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18 October 2005 @ 09:16 am
10  
Klein had been a weird kid.

In class, most teachers had resented him for scribbling, fidgeting, daydreaming and reading books they hadn’t even mentioned instead of sitting still and paying attention all the time like he’d been supposed to, and most students had resented him because he’d still done fairly well academically overall in spite of it. At recess and in gym class, when he’d been forced to compete with the other kids running around, showing off and yelling at each other outside, he’d just wanted to be back inside all by himself sitting still in peace and quiet with a book and a flashlight. He'd found all the superstitions associated with sports a little over the top. He hadn’t liked having to pick one side to be against the other side, he hadn’t liked having to do what his team leader had said or telling the other kids what to do on the rare occasions on which he’d been selected as team leader, and he hadn’t really seen why winning had been supposed to be all that much better than losing in the grand scheme of things, since they were all just going to home to do homework and play after school would be over anyway. His allergies had made him sneeze a lot and, since he’d been a skunk, the spraying taunts had never been far behind.

The other kids may have also resented him for having had clothing industry-owning parents with a lot more money than theirs had, but Klein had been pretty sure that most of them still wouldn’t have been willing to trade places with him even for the money if they’d known what his parents had been like. As for them, it hadn’t taken them long to begin to worry that they’d never been going to know what to do with him. It’d seemed to them that he’d never have the guts it’d take to raise a family of his own, that he’d been too clumsy to work for their company, too absent-minded to run it and too damned sensitive for his own good in general. They’d tried the stick and carrot to motivate him to become closer to who they’d wanted him to be but it hadn’t worked all that well. When he’d been disobedient, they’d ground him, send him to his room or make him sit in the corner, and he’d learned to entertain himself in the house, in his room or in his mind. They’d threatened to withhold or take away desserts and toys they’d known he’d liked, and he’d told them that doing as he’d pleased had mattered more to him than getting what he’d wanted had.

In church, in addition to being taught to honor his father and his mother whether they’d honored him or not, he’d been taught that the reason for which the poor were poor and the rich were rich was that God rewarded good people by making them rich and punished bad people by making them poor, so the only way to really help the poor wasn’t to give them money but simply to teach them how to become better people. He’d raised his hand during a sermon and he’d been told angrily that people didn’t raise their hands to ask questions while sitting in church pews, to which he’d muttered that they’d let him do that in school, of all places, so he hadn’t seen why church should have been any different – inaudibly enough not to have to answer even more for his insubordination, of course.

In the high school he’d gone to, the administration had put up a sign with an arrogant-looking jock on it saying that the money which went into cleaning graffiti would be taken out of the money which went into gym supplies and school-sponsored sporting events. Klein had sprayed on the sign that you could work out on your own just about anywhere but that you couldn’t put a price on speaking your mind. He’d regretted having done that when he’d learned after the fact that one of the very few other students who he’d actually gotten along with had enjoyed going to the school gym and to school-sponsored sporting events, and generally couldn’t afford to pay for gym membership or game tickets on his own. Although the initial policy itself had still seemed unjustifiably repressive, worth speaking out against and the real culprit to him, he’d had to admit that he wouldn’t have liked it if someone else had done something which had affected the school library he’d hung out at that negatively either. It’d seemed like a good idea at the time, he’d just never been sure about whether it’d been one or not in retrospect, and this had become one of the things which Klein would feel guilty about whenever he’d think about.

Klein had had a lot of internalized guilt he’d had to learn how to deal with. During high school, he’d noticed that he’d been beginning to enjoy going to church a lot more than he’d used to. At first he’d thought it’d been because it’d given him the peace and quiet he’d looked for in libraries or because the burning incense had reminded him of the sticks some of the other kids would light during recess, then he’d managed to locate the moment at which his enjoyment had peaked, which had been while the choir had been singing. CDs of it which his parents had been only too glad to buy for him had failed to produce the same results, but they had reminded him of one of the choir singers in his age range, a pious, elegant, talented raven-panther griffin who he’d realized his attention had been naturally drifting to and settling on whenever sacred hymns would resonate throughout the assembly.

He’d begun to think about trying to meet him and talk to him after the sermon to ask him if he might ever want to go hang out somewhere to do something, because after all he’d figured that even angelic choir singers must have gotten at least a few hours off the clock, but he’d been so worried about making a bad impression on him that he’d had to put aftershave on his face, shampoo and conditioner in his hair, moisturizer on his hands and cologne on his tail before having worked up the courage to finally go up to him and ask him. Owen, as he’d introduced himself as, had laughed a friendly laugh and had said that as soon as Klein would have washed all that crap off, sure, he’d have been up for it and glad to do it. Klein had been puzzled but relieved by the unexpected reaction. It’d been the first time that someone had asked him not to try so hard instead of telling him that he hadn’t been trying hard enough. They’d ended up spending a lot of time together, getting to know each other, talking together a lot about what they’d believed in, what they’d listened to, where they’d liked going, which games they’d played and what they’d enjoyed doing with their time.

It’d started innocently enough.

One day, after having spent months thinking it over, Klein had walked up to him after mass with an unusually serious expression on his face and had asked if he could talk to him alone because he had something to confess to him. Owen had been concerned, but he’d accepted to follow him outside where they’d been less likely to be overheard. It had been then that Klein had finally admitted to him that he’d seemed to have developed some kind of fascination for him which hadn’t stopped at friendship, but he’d added that if friendship had been the only thing the griffin would have felt comfortable sharing with him, then that would still have been enough for him. Owen’s initial reaction had been one of shock, followed by a moment of tense quiet introspection, a friendly hand on Klein’s shoulder with a smile indicating he’d at least not been excessively offended by the suggestion, a hug which had plunged Klein into confusion, an awkward kiss in a corner behind a wall which had removed it and a tug at his hand to drag him off sacred ground which he hadn’t resisted.

The next morning, the sermon had included readings from some sections of Leviticus and Paul which had been so renowned that Klein would have never expected that this would have been the first time that Owen would have heard them, but it had. Owen had been devastated, guilt, shame, remorse and self-hate had begun gnawing on his insides, he’d started having trouble breathing and he’d cursed himself for having almost broken down in tears with everyone looking. It had been all he could do not to walk out on the sermon to get into a confession booth then and there, but he’d forced himself to wait until it’d have ended because he’d thought he’d evidently needed to listen with a lot more attention. Klein had become seriously worried for him by having seen his reaction by then, and he’d had to run to be able to catch Owen before he’d left in a hurry because he’d wanted to ask him if he was all right and if there was anything he could do to help. Owen, who’d lost the ability to contain his tears by then, had slapped his hand away from his shoulder telling him not to touch him and to stay the hell away from him for the rest of his life.

Klein had just stood there reeling, feeling like he’d been hit by a bus, watching his angel storming out of his life for good. It had taken him months to recover from it. Just a few years later, he’d learned that Owen had been studying to become a Protestant minister and engaged to be married to a female Kirin. At first, he’d really resented them a lot and he’d been seriously tempted to tell her some things about her boyfriend that he knew said boyfriend wouldn’t have wanted her to know. After having thought about it long enough, though, he’d eventually decided that although he’d felt wronged before, there’d still been nothing left for him to gain from other people’s suffering at that time, that any love which hadn’t been offered to him freely wouldn’t have been worth receiving anyway, that it’d have been just as wrong for him to manipulate others as it’d been when the minister had done it, that a lot of things had been wrong with the world but that an excess of happiness had never been one of them, and that in the end he’d like himself better if he just wished them the best and moved on with his life.

Right then, though, he’d been so heartbroken that even though his parents hadn’t known anything about what had happened, they’d been able to tell he’d been feeling downcast. When they’d asked him what had been wrong, since he hadn’t wanted to lie but still hadn’t wanted to reveal anything he’d been pretty sure they’d have taken wrong, he’d told them that he’d been lonely, which had been true enough. They’d decided that enough had been enough and that they’d been going to do something about that, so they’d sought out and they’d introduced him to Claire, a lioness who’d been a first year law school student. If he hadn’t still been feeling vulnerable from what had just happened before, he might have resisted a little more strongly, but since he’d only ever looked at girls before having met his ex and since things had gone as badly with him as they had, he’d figured that it couldn’t hurt for him to at least give one of them another shot. It hadn’t turned out to have been the only decision he’d regretted having let them make for him.

While he’d wanted to go to a cosmopolitan liberal arts college because it’d seemed to him to be the best possible environment for him to be in, his parents had wanted him to go to a private business school because they’d wanted him to learn what he’d have to know to take over their company. After way more arguing than he’d felt he’d had the endurance for, they’d ended up settling on something they’d called a compromise: he could go to the college he’d wanted to go to, but he’d have to study something there which could be applied to the kind of position they’d had in mind for him. He’d resisted going into the manufacturing, supervision and management branches of their industries themselves because most situations involving machines, people and pressure simply didn’t agree with him, so they’d ended up pushing him into marketing, advertising and sales instead. They’d figured that the combination of psychology, storytelling, theatre and sociology they’d required would appeal to him enough for him to apply himself and to do well enough at them to eventually be able to decide which direction the company’s image would go in, which they’d always thought had mattered more than its substance anyway.

His relationship with Claire had continued to steadily deteriorate from the end of his high school years well into the beginning of his college years. Claire had become a law student because she’d believed strongly that there were rules that everyone had to learn to follow unquestioningly, regulations they’d had to conform to, conventions they’d had to follow and inherently incorrect procedures which they shouldn’t have been able to get away with without having had to face the eternal consequences of. She’d believed that people should have had to wear uniforms everywhere. She’d believed that since most people acted like children, they had to be disciplined like children, and she’d had every intention of bringing up her own cubs to know right from wrong as firmly, memorably and distinctly as her parents had done for her. She’d teach them that society was a jungle and that they’d have to learn to live by its jungle law so that they’d turn out as strong and hateful of weakness as she’d taken so much pride in having made herself become.

Klein hadn’t even been sure he’d wanted children. He’d been sure someone would have told him that it’d been implied as having been part of the deal when he’d agreed to it, but no one had, and he’d only learned about just how much he’d signed up for after his blood had already been dry on the contract. Personally, he’d thought the world already had way more people than it needed in it, and if it’d been going to have more people in it anyway, he’d have at least preferred it if none of them had had to be a continuation of his own lineage. Shortly after college had started, his parents had told him that since she’d lived closer to it than he had, that they’d be paying for half of what had been going to become their apartment, and not to expect room and board under their roof until the session would be over. They’d wanted to give him a crash course in marital life because they’d felt that he’d sorely needed one.

He’d never been able to do anything right for her. When he’d given her presents, she’d complained that they hadn’t been exactly what she’d wanted and that he’d spent too much money on them. When he’d cursed, she’d slapped him and had told him to watch his mouth. When he’d washed clothes, floors, dishes or himself, she’d always told him that he’d taken too long and that they’d still stunk to high heaven anyway. When he’d taken her to restaurants, she’d been rude to the waiters and she hadn’t tipped. When he’d cried, she’d told him to start acting like a man or she’d really give him something to cry about. When he’d been afraid of something or had liked something she’d thought of as garbage, she’d made merciless fun of him for it. She’d refused to meet any of his friends and had kept dragging him to social gatherings he’d never felt like he’d belonged in and had often had to bite his tongue at. She’d told him that he’d have better get a haircut, lift some weights and buy some new shoes if he hadn’t wanted to look like a damn fool.

When they’d disagreed about anything, she’d just steamrolled right over his opinion without letting him get a word in edgewise, so he’d ended up resignedly pretending to agree with her about just about everything. When he’d asked her questions she’d thought the answers to should have been obvious or hadn't known answers to questions she'd asked him, she’d growled that he’d been an idiot. When he’d dropped anything, bumped into anything or knocked anything over, she’d snarled that he’d been a menace. When he hadn’t seemed to be as angry as she’d been about something which had happened to her or even to him, she’d roared that he’d been a wimp. He’d had to admit that while he hadn’t really minded the claw scratches and bite marks at all given the context he’d usually received them from her in and the fact that clothes had been enough to keep most of them concealed, but once, in the midst of one of their most serious arguments, she’d actually gone and punched him right in the face. Klein had conveniently rediscovered during the next few days that sunglasses had made him look incredibly sexy, and that the ancient art of telling stories to people could be useful for all kinds of things.

The only college classes he’d had that he’d really enjoyed going to had to have been his elective mythology and storytelling classes, not only for the show the archaeopteryx who’d taught them had gone to the trouble of putting on for his students every class, but even more for everything the teacher had told him in private after classes had been over and the other students had left.

- Myths and stories are formidable things, Klein. I wouldn’t be teaching them if I didn’t believe that. Any weapon that’s been used to control entire populations for centuries and that it’s still legal to use on so many children deserves to be taken very seriously. Don’t forget, manifest battles are often only the external aspects of more subtle ones, and those are the ones it really matters to understand. Once you’ll have understood myths and stories, you can learn how not to fear them and pass on that fearlessness to others. Fear of myths and stories can bring about everything from discrimination to murder to war. As a general rule of thumb, caution may be your friend, but fear is always your enemy. It’s only your friend when you can strike it into the heart of someone who’s threatening your life. If you can win the subtle battles before the manifest ones even begin, then, well, some people would argue that that’s the only kind of real victory there is.

This kind of talk had definitely made Klein feel better about the built-in warning sign running down the length of his back, but it still hadn’t done anything about his fear of Claire’s judgement of him, and even his teacher had admitted that unless you were intending to become a storytelling teacher yourself or happened to be part of the infinitesimal minority of renowned storytellers who performed live, published books and CDs and made their living from it, it hadn’t been something that there’d been that much money to make from.

Klein hadn’t wanted to have to start working before having finished his studies because he’d been afraid that having to balance them with each other would’ve meant risking damage to his results in both. Claire had given him an ultimatum: either he’d start bringing home some bacon yesterday or she’d walk and take the opportunity she’d represented for him out of his little skunk paws. She hadn’t been going to raise her cubs on a pauper’s salary, that had been for damn sure. He still hadn’t recovered from the fear of abandonment which his previous failed relationship had left him with and he hadn’t felt like he’d have been able to deal with the guilt of having disappointed her.

His parents, having seen their chance to teach him the value of a dollar and to give him an idea of how their industry functioned, had dismissed his protests that he hadn’t had what it took to do the job right and had pushed him right into a position as a fabric industry supervisor. Grudgingly, faced with what he’d perceived as total disgrace if he’d refused, he’d relented, and he’d accepted the job after all. Seeing the kind of conditions their employees had to work in had made him feel like he must have been living a very sheltered and over-protected life until then.

Just a few weeks after he’d started, a machine had malfunctioned and one of the employees he’d been assigned to supervise had lost a limb in a freak accident.

When he’d asked why the machine had been dysfunctional, he’d been told that they all wore out over time and all had to be replaced or repaired every now and then. When he’d asked why the machine hadn’t been checked in time to prevent accidents, he’d been told it’d been his job to hire someone to do that, which of course no one had seen fit to tell him about until after the fact because everyone had assumed he must have just known. When he’d asked what kind of compensation the injured employee had been going to get for what he’d been through, he’d been told that the company’s employees hadn’t had the right to unionize. When he’d asked who’d been going to take over his position, he’d been assured that someone else had been fired as a scapegoat and that there’d been no way they’d have been going to let a little incident like that bring a taint on his family name. When he’d said that his mistakes may have been mistakes but that they’d still been his and that he hadn’t wanted them taken away from him, he’d been given a temporary leave of absence.

It had taken that for him to realize that, in some contexts, accepting a responsibility could be even more irresponsible than turning one down could be, that he'd have rather gone to hell for the right reasons than to heaven for the wrong ones and that his whole life had been built with someone else in mind.

That night, he’d snapped, he'd quit his job, he’d broken up, he’d renounced his religion, he’d been disowned and he’d run away from home and into the woods without looking back.
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:14 am
9  
"Threefold is the faith of the embodied, which is inherent in their nature- the Satvic (pure), the Rajasic (passionate) and the Tamasic (dark)." – Bhagavad-Gita

"Western time is ticking; Eastern time is breathing; capoeira time is pulsating." – capoeira saying


Good thing I’ve already read this before, she groaned inwardly as the shaking bus rudely closed the guidebook she was re-reading in her hands, or there’s no way I’d be able to keep up with the plot otherwise. She’d forgotten just how difficult it could be to find a quiet spot to try to read or search for a semblance of inner peace in on the surface world.

Some masters recommended finding quiet spots to perform meditation in, which could be a lot easier said than done, whereas others actually recommended finding the noisiest and most crowded possible places to meditate in specifically to train oneself to remain centered even while caught in one of life’s maelstroms. As for her, she could bear it, just not grin.

The bus slowed to a stop. She grabbed her stuff, took a look back to make sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind, and skipped steps two by two on her way down the stairs leading down into the citywide subway system criss-crossing the underworld which could draw its unsuspecting passengers toward within the itchy and crawling confines of the Bolgia.


The Bolgia sat waiting smack dab in the middle of downtown under a hotel and sleep research center with all but the upper fourth of it hunched over underground. It beckoned passer-bys inside like a Venus flytrap with firefly light cords, mothflame lanterns, clicks, beeps, chimes, rattles and siren songs whispering sweet promises in their ears. The Sargasso Sea couldn’t help it if all shipwrecks ended up drifting to it, now, could it?

Like the Mayan Underworld, the Bolgia was made up out of nine sections, distinctly differentiated yet interconnected by four pathways like a tic-tac-toe grid: the washrooms and hidden cameras back-left, the arcade and change booth back, the slot machines and ATMs back-right, the hardwood dance floor and speaker left, the ring doubling as performance stage center, the pool table and hidden recorder right, the light projector and DJ booth front-left, the entrance and card table front and the bar counter and cash register front-right. The blood red carpet, indigo silk curtains and Cubist paintings on the dark ebony walls made the place feel classier than it really was under the right kind of lighting, despite the shady deals and fast pick-ups its dark corners barely concealed, and the mirror in the bone white ceiling over the ring-stage ensured that the action taking place on it could be followed from anywhere in the casino.

A well-built manticore promptly moved out of Mano’s way to let her in after a cursory weapon check, she shot a glance right to the unassuming demon-faced bartender who greeted her with a polite smile and a humble wave on her way in, and she told the cockatrice who stopped by the table she sat at to ask her what kind of drink she wanted that she was going to be ordering something after the fight would be over if no one would mind which, the cockatrice assured her, no one would. The Bolgia’s staff generally bothered its customers as little as crime groups and the forces of order bothered it, although the former was just good manners whereas the latter was just good thinking. No one knew for sure what’d happened to the one person who’d ever killed someone there, but they’d never been heard from again and rumor had it they’d been turned to stone, trapped in their own nightmares, or worse, rumor which of course the staff had always known better than to confirm or infirm.

On center stage, under the spotlight, a weasel and skunk circled each other eyeing each other warily, searching for any tell which would reveal which hand the other held. The weasel wore army camouflage pants, the skunk wore white cotton pants, and both were taking full advantage of the lack of a "no shirt, no service" sign hanging at the door. What the only sign which was hanging at the door said was "Nothing is ugly but beauty is allowed."

The weasel hopped, right turning heel flying over a crouching figure bouncing up into a rising headbutt which he caught to bring down on his left knee. The bent-over skunk headbutted the weasel’s midsection but the weasel grabbed his right wrist twisting inward and pulling to bring his elbow down on his back. The skunk brought his forehead down to his knees just in time, feeling the elbow going through his hair on the way down, put his left palm on the ground, arched his back to lock both shins around the weasel’s neck, and pulled.

The weasel rolled to break his fall after being sent upside-down behind him then, figuring the skunk must have had his back to him behind him, arched his back aiming a punch at the back of his head. The skunk, seeing it coming over his shoulder, bent under it putting both hands on the ground and sending both heels up at the weasel’s upper back. The weasel did a squat thrust under them, kicking both of the skunk’s arms out from under him, not having predicted that this would force the skunk to fall down sitting on the weasel’s back facing away from him, pulling his ankles up toward him thus arching his back with a foot on his tail to force him to hit the mat for release.

Mano had already recognized the skunk as Klein by then – the Machiavellian pinch, purple bracelet and yin/yang pendant had been dead giveaways – but she didn’t think she’d met the weasel before, although judging from how much more affectionate than the usual boxer hug their post-fight hug seemed to be, she figured they must have already known each other from before. He couldn’t have been that fast, she reasoned. It took her a moment for the impact of the army pants on the weasel and for their possible implications to worm their way into her mind. Just how much could someone change in one year anyway?

Klein’s forearm dangled sideways under his elbow at shoulder level like a puppet’s, as if daring anyone else to compel some invisible master to pull his strings and make him dance again, trying to conceal how spent he really was behind a defiant wicked grin. He was just about to let himself fall down on his back dramatically to let everyone know that the show was over when he saw the crowd between a table and the ring parting like the Red Sea and an eerily familiar cloaked figure dashing toward him to vault over the ropes before the cloak came off and gasps emerged from the crowd.

The chimera mixing tracks at the DJ booth greeted her arrival with a pounding, electric, almost ethereal rhythm. The neon lights made the water rune on her right shoulder-blade and the wave glyph on her left middle forearm glow.

There, for a brief, shining moment, she knew that everyone looking at her saw as a true advantage what she knew she had to hide like a flaw to be ashamed of from everyone around her way too much of the time, because as freaky as they may have made her look, the extra limbs starting from her sides at plexus and navel levels were an undeniable combat advantage, and here, finally, was an audience who could appreciate that.

It felt liberating.

For a moment she turned her entire body deep sea blue just because she could, and even tried to allow herself to enjoy the attention it brought her without feeling guilty about it, although she did maintain her usual austere and reserved expression in the process, since of course this was no time for her to be breaking character. Gods, how inappropriately vain she couldn’t believe she could allow herself to act sometimes. Klein wasn’t going to be a good influence on her at all.

He just smiled at her display, but her third eye caught his barely perceptible twitch when she suddenly opened it right at him, and then she was the one who smiled.

- You have a tell.

He tilted his head to the side with his arms crossed, trying to make his impressed expression seem like it was an act even though they both knew it wasn’t.

- Nothing ever gets past you, does it?

She shook her head no, going through a quick private review of most of the mathematically optimal battle sub-routines she’d hardwired into herself and bringing her sharply honed mental focus on him. It had taken her only seven years to become a fourth level exponent of her discipline, the shortest possible amount of time it could take to reach it. He knew he didn’t have the same level of training and experience that she had, she knew that he knew it, and she had every intention of using that knowledge as an extra psychological weapon against him. It wasn’t like she didn’t know he would have done the same to her had the situation been reversed. Even here on his turf, he only won about as many fights as he lost overall, and although she could believe him when he said he could kick someone anywhere around him from just about any position since she’d seen evidence of it, she had a little more trouble believing he could shoot black and white axé blasts from his joined heels like she’d only heard him say he could.

She reminded herself that although the little ball of energy bouncing around in front of her was fidgety, spastic and hyper by nature, his erratic footwork and constant motion were also intended to make him harder to hit and to make it harder for her to tell where his next kick would be coming from. He settled into a left foot front stance, and just for a moment, she could see on his face just how glad he was to be seeing her again.

- It has been a while, hasn’t it?
- Long enough for me to have lost all track of time, skunk.
- That’s okay. What’s a little time between friends?
- Never too much, hopefully. Now let’s see if you still stink at this as much as you used to.
- I thought you'd never ask.

He lifted his left foot from the ground abruptly to startle her but she saw right through his feint, calmly descended into a left foot front stance while extending her bent arms in a six-point star aiming every forearm at him like turrets, and he launched into a zigzagging dash at her.

She caught his left foot with her lower arms on its way up to her midsection, he bent forward to his left knee under her upper ear pop and she caught his right foot with her middle arms as he turned around on his hands to send it at her chest. He let go of the ground completely to send both fists at her midsection and since her lower arms had to let go of his left foot to grab his wrists on their way to it, he pulled it forward over himself all the way down to the ground away from her to gain the momentum and freedom of movement necessary to twist out of her grip while turning around to stand up facing her.

Wriggling like a worm.

He parried her right lower palm and left lower slap with left round and right turning kicks on his hands, her left middle palm and right middle slap with right round and left turning kicks facing down in midair, and her right upper palm and left upper slap with right turning and left out-in crescent jump kicks.

Showoff.

She sent her legs pointing back out of range of the leg scissors he dropped into as her lower arms took over supporting her, her downward middle palms forced him to pull out from under her and her upper palms to his midsection forced him to roll back to break his fall. For a moment, from the side, she almost looked like a table.

She had plenty of time to see his pounce coming, stepping right and whirling left to send three left backhands from behind at him, which he brought his legs forward over his head and down to the ground just in time to do a bridge under. The three right slaps which followed narrowly missed the rise and fall of his left arm as he brought it forward into a crouch with his hands on the ground behind him then sideways on all four and up into a left foot front stance facing her. A slinky going through a revolving door.

She stamped his left foot with her own, his right low round kick missed her left crane’s leg and he span left switching to a right foot front stance after it. She tried to grab his right ankle with all six hands successively while he switched from right crane to leg points forward, up then forward and back to crane again to dodge the first five before avoiding the last one with an in-out crescent she caught on its way to her right temple, moving in to push him forward over her left leg with her left arms.

He rolled and half-turned into a crouching headbutt she x-blocked with her lower arms on its way to her midsection, he stood bending his forehead to his knees feeling her middle chops going through his hair on their way down and thrust his tail in her face, which given how fluffy it was didn’t really hurt anything but her pride, but still. He brought it back down behind him just as her upper palms clapped together over him, but she snuck her lower hands under his armpits to pull him up in front of her, replacing them with her upper hands as her middle hands grabbed his wrists and her lower hands grabbed his ankles. He could only grit his teeth and tense up his muscles at the thought of what was on the way.

Gotcha.

She tossed him up then quickly went down to support herself on her four upper forearms before sending all four lower limbs forward over her head at his chest and midsection to push him out of the ring with a flawlessly performed scorpion asana.

One twirling kip-up later, he leapt up at her to try to pay her back for the lesson she’d just taught him and only realized in midair over the ropes that since she’d managed to force him out of the ring, the battle was over – he’d lost. So as soon as he landed he went for her cloak, grabbed it and handed it to her, hoping nobody would notice his previous oversight in light of it.

- Ever the gentleman, I see.
- But of course.

As the coon referee tried to determine which of her arms he was supposed to lift up to indicate that she’d won, they shared a post-fight boxer hug which, although it wasn’t affectionate quite in the same way as the one following the previous match had been, still definitely seemed to contain a lot more emotion than the average one did.

- I missed you, you three-eyed, thick-headed, eight-legged freak.
- You still stink at this just as much as you always did.
- And your manners are still everything they’ve ever been.
- I’d like to see what yours would look like after some of what I’ve been through.
- We have a lot of catching up to do and it sounds like it won’t all be pleasant, but a fair weather friend isn’t much of a friend at all, is he?

She wrapped herself back up in the folds of her cloak, trying to get offstage as solemnly and to meld back into the crowd as casually as it was possible to after having put on a display as exceptional as the one she just had. After a short hushed verbal exchange with the weasel from before and a stop by the bar counter to collect his and her winning cash prizes for the evening, he joined her at the table she’d first sat at to watch. She ordered a cold Griffin beer while waiting for him and after he got there he waved to the cockatrice asking for a kettle of hot saké and a cup to pour it in.

- You’ve always struck me as someone enviably capable, Mano, but tonight, I have to say I can’t help being just a little concerned about you.
- That’s the thing. The more capable you seem, the more people will expect from you, the more disappointed they’ll be if you can’t deliver on what they think of you as promising.
- That’s not a situation which feels entirely alien to me, as cold of a comfort as I know that to be.
- Cold comfort beats no comfort at all, I guess.
- This is beginning to sound just a smidgen ominous, you know.
- True.
- I’m interested in listening if you feel like talking, but is this something it’d be better for me not to pry about?
- I don’t mind telling you somewhere eventually, just not here and now.
- Later tonight in a more private setting, then?
- That would do quite adequately, yes.
- Should we leave now, or later?
- Our drinks are on the way, and I’ve never known you to be the type to let a good drink go to waste.
- You do know me, but a listening ear can be harder to come across than even a good drink is.
- Yes, but you’ll still be there when the drinks are gone.
- I can’t promise I’ll be all there after I’ll have gotten enough drink in me.
- Trust me, after everything I’ve been through, I need a drink, and if you’re going to be sitting through it, you’re probably going to be needing one too.
- Is there anything else I can do for you in the meantime, then?
- Do you have any privacy concerns of your own about what your life’s been like since we’ve last met?
- Not really, no. Why, are you interested?
- Enough to want to hear about it, at least. It’d be a nice change of pace for me to be able to focus on someone else’s problems for once, and I think I’ll feel less stage fright at the thought of talking about mine if you break the ice by going into yours first, if you don’t mind.
- Most certainly not. Ah! Our drinks are here.

They each thanked, paid and tipped the cockatrice with part of their victory money from that very night then lifted their glasses at each other in the traditional drinking buddy ritual gesture.

- Kampai.

Let's drink, for tomorrow we die.
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:10 am
8  
As much as she’d learned from discovering the merits of solitude, a year of isolation hadn’t done much to improve her social networking capabilities by that point. She hadn’t known anyone she could use as a focus group to get a second opinion from (or even try it on herself because how would have she known if the drug worked without anyone around for her to feel empathy for?), any poor devil she could have struck a Faustian bargain with, anyone to get the word out about her invention or any second set of hands to help her carry any loads or to deliver any packages for her. Two heads were better than one, she’d known that most people generally believed, and she’d thought that having someone around to prove that she wasn’t the only one who found what she’d be selling worthwhile would have lent her more credibility than she’d have had on her own. She’d been able to fight two or three people as easily as one, to treat three or four adversaries as two and four or five as three, but beyond that, even with her capacities, she’d known that she could still have been overpowered, and figured that having a bodyguard around in case anything went awry couldn’t have been such a bad idea. She’d wanted a comrade, a travelling companion, someone who could serve as a mirror to see herself reflected in, whose voice could serve as confirmation that she’d still existed.

She may not have used Klein’s contact information in about a year by then, but he’d always been a believer in better late than never, said he’d be glad to get back in touch with her to catch up a bit and had told her where and when she could find him as well as how to get there. She’d piloted her sub all the way up north to the country he’d lived in and had docked it somewhere reasonably well concealed, not that just anyone could have broken into it, mind. She’d heroically navigated the foreboding twists and turns of the port town which she’d had to settle for as a stop along the way since her ground-faring travel abilities had still been relatively limited and she’d gotten a ticket to their mutually agreed-upon meeting place at the bus station she was currently waiting in line at so that she could eventually bridge the remaining distance between them.

The waiting line was contracting, expanding and waving erratically about like an intoxicated snake-accordion. People felt like swarming flying insects buzzing around her with their sting safely tucked away but still within easy reach at all times. She felt like a salmon swimming against the current, like a dolphin trapped in a tuna net, the streams of people flowing through the corridors reminding her of the agitating nervous impulses coursing through her own nerves at the very sight of it.

Why does there have to be so many of them? Wouldn’t much less still be plenty?

Too slow in the front, too fast in the back, easy on the sides, there.

- HEY!

Caught in the crossfire.

- Don’t apologize or anything!

A rabbit in a suit, who’d somehow escaped her continuous visual sweeps of the area, had blindsided her, slammed right into her and was still too busy bowing down to stare at his busily tick-tocking pocket-watch as he sped away to even look back at her, much less waste time on luxuries like civility.

You’re not supposed to want to slam into me any more than I want to slam into you, so why am I doing all the work instead of us working together to reach a goal you don’t even seem to care about reaching?

- I’m talking to you!

A peacock shot her a haughty dirty look, for making so much out of what she’d just been through, no doubt. She bit her tongue and grit her teeth, holding back from telling him just how easy projection could make snap judgments, that ignorance was only not an excuse when the wilful kind led to assumptions, that she didn’t want revenge, justice, compensation or even apology, that just an acknowledgement of her existence would have been enough. It wasn’t like she’d been the one to slam into him, but if that look had been any indication, she might as well have.

Am I a bad person for wishing I could just kill some people with a single thought sometimes?

She just shook her head and sighed, resolving to wash up to remove the stain of stupid whenever she’d be back on board and leave it at that.

The incident had drawn unwanted attention to her and she saw a golden retriever spotting her, breaking out of the crowd and honing in on her. Everyone knows you can’t say no to a golden retriever, don’t we?

Let’s see if there’s a crack in the ground I could try to squeeze into...

- Excuse me, miss.

He sounded like he was telling her more than asking her.

- Yes?
- Do you have fifteen dollars?
- Pardon?

She’d been raised to always say ‘pardon’ rather than ‘what’ so as not to accidentally come off as rude, but even though it wouldn’t have been exceptional for her to give a dollar or two to a beggar without a second thought and she’d even gone as high as five once or twice, she couldn’t help but feel that she had to make sure she’d confirmed the question she’d just been asked before accepting it as fact.

- I said, I need to get fifteen dollars.
- Why that much specifically?
- Because that’s all I’m missing to buy a bus ticket.
- Why do you need to buy a bus ticket?
- Because I’m going somewhere! What else do you think?

Mano frowned and showed both upper palms to him.

- Hey, take it easy, I was just asking because I was wondering where you could be going, that’s all.
- What is this, some kind of an investigation?
- You don’t have to tell me anything, I was just curious, that’s all.
- Well, I don’t have time to stand here answering questions all day, so if you’re not going to give me anything...
- I will, I will, just give me a second, okay?

Mano rummaged through her cloak pockets then handed him a neatly folded piece of paper he snatched and looked at disdainfully before pocketing it grudgingly.

- Five’s already a pretty good start, isn’t it?
- I’m afraid that’s not going to be enough, no.
- Pardon?

Hook, line and sinker.

- I already told you, I need fifteen dollars so I can buy a bus ticket.
- So all you have to get is two more like this and you’re all set, right?
- Why would you force me to keep looking around for other people to get money from even though you’re right here right now?
- Listen, I really, really wish I could help you more, but see, I came all the way from halfway across the world just to meet someone here tonight, and I only brought my bare essentials with me.
- So?
- If I spend any more of what little money I brought, I’m not going to be able to buy him a bus ticket so he can come along with me tomorrow.
- So what you’re telling me is that he deserves to ride the bus and I don’t. What’s he got that I don’t have?

Manners, for one thing.

- That’s not what this is about.
- Oh, I know what this is about.
- I don’t have that much to begin with.
- Where are you going?
- Why are you asking?
- If you have enough left for your friend’s bus ticket, then you either have more than fifteen dollars on you or if the ticket’s so cheap that you’d need less than that, you might as well walk there.
- It’s not that simple.
- Don’t talk down to me.
- I haven’t been meaning to and I apologize if I have.
- Sorry doesn’t cut it.
- What would cut it, then?
- Do you have fifteen dollars?

Brahma, give me patience, but damn it, give it to me now.

- As a matter of fact, I do.
- Now, we’re getting somewhere.
- That’s not the point.
- Really? I’d say that’s precisely the point.
- The point is that I have exactly as much as I need, no less but no more.
- You don’t have to rub it in quite as much, you know?

One thing she’d learned from Elizabeth was that one reason for which poetry creates an emotional impact on people is that people’s minds already naturally function by analogy by default, and poetry just goes right in and takes advantage of an already existing tendency. It’d become difficult for her not to begin to subconsciously draw analogies between events in her personal life and the greater scheme of things, and this wasn’t always a convenient way of thinking. Right then even though she thought the guy was being a jerk, she still couldn’t help but think of him as the Universal Poor Man yearning to have enough and to think of herself as the Greedy Capitalist Villain withholding it from him, who she most certainly didn’t want to have to be. How much she’d given to others before and how much she was intending to give others in the future didn’t make any difference somehow. He knew this, and she knew he knew it, but for some reason that still didn’t change anything.

- I’m not.
- What do you call what you’re doing, then?
- I call it explaining to you why no matter how much I wish I could I simply can’t afford to help you any more than I already have so it’s going to have to be enough for now. You can’t get blood from a turnip and I don’t have that much to begin with, you know?
- You still have more than I do, don’t you?
- I don’t owe you anything.
- I need it more than you do.
- That’s really what you believe, isn’t it?
- Absolutely.

The less people have, the more what they give means coming from them, isn’t that how things are supposed to work?

- Isn’t other people’s money just as good as mine is?
- I’m going to have to wait for another long while before I’ll have gotten enough from other people to get where I’m going.
- Is that a problem?
- Can’t you tell?
- What’s wrong with waiting?
- I’ve already been waiting for hours.
- Then what’s a few more?
- You wouldn’t be saying that if you’d been waiting for as long as I’ve been. It’ll take forever. Generous people are hard to come by, you know.
- Can you blame them? I gave you a hand, you asked for an arm and a leg, who wants to be put through that?
- How can you stand there and say something like that to me? You seem like you’ve got arms and legs to spare.

Am I being put on trial, is this an advertisement, is this some kind of twisted hazing ritual, is there a hidden camera, for crying out loud, is this a dream?

- I am not going to have this conversation. I’ve done my part. Other people can take over from now on. I suggest asking for smaller amounts at a time, it increases your chances of getting them.
- You know, I’m disappointed in you. I can’t believe I actually called you a generous person earlier. I thought you were different.

I’d call this cheap manipulation if it wasn’t for the fact that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be very cheap at all.

- What if I told you I can borrow ten from my friend tonight and give it to you tomorrow?
- I’d say you seem to have forgotten the part about the waiting.
- How about I give you ten just so you’ll leave me alone?
- That’d be fine.
- Thank gods!

She shoved another five into his hand without being able to conceal her mounting exasperation and turned to walk away from him but stopped right in her tracks when she heard him start talking again.

- Um, that’s only five.
- That’s right. I told you I’d give you ten, the first five plus the second five, that’s ten, that means you’ve got as much as you just said I needed to give you for you to finally leave me alone. We had a deal, didn’t we?
- It’s just that when you said ‘ten’ I thought you meant a whole other ten, in addition to the first five, which would have been enough for what I need it for. This still isn’t enough. You shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
- Get the hell away from me or I’ll call the police!

Mano didn’t generally think of the police as her ally, so for her to have been threatening someone with calling them for help, she had to have become pretty desperate by then.

Speak of the devil.

- What seems to be the problem here?

Rather than to plead her case the way she’d threatened to, Mano chose to try to use the doberman’s arrival and the fact that the retriever’s attention was being diverted toward him as a distraction to make a stealthy tactical retreat while she had the chance.

- Nothing, it’s just that, you see, I need fifteen dollars, sir.

She didn’t even slow down as she looked back over her shoulder in disbelief because she didn’t want to get dragged into the whole infernal dynamic all over again, but the retriever was probably not aware that she was still well within hearing range when he said that. She couldn’t believe he was just starting over with the original amount.

- FIVE!

Praise Ganesh! My bus is here!

The ticket-ripping greyhound at the end of the waiting line tilted his head at her questioningly.

- Excuse me, miss, are you sure you’re all right?
- Yes, yes, thank you, sorry about the trouble, sir. I get a little nervous in crowds and sometimes it becomes a little difficult for me to calm down after I’ve been in an agitated one like this for a while, but I should be fine after just a few minutes on the bus with everyone sitting still. I’m not a troublemaker or anything, don’t worry.

Pleasedon’tsearchmybagpleasedon’tsearchmybagpleasedon’tsearchmybag...

Her ticket ripped, she took two steps and a half toward the open bus door.

- Uh, miss?
- Yes?
- I’m afraid your bag isn’t going to be allowed on the bus with you.
- Pardon?
- It’s not compatible with the bus company’s approved allowed luggage carrying measurements, you see.

Someday I need to remember to go in some great big desert in which there’ll be no one around for miles and scream.
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:08 am
7  
Mano hadn’t noticed at which time she’d begun to talk to herself and hear voices in her head talking back to her all the time, but it must have been sometime around the middle of the fall. It had happened so seamlessly and she’d had enough time to get used to it that it'd never really stood out to her as something all that unusual for her to have been doing or experiencing. There’d been no one around to tell her that there’d been something wrong with it, and she’d eventually decided that without someone around to tell her that, it hadn’t been. That had been the first time that she’d really understood what Klein had meant by hell having been other people, that it hadn’t necessarily been supposed to have been as negative as it’d sounded to her at first. With no one around to judge her, she’d finally begun to glimpse at just how pointless and artificial shame could be.

Her initial motivation for it may have changed, but she hadn’t been about to come back from her dive into hibernation quite yet, not by a long shot.

First of all, she’d known her supplies hadn’t been going to last her forever, and even an ascetic needed a way to put some food on the table. She hadn’t known how many limbs a loan shark would have broken on her if she’d had to borrow money from one and hadn’t been able to reimburse it on time, two because that was the usual number, four because it had to be half or six because it had to leave only two intact, but she hadn’t wanted to have to find out.

She’d remembered that Elizabeth hadn’t said she had to do the same thing that she’d done, and although she’d wanted to continue to do everything she could to help others and make the world a better place to live in, she’d believed that she’d have to find her own way of doing that from then on, one which would bear her own brand of craft and ken. One central criticism of religion which Elizabeth had brought up was that it promised panaceas to the world’s problems which didn’t deliver what they promised, and that this made them false advertising. Mano hadn’t agreed with that at the time and was no longer sure of what she believed in or not, but she’d thought that if she could somehow use the skills and resources she’d had to get the world just a little closer to how she’d known that Elizabeth had wanted it to be, to bring about a repeatable, measurable and consensual improvement on people’s behavior, that maybe she could atone for what she’d done or had failed to do.

Given what she’d ended up coming up with after tinkering with her plants, lab equipment and med kits for several months on end, she’d had to calmly consider the possibility that building the sub had just brought her that one step closer to full-fledged mad scientist which she’d still been short on, and she’d shrugged it off with all six shoulders. If that was what she’d have to be to get what she’d had to do done, then so be it and happen what may, she’d just have to make sure to be the best damn possible mad scientist she could be.

She’d remembered the reasons for which Elizabeth hadn’t liked being on meds, that it’d made her feel dissociated from others’ feelings in a way she hadn’t cared for and had drained her creative juices. On the other hand, she’d known that some creative types had used pharmaceuticals to increase their creativity, and she'd begun to wonder if it could be possible for her to create an associative, so to speak. She’d heard aikido described as ‘medicine for a sick world’, and she’d begun to wonder what a literal application of this concept could have been like. Something like the concepts in Brave New World and Giving Plague, but without the part about doing things without people’s consent, altering their personality or removing their free will.

Something which would offer people’s brains a bigger carrot for understanding and reciprocity than for proving something and saving face, for doing right than for being right. The brain already had mechanisms in place which chemically rewarded competitive, predatory and territorial behavior, which were basically lurking in the shadows waiting to punish them for admitting defeat, so she’d only thought of herself as evening the odds, not tipping the scale. She hadn’t wanted to hold people by the hand, just to give evolution a push in the right direction.

She’d learned about what neurologists called empathy neurons, or mirror neurons, which were the part of the brain related to relating to others, and found a way to temporarily create a specific connection in people’s brains between the exercise of empathy and endorphin production, which made it so that whenever people who were under the influence of it showed empathy toward others, they’d get a direct and intense neurochemical reward released into their organisms for doing so, at least as intense as any other drug on any market could boast of. It’d reward people for keeping an open mind, putting themselves in other people’s shoes, admitting when they’d be wrong and other things she’d observed that people hated to do even though they generally yielded better results than not in the long run. She’d combined the neural connection acceleration and metabolism-boosting effects of smart drugs and steroids and found a way to neutralize their negative side-effects to give its users the perceptiveness and physical capacity to still not be taken advantage of for caring too much.

It wouldn’t tell people which decisions to make, but it’d increase their capacity for perceiving the facts for what they were instead of for what they wanted them to be. She’d decided she might as well top it off by throwing in the green tea genes which made it a cancer prevention agent while she’d been at it. She’d decided that, money problems or not, she’d have to sell it at an affordable price because she’d really wanted as many people as possible to be able to have access to it. Since medical marijuana had already been legal and that she’d been taught the rudiments of herbalism while she’d been growing up, she’d decided that her creation would take the form of a plant which, when dried, crushed and smoked, should deliver exactly what religion promised, or at least what she'd wanted it to be. If you smoked enough of it, you could feel as though you’d grown horns, claws, antennae, tendrils, feelers, tentacles, wings, tails, fangs, fire breath and any other number of things you didn’t know what it was like for other creatures to have and would carry the memories of with you long after, which wasn’t that different from visions, either. It grew in saltwater, like seaweed did, and you could make some terrific waterproof hemp from it, at that.

She’d privately wondered if she’d invented it back when Elizabeth had been alive, if that could have been enough for them to finally really understand each other, but there had been no way of going back to find out, she’d regretted.

She would call her creation Looking Glass Weed.
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:07 am
6  
Mano had found her lying on her back in a perfect corpse asana, perfect right down to every last detail.

Her own body’s reaction had been in stark contrast with that kind of stillness until she’d worn herself out, and at the funeral, she hadn’t only worn black clothing, she’d made her entire body itself black.

‘Elizabeth was the kind of person who this world needs more of, not less off, who cared about others more than about herself, who gave so much and got so little in return. She’s been through worse and she’s accomplished more than anyone I’ve ever known. She was a force of nature, and nature will miss her. I wish I could have made her as happy as she made me. I’m sorry, everyone... I tried.’

Mano had walked away from her short eulogy and out of the mourners’ lives under the heart-wrenching violin and drizzling city sky.

There are just too many of you and there’s only one of me.

Mano had been given a choice by Elizabeth’s publishing house: either she’d have collected a certain percentage of royalties and some decision-making power regarding everything they’d sell, or they’d have given her a certain moderately large amount right then and there and they’d have made every other decision regarding her work and kept everything else it would have made from then on. While she’d known that, in terms of strict profitability, the former would have been a much better deal for her to have agreed to, she’d been becoming incredibly strapped for cash since she’d become too emotionally scarred by loss, by negative mental associations, by how meaningless any work without her had seemed, and by the fear of asking the questions which would have done more harm than good to do her job, so she’d reluctantly selected the latter option as desperate measures for which the desperate times had called.

Mano had developed a weird love-hate relationship with the cult following which had gathered around Elizabeth’s posthumously published work. For one thing, she’d wished it hadn’t taken the suicide of a poet to lend her work notoriety, and had wondered where this fan base had been when she’d still been alive and would have needed them the most, rather than when they’d needed a martyr. For another, she’d drawn many idealists and they, true to themselves, had idealized her, never really taking into account that she’d only been a mortal with normal failings which hadn’t always made her easy to get along with on a daily basis, that sometimes she’d just needed to vent and that no conventional outlet had seemed like it could accurately express what she’d needed to let out, and that as much as she’d enjoyed using symbols to get her point across, sometimes a cigar had just been a cigar. Her fans had seemed to think that they’d gotten to know her better from having read and analyzed her work than Mano had from having lived with her for years, and she’d found the very idea contemptible. Then again, Elizabeth had complained to Mano before about the origins of the word hysteria and its implications more than once, and Mano had thought that her criticism had made enough sense that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to make her look like a monster by pointing out even only that her anger had sometimes been misdirected, just like anybody else’s could be. Besides, Elizabeth had said that once the art was out there, it'd no longer belonged to her and she'd had to accept that.

There’d been nothing Mano could have done to get any closure, no one to get revenge on because the murderer had also been the victim and guilt, resentment, loneliness and regret had combined to stew together in her chest day in, day out. She’d ended up uncharacteristically deciding that she’d force herself to do something completely irrational, impetuous and spur of the moment no matter how impractical and unwise it had seemed to her just for once in her life and would spend all of the money she’d gotten from Elizabeth’s publishing house as fast as possible on whatever she could think of. She’d answered the first question she’d asked herself regarding how much of it she should spend on others and how much of it she should spend on herself as fast as she’d been able to also, and although if she’d thought about it a while longer she might have settled on 2/3 or even ¾ of it for others, right then and there the first answer which had come to her mind had been fifty-fifty, no more, no less.

You’ve got your space and I’ve got my space, see? Everyone’s happy.

Elizabeth had implied that she’d wanted Mano to learn from her experience, and one thing Mano had learned from it was that if she’d treated herself less well than she’d thought that other people had deserved to be treated, she’d become miserable, and that would only end up punishing the people who’d have cared about her the most. Since she wouldn’t have come down on anyone else for spending half on themselves, she didn’t think she deserved to be come down on for it either. After all, some people would have just spent everything on themselves without even thinking about giving any of it away. She’d receive without owing and give without feeling owed. She’d given a quarter of the total to well-researched charity organizations all over the world and had run stealthily through the streets distributing the second quarter to beggars and homeless people all over town, the latter of which having been a crazy idea she’d gotten from Moon Palace.

The third quarter she’d spent on something which would not only let her get away from the painful memories drifting like phantasms through the Brazilian streets, but would ensure that she’d never have to go through another big move again. Like Hephaestus laboring over his forge, with an iron mask, a welding torch, a wrench, a saw, a drill, clamps, a screwdriver and six construction gloves, she’d create a way for herself to go anywhere she could ever want to go just by lifting anchor, a way for her to carry her own home around with her everywhere she’d go. It’d been a chance for her to do something constructive with her hands, which she’d always thought of as a good outlet for her to channel her emotional pain into.

The Géricault’s beating heart was a power generator, its eyes a searchlight and periscope on stalks, its nerves wires, its veins pipes, its blood coolants, its muscles pumps, its brains a navigation system and it breathed steam through a blowhole. The iron tail it swung and iron fins it waved gave it surprising manoeuvrability and although it might have still seemed a bit empty for only one passenger and would probably easily still have had room for three or four more, she’d filled up some of the empty space with a few plants, microscopes, telescopes, clocks, beakers, vats, tubes, anatomy charts, a model biplane, a ship in a bottle and a printed out Medusa’s Raft on a wall to keep her company. The Jolly Roger, narwhal horn and jelly-creeper torpedoes hadn’t been part of the initial planning stages, she’d just gotten a little bit carried away after really getting into the swing of things, but she’d decided afterwards that she’d liked them enough to keep them anyway.

Slow and steady now...

The final quarter, she’d spent on a whole year’s worth of frozen Indian cuisine, Indian tea and a few medical supplies for possible emergencies. That had been supposed to be the second part of the plan she’d had in mind when building the Géricault. Mano had lived with her parents for many years and with Elizabeth for several more, but now that she’d been left all on her own, she hadn’t felt like she could face her parents after leaving them the way she had. She’d felt so ashamed of herself for having been unable to stop Elizabeth from doing what she’d done that she’d become afraid to look other people in the face when she’d been walking down the street, fearing that someone would have recognized her, that the memories would have come flooding back to her, that she could have been asked questions she hadn’t wanted to have to answer. She’d realized that she’d never really learned how to live alone, and she’d decided to give herself a crash course in it. She’d known that sentences between murder, manslaughter and criminal negligence varied, and although she may not have been guilty of criminal negligence in the eyes of the law, her own three eyes saw things differently from that, so she'd figured a year's solitary confinement would have been a start, at least. Elizabeth had always preferred to remain as true to her hermit name as her goals in life had allowed her to, and Mano had thought that maybe a period of extended seclusion would have helped her understand what she’d seen as being of value in that. If she hadn’t found an answer to the questions which plagued her before her supplies would have run out, she’d have to come up with plan B then and there.

She’d gone on a pilgrimage to wherever it was that the truth was being kept safely out of the reach of children.
 
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:05 am
5  
Mano had never completely lost the habit of doing the kind of work around the house she’d been doing when they’d first met, since that had been when their ‘roles’ had been defined to them and besides, she’d simply been more efficient and had minded less given the better shape she’d been in and the number of hands she’d had. By comparison, Elizabeth had been feeling conflicted between wanting to be the helpful knight in shining shell-plate rather than the princess needing to be rescued on one hand, and not having wanted to be the angel in the kitchen, the traditional housewife she’d been brought up to be, on the other. It’d been difficult for her to motivate herself to really get in shape because she’d known that the invulnerable, immovable shell around her at all times would never show any difference afterwards and would always make her look overweight no matter how much effort she’d have made, plus she’d thought sweat stank to high heaven, had a limited range of motion and the heat would get trapped in her shell when she’d work out. She’d appreciated how practical to cleaning Mano’s ability to squeeze through just about any space had been, but it’d been difficult for her not to privately resent her for it. Mano had regretted not being able to give Elizabeth massages to help her relax, but her back muscles had been almost impossible to reach, and this’d kept the fun kind of pain she’d have otherwise considered asking for as a distraction from emotional pain away from her also. Her shell had seemed to her like an ironically appropriate manifestation of the metaphorical barrier between herself and a world she’d desperately wanted to feel closer to.

The imagination she’d relied on to write had also worked against her. She’d developed a haunting fear that as long as she’d remain alive, there’d remain a possibility that some day her parents would finally track her down and drag her away to stuff her in their mold again. She hadn’t wanted people to interpret her recovery from some of what she’d been through as license to put others through the same because since she’d have gotten over it, it couldn’t have really been that bad, but even having had Mano tell her that as far as she’d been concerned re-gaining the permission to allow themselves to be happy again had been something a lot of survivors had needed to get from others just as much as acknowledgment of what they’d been through still hadn’t made the task itself any easier for her. She’d wanted to feel better for Mano’s sake, had realized that wanting to do too much for others had been what had gotten into the condition she’d been in in the first place, then that she couldn’t feel better for her own sake either because deep down she’d been convinced that she hadn’t really deserved it all that much.

Talking mostly to people who’d violently disagreed with her and hadn’t shied away from ad hominem attacks all day hadn’t been a good way to build up her self-esteem, she’d been aware of that, but she still wouldn’t have been able to forgive herself for letting them get away with the kind of crap they’d been spouting, not for her sake. She’d felt guilty about the stress she’d been under having been making her snap at Mano over nothing all the time, she’d hated her own temper for turning her into someone she hadn’t wanted to be, and she’d felt as if she’d been losing control of herself like Dr. Jekyll, werewolves or the demonically possessed. She’d felt like an emotional vampire for having gotten moral support from Mano and having had only more hopelessness to give her in return for it. She’d begun to feel that her best work had been behind her, and didn’t want to end up being remembered for having been the kind of person who she’d been afraid to have been going to turn into, recanting on her deathbed for having spent her life fighting windmills. She’d wanted to help others but couldn’t help herself. If all the world was a stage, she hadn’t liked the play she’d been watching at all, and she’d figured that the sincerest form of criticism on it she could have made would have been to walk out on it way before the curtain call.

This place is driving me crazy.

Mano hadn’t been blind enough to miss what Elizabeth had been going through.

- There's something I've been meaning to ask you for a while now but I'm not really sure how to go about it.
- Short and direct usually works well enough.
- Have you ever given any thought to giving a shot to psychiatric treatment?
- Why, do you think I'm crazy?
- That's what I was afraid to sound like.
- Well, of course. Who wants to sound crazy?
- I meant that I hadn't wanted you to think I thought you were.
- Because you know I don't want to sound crazy either, and you thought the best way of accomplishing that was by saying I should go see a psychiatrist, is there any part of this I'm getting wrong?
- I... I shouldn't have said that, you're right. I understand why that would have offended you.
- Then why'd you ask?
- I'm concerned about you, Eli.
- That's sweet.
- Come on, I'm... It's not that I think that you're crazy but it's been seeming like the world's really been getting to you a lot lately, and I'm concerned about that.
- Me too. That's why I'm working so hard on getting back at it. Have you seen what the world is like? You'd have to be crazy for it not to get to you.
- I know. I just don't want it to end up getting to you so much that the good guys would... lose a really precious ally over it.
- Look, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but it's not going to work. I've been put on meds before, Mano, and nobody'd granted me the courtesy of asking me whether I wanted to or not. They'd made me so dissociated from reality that someone could have died right in front of me and I wouldn't have given a damn, and they'd made all the garbage I'd written while under them even worse than usual. I'd rather have a native American smother me with a pillow than go through that again.
- What about therapy without any chemicals, then?
- How about I just repress my anger no matter how justified, convince myself that my mind works the same as everyone else's and stick people in boxes with labels redefining their personalities as disorders and save us both a lot of time and money?
- I won't mention it again.
- I wish you'd never mentioned it at all.
- How would you feel about trying a few possible mental healing tools you know the powers that be don't want you to use?
- Now, you know I think people should be able to do any damn thing with their own bodies they want to do, but as far as I'm concerned, my mind's the only weapon I have against my enemies and it's already been messed with enough as it is. Besides, I wouldn't even know which kind to get.
- Pot?
- Ancient Hindu meditation tool. I'll pass.
- Hash?
- A caliph used it to fool religious fanatics into sacrificing themselves over artificial paradises. Not a compelling legacy.
- Shrooms?
- I've made it my goal in life to get as close to the truth as possible, not to escape reality.
- Ecstasy?
- Unhappiness serves the same function as pain, Mano. If you make yourself always happy by default, you lose your ability to know when something's wrong.
- ... Opium?
- Of the masses. Guess how my country got an economic foothold in China. Go on, guess.

I can’t stand this and I know I can’t do anything about it, what am I gonna do?

- Listen, I know you're not going to like what I have in mind, but I still think I should be up front with you. I owe you as much.
- I really hope this isn't going where it sounds like it's going.
- Do you trust me to make my own decisions about my own life or not?
- It's not that I don't.
- Then what do you call it?
- It's not because it's you. I just think that anyone's sense of judgement gets impaired when their life really isn't going the way they want at all.
- Last time I heard that, some asshole conservative was using it as a reason for which no one should take anything I say seriously.
- You know I don't feel that way about you.
- I thought I did, yeah.
- Eli, I... I...
- What? Speak!
- I don't know what to say! I don't want to say anything to hurt you, I just don't want you to have to be in so much pain.
- Me either. That's my point.
- Please, don't take my reason to live away from me! Not after everything we've been through.
- But that's just it. We've been through so much, Mano. I don't know how much more I can stand having to go through.
- I'd be willing to stand by you through literally anything.
- I don't want to have to be a burden to you.
- You mean everything to me!
- You're saying that to be nice to me.
- I'm being honest!
- You're doing the right thing because that's just what you do. Don't worry, I understand.
- You... I...
- Look, I'll try, okay? Just a little more to see how it goes. I know I might not sound like it but I really do know how much this means to you. I'll do my best, just don't expect too much from me, okay...?

Privately she’d already begun to think about which method she could have been going to use.

I need a miracle.

Her head had been covered with plates which despite how intricate, ornate and delicate they may have seemed, still protected her head like a hard hat so she couldn’t have shot herself in the head, she hadn’t been comfortable with the Freudian connotations of a gun barrel in her mouth and wouldn’t have wanted to do herself in the same way Hemingway had anyway. She’d have committed hara-kiri like a samurai if her chest-plate hadn’t been able to turn any katana’s blade, she’d have used explosives if she hadn’t been afraid to accidentally damage her surroundings enough to be remembered like a suicide bomber, she’d have drank hemlock like Socrates if she hadn’t had immunity to virtually every poison genetically engineered into her, she’d have hung herself but she’d been no repentant Judas, she’d have slit her wrists if it hadn’t developed such tacky associations from typical teenager overuse, she’d have starved herself if she hadn’t had more reserves to wait through than she’d had the patience of waiting for the loss of, and she’d have drowned herself like Woolf if she couldn’t have breathed underwater.

The more she’d seen just how many barriers her parents had built into her to prevent her from dying, the more she’d felt like she’d almost been challenged to do so. She’d thought of setting herself on fire, but not only did she not want to pass for a Buddhist protester, she hadn’t wanted the last thing she’d smell to be burning turtle flesh because she hadn’t wanted her body to be found lying in her own vomit. She’d heard of birds dropping crustaceans from high up enough to crack them open and had thought of having a great enough fall that no one could put her back together again, but her fear of heights and the thought of which kind of pathetic condition she’d have been left in if she’d accidentally survived had nipped those thoughts in the bud before they could materialize. Finally while idly flipping through Mano’s auto-suggestion guidebooks, she’d unexpectedly found something which had caught her attention.

She’d learned that there’d been yogis who’d mastered a mental body-affecting technique through which they could slow their own heartbeats all the way down to 40 or even 38 beats per minute, and that some of them had been claiming that this could have been like having a cyanide pill in their mouths to swallow if they’d been captured by the enemy at all times. Elizabeth had researched those techniques in depth, she’d studied them, memorized them, practiced them and had mastered them. For a moment, Mano had thought that she’d actually been feeling better simply because the mere thought that she finally did have a way to take herself out at any time which she may have wanted to had been that liberating to her. Before long, though, she’d scolded herself for having delayed the inevitable for so long because she’d become afraid that the longer she’d have waited, the likelier she’d have been to eventually chicken out.

I will face my fear.

It hadn’t been that she hadn’t had any willpower, far from it, it’s just that her will to die had been even stronger than her will to live.

Mano had found a note one morning tasting oceans in her eyes.

‘Don’t ever blame yourself, Mano, you did everything you could and I really do mean that.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but atheism’s never been associated with hopelessness for me. You see, it’s not that I wish there were an afterlife but can’t convince myself that it’s possible for there to be one, it’s not even that I’m that afraid of hell anymore, it’s just that my version of an ideal afterlife is one in which I finally get to stop having to exist.

I remember reading an interesting theory about the afterlife one day. It was that after we die, we all go to whatever our own personal idea of what the afterlife should be is. It’s a lot more non-confrontational that I usually care for, but right now, for some reason, it doesn’t really seem all that bad to me. If that was true, it’d mean you could still go through however many incarnations you’re still supposed to have left after your current one and I, on the other hand, could achieve dissolution right now.

I’m going to go find out the truth of the matter for myself now. If you’re right, I’ll have to agree and if I’m right, I’ll no longer be around to argue, so either way, the debate ends here. I’m going to go with heart failure, like Neruda. If I do have to get reincarnated, I hope I come back as something soft, squishy, easygoing, gentle and male.

You’re strong, Mano. I know you can get over me. I’ve never seen anything you couldn’t get over. I want to have been a stepping stone for you, not a roadblock. We’re only steps in evolution, you and I, nowhere near its pinnacle, and I may not have told you this enough, but you never had to be just the way I was, you know. Evolution will still keep going even after I’ll be gone, and I’m reconciled with that. Scatter my ashes at the Galapagos.

I may have never believed in your gods, but I’ve always believed in you.

Ever your mock turtle,

Elizabeth.’
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:04 am
4  
Elizabeth had envied Mano her capacity to feel at home anywhere but hadn’t regretted it when it’d meant she could get out of where she’d badly needed to get out of. It was in Brazil that Mano had first met Klein. Their initial casual greetings at a peace march had somehow morphed into a much more involved conversation without either of them having really seen it coming.

- You know, I don't think I've ever met any other skunks before. Are they all as hyper, arrogant and fast-talking as you?
- Most of us only wish we were.
- So, where are you from?
- Just some terribly chilly socialist English colony up north which there isn't that much of interest to say about, honestly.
- You came all the way down here for this? Man, you are one motivated mammal.
- Actually, I came down here for a capoeira seminar. I only heard about this march yesterday soon after getting here then I decided I didn't want to miss it.
- What's capoeira?
- Oh, you poor deprived soul!
- I'm sure there are plenty of reasons for which I could say the same about you.
- All of which I'd be grateful to you for pointing out.
- I'd be grateful to you for not letting me remain deprived for longer than I need to be.
- But of course. Capoeira is the most amazing martial art in the world.
- You're entitled to your own wrong opinion.
- What makes you say that?
- I don't doubt that it's amazing, but kalaripayattu could probably do better hands down.
- I think that might depend on just how many of those hands there'd be.
- Care to make it interesting?
- Maybe later. Right now I'm afraid that being at a peace march trying to beat each other up could send the wrong message.
- What brought a proud ass-kicker like yourself to a peace march in the first place, I wonder?
- No matter how good capoeira is at kicking ass, there's a lot more to it than that, if you can believe that.
- Actually, I can. Kalaripayattu's connected to so many other things that it's not even funny.
- Like what?
- Religion, for one thing.
- Hinduism?
- Got it in one.
- Capoeira's not that different as far as that goes, except that instead of taking an existing religion to follow, those who came up with it came up with a religion of their own by mixing three existing ones together.
- That does sound kind of interesting, I have to admit. So what's someone as religious as you doing at a peace march?
- Oh, I'm not religious. I just think religion's too socially relevant not to at least take a look at. I'm assuming you're not either.
- That's the second incorrect assumption I've heard from you today. Do you get tired of being wrong?
- No, there's too much to learn from it.
- Snappy comeback.
- Thank you.
- Why would you assume that about me?
- Right now I'm seeing you take part in an action, walking for peace, and speaking words, namely, that someone religious would be unlikely to do what you're doing. Surely you can see how even someone less confused than I am could have been misled.
- Then you can probably see how I could have been misled as to your own beliefs since you'd seemed to have been so interested by it.
- I think it's healthy to be interested in a lot of things.
- I'd be in a bad position to argue with that.
- To your credit.
- Thank you.
- What brought you here?
- Elizabeth told me about it.
- Who's she?
- My girlfriend. I'm going with the assumption that you don't have a problem with that.
- I've had lots of issues with my exes, but gender's only ever been one when who I was with made it into one.
- Glad to hear it.
- So, she's an activist, she keeps up with things?
- More than anyone I've ever met in my life, yeah.
- Impressive.
- Undeniably. She is kind of who I learned that most religious people weren't that progressive from.
- Well, quality over quantity, I always say.
- You're too kind.
- What made you think I meant you?

At this point he'd flashed her a toothy grin and this had been the second time on that day she'd successfully held herself back from punching him in the face, which she'd duly congratulated herself for. They'd ended up leaving together to finish talking over two steaming mugs of strong Brazilian coffee at a cheap café somewhere, and by the end of the day she'd understood why it'd made sense for a capoeirista to be at a peace march.

You never know where they’re gonna come from, dammit.

Elizabeth had always said that the less people read scripture, the better, and Mano’s faith had lost enough ground by then that she’d been no longer sure she’d entirely disagreed with that. Mano had had to go through many conversations about spirituality with Elizabeth before getting to that point.

- Most religions teach forgiveness and if more people forgave each other, the cycle of revenge we came here to escape from would be closer to its end.
- I'll tell you what forgiveness is, Mano. Forgiveness is a slave owner beating his slaves in the morning, raping them in the afternoon and going to confession in the evening.
- What about me, though? You know my religious upbringing didn't prevent me from growing up to have an open mind.
- You know not having been religious never prevented me from valuing morality.
- Isn't having faith in each other as people important, though? Isn't that what personal trust, social cohesion and even love depend on?
- I disagree. People have to earn your faith by showing you they're worthy of it. Believing without seeing is exactly what makes soldiers follow orders unquestioningly.
- Well, I think religion was initially good before hypocrites took it for themselves to corrupt and I think if enough people like me tried to take it back from them, it could become good again.
- Good intentions pave the way to hell, Mano. If you say you belong to a group, people are going to assume that you agree with it on everything and by adding to their number, you'll be adding to their credibility.
- Isn't reincarnation a good concept, though? Don't you think people should be making more of an effort to ask themselves what it's like to be in something else's shoes?
- If you look at it closely enough, the concept that you have to advance from one life to the next would have to mean that some lives are superior to other lives, wouldn't it?
- Maybe technically, I guess. I think the point of karma is supposed to be that even if you're rich, you still have to treat the poor well because what if in your next life you end up being poor yourself? Also if you choose not help them even though you easily could, that's bad karma, isn't it?
- But if you're poor in the first place, doesn't that have to mean that you must have done something wrong to deserve it? Whatever happened to bad things happening to good people, as they're wont to?
- What if there was a religion which took the basic injustice of existence into account?
- The only one I can think of which even remotely fits that description would have to be Gnosticism, but having an almighty evil god to blame seems too convenient to me, and too hopeless to include the possibility of change. Being given the right to give up by default is as much of a crutch as being assured of victory without effort.
- Okay, so maybe religion is a crutch, but aren't people's emotional deficiencies just as real as their physical ones?
- Yes, but most people with real crutches don't go around beating people on the head with them.
- Doesn't Hinduism teach people to do no harm above all else?
- Sometimes when oppression can be enforced without violence, violence becomes the only thing which can break oppression, and I'd be interested to know how burning a widow after her husband's death isn't doing harm to her.
- I see what you mean about how violence can be necessary sometimes, but don't Sikhs teach women and lower castes to fight back?
- In theory, yes, but you can have too much of a good thing, I think carrying a knife everywhere is overdoing it and let's not even go into where they stand on marriage equality.
- Okay, even assuming that it doesn't have any other value than that, my religion taught me a lot of ways to heal myself I use on a daily basis and I don't see any harm in that.
- Most of those have scientific explanations which would be described just as well with scientific terms.
- Isn't spiritual language more poetic, though?
- Poetry is poetic, Mano, and does a much better job of it without pretending to be anything it's not, at that.

Elizabeth had always found it ironic that she’d have been named after a Bishop, given that she’d always valued accuracy over Truth and that deep down, she just couldn’t trust the word of a fisherman, since they were so well-known for having such a tendency to exaggerate for effect.

In the end, Mano had relented. She hadn’t been able to justify some of the things which what she’d needed to believe in had been associated with, to sever that association as much as she’d wanted to or to prove the existence of anything beyond the scope of historical materialism, but the thought of letting go of her faith had still bothered her somehow. It’d felt so much like letting go of such a deeply integrated part of her identity, of her character, of her personality, that she’d been afraid she’d no longer recognize herself without it. She’d been afraid to have to live without something to hang on to, something to give purpose and meaning to her life, something to make her feel like she could really be worth something on some kind of grand, objective scale. She’d been afraid to miss having a familiar set of symbols she could manipulate at her leisure in the back of her mind. Refusing easy answers was going to mean asking herself some really difficult questions.

Nobody even cares where they’re going, as long as they get somewhere.

- So if you had to pick between her and me, which one of us do you think is closer to the truth?
- I'd rather not have to, if I could avoid it.
- Really? Why?
- People's beliefs are shaped by ten thousand things, their lives, their experiences, their aesthetics, their dreams... To me, issues in which who you are means as much to what your opinion is as what your opinion is means to who you are can't be approached without bias by anyone, so there's no such thing as an objective observer. Maybe if two people agree on everything one of them isn't thinking. Maybe an ideal world isn't one in which everyone agrees but one in which people who disagree can get along. Maybe the opposite of a great truth doesn't have to be a great falsehood but another great truth, you know?
- That's a lot of maybes.
- That's absolutely true.
- Elizabeth would probably call that cheap new age hand-wringing.
- From a certain perspective, she'd be right, but not caring what people believe doesn't prevent me from caring about why and about what they do about it and that's gotta be worth something, right?
- Heh. Maybe. I still think it'd be a bad idea to introduce you two.
- Well, if you ever change your mind, here's my contact info if you want it.
- Sure.
- You're a journalist, aren't you?
- Yes, why do you ask?
- What would you say if I told you I know the locations of factories in this country whose supervisors definitely don't expect the arrival of a journalist at?
- I'd say they're probably just about due for one, and it's a dirty job but someone has to do it. How'd you get ahold of those?
- Long story. Sins to atone for and whatnot.
- Hey, it's help, I need as much of it as I can get, and that's good enough for me.

Elizabeth had taken as much as she’d been able to carry with her when they’d left India together, but after a few years abroad on unremarkable salaries, their resources had dwindled, and the animal struggle to survive and break free from constraints had begun to take its toll on her mood. The resignation she’d see on some faces out there wanted her more than anything to get across to people that they really did deserve better than what they had, and that was something she’d needed to convince herself of also. She’d still carried many old grudges she could never completely make herself forget about, and the ever-growing disparity between her ideals and reality had made her vision of the future become more dystopian with every passing day. It had seemed to her as if no matter how many times she’d started her life over, it still hadn’t gotten that much better, and she’d begun to wonder whether the problem had really been with the world or if it had been with herself.

This is getting to be too much for me.

She’d been raised to be a self-denying over-achiever, to see pleasure as sin, mistakes as moral failings, judgement as well-deserved and suffering as redeeming, and as much as she’d tried to fight those tendencies within her, she’d never managed to get herself rid of most of the perfectionism, irritability and impatience which had been drilled into her. Mano had grown up learning that even minuscule things can grow to great sizes if you were willing to get your hands dirty and if you just gave them enough care and time, that the longer you could hold the same position, the better, and that every broken thing could be fixed with the right tools and method. Elizabeth had grown up being forced to skip dinner to lose enough weight to be fast enough to keep up with her fencing instructor at 5 moves a second if she’d lost to him, had been sent to her room if she hadn’t washed her hands well enough and had been grounded if she’d gotten any answer of the pop literature quizzes she’d been regularly put through wrong because what would have been the point of going out if she wouldn’t have been able to remember what she’d have been going to see anyway? To her, change in the world or in her life could have never gone far enough fast enough, failure had been a disgrace, curing the symptoms was worthless if their root causes remained unaddressed, and how interconnected they all were made them feel like an inextricable net keeping them and others like them trapped underneath it. Despite how much she’d hated the people she’d run away from, she couldn’t help having become used to a certain standard of living while she’d been growing up, and while she’d never missed anyone from her previous life, there’d been things which she had.

- You know, Mano, as much as you're better company than I've ever been fortunate enough to live with, I really wish we could afford a glass of wine or an art film every now and then. Beer just tastes like piss to me and the sitcoms on TV don't exactly fill me with much of a sense of purpose. It's not that I hate the music they play here, but would it kill them to play some good old Tchaikovsky or Ludwig Van once in a while? I don't care how famous Brazilian coffee is worldwide, it's still not worth a damn cup of Earl Grey. I'd be lying if I said that the kind of money you need to have to be able to afford anything culturally enriching hadn't contributed to making poverty my white whale, you know?
- I don't mean to sound rude, but you know I'm of lower extraction than you, right?
- Yeah.
- Do I strike you as someone who's culturally impoverished?
- That's not what I meant at all. I just think that when people are exposed to artistic beauty, that makes them more sensitive to moral beauty by extension.
- There's another side to that coin, you know. For a long time people believed that everyone who was deformed was punished by God.
- Plants need to be in the right kind of soil, to be trimmed right, to be given the right kind of fertilizer and to hear the right kind of music to grow well, Mano, you as a gardener should know that.
- Plants may look all nice and friendly, but they're merciless little creatures when you really stop to examine how they interact with each other, and basing our society on theirs would turn modern capitalism into a regretted utopian past.
- Women like me need money to be able to write as well as they can, haven't you ever read A Room of One's Own?
- No, but I've read lots of books by famous authors and seen lots of art by famous painters who died without a penny to their names and who were only discovered after their deaths.
- And did you ever stop to think about what they could have accomplished if they hadn't had to struggle with poverty on top of trying to come up with art to make...?

Mano had begun to understand just how important it had been to Elizabeth to win this one because of what it’d meant to her well enough to have acknowledged that she couldn’t argue with that. Honestly, sometimes she’d felt like they’d argued out of restlessness more than anything else. The constant nerve-wracking confrontations with conservative adversaries and poetry critics had been beginning to get to Elizabeth, and as much as she’d have appreciated making more, she’d begun to suspect that barring very few exceptions, there just wasn’t any really well-paying work out there for anyone who didn’t have the kind of Cartesian mindset to break down their every single mental barrier, who didn’t have connections, who didn’t have the obsequiousness to jump through just about any kind of hoop and who didn’t have the capacity to put their conscience aside at will. Her thoughts of a day on which she’d finally have been able to transition had begun to lose some of their tangibility.

- Would it help if I stopped referring to you by your birth gender?
- Thanks, but no. I've been saving that for after my metamorphosis, and to me, having that start happening right now would imply I'm accepting it'll never happen. I'm not ready for that quite yet.

Is this ever going to end?
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:02 am
3  
- You know, thinking about how what a large part of the problem clashes between Muslims, Jews and Christians are makes me sick to my stomach, Eli. I can't reconcile what I see out there every day with the kind of respect for life I've been brought up with, but I have to admit, it makes some of the things you've said to me ring true.
- Deep down, religions are all the same, Mano. They can all cause exactly the same kind of damage. I know it's hard for you to deal with, but a large part of the reason for which I came here was that you saved me from fanatics and I think I owe it to the world to try to do the same for others in return.

Elizabeth had been a debater, speech writer, public speaker and editorialist, meaning that she worked with the information she was brought, and Mano being more of an investigative journalist, she was more used to bringing information than to working with it afterwards. Just being able to come back alive after going out there to try to get recordings, interviews, videos and snapshots every day often meant pushing her extensive survival skills beyond their limits. She was shocked to see the ideals of honor she’d been brought up with taken advantage of or trampled underfoot, and began to believe that courage may not have been all it was cracked up to be either, given how many people wanting to prove they had it were ready to kill or die to do it. Sometimes when things got too out of hand she just had to run, and she was ashamed of it at first, because what kind of reporter did that make her? It was only much later that she’d relate her situation then to one of Klein’s favorite sayings: only the cliff faces the storm, meaning that when faced with overwhelming odds, the smart thing to do is run. She’d learned from hearing about the Boxer Rebellion that no amount of mental or physical training could make her bullet-proof.

Am I the only person on the planet who’s ever even heard of the concept of personal space or something?

When she’d come back from the battlefield after a day’s work, mind numb and muscles aching, Mano had really felt like she’d been overdosing on negativity. Elizabeth, in the meantime, had been spending the whole day watching and reading the news and, being the opinionated and outspoken person she’d been, had always been looking forward to finally having someone to discuss them with.

- I didn't need to watch the news, I was there.
- Exactly. You know a lot more about them than anybody else, so if you don't talk about it, who will? They deserve to be talked about and you owe it to yourself to remain a complete thinking person, not just an extension of your tools.
- Okay, I have to admit I have been feeling a little as if my eyes, ears, arms and legs have been turning into cams, mikes, cords and tripods a lot lately, but my three hearts need breaks from pounding. I've seen enough anger on the faces of soldiers shooting at each other out there today to welcome even more from pundits even if I agree with them.

- Today's pictures look too blurry to really see anything. Can you hear anything on this recording? I can't. Dammit, I wish we could get our hands on some real news every once in a while.
- Hey! I've only got six hands, you know.
- Ugh, I wasn't saying that to criticize your work.
- I know, that's just what it felt like there for a minute.
- Well, okay, it was. You don't have to act so singled out, you know I believe in applying critical thinking to literally everything.
- I know, it's just that I have to work around a lot of people on both sides who don't want the public to know what's going on, Eli. It's not easy. You don't know what it's like out there.
- Thanks, I really wasn't feeling guilty enough about being afraid of crowds, fat and lazy.
- I didn't mean it like that, Eli.
- If you want me to forgive you for offending you isn't it only fair you'd grant me the same courtesy?
- You're right, you're right.
- What was that all about?
- It's just that I'm so wiped out right now, I don't feel like I have the energy to defend an opinion right now. Right now I need to be able to make myself believe that bringing people some facts is enough.
- Defending opinions is my entire life, Mano. Are you telling me you believe it's all pointless?
- Of course not. I know it's useful and necessary work, it's just that it's your work, and you do it because it's something you're good at.
- I think "leave it to the experts" is the kind of mentality which got us into this mess in the first place. If I trusted the experts to do what they're doing here right, I wouldn't think people like us have to be here to keep an eye on them.
- Fine, if we're going to be arguing, we might as well move on to a more constructive question than "to argue or not to argue". So, what'd you want us to talk about...?

Elizabeth hadn’t made leader of her debate team without having had a certain persuasiveness about her.

Mano had begun to grow uneasy.

If you’re not going to walk around me then could you at least give me enough time to get out of your way?

Elizabeth had been a very emotional person. When she’d watch or read the news, she couldn’t just reassure herself that at least they were happening to people she hadn’t known in countries which were far away from her to distance herself from them like she’d realized that most other people could – to her, it’d been personal, all of it, and it’d affected her as deeply as if it’d all been happening to her directly. They’d made her shake, scream, slam her fist down on tables and break down in tears right where she’d been sitting. Mano hadn’t been able to stand to see the person she cared about the most suffering like that, but when she’d suggested that they temporarily stop watching, Elizabeth would take offence and refuse, categorically.

- If you'd looked away from my suffering, Mano, I probably wouldn't even still be alive right now. Others who suffer deserve better than for us to bury our heads in the sand too. Opinions may be just as subjective as emotions, but to me that says something good about subjectivity, not something bad about opinions. No stimuli, no emotions, no emotions, no opinions, no opinions, no debate and no debate, no natural selection and evolution of mentalities. The best poets have all been emotional wrecks, and I only do this job because it's the only thing I can do.
- I don't have anything to answer against any of that. I just wish there could be a way you could remain the kind of person you want to be without having to suffer so much. You deserve better than that too, you know?

Yet the days had kept on passing, and the help she’d hoped their work would bring had kept not materializing. The desert had been fresh out of wish-granting djinn lamps lying around, their Arabian nights had brought only nightmares and their respective moods had been sinking like careless explorers in quicksand. The world had seemed like an ugly place which it’d just felt more and more beyond their means to bring any beauty in at all, like a sinking ship they’d have been trying to get water out of with only teaspoons in their hands.

Elizabeth had been dissatisfied with her creative output also. Solitude for writing was one thing in a cabin on a seashore where the possibility existed just take a break to go out for a walk and explore around if it struck your whim whether you chose to take advantage of that possibility or not, but quite a different one when the place you lived in practically felt like a bunker you’d had to barricade yourself in during a nuclear holocaust and didn’t feel safe coming out of, and not nearly quite as conducive to imaginative fertility. There simply had to be better places for her to learn to come out of her shell and face the outside world.

She’d always believed that as much good faith as they were approaching personal growth with, people, like turtles in tanks, could only grow as much as their surroundings, and by extension the situation they were in, allowed them to. She’d become increasingly worried about Mano’s safety when she went out to risk life and limb every day, and one evening she brought up the topic of looking for ways of helping others which didn’t entail such high probabilities of getting caught in a crossfire. Eventually they came to a common accord that Brazil was far enough away to make them feel like they were really leaving the Middle East behind for good, had enough social problems to keep them working for several lifetimes and that the greenery and humidity there would be a welcome change of scenery.

I’d give so much to be able to get out of here right now, you have no conception of how much.

Mano’s subconscious began to realize which direction her train of thought was taking her in but since it realized it couldn’t make her stop thinking about her past, it chose to gently steer her away from the chronological approach and bring her back to when Elizabeth and she had first met each other.

Elizabeth’s father had been a respected diplomat, her mother had been a real name in commerce and she’d always felt like the former had basically sweet-talked people while the latter had screwed them over. Although there had to have been some reason for which two people who didn’t even seem to like each other had gotten married in the first place, she’d thought bitterly to herself. Given the past relationship between her native England and India, she hadn’t been able to believe that they’d been willing to even show their face there, let alone force her to move there along with them as a child leaving her every rare but cherished friend behind. It had been for work-related reasons, but they’d welcomed a chance to take her away from people of lower social classes whose strange ideas they hadn’t wanted her to become contaminated by to begin with. She’d had an uncle she’d been told it’d reflect badly on her family for her to say anything about whose visits she’d learned to dread above everything else, and whose death in a car accident she deeply regretted reading about in the newspapers years later because it’d taken any chance she might have ever had to do him in herself away from her.

They’d had some rich guy in mind for her to end up marrying and running the business with since before she’d been born, and the fact that she’d never showed any interest in guys in her life hadn’t affected that decision, not one little tiny bit. Since they’d needed her alive for their own purposes, they’d made sure to have her genetically engineered for nearly invulnerable health and physical resistance while intentionally leaving the traces of both family lines’ wide and varied array of forms of hereditary dementia completely intact so they could combine into one nasty walking psycho-emotional mess, because after all, that was their personality she was inheriting from them and they did want her to be a chip off the old block. As far as she’d been concerned, given that, the people who’d dragged her to church every cold and dreary Sunday morning had had no business telling her about how important the salvation of her soul had been supposed to be. To make a long story short, all of her family’s spectacular wealth had only bought her a childhood of suffering in silence while having to grin and bear it and it had left a mark on her which nothing had ever been able to erase. After she’d escaped she’d vowed to herself that she’d grin and bear it never ever more.

Mano’s mother had been a mechanic who’d worked on just about every existing kind of vehicle conceived by anyone and her father had been a botanist, gardener and herbalist. She’d taught her how to take most things apart then to put them back together, how gender and caste only meant anything if people decided that they did, and how to take care of herself with a self-defence system loosely based on Kalaripayattu but heavily adapted to make the best of the cephalopods’ unique body type. He’d taught her how to contort her body into just about any position imaginable, about the sacred puja and the myriad gods populating the heavens she should have been proud to have the same number of arms as, and about all the things which took root, blossomed, flourished, grew and crept. In the West they’d have been categorized somewhat below middle class but given the economic context they were in, they considered themselves lucky anyway. The only genetic alteration she'd gone through had been the newly established Hindu ceremony of having an actual third eye physically put in at age 16, and going under the knife had been her idea. They’d used the recent official façade of their country’s break with legislated morality as a social excuse not to arrange any marriage for her, and they’d financially and morally supported her decision to go for a major in investigative journalism, as much as they’d regretted how different it’d been from both of their respective careers. At first it hadn’t landed her a job in her field at all and she’d had to make a living stripping beached shipwrecks for parts despite all the health and environmental hazards she’d been fully aware it’d represented, and then Elizabeth’s parents had hired her father as their gardener, her mother as their Porsche mechanic and Mano herself as hired help around the house.

Family was a topic which, given the disparity between theirs, Elizabeth had never enjoyed having to talk about at all, and Mano had understood why well enough to keep her homesickness to herself.

Elizabeth had been the only one in her family who’d ever taken an interest in Mano’s life beyond her role as an errand girl and cleanliness engineer, and she’d ended up taking that interest in her further than anyone in either one of their families would have ever seen coming.

Gahh! Why do people have to keep popping out of nowhere like that?

Mano had asked her mother what she and her father had really cared more than anything about seeing her accomplish in life on the night before running away. Her mother had said that the only thing her father and she had wanted for her had been for her to be happy. Mano had sighed, and had admitted that although she hadn’t been able to promise them that in good conscience, but that she’d always do what she thought of as the right thing. Her mother had simply said that if that was the kind of person who she’d wanted to be, then she wished her that doing the right thing would bring her happiness more often than not, and had bid her good night for the very last time.

It had torn Mano apart to leave them behind, but she'd known that Elizabeth’s need to leave had been stronger than her own need to stay, and her own need to stay with Elizabeth had been stronger than her own need to stay with her parents also. They’d made many sacrifices for her while she was growing up and she’d learned from them to put her own feelings aside when that was what it took for her to be able to help others also. The loss of their company would only have to be one more.
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 09:00 am
2  
Brazil hadn’t always been an easy place to live in. The country’s history of slavery had left marks which hadn’t proven to be easy to erase. Sand children and street urchins roamed the favelas desperately struggling to keep themselves alive by any means necessary and you shouldn’t have rolled down your car window at an intersection unless you were prepared to part not only with your watch but also with the hand and wrist you wore it on along with it, and having more hands than most people did didn’t make Mano any less attached to them than they were. This kind of social climate had a way of making the forces of order believe that there was less to lose by arresting an innocent than by letting a guilty person get away, and that had been something to keep in mind around them as well. Klein had introduced her to a grand master whose reputation preceded him and who’d been mugged in an alley at gunpoint – reputation didn’t bring much of the kind of protection you could have expected it to. She knew desperate times called for desperate measures and that work was hard enough to come by even without finicky ethical considerations, but she still wished that people could have found ways to survive without there having to be quite as much fishing and logging going on. Some things just weren’t that easy to replace after they’d been lost.

Yet despite everything which went on, people in Brazil were still renowned for smiling, singing, dancing, playing music and wearing festive clothes in parades in which even the avians among them would stick extra feathers on themselves just for the heck of it. Mano got the impression they could have laughed while staring Death itself in the face. She couldn’t help comparing that to places like Japan, Quebec and Finland, places with whopping suicide rates in which people weren’t surrounded by crime and hounded by the wolf at their door, and concluding that money really couldn’t buy happiness after all. Be that as it may, she’d still gone there to try to do what she could about the poverty level there, and somehow she still believed it’d been the right thing to do, enough that if it hadn’t been for how things had ended up turning out for her in particular, if she’d been sent back in time and given the same choice, she’d have done it all over again.

Elizabeth had hated Brazil. Her opinion had been that all the joy around them was just a mask, and that repressing emotional distress the way people forced themselves to do so was nothing short of unhealthy. If they really were that happy, she’d wondered how they were intending the rest of the world to finally figure out that they were in a situation in which they couldn’t afford to remain anymore. She hadn’t regretted having given up what she’d had for a life of poverty the way she had, but it’d still been really hard on her every day, and she’d resented people who made it look easy. Admitting that there was a problem was an essential first step toward fixing it, she’d reasoned.

Quit staring at me, will you?

If gloom’s better than panic, I’m on a roll, Mano thought, although she really wasn’t quite sure about that. Gloom was thought without action and panic, action without thought, neither of which generally produced the results the person who felt them could have wanted them to, so she guessed they must have been fifty-fifty, after all. Maelstroms wrecked ships and stagnant waters drew disease-carrying bugs to them. She’d been brought up to value staying calm in crisis situations, but on some level she still thought action was generally likelier to be positive than inaction was, perhaps because the sea always rocked back and forth while the ground mostly just sat there being flat and boring.

Elizabeth had been part snapping turtle, part hermit crab. Mano was already reserved by bent and upbringing alike, but given how painful the memories associated with her were, even though she’d been the person she’d spent the most time with, she was also the one she talked about the least. She knew Elizabeth probably wouldn’t have been too proud of her for that, not because she’d needed to be talked about a lot but because she’d always been a strong believer in better out than in.

Misery did love company. Even Mano had to admit that Elizabeth had been snappish and withdrawn, especially around people who didn’t think understanding her was even worth going for. She’d learned from experience that often people you needed help from would only help you if you complained loud enough, which had been a lot easier for Mano to agree with regarding social issues than regarding what she thought of as the minor inconveniences of everyday life which had to be expected. She’d cared a lot for people as a whole but had had little patience for most individuals she’d come across. The few individuals who she had cared about, she’d been fiercely protective of.

Look where you’re going, damn you!

She’d thought she was a more hideous beast than Frankenstein’s monster and the Phantom of the Opera combined, and said she’d have had to have become the invisible man before feeling ready to go out in public, and not just for the invisible part. Back when they’d lived together in the Middle East before their final westward move, she’d been pretty passionate about how women shouldn’t feel like they had to cover themselves up from head to toe, but even that didn’t stop her from admitting that it was something she personally wished she could have gotten away with. Mano had told her that as far as she’d been concerned, she’d been the most handsome woman in the world, but she’d known that just couldn’t have been reasonably expected to be enough for her.

Elizabeth had wanted her main contribution to the world to be her activism, but that hadn’t stopped her from taking her poetic attempts pretty seriously also. She used to say the desert brought her inspiration because it was like a beach which went on and on with no ocean in sight, the same way life kept seeming like it was promising you things which you just never ended up getting. In her heart of hearts, Mano had hated the desert for its dryness and heat so dissimilar from the ocean she loved, but she’d tried to grin and bear it for her partner’s sake while they’d had reason enough to live there. Ideals were all well and good, but sometimes they had to make concessions to reality or even to other ideals, she’d told herself. She knew Elizabeth had cared more about being there than she’d cared about not being there, so she never said she wanted to leave outright even though she did.

- I think it's somewhat ironic we'd have ended up living in the desert like this.
- Why's that?
- Well, Dante wrote that people who were in sterile relationships would end up in sterile places under a rain of fire.
- You know, deserts have more biodiversity, a more important environmental role and richer ecosystems than most people would think.
- Maybe there's more than one way in which relationships can be fertile that most people also don't see. Tip of the iceberg and all that.
- I can tell you Dante was right about one thing, Eli: rain of fire really does fall from the sky in the desert we're in.

The only hard and pointy part of octopuses may have been their stubby little beaks, but the ink they could project could reach their predators and prey at a much greater distance than that. In the same way, Mano had believed, her ink could be mightier than any sword, and be much more far-reaching. The only difference was that her ink hadn’t been meant to blind people but to allow them to see.

She was an investigative journalist, and the Middle East had never been short on things for her to spill ink about. If one black liquid had been part of the problem, then let another be part of its solution.
 
 
Surface
18 October 2005 @ 08:56 am
1  
I hate this.

Afternoon.

Skyscrapers concealed what was left of the setting sun’s light with hard lines, cold stone and sharp angles. Mano missed the reassuring ocean depths and iron hull wrapped around her like a protective cocoon. The swarming masses around her were the current as a whole; every humanoid they were composed of, a piece of driftwood. She made a conscious effort to casually swing both upper arms by her sides as she walked, imitating the most naturally occurring motion around her as her four other hands fidgeted under her cloak and she sent a short mental prayer to Ganesh that none of the nervous ticks she felt bouncing around inside her would pop out and give her away.

You could become very used to solitude after having spent long enough by yourself, which had its pros and cons, to be sure. Mano wasn’t used to having to feel so many eyes on her anymore, eyes overflowing with boredom, staring without reserve and judging without mercy. ‘You don’t care what other people think’, she lectured herself in the privacy of her mind. ‘You know you’re much better than that.’ The words wavered in her mind as though she was looking at them through a body of water’s surface. ‘Of course, whether I care what they think or not, the very process of being examined and evaluated is already unsettling in and of itself.’ Repressed a twitch from the eyelid in her forehead beneath her hood.

The world never felt like there was enough space in it. It’s not just that most of it had been built with two-armed people in mind, it seemed like it had been built for people who not only didn’t mind but actually enjoyed being packed like sardines and herded like cattle. Mano believed that people’s minds were like turtles insofar as the less room they had to grow in, the smaller they grew to be.

Beaches, seashells, oceans in my mind, will you drown out the crowd for me?

Rubbing elbows. No polite way to correct the assumption that she didn’t mind. If people bumped into her and felt more elbows than expected under her cloak, she didn’t want to think about what their reaction could have been. To be fair, many would have apologized for getting startled before shuffling off, but some previously observed reactions of those who wouldn’t have had a way of gripping the mind.

For a long part of history, among humanoids, sea life as a whole had always been a breed apart. It had stopped being socially acceptable for mammalians to discriminate against reptilians about five decades ago, but whether or not sea dwellers deserved to be treated with the same kind of dignity as over-grounders was still a new question for the public to ask itself, and its answer still depended on who you asked. Amphibians were generally treated like most bilinguals, bisexuals, agnostics, moderates and hybrids, rarely ever fully accepted among over-grounders or surface dwellers. Insects were a spectrum: butterflies could pass just about anywhere, but arachnids shared yet one more distinction than non-red blood with her for which they were also even more reviled. Six limbs was already a lot to take in, but eight was simply too much; if you had that many, it made you shifty and threatening by nature because you just couldn’t need that many for any honest purpose, it stood to reason.

What this all boiled down to was that if you were seafood, not only did hiring and firing policies of your low-paying employer have a few strategic omissions which could affect you to varying degrees, but people had been taught to fear you and to assume that if things went badly for you then you must have brought it on yourself, which could kind of throw a wrench in your bike spokes if those people were cops or judges, and Mano couldn’t wipe the fact that muggers and perverts were aware of this from her mind. She often wished she could have more inconspicuously opened her third eye in public and that it would have been in the back of her head instead, because that would have made her a much less nervous person.

I don’t want to be here.

She tried to imagine what Klein might have said. Of course Klein would have said something about this, it was exactly the kind of thing he would have had something to say about. He might have told her to focus on the fact that the whole ordeal was going to be over soon and that things were going to be better after that, that her internal state didn’t have to be determined by her external conditions, that she should make a conscious effort to push the thoughts which worried her out of her mind, all suggestions which would have been so much easier said than done. She knew he meant well and she generally took his advice in stride, but whenever he talked about hell in myths, games, nightmares and literature, about hell as a social manipulation tool and hell as a state of mind, she couldn’t help but think that he really must have had no idea of what hell was like, and that wasn’t because she’d been told what hell was supposed to be like but because she felt like she’d lived through it herself. One thing he was right about was that hell was other people, and he did seem to have developed a slightly less idealized and abstracted perspective from his conversations with her, in his defence.

A city that sprawling shouldn’t have felt more claustrophobic than the confines of a one-woman sub, and she shouldn’t have felt more afraid of getting lost in a city with street names everywhere than in the ocean where she had to get directions from the stars. It felt like a maze she was being experimented on in, the bus station a whale having swallowed up a six-armed female Jonas and slowly digesting her in its stream of humanoid antibodies.

You didn’t have to look at people twice to figure out that most of them would have rather been somewhere else doing something else. They moved with all the emotionless-ness of robots without any of their precision, stomping ahead or strolling along, wearing purposefulness or world-weariness like veils. Everyone was busy trying to get somewhere else as fast as possible without any consideration for anybody else around, especially whenever it seemed like the latter would have depended on forfeiting the former. Gaits forged by formative years spent being told to stand up straight, think straight and walk straight because People Are Looking and while staring may have been rude, not looking like what other people expected you to when they did stare was much, much worse.

She was so not looking forward to the bus ride. She could get landsick in motorized vehicles the way surface dwellers could get seasick on boats, and as much as she wanted to be able to assume the best about people, she still never enjoyed having to put her faith in and fate in the hands of a driver she didn’t know. She didn’t know whether she was going to be able to sleep that night without the calming motion of her bedding caused by the ocean’s currents which she’d gotten so used to. Yoga may have been designed for getting people used to enduring being in uncomfortable positions metaphorically as well as literally, but it did, like everything else, have its limits. Mano clutched the ripped whale song disc in her beige canvas cloak pocket like a talisman, hoping it would be enough to ward off the demons of urban cacophony.

While fish didn’t need to sleep to live, it was still something which as humanoids they'd become able to do (like blinking and breathing air) to gain back lost energy and turn their minds off for a while. Sleeping and blinking were like short breaks from reality which scattered all throughout the day could make getting through it a whole lot easier. Not looking at the world could let you temporarily forget that it was looking at you. The best part of sleeping had to be the dreams. Dreams could give you a break from what you had to think about every day, a Jungian journey into uncharted mental territory, an antidote to some of the social conditioning you’d been force-fed throughout the day, new insight into situations by taking elements of them apart and putting them back together in unexpected ways or a look at things from a perspective it wouldn’t have occurred to you to look at them from while awake. Of course, dreams came with the risk of nightmares, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, and her worst nightmares had taken place in her waking life, not asleep.

I’d rather be somewhere else doing something else.

At that point she saw the downward spiral her mind was inching toward and decided she might as well try to find something more positive to think about. She was looking forward to meeting up with Klein again after all that time, despite everything. He had his flaws, but when he really got into the right kind of mental space he could contribute to making her think more about the here and now than about past regrets or future worries. She’d met quite a few people who were a lot worse than him, that much was certain.

She’d made a conscious decision to excise that kind of people from her life as much as possible, but one thing about Klein was how he had a tendency to associate with some pretty disreputable people, if his bizarre relationship history was any indication of it, anyway. Of course, maybe the fact that she’d only been in one long serious relationship herself made his long string of short non-committal ones seem exaggerated to her eyes by comparison. Maybe he’d been better off going through a bunch of weirdoes than she’d been with the love of her own life, in a way.

Mano sighed.

There just wasn’t going to be any way to get around it. She’d never understood why poets had to be so depressed all the time for most of her life, but she was beginning to. It’s not that she’d always liked everything about her life, it’s just that the fact that she didn’t like everything about it hadn’t seemed to matter all that much to her until recently. The currents hadn’t always been warm, but as long as she could have enough money to live, a friend or two to chat or spar with, good food, good drink, hot baths and someone to care about, she figured she could live through almost anything, or still had enough of a reason to get up in the morning, at least. Self-preservation was an inborn instinct to her, it wasn’t something she could transmit to someone, and her failure to do just that was something she still couldn’t forgive herself for to that day. She could forgive others most of the time, but forgiving herself always seemed too easy, always felt like forgiveness shouldn’t have been hers to give.

Of course she wouldn’t have been able to think about Klein without thinking about Brazil or to think about Brazil without thinking about her. After all, Brazil had been when the former had come into her life as well as where the latter had gone out of it.