Maps in a mirror, p.32

Maps in a Mirror, page 32


Maps in a Mirror

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  “Mr. Cloward,” said the Aryan, “you were born in Missouri in 1951. Your parents of record are your natural parents.”

  Hiram smiled. “But it was one hell of a Freudian fantasy, wasn’t it? My mother raped, my father emasculated to death, myself divorced from my true heritage, etc., etc.”

  The Aryan smiled. “You should be a writer, Mr. Cloward.”

  “I’d rather read. Please, let me read.”

  “I can’t stop you from reading.”

  “Turn off Sarah Wynn. Turn off the mansions from which young girls flee from the menace of a man who turns out to be friendly and loving. Turn off the commercials for cars and condoms.”

  “And leave you alone to wallow in cataleptic fantasies among your depressing Russian novels?”

  Hiram shook his head. Am I begging? he wondered. Yes, he decided. “I’m begging. My Russian novels aren’t depressing. They’re exalting, uplifting, overwhelming.”

  “It’s part of your sickness, Mr. Cloward, that you long to be overwhelmed.”

  “Every time I read Dostoevski, I feel fulfilled.”

  “You have read everything by Dostoevski twenty times over. And everything by Tolstoy a dozen times.”

  “Every time I read Dostoevski is the first time!”

  “We can’t leave you alone.”

  “I’ll kill myself!” Hiram shouted. “I can’t live like this much longer!”

  “Then make friends,” the Aryan said simply. Hiram gasped and panted, gathering his rage back under control. This is not happening. I am not angry. Put it away, put it back, get control, smile. Smile at the Aryan.

  “You’re my friend, right?” Hiram asked.

  “If you’ll let me,” the Aryan answered.

  “I’ll let you,” Hiram said. Then he got up and left the office.

  On the way home he passed a church. He had often seen the church before. He had little interest in religion—it had been too thoroughly dissected for him in the novels. What Twain had left alive, Dostoevski had withered and Pasternak had killed. But his mother was a passionate Presbyterian. He went into the church.

  At the front of the building was a huge television screen. On it a very charismatic young man was speaking. The tones were subdued—only those in the front could hear it. Those in the back seemed to be mediating. Cloward knelt at a bench to meditate, too.

  But he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. The young man stepped aside, and an older man took his place, intoning something about Christ. Hiram could hear the word Christ, but no others.

  The walls were decorated with crosses. Row on row of crosses. This was a Protestant church—none of the crosses contained a figure of Jesus bleeding. But Hiram’s imagination supplied him nonetheless. Jesus, his hands and wrists nailed to the cross, his feet pegged to the cross, his throat at the intersection of the beams.

  Why the cross, after all? The intersection of two utterly opposite lines, perpendiculars that can only touch at one point. The epitome of the life of man, passing through eternity without a backward glance at those encountered along the way, each in his own, endlessly divergent direction. The cross. But not at all the symbol of today, Hiram decided. Today we are in spheres. Today we are curves, not lines, bending back on ourselves, touching everybody again and again, wrapped up inside little balls, none of us daring to be at the outside. Pull me in, we cry, pull me and keep me safe, don’t let me fall out, don’t let me fall off the edge of the world.

  But the world has an edge now, and we can all see it, Hiram decided. We know where it is, and we can’t bear to let anyone find his own way of staying on top.

  Or do I want to stay on top?

  The age of crosses is over. Now the age of spheres. Balls.

  “We are your friends,” said the old man on the screen. “We can help you.”

  There is a grandeur, Hiram answered silently, about muddling through alone.

  “Why be alone when Jesus can take your burden?” said the man on the screen.

  If I were alone, Hiram answered, there would be no burden to bear.

  “Pick up your cross, fight the good fight,” said the man on the screen.

  If only, Hiram answered, I could find my cross to pick it up.

  Then Hiram realized that he still could not hear the voice from the television. Instead he had been supplying his own sermon, out loud. Three people near him in the back of the church were watching him. He smiled sheepishly, ducked his head in apology, and left. He walked home whistling.

  Sarah Wynn’s voice greeted him. “Teddy. Teddy! What have we done? Look what we’ve done.”

  “It was beautiful,” Teddy said. “I’m glad of it.”

  “Oh, Teddy! How can I ever forgive myself?” And Sarah wept.

  Hiram stood transfixed, watching the screen. Penelope had given in. Penelope had left her flax and fornicated with a suitor! This is wrong, he thought.

  “This is wrong,” he said.

  “I love you, Sarah,” Teddy said.

  “I can’t bear it, Teddy,” she answered. “I feel that in my heart I have murdered George! I have betrayed him!”

  Penelope, is there no virtue in the world? Is there no Artemis, hunting? Just Aphrodite, bedding down every hour on the hour with every man, god, or sheep that promised forever and delivered a moment. The bargains are never fulfilled, never, Hiram thought.

  At that moment on the screen, George walked in. “My dear,” he exclaimed. “My dear Sarah! I’ve been wandering with amnesia for days! It was a hitchhiker who was burned to death in my car! I’m home!”

  And Hiram screamed and screamed and screamed.

  The Aryan found out about it quickly, at the same time that he got an alarming report from the research teams analyzing the soaps. He shook his head, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Poor Mr. Cloward. Ah, what agony we do in the name of protecting people, the Aryan thought.

  “I’m sorry,” he said to Hiram. But Hiram paid him no attention. He just sat on the floor, watching the television set. As soon as the report had come in, of course, all the soaps—especially Sarah Wynn’s—had gone off the air. Now the game shows were on, a temporary replacement until errors could be corrected.

  “I’m so sorry,” the Aryan said, but Hiram tried to shrug him away. A black woman had just traded the box for the money in the envelope. It was what Hiram would have done, and it paid off. Five thousand dollars instead of a donkey pulling a cart with a monkey in it. She had just avoided being zonked.

  “Mr. Cloward, I thought the problem was with you. But it wasn’t at all. I mean, you were marginal, all right. But we didn’t realize what Sarah Wynn was doing to people.”

  Sarah schmarah, Hiram said silently, watching the screen. The black woman was bounding up and down in delight.

  “It was entirely our fault. There are thousands of marginals just like you who were seriously damaged by Sarah Wynn. We had no idea how powerful the identification was. We had no idea.”

  Of course not, thought Hiram. You didn’t read enough. You didn’t know what the myths do to people. But now was the Big Deal of the Day, and Hiram shook his head to make the Aryan go away.

  “Of course the Consumer Protection Agency will pay you a lifetime compensation. Three times your present salary and whatever treatment is possible.”

  At last Hiram’s patience ended. “Go away!” he said. “I have to see if the black woman there is going to get the car!”

  “I just can’t decide,” the black woman said.

  “Door number three!” Hiram shouted. “Please, God, door number three!”

  The Aryan watched Hiram silently.

  “Door number two!” the black woman finally decided. Hiram groaned. The announcer smiled.

  “Well,” said the announcer. “Is the car behind door number two? Let’s just see!”

  The curtain opened, and behind it was a man in a hillbilly costume strumming a beat-up looking banjo. The audience moaned. The man with the banjo sang “Home on the Range.” T
he black woman sighed.

  They opened the curtains, and there was the car behind door number three. “I knew it,” Hiram said, bitterly. “They never listen to me. Door number three, I say, and they never do it.”

  The Aryan turned to leave.

  “I told you, didn’t I?” Hiram asked, weeping.

  “Yes,” the Aryan said.

  “I knew it. I knew it all along. I was right.” Hiram sobbed into his hands.

  “Yeah,” the Aryan answered, and then he left to sign all the necessary papers for the commitment. Now Cloward fit into a category. No one can exist outside one for long, the Aryan realized. We are creating a new man. Homo categoricus. The classified man.

  But the papers didn’t have to be signed after all. Instead Hiram went into the bathroom, filled the tub, and joined the largest category of all.

  “Damn,” the Aryan said, when he heard about it.


  It had taken three weeks to get there—longer than any man in living memory had been in space, and there were four of us crammed into the little Hunter III skipship. It gave us a hearty appreciation for the pioneers, who had had to crawl across space at a tenth of the speed of light. No wonder only three colonies ever got founded. Everybody else must have eaten each other alive after the first month in space.

  Harold had taken a swing at Amauri the last day, and if we hadn’t hit the homing signal I would have ordered the ship turned around to go home to Núncamais, which was mother and apple pie to everybody but me—I’m from Pennsylvania. But we got the homing signal and set the computer to scanning the old maps, and after a few hours found ourselves in stationary orbit over Prescott, Arizona.

  At least that’s what the geologer said, and computers can’t lie. It didn’t look like what the old books said Arizona should look like.

  But there was the homing signal, broadcasting in Old English: “God bless America, come in, safe landing guaranteed.” The computer assured us that in Old English the word guarantee was not obscene, but rather had something to do with a statement being particularly trustworthy—we had a chuckle over that one.

  But we were excited, too. When great-great-great-great to the umpteenth power grandpa and grandma upped their balloons from old Terra Firma eight hundred years ago, it had been to escape the ravages of microbiological warfare that was just beginning (a few germs in a sneak attack on Madagascar, quickly spreading to epidemic proportions, and South Africa holding the world ransom for the antidote; quick retaliation with virulent cancer; you guess the rest). And even from a couple of miles out in space, it was pretty obvious that the war hadn’t stopped there. And yet there was this homing signal.

  “Obviamente automática,” Amauri observed.

  “Que máquina, que pofa em tantos anos, bichinha! Não acredito!” retorted Harold, and I was afraid I might have a rerun of the day before.

  “English,” I said. “Might as well get used to it. We’ll have to speak it for a few days, at least.”

  Vladimir sighed. “Merda.”

  I laughed. “All right, you can keep your scatological comments in lingua deporto.”

  “Are you so sure there’s anybody alive down there?” Vladimir asked.

  What could I say? That I felt it in my bones? So I just threw a sponge at him, which scattered drinking water all over the cabin, and for a few minutes we had a waterfight. I know, discipline, discipline. But we’re not a land army up here, and what the hell. I’d rather have my crew acting like crazy children than like crazy grown-ups.

  Actually, I didn’t believe that at the level of technology our ancestors had reached in 1992 they could build a machine that would keep running until 2810. Somebody had to be alive down there—or else they’d gotten smart. Again, the surface of old Terra didn’t give many signs that anybody had gotten smart.

  So somebody was alive down there. And that was exactly what we had been sent to find out.

  They complained when I ordered monkeysuits.

  “That’s old Mother Earth down there!” Harold argued. For a halibut with an ike of 150 he sure could act like a baiano sometimes.

  “Show me the cities,” I answered. “Show me the millions of people running around taking the sun in their rawhide summer outfits.”

  “And there may be germs,” Amauri added, in his snottiest voice, and immediately I had another argument going between two men brown enough to know better.

  “We will follow,” I said in my nasty captain’s voice, “standard planetary procedure, whether it’s Mother Earth or mother—”

  And at that moment the monotonous homing signal changed.

  “Please respond, please identify, please respond, or we’ll blast your asses out of the sky.”

  We responded. And soon afterward found ourselves in monkeysuits wandering around in thick pea soup up to our navels (if we could have located our navels without a map, surrounded as they were with lifesaving devices) waiting for somebody to open a door.

  A door opened and we picked ourselves up off a very hard floor. Some of the pea soup had fallen down the hatch with us. A gas came into the sterile chamber where we waited, and pretty soon the pea soup settled down and turned into mud.

  “Mariajoseijesus!” Amauri muttered. “Aquela merda vivia!”

  “English,” I muttered into the monkey mouth, “and clean up your language.”

  “That crap was alive,” Amauri said, rephrasing and cleaning up his language.

  “And now it isn’t, but we are.” It was hard to be patient.

  For all we knew, what passed for humanity here liked eating spacemen. Or sacrificing them to some local deity. We passed a nervous four hours in that cubicle. And I had already laid about five hopeless escape plans—when a door opened, and a person appeared.

  He was dressed in a white farmersuit, or at least close to it. He was very short, but smiled pleasantly and beckoned. Proof positive. Living human beings. Mission successful. Now we know there was no cause for rejoicing, but at that moment we rejoiced. Backslapping, embracing our little host (afraid of crushing him for a moment), and then into the labyrinth of U.S. MB Warfare Post 004.

  They were all very small—not more than 140 centimeters tall—and the first thought that struck me was how much humanity had grown since then. The stars must agree with us, I thought.

  Till quiet, methodical Vladimir, looking, as always, white as a ghost, pointedly turned a doorknob and touched a lightswitch (it actually was mechanical). They were both above eye level for our little friends. So it wasn’t us colonists who had grown—it was our cousins from old Gaea who had shrunk.

  We tried to catch them up on history, but all they cared about was their own politics. “Are you American?” they kept asking.

  “I’m from Pennsylvania,” I said, “but these humble-butts are from Núncamais.”

  They didn’t understand.

  “Núncamais. It means ‘never again.’ In lingua deporto.”

  Again puzzled. But they asked another question.

  “Where did your colony come from?” One-track minds.

  “Pennsylvania was settled by Americans from Hawaii. We lay no bets as to why they named the damned planet Pennsylvania.”

  One of the little people piped up, “That’s obvious. Cradle of liberty. And them?

  “From Brazil,” I said.

  They conferred quietly on that one, and then apparently decided that while Brazilian ancestry wasn’t a capital offense, it didn’t exactly confer human status. From then on, they made no attempt to talk to my crew. Just watched them carefully, and talked to me.

  Me they loved.

  “God bless America,” they said.

  I felt agreeable. “God bless America,” I answered.

  Then, again in unison, they made an obscene suggestion as to what I should do with the Russians. I glanced at my compatriots and fellow travelers and shrugged. I repeated the little folks’ wish for the Russian’s sexual bliss.

  Fact time. I won’t bore
by repeating all the clever questioning and probing that elicited the following information. Partly because it didn’t take any questioning. They seemed to have been rehearsing for years what they would say to any visitors from outer space, particularly the descendants of the long-lost colonists. It went this way:

  Germ warfare had begun in earnest about three years after we left. Three very cleverly designed cancer viruses had been loosed on the world, apparently by no one at all, since both the Russians and the Americans denied it and the Chinese were all dead. That was when the scientists knuckled down and set to work.

  Recombinant DNA had been a rough enough science when my ancestors took off for the stars—and we hadn’t developed it much since then. When you’re developing raw planets you have better things to do with your time. But under the pressure of warfare, the science of do-it-yourself genetics had a field day on planet Earth.

  “We are constantly developing new strains of viruses and bacteria,” they said. “And constantly we are bombarded by the Russians’ latest weapons.” They were hard-pressed. There weren’t many of them in that particular MB Warfare Post, and the enemy’s assaults were clever.

  And finally the picture became clear. To all of us at once. It was Harold who said, “Fossa-me, mae! You mean for eight hundred years you bunnies’ve been down here?”

  They didn’t answer until I asked the question—more politely, too, since I had noticed a certain set to those inscrutable jaws when Harold called them bunnies. Well, they were bunnies, white as white could be, but it was tasteless for Harold to call them that, particularly in front of Vladimir, who had more than a slight tendency toward white skin himself.

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