The Flicker of Better Angels

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Needless to say, they didn’t knock.

“Stay where you are. On your knees with your hands on your head,” the biggest one said.

“This is my home. What are you doing? What do you want?” I said as two more pushed me to the floor.

“You know exactly what we’re after, man. Where are they?” the big one said towering over me, his knee bumping my left eye.

“Where are who? Why are you doing this?” I said, wincing as his two partners wrenched my shoulders. I knew who they were and what they were after.

“The books, man. Where are the goddamn books? Our informant ID’d you as a subversive and told us you had a fucking library here. Hundreds, she said. Now where are they?”

It came to this as I’d predicted after He Who Shall Not Be Named was elected our leader and then turned everything over, spilling our constitutional rights onto the floor and, in essence, burning them. We no longer could peacefully gather to discuss, let alone debate, the state of affairs in which our land now found itself. Besides, you never knew who of the people you talked with might be one of their informants.

Within just a few months of taking power, HWSNBN ordered all news organizations to cease operations except for his sycophantic bootlicks at the renamed Supreme Network. He also shuttered all newspapers, except for The Truth and Our Democracy, now our two national newspapers. He had his cyber-cops monitoring all online interaction, again causing fear, anger and doubt among the half of the citizenry who voted for the other side. The First Amendment—-marketed by the government as The Worst Amendment, a true threat to national security—was stricken from the Constitution by well-armed executive order. And everyone just watched.

Next came book banning, kowtowing to the conservative religious zealots instrumental in getting the Supreme Commander elected. That part was easy, just emptying Libraries, bookstores and even schools of everything from Huckleberry Finn to To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Seuss to, of course, Fahrenheit 451.

With the precedent set, the government decided to remove other sources of education, entertainment and enlightenment from the public. Anything not given an imprimatur by HWSNBN was taken from the owner and destroyed.

I was a teacher, a writer of children’s books teaching youngsters to respect one another, always keep an open mind about someone and not base our opinions on the way they look, speak or pray. Yeah, I was one of their subversives.
“One more time, man. Where are you hiding the books?” the big one hissed in my ear, spritzing it with spit when he pronounced the evil word. The click of his pistol hammer cocking into place may have been the loudest sound I ever heard.

“They’re gone, all gone,” I said.

“You lyin’ son of a bitch. I’m counting to three and you better come clean or I’ll blow your faggot brains all over your nice baby blue carpet. Guys, who in their right mind would have a baby blue carpet in their place?” He laughed the laugh of someone who knew not of freedoms other than his now-inalienable rights to bully, beat and burn.

“I gave some away and destroyed the rest,” I said, half-expecting the next sound I heard, a blast, to be my last.

“Search this place, Lou. Who’d you give ‘em to, author?” He stretched that last word out like it was a vile taffy.

“The school libraries in Beekmantown and Green Island. They had so little to offer their kids and…”

He swung the barrel of his pistol against my cheek, I saw a flash and down I went. But I was till alive.

“You want any more of that, you’ll stop bullshitting us and tell us where they are. The next time I pull the trigger.”

“I’m telling you the truth. Then other books, my collection of histories and classics, I destroyed them with the dignity they deserved. Instead of the brutish methods you…”

The pistol swung again, but a roar accompanied the flash this time. But again I was still alive. I reeled in pain and disorientation from the discharge by my ear as the bullet destroyed the glass door in the empty bookcase across the room my wife gave me on our last anniversary.

“Last chance, asshole. Next time, right in your ear,” the big one said, and I was fairly sure he meant it. I could see that from the barely contained manic anger in his piglike eyes peering from above the black mask covering the lower half of his face.

“There’s nothing in the basement, attic or shed out back,” the one called Lou said as he reentered what was until a fortnight before my study.
“I’m not lying,” I said above the pounding ring in my right ear. They’re all gone.”

“Computer. Where’s your goddamn computer, faggot,” the big one shouted into my left ear.

“One of your colleagues visited me last week and confiscated it at the behest of your informant across the street. The one who used to spend her days listening to talk radio and watching me from behind her curtains,” I said, preparing for the next blow.

“Is that so… You got any other devices you can use to spread your subversive lies with, writer boy?” the one called Lou asked.

“No, your people are quite…thorough.” I had five manuscripts on that computer and another two on my old iPad, which now were chewed up bits of plastic, glass and magnetic inspiration in some government scrap pile.

The one holding me down released his grip and I once again fell to the floor.

“All right, Andrews, we’ll be leaving now. But recognize this is only a warning. We’re keeping you under surveillance on the regular. If you so much as shit we’ll know what color. You get me? I shoulda taken that shot when I had the chance. You elites sicken me,” the big one said, giving me one more punch in the head.

And then they were gone.

That night, after cleaning up the mess as best I could, the blood would always be a reminder of that day, I went to the basement and made sure the curtains were shut tightly. With my penlight, I found the drain in the floor and unscrewed its cover.

Reaching into the pipe, I snagged the hook in the wire from which I’d suspended the plastic bag and pulled it up into the tiny circle of light. My Kindle hadn’t been dislodged in the search. I removed it from the bag and carried up into my darkened study, where I had digitized my library and transferred all my books to this glorious instrument.

I thumbed through the virtual pages and found the volume I was searching. I tapped it open and selected the words from March, 1861 and read them as I had many nights since the election and division of our nation. They gave me hope, as they will so many of us, even those who merely watched while all this happened. Your words once again inspired me:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The next morning the big guy broke in again, kicked open my bedroom door and saw my Kindle on the nightstand. You don’t really hear the shot, do you, Mr. Lincoln?

Some people don’t have better angels. Some maybe don’t have angels at all.

This story was inspired by the quote from Mary Oliver. It all came in a rush and I can’t say it’s my usual theme (if I even have one it would never be politics), but here it came and here it is.

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A White Horse in Dark Times

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White horse by moonlight by ellimist

The only light to be seen was the wash of white from the half moon in our faces. Any shadows we cast could not give us away to the horses in the corral nor to the sleeping family in the farm house.

“You know if they see us they might shoot us for this, right?” I said to Will.

“Yep, and if they catch us, they’ll shoot us, or hang us. Or maybe they won’t see us or find us and we’ll have horses to get out of this county and head someplace where there’s food and water and not so much law,” Will said.

“Or outlaws,” I said.

“Yep. Now be quiet. You know what to do.”

Will was new to this stuff. Who wasn’t? But he figured we could, gentle as angels, drift close to the corral, slide open the gate, coo our way close to a couple of the horses, tie the ropes we carried stuffed inside our belts to their halters and lead them out to freedom. Our freedom.

It actually went pretty much to plan until we saw a small light inside the farmhouse window turn into the bigger light in a lantern, and that lantern moved toward the back door of the place.

“Damn it,” Will hissed. “Someone’s up. Probably headed to the outhouse.”

That was when a couple of horses got real nervous and started to snort and cut up, their ears all pricked forward. I tugged mine, a gentle little thing, over toward the gate and stood her between me and the house. But Will had trouble with his, its ears flat back, and it gave out a roaring sort of sound and that was that.

It gave Will a kick and started a chorus of squeals with the other four horses. Will was on the ground when his horse kicked him again, this time in the shoulder, just as the back door opened and the farmer came running out of the kitchen with his drawers at half  staff because he held the lantern in his left hand and a shotgun in his right.

“Who’s there? Show yourself, ya thievin’ bastards,” he yelled. As he grabbed for his pants with that his right hand, the shotgun under his arm, I tugged my filly out of the gate and ran like hell toward the woods with her. Didn’t look back until we were about ten yards out of the light.

I heard Will yell, “Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.”

“Get up. Show yourself,” I heard the farmer say.

“Yessir, here I am,” Will said, his hands up and his rope in one of them.

By this time another couple of armed figures ran out of the house toward the corral and I figured it’d be a good idea if Misty——I’d already named the filly——and I put some distance between ourselves and the scene of the crime.

About a minute later was when I heard the shotgun blast.

Misty jumped a little and I did, too, but we didn’t have time to worry about what was behind us. I fashioned a set of reins from my rope and hopped from a tree stump onto her back and we trotted out of the woods and onto the moonlit country road headed south.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Will and I were farm kids,  lifelong friends and schoolmates when the war began. Will was in the agriculture school and I was in what he called the “aggravatin’ culture” school. He meant I was studying literature and mathematics and stuff he found, you know, aggravating. On mathematics, we agreed.

When the war broke out, there was nothing anyone could do but try to fend for themselves and their loved ones. It was harder than anyone expected. Barely anyone knew what to do, could never imagine such a situation that could place them in such a state.

There was no way for Will and I to contact our families, so we decided, since the school wasn’t doing much schooling anymore after the first or second major battle, to find a way to get home. Or at least a way to get somewhere we could fend for ourselves, protect ourselves, just survive.

We heard that the government was shut down and communication was next to nothing. I guess you could yell from one hill to another. That was almost how bad it was. Will said, since nobody knew anything of what was going on and had no idea what the hell to do, we should find ourselves some food and water and a way besides shank’s mare to get where we had to go. Wherever the hell that was to be.

We stole some knives, containers for water, cheese and ham from the school kitchen. Then we tossed what we thought we could carry into our school bags and lit out south, headed for home or wherever we could get before the war turned the world crazy.

It didn’t take long.

Just like it didn’t take long after dawn for Misty and me to run into another band of travelers on the road, only headed north. I saw a couple of them point at me and then their leader sort of shushed them. They came walking toward us as smooth as you please, saying. “Hey, pal,” and “‘Morning,” from about fifty yards away. I knew they were up to no good and kicked Misty in the ribs just as they came running right at us.

I always figured even the bravest or stupidest of folks don’t want to take on a galloping horse coming right toward them. These boys were something else. Their leader pulled a pistol from his coat and aimed it at me, while Misty and I rushed into the middle of them. I heard the gun go off and felt a sharp pain in my leg. Misty squealed, too.

In two jumps, we were through and past them. I looked down at my leg and saw a knife sticking out of it. Peeking behind us, I saw three of those ramblers lying down on the ground, but one’s face was just a smear of red. We must have hit their leader’s arm and—BANG—one of them was down for good. I pulled Misty up when we were a mile or so down the road.

I slid off Misty’s back and pulled the narrow bladed knife from my leg. It wasn’t in too deeply but bled a lot, even down Misty’s side. When I swiped the blood off her coat I saw the cut across her flank and I didn’t know what to do. Before the war, I knew what I’d do, but now…?

I washed my own wound off with some of my water and then wrapped it up with my only clean shirt from my school bag. But Misty? She was hurting and I felt horrible for taking her away from her home. Hell, I felt horrible about everything since the damn war began.

I was Skyping with my mom, talking about my next visit home, taking the Southwest flight out of Baltimore to Dallas, when…nothing. Then the lights in the dorm went out. I grabbed my cell and it lit up, but there was no phone, no internet, just a fancy flashlight.

People up and down the hall were flying out of their rooms as the battery operated emergency lights went on. I heard someone say they heard the news that the threats finally came to a head between our country and the other guys——the Russians, Iranians, Chinese and some wild-ass cyber-terrorists from who-knows-where and what-does-it-matter-now.

The whole Earth’s gone black. They’d all blinded and crippled the world’s transportation, financial, communication, electrical, you-name-it systems. In essence, the politicians and hackers had cast us back into the 18th Century. And for what?

So people ended up roaming the countryside of every continent, I’d imagine, trying to stay alive and most of us not knowing how without a computer to tell us.

I held Misty’s face in my hands and she nuzzled me with her soft nose. It was then I realized that’s what was missing. What we’d been missing since I was born and maybe before. The touch of another, the face-to-face expression of ideas, feelings, emotions between beings instead of through some artificial means.

I think it was when I felt the tears on my face and Misty gave it a good lick that I knew what I had to do. I took the reins off Misty and just let her go. But instead of me telling her where, I let her tell me. If it was back to that farm, fine. I’d tell them I found her on the road running from where her thief got shot by one of those roaming gangs like the kind that cut my leg.

I’d ask them if I could stay with them for a while until my leg got better.

And if she just wandered off to a stream, a field, I’d follow her lead. She knew to take care of herself. Maybe she’d find others of her kind to support her, protect her, bring her along on their journey. I figured she was hard-wired to do what horses did for millennia to survive, instead of what a dumb, unplugged millennial didn’t know what to do.

Who knows? Maybe tomorrow the grid might go back up, or maybe our new world  might finally come to a real end, instead of this virtual one.

This is the short, dashed-off first draft I wrote this evening of a story idea I had over the weekend. What if all this world-wide Internet manipulation and grand-scale hacking turned into an all-out war. It wouldn’t be The Bomb that would take us down. It’s be something as simple as switching everything off, over and over, until finally our modern world broke. Still a lot of work to do with this premise and story, but I thought I’d share it with all of you folks I only “know” through this silly machine you’re reading, as a reminder of what really counts in life.

We Drink to the Old Fox

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The old man shivered as he sat upon his white horse. He sat as tall as he did in the old days, when he led armies into battle, even though the effort to do so was excruciating.

In some ways this feeling reminded him of the debacle from that winter so many years ago. The enemy commander a martinet who considered anathema the celebration of The Lord’s birth with song and libation. To him, it was just another day in the field for Prince and some other country. They were ready for the General’s force and cut it to ribbons.

The army he led this day was even less organized, untrained and most certainly less disciplined than that one. But that was a different fight, for a different overall goal, even if the reason these two armies faced one another across this western Pennsylvania field was one of the causes of the war that enabled them to be here in the first place. Taxes.

The old general stared across the field and could see His Excellency, once again at the head of his troops. He shook his head. That man’s courage and stupidity are exceeded only by his disregard for his own casualties and his amazing luck. He should have been killed or injured in ‘77, but for being thrown from his horse and landing upon a pile of his own dead, he thought.

The General estimated the opposing force as something more than 10,000 men, which was not a surprise, since His Excellency wanted to make a show of his power and station no matter where he sat, be it in the executive mansion or on the back of a black horse while he wore the Cornwallis’ surrendered saber.

“What are your orders, Gen’rul,” a Scots-Irish militia captain from hill country the other side of the Cumberland Gap said, his broad-brimmed hat in one hand, a dazzling curly maple piece of some Pennsylvania gunsmith’s art in the other.

The General, knowing his army of farmers and moonshiners would matter-of-factly drop the reins of their plow horses, pick up their long rifles and fight off seemingly overwhelming numbers of Shawnee at the first whoop, squinted with his diminished vision at the opposing army and said, “We wait. If His Excellency wishes another revolution, let him start it here.”

But the old man, his arthritis grating, his jaw throbbing and his once-buoyant ego now raised solely by its location upon this bluff and a 15-hand white gelding, began to think his hoped for rebellion against the unfair tax on individual distillers was doomed before it began. His show of force and resolve paled to the force and resolve of His Excellency, the President. These weren’t tax collectors and marshals they faced, but a standing army and organized militias.

He turned to his second-in-command, Nat Greene, who also suffered the wrath of Congress after December ‘76.

“I would say, General, that we have once again been overwhelmed by a superior force, not that our men don’t have principle and courage on their side. Does fighting Hamilton’s accursed tax merit the loss of life that we will no doubt suffer here?” the old soldier said.

“We’ve been on the losing end of too many of these scrapes, I fear, Sir. Would one more make that much of a difference in our already tarnished legacies?” Greene said, still the doleful devil’s advocate.

The blue-clad General weighed the odds and what capitulation would mean to his men, as well as himself as the proprietor the largest distillery in all the states. Better to give up some profit in whisky tax to that traitorous Hamilton then to lose all in a bloodbath here in western Pennsylvania.

Memory of his first defeat came back to him. His surrender to French and Indian forces out here in western Pennsylvania nagged at him his whole adult life. The retreats during the war for independence were one thing, but surrendering to a smug opposing leader was another.

The old General turned to Greene and his other lieutenants and said, “I think this has gone far enough. Bring me a white flag and tell the over-mountain men to return quickly to their farmsteads. I’ll take care of this. It’s men like me they really want their pound of flesh from. Besides, the revenue agents have to find our Kentuckians before they can collect from them. I’d say they stand a better chance of being killed by Shawnee, Chickamauga and Mingo than getting a patch of skin off our westerners.”

“You’re surrendering, General?” Greene asked, a look of disbelief and disappointment crossing his face.

“In a way. I’m surrendering so our neighbors won’t have to. I know His Excellency for what he is, courageous but foolhardy, hot-blooded and given to polishing his medals. I believe I shall bring along a piece of white cloth with which to help him,” the old General said.

Greene smiled and nodded.

“Yes, sir. I believe in a way you shall defeat him here without firing a shot.”

The General, Greene and some of his whisky-making colleagues from Virginia rode slowly out into the would-be field of combat under their white flag. Almost without hesitation, His Excellency spurred his black toward them, waving his lieutenants to follow him, as always, at the gallop.

Reining up, he smiled his smug smile as his men slowed to a trot behind him.

“Good day to you, Your Excellency,” the old General said, his jaw clenched, but in pain, not embarrassment.

“And to you, General. You look well, sir. I see the infirmities of rustic camp life have not diminished your old vigour,” His Excellency said. He stared intently into the old General’s eyes, judging what he deemed jealousy simmering in their rheumy condition.

“General, violence will not solve this dispute. It is the law of the nation, established by your very own erstwhile adjutant. You and your ‘army’ stand no chance against the assembled arms you see behind me. In fact, I see scores of your rebels already melting back into the countryside from which they came,” he said.

The old Genral turned in his saddle and hid a painful grin.

“I must agree with you, Your Excellency. Such a battle would leave this field littered with our dead. And while it would be a tragedy for independent men who turn the bounty of their crops into a public necessity, such bloodshed would leave your government bereft of individuals from whom to bleed your tax, something you and I fought a war to free our people from,” the General said.

“So, General, will you retire from the field and send your people back to their loving families and bountiful farmsteads?” His Excellency said.

“Aye, sir. You have bested me once again with a reputation built upon the bones of your enemies. You may send your tax collectors where you may to bleed us dry so the nation may drink to your honour,” the General said, and wheeled his white horse without another word.

“And to yours, good sir, and to your continued good health,” His Excellency replied.

As His Excellency returned to his cheering army, he couldn’t help but feel the swell of pride in his latest victory. This one not as a mere soldier anymore. No, this one, over the man Congress had once picked for leadership of colonial forces. This victory now as President of the United States.

With the huzzahs of his men ringing in his ears, President Benedict Arnold never heard the laughter of his opponent and his party at the pomposity and puffed up gullibility the Old Man had just leveraged to save his men from bloody defeat or capture.

Congress never appreciated these skills, he recalled; but that was politics, something he never wanted to play back in 1777 or now. The old fox was happy to return home to his farm and distillery on the Potomac and live out his remaining days as gentleman farmer George Washington.

Trying to catch up with my Story a Day challenge. I’m sure I win’s beat the calendar this time, but I’ll still try to get as many written as possible. Today’s story was supposed to be a third-person version——a changed point of view——from my first-person story in Week One, Another Victory for His Excellency. Had a little trouble figuring out how I’d accomplish it, but it came to me this afternoon. Two hours later, here’s your (a touch too long for flash fiction) first draft of how old General George, in his own way, outfoxed President Benedict.

Another Victory for His Excellency

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I knew it might come to this one day. When such a great tree as he falls, it does not go quietly, nor without an echo. This was to be his final echo.

“The men are aligned and ready, your excellency,” my adjutant, Gates said. More than 12,000 regulars and militiamen filed in ranks behind me. My heart leapt at the chance to lead an army again.

“Have them hold position until I give the order, Gates. Let’s see what the old fox has up his sleeve besides a flask of corn liquor,” I said.

Gates could barely stand me since I jumped over him in command after our success in New York. But he knew I was a fighter, a leader of my men from their front and took my new role as seriously and with as much humility as a man of my station and reputation could.

And out there, the Old Man sat astride his white horse, like he was posing for a portrait by Stuart, at the head of a ragtag army of frontier rabble in rebellion against the very nation we both fought to bring independence. With his history of failure, you would think him foolish to side against the full force of this united army–my army.

But defeat does not sit well with one who once was himself the commander of armies, now relegated to the role of “gentleman farmer.” Actually he was not much more than a law-breaker, a rebel who would not pay the legally legislated tax on his farm’s major product. He wasn’t that much different from those dirt-scratching over-mountain bumpkins. He just had the benefit of aristocratic birth and a workforce of I don’t know how many slaves to make him the leader of these rebels.

He never had to fight against the discrimination of the born rich against the man who had the courage and audacity to build his own reputation. He never had to buck the tide of Congressional cronyism, the jealous finagling of other so-called military leaders, sheep who led from the safety of a headquarters well behind the line of battle. Never felt the sting of hot lead nor the sickening snap of bone.

He raised a white flag, coming forward with his lieutenants to parley. I can’t believe he has the gall to wear his blue uniform coat with its gold epaulets in front of these men in filthy linsey-woolsy and buckskin. They actually think of him as their champion when he is using them to line his own pockets. The fools. I pray they don’t decide to fight today, but if they do, I’ll see this rebellion quashed by sundown and the Old Man hanged.

“Gates, bring Hamilton forward. He started this thing. Let’s see what their paramount leader’s jealous machinations will be.” I said.

Together with Gates, Hamilton and a squadron of dragoons for security, we met in the center of the field in western Pennsylvania. The Old Man looked more haggard than when last I saw him when he was sacked by Congress, which had the good sense to place me in total command of our forces. Though he looked tired and old in his countenance, he still sat a horse well, his height and erect posture no doubt persuading a shallow Congress to put him in command in the first place.

Well, those days were over. They played a different tune after my victories on the Hudson and his running from battle to battle.

“Good day to you, Your Excellency,” the Old Man said, his jaw clenched.

“And to you, General. You look well, sir. I see the infirmities of rustic camp life have not diminished your old vigour,” I said.

I could see the jealousy in his eyes, the despair that I was the one who won independence and he was banished to his home, to distill his spirits and sell them at an obscene profit to both sides. Such was the weakness of the undisciplined army he left to me. Well, I straightened them out, baptizing them in blood and blessed in the incense of gun smoke.

“General, violence will not solve this dispute. It is the law of the nation, established by your very own erstwhile adjutant. You and your ‘army’ stand no chance against the assembled arms you see behind me. In fact, I see scores of your rebels already melting back into the countryside from which they came,” I said. I had acquired consummate skill in statesmanship once a proud nation chose me its first leader.

The Old Man sagged, no longer able to hold up the pretense of his ability to fight, to lead, to win. Not against the rule of law, not against the might of my forces, and surely not against me.

“I must agree with you, Your Excellency. Such a battle would leave this field littered with our dead. And while it would be a tragedy for independent men who turn the bounty of their crops into a public necessity, such bloodshed would leave your government bereft of individuals from whom to bleed your tax, something you and I fought a war to free our people from,” the Old Man said.

“So, General, will you retire from the field and send your people back to their loving families and bountiful farmsteads?” I said.

“Aye, sir. You have bested me once again with a reputation built upon the bones of your enemies. You may send your tax collectors where you may to bleed us dry so the nation may drink to your honour,” the Old Man said, and wheeled his white horse without another word.

“And to yours, good sir, and to your continued good health,” I replied.

As we returned to our cheering army, i felt the swell of pride in my latest victory. This one not as a mere soldier anymore. Not like at Quebec, or Ticonderoga, or Stanwix, or Saratoga, or Yorktown. No, now as President of the United States.

“Congratulations, Your Excellency You knew all along that Washington would never fight against you, didn’t you?” Gates said, still with jealousy in his voice.

“A military leader must always fight to win, Gates. That has been my motto, my creed, my life since I left Connecticut to fight for independence, lo, these sixteen years ago,” I replied. “That is what helped us become the United States of America, and I, Benedict Arnold, their President.”

A little speculative history about the Whisky Rebellion of 1791 in response to the Day 4 prompt in my September Story a Day Challenge. This one called for a story written in first person. The idea for this tale has been banging around in my head for a couple of years. And now I’ve written its first draft in an hour. Funny how these things work out, like Benedict Arnold becoming our first President.