By EJ Spode.
Chapter 22: Iktomi and the Ducks
By the middle of the fourth round I felt like I was tripping a bit, and it occurred to me that it was now appropriate for me to ask Uncle about some shit – like where the fuck he came from.
“Uncle, if I may ask, people say you were here before the First Nations came.”
Uncle laughed. “No EJ, I came to hear their stories. I arrived only recently.”
“Well, if I may ask, people say you are thousands of years old…”
“Yes they say these things, and I must confess to some of it. You see, I lived in a time before the gods departed. And yes, this was thousands of years ago. And in those days I found favor with the gods because I shared stories of their exploits, flattered them and entertained them. In fact, I pleased the gods so much that they gave me a gift of “immortal life,” but as the gods well knew this kind of immortality was not a gift. It was a gift to them, not to me.”
“But why is immortality not a gift for you?”
“It is not a gift because immortality only allows your body to walk the earth. It does not make you alive. This was the wisdom of your story about death – what the calaveras told you: The dead are up here walking among us. These are the only dead people – the people we call friends and neighbors, and sometimes we ourselves are dead. So as we walk the Earth we are in a constant struggle to be alive even as we walk it.”
This was now getting to be some profound, philosophical stuff, but it made sense at the time, and it is still making sense to me as I write this. But even as he spoke it raised more and more questions for me. Then he threw something at me that turned my views about life and death inside out.
“You see EJ, the big joke is that we already have eternal life – we choose to live alive or dead. The gods gave me a kind of eternal life, but it was not the kind that matters. I already had eternal life, as do you and everyone else.”
“Uncle… people die.”
“Yes, they do.”
“So they can’t have eternal life.”
“EJ, there are two kinds of time. There is external time and there is internal time.”
“External time is the time we keep with our calendars and clocks, and it is true that in external time your life comes to an end, but you do not live in external time.”
“But I do!”
“No you *exist* in external time, but you do not *live* in external time. No one does. Not even the gods.”
“I am so lost…”
Uncle drew two parallel line segments of different lengths in the dirt on the floor of the inkagapi. I had to make due with the red glow from the rocks as my only illumination, but I could more or less make out the drawing. Being blind, I don’t think Uncle grasped how hard it was to see in there.
“Let us say that the short line is your life. From the external position we see that this line ends, but what of the internal position?”
“OK, I’ll bite, what of it?”
Uncle handed me a pebble.
“Place the pebble somewhere in the short line.”
Now we must think about the internal perspective of the pebble. All it will ever know is its timeline – the segment in which it lies. It will never roll past the end of the segment nor even see beyond it. It will always have time ahead of it and time behind it.
“But Uncle, what about when the pebble reaches the end?”
“It will never see the end and it will never reach the end.”
I nudged the tiny stone to the end of the line segment. “I just rolled the pebble to the end, Uncle.”
Uncle smiled and rocked back. I had the sense he was waiting for me to try that.
“EJ, in your travels to Italy have you ever been to Jelia? It is in Campania.”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well it is a beautiful place, you should go there sometime. But I was there many years ago – back when it was a Greek colony called Elea, and I met a very tall philosopher who had very chiseled and appealing features.”
At this point I was thinking here we go – the buttsex stories are coming. But Uncle didn’t go there.
“This philosopher offered some brilliant paradoxes which are still widely talked about but not understood. Today they are thought to be puzzles about space and time – concerns that his teacher had – but from my discussions with him I came to realize they were really about eternal life.”
“Yes, sweet. It is true that you rolled the pebble to the end of the line, but in doing that you were viewing matters from the outside – from external time. But let’s think about things from the perspective of the pebble. Suppose we begin with the pebble in the middle.”
“Now at some point the pebble finds itself halfway between that point and the end of the line.”
“But now it must at some point be halfway between that new point and the end of the line.”
“I get it. It never gets there. But… it does.”
“It gets there in external time. We, from the outside – on the longer line — see it get there. But from the perspective of the pebble, it never arrives at the end. The pebble, from its perspective, has a kind of eternal life – eternal life in its internal time.”
“It never arrives at the end in internal time. It is always approaching the end but never arriving, just as all of us are doing the same on our timelines. We never know or reach the end.”
“You know, in the early years of the 20th Century I met a young philosopher in Vienna, and I told him about my friend in Elea, and he had a wonderful way of summarizing the idea.”
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”
All I could think of saying was “wow, cool.” I was pretty sure I had understood his idea, but I needed time to let it simmer. I also had other questions I had been sitting on, and I decided now was the time to ask them.
“But can we talk more about the gods? Where did they go? Why did they go?”
“As I said, they were vain and tiresome, and they grew bored with this world. They moved on to some new world with more entertaining people.”
“But you are immortal too; are you bored with this world?”
“Oh no EJ, I’m not bored. You see the problem with the gods was that they only appreciated certain kinds of stories – stories about heroes and nobility and fatal flaws and eternal love and betrayal. And I told these stories to entertain the gods and men, but this was my capital crime, and it is the crime for which I am ultimately being punished. So I am not bored, but I am suffering greatly. I am suffering with guilt from my crime.”
“Crime… why is story telling a crime?”
“EJ you haven’t come to appreciate the power of stories. They are not merely vehicles of entertainment; they are also devices of control.”
“I don’t follow…”
There was another great philosopher – you know him as Plato – who lived in the last days of the gods, and he saw this. That even as the gods departed they were leaving behind their stories – stories that, told in poetry, would inspire people to behave in a certain way, perhaps to attack monsters, to enact revenge, to continue loving when love was foolish and destructive.
“Like me and Penny.”
“Perhaps EJ, but you see the gods left these stories behind so that when they return someday they will find familiar dramas for their entertainment.”
“But are you saying that those stories are lies?”
“Of course they are lies EJ, this is what concerned Plato.”
I was pretty sure that I was following the gist of Uncle’s point, but I really could not see how stories were devices of control, so I asked him about that. He smiled, and gave me a little dissertation.
“White American children are told the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. They are told that he said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Children can be led by this story in a way that they cannot be led by a rule. Commandments do not control people unless there are police to enforce the commandments. Stories control people without the help of police. Think of Jesus and his parables. Think of all the stories that Paul and Joe have internalized and how those stories control the ways in which they think and act. The First Nations in the Dakotas did not control behavior by rules, but by stories.”
“But what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing is wrong with that EJ, if we understand that the story is not merely asking to entertain us – it is asking to rule us. To use a very worn out metaphor stories are wolves in sheep clothing.”
“Yes, stories must be subject to scrutiny just like any claim.”
“But then, what makes for a good story.”
“You see EJ, maybe “good stories” are not what we want. Maybe stories should not be good.”
“But then why would people read and listen to them if they are not good stories?”
“Perhaps you underestimate the story teller my friend.”
“And here is the most important point EJ. This world is full of stories that please the gods – the gods of the Europeans and the gods of the Native Americans – all over the world the stories service the entertainment of our departed gods. And those stories manipulated us into lives that, while entertaining to the gods, were destructive for us. We were manipulated into turning our lives into tragedies and comedies to please those gods, and, sadly, ourselves. The gods have departed, but we now perform these roles for each other.
“Yes EJ, we internalize the stories of gods and heroes and we impose those stories over our own lives. We take people in our lives that are merely people and we imagine them as the gods of our lives. We take our struggles, and we imagine them as Olympian struggles against giants. But this is an error. It means we take stands that are not in our best interests. We become characters in tragic operas, but in which the tragedy is real.”
We paused for a while. I looked at the glowing rocks.
“You know, EJ, I have a confession to make.”
“Your friends Joe and Paul call me OG, I know this, and they are right to do so because I am the original gangster. The harm I brought upon this world is incalculable, and it weighs heavily on my soul. But there is nothing I can do but live with my guilt.”
“Dude… Uncle… you are being way to hard on yourself.”
“No EJ, it is true, I have brought more heartache to this planet than anyone who has ever lived. In the name of entertainment.”
There was a long awkward pause. I didn’t know what to say. You don’t just shit on a heartfelt confession. I decided I should say something that showed I was tracking.
“Like I said earlier, I guess literature is a Trojan Horse too.”
“Yes EJ, but the Lakota have a more apt story – it is the story of Iktomi and the ducks.”
I was totally down with getting another story from my ancient storyteller. What sane literature student wouldn’t want that?
“Iktomi, you see, is the Lakota version of Trickster. He is their answer to the Norse god Loki, although Iktomi was not a god. Or I don’t believe he was. But this is disputed.
One morning long ago, Iktomi woke up starving. He had run out of pemmican and berries and grain, and had not had a good meal for days. What he wanted most was a nice fat duck to eat, but he was such a skilled hunter, the ducks had come to know him and stayed clear of him. But being the trickster that Iktomi was, he came up with a plan.
Iktomi knew that the ducks would be at a nearby lake, splashing and dancing in the water, and he guessed that they would immediately fly away if they saw him. But he believed he could outsmart them.
Iktomi gathered together a bundle of sticks and began walking towards the lake. As he passed the lake, the ducks spotted him and began to fly away. But Iktomi paid no attention to the ducks. He just kept walking. Well, this made the ducks wonder. Where was Iktomi going with those sticks that was so important? And why was he ignoring them? Like us, ducks don’t like to be ignored.
As he passed the lake some of the ducks returned and one brave duck called out: “Iktomi!”
Iktomi turned towards the ducks, feigning surprise.
“Oh hello, my friends, what are you doing?”
“We are dancing to celebrate this wonderful day.”
“Oh well, I am delighted for you. Enjoy the excellent day then!”
Then Iktomi turned, now feigning indifference, and kept on walking.
Well, as you can imagine this made the ducks even more curious. Some of them shouted to Iktomi asking him why he was carrying the sticks. Iktomi paused, turned, and slowly walked back to the lake and put down the sticks.
“These are not sticks; they are sacred songs. I am taking them to a festival near the river.”
Well, now the ducks were even more curious. “Let us hear one of the sacred songs!” they shouted.
Iktomi was thinking that those fat ducks would be unbelievably tasty if they were seasoned with spices and roasted over a campfire, but he continued to feign indifference.
“No no, I really can’t. I must get to the festival by sunset. I must bring them the sacred songs. Plus, I don’t think I should sing a sacred song for you. That wouldn’t be right.”
More and more ducks swam up to Iktomi. “Please please, sing us a sacred song. Just one and then you can be on your way!”
Iktomi was an unparalleled trickster. He was on the brink of drooling at the thought of eating one of those succulent ducks, but he stayed true to his deception.
“Very well, perhaps I can sing you one song.”
Well, this delighted the ducks, and they began quacking and dancing in the water, flapping their wings as they did so.
Iktomi began sorting through his sticks, picking up a stick from time to time and humming a bit as he did so.
“What are you doing, Iktomi?”, the ducks asked.
“I am trying to find the best song for you to dance to.”
The ducks quacked in delight.
Finally, Iktomi seemed to find a song that he liked. He picked up a stick and announced that he had found the perfect song. The ducks continued to dance and quack and more and more ducks flew in and more ducks came closer to Iktomi. Of course, the stick that Iktomi now carried was chosen for a nefarious purpose.
Iktomi told the ducks that because it was a sacred song they would have to keep their eyes closed as he sang it. “This song is sacred and very powerful, and all must close their eyes as I sing it.”
The ducks excitedly agreed, saying “don’t worry Iktomi, we will keep our eyes closed!”
Iktomi stressed the point again. “Be sure not to open your eyes, because terrible things will happen if you open your eyes during a sacred song. For sure your eyes will turn red, but worse things will happen.”
The ducks again agreed to keep their eyes closed.
“Then let us begin,” Iktomi said in a solemn voice, and he held his stick and began singing quietly at first but then louder and louder. The ducks delighted in his song and soon were dancing and splashing on the surface of the lake. Iktomi sang even louder.
Iktomi, trickster that he was, had another skill. He could throw his voice so that he could make it seem that it was coming from another direction. So as he sang and as the ducks splashed in the water, he slowly walked into the water, all the while making his voice seem to come from the shore.
Now Iktomi was among the ducks, who were dancing with great joy. They loved his song. Iktomi took some practice swings with his stick, and then he picked out a nice meaty duck and swung and struck it, killing it instantly even as he kept singing.
Iktomi picked out another duck and struck again. And then five more ducks. He now had seven ducks. That would make for many dinners, but there was no point in stopping as the ducks were still dancing.
After he had killed ten of the ducks, one of the remaining ducks became suspicious because he heard less splashing and he opened his eyes. To his horror, he saw ten of his friends floating dead in the water.
“Fly away! Iktomi is killing us! Fly away!” And the remaining ducks all flew off as fast and as far as they possibly could. But it didn’t matter to Iktomi, he now had ten delicious ducks. He could feast for days.
And even though opening their eyes saved the rest from being eaten, it did happen that their eyes turned red, and it is said that this is why, to this day, ducks have red eyes.”
Uncle was old, but he could sure spin a tale. “That is a great story, Uncle.”
“I agree, EJ, in fact I like this story better than the story of the Trojan Horse. We storytellers are like Iktomi; we don’t just deceive people, we make them dance with joy while we deceive them. We ask them to close their eyes and enjoy themselves, and then, when they have let down their guard and they trust us, we, pardon my Phoenician, fuck them up.”
“Dude, I think you are being hard on yourself again.”
“No EJ, I have thought about this for many winters, and it is the truth. The joy we bring is false, and it disguises the greater pain that will follow.”
“Dude. Uncle. I just can’t buy this. What kinds of stories are we supposed to tell?”
“True stories EJ.”
“But I don’t know the truth.”
“Of course you know the truth. You know what you ate today. You know that you are in an inkagapi. You know that yesterday you were in a contest.”
“Sure but those truths aren’t very interesting.”
“Those truths are the most interesting. We know the grand lies of the ancients but almost none of their truths – nothing of their everyday lives, because their everyday lives were not entertaining to the gods. So I told grand lies instead. But the truly gifted storyteller has no need to deceive; there is no need to please the gods.”
“I kind of feel like you are saying we should write shitty stories.”
Uncle laughed. “Perhaps good lives make for shitty stories, and shitty stories make for good lives. But if you truly have the gift we think you have then you will find a way to make shitty stories sing.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Image: Jana Astanov.
Chapter 1: Giants in the Earth:
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn:
Chapter 3: Dimebag Bob’s:
Chapter 4: The Trojan Horse:
Chapter 5: The Turtle Diaries:
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
Chapter 7: Penny
Chapter 8: San Pedro
Chapter 9: Triggered
Chapter 10: Letters and Dreams
Chapter 11: Helena and Steady Eddie
Chapter 12: Circe
Chapter 13: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Chapter 14: The Sleepover
Chapter 15: The Bittermilk Road
Chapter 16: The Rocket Sisters
Chapter 17: The Pelorum Avenue Street Racers
Chapter 18: I reconnoiter the Stockman
Chapter 19: The Prosetry Slam
Chapter 20: OG Homeboy
Chapter 21: Deer and Jaguar
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 26th, 2017.