- Global #ClimateStrike, everywhere, September 20th. We’re observing the strike by shutting down that day, no submissions reading, website will go offline.
- Reckoning 4 closes for submissions the autumn equinox, September 23rd.
- Reckoning 5 opens for submissions September 24th.
- Reckoning group reading! The New York Review of Science Fiction Readings at The Brooklyn Commons, 388 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Monday, October 14th, 6:45pm. Emily Houk, Krista Hoeppner Leahy, Marissa Lingen, Brian Francis Slattery. Admission by donation, but no one turned away due to lack of funds. Download the flyer.
“Nonviolence declares that the American Indians could have fought off Columbus, George Washington, and all the other genocidal butchers with sit-ins; that Crazy Horse, by using violent resistance, became part of the cycle of violence, and was ‘as bad as’ Custer. Nonviolence declares that Africans could have stopped the slave trade with hunger strikes and petitions, and that those who mutinied were as bad as their captors; that mutiny, a form of violence, led to more violence, and, thus, resistance led to more enslavement. Nonviolence refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.”
Cops with eyes like sharks and faces like the underside of a boot are waiting for us as we get off the bus from London—the state of emergency manifest as a column of cyborg gendarmerie toting an arsenal of machineguns, tasers, handcuffs and kevlar armour. They stare. We stare back—predator and prey eyeing each other before the chase commences. We slip past them unmolested, disappearing into the suffocating warmth of the Metro. I am glad to be travelling with a trio of giggly matronly types. They are three womyn from EcoDharma, attendees of the first theatre of the oppressed workshop I gave there two months before: Oak—a bright-eyed leprechaun with fiery red hair and ruddy cheeks, her chuckling demeanour masking deep sensitivity and a scarred heart; Z. a shaven-headed elfin with a smile like a new moon, currently living in an intentional community in the south of Spain; Susannah—long, viridian tresses and a crackling voice, visiting out of Bristol, and at the biggest protest she’s been to in her seventy years.
“Ha. You’re like the virgin, the crone and the mother.”
“I’m no mother.”
“I’m no virgin.”
“And who you calling a crone?”
They laugh, a harmony like a deer bursting through dry twigs to crash into a babbling brook, echoing unnatural against the tiles of the Metro. They haven’t stopped talking the whole trip over from London.
The benches of the Parisian boulevards are lined with huddled forms in sleeping bags, their possessions arranged neatly around them like genteel barricades. It’s warm down here, even peaceful once the trains stop running.
Still, I am relieved we have the promise of a roof, of a bed and shelter.
We march, and arrive at L’Annexe only to discover everyone has already moved on to a cabaret night at another squat. We troupe over there, a long walk through dark city streets.
Two bullet holes in a window with an unhappy smiley face painted below them form macabre eyes to the frown. I am reminded of Budapest, where my guide pointed them out in the walls of the buildings from the revolutionary days.
“God,” says Oak. “Is this where the shooting was?”
“One of the places,” says Z.
We cast our eyes over the layers of floral tribute laid out before La Belle Equipe. Hundreds of bouquets, handwritten messages, candles, roses, lilies, tulips, some faded and shrivelled already, others freshly dropped, laying piled on the ground, stacked before the closed doors of the restaurant.
Z. is chattering. I catch only the second half of it: “–there was also the have-nots, the economic underclass who attended no cabarets, whose labor built the Tower. There was even a gang of illegalist anarchist bankrobbers around at that time in France—the Bonnot Gang—who stole from banks calling it expropriating from the rich. They were the first people to use motorcars to getaway. The police had to chase them on foot or on bicycles. They started after the leader was fired by his boss–”
“You have to ask—would they have started robbing banks if there had been work for them?”
“God, I wonder,” asks Oak. “I wonder how many waiters, plongeurs and busboys died in the shooting?”
“Is it better that the rich die than the poor?” asks Z.
“I’m tired. Let’s go to bed,” says Susannah.
oneslutriot. Strong & Stable, 2017. Pens on paper.
L’Annexe is impressive: a tall, four-floor warehouse complex, scrubbed clean and polished, carpeted and furnished. It reminds me of all the best social centres from London, though it will only be short-lived. A crew who thought they were about to be evicted had remained in their old home and volunteered the space to host the arts-activism programme during the COP21 Climate Conference.
I drift through the kitchen area, where hot soup and salad is being prepared by members of the Anti-Cop Kitchen Collective, through a partition of plastic sheeting, past a serious sounding meeting on food rights and conscious cafés in South America. There is bustle and business everywhere, the place a hive of activity.
“So hello, this is the legal briefing. Thanks for attending. Now as you are going to be part of the de-escalation team, you will be at high risk of violence and arrest as you will be stood directly between the police lines and the main protest. It’s important that you memorise the names of some solicitors who are sympathetic to the cause, as the police will think you intended to be arrested if you write the names or the numbers down on your body. They will not call the number on the flyer.
“At the refugee march people attended and were then later identified and arrested by the police at other events. This is because of the state of emergency; 58 people were arrested, yet only two received warnings for attending a forbidden demo. Maximum sentence for this is 1 year imprisoned.
“At the Climate march there was a mass act of civil disobedience that resulted in a kettle, tear gas and baton charges and 317 random arrests.
“You don’t have to carry your ID. You can give your name and a date of birth, and that counts as identifying yourself, but you may want to decide whether you wish to comply with the police state. If they don’t believe you, you want to prepare that someone has access to your passport. You could be asked to leave France for one year.
“If you are attending the march, you need to plan as if you will get arrested. If you are taking a gas mask, it is classed as a defensive weapon. You should be careful taking anything that could be deemed a projectile. Don’t take any drugs, knives, guns or whatever, and if you are arrested, try to hide your phone inside your pants, as the police here don’t check as thoroughly as other places. There’s already been examples of people uploading video messages from inside the jail. If you’re caught, call the number and tell them which police station you are in.”
“So what have the police said about the march?”
“It changes every day. Under the state of emergency it’s illegal for more than two people with a political message to gather, which is why people are heading to the convergence point in pairs. Any attendance at a political protest is an act of civil disobedience. They have permitted the human chain and tolerated writing ‘climate justice’ with people’s bodies. The protest with the thousands of empty pairs of shoes was beautifully done, but the red lines action is still civil disobedience. The state of emergency means more stop and search and raids on many of the squats and convergence centres across Paris. L’Annexe was raided just last week by a hundred stormtroopers and is under constant armed surveillance. We are half expecting another raid before Saturday. The legal team for the protests have been put under house arrest, but nothing more.
“If you are arrested, you need to use the buddy system. Make sure you are clear who your buddy is, and do not lose them. If they go to the toilet, you go with them. With your buddy you organise into an affinity group, making sure you are always with people who are watching, but not at risk. They should always know who is there, what happened, and where, and afterwards these are the guys who greet you outside the police station with champagne.
“Now, please can you raise your hands, wrists together. If you bend your hands down, when they put the handcuffs on you they will be looser than if you just keep your hands like this. Believe me, if you are cuffed for a long time, this will make a big difference. Remember to hide your phone in your pants and when you can, smuggle it out and text people to let them know what’s happened to you. The process at the station is that they will fingerprint you, photo you, and frisk you, but not very thoroughly. Often at this point it’s easy to ‘accidentally’ smudge the fingerprints, or mess up the photo somehow, or generally play around with them to delay a bit more. They will keep you for 4 hours to check ID, then up to 24 hours to investigate you.
“When you are to be released, you don’t have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. They may pressure you, but there are people already regretting signing something they did not really understand, and it’s making more problems for them now. Even when you receive your possessions back, you do not have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. The police may put something else in with your stuff and cause you a lot of problems. Some people we know unwittingly signed a conditional discharge, and if they had held out, they wouldn’t have had to sign anything.
“They normally tell you it’s a piece of paper describing your time in custody, but the translators there are very much on the police’s side. If they do anything illegal during your time in custody, you can appeal afterwards, but if you sign, it makes it much, much harder.
“If you have no access to a lawyer or interpreter, try to keep mental notes on what the police do, or do not do, and make physical notes immediately afterwards. If the police decide they are going to investigate a crime, they will give you access to a solicitor within 4 hours.
“Now, when being interviewed, it’s a bit different from in the UK. In France it is not ‘no comment’, but ‘I have nothing to declare’. Repeat after me.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE!”
“Now let me describe my ideal arrest. I’m in for 24 hours, so I can rest, I am with my friends. I have done the handcuff trick so I am ‘comfortable’ and have my phone hidden in my pants. I’ve told them I have nothing to declare and have managed to smudge my fingerprints and ruin the photo. I sign nothing! After 24 hours I am released with my friends and greeted by champagne and chocolate and beer.
“Now, afterwards, I have to deal with trauma. Arrests can be and are often violent. I need to make sure that I have money for the Metro, a map. The police could release me somewhere far away where I’ve never been before. Have you got a safe, warm place to go back to? A major thing after release is not to pressure people, give them time. At some point they will want to speak.
“Make sure you take the time to read all the legal info, educate yourself as much as possible.
“So overall, gatherings are prohibited. You can get a maximum fine of 75,000 euros or 6 months in prison, but so far all that has been issued is a warning. They have the power to ban people from certain areas, or force certain groups to dissolve.
“Let’s talk about medical preparation. Tear gas. First of all, it’s a projectile weapon. If you get hit by a canister it can seriously hurt. It can kill. Secondly, the gas burns on the skin, the eyes, but it won’t kill you. It’s like intensely concentrated onions, but it won’t kill you, so don’t panic. You can limit its effect with a scarf soaked in vinegar or lemon juice. Make sure you have baby wipes. Now if tear gas is blowing in the wind, walk upwind of it, sideways. Unless of course the police are there. There’s some great footage from the 29th if any of you are into riot porn.
“If it gets on to your skin, it can cause some problems. Don’t wear any make-up, and wear glasses, not contact lenses, as they can melt into the eye. If it’s CS gas you may not even see it, as it’s invisible. Now can I have a volunteer to pretend they’ve been tear-gassed? Ok, thank you.
“Now, if I see someone has been gassed, what do I do? Ok, calm down, calm down, it’s ok. It’s Eve here. Kneel down, turn your head on one side. And now I squirt water in from one side. Now, from the other. Good. If you do it from the top down it can burn the body. Tell them the effects won’t last more than half an hour.
“Pepper spray is a short range weapon. If it gets on the clothes, remove them. When you go home, don’t have a hot shower, wipe it off and use cold water.”
“It helps to have clean skin.”
“One day I might.”
“I once saw someone in tear gas stand with their eyes screwed shut and not move. Just before it hit, they took a huge deep breath, hyperventilated, and waited until it subsided, sipping air with their eyes closed.”
“Swimming goggles can also help. One of the hardest things is the impulse to get away. We ended up fumbling around with our buddies.
“Ok, now if the police charge, one more thing is to cover your head and neck with your hands. If you want to keep your hands up, make sure you do so in fists not fingers are the batons will smash them to pieces . . . .
“Ok, let’s review the solicitor names . . . .”
“The struggle is the tension between holding on and letting go.”
We are in the large space downstairs at l’Annexe. Word of the workshop has spread. I count sixty people lined up against one wall. An expectant, almost religious silence has descended. Even towards the other half of the space, beyond the plastic curtains I can see people tip-toeing past as they continue to prepare the next meal from the Anti-Cop Kitchen.
I swallow and breathe deep down into my stomach in short, controlled bursts.
This is a totally spontaneous, open exercise. I have never done it with so many people.
“The ritual. We are going to perform a ritual together. When I say begin, you are invited to enter into the space and perform your part of the ritual. The ritual will be over when it is over. There will be no set time-limit. When we collectively feel it has come to a close, it will be over. The world needs healing. We need healing. So this shall be a ritual of healing.”
There is a long, open moment, and for that moment my heart leaps into my throat and my stomach clenches and my mind whirls and my tongue goes dry.
At first in silence, people begin to move, entering into the space, prostrating themselves on the floor, or beginning to walk in slow circles. At first, the efforts are individual, chaotic, fragmented invitations, but then the machine mind takes over, and people begin to connect and feel what is happening around them, to move together cohesively. No one speaks. No one explains or directs or orders. People sense and feel how to work together to create this ritual space spontaneously, without pre-planning, without leaders or followers, people coming together autonomously to create something bigger than their individual selves.
A bald-head monk in saffron robes is moving in slow, serene circles around the outside, chanting low and calm. Others join him, breaking from smaller circles within to follow. A second circle, closer in, is faster and lighter, people skipping and singing in high clear voices, whirling their arms and zigzagging high and low like swallows on the evening breeze. At the centre, dead centre, a woman kneels, head to the crowd, piercing the chanting and song with a high-pitched, keening wail.
Others gather to her, and the lamentations sear through the room, high, screeching releases of treble agony, soaring above the mid-level melodies and the deep, bass chanting.
The room is electrified. I feel every nerve on my body tingle. A hallucinogenic harmony swamps the space. Time dissipates and I have visions of the entire solar system, the Spiral Arm of the galaxy, whirling in cosmic union in this room in Paris. Electron people whirl around atoms of raw emotion in human form. My head swims with the mix of chanting, wailing and shattering whoops.
And then the movement begins to slow, person by person, sections of the mandala settling to rest, contemplative and still. Frequency by frequency, silence is restored. A stillness settles over the group, part by part, until everything is frozen and there is only the deafening emptiness of sixty people breathing together.
My voice rumbles as if in a cavern.
“The ritual is now at an end. You may remain in this space if you wish, or you may leave. If you need people, reach out to those around you. Take care of yourself. Thank you.”
Trancelike and wild-eyed, people drift from the mandala, and it crumbles apart as people silently and slowly return to themselves. Ambient noise of the kitchen, the street, the world returns.
“Fooking hell,” says Oak. “That were a bit intense, want it?”
I’ve been invited to sit in with Rooty, Eve and M. who gave the legal briefing earlier in the day. We gather upstairs in one of the open workspaces. People drift through. Looking round the three womyn, it seems like they have been barely sleeping for weeks. They have all been here more than a month, organising and participating, working ceaselessly to coordinate the many different groups involved in the protest. It seems they have a job for me.
“So we’ve been tasked with this de-escalation. . . . We are now de-escalation angels. But is it even really possible?”
“We’ve been in almost constant contact with the police, and with the Secretary of State. They are terrified that tomorrow will turn into a riot. I mean, is this going to work?”
“Well, as I see it, the de-escalation crew’s role is to help create a joyous atmosphere. We’ll be public game playing, some stewarding I guess, and generally trying to help turn tense situations around and have fun. If the tear gas goes off we’ve obviously already failed.”
“So the Rebel Clown Army will be there. They will be on the front line next to the police, then you guys, and then the main march. Also, the climate angels will be coming, have you seen them? Oh they are just amazing, with these huge, feathered wings. Just beautiful. There’s a great video online of a wing smacking a cop in the face—purely by accident of course. There’s going to be foghorns announcing the beginning of the march, the moment when people lay the flowers down, and then two minutes silence.”
“At the end of the two minutes silence the brass band will kick off, and the party starts.”
“So we’re really going for a funeral ritual. A funeral for the environment, for the failure of the governments to do anything meaningful, and then a big party atmosphere.”
“I can’t wait for Saturday night when it’s all over. I am going to do some serious dancing.”
“Straight out of the cells and on to the dance floor, ha ha.”
“It’s been a long two weeks.”
“We’ve all earned it.”
“Oh, the workshops today just helped so much. So much relief, just to remember that all of this is just made up. Invented.”
“It’s so easy to get sucked into all the bullshit, but that’s really all it is.”
“We can tell you now what the route is going to be–”
“But that might all change–”
“Again. We’re on to like Plan X.”
“It’s been a constant clusterfuck. Any other changes—and there will be I’m sure—and we will inform everyone through text. Make sure people get their numbers down for the tree.”
“But as of tonight the convergence will be at the Arc de Triomphe.”
“And from there march to the Eiffel Tower.”
“So the police, the government, are all terrified of anything happening to the Arc de Triomphe. Any vandalism. As much as a bottle thrown at it. They will charge.”
“They will charge. I mean you couldn’t have a bigger symbol of nationalism, militarism, of France itself.”
“They have elections in Paris this weekend and they’re terrified of a riot. They say if there’s a riot, the Right will win in the elections.”
“It’ll ruin the Left’s reputation.”
“By the way, what do you think? Should we buy plant pots for tomorrow?”
“Yes. For the tear gas. It’s the best way to contain it apparently. You just pop a plant pot over the top.”
“Errr. . . . Better to have them and not need them I suppose.”
Suddenly Z. arrives, tears in her eyes, but laughing at the same time.
“I just found out my boyfriend slept with someone else.”
“That’s not funny. Why are you laughing?”
“Oh no, are you ok?”
“Yeah, I know. Just now. I mean, it’s annoying. It’s a shock. I mean, he was the one who didn’t want a polyamorous relationship. He said he was really drunk, and that he hadn’t been drunk like that in over a year.”
“That’s really no excuse.”
“Oh love, come here.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll look after you. It’s going to work out.”
“Thanks, guys. Sorry. Let’s get back to the meeting.”
“So the coalition has agreed that we will not cross the police lines. If we do, they will charge and shut the whole thing down. If anything is thrown, a single thing, they will charge. We’ve gotten all the different groups to agree to the non-violence policy. It’s been a massive job.”
“One of the clowns knows the black bloc crew and he’s meeting with them tonight to ask them not to attend this march.”
“Black bloc here is a bit different than from in the UK. In the UK, they tend to turn up, join in a march, get a bit rowdy, and that’s it.”
“The guy said here ‘they take it seriously.’”
“Whatever that means. Anyway, so hopefully they won’t be there. They can do their own thing, somewhere else, all power to them, but not here.”
“It’s all going to be super-fluffy.”
“We hope. After the 29th the last thing we need is another load of arrests and tear gas.”
“The police are going to do everything they can to avoid that.”
“Maybe tomorrow we could schedule sometime for you to talk directly to the de-escalation bloc. A few of them were a bit shocked by the legal briefing. I think it all got a bit real for them, talking about tear gas and smashed hands and jail.”
“It’s all really unlikely, but of course, everyone should be as prepared as possible for what could happen.”
“One woman has permanently affixed contact lenses. She’s terrified they are going to melt into her eyes! But tomorrow, yes, we’ll organise the group more directly and get everyone to assess where they are comfortable being on the day.”
“God, I’m just so tired. . . .”
“Don’t worry, we are nearly there now.”
We set about our plan, preparing to hit the streets the next day as a human buffer, part of a layer cake of defense between 20,000 protesters, the Rebel Clown Army, and the delightful French riot police.
We speed-date people in pairs to find their buddy. They circle through a number of potential dates, discussing their willingness to be near The Front, as it is known. They discuss fears, hopes, expectations, before swirling on.
I partner with a smiling young bearded Worcestershire boy named Jake—another volunteer from EcoDharma.
“Every buddy pair, get with the buddy pair next to you, so you are a four. This is your brick. Stay close to your brick as much as possible. You are two pairs of buddies, looking after each other. If one half gets arrested, the other can report it. Get their numbers now.”
I sidle over to Oak as the group begins to disperse. She is smiling excitedly, and has buddied with Z., who also grins expectantly. My buddy Jake gathers too. This is our brick. We do a group hug, linking our arms around one another.
“So,” I say. “Ready for a riot?”
oneslutriot. Anti everything, 2017. Pens on paper.
An iceberg from Greenland has been dragged to Paris by boat, where it now sits outside the Pantheon in more than a dozen gleaming shards of diamond, decaying infinitesimally and inexorably before our eyes. We walk, humbled, mesmerised, touching each one solemnly, the icy water chilling our fingertips, anointing our foreheads with it. I wonder how many thousands of years these droplets of water had been trapped in the ice, how many lives had passed between now and the last time it existed as a liquid, how many moments had been strung in between. The scale of it is overwhelming. At the head of our procession, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes with a gentle American English accent provides some reassurance in his quiet confidence, a timely reminder of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, allowing some philosophical perspective on the tragedy of ecocide.
I have already linked up with Jake; the other buddies and bricks arrive in discreet pairs, having been told to spread out to avoid arousing suspicion. There is Rooty and her wife Loupe, Susannah and the monk, Eve, Z. and Oak. Everywhere are the bright flashes of red we have been asked to wear as part of the red-lines protest.
“Freedom, freedom, freedom. . . . Freedom on my mind.”
The song spreads, voices raised in the simple refrain, voices harmonising, male and female and other, high and low.
It feels faintly ridiculous, all this hippie trash, but it helps people relax.
Eventually, in that strange group-mind telepathy, silence descends, broken by the ululating cries of a wedding taking place in the church opposite. We return the cry joyously, releasing more tension, more stress, up into the clear Parisian sky.
A tall man in a dog-collar and white suit, his hair a silvery bouffant crown of steel wool, steps from the circle to address us in a strong, mercurial tone.
“Brothers and sisters can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”
“Amen, brothers and sisters. My name is the Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m from New York City, and for many years now, myself and members of the congregation of the Choir of Stop Shopping have been travelling around, meeting with like-minded individuals, and preaching the Gospel of Stop Shopping. We are wild, anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth-loving urban activists who have worked with communities all over the world defending community, life and imagination.
“It’s an honour to be here in Paris, and to have attended the workshop yesterday and seen such powerful moments of healing, of people coming together, to nurture each other, to heal one another. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”
“This week we’ve seen some dancing in the streets. In particular, the dance with police is heart-breaking and revealing. It is a gift to all of us out here who will carry on the Earth’s work, the job of tornado-ing in the plazas. The mind-leap that the politicians and police make—that any gathering in public space resembles the Other and must be called Extreme—this doesn’t seem like France, but I am naive.
“My lazy thinking has it that I myself would never be this way, but we all fall back into fear, don’t we? We are the predator species, and we forget that we are made of the Earth. We are mammals made of soil and ocean-water, a column of water up on our hind legs.
“That is what we are on both sides of the conflict. But one side has a club and no face. The other, you, you bring your vulnerable body as close to the action as you dare. You show your flesh to the public air and receive the bruise. You show a smile, you are hopping in place, and then running back to slow down a friend’s arrest. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”
“When we protest we make a storm in the street that the Earth’s horizon watches with interest. The Earth is our leader and our teacher. We know that the Earth will win. She will heat up but she will survive the extinction that sweeps across her eco-systems. We know that the men in body-armor will join us ultimately as we fall to the ground like leaves in the autumn. At some point the cops too will feel the Earth in their bodies—that is what will persuade them not to work for nationalism descended from old wars.
“The Earth fills us up and sends us into the fight with instructions in its singing molecules. She gives us power beyond policies, ego or courage.
“When we watch you on the streets we feel a strange kind of gratitude—your bodies are like letters arranging in words against the page of the ground. You give us our new instructions!
“Now I don’t have my choir here with me, but two sisters here have volunteered to lead us in a song, Sisters, if you could?”
Two of the sisters step forward.
“This is a song we heard at the conference a lot, a lot of the young activists were singing it during some of the actions, like the Louvre oil action, and I think it’s great that we pick up the voices of others. It goes like this. . . :
“People gonna rise like the water, gonna turn this crisis round.
Hear the voice of my great-grand-daughter, singing Climate Justice Now.”
We sing between the icebergs and below the Pantheon, and I remember that this is completely illegal, no more than two people are allowed to gather for a ‘political purpose’ under the State of Emergency. As our merry troupe of fluffy rainbow-hippies sings I can’t help but think what utter nonsense that is. I imagine clouds of tear gas pop-pop-popping as canisters fly. I imagine us all crushed and fleeing beneath a charge of black-clad robocops.
I am sat on a bridge overlooking the lazy snake of the Seine as it swirls below me, the free curry and rice given away by garishly dressed hippies from huge steel pots sitting like foam on the water of a sewage outlet in my stomach. My mouth is dry, parched, and all around me herds of strange animals drift and wander: people carrying signs that read ‘system change not climate change’, a pod of merpeople, their hair sea-green with plastic seaweed, a knot of chic students wearing keffiyahs and aviators, a single clown with white face and a red nose holding a balloon in the shape of a heart.
Below me, the brass band is lounging, a mob of twenty people in pink shirts and scarves, lounging in the baking sun, their brass instruments sparkling next to them like the weapons of ornamental soldiers. They have been parping and blasting for the last few hours, the strains of Bella Ciao still ringing in my ears from the assembly in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
Ahead, the Eiffel Tower rises, a monumental spear of iron matrices shooting into a cerulean sky. The walkways around it are a sea of waving flags and banners, people choking every spot of land with colour and movement, swirling in and around each other. Currently on the bridge, a number of people have chosen to sit down and symbolically block the path, urged on by a manic young man with a megaphone. For now, the police are observing casually, seemingly counting under their breath before intervening. I have no energy left, and drift off towards the Tower to find the others.
Jake falls in beside me, a gentle, calming presence, passing me a bottle of water.
“So. What do you think?”
I cast my mind back as we walk. The police had been waiting for us at the Arc de Triomphe. I had been searched by a cop with a face like dogshit. He had found nothing, though he made me remove my leather gloves with studs on them that I had worn against the chill.
Once out of the Metro, we had seen that we were walking into a kettle designed to collect us. At the far end of the boulevard, still a hundred metres before the Arc, a row of grey battle-buses with lines of armoured cops like legionnaires in front of them, blocking our way. At the opposite end, before the roundabout, a second line had drawn up to prevent us leaving. The side roads were still open, left for us to try to disperse, but it was like walking into a cage.
And thousands of people did walk in. We had assembled, orderly and polite, a sea of red and flags of all nations, colours, banners, people blowing whistles and chanting and cheering: “We are nature defending itself!” The sounds of indigenous pan-pipes interwove with the stamping chants of woad-painted earth-defenders clutching home-made shields emblazoned with sigils of trees, hawks and turtles, a pod of people dressed as deep-sea divers, swimming down the street in slow-motion.
At the police line, the dozen or so rebel clowns were already in position, mocking the stance of the cops with their own military pomp. We had lined up behind them, becoming the second buffer line. Whereas the clowns faced the cops, we faced inwards to the sea of people.
The foghorns blasted, and for two minutes, the thousands of people had fallen silent.
I thought about the lake of dead fish I had seen in India where the water had become too acidic from pesticides. I thought about those thousands of glassy eyed fish washing up on to the shore, and the peoples from the village gathering to stare incredulously and hopelessly at them.
Then the brass band had fired up, and a great, ragged cheer gone up from the crowds. The march had begun.
Except the cops had blocked both ways, and there had been no real way for the march to go. They had left open one exit, leading to the left out of the boulevard, and we stood between the clowns and the crowd as thousands of people marched towards us, and as cheerfully as possible we directed them to the left, to squeeze in twos and threes through this narrow gap and continue on their way towards the Eiffel Tower.
It had not felt great, but we stuck to our plan and stayed happy and felt the tension disperse as more and more people fed through the gap. The banners had to be folded up to pass. The Climate Angels, tall, exquisite creatures painted in silver and gold, with huge, ornate, feathery wings of pearl and lapis lazuli, had to edge carefully between the last cop and the wall of the building to get through.
“That boulevard,” I was saying to Jake as we walked back down the bridge towards the Tower. “It was chosen so that nobody would see anything.”
We gather up Oak and Z., looking elated but exhausted.
“Well, at least no broken bones, no tear gas!” says Oak. We smile.
Soon we are through the crowds, and directly under the Eiffel Tower, looking upwards at its skeletal innards like tiny teenagers looking up some massive madam’s metal skirts. It is dizzying, and we sit down on some benches, feeling deflated.
A woman half-hidden in a scarf, but with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, drifts lazily past me and hands me a piece of paper. On it is typed:
We are all angry now. As destroyers of the death-reality, we must act. The time for peaceful subjugated protest and failed A to B marches is over. They have made criminals of us all. We call on all those who are willing to gather and express their rage in defence of the Earth. Let us take back the streets and defy the State of Emergency.
Meet at Belleville Metro 1900hrs.
“Now this looks more like it.”
We get out of the Metro one stop early, wary of walking into a trap, and stroll down to Belleville in high spirits. Our brick swaps beers and rolls cigarettes, skipping through the crowds out shopping or leaving work, approaching Belleville with watchful eyes.
We lean on the bars of the Metro, watching and waiting. A sparkling tingle of anticipation hangs in the air, not a gendarme in sight for the first time in a long time. The streets hum with the quiet business of a winter’s evening in the banlieue, Chinese supermarkets bustling next door to Turkish shops, well-heeled Parisians shuffling between them smoking Gauloise, old men with chic moustaches and young ladies their hair covered with headscarves.
We wait and watch.
Then, we hear them.
Coming up from the underground, the boom-boom-clack of bass and snare, followed by the sharp rattle and a blast of whistle, growing louder and stronger, emerging from the Metro entrance out into the streets to be greeted with ragged cheers and an appreciative laugh of release. It is the samba band from Rhythms of Resistance, thirty-plus strong, decked in pinks and floral tributes, emerging into the evening air.
Boom boom clak! Ba-boom-ba-boom clak-clak!
Bodies crowd around them, maybe two hundred strong, faces from the march and strangers too, some already masked and punching the air, the cries of “Anti-capitalista!” stronger and fiercer than ever, ringing through the streets in time to the band. Soon they have taken the road, and traffic must wait, backing up bemused and patient behind them. Our brick nods to each other, and we step into the road, becoming part of the mass, and them becomes us.
Boom-clack ba-boom-ba-boom clak!
We turn, as one, down a side-street, following the samba band and whoever might be at the head of this march. On the pavements we see older persons, shopkeepers, people with bags of cheese and baguettes, clutching a child’s hand whilst raising a supportive fist to salute us. People are smiling, happy to see the wild and the free marching in defiance of fear and oppression. All the while the cries ring from the buildings, my throat hoarse: “Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista!”
The moment is long, the energy increases, so do the number of masks, the feeling of imminent explosion. I am reminded of the Fuck Parades in London, of the Long Week in Rigaerstrasse, the anti-ISA protests in Kuala Lumpur, the liminal moments when parties evolve into riots. The lessons of the legal warning occasionally ring in my memory, but more than anything, I savour this sensation of wild liberation.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Clak-clak-clak!
Blue lights strobe the darkening sky with ultramarine. The urgency of the march picks up, confused commands and bursts of running down the streets. Blue lights ahead, and blue lights behind—the kettle is closing in. We find an alleyway to the right, and soon two hundred people are streaming down it, people dragging their drums along and dumping over bins and trollies into the streets behind them. Someone falls, tripping another over them as they crash to the ground, others stopping to pull them up and encourage them onwards. Energy is bordering on panic now.
We emerge breathless on the far side, next to the canal. Dozens of people are still filtering through behind us and it seems that we have evaded capture—for the moment.
We spot the blue lights assembling at the road bridge, two hundred metres up from us. People are calling to hurry—“Allez! Allez!”—and we move instinctively away from the lights.
Ahead, there is a narrow footbridge over the canal, and beyond that yet more police cars. The noose is closing.
People begin to run, seeing the opportunity to escape slipping away. The bridge rattles and clatters as people pound over it. In the rush, I lose the others. I stop on the far side of the canal looking for them. People race past.
The sting of pepper spray on the wind hits me, searing my nostrils and eyes. The police have trapped perhaps fifty people on the opposite side of the canal—just where we were. Even from twenty meters away it is a raw and spicy wind. I am already moving, heart pounding in my chest, attempting innocence and anonymity, suddenly alone and vulnerable, unsure of who or what is awaiting on this side, or what will happen to those trapped behind.
I begin walking, pulling my mask off, heading up the canal where there seems to be space between the police. People sit eating baguettes and drinking wine on benches, watching the spectacle of a mass of black-clad people trapped between two lines of stormtroopers. I am calling my brick, hearing garbled messages from them. They have got across.
Later that evening, we are outside la Generale—the huge warehouse space the local squatters keep on lock-and-key for when they need a performance space. Inside is rammed to the rafters with smiling, laughing, leaping, euphoric crowds of people, leaping and stomping as the famous brass band from the march hammers through a borderline violent version of Bella Ciao. Every song they have played, every refrain, for the last hour, and even in the pauses between, the cry can be heard like a war chant:
“Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist a-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist!”
We are drunk and exhausted, our eyes still stinging from the pepper spray, greeting survivors from the kettle on the canal as they drift back, grinning with giddy relief.
“They kept us there maybe an hour. I had a backpack full of equipment. I had to throw it into the canal. But still, after one hour, they let us all go. No arrests.”
“I guess they know it’s over.”
We are drinking cans of Maximator—11% strength beer that sizzles like gasoline in our stomachs and fires up our exhilarated chatter.
“So we did it. Somehow we did it. 60 people on the streets ready to stand between the cops and 20,000 protesters like some kind of weird human condom.”
“It could have been so different. I’m bloody relieved that nothing happened,” Oak is saying. “That talk they gave us about raising our hands up with our fingers bent so the truncheons didn’t break them. I was, like, God, what have we gotten into?”
“Yeah. I guess it was all fine. But was it enough? I mean, I have friends at home who would be horrified to know I was part of a ‘de-escalation team’. They are the guys who believe that non-violence protects the state, and that if we really wanted change, we have to fight for it on the streets.”
“But if you have a riot, you won’t have all these families and this creative atmosphere.”
“Maybe it would have been different, but also they would have just demonised the whole thing as being about ‘leftwing extremists hijacking the peaceful march’. The same old narrative. My biggest worry is how complicit we have become in working with the cops, the politicians, the whole status quo.”
“It’ll all ripple out, George. It’ll all ripple out somehow.”
We smile, then laugh a little more as the brass band chunters inside and the anti-capitalists a-ha! away. Through the windows, I can see faces beaming with delirious exhaustion, dancing away with stomping feet and fists pumping the air, and I am relieved it isn’t all broken heads and handcuffs and eyes red raw from tear gas. I suck at the Maximator, retch at how flat it is, and suddenly feel my legs wobble.
We round up our little crew for la Petite Maison and head off into the Parisian night. Flashing blue lights illuminate the boulevards, casting sapphire shadows against the tall trees and art deco facades of the buildings.
As we pass the orange-and-yellow frontage of a McDonald’s, Oak suddenly squeals and runs ahead, laughing but flustered.
“There was a guy! There was a guy wanking in the McDonald’s!”
I can’t help but look, and there indeed sat at the little shelf-bar in the window are two kettle-faced men, leering at us as we pass. One has his tracksuit pants open, and is pulling with frenzied focus at an unimpressive lump of meat under the tabletop. He is staring straight out, and for a moment I wonder if he is looking at us, or his own reflection.
I smile at him, hawk a huge ball of phlegm out of my throat, and spit it at the window. It splatters satisfyingly right at his eye level and slides down, a green nugget of sap and gristle. He pauses, looking shocked, and I flip him a rigid middle finger, before darting off down the street after the others.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the lackeys of capitalism,” I sneer. “They’re all fucking perverts.”
oneslutriot. Bank of No Money, Depford, London, 2016. Spray paint and acrylic, 100% stolen or recycled materials.
Once upon a time,” I tell my son, “a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold.”
My child starves. Day after day, his eyes grow larger than his shriveling stomach.
“Drink water,” I say when I leave him. “But not too much. I don’t know when we’ll have more.”
He barely nods. Almost, I think he will speak. In the darkness of our half-collapsed basement, his lips curl around something like a question.
“I’ll bring food today. I promise.”
Tucked in insulation, he reminds me of his infant self or of Jesus bedded in a manger of hay. We do not have hay.
“I promise,” I say again and leave him, perhaps, to die.
Our streets were not bombed. We did not flood or fall sick. The black horse, Famine, brought with it the most essential of wars. We fought daily battles with pitchforks and butcher knives. When our grocer was gutted and left at the intersection, it did not matter that the larger world also collapsed. As grand as we built civilization, its death was painted in the blood of 6 billion small tragedies. So it has always gone.
I stick to shadows. I hide in tattered clothes. As a boy, I stood outside this bakery window counting eclairs. When I felt the end nearing, I brought my own child here. Despite everything, we still believed in retreat. We thought we’d saved pockets of pastoral peace.
Other shadows slip from ruin to wreckage. We keep our eyes fixed on nothing. There aren’t many left who remember my name. Silence sounds my survival. Unknown, I believe I am safe.
Last night I fed my son boiled leather. I told him a story while he gnawed the pockets of an empty wallet.
“Once upon a time, a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold. But the girl could not spin straw to gold. Her father had lied for vanity, so when the prince demanded the girl fill a straw room with wealth, she had to ask help of the devil.”
My son asks endless questions. “What’s vanity? Who is the devil?”
“The girl didn’t know who the devil was.”
“Then why would she ask for his help?”
“Just wait and see.”
The sun seems closer than ever. I find a white cloth and drape it across my blistered scalp. If we could plant seed, it would only bake in dry dirt. If we found enough water to feed it, we’d be slaughtered for the wealth. Some days, I truly believe that sterile seeds plays only a bit role in the larger drama.
Two weeks ago, I found the corner of a burlap sack in an empty yard. I dug with my bare hands. I dug too fast through hard earth. My nails split pulling the cornmeal from its grave.
We broke our windows ages ago. We hid what we had and hunted for more. Now, when we see each other slip over shattered glass and under broken eaves, we keep our eyes fixed on nothing. We have nothing left. We don’t know where to look. I think I see a rat and dive to the ground. I skin my chin on pavement. I grope in the dark under a rusting car. It bites my hand between thumb and first finger before I can snap its neck.
Once upon a time, people spoke of food deserts. We laughed, we architects of this great civilization, when we listened. Those deserts were full of food—our food. Once upon a time, children grew lettuce on rooftops and tried to fight us with planter boxes. They wore rough wool knits and used straw as mulch, animal bedding, thatching, fuel. We built them sparkling cities, but these children wanted to play at the hard lives of peasants. Until we took away their seeds.
I close my eyes and imagine the taste of green. The acid of phantom leaves stings my arid lips.
“Please, I just want some rice.” I’ve been mumbling for days, maybe months. “Please. Please. Please.”
Once upon a time, this corner was a market piled with satsumas, pineapple and persimmons in the fall. I took my son here Saturdays for fresh-baked pierogies. He cannot explain, now, how it felt to bite boiled pastry. Sometimes, he asks for the story of our lunches.
“What is dough?” he asks. “What does it sound like to chew on duck fat?”
“Please. Please. Rice. Please. Please.”
Last night I told my son stories. “‘I will turn your straw to gold,’ said the devil. ‘And in return I’ll have your firstborn son.’ But the girl did not want to give the devil her son, so the devil made a bargain. ‘You can keep your boy,’ he said, ‘if you can guess my name.”
“His name?” my son asked. “What does his name matter?”
“Rice,” I say. “Corn, wheat, rice. Please.”
The man under the counter laughs at me. He does not know my name, so I do not mind laughter. I do not mind the black mold that eats drywall. I do not wrinkle my nose at the smell of rot. The world is rot. We’ve gotten too hungry to be human.
“Rice,” he says. “Rice. Please. Rice.”
He’s a fool, babbling and thinner than me. Was I just so? I consider, for a moment, that he’s not there. That I only see myself in some fragment of glass. I haven’t had grain for weeks. Whoever he is, I will leave him to die. I spit at his feet, not because I hate, but because my hands bleed and my boy starves.
“Rice,” he squeals, and in his lunacy, he pulls a small bag from his pocket. “Rice.”
I know this strain. I recognize the length and color of the grain as I recognize my own hands. We fed it to starving countries before our own fell to pieces. A child could survive on half a cup a day. My eye, still discerning, calculates the neutered life in his bag.
“What do you want?”
“Rice?” He holds the bag to the street and giggles.
“What do you want?”
“Rice? Please? Rice?”
Someone could come. I cannot wait for the shadows to separate, for other hungry eyes to see. He was days from death anyhow, if not hours. Like the rat, he bit my hands.
Last night I told my son stories.
“Once upon a time, a man spun straw to gold. He spun and spun until he had rooms made of gold. Whole cities, even. But the man was a fool, for soon he had nothing but gold and nowhere to lay his son.”
“I thought the devil spun gold,” said my boy.
“The old tales get mixed up sometimes,” I explained. “I know it sounds strange, but sometimes one person can be the prince, and the girl, and the devil.”
“What’s the devil?”
“It’s hard to explain something that’s all around us. The devil is friends who murder each other for food. The devil is thirst with no water. The devil is starving children. The devil is a world of seeds with no life. Grain we can eat but can’t grow.”
“I’m hungry,” he told me.
“Once upon a time, you didn’t even know those words.”
I tuck the rice deep in my rags. With my head down, I hurry toward home. I feel the shadow rise before I see it. It’s hard to know who’s watching in a world full of ghosts. The edge of a blade presses my throat. I cannot swallow. My son is hungry. We ate boiled leather for dinner. A hand gropes against my ribs and draws our life away. Perhaps I should be grateful he wanted only the rice. Perhaps I should be grateful he did not guess my name. I am not. I fall to the pavement and weep.
What good is gold? That’s the joke we forgot. The daughter spins straw to shining ore. Her father beats her and screams, “What have you done with my straw, you little fool? Where will we bed the animals? What will we use to cover the fields and heat our home in the winter?”
Once upon a time, I spun wealth from seeds. My beautiful wife glittered with rare metal and stones. In good time, she bore me a child.
“He’s the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” she whispered.
My son blinked at me with eyes like oil wells.
“We’ll name him after his father.”
I would not have told you so then, but I knew this future. I knew what I twisted through my fingers. In return for all my wealth, I’d made a deal. I took fertile seed from the land. I brought it to workshops where clever fingers spun its twining strands anew. We took its life in return for gold.
At night, I tell my son stories. “When I was your age, blood was never messy. It was written in numbers, either black or red. A long time ago, we had so much food we turned it to soap and diapers and ketchup. We had so much food we threw it away.”
“What’s ketchup?” I imagine he asks me. But he does not. He does not speak or move or heave a breath.
In the corner of our basement, I keep a locked box filled with stone. While my son lies stiff, I twist cold ore with bleeding fingers, wishing it would turn back to grain.
“Guess my name,” I whisper to the silence. “Please, guess my name.”
Across the flat horizon: only blue, no sign of other boats, of anything at all.
“Row row your boat, row—”
“—this goddamn thing.”
The line and anchor had become entangled with something below.
“Pull like this,” Oliver said.
“Nope,” his father said. “Tricksy widget. Snake charmer. Battle slug.”
His father yanked back and forth on the line with an older-man’s violence, unsteady on his feet. His father’s dog, Crappy, yipped encouragement at his heels.
“Sit down, I’ll do it.” But he could not free it either. He looked again for sign of police, or sign they weren’t so alone.
“Nobody’s out there,” his father said. “Trust me. Here, have a nip.”
“I’m going to have to dive for it.”
“Of course you are, you fappy hucker. It’s got my goddamn logo on it.”
“You think someone’s going to find it?”
“Weirder things happen.”
“And if they did—”
“Certain jail time. I don’t make the rules, I just break them.”
“You are a cliché machine.”
“Don’t bother with that ugly face nozzle, it’ll take you thirty seconds, down and back. I can see it right there.”
“You can’t see it. You see the rope, it goes into nothingness.”
“Over the side with you, lout fish.”
“Just need my fins. Stay above me, right? I don’t trust you with an oar.”
“I was born to oar. I’m ad-oar-able. I will oar-rate to you while you fish that thing out.”
“Just stay seated.”
The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.
When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.
He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.
It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.
At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.
At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.
“Oh hey, it’s Oliver,” his father said. He had settled down into the bottom of the boat, his dog Crappy curled in the crook of his arm.
“Thanks for your help, you sonofabitch.”
He clung to the edge to get his breath back.
“What help could I give?—I was staring into the sky, you were diving into the ocean. Here, have another drink.”
“I couldn’t make it. It’s fallen into a hole.”
“The hole at the bottom of the sea, dee-deee-de.” The song ended in a deep cough, like wet sand sloshed about the bottom of a tin can.
“What should I do?”
“What do you mean what should I do? Go get it. Get back down there. Without it we will be forever adrift. Like wee bits of pollen floating on the ocean, colonizing undiscovered lands, et cetera.” The ‘et cetera’ ending in a wet cough that continued for several moments.
“OK, old man.”
“Have another nip. Fortitude.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“All right—but watch. In case I get to drowning I don’t want you falling asleep up here.”
“What would I do?”
“Dive in and pull me out, I suppose. Aren’t you the master at all this?”
“I’m half blind. I don’t know struggle from hello. It’s the sharks I’d worry about.”
“These ones just bite you and spit you out. Taste test. Nobody gets eaten.”
“Like I said.”
He lowered his snorkel back to his mouth and then tore the thing off his face; it was useless if he only dived straight down.
“Maybe don’t lower your goddamn anchor into the reef again?”
His father shrugged.
Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded. He was here to spend some time with his father, the master diver, the expat. But instead found him as drunk and as belligerent as always. If not for the anchor, they would be on their way back, taquería-bound.
He scanned a moment too long for the movement of sharks. Tiburónes. He knew how their gray skin merged with the deeper blue of ocean distance, so that it appeared a shadow pursued you, a blue ghost. His father was afraid of no shark.
By the time he made to the bottom of the reef canyon— one reef wall a collage of vibrant oranges, pinks, maroons, the othera deadened white—and within view of the anchor—his air was finished. The anchor rested on a circular shape, three-four feet in diameter, tangled with some other bit of metal there. It was not part of the reef, and his first thought was: Some old ship has sunk here.
He turned and fled, kicking hard through the dim blue into the bright.
As he raced toward the surface he saw clearly that something was being poured out of the boat, its watery contents making a queer snowflake from below as they hit the water. He wondered if in the interval his father had had second thoughts about a life of drinking.
But as he came closer he saw instead that his father stood at the edge of the boat, pissing over the side.
“You’re such a prick. I’m in here!”
“Hey, don’t rock the boat!” His father produced a low chuckle. “It’s all fluid. You think they don’t shit in this water too?” His father pointed at the sea.
He maneuvered to the far end of the boat. “Anyway.”
“Let’s pretend you got the anchor.”
“It’s tangled with something.”
“We will put it in the boat and make our way home, under the glorious sunset.”
“There’s something else down there. Like a ship or something.”
His father zipped and sat. “There’s no wrecks under the reef. It’s another anchor. Pull that up too.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.”
“They ask: How do you dive so deep? You dive deep. That’s how,” his father said.
“You goddamn do it then.”
“You’re already wet.” His father stood again to look over the side, then took another draught. “You need to learn it.”
“It’s not my life calling, you know? I’m not ever going to be as good as you.”
“Learn it anyway.”
“If we just cut it, they’ll see both anchors, think a storm took them or something. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Too late for that. I want to see what other son-bitch is anchoring up on my reef.”
First, to super-oxygenate his lungs, he hyperventilated, then he took an enormous breath and dove. He was stronger this time, and on the way down his ears hurt less. He’d gotten the lecture before. How he lacked inner fortitude, the ability to withstand pain. You’re as soft as a goddamn jelly fish. You’ve got no grit. Instead of following his father’s renegade path further into the remote and the wilds, he’d become a magazine writer and lived in a city. He married, had children (his father declined to visit); all of whom remained at home while he visited his father deep along the Central American coastline. By every normal measure—if you did not count his father’s opinion of him—he was successful. But it was hard to remember this, in his presence.
An enormous gunwale-gray fish passed across his vision, taking its muscular time, blotting out color, so that his descent experienced a hiccup of forward motion.
Within reach of the anchor, his feet dangling toward the surface,his head seeking further down, he grabbed the other metal first, which turned out to be something other than metal. Stone, or bone, or he wasn’t sure; it was covered in a slippery film of algae, which when scraped away revealed white. It was not an anchor, but a large looping handle that curved into the sea floor. He pulled hard and dust rose around the circular area where it lay. Like a plastic ring you might acquire at a carnival, he thought, only enormous. Its face sat against the sea floor, the girth of the stone handle that of his wrist. He gave another pull with all his strength and felt it give the slightest budge. The monstrous fish swam above him now, casting him into shadow. He thrashed away at an angle and shot for the surface, where he could see the shimmery image of his father leaning over the side of the boat. His lungs began to crush inward and then he breached into sunlight.
“You came back. Started to worry about you.”
“No, not really. I started to worry about my anchor. And that I might have to get out of this goddamn boat.”
“I saw a huge fish.”
“He won’t hurt you.”
“And there was a handle. It’s attached to a circular thing, like a big portal fallen off a ship.”
For a moment, his father’s eye caught on the horizon, but he himself could see nothing in the direction he looked.
“I said there was a sort of handle.”
“I heard you. Neverthelesset, is there or is there not an anchor.”
“I’ll get your anchor.”
His father nodded and sat heavily in the boat.
Oliver grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself halfway up the side, so that he could dangle and rest his legs. The bottle was empty in the bottom of the boat. His father leaned slowly backwards, but then he swung forward and began to shout what may have been a song, if his father had anything to his voice but pea gravel:
“The hole at the bottom of the sea!
You’ll find it and that’s all there’ll be!
You’ll find it when you’re old and cannot see!
No one knows!
What’s inside the hole
in the bottom of the sea!”
His father leaned all the way back in his seat now, so that his back lay across their gear and his head wedged in an uncomfortable position at bow.
“What the hell was that.”
“What you were talking about. The ocean’s plug. I heard tell it’s around here somewhere.”
“That makes no sense.”
His father closed his eyes. “El agujero en el fondo del mar.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
As he kicked downward with his flippers, his body felt eleven years old, to match the age his mind became in the presence of his father. His adolescent muscles frantically flailed with defeated inefficiency. But as he got deeper, his adulthood slowly returned, and his strokes downward became stronger and more self-assured.
The enormous fish made tight, sentry-like turns along the bottom of the sea floor, between the coral canyons.
The fish would not hurt him, his father had said. Still, they were two there in the space near the anchor, two consciousnesses, two planetary entities. The fish clearly the larger of them by several factors. When it swam in his direction, he did his best to acknowledge it by looking it in the eye and giving it a grim smile. A single bubble escaped from the corner of his mouth. The fish’s eye tracked its rise, and then it resumed its sea-floor pacing.
The idea of a plug for the ocean was preposterous. A ship’s hatch, a chucked-overboard he-didn’t-know-what. Did his father think it let the ocean out or let it in? If the ocean drained out, where did it go? Into the center of the Earth? And who put such a thing there?
This time he wrestled with the anchor, whose rope had tangled with the handle of the thing. The old man did not have many years left, and he worried that the plug was more evidence of his father’s slipping grasp of reality. You should go see him, his wife had said. He wondered if any of this mattered to his father; if they were closer for it.
The fish brushed too close for him, and the anchor would not come: between the rope and the anchor, it had looped about the handle a few times, as if someone had wanted them there. Around the anchor were the remains of the coral it had broken off as it descended and scraped. The dead coral peppered the sea floor, the ocean’s gravemarkers. His chest began to throb and pull for oxygen. He pushed off with his feet and shot like an arrow for the surface.
As he came alongside the boat he heard the sound of his father’s snore.
“Old man,” he said. In sleep his facial muscles were slack. He looked terribly old. His face wrecked by sun and sea. He looked away so as not to see his father’s face any more, nor to be caught looking while he slept. “Hey, I’m working here.”
His father awoke into song: “Working nine-to-five. What a way to make a livin’.”
“I can’t get your goddamn anchor.”
“Of course you can’t.
“City boys can’t dive.”
“Lay off, man.”
“Going to have to row back in the dark. You know how to navigate?”
“Case and point.”
“It’s caught on that thing, tied around it.”
“I ought to sink this boat, make you swim in.”
“OK,” Oliver said. “Seems like you might have a little more to lose than me there, but go for it.”
“I’m tired of waiting here!” His father stood unsteadily in the boat and glared down at him. “I’m drunk and I’m bored.”
Oliver snorted, and in the process inhaled seawater, so that he spent a moment self-consciously coughing.
“You get back in the boat, I’ll go down.” His father put his diving goggles on, so that he looked like a mad aviator.
“I’ll go with you.”
“Whatever you want, jelly fish.”
His father leapt from the boat’s bench seat and arced into a dive, all of the rotting muscles and slack skin finding sleek purpose in the sudden transition to water. Once under, his father did not surface for air.
Crappy barked at his master’s disappearance and ran between sides of the boat.
Oliver took a breath and followed him down, feeling the exhaustion of the previous dives in him.
He swam through the turquoise, glistening with the slivers of exotic fish, and down into the dim world below, where the enormous fish continued its lonely swim near their anchor. His father’s feet, gnarled and calloused, receded into the distance, and he wondered how the old man swam so fast without fins, as drunk as he was.
By the time he caught up, his father stood on the sea floor, the strange handle in his hands. In the current his father’s thin hair stood loose and undulated like a groping bit of seaweed.
His wife had said: The reason you go see an estranged parent is to not be like them, and he understood what she meant. His job was to reacquaint himself with the peculiarities of his father, to check those against his own, to figure out which had been blooming unbeknownst within him, passed down silently from generation to generation; a sly violence, a desire to be left alone, a way of poisoning conversation, every compliment loaded with barbs.
His father ran his hands along the handle, clearing the slick of sea sludge from it, which revealed the bone-white underneath. Then he looked up at Oliver and grinned.
Oliver’s air had begun to run out, and his father pointed them back to the surface, and then passed him on the way up as well, his body half-seal, carving between the molecules of water.
That they had not fetched the anchor meant more deliberation, and at least one more dive down to discover whatever it was that lay below. He wished only to be rowing home.
With one arm gripping the side of the boat Oliver leaned his head against the side and let the ocean’s movements jostle him for a moment. He was exhausted.
His father’s face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Oliver thought: this will be the moment he has a heart attack.
“Ho! It’s the goddamn plug. It’s the hole in the ocean.”
“You didn’t get the anchor.”
“Other fish to fry, peckerwood!”
His father hoisted himself halfway up and rummaged around in the boat. “You drink the rest?”
“You drank the rest.”
“Son of a bitch,” he turned to wink, ever-enjoying the curse’s claim upon his ex-wife.
“Listen—it’s too dark to be doing this. Let’s mark the spot. We’ll row home.”
“You don’t understand what I’m saying.” His lifted his goggles up, baring the red pressure rings around his eyes. He gripped Oliver’s bicep with one hand, his other hand held the boat. His eyes bulged wide: “It is the hole in the ocean.” A sputtering of sea-salt spittle followed.
“What does that even—?”
“I don’t know yet, boy!” he released Oliver’s arm and tapped his own temple. “How will we know until we open it?”
His father’s head disappeared below the water, leaving Oliver alone for a moment to sigh and cuss. Then he dived after him. But his father was not ahead; there was no sign of him. He glanced toward the surface and saw his father’s legs on the other side of the boat. Oliver doubled back.
His father rummaged about in the thick layer of detritus at the bottom of the boat—”I’d chuck this shit overboard if you weren’t along.”—Socks, fishing line, beer cans, old plastic bags from long-eaten snacks, and the fish they’d speared, having breathed their last breaths. From it emerged a half-drunk bottle of Rosé.
“You sure that’s still good?”
With the cork off his father took a healthy pull off the bottle, and followed it with an uneven expression.
“It’s gone bad, hasn’t it.”
His father scowled at him. “Wine doesn’t go bad.”
“Pretty sure it does. That one started bad. Can’t have improved much in the bottom of the boat.”
“It’s a little bit bad.”
“Can I just talk some sense into you for a moment.”
“Here—” His father re-corked the wine, and then disappeared below the surface again, and reappeared next to him. “Have a drink.”
Oliver measured the partial drunk his body already worked, alcohol and exhaustion and sun all laying their claims upon him. The sun sat just above the horizon now. The turquoise below him had dimmed. He took a drink anyway.
“A fine vintage. Sparkling nail polish remover.”
His father laughed and slapped him on the back. “Snob!” He was clearly having a good time now, and Oliver was loath to interrupt it. The two of them companionable in the golden light, each with an arm on the boat, smiling at each other as they floated above some strange new discovery in the waters below.
“That is the largest goddamn Grouper I’ve ever seen.”
“— that fish?”
“That sonofabitch knows something. Where’s my diving light?”
After his father disappeared below the water, Oliver dipped his head below the surface to watch him descend, until he could see him no more. Crappy ran from edge to edge of the boat, as he did every time the old man went below.
“Hey Crappy,” he said. “That’s enough.”
To his surprise the dog calmed and stared down at him in the water. Perhaps the dog did not worry, with his small frantic mind, but only performed the duty he’d been taught, and having been excused of it he was free to ponder other things. It was hard not to apply the analogy to himself. In an unsettling moment of introspection he wondered how many of his own habits were simply his replaying back the chords he’d been taught.
He very much doubted there existed such a thing as a hole in the ocean. To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.
What was a hole in the Ocean for? It seemed more akin to
The knot in a balloon
The cork in a bottle of wine
The pin in the grenade
It was no finishing touch on some design, it was the kill switch. A terror crept into him. He felt incredibly small, a tiny, insignificant dot, treading water above the opening, in a wide, open sea. At the moment, he did not know in which direction land lay. The sun lay half in the ocean, half out. He lowered his face into the water to search out his father and saw a glow deep down.
Lifting his head up he said: “Crappy?”, and the dog perked up. “When given a choice, I have only ever known him to take the worst one.”
The dog barked his agreement.
He turned and swam hard for the light. The water’s turquoise hue had gone, leaving a murkiness with hints of large creatures at the edges of his vision.
Following the anchor rope he passed the coral canyon walls, now ominous objects in his periphery. Further down, the dark form of the grouper paced in the narrow box over the portal, and he swam hard to miss its trajectory. The diving light sat at the hatch’s edge, the anchor remained tangled with the handle. There was no sign of his father.
His air dwindled and Oliver flipped and swam hard for the surface, bursting into the air as the last tip of the sun hovered at the water’s horizon. He called out and the dog answered, but his father did not.
He gulped another, insubstantial breath of air and then dived again, wishing he’d not left the diving light on the sea floor. The panicked breath did not hold. He floundered mid-way between the sea floor and the surface, scanning frantically, and then returned to the dwindling light. Without the iron will of his father there, the sea felt endless. It was not only his father’s safety that crossed his mind.
This was how his father would go, he thought. This was the only way. His father brought him down here specifically to disappear into the wild, down some hole, to lose himself even further. And Oliver was here to clean up whatever mess he left behind.
He held onto the boat’s edge and panted. As the sea darkened, the diving light below shone more brightly. He knew then he would have to open the ocean’s plug and peek inside.
“Crappy,” he said.
The dog whined in answer.
“Fuck knuckle,” he said, hoping to divine some part of his father, “shit nozzle. Crutch sucker.” Then he took the proper breath and dived again, using the anchor rope to hand-over-hand his way into the depths and toward the light.
He retrieved the light and trained it on the grouper above him, who continued its relentless pacing across the space. The fear was burning all his oxygen; his breath was finished and so he rose.
At the surface his exhaustion pummeled him. He tried to strap the diving light to his wrist while he treaded water and could scarcely keep his head above the surface.
“Dad!” He yelled out into the dusk, and the old man’s dog answered with a reciprocal yelp.
There was no time to waste. With the diving light on, he dove again, pushing his worn muscles hard to reach the bottom. He knew what he must do.
He gripped the bone-white handle and pulled. The hatch was heavy and did not move. He braced his feet and pulled harder. Stubbornly it swung toward him until it was fully open.
But what lay below it was only sea floor. A shellfish skittered away; something retreated further down a small, rough hole. His chest had begun to convulse but he ignored it as he searched the circular indentation left by the hatch at the bottom of the sea, hoping somehow his father might manifest where there was no space to do so. He swung his light in an arc, but no body floated unconscious at its periphery.
Then with deft, brute force he freed the anchor and swam hard for the top.
He clutched the edge of the boat and heaved. He’d swallowed some water, and it came out of him along with the Rosé and Tequila and whatever other crap he’d put down there over the course of the day: Central American convenience store fare, packaged in small neon-colored bags, which his father had purchased for their outing. With the diving light he continued to strobe the water, below and above, but there was no sign of the man.
“Crappy,” he said, but the boat was quiet.
He wearily pulled himself up the side and there found his father passed out at the bottom of the boat, his small dog asleep next to him.
“You sonofabitch,” he said. He pulled himself the rest of the way in, vaguely aware he emitted a low groan, the sound of an exhaustion. Once in, he began to haul in the freed anchor.
“You selfish drunk bastard,” he said. “You selfish sonofabitch.”
His father made no response, other than the buzz of his snore.
After the anchor was onboard he sat and stared down into the water. The night was still.
He realized suddenly he could not leave it there.
His reasoning was difficult to parse out. It would make his father angry, to see the thing that had so stalled them in his boat, and there was some impetus there. But his desire to remove it contained elements of their lifelong petty war, over what you keep and what you throw away, what you guard and what you leave to wreak havoc. He himself was a sort of throwaway. He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.
But he also just wanted it, a massive souvenir from the ocean’s floor.
He untied the anchor from its rope, lowered his goggles, and turned the diving light back on. Then he slipped over the side into the water, trailing the rope down into the darkness with him.
His arms ached with every stroke.
This time the grouper seemed to stop and observe him, its enormous black eyes reflecting the glow of the light, its behemoth undulating body paused.
He had all the breath in the world now. Or perhaps time had stopped without his knowing, the universe paused to observe this unexpected act, to see what would happen next. He heard little in the dark movements of the reef, the sea calm above, the boats all gone home but one. He looped the anchor rope around the handle of the fallen hatch and tied it fast. Then he swam for the dark surface, following his own bubbles in the diving light for cues to direction.
“You got something on the line?”
“Your ocean plug. Hauling it out.”
“But what if—anyway, what you want that for.”
His father sat up and lent a hand. They both strained against the line until the object surfaced, heavy and metallic. The weight of it pulled the edge of the boat lower.
“Cut it,” his father snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s coming with us.”
“What the hell are you going to do with it?”
“It’s my business.”
“It’s my business,” his father mocked.
They heaved and pulled the heavy disk into the boat. Crappy barked and ran to the far end. After the exertion, they panted and did nothing for a moment.
“Don’t anchor your fucking boat on the reef again,” Oliver said, “or I’ll cut your balls off.”
His father did not reply, and the comment stayed over-harsh in the night, a bit of venom from the younger snake, taking cues from the older. Instead his father lay back in his seat, and a few minutes later he heard his snore again.
“Please,” he whispered much later, too late for his father to hear it, uncomfortable still with the harshness of his request.
Crappy came to sniff what they’d pulled from the sea, and then returned to sleep next to his master.
“At least he loves you,” Oliver said, not sure whether he referred to the animal or the man. But the bitterness of it instantly faded. He would fly back tomorrow to his own family, where the subject of love was not a question. He put the oars in the oar locks and began to maneuver the boat in the direction he believed to be land, caring less about getting there by night’s end than he expected.
As he rowed toward his father’s home, the stars filled in the black canvas above.
The moon rose, slivery and delicate, a dark yellow hook at the Ocean’s edge, which he pointed his prow toward. And in the dim light, he watched the cargo of the boat gently rock with each oar-stroke, the old man, the dead fish, the small dog, and the glistening hatch that had covered the hole in the bottom of the sea.
God planted an olive tree between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.
A dove had snatched an olive from a farmer’s cart, and dropped it in her flight over Shekhem. It landed in a quiet corner of the valley.
The seed nestled into the earth, and began its silent, invisible unfolding, sending roots into the deep, until the seedling poked above the ground, and grew into a sapling. It stretched up, blending light from above with water from below to build itself, cell by cell. Slowly, slowly, its trunk hardened, its branches spread, and in the seventh year, it began to bring forth fruit.
Years turned to decades, decades to centuries. The tree’s dense trunk gained girth and grew gnarled and knotted. Each year its branches became heavy with olives, and then gradually shed them, scattering fruit for the animals to eat and assist in the tree’s task of spreading its seed. The young shoots took root. As time went on, a modest grove had grown along the foot of the hill. The trees stood together through the sandstorms and rainfalls, the parched desert winds and the occasional dusting of snow.
One summer a young man was walking through the valley and he stumbled across the grove. He sat in the tree’s shade and ran his hands over its bark, and a few days later he was back with water and strange implements of a hard, shiny material the tree had never known before. The man’s sweat dripped down his beard and the locks of hair by his ears as he trimmed and watered. The tree could not know what he was doing, but when the man left, it felt lighter, healthier, more alive.
It could not have been a week before another young man came across the grove, from the other side of the hill. His skin was darker, and a checkered scarf was tied around his neck. He also ran his hands along the tree’s bark, and plucked a sample of its leaves. He, too, was back soon with water and implements similar to the one the other man had brought, and he began to work on the other trees in the grove.
For months, unbeknownst to one another, the men came to care for the trees. It was the day after the first rain when they finally met. The man with the beard was resting in the shade of the father tree when the other man approached. Their eyes met, and both of them froze. For a moment, neither of them moved. The man with the beard discreetly slid his hand towards a lump of hard black on his hip. But the other man said something, nodding towards the trees.
Neither the tree nor the man with the beard understood the words, but something in their tone made the man relax his grip on the lump. He stood, slowly and carefully, and said other words, different words, that neither the tree nor the man with the scarf could understand. But something in their tone made the man with the scarf smile. And soon the two men were walking through the grove together, pointing to the trees and saying more words.
They continued visiting the grove from either side of the hill. Sometimes they worked alone, but sometimes they met. And when they did, they smiled and helped each other with their work. They clapped each other on the back and laughed, and they embraced before parting.
The rainy season was beginning in earnest, and the tree’s branches were heavy, heavier than they had been in many years. The tree waited for the young men to relieve it of its burden.
But one day a group of other young men came across the grove, and began to harvest the olives. And the next day, another group came. The tree could tell that they were different; one spoke in the words of the man with the beard, and one in the words of the man with the scarf.
And when the day came that both groups arrived at the same time, the tree expected that they would greet one another and work together to reap the fruits of their labor, as the first two young men had done.
But that is not what happened.
There was shouting, and noise, and scuffling. And those sharp implements that the tree had only known to care for it and its offspring were swung, scattering bark and leaves and blood. There was fire.
And that tree, the tree planted by God hundreds of years ago between Mt. Grizim and Mt. Ebal, was hacked in half, its trunk cracked and split down the middle, its great crown of olive branches crashing to the ground.
Men in uniforms came to pull the fighting men apart. They tied some of them up and dragged them away, and the others fled to either side of the hill.
The rain fell in a great torrent, putting out the flames with a hiss of steam.
And when the rain subsided, two men made their way to the grove from either side of the hill. One with a beard, and one with a scarf. They met there in silence, and stared out over the stump of the tree they had both cared for so tenderly.
They turned to one another and fell into each other’s arms and wept.
Don’t expect it to be like this much longer.