‘The Man In Ulm’ by Alexander Blum

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Long before the twilight of the Winter King, some nine centuries ago in the long night of Germany before it was Germany in a peasant principality located under the crown, scepter and sword of the Catholic Church, a hideous man with bad teeth and unshaven beard was chained to a decaying wooden post beside the hen’s house of the town of Ulm. A dirty, diseased lean-to filled with fowls was his home, destiny and company. A rooster with a scar in his red muff was his only friend, and this friend often pecked at him with little stings harsher than a fencer’s tips. Pinned to a stalk of wood, his face was always stretched to the point of breaking with venomous and indissoluble stress. He found only mud and chicken feathers with his worn fingers no matter how far he grasped, no matter what pleasures he imagined, conceived and reached for, his fingers stuck only the warp and woof of bleeding chicken mane. If he scrounged hard enough, and dug into the dirt with a true fealty to the spirit of Protestant work, perhaps a splinter would dig up under his nails, and that would be his reward for great works. Offered soup, he flailed it away, and lived and rutted as a hog in his own discarded foodstuff, and his piss.

We were in 1225 with our man in Ulm, an age known to moderns as an impossibility, a place akin to the Inferno, though for Dante it was his beloved world, the only one he had ever known. It was a land synonymous with darkness, the light of Luther three-hundred years away, the colder blue light of Voltaire farther still, and of course in such dark ages a man representative of the light would find himself posed against the times. Our man, pinned to a wooden pole sticking from a torn-up ugly stack of sticks in a fowls’ den, burnt bronze beneath unrelenting summer sun in the desolate south of Germany, was a humanist, a rationalist, and a skeptic. He had been a professor, which in those days was synonymous with theologian — but our man was, once more, a man out of time. He believed, in essence, only one thing — that the Holy Trinity was fraud, that this world of the lean-to and the foul feathers was always, and still is, all that there is. Earth, alone, no hand with which to guide it. Today, he is an ordinary man. Yesterday, a terror.

Appalled by his tongue, the friars of the Church gathered together like gossiping women to pluck it out. As a crowd of old ladies preparing to play bridge, the friars took counsel and feigned collapse and great birth pangs at the reality of a man who challenged the faith. One friar grasped his spleen and repeated: “He says the miracles are false, he says the miracles are false.” Another wept great globs of spittle and tears that became one and stained the sullen dirt with a pained liquid not unlike the blood of Christ. The drama of these men was like the drama of great women, powerful impressive women whose motions were each the curve of the Earth and each lifting of the hand signaled a new revelation to twist upon the emotions of the last. As the upstanding men of the Church constitute the harem of the bridegroom of God, all holy men seek nothing less than to become women.

A nun, hopped up on the Holy See, took a long, thin needle from her tourniquet in a fit of wrath one morning and approached the man at the post with innocence, a wrinkled smile on her young face. He turned toward her, hands behind her back, watching her walk toward him in such grace that for an instant he even fooled himself into believing in the holiness of women, of Mary, of Churches. The nun knelt down before him and recited a line of Latin, which I could repeat for you here to no understanding, so I will not even type it, and she jabbed the six-inch needle into the man’s open eyeball, the pupil that craved vision, and spread blood outward in that blind eye until it gushed from his face as an open wound. The nun stood and walked away, leaving the needle embedded in his skull. She was later reprimanded by the parish priest, eighty-eight days in solitude with nothing but the Gospels — a fitting punishment — but the damage was done. The surgery to remove the needle and seal up the eye left our man in Ulm blind in both eyes, somehow, as if the doctor’s little Igor had plucked out the second just to bring balance according to the first.

Like vultures the Churchmen often gathered around his body in the chickens and the dust and beat him down with their hands, which were frail and bony like beaks, and he took the blows imparted upon him by the kicking and slapping priests, a nail in every nerve ending shooting upward to his brain, telling him to hurt, telling him over and over again, that strange communication of the muscle and the nerve, demanding imminent suffering. The man, in his heart, retained victory — he knew they were nothing but nerves kicking nerves, an imagination of a man, and he cackled as they beat him with the sublime knowledge that they were but apes, and all structure and system to the contrary was an illusion placed atop the jutting forehead of an orangutan. He wore a crown as they stumbled about like beggars after each kick, skeletons moving with momentum, nerves speaking fury, puppets not of the most high but of the squirming brain. He cackled. There was an ultimate victory in his lashings.

Conversation amongst the sisters produced a novel situation. One young nun had heard of the elder who impaled the eye of the heretic with a tourniquet’s needle, and it brought her into sadness for days. If even a nun could be moved to such impulsive hate, then where in the world is God? This question met little answer. The Book of Job showed God as a brute, a pair of knuckles dragging so hard upon the forest floor that they dug canyons in their wake. There was not mercy, only strength, in Yahweh’s response to Job. The nun wept.

Playing the Virgin herself, this young woman had taken pity on our man in the hen’s house in Ulm. On Ash Wednesday she approached the filthy man in earnest. He looked, and could not see her. She was the treasure of her hometown, born Catherine Ziegler, baptized Catherine of the Rose-Cross, wearing the icon of the crucified upon her chest, the androgyne Christ dangling above chaste nipples that would never feed a child’s yearning lips. Catherine of the Rose-Cross smiled. Before him, the sun at her back, she was as an icon, a thing frozen in time, the true believer who dines of the flesh of Christ at communion, and takes wine, and licks blood from her lips without shame.

The man could not see her, or he would have reached for her. Instead he only felt her footsteps, and fearing the whip or the pointed shoe, he feasted on a raw chicken, ripping up the rind of its neck and sitting in the stained mess of blood and wax-feathers he had spread on cracked and dry ground. It had not rained in a month. Gnawing at the neck of a hen, he shook his head. He felt the shadow of her body cast upon him. At last, he screamed:

“Torturer!”

“I am not your torturer,” replied the holy woman of the Rose-Cross. “I take pity on you in the name of God. I have seen you out here every day on my travels to the orchards. Every single day. I have seen how they beat you. And each time I see you, I feel, in my heart, that you, and not the priest of my parish, is the Christ crucified. It is you who is the martyr, not the patriarchs of the Church. You are the humble, the meek, the broken one…and if I am a true Christian, I am to follow you, not the monsters who have tied you here with this unholy brood of chickens.”

The man’s lower lip curled in response to this Christian speech. Against his greater reason, tears began to form in his bloodied eyes at the speech of a Catholic woman. Against all his aching, solidified over three long years in captivity, he was loved by someone on this Earth. He buried his face in his hands. Like Hephaestus, he began to rock with sobs. He shuddered with memories of home, the mother who had chosen the Church over her own son, and does not see him. The father who had disowned him with eloquence, declaring at the podium the Kingdom of Christ and damning his son to the ice of Cocytus. Catherine of the Rose-Cross fell on her knees in her gown, sullied in the mud, and bursting through those memories, she held him. She lifted him up like a child, a pieta as good as any other. She held him cradled and walked.

“I will free you,” she said, stroking his hair, matted with grease, stuck with flies. “I will free you from the Pilate of the Church.”

“But how?” he asked. “Where will I go?”

“We will go to France, and take you to the Cathars. You are the lamb who has gone astray, more valuable to Him than the flock.”

And so Catherine of Thorns made her promise to the heretic in Ulm, to take his crippled body to the heretics in France, and to leave the cursed soil of the Holy Roman Empire.

Then, she dropped him, and left. Heretics must move in the dead of night, not the broad daylight of holy Thrones. This she said to him, and this he begged her against believing — he begged her to take him away now. She repeated the Our Father as proof of her intention and left.

That night, Catherine of Thorns did try the seal of the musted window beside her stone bed and pried it open, weaseling through the cavity like a bird into a bath. She fell upon a low pool of rainwater, and cursed, the name of God escaping her lips. She covered her mouth. She gathered herself from the puddle, and proceeded beneath moonlight and the stench of frogs. Of course, this one night among a thousand, it had chosen to rain.

Empty stone houses stinking of myrrh and small candles in their windowsills were all that separated the rainwater in the streets from the rock of man’s ambitions. The wax had burnt down with the day, no sounds but snores and silence, and the nun alone trod the beaten path toward the heretic. No souls were about, as all were asleep, contained in the empyrean sphere as embryos in vats until morning. As she made it to the edge of the town, the rare persimmons imported from voyages to the East breathed and rustled in the midnight air with their sheathes of wet leaves. He could tell at once by her footsteps it was her, and again he wept.

“You fool,” he said. “You really are a holy fool…”

She knelt down before him as water dripped from all eaves. As she went to work on the cords binding our man’s wrist to the pole, the old professor began to ask:

“Why do you save me? Do you forsake your Christ?”

She did not reply. She loosed a horse on a rope from the stable across from the hens and made a prayer for the mare’s owner. The fine horse trotted across the running watery way, toward the filthy man, and the nun instructed him how to ride. He did not know how. He was a man of minds. Worse, he was too feeble to rise. The nun, looking in each direction, took a desperate act.

She loosed her dress and took out a pale breast, bringing it to the mouth of the man. Greedily, like an insect, he drank. He kneaded on the milk of her body and climbed, then, up the tall body of the beast. The nun, ripping one side of her dress, climbed up after him, and took the reins. She took the cloth from her head and cast it down. White, beautiful hair dangled in the moonlight. With the heretic she rode.

Rain fell like the hate of an army. It drowned out her eyes, it made blinking a chore. The horse trod through sinking Earth as a genuine monsoon seemed to be roaring about German land. The hillsides green were slicked with rivers. A watery pool had formed at the edges of the road, lines of turmoil. Her hair was drenched and her back was freezing. The heretic, swishing from side to side atop the horse’s hind, was drinking it in by the mouthful. The downpour only grew stronger. And as one hour went by, now two, and his strength resumed, the nun began to hear him speak:

“I am from the future,” he said. “I know these days are limited. Soon they will be done.”

She wiped a globlet of moisture from her eye like a tear.

He swayed back and forth, his mouth open, eyes alight with the reflections of moondrenched stars. “I am telling you, sister, that the day will come when Christ is not a King but a curiosity, an odd thing that is impossible, a distant star, as far from men and women as you and I are now from the constellations, a forgotten thing unattainable.”

The nun narrowed her brows. The mare’s hooves stuck in inches of mud, and sucked and popped with every step. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean that Christianity is finished. Your world is done. I know what happens in this very town, this place full of shit you call Ulm. A young man will station here, joined by a garrison. He will make a camp and set himself against the empire of an alchemist. His name is Rene Descartes. He will take Euclid’s machines and he will dream of a golden ball, handed to him by an angel, telling him to divorce the study of nature from the study of God. He will carry forth that revelation forever, into eternity, to separate the world from God. And he will succeed. He will succeed in dethroning you, forever. Your rule will never return. Your Christ will lose his crown, and it will not be given to another prophet, nor any Mohammed, but the crown of thorns will be shattered, and lose all its meaning.”

“You’re a liar.”

“I am not,” he seethed. “A garrison is coming, of men led by a pope who is an atheist. They will encircle the Churches and they will open great coffers of treasure, and men of theology will become men of business, and the laws of the world will not be written by Thomas Aquinas, but by bureaucrats who believe in nothing. Men will look at the stars and see not the Intelligence of the Spheres but a steaming rock, and in the afterlife an abyss. This will become the only truth there is. Heaven and hell do not exist. There are no Powers nor any Thrones above. Only stars, gleaming with fire, material, unholy fire.”

“You-”

“And all things will be decoded, as at their core is not light, but tendon, sinew and bone. And beneath that, ribbons of instruction, written by a mindless mind, authored by no one, and this truth will be incontrovertible, to the end, till the end of all time. And the consequence it will have-” Blue lightning stabbed jagged across the sky. The man from Ulm hesitated, then considering his lot, he laughed. “All men will believe what they wish to believe, and fiction will become reality. All mythology and all religion will be as one, Christ as good as Apollo, Apollo as good as Mithra. And the consequence, dear sister, will be that there is no rule that is agreed to by all, there is no moral law, there is no order to which men and minds submit themselves. No, the mind shall not submit. The mind alone shall rule the world. And the mind will make all decisions, and it will split open the sky with light made by men, not by God, and this man-made light will be indistinguishable from life itself, and all things sacred will become like Socrates, a corpse that hated life, and men will move on from it, and women will become whores, and men will become judges, who abide not by religious law but by courts made by men, and men will rule the world without submission, without authority above, and they will invent truths and those truths will clash with opponents without any crown to unite them. All people will believe a different thing, brothers will live in the same household and gaze down different directions, and brothers will kill each other. Cities will emerge, cities of millions, seething houses of men with nothing in common, who will all invent their own laws, and sow discord, and never again once the sowing begins will it ever stop, never will Christ return. Only ambiguity, and the rolling ball, will follow men forever, and their women will die, their children will be born as in tubes, and flesh and blood and plastic and glass will have the same essence — material, as there is no other substance in this world. And it will begin in Ulm,” he gasped for breath, laughter breaking from his chest. “It will all begin at a garrison in Ulm when the little man has a big dream and he divorces nature from God, and shows how it is so, and no theologian will ever be able to disprove him.”

In darkness, the nun halted her horse. She dismounted it, and walked to the edge of the cold road.

“What has happened?” asked the man, looking frantically in all directions. “Where have you gone?”

The nun said nothing. She waited, waited for his true nature to emerge. Waited for him to grow angry, to grow violent. But nothing changed.

“Come back,” he said. “Please, return.”

She walked back to the horse, her feet in rags sucking in the sullen dirt with every step, and grabbed him by the right thigh.

“Is that true?” she demanded.

“Yes,” he said nobly, nose to the rain.

“And you are part of it?”

“Yes,” he said. “I have been sent here from the distant ahead just to make it happen sooner.”

The nun released his thigh. She turned back. She wandered to the edge of the road again, to the same place, rain boring down on her like a cloud of ashes, pouring death upon her. As she turned again in her cloak of death she set her mind to a decision and grasped the man’s thigh again. This time, she pushed upwards, and unsettled him.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. He was too weak to tilt backward. She pushed him, up, and he tilted far away and over the edge of the horse, at last like a drawbridge he was extended, and fell flat sideways into the mud below, where he groaned in agony as he ate mud, and his ribs smarted.

“Christ is our King,” said the nun, taking the horse and mounting it once more. She doubled-back on the road and trotted away. Her mouth was pregnant with feelings, desirous of more words, but none came. That was all she had said. And she continued to ride her horse back down the road she had come, to the parish.

The man in Ulm cried out in uproarious laughter. Arced blasts of lightning crossed the bow of the world and stained the firmament brightly. He screamed with joy in his mud as he imagined chickens all around him, a house for savages, and he laughed in knowledge that time was on his side, that he had won, no matter what, that the world would be delivered once more as it already had been, to the birds. And he laid there, blind, drowning in water and stinking marsh, a broken road, worn down by the waters, no food for miles, no sight in the world, and he was given over to the elements like a slave, and he died as all men do today, beneath empty skies and moonlight, blind and starving, yearning for a crown. The elements took him. They thought nothing of it. Intelligence was purged from the world. The elements seized him as a scalpel seizes a wound.

That very same nun later went on to pen a rebuttal to the man from Ulm, and all he had said that day. It was discovered by scholars in 1983 and prized as a rare insight into the stupidity of the past.

 

“The Author’s Ego” By Alexander Blum

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“Here’s how we’re running this down – there will be a twenty-minute exam, where you think the most interesting thoughts you can, and if they aren’t good enough, you’ll be killed on the spot. Here’s how we’ll deal with overpopulation – those who don’t think good things and instead think useless things, idiots, all of them, will be removed from the surface of the planet, leaving only the impressive people behind.

“We do not know, yet, how stringent our criteria will be, or how finely we will pull the culling nets. We do not know how many will be saved and how many will be killed. But practice yourselves, hone your minds, for the next five days, because on the fifth day, we’re going to start shooting anybody who fails a twenty-minute exam of their thoughts on the basis of whether or not they are cool or interesting or worthwhile enough to keep them around.

“Yes, we have a machine that can reach into your brain and see exactly what you’re thinking, imagining, words, pictures, sounds, all of it. And we’re not ideologues, either. We won’t blame you for thinking of controversial things. But if you can’t think of anything interesting at all, you have to die.

“Climate change is coming, anyway, and at least two-thirds of you will have to go. Emissions must decrease. Ah, I guess I spilled the beans there. Yes, two-thirds of you will end up shot. So even if you can think of something sort of interesting, if someone else thinks of something better, and if there are a lot of those ‘someone elses’, you’re dead.

“Lastly, please don’t think of us, the board members of the illustrious CCE, as a pack of ruthless fascists. In fact, we love humankind. We love all humans. We love them when they are at their best. So if a lot of people have to go, it only makes sense to save the best ones. So in fact, we’re doing you a service. We could pick randomly, but we decided, instead, we should pluck the tallest, straightest nails from the board and allow the rest to go down with the ship. Capisce?

“We have a great doctor here, Dr. Jorge Vorhes, and he’s prepared the live test according to perfect medical neuroimagining and neurotextual standards. Basically, if Dr. Vorhes doesn’t see anything but a dim light, a partial flicker, inside your soul, we can do without you. The ark is sailing, people. Get training.”

The blocks of the city that was once Rome were finely-cut black granite obelisks. Walls of sheer polish, criminal perfection. How did they get it away with it, those architects? Those blasted fiends – how did they shine ebon marble to so fine a pitch, so nimble a timbre? It is unfair, what they have achieved with this city. Their symmetry makes it so I cannot sleep at night, so I stay up, leafing through pages, critical of what I’ve done, critical of what I’ve written, stabbed with regret at words I’ve said.

At first, I didn’t believe them. When the architects who erected the city said that they would be killing two-thirds of us, I wanted to rationalize it. I assumed their perfection gave them the right to decide. Their merit was not mine. The city they made was not mine. And they, in the final analysis, could do what they want with me.

I understood that I was the property of the architects. But nobody could put a face on them. If you understand, they were a collection of bankers, gangsters, coin-hoarders, pimps, salesman and policemen. They were the nameless, faceless structure that we call upon to indict criminals.

But then they had Borga, my favorite author, a fanatic, a national hero, deliver that announcement, sitting in a velvet chair trimmed with lionfish gold, his fingers cusped tightly around a glass of Hennessey in his right hand, smiling, in the luxury lounge of some micro-dosing bar in some floating micro-city, and my stomach dropped beneath six or seven other organs in my congested gut, it dropped with despair.

The light emanating from the screen on the marble wall soaked us in a dim glittering gold. That gold belonged to Borga and the architects, not to us. We stood, stupid, in the face of their plans. The panic and murmur of the crowd was replicated inside my own heart. There, in the ninety-nine chambers, I found all my desires to become an author like Borga liquefied, shot, stained. Is it so true what he feels about us? That we are so worthless? My mother, my father, my brother…none of them will pass this test. None of them will meet Borga’s threshold. My father is a lumber worker, he is no intellectual. My mother makes cherry pies for soldiers, she too will be cut down. My brother is a doctor, true, but his intelligence is very narrow. He has no imagination. So I trust, he too, will be shut down and killed.

Only I, the author, have a chance at passing this test of imagination. But I’m not even good. In fact, I’m terrible. I have written seventeen manuscripts and with every single one I have turned around to despise every last one of them. Nothing sticks. I have prolific output, but I am fundamentally mediocre. Maybe age can change that. Maybe, like wine in stale bottles – agh, a stale metaphor. Nevermind. You see how doomed I am? How unoriginal I am?

My mind loops, day in and day out, with facile tides of rusted garbage, discarded stereos, shattered flutes, splintered PlayStations all roiling together in a repetitive tide. There is nothing new I can offer the world. This, I have always known. There is not a spark of creativity in me. I have the will, and the proficiency, to write, to make worlds, to tell stories. But none of them are my own. They are all coming from some demented portal that shits them out improperly, with fundamental defects, a single crack running through a whole story that breaks it, no matter how much I edit and refine, the thing is split in two.

Borga is not like me. Borga is great. He, too, has written seventeen novels, and all of them are masterpieces, sweeping up prizes, New Yorker reviews, Man Booker prizes, even a Nobel Prize in Literature, collected in his fiftieth year. The man is a titan. He is Metatron with wings expanded, each flush of the petals of those metallic feathers dripping glittering gold dust into the streets, into the world, gracing us with magic, symphonies of another world. That is the heroism of the author.

But what do you do, at last, when the hero turns his back on his readers and announces: “I am great, you are mediocre, and I no longer wish to share this Earth with your repetitive, repugnant mediocrity”? Well, I suppose you light the midnight oil.

There were some measures to prevent cheating. A drug test would be administered before the examination. Anyone on mushrooms or LSD or DMT would be shot. After all, it wasn’t really their brain that was doing it. That was the faeries talking. Execution on the spot.

Anyone with a microchip or a program playing a great film hidden inside their brain or stuck to their temple would be found out. Metal detectors were brought to the examination site, inside the remains of the old Roman Colosseum.

Engineers from Tesla were flown into Rome to set up X-rays for the sniffing out of plastic chips and other 3-D printed devices designed to stimulate thought, to stir the pool of colors inside your head and move it along faster and more brilliantly than before. That, of course, would be cheating.

The goal of this movement was to deprive the world of average people. Really, Borga, and the architects of the CCE, hated the average man. “Averages,” reads a famous line from Borga’s third novel, Songs of the Dispossessed. “Averages are the seats of pure mediocrity that sit along the deepest dip of a bell curve. Averages are the measure of the common man, who knows nothing, who can be trusted with nothing. A fear of the average is the healthiest impulse in modern man.”

How I relished those words! How I turned them over in my head, sitting in the back of a black car, Flashing Lights by Kanye West blaring, the lights of the cityscape pouring into my soul, as I found solace in those words. Now, those words were spears, accusations, assembled in a crown formation pressed upon my heart. I fell in love with luxury, with elite standards. And now those same standards would crucify me.

I had a friend, Alberto, who asked me what to do one night on the phone in a frenzy. I told him to buy and read all of Borga’s novels. So he did. He called me a day later, even more desperate – they’re sold out everywhere. Even Amazon had no copies. Anyone who lives to see the next week can see just how big a publisher’s check Borga received.

Borga was a God. I do not say this lightly. It’s not just that he won a Nobel Prize – it’s that he has written seventeen novels, all of them masterpieces, twenty-six short-stories, all of them masterpieces, nine plays, all of them also masterpieces, and two-hundred and twenty-four poems, all of them, as well, perfect. I do not know how much imperfection Borga had to wade through to get there. But wherever he is, that is where I want to be. At the supple age of twenty-nine, when he hit his stride, it never let up. Not once. There is no slack in Borga’s career. Every writer should model themselves after Borga. He was, at last, the wall through which all writers must pass, and the wall has no doors, it must be climbed. So I read, and I read, and I sought his gold, the gold he had buried in language, the mental sparks that ignited the spirit to sing, not to drudge along in a dismal tune.

The trials began. I watched them unfold on YouTube livestreams. They never showed us the executions, only the machines of judgement and the people passing through, long metal claws clamped on the rounds of their heads. Once the examination was concluded, and the result was shown, the livestream shifted to a new gorgeous actress, a new young woman, a new bespectacled man, seated with his or her eyes closed, thinking, tears rolling down cheeks, conjuring up the most beautiful thoughts, images of magnificence and splendor, the finest poetry, all their souls were working to weave majesty through the loom. And as soon as the test was over, and a pair of eyes shot up, gasping for approval, the camera switched to someone who had just begun the test.

So we had no idea who lived and who died, or how many got through and how many were killed. It was a total black box. After an hour, I shut off the livestream. I’d seen enough faces, the faces of my heroes, cinematic, literary, musical and entrepreneur, sobbing as they worked their brains to produce greatness. It wasn’t enough. I knew, none of it was enough. Even the genius Brahmma looked like death, no faith in his thoughts, sitting down in the chair with grit teeth, his jowls warped by stress and hate.

Days went by, and tabloids began to report: “The actress Gaincarla Solo has disappeared! Surely she was mediocre!” A new headline every day: “Tech magnate Frankas Gipolio has not been back to his apartment in days, says maid, he is reported dead!”

The great went first, and it was a bloodbath. The great weren’t so great. Us ordinary people had another two weeks to study, to hone our grey matter, to prepare. Personally, I was working on a little skit. I had an image playing through my soul, a miniature day dream, of a host of Indian soldiers roaring down white rapids in bear furs, alongside an open snow valley of gorgeous creatures on either side, strange and fantastic monstrosities, camels with the heads of hammerhead sharks suspended upon their tiny necks, elephants with towers rising from their backs, their feet on enormous hooves. I saw brass and bronze lanterns carried at the pinnacles of these towers, and birds, white and enormous pelicans, circling the tops of the towers as the Indians sailing by watched and smiled, copying down sketches in their notebooks, discovering the world anew.

And then it hit me – this was the river scene from Jurassic Park III, where they’re rafting alongside a bunch of brachiosaurs. All I’ve done is replace the characters from the film with fur-coated Indians, and the dinosaurs with my own amalgamations of strange beasthood. Once I made this connection, the images curled. The thought lost all originality. It was a rip-off of an OK scene from a third-rate movie.

I began to pray.

Alfredo called me one night while I was out walking, listening to Kanye West.

“The authors have gone,” he told me.

My neck stiffened. “And?”

“Borga.”

I paused. I stopped at the edge of a red-soaked alleyway, paper lanterns hanging from ebon eaves, holding my phone to my ear.

“He’s dead?”

“Yeah.”

My blood went cold. There was not even an original phrase in my heart to describe my own suffering at the death of my idol, the man who caused all this in the first place.

“You’re shitting me,” I said.

“It happened really suddenly. He got rushed to the front of the line. They showed the full thing, because he was supposed to pass with flying colors. They had a monitor tied up to his brain. They even showed the monitor on livestream. His mind went blank. All we could see was white. There was nothing there. Every few seconds, some image would begin to reverberate around the edges, some semblance of a thought. A word might begin to form on the inlet of his imagination. But it never came to pass. For twenty whole minutes, Borga sat, wide-eyed, the contraption on his head, and couldn’t think of a single thing. He was taken away, and he was probably killed.”

“No…”

“The CCE thanked him for all he’d done, but they said that, probably, they would replace him with Santino Carlo, the novelist who passed an hour earlier, and who had written ten books, all of which were pretty good, and which, perhaps, might have been even better than Borga’s-”

I tossed my phone hard on the cobblestone.

I was never tested by the CCE. The examinations were ended the next day, in the autumn of Rome, when the head of the party, the fat old bastard in the wheelchair, thought about spaghetti and a woman’s tits for twenty straight minutes, with random appearances of the n-word, and at last was removed from the machine and huddled off somewhere to hide. They wouldn’t kill him, and they didn’t kill Borga either. But the embarrassment of the whole spectacle allowed the Unionists to beat them the next fall in an election and usher in a ban on all brain-reading technology. Maybe it was a luddite move. But Dr. Jorge Vorhes and the men from Tesla went back home, and the CCE was disgraced, and the whole event was written about in the foreign press as another glorious failure of a fascist group to immanetize the eschaton and split apart the human species into a grand Ubermensch off-world and the low of us who remained grounded in Rome in autumn.

Those who passed the examination still held a kind of egotism about it. Their careers were more successful, after, than those that had lost. No record label would turn down artists who had made it. Creativity, it seemed, had been given a definite standard. But then again, those that had lost died anyway, with only two exceptions. The author Borga and the party leader, who died of an aneurism the next May.

So only Borga was alive to have failed the examination and survive. And I, around the time I was thirty-five, was able to sell a manuscript and published a decent novel that sold decently well. I also worked for a tabloid to supplement my income, and I was sent off to interview Borga, nearly a full decade after he had been jailed for cooperation with the fascists and indicted for eugenic crimes against humanity, a new and recent stipulation placed in international law.

The UN Human Rights Council had agreed that judging a person’s humanity based on their inherent ability was the definition of fascism. After all, no person could control their own thoughts, their own ability to weave up gold in the fine pink fibers of their dusty brains. It was unrealistic and cruel to judge human beings based on ability. This was stamped into law, and corporations judging prospective employees based on ability would be seen as little more than champions of eugenic evil.

I talked to Borga through a glass wall, where he clung to the phone, my former idol, and he told me he had written four-hundred books since he had failed the examination. My eyes buckled, and saw nothing for an instant. Four-hundred? Mad, a light in his eyes, he told me, yes, absolutely, he had written four-hundred novels and every last one of them were his best novel yet, trumped only by the next. But the guards in the prison were not allowing him to disseminate them or even leak them to the press.

He had contacted a friend of his at the newspaper where I worked, and had asked if he could arrange some kind of deal to leak at least one of his new books, one of his treasure pile, to me, and have me bring it to the world. He said that the guard listening to our phone call right now was in on it. The guard had been a former fascist, and loved Borga.

The former fascists all coalesced around one topic – competency. Isn’t it right, they would argue, that the most competent people should rule the world? That the great and the wide should prevail over the small and the narrow? I couldn’t disagree with their logic. I could only curdle at where it took me.

When I sat down with Borga, I only asked him one question: “Why did you fail the examination? After all you’d written, why were you unable to think of a single word?”

Borga, his old eyes and fat face illuminated, only smiled. “Sometimes, when you abuse the powers of God, they are taken from you. That was one of those times. God was sick of me. And I suppose, really, I was sick of myself too.”

I thanked him, got up, wordlessly, and left the hall. There was no interview. There was nothing, really, to say. On my way out, a burly bearded guard handed me a sealed manila folder with a packet of papers inside. A dense brick of printer paper that I knew was filled with magnificent words, truth, beauty and Godhood.

I stepped out into the cold rural air, the orange leaves suspended in the glittering light of a fading sun, the cold mountains surrounding us, only the green grass and the pavement holding the lost splendor of shed leaves. I looked to the book. I considered, for a long time, what I would do with it. I didn’t know. Really, I didn’t know.

At last, when I got home, I had some understanding. I crossed out Borga’s name, on the title page, and wrote my own beneath it. The title was beautiful – A New Symphony. I wrote my own name, Jose Alvarez, beneath it. And I began, methodically, to re-type the novel into my laptop, under my own name, and every last word I stole, and made my own, and I became Borga, and Borga was dead, and I had inherited his corpse.

When I took it to my publisher, he read the opening page intently for about five minutes, then looked up at me.

“This is Borga.”

My heart sank. I clutched the manila folder to my chest.

“No it isn’t,” I lied.

He chuckled, shoving the manuscript back across his desk. “Yes, it is. This is something Borga wrote. You can tell instantly. Honestly, Alvarez, I should kick you out of the literary world forever for this. It’s really a disgrace to envy someone else like that. But I think I’ll give you a break. This is a trying time for us all. Still, how’d you get something written by Borga? That’s an interesting achievement in itself.”

I swallowed. My throat was too dry to swallow. I caked in the desert of my pride.

“You need to offer us something that’s yours,” he told me, shaking his head. “You can’t just be an imitator forever. Maybe it worked for your first novel, for the one after that – but it won’t work forever. You have to think of something original. Really, genuinely new. You’re aping others’ styles and it’s embarrassing.

“God, it’s times like this when I think the fascists were right. Too many mediocre writers, too many copy-cats. Too many influences, no original thoughts. Train your mind, Alvarez. Think of something unique. Then I’ll take a look at it. But not this.

“This theft, what you’ve done here today – this is pathetic.”

Alexander Blum is a freelance writer on mysticism and politics. He has a website and a novel.

★ ‘The Nobody Who Is Everywhere’ by Alexander Blum

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Three women cold like Fates huddled into the cobblestone corner, beneath melting amber lamps that shone sweet upon a light dusting of snow. Seven soldiers strode past them. Each held a spear made from water, liquid held taut and sharpened by the hand of a mystic. The lances were made from the river, where babies deemed too weak for the world were cast. The mystics wove blood and brine together into the spearheads of the city guard, and the three women whispered amongst themselves as they passed, perhaps lusting after the soldiers, perhaps thinking of how to cut their throats. Their eyes darted back and forth madly, like a globe set in a steel rim, the rotation always the same. These Fates, these whores, were treated as if they were nothing. So the soldiers smirked at them, especially the shortest of their formation, who had black hair and wore a face of disdain for the cold women, and perhaps in his innermost heart, he wished he could touch them. In truth, he saw Fates in his mother, left to rot as an unwanted hag. His mother was poor. It was more than possible that she could become a leper. So he averted his eyes. He thought cruel things about them, and the women fell silent in their whisperings, as they understood how alien they really looked, and how the soldiers despised them.

I watched them all from across the street, where my scarf fell upon my waist, long like an unfurling of dark hair. There were lice embedded in it, white stars, an outbreak upon the black hide of outer space. I’d had them for years before I stayed at this inn, before whose doors I stood, watching this curious scene with the Fates as they assessed the troop that marched by. Perhaps I project intentions upon others, or perhaps I see the innermost pieces of their soul. Either way, what I told you is what I noticed in them, and in these soldiers. I saw the whole cornucopia of emotions roll through their darkened hearts, where a great feast sat untouched by the outdoors, and slowly fell rotten, as the passing of season after season with a crooked nose made them untouchable to the world, and they grew bitter, and called themselves witches.

I’m hardly an ivory-carved angel myself, so perhaps I empathize with them, though I know the judgement of other women is the harshest. I try not to cast my superstitions upon them, but as I turn to walk down the street, my scarlet boots crunching upon the dark, I notice one of the witches dashes forth with her cloak in hand, kept suspended over the damp snow, to pursue me.

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