Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Blue Eyes.

Somewhere there is a piece a paper with my name it. Somewhere there is an official record of my birth, with signatures of professionals and official stamps and seals. Where it is, I do not know. There is not much use for records like that anymore. It probably sits in a box somewhere deep in a vault in some boarded up and crumbling government office building with thousands of other miscellaneous records, slowly decomposing into pulp, testifying to a world that once was. There is no need to account for every individual anymore; individuals can account for themselves.

I never knew my parents. I have vague memories of them, sure, but it is not the same as knowing them. But I was told of them, told how they struggled to make their farm profitable, struggled to produce enough crops in the highly unstable and unpredictable climate, how it was always too wet or too dry, how everything seemed to go against them. Everyone told me what good people they were, how hard they struggled to make ends meet despite the odds stacked against them, how they gave food to the hungry itinerant vagrants who came wandering through the countryside even as they themselves were on the edge of starvation. For a time they negotiated the best prices they could for the potatoes, squash and amaranth wheat with the buyers who came from the city, but it was not enough to repay their burdensome loans. “Please,” they said, “we need money to buy food for our baby.” “We just need a few more months,” they said to their creditors. But it was no use.

They were young, I was told, young and naive. For all their goodness and honesty, they were young and foolish, with the recklessness and lack of foresight that only being young and foolish gives you. With debts higher than they could pay, and no way to take care of a young son, they did the only thing that seemed reasonable. They sold their child.


It was not until I was much older that I fist heard the word slave. I did not know what it meant, at first. It was, I was told, when you were owned by another. I suppose I was owned, but as a young boy, it did not seem that way. When you are a child, you are always owned by someone, and besides, it was all I ever knew. So I did the work they told me to do, and I was housed and fed. It was all I knew so it all seemed normal to me. Was it really so bad? I did not even understand that workers were supposed to be paid some sort of wage until much later. As I got older, I saw that some of the workers on the farm who drifted through at the height of the harvest were paid with the plants from the greenhouse, and still I did not understand it. Work was just something one did, getting paid for it was a concept that was totally alien to me.

Unlike the small family farm my erstwhile parents tried to run that was barely above subsistence, where I lived was an industrial farm, and the only vegetables here were grown to feed the workers. Three hundred and seventy-five acres of oak, apple, mulberry and black walnut trees were surrounded by fields of hemp. The hemp was hardy, and resistant to both flooding and droughts. It was harvested and usually woven into cloth, paper, and rope, and other products, or sold wholesale to buyers for industry. Most industries now relied on the countryside for raw materials, like corn, soy, and the hemp that we were cultivating, and they paid a good price. Hemp was also pressed into oil which was sold at a premium price to many neighboring craftsmen, including soap makers who regarded it highly. The long, woody fibers of the plants were combined with resin and made into boards that were sold to carpenters, and the hemp hurds were mixed with lime and sand to create cementitious bricks resistant to rotting and fire, bricks which comprised most of the buildings on the farm. The clothes on our back were made from hemp fibers, dyed with the juglone from the black walnut trees and the red from spent sugar beets.

Mulberries fed the chickens and acorns fed the hogs, or were ground into acorn flour and baked into bread. In the autumn, we hunted. We ate well, and the profits from the hemp were more than enough to buy whatever we could not produce ourselves. We also sold our special hemp from the greenhouse, which seemed especially valuable. That was why it was guarded by dogs.

Because I was a growing boy, young and full of vigor, they would put me in the treadwheels attached to the gears of apple grinders and let me run for hours until I tired myself out. I remember the smell of crushed apples, the cinnamon and spices mingling with the oakwood of the barrels. I think of it now and my mouth waters. There were several women on the farm, and it was their job to look after the boys. Greta was the one who looked after me. She was heavyset, with braided blond hair and had no children of her own. She was stern, yet kind. Although she did not work work the fields with the men and boys, she nonetheless worked from sunup to sundown, cooking, weaving, cleaning, feeding the animals, sweeping the threshold, as well as taking care of me. Every morning began with a gruel of hemp seed meal with walnuts and the occasional mulberries, and every morning I was given a spoonful of hemp oil which Greta assured me would provide me with “good fats.”

During the winters, when the fields were harvested and mulched and the pigs were slaughtered, we took shelter around the massive masonry stove fed with the the dead wood from the tree groves and leftover sheaves of hemp and walnut shells. During those long dark days is when we received our instruction from Greta in reading, writing and mathematics, me and the other children, who were a good bit bit older. We also received instruction in the Holy Bible, as we did every Sunday. We were told to memorize long Bible passages, and lines from Shakespeare and Milton, and recite them by heart. I was particularly fascinated by mathematics; how numbers could explain the way the world worked and predict the future. I learned from an old book that smelled of mold and was as think as my hand. I also began to keep a journal and draw. Fortunately we had plenty of extra paper on hand, so I would stay up late at night and read books and work math problems by the light of the fire and the the lamps burning hemp oil.

Not far from the farm was a river that we sometimes used for irrigation of the fields, and where we would take our canoes in the summer and skate in the winter. Just downstream past a series of rapids was an old mill, sturdily built of stone and wood, with a water wheel catching the rushing water frothing from the rapids. The mill on the river had been there for centuries and frequently repaired, built ages ago at the ideal location where the waters could easily turn the large overshot wheel. The turning wheel provided electricity to the mill which was used to run electric saws which cut the wood and bamboo and hemp-boards that were brought to it. A small town of workers had grown around the mill, with electricity fed to the homes through wires strung from it. Even at night, the cluster was brightly lit, and in the evenings, workers sat on the porches and listened to their radios. For some reason, Greta did not like the owner of the mill, and said he was a bad man, but she would not tell me why. She warned me never to go to the mill or the village, so of course I immediately made up my mind to sneak away and go there at the earliest opportunity.

One day in spring after the fields were sewn and watered I decided I would sneak off the farm and head down to the mill to sneak inside and perhaps see how it worked. I had become obsessed with the technology of it; to see an actual application of the pictures of machines and dynamos I had seen in some of the old mathematics textbooks. So I decided to sneak over there on Sunday after Bible study, when the mill was quiet and the men were relaxing in their homes with their families. I located an open window in the basement, and I easily found my way inside. I tried to walk softly on the old flooring planks upstairs so that they would not creak, but it was no use. I wandered around for a time before I saw an old man leaning back in chair, smoking a pipe. He was clad in overalls with his sleeves rolled up, grey-bearded and bespectacled, with a pencil behind his ear. I assumed that he was the owner. Just then, I stepped on a creaky plank, and the old man turned to see me.

“You belong to the farm down the way, don’t you?” he asked. I stood there, silently. He motioned me to come closer. He seemed friendly and not at all like what Greta had told me. “Do you want to see how a sawmill works?” he asked. I nodded. That was I got to know the old man at the sawmill. From time to time I would sneak away and take the dirt road that ran along the river to the village, telling Greta I was exploring or swimming. At the mill, the old man would show me how electricity worked, and how the machines functioned. I was fascinated.

“It wasn’t always like this, you know” the old man said one day. He then talked about how the older generation had messed up everything, how the water in the river was once drinkable, how it was once filled with fish and other living things, how the ground water below us did not always catch fire and the oceans were not acidic, how thousands of animals had gone extinct and how the climate was once steady and reasonably predictable, with none of the floods and storms that had ruined my parents’ livelihood. It was so long ago that even he only recalled in stories told by his grandfather. “You know how to read, don’t you, son?” he asked. I nodded. He went to a bookshelf and pulled off a dusty history book.

“Here, read this,” he said, handing it to me.

I read it over the winter by candlelight after everyone else went to bed. I could scarcely believe what I was reading and the pictures I was seeing. It was a history of past few centuries. After I had read it, I begged him to tell me about the world that had come before. It seemed more like fiction rather than anything that had happened to actual people.

He told me about how massive hives of workers in climate-controlled buildings stared at lit screens for twelve hours a day manipulating symbols for massive organizations of hundreds of thousands of individuals who moved goods all over the face of the globe as simply as one traveled from one farm to the next. How ordinary people lived in giant mansions surrounded by huge lawns and filled with stuff, and everyone had cars of their own, and no one had to share houses or tools or vehicles. How everyone had their very own computer, and all sorts of electronic devices, and could communicate instantly with anyone in the world at the speed of light. How people constantly kept themselves mesmerized with entertainment, music and games, and immersed themselves in imaginary worlds, even as the real world crumbled around them.

Then he told me how the money system became unglued from the real world and transformed into a giant casino based on speculation and gambling. How trillions of dollars were conjured from thin air decade after decade, dollars that had become unhinged from anything that you could buy, and prices of things gyrated wildly all over the world, and how governments and economies all over the world fell like dominoes. “We tried to hang on the longest,” he told me. “Globalization was supposed to benefit us,” he said ruefully, “but it meant we were all tethered together like mountain climbers. When one fell, all of us were pulled down into the crevice.” Everybody owed everybody else, but there was no money to pay off the debts. People lost confidence in the financial system. As the crises became ever-more severe, people eventually lost their belief that the future would be better than the past. Without constant growth, little by little millions were left without employment. Governments went broke, streetlights went out, snowplows stopped plowing, bridges and roads crumbled, and cities were torn by rioting. He explained how the rich tried to buy up the land and ensconce themselves as overlords, only to be laid low when people no longer believed in the money which gave them their power. Eventually they rose up and many of them were killed. That was the origin of the farm where I lived, he told me. He summed it up this way:

“Money was worth less and less,” he said. “Eventually, money was worth nothing and people just did what they needed to do to survive.”

Then came the wars. Nations found pretexts to sell the wars to their citizenry, so they could try and capture the remaining resources. Resource-rich nations allied with each other and formed blocks of alliances. Strong became bound to weak. The U.S., China, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Western Europe, the Middle East, it truly was a global war, he said, back when those countries existed. “People could sense it was coming; everything comes in threes,” he said. “Plus, it was the only way to get everybody working again.” As the wars ground to a bitter standstill, people assumed things would eventually turn around. Yet still they did not.

Then came the disease. He told us how we had once conquered diseases that had ravaged mankind since the beginning of history, but we had squandered that too. “The diseases mutated faster than we could come up with new drugs,” he said. "The more drugs we used, the faster they mutated. After all, there were billions of humans, and billions of animals crowded together to feed those humans. More drugs were used on animals than on people. It was a laboratory for disease. Sooner or later, we knew one would emerge.” He told me how it had spread like a brush fire through a connected world, laying low millions, a shock to a global society that thought they had conquered disease forever.

“The population problem was solved at least,” he said, chuckling grimly. “The disease problem was solved too, just like it was in the old days. Everyone vulnerable died. You should be thankful you are alive now, and not during those times. Still in many ways, we’re better off. Most people were slaves back then too, they just didn’t know it,” he said, polishing his glasses. “In less than three hundred years we used up all the fossil fuels that God had given us. We squandered our inheritance, like the prodigal son,” he chuckled. “Maybe the Bible was onto something after all.” I could now see why the old man was unpopular, and why he was the only one in the mill on a Sunday. He was a freethinker. He didn’t believe in the Holy Book, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. He still had faith in reason.

“People kept waiting for things to get back to normal, but they never did.” He added, “In fact, things were getting back to normal, it was just that the abnormal was what people were used to, and what they wanted.”

Now the world’s major financial districts lay submerged under water, and sheep now grazed on the lawn of the White House whose denizen once affected to control the entire world. Still, the old man was optimistic. He often spoke of a Renaissance, when mankind would once again harness the atom for energy, establish stable governments, and once more sail among the stars. “We keep things like this going,” he said, nodding at the generator, “in the hope that that day may one day come.”

And so it went, spending time between the farm and the mill. When I turned eighteen I was told I was free. I did not know what that meant. Those were the terms, I was told, and that I would now have to be a paid to be a worker, and that there was not enough money or work right now. I was told that perhaps I should head to the city and look for work there.

“You’re good at figuring,” Greta said. “That’s rare today. You’ll find good work, I know it. Be brave. Take these” she said, handing me carefully hand-wrapped packages of plants from the greenhouse. “They’re very valuable. They can’t be grown in the city, and they’ll command a high price, enough to get you settled. You can trade them for money anywhere” she said, telling me to keep it safe and dry. “Remember, if things don’t work out, you can always come back." I put the packets into my rucksack, gave Greta a long hug, and headed off on the dirt road.

I turned and looked back one final time at the land that had been the only home I had ever known. The sun was bright and the wind rushed through the trees, spent stalks swaying like hands waving goodbye.

I went to the mill thinking perhaps the old man could provide me with work. The saws of the mill were silent. I walked up to one of the porches of the village and asked what happened. The villagers told me the old man was hauled away one night by authorities for an unspecified crime. Afraid to confront men with guns, the villagers stayed in their homes. Many of his machines, his precious machines, were smashed, their metal hauled away for scrap. Returning to the mill, I placed the history book in my sack, the one that had told me so much about a world now gone, and one that the old man was convinced would someday return. Only then did I realize that the old man himself was the author of the book, which he had printed and bound himself. I remembered the words he often said in our discussions:

"People need to remember what happened, so they don't make the same mistakes."

I headed for the old freeway which passed nearby. I knew it would eventually lead the nearest major city.

*****

At length, I came to the freeway. I followed the freeway, eight great and mighty lanes of concrete, ten feet across each lane, wider than the river, now too heavily cracked and broken for vehicular traffic. Weeds sprung up through the cracks everywhere, and kudzu vines and sumac trees littered the sides of the roadway, with the occasional welcome berry bush. Most vehicles would crack an axle on the uneven surface. Passable roads were made of dirt or gravel. It was hard to imagine why anyone needed roads this gigantic. Just how many people were there in the olden days? Walking down this vast river of concrete, it seemed that the old man’s book about people who hurled rockets into outer space and walked on the moon, as unbelievable as they sounded, may have been true after all. Given the enormous resources it must have taken to maintain these massive roadways, no wonder their society had collapsed under its own unbearable weight.

As I walked down the road I thought about my parents. Often times over the years I wondered what had become of them. Did they migrate to a nicer climate and start over? Did they move to the city? Did they have more children? Was it possible that I had brothers and sisters I did not know about, and had yet to meet? Were they rich, poor, did they have blue eyes like I did? Did they ever think about me?

Did they regret selling their firstborn son?

As I continued along the freeway, I looked up at the massive, ugly houses strewn along the sides of the freeway, plywood exposed and rotting, empty but for a few squatters. I saw the massive cinderblock warehouses which were once overflowing with goods, more than anyone could ever buy, now overgrown with vines. Their roofs were long gone, torn off by tornadoes, their structures rusting and their shelves long empty, but they stood like silent sentinels of a world gone by, crumbling temples to the religion of industrial consumerism. The sky began to darken.

I saw a truck moving down the center of the road, bouncing as it went. It was some sort of dump truck hauling cargo, and its destination must have been the city. The tires were nearly as tall as me – they had to be to traverse these roads. The driver shouted down.

“Hey, how far have you been walking?”

Based on my reading of the remaining freeway signs, it had been about twenty miles. “Dang. Get in,” he said, and wishing to avoid the rain I climbed up into the cab.

I had never seen a black person before. The driver’s dreadlocks were thick like sheep’s wool, and his skin was the darkest I had ever seen. He carried a gun behind the seat. “The rubber in these tires is worth a fortune, more than that switchgrass I’m haulin’,” he said. “I picked you up ‘cause you looked honest,” he said laughing. “You don’t look like no thief.”

He liked to talk. He told me he had once been on a sailing vessel and been all over the world. He had even been to post-war Asia. “Rice hulls,” he said, ”shit, everything over there is powered by spent rice hulls. They burn it in engines directly or gassify it. They make everything out of ‘em - that and bamboo. They got whole cities made out of bricks and rice and bamboo.” He told me about the abandoned cities with mile-high buildings that were being mined for materials, and about how polluted the land was from factories, and how the air was thick with coal dust. Sometimes sandstorms closed entire cities for days. “They’re planting trees like crazy, but it’ll take years to fix their environment. As bad as it is, we’re actually lucky over here,” he said.

We came by and by upon the city, and I saw for the first time the towers that reached up to the heavens that I had seen pictures of in the book. “If you’re new to the city you need to declare yourself to the authorities, they want to make sure you’re not a disease carrier.” “There are still outbreaks in the cities,” he said.

I thanked him and gave him one of the packets, which he seemed pleased with. Based on the smell of his clothes, he knew what to do with it. He smiled broadly, showing off his shiny gold teeth. “Much obliged, and good luck, whitey,” he said, shaking my hand and dropping me off on a bustling downtown corner.

*****

The streets downtown were filled with people, many of them selling, from food to drugs, to 3D printed goods, to their own bodies. Everything was for sale, and everyone was selling. Food stalls lined the streets, many with creative and colorful designs. Old men roamed the alleys, their bodies shattered as youths by the last of the Resource Wars, though I knew from the book that that name was only bestowed long after they were over. They had artificial hands and legs, and even artificial eyes and ears, installed back when such things were more common and the government could still afford them. Meat and vegetables were sold from markets made from the old shipping containers that once brought goods from halfway around the world. Cars and scooters jostled with bicycles and pedal taxis and the occasional draught horse. Busses occupied their own lanes, and went out to the far edges of town. Streetlights were topped with windmills. Sirens wailed in the distance. Television screens still flickered with programs, though people paid little attention. Fisherman were lined along the river, taking their chances despite the potential toxicity of their catch.

Shops teemed with life and the streets were filled with people, talking, hustling, bargaining, negotiating, and just enjoying the crisp fall sunshine. Empty lots were filled with gardens.Musicians and buskers performed. In the cities, people like me - light skin, blue eyes, sandy blond hair, were a rarity, and I felt uncomfortable immediately. I remembered what one of the men on the farm said about how “we” were once the majority, but we had stupidly left the borders open and were overrun by what he termed “Mexkins.” “We were here first,” he said, “everything used to belong to us.” Later the old man told me the truth - the people who lived here for thousands of years before us had died from our diseases, and we took the land by force from those who remained. It seemed as though the land belonged to a lot of people over the years.

Local authorities had reestablished themselves after a long period of gangster rule. It was a light touch – government provided order and bread, and most everything else was left to people and their own devices. Various items whizzed above my head on aerial ropeways transporting goods across the city above the fray of the streets. At tall buildings, the ropeways turned vertical, hauling goods up past balconies festooned with satellite dishes where they were snatched in exchange for scrip or bartered goods to be sent back down to the street below. The upper floors of the tallest buildings were empty except for south-facing windows which were filled with planters. Rooftops with covered with container gardens, photovoltaic panels, and solar ovens.

I felt the need to relive myself, and found a public toilet, which I had never seen before. It had separate places to poop and to pee. After I did my business, I looked around for the sawdust, but there was none. I looked down into the receptacle and saw that my waste had vanished. I was amazed that there was no odor.

I was hungry from being on the road, so I got in line for one of the free urban soup kitchens the driver had told me about. It was in an old building, grand yet decaying, of marble and stone and plaster. I think it had once been a public library. The books were long gone – sold off when all public infrastructure was privatized as the crisis was in its early stages. Now it was a great dining hall. In the central city, very few people cooked at home anymore since the apartments were not configured for cooking without natural gas. So people ate out for all their meals, including free ones provided by the local government once a day in places like this one.

I held out my paper bowl, and into it was poured the broth of tripe and rice and vegetables. Peas, carrots, and potatoes, I think. A hunk of cornbread came alongside. It was much more spartan than what I used to. The toothless old man sitting next to me in the hall told me how all of it worked. The countryside sold it’s produce to the city, who ran vast urban communal soup kitchens now that working kitchens were rarities. The copious scraps from the operations went into the massive digesters, rotting and producing the methane used to cook the soup. Fat from the meat cooked in the public kitchens was collected in huge grease traps and turned into fuel for the busses. The waste from toilets like the one I used earlier was collected by the city sewers and turned into fertilizer and phosphorus, and sold back to the farmers of the countryside. When the city government established the kitchens, it had helped reestablish civil order, and there was talk of seizing all property and assigning it communally to relieve the homelessness problem. In the areas outside of downtown, meals were mostly cooked outside in grills, even in the winter.

It was time to get the money I needed to start my new life. In a back alley I found a kiosk that specialized in money changing. It was a money changer and pawn broker who, by the hand-painted sign was apparently called Sanchez. “You need something, mano?” he asked. I cautiously showed him one of my packets.He took the packet and opened it. Taking a small portion of it, he put it into some sort of glass vial and lit it, where the smoke wafted up toward a small electronic device which lit up and registered a number that apparently pleased him. “Primo stuff, highest THC I’ve ever seen. You’ve got how much?”

“Eighteen kilos.”

“His eyes widened, and a smile placed across his face. “Ay” he said. “That’s real money!” I had asked the driver on the way into town what they were worth, so I knew I would not be ripped off. Greta was right, cannabis was the most widely traded form of currency in the city, but not the only one, and not the most convenient. He handed me the city scrip, made from tough plastic fibers and printed with deep blue dyes that changed color when light from a polarized filter shined on it. In addition to cannabis, alcohol was the most common barter currency. Stills were standard backyard items, for both fueling and recreational purposes. Thriving markets also existed in silica chips, portable batteries, rare earth metals and plastic pellets, all of which the small manufacturers relied on for production. Often these were hauled out of landfills, chopped up or melted down, and given to 2D and 3D printing houses.

I suddenly remembered the words of one migrant worker on the farm, “shills and stills and grills, that’s all a city is.” Now I knew what he meant. I looked down at my wads of scrip. Forty joules, one bill read, with a picture of a windmill on it. Energy as money. I had enough to live comfortably for many months, at least. Enough time to get a roof over my head, to get set up, and to hopefully find a job. Perhaps there was a woodworking mill in town. I knew how to do that. Maybe 3D printing was similar. I was scared, yet hopeful.

As I left the kiosk, I looked at the teeming masses on the street. I could not believe the poverty. I crossed the street, and under a lamppost I noticed a beggar with lighter skin that the rest. He must have witnessed the transaction and saw the scrip I placed into my sack. Apparently he saw the familiarity in my face, for he quickly approached me, assuming my physical similarity would lead to sympathy. “Please...can you spare something? Please, help a fellow out. I have a wife and two young daughters. I used to work, but I lost my job and...”

The beggar looked into my eyes for a long time, looked deeply and longingly. It was as though he recognized me, although I was sure I had not seen him before this day. Yet it seemed he was looking not at the surface of me, but deeply into me. The man’s haggard and whiskered face haunted me, and although every part of me wanted to walk away, I stopped looked back into the two pools of blue that seemed to pierce my flesh.

Dad?

4 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your story, thanks. I thought it might end at the halfway point, just as the boy was leaving for the city, but the cycle continued to its close. Good luck for the contest.

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  2. Thanks. I've had a lot of ideas just floating around in my head for some time, but the deadline forced me to buckle down and write something. So it's been a good experience. I plan on fleshing out a lot of these ideas more now that I've gotten back in the habit of writing fiction.

    A couple of things I wanted to include in the story - I think cities will not go away; they will continue in some form, so I wanted to include an urban perspective. the second is that the U.S. will be a majority minority country by 2030 (a contradiction in terms, I know, but there it is) - something I think a lot of authors who write about future scenarios overlook.

    I've noted that these stories tend to fall into certain tropes. I wanted to avoid that, but I'm not sure I was entirely successful. I think there's lots of room for development for all of us.

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