged him, and, standing him up, they nodded to indicate that he should go stand by the emcee, which he did with fear and trepidation.
‘So, tell us, Victor,’ started the emcee, but was interrupted by a catcaller.
‘Reckon your name should be Loser, Victor!’ hollered the reveller to wild applause.
‘So, tell us, Victor, what’s your last decent memory?’ asked the emcee, and the crowd grew suddenly quiet. Victor looked bewildered; he’d been warned what to expect, but was still, nevertheless, unprepared for the corrosive energy he felt all around him. He’d expected a warmer reception, outpourings of surprise and curiosity and enthusiasm, but there was none of that. He felt frightened.
‘Well,’ he began, almost whispering, ‘I’m a cultural anthropologist by profession.’ This brought on more catcalls. ‘And my last place of study was in the Congo. I was among the Mbuti pygmies; they had invited me to study their traditions, their ways. I’d been to Turkey the year before, at Catal Hoyuk. They were matrilineal, you see. And peaceful. And I’d read things about the Mbuti, things about their communitarian practices, and their relative peacefulness, and, naturally, I was curious about how the two separate human ecosystems were able –’
‘Oh, Jayzuz, mate, that’s not painful; that’s just boring,’ yelled another man from the crowd. ‘We don’t want to hear about a bunch of fackin pygmies.’ The crowd roared, and the man’s girlfriend gave him a quick piercing pinch of approval. ‘Bone him!’ the man continued, and his cry was repeated by the crowd, who stamped their feet (and each other’s) in growing indignation.
‘Very well,’ said the emcee, clicking his fingers. Two hooded figures grabbed hold of the anthropologist and dragged him toward a gleaming contraption.
‘But I just got here. I’ve just returned. You’ve just now brought me back to life,’ said the man, partly pleading, partly contorting with incomprehension.
‘He’ll learn!’ someone yelled.
‘Take him! Take him! Take him!’ screamed the crowd, now a tightly packed lynch mob, and the two hooded men picked up Victor flung him into a vat-like device and turned it on. Victor screamed for a few seconds, rather like a wild elephant, then went silent. The crowd grew quiet, waiting, anticipating. Finally, the emcee held up a lab jar to a spigot on the side of the vat and turned it. Out flowed a small portion of blood and body fluids. The emcee held it up to the crowd’s roaring approval. Then he lifted up the cover of the vat, reached in and pulled out Victor’s bones, to which the crowd roared louder. He twisted off the skull and held it up. ‘Alas,’ he began, and the crowd continued, ‘Poor Victor, we hardly knew him!’ And the emcee tossed the skull into the crowd and it made its way around. They were delirious.
‘Next up,’ said the emcee into the mike, ‘the main event. The highlight of this evening’s entertainment.’ The crowd hushed again. The skull had passed to Viola, and as with musical chairs when the music stops, she was obliged to hold onto the skull and she placed it in her lap. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, loosely speaking, to get us ready for this event, we’ll begin by reading from the Book of KSM. As you may recall,’ he began, waiting for the laughter caused by this remark to subside, for they did not recall at all, ‘KSM is the ancient martyr who was waterboarded by angels 183 times during the great Terror Wars and the torture was so exquisite, so…inspiring, that he ended up writing 83 sonnets to his tormenter’s wife. And they say the sonnet is a dead form. Well, how wonderful is that?!’
The crowd roared its approval. Someone even yelled, ‘Why won’t someone waterboard me? I’m not so bad, once you get to gnarl me. Plus I got a real bad case of writers block.’ This was met with laughter and good-natured jeers.
‘Tonight we are privileged to have in our crowd the world renowned poetry reciter, Professor Brentfield Turner, polymath and litterateur these past 10 years, who will entertain us with a reading of Sonnet number 66 by KSM.’ And the emcee motioned for Brentfield to come up on the stage and recite the poem. Brentfield seemed hesitant and unwilling, although he had been ‘advised’ by authorities that he might be called upon. However, in all his studies these past 10 years he could find no reference to KSM, and he was reasonably certain, but couldn’t swear to it, that the KSM collection was just a compilation of various poets and their dark-themed verses. But hesitancy was not allowed; not today, Show day. He was practically pulled out of his seat by his hair and thrust forward toward the stage, Viola’s foot slammed against his rump accelerating his forward propulsion. He climbed up the stage and rather nervously approached the mike, the emcee smiling sadistically and handing him the poem to read. Brentfield read:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’er throw me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Brentfield was no sooner finished reading when the second movement of Richard Strauss’
Also Sprach Zarathustra resounded majestically, and out on stage, to much clappy ravishment, danced The Tortured Man, in an elaborate choreographed routine, all smiles and poses and high-hat salutes, blowing kisses to the crowd, who howled their approval and drew blood rivulets from their mates. Brentfield, who’d climbed from the stage and was about to return to his seat, looked over at Viola, who sat transfixed by the arrival of the Tortured Man; in a very real sense he no longer existed for her; indeed, he might never have been. He decided not to re-join her (their relationship would be over soon anyway, with the Hex realignment coming), and he slowly made his way to toward the exit, the only unhappy face in the house. The Tortured Man comically threw himself down on a specialized ordeal table and he was strapped in with much histrionics, like a ‘victim’ at a magic show. Then his table was raised slightly so that he could look out at the crowd and they could observe his face and its paroxysms and screams to come. The cameras of the As Some Pundits Are Calling It network covering him from every angle, as at a football match. There would even be a kind of play-by-play as they moved from torture to torture.
And they tortured him every which way they knew – waterboarding, trussing, shock treatments, razor slices, sluicing, strangulation, decibels, acids on the tongue, beatings, sleep deprivation, mind-altering nightmare, and on it went for hours. The Tortured Man braving it at first, telling little jokes to mock the pain. The crowd weeping as one in ecstasy. And then he began to crumble under the duress, as he must, and by the time they began to flay him he was crying out for his mother, begging the emcee – anyone – to kill him. And at that point hamartia influenced the crowd and their weeping began to be in sorrow and empathy.
Finally they came to the last torture: castration. By now The Tortured Man was in virtually unbearable pain and no longer calmly humorous, as his body refused any more abuse, even as some deep secret source of masochism kept him pressing on. The harlequin clown crew ripped off his pants to great fanfare (the opening chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra now blaring), exposing his nakedness underneath. Then out of the crowd and up to the stage sprung his mum, red lipstick, a perm, a dopey housecoat. She turned once to face the crowd with a wide grin and lapped up their enthrallment. ‘Who killed cock robin?’ came a shouted question that delighted the crowd. She turned and faced her ‘son’. The Tortured Man implored her with his eyes to be rescued and she removed her teeth and then took a few hyperbolized ballet steps toward him, slid on her knees in front of him, and commenced to perform fellatio, until he got an enormous red erection. This was one part of the act The Tortured Man had not foreseen, and he recoiled in horror, and when he saw his erection with the lipstick he went quite mad.
‘No. No. No,’ he screamed, and began to fall into cardiac arrest, his body twitching, like a shorted electric wire.
‘Oh no you don’t,’ yelled a doctor on stage. ‘Not yet.’ And he dragged a defibrillator machine over to The Tortured Man, had some sexy nurses hook him up, and zapped him back to just enough consciousness to allow him to finish his routine.
Then the emcee held up a pair of golden ceremonial shears, the crowd gone wild, with some members fainting as at an old time gospel revival. Still wearing a cartoon smile, he went over to The Tortured Man and proceeded to cut off his balls and penis.
‘Sing it!’ the crowd screamed. ‘Sing it!’
In one last excruciating cry of black humour, The Tortured Man sang meekly (but they turned up the mike), ‘Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be / There’s a shadow hanging over me…’ Then he collapsed and flat-lined. The crowd almost at the very edge of berserk, began punching and biting and pinching each other. O happy days!
Brentfield was not even looking back. He passed Buddi at the exit without noticing and continued on his way out of the opera house and out into the open air, where the revellers were all turned to the large screen watching the ceremony inside, but just as orgiastic. On the stage, the emcee could be seen pointing in the distance, to one of the exits, and the cameras panned to take in the entry of Victor, new head, new flesh and bone, new lease on life – in fact, now in possession of the shared knowledge, the only knowledge which mattered, that none of them could die. Except the elites, of course, the oligarchs and kleptocrats, the captains of industry and generals of misery. Victor was not looking particularly gratified by such news; in fact, his face showed bleak. And to top it off, they were piping in an ancient, ancient Hank Williams song to celebrate the ironical resurrection, ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.’
‘Don’t worry about it, mate,’ yelled someone from the outdoor crowd. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ But this time no one laughed or assented.
Buddi slowly approached Brentfield, his syngene relative, who had moved away from the crowd and had wandered over to look out at the harbour. From the side, and still at some distance, he could see Brentfield’s expression. For a moment he seemed to Buddi like some Galileo who had had his literally world-changing views banned – or, rather, Buddi thought better, a would-be Galileo who would never a chance to be banned. Brentfield began to dry heave violently, nausea overtaking him. His immeasurable despair seemed to Buddi quite inconsolable.
‘You know,’ said Buddi. ‘An old-time philosopher once observed that we should be careful about choosing to look into the abyss, for the abyss also looks into us.’
Brentfield did not turn to look at Buddi, but continued staring straight ahead at the motion of the water, but he recognized the voice of the bartender. ‘Yes,’ said Brentfield, ‘same guy said there are some things we should not want to know.’ Buddi did not reply, but kept the silence with Brentfield.
‘And so, dear ladies and gents, that concludes the proceedings,’ said the emcee on the outdoor screen behind them, but then paused, ‘well, almost,’ he added, and you could hear the start of peculiar music offstage growing in volume, getting closer to the stage. The tune was the all-too-familiar, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ and a weirdly-dressed man was marching onstage.
‘Lycergius!’ the crowd roared.
Lycergius was a jesture – part mime, part clown — wearing a kind of box around his waist. In fact, he looked exactly like a Jack-in-the-Box and he was turning a large handle coming out of his right pocket, which continued playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ with its plunky sound of rubber plucking metal keys.
‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’ the crowd screamed hysterically.
‘Batter my heart, baby, screeched Viola and turned to pluck the eye of her neighbour out.
Lycergius teased them, then gave the crank one last turn through the tune. And then at ‘pop’, out sprang through his trousers a huge spiralling penis and it began shooting off a stream of paper pieces with sperm-like shapes or yin/yang symbols (depending upon your point of view), on one side, and the all-important first four lines of Hexagrams on the other side. The people grabbed at the pieces madly, trying to procure one they thought they liked. Already, Viola had forgotten Brentfield – indeed, everyone was already forgetting who’d they’d arrived with. This was like New Year’s Day. Their new assignments blasted out to them by Lycergius. They would soon be joined with new partners in new configurations after matching up their Persona™ online and regenerating their RAM. New discordant symphonies, an eternal recurrence, a kind of reincarnation, a gleaming new cycle of exquisite pain. (‘And if you act now, we’ll throw in these steak knives,’ as Viola had once joked with Brentfield.) Ten years with someone new until the next ceremony, until The Show of the next generation.
A change began to come over Brentfield. He slowly began to lose his sadness and despair, and his memory was about to be wiped, but seemed to know what was happening and fought it. But in a few moments Brentfield would be a tabula rasa again, and because he’d not grabbed a piece of Hexagram paper, as they snowed from the blimp, he would be assigned a random Persona™ for the next cycle. He would always bear a vein of melancholy wonder; it was a flaw in his genetic structure that was sometimes disguised better by some masks than others. It is what it is, As Some Pundits Are Calling It would say, and it all depends on what your definition of is is. The blimp ticker revealed that another elite had successfully killed himself, but no one was paying attention now, as they were dispersing with their new assignments or, as many were doing, opening their iPhones and plugging in the requisite code to their Mate™ app to generate a profile of their next partner.
Maybe it was ultimately selfish, but Brentfield’s plight moved him, even more than the general spectacle of carnal squalor and pointlessness he saw all around him. Buddi made his decision. He holo-summoned the Mitochondriacs, who were waiting at the great central global server called the Dome of the Clock (Moises drummed his fingers on a server panel) and gave the signal, a thumbs down. Messala took out his iPhone and tapped a few times and the digital regeneration apparatus stopped, and like a system shutting down one service after another terminated, physical bodies – human and otherwise — began to fracture and disintegrate, a hole in the wall of the world appeared and grew larger, the world as they knew it ended, turning to a silvery dust, the landscape a near wasteland of vampired resources. Looking out at the harbour, Brentfield had a brief moment when he understood what was happening, and his eyes were lit up with the work of Smiling Buddha.
Bud made the long trek up from the cavernous bowels of ToraToraTora and finally stepped out into the barren landscape, the tabula rasa Earth. Everywhere he scanned, in all directions, he saw nothing there but ash, or, rather what he saw was the sand of a completed mandala re-dispersed to the winds, all that and a new beginning. He stepped forward slowly but deliberately, waiting for some tragic consequence to kick in, something he had overlooked, the inscrutable whimsy of chance to bring its surprise, as has so often happened in human events before. He felt nothing; not the nothing of emptiness, but rather of fullness, of his own completion. He spread his arms wide and breathed in the sun, feeling as though he were alone with god, a favourite son, but without desire, and without loneliness. He began to walk.
He grabbed the green pinky of his left hand and broke it off with a clean, painless snap, and held it up to the sun for a moment, feeling its energy pulse through. Taking a few steps further, he bent down and planted the finger in the sand and watched as it already started to take root and slowly grow. And his pinky was regenerating. He looked out again at the horizon and now could picture a future, a bright green future, a future without endless negotiations with alterity, a veritable garden of his selves, which included the 3Ms and Buddi, an overgrown complex of simplicities. And, stepping ever onward, this thought made him smile like a time-elapsed lotus opening on a still pond in a clearing deep in the forest of eternity.