In the modern characterization of Orpheus, culled from diverging stories of antiquity, Orpheus is the best musician of all time—let’s make that the greatest artist. Orpheus could play the lyre so well that animals, rocks, and trees danced to his songs; he was so good at his chosen instrument that he even charmed Hades into letting his bride, who had died after falling into a pit of vipers, return to the world of the living.
But Orpheus made one little mistake. The King of the Underworld had told him not to look back to the trailing Eurydice until they had exited his kingdom. This was a reasonable condition really, given the very favorable terms of their unusual agreement. Yet Orpheus, being at least half human by most accounts—his mother was allegedly the muse Calliope—forgot himself, or got nervous, or suddenly doubted his own powers—whatever his motivation remains unclear. Upon entering the light of this world Orpheus fatally turned around and watched his love, Eurydice, disappear forever into the shadows where she still walked.
Thus Orpheus, arguably the most prevalent symbol for Art in the Western world, shows us both the power and limitations of the whole venture. Yes, it might feel like you’re conquering death when you play that song, paint that picture, compose that poem, or type that story. Yes, you might experience the sensation of escaping the everyday world, perhaps even your own mortality, upon hearing, watching, and reading the best artistic examples. But the feeling is illusory, Orpheus tells us.
The feeling is, after all, just a feeling.
“XO” in the modern sense is a farewell, a departure, a leavetaking—and xo Orpheus suggests another good-bye by Orpheus to his bride, Eurydice. The phrase is sad then, humanly sad, considering how things turned out for them in the end. Yet, as the title to a collection of new myths, xo Orpheus is meant to suggest a farewell of literature, our symbolic Orpheus, in its old relationship to the world of myth.
If fairy tales are “domestic myths,” as Maria Tatar has proposed, then classical myths are worldly tales, generally involving some contact between the mortal and immortal realms, between humans and the gods. Well documented, the relationship of literature to myth in the Western world has undergone much change over the millennia, as first the age of Gods fell away before the notion of a single god, and then, for many people, that single god slipped away too. For more than a hundred years now (let’s use the popular terms of modernism and postmodernism) writers have been dealing with this transition, or their perception of this transition.
No Gods . . . no god . . . only humans.
Humans and their machines.
And the myths of former times held a resonance precisely because of this change. They echoed back to us from a place of lost power and transcendence. How far had we fallen? How lonely we were in a world without gods!
But times have changed once again. The age itself has changed. There is some news, and it’s not very good news: we humans, once merely human, have supplanted all godly endeavors—we have become like gods ourselves. It’s the biggest story on earth.
As scientists have discovered, or perhaps explained is a better word, or perhaps identified, we now live in the age of the Anthropocene. The geologic age of the Anthropocene.
Those high priests of material evidence have given us our own epoch like the Holocene, the Pleistocene! Apparently we now, it seems, have superhuman powers. With our evolved busy hands and our evolved busy brains, in an extraordinarily short period of time we’ve managed to alter the earth with such geologic-forcing effects that we ourselves are forces of nature.
Climate change, ocean acidification, the sixth mass extinction of species. Events that used to take hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, we humans have miraculously accomplished in a little more than a century. We, in our less than divine wisdom but apparently quite divine powers, are now transforming the planet like an Olympian might have created an Ice Age, or a Titan might have thrown down an asteroid from the sky to kill off a bunch of dinosaurs.
We are the gods.
Our scientists have said so.
And our high priests have given our communal life span an epochal name: Anthropocene. This is a Greek name to boot (“human” plus “new”), which brings me back to those myths. What do the myths—those vertical tales about the breach between the human and godly realms—have to tell us now in the new age with humans as gods? What is Myth in the Age of Anthropocene?
Based on the stories gathered here, the early answer is this: sad.
Of course we only just left behind Myth in the Age of the Holocene, bade it farewell as readers and writers. Only in the last few years has the term Anthropocene become widely used in scientific circles. Only over time, therefore, over the coming decades, centuries, millennia—however long the Age of Anthropocene lasts—will we know more about what art means and what artists make, how this shift changes some things and leaves static others. We do know one thing has changed, for those who might say this is faddish end-time thinking: humans are gods. This wasn’t true even a generation ago, though some predicted its coming.
A profound sadness, yes. Oh, you may find a whimsical story here and there in the bunch, and you might be struck by the violence too. Yet “XO” Orpheus wrote to his beloved, and “good-bye” this book says to the old relationship of literature and myth, of myth to the human. Even the whimsical stories in here, even the most violent ones, reveal a gaping anxiety, a primal fear, leading to sadness about what we have done.
Of course the stories are also deeply absorbing, ethical, lovely, and strange, different one from the next, each searching for a happy home with a reader.
Yet again the same questions arise: How far have we fallen? How lonely have we become? When humans become gods, when our wings grow so great as to beat about the very edges of the earth, no one can answer but us. Good-bye, and so hello.
Johanna Skibsrud is the author of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning novel, The Sentimentalists (2011); a collection of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories (2012); and two collections of poetry. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Johanna currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she is working on a collection of critical essays and a second novel.
A HORSE, A VINE
O unhappy citizens, what madness? Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? —Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II
I knew I could count on Dean. He was like a brother to me; better than that. Ever since we’d met—our first day of Basic, both of us just eighteen years old. Turned out, we’d both grown up near Houston. Dean was from just north of Sugar Land, in Mission Bend; Alvin, where I’m from, that’s just a little less than an hour away. Maybe it was that. Whatever it was, we understood each other. Which is saying something. Dean is not a guy who is easily understood. He’s always been nuts—even in Basic. He started picking up “odd jobs” even then. Just to keep things interesting, he said, and mostly—he was right—it was nothing. Just roughing up a guy in town every now and then, for a friend. But after a while he got into some real dirty work, too. I kept telling him he was going to get himself into trouble but he’d just say, nah, and when he did get into trouble it didn’t have anything to do with any of that shit. He was always pretty good about it—didn’t leave a lot of loose ends.
What happened was he got called in for a domestic on account of this girl, Natalie, who he wasn’t even serious about. They issued him with protective orders, but that suited him just fine, and for a while it looked like they were going to let it go at that. But then, a year later, when his term of service was up, he was denied reenlistment. If you ask me, it didn’t have anything to do with the girl, though that’s what they said. Everyone could just sort of tell that Dean was a little—unhinged.
Dean pretty near lost his mind when he heard about it. You can imagine. I know, because I was the first person he called. That was the beginning of September, 2001. I was home on leave. I told him, Well, come on back home, we’ll get you sorted out, and so he came back and calmed down a little. He even managed to pick up a few “odd jobs”—but his heart wasn’t in it. He would come over to visit Tracy and me all the time, at first. We’d drink beer and play video games until three or four in the morning and we both fell asleep in the living room—one of us in the La-Z-Boy armchair and the other stretched out on the couch. The night before the twin towers fell was a night like that—we’d been playing Colony Wars but hadn’t even managed to finish the game. When we woke up Dean said we should finish it out because he’d been winning. I agreed—but only because I still had a chance. It’s a good game that way, more like real life. Even if you lose a few battles you can still win the overall— it’s just about how everything balances out. Also, it’s not like most games where it’s either you win, or you die. There are five different endings to the game—two of them good and three of them bad. So that’s like real life, too. There’s always a chance that things will work out—but more of a chance that they won’t.
I was trying to concentrate on the game because I was still losing pretty bad when Tracy came in with Cody screaming on her hip— he was still just tiny then. She just sort of stood there at first, looking at us, letting Cody cry like that. Even if she had tried to say something, though, I probably wouldn’t have heard her because of how much noise Cody was making and because I was still trying to concentrate, finish the game, even if I was losing, and because Dean was yelling at me the whole time, too, saying, You’re gonna die, motherfucker! You are so going to die!
Finally Tracy just walked over, the kid still screaming, and flicked the screen over to the TV, and just at the moment—the Towers fell. It was fucked up. I didn’t even know what was happening at first. Like it was a sort of a joke. Or a clip from a movie or something. Dean said, Damn! In the same way he did when I beat the shit out of him playing Blast Radius or Hogs of War.
After that Dean had a job. He got hired on at Blackwater, and he liked it a lot better anyway than he liked the Marines. He told me I should get discharged and join up, too, but I didn’t think so. I’d just got back from a six-month tour in Afghanistan and didn’t want to go back anymore if I could help it. I wanted to get transferred to the Northern Command. Get posted at Fort Sam, maybe—be closer to Tracy and Cody that way. Plus, I liked the idea of homeland defense. It was an arithmetic thing. Say you blew up three guys over there in Iraq or Afghanistan—you never could be certain if they were the right guys. At home, if anybody tried anything, you’d know for sure when you blew them up you were getting the right guy. If any more 9/11 shit was going to happen I liked the idea of being right here, waiting—couldn’t stand the thought of being stuck sitting on my thumbs instead, over at Camp Eggers, or Fiddler’s Green.
What, you getting spooked or something? Dean said when I told him about the homeland defense thing.
I shook my head. Nah.
Soft? he said. He poked me in the gut.
I shook my head again. You can see for yourself, I said. No.
The way I said it that time, he left me alone. But the next time I saw him, he brought it up again.
Still spooked? he asked. I said I’d told him before that I wasn’t.
It’s all right, he said. Everybody gets it sometime. But you got to remember—it’s not just about killing and getting killed. You’re an artist, he told me. A warrior. Don’t forget that. Then he took this book from his pocket and read me something out of it that he said had been written by a Roman general something like two thousand years ago.
For someone who came across like such a special needs case most of the time, Dean was actually pretty deep. He used to carry The Art of the Warrior and Maxims of War around with him in Basic. Now it was Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.
We were having beers at the Triple Crown in Mission Bend, and when he got up to pay he shoved the book across the table toward me. Take it, he said. You might learn something. Then he made a face as if to say bigger miracles have happened, slammed a tip down on the table and headed toward the door.
I liked the book. It made you think about things. I liked the way it was written, too, in these short little sentences, sort of like the psalms in the Bible—except I could understand them, even with how it was written as many years ago. And when I didn’t understand them I would just skip ahead, and it didn’t matter. It was pretty cool to know that someone else was wondering about all the shit I was wondering about even two thousand years ago—even though it made me a bit sad to realize that meant nobody had figured anything out in all of that time. Like this one part, where he says that everything exists for some reason—even a horse, he says, or a vine—so why do you even have to wonder about it? But when he says it like that it’s obvious he’s wondered himself or else he wouldn’t have had to ask about why. And then he says, Even the sun will say, I am for some purpose, and the rest of the gods will say the same. For what purpose then art thou? I liked that. I’d even sort of repeat it to myself sometimes. For what purpose then art thou? Because even though it sounded like a question, it was sort of an answer, too.
Then, a week or so later, just before I was due to ship out, Dean showed up at my house with a copy of Rifleshooter magazine.
This will make you feel better, he said.
I feel fine, I said.
No, seriously, he said. Check it out. If you get blown up over there I’ll do this for you—promise. And if I get blown up, you can do it for me.
He flipped open the magazine from the back and read from an advertisement in the classified section.
How about honoring your deceased loved one, he read, pulling a face, by sharing with him or her one more round of clay targets, one last bird hunt, one last stalk hunt. . . .
I interrupted. Is this for real? I said.
Ha ha! Dean said. Hell yeah. Then continued to read the advertisement out loud. Only this time he stayed deadly serious.
All you had to do, according to this ad, was send these guys some ashes and they’d turn it into live ammunition for you. One pound of ash was enough for roughly 250 shells, they said. They even did mantelpiece carriers and engraved nameplates.
What better way, Dean read, to be remembered? Now you can have peace of mind that you can continue to protect your home and family even after you are gone.
That’s the part that got me. I realized sort of all of a sudden what had been bothering me ever since I got back from my first tour. It wasn’t that I was scared of dying. The thing that rattled me was thinking about what would happen after I died. Not to me. But to Tracy and Cody. I’d start thinking about it, all the crazy shit that could happen, and it would drive me crazy, because there is no end to the possibilities that can happen after you are dead—even more than can happen when you are alive, and that is pretty much anything. I would get so crazy sometimes thinking about this that it got so I couldn’t even hardly breathe. I’d get this feeling in my gut like someone had just stuck me with an ice pick, and after that I couldn’t breathe or think straight anymore. I’d just have to stand there with that pain in my gut until it passed. Sometimes it would last for a good couple of minutes, which is a long time to go without breathing. It wouldn’t happen all the time, but I never could tell when it was going to. After I got back from my second tour it was even worse. I didn’t even have to be thinking about anything after a while, and it would happen. I’d be sitting there playing a video game with Cody or eating a sandwich at the kitchen table or Tracy and I would be fucking, and all the sudden I’d feel it. A sharp pain in my gut, first, and then my lungs starting to shut down. I’d try to shake it, but there wasn’t anything that I could do. It got so bad I had to tell Tracy. It wasn’t like she didn’t notice. You can’t freeze up like that on someone when you’re in the middle of fucking them and not have them notice.
She told me not to worry. Nothing was going to happen, she said. But even if it did, I shouldn’t worry, because she could take care of herself—and Cody, too, and I knew it. She was used to it, she said, after all—what with me being gone all the time. And she was right—I knew. That’s the thing. It was weird. If I thought about it I knew I was lucky that way. Tracy was tough, and she was smart, too. We kept a gun in the house, and she knew how to use it. She was even a pretty good shot, and wasn’t someone who was likely to lose it and not know how to aim right, or be afraid to shoot, if she needed to. I could pretty much count on that. She would get this look on her face when she was serious about something and you knew that no one was ever going to mess with her.
Like that time when she came into the room and switched on the TV and the twin towers fell. Or the time that Cody nearly choked and died—and probably would have, too, if she hadn’t been around to save him. It still makes me sick to think about that, because it was my fault it happened. I was feeding him, and I guess I hadn’t cut the pieces up small enough—I figured they were pretty small already. But then Cody got quiet and his eyes got this real scared look to them, like they were going to pop out of his head. It was fucked up because it wasn’t even like he choked or anything first. He just stayed quiet and then got even quieter and then his eyes were popping out of his head. I bolted for the phone, and yelled for Tracy, but then before I could get to the phone even, to call 9-1-1, Tracy was there—walking by me like she didn’t even see me—that look on her face. She went straight for the kid, turned him upside down, then started thumping him on the back, hard, until pretty soon the little piece of chicken that had got stuck in his throat shot out of his mouth and he was crying and puking all over the floor.
You useless piece of shit, Tracy said, without looking at me. By the time anyone got around to coming over here in an ambulance it would have been too late. Don’t you know that? Then she scooped up Cody and took him off to the bathroom to get him cleaned up.
The piece of chicken had flown clear across the room and landed right beside my foot. I remember that after she left, and took the kid, I just sat down on the floor next to it, and looked at it, the way it was lying there on the floor right by my foot, and I thought about how small it was, and how you never knew what it was that was going to fuck you. How you had to be prepared for every little thing.
After my third tour I had that pain in my gut all the time. It was funny, because it didn’t happen to me in the field. Over there, I felt strong and I didn’t give a shit. A lot of guys get scared. If they’ve seen combat, or had any close calls, they start to feel like everything they see is going to jump up and bite them. But I wasn’t like that. See, I never was afraid of dying—it wasn’t that. It was everything else. When I was home I would start to feel it all over again. I couldn’t help it. I’d start thinking about how everything was all connected—how every little thing that happened would set off something else happening, I mean. And how that would set off something else, and that if I died there was nothing I could do to stop all the shit that my dying would set off in the world without knowing, ahead of time, what it would be.
I started thinking more about that advertisement Dean had read. I thought about how funny it would be to be sitting up on the shelf. Just ready and waiting up there for shit to happen. To be hard and cold as metal, all loaded and ready inside Tracy’s Taurus 1911, which I had got her, and which she knew how to use. I started thinking about it all the time. How it would feel to be inside that gun, with her hand on the trigger. But then when I really did have her hands on me I would get that feeling again and if she was on top of me I’d have to push her off all the sudden because I couldn’t breathe. It got to be pretty bad that way, because she would get hurt like maybe I didn’t love her anymore, or think she was sexy, and I would tell her, no, that wasn’t it, it was just this thing that I couldn’t explain and it didn’t have anything to do with her— not really. But women always think that everything is about them and so she would turn over and cry and say, for the fifth time, Don’t you think I’m sexy, or what? And I would tell her again how she was the sexiest woman in the world, and that she should know that. I knew she did. Everywhere we went people were always checking her out and I knew that she noticed. That she liked it, even. Who wouldn’t?
Most of the time, I didn’t mind. Sometimes, though—especially when we went to Galveston Island, where her best friend Anelise Hutson’s brother, Brian, had a place—I did. She would wear this tiny little bikini, show off, and everyone would look at her— including Brian. There was just something about that guy—the way that he looked at her—that gave me the creeps, I didn’t know why. It wasn’t like I was jealous. I had no reason to be. He was just this skinny dude with a paunch who didn’t do anything all day except sit out on his front porch and answer the telephone. Seriously. He owned a Sea-Doo rental place just outside of town, and then his house was a few miles past that, but he hardly ever went into the store. He had these young guys working for him there, so I guess he didn’t need to. Instead, he would sit around at home all day answering his phone. The way he talked about it, it was as if the Sea-Doo rental business was the most important shit on the face of the planet. The ringer on his phone was never turned on—it would just vibrate in his pocket and every time it vibrated he’d jump up and, real exaggerated, mouth out “sorry,” then take the call. It was so fucking stupid. He’d actually mouth the word, even before he’d picked up the phone.
Except for that, though, I liked the beach. And we were lucky to know someone who had a house literally right on the water. The house was stuck up on stilts and sometimes after it stormed or when the tide came in high, the water would rush right up under the deck. I liked sitting out there. Tracy was right—it helped me relax. We’d take chairs and put them in the shallow water and drink beer with our feet stuck in the sand. I’d build sandcastles with Cody and then help knock them down, or take a magazine down with me and stick my nose in it so I didn’t have to pretend to care about whatever Brian was saying. He was always saying stupid shit to Anelise and Tracy whenever he wasn’t saying it into the phone.
But when I came back after my third tour it was winter and so we didn’t go to the beach, and I didn’t relax. Tracy kept bugging me to see a shrink, but I told her it wasn’t that sort of a thing.
Well what sort of a thing is it? she wanted to know.
I was pretty sure she had told her friends about me, by then— about how we weren’t even really sleeping together anymore. I just sort of felt it. You know, like when we’d be hanging out with Anelise, I could feel it—that she knew. Maybe even Brian knew. It made me sick even to think about that, and so finally I agreed. I got an appointment with a shrink at Fort Sam and drove up the next day.
It was a lady shrink—a blonde. Her hair was done up real complicated on the top of her head and sprayed into place. It didn’t even look real. For an hour, I sat in her office and she smiled at me and nodded her head and whatever I said she wrote down in this little notebook she had. It was all pretty normal, she said, everything I was saying. I said, this isn’t any PTSD shit, if that’s what you’re thinking. I know how I am and I do not even give a shit when I am out there, so it’s not that. And she nodded and said that was normal, too.
I started to hate her. The way that she sat there, smiling and nodding, and how, when she nodded not one single hair moved out of place on her head. I figured that all that attention to her hair was probably intended to distract from the fact that she was overweight, and not that attractive overall. After she was done with me she was probably going to drive over to Kroger’s to stock up on diet foods. She was probably thinking about that right now. I started to get mad, thinking about it myself. Why was it always fat ladies who dieted? Why didn’t they ever get thin?
Tracy could eat anything she wanted. Even when she was pregnant, she didn’t get fat—not even a little bit. It wasn’t that I cared about it one way or the other, this shrink being fat or not—it just showed a lack of resolve. It was the problem with the whole god-damn country. Sitting there in the shrink’s office, it started to become very clear. Nobody really gave a shit. They said they did, but they didn’t. Everyone was just sitting around, getting fat and soft, not giving a shit, while all the while—guess what. Everyone else just waiting.
While I was thinking about this, the shrink was setting up a video game on her big-screen TV, and telling me how to work the functions on the control pad she’d given me like I’d never played a video game before in my life. The game was pretty much the same as the ones we’d used in Basic, actually—except a lot cheaper. You know how I could tell? There weren’t any shadows. You need shadows to make things look real—the cheap games don’t bother.
So I take the control from the shrink and I’m wandering around, blowing shit up, and every time I detonate she says, how does this make you feel? And I’m saying, Like this is a cheap piece of shit. My kid still buys the fucking Easter bunny and he wouldn’t buy this.
And that’s when it hit me. What’s wrong with me. How come every time I come home this weird shit starts happening. There’s no fucking shadows! You go to Kroger’s—or to Target, or the mall, or the fucking dentist office. You stay home even, in your own house, with the fluorescent light in the kitchen and the blinds closed to save on air conditioning. There weren’t any shadows anywhere!
I started to get freaked out then, thinking about it. Like maybe nothing was even fucking real, and I just got up, the shrink still smiling and nodding her head, and I went home and Tracy was there and she said how did it go, and I didn’t say anything.
I went into the kitchen. I was right. There was not one fucking shadow. Tracy followed me in there, but I turned around and headed into the TV room, instead, where Cody was sitting on the couch playing Darksiders. I sat down beside him and started to watch. The game is actually pretty boring, but I guess it’s all right for a little kid. You play one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and have to try to balance the forces of heaven and hell. If you’re lucky, you make it to Endwar and you get to punish anyone who’s still stuck on Earth. The kid was doing okay, but I didn’t think he was going to make it to Endwar. Pretty soon Tracy came in and stood right in front of the screen. She had one hip stuck out, like she wanted to start something. The kid kept playing. He had to lean around sideways so he could see around her legs.
You’re not even trying, she said.
Get out of the way, I said. The kid can’t see.
She kept standing there. That look on her face.
That’s when I lost it. I don’t even know what I said. I didn’t care half the time because I was thinking, it doesn’t even matter, this isn’t even fucking real. But then all the sudden it was. Tracy was grabbing Cody up from the couch, and stuffing his arms into his jacket. It was January and it was pretty cold outdoors. She was saying, Fuck you, you know that. Fuck you. I’m sick of this shit. Then she put on her own coat, grabbed her car keys off the little hook by the door, and was gone.
She didn’t come home that night, or the next. I kept waiting for her, you know. Like an idiot. Expecting her—every moment. But she didn’t come. I stayed inside, with the blinds drawn, and I waited. I tried to read some Meditations but I couldn’t keep the words straight on the page. Nothing made any sense. I played Darksiders because it was still in the PlayStation and I couldn’t be bothered to change the game, but I kept winning. It wasn’t even fun anymore.
When she didn’t come home by eight o’clock on Sunday, I called Tracy’s mom’s place. I was angry by then, and had just started to say something like, This is fucked, she can’t steal the kid, when Tracy’s mom said she hadn’t seen Tracy, and didn’t know a thing about it. I was about to call Anelise when all the sudden I didn’t need to— I knew where Tracy was.
I don’t know how I knew, but I did. I jumped in the car and I drove all the way to Galveston. It took me just a little less than twenty minutes—usually it takes half an hour or more, depending on traffic, but I was driving pretty fast. I didn’t slow down till I was past Galveston. I thought at first maybe I wouldn’t recognize the street, but I recognized it all right. I turned in and I drove up just far enough so I could see the drive, and sure enough there was Tracy’s car parked right out front. Even though I already knew I would find it there, it still felt pretty bad when I did. It felt so bad I got out of the car and puked in the culvert, then I got back in, turned the car around and started driving. I was shaking all over. I thought I should pull over I was shaking so bad, but I kept driving. I drove all the way into town, shaking like that, then I pulled over on the seawall and ordered a beer at this one place, where I could sit outside. No one else was out there, it was too cold, but I sat out there for a long time, and just looked out across the highway to where the ocean stretched out, flat and hard-looking, in all directions. It was sort of hard to tell where it ended and the sky began, and I could see the rigs out there and because it was just starting to get dark their lights were shining so that it looked like they were the first stars, and so I made a wish on one of them. Just like I always had Cody do whenever I was with him and we saw the first star come into the sky for real. I wished I was a bullet, and that I was at that very moment coursing through Brian Hutson’s body. That I was that hard and sharp and dark. That I was just then being slowed, only very slightly, by Brian Hutson’s cranial bone; just then being splashed with spinal fluid as I severed the connective tissue between his skull and the soft tissue of his brain.
I sat there for a long time, wishing that. By then it had got dark and real stars had come out in the sky and finally I realized I was chilled to the bone and I had only drank half my beer and the kid that was serving me was looking at me funny. So I got up and paid and drove back home and all the time I was thinking— hard.
I knew that Dean was going to be back in town in a few days and when he did get back I figured I had a pretty good plan, and I could count on him to help me carry it off. I wanted to be extra certain, though, because after you are dead it is even harder to make sure that things go according to plan than when you are not.
The first thing I needed to do was arrange things with the ammunition company in Alabama. Make sure that I ordered in advance fifty shot-shells for Dean’s Smith & Wesson and two hundred for Tracy’s Taurus, so that she could have plenty left after I—and Brian Hutson—were gone. I’d arrange for it all in my will, so there wouldn’t be any mistake. Make sure that the shells, when they were ready, would be sent to Dean’s address in Mission Bend, and not to Tracy. That way he could go to Brian’s house and shoot off thirty or so rounds into Brian’s body before delivering the rest of the ACPs to Tracy so she could put them into the Taurus, and still have some left over to put up on the shelf.
The plan was pretty much foolproof, I figured. Dean would call Brian up and tell him who he was—nothing but the truth. He was a friend. He had something to personally deliver, on my behalf. It was my parting wish—some bullshit like that. You could pretty much guarantee that a guy like Brian wouldn’t say no. If Dean arrived on a weekday, any time before six, I figured chances were pretty good Tracy would be away at work, and Cody would be at his grandmother’s house, like usual. That was important. I would have to stress that with Dean—but I knew he would understand that, too. I would also tell him that he would have a reward for his trouble if, before he did anything, he got Brian to empty the safe I knew for a fact he kept upstairs. That way I wouldn’t have to figure out a way to pay him out of my insurance money, which would go to Tracy. The only real risk I could foresee was if anyone happened to be around when Dean arrived, but I figured the chances of it were pretty slim and that if Dean didn’t feel right about it, and especially if Tracy’s car was there, he could always just turn around and come back another time. Or call up on his cell and tell Brian he was running late, or something—then just wait until there wasn’t anyone around. I could just picture him. Pulled off on the side of the road out there, chanting Sun Tzu, or some shit.
But that time of year those roads off the main highway were pretty desolate, especially during the week, so I didn’t think he’d need to bother. No one would hear the shots, and no one would see him either come or go. There was always the possibility something else could go wrong, of course, but the more I thought about it the more I saw that you had to take risks in death, just like in life. Now all I had to do was wait.
And even just thinking about it—inside with the lights on and the blinds closed—I start to feel it. It’s like I’m already hurtling, 3200 feet per second, to lodge myself behind an ear; to enter at the throat, the belly, the knee, the heart. If Dean discharges thirty bullets into Brian Hutson’s body that means that when it’s over, roughly .2 ounces of my own body will be left inside his. This is not a lot when you think about it, but sometimes it’s the smallest things—the things you least suspect—that turn out to be the most significant.
It’s the details, see, the shadows, that make a thing real, and the moment that Brian Hutson feels the first bullet lodge in his chest— in the split moment flash right before it hits—he will know this, too. He will feel, for the first time in his life, how everything has a purpose, and what his own is. Now, as I wait, I think about that. About how at the very end there will just be that question. For what purpose then art thou? About how, for a single, unmeasurable moment as I whistle through his body, I will be with that question.
Before, in another moment, still less measurable than the first, he will respond to that question with a question of his own. A question, which will seem—for that briefest of moments—like an answer, before all questions are finally extinguished, as it is the nature of questions—and all things—to be.
I had been thinking of ways to retell the Trojan Horse story, which has always fascinated me, when by chance one day I came across an advertisement by the company Holy Smoke LLC, out of Alabama. In order “to help you create a tribute to your outdoorsperson like no other,” Holy Smoke LLC offers to fashion rifle cartridges and shotgun shells out of your, or your loved one’s, human cremains. Excerpts from this advertisement have been quoted within my story in full— they were too good to change even a single word. The rest of the story just sort of fell into place from there.