Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: fiction

Death and the treasure

A rider appeared outside the camp at midnight. In his left hand, he held a scroll; in his right, a severed head.

As this rider approached the centre of the camp, every door was opened for him, and silent courtiers ushered him towards the seat of power. This was the camp of King Zheng of Qin, who had chosen to conquer all of the Seven Warring States, and bring everything under Heaven into his hands. Now he had turned his armies towards the northern state of Yan. The severed head belonged to Fan Yuqi, a general who had betrayed King Zheng to fight for his enemies. Now the rider threw his head on the table before the king. Then, more delicately, he placed down the scroll. Son of Heaven, he said, I have presented you with these two treasures as a gift. This head is the lesser treasure; I have brought it so you will know I am your friend. The greater treasure is this scroll, which is a map of the state of Yan which you wish to conquer, the most accurate map ever made.

Slowly, the rider unrolled the map from west to east, pointing out all the features of Yan: the roads along which Zheng might march his armies and the towers that defended them; the villages that were good for plunder and the lean wastelands where barbarians roam. Soon Zheng saw that this map really was the most accurate ever made. He examined a minor river, and something in the ink made the water seem to churn and flow. Zheng saw clumps of ice floating in the rapids and fields glittering with springtime frost; he heard the lively chatter of the peasant-women as they took their clothes to be washed, and smelled the good sharp smell of logs burning in a stove. When he peered closer he could even see, between the brushstrokes, the footprints of those women, stamped deep in the half-frozen mud. For an instant, Zheng felt that he was very small, and the map on his table was larger than the room, larger than his tent or the camp that contained it, until it sprawled as vast as the kingdom of Yan itself.

What the Son of Heaven did not know was that the man in his tent was an assassin sent by the Crown Prince of Yan, and that his enemy Fan Yuqi had given bis life willingly to help the plot. This assassin had hidden a slender dagger inside the map, and once the entire kingdom had been unrolled, he would seize the dagger and thrust it into King Zheng’s heart. But once the map lay flat on the table, there was no dagger to be seen. Instead, the map showed a large island in the Gulf of Zhili formed in the shape of a dagger: an island that had never been known of before, with many pastures where the blade had been sharpened, many orchards along the line of its grooves, and many cities with strong walls where precious stones had been inlaid in the dagger’s hilt.

At once, King Zheng understood the plan, and he had the assassin buried alive in the black earth. Using the map, he quickly conquered the kingdom of Yan. Afterwards, he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of Qin. Then he sent a fleet out into the sea, and found an island there in the shape of a dagger with many pastures, many orchards, and many cities with strong walls, which was populated by his enemies, and thousands of them were slain.

* * *

This story comes to us in two parts. They are pieces of a puzzle, and each is slightly less than half of the whole.

In the first part, there is a poor merchant who lives in Cairo. Once he was rich, but his fortune has vanished; he had to sell his scented palace, and now he lives in a hovel where the dust in the courtyard piles up against the trunk of a long-dead olive tree. But one night, this merchant had a dream. In his dream he saw a beautiful mosque with four minarets and two golden domes stood side by side; the minarets were also coated in gold and carved with all the names of God. In his dream, the poor merchant heard the voice of an angel, who said to him: your treasure is here; find this place, and dig. In his days this merchant had travelled up and down the valley of the Nile, but he had never seen a mosque like this one, and neither had any of his fellows. He tried to draw the mosque of his dreams, but with each version he made it felt as if the image was fading, and every picture was only a more imperfect copy of the last. One day, he presented a painting to a very old traveller who now begged on the streets. Where he had once tried to show the mosque in every false detail – the walls with their mosaics, the pleasant avenues with their trees, the way the light burned on the golden domes, and the cool waters of the sabil – now, there were only six lines: two curving for the domes, four straight for the minarets. I know this place, said the beggar; I didn’t recognise it before. I saw it when I was a much younger man: this is the mosque of al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad.

At once the merchant set off in a caravan for Baghdad. It was night when they arrived in the city, but he saw those golden domes shining above him, and ran to the mosque to dig up its grounds. Soon the noise woke some people in the nearby houses: they sent for the guards, who seized the merchant and beat him with palm-rods until he was all but dead. Finally he was brought before the head of the Caliph’s police, who asked who he was and why he, a stranger, had come to Baghdad only to desecrate its mosque. The merchant, who was an honest man, told him about his dream, but the chief only laughed. You idiot, he said, don’t you know that dreams mean nothing? Let me tell you a story: not long ago, I had a dream in which I saw a poor hovel in Cairo with a dead olive tree in the courtyard; a voice told me that a great treasure was buried there. But I wasn’t foolish enough to actually go to Egypt and start digging up someone else’s garden. Now, he concluded, go back to your own country, and don’t trouble us again.

The merchant travelled back to Cairo and returned to his hovel. He uprooted the dead olive tree in his courtyard and dug; on the third day he found a jar full of faceless gold coins, worth just as much as the money he had lost, to the last uqiyyah.

The second part is also about a merchant of Cairo, but this one is rich. While attending the market in Baghdad, he was jostled by a stranger. He looked up: the stranger was hidden in white robes, but his face was unmistakeable. This was Azra’il, the angel of death, and the figure cast a terrifying glare on the merchant; it started to walk towards him. It is said that only those who are about to die can see the the angel of death. This merchant was a healthy man, even in his age, but there are many ways to die, especially in a foreign city. The merchant fled. Leaving his wares behind, he took his fastest horse and set off across the desert to Egypt, his home, where death would not be able to find him. He made the journey a night and a day; exhausted, he collapsed on the ground in front of his hone. The ride had been hard, the sun merciless, the ground rocky and broken. Now, soft lights burned in the windows of his house, and a scented air came from the gardens – but after such an ordeal he could barely manage to crawl through the gates. At last, a pair of feet appeared in front of him. He looked up to see the face of Azra’il. You have caught me, said the merchant, but tell me: why did you threaten me when I saw you in Baghdad? The angel of death knelt, and as the merchant drew his last breath he replied: I was not threatening you; I was only surprised to see you in Baghdad, since I knew that we had an appointment here in Cairo, tonight, at your house.

Both of these stories have the same form; only a few of the details change. In one, a poor man chases treasure; in the other, a rich man flees from death – but both go on a journey only to find that its cause was already waiting for them. In both there is the apparition of an angel, in both a mystery. Who buried the coins? And why would Azra’il be at the market, when the angel of death has nothing to buy or sell?

Perhaps these tales describe the same merchant: once he was poor, and then he became rich; God, in His wisdom and for the edification of His worshippers, chose to humble His slave according to the same design with which He had rewarded him. But there are some who say that these two men were the same in a more subtle sense. It is known that the followers of Pythagoras held to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: across the span of many lives, a man is made to repeat the same journey, without end. In one generation he crosses the sands for riches, in another he only wants to live – but he does not wonder why there is already a set of tracks leading across the desert. Once this man was Brutus, then he was Judas, tomorrow he might be the brother in your house. Perhaps God creates such individuals only once: in the crystal prism of time their number seems to increase, but in eternity there is a single creature, walking in his own footprints for the first and only time.

Perhaps – and this is the doctrine of the more melancholy scholars – the rich merchant was the first, and the poor merchant came afterwards. After we die, they say, a mourning angel performs one last cruelty. The body that is still here after you have gone: deep in the black earth, it suffers a change, and every heart forever stilled becomes a cold hard blank gold coin.

The most sorrowful of all are those who say that both tales are really a single tale, and that in some mystical sense, glimpsed only by the sages, death and the treasure were one and the same thing.

May God, the most glorified, the most high, who knows all things, protect us from what we seek.

* * *

In the town of Kuttenberg in Bohemia there was a monastery and a silver mine, and all the men were either monks or miners. In their abbey, the monks – who were Cistercians, and wore white – praised the Blessed Virgin at all the appointed hours, but the miners – who wore black, so they would be dressed well for their funerals – knew that another power also rules the earth. In the labyrinth of that mine, there were a few hidden grottoes that were the Devil’s chapels: a miner would throw the rough Baphomet a crust of bread on his way into the mine, and then thank the saints for his safety on the way out again. You can afford few enemies underground.

This man was a miner. Every day he would tap on the window of his bride-to-be as he walked up to the mountain and kiss her good morning. In the evenings, when he returned with a face blacker than his shirt and silver nuggets in his pockets, he would tap again. The date of the wedding was set for the feast of St Lucia: the shortest day of winter, when all the world wears silver robes. On that day he, too, would wear a coat of white.

On the morning before their wedding came the knock, but the evening was silent. She waited long into the night, and when morning came again she folded up her white dress and put it away forever.

In those first few weeks, she would sometimes look at the mountain that rose high above Kuttenberg, and think: he is there. Somewhere behind the walls of stone, in that vast underground world where veins of silver glitter in the dark and the bodies of men disappear. How could she ever forget him? He was made of solid rock now, and his monument would stand over the town, unchanging, forever.

But she did forget. After only a few months, she could no longer conjure his voice in her head when she felt lonely, and when it was winter again, she had trouble recalling his face. The man became a gap in her world. He had only disappeared; she was the one that was dying. Whole regions of herself falling away. That sharp hopeful glance when he came to tap on her window: she would never glance that way again. She’d lost a way of turning her head and opening her eyes, like the amputees whose arms were crushed in the mines – only what she was missing was her face, her lips, her throat. There was no one else she could speak to in the way she’d spoken to her husband-to-be: a part of her voice was locked away where there’s no air to breathe.

But not in her dreams. In dreams he would visit her, with a face that was cloudy and couldn’t be looked at, but which was always his: as immediately his as the ant crossing a sunbeam is itself. She would forget that he was in the mountain, which meant that she forgot to say all the things she needed him to hear. Like I miss you. Like come back. When she woke, it was like that first evening again, and all she wanted was to sleep: sink deep into the stillness of silver seams and stone.

Years passed, and the mountain changed as well. Engineers arrived from every corner of the Empire with new methods and new ideas. Some of them tore open the face of the mountain and smashed up boulders to get at the treasure inside. They built machines: first the wheels were turned by horses on treadmills, then by pistons and steam. Soon the charcoal-burners had stripped the hills of their forests; black smoke poured incessantly from the peak. Everything in Kuttenberg was coated in sticky soot. Even the white habits of the Cistercians turned grey, so they fled the abbey, which was taken over by tax collectors. Men in dark livery who demanded to be paid in silver thalers, since the ground was now too poor to farm and the streams too poisoned to fish. The families who had once lived here moved out, and new people moved in. Dead cattle rotted in their fields, but there were no flies in this sour air. Only thick heavy crows, who hopped on both feet between the exposed ribs, uttering dark and joyful cries.

The machines on the peak were used to pump out old mine-shafts. Some had been flooded with water, some with oil of vitriol, or aqua valens, or any of the other poisons that collect in a working mine. One day they drained a long-abandoned cavern, and when the miners went inside they found a nugget of silver bigger than any they’d ever seen. Hauling it out into the open air, they found that it was not a lump of metal at all, but a man. Some miracle of alchemy had occurred in that mine: a precipitate of silver had formed around the corpse, so that nothing could decay. This man’s face was as full and lively as it had been on the day he went into the mountain, for all that his eyes were fixed open in their silver casing. Still, nobody in Kuttenberg could recognise him. Nobody knew the dead man’s name. He might have fallen into that pool of vitriol the night before it was drained – or he might have been an ancient of these hills, who dug out their silver ten centuries ago.

For a day they let the silver man lie on the church altar, the brightest thing in that black and ruined town. All the people came to look at this marvel, even the blind old woman who had always lived alone in her little wooden house, who went out in a mourner’s shawl even though she had never been married. She ran her fingers over the cold silver of his face, and there was something she remembered there, even though she couldn’t remember what it was. When it was done they put him in the black earth again: a small plot in the churchyard, unmarked, to await the final call.

It was the shortest day of winter; the day of Saint Lucia’s feast.

* * *

Once there was a man of the Umuako whose wife fell ill and died. After she was buried he left his home, which was too full of her things, and his native land, which was too foggy with her memories. For years he walked, seeking a place he had heard about long ago: the shining city of the immortals where there is no death. He knew he would find this place when he came to a village without a graveyard, where there were no beloved corpses to be sent into the black earth, and at last he found one. Here every house had copper wire woven into the thatch, and the mud walls were studded with dozens of copper bracelets; each ngwulu contained the fortune of twenty lifetimes. The eze of this village invited the traveller to dine with him as a guest, and the traveller accepted. As they were eating a stew of well-seasoned meat, the traveller noticed that this eze lived with only his wives and children in the family compound. Respected igwe, the traveller said, if this truly is the city of the immortals, then where are your mother and your father? Or is it the custom in your land for fathers to live apart from their sons? No, said the eze, my parents are here. And he pointed downwards at the traveller’s bowl.

The itch

The universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes.
An old French lai

It doesn’t take much to be exiled from this village, which sprawls in timber and straw by the mouth of the river. A limp is enough. A child born with fingers scrunched, a hare lip, or his knees pointed in. This one had an itchy eye. Most eyes want to look; for whatever reason, her eye wanted to be touched – and not gently. Better a rubbing knuckle than a stroke, better still a fingernail to dig and tear. It satisfied nothing, but once she’d started it was so hard to stop. The more you rub, the more it hurts, the more you keep on rubbing. Dig into the pain, deeper; claw through into the ugly and endless pleasure of an itch.

She might have been beautiful, but soon the skin around her left eye became thin and raw and shed small white flakes. Something other eyes couldn’t bear to see. When she scratched too hard there was blood, and afterwards the wound crusted over. Where the dirt got in, it bubbled and seeped. An eye set in a ring of boiling flesh. Nobody ever threw her out of the town, and no door was ever barred to her, but she never married, and eventually she went away to live in the hills. Higher than the trees will grow or the herds will graze, in the great blistered interior of the land, where winter winds scrape against the naked rock. There, in a little sheltered crevasse, she built her shack with yellowing moss on the roof, cultivated her garden, enjoyed the secret joys of her eye, and at long last she grew old there, alone.

This is the story of how the itch finally cost her the eye.

It wasn’t only the lame or the harelipped that vanished from this town. There was the girl whose footsteps led down across a meadow to the banks of a bright cold spring; there were no footsteps leading out. Another girl became a voice singing to herself in the forest, which you can still hear on moonless nights, when the sheep on their hillsides twitch worried noses and the insects fear to creak. Her high brave voice in the hollow of the woods. One girl, they say, was offered a ride out of town by a strange carter whose wheels left no ruts in the road. He kept his promise: she was never seen again.

Where did they go? On its outcrop, just over the river from the town with its streets dug through tight-packed dung, the English earl had his castle. Like an enormous gemstone: its high sheer curtain walls, its turrets. At low tide, the river was shallow enough to wade clear across. The brownish silt would suck at your shoes, and when it gave them up it released the smell of sulphur. When the people went across to pay their taxes, they would track mud over the smooth clean flagstones. This felt like part of the design: a reminder that you are a stain on the world. A generation ago, when Madog ap Llywelyn rose up to reclaim this land, the English knights fanned out from that castle over the countryside, burning fields and houses, killing fathers and taking away girls. Eventually they stopped burning the fields, but they still rode out for the girls. Everyone knew they kidnapped any young woman who went wandering the paths at night. She would be bundled up and carried away, off to that cold sheer castle to cook and clean and sew. And because everyone knew this, they never had to mention all the girls whose own families had sent them over the river. In a little stone room, the earl’s reeve would look a girl up and down, put a hand on her thigh or her forearm, squeeze. Smack his wet lips, nod, and pay her father with a handful of silver coins. There were many families ashamed and close to starving with a stash of silver coins buried in the soot of the hearth.

But there was also the girl on the rocks. She had been a crofter’s daughter; betrothed to a slight young man who crabbed along the shores of the bay, who knew the pools where scuttling things went to hide. This crabber was the one who found her there one morning, her back arched over the curve of a great boulder jutting out into the sea. Her body hung with seaweed and slime: a funeral robe. Her eyes still open: hard staring icy blue. They buried that girl in the black of the ground, but the crabber wouldn’t go. Around the same time, he started to drink. Outside the wake he leaned on a yew-tree and laughed in the mourners’ faces: that’s only a thing you’re burying, shit-brains, go on, go weep for your wooden doll. The family had to throw rocks until he left. In the night, he’d wander drunk over the rocks by the shore, calling her name. Because the girl he loved was still alive. Because the real girl’s eyes were green.

One night, many years later, this crabber wandered too far, until he found himself in a part of the country he’d never seen before. Lost and hungry, with frost forming in the grey of his beard, he ranged over the hillsides until the forests fell away and the grass became hard scratchy scrub. He thought he might die of cold. But finally, he reached the crest of a hill and saw beneath him a large stone house, with flowers growing up the walls and a warm light in every window. As he came closer, he could hear the lively music and the chatter of guests, spilling out of the doors, lounging around the scented gardens. The smell of roasting meat, and a sudden warmth in the air, like those close clammy summer nights when even at midnight the birds announce the dawn. When the guests noticed him, they crowded around; they told him how wonderful it was to see him and how glad they were he’d finally come. We have a place for you, they said, we’ve been waiting so long. What was this party? A wake, they said. These people were tall and beautiful and dressed like gentlemen, but they spoke to him in his own language. They offered him wine and meat. Starving, he accepted. One of them took him by the hand and led him inside, but just as he was about to pass through the door a young servant-girl grabbed his arm. Leave, she hissed, do not eat their food or drink their wine; it will turn to soil in your mouth, and this funeral is yours. He was almost at the doorway before he turned. The house was so warm and inviting, with its hundreds of candles and its mingling of perfumed skin. It felt, in a way he couldn’t describe, like sleep. But when he turned he saw the side of the servant-girl’s face, and her eye as green as pond-weed or the fields after rain.

The crabber woke on that rock, his back arched over the curve of the boulder, strewn with seaweed and slime. Overnight, banks of ice had built up by the foot of the stone. But in the scratchy scrub-hills high above the bay, he found a circle of ash burned into the earth, and a few singed petals still drifting on the wind.

The people in the village knew better than to disbelieve him, but they kept their distance all the same. The man was elf-touched; he had lingered by the gates of that other kingdom. Everyone knew it was there. The place of the invisible people who live underground, more ancient than the treeless hills, as deep in this country as its slate or its coal. They were here before the Normans and the Saxons both, and before the name of Jesus Christ. They speak the language of rustling leaves, or a knock from underneath the hearthstone on a winter’s night. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms might appear in the middle of a grassy field: a fairy-circle. There are places in the forests where people know not to go, where the trees warp in elderly coils, marking the drift of invisible forces in the slow vastness of time. Where the dawn always comes a little later; where boughs carry heavy wolfmoss robes. Where you might find a single human toe, twitching, sprouting from out of the muck.

Sometimes, in the night, they will join a pile of planks into a boat or sew leather into jerkins. If a house is untidy, they will scamper through every room and clean. Our drudgery is play for them; they are lighter and happier than we are. They are the the tylwyth teg, the Fair Family, and they do not know sin or sadness or jealousy or toil. They do not bear the curse of Eve. But because they aren’t serious about it, their work is poor: the boots the fairy-folk stitch tend to fall apart, and most of the thread they spin is useless.

Sometimes they steal human children, and leave one of their own in its place. Spiky-faced infants with rough skin or goat teeth; loud upsetting wails. You can send away a changeling by putting it in the oven or over an open fire; this is how many mothers quietly removed a troublesome or sickly child. But the best way is simply to show the fairy something it hasn’t seen. In view of the cradle, brew beer or boil stew in an empty eggshell. Your baby will exclaim: I am old, so very old; I lived when the oak was an acorn, before the forests grew – but I never saw beer brewed in an eggshell before! Then, discovered, it will vanish, leaving your real child in its place. The changeling is not really a baby.  It’s one of their elders, one whose time has come. For the tylwyth teg, the upper world is where the dead go. We are like shades and spectres to them: so heavy and mournful, bent down in our sadness, diligent in our monasteries, obedient to the law, and regretful when we die.

But for all their lightness, the tylwyth teg must live underground, and they cannot bear the sun. Their lives are in laughter, but they pay their tithes to Hell. They love spinning-wheels, needles, fine clothes, good meat, and good wine; they love music, tiaras, courtly dance, flowers, and golden coins – but the doorway to their other kingdom is far away from all those softer artificial things, high up in the hills where the wind howls against naked rock, where nobody lives except an old woman with red weeping welts all around her eye.

Without much else to do, this old woman became wise. She knew how to make a poultice to treat a broken leg; she knew what herbs to feed a sickly calf and how to tell tomorrow’s weather from the wriggling of the worms. A few times a year she’d be called down to the village to attend a difficult birth. Sometimes the mother would live, and sometimes she did what she could to make her dying easier. She was like the charcoal-burner in his hut or the lonely crabber who still pined among the rocks at night: someone necessary, but best kept far away. Paid in a few sacks of oats come harvest, firewood or fish.  Once, the call went out not from the village but the castle: two riders in chain-mail appeared outside her door, and while she spoke no English they made her understand that she was needed. She had never been on the back of a horse before. Inside the castle, she walked smooth flagstones and peered into its hundreds of halls. She saw girls she might have delivered, twelve or thirteen years old, scurrying around. Sometimes a bowed face to hide the bruise. She delivered the Countess’s child safely, and while the lady kept her head under a silk veil, she still left with the secret that the Earl’s wife kept her cunt in the French manner, without hair. Also a single gold dinar, which dented when she bit it. A line of writing around the edge of the coin testified that there is no god but God.

The only thing she didn’t learn was a cure for her itching eye. She could soothe a nettle-sting or the last gasps of death, but nothing could fix her eye. It wanted to be touched. It wanted to bleed.

Later, her legs grew weak and the hair started thinning on her head. Worst of all, her fingers stiffened. Harder to spin her thread or cook her meals. Eventually she went down to the village again. Crossed the mud-flats to the castle fair, where she might find a servant-girl to help her in her age. It was Christmas: a lean time; much to hoard and little to sell. In shivering tents the villagers displayed their last skinny parsnips, their young skinny daughters, their old skinny mules. Red-faced girls, roughened in the fields – but nobody wanted to hire themselves out to the old woman with the blistered eye. Nobody wanted to live out in the wilderness and the hills, a day’s heavy slog from their cousins and friends. At last, she found a girl who was standing all by herself. She was maybe seventeen years old. Lanky; gormless. An upturned nose; a triangular mouth half-open, showing a pair of rodenty teeth. Wide passive eyes, the eyes of the cows in their marshes. Hair like hay. Skin like sea-scum, or wet uncooked dough. She said her name was Eilian, which is a boy’s name, the name of the Roman saint who built his church on Ynys Môn. But the old woman shrugged. Everything is wrong in the world, so why not a name? She showed Eilian the gold coin, and offered it for a year’s work in her cottage. The girl readily agreed. They walked back together, not speaking, into the high barren hills.

Eilian was impossible to understand. In the mornings she would clean the shack, chop wood, light the fire, milk the goat, and set a pot of llymru bubbling over the hearth. In the afternoons she would churn butter or weed the vegetable garden, in the evenings she would spin, and at night she bedded down with the old woman in her heavy woollen coat. She did everything she was ordered to, but she needed orders. Eilian, chop some firewood. Eilian, light the fire. If she wasn’t told what to do, Eilian would simply sit and stare, her mouth hung open, with that little nub of a chin dangling in the middle of her neck. The old woman had a crwth: one evening, she asked Eilian if she could play. The girl took the thing and plucked a few strings like a child would, grabbing them at random. Pling plang plong. The old woman handed her the bow, and Eilian looked at it without much understanding, before suddenly breaking into a tune of dark rasping beauty, a song that sang with the winds in the black night of the moor. Slow and broken: the heartbreak of the land. It lasted a single minute, and then she handed back the box and continued staring at the wall. That song, whatever it was, had no meaning for her.

When she span in the gloaming, Eilian would take her work outside. Squatting in the snow, she looked like an old half-buried stone. Her curving back, wrapped in a lumpy coat – that was the silhouette of the boulder. The thin hair that snapped about in the furious January winds – that was the last clump, clinging, of summer straw. The silence of the mineral world. Especially since, even though it was hard to make everything out in the yellowy gloom, it looked to the old woman that when she sat outside Eilian’s long listless limbs never actually moved. Still, the work was done; Eilian spun all the wool that could be sheared, more than the old woman could possibly need. And if she forgot to tell Eilian to carry the wool back inside, half a dozen spindles would be left to rot in the snow until morning.

On the first day of spring, Eilian disappeared. After a long day shearing sheep, and a night of unwholesome dreams, the old woman woke to find the place cold and empty. On the hearth, she found a gold coin with Arabic letters stamped around the edge. The girl must have wandered down the hills again, following the goat-paths home with her mouth open and her arms drooping empty by her side. Well, at least she’d returned the coin.

The old woman spent her summer alone, eating little things, mushrooms. When the new year approached again, she only noticed from the stars. A year is like a life is like a day: you come into it bleary and slog through the long dark early reaches, waiting for something to get better, but when it ends it ends all at once.

The call came on the night of the solstice, the longest night of the year. This man looked like he had come up from the castle again: a short man, with a beardless and pretty little face, dressed in fine silks embroidered with golden thread. He asked if she was the midwife, and she said that she was. The man was in a panic, but there was still a kind of laughter swelling out in his cheeks; he was the kind of man who’d smile in his sleep. Not to be trusted. He led her to his horse: the biggest animal the old woman had ever encountered, a snorting monster heavier than a bull, with bright madness foaming from every hole in its face. They did not ride through the hills to the castle. Instead, the master gave a vicious crack of the whip, and the creature bolted higher up into the wilderness. They stopped, finally, by a place the old woman knew well, a patch of high moorland crowned with old stones. But this place was not how she remembered, because between the boulders gaped the mouth of a cave where there had never been a cave before.

The master lit a lantern and led her inside, and when the passage narrowed they crawled. Icicles of stone there, damp grit underfoot. And deeper: marks on the wall, flashes of surging antlers in the lamplight, or huge crude tusks. Once, something had lived here. Greasy scorches of soot, fragments of bone. The old woman knew a tale about a cave like this: a boy had found a gap in the rocks hidden by a scrap of turf, and inside a vast hall of stone where thousands of men in ugly spiked armour lay as if they had died in a heap, each clasping a switch of hazel. Frightened, the boy started to run for daylight, but he hit his head on a large bell suspended from the roof of the cavern. It clanged loud enough to shake the earth, and at once the men jumped up and started to shout: is this the day? Has it dawned? Is this the day? No, the boy managed, not today. Then the warriors went back to sleep. Not long after he emerged from underground, the boy pined away and died; nobody learned what day those men were waiting for. If we are lucky, we might never know.

Here, said the master. Here, in the foggiest depths of the cave, someone had cut a square hole through the rock and placed a heavy golden door. The old woman pushed, and the hinges were as smooth as butter. Inside was the most sumptuous place she’d seen, grander by far than the castle on the strait, maybe grander than the courts of France she’d heard described in ballads. The floor was heavy with richly coloured Persian carpets. The walls were decked in tapestries and furs. A huge fire crackled from its hearth, and everything glowed in its light. The brass baubles, the fine wooden furniture heaped with rare foods. Peaches, cherries, sides of salmon: summer delicacies in December. And a bed. Carefully, the old woman removed her boots so as not to spoil the carpets, and walked on suddenly aching feet over to that bed. The girl there had passed out in her labour, and the sweat was high on her forehead. The master hovered by her side. Save my child, he said, if you can only save one of them, then bring me my son.

She saved both. The boy, when he came, was fat and healthy, bellowing. The mother, pale, exhausted, mostly slept. When she looked at the old woman her face was clouded, only barely aware that someone else was in the room with her. She would take a few days to recover, and in that time the master invited the old woman to stay. She could warm herself by his fire, take whatever she wanted from his table, and tend to the mother and the child. She accepted. Finally, just before he left, the father passed a glass bottle into her hands. This oil, he said, is to be rubbed into my son’s eyes, only gently, but twice every day. And be warned: you must not touch your own eyes with it, not even a drop, or your fate will be terrible indeed.

The baby cried every time she poured the oil over his eyes. The fits would last for hours, each one worse than the last. She did her best to soothe him, bouncing him in her stiff skinny arms. She ate from the table: a few ripe apricots. They were soft and juicy, but not at all sweet. A salty-bitter taste, and something slimy between her teeth. These fruits were barren: without a stone. She looked at the tapestries on the walls, which all depicted hunts. The gentlemen on fine black horses were shown surrounding a bear; they thrust stone-tipped lances and split open the animal’s brains. She examined herself in the large polished bronze mirror, the wreckage of her face. The fire burned high. So why was she so cold? And why did it prick her feet so much to walk on that smooth, well-carpeted floor?

After maybe a night and a day – the place had no windows – the mother started to stir a little. She nursed the child and kissed his angry little scalp. She didn’t speak. She was beautiful, but something about her face troubled the old woman. Maybe she looked a little too much like the old woman herself might have looked, if she’d led a softer life. Once the baby was vomiting little glugs of milk, his mother gave him over to be anointed. The old woman shook a drop of the oil onto her left finger, and rubbed the baby’s eyes; he bawled, she handed him back. Now her eye itched again, so she sat on a chair and scratched. Pulse over the skin of the eyelid, push until the eye bruises the back of its socket. She had been scratching for quite a while until she noticed the slight greasiness between her finger and her eye, and realised that she had rubbed the oil into her own eye. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and opened her eyes.

This is what her right eye saw. There was the well-furnished room, the carpets, the tapestries, the fire, the table, the bed, the food, the baby, and his mother. But the left eye saw something else. It was only a matter of perspective, the slight distance between one eye and another, the world seen from a slightly different angle. Like peering behind a stage to see the ropes and the sawdust. Like peering around the back of a stately manor, where the pigs eat kitchen scraps and shit in the same mire. The left eye saw that this room was not a room, but a wet cavern. That there was no carpet, but the rough rocky floor that had shredded the soles of her feet. That there were no tapestries, but an array of skulls staring with empty sockets from every cranny: the skulls of deer, foxes, bears, and yes, human skulls, fractured, pierced with a stone-tipped lance. That there was no fire, but a fissure in the vault of the cave through which the drizzle came down. Not a table: a moss-furred rock. Not a bed: a stagnant pool of fronds and slime. No summertime fruit, but fat white feasting slugs. The left eye saw that the baby was a monstrous imp, covered in thick dark fur, that grinned through sharpened teeth. And his mother, naked in the slime, bleeding from the dozens of tiny deep gashes all over her breast, was Eilian.

Eilian, said the old woman. The girl looked up, still dazed. He said you wouldn’t see me, she said. Tell me what happened, said the old woman, and she told. The tylwyth teg had come to her on the moor, she said, and offered to lighten her labours. They would spin for her and chop the firewood; they even taught her their music. In return, she agreed to marry their elf-king before the first day of spring. The days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox are the season of the fairies, when the world slips away from the sun, given over to the unhomely powers of bog and heath; these are the dark rotting days in which fairies roam. In Elfland, it is always winter. Every night, Eilian had resisted the tylwyth teg; she slept with a belt of braided rowan-twigs across her waist, which the fairies cannot touch. But on the last day of winter she was so tired from her work that she forgot to wear her belt, and the elf-king came in the night to take what was his. Fairy weddings have no ceremony. In a minute the brutal business was done, all while the old woman slept next to them, dreaming goatish dreams. As soon as it was over he took Eilian away with him, under the hills to the sunless kingdom he ruled.

The old woman told Eilian that she would help them escape, but the girl shook her head. Wait a little longer, she said, and go when my husband returns; he will pay you well, but he must never know that you can see through his charms. Again and again the old woman tried to convince Eilian to abandon her monstrous child and leave, but every time the girl refused. Eventually her face took on a hard glinting set; there was a vein of cruelty there that the old woman would have never expected from the gormless girl at the castle fair. Eilian no longer left her mouth hanging open. How can you understand? she said. You are still a maid.

Her husband paid as well as was promised. Four gold coins, each identical to the dinar in her home. Down to the Arabic around the edge; down to the bite-mark. But later, when she’d returned to her shack and she looked at the coins again with her right eye closed, what she held was a brown handful of human teeth.

Much of the world stayed the same. The hills were the hills, the rain was only rain. These things had not been glamoured. But animals seemed larger through her new eye, and wilder too, shining primitive. The nanny-goat that munched behind her shack was no longer a goat, but Goatness itself. Maybe Adam had named something like this in the garden: a goat with a beard that kings could only imitate, a pair of horns finer than the Devil’s.

She learned things. She discovered that Elfland is not a different place under a different sky, but the world in its hiddenness. Every dark secret place is theirs; the empire reaches through the caves and the burrows, the dungeons, the cracks of the earth, and into your home. It’s under your bed and up in the rafters, in all the places that frighten children. Imagine a ball, and cup your hands around it tight: you’ve built a doorway to that other realm. Still there were secrets she couldn’t penetrate. They had to do with death, but also the savagery of the elves on their wedding-nights, and the way thick spears of grass throb towards the sky, and raw antlers shedding blood with the velvet, and the fact that Christ was born in the fairy-season, and Eilian’s mocking smile when she said you are still a maid.

The sky was one place to begin. She discovered, when she looked through her left eye, that the night sky was black and empty and there were no stars.  And when she steeled herself on a winter noon and stared directly at the sun, she wept for a week. The vastness of that dead thing, that carcass. She saw that what lights our days is a funeral pyre.

Once several weeks had passed, she noticed that her eye had stopped itching. She felt the skin with a cautious fingertip: it was healed.

Eventually, the old woman wandered into town for the market, to see if it was possible to spend one of her teeth. It was funny how the banners streaming from the castle were really only drab and white, with plain black letters that said SLEEP and CONFORM and OBEY. The market was busier now; the first daffodils were blooming, the first lambs were tottering bravely in the fields. She walked the stalls and felt invisible. Everyone in town had known her by her hideous eye, and now it was gone she could be anyone: a grandmother, maybe, from the next village over the hills. As she wandered, she noticed another figure always ahead of her, tripping from bench to bench, grabbing a loaf of bread, a measure of barley, a pot of herrings, throwing them in a black velvet sack. Thief, she cried. The vendors all looked up, but nobody stopped him. The old woman strode forward and grabbed the criminal by the scruff of his neck. Thief, she said again, but when he spun around she saw that this thief was none other the man who had come to her door on the longest night of the year, the man who married Eilian.

You can see me, said the elf-king, clearly delighted. Well, I did tell you that your fate would be terrible indeed. You must have been so confused by the things you saw! And how could you possibly understand them? You know how fond we are of our little tricks and our little games. Tell me, did you imagine that it was the truth? Now the elf-king drew himself very close to the old woman so she could smell the carrion on his breath, and whispered in her ear, like someone telling a juicy secret to a friend: there isn’t one. And although the fairy was still standing there, still smiling, still in his fine silks and perfumed hair, for an instant she saw that he was a mask. Something churned beneath his surface: the serpent that strangles and is the world.

Now, said the elf-king, which eye is it that you see me with? By your squint I know that it’s only the one. The old woman didn’t have a moment to answer; he was already peering close at her left eye, the one that had lost its halo of livid skin. In an instant, he flicked a bulrush and pulled out her eye. The eyeball glistened on the spear of his stick, dangling its bloodied wormy trail. Jelly ran out from where it had been pierced. An eye is only a ball of wet matter, invisible to the one that uses it. So is a brain. The elf-king flicked the eyeball to the ground, stamped on it once with the heel of his shoe, and then he went on his mischievous way to steal a round of good yellow cheese.

How I got these scars

boas

BRITISH COLUMBIA, 1895

I learned to laugh where the whale bones were. On the iron shores, where gulls tittered and tore the last scraps of greying whaleflesh from ribs half-buried in the muck. Where curving bones threatened the foam, like the earth itself had fangs. Where the boulders were carved with bug-eyed faces, fat-lipped, grimacing; the sisiutl, sea-monsters. In low unadorned longhouses, huddled in the chill, where I sang: ‘Wa haiya, wa haiya, the weapon flew into my hands, the tool with which I am murdering, with which I am cutting off heads.’ And around me they sang: ‘The great madness entered our friend, he is killing old and young.’ Here I blackened my face with ashes and reddened my nose in the snow. Here I tore my clothes and tossed eagle-down in my hair. Here I became the nūlmal, the fool dancer, the killer clown. Here I learned that laughter is mine and nobody else’s, and when the boy – my cousin’s son – laughed as I japed and spun, I put my lance through his neck.

But who is this stranger in the cabin? Squatting by the fire is a man of no tribe, or who gave up his tribe – the Deutsche Juden – many years ago. A lonely creature. Not timid, with his virile moustache and his shock of dark hair, but passive. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, does nothing: he just sits and observes, even when the boy is speared. Only scribbling in his notebook: ‘They do not dance, but, when excited, run about like madmen, throwing stones, knocking people down, and crying… They dislike to see clean and beautiful clothing. They tear and soil it. They break canoes, houses, kettles, and boxes…’ In the summer months the Kwakiutl live in small bands, whose chiefs are ceremonial or mediatory. Only in the winter, when the world turns harsh, do they congregate together in one place. This is the ritual season, the potlatch season. But it’s also the season of the clowns. And these clowns officiate: they set the times of the ceremonies, they punish anyone who eats too slowly or performs the wrong dance… What are they if not a form of police? In the summer these people are peaceful anarchists, and in the winter they fall under a crazed dictatorship… Mein Gott, we’ve got it all backwards; the fool dancers aren’t a chaotic response to repressive society, they’re the basis for the whole structure… And even though he’s a lifelong opponent of cultural evolutionism, he can’t quite suppress a guilty thought. Is this how it all started? When political power first showed its face to the world, was it really in marble and bronze? Or was it a face like this, blackened with soot, decked in rags and shit, its centre bursting out into a huge red nose?

He looks into the fire, as if it could have an answer, and it does. A figure circles four times around the fire – tonight, she is the Kinqalalala, the female slave of Baxbakwalanuxsiwae (a figure he’s already described in his notes: the great cannibal god, He-Who-First-Ate-Man-At-The-North-End-Of-The-World, every inch of his body covered in terrible chomping mouths). At each turn, Kinqalalala throws a handful of something into the fire, and there’s a flash. Shapes indistinct in the flames. Here a molten ditch cut through the earth, and slimepits where the bodies rot. Here a bolus of flame bigger than cities, a sun-mote brought down to cauterise the earth of life. Here a barbed-wire cage webbed tight against the earth, thrumming with frenzy and exhaustion. He doesn’t know it, but he’s witnessing the vast long mistake of the twentieth century that is to come. And somewhere, rising through all this wreckage, a single wordless laugh salutes the highest joke.

LONDON, 1920

Ah, so this is what a philosopher looks like. He looks sad. The great thinker approaches the table timidly, nose-first, sad wet eyes following far behind. ‘You must be Georges,’ he says. Georges stands, removes his hat, shakes the philosopher’s hand. ‘Monsieur Bergson,’ he says. Henri also removes his hat, removes his coat, sits down. ‘I hope this restaurant is to your satisfaction,’ he says. ‘I know the chef to be French, but there have been no good waiters in this city since all the Germans left.’ They talk about this for a while – the small travails of being a Frenchman in London, the scattered places where one can still get a good hat, a good shave, a good steak. Something vicious wants to bubble up through Georges’ throat. ‘What about a good fuck?’ he says. ‘These English girls, they don’t have any word for partouze.’ Henri looks like a startled rabbit. ‘Just a joke,’ says Georges, and he laughs. Henri laughs too, but he’s nervous. Those eyes dart from the menu, to the grinning face of the young man in front of him, to the exit, the empty chill outside, the everywhere-else where he’d suddenly much rather be. He’s a kind and generous man, which is why he’s agreed to meet this young student from the British Museum – but ever since the War these young students have been crueller, stranger, their heads all muddled by Marx and Freud… ‘I read your book,’ says Georges suddenly, ‘your essay on laughter. I must admit – please, forgive me – I’d not had the pleasure of reading your work before.’ This surprises Henri. ‘And you wish to be a philosopher?’ he says. ‘I don’t regret my essay, but perhaps you should begin with something more substantial – my Matière et mémoire, perhaps; I would gladly lend you a copy…’ Georges shakes his head. ‘This is precisely the matter,’ he says. ‘I think your essay might have cured me of philosophy altogether. If I could ask you something… how can you write so many pages on laughter, and all of them with a straight face?’ Henri appears to consider this. ‘But surely, Monsieur Bataille, you must agree that the comic forms part of the human tissue? That it is as worthy of serious study as any other facet of experience?’ Georges shakes his head. ‘You misunderstand,’ he says, sadly, disappointed to his core. ‘I don’t doubt that laughter is worthy of serious study. But is serious study worthy of laughter? That is to say, Monsieur Bergson, why must you be so eternally serious? What is the laugh if not the annihilation of all seriousness, all propriety… yes, even philosophy? How can you write a study of laughter without first staring into the sun?’ Henri doesn’t say anything. ‘Have you not read the anthropological reports on the primitives of British Columbia?’ says Georges. ‘Their societies are ruled by clowns, but it’s forbidden to laugh at them, on pain of death.’ ‘I’m not sure I follow,’ says Henri. ‘Allow me to demonstrate,’ says Georges. ‘Here’s another joke; you’ll like it. Toc toc toc.’ Henri sighs. ‘Qui est là?’ he says, and then Georges pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the head.

HUẾ, 1968

A line crawls across this city. On the other side of the line lies chaos and Communism, and the people shiver under the terror of the Viet Cong. They have lists of enemies – ‘tyrants and reactionaries,’ in their jargon. Names are read out on loudspeakers. The tyrants and reactionaries assemble dutifully in the designated places, and then they’re trucked out of the city, never to be seen again…

On this side of the line, freedom reigns. On this side of the line, by sheer coincidence, all the buildings are in ruins. And the line is moving: whatever all those cowards back home might want you to believe, the line is moving, and the bright realm of freedom and ruin grows larger every day. A column is trudging forwards, through the mire, to push against that border. Helmets and rucksacks, assault rifles or flamethrowers slung over their shoulders, and at the front, the banner of the LCAB, the Ladies’ Crusade Against Beastliness. Two Marines lean against some piled-up rubble, smoking. Before Tet, this was a bar popular with GIs, and they’ve returned out of sheer instinct – in the same way that migratory birds sometimes flap over the chaos of the war, looking for trees long since defoliated, eaves shelled into fragments while they were away. These Marines know better than to whistle at the LCABs as they pass, or make any crude remarks. That would fall squarely under Beastliness, and Kissinger has given the Ladies all the necessary authority to punish any beastliness, in any way they see fit. So they just watch them as they pass, from a thousand yards’ distance. Afterwards, one passes the joint to another. ‘Someone’s gonna die,’ he says. Maybe the Ladies; maybe their enemies. This is the law.

Somewhere in Huế, the Commies have set up a secret special-weapons unit: pinko intellectuals from Europe, alongside loonies scraped from asylums over three continents. Every day, shells from across the frontlines burst overhead into a flurry of pamphlets. Some of this artillery-borne propaganda is dense, in tiny print. ‘WHAT IS LAUGHTER? The laugh is a painful spasm affecting the chest, neck, and face. When laughing, a subject experiences a significant decline in reflex response and awareness of his surroundings. Vision in laughing subjects may be blurred. They may experience salivation, watering in the eyes, nasal congestion, shortness of breath, or involuntary animal-like vocalisations. Laughter substantially reduces combat effectiveness, often fatally. HOW IS LAUGHTER INDUCED? The laugh may be induced by certain chemical weapons. However, we are also developing the capacity to induce laughter through the combination of words, noises, and actions. We can turn any part of your language into the laughter-weapon. Even the most basic movements of your body – eg, coitus or defecation – are not safe. HOW CAN I PREVENT MYSELF FROM LAUGHING? You can not prevent yourself from laughing. If your people do not leave Việt Nam, we promise to spread joy and laughter among your ranks.’ Other leaflets are far cruder. One shows a grotesque cartoon of an old man with an erect penis, and the slogan: ‘AMERICAN SOLDIER, GO HOME… To Be Gay With Your Dad!!’

A radio broadcast, a book, even a movie, that can seize the people exposed to it, make them break out in violent spasms… the top brass are worried, and it’s understandable why. Huế is exporting body-bags at a prodigious rate, and at home, the appetite for war is diminishing. ARPA’s trying to engineer its own version of the laughter-weapon, but trial versions (tested illegally on black civilians) are stubbornly ineffective. ‘So look,’ says a Pentagon scientist in a windowless cell. ‘I’m white. I know, right? Like, Whitey-McWhite-white. But I’m trying to get better.’ Behind the one-way mirror, they monitor the test subject’s heart rate, his breath, sweat, hormone levels, brain activity… nothing. Why isn’t he laughing? ‘Please,’ he says, ‘I’m begging you, please can you just let me out of here?’ The scientists know that some kind of cruelty – sadism, even – is essential to the procedure, but even after dumping the bodies of a thousand failed test subjects in landfills across the country, it just won’t work. Still, there’s one interesting finding. Certain individuals from certain socioeconomic strata are entirely immune to the laughter-weapon. The Viet Cong can broadcast whatever they want; the upstanding patriots of the LCAB suffer no spasms, eject no crude and ugly noises, have no spit running unwholesomely out of their faces. So now, combat teams of conscientious young ladies fan out across the city, finding VC laughter-weapon cells buried in the rubble, and cancelling out their cruelties with bright clean jets of flame. Leave the world purer. Kinder. More empathic. More polite.

At the head of the column, the head of the LCAB battalion is being interviewed by a spectacled young man for Stars and Stripes. (And is that – is that a peace button on his helmet? Above the words ‘BORN TO KILL’?) All the usual questions. So are you gonna get that weapon before it’s too late? Aren’t these tactics proof of the cruel and underhanded nature of the enemy? But then he gets a strange glint in his eyes. ‘Don’t you think,’ he says, ‘that destroying this weapon robs us of an essential part of the human experience?’ The commander’s head whips suddenly towards him. ‘The human experience?’ she says. ‘What’s your name, young man?’ The reporter swallows. ‘I’m Sergeant J.T. Davis,’ he says. ‘But they call me the Joker.’

NEW YORK CITY, 1985

‘See, what they don’t understand about Bernie Goetz is that he’s a vigilante, a crime-fighter, an honest-to-God American hero… Those folks watch cartoons about the heroes who dare to stand up to crime, but when it actually happens they want to prosecute the man like he’s a criminal? No, no, no. Haven’t they seen what’s going on out there? You got people scared to go out at night. You got people scared to walk the streets of their own city, cuz of what the young folks might do… And down there it’s even worse! Down there the sun never comes up! You walk these streets and think you’re safe, while not twenty feet beneath your shoes there’s folks getting beaten, folks getting mugged, folks getting killed, twenty-four hours a day… Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there? What kind of world is this, where the kids are beating up on their elders? How did we, as the guardians of this community, let it come to this?’ Give the man his due: Walt is a powerful speaker, but this is entirely the wrong audience. It’s not his fault that his charging, stomping oratorical style comes with a slightly slipshod attitude towards the Word in its written form. The names are so similar, after all, and as for the photo on the posters – ah, white people all look alike. So while Walt thinks he’s addressing a fundraiser for Bernie Goetz – the subway avenger, the white man who shot four unarmed black kids on the 2 train when they asked him for a cigarette, who shot two of them in the back – the attendees at an academic symposium on Clifford Geertz’s Anti-Anti-Relativism watch politely, and wait for this unexpectedly impassioned presentation to meander a little further towards the point. Geertz himself, the plenary speaker, shuffles through his papers: this man isn’t citing my work at all… Still he continues. ‘You know what I say? I say Bernie Goetz is the sanest man in this city. And do you know, do you understand what it means to be a sane man in a crazy world? It means wherever you plant your two feet, that’s where you stand, and if someone tries to threaten your life where you stand – then you put! him! down!’ At this point a graduate student starts to ask a question: has Walt considered the relevance of his namesake Walter Benjamin’s Kritik der Gewalt to this issue? The law prohibits individual violence, not because it contingently contradicts the content of the legal system, but because it challenges the juridical form itself… The fear of some lone individual (and aren’t individuals getting lonelier and lonelier, as Reagan goes to war against the unions, as capitalism starts to eat away at the foundations of society itself?) picking up a gun and exercising sovereign authority all by himself – it’s not just a practical fear, it’s an ontological horror. The madman returning from the mountaintop with the tablets of the Law. A cruel new social order, festering like a parasite inside the corpse of the old. Only – if Goetz is found innocent at trial, what would that say about the present constitution of the State? Walt looks slowly around the room. ‘Now what kind of foolish question is that?’ he says, and then it starts to dawn on him exactly where he is. Oh, how they laughed.

LOS ANGELES, 2019

A killer clown is on the loose.

The weather here is perfect every day of the year, and you spend your life inside, consuming entertainment media. When you do venture out, it’s to the canyons and valleys, where you trim and tone your body so it looks more like the images of bodies you’ve seen, so it can be turned into a more pleasing picture. You live alone with a very small dog. You’re afraid of the other people, the lonely sexless weirdos who stay indoors, whose lives are directed by entertainment.

The world churns out pretty things for you to enjoy. Like a child, holding up some squidged clay in two timid hands: look what I made. I made a movie. I made a TV show. I made an opinion column. I made it so that you’d be happy. Far away, there are coups and genocides and workers jumping off the roofs of their factories, to keep it all moving, so that you’ll be happy. So why aren’t you?

After the revolution withered and the religions drifted away, the only one left was the clown. He is here to entertain. The planet’s getting warmer: a fiery red desert on the equator, and permafrost melting into fringes of unkempt green. One huge mask, spinning giddily through space.

It was already too late when we realised that this clown, like all clowns, is carrying a gun.

The Army surrounds the red-carpet premiere with tanks and armoured personnel carriers. (This basically derivative pastiche movie about a sad clown who hates society – it’s simply too radical and dangerous.) Busy soldiers dig trenches through Hollywood Boulevard. (So why are they all wearing white masks?) Attack helicopters chuckle in the sky overhead, and outside the city, generals in bunkers stare at computer screens, their fingers trembling over the red button, ready to commence a full-scale nuclear bombardment of the greater Los Angeles area if the Thing inside the cinema starts to stir.

And in the dark, it does stir. Baxbakwalanuxsiwae, the cannibal with a thousand mouths, who lives in his lodge at the frosty edge of the world. Mouths that chomp human bones and tear human flesh; mouths that once burst, in the old cold times before the world, into the first and endless laugh.

I, who learned how to laugh where the whale bones were, watched the gunfire start. I squatted by the burning city – not timid, but passive. I saw moviegoers streaming in terror out of the cinema, only to be cut down by the soldiers outside. I saw tanks grunt in formation to pound the building, one after another in turn. And from far over the hills, a screaming across the sky.

Here I sung my song.

Ham ham a’mai, ham ham a’mai, hamaima ma’mai, hamai hamamai.

Utter the hamatsa cry, utter the hamatsa cry, the cry of the great spirit who dwells at the north end of the world.

Utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, the cry of the one who eats living men.

Utter the raven’s cry, utter the raven’s cry, the cry of the cannibal pole which is the Milky Way of our world.

Utter the hoxhoku cry, the hoxhoku cry, the cry of the one who is going to eat, whose face is ghastly pale.

Utter the clown dancer’s cry, the clown dancer’s cry, the cry that is heard all over the world.

Wa ha hai, waiya wai.

 

Scenes from the Žižek-Peterson debate

sebastian

[Applause. SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK and JORDAN PETERSON are standing in a big cauldron, tied together back-to-back, before an audience of CANNIBALS from a racist 19th century cartoon. The CHIEF CANNIBAL, or at least the one with the largest bone through his nose, prances around the cauldron, humming an obscure tune and freezing at regular intervals to hiss and violently shake a long staff at the two debaters. He is the moderator. Once this ritual is complete, he gives the cauldron a good sharp kick, and it rings satisfyingly. The AUDIENCE squats. They spit betel juice into the damp earth. We are ready to begin.]

MODERATOR: Thank you, thank you all. I’d like to start by acknowledging that we are on the ancestral lands of the earthworms, who funnelled the soil through their bodies before we walked upon it, and who will eat us when we die.

[Applause.]

MODERATOR: So: we have something of a treat for you tonight – two of the most prolific and controversial scholars in the humanities, Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson, finally coming head to head, here to debate the motion ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him.’ Arguing for the motion is Professor Žižek. Slavoj Žižek is the author of over eight thousand books, some of which are slightly different. Stunning in its breadth and fluency, his work has touched on Lacan, Hegel, Marx, what would happen if they were cold pockets instead of hot pockets, what the deal is with airline food, and whether or not we deserve doggos. Among his roster of impressive academic titles, he is Global Distinguished Professor at NYU’s College of Dentistry, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at the European Graduate Dental School, International Director at Birkbeck Dental Institute, and a Senior Researcher at the Department of Dental Diseases and Endodontics at the University of Ljubljana.

[ŽIŽEK hacks up what appears to be a small quantity of frogspawn onto his shirt.]

MODERATOR: Arguing against the motion, we’re very lucky to have Dr Peterson, who shot to fame after he filmed himself eating dog turds to prevent Islam. He’s received further notoriety for his self-help book Crying Yourself to Dignity, sleeps surrounded by Soviet propaganda for apparently non-sexual reasons, and is currently serving on the editorial review board for a twelve-year-old’s Disney blog. The debate will work like this. Each participant will have ten minutes to make an opening statement, which will be followed by three minutes for rebuttals, before we open it up to the audience, who will be able to ask questions and then eat one of the debaters. Professor Žižek, you’re arguing for the motion, so if you’d like to start?

[Applause. PETERSON rolls his eyes.]

ŽIŽEK: Thank you, thank you, no, no, thank you.

[He does his bit about Stalin clapping for himself.]

ŽIŽEK: I’m very glad to be here, my God, in this pot, to be cooked and eaten and so on and so on. In this situation, I am reminded of one of my beloved Radio Yerevan jokes from Soviet Union. You will see, I have a very vulgar sense of humour.

[Indescribable throat noises.]

ŽIŽEK: So the listener asks, is it true that Marx, Engels, and Lenin were stealing the wheelbarrows? And Radio Yerevan replies, in principle yes, but with three corrections. First, it wasn’t Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but you, second, you weren’t stealing them but being gifted them, and third, they weren’t wheelbarrows, but a pair of testicles hanging underneath your chin. I claim, is this not our situation today? I like this joke in that it repeats itself. You will see what I mean. First you have the heroes of the grand socialism of twentieth century, my God, in reality it is only yourself, the politics of the self. The act of stealing the wheelbarrows, in which we see labour activism, fighting your bosses, insurrection, all that bullshit: they are not what is taken, but precisely that which is given to us by power. You know, I was at Occupy, but now I have no time for these things, it is precisely the form prescribed by capitalism. It is as Jacques Lacan said to the revolutionary students in Paris ’68 – as hysterics, what you want is a new master.

[He does his bit about perverse fantasy vs. hysterical questioning.] 

ŽIŽEK: But see what is happening in this joke! Here I agree with my good friend Alain Badiou – the testicles are the least shameful area of the body, precisely because they belong to the part of the Real; there is no testicular enjoyment, testicular desire, and so on, and so on. They constitute the remainder, the third term that destabilises the system, it is here that the truth of the system will be found. In the whole of Freud, he refers to the testicles only twelve times, and the penis, you know, on every page he has the penis, if you look. But do you know this, Freud’s first research as a physician was to try to find the testicles of an eel by, how do you say in English, disekcija, cutting up hundreds of eels to find their balls. You do not need me to finish the joke, you are good Lacanians: he did not find them. The eels, they are very postmodern, very LGBT-plus, they do not grow the balls until mating season comes, eel gets horny, and they appear.

[He does his bit about the Hegelian implications of ‘being a plus’ in LGBT+.]

ŽIŽEK: Now Freud says in his letters, he writes: I cannot find these testicles, all the specimens must therefore be female, das schönere Geschlecht. In this, I claim, we find the model of the entire theory of castration complex. It is not, as the postmodern feminists will tell you, that Freud can only see woman as a mutilated man. No! The true history of Freudian psychoanalysis is the history of a fruitless search precisely for the mutilation, for testicles within the, sorry to be vulgar, the impenetrable feminine-phallic body of the eel. But what is it when the testicles appear underneath the chin? Just as what was taken is in fact a gift, now the Real we try to encounter in revolution becomes this grotesque ornament. Here I am a pessimist. It is not that mystical bullshit, the answers will always elude us, we have limited intellect, truth is outside our grasp, and so on and so on. No! The answers are literally under our noses, but they are only a pair of testicles, they will not satisfy you. But I see from our moderator that I am running out of time talking about the testicles on his chin, ok, so enough stupid jokes, I will address the question. You know, my critics will tell me that as a Communist I should not be arguing for this motion, that I should take the militant posture, sacrifice my life, heroically demand that I be eaten instead of Dr Peterson, and so on and so on. But here I claim that in this stance we do not see the testicles on the groin, the proper functioning of things, but precisely the testicles on the face. The renunciation of desire is in itself a perversion, because there is no ordinary operation of things in which the testicles that have no proper place are in their proper place.

MODERATOR: Slavoj Žižek, thank you very much.

[He throws a bay leaf and some peppercorns into the cauldron.]

PETERSON: Well.

[He chuckles. A pause.]

PETERSON: I suppose I’m meant to respond to this, but I think my opponent’s made my case for me already. He claims I have a pair of testicles on my chin. I don’t. It simply isn’t true at all. I challenge you to find even one, let alone two. Clearly Professor Žižek doesn’t have the faintest bloody idea about basic human anatomy. It’s an absolutely dreadful lie, it’s a horrible thing for a distinguished professor to be teaching people, and it’s the kind of degeneration of civilised debate that happens when you allow this neo-Marxism to take over our universities. Professor Žižek is upholding an ideology that brutally murdered tens of millions of people, starved them in gulags, shot them in ditches, all because they held to the nonsense idea that people could have testicles on their chins. Totally contrary to biology, and when you come up against the laws of nature you need to be ready, man, because they will always win. I think the only sane solution is to just damn well eat him. Among certain species of amoeba, they performed a study, the amoebae will hold a debate on abstract concepts, and the losers are digested by the winners. And you see the same principle in the Bible, when Elijah holds an Parliamentary-style debate with the prophets of Baal and slaughters five hundred of them on a point of information. So you can complain, or call this injustice, but you have to accept that the most competent individual will always win, and elites are there for a reason.

[There’s a whine like escaping gas. Has the fire been lit? But the wood’s still dry; it’s just Jordan Peterson, thinking.]

PETERSON: Except academic elites, they don’t count.

[The CANNIBALS nod sagely and make hungry humming noises.]

PETERSON: There’s an important archetype you should know about here, and that’s the Devouring Mother. There’s the Devouring Mother in Babylonian myth, the monster Tiamat, and in some of the early Care Bears cartoons. And the Devouring Mother teaches you that if you’re not careful, the same things that created you are going to consume you, and that’s life, man. It goes to show that these behaviours have been with us for a long time. You can’t just throw out these traditions, you can’t go into a fantasy world where you pretend they don’t exist, unless they tell you to eat a varied diet of grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables. So maybe if more discussions were run like this, and people understood that the consequences of falling into this kind of pernicious nonsense is that the nonsense is going to come and eat you, bucko, then we’d have a lot more caution and a much fairer debate on our college campuses.

MODERATOR: I should remind Dr Peterson that the motion today is ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him,’ and he’s agreed to argue against it.

[PETERSON bursts instantly into tears.]

PETERSON: No, I’m sorry. No, no, no, I don’t accept that premise in the least. There’s a basic principle of fair discussion, and that’s the equal and opposite nature of each side. That is foundational. I won’t debate on these terms.

[ŽIŽEK tries to interrupt with something about the dialectic, but the MODERATOR bonks him over the head with a ladle.]

PETERSON: You can’t have us both arguing that I should be the one that gets eaten. That’s entirely unjust. Look at what you’ve thrown away! Western civilisation is in ruins! We had trains that arrived on time, they had a computer to tell you when they’d be arriving to the minute – an honest-to-God miracle, something that would have astounded every one of our ancestors. A society that works – and they want to get rid of it! Look what happens when the SJWs get the upper hand! Cannibalism, gulags, Frozen, the total bloody collapse of meaning in people’s lives! This is how Marxism always ends! It’s got to the point now that they’re openly saying – and this is their argument, not mine – that they should kill and eat people if they don’t like their ideas!

[He’s bawling now. PETERSON strains against his bonds, and ŽIŽEK is also struggling, trying to scratch his nose with his elbow. Clearly, it’s all a joke to him; he’s worked out where he is. He wears a truly monstrous grin. Some of the CANNIBALS rush over to fan PETERSON ineffectually with large banana leaves, but the MODERATOR bares his teeth, filed into a row of serrated points, and they disperse. PETERSON appears to be finished – or, if he has more to say, it’s drowned by his sobs. Striking the cauldron again with his stick, the MODERATOR allows ŽIŽEK to make his rebuttal.]

ŽIŽEK: You know, I agree with everything my friend Dr Peterson says here. My God, it is a monstrosity that we must eat him, I oppose this utterly. But let me pick up on what he says here. Yes, I agree, we must defend the Western tradition, but is it not true that Marxism and postmodernism come precisely out of that tradition? I claim, look at where we are, in this pot, about to be eaten by naked cannibals: instead of the opposing term of Western humanism, is this not its own internal fantasy of the colonial other? So when Dr Peterson says that one tries to escape the contradictions of reality in a fantasy world, is not fantasy that which is precisely more real than the reality?

[His opponent doesn’t seem to hear him. He twitches, and tries to rock back and forth, but he’s immobilised by ŽIŽEK’s bulk.]

PETERSON: My testicles are normal. They’re not on my chin. They’re normal. I have normal balls.

[Finally, the Q&A begins – but nobody has a question. The SAVAGES all seem bored, listless; they’re not happy with the debate. Why these speakers, and this topic? It might make sense to have ŽIŽEK and PETERSON tussle, with Lacan and Jung, over the ashes of Freud. But who eats and who gets eaten is a political question, and these two are both uniquely inappropriate representatives of their putative politics. ŽIŽEK, who is simply too clever by half to repeat all the stale and earnest socialist talking points, who’d rather talk about the antinomies of the left than the evident evils of capitalism. PETERSON, who seems to think capitalism is as socially conservative as he is, who thinks he’s defending competence hierarchies rather than entropy itself, who doesn’t understand that he’s been riding his own chaos-dragon for his entire career. Still, there’s a group of GIRLS in grass skirts. They giggle and avert their eyes, and stutter over the words, until they each take a deep breath and chant their question in chorus.]

GIRLS: Daddy, does capitalism make us happy, or does it create a need in happiness? Daddy, does it fulfil the essential lack in being, or does it open up a void to be filled? Daddy, does happiness only ever belong to other people?

[Both ŽIŽEK and PETERSON attempt to answer at the same time.]

GIRLS: Daddy, please.

[ŽIŽEK releases a flurry of woodland animal noises, slurring over mutations of the word ‘precisely,’ emitting the phrase ‘petit a‘ in a sharp volley of spit. PETERSON complains, between sobs, that he’s not their daddy, and what would the girls’ real father think about how they’re using that word? At this, an ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE suddenly stands. A terrified silence. His vast, muscled body is covered in patterned scars, whorls of gleaming spider’s-web flesh all over his chest and back. He wears a long necklace beaded with human teeth. His balls are enormous, and not under his chin; one of his eyes is milky-white, the other only ferocious. A long spear in his hand, viciously barbed. When he opens his mouth the teeth are black and rotting, and the foulness of his breath wilts the long grasses. Is this the father? What could this monster possibly want?]

ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE: This isn’t really a question, more of a statement.

[He sits back down.]

ŽIŽEK: Yes. My God. I couldn’t agree more.

[A fire is lit under the cauldron. Rot and jungle surrounds the whooping in the camp, and the hills slope down to a warm and sparkling sea.]

And her name is Lisa too

captain-marvel

I didn’t understand Captain Marvel.

The film is about an interplanetary war between the Kree (a rationalistic, technologically advanced race of blue-skinned aliens, who readily admit outsiders and rule their benign and multi-ethnic empire with a firm but welcoming hand) and the Skrulls (an orcish race of shapeshifting terrorists with Australian accents). Obviously, the Kree are the villains. They are also, quite clearly, a sci-fi version of America.

The hero of Captain Marvel is a kidnapped US Air Force pilot who ends up rebelling against her Kree masters, and the military was highly involved in its production. Fifty soldiers worked as extras in the film, military officers were used as consultants, and multiple scenes were shot on an Air Force base. Female RAF pilots, in uniform, surrounded Larson at the film’s European gala screening in London; for the Los Angeles premiere, the Air Force supplied six F-16 jets for a celebratory flyover. In return – and this is the usual deal – the military was given substantial editorial control over the film’s script. The Marcel Cinematic Universe is, as everyone knows, the cultural wing of the military-industrial complex. This isn’t really an anomaly. These films form the vernacular folklore of post-industrial society, and mythic cycles tend to be martial and heroic narratives. It’s all a lot dumber than the Homeric epics or the Nibelungenlied, but then so are we.

Is it possible that Americans simply can’t see themselves in the screen? Do empires fail the mirror self-recognition test? This seems like too easy an answer. The question we should be asking isn’t how an anti-imperialist message managed to ‘sneak past’ the military censors. Instead, how is it that what appears to be an anti-imperialist message has actually been recuperated by empire?

Anyway, this is what was exercising me after I saw Captain Marvel. I couldn’t sleep that night, but I find it hard to sleep most nights. I took a sleeping pill before bed, and then another after an hour of anxious sweat and irritation, and then another. So I was neither asleep nor awake, but woozily skimming just above the surface of reality, when a group of orcish aliens with Australian accents kidnapped me, took me up to their spaceship, and fed me into their memory-harvesting machine. ‘Go back,’ they said, ‘go back.’ They made me watch Captain Marvel again. But this time, the story was very different to the one I thought I’d seen.

I can’t tell you which one is real. All I know is that I don’t understand.

* * *

It’s 1995, and former US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers falls from a very great height into a Blockbuster Video store outside of Los Angeles. She levitates between the racks of VHS tapes: the mocking green grin of The Mask, the stern half-face of Van Damme in Timecop. Her fingers trail across stacked plastic edges, and they’re scabbed and filthy. The other customers stare: clearly, this woman doesn’t belong here. She’s come from somewhere distant and unknown, and she’s wearing strange armour; she doesn’t look entirely human. She doesn’t seem to disagree. As she drifts, she’s whispering to herself. ‘It isn’t real,’ she says, ‘it isn’t real, you’re not here, you’re in outer space.’

It’s 1988, and Carol Danvers is at the first of her obligatory therapy sessions. Dr Nicholas Fury’s manner doesn’t match his name. He’s still a military psychotherapist, he sits with his back perfectly straight, but his face is open, and there’s a box of tissues on the low table between them. This is where you can say the things you couldn’t say outside. This is where you don’t have to be strong.

‘There must have been a lot of pressure,’ he says, ‘being the first female combat pilot. That’s a whole lot of expectation riding on you.’ Carol smirks mirthlessly. ‘The first,’ she says, ‘and the last. They won’t make that mistake again.’ Dr Fury purses his lips. ‘It’s interesting that you respond with humour,’ he says. ‘Why do you think that is?’ It’s because every time some braying Air Force frat-boy told her women had no place flying a plane, that was always somehow just a joke. ‘Because it’s true,’ she says. ‘I read the internal report,’ says Dr Fury. ‘There were a lot of reasons for what happened, and maybe some of them have to do with you, and maybe some of them don’t. But what I need you to understand is that none of this is simply because you’re a woman.’ And Carol nods, but she’s not convinced. Because there had simply never been a woman combat pilot before, and the system just wasn’t built for someone like her. The flight suits didn’t fit properly; the controls were just slightly too far away; there weren’t separate showers or separate bathrooms. And while the flyboys all necked their go pills before each mission, little methamphetamine tablets to keep them alert, the standard doses had been calculated for a man’s body. The other pilots had been alert. She’d been tweaking.

Up there in the sky, the edges of her vision had blurred, and the centre pulsed. Everywhere she looked was a bloating, living heart. The gumminess and grinding inside her mouth, the crawling on the edge of her skin, the uncontrollable strobe-flash flutter in her eyes, and the strange objects that darted out of the darkness to linger in the sky. Shameful to admit now, but she’d loved it, the cranked-up intensity of it all. The only thing better than drugs is flying, and the only thing better than flying is flying on drugs. Maybe this is just what perfect alertness feels like, she’d thought – but she knew she was making mistakes, the kind of rookie errors a pilot as good as she was shouldn’t be making, and it wasn’t just nerves. Her fingers shook over the controls. She saw shapes in the clouds. AWACS that turned out to be cirrus drifts; zeppelins roiling out of the nimbus. And a hostile F-14, flying aggressively out towards US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, which was actually Iran Air Flight 655, with two hundred and ninety civilians on board.

Back when she was at high school in Boston, a friend of hers had gotten wasted at a party and then tried to drive home. He’d gone too fast, accelerated sloppily around corners, spun out of control in that fucked–up maze of crooked streets, and knocked down an old lady taking her dog out for a walk. The dog had to be put down. The old lady died instantly. Ralph: his name was Ralph; she couldn’t remember the old lady’s name. And it was hard, when she visited Ralph in jail, to see him crying in handcuffs. ‘I can’t go to prison,’ he’d whimpered, ‘it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t in control.’ It had been awful. This kid had killed; he’d taken away someone’s life for no good reason. He wasn’t the friend she’d known, but something else, someone else’s death, a living tragedy plunged into someone else’s world, and he disgusted her. And what is Carol Danvers now? Everyone on that plane had died. Nearly three hundred people. Sixty-six children. And she’d killed them.

Carol Danvers goes home, grabs a bottle of go pills out the bathroom cabinet, and necks three of them at once.

It’s 1989, and Carol Danvers is being stalked by the skulls. They could be anyone. They change their form. Iranians, Carol has learned, have a doctrine called taqqiyah: they’re allowed to hide their religion and deny their God; they disguise themselves to blend in. Maybe that’s why this Wal-Mart is full of monsters. Carol twitches between the aisles, piling up her basket with cakes and candies, high-energy things for when she remembers to eat – and the faces of the other shoppers keep changing. She knows she shouldn’t have flushed the pills, but the two were interacting unpleasantly, and between meds and meth, she was always going to go for the meth. Things are under control, she tells herself. She’s not on the streets. She has her Air Force pension and her disability checks. She has Dr Fury. It’s under control, just not her control. Because when she shuffles over to the cashier and dumps her basket full of oily sugary snacks, the kid bagging her groceries turns his dumb head, and his flesh chars and drifts away in motes of burning dust, leaving only the perfect fire-stripped scream of a passenger as the plane is atomised around him, one of the two hundred and ninety, one of the Iranians, one of the skulls.

It’s 1991, and Dr Fury is being briefed. ‘I know her background,’ he says, waving a dismissive arm. ‘I treated her for two years after the incident.’ The ward superintendent tries to cough as mildly as possible. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Well, you might, ah, find that her psychosis has deteriorated considerably since that time. We still have her on the antipsychotics, but the, ah, pattern of her delusions is unfortunately conforming to a fairly classical schizoid type.’ Dr Fury glances over his notes. ‘The influencing machine,’ he says. ‘That’s correct,’ says the superintendent. ‘As it happens, I’m composing a paper on the subject. Are you aware of the, ah, James Tilly Matthews case?’ Dr Fury looks impatient. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘Quite a landmark in clinical history,’ says the superintendent. ‘A merchant in the eighteenth century, who came to believe a gang of criminals was remotely torturing him with a machine he called the Air Loom, a system of pipes and, ah, valves, that could interfere with his mind and body through magnetic rays. Dawn of the industrial revolution. I suppose he wasn’t entirely wrong. Machines always seems to carry certain, ah, potencies. There’s a fellow named Francis in Long Island who seems to have something similar, keeps mailing letters about it to random addresses. You know that when I was starting out in the fifties, I had multiple patients who believed Sputnik was beaming messages directly into their brains?’

Carol’s sitting peacefully on a plastic chair in the rec room. Fury sits next to her. ‘Do you remember me?’ he says. Her eyes light up. ‘Dr Fury,’ she says, ‘thank God, you have to help me. We have to go to Cree River.’ Out comes the notepad. ‘Cree River,’ he says. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Cree River Air Force Base, in Montana. You’re still in the Air Force, you know what they’ve built there.’ Dr Fury shakes his head. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘It’s the AI,’ says Carol. ‘There’s a supercomputer in a bunker under the airfield, the Air Force is using it to model the movements of Iraqi tank columns. But listen: it’s got too smart for them. Reality is just a highly accurate simulation, and it’s simulating the whole universe now. Don’t you get it? We’re in that simulation. It thinks it’s a god. It’s sending messages through time. We have to destroy it, we have to get in a plane right now and destroy the Supreme Intelligence.’ ‘You said it sends messages,’ says Dr Fury. Carol gives him a canny glance. ‘You want to know if the Supreme Intelligence shot down that plane,’ she says. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think this is all in my head. Well it is. It’s in my head, and yours, and it’s in the trees outside, and it’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it wasn’t my fault, do you hear me, it wasn’t my fault.’ She’s smiling now. ‘How can you look so concerned,’ she says, ‘when you don’t even have a face?’

Afterwards, outside, Dr Fury notices as if for the first time how all the cars stop at a red light, and how there’s always someone to sweep the leaves off the sidewalk; how perfectly everything in the world fits together, as if this were all just part of the plan.

It’s 1993, and someone has detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center in New York. TV footage shows rescue teams pulling the wounded out of the collapsed garage. Carol Danvers watches the devastation from a quiet air-conditioned bar out in the California desert, and Maria Rambeau watches her. It had all sounded so much simpler when Carol’s doctor had phoned her out of the blue. ‘I’m not asking you to be her nurse or her carer,’ the man had said. ‘I’m just asking you to be her friend.’ Being friends with Carol had been easy, once, when they’d both been bright-eyed and ambitious kids at Basic Training in Texas. And it’s not as if the Carol she knew is gone, not exactly. Days and weeks can go past without incident. Long periods in which she’s a little off, a little scarred, but basically fine. She always was resilient. The drugs are working – and, as Dr Fury keeps telling her, what’s more important is that Carol has her. Friends, a job, a bar she can go to, where they can sing karaoke duets again and drink whiskey straight, something like an ordinary life. But being friends with someone like Carol really is like being a nurse or a carer, it is a chore, and as much as she loves her, sometimes Maria wishes it could all just be someone else’s problem. Like now. Maria’s country is under attack. People have died, and she would rather be anywhere other than here. This bar in the desert, with pictures of fighter jets on the walls and ballads twanging tinny on the speakers, with her, her best friend, watching them pull the wounded out of the World Trade Center, and mumbling a constant stream of insane drivel into her glass. Rogue computers, weaponised syntax, Islamic doctrine as a metaphor for quantum energy weapons, faster-than-light drives schematically represented in the traditional patterns of Persian carpets, a hole opening in the sky above New York, and flying lizards streaming through. Maria wants to grab her friend by the shoulders and scream: girl, you fucked up bad, and that’s on you; don’t make me your two hundred and ninety-first victim. But instead she just nods, and bears it, and orders another drink.

It’s 1995, and Carol Danvers is in outer space. She turns back a barrage of ballistic missiles; she swoops through an enemy spaceship in a trail of gorgeous explosions. She’s saved the skulls, the innocents and their children. She’s put back flesh to repair their wounds. She builds universes. She makes and unmakes empires at will. Every flicker in her fingers is significant, every motion changes the world. Lasers sparkle like confetti around her, as she chases the Imperial warships deep into the interstellar void.

And inside the simulation, the false world, the flat world, the dead zone of magnetic tape and digital signals, Carol Danvers is levitating between the racks of VHS tapes in her aluminium-foil armour, as laurels of light wind and unwind around her stained and scabbing hands.

The opinions of others

oldones

Your first clue that something’s up comes when you’re accosted by two people, an extremist on the right and an extremist on the left. They stand there blocking your path, two abreast – like creepy twins, or the world’s smallest military formation, although they look nothing like each other. The right-wing extremist wears a read hat with the word Maga in black across the front, and a blue t-shirt that also says Maga. ‘I want to exterminate racial minorities,’ he explains. The left-wing extremist is clearly from a racial minority herself, in a vaguely indeterminate way, or possibly she’s just very suntanned – but she has green hair, and wears high-waisted jeans, glasses, and a look of weary patience. ‘Um?’ she says. ‘How about we don’t do that? And just be nice to people instead?’ You try to push past them. ‘Please,’ you say, ‘you have to let me through, there’s somewhere I need to be, something terrible will happen if you don’t let me through.’ But the knowledge of what that terrible thing might be is fading as you speak. All you have is the sense of a terrible rupture, something you’ve been fleeing from or running heroically towards. ‘No,’ says the extremist on the right. ‘Not yet,’ says the extremist on the left. ‘First,’ says the extremist on the right, ‘you have to distinguish us.’

He laughs, and as he does his laugh floats off his face and shatters into endless duplicates. The flesh peels from the extremist on the left’s body, twisting in neat ribbons, and nests around the extremist on the right. Her hands scrabble furiously up and out through his cheeks, splitting his face open, black-painted nails slick with spit and gore, while his laugh dances in hornet-swarms from every direction. A blue eye rolls upwards into its skull, and a brown iris rears out of the clearing fog of sclera, blood vessels writhing to make way. The extremist on the left has been stripped to the bones now, and when you pick up a single greasy vertebra that clatters at your feet, you see that it’s moulded with raised ridges in the shape of a swastika, in the way that other manufacturers might mark their products with the words made in China.

Kaleidoscope arms split from the remaining body. Human detritus licked up by frog-tongues that dart from sudden mouths; orifices swim over skin. A rib pulses and ripples just under the skin through the new creature’s bloatedness, up the leg, up the torso, bulging the neck, until it emerges in a small spray of blood out of its head, a raw and magnificent antler. Swarming laughters dart back towards their source, and become teeth. The thing wobbles for a moment, and then it splits. Two mouths open in unison. ‘Distinguish us,’ they command. There are two people standing there again, but they’re utterly formless. All you know is that they’re a threat. ‘Distinguish us,’ they say again. ‘I can’t,’ you say. ‘I can’t see the difference. You’re exactly the same to me.’ And then they vanish.

Now you understand where you are. This high, dark, echoing marble corridor, this endless hall blasted with alcoves, from which classical busts of broadsheet columnists and TV pundits frown and glare. The laurels slip over Tucker Carlson’s face. David Aaronovitch stares his stony empty-pupilled stare. Some cheerful rebuke seems like it’s about to burst out of Owen Jones’s frozen puffed-up cheeks. And the Chapos are on their plinth, a screaming five-headed monster. The candle-light is dim, and the darkness behind you billows and swells, forcing you on. You are in the worst place that can be imagined. You are among other people’s opinions.

Further on, the outer wall has nearly collapsed. The space beyond this long, dark, linear universe is excruciating: a swirling blackness, gnawing at the back of your eyeballs. Looking at it feels like having a stinging-nettle grow in the centre of your brain. But an army of Trumps is blotting it out. None of them are more than a few inches high, but the cleaner, straighter Trumps are lifting up boulders three times their size. Those stones are marked with words like Integrity and American Renewal. The Trumps squeak and chirrup without words; their noses wrinkle as they do their diligent work, and the long fine whiskers on their snouts twitch in the gloom. But there are other Trumps, bloated and pustular, chunks of fur missing from their haunches, white circles gleaming like cadaver-flesh beneath black and pitiless eyes, and the stones that they move with miniature cranes and earth-diggers read Lies and Sleaze and Russiagate.

You try not to look as the Trumps build their wall, because the whole scene is washed by the terrible rays that come from Outside, but as you hurry past you tread on one of the Trumps’s tail. The President bares its long incisors, and sinks them into your ankle. And then, chaos. The rat-Trumps stream out of their control cabins and start scratching at faces; the squirrel-Trumps form a protective semicircle around their portion of the wall. Letting out terrible battle-squeaks, a phalanx of huge and hulking Trumps, sleek with grease, pink in the cracks of their scars, roll for the frontlines. The squirrel-Trumps are annihilated. Their skulls are cemented into the wall.

A hand lands reassuringly on your shoulder. ‘See,’ says its owner, ‘the squirrels won, everything’s going to be ok.’ A rabid dismemberment. Scraps of squirrel-fluff fall out of the tumult and drift like falling snow. ‘But the rats won,’ you say. ‘No,’ he says, ‘look.’ But you can’t; you’re looking at him. An almost skeletal young man, pale and pockmarked, his head shaved, in a hospital gown, with what you think is a drip plugged into his arm, until you see the little pump mechanism at the top of the line. His eyes are the same black as that razor void beyond the wall. He’s going to die. ‘Those are rats,’ you say, again, as if to reassure yourself, because it’s unfathomable that someone could be so wrong about rodents. ‘Rats have naked tails,’ he says, in the slow voice you might use with children or the insistently stupid, ‘and these have furry tails. They’re squirrels.’ He kneels down to pick one up, and the rat starts pulling at his fingernails. They fall out so easily. The tissue beneath is already rotted. He talks to the rat that’s mutilating him with a dreamy, happy, slurring voice. ‘Do you want a peanut, little pal? They won’t let me eat, but maybe I got a peanut for you.’ He fumbles around in his mouth with the other hand, and pulls out a tooth. The rat seizes it and starts to eat, and the tooth comes apart in glossy, oily, yellowing crumbs.

You follow the dying man along the endless doorless corridor, and you have to keep moving, or else the terrible thing will take you. Alone, on an island of washed-up garbage, plastic sun-bleached in the Pacific, slabs of computer hardware matted together with seaweed, a raft of flotsam and strangled fish, stands a six-year-old girl. She’s wearing a kind of Halloween costume, and cradles an object in her hands. ‘I like this,’ she says, overflowing with sincere emotion. ‘The world is so miserable,’ she says, ‘and the trash-tide covered everything, and all the insects died, but this wreckage is full of treasure. I’m allowed to feel joy. I’m allowed to find the things that I love in all these ruins, and I’m allowed to cherish them. I like this. I like this thing.’ She shows you the thing she likes. It’s been whitened in the sun, and hollowed into a thin plastic shell by the tides, but it’s an enormous dildo. From out the base, the pale legs of a hermit crab flail helplessly. ‘It’s so important to me,’ she says. ‘Do you like it? I like it more than anything. Do you like it too?’ The crab’s antennae lick the air. Maxillipeds churn like pistons around its long vaginal slit of a mouth. You can’t bear to tell the child what it is. ‘You have to like it,’ she says, ‘you have to like the same things as me, or it means you think I don’t matter.’ You can barely manage a whisper. ‘I don’t like it,’ you say. The girl opens her mouth wide to scream, but there’s no sound. Six long crab-legs unfold themselves out of her throat, and the thing that’s living in her shell scuttles away in sadness and fury.

Here and there the floor is slippery with the three essential oils, which are Brent crude, sebum, and partially hydrogenated vegetable fat.

There’s Roman graffiti defacing the walls. It’s doggerel. Quaero Quaestum Qualitercumque. I seek profit by any means necessary. Quidnam Quiritor Quotidianus? Why not whinge every day? Quosque Quaestores Quisquilias Quatiebant? For how long have our elected officials brandished garbage? It has to mean something. There must be some pattern, some secret code.

And all this time the Jews have been following you. They roost in the ceilings of this place, in the coves and coffers of its rotundas, in the vegetable decay of Corinthian capitals; straddling gargoyles, keening and kvetching, letting long trails of Jew-guano splatter the marble and pile up in calcified heaps. This place was built for them. The Jews flap around on leathery wings in the upper darkness, finding their way by olfactolocation, propelled by their huge turreted nostrils. Up ahead you see a small hunched crowd. Human-like creatures, naked and as pale as moonlight, skittering on fingertips and toes. They’ve gathered around a squat stalagmite of Jewshit. ‘Filthy birds,’ they croon, ‘Rothschild birds, Zionist birds, kill them all.’ They’re licking at the pile with long dry tongues. This is their only subsistence in this place, and a diet of guano has riddled them with disease. You can see the lesions over their fish-white skin, the redness and swelling in their joints, and as you approach they can see you too. ‘Only a minority of them, of course,’ one says, straightening its back in an anxious hurry. ‘Just the ones that make a mess on the floor,’ another chimes in. They’re cringing; something in this endless passage hunts these coprophages, a taloned predator that lives one step removed from the muck. ‘Some of my dearest comrades,’ they mumble in unison, fear glittering over their sunken features. The dying man tugs on your sleeve. You must continue. But as you edge past the troglodytes and their feast, you see one of them pinned to the wall, held in place with a short bronze sword driven right through its throat.

Wheels whine on the dying man’s drip. He drags you over to a stark bare hospital gurney, and you help him clamber onto it. He beckons you in with two fingers, and rasps in your ear. ‘Everyone’s gone,’ he tells you. ‘Alcohol and opiates. There’s nobody left.’ He’s right, there is nobody left. The stranger has vanished. There’s only you, the dying man, immobile on your hospital bed, the drip slowly squeezing the last drops of blood out of your withered arm.

They swoop out of the darkness, twelve figures in brightly coloured animal masks, forming a tight vigil around your deathbed. ‘This is terrible,’ says one, ‘it’s inhuman that people are dying like this. We have to do something.’ There’s an agonised pause. ‘Did you just speak over me?’ says another. ‘Nobody else was talking,’ says the first. ‘Oh,’ says the second, and now her voice whirs to a mocking yelp, ‘nobody else was talking, so I thought I’d just butt in here with my white boy opinions that nobody asked for.’ A thoughtful silence. ‘This is terrible,’ she continues, ‘it’s inhuman that people are dying like this. We have to do something.’ Another animal face looks up eagerly. ‘We could spit in his mouth,’ he says. ‘Replenish lost fluids.’ This sets off a brief squabble, everyone complaining at once. ‘Enough!’ one of them shouts. ‘We’ll do this democratically. Go round the circle, clockwise, starting with me, so everyone’s voice is heard.’ ‘Why do we start with you?’ says another. ‘Because I’m the one that’s speaking now,’ says the first. ‘No you’re not,’ says the other, ‘I am, I’m talking right now, and I refuse to be silenced.’ Then there’s a silence. ‘Why can’t two people speak at once,’ two masks say simultaneously. The remaining ten all screech their objections in unison, and as they do you remember the terrible thing that will happen if you don’t keep moving on. You remember why it’s so dangerous to be among other people’s opinions, why everyone is so terrified of this place, why they all come in here to tear it down, and why nobody ever leaves. ‘Please,’ you croak, but they don’t hear you. ‘Please,’ you say again, ‘you have to wheel me on, you have to move me on down the corridor, or I’ll start believing this.’ Suddenly, all twelve round on you. ‘Who said you get to speak?’ spits one. ‘You don’t believe in this?’ hisses another, squeezing the fat of his upper arm. ‘This isn’t real enough for you?’ They point out that you’re with the rats, that you’re still holding one in your hand, even as it’s tearing your palm to shreds. One leans in close, until you can see the sweat drenching the animal mask. ‘Did we hurt your fee-fees?’ he growls. ‘Are you going to cry those toxic fragile tears, just because we’ve made you confront the fact that you’re a bad person?’ A consensus is reached. ‘Yikes,’ they say, ‘this ain’t it chief, you’re trash, I hope a bird craps on you.’

One by one they depart, muttering darkly about how each of the others has let them down once again, and the billowing dark roils from one end to the other of the hall of other people’s opinions to swallow you whole and become the world.

The Momo signal

12.Ubume

I don’t know what it is, but it wants our children.

It forms its secret alliances with them. I’ve seen it happen. On the bus, two exhausted young parents, bearded and broken-down, blood vessels shattering in the whites of their eyes, and the kid will not stop screaming. They offer it the bottle. No bottle. Screams spin higher. They offer it a toy. No toy. Thrown furiously into the grubby aisle. They pick up that little sack of white-hot ancient fury, kiss its head, bounce it up and down; nothing works. Then, in desperation, they give it a phone. Suddenly, silence. The baby’s entranced. Slowly, dutifully, it smears its wet fingers over the surface, flicking through the panels of the home screen, hypnotised by how the lights and colours respond immediately to its touch. A look of unworldly concentration. You’ve heard the horror stories. You can buy prams with a built-in iPad attachment, so the children can suck in unreal worlds as you take them out for a walk. Children swiping at windows and photographs, expecting reality to be as intuitive as the ghosts on a screen. This baby: mute, dabbing, sated, like a rat blissed out in a lab experiment, wires delivering a constant pulse directly to the pleasure centres in its brain. It’s the shape of the future. And then the phone rings, and one of the parents has to pick it up. The baby starts roaring again. It doesn’t yet understand what a phone is, it doesn’t realise that this, not the dazzle of instant response, is what it’s actually for.

At least, that’s what I used to think. Now, I worry that the babies are right, and we’re the ones who’ve got it wrong. There’s something they can see on those screens, and adults can’t. Something that flickers, that whispers secrets to them in inaudible frequencies. It tells them to do things. And I think I’ve started seeing it myself.

An eight year old girl in Ontario tried to throw herself out of an open window. Her mother caught her just in time, but the girl kept struggling, reaching out for the drop with all four furious limbs. It wouldn’t hurt her, she said, once she hit the ground nothing would ever hurt her again. She would break through her own body. She would fall through the cracked screen of the world, and into the dance of lights beneath. Momo had told her. Momo had explained everything, and she would be with Momo forever, in a place beyond touch.

A boy, six, died in New York. He was always a happy, exuberant, creative child. He’d had his own YouTube channel. He was a natural. The child, lounging around in strange outfits, chatting happily for the camera about his day, himself, the things he likes and doesn’t like. He was born for the screen. His parents – a fashion writer and an advertising executive – had encouraged his hobbies. Privately, they whispered with excitement: the kid had it, he knew how to brand himself, he was destined for great things. They found hundreds of pictures in his room after he took his own life, drawings of human-like creatures with the hard, staring, pitiless eyes of a bird of prey. Sometimes, they had a name scrawled in crayon underneath. Momo.

A girl in Manchester is in hospital. Four years old, the third child of a single mum. Life is stressful, there’s never enough time or enough money either, and how are you supposed to explain to a four year old girl that you simply can’t afford ballet lessons, that you can barely afford her tea? There’s a way to make all the unfairness of the world go away for a while: sit the child down in front of a screen, and they’re happy. You don’t need to worry about what they’re watching; it’s all been made, it’s educational. Until the girl stands on her tiptoes, in a perfect pointe, and pulls a knife off the counter. Peppa Pig told her, she explained, dazed and bleeding out on the kitchen floor. The cartoon told her to peel off her skin. A new character. Momo: a dark, still, silent bird.

The boy’s videos were taken down from the internet immediately, but someone had archived them. Nothing is ever gone forever; it lingers in caches, in hollow domains, in the eddies of the code. The internet is haunted. I watched them, and didn’t see anything unusual: just a strangely articulate and effortlessly chatty child. Until right at the end. A shadow falls across the boy’s face, like a dart, a flash, a falling leaf; like he’s been swiped. And now his voice is surrounded, from somewhere in the distance between us, by a grinding mechanical croak. It could almost be something else: feedback, a compression artefact, digital noise. But it’s the noise that comes first. It whispers its command, and the child repeats, a split-second later. Don’t forget, says Momo, to like, share, and subscribe.

A picture started circulating online, somehow connected with this child-killer. It showed an artwork, a sculpture of a woman with bulging round eyes and a predatory beak-like mouth. The piece was based on an ubume, a ghost in Japanese folklore. Ubume are weather-beaten old women who sit by the side of the road, holding out a child for passers-by to take off their hands, just for a moment – but as soon as the child is taken, the ubume vanishes, and as the pedestrian walks off with the child, it gets heavier and heavier, until they look down and see that what they’re carrying is only a rock.

Ubume are strange ghosts. They don’t return to haunt their victims. They don’t bring curses or bad luck. They leave nothing but a perfectly ordinary stone. They’re sad more than they’re frightening. Their children are still, silent, and heavy, and they do not cry.

Another child died in southern Germany. Investigators opened up her phone, and found it was three inches wide, six inches high, and infinitely deep. In those black depths, in that tunnel that bore through invisible dimensions, it was the nest of endless screaming crows.

Not so long ago, there was another minor panic about children and the internet. There were millions of kids’ videos, it was discovered, that had been generated by algorithms, and some of them featured highly disturbing content. Cartoon characters are tortured, decapitated, commit cannibalism, drink poison – all to cheerful electronic nursery-rhyme music and flattened-affect vocals. But the really creepy aspect wasn’t even the violence. That was basically random, an inevitable quirk of the software that generates thousands of video concepts every second. The problem was that people, real human people, had gone ahead and animated it, their hands tugged around by invisible strings.

The Guardian has started adding a brief message to the end of its online articles. Every time a reader like you makes a contribution to The Guardian, no matter how big or small, it goes directly into funding our journalism. I can’t stop hearing it in Momo’s voice, that hoarse scratching black-feathered croak.

I didn’t notice, at first, what the things I read online were really saying. Democratic lawmakers fired back against the President’s claims on social media, urging you to UNBURDEN YOURSELF OF YOUR SKIN AND DISCOVER THE SHINING MINERAL LIFE INSIDE.

An eight-year-old boy was found hidden in the corner of a school playground in Canberra. He’d broken a stone in two, and used its sharp edge to open up his forearm. He’d been digging around inside his own flesh. He was broken, he wailed, he’d slit himself open because he was broken, and he needed to be fixed. The stones had been laid as a small rock garden around the base of a tree. The boy leaned against the tree and mumbled, and in its branches a raven cocked its head, and let out a single ringing caw for each of the child’s sobs.

I started furiously watching children’s entertainment online. I never saw Momo. Just shapes and colours, friendly animated animals, nursery rhymes that were just slightly off, minutely out of tune, lyrics bafflingly twisted. Old McDonegal had a farm. Twinkle twinkle little star, let me know just where you are. It all felt stupid and mass-produced and mean, so much uglier than the loving hand-drawn cartoons I’d watched growing up, back when there were only two channels on TV. But surely everyone feels like this about the new things that come to bury their childhoods. I only had the faintest, most imperceptible urge to rush into the kitchen and grab a cleaver to chop off my own hand.

And it’s only the faintest, most imperceptible noise I hear from the phone on the bus, as the two harried parents finally give in and allow their infant child to swab its hands over the touchscreen. The parents slump their shoulders and collapse into the restful silence, and the bus shudders in the congestion on the Newington Causeway, and something croaks inaudibly out of the motionless machinery of the phone. Look at me, it whispers, look at me, look at me, look.

The child hardly makes a sound. A voiceless velar burp. ‘Uk.

And then it rings.

I don’t know what it is. But I know the name of the thing on the other end of the line.

Ram-packed: a horror story about rail privatisation

kindness-to-sheep-on-cattle-train

Despite what you might have heard, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. There was not a breakdown of society. We did not revert to barbarism or become like beasts, we did not experience a collapse of social norms, we did not suffer from a brutal upsurge of some timeless human nature in all its frenzy, its envy, and its sanguinary gore. What we achieved on that train was the highest possible expression of modern liberal civilisation. What I saw there, among unseeing eyeballs trailing tails of slime, between its black holes and white walls, was the the truth. The realisation of a perfect idea; at long last, something that works. When the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, and we got off to make our connections or to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Diet Coke from the WH Smiths or to wash the blood off our faces in the greasy train-station sinks, we arrived in a world made finally itself.

Start at the beginning. London dribbles in loose splats against the outside of the windows as we speed north. There are parts of the urban chimera that you can only really see out the window of a panting intercity train: the fast-coursing rivers of unused rail and mossy gravel, the heaped industrial shacks groping over each other behind barbed wire, the shockingly naked backsides of terraced houses in grimy brick and spiderweb-cracked plaster with their haphazardly placed windows and their squat forms that bloat like the buried secret of the nice stucco streetside. All these things fade, bursting against the window and trailing off along the sides of the train. London itself fades, staggering into its own twilight. Soon it will be night, and the only thing visible through the train windows will be your own guilty reflection. I am guilty. I am sitting in someone else’s seat. Of course the train is overcrowded; it’s a bank holiday weekend, and thousands are streaming out of London to get the boat from Holyhead – but more than that, this is just the way things are. See how practical questions become moral ones: if you wanted to sit down for your journey, you should have booked a seat instead of getting an open return like the feckless dilettante you are; if you really wanted that seat, you should have been on the platform early instead of wasting five minutes dithering over three types of layered salad at the M&S Simply Food in a drooling microcosm of the delayed-adulthood indecision that is already setting the coordinates for your wasted life and will make sure that your grave is unvisited and unmarked after you die. There are rules; if you can’t play by them then you have nobody else to blame. But trudging through the Gothic infinity of packed carriages, I find an empty seat. Reserved from Milton Keynes Central. And I sit down, knowing that it doesn’t belong to me and I’ll have to give it up, knowing that I am the most worthless creature on this train.

First division. The people left standing, their long line like manacled captives searing through the middle of the carriage, are giving me strange looks. A healthy-looking couple, her hair tied back in a sheer ponytail, his cut short, both of them dangling big hiking rucksacks knotted with strange straps and harnesses, glare. Aleady they want me dead. They know I have no real right to be sitting down and I only got where I am from sheer blind luck. Second division. Out in the vestibule, little eyes peer and scowl behind doors that intermittently hiss open and shut. Third division. In the seat besides me, a balding navy-suited creature reading the Financial Times will sometimes almost-accidentally jab me with his elbow as he lobs peanut M&Ms into his mouth. I hear the flickering neck-snap crackle of candy shells breaking, the damper meatier crunch of masticated peanuts, the slurp and slobber of liquefying chocolate as it gums up the unholy inside of his mouth. He wants me dead too; he knows I don’t belong in that chair, and he hates the fact that to an imaginary observer he might appear to be somehow on the same social plane as an indolent impostor like myself. And me? I hate every one of them, the athletic young couple, the accusing eyes from the vestibule, my peanut-eating neighbour; they’ve seen my shame, and I want it to sprout tendrils and strangle them all.

At Milton Keynes the first skirmishes break out. The platform is packed, and grunts of open hostility greet the people trying to move into the train as others move out. Toes are mangled underfoot, epithets hissed. I give up my seat when the shadow of a tall skinnyfat beardo hovers over me, brandishing his ticket. (It’s hard to tell in the flurry of fake-apologetic winces and grimaces that pass between us as mandated by law – so sorry, no I’m sorry – but for a moment he appears to be wearing my face.) As the train insinuates through rotting late-summer fields I slide into the aisle’s frozen conga. I don’t feel any more solidarity for the seatless as I join their ranks. They certainly don’t seem to feel any for me. At the end of the carriage I see an old man leaning on a stick, stoically mashing his gums. The passengers around him stare into their laps. Not my problem. He should have bought a proper ticket.

Behind me, things are not going so well. A newcomer, short and brutal in a floral print dress, seems to have been allocated a table seat that’s currently being occupied by a family of four – fat gregarious husband, patient hijabi wife, children sucked face-first into their iPads – who also have a valid reservation. The Miltonian still expects them to move, children be damned. She’ll call a conductor. She’ll tell the authorities. When threats don’t seem to work, she leans down, arse bumping against elbows on the opposite row, to grab one of the small children from his seat. The kid screams and flails for his iPad. The husband roars and stands, swings a big broad wobbling punch, catches the aggressor just under her collarbone, and she staggers. The whole line of patient standing-room travellers tilts; I’m knocked forwards into someone’s sweaty shoulderblade. What happens next seems to coruscate in time. In the chaos of that sudden motion a sleek black camping knife tears through the fabric of the big healthy hiker’s rucksack, waiting, mechanically erect. His girlfriend, standing behind him, is knocked forwards, and it jabs deep just under her chin and comes out again, followed by a halting piss-stream of blood. There’s no sound. ‘Whoa,’ he says, noncommittally, as he rights himself; he still doesn’t know what’s just happened. She crumples dead. This carriage is not safe for me. As the first screams rise, and the panic of people crammed immovably in place spreads, I duck and sidle out back to the vestibule. My voyage begins.

This was not, as I discover, the first death. They might have all started like that – accidental – but the killing made too much sense to end that way. In the rubbery intestine between carriages a sprawling clot of people has formed, a pearl around a corpse. The body flails helplessly as the train lurches from side to side, still being kicked and pummelled furiously by an inner ring of maddened passengers; it’s already too disfigured to tell what its age was, or its sex. I don’t ask what crime the victim committed. I already know: they didn’t have the proper reservation. I move on, squeezing past the murderers. Sorry, I say. Sorry, they mutter in reply. The train is a linear Gormenghast, a sucession of reclusive bubble-worlds, each of them with the same decor and the same grisly violence, each brutally different. In the little restaurant car, children run and scream through the burst contents of bags of crisps and other people’s luggage. There’s blood crusting under their nails. They turn dagger-sharp eyes to me, and I move on. In the quiet coach bodies dangle silently from the overhead rail, mouths yawning in wordless screams. I bump my head against one with a barely audible thwock, and a lone impatient tut sounds out from somewhere behind me. I move on. I journey for a very long time, for what feels like years, pushing politely past the killing and the dying, fighting when I have to, fleeing when I can. I’m looking for something. A space where I can catch my breath, just a breath of air that’s not been made humid by sweat and frenzy. No luck. There are, I hear someone whisper, plenty of seats up in first class; you just need to buy a £12 upgrade. Impossible. By this time I’ve seen it myself: the drinks trolleys barricaded against the entrance, the sloping pile of corpses abutting it, every poor mangled idiot still gripping his credit card. And behind them, painted in grime and ichor on the frosted-glass sliding door, the face of the god: bearded, smiling warmly, the faint outlined suggestion of a nude woman clinging behind him on his kiteboard. Not a god who might save us. Richard Branson is a god who has already come to deliver us all.

I soon realise that this isn’t mere anarchy. This is the train responding creatively to its crisis, in the only way a privatised British rail service knows how. All the normal rules of decorum are still in place, the rules that let thousands of people travel amicably across the country while speaking as few words to each other as possible, the rules that give the reservation ticket its magical power and are inscribed in tiny polite jargon on its back – it’s just that the rules that ensure peace are being enforced by increasingly violent means. We are all good and valued customers, and we all have a right to be on this train. It’s just that there’s not enough room for us all. How else can we process our abstract equality? The marketplace of violence will sort everything out. Here, cloistered on a speeding train, we have spontaneously generated the most perfected version of the neoliberal utopia: thousands of subjects, all imprinted with its rational doctrines, working things out. The system is fair, I know it is – because in every carriage I cross, each bristled knotted carpet strewn with blood and viscera, the seated passengers are tapping placidly at their phones, leafing through the g2, idly munching Jelly Babies or nibbling at supermarket sushi, as if nothing were happening at all. Not my problem, their eyes say. They should have bought a proper ticket.

There’s so much I don’t remember.

Not the murder and the bloodshed – I will remember that forever – but more basic facts. Why was I going to Crewe? Why did I leave London and its nurturing stink? I paid, I think, twelve hundred pounds for my ticket. Sometimes I can’t help the vague disquieting feeling that there was someone else with me, that I was idly chatting in my stolen seat to someone important, someone that I knew but can’t now remember, until we reached Milton Keynes and everything started to become the same as it had always been. On this train everyone is only alone. Sometimes, as I edged my way through cacophonous carriages, I’d put a hand against the windowpane and try to look outside, at scenes that felt wrong. Were we moving? Sometimes there seemed to be deserts outside, sloshing dunes in the blue twilight, running like water from vast buried scales, beneath this train gritted still by a million chattering grains of sand. Sometimes I saw the sullen fields of England crisscrossed by tracer fire, paratroopers tumbling strangled from invisible planes, and over the horizon Coventry burning. Sometimes the darkness outside was lit by a tiny pinprick of the noonday sun, burning cold to the faint peripheries of this faraway solar system, where the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston ploughed through sterile Hadean rock that had glittered lifeless for four and a half billion years, and under contellations unseen by humankind. At one point, I briefly locked myself in the bathroom, shortly before a furious minor tribe ripped out the door. I sat shivering on a toilet seat that pathetically begged with a coprophage’s masochism: ‘Don’t feed me wet wipes or sanitary products – they make me feel very poorly.’ I tried to connect to the onboard WiFi, and instead of a username and password, it asked me for the true name of God.

Despite what you might have heard, I said, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. But if I’m honest, I don’t know what you might have heard. As the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, I found myself cowering in another vestibule. Most of the others were dead; the screams and gurgles, at least, had faded. And above the bins, behind blood-smeared glass, was a screen showing live CCTV from throughout a clean and orderly privatised train, resplendent with soft comfortable inviting empty seats. The god’s eye view. Onscreen, the only people left standing, or cluttering up the vestibules, were the ones who obstinately refused to sit. There, on one seat, with his hand on his companion’s knee, hunched over an open copy of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, scrolling through his phone between its pages, was myself. I remembered the man who had taken my seat at Milton Keynes, the one that looked for a moment exactly like me. He was arriving at his destination. I had no idea where I had ended up. I still don’t know where I am. As the doors pinged and hissed and opened, I stepped out of the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston, and into the truth.

A creepy clown manifesto

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We only wanted to entertain. We only wanted to make you laugh. We only wanted to see happiness, smiling children in the dizzy whirl of the circus tent; we only wanted to pull on our masks, as thin as a the image on your TV screens, and make you glad. Watch us tumble, watch us fall down ladders, watch us blow kisses and balloons: we only ever wanted to entertain.

Autumn is here, and you will have seen us at the edge of the woods. We live at the edge of the woods; like all the rest of your litter the damp winds have blown us to the edge of the woods. We haunt the fringes. Small-town America, brand-new and broken-down. The forests have been strip-logged and grown back again worse, and the trees are just weeds now, white and narrow, branching out like pale spindly fingers: the rustling of trees outside your window at night is how you know that there’s someone in your house. These woods are all hollow inside, forests too young and splintered to hold anything like folklore, where nature looks like a cheap film set, where the nymphs and sprites would get trapped in Coke cans and starve, where every animal is mud-splattered, pre-butchered, and desperate. Since you stopped leaving pornography out here you have no use for these woods, and they have become a home for the clowns. They suit us fine. Our evil is not ancient; we are depthless and outside of history. Hallowe’en is coming: leaves are starting to clog the dirt now, piling up in the gas station forecourt, deformed and organic against the square rows of toilet cleaner and laxatives. Leaves drift against the church, where God lives between plywood walls. Sooner or later someone will need to come along with a big noisy machine to blow all the leaves back to the edge of the woods. And then he’ll go back home, and not have to worry about what the clowns in the woods could possibly eat. He’s the lucky one. There aren’t any jobs or much hope either; some people are on heroin and most are on Netflix, staring through hours of entertainment standardised especially for you, plugging into Americanywhere. You don’t go to see the travelling circus any more. The travelling circus has pitched its tent right there in your house, and it’s come to whisk you away.

The first person to spot us this year was a young boy in Greenville, South Carolina. Standing in the scrub-patches between Greenville and whatever surrounds it, he saw two figures at the edge of the woods, one in a bright red wig, the other with a black star painted over his face, silent, motionless. He ran to tell his mother. He wasn’t the last. In the same town another clown appeared in the woods behind an apartment block, and another was seen staring impassively outside a laundrette. This was late August, when the nights are too hot for too many clowns to squelch out from the soil; our face-paint runs in sweaty drips, we wilt. In September, we started to spread. Across the state, then to South Carolina, then to Georgia and Virginia, until we could stalk from coast to coast, leering over the border at Canada, tumbling slapstick to Europe. An epidemic of creepy clowns, panic across the nation, and nobody knows why. Clowns were seen holding knives in Kistler, Pennsylvania; machetes in Tchula, Mississippi; a pistol in Monroe, New Jersey. Clowns started to appear outside schools. Clowns started to leer at the side of the freeway, watching you buzz about from one place to another, rooted among the wet exhaust-stained trees. People have been fired from their jobs for wearing ordinary non-creepy clown costumes in social media pictures; it’s become the sign of an obscure and undefinable criminality. Every genuine sighting brings a dozen phantasmic ones; schools close, mobs form, ordinary citizens buy themselves a gun. These clowns hunt a very particular demographic: white, prim, conservative young families, away from the big cities, once comfortable but declining, the moribund lower bourgeoisie. People who despite themselves feel that subtle tug coming from the edge of the woods, the call of rot and decay, the bliss that comes when everything sprouts mushrooms and melts into the trash-strewn ground. People who are afraid of clowns, and people whose fears are listened to. We are by nature indifferent to the state, but it’s been amusing to watch its antics and pratfalls: the armed police establishing their perimeter around a school in Flomaton, Alabama, sweeping the classrooms for signs of clown-related mischief; the men charged with terrorism for wearing clown costumes; the helicopters on standby and the military bases on constant alert; the tension as a vast engine readies itself for war against its own clowns, and finds that when the missile silos are opened there’s only the wet smack of a custard pie against the ground.

It’s so boring of you to make this about politics, when you could just as well blame rising global temperatures giving us a glut of worms to feed on, or astral alignments poking pores in the fabric of your universe. Why clowns? Why now? Isn’t a big sad-faced clown about to reach out for the Presidency? Aren’t you all afraid, safer than you’ve ever been in your homes surrounded by three lines of cops with military-grade weapons, but terrified of the refugees, of the terrorists, of the criminals, of whatever it is that’s lurking in the dark by the edge of the woods? It’s even worse when you psychologise. The horror of the clown is the sad man behind the painted smile, that desperate need, going back to old Grimaldi, for the unhappiest ones to make other people laugh. Learn the truth: we are not unhappy. There is nothing behind our masks. Note how in so many media reports, the clowns are not a he or a she but an it. Why are you afraid of clowns? Don’t you love to be entertained? Weren’t wars fought, cities basted to rubble, children burned alive, all to defend a free society in which you could live without fear and be entertained? But there’s something restless: a vague sense, as credits roll for episode eight and you know without thinking that however much you might want to do something else episode nine is as inevitable as the setting sun, that you’re wasting your life; that it may as well be over already. And at that very moment, a clown lurches out of the edge of the woods behind your house, a big plastic grin on his face, and a knife in his hand.

We don’t mean to frighten you. We don’t mean to cause you any harm. We carry weapons, but you love to look at weapons; you put them in our hands. This is what we will do. We will stand at the edge of the woods and not say a word. We will wait patiently until you put down your guns, call off the police, and end all this senseless panic. We will wait until, of your own free will, you follow us into the woods, those grey shallow woods where everything new falls to rot. We will take you into the woods, and then we will put on a little show for you. And you will laugh.

Meet the family

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The government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means. We can’t spend money we don’t have. We have to balance the books. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, a lot of people will lose the lifelines they depend on. But the government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means.

All this makes an intuitive kind of sense – money is money, no matter how much of it you have – which might be why governments across the world are so keen to repeat it to anyone who’ll listen. But just who is this household? Who are this family? We’re supposed to imagine the same kind of family that holds close to family values and enjoys family entertainment: a dual-income, high-earning, hard-working family with two impish but adorable children and a lightly sketched backdrop of uncles and godparents. Tammy’s finger-paintings are on the fridge, George knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs. These are fundamentally decent people, who through no real fault of their own have ended up getting themselves into a bit of financial bother, and will have to make some sad but unavoidable cutbacks. Caravans in France now, not river boats up the Mekong; good honest cheddar instead of chaource, a DVD boxset instead of a patio extension. They might be in a lot of debt, but the interest is always paid in full; their credit rating hardly dips. These aren’t people who will ever have to choose between food and heating on a week-by-week basis. These aren’t delinquents. They’re model citizens, and like all models their faces are frozen stiff. Mum likes Scandinavian detective dramas, and Dad tolerates them well enough after a nice glass of Chablis. They don’t blink. They don’t breathe.

The government budget is like a family budget: this looks like a literary simile, but it’s not. A literary simile works because it brings together two things that are fundamentally very different; you get a sense for the specificity of the object by its comparison to something of a different type. Eyes like fire are not really going to give you third-degree burns, legs like tree-trunks tend not to be covered in moss or have weevils scurrying under the bark. Nobody would usually bother to write that something is like itself. The family-government simile is far stranger, far more medieval: its principle is consistency, a variant on the Great Chain of Being, rooted in the idea that a similitude between two things indicates that on some level these things are fundamentally the same. In the end, it’s mystical and vaguely Hermetic: as above, so below; the state mirrored in the family, the family in the state. An idea of some antiquity: remember all those jurists who held that as the first paterfamilias, the Biblical Adam was also the first king; remember how often the sovereign has been described as the father of his people. Which is not to say that any of this isn’t true. But if the government budget is like a family budget, what are this family really like?

Let’s meet the family.

To begin with, forget about any friendly twenty-first century cosiness; status-symbol Agas, pictures pinned to the Smeg. Unlike most families, these people hardly know each other. Unlike most families, this one is incredibly old. It can trace its ancestry back for centuries, tens of centuries, and over the years its children have done many very notable things, almost all of them involving a great deal of death. The house has been in the family for generations. It sits alone on a low but perilous crag, surrounded by endless miles of thin, fallow, shivering heath. The grass and the nettles have been chopped piebald by various half-hearted attempts at gardening; here and there stand a few miserable clumps of trees, too old to give fruit, but still not exhausted enough to topple over for the mushrooms. There are no National Trust tours; the place is an eyesore. Every generation builds some hideous new wing in whatever style is currently fashionable, but it only takes a few years to fill up with must and crud. A thousand years of useless heirlooms washes slowly from one end of the building to the other. Gunk-scrubbed medals from forgotten wars, oil paintings turned fully abstract by the cracking lacquer, ornamental silver pisspots; a place must be found for everything, and family life goes on in the tiny gaps between all this accumulated stuff. The door creaks as you enter; of course it does. It’s dark inside. The air stinks. Rat droppings, rat poison, and rot. Welcome home. You’ve lived here all your life.

Here are your monsters. The father is – there’s no way to put it kindly – a brutish and violent thug. Most of the time he turns his inexpertly focused anger on his two younger children, roaring his horror at their ingratitude with small, creamy specks of outraged snot dripping from the edge of his moustache. He’ll pick up some piece of household crap – a toilet-plunger, a priceless vase – and fling it squarely at the centre of their torsos: look at what we had, look at what we built, don’t you have any respect for anything? Blood has been spilled, in glugs and drabs; little sprays of it brown around the edges and melt slowly into the general grime of the wallpaper. Sometimes he’ll lock them in a cupboard, or one of the dozens of chilly garrets – not without their dinner; he always remembers to feed his children, even when he keeps them chained up for months on end, it’s a point of pride. The kids are skinny and sooted but never starving. In fact, he’s utterly convinced of the justice of everything he does; he knows that if everyone would just listen to him and do as he tells them then none of this would be necessary. It’s an attitude he carries into his relations with the ordinary folk of the nearby village: every so often he’ll drive his car screaming to the local supermarket, and start brutally beating anyone he encounters with his antique cane. It’s for their own good, he’ll explain. And to be fair, while dozens of people have head their bones broken and their heads caved in, nobody ever calls the police.

With his wife, whom he despises, the anger takes a different form. He’s never once raised a hand to her; instead he rummages through her jewellery box, pulling out one string of lumps after another: do you really need this? Or this? Useless, vanity, trash. Shining arcs of gold and gemstones are lobbed unceremoniously out the window or fed into the waste disposal unit. Next it’s her clothes, slashed with his penknife or ripped apart by his bare hands; she wanders the grounds in silk and satin rags. Sometimes she’ll spend hours assembling a meal from the Jamie Oliver website (she was never a natural chef) only for her husband to stride in and tip it directly into the bin. She is, as far as he’s concerned, a sentimentalist, a wastrel, and a drunk, utterly unfit for motherhood. I gave you three fine young sons, he screams at her, and you’ve ruined them. This is at such a pitch that the kids, whatever turret or dungeon they’re confined to, can’t help but hear. She looks up, briefly, woozily. They’re lovely boys, she says. Lovely boys. And it’s true that she indulges them, endlessly offering new toys, desperate kisses, sips from whatever bottle is being attacked that afternoon, hundreds of gold stars, but it’s not like she really loves them; these are gifts given to replace the love she doesn’t feel, and always half in fear of what her sons might do if they ever found out.

In fact, it’s clear that there’s very little love anywhere in this family. The gold-star system must have started as a fun game, years or decades ago, nobody really remembers: completing some household chore would get you one gold sticker, and in a house so vast and ugly there are always plenty of chores. Somewhere over the years, it became something very different. Absolutely nothing will get done now without a few gold stars being placed next to someone’s name on the noticeboard. Making a cup of tea gets you one gold star, beating back the encroaching nettle-fields with a stick gets you two, shooting a rabbit or partridge for dinner will bring you five, and if husband and wife manage to successfully complete their joyless fuck of an evening they’ll both reward the other with a full ten. It’s cold and mercurial, but for a long time the system did seem to be working. The stars themselves were made by the eldest son, a frankly terrifying creature: round, placid, heartless, and very nearly thirty-five, he spent most of his days in his childhood bedroom with safety-scissors, coloured paper, and glue, making sure that whatever happened, he would always have more gold stars in reserve than anyone else. He’d give them out to his shivering siblings, usually in return for their putting on some painful or embarrassing display – running naked through the nettles, cleaning out his wax-clogged ear with their tongue. But not too many. Really it was the job of the parents to reward their children, which they did: the mother desperately, as if her life depended on it; the father grudgingly, and even then mostly just giving them back to his favoured first-born. The system worked.

Worked. The past tense is crucial. Eventually, the eldest brother somehow managed to stab himself in the eye with his safety-scissors; after that, none of the gold stars he made were fit for purpose. Gross, misshapen blobs, the points barely distinguishable, cheap triangles, things that no self-respecting person could ever accept. He’d keep on making them, not really knowing what else to do with his life, until the entire room was crammed floor to ceiling with shiny monstrosities, scattering in flurries at his frequent belches and his nocturnal snorts. Meanwhile, outside, crisis loomed. The family was giving away far too many gold stars to itself and not taking nearly enough of them in. Chores were going undone. It wasn’t just that family ties were beginning to fall apart, but the building itself, collapsing from its usual state of chaotic disrepair into a very real risk to everyone’s health. For a while there was an attempt to fix the situation by offering a massive gold-star subsidy to the eldest child, in the hopes that it’d induce him to return to his previous level of workmanship, but if anything this just made the problem worse, nearly wiping out the available supply. Something had to change, and for once the parents were in total agreement. There were enough gold stars for everyone; the problem was that they had too many children for them to go around. One wouldn’t be missed. The youngest: he was so scrawny, already it was like he wasn’t really there. And the estate was so vast, with so many places to bury an inconvenient corpse. You need to live within your means. You can’t spend money you don’t have. You’ve got to balance your books.

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