Breaking my radio silence of the last two months with a contribution to the wonderful Louise Gornall’s #TalkFear series. Please do peruse her site and read the other posts; they are by turns brave, scorchingly honest and heartbreaking. A big round of hugs and congratulations to everyone who’s had the stones to step forward and talk about what few others do, and thank you very much to Louise for putting this all together. (P.S. She has a book coming out next year which I look forward to learning more about and sharing with you over the next little while!)
I heard through social media a little while ago that a friend from high school days had passed away. Her name was Kim. While we had never been the textbook definition of close, we would chat from time to time through Facebook about family, parenting, and the course of our respective lives. She wasn’t someone I went out of my way to keep in contact with, and yet, when we spoke online, I was amazed at how her innate brightness would gleam through the flying bubbles of text, and how genuinely interested she was in what was happening with me, despite her really having no obligation to be. You meet way too many sorts who vibrate visibly with the itch to dispense with the perfunctory required questions about how the job’s going and how the kids are doing so they can start prattling on about the heaps of awesomeness that have fallen into their own precious laps; Kim was most definitely the opposite, remaining private about her own problems while always offering up receptive, sympathetic ears. That we were friends at all spoke to the depth of her character, in many ways a complete contradiction of what you’d expect. Someone like her could easily have been Regina from Mean Girls, blessed as she was with talent, popularity and beauty, but instead she saw people for who they were and not where in the social order it was their fate to be pecked. She cared, with an honesty that could not be faked. And she’s gone now, a too short 40 years of age, and I wish I’d made a point to talk with her more often, because a special light has gone out.
I met Kim when we were both involved in the production of our 1993 high school musical, a staging of Chicago. I was the backup drummer in the orchestra pit, hidden at the back of the stage behind a black scrim, while Kim, a year older, was bold and brassy belting out “All That Jazz” as the lead, Velma Kelly. (Ten years later, sitting in the theater watching Catherine Zeta-Jones have a go at the same part, I couldn’t help smiling and thinking that Kim had done a better job.) Our school had a reputation for the quality of its productions; we dared to mount elaborate, challenging, Broadway-level material whose raciness gave our more conservative principal his fair share of headaches. They were great social levelers too: you could come in to work on them whether you were jock, nerd, princess or bespectacled wallflower, and find yourself among fast friends. The denizens of the elevated echelons that you wouldn’t dare approach in the halls were throwing their arms around you at the frequent cast parties. Somehow the social hierarchy that mattered so much in the day-to-day got tossed in pursuit of the grand goal of creating a singular night on the stage. Kim was a big part of ensuring that happened, and some of my strongest memories of that experience are chatting and sharing jokes (and flirting a little, clumsy as I was at it back then) with her. One might logically expect the show’s diva to be dismissive of the little people in the back, but Kim didn’t go in for that sort of nonsense. Instead she made everyone want to up their collective game. You wanted to work harder and play better because that was a friend up there on the stage counting on you to have her back.
When I first joined Facebook there were quite a few people from the old high school that I made a point of looking up. I don’t recall Kim being one of them, but as degrees of separation would have it she popped into my news feed after commenting on someone else’s post, and at some point I must have sent her a friend request – or maybe she did for me. I didn’t put much stock into it other than “I kind of remember you and you’re a decent sort, let’s be Facebook friends, ignore each other’s updates and send half-hearted birthday messages every year when it reminds us to.” I was content to leave it at that until Kim started messaging me periodically to say hello and see how I was doing. She was the only one of my 131 connections to do so. I wondered why. This may come across as false modesty, but I honestly did not believe I deserved the attention, given that I hadn’t exactly made keeping in touch with her a significant or even a minor priority. It wasn’t as though we had a rich personal history to look back upon either, just a few shared experiences when we were teenagers, a few chance encounters on the street in the years that followed. But I was moved by her warmth and the sincerity of her outreach. After my wife and I adopted our son Kim would check in every few months to ask how things were going. I’d tell her a little about his history and how he came to be with us, and in her words back to me I could see and feel the opening of a tremendous heart. I would ask her how she was, and though she was guarded about the details, I could sense that that heart had been wounded many times and was battling on regardless, through illness that had landed her in hospital far more often than she deserved.
Then, after a while, the conversations stopped. She didn’t reply to the last message I sent, though I did get a note that it had been seen, months later. Kim tumbled from my consciousness. Caught up in the ins and outs of my own day-to-day as weeks slouched into months it did not occur to me to check in with her. It wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just happened, through indolence and preoccupation rather than intent. When another friend broke the news to me by the cold means of Twitter direct message, I felt my entire body sink as though someone had just doubled the gravity in the room. It was a twofold reaction: shock, obviously, coupled with a tremendous gnaw of guilt. I knew she had been sick, and as I scrolled back through our history of Facebook messages, trees of text bubbles preserved there as though set in digital amber, I could detect hints that things had been far more serious than she had let on, hints that I had let go out of respect for her privacy. Kim would pivot when I would ask about her illness, assuring me that she was strong and that she was an adult. She would rather talk about me, this blog, and how I was finding life as a father. I didn’t push. I suppose it would have made little difference if I had.
In his classic ballad “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor makes what for me is the quintessential statement about our relationships with our friends and how little time we truly have to celebrate the fortune of their presence in our lives. In writing this post and thinking about Kim, I echo his sentiment. I didn’t continue the conversations with Kim because there was always more time. I always thought that I’d see her again. That late one night, barred from sleep by lingering traces of the day’s caffeine intake I’d be scrolling through Facebook, smirking at cat videos and pictures of other people’s kids being silly and re-posted rants about the government, and the notification tab would pop and I’d see her name and “Hey Graham, how are you?” I’d been conditioned to expect that and I never believed it would stop. Now it has. There will be no more messages from Kim. “All That Jazz” will forevermore have a hint of melancholy when I reflect on one very irreplaceable Velma.
By no means do I claim a monopoly on grieving her loss. I know that I wasn’t her best friend, or a member of her family, or someone with any deep, lasting connection with her but this: Kim meant a great deal to me for the simple reason that in a world with more than its share of awful people, she was one of the good ones. I’m glad I got the chance to tell her as much during one of our late night chats. I’m sorry I couldn’t have said it more, and that I won’t get the chance to get to know her better. That she won’t get the chance to meet my son whom she enjoyed hearing about. And I’m sorry that she won’t have the long and happy life that should have been her due. It has brought into sharp focus the notion of mortality and that we cannot count on any of us being around for as long as we once thought we would be. The invulnerability with which we greeted the days back then is a fleeting wisp lost on the wind. And while we may feel as though we are more connected with our friends because of social networks like Facebook, we can’t let those algorithms diminish the value and the reality of the people on the other side of that coldly curated news feed. We need to talk more. Really talk, about our hopes and our dreams and our fears and the world we want to leave in the glow of our tail lights. We need to seek out the good ones that are already in our lives and latch onto them and laugh with them until our sides ache, and weep until we’re all utterly spent of tears.
We always think we’ll see each other again. Sometimes we won’t. So let’s see each other as much as we can, while we can, while every precious moment of this life remains available to us. I’m going to close now by offering a suggestion. Today, think of someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time and send them a message. Doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Just say hello and let them know you’re thinking about them. See what happens next. I think you’ll find the very tiny expenditure of your time bearing positive emotional returns the extent of which you can’t even imagine yet.
Goodbye, Kim. You were one of the good ones. And all that jazz.
Love it or hate it, we are living in the age of superheroes. They have burst from the pages and the fringes to cement themselves at the forefront of mainstream entertainment, and they show no sign of folding up their capes and flying out of town anytime soon. Having been alive to witness the emergence of the genre with the original Superman films of the late 70’s and their embarrassing sequels in the 80’s, the brutal slog of the zero-budget Cannon oeuvre (anybody remember the original Captain America?), and the long drought in the 90’s when all we had were Blade and a series of progressively awful Batman sequels, one can recall when superheroes were a fool’s investment; now studios and producers can’t snap up the properties fast enough. Gone too are the days when you could write off the entire genre as mindless frivolity for the kiddies. Serious talent goes into the production of these things now, and there are enough of them of sufficiently varied quality and targeted appeal that it becomes increasingly difficult to paint them all with the same ink brush.
At least, that’s what you’d hope. Regrettably, the Powers That Be are still gun shy at the notion of a leading female superhero. As Marvel takes heat from fans over the nonexistent Black Widow solo movie, a leaked memo from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter shows him citing the box office failures of Elektra, Catwoman and the original 1984 Supergirl as justification for a lack of development on female-led titles. As has been pointed out elsewhere, in a most staggering example of sexism, no one postulated that the failure of the terrible Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie in 2011 meant the death knell of male-driven superhero movies, and Reynolds is getting another shot at a lead superhero role in Deadpool. By contrast, no one eager to keep their plum Hollywood executive job would dare bankroll Jennifer Garner in, say, Zatanna. (Marvel has announced the female Captain Marvel for release in 2018 – after DC, slower out of the gate with their own franchises, releases the Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman in 2017). And while it is not as though we haven’t seen any female superheroes in the modern era, they still bear the scars of creative types being not entirely sure what to do with them. Elektra and Catwoman didn’t fail because they starred women, they failed because they were bad films with leads written as caricatures designed to appeal to teenage boys rather than as fully developed and actualized women. Gods as characters are hard to write with the best of intentions, and it would seem that crafting compelling stories for goddesses is even more of a Sisyphean task. The challenge is to create wants for them that are believable and relatable, and obstacles that require more than a numbing million-dollar-a-minute visual effects budget to overcome.
The X-Men films had Storm and Jean Grey, and while the former was woefully underused and somewhat de-powered for the sake of plot, the latter was reduced to a mishmash of ethereal love interest-turned-psychotic murder goddess who had to be killed to save the rest of humanity. Black Widow has no special abilities other than her basic combat skills and is shoehorned into the sidekick/partner role in whatever Marvel film seems convenient (and we won’t go in to the controversy about her revelation about her backstory in her most recent appearance). While it was nice to see a truly superpowered woman emerge in Avengers: Age of Ultron in the person of the Scarlet Witch, the movie was so cramped with characters all requiring their own beats that we never got a chance to find out much about what made her tick, and again, she suffered the same problem as Storm in that her presence was limited to prevent the audience from dwelling on the extent of her powers lest they wonder why she doesn’t just do X and Y in order to stop the bad guys and save the world.
The original Supergirl movie tried to duplicate the formula that made Superman such a smash in 1978: a cast of Hollywood stars surrounding a compelling unknown, and enough money thrown at the screen to try to give the audience a memorable effects-heavy spectacle. Unfortunately, the weak story and the excessive focus on the campy villainess (and the refusal of the journeyman director to rein in Faye Dunaway’s gluttonous gobbling of the scenery) undermined a game performance by lead Helen Slater and conspired to sink the entire effort and by extension confine the notion of a female superhero movie into the vault for 20 years. Superman himself went into hibernation around then as well, and has only recently emerged, though in two wildly uneven outings, the first of which (2006’s Superman Returns) turned him into a creepy super-stalker absentee father, while the second (2013’s Man of Steel) was a grim, violent, tonally wrong orgiastic CGI smash-em-up. It has fallen to television, and producer Greg Berlanti, on the heels of his other superhero ratings successes Arrow and The Flash, to try and get Supergirl right – as cinema screens prepare to unleash the spectacle no one asked for of Batman and Superman beating the crap out of each other with Wonder Woman looking on and presumably shaking her tiara’d head in next year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The extended Supergirl trailer that debuted a few weeks ago was more than a breath of fresh air, it was a positively endearing gale-force blast. As essayed by the immediately appealing Melissa Benoist, this sunny, optimistic Supergirl is utterly free of angst, and actually excited about exploring her abilities instead of viewing them and the corresponding duty to fight crime as a relentless curse – thus separating her from almost every single other caped crusader out there. I’m not sure where the rule came from that superheroes have to brood constantly about their lot in life instead of finding joy in being exceptional; it smacks to me of writers worrying that this is the only way the average audience member will be able to relate to gods – by delivering the subconscious message that “yeah, Wolverine’s claws and healing factor are cool and all, but trust us, you wouldn’t really want to be like him.”
In the 1984 Supergirl there was a deleted scene early in the movie nicknamed the “aerial ballet” of her gliding through the air about a forest and beaming with delight as she discovered what she could do – snipped after a test screening for the sake of pacing, or perhaps the fear that an expected mostly-male audience simply wouldn’t want to watch a woman reveling in her awakening. Ask yourself these many years later what the most popular scene in Frozen was, and the answer is Elsa’s “Let It Go” transformation, so, a haughty pshaw to that notion. In the TV Supergirl trailer we see her take to the skies with a huge smile on her face, and a determination in her heart to be something more than she is – to be the hero she knows it is within her to become. She does not want to run from who she is, she wants to shout it from the tops of the tall buildings that she’s leaping over in a single bound.
This, to me, is what modern superhero filmed fiction is sorely lacking, especially when it comes to female superheroes: a sense of hope, which, if you think about it, is why young boys and girls read comic books in the first place. The sense of powerlessness that youth can instill when one is not the popular kid, or has a rotten home life, or just feels that nothing ever goes his or her way, is what we turn to those stories to heal. As kids and even adults we gravitate to the notion that we too might be able to put on a cape and soar, and find that triumph that is lacking in our own mundane lives. That’s not what we’re getting from the movies that are all the rage right now. The Marvel collection, despite their quippy, colorful tone, still operate from a sense of profound cynicism about the world and its people. (For all the deserved feminist accolades for Marvel guru Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show’s core premise was that high school and by extension the world was a hell to be fought constantly, and Whedon’s chronic tendency to pad his drama by refusing to allow his characters any semblance of long-term happiness often resulted in a frustrating and pessimism-inducing viewing experience. This approach to storytelling has carried over to his films and filtered through the non-Whedon Marvel movies as well.) The DC movies are simply morose, packaged by bean-counting committees obsessed with finding a way to differentiate themselves from the comparatively lighter Marvel. The obsession with shoehorning “dark and edgy” content into absolutely everything is stripping these stories of their reason for being. We need to reconnect with the inspiration at the heart of these tales. We need some hope back. Girls and women will welcome a genuine, powerful superhero in whom they can see their hopes and dreams reflected, whose aspirations they can share, and whose triumphs they can celebrate, without feeling as though they are being pandered to with a male-gaze camera leering on shots of her shapely costumed figure.
This is why I am crossing my fingers very tightly for Supergirl. Given how it has introduced itself to the world, and fair or not, more is riding on its success than its creators probably realize. Done right, the show can tap into the same hunger for goodwill and optimism and compelling, complex female characters that made Frozen such a worldwide phenomenon and still lingers out there waiting to be embraced again. It can deliver the message that not only can women lead a superhero franchise, but that they don’t have to do so by adopting the same gritty, troubled persona as the menfolk. And it would be wonderful indeed to see some of that optimism permeate the other superhero stories that are flooding our screens instead of condemning us to a parade of furrowed brows and punching for the next ten years. Let’s have something that leaves us happy and renewed instead of forcing us to ruminate on the bleak existentialist wasteland that is life.
If the show doesn’t work, if it falls back into the cheeseball antics of the bad old days of the 80’s and 90’s, then, attitudes being as they are, not only will the likes of Ike Perlmutter be vindicated in their beliefs about the box office non-viability of female superheroes, but it will also be taken as a reinforcement of the (in my opinion, erroneous) idea that comic book movies have to be dark and cynical in order to find an audience. No one is suggesting that the stories shouldn’t have conflict, but the victories that come of those conflicts shouldn’t always feel so Pyrrhic so that one walks out of the theater or turns off the television worn out and depressed when we were meant to have been inspired. There’s that old chestnut about a movie or a show that makes you stand up and cheer; we haven’t had that for a very long time, and we really need it – boys and girls alike. So Godspeed, Supergirl, may you fly far, and may you turn out to be everything we’re hoping for and far more.
No pressure or anything.
No picture included today because I’m not having that dead weasel on his head clutter my pretty blog space.
A statement made a few years ago by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, now running for the Republican nomination for President, has begun circulating again, presumably so anyone who might be inclined in supporting his 2016 candidacy might be reminded that the interests he is looking out for do not align in any way with what would actually be best for the overwhelming majority of the country. Here it is. Try not to vomit.
“With regard to the idea of whether or not you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies… I’m a physician, that means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me, it means you believe in slavery. It means you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the assistants, the nurses… There’s an implied threat of force, do you have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away, and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free healthcare would be.” – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
How does one even begin to deconstruct a statement of such careless, asinine, take-my-ball-and-go-home nincompoopery? The slavery allegory, deserving a Godwin’s Law of its own, is especially offensive coming from a son of privilege with a Southern accent. Dwelling on the image, one imagines a ludicrous scene of an army of sick people coughing and hacking as they (weakly) kick in poor gosh-darn put-upon Dr. Paul’s door and demand at the point of a crutch that he hand over the antibiotics. If there weren’t so many people suffering because they can’t afford to even get into the same room with the elusive golden chalice that is American health care, it would be worthy of a laugh. If I didn’t know someone personally who was going through a rough time because her access to care is limited by her financial means, I might cluck my tongue as I look down on high from my enviable Canadian system. But no, Rand Paul, you’ve pissed me right off, and your apparent unfamiliarity with the Hippocratic Oath alone should be cause for you to lose your medical license (the status of which I understand is dubious at best).
Rand Paul’s problem is that fundamentally, he does not give a rat’s furry arse about anyone but himself (the opposite of the concept of “public servant.”) He seems to genuinely believe that having to share space with other people unlike himself is an irritant. I have always found libertarianism as a philosophy to be a giant crock of donkey doo-doo, given that aside from those guys who proclaim their own kingdoms on ranches in the middle of nowhere and usually find their utopias promptly ended by the FBI, no libertarian truly wants to live free of all government. I mean, surely Rand Paul isn’t in favor of having to pave his own streets, treat his own drinking water and dispose of his own sewage when he has to take a dump, right? And when Kim Jong-Un finally sends his crack troops to invade Lexington, does Rand want to be out on the front lines at the head of a hastily cobbled militia? No. Libertarians like Rand Paul are for all the conveniences of government, they just don’t want to have to deign to pay for them, or obey the laws that they personally do not like. When it comes to the idea of socialized medicine, for Rand Paul (who is rich, of course), the idea that he might have to sacrifice a few of his pennies so that a single mom working three jobs doesn’t have to sell her furniture when her child develops pneumonia, is toxic anathema to be fought to his dying breath. Obviously, to him, she just hasn’t worked hard enough to be able to have her child breathe properly, and doesn’t deserve the sparsest notion of help from the rest of her fellow citizens.
“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Even Dickens would have found Rand Paul’s point of view hyperbolically cruel.
Choosing to live in civilization instead of out on the fringes is by its nature accepting a social compact with our immediate neighbours and our countrymen as a whole. We come to accept that there are certain things we are not permitted to do in exchange for other privileges. I’m okay with the fact that I’m not allowed to lounge bare-ass naked in the middle of the street in front of my house if it means that my weird neighbour across the way can’t do it either. We also accept that there are certain public goods and services to which we must each contribute a modest share. I’m also totally okay with the tiny percentage of my total property tax bill that ensures that my garbage and recycling is collected each week without me having to set up an individual account with and survive three credit reference checks by the ABC Trash Removal Company, and my same neighbour’s potential inability to afford it won’t mean I have to fight off the gulls picking away at the stench wafting from the mountain of used diapers and doggie waste bags piling up on his lawn every time I step outside. The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Republican, famously said that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” The notion that free health care is not included as one of the core tenets of that civilized society is morally reprehensible. That a significant segment of the American population fights as hard as it does to ensure the system remains in its crushing, inequitable state is a testament to the brainwashing power of significantly monied interests controlling the message – look no further than dirt poor red staters screaming “socialism!” when the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) is mentioned in casual conversation.
Since there are copious misconceptions about what socialized medicine entails (furthered naturally by those same monied interests noted above), it is probably incumbent on me as a Canadian to dispel them to my American audience by providing a few examples from personal experience. Here’s how it works when you get sick in the province of Ontario, where I reside: you call your doctor and make an appointment. If the doctor can’t see you soon enough for your liking, you can go to a walk-in clinic or, if it’s much more serious, the emergency room. When you arrive you hand the receptionist a government-issued Health Card, which has your provincial insurance number on it. That’s it. You never get a bill, no bureaucratic middleman (or Sarah Palin boogeyman “death panel”) evaluates your claim, nothing. Your medical records are a confidential matter for you and your doctor. Nobody else. If you’re required to be admitted to hospital overnight or longer, you might pay extra (on a willing basis, it’s not mandatory) if you want an upgrade to a semi-private or private room, or if you want additional services like a TV or a phone at your bedside. But you will never be charged for your health care. The government pays for it. And Canadian doctors are not exactly working for slave wages, either. A 2012 survey found the average family physician making $328,000 a year in Canada. Even in our system which Rand Paul likens to slavery, no one expects doctors to work for free, and they are most certainly not.
About fifteen years ago I was hospitalized for a collapsed lung. I was not working at the time so I had no health benefits or insurance. The cost for my week-long stay was $12, for said phone. I wasn’t charged for the painkillers or the sedatives or the tube they had to drill into my side or the electric pump draining the blood and pus from my pleural cavity. In the likes of Rand Paul’s mind, I should have just died of it and/or gone bankrupt to pay for getting better, instead of burdening millionaires with an extra few dollars on their taxes. Would that have improved life for everyone else? Would it be better that my wife never would have met me, or that my adopted son would never have known his father?
Screw you, Rand Paul. Screw your privileged pelvis to a rusty cake stand.
The Canadian health care system is not perfect, and unfortunately important things like eye and chiropractic care that were covered when my parents were alive have been stripped away as the years have gone on and voters have demanded lower and lower taxes. Dental care has never been covered, which is just stupid as the last time I checked, teeth were part of the body and rotten teeth can impact your entire system. But no Canadian worries that if they ever have a heart attack, the paramedics will demand to see a bank statement before they apply the defibrillators. Getting cancer doesn’t mean having to hock the house to afford the chemo. In fact, our socialized health care system is so deeply ingrained into our cultural identity that our governing Conservative Party, while full of Republican sympathizers who would love to see us embrace a fully privatized health care system – including our prime minister – dares not even approach that third rail lest they face a complete electoral wipeout. It seems to be understood for the most part among Canadians that we are in this together and we owe it to each other to ensure that illness does not lead to complete ruin. Part of the problem is that while it has not been as bad here as in the States, we too have felt the effects of the systematic attack against the government social safety net through the insane machete-slashing of corporate and higher-income tax rates that has been going on since the election of Ronald Reagan. Just make it better for the rich guys, we’re told over and over again, and they will shower the rest of us with prosperity. I’ve already gone on at length about how fanatically and fatally stupid that argument is. It makes even less sense to claim that getting the government out of the health care system will lead to its improvement.
Government is the means by which we pool our resources to provide for the needs that we cannot fulfill on our own. Individually we can’t afford police or water treatment plants, but we all need to drink water and we need someone to stop the bad guys from stealing our stuff. And because we collectively pay other people to do this for us through our taxes, we can stretch and contribute to the maximum of our potential in other areas. The same thinking should apply to health care, and I’m always stymied as to how ostensible economists can’t see the benefits of taking health care out of the personal expense stream. I don’t know what the going monthly rate for an American health insurance policy is, but I’m guessing if it’s several hundred dollars on the cheap end, that’s several hundred that isn’t going into discretionary spending, you know, the kind that actually boosts the economy. Cutting a rich guy’s taxes might mean that he can afford a few more flatscreen TV’s for his beach house, but he’s still only one man with a limited ability to make use of multiple televisions, so he’s only going to buy so many. But if three hundred million people have the cost of health care taken off their monthly balance sheet so that they can now afford a new TV, well, that’s a positive boon for the manufacturers of flatscreens, and that’s a lot of new jobs and economic growth in the flatscreen television industry alone.
“But a socialized health care system will be too expensive! We can’t afford it!” cry the Grover Norquists of the world. Nope, I don’t buy that, pun intended. The United States is spending $700 billion a year on its defense budget and most of the right wing wants that budget increased. America has the money. Gobs of it. A great deal of it being pissed away on weapons systems that the military doesn’t even want, and in tax breaks and loopholes for dirty energy companies and the like who are quite literally laughing at how easy they’ve got it. America is awesome at coming up with ways to kill people and pollute the planet (making us all sicker in fact) – not so much at taking care of the inhabitants of the “greatest country in the world.” Again, that’s by design, and until its people cease swallowing the lies being spoon-fed to them and voting against their own interests, nothing will change. The American Dream should by its definition include the idea that freedom should also be freedom from the financial burden of illness – the understanding that sometimes, people fall through no fault of their own, and that helping them stand up isn’t coddling them, it’s letting them walk again under their own power. I do not see how anyone could argue with that, unless they were the sort to derive a perverse joy in watching others be hurt. (Is that you, Rand Paul?) Finance shouldn’t even be part of the equation when it comes to this. Some things are more important in this life than the bottom line. Any government implementing extreme austerity at the expense of the welfare of its people needs to take a hard look at what exactly it is they’re trying to govern – a great-looking spreadsheet for a realm of ruined faces?
I could not look that hypothetical single mother in the eye and tell her that she should suck it up and get used to the street with her sick kid because it’s more important that we balance the budget. If it is, then you know what? Address the revenue side of the equation. Raise the taxes. Make the rich pay more; they’ll survive without that extra flatscreen. Punish the companies who are offshoring their profits and hoarding their cash, or whining about needing to lay people off because of health care costs (or worse, Hobby Lobbying about what health care they will or won’t cover). They’re lying. So long as lives are being destroyed by the unavailability of proper health care, no one who thinks of themselves as moral should rest easy.
Why isn’t that what’s keeping the Rand Pauls of the world up at night?
It’s only going to be four parts, he said, rather short-sightedly last September…
Etienne had received hundreds of briefings in his life, but exceedingly rare was the occasion on which he was asked to deliver one. Even rarer – unique, he should say – was his audience for it, gathered around a sloppily nailed-together table in a rickety St. Iliane meeting hall one good stiff wind short of collapse: a drunken rural bandit the size of a horse, and a gorgeous, nomadic witch, herself more the modest and slender dimensions of a doe. The room was hot and the air smelled a thousand years old, but both sets of ears were riveted to his presentation.
If only he had something more hopeful to tell them.
“The headquarters of the Bureau Centrale in Calerre,” Etienne said, laying out the dimensions of the problem, “is arguably the most secure building ever designed and constructed. Seventeen storeys above ground and six below, containing the offices of key personnel, a few libraries’ worth of records, training, interrogation and detention facilities, and of course, the site of their secret magic-enhanced weapons manufacturing program.”
Nightingale’s light-wreathed fingers danced in the air as she wove a perfect, scrupulous image of the edifice on the table in front of them, details drawn from her glimpse inside his memories. “On an average day,” said Etienne, “it houses approximately one thousand people, ranging from basic support and administrative workers to high-level officers, and at least a hundred armed guards for good measure. Access is controlled with a series of security checks at various points throughout the building. Failing any one of these measures will signal an alarm that will bring a dozen men with swords down on your neck in about ten seconds. A theoretical large-scale assault of the kind we are contemplating would lead to the activation of the Bureau’s Catastrophic Emergency Protocol Rouge, which would essentially seal the city and mobilize the 19th Division of the King’s Gardes du Royaume that is berthed secretly less than twenty minutes away. The last time anyone of significance tried a raid on the Bureau’s headquarters, they made it up about eight steps to the front door before they were butchered.” Etienne sat back in his chair and let his two listeners digest the grim course.
Le Taureau twisted his cup back and forth, grinding its base into the table. He had consented, for the purposes of discussion, to share a bottle of some Trichaud pinot bleu that had been liberated from a passing convoy a few months prior. Etienne was grateful for a brief taste of civilization, no matter how distractingly sweet, while Nightingale signaled her refusal to partake with a silent shake of her head. She had said little while Etienne conducted his briefing, absorbing it one dispiriting fact at a time. Impossible beauty remained a perfect shield, betraying nothing of her mind.
“So,” said Le Taureau, “we crack open the doors and kill as many of these whelps as possible until the Armée Royale arrives to massacre us to the last man. Is that what you are proposing?”
“Glorious martyrdom might inspire a few songs,” Etienne said, “but it won’t stop the Bureau. They’ll wipe down the bloodstains and keep right on going. If we are going to have any lasting impact, we need to target three things: the weapons, the records, and the leadership. With those gone the Bureau will take decades to recover, if ever.”
The burly giant’s mouth twisted wryly beneath his forest of facial hair. “How do we do that?”
“The records portion of it should be easy. Three floors’ worth of reports, plans, blueprints and dossiers on just about every person breathing or in the ground less than a hundred years. Most of that sealed behind iron vault doors with two independent locks opened by unique keys kept in the trust of the Bureau’s chief archivist and his deputy.”
“Easy,” Le Taureau muttered with a scoff.
“The weapons, according to… a friend,” said Etienne, “are made and stored on a sub-level six floors beneath the street, accessed by an unconnected, concealed entrance.” He indicated the appropriate section of Nightingale’s illusory model. “We will have to smuggle your men inside the main building so you can seize the records levels and cause enough of a ruckus that attention is drawn away from the weapons facility, where a second team will investigate and destroy both their existing cache and the means of producing more.” Etienne looked to the witch. “I’ll need Corporal Valnier and the rest of my men. We… left them in Charmanoix.”
Nightingale nodded. “I will see to that.”
“And the leadership?” Le Taureau asked.
Etienne imagined the grinning countenances of Michel Ste-Selin, Kadier Duforteste, and decrepit old Theniard Preulx, the trio of pompous windbags who had first set him on this errant quest. He derived a certain degree of amusement in picturing what he hoped would be the outcome of the scheme he was in the process of hatching. “The Bureau’s constitution prescribes that no more than two of the three Directeurs are ever allowed to be in the same place at the same time. That constitution notwithstanding, they have made exceptions on rare occasions. If we give them a strong enough reason to come together, then we’ll have them. If we can’t get all three of them, we might as well conclude this adventure of ours before it begins.”
“We couldn’t hunt them down one at a time?” Le Taureau suggested. “Surely ma déesse could…”
Etienne frowned. “Their movements are the most carefully protected secrets in the kingdom. They use subterfuge, fake itineraries… sometimes decoys and body doubles to confuse anyone who might be trying to track them. If by a miracle we were to find one Directeur, as soon as word gets out that he has been taken, the other two will close ranks. No, we need to take them together, unexpecting, at headquarters. One thrust of the spear.”
Le Taureau emptied his cup and poured himself another. “So pray explain what world-shattering event could draw the three Directeurs together?” Etienne stared at the other man as if trying to push his thoughts across the room into Le Taureau’s mind. Though shaped as a physical brute, Le Taureau was not entirely without sense, and when realization dawned he gazed wistfully across the table and uttered a single word: “Oh.”
Nightingale drew the same conclusion at a quicker pace, but waited for Le Taureau to catch up with them. “Me,” she said.
“They have hinged their very livelihoods on your capture,” Etienne said. “They will want to see you in person to know that the threat of Nightingale has been terminated.”
She smiled, sadly. “You will bring me before them in chains, just as you promised.”
“It’s the only way to infiltrate the building and ensure that the three of them will be there waiting for us. They gave me a special communications protocol to use once I had found you and was ready to bring you back. I’ll use it to send a coded message to Calerre. It shouldn’t take more than five days for them to gather together. And then… we will strike.”
“So, if I may summarize,” said Le Taureau, “we are going to pit ourselves against the most formidable institution in the country, probably the world, in a single coordinated attack that requires about eighteen different improbable things to break in our favor in order to be successful, and we are going to do this with our greatest asset rendered more or less inert. As a theory, I love this plan. I suspect you are going to get us all killed, but it will certainly be a lot of fun.” He rose to his feet and grabbed the bottle of Trichaud. “On that, I am going to go have my men practice their swordplay. But first, I’m going to drink a whole lot more of this.” Le Taureau nodded to them both. “Commissionaire. Déesse.” He pivoted his bulk on a burdened heel and ambled off.
“You will have to shave your beard,” Etienne called after him. Befitting his nom de guerre, Le Taureau growled a good share of curses at the air and kept walking. Despite their adversarial history, Etienne was growing rather, dare he say it, fond of the man. Not yet to the point of trust, but at least he was coming to appreciate the more endearing aspects of Le Taureau’s personality.
Nightingale remained seated, trepidation picking at her usually serene features. Her fingers twitched and banished the image of the building she’d conjured. Etienne attempted to meet her gaze, but it drifted out of reach as her thoughts overtook her. He leaned on that edge of wanting to say something but not knowing if he should. When she leaped from her chair abruptly and made for the doorway, he decided to chance boldness. “What is it?”
She stopped but kept her back to him. “It does not matter,” she said with a sigh.
“Nightingale?” Etienne fell in behind her. “Tell me.”
The witch’s long hair spilled over her shoulder. Her eyes glistened with the beginnings of what could only be tears. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t wear that collar, those manacles. I’ve torn them from the necks of innocent young girls and old women alike. I’ve watched others I couldn’t save die strangled under their yoke, wrists and fingers worn bloody as they tried in vain to rip them off. I’ve spent longer than I can remember fighting everything they represent, and to ask me to wear them, even as a ruse… you don’t know. You can’t understand.”
Etienne was stunned. He had never seen anything approaching vulnerability from her. “You’re the most powerful witch this country has ever seen,” he said. “Nothing can change that.”
Nightingale lifted her hands. Surges of violet light spun and sparked about her fingers, casting an aura over a suddenly morose face. “Can you imagine what it is like? To have such gifts as to be considered a goddess, and yet, no matter what I do, I can’t save enough of them. My sisters are still dying by the thousands, all over the world. My kind is being driven to extinction, and none of this, none of this makes a difference. I don’t have the power to change minds. I can’t make people stop fearing and hating us.” She looked at Etienne. “Do you know what power really is? It’s a bitter reminder of everything that you still can’t do.”
“You changed me, Nightingale,” Etienne said.
“One man in a country of four million,” she said with a dismissive smirk. “Mainly because you want to sleep with me. I guess that’s progress.”
“That’s not fair. My feelings for you are much more than that.”
Nightingale let the magic ebb from her hands. She folded her arms. “No, they aren’t. You were right. That first night, I did cast a spell on you. I planted a deep obsession within you so you would seek me out, so I could use you to my own ends. That’s the kind of power I have.”
Etienne felt his stomach twist and his nerves fill with ice. “Why are you saying this to me?”
It couldn’t be. It wasn’t true. Why was she lying to him?
“You should know, finally, who it is you’re about to risk your life for,” Nightingale said. “I am manipulative, and devious, and selfish, and I am tired. I am so tired of this place, of this war. I am tired of waking up each morning knowing that all that awaits me is more of the fight. I want to disappear to a warm island half a world away and make a new life, free from worries about what is happening to everyone else. I want to use all this magic for my own benefit. I want to wake to the sound of the ocean and the seabirds and spend the day lazing about in the sun, and if the sky fills with clouds I will just wave my hand and sweep them away. If I am a goddess, then I want to live like one, and leave the ants to squabbling over their anthills. Staying here holds nothing for me anymore.”
Etienne knew himself. His love for Nightingale was not artificial, not something that could be forced upon an unwilling heart. Wasn’t it? He had accepted it without question from his first glimpse of her, from the dreams that had haunted him until their next meeting. His mind flew back to that fateful night, seeing again the overturned carriage, the soldiers being flung aside like broken toys, and the mysterious hooded figure as she revealed herself, touched her fingertips to her lips and blew him the kiss that had… no, no, he would not believe it. He loved her. With everything he was, he loved her. It couldn’t only be a spell. He loved her and he wanted her and he needed her and he could not bear to be without her… please, Nightingale… the affirmations dribbled out like water from a leaking tap. And though his heart knew beyond doubt that they were true, a long-silent voice in the back of his mind grabbed this lightning disclosure and started to bark louder and louder about the pieces that did not fit, the instantaneous jolt of it after years of conditioning against the very thing. He was a dedicated Commissionaire until that split second. Nightingale had turned him, and she had used her magic to do it. His old life, tossed aside, rent into scraps of tissue. Because of her. And still he loved her and would follow wherever she led, no matter what she said to hurt him and tear him down.
“Was it true?” he asked. “What you showed me about my mother, was it true?”
She paused two beats shy of an eternity to give him the answer he hoped for. “Yes.”
Etienne sighed. “How often does the journey to truth begin with a lie,” he said, “and how often does the revelation of that truth cleanse the sin of the liar? I don’t care if you started this by putting me under your spell. I needed to know about Elyssia, and had I learned of her without your influence I would be doing exactly what I am now.”
Nightingale held up her palm. Etienne’s knees liquefied and he stumbled backward, catching himself on the edge of the table. His limbs were emptied instantly of their strength. He shuddered as a wild violet light erupted from the pores of his face and twisted into corkscrew spirals of mist as it coursed back into her open hand, collecting into a brightening orb of energy. Nightingale closed her hand, and the light was gone. A peculiar drowsiness seized Etienne, and a sadness – an emptiness – he could not explain, as though something incredibly precious had been cut away. It was consuming, and it was all he could do to bite his lip against tears. What had she done?
“I’ve taken it back,” Nightingale answered him. “You’re free of my spell now. You are the same Etienne de Navarre you were before we met. You have no further obligation to me.”
Sinking into a void, he could summon only one pathetic word. “Why?”
“Because I told you once that this was your choice to make, and I never made it a fair one. Now it is. Go back to what you are accustomed to, if that is really what you want. Tell your Directeurs that Nightingale bewitched you with her evil magic and forced you to betray them. I’m certain they will reinstate you and give you back everything you’ve lost.”
“I don’t want that, I want… I want…” Etienne knew what he intended to say, but his tongue knotted on the syllables. The sentiment was hollow now, utterly without meaning. What he tried to draw from within himself was no longer there. She had wiped it clean from his soul. He could see her recognizing that as he tried to sputter out anything of substance. His mouth felt full of cotton, and his throat was as dry as the wishing fountain in the town square.
“Goodbye, Etienne,” Nightingale said. She took a discreet step back, and a white flash blinded him before the room swam in an ocean of black. When plain afternoon light reasserted itself in a few short seconds, she was gone.
Etienne sat alone on the floor in the horrible quiet and fought the shivers and the nausea that would not stop. It was not as though he had been stabbed, though it would be fair to equate the shock of what had just occurred with the plunge of a knife; it was more as though the knife had already been there, its blade sealing a thin crack behind which crested a torrent of emotion, and now it had been yanked out and the wound was wide open again. What he had come to rely on for his moral certitude, the firmness in his decisions and his actions, was nowhere to be found. Magic was hope, Nightingale had once said, and now that the magic was gone the hope was bleeding away.
He knew nothing.
Suddenly the Bureau loomed large in his thoughts again as the sanctuary it had always been for him, for twelve comfortable years. Perhaps she had been correct. Perhaps he needed to return. He could borrow a horse from Le Taureau, make some excuse about an important errand and go. If he rode straight through he could make Calerre by morning. The Directeurs might show him some measure of clemency if he could argue that the death of Commissionaire Serge Meservey had been an accident, or if it was Meservey himself who’d been in league with Nightingale. If Valnier had been his typically effective self, none of Meservey’s men would still be around to rebut any blame Etienne might lay at their late master’s door. A few inventions and embellishments on Etienne’s part would make for a compelling case. The Directeurs did not like loose ends, and would be eager to tie this one off and file it away in the vault. What then? A formal pardon, a quick reassignment, a fresh detachment of men, and back to work. More money he couldn’t spend fast enough at the casinos. He remembered the gorgeous croupier at the route de perle table, the one with the flirty smile and the long, elegant fingernails enameled in glistening cabernet. Sylvette, was that her name? Might she be inclined to step away from her table for an evening’s frivolities with a dashing Commissionaire?
Thoughts of seductive Sylvette were usurped by a flash of the young girl in salle RT-106, the one he’d been forced to eat in front of while she starved, just before Girard Noeme slashed open her throat. He pictured her as she might have been before she was taken by the Bureau, smiling, dreaming, lying in a meadow of gold and green gazing up at deep blue skies while a whirlwind of butterflies gamboled about her, dipping and pirouetting as willed by her magic. He imagined black leather jackboots crushing the grass and swatting the confused butterflies aside with truncheons, breaking delicate wings, in order to abduct her and drag her screaming back to the Bureau for interrogation and torture, her shattered family never to see her again. Returning to his old life meant becoming a willing participant in creating more stories like that. In plainest terms, furthering a legacy of death.
Was that what the sorceress Elyssia de Navarre would have wanted for her only son?
Was it what he wanted for himself?
Someone was knocking at the door. Laying into it with some urgency, in fact. Etienne doubted the hinges appreciated the pressure. He mumbled over his shoulder at it. “Come.”
A voice he hadn’t heard for quite some time. Etienne summoned a smile.
Corporal Valnier strode inside the meeting hall, along with the other four surviving members of the unit that had set out with Etienne to find Nightingale, last seen hacking away at Bureau compatriots in the burning river town of Charmanoix. They had garnered a choice helping of scars amongst themselves; obviously Meservey’s men had not gone down without swinging. Etienne’s mood was lifted by that, remembering how fortunate he had been throughout this entire escapade to have had men so dedicated, loyal, and skilled standing by his side – even if he’d wandered far off the path a little too often. The soldiers looked a nervous combination of both flummoxed and perplexed, flumplexed, if that was a word, not entirely sure where they were or how they had arrived here.
One final gift from Nightingale.
Etienne pulled himself to his feet and clasped his corporal’s arm. “Good to see you again, old friend. Good to see all of you. I imagine you’re probably wondering what’s going on.”
“A little,” said Valnier. Two words. Only ever two words at a time. Someday Etienne was going to have to sit the corporal down and have him explain that particular affectation.
“Have a seat, everyone,” said Etienne. “I’ll see if I can have our host bring us some refreshments.” They filtered inside, setting their gear on the floor, pawing at the chairs to find a familiar trace of reality to assure themselves they weren’t still dreaming. Being subjected to magic tended to do that. “I’ll get right to business,” Etienne went on. “I have something I need to ask of you. You’ve put up with a lot since we left Calerre. You have been patient with unusual orders, changes of assignment, and little explanation forthcoming from me. That’s all about to end. I can’t pretend it won’t be dangerous, or that there isn’t a strong possibility that some of you won’t survive. But if you do, after this one final task, you’ll be handsomely rewarded and free to go on with your lives, with my everlasting thanks.”
“What’s that?” asked Valnier.
Etienne gave the corporal a square, determined look, the only form of communication he knew he truly respected. “We’re going to put ourselves out of the witch-killing business, Valnier,” he said, a grin curving the corner of his mouth. “We’re going to destroy the Bureau Centrale.”
With or without her…
* * *
So, what do you think? Is Nightingale gone for good? Stay tuned for Part Seventeen.
The video in question. The language is very NSFW.
I consider myself young enough and fairly plugged in when it comes to understanding trending memes and so forth (though old and wise enough to know that “bae” is a really stupid expression), so when the furor over “FHRITP” exploded across Canada this past week, it was a touch embarrassing to admit that I had to look it up. After having done so, however, I wish I hadn’t. If you’re in the same boat I was, it stands for an extremely vulgar phrase that for reasons making one want to smash one’s head into one’s desk has been a viral video phenomenon for almost two years, and generated its creator – in perhaps the most telling and shameful aspect of the whole affair – more income than most of us will probably see in our lifetimes. Although, as you’ll know if you’ve been following this story, it’s cost the most recent enthusiast of the phrase his six-figure government job.
“FHRITP” began as a parody video mocking live news bloopers – going viral presumably because there were no cute cat videos available during the fractional slice of time it slithered onto the Internets – but has spread to the real world, giving rise to a dedicated website, customized merchandise and way too much money for its incredibly smug creator. It has also become an ongoing videobombing dare whereby assorted dudes in need of reassurance about their masculinity yell the phrase out in the background while female TV reporters are doing on-location work, and run away snickering as though they’ve just passed gas in an elevator. Shauna Hunt of Toronto’s CityNews, revealing that she is harassed with the phrase constantly, brought it to Canada and the mainstream media’s attention by confronting the “men” – term used only to reference their gender and certainly not their disposition – who’d tried foisting it on her at a Toronto FC game this past Sunday. The grinning broseph who dismisses her with the justification that he finds it hilarious and then makes a remark about shoving a vibrator in her ear is the one who was identified as an employee of HydroOne and summarily fired for violating their code of conduct.
Few tears have been shed.
Social media shaming is a fairly recent phenomenon and has claimed its fair share of both celebrities and ordinary folks over the last few years – the story of the woman who tweeted a joke about how she wouldn’t catch AIDS in Africa because she was white comes immediately to mind. Certainly this particular individual, late of HydroOne, will be stuck with a label for the rest of his life. Wherever he goes, whatever new job he attempts to apply for, this ripe turd from his personal history will only be a nanosecond Google search away. I don’t even want to address the frankly inapplicable issue of freedom of speech that his (sparse) defenders have raised but to say that freedom of speech does not include freedom from the consequences of that speech, and before we drag out the Charter of Rights we might want to remember that this wasn’t an activist protesting against a repressive government, this was a guy who in a moment of extremely questionable judgment that I can’t imagine was his first, chose to act like a sexist jackass on live television. It was his choice. He has to live with it. (Noticeably absent from the individual in the aftermath is any sort of public apology.)
(UPDATE 5/21/15: He has written to Shauna Hunt and offered an apology, which she has accepted but is keeping private.)
My question is why. Why do this at all. Why glom onto an utterly tasteless joke whose appeal lies in the basest elements of our nature? Why present yourself to the world as someone who derives glee from the disrespect of women? Because he thought it was funny? Because he imagined high-fiving his fellow bros at the bar later with the legendary tale about how he stuck it to that prissy blond reporter bitch? Yeah, okay. How would that elevate his life in any imaginable measure? Would it assist him in finding a soulmate, paying off the mortgage, advancing his career (oops!), helping the less fortunate or contributing to the welfare of his community?
I suspect the reason can be traced back to the 15 minutes adage of our old friend Andy Warhol, who made his observation back in an era when obtaining fame usually required a certain amount of work or talent. There was of course the plain dumb luck of becoming associated with a freakish occurrence that made the news, but the vast majority of us seemed to be fine with realizing that celebrity would remain the unreachable domain of the “other.” Not so today, when the news cycle and the massive over-saturation and over-availability of content has created a climate whereby it feels like everyone else is getting some without doing much of anything, so I want my share – regardless of the fact that I don’t merit it because I’m really not that special. Fame used to be a side effect of great achievement; now it’s a singular goal in a culture consumed by narcissism and fixated on immediate gratification without the corresponding expenditure of effort. How many young kids of our time, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, reply “famous”? And how many are so desperate for a touch of limelight that they’ll grasp at every chance, deliberately in the worst way possible? The guy who created “FHRITP” has already grabbed his piece of the fame pie for inflicting this toxin on the public, lowering the bar just that fraction of an inch further.
“FHRITP” guys are the latest in that rather sad group of sexually frustrated, anonymous, talent-bereft, unremarkable men clutching vainly at the tantalizing, dangling glowy tendrils of fame with this new glimmer of viral hope because the appeal of crank calling radio stations and yelling “Baba Booey!” went out with MySpace. They are attempting to salve deep feelings of irrelevance and meaninglessness for fleeting moments by demeaning successful women like Shauna Hunt and her colleagues who have worked incredibly hard to achieve their positions in an industry not exactly known for being overly generous to folks who aren’t hetero male. Is that something to celebrate or defend? No one stands up for the man who yells fire in the crowded theater, nor should they. Every man who does his part to renew this meme’s poisonous life by shouting it at the nearest camera for a larf instead of telling the other ones doing it to shut their filthy misogynist mouths and get a collective life, is a statement on how much harder the rest of us need to work to prove that we can be better. How we need to shout way louder that this garbage isn’t funny and we’re going to turn our backs on the morons who think it is. Some of my fellow men may not like being lumped into the same category as the douchenozzles in the video above, but, to stay silent is to condone.
To find any kind of personal satisfaction in “FHRITP” or like behavior, either spread across the world or in private, is to betray oneself as not having evolved above the mentality of the bratty baby proudly waving around his dirty diaper. If that’s how you want the world to see you, fine – you’re more than welcome to that corner, and may you find some sense of peace in the very lonely life you’re going to have. I don’t buy the notion that as men we can’t rise above the tendency of our brains to go for the juvenile antic over the reasoned thought every single time. Nor do I accept that getting a laugh requires treating someone else – especially a woman – as a willing and wanting receptacle of whatever vile, degrading phrases or actions we see fit to dump on her. As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, “more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other.” We should aspire to more of a legacy for ourselves than a gender-embarrassing collection of jerkwad comments that we know we’ll eventually regret.
I’m sure there’s one particular person in that video who already does.
Part of the fun of not outlining a story like this is seeing the unexpected places it leads you, or in the case of this installment, where it leads you back.
I’m not sure what the stupidest thing I’ve ever done is, thought Etienne as he approached the porous, unpatrolled limits of the decrepit town, but this must rank as one of the most inspiredly ludicrous. He had last crossed this particular border at a mad gallop – going the other way of course – with a posse of roughs in hard pursuit and would have considered laughable the possibility that he might have occasion to return. Certainly not without a healthy brigade’s worth of reinforcements; absolutely never alone, or unarmed for that matter. This was a fool’s gamble, with the odds, as one might express them un-mathematically, rather bleak. Etienne had to trust in that single high card shuffled about in his hand, thumbed lovingly for luck even as the croupier’s fortunes improved and the prospect of a winning outcome diminished. The only consolation was that if he had guessed wrong and put his chips on a bad deal, he would likely not live long enough to regret it.
This place was in even worse shape than it had been on the day of his first abrupt departure. The sun tattooed punishing light and heat to the ground and lent stagnant air a smell of bleached bones. Broken timbers, the fragments of shattered longhouses, lay strewn throughout the streets in thatched piles as the villagers seemingly had neither the inclination nor the resources to begin repairs. No clear path presented itself, and Etienne had to step over debris wherever he chanced to turn. He had thus far escaped recognition, or even notice. Surely these people would never dream that he would be back, and so they did not look to see a familiar and loathed face. Etienne might have passed invisibly from one end of the village to the other were he so inclined, but he instead made his way to the broken and empty fountain in the center of town where local folk had tossed single sous into the crumbling circle of dry stones, still hopeful of securing a wish.
Etienne had no money on his person. He bent to pick up one of the rusted coins and watched burnt oxide powder stain his fingertips as he turned it over in his hand. Wishes were for children. It was the actions of men that made them come true. Etienne dropped the coin. On with it, then. He turned, drew in a lungful of warm air and bellowed out the name of the man he had come to find, with an operatic gusto worthy of a celebrated tenor.
The range of reactions presented in three distinct phases, transitioning syllable by syllable. The first was a sea of jarred faces scrunching brows at the source of the dreadful racket, followed by a gaggle of perplexed foreheads wondering what ailment of the mind was perturbing the stranger screaming at them, and finally by a uniform, sudden oh-wait-isn’t-that glimmer leading to disbelieving shouts of their own and a mad convergence on his position. Etienne linked his fingers behind his head and sank to his knees. They nearly yanked his arms from their sockets wrenching him back to his feet and dragging him off stumbling in the dirt. Etienne squirmed at the tear of muscle and joint but ground his teeth together and bade himself endure it. Pride protested, but he knew this part was strictly necessary, bruises and all. Not that it made them hurt less.
His captors blurred the one-letter distinction between hauling and mauling, throwing in few blows to the stomach for good measure, as they brought him beneath the splintered roof of one of the lingering buildings and threw him to the floor like the prize of a day’s hunt primed for roasting. The air within was thick with the sting of unwashed bodies and manure scraping at his tongue. Choice local slang dripping with profanities peppered his ears. Etienne shook out the soreness in his arms and raised his eyes, slowly, to the only individual in the room who was seated. “Monsieur le Commissionaire,” the other man rasped, a glee in his voice palpable amidst the phlegm. “How’s my new road coming along?” A chorus of laughter welled up.
Etienne had forgotten, even in those handful of days since he’d last seen him, just how enormous and intimidating a physical specimen Le Taureau was, as if such men had been the ones to inspire the old legends of giants. Even the chair on which he crouched, craning his neck forward to push his long beard over the twin kegs that were his chest, was twice the usual size. There was, however, a touch less of him than there had been at their first encounter: Le Taureau’s left arm was gone above the elbow, and a filthy bandaged stump the girth of a tree trunk hung there instead. Chills danced up Etienne’s back at the gruesome sight of it.
Le Taureau caught him looking. “Beautiful work you did, monsieur. That precious dagger of yours. Such a brave, brave man who enchants his weapons with the very magic he professes to despise. I had to saw the rest of the arm off and burn the wound closed with a poker.” Etienne did not doubt Le Taureau had performed the deed himself.
“I’m sorry,” he offered. It sounded as stupid to him as it did to the rest of them, judging by the hanging pause leading to another round of laughs at his expense.
“Oh,” said Le Taureau. “Is that all? Well then, if you’re sorry I suppose I can’t hold it against you. Why don’t we shake hands?” He swung out his stump. “Ah. Oops.” The others did not laugh this time. The room fell silent. Le Taureau hoisted himself up from his chair with his remaining arm and stepped down to loom over Etienne, the creaks in the wood beneath his boots amplified tenfold. “Coming back here,” he said, “you are either the most brazen man in the world, or simply the dumbest. The only reason you’re still whole, tête de cul, is that I’m not inclined to be swift. That reeks of… mercy.”
Etienne searched the dead eyes for the vestiges of a soul. “I didn’t come here for mercy,” he said. “I came to ask your help.”
The echo chamber of jackals erupted with their chortles and guffaws once more. Le Taureau’s face remained a monolith. “My help,” he said. “Like last time?”
“I’m not with the Bureau anymore. They betrayed me. They’ve betrayed this entire country. You said yourself they’ve taken our mothers and our daughters from us. Someone needs to strike a return blow. I’m sure the idea of that appeals to you.”
Now Le Taureau managed a smile, though Etienne was certain it was insincere. “And what, pray tell, has brought Monsieur le Commissionaire to the side of the angels?”
“The Bureau murdered my mother,” Etienne said simply.
“Your Bureau murdered my wife,” Le Taureau spat at him, seizing Etienne’s neck in a meaty grip. “A strutting, pompous cretin like you came to our village and ripped her from our bed. He forced me to watch while his soldiers stripped her naked, bound her in chains and whipped her, then tied her to the back of their carriage and dragged her behind them as they rode off cackling into the night. She screamed for me to help her and I couldn’t. It was the last thing I ever heard her say.” He paused to wrestle down the swelling emotion. “A man’s heart hardens after bearing witness to such a thing. A man’s purpose changes forever. A man swears himself to vengeance against any and all who might have been even remotely responsible. How many wives did you steal from their husbands’ arms?” Le Taureau applied a modest increase in pressure, and Etienne strained against the veritable sausages closing on his throat.
“I believe you’re an honorable man,” Etienne gasped out.
A flicker of amusement disturbed Le Taureau’s sneer. “What makes you think that?”
“You have a code. You want to protect the people in your charge. And you didn’t kill me the instant you saw me.” Flecks of black swam across his vision. “Will you at least listen to a remorseful man trying to atone for his sins?”
Dead eyes flickered with a twinge of life. Le Taureau hesitated, nerves pulsing beneath the red skin of his forehead. He released his grip. Etienne slumped over, planted his fists on the floor and coughed hard, trying to spew out the hurt. Le Taureau returned to his chair. A lackey placed a cup in his hand, and he drained its contents. “Talk, then,” he said. “Show me your remorse.”
“Thank you,” wheezed Etienne. Eyeing the others surrounding him, he rose slowly to his feet. He thought of the divas attempting La Sirena, of the stocking-shaking trepidation they must have suffered awaiting the arrival of the second act and that damned nigh-unachievable aria. At least those ladies were afforded opportunities to rehearse, to evaluate and to tweak as necessary before opening night. Etienne was the sole actor on this stage, operating without the benefit of practice or script, engulfed by a hostile audience ready to do much worse than jeer if they detected a sour note. His freedom to walk out of this room hinged on the next thing he said. Strangely enough, there was a serenity to the predicament, a moment where paralyzing fears and doubts flew from his mind and left only a stillness – a waiting, placid void. From there, filling it was a matter of tilting the decanter and letting the wine pour itself.
“You want vengeance,” Etienne said to the crowd. “All of you. But you’ve done nothing to exact it. You sit in this shell of a town, subsisting on scraps, and brag about your defiance of the Bureau Centrale, but the truth is, if you presented the slightest threat to them, they would have come, years ago, to raze this place and pile your corpses in the rubble.” He narrowed his focus to Le Taureau. “Why? How many able-bodied men do you have here? Three hundred? Four hundred? Why haven’t you sent them into battle? The Bureau is better armed, better trained, better financed, better informed and better fed, and against that, the lot of you might as well be armed with rotten fruit. Staying in St. Iliane keeps you safe, where it’s easy to put on an air of being brave with words alone.” Murmurs drifted around him, rising steadily in volume. As they would – he was poking these people and their beloved leader with sharp sticks. “I can help you do more than just boast,” he continued. “I spent twelve years inside the Bureau’s highest echelon. I know them. I know the scope of their strengths and the locations of each carefully protected weak flank. I can show you where and when to strike, surgically, effectively, so that four hundred starving men are transformed into the unstoppable force that finally pulls the mighty Bureau down and scatters it to the winds. And you’ll have your vengeance. Not just for yourselves, but for every life the Bureau has destroyed across this country. St. Iliane will no longer be an easily ignored speck on the map, it will become that storied place from which heroes come. If that appeals to you, if you’re willing to take that chance, then I ask your forgiveness for what I’ve done, and I ask you to allow me to help you.” He spread his arms. “There is a battle coming that we can win… together.”
The murmurs had stopped. Everyone looked to Le Taureau. The dead eyes betrayed nothing, as usual, so Etienne studied the rest of his face, looking for any sign, regardless of how slight, that his message had resonated. “Hmph,” the gargantuan man mumbled, gaze sinking to the floor, closing his hand over the arm of his chair. At the pensive gesture, Etienne granted himself permission to be hopeful, and he released the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.
Abruptly Le Taureau looked up and nodded to his men, who seized Etienne’s outstretched arms and forced him over to the long dining table. Roars of approval rippled throughout the crowd, penning him in with a wall of scorn and delight. They kicked out the back of his legs, forcing him to his knees at the edge of the tabletop. Le Taureau rose from his chair and hovered over him, leaning closer as if taking on the role of a sympathetic confidant. “Grand speech, monsieur. Had it been someone else delivering it I might have been swayed.”
He stepped away to allow one of his men to take Etienne’s right arm and pin it to the table at the wrist. From his jacket Le Taureau drew a familiar weapon; Etienne’s dagger, the edges streaked brown with blood that had never been wiped away after its last use. Kept by Le Taureau as a grotesque souvenir of his mutilation by the man to whom he was evidently prepared to do the same. “Have you ever been stabbed, monsieur?” he asked. “The hand is by far the most painful place.” He tapped against Etienne’s knuckles with the tip of the blade. “There, the flesh is thin, little more than paper draped over the bones. No meat to slow the knife as it sears its way through the nerves, severing dozens of them in a lightning flash of agonies upon agonies. Do you know what that feels like? Can you imagine a thousand sets of pointed teeth chomping through your body and then pouring acid on it to finish? That’s what you did to me.”
“It was a rash choice,” Etienne said, his tone trembling and rushed. “Made in haste and a desperate grasp at self-preservation. Don’t throw away what I’m offering you over an old slight. I promise you, it wasn’t personal.” The excitement of the crowd drowned his words out.
“Well,” said Le Taureau to a deferential hush, “this is.” He stood back and readied his aim.
Etienne turned his head away and spoke to the air. “Now would be a good time.”
Le Taureau balked, offering a surprised half-laugh instead. “What?”
A sudden charge of cold air blasted through the room, transforming drought into bitter winter and forcing dozens of men to brace themselves to cling to fleeing body heat. Nodules of ice crystallized where breath touched the walls. A woman’s voice cut the abrupt silence. “Corben.”
Le Taureau turned to her, and at the sight of Nightingale, both the dagger and thoughts of retribution for Etienne fell forgotten from his hand. Years of hardened life crumbled from his face. The mighty man took two disbelieving steps toward her, then bowed and bent his knee. “Déesse,” he whispered – no, whimpered was more accurate.
The great bull, a mouse to her lioness.
Nightingale granted him her beguiling smile, and lifted the suddenly penitent Le Taureau’s massive chin with a delicate finger. “My gentle Corben,” she said. “It has been far too long.”
Le Taureau – or Corben, whatever his name was – gazed into her eyes with the unbridled devotion of a man in the enraptured throes of a religious awakening. Indeed, the attention of each man in the room was cemented to her every movement. “We remain your devoted servants,” their leader mumbled. “What would you ask of us now?”
“Let Etienne go,” Nightingale told him. “He speaks the truth.”
“The Bureau Centrale cannot be trusted,” Le Taureau said. “They are liars by trade and duplicitous to their very breath. Ma déesse should recall that he did this–” –he raised his stump– “–while hunting for you, to take you back to his beloved Bureau broken and in shackles.”
The witch shook her head. “I have walked inside his soul, as I once did yours. I know you both. You have nothing more to fear from him. Instead you have a chance to give your wife some measure of peace.” He still seemed to demur. “Corben,” she said, “I have never led you astray. I ask for your continued faith.” Nightingale swept long fingers across his cheek, somehow fusing the assuring clasp of a mother with the flirting stroke of a lover. She withdrew, and without flash or announcement Le Taureau had both arms once more.
The missing limb with its varied palette of scars and inked designs was just there again, as though it had never been severed. Reality was rearranged according to her will and her magic, like the fire in Charmanoix. Le Taureau’s mouth fell open in the astonishment of a boy receiving the coveted toy he had assumed was beyond his parents’ means. Etienne thought he detected tears at the corners of the behemoth’s eyes as Le Taureau contemplated the arm and flexed the fingers.
Obviously Etienne had discussed the approach with Nightingale prior to their arrival, but he had not expected her – nor had he known she had the ability, though in truth nothing within her power surprised him anymore – to restore Le Taureau like that. Watching her and the impact she had on those around her, the morality of the world seemed so bitterly askew. To exalt torturers and murderers to positions of high authority and esteem in protected and revered institutions like the Bureau, and to treat compassionate miracles of existence like Nightingale, and Elyssia de Navarre, as threats to be extinguished. It was not only Etienne who had much to atone for. History had been written by a collection of pawns playing at being knights, with the queens kept off the board. Was it any surprise then to see how civilization had become a cruel parody of itself?
Reasserting the machismo required to command the gallery of roughs in his service, Le Taureau climbed to his feet and turned his glare to Etienne. It was not a look of forgiveness, or even a softening of the feelings of contempt that could never be swept away by something as insubstantial as a spell. It was, however, an acknowledgment of Nightingale’s faith in him, and for Le Taureau, for the moment, that was enough. As his first act with his new arm, Le Taureau waved off the men who were holding Etienne down. They released him without hesitation and backed away. Etienne stood and brushed dirt and wood splinters from his jacket.
“Everyone else… out,” Le Taureau barked.
Etienne had seen few military regiments obey an order with as much dispatch. The building emptied in scant seconds, leaving behind a most mismatched trio: himself, the slight gentleman officer for a corrupt regime turned willing traitor; Le Taureau, the hulking, wild country brigand with a noble heart, and Nightingale, the ethereal witch who had entered their lives through happenstance encounters and bound them both to what was to be a shared and perhaps even futile crusade. Were it not for the tenuous, threadbare truce, he might have laughed aloud at the impossibility of the situation. Le Taureau was staring off into space, perhaps thinking the same thing.
Nightingale was, well, being Nightingale; beautiful, occasionally inscrutable, seductive without deliberate intent, and forever that adjective coined ideally for a woman like her: bewitching. Etienne was agog at the enormity of the events that had followed their first meeting, how she had utterly upended his life, what she had inspired him to do, what she had helped him discover about himself. The course she had set him on, which for the first time had no definitive destination, only the vaguest promise of redemption lingering, tantalizing beyond a series of impossible tasks. It was insanity, delicious insanity. How, he wondered, could he not have fallen in love with her?
Le Taureau broke the trance. “So then,” he said, folding arms both old and new. “Destroying the Bureau. What exactly did the two of you have in mind?”
* * *
This story now tops 50K words as we begin to build toward the climax of Etienne and Nightingale’s journey. I’m excited, and I hope you are too.
Without further ado, picking up mere seconds from where we left off…
There is never anything remarkable about the room in which someone’s life is ending. Rooms are hardly ever built with the express purpose of containing a man’s last breath. They happen upon that role instead by quirk of fate, becoming through no intent of their own the unexpected terminus for that unpredictably snaking line that demarcates a human being’s limited time in the world. But once a room houses a death, it is defined by it. Death etches itself deep into the paint, and its tendrils seep through to stain the brick beneath. The air tastes of it. No matter what other, happier events have transpired in that room in the past, now, it can never be anything else.
That’s the room where my father died.
Etienne’s legs started to quiver as he heard the first cough, that dreadful rattle of a brew of blood and acid bubbling up from a stomach worn thin as paper. The bed held a mere sliver of the invincible man who’d once held his hand so tightly, shrunken now to a shivering bag of bones under jaundiced skin and flaking white hair. The smell was enough to invite one to retch up one’s own contribution to it. In the memory Etienne knew he was to enter and sit at the edge of the bed and try to hold his father’s hand again, but he fought against repeating that history with every spare iota of fortitude. “Papa,” he said quietly. Reynand did not hear him. “Papa, c’est Etienne.”
His father tried to say his name, but the first syllable broke into violent wheezes. Reynand clutched a small, blood-soaked towel to his mouth, almost devouring it as he tried to stifle the tremors in his gut. Etienne did as his memory of the moment commanded and found a place on the bed after all, reaching for his papa, wishing and pretending that he would recover, or, if not, that at least the horrible coughing would stop.
It did, finally, and Reynand slumped against his pillow. “Etienne,” he was able to croak in a cloud of red spittle.
“Papa,” said Etienne, “I thought I could try to find maman. Maybe if I told her how sick you were she could come back and try to help you.”
Reynand started coughing again, and he slammed a bony hand down on his son’s and squeezed while he saturated the towel with pieces of his insides. Etienne winced at the sensation of some of that old strength lingering in the man’s grip. “You said you thought she was living in Quermont now,” he said. “I have enough saved that I could hire someone to take me there. Then I could find her and ask her to come back. It would only take a day or two.”
“Maman is never coming back,” Papa insisted, with handfuls of breath tinted by ancient anger. “I taught you better than to waste your money like that.” He dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, although there was no one to overhear them. “Why don’t you go buy some of Papa’s medicine for him instead? Hmm?”
“The doctor told me your ‘medicine’ is making you worse,” Etienne said.
“Putains,” spat his father. “Liars and quacks. They’ll not be foisting their leeches on me.”
“Maman knows how to make you better. She always made me better whenever I was sick.”
Reynand shrank from his son, the tremors in his limbs seeming to ease as resignation slid over the wanness of his features. He closed his eyes to watch regrets drift across his mind. “Your maman… your maman. My love. I had every chance with her, to build our life into something lasting. She gave me more chances than I deserved. Far more. At every opportunity I squandered them.”
A young only son was the wrong audience. His father should have called for a brother, a dear friend, or a minister, rather than dump his final confession on someone who should never have been so encumbered. But Reynand de Navarre had no siblings, had long since alienated any acquaintances and considered religious men to be a pack of deluded hucksters. There was, at the end, no one else. Only this boy who had yet to grow out of his round face and into his stringy frame.
“But why?” asked Etienne.
“A man doesn’t appreciate what he has while he has it,” said Reynand with a deep sigh. “He wants more. He goes off in search of more, and he thinks that home will always be waiting for him when he deigns to return to it. I loved your mother, but I loved other women too, and when temptation touched me I gave myself to it.” He turned away to gaze at the less judgmental face of the streaked and faded cornflower wall. “So many times I begged her to forgive me,” he said, “and when she did I would go out and find another yet again, and still another. In my arrogance, my stupidity, I couldn’t understand how I was hurting her, how I was destroying the bright spirit I’d once fallen in love with. I only cared about what I wanted, what I felt I was making of myself. A bold, confident man who takes what he wants, pulls its beating heart from its chest and roars in triumph as the blood pours down his arm. Oh, mon fils. How I miss her. How one last kiss would be enough.”
He began to weep. As the tears ran, the coughing returned. Papa’s entire body convulsed into hacks and sputters and shakes. He groped for the towel as blood froth pooled at the corners of his mouth. As he bore witness to the deterioration, Etienne winced and choked back tears of his own.
It had been so long since he had seen his mother. He could scarcely remember those details that should have been unforgettable. The lilt of her lullabies. The warmth and the soft scent of her as he pressed in for a hug. The promise of sleep with peaceful dreams simply by knowing she was in the next room. It had all been snatched away, and the man dying in the bed was to blame.
Etienne waited for the spasm to pass. He let his father enjoy one complete minute of restful breathing. “Papa,” he said, “if you had been different, would Maman have stayed?”
“Peut être, Etienne. Peut être. But even if I had remained faithful from the first day I was probably never enough of a man for someone like her. Oh, you should have seen her then. The most magnificent thing I had ever laid eyes upon. I threw her away. She was right to go.”
“Why didn’t she take me with her?” Etienne pleaded. “Why did she leave me with you?”
“You were the mistake that tied her to this wreck and shadow,” Papa said, sinking deeper into the abyss. “You would be a constant reminder of a life wasted.”
Young Etienne aged ten years in the space of a single word. He felt himself shift away from the old man, and heard his lips deliver the phrase that he knew would demand the most cruel truth a boy could hear from his father. “Is that all that I am, Papa? A mistake?”
“You’re a bright boy, Etienne. But if the world was fair, and men were wiser, you never would have been born.” He gave Etienne one generous second to gasp at the stab of the spear before he twisted it. “But, since you were, make yourself useful and take that money and go buy your Papa some more medicine.”
In silence, Etienne rose from the bed. He made for the door as the chastened, obedient son desperate to earn his papa’s praise. “There’s a good little fellow,” said Reynand. “You know the kind I like. Herriot’s genièvre, in the blue glass bottle. Ask Monsieur Clouvet to help you get it from the top shelf. Get it back here as quick as you can. You’ll do that for me, won’t you?” The smile on the old man’s repugnant face, the ruddy lips splitting yellowed skin, was as oily as that of a confidence trickster. He was positively giddy at the prospect of downing more of the accursed drink and blithely ignorant of the irreparable damage he had just inflicted upon his boy.
The first time, Etienne had run away. To the harbor, to throw reality into the sea and find himself instead in the place where he’d once been the happiest. The easy path.
Just like him. Just as he would have done.
“Father,” Etienne said, suddenly with an older, learned voice. A term he had never used for Reynand before. It had always been ‘Papa.’ He stopped at the doorway and turned back as deliberately as the second hand of a clock, carrying on his shoulders the accumulated burden of two decades of unanswered questions, rued choices and paths of fate grown impassable with twisted weeds. He turned to see again the likeness of the withered waste of a man who had sired him, a gnarled half-corpse soiling a sagging bed, the heart beating now only out of lingering spite and stubborn reluctance to give up an old habit. “Thank you,” said Etienne. “Thank you for the gift of learning how to hate someone without reservation or regret. I fled from here once because I was terrified of a world without my papa in it. Now…” He grinned. “I am tempted to buy your coveted drink and pour it down your throat myself just so that you’ll die faster.”
It did not seem possible, but Reynand de Navarre shriveled further into himself. Eyelids peeled back into his skull, and the shakes that wracked his body now added tremors of fear. “Etienne, my son,” he begged, “I don’t want to die.”
“Yes you do,” said Etienne. “It’s all you’ve ever wanted. Nothing has ever been worth living for. Not Maman, and certainly not me. You’ve made sure to hasten your end at every opportunity, but even now you’re still too much of a coward to do what you always taught me was the most important thing in life: defend what you believe. Here is what I believe, father. This is the fate you have earned. Congratulations. Enjoy it alone.”
“Etienne!” Papa sobbed as his son strode from the room without remorse or lingering wish to look back. Not this time. The room where his father died could remain that. Etienne closed the door on the wizened creature’s plaintive cries, sealing them forever behind rotting wood panels and locking his own memories in a steel vault he knew now he need never open again. Yet he felt no relief from their weight, only a deepening and entrenchment of the anger that had made him reach out to the Bureau Centrale.
The witch was waiting for him a step outside time in the corridor beyond. Its detail and color faded like the light after a sunset, vanishing from his mind, leaving only the two of them in a sea of gray growing darker with each approaching wave.
“It was not long after this,” Nightingale said.
Etienne nodded. “He could have been a revered professor, or conseiller to the King. Instead, Reynand de Navarre died without a sou to his name and completely forgotten. Five days, before the smell compelled a stranger to kick down the door and discover him lying there. I don’t even know where he is buried.” He smirked to himself. “It has never occurred to me to find out.”
“Hatred is the most reliable of emotions. It justifies every questionable action and thought we might ever have. If you forgave your father, if that hate was gone, who would you be then?” She edged closer. “You don’t even know, and the very idea of it frightens you.”
“This is not fear,” Etienne said sharply, temper boiling over and spilling at her. “It’s fact. I know the pull toward hopelessness, the ease with which one can let the cruelty of life turn you into a victim. That was him. I’ll never see myself become that.” His eyes flitted to the door behind him. “Never,” he whispered.
“At what cost?” demanded Nightingale. “Do you think that innocent girl who could speak to butterflies deserved to pay? Did your mother?”
Ice paralyzed Etienne’s spine. “What do you mean?” he said, each word enunciated deliberately, aimed straight at her with the precision of an arrow.
Nightingale said nothing.
From raised palms and fingertips a cold cascade of light and mist, sparkling in the amaranthine shade of her lips, shimmered across the darkness between them and wound itself about his limbs, as delicately as the application of a balm to a burn. Where the spell touched him, Etienne’s pores went instantly both numb and aflame, and the sensation burrowed down through nerve and muscle to the very fragments of his bones. It spread into his chest and from there exploded across the rest of his body, cocooning him in suffocating strands of energy. A sudden jolt of terror pierced the parts of him he could still feel. He reached for her, to beg the witch to stop. On his outstretched arm the fingers were shrinking, the lines were smoothing out, the hairs were retreating beneath the surface like frightened worms. The world, what he could perceive of it, seemed to be getting so much larger, and Nightingale, magic continuing to pour from her elegant hands, was towering over him now as if he was sinking into the earth, yet the ground remained solid.
Etienne’s thoughts began to split apart, the complex phrases of adult intellect devolving into colors, shapes, abstract fragments of emotion that were more instinctual than reasoned. He was compelled to speak, but forgot the words. Forgot all the words. Forgot what words were. When he did manage to force something out, it was formless sound. A wail of pure desperation and pure need.
Nightingale let her hands fall to her sides, the last of the spell ebbing into the darkness around her, as she contemplated the baby lying in front of her. It squirmed and screamed, utterly incapable of comprehending where it was or what had happened to it, knowing only in its innocent state that it was scared, or hungry, or in pain. The witch smiled, placed a finger to her lips, whispered a calming “shh,” and retreated into the shadows. The baby’s cries echoed into the void.
It lay there on its own in dark nothingness for a few moments shy of an eternity, pleading for someone, anyone to come. Tiny, chubby legs kicked at the air like a turtle flipped onto its back. Two voices began to filter through the cold murk, the words only random sounds to a baby’s ears but the tones varying enough for it to be able to distinguish in its undeveloped mind which was the man and which was the woman, and which would most likely come to him.
“Encore! Every night. Every hour. This maudit brat will not let us sleep!”
“He is a baby, and babies cry. We were told he would be a sickly child.”
“He’s just being petulant because he wants attention. Ignore him and he will stop.”
“Go back to bed then if your sleep is so damned precious to you.”
A door slammed, the harsher of the two voices departed, and sudden gentle hands reached down to lift the baby and cradle it in warm, welcoming, forgiving arms. “Mon cheri,” sang a perfect voice. “Je suis ici. Maman est ici. Je ne vais nulpart.”
The baby kept crying, wincing at the pressure cutting into its chest. The woman rocked it back and forth, whispering reassurance, planting tender kisses on a downy-haired crown. This was the third time the infant had contracted the illness, and the episodes were lasting longer and growing more intense – and the same could be said for her husband’s impatience. Two nights past, a drunken rant had seen him threaten to abandon them both, but the morning’s sobriety had brought tearful contrition. She knew that in his own primitive way he was afraid for the child’s well-being as much as she, even if his ability to articulate it was not much more evolved than the screams cutting at her eardrums right now.
Her heart bled to see her little one like this. The first two times he had gotten better, but it had been three days and nights now and the usually reliable herbal tonics were doing nothing. The fever would break, and then flare up, and the tiny body’s reserves were depleted by an inability to keep down even liquid nourishment. There would be hints of hope here and there where sleep would arrive, but never for more than an hour before the cries began again. The local doctors had cautioned her that the child might not survive this latest bout, that the sickness had been racing through the city claiming many other, much hardier newborns. She had thanked them for their optimism and sent them on their gloomy way.
The cruel irony was that she knew of a remedy that would sweep away the sickness like crumbs from a table, and she was terrified to use it. It would mean going back on an old vow and exposing the entire family to a life of looking over their collective shoulder, of waiting for that awful and inevitable pounding on the front door in the middle of the night. She had been quite content to pretend, for more years than she could remember, that the choice, and the fear, belonged to someone else. But here, holding her son, listening to his cries rattle the walls while a husband incapable of handling crises pulled a pillow over a veritable ostrich’s head in the next room, a mother’s instinct for protection drowned out worries of self-preservation. Enough. She could not abide him hurting any longer. She needed to remember who she was, recall the old gift, and reach into that dusty corner of her memory for the needed spell.
“My sweet fils Etienne,” she whispered as she leaned over him. She spread apart the blanket in which he was swaddled and laid a hand against his soft pink chest. A warm golden light spread out from her fingers and washed over him in a cleansing glow that brought early dawn to the small room. The cries stopped. The infection was gone. The baby cooed happily, peacefully, and gazed up into the sad smile and the light from the manifestation of the magic reflected in his mother’s eyes. She lifted her hand, drawing the healing energy back into herself, and with a flourish of fingers dispersed it into tiny stars dancing off into the air and winking out one by one. “I am so sorry,” she said, understanding the consequences that the breaking of her vow meant for him. Her tears fell onto his cheeks. He giggled at the warmth and the wet. She laughed and clutched him to her breast, humming the innocent song about goats and lambs that her own mother had once soothed her with, and praying that for once, morning would not come.
As the adult Etienne de Navarre watched, he did not know whether to scream out in mad disbelief, sob in regret or simply throw up, and he grasped at elusive breath and begged someone to tell him what to do. Strength in his legs gave way. He crumpled to the ground. “My mother…” He heaved the words as though they were anvils. “She…”
“Elyssia de Navarre was a great sorceress,” said Nightingale behind him. “Forced to conceal her powers to escape the suspicion of the Bureau Centrale. For many years she lived in denial and without magic, until that night she chose to use it to save your life.”
“She never… I didn’t…”
“You wondered, though,” said the witch, peering into his soul like it was made of glass. “Why your friends got sick, but you didn’t. Why your garden was always full of food even in the driest summers. Why she seemed never to age.”
Etienne dared to lean nearer to the living image of his mother and himself as a baby, close enough to gasp at the taste of the pomegranate scent of her long hair, to be able to look up into his mother’s eyes once more. Tears could not diminish entirely the smile he remembered seeing behind those eyes, no matter the harshness of the moment or the cares troubling her mind. He thought of the long cold years since he’d seen them. Part of him knew her every facet and the other was staring uncomprehending at a stranger. His mother, the very shape of the force he had sworn to fight. He thought of his father pleading for her. He thought of long nights spent wondering where and why she had gone, thinking perhaps that if he called out the window into the darkness loud enough she might hear him and return. He knew the futility of wishing to regain lost time, but it was equally futile to try and expect to function now only on reason. He hated the life that had followed her departure, and he mourned the one he could have had with her in it. “She didn’t help him,” he whispered through clenched teeth, unsure if he was talking about his father or himself. “She could have saved him.”
“Don’t confuse magic with miracles, Etienne. There is no spell to change a man’s character.”
“Is that why she left, finally?” Nightingale did not answer. Instead she moved next to him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “No,” he said. It made sense now. “They found her.”
“She wanted to send for you, but she feared that they would take you too. She sacrificed herself to ensure that you would grow up free from their reach.”
Etienne had as much use for religion as his late father, but he suddenly found the idea of a misanthropic god meddling in the fates of men for his own amusement to be far more credible. “Instead, I joined them. And I dedicated myself to hunting down everyone like her.” He flailed at recalling how many there had been. That he could not recollect the precise detail of each life he had helped to end was a nameless shame that was far too heavy to be described merely as crushing.
Nightingale added another weight. “To hunting your own family, Etienne.”
Etienne turned away from the angelic figure, back to the other celestial woman who had led him to this place, and offered her only a blank canvas upon which to paint. “You, she and I are the descendants of a single unknown, legendary woman who lived over a thousand years ago,” she told him. “She was the first to have magic. Her daughters inherited her powers, and their sons carried the magic in their blood to bequeath to their own daughters and granddaughters. As they went out across the world so too did magic take root in every corner of civilization. No matter how many of us have been tortured and killed over the centuries by those too frightened to try to understand, magic endures. As much a part of nature and as impossible to stop as the light of the sun.”
Etienne caught a note of uncertainty in Nightingale’s voice. “But something has changed.”
“Man’s tenacity and resourcefulness when presented with the impossible is boundless, even more so when it is spurred by hatred,” she said sadly. “He will even learn to block the light. The weapons your friend Meservey invented are a mortal threat to us. I have done my best to interfere, but… the Bureau is winning, Etienne. The Commissionaires have doubled their quotas. More witches are being captured and murdered than ever before.” For the first time since he’d known her, the immensely powerful Nightingale looked scared, and even overwhelmed.
“Much to atone for,” he said, quoting her words back to her. “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m not my mother. There has always been more Reynand than Elyssia about me.” He glanced at his mother again, and hoped that her spectre would not notice him, what he had become in her absence. He was Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale, the son of a sorceress and a betrayer of his entire kind. The revelation tasted of ashes. Maman, if only I had known. Why did you never tell me?
He hated who he had become. He hated who he was.
“Men born to witches have gifts of their own,” Nightingale said. “They are more intelligent, intuitive, driven… the qualities you admire most in yourself, and of which you have made such fine use in your career. Your ability to read every nuance of a situation, to command the attention of others, what some might even call your magnetism, you owe those to her. But you fear that your father’s weakness taints your strength, and this fear has shaped your choices. You don’t acknowledge it, though. You wrestle it into the dirt and grind it beneath your heel, but it’s always there. It even shows in how you drink. Never to excess, always in control, understanding every precise element of every vintage down to the signature of the fruit from which the wine came. Mastering it the way he couldn’t. Control is strength to you, because control tames the fear. And for a very long time, magic was something you could not control, so you worked to destroy it.”
Nightingale knelt next to him and covered his hands with hers. He felt the charge of mystical energy sizzling at her fingertips. “Etienne, your father and mother are long dead. You cannot wound them anymore. You need to forgive them and do honor to both their memory and to the love they shared once that gave you this life. When we first met, that night outside Montagnes-les-grands, I could sense who you were. I knew you were one of us, and that given time, I could reach you. It was why I let you go free, why I sought you out at the lake, why I’ve protected you and why I am asking you now. If you loved them. If you love me. Help me end this war.”
The image of Elyssia and the baby began to dissolve, spinning away into fragments of golden light. Etienne reached out to grab onto something, any vestige of her he could keep, but his hand found only air. The particles swirled higher, tearing away the darkness to reveal the white room overlooking the Calerre harbor where he’d awoken what felt like a hundred years ago. It was nighttime now, and a quilt of amber lights flickered over the hillsides at the mouth of the dark sea beyond. “Au revoir, maman,” Etienne whispered, swallowing his emotions. His father had wanted only one more kiss. He would have settled for a final glimpse.
Au revoir à vous deux.
Nightingale was still holding his hands, awaiting his answer. He collected himself and reasserted the self-confidence that she’d told him was an inheritance from Maman. “You are wrong,” he said. “The aim should not be to end the war. It should be to win it. This will never stop until we burn the Bureau to the ground and salt the smoldering cinders.”
She smirked at the improbability contained in his remark. “I have a great deal of power, Etienne, but not against those weapons. Not against legions of Bureau soldiers.”
“We will need our own army, then.” An idea crested to the forefront of his thoughts, one that the former, more rational Etienne would have dismissed as lunacy, and indeed there was a not insignificant part of him that still considered it so. “I have an inkling as to where we might recruit one. I may need your help, though, in convincing its leader.”
“Why is that?”
“The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand.”
* * *
Happy weekend, happy reading, and thanks for sticking around! A break for a day or two, then it’s on with writing Part Fifteen!
Three little words. The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon. A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years. We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different. This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen. This was a gift. This was faith rewarded.
About damn time.
The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill. Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies. We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.
Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night. I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m. People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue. Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water. When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.
We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for. It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight. No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.” But the glow faded very fast. Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises. It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy. And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn. We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again. The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it. Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars. He was ready to move on.
Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams. The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter. The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia. Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo. The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds. The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.
The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months. In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen. He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet. Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better. Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment. With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.
What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result. The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.
I come before you today with a problem.
It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts. It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.
You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.
I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni. But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste. Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies). And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals. We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning. And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent. But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:
The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars. My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us. And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down. The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.” Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one. Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977. For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke. Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route. Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own. You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.
I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue: sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste. If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting. One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern. Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings. Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?
I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian. I want to be wowed. I want to be surprised. I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right. I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.
I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.
I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man. Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected. And why should they? They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.
I’m tired of McDonald’s. Give me a steak.
Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong. There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise. The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard. But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.
I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore. Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with. That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.
But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.