Ansel’s Leave

 


Below the elbows, his arms were canons.

He used one to knock on the cottage door.  It made a dent and a sliver of white paint broke off, leaving a fresh, bright scar in the wood.

He listened for movement inside and heard bare feet slapping the floor, each step panting under quick weight.  A girl flung the door open without checking first.  In the country, they didn’t check.

The girl in the door was dainty and dirty.  Her brow and chest wore thin coats of glittering sweat.  Her lips were dry and pinched together in places.  Her hands were bony and red.  She’d been working.  Her body temperature and heart rate were slightly elevated.  90 BPM, but decreasing.  She had blue eyes.  She looked at him.

She saw his arms, which were canons.  They seemed dangerous, the way their energy sight-glass indicators glowed and swelled with green fire.  The barrels of the guns had once been a matte gun-metal gray but now were singed black from overuse.  They were scarred shiny in places and badly dented.  Five flexible aluminum plated cables wove out from each barrel and connected into chromium fittings on his shoulders and spine and in the back of his head where the hair was melted off.  Fat heaps of scar tissue had grown like barnacles over all the fittings.

The girl’s eyes frisked each cable, tracing them up to his shoulders.  She inspected his face.

“You must be Ansel,” she said.

He nodded.

“I am Rynn.  Do you remember me?”

He blinked.

“Hallerynn.  I go by Rynn.”

Ansel nodded.

Her bony hand went up and touched the dry contours of her lips.  “You cannot speak?”

He lowered his eyes.

“Oh,” she said.  Her wince turned over into a smile.  “Nevertheless, I remember what you sound like from my dreams.  I was small when you left, but my dreams brought me good memories.”  She nearly laughed at the thought.  She held it back.  She had many fond memories of Ansel, construed in her own imagination, of course.  Ansel hadn’t been there.

They stood examining each other.  Behind him, in the field, several sheep stirred.  One was rooting around the high flowered grass beside the porch, casting a long, preoccupied shadow.  A purple and white spotted butterfly danced past, grazing Rynn’s hair.  She brushed it away.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “Come in.”

He bent through the door.

Fresh killed ducks were hanging from the ceiling.  Their necks were broken and their heads were drooping down where the wire was cinched.  Their eyes were bulging and black.  He dodged through them.

He followed Rynn into the middle of the cottage, where cheese was drying on racks draped with linen. There were stairs that went up, and a lacquered railing.  He didn’t remember a railing.  That was new.  The stairs were wide, but cluttered with jars packed full of leafy herbs and bright spices and dried fruits.  There was a narrow opening where someone could weave a way up and down between the jars, and the steps were faded in those places like a path beaten through the trees.

“Would you like to sit?” Rynn used a dirty rag to gesture at the rope hammock.

He shook his head.

“I wish you would.  You look tired.  Are they heavy?”

Ansel lifted the canon arms so that they were parallel to the floor.  Then he dropped them and felt his shoulders stretch.  He shrugged.

Rynn went to the hammock and lowered herself into it, slowly, as if to show him how.  She was dirty and her hands were calloused, but she had grace.  He cocked his head at her.

“Your father and brother are bringing in a lamb.  They’ve roasted it.  I’ve been smelling it all day coming in on a breeze from the creek.  She was a big, fattened lamb.  Her name was Joan.  She was saved for Vitus’ inheritance feast.  Then we got the message.”

She crossed her legs.  She wrapped the rag around her thin hand.

“Vitus remembers you,” she said.  “He remembers when you left.  I’ve spent my life asking everyone about you.”  She hazarded a glance, tried to read an expression, then looked away.  “Did you wonder about me?”

She waited for an answer, and when she received nothing from the hulking man with canon arms, she gazed out the window.

“Vitus would never tell about you.  Father, I couldn’t bring it up to him, else he turn into a sopping mess.  Worse than spring in the valley, the way he’d cry.  It could break his mood for weeks.  And mother, well, I never knew her.  She died once you left.”

Ansel stood there, looking down the barrels of his guns.  The green flames made strange lights on the walls.

There came the faint rattling of a bell.  Rynn swung up onto her feet and bent low to peak through the crusted window panes.

“Here they come!” she looked at him and smiled.  “Here they come!” The warm tips of her fingers pressed into the flesh above his elbow.  She pulled him out the back door.

The field was very green, sloping down where it turned golden with dandelions.  There was an ox cutting through the gold, horns twisting in the falling sun, the bell around his neck clattering, and a blackened lamb draped over his back.  Two men were leading the ox up the slope.

They came within two paces of Rynn and Ansel and stopped.  The bell clattered and the ox snorted.

The older man was thin and strong.  His hair was white and stiff like the beard of a young grain stalk.  His eyes were blue and heavy with years.  The other man was much younger, but an adult still.  He looked like Rynn, with those same dry, pinched lips.  He regarded Ansel for a moment, then went about pulling down the lamb.

“Ansel,” the old man said.  He looked at Ansel’s face.  “What has happened to your face?”

Ansel looked down.

“My son.  What happened?”

“He cannot speak, father,” Rynn said.

The young man got the lamb off the ox’s back and swung it over his shoulder.  He nearly tipped under its weight, but he regained his balance and trudged up to the cottage.

Father looked at his daughter pleadingly.  “What did they do to him?”

“Father!” she hissed.  “He can hear perfectly well.”

“My son!” he said and wrapped his arms around Ansel’s bulging shoulders.  He buried his face into Ansel’s chest.  He gripped Ansel’s arms.

“Enough, father,” Rynn said.  “Don’t be a sap, now.  What a happy occasion.  Let’s eat.”

They sat to eat inside around the table.  Vitus cut the lamb into large, steaming slabs and set out four pots.  Rynn said, “Just three, Vitus.”

They all looked over at Ansel.

“How do you eat?” Rynn asked, because no one else would.

Ansel stood and shook the straps of his pack off his shoulders.  The pack slid down his arms and landed heavily.  He used a cannon to pry apart the pack’s drawstring opening.  He jammed the cannon into the pack.  There was a click and a hiss.  He pulled out one cannon and replaced it with the other.  There was another click and hiss.  He lifted both arms and rested them on the table.  The muzzles were covered by green cylindrical attachments.  The aluminum flex tubes twisted and snapped like hoses taking pressure.  Ansel sat there with his hoses rushing.

Vitus took away Ansel’s bowl.

Father gaped and could not touch the steaming heap of lamb in his pot.

Rynn stabbed blindly at her pot, unconsciously ate a few slivers of lamb, gnawing as if she could not taste.

Vitus hung his head over his own pot and shoved the meat into his lips.  Ansel watched Vitus eat until the bowl was empty and shining with grease.  Ansel looked away as Vitus cut off a second portion and dropped it into his pot.

“Are you home for very long?” Father asked.

Ansel nodded once.

“You have to go back?”

Ansel shook his head.

Father smiled.  His heavy eyes watered.  “Ansel.  My eldest, my first born.  The farm is yours, you know.  Vitus will stay and help you until you can get things running.  I am far too old to go on managing this place.”

Vitus rolled his eyes.  “To butcher the lambs, will he just blast them in the head?”

Father’s eyes widened.

Rynn said, “Be kind!”

“I am being kind,” Vitus said.  He inspected Ansel like he was reviewing a sick cow.  “You would burden this poor boy with a farm.  He hasn’t got arms.  His mouth is melted shut.  He cannot speak.  He could not even eat his own produce should he like to.  There’s no pride in it.  How would he survive here?  He feeds by plugging protein cylinders onto his guns.  What’s he going to do with a farm?”

“Boy, be still!” Father yelled and threw down his napkin.  “He is the first born of this family!  You owe him your respect.  What’s more, your brother spent the last decade battling across the stars so that we could tend our flocks in peace.  This farm would not be here without him.  You would not be here without him.  Show him your gratitude!”

“Tended the flocks, have you?” Vitus’ face laughed, but he did not, for the occasion was far too serious.  “I’ve tended the flock while you’ve wept pitifully for your son and wife and grown weak with despair.  I am the only one at this table due any gratitude.”

“Begone!” Father commanded, with his finger jabbing crooked like a lightning bolt toward the ceiling and his voice cracking.  “Begone now!”

Vitus left through the back door and did not close it.

The father dropped his head into his hands.

The girl chased out after the boy with tears running down her dirty cheeks.

Ansel’s protein canisters sighed and popped off.  They spun on the table like coins until they clattered and were still.

Ansel stood up, full.

“Don’t listen to that boy,” the father said.

Ansel stood at the back door, looking out.

“He will come back.  He loves you, you know.  We all do.”

Ansel went out the back door.  The boy and the girl were far off, just shadows.  At the bottom of a hill was a fat roll of hay that was twice Ansel’s height.  Ansel waded through the grass toward it.  He sprung up onto it, then dropped down and sat.

He swung his legs the way kids do when their feet can’t touch the ground.  He looked up.

The stars were out.  They were full in the night sky.  If he could block out the ambient light seeping  into the corners of his vision from the cottage, Ansel thought he could just as soon be in space, gazing out from the sortie bay of an Orthodox Cruiser, or camping on an asteroid in Cambodia Sector hours before leading a shock-force raid on its tunnel fortresses.  The only difference was that in space, the stars didn’t flicker.

The stars flickered here because their light was disrupted as it passed through the atmosphere.  That’s what the science said, but Ansel thought it was because great battles were tearing through the galaxies – war without end on every solar front, reaching the valley’s dumbly grazing sheep only by way of gentle beacons on the tapestry of a country night sky.  Ansel thought it funny because the stars didn’t do anything in space but coldly burn.  Out there, they made no shows.

Ansel calculated distances to the stars he had been to.  He looked at one, and its distance in light-years toggled immediately onto his retinal implant display.  He looked at another star and watched the number change.

Ansel watched for some time.  The green flames roared in his canon energy indicators, then subsided.  He slid off the hay roll and landed heavily on his feet.

He stretched his legs and back.  He bent and swept the muzzle of his canon arm over the top of the high grass.  Dew sprinkled off the blades.  He watched a glinting drop run along the rim of the gun barrel, capturing all the moonlight within its small amorphous boundaries.  He watched it suspend there on the edge of his canon, and finally detach and fall.

Then he, Ansel, went into the hills with his canon arms swinging by his side and the sheep moving out of his way.

Ernest Hemingway: If Ever There Was A Life Lived

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Much has been written about Ernest Hemingway; the best of it was written by the man himself, through his fictional works which were largely based on his absurdly adventurous life.  If ever there was a life that was lived, it belonged to Ernest Hemingway.

Based on his fictional work alone, he ranks as my second favorite writer of all time (standing only an imperceptible sliver behind Ray Bradbury).  As an individual, a man who fought fearlessly in wars and was awarded a bronze star, who survived an explosion and shrapnel in his leg, who lived to tell about two plane crashes, one of which he escaped by headbutting his way out, who exuded strength and loved women (he married 4 of them), who slew lion and boar and rhinoceros and swordfish alike, who partook in bombing raids and once hurled a grenade into a Nazi bunker while attached as a war correspondent, who was endlessly possessed by adventure – Hemingway easily ranks first among all, and represents perhaps my closest flirtation with idolatry. Continue reading “Ernest Hemingway: If Ever There Was A Life Lived”

all the best movies are Westerns

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The old definition of a “Western” was a story (movie, novel, or otherwise) that took place in the formative years of the American West, or the WIld West.  The best Westerns, however, transcend this antiquated definition because they have since developed some other important commonalities.

Like all good stories, good Westerns follow a character (or many characters) who undergo  deep personal transformations over the course of the tale.  When these transformations occur in the beginning of a Western (usually caused by some injustice like the murder of a loved one), we are often treated to a wild train ride of blood-soaked vengeance driving across arid badlands and through cities with foreboding names like Dodge, or Deadwood, or Tombstone.  Not to mention a slew of classic lines, like “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy,” or “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch.”

As delightful as these might be to watch, my favorite Westerns execute the slow transformation, which is finally, and usually explosively, necessitated by a situation that has become untenable because of a personal weakness in the main character.

Continue reading “all the best movies are Westerns”

We LARPed Before It Was Cool

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We LARPed before it was cool.

Back then, we used yellow Wiffle bats instead of foam pads because we were men.  A smack across the knuckles and a graze across the male-genitalia-tip were facts of life, and death.  We would rise early, with the sun, when the chill air still made ghosts of our breath. We would take to the yard and cast long shadows, three men striding abreast.

My flaming arrow was a stone roiled in dirt.  My armor was a hand-me-down T-Rex t-shirt.  We fought with fury, and our passion bit to our hearts.  I’ve been thrust upon fences by the throat (see genitalia incident above…still sorry bro), and I’ve been blessed with a bloody nose.  I’ve been struck down to my knees (when my life points fell to zero), and risen up to fight again.

We LARPed while you were watching that new Fresh Prince show.  We LARPed between games of Starfox and Mario Kart on the Nintendo.  We LARPed till sunset and dueled at high noon.  Yes, we LARPed before it was cool.  And if you are reading this, and by some misfortune you just don’t have a clue, it’s because you didn’t LARP.  You didn’t LARP before it was cool.

Death Like Wine

ImageWhen I first encountered the following passage, I quickly nodded in agreement while instinctively picturing Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the scene where he is fighting off an outfit of sweaty barbarians and doomed jungle kittens at the Roman Coliseum.

“A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying.  He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape.  He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape.  He must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Gladiator is my default reference to most life events because it still ranks in my top 3 favorite movies of all time.  Take work as an example.  The conclusion of every counseling session I’ve ever endured should really end like this: me, rising out my seat full of quiet rage, allowing the chair to scrape along the tile floor for no shorter than four seconds (but imagine it played out for a full minute, like they do in nail-biting NASA Control scenes in Armageddon), followed by a hushed but emphatic, “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”  Other lines are less applicable to our lives today.  “The frost: sometimes it makes the blade stick,” is a great line to tell the guy you’re about to decapitate with your broadsword, but a tough one to find a home for today, unless you’re mowing your lawn in winter and casually commenting to yourself.

Oddly, the passage was written in 1909, 91 years before Gladiator was released, but it just so happens that the wisdom contained within this unfamiliar quote applied even before Hollywood depictions of manliness, courage, and death.  It was penned by one G.K. Chesterton, a Christian apologist who inspired and influenced the work of other badass writers, like C.S. Lewis.  Like Lewis, Chesterton was also an Englishman who spent his youth as an atheist before converting to Catholicism in early adulthood.

In perhaps his best known work of Christian apologetics, Orthodoxy, Chesterton exercises a wit and wisdom totally uncharacteristic of both the book’s tranquilizer title and of modern Christian apologists in general.  He doesn’t preach and he doesn’t offer supposed proofs of the existence of God.  As Chesterton states in the preface:

“It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.  The book is therefore arranged on the positive principle of a riddle and an answer.”

Indeed.  Yoda-style preface notwithstanding, Chesterton’s work can and should be read by all crowds; atheists, Hindus, and Christians alike.  The book’s value comes not necessarily from its purpose, but from Chesterton’s hilarious command of language and his sage-like observations of the world.  Examples abound:

“Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.”

Or this not-so-Facebook-meme-ready gem, which makes an interesting comparison between the author and Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and the historical woman-warrior Joan of Arc:

“Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant.  Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior.  She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other.  Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.”

And this provoking tirade, from a chapter that is aptly and cleverly titled “The Ethics of Elfland”:

“In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.  A box is opened, and all evils fly out.  A word is forgotten, and cities perish.  A lamp is lit, and love flies away.  A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited.  An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

“This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison.  People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.  Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers.  Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out of nowhere, but she received a command – which might have come out of Brixton – that she should be back by twelve.  Also, she had a glass slipper; and it cannot be coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore.  This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will  not throw stones.  For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat.  And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world.  I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder.  I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.”

You may not agree with all of Chesterton’s conclusions at the end of the journey, but his word-smithing and capacity for imagination are breathtaking.  And if anything is to be learned from our portly apologist, it is this: life is balance. Happiness is bright but brittle.  Consider the glass that is both beautiful and delicate.  Or Joan of Arc, who was at once both peaceful and terribly violent.  Or of a warrior’s survival depending on his capacity to drink life like water, and death like wine.

I found myself re-reading approximately three passages per page throughout, and delightfully so.  Of course, this handicapped reading of Orthodoxy might be attributed to years of brain atrophy, since I’m just a public school guy (where The Odyssey, perhaps our most difficult undertaking, was accompanied by dumbed-down translation, as if the actual poem hadn’t already been translated into English).  I found that re-reading particular phrases in Orthodoxy was a bit like solving a riddle.  And so I had fun doing it.

For anyone doubting me, the book is mercifully short (my version clocks in at 170 pages in paperback), and if you end up hating it, you can always donate it to your local Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, and take a happy second helping of Fifty Shades Darker.