The Order of Things
By Court Merrigan.
Then with your permission, sir, I’ll speak frankly. What you of the high-born fail to realize is how the sense of possibility, real to your touch, sir, eludes those of us in the lower orders. We cannot merely choose to be a chariot racer or an opera singer. We must become these things. You, sir, can choose according to your preferences and pinings. For us, personal desires play a miniscule role at best. Tis a matter of survival. So we remain, sir, laborers on your buildings and pig-keepers on your farms.
Eking out our existence is a thing entirely divorced from the question of whether we like our occupations, to say nothing of finding fulfillment from the earning of our daily bread. Such notions are the idle playthings of moneyed men. While you may trot idly across the land, documenting instances of beauty, we toil on, fearing an ever-uncertain future, following your comings and goings as a child might once have viewed a circus menagerie, solemnly licking a large lollipop. And then, as you take your place at table for a congenial evening with your peers, you condemn the flat-minded boorishness of your inferiors, backed by a glowing lineage of legitimate birthright, which you have done nothing to earn. There is perhaps no other practical way to apportion the spoils of previous generations; but while you see the Hand of God keeping His universe in order, we stare up the barrel of another grim workweek.
Come now, sir, tis not such a miraculous thing, a man in my place speaking in this way. Anything may happen that God can will, and God may will anything, as they say. Since the Mind of God is forever opaque to us, that we find ourselves in these particular niches is to us a matter of happenstance, is it not? A slight tweaking of God’s eyebrow, and our positions could have been reversed, or we’d be somewhere else entirely, or not be at all. Tis nothing to honor or lament, begging your pardon.
Yes, some in the lower orders may flatter themselves to think they would behave differently if suddenly conveyed into your realms of leisure and luxury, but in their hearts everyone knows this to be untrue. All manner of men have been lords and rulers, and none have acquitted themselves well. All men are stained with sin at birth, and none but the dead are happy. Our common fallen state, however, does not make us equals. For I am still slopping out this pigpen, and you are lighting another cheroot which your groomsmen, no doubt, took great care in rolling for you.
If my accent sounds too refined for a pig-keeper, to say nothing of my vocabulary or, as you are pleased to say, my extraordinary insight, it is only because I once served in the house of a learned and benevolent master. I was a very impressionable youth for one of my station. My time there left indelible prints on the mudflat of my mind. The master is gone now, and an ill-fated chain of events brought me to this pigpen in the clanking irons of inevitability. Things could have been much different, sir. For instance, the master, who died childless, might have left me his fortune, which – forgive me for saying so, sir – would have left me even more fortunately circumstanced than yourself, if lacking in ancestral claims. Or I may have perished from the same dread disease that carried him off. Or anything in between. But what happened happened.
Which is not to say history is an unalterable edifice, a monument carved from a mountainface. We create history anew according to the confines of our present perceptions. For instance, the perspectives of our grandfathers on the Crisis were doubtless vastly different. No one would dispute that the coasts sank under the rising oceans and men retreated to the hinterlands as the sun seared the land, and out of the ruins emerged the ancient system of privilege and serfdom, where men had once thought themselves free. My grandfather spoke mainly of the immense privation of those times, grueling even for men used to being poor, of dust storms and other disasters, of living daily on a sword-edge that might run you through tomorrow. Your grandfather, no doubt, spoke of writing poems in the face of the apocalypse.
Oh, yes, your famous grandfather is known even to us, descendants of men who cowered in corrugated tin shacks in deep gullies at the approach of the storms, while your famous forebear strapped himself to a 70th-story pillar of a burned-out skyscraper, wearing a motorcycle helmet as great thunderheads surged forth, looking for the belly of the beast, grist for his poetic mill. Whose descendants do you suppose have inherited the greater will to rule, and to find beauty in so doing?
You are something of a painter yourself, you say, sir? Then you must be constantly on the lookout for instances of beauty to capture. A celestial path for rare souls, one which does not often bring you near the muck of a pigpen, I’ll wager. But suppose God, in a jovial mood, snapped His fingers and made painters common men, while only the rarest of souls, such as yours, took up pig-keeping. The substance of your exalted pursuit would have altogether changed, but still it would be exalted. Your lofty pursuits are beautiful and laudable only because you (and your ancestors) say they are, and have experienced them to be so.
Now, you may say it is because pig-keeping is common and painting rare that the latter acquires its worthiness, as a Caspian Sea beluga was once more prized than a common river trout, and that to date God has never reversed the order of things. You may even be gracious enough to concede that both, after all, are worthy pursuits; if one looks to the maintenance of the body, the other is for the upkeep of the soul.
You do concede? Well. I do not dispute these noble suppositions. Of course, it is only your privileged rank that gives you license to make such privileged statements. You may know, sir, that in certain benighted regions of Mexico, mothers insert into their babies’ mash bits of jalapeno so spicy they are painful to the touch. In time, the babies cease wailing and associate the scalding with taste. By the time they are adults, they happily consume the peppers in quantities that would choke you or I. So it is with all of man’s pleasures, your luxuries no less than the hardcrusted rye bread and pork rump my grandmother insisted, in keeping with her peasant roots, was the only fit food for a working man.
Ah, only, if only! Naturally I would exchange my position with yours if it were possible. Which only proves that I see things your way, insofar as I am able. I value what you value, even at the cost of debasing myself. But perhaps these insights are ultimately more subversive to you than me. I am powerless to institute changes, whereas you, were you so prompted by the urgings of justice, could sacrifice your exalted position in an attempt to level this Himalayan playing field. Oh yes, sir – a not insignificant number of your caste have done so. None have succeeded, but perhaps their souls profited.
You have perceived in me, as you say, sir, an uncommon flair for one of the uncouth herd, which is why you have tarried in this wretched spot so long. I thank you for it. This, I might add, demonstrates the marvelous power of opportunity you so nonchalantly possess. At any moment you may turn away and go on to more pleasant pursuits, an endless chain of amusement, and …
Yes, sir, I acknowledge it is not as simple as all that. You life is shot through with duties and gravities. We all suffer under the strain of potential consequences. Consider, for instance, the potential effects if I were to walk away now, leaving this task unfinished. Tonight there is bread, but next week, when the money is gone and no more is forthcoming, there will be none. A great disaster, you see. So here I remain. We squint at future potential, and in this potential lies great slavery.
Yes, we must always keep our eyes on tomorrow while our hands are busy today. Idle thought is no friend of the working man. It is even downright dangerous, as it invariably interferes with the labor that assures sustenance. If my wife were here and dared raise her head in your august presence, she’d have long since ordered me to cease and desist. Fortunately for us, she is not. Things being what they are, tis likely I’d have obeyed.
No, as you say, slopping is not easy work. Though any man can do it. Even you, good sir. But look, I am finished. I thank you for speaking with me, and …
Then when my term of labor here is finished, I will indeed journey to your estate. We laborers go where the work is. I thank you, sir. Ten miles southwest, you say, along the high road? And you have pigpens as well? Very good.
No, I do not think I could attach myself to another master. The last parting was far too traumatic. I thank you again, sir, and a very good day to you.
Kalim, show yourself!
No, I did not think he would ever leave us, either. And look, I did actually finish “slopping” this pen. Won’t Count Li-Shung be amused to hear it. What a rewarding conversation. I nearly forgot myself a dozen times over. You were recording, yes?
Perfect. What a fascinating reactionary. He lowers himself to talk with a laborer while remaining astride his horse, as if fearing to blur the proper distinctions. Perhaps he feared to get muck on his boots.
Exactly, Kalim. This is why, at home, I always dismount before speaking. If I acted like that pompous blowhard, men such as yourself would never have given me the impetus for my book, and all the practical advice to pull it off. Am I not practically one of you?
Now, Kalim, take these buckets down to the creek and wash them, would you? Putrid things. Li-Shung will be delighted to hear I’ve had such luck. With one of his own neighbors, no less. I must make certain to hold him to his oath of secrecy. Ah, he will be repaid many times over when he sees my book.
There you are, Kalim, straight to the creek. And I see you’ve brought up my horse. Very good. Mind the recording equipment, now.
Luncheon at noon? You’ll see to the usual? Then I’ll clean up, and look for you then.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Court Merrigan‘s short story collection, Moondog Over the Mekong, is forthcoming from Snubnose Press. His story ‘The Cloud Factory’ was nominated for a Spinetingler Award and he has work forthcoming in Weird Tales, Needle, Beat To A Pulp, Noir Nation, Big Pulp. He lives in Wyoming with my family and is currently editing a pulp special Issue for PANK.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 14th, 2012.