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July 08, 2024

From the End of the World: Four Scenes after Henri Michaux

By Terence Kuch

Je vous écris du bout du monde

I: "I say this not to wound; to wound, I say other things."

In the Dutiful Republic, each child is taught from a very early age that words can wound, even kill. Little things they say, even if innocently, can severely damage parents, or even strangers in the grocery store, passing by in aisles of lettuce or grapes or chops, animal hearts still pulsing from the butcher's hand.

The child obeys this injunction because its parents say so (it is years before they disobey out of duty). But it is not too many months until the child realizes that it is a source of significant power. At the checkout, the child may decide that it wants a candy bar. It points. The mother shakes her head. The child points more urgently. The mother shakes her head so hard the checkout clerk thinks it may fly off, land on the scales, be weighed as just another piece of meat, hairy and not especially choice. The child ponders: "If there were no mother, things may go hard for me." The mother ponders: "If I do not give in, the child will wound me." This impasse is resolved only when the clerk himself hands the child a candy bar, in order to keep the line moving.

Afterwards, the clerk relates this event to the store manager, who praises him. The manager could have chastised the clerk, which would have resulted in some wound, perhaps a punctured vestibulum. He always praises his clerks because they are not easy to replace; many have retired on disability with punctured vestibuli.

The child grows older. We can call him 'Gawl,' now, a name neither his father nor mother especially like.

Gawl is in school. He practices his wounding skills on other children. He learns magic words supposed to ward off wounds directed at him by others. These words are often ineffective. Gawl administers wounds and receives them. In the fourth grade he is awarded three battle-commendations, the last of which is severe and puts him out of action for several weeks.

In school, Gawl discovers sex. He reads a forbidden and well-thumbed book containing crudely drawn pictures concerning how to wound with sex. He becomes expert, is very popular with both boys and girls. Eventually he meets a boy who is better at wounding than he, and falls in love. But they part.

Gawl graduates with a degree in business, and joins a firm providing cruel and unusual services. They have customers. The ones they wound the most severely, they call 'clients.' Gawl accumulates a great deal of wealth, which he invests in profitable enterprises. His favorite is the firm devoted to perpetuating poverty in other countries. The coup for which this organization is best known involves helping the government plan how to drown many farms in the backwaters of a new dam. The waters rise higher as the farmers sleep in their beds.

Gawl can afford the best in medical care and so his wounds, which by now are many, do not greatly interfere with his ability to wound others. His renown spreads. His picture appears in both the sporting and business sections of the newspaper, with the same caption in each. He is mentioned for the Governorship.

But then something happens.

He meets a woman who seems uninterested in wounding, and who tries to avoid being wounded. He has never met anyone like this before. He is fascinated. He falls in love. At least, he firmly believes he has fallen in love. At least, he feels something he cannot explain, and since his friends have told him that love is something they can't explain, he concludes that what he's feeling must be love.

The woman is drawn to him, too. We can call her 'Fedora,' now, a name her mother picked out of a hat. Fedora ponders: "He wounds, which I hate to see. But others do, also. At least Gawl does it effectively. And he is rich." She talks herself into falling in love.

There is a wedding at which Gawl's parents ritually stare with hatred at the parents of his beloved. Fedora's mother and father present the happy couple with a set of self-brandishing hunting knives. Gawl's parents give them tickets to a program of participative sporting events including wind-surfing in violent weather, leaping from a high bridge with low-bidder bungee cords, and taking the Métro to join rioters in the Paris banlieues, airfare included.

Gawl and Fedora buy a large house in the suburbs. Fedora consigns her parents' gift to the attic of the new home, where the knives practice seppuku among themselves. She gives the sporting-event tickets to charity.

Gawl progresses in his career. Fedora stays home and knits, does volunteer work. He chairs his firm's Ethics Committee, which disgraces and humiliates many of Gawl's rivals. She attends gallery openings. They have children, who are given a superb classical education, including gladiatorial training where they practice on the children of the poor.

Gawl is elected Governor. On the evening of election day he celebrates, drinks too much. He comes home, and in a stupor wounds his wife very severely, by telling her things she does not wish to know. He realizes his shame and asks her to wound him, as a way of making up. She refuses. She weeps. He is in despair. She stops eating. He tries to force her to eat, unsuccessfully.

She dies. There is a somber funeral where much wounding occurs.

Gawl goes home and casts himself on the bed. He weeps, for the first time, and copiously. He contemplates his life, for the first time. He plans to wound himself to death, is about to do so, but then realizes that the most severe wound he could administer to himself would be to continue living with the memory of what he has done.

He lives. He has a successful career as Governor, later becomes President of the Dutiful Republic. Why he ever felt sad over Fedora, he can't remember. She was very sweet. Yes, that was the problem. And the children -- he wonders where they are now. He still has his bank send money to some address.

He ages. He loses his edge. He lies on what he knows will be his deathbed. He sleeps. The waters rise higher.

Part One of Four

From the End of the World: Four Scenes After Henri Michaux, Part One, was first published in Sybil's Garage in 2010.

Article © Terence Kuch. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-07-18
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