I’m Thankful For Horseradish

Every year about this time I try to make a list of what I’m thankful for. I try to skirt generalities like ‘seasons’ and ‘surprises’ and stick to specifics like ‘brown paper packages tied up with strings.’ Specifics help make me aware that I am blessed to sail through the cosmos on this dinky blue marble. And, it reminds me, as Mies van de Rohe quipped, that “God is in the details.”

This year I sat down to make my list and I came up with horseradish. Yup, just horseradish. And not the root. The stuff you spoon out of a jar onto your roast beef.

That’s not much. I’m not even sure I have my health. So, if health is everything, and you don’t have that, what do you have? On the bright side, I did get to cut a nice swath through my dream of exploring the entire Laramide Revolution. But frankly, as years go, it has been a bit of a dud.

By dud, I mean that I started the year by burying my mother-in-law. Then a week later my father-in-law. More to the point, I had to know my wife was doing those things while I was 2000 miles away. And before she got back home, I learned that I might have prostate cancer. That later turned out to be the case. So, I recently underwent a radical prostatectomy.

The good news is that I learned to bake bread—part of getting my overall health back on track. I dropped 30 pounds and lowered my blood pressure. And I spent 18 priceless days floating the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

The thing is, I’m not sure these ups and downs differ much from one year to another. Maybe I’m just more negatively focused right now. Maybe what’s wrong here is that a year is just a shitty measure of time. We start where, at perigee? apogee? aphelion? perihelion? I don’t know. But somewhere along the orbital track we start measuring time until we get back to that point. That’s pretty arbitrary. With a system like that, some years are bound to be better than others. Deviations from the mean. Maybe it’s better to reach out to the universal. The Yin and Yang. Or focus more on a lifetime of results. The Blessing and the Malediction.

Except that doesn’t really work. Humans break time into increments. It’s what we do. One of those increments is a year. A year marks seasons. And so it marks survival. Knowing that a year has passed is how we know that it’s time to look for more horseradish root.

So I’m thankful that this blue marble orbits around that flaming ball of gas. Even if it’s a shit storm sometimes. I’m thankful that most of my friends and family are still here. And I’m thankful that I have horseradish to put on my roast beef. The protein builds my muscles. And that let’s me run for miles with a breeze in my face. It lets me paddle rivers through unimaginable canyons. It lets me hike over mountain passes. It lets me climb stone, where I can focus only on the next incremental bit of movement, nothing else. And that gives me days when I feel sure and balanced and full.

So I am thankful for horseradish.

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The Beast, Part 2

(As part of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, this is Part 2 of a short story I wrote some time ago. Part 1 was last week’s post. For my beautifully sensitive readers, I should mention that this gets a little R-rated.)

After bathing, the man sat beside the pond. The hazy disc of the daystar was all that reflected in its surface, rendering a monotone to the gray sky, the gray pond, and the sere fields and blighted trees. He thought it reminded him of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Sometimes he was no longer sure. At times though he could remember the days that came before, like he was waking up and standing on the edge of a dream. He remembered the last days of The Net, people huddled around the Screens watching as bad news came in from everywhere. The wind turbines had been dead a long time. When the ice melted, the currents changed, the prevailing winds shifted, and the long graceful white blades stopped. Even the huge dams had failed. The lakes filled with silt. The silt poured through the turbines, abrading away the impellers. As the turbines screeched to a stop they finally pulled every last trace of carbon from underground, burning it all just to keep it going. In the end, though, everything had failed. The lights went out and the humming data centers whirred to silence.

Like beduins, the people fanned out into the deserts and fallow farms. Out into…nothing. They were inexperienced at living that way. It was chaos. In a world already maddened by isolation and despair it was too much. Some were never going to make it. Theirs had been the world of hermetically sealed houses, heated and cooled to a set point, the mechanics of comfort left to the thermostat. They had never built a fire or a shelter. They had never raised food, caught food, shot food, or butchered food. It all simply appeared, sanitized and individually wrapped, in gleaming grocery cases. They had never located themselves in space except as a blue dot on a screen. Direction, topography and dead reckoning were lost concepts. In their cubicles, some of them had pretended the world was prey and predator. But it was all a joke, a game where the winners knew what the rules were or had simply been better informed how to play. If their game ever did hit the tipping point, policy makers and regulators threw out nets to save them. They had never tested themselves against the cold objectivity of Nature, against the rivers and mountains and the crazy chaos of weather patterns that did not give a shit if they lived or died. You would have thought that people who depended so much on what they had built would husband the carbon that ran it. But they had not. Their suburban enclaves, the inert orthodoxies of their catechisms and colleges, left them guided by superstition and hubris. Facts were the one luxury they would not afford themselves.

Still, it was nothing like the chaos when The Cloud came and covered everything. Without the Screens no one knew what caused it, or how long it might last. Not that it mattered. After a few months, far fewer voices were crying out. And then the virus came. No one was prepared for the scale on which it killed. And it had help. Some were killed just on the suspicion of being infected. Others did not wait to see if the microbe was going to choose them. Eventually the ammunition ran out and the virus, maybe, had passed. But not before the world became a very quiet place. Quiet and dark. But now, maybe not so dark as it was.

The fire was going when he got back. The back of the fire pit and the corner wall of the porch reflected heat making a spot that was almost warm. Claire was sitting there carving a sharp tip into a long stick, her bottom lip puckered slightly in concentration. He sat down next to her, his hip touching hers. It took a moment before he noticed that she was wearing Jenny’s hoop earrings. He reached up and touched the worn, warmly burnished metal.
“Gold came from the stars.”
It was an old joke and she started to smile, then seemed to think better of it and touched her tongue to her upper lip. She swung the sharpened end of the stick toward the fire, nearly catching his cheek in the process, and began charring the point.
“Carbon came from the stars. But it wasn’t worth knowing that, was it?”
She gave him a long look.
“We never treated it like what it was: something from another galaxy. We never treated it like it had an end. We never thought it was sacred.”
Silence passed between them until the stick began smoking.
“I think I’ll get some sleep. You?”
“No. Go ahead. I’ll bank the fire.”
He stood up and turned to push through the polymer hatch.
“Tom?”
He paused and began peeling the yellow-and-black warning label from the hatch. He laughed to himself. A lot of good those did. The virus didn’t care if you had quarantined your house. It didn’t know anything about zippered hatches or adhesive labels. Walls, doors, antibiotics: microbes—evolving at a thousand times the rate of their human hosts—picked the genetic locks, then skirted human technology as if it didn’t exist. He walked across the porch and dropped the label in the fire. It flared briefly then shriveled into ash.
“What is it, Claire?”
“I just can’t right now.”
She seemed to shrink back inside herself.
“Do you understand?”
He brushed her cheek lightly with the back of his forefinger.
“I do.”

In his dream he was in water, warm, clear, bright water. He could look up to the surface and see the sunlight sparkling in the wavelets. He heard a muffled aqueous laugh and Claire came swimming up to him, her golden hair flowing around her face, bubbles forming under her nose. She giggled and more bubbles rose from her mouth. She swam to him in sure, even strokes, her breasts moving back and forth slightly with each advance. Her hair and skin and movement brought an unbidden memory of a lily that they’d seen once at a botanical gardens. Nymphaea thermarum. Its diminutive flower had ivory petals surrounding a yellow stamen. It was extinct in the wild. Nymphaea thermarum. Nymphs of the hot springs. Swimming up to him, she kissed him and he was filled with the sensation of weightlessness, and warmth and joyous light. She laughed again and playfully pushed him away. As she swam off he noticed that her belly was large and round, her hips full. Suddenly there was a child swimming up from the deeper water, up out of the dimness below, chasing a fish. The child was so intent on the fish that she didn’t notice him at first. When the fish swam past his face, she saw him for the first time and stopped her clumsy little doggy paddle. He could see her eyes move as she studied him. Then, motionless and without making a sound, she began slowly sinking toward the bottom again. As the dimness closed around her, he suddenly felt panicked and began swimming down to her. It did no good. The harder he kicked, the faster she sank. He knew he had to catch up. He knew they had to get back to the surface, to the air, to the sun. He could see the expression on the child’s face change to fear and felt the asphyxiation close around him.
“Jenny!”
The cry woke him up. He could sense Claire staring at him in the darkness. Her mat rustled as she rolled onto her hip and draped her arm across his chest. He fought back tears.
“I miss her too.”
The clipped tone she’d used on the porch was gone, replaced with a deep warmth.
“I should have known.”
“You couldn’t have.”
He laid there very still until he felt Claire relax back into sleep. The days were still. The nights were empty. There was too much silence in the world now. He felt like a shell, the living creature inside long departed. A shell, a lump of carbon with nothing that made it move. The last thought he had before regaining his sleep came out in a whisper.
“I should have known.”

He was so intent on honing the axe that he almost didn’t notice Claire’s light barefooted steps crossing the porch. She moved some lumps of coal from the bucket to the pit, squatted, and began blowing on the banked coals. After some moments yellow flames appeared. She started pouring water into the pan.
“Tea?”
“I’ll have some.”
She set the pan in the flames.
“What’s that for?”
“We need more meat.”
She nodded and sat down on the edge of the porch.
“I think you’re right.”
“About what?
She gazed upward for a moment at the gray canopy overhead, hugged her knees, and looked back at him.
“It seems brighter.”

Tom spent the morning at the top of the orchard with the binoculars glassing the hillside across the creek. He fiddled with the diopter from time to time, never quite sure if the focus was sharp. He worked up and down, methodically overlapping the binocular’s fields of view. Once, he refocused on the pond. Claire was in the water waist-deep. Her hair was tied back with a leather thong. She leaned forward from the waist, intently staring through the pond’s surface. Holding the spear she had formed lightly above her head, her muscles would coil slightly and the shaft suddenly disappeared into the water. A few moments later the plunk reached his ears. He was stirred slightly by her grace and fierceness.

He was about to go back to glassing the hill when he noticed a movement in the tall weeds at the pond outlet. A flash of darkness, quick and then gone. He pointed the glasses at the spot. Nothing. He steadied his elbows on his knees and looked again. Nothing. Not even that damned crow. He moved the diopter back a click. That patch of weeds could not possibly hide anything. Nothing. He went back to the hillside.

Long after he had begun stiffening up from sitting so long, he found what he was looking for. Near a rocky outcropping, he saw a flicker of movement through the scrim of a laurel patch. The binoculars stopped moving on their own. He refocused ever so slightly and the deer’s eye popped into sharp relief. As he watched, it moved in delicate, careful steps down the hill. He triangulated some landmarks and returned the binoculars to their case.

An hour or so later he found the deer trail and began following it. At one point it turned straight down the hill. This is what he wanted. It took Tom a long time to rig his axe. At first he could not lash the stones to the blade. Then the trigger would not release without hanging up. Finally everything seemed ready, but it felt so desperate. After watching the axe swing cleanly one last time, he reset the trip and walked away.

On his way back to the house he checked the snare. There was a rabbit in it! The animal seemed subdued and only bucked slightly at Tom’s approach. He passed his knife cleanly across the rabbit’s throat and waited for all movement to stop. Without waiting to completely dress it, he split open its abdomen and checked the liver. A look of resignation flitted across his face. They would not be eating this one.

Claire was not outside when he returned. But as he clomped across the porch he saw that she’d had a busy day. There were coals glowing in the pit. On the cloth sack were four gutted fish. He looked at them and saw the small whitish nubs on each side of their noses. Chubs. Beside the chubs was a batch of fiddlehead ferns. And beside that a small handful of teaberry. Claire pushed through the hatch.
“You’re finally back.”
“It took longer than I’d thought.”
She was fairly beaming and nodded toward the sack.
“I speared some fish.”
“That’s wonderful. Do you want me to cook?”
She nodded and he knelt down to prepare two of the fish.

Feeling oddly content, they spent a long time after dinner in front of the fire. After fishing, Claire had gone into the patch of woods along the lower part of the creek. Here and there she’d found the ferns pushing up through the old dead leaves. The teaberry had caught her eye on a drier, exposed patch of hillside. She was pleased at her success and Tom had to wait to ask his question.
“You didn’t see any bears?”
“No. Why would I?”
“When I was glassing for deer, I watched you in the pond awhile.”
She titled her head, laying it on his shoulder and touched her hand lightly to his knee.
“Really?”
“Really.”
He paused for a moment.
“Anyway, I though I saw something black moving in the weeds, Maybe a young bear.”
“I didn’t see anything. Should I worry?”
“It was probably nothing.”

Sleep eluded him that night. He spent what seemed like hours in a state where he could not tell if he was dreaming or awake. Then suddenly he tensed up, aware that something was in the room with them. His first reaction was to fling his blankets back and stand up. But choking down the rising panic, he peered into the even endless blackness trying to see. This time he could hear it breathe, a slow deep breath in, followed by a soft, short snort. It was standing over Claire. Tom tried to quiet his mind, but an uneasy cadence of fascination and alarm rose in his head like an insect noise. The creature was short and thick. Its skin was as dark and smooth and burnished as a worn Bible cover. Sprinkled across its forearms, shoulders and thighs were course gray hairs. It squatted onto its haunches. Its nostrils began flaring and he sensed an odd mixture of curiosity and menace. He knew that it was going to reach out and touch Claire. He realized that the beast was tumescent. The sudden rush of anger, fear, and fight converged on his muscles pushing him into a sitting position. His head banged the window sill, hard. His field of vision narrowed until he could no longer see the entire room, just the beast, just its head, and Tom realized that it had yellow eyes. Like a coal fire burning, it had yellow eyes.
“What do you want?”
Tom was startled by the loudness of his own yell. The beast snorted, rose unhurriedly, and, flickering oddly, disappeared. Tom never saw it move, never saw it go. It was just gone. He was aware of a vague smell like wet slate. He realized that Claire was awake.
“What is it?”
Her voice felt small and seemed to come from a place inside his own head.
“I think I’m just dreaming again.”
He felt the back of his head to see if it was bleeding. Tiny points of bright light flashed inside of his eyes. Claire squirmed into a sitting position beside him and pulled her blanket over them. Not until what seemed like the moments before dawn did his throbbing subside, and her breathing relax. They fell asleep leaning on each other, sitting against the wall.

He didn’t even bother looking in the smokehouse again. He just pulled the door closed, forced the hasp over the hook and hammered a stick in with a rock. Claire was finishing her tea when he returned. As he stepped onto the porch she held up a cup. He shook his head.
“I’m going to check to see if I got a deer. You should come along.”
The words felt stupid before he even said them. Claire resented the idea that she needed protecting. She understood community and sodality. With no need to be first, she would follow someone going in the same direction. But she lived on her terms, rejecting the idea that anyone was master or guardian. Chastised by the fortitude he often forgot she possessed, he looked away.
“I’m sorry.”
She tilted her cup and gazed into the bottom of it.
“It’s okay. I’ll plant the buckwheat.”

He sat on the deer path, seething in frustration and anger. The blade trap had been tripped. The blade was clean and bright, unmarred by a hair or drop of blood. He’d unstrung the axe, unlashed the stones, and was sitting there weighing one in his hand. He had already heaved the other stone as far as he could, regretting the waste of energy before it had even stopped crashing through the brush. He was stilling his breathing and bringing his heart rate down when the crow landed on the outcropping overhead and calmly folded its wings.
“Caw.”
As he met its gaze the yellow eye came toward him in a rush. It passed over him, drawing him into its pupil, as deep and dark as a coal mine. In the mine it was silent, save a strange cosmic hum and the tympanic dripping of water. Other sounds began echoing up and down the tunnel. A swishing noise, the sound of scales on anthracite, came from behind. Something muscular slid past his leg fading into the deeper blackness further down the shaft. It’s slithering displaced a strange maniacal laughter, the same as he’d heard in the smokehouse. The echo gathered around his ears and devolved into a cacophony of insect noise. The noise died abruptly as if a threat had approached. In the silence was a quiet inhale, the tunnel walls pulling inward with it. With the soft snort of the exhale, the tunnel relaxing outward, he knew what was in the mine with him. He fought to push the lead from his legs, to make his chest muscles stop squeezing his heart, to get enough oxygen to run. He ran blindly, not knowing if he was headed deeper into the shaft or toward the portal. But a light miraculously appeared and he ran out. Out of the black pupil out into the world he left only a second ago, back into the body, his own body, still sitting on the path.

Without even thinking, he hurled the stone at the crow. It exploded with a crack against the outcropping where the crow was perched. In a blink it was gone. Without raising a wing, without disturbing the air, it was gone. His hands were still shaking as he reeled in the cord from his trap. He pulled faster and faster, and then, filled with an unshakable premonition, jammed the cord into his pack. Hoisting the pack over one shoulder and the axe over the other he began running back to the house.

As he came across the field he could see Claire hoeing the patch of ground beside the broken down arbor. He cleared the wooden bridge in three steps, the thunks echoing into the hills and back. As he passed the smokehouse he saw it, deep in the arbor. Already it was moving. This time it was not going to flicker and fade. It came out of the arbor on a line to intercept his path toward Claire. The damnable insect noise rose inside his skull. He felt like the wind was being squeezed out of his lungs. He dropped his pack and gripped the axe with both hands. The beast squared off to face him, nostrils flaring, yellow eyes in a rage. Tom tried to get enough air into his lungs to warn Claire. The sound began as a wheeze and rose almost into a squeak.
“C L a i r e!”
Claire turned around and, looking right through the beast, watched Tom running toward her with the axe. A quizzical expression crossed her eyes. She dropped the hoe and started toward him.
“Tom?”
With that word, the beast flickered and faded. All that remained behind was the smell of wet slate. Tom stopped. He didn’t realize the wildness that must have shone in his eyes until Claire slowly reached down and picked up the hoe.
“What is it, Tom?”
“Do you smell that?”
She brought the handle of the hoe up across her body and stepped forward as if to brace herself against an unseen impact. Her voice had a force he did not expect.
“Smell what?”
He looked around. Everything was in place. Claire’s shawl was on the ground beside a pile of potatoes. A small square patch of dirt was freshly turned. There was dirt on Claire’s feet. A trickle of sweat had gathered in the hollow of her throat. Slowly normalcy returned. He looked around at the asbestos tiles on the house, the cement block smokehouse, the aging wooden siding on the barn, each board warped outward the same distance at the bottom. Each building was anchored firmly in place. The creek gurgled in the background. As he felt his mind move back to center, he brought his eyes around to meet Claire’s. His look was met with hesitancy, concern and a flicker of distrust. He realized he was still gripping the axe. He lowered it against one of the concrete arbor poles.
“I don’t know.” He looked around again. “I thought I smelled…”
His voice trailed off. Claire turned around and began hoeing. Tom pulled a picket from the fence and picked up the axe. Moving to the arbor, he grasped one of the dead tendrils and pulled it off of the support wires. Using the picket as backup, he chopped through the tendril and, freeing it from its root, pulled it loose. They worked side by side through the afternoon: Tome trimming and clearing the arbor; Claire planting buckwheat.

Dinner was a feast. Fish, potatoes, boiled fiddlehead. For desert they had teaberry tea and apples. While they ate, it began to drizzle. Tom pulled the tarp over the fire. While he was stretching and staking it, Claire went into the house and returned with their mats. They made themselves cozy in the corner of the porch, Tom propped against the wall, Claire stretched out onto the porch planks with her head in his lap. It was perfectly silent save the patter of the rain and an occasional hiss as water dripped through a hole in the tarp and into the fire. Claire began humming absentmindedly. It took him awhile to work out that it was Bach. A cantata. Eventually the name worked its way through the filter of time and anxiety and hardship: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He nodded in time to its triple meter, silently counting out the nine beats. At the fringes of his memory he waltzed with Claire; he watched Jenny open Christmas presents under a brightly lighted tree; he thought back to fires that burned with far less desperation. Tom could feel Claire’s arm move as she worked out the cello fingering on her thigh. Suddenly she froze and went silent. Tom’s eyes darted past the fire. He scanned the darkness. What had she seen?
“Do you hear that?”
He strained as if he could pull the sound in from the night and amplify it, but all he imagined he heard was the insect noise rising in his skull. He pushed back against it.
“I don’t hear anything.”
He tried to keep his voice even, but it felt pinched.
“Frogs.”
His heart nearly broke for her. Creeks and marshes and ponds came tumbling through his brain. Along with it came images of tree frogs, bullfrogs, pickerel frogs, leopard frogs. He could hear them all, with all their croaks and trills, and the spring peepers raising a chorus in the background. But try as he might he could not hear any calling him through this cool, wet night.
“I’m sorry, Claire. I don’t hear them.”
Then it came, unmistakable, but distant—as though it had traveled across time for them to hear it—the deep sonorous bellow, like a tone from a didgeridoo, of a bullfrog. Tom felt Claire’s head turn in his lap as she looked up at him. He bent to kiss her forehead.
“We’ll go look in the morning.”

She was gone in the morning when he woke up. He rolled back the tarp and stoked the coals before putting on his boots and going to the pond. Claire was by the tall weeds near the inlet on her haunches, peering into the water. She pointed as he knelt beside her. He watched. Down in the ooze a tiny bubble rose and broke on the surface. After a moment there was movement and a pair of bulbous eyes appeared under a rotted leaf. They stayed stock still. Satisfied that the threat was gone, the frog readjusted its equilibrium and floated to the surface. It peered at them for a moment like they were just another item added to the landscape. One of them must have flinched or blinked, because a sudden panicked dive sent the frog back to the bottom. Claire looked at him and smiled. It was a real smile, filled with warmth and knowing and deep-seated joy. Tom could not help but smile back at her.
“Is everything coming back?”
“Well, if it is, I should go check my snare.”

If the days since The Cloud never had a rhythm, they took on one now. Claire cut the eyes from some potatoes and set them in the basement trough so they could root, then planted them near the buckwheat. She gathered things from the woods to have with their meat. She seemed to remember plants that Tom had somehow forgotten. Tom brought back rabbits when the liver was clean; squirrels on other days. He still looked resentfully at the deer when he crossed their paths in the woods. But he managed now to get groundhogs with his sling, even when they were hurrying back to their burrows in their ungainly gallop. It helped to have the fat in their diet. The chill was gone and they spent more nights on the porch. Claire taught Tom to spear fish. Occasionally he guessed right at the refraction and made a strike. But he preferred to watch Claire. She was lithe and willowy now, not so thin. And her skin had regained some of its ivory color. He admired her calmness, punctuated by fierce thrusts of her spear. They both put on a little weight. Tom felt stronger and began chopping wood. The frogs they left be. The frogs were a marker of world returning to balance. He needed to know that more were coming. Even the damnable crow seemed to have departed, taking its oppressive weight and darkness with it. They stopped talking about staying and just did. Tom wondered less about why no other people had come by; the paved road was only a mile away. Claire hummed and smiled more. Occasionally she would even snuggle against his back at night and he would lay awake just to feel her warm breath on his neck.

He woke one morning to a memory. A smell brought it to him. At first he thought it was the memory of coffee. But as he rose through the layers from sleep to wakefulness he realized it wasn’t coffee. He was on the back porch of Boss McLean’s cabin up in the cove near Meadow Run and he smelled apple blossoms. Just before he came awake he saw the sun shining through the orchard, shining through pink and white blossoms. It was going to be a good crop.

When he was fully awake it seemed impossibly bright. He stood on the edge of the porch for a moment to bring his mind back from his memory to where he was now. Claire’s mat was empty and already straightened. She slept deeply now and was out early in the day. And that’s when he noticed it. A faint tinge of pink shown here and there, like the memory in his dream, in the trees in the orchard.
“Tom!”
Her voice floated to him like it had been buoyed on a breeze.

She was standing beside the picket and turned at the sound of his steps. She pulled her hair behind her ear and pointed at the ground.
“Look at that.”
Tom thought at first she was pointing out the potatoes which were doing well. That’s when he saw the buckwheat. Claire’s little patch of ground was fuzzy and green with sprouting buckwheat. She grinned at him and coyishly crooked her finger. He watched her move away, practically on her toes, her steps light and buoyant. She paused beside the arbor.
“There’s more.”
Tom walked over. Claire knelt down and touched the base of the trimmed stalks. He couldn’t believe it. Tiny, acid-green leaves were sprouting. He began laughing and knelt beside Claire. She slid her shawl off, put it around Tom’s head and pulled his face to hers. Just before she kissed him he felt the world turn suddenly warm and safe.

He pulled Claire close, slid her skirt up her thighs and inserted his finger deeply into the wetness that had already began trickling from the forgotten place between them. The weight of a string of dark desultory years began lifting, scudding away like clouds after a rain. Tom felt himself leaning forward, yearning. Yearning for a feeling of belonging, for a home. Yearning for nothing between him and Claire except warm evening air. But that unshakable dark thread began snaking through his mind, creeping inward like tendrils of roots digging into the ground. With it came the distant trilling of insects, swelling and growing closer. And rising with that came a scream from the house, guttural, primordial, threatening. Tom had barely turned and the beast was already halfway across the yard, flowing toward him, toward them, in a kinetic blur as if space no longer mattered.
“Claire! Run!”

With a speed he’d never known, he leapt up, stepped back, and with a cry of his own caught the beast behind its head. Twisting, he slammed the brutish black skull into the concrete arbor post. The great cracking noise brought a stillness to everything at once. The beast slumped to the ground, fading and reappearing like a neon tube burning out. A smell, the smell of wet slate, the smell from deep inside a mine, filled the air. As he watched the beast flicker and fade, Tom became aware of his struggle to breathe, the pain in his knee, the startling silence. He saw tears welling up in Claire’s eyes, faint blue tears like a shadow on snow, clouding her wide, wild, blue eyes. He felt like he had never seen her eyes before, like she was opening them for the first time. But he saw them now and saw the fear welling up with the tears as she pushed herself, sliding across the dead grass, away from him. A sound came from deep within her throat. It sounded like nonononono. It took him a moment to realize that she was saying, No. No. No. No. No. But that didn’t matter. He knew now what was happening, why they had found this place, why it seemed to welcome them. Until now he felt like he was moving in and out of wakefulness. But now he saw all of it with absolute clarity. He limped over to the picket fence, to the axe.

Without taking his eyes off her, he slid his hand quietly down the axe handle, brought the whetted blade up, and laid it on his open palm. The beast’s primordial noise now rose from everywhere: From the house; from the barn; from a patch of tall weeds beside the pond. The woods, the hillsides filled with blighted trees, were now filled with those guttural screams rising and falling. As the voices rose into a crescendo, joining into a single cacophony, he saw them. He saw them pooling up behind every tree, every building. He thought the pitch would hurt his ears. Instead it echoed louder and louder, reverberating inside his skull. Broadening his stance, the man raised the axe over his shoulder, turned toward the woods, and waited, calm and resolute, for what was coming.

The Beast, Part 1

Well, it’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. As usual, I have no time to write 50,000 words in a month. But it’s a good time to share. So here’s half of a short story I wrote a few years back. I’ll post Part 2 next weekend. Enjoy.

At first they found the old house comforting. They had come across it at noon. The man glassed it from the top of the apple orchard, almost until the evening gloom, before deciding they could go down and see what was inside. In all that time a crow landing in a blighted maple tree was all that moved. In the gathering darkness, the man fumbled with the zippered hatch over the doorway. As with all houses now, no one had bothered closing the actual door. He pushed his way inside. The woman picked up their canvas bag and followed.

As his eyes adjusted to the interior dimness, the man could see a staircase directly in front of him. Without having to look, he knew that the small foyer they were in had a kitchen to the left and a living room to the right. He moved to the right, leaning his pack up against an outside wall close to a window. Without taking his eyes off the doorway at the other end of the room, he motioned for the woman to sit down. Taking a knife from the top compartment of his pack, he slid into a sitting position beside her. It would be nice to be indoors. If only for the night, if only for a day, it would be nice. He placed the knife in his lap and leaned his cheek against the top of the woman’s head.

He woke up with his face still pressed against her hair. Without raising his head he scanned the wall. The wallpaper had peeled away leaving behind bits and pieces, little stories of patterns and colors, exposing a surface of smooth green horsehair plaster. The floor had the patina of wood once worked smooth, but now going rough again from neglect. This house was old. It had not been lived in for a very long time. He saw that there were no curtains. Even the hanger rods were gone. Not that it mattered. The daystar had been nothing but a dim disc longer than he cared to remember. Even now the paltry light seeped through the windows more like a forgotten wish than the herald of a new day.

He straightened up, picked the knife up off the floor, stood up, and slipped it into his pocket. No sense taking any chances. Binoculars never tell the whole story. Besides, sometimes you see what you want to see. He tried walking softly but the bare plaster and wood refused to attenuate his footfalls. His steps echoed loudly, rattling the windows.

In the cellar he found a bin that still had a layer of bituminous. He held a lump up to the tiny window to admire its glossy carbonic surface, its deep blackness darker than obsidian. The hill people still called it coal, as they had since their progenitors crossed the cold northern ocean. Some said the virus had come from down in the mines. They had dug deeper and deeper into those hills for the last seams of the bituminous, bringing it to the surface for some final traces of power, enough juice to run The Web and the Screens just a little longer. Superstitious old women insisted that they tapped into the virus and brought it up with them. The worst of their lot claimed a beast had come out of the endless tunnels, carrying the microbe. The man had no patience for those things. Those same people, at least in some of the farthest coves, shook and swayed with writhing glassy-eyed copperheads between their teeth, praying for The End. He couldn’t imagine what they thought this was. He dropped the lump of coal and turned to see what else was there.

What else was there was nothing. Water from a spring still flowed through a trough and out a drain in the floor. But the canning shelves were empty. A cloth sack hung from a nail on a joist. The man poked it lightly. It was empty too. He checked the slanted doors that opened to the yard. They were still barred from the inside. He clumped back up the stairs to the living room.

The woman was awake. When she saw him she held up one of the shriveled yellowish apples she had found in the orchard.
“Breakfast?”
“Sure.”
He knelt and took the apple from her hand. She still shook slightly from the last of a fever. He pulled her shawl around her shoulders.
“I found some coal.”
The woman nibbled at the pithy apple.
“Good.”
“I’ll build a fire later.”
“Good.”
Her voice was very soft and warm, silk pulled through summer grass. The man took a bite of his apple and stood to go see the upstairs.

Toward noon, when the light was brightest, he rolled open the barn door. The trolleys were worn and rusted, but gave way in a chattering metallic squeal. At first the entire upper story looked empty. But as he moved around looking at the walls and timbers from different angles he found a galvanized bucket, an axe and a rusted hoe. He jiggled the head on the axe, testing it. It was tight but the blade was dull. Stepping back, he looked above the pegs where the axe had hung and there was the small shelf he expected. He reached overhead and placed his fingers tentatively on the shelf. They closed around a whetstone. The handle on the hoe was good enough. He slid the whetstone in his pocket, hooked the hoe through the bucket handle and slung that over one shoulder. Throwing the axe over the other shoulder he strode back to the house.

As he came down the lane he saw the woman on the other side of the house inside a broken down picket fence next to what might have been a grape arbor. He walked over and set the tools on the ground.
“I found some tools.”
“Good.”
She kept digging at the ground with a stone. Working her hand into the dirt, she came up with what might have been another stone. Shaking the dirt from it, she blew on it and turned to him with a hint of a smile on her face.
“Potatoes.”
The man sat down beside her and pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Beside her on the ground was the cloth sack from the cellar. On the sack were six small potatoes.
“I’ll build a fire pit.”
He handed the woman the hoe, picked up the other tools and walked to the creek.

When the man came out onto the porch the woman was piercing the potatoes and placing them between the burning coals and the back wall of the fire pit. He handed her a tin cup of water.
“From the spring in the cellar.”
She took it from him and tasted it.
“We only have potatoes.”
“I’ll look for something else tomorrow.”
He wasn’t sure what good it would do. Even without The Cloud there wasn’t much this time of year that could be caught by hand. The frogs were gone long before the carbon was wiped out. Insects had done well for awhile then, even taking out a few mega-farms. But they were well past that swarming stage now. Few turtles had been seen since The Cloud. The rabbits managed. But you had to be careful since the virus came. The big stuff was hard to get too, especially if you had to kill it by yourself. The woman interrupted his thoughts, handing him a potato.
“Thanks.”
She nodded and slid up against the wall. They sat there in silence for awhile, eating slowly.

After awhile he noticed her feet. He sometimes forgot how fine-boned she was. Her feet had a beautiful high arch with short delicate toes. Her ankles had no pronation, no supination, and her toes pointed straight ahead when she walked, giving her step a buoyancy and grace he’d never seen in anyone else. When she was happy, her heels sometimes never touched the ground. And she was often barefoot, at times when he thought it too cold for such things. He thought he remembered a time at Chincoteague Island, or was it Assateague? December. The long slanting light just after breakfast. They were walking on the beach, her hair tousled slightly by the sea breeze. She was ahead of him, fairly dancing on the wet packed sand, up on her toes. She turned as she walked, vamping with her scarf and making faces at him. He imagined he could still hear her laughter above the sound of the surf and the sandpipers. He could still remember her laughing and the sunlight sparkling on the water, sparkling in her eyes. After a time she noticed him looking through the darkness at her and wrapped the shawl around her feet.

In the morning he rummaged through his pack for the slingshot and a handful of stones. At the bridge near the pond inlet he decided to go upstream. The crow landed, out of range, in the upper branches of a tree and cawed at him. The man overturned some larger stones in the creek looking for crawfish, dropping them into the cloth sack. Moving in deliberate steps, he scanned the hillside for squirrels, rabbits, birds. Eventually he found what he was looking for: a squirrel’s nest in the crotch of a tree that he could climb into if need be. He shook out the sling, placed a stone in the pocket, and began twirling it. Slinging stones had become a meditative act. His mind went quiet, hearing only the cadence of the sling slicing through the air. His fingers released one side of the sling without a thought. The stone sailed through the air, then through the nest with a short sharp rattle. Through. He snapped out of his trance. Through was not good. He loaded the sling again and this time the stone slammed into the nest and stayed.

Climbing into the crotch, he pulled a chunk of leaves away from the nest. There was the squirrel, still dazed, panting, its remaining eye looking up at the man without emotion. The man picked the animal up near its hips, held it at arm’s length, and with one smooth whipping motion snapped its neck. He felt neither elation nor satisfaction. His grandfather told him that real hunters don’t shoot squirrels in their nests. But this was no gentlemen’s weekend in the woods. This was food. Still, he hated doing it. He hated living this way. He missed Haydn and Bach. Hemingway and Robbins. He missed the four-poster bed and fresh orange juice. He missed the chime that went off just before the coffee maker began gurgling, telling him that the morning news was on his Screen. He missed her coming in from her evening walk, settling beside him on the sofa, and talking the cares of the day away. He climbed, or slid, out of the tree, took out his knife and began dressing the squirrel.

Back at the house, he hung the squirrel from the corner of the porch and went inside. As always, she had their sleeping mats neatly straightened. She was sitting, leaning against the wall with her cheek against the window sill, gazing out at the apple orchard. Dangling from her fingers was the same worn-out paper book. Great Expectations. Some of the pages were missing now.
“I found more apples.”
He opened the sack and showed her the crawfish. She nodded.
“I’ll boil water.”
“We’ll have squirrel tomorrow night.”
“Do you think we can stay here?”
“Perhaps.”
Before laying down that night, he moved his sleeping mat closer to hers. He fell asleep listening to her slow even breathing.

It was raining in the morning so he decided to take another look in the barn. Water dripped from the edge of the roof onto his hat as he rolled the massive door along its track. Inside, everything was dry. He leaned against one of the large posts until he could make out the hole over the manger and then began walking around. He found only an ancient two-man whip saw, its once well-honed teeth dull and rusted. He was about to give up when he noticed a pile of something behind a stub wall. He scooped up a handful. In among the husks left behind by the mice and rats were a few seeds. Buckwheat. He sat patiently sorting through the chaff, dropping the seeds in his shirt pocket until it was full.

From the barn he went down to the smokehouse. He shoved the sagging door open, the bottom scraping an arc into the dirt floor. As much water dripped inside as out. The roof was rotting and broken. The interior had a feeling of endless dampness. He felt like there was a hole in the middle of the floor going deep into the earth. An echoing maniacal laughter filtered out of it. Something closer, back in one of the corners, swished and moved. He felt something brush past his legs and jumped back. He gripped the door, staring at its green paint, still smooth at the top where the eaves protected it, until his heart settled and the noise and the movement stopped. Then he pulled the door shut and went back to the house.

She had their mats neatly straightened, and back to the same spacing she’d put them at before. On the window sill beside his pack was her hairbrush and a metal mirror. He picked up the hairbrush and smelled it. Then he held up the mirror and looked into it. His own tired gray eyes looked back. He wondered if his eyes had always been gray or if they were just turning gray like everything around him. He carefully placed the mirror beside the brush and went upstairs.

She was on the window seat at the top of the stairs watching raindrops slide down the pane.
“I found some seeds.”
“What was in the smokehouse?”
“Nothing.”
“You stepped back.”
“I thought I heard something in the weeds.”
She met his gaze, opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. She turned back to the window.
“I made a spit and put a tarp over the fire pit.”
“I saw. Do you want me to cook the squirrel?”
“I know how.”
“I know.”

They took turns turning the squirrel on the spit. Betweens turns they sat on the porch watching the yellow flames. Watching the meat crisp. Listening to the occasional hiss as tiny drops of fat fell onto the coals.
“Do you hear frogs?”
“No.”
“I miss that sound.”
They were sitting in the corner of the porch, adjacent, leaning against the wall. She moved her knee and he felt her toes brush against his boot.

That night he moved his mat closer to hers again. And when he lay down, he lightly kissed the top of her head. Her breathing did not change.

He didn’t know how long he had slept before he knew it was there. He could not see it. It was just a dark form in a dark room, menacing in its silence. He knew it’s eyes were yellow. He could not hear its breath. But he could feel the air in the room change as it breathed in and out, as if the room were breathing for it. They stared at each other for a moment through the darkness. The man eased his hand out and touched the knife beside him on the floor. As he wrapped his fingers around it, the thing withdrew and faded. He never heard it move.

“We should leave.”
She had just opened her eyes and looked around as if she did not know where they were. Finally she focused on the water-stained ceiling.
“No.”
“I don’t like this place.”
“You don’t like any place. We always leave.”
She turned onto her side, away from him. He pulled on his boots and went out onto the porch.

When she came out he was sitting on the edge of the porch whetting his knife.
“Do you want me to do yours?”
She pulled her knife out and handed it to him.
“There’s tea.”
“You want more?”
“I’ve had enough.”
She picked up the cup and a rag and pulled the pot away from the coals. She filled the cup and flaked some tea into it. He set his knife aside and started on hers. She put her cup down and knelt behind him. Placing her hands on the nape of his neck, she began massaging his muscles. He loved the feel of her fingers on his neck, delicate and warm. He could feel her hair fall from her shoulder as she leaned forward. He could imagine her breasts heaving as she breathed. The movement of the blade on the stone and her fingers on his neck took on the same rhythm. He could hear her breath in when he breathed in, out when he breathed out. When he relaxed, she stopped and picked up her tea. Leaning forward, she placed her chin lightly on his shoulder, her lips close to his ear. Then quietly, almost in a whisper she said:
“Let’s stay.”

The man moved slowly up and down the hillside, watching the ground very carefully. As he moved, the crow went from tree to tree watching him. When it landed, it would rotate forward until it almost fell from the branch. Peering downward, it would raise its wings slightly, cocking its head to the side.
“Caw.”
The man was tempted to caw back, but this crow disturbed him. Staring at it through the blighted branches he finally worked out why: it had yellow eyes. The eyes sent an involuntary shudder through him. Without looking down, he shook out his sling and laid a stone in the pocket. The crow flew away croaking a sharp caw that reverberated in the chill air.

It took awhile but he found what he was looking for. A path, barely noticeable, ran through the thin grass, over the patches of fallen leaves, and threaded through the weeds. Following along, he found the pile of pellets he was looking for. Eventually he found a mostly living sapling along the trail. Working carefully with a length of chord, he set the snare, making sure the trip could not be touched at any angle but the one he wanted.

When he got back, the woman was bathing in the pond. He sat down under the blighted maple. She was hip deep in water. The still surface formed a perfect line around her hips, He admired the small cove at the top of her buttocks. The cold air made her nipples erect. It also brought goosebumps to her skin. The man’s mind flashed back to a time by a waterfall high in the mountains. Nude under a waterfall, her skin had goosebumps then and he could see each one in sharp relief and the fine, nearly invisible, golden hairs that grew on some spots on her skin. She had rinsed her hair, and tilting her head back, brought her hands up to squeeze out the water. Her voice snapped him back to the present.
“You should bathe.”
He hated the cold. What was it? Nearly the end of April? He wasn’t sure. But he knew that the months were no longer as warm as they had been before The Cloud.
“It’s cold.”
“There are fish in here.”
“I doubt that.”
“Come in and bathe.”
He looked up at the hazy disc barely showing through the clouds and back at the woman. She walked out of the pond and stooped beside him. Drops of water clung to her thighs and her wet patch of pubic hair dripped. She took his chin in her hand and turned his face to meet her gaze, pressing the rag into his hand.
“Bathe.”
He sighed, slowly undressed, and walked into the gelid water. He turned to watch her again. She was so thin. They needed to eat better. But there was never enough. Everyday he had to weigh the calories they could get against the calories it took to get them. And it wasn’t just the amount. They were short on fat, short on protein.

The woman pulled her dress over her head and smoothed it around her hips. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders. It had been thick and brightly colored once, soft alpaca yarn, but was now thin and dingy. He watched, absentmindedly scrubbing himself with the rag.
“We only have two apples.”
“I set a snare.”
She nodded and turned to go. Pausing, she turned. She looked past him like she was looking into the dim depths of the pond.
“Do you think it’s getting better?”
Deep in the water, one fish and then another tasted the skin on his legs. He could feel the nibbling from their cartilaginous lips. Fish. He looked directly back at her. She held the corner of her shawl in both hands, worrying the fringe between her thumb and forefinger. Her wet hair made her neck look even more slender.
“Yes, Claire. It’s getting better.”

Shipmates

I still remember the first time I fell out of a raft. Ejected, really. It was my first trip, my first time down the Youghiogheny. In front of me in the 4-person raft was the woman who would become, and still is, my sister-in-law. Debbie was wearing blue shorts. Not the cutoff blue jeans that were so popular at the time. No. These shorts were neatly hemmed because, well, that was Debbie. And they were freshly creased from the iron that morning because that too was Debbie.

Anyway, we’d dropped into Double Hydraulic Rapid and just hit the second hole. My entire world, which had been a rush of motion and noise and flashing paddles, suddenly froze. Sound stopped. Motion stopped. Except me. I dutifully obeyed Newton’s First Law. Since the world had stopped, I had time to think. I thought how strange it was that on my exact same trajectory out of the boat was that pair of blue shorts. I followed the blue shorts into the water. The world turned green. And cold. My motion became smooth and liquid. Then, almost instantly, I popped up into the air and into the rush of motion and noise that preceded my ejection. Beside me was Debbie, whose eyes said she was very unsure of her new status. And then there were hands helping us back into the raft.

I’ve been really lucky in the number of times I’ve been able to play about on rivers. I remember that moment and a thousand more like it. I remember being launched onto the crest of waves so big you’d swear that you could see out of the canyon from the top. That always seemed to be followed by the giddy rush of sliding down the backside, combined with the cold terror of wondering what the next wave would do. There were days when your paddle could do no wrong. You could dig it into the backwater behind a rock and turn the raft like the partial pirouette of a bullfighter’s veronica. You could start down a rapid with the ideal line mapped into your brain: every wave, rock, hole, and fleck of foam aligning like a run ordained. Other days, your paddle seemed to scrape every rock or catch every wayward flow, sending you bouncing down the river like a drunken pinball.

I remember springtime hillsides snowy with trillium and dogwood; summertime runs through fog and forests so green as to have been painted with acrylics; autumn days with the canyons looking like they were being sanctified by fire. Oh, yes, and that crazy time on the San Juan. We were in the undulating 180 degree turns of the Goosenecks. We seemed to be floating on copper. And it felt like we weren’t propelling ourselves. It felt like the canyon was being pulled past us by melange-baked Guild navigators. The walls turned. The sun rolled unpredictably left and right. Now forward. Now behind us. All without a single drop of psilocybin. Crazy.

But in all of that, my real river memories are memories of the people who went along. Some nights, like last night, it feels like I can remember each and every one. Their faces flash in my mind like a slide show. Some smiling. Some relieved. Some apprehensive. Some went once. Both my brother and Debbie retired their river shorts after our virgin run on the Yough. Others went again and again, even as we sought out bigger, tougher, bolder water.

Sometimes the slideshow is a soundtrack. On our second trip–this time without commercial guides–we were not quite sure about keeping lunches dry. Maryann (one of my all-time favorite hippie chicks) suggested Tupperware. So we sealed our sandwiches in plastic and tossed the containers on the floor of the raft. Mistake. At lunch, bald, bearded, barrel-chested David pulled out his now soaked sandwich, wrung it out and took a big bite. I can’t stand soggy bread so he might as well have eaten a handful of maggots. While I gagged, he broke into a huge smile, turned to his wife and boomed, “You pack a great lunch, Maryann!”

Sometimes the slideshow is a film clip on an endless loop. At Bottle of Wine Rapid one day I told the other paddle captains, “Go right or left. Just stay off the rock in the middle.” I eddied out at the bottom and turned just in time to see Gary start down. From 80 yards away, I could see Gary’s eyes grow round. His lips formed the words Oh Shit as he realized just what rock I was talking about, the raft and crew plunging over the boulder, out of sight, into the hole below. Rewind. Replay. Maybe I should have mentioned that, at that water level, the rock in the middle was submerged.

Gary. Jim. Gawain. Kelly. Maryann. Darrell. Dave. Boof. Mark. Dean. Carlitta. Matt. Heather. The names and faces rattle around in my head. 

So the river is the milieu. The rapids are talking points. What matters are the people who go with us.

Grand Canyon was no different.

The rapids were amazing. Crystal and Lava had bigger waves and holes than any I have ever seen. And I’ve seen 16’ rafts swallowed whole. Crystal threatened to kick our ass and make no apologies. We scouted Lava a long time. But at the end, there was nothing to do but put your boat on the bubble line and pray to the river gods.

Even some of the smaller ones were eye-openers. Hitting the lateral at House Rock was like taking a punch from a prizefighter. Hance rolled one of our 18’ rafts like a cat in a catnip patch. Sapphire broke Barry’s oarlock and whacked Rick’s knee with his own oar. The twisting opening of Serpentine’s right run sent us backwards through the big bottom waves. And I think I might have nightmares of scouting Upset. Was it my imagination, or did we stand in a cold gray rain watching every molecule of water in the river being eaten by that churning hydraulic wave?

The scenery is stupefying. I’m not sure I can say what I saw. I saw us squeeze through Marble Gorge with the walls at first at some sort of human scale. But those rose each day until they were impossibly high, reflecting every angle and color of light. At the Unkar Delta, the canyon suddenly opened into vistas; the actual rim appeared; and the scale overwhelmed. Presto! The view collapsed again in the Inner Gorge, the schist pressing in like a dark, obsidian dream. Then after squeezing through the Granite Narrows, slowly, slowly, the walls fell again and the canyon opened back up. Through it all, the rain, the clouds, the bright blue sky, our passage down the river, and the orbiting sun, changed the light constantly. No two moments were the same. Before we launched, I was sure I would be bored at times. But the ever-changing cosmic scale of the light show left me twisting to see in every direction at once.

And the side hikes and stops. . . At Carbon Creek, our walk through the schist into Painted Desert colors under the brow of the North Rim was amazing. At the enormous Redwall Cavern, in its full glowing light, aerial acrobats had set up silks. It is that inspiring a place. At Nautiloid Canyon, ancient sea creatures left signatures from a past out of mind. Elves Chasm? The name says it all. At Deer Creek, a waterfall plunging nearly 200 feet almost directly into the river thrilled boaters. But for the hiker, a short ascent from there offered one of the biggest vistas in the canyon; then views into a slot canyon; then a smaller playful waterfall decked by cottonwood trees–The Patio. Weird salt crystals, cool shady creeks, granaries, pictographs, expansive views–every stop and side hike offered something new.

But it will be the people I remember. In 18 days I felt like I was getting to know Grand Canyon a little. If not on a first name basis, certainly more than a casual acquaintance. But with my traveling companions, every moment revealed more depth. Each action, every sentence spoken, one more mile traveled, revealed another level of patience, playfulness, skill, wisdom, or exuberance. At some point, I realized that what could be known was outstripping the time I had to know it. Some of these shipmates I’d known for years. Some I met putting the trip together. Some were perfect strangers to me. I met them while I was thigh-deep in the icy Colorado helping rig our boat. But by the end, I would not have traded a minute with any of them for anyone else.

And so, thank you–Barry & Beverly, Scott & Linda, Rick & Jenny, Pat & Merry, Sarah, Melanie, Lance, Steve, Jenni, and Mark. This little journey down Grand Canyon was the trip of a lifetime for me. In turns, your kindness, patience, wisdom, experience, skill, and enthusiasm made it more enjoyable, and more memorable, than I could have ever hoped.

I hope we meet again soon.

Joy, shipmates, joy!

The Super PAC At Our Gates

Again, I call out our fascination with the Russian bogeyman.

Per a USA Today article headlined Russians Used Facebook The Way Other Advertisers Do, Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan is quoted as saying, “Combine the two [Facebook’s ability to amplify messages that are extreme and emotional with its ability to send messages to a lot of people for very little money] and it’s a perfect propaganda machine for anyone who wants to distract or disrupt a democratic republic.”

Yes. Social media is perfect for manipulating people whose world view has no basis in reality. But it can happen to all of us. As Carly Fiorina proved, even candidates for national political office can unwittingly amplify clever propaganda. The RNC, the DNC, and the Koch brothers do it. Hell, our current president has wired the amplifier directly to his Twitter account. So why our fascination with the Russian bogeyman?

The Russians didn’t hack voting machines. They didn’t disrupt polling booths. They didn’t hijack vans filled with ballots. They didn’t manipulate the election process. They manipulated sheep. Our Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, said money equals voice. Or, framed as current events, more money lets you manipulate more sheep. The Russians have money. The Koch Brothers have money. Steve Bannon has money. Dozens more politically motivated groups have it, or–and this is key–the ability to collect it without scrutiny through Super PACs. They can all use their money for political means, or collect it without scrutiny through Super PACs, without caring a whit about our democratic republic.

So instead of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by our fevered images of Russian shadow agents, why don’t we get a grip on reality. To borrow a phrase, the barbarians already among us should worry us more than those at our gate.

[Disclaimer: This is not a political blog. I am not a politically motivated person. But the unholy marriage of Citizens United and super PACS has been a burr under my saddle for years.]