Friday, January 8, 2016

Rhymes for Darkness

I

There were dregs creeping round the cornfields at dawn, in late summer just as the crop was getting ripe enough to harvest. Red-faced from sunburn or alcohol, their clothes faded and ragged, slouching like beaten dogs, with stupid grins as if they were drunk or mentally retarded. You could see them in the shadows, you could just feel their presence.

II

I woke up with stomach trouble and an eye infection, and there was still no electricity. When I tried to call the power company again, the automated answering service told me to stay on the line, and said I'd be able to connect with a representative within half an hour or an hour. The wind was so strong it threatened to blow my canoe off its winter platform. I crushed the snow down to make a path to the old outhouse. On my way back I picked a few kale leaves exposed by the melting of the snow. What would the future be like?

I was always telling people to be prepared, but I was often the least prepared of all. Don’t fall into the river when you dip the bucket. A foot-thick spruce had snapped off and gone somewhere downstream. Two days later, there was still no electricity. The wind was gentle for an hour or so, and then it started to build again. The automated answering service stretched across the empyrean, telling me I'd be connected with a representative at some time. Angels we have heard on high. Food, water, firewood, one day at a time.

III

The building lobby and stairwell were pitch-dark. I was also concerned because half the time most of the land-line telephones everywhere seemed to have stopped working. I always kept a cell phone but I only intended it to be used for emergencies, and then it failed when I needed it most. The fees and taxes were outrageous, and we paid for incoming and outgoing calls, but couldn't get the services we expected. And at one point none of the radio stations was broadcasting.

I was working on my computer in my office when the lights began dimming a bit every few minutes. I saved the document and a few minutes later the power died. I was downtown, I walked down about thirty flights of stairs. I just wanted to get home before dark.

All I keep hearing from the news media was how it was so great that everyone was pulling together to get through this hardship. But I never saw any of my own neighbors checking on anyone else. Anyway, why bother? I knocked on a couple of doors to see if anyone needed help and they all looked at me as if I was a rapist or a murderer. Then when I called the city to ask where I could get water, although I had no electricity even to boil water, they said just keep checking the stores. I didn't have enough fuel to go driving all over town looking for water. What I heard later was that all the bottled water was soon sold out anyway. The power went out on the first night and came back on a few hours later. Whatever power I did get was shaky. I lost power again for short periods of time.

IV

I normally had a two-hour drive to the cottage. I decided to spend the night in the apartment and head north early in the morning. It took three hours due to all the traffic lights out and so many other people on the road, and the roads were icy, and there were no snowplows. But there was a fair amount of cooperation. Volunteers were directing traffic at intersections, people were helping each other and so on.

Electricity came back on for a moment in the early morning before I left for the cottage, but there was still no TV, and then there was no phone service. The water came back on though. There didn't seem to be any pattern to it.

The worst part was that nobody at any level of government went on air to address the public until the second day. What were they waiting for? Maybe nobody wanted to take the blame.

The news media were making a huge deal out of it right from the beginning. The loss of power wasn't life-threatening at first, hospitals had generators. Telecommunications had generators as did major data centers. I admit this was all a major inconvenience for people anyway.

It took a long time even to get out of town. Much of the time, vehicles were just moving from one area to another, trying to find a way out. There were empty buses that seemed to be going nowhere, and many cars had only one person.

V

We'd never really spent much time at the cottage in winter, but the summer before the blackout we'd had a cast-iron wood-stove installed. We didn't know much about such things, and now that we really needed it we were having trouble with it. Sometimes we spent several hours just trying to prepare a simple dinner and get the fire going. The stove was cold when we decided to make dinner, of course. Getting the stove going again, after it had been out for several hours, could be murder unless we'd got perfect materials -- such as an armload of well-seasoned twigs, all a half-inch thick. On the other hand, if we kept the fire going non-stop for days, we had no trouble at all getting it to burn new or wet wood. But once it had gone out, nothing seemed able to bring it back to life. Newspaper, pine cones, birch bark -- ten minutes later, it had all fizzled out again.

It was sometimes so cold in the house that we walked around gritting our teeth. Once, a couple hours after the sun came up, I was sitting about six feet from the stove but I was so cold that I was shuddering, although I was wearing several layers of clothes. It was slightly below zero outside, not extremely cold. I got so frustrated that I went and woke my wife up and told her we had to do something. The inside of our house was still under construction, and there were various kinds of heat loss. So we did some instant "home repair and improvement" -- we'd bought curtain rods and curtains for the French windows and for the main window in the living room long before but hadn't found time to put them up. A few hours after we did so, it seemed warmer. Snow fell all day.

That morning had felt too much like a brush with death from hypothermia. Getting warm would require doing a lot of work on the house. Because of the perpetual cold, however, we'd been getting too tired and too numb, as the weeks went by, to do anything, even if it meant improving our living conditions. It had started becoming a vicious circle.

Some of the neighbors showed us that it was important to build up a really good fire in the stove and then keep it hot by adding wood on a regular basis, every half-hour or so, not letting it die down to nothing but coals. They also explained that we should have kept the damper wide open much more often than we had been. Generally we'd just been loading up the stove with cold wet wood and then expecting to be warm. Anyway, finally the house was warm enough. New wood or old wood didn't really make much difference, as long as the wood was being put into what was literally a roaring fire.

Another problem we hadn't quite got around to dealing with was wood that had been thoroughly soaked by rain. It always took about three days inside for such wood to lose enough water to burn properly, and even then it was not so good. We had one big pile of firewood under an old sheet of corrugated fiberglass, but we still needed to cover the other big pile.

But one day we had the feeling that at last we were beating the cold. There was often quite a blizzard outside, but inside it was pleasant enough.

By the end of winter, we got one or two "warm" days -- I mean, days that didn't remind me of the more-tragic aspects of polar expeditions. But the long weeks of cold weather had been causing some further problems. We'd been keeping the curtains closed to get some more warmth in the house, but then ice had been forming between the curtains and the windows. And in the bedroom there was a huge patch of dark blue mold developing in one corner. I didn't know if that problem was related to the temperature, but I suspected that the warm air from the living room was condensing in the cold bedroom, creating ideal conditions for this primitive vegetation.

By early spring there were one or two days when the mountain of snow on top of the roof started to drip, to melt, to form giant columns of clear ice, to remelt and then freeze again. I got the bow saw out of the basement so that I could finish a few more logs. Now, every few weeks, in between the "real" work of getting seeds into the ground, there might be a few minutes left over to cut some more wood.

On the first real summer day, the corn started to come up. By a month later the corn was about a foot high. Three weeks after that, it was about three feet high.

The wild geese declared war. Twice a day, morning and evening, they'd wander around eating grass seed, but then they'd slowly drift into the garden to nip what they could. They basically ignored me when I chased them. But I learned some tricks. When they fanned out, I chose one creature and stuck with it. One at the far left or right of the flock was worth choosing, or one that had already become isolated. I then walked after it, not letting it walk in a circle; if it turned, I headed it off so it turned the other way. It was impossible to hit a goose with a rock -- they were too far, and always moving -- but when I threw three rocks at once at a flying goose I nearly hit it.

In late summer we collected our first six ears of corn. The geese were still there. I got my old twelve-gauge shotgun and put a shell in each barrel. I walked out the back door and pulled one trigger, missed, pulled the other trigger, and one flopped over, dead.

VI

The dregs operated mainly, not with violence as such, but with the threat of violence. If they used veiled threats, over a long period of time, gradually increasing the intensity of the threats, you yourself would become gradually more nervous, more fearful, and they would win without having to risk using weapons. You might be telling yourself if you were nice to them, maybe they'd go away, and conversely if you weren't nice to them, they'd hurt you. Neither theory was very accurate.

They rarely acted alone. They knew that there was safety in numbers -- even if the good guys had trouble catching on to this bit of wisdom themselves. Conversely, if you could catch a dreg alone, since he was unaccustomed to acting alone, you had him in your power. He would then play dumb or play dead, hoping you'd change your mind about him.

You couldn't assume that if you lived far enough off in the boondocks, the dregs wouldn't find you. On the contrary, a lot of dregs knew that isolated houses were easy pickings.

You had to convince a dreg that you were crazier than he was. If you gave the impression that you regarded your life as infinitely precious, he would have an advantage over you. If, on the other hand, you convinced him that your blood-lust was greater than your will to live, he might decide that tackling you was not worth the bother.

If you were having serious trouble with one, and you knew that talking would accomplish nothing, then you had to move fast. When faced with imminent violence, an important rule was that of first strike. If you hit a dreg hard enough, long before he was expecting it, he would be literally shocked and surprised, and you might save yourself a good deal of pointless conversation -- or from being able to do nothing but stand there quivering.

VII

Even if you didn't have a handgun, there were three kinds of long guns that would be of use if your life was at risk. A .22 rifle might not kill a dreg, although he might die slowly from internal bleeding later. In any case, it would certainly slow him down. The ammo was so small that it was both cheap and easy to store. Other types of rifle were roughly .300 caliber -- this ammo was bigger but far more powerful than .22 ammo. The third type of long gun was the shotgun.

If you chose a shotgun, you didn't really want anything lighter than a 12-gauge. A double-barreled shotgun allowed a fast second shot. Sawing off the barrels -- and maybe you could get bluing to prevent rust in that area -- would make the gun easier to carry.

"Down" didn't always mean "out." The dreg might get hit three or four times and yet rise again to finish you off. You didn't want to put your gun away just because he had his eyes closed -- he might open them later.

VIII

When a dreg had to be butchered, the first thing was to bleed him, unless the bullet had gone straight through and left a large exit hole that drained the blood. It was important, as I said, not to leave your gun and rush in on a dying dreg to work on him, because he might turn out to be less dead than he looked. So you had to put a bullet or a knife into his heart or spine. Then you had to get the guts out in a reasonable time, or gas would build up inside and you'd have a problem with rotting.

It didn't make a great deal of difference what order you did things, or maybe even how you did them, but it generally went something like this. You stuck the point of your knife through the skin over the belly, just below the breastbone, and cut down to the area of the genitals, but never letting the knife go deep enough to cut into the intestines. Then you started where you originally put the knife in, and slit upward to meet the neck. To remove the hands and feet, you cut a little below the wrists, and likewise a little below the ankles, cutting straight across through the skin and muscles, in front, and the same behind, and then snapped them off. Then you slit the skin along the inside of each arm and leg, up to the cuts you'd made in the belly and chest.

To remove the head, you cut the neck through the skin, the flesh, and the gullet to the backbone. Then you found a joint between the surfaces of two vertebrae, separated these as far as you could, and then twisted the head round and round, until it broke off.

IX

This country had become just like one of the many collapsed societies that could already be found between West Africa and Southeast Asia, where uniforms were deceptive and official borders were meaningless. When much of the world consisted of bandit hordes riding across a wasteland, it would have been laughable to worry about inflation, unemployment, and the stock market, as we used to do long ago.

The term "developing countries" had become merely a euphemism for "dying countries": the basic characteristic of such lands was summarized by the Spanish word mañana, a word signifying the prevalence of low morale. A foreign visitor might describe the average inhabitant of such a land as "rude, lazy, stupid, and dishonest," but that was somewhat begging the question.

How could a person have such traits if they led only to self-destruction? But chronic frustration led to what psychologists called "displacement": an animal placed in a situation in which neither of two opposite choices is rewarding eventually becomes apathetic. In a failed state, the visitor's strongest impression was this was a country where nothing worked properly -- and nobody cared.



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