The Yolk of Power
“There is no such thing as a bloodless coup. Someone somewhere always dies. And though it may be spread quite thinly around, everyone ends up with the taste in their mouth.”
He tried to remember the author of the quote, which usually didn’t trouble him in the least. After all he was a decorated professor of history at one of Rome’s finest universities. He even had a PhD in ancient Roman history, which is where he thought he recalled the quote originated. “Dr. Durok,” he could hear one of his nasally little undergrads saying. “Stumped. I don’t believe it. We must tell the dean.”
“Gaius Vifinius!” Durok shouted aloud. That’ll silence them he thought, comfortable again with his authority on the subject.
Dr. Durok was having a difficult time this summer break as he was not teaching and would not be the following fall either. Rather, he was on sabbatical in order to write a series of essays on the changing dynamics of power in the Roman Empire during the centuries before and after the reign of Gaius Julius Caesar. This was a well researched and extensively written about subject, which made the dilemma of writing even more about it, dauntingly mundane. To his credit, it was not his idea to, as they say, beat further a dead horse. No, this responsibility laid with Dr. Alfredo Nilanti, the dean to which the history department answered to.
You see there had been some trouble aroused last semester when a group of students lodged a complaint with the Dean over what they felt was a misuse of authority on the part of Dr. Durok. This came about as a result of some harsh punishments handed out by the professor to this group of students for failing to complete, in their entirety, the assignments designated in the course syllabus handed out at the beginning of the semester.
Now one must keep in mind the peculiarity of the assignment and the fact that it was only mentioned in the syllabus once, near the end, and never in class. Those who did not read the syllabus in its entirety would likely have had no chance of knowing of the assignment’s existence, unless of course their friends were more diligent students then they were and kind enough to inform them.
For any other professor this might have been an oversight, but for Dr. Durok this was most certainly not the case. During his tenure at the university, which by this time had spanned a solid twenty years, he had become increasingly…let’s say, curmudgeonly. His good will had been slowly whittled away by the incessant onslaught of insolent youths enrolling in his courses only because they were a general requirement for all degrees. Yes there were the exceptional few who genuinely enjoyed his lectures, and still more who at least feigned subtle interest in order to receive the class participation points, but they were little consolation to Durok, who had invested his entire life in his studies in order to pass on this great knowledge and his own unique insight to the world.
“How dare they,” he used to complain to the other professors in the department. “One day I will show them just how hard the world is outside these walls,” he would warn. This went on and on, semester after semester, until some invisible vessel in his mind had reached its capacity for youthful ignorance, a vessel with perhaps some original flaw which, being unable to sustain itself against the pressure, cracked and began oozing its contents all over everything.
And so came about the peculiar assignment stated plainly in the syllabus, however discreetly, which would become his crushing hammer of truth.
The assignment as stated:
Each student is required in order to pass this course to at any time during the semester, locate and attend the site of Gaius Julius Caesar’s cremation, and while there, make a graphite rubbing on standard white printer paper, of the engraving in the stone next to the altar. This is to be handed in on the final day of class after completion of the final test.
This in itself was a rather straight forward assignment. The peculiar part came with the added instructions tacked on at the end. It went on to state:
By no means are you the student to bring up this assignment in class. If you do you will be immediately failed. If you consult with anyone of your classmates about this assignment during class hours you will be failed. Good luck.
Well, you can sense the overreach. But as Dr. Durok rationalized, most students would either read the syllabus as they were required to do for every course, or consult with their classmates about the assignment outside of class while studying together. After all he wasn’t a monster, he was only targeting those truly gifted slackers—those who coasted by with C-‘s, those who disrupted lectures with their cacophonous jabbering, those whose faces were constantly alight with the glowing blue hue of their damned phones, texting the Devil knows what nonsense to God knows who!! All those same children who came crying to him at the end of the semester with some God awful sob story about not having enough time to finish their assignments even though they’ve had the entire semester to work on them! Insolent little!… You are beginning to see his motivations. Yes, he saw them as little ticks sucking on the blood of society and those who actually had to work for a living.
So it was, the trap set and like a patient hunter he waited. As the semester dragged on his anticipation grew. He began to see those who were likely to fall into his little trap. They emerged from the woodwork of their tiny desks, sitting lazily, often nodding off in their plastic chairs and otherwise indulging themselves in his annoyances. Knowing this, that there would be retribution, calmed him and he had perhaps the best semester of teaching in his entire career.
Finally it came time for the semester to draw to a close and those who were informed turned in the assignment as requested, and those who did not…well they resoundingly received F’s in the course to the utter delight and satisfaction of Dr. Durok. He had finally gotten his revenge. There were 13 of 110 that were on the receiving end of Durok’s life lesson. And all would have gone forward without too much fuss had one of them not been the President of the University’s daughter . Durok had known this and didn’t care. In fact, he relished in it. And he felt quite confident in himself as it was all plainly stated in the syllabus.
The daughter however felt differently, and being the privileged daughter of the University President, she did what privileged people do—cry and complain and cry and complain about the whole world being against them because, and after all, they have so much to be jealous of. Daddy being daddy couldn’t see the merit in Dr. Durok’s little life lesson, however prudent, through the onslaught of his daughter’s tears and sobs and his own sense of indignation. So the buck skipped merrily past Durok only to be shot in the face by a higher power residing in that obscene palace of a President’s office, a gallant buck of justice he opined to himself at some point during the tongue lashing. Durok was forced to rescind the F’s and issue C-‘s of which most wouldn’t have deserved even if they had turned in the assignment. He was also to endure a life lesson of his own as he was sternly instructed to take a sabbatical during which he would write no less than five critical essays concerning the use and misuse of power during the disassembly of the Roman Republic. And that was that, the hammer had been lifted and thrust resoundingly back upon himself.
So there he sat in his kitchen, eating eggs sunny side up with toast, sipping coffee, cursing his absent students and the man who put him there as he tried in vain to write about something already written to death. After finishing his breakfast he cleaned the table and began washing up the dishes. There is something pleasantly ordered and serene about cleaning dishes. It’s a very clear necessity with an initial problem, an evident solution that requires real work, getting your hands dirty, and in which the results are entirely dependent upon the diligence of your labor. It can be a very Zen like experience and Durok felt the same way.
While he was washing, he began to form an idea in his brain. It was unclear exactly where it came from but he decided to feed it, with his capacious intellect, the nutrients it needed to grow. He was noticing the overlapping principles of resistance, comparing dish washing to an authoritative state putting down a popular uprising. Mind you he was looking at this from the perspective of the power against which the resistant group was resisting. The principle being that the ability of the resistant faction to hold on, whether it was the Celtic tribes against the Romans, the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak, the rebels against Assad, or the fried remains of oil and eggs in his frying pan against himself, they could all be described mathematically like this:
After jotting down some notes and constructing these crude charts, he paused and reflected. This is absurd Durok, he said to himself. This was not worth writing about. No one cared that removing burned oil and egg protein was comparable to putting down a rebellion, even if it were true. Besides, it would be difficult to prove the hypothesis that if you are tenacious and ruthlessly tactful enough to forgo all moral responsibility for fellow organic molecules, you could put down any rebellion with a steel brush, brute force, and if necessary, an arsenal of organic molecule destroying chemicals.
Of course this is not worth writing about, he thought as he crumpled up the page. If only it had ended there, when the steady voice of reason still had a throat from which to speak, but as is often written, even madmen doubt their delusions, at least in the beginning. He couldn’t shake the idea out of his head. It had crept in there and made a home. The true absurdity came in when he realized, in order to extend the model further, it would be necessary to shout demeaning vulgarities while washing the dishes to approximate the propaganda of the state, directed at whatever he just ate. He paused again feeling this might unduly subvert his Zen, the ordered cleanliness and the feeling of absolute control, a feeling he needed now more than ever. He began then to examine the source of this Zen like pleasure.
He thought about holding the delicate clear wine glasses, the thin porcelain cups of his tea set, as he worked the sponge over their parts, bathing them, feeling their infantile nakedness, his fingers caressing the thinness of their walls. He gained a great amount of satisfaction from this for he realized that if he so chose, he could simply let go. Any one of them, he thought, and they would descend with precise acceleration to their brutal demise, their thin walls and sympathetic structures unable to hold themselves together against the great force of gravity colliding with the opposing, upward force of the floor. A force emanating from the very core of the earth, pushing back through each and every atom and culminating in the very kitchen in which he now stood. Such a massive force and all he had to do to control it was to let go. This titillated him to the very core of his own being, the center of his own power standing alone atop all others.
He then had the epiphany that silently eating the egg remnants’ assembled kin in front of them was perhaps even more powerful than shouting abstract threats about breaking their hydrogen bonds one by one until they were nothing but three codon peptides before tossing them to the bacterial sewer dogs. And that was it. Whatever rationality that was holding out and giving him pause was now gone, and he would have no more such thoughts.
As you can see, breakfast was no longer just breakfast for Dr. Durok, and it wasn’t long before he expanded his theoretical model out to the eggs themselves. They were much more viable subjects with which to experiment and instill fear into. He began by setting the open carton on the table as he ate to show them what he was capable of. His operational protocols were evolving rapidly. The original format of tamping down the resistance of egg remains on his dishware was giving way to a much larger embodiment. He started to feel he was on to something…something big. And worse yet, he started to believe what he was doing was important work for mankind. Wait ‘til those ignorant assholes at the university hear what I, Dr. Durok have discovered. Well nothing less than the true nature of power. They’ll see.
Wanting to find more and more ways to indulge in his hypothesis and the incessant need of his to run an idea to completeness, he decided to include his round brown prisoners in every excruciating step of their compatriots’ demise. And although not all of them would be resistant to his methods of washing, he decided to show the entire population there was no use in fighting back when the time came. And it always came.
He would take them from their cold dark cells and let them listen to the sounds of the shells cracking as they were thrust by the weight of his hand against the hard iron edge of the burning hot skillet. He took equal delight in scrambling their naked yolks, experimenting voraciously with all sorts of kitchen utensils. Efficiency became less and less of a concern. Sometimes breakfast would last for hours and he would wake earlier and earlier. Soon he was waking up shortly after 3 AM and by noon he would be out of subjects to coerce.
He began going to the local market several times a day as he could only carry so many cartons at once back to his apartment. Suspicions soon arose amongst the neighbors, but no one would have suspected the treachery Durok was up to. The first of the rumors to begin circulating revolved around the idea that he was secretly conducting biological experiments on the eggs. One particularly lively story could be traced back to his neighbor Signora Direttrice who lived in the same building one floor above Dr. Durok. She was the lonely widow of a real estate baron who had died under rather mysterious circumstances. You see the baron was at a transitional period in his affair with their exceptionally vivacious maid Avaritia. An affair no doubt filled with all of the clichéd debauchery of a Karamazov. Well at some point the dice were rolled and it was the baron who found himself alone in a pit full of snakes he had once so easily charmed. There was a trial, an opera really, of tragedy and deceit, cunning and vehemence, a story to rival any of Puccini’s real or imagined. As with any good story the ending was left with fewer certainties than when it had started and no convictions were cast upon any of the baron’s many serpents.
It was all quite scandalous and the baron’s young floozy, to use Sig.ra Direttrice’s word, was in the end awarded the bulk of his estate and holdings. The son was appointed financial manager of the floozy’s investments, which eventually led to his current job working for the World Bank conscripting poor countries into their Financial Servitude for Progress Program (FSPP). It was all a pleasant business because everyone always ends up happy when you lend money for half the right reasons. At least that was the tone of rhetoric in the world Lucrum, the son, had built for himself.
Sig.ra Direttrice was awarded, as a consolation, an apartment and a healthy stipend, which allowed her to indulge in her love of all things feathered. In her collection one could find all manner of exotic foul. Of the Parrots, there was the Noble Grey, the Gaudy Macaw, and perhaps 10 varieties of Conures—small robin sized birds with all assortments of bright colors like those of African gowns, and three pairs of life-mated Lovebirds. There were a boggling number of Finches lodged together in a capacious steel wired cage decorated with large dead branches of grapevine and a walnut tree. There was a pair of saintly white Cockatoos wearing yellow-gold crowns, a whole colony of jittery Budgies in another large cage, and no less than five Cockatiels, the ugly grey cousins of the Cockatoos.
And that was just what was inside her apartment. Given her position on the top floor she had easy and near direct access to the roof. There the parade of feathers continued. Walking about with a pompous self-admiration was a magnificent Peacock, the Warden of the Roof she called him and it seemed to her he relished in the title, fanning out his impressive tail whenever addressed as such. Then there were the twelve chatty sisters, the Golden Brown Hens that dutifully laid their dozen sacrificial eggs each and every day in their accommodating coop under the close eye of the Big Red Dick, a modest looking but overbearing cock. Finally there was the Queen’s Guard, its ranks filled with the meticulously trained and loyal Doves of Ferenzi. The pureness of their white feathers trumped even the angelic Cockatoos, and had been purchased at great cost from a breeder and trainer in Florence, the very best in all of Tuscany.
The rumor she started about her downstairs neighbor the odd Dr. Durok, came about after she had witnessed him hauling up the stairs two large boxes. The bottom had on its label Bluetooth Accessories and unbeknownst to her was entirely full of eggs, bought from the market next to the electronics store. The box was a matter of convenience and as these things go meant nothing to the mystery. The top box, its contents comparably conspicuous, had actually been used to transport eggs to the market and was labeled accordingly.
From this information Sig.ra Direttrice adroitly constructed an answer to the latest riddle of the neighborhood and proceeded to whisper her findings to Signore Cittadino from down on the first floor while they were in the lobby collecting the day’s mail. Loose lips abound in small spaces and within a few hours it was all the rage. By the time it had reached the ears of Sig. Scostumato, the owner of the market where Durok was purchasing the bulk of his eggs, its gist involved removing the yolks and inserting human stem cells, which by some unknown means, they really can do anything these days, were encouraged to develop into nerve cells which then could be linked wirelessly via Bluetooth to other such manipulated eggs in an attempt to create consciousness. The results of this experiment, the Egg Wizard, was then, in order to test its efficacy, challenged to a game of Monopoly—as knowledge about turning real estate into wealth was, in this day and age, of far greater concern then curing brain diseases or understanding the pitfalls of human morality. Of course the other obvious choices of chess and Jeopardy had already been taken by previous attempts of mankind to outdo itself. Sig. Scostumato just chuckled telling Cittadino he didn’t care what Durok used them for so long as he had the money to pay for them.
Meanwhile Dr. Durok continued the manipulation of his subjects. He boiled them in salted water, their soft innards sometimes spilling out through the cracks in their thin shells. He whipped them into mayonnaise with derisive delight. He made omelets with vegetables and ham. He made egg salad sandwiches, dicing each egg slowly by hand with a large silver blade, but still he was unsatisfied.
Perhaps he had been going about it all wrong. Maybe it was time to put down the stick, or at least hold it behind his back, while he offered a bit of fruit or root vegetable, depending on your metaphorical preference. I suppose they already have what they need, he thought. But what did they want? Then it hit him like a lightning bolt, and before he could imagine the intermediary steps, he envisioned a sea of brown feathers, in perfect rows, gallant red headdresses neatly aligned under a low yellow sun—an army of full-grown hens and cocks, his army. Caesar marched on Rome with only one legion, he thought, imagine what I could do with a thousand legions of winged soldiers—religiously devout soldiers! A million golden children descending upon the earth to form it to his will.
It was as if, without his knowledge, a monster had grown up inside of him, feeding on all of his previously caged moral depravities; those dark thoughts all humans possess and suppress with varying efficacy. The most dangerous form of madness leaves the afflicted resolute and capable. Durok would soon prove he was both.
He must begin with a select few, those who would become his most trusted generals. He would have to choose only those showing the most explicit obedience and fervor for the cause. He would give them life and they would love him for it. Then he remembered the widow’s hens. He had a key to the roof same as everybody else in the building and he knew her schedule well enough. Under the cover of night he could easily slip up there and steal the eggs from under the hens. The Warden and the Cock he thought could be bribed easily. But would the doves make a fuss, the Queen’s Guard? He quickly decided they would be little trouble, after all only sissies wear white.
Over the next few weeks Durok made his nightly raids. The Warden and the Cock were bribed with an array of grains, cat food, and meal mealworms. The Queen’s Guard, as he suspected, didn’t make a peep. As for the Hens themselves, he was careful to whisper assurances that their offspring were destined for greatness and that if they proved worthy, they would be allowed to return and liberate their beloved mothers. He was quite convincing and the Hens quietly stepped aside, for they knew otherwise their children’s fate most certainly involved a hot skillet and a hungry mouth.
Sig.ra Diretrrice was baffled at first and wondered if there was some undue stress being placed on her Golden Hens that was causing them to forgo their egg laying duties. Perhaps there was a large cat that had somehow intimidated the Warden into silence. But this didn’t hold as she had once seen the Warden attack one of the biggest toms she had ever seen. It was an awesome display from the peacock as he called upon those ancient genes of dinosaurs still creeping around in his cells to forge an all out attack on the intruder. The Hens were all very impressed.
No one would have accused Sig.ra Direttrice of having an alarmingly sharp intellect, and although it did take some time, eventually her blame fell squarely on the funny little bald man in 4D. Well that will be the end of this, she thought as she hatched a plan to catch Durok in the act. She came up with a rather straightforward alarm system and proceeded to tie heavy bells to each of her hens’ feet. She was quite proud of her ingenuity. However a string of bells on the outside of the door to the roof might have been equally effective and considerably less oppressive to her egg producers. But as history never fails to teach, it is often difficult to see the morality of a situation when consumed by a grander self-interest. Unfortunately for her and the Golden Hens, by the time she had set up the first sting, it was already too late. Durok had gathered enough future followers to proceed with the next phase of operations.
He had now 168 followers; bright with optimism and hope, all of them. They would need to grow quickly into strong soldiers. They needed training and hardening. They needed to know the truth of what they would face when He their Father, sent them out into the world to conquer it, starting with the University. There was also the matter of choosing who would be the first disciples, the Generals Class that would lead his grand Army.
At long last the day had come. That morning Durok awoke at 3 AM and began his preparations. He constructed from the hundreds of cartons he had accumulated a grand amphitheater, each row ascending upward from the gray tiled floor of his living room. When he had finished, he placed the hand-carved wooden chair from his writing desk, a fine piece of furniture, in the symmetrically broken circle formed by the base of the structure.
This would be the day of the coronation of King Kurok the First, divined by God. And tomorrow—the empire! If anyone would have been there to witness this scene, they would have seen a stout balding man in brown slacks standing behind a wooden chair overlooking what most would consider a fine model of the Flavian Amphitheater, watching as the sun rose, conquering the sky, its long striking rays falling deftly on the faces of decaying stones in the Roman Forum; buried there, under two thousand years, the power of the Caesars.
It was time, he thought as he looked out over his assembled followers. These were the chosen ones. His own fingers had meticulously inspected their shells, moving over them with the certainness of a phrenologist, extracting all manner of influences pertaining to their emotional development, derived solely from the shapes of their embryonic vessels. Never mind the pure insanity of these assumptions; it is sometimes best to allow madness to live inside its own delusion. Then again there was Caligula, and Nero, and Hitler, and Stalin, and a seemingly endless list of mass murderers that perhaps should have been robbed of their delusions much earlier than their deaths allowed. But this is beside the point, the posterior if you will. One must pay attention to the centers of moving things in order to see where they will go.
Dr. Durok was about to make himself a king and soon an emperor. There was nothing that could stop him now. Not God. Not even Death. His will was too strong, as if it were the iron-nickel core of the earth. No—even greater! His will was no less than gravity itself pulling into Its clutches every atom in the universe. Yes, this was sufficient, he thought, as he looked upon his disciples with what he imagined was the look of God reaching out to Adam.
He had been practicing his speech for a week now and delivered it with an aloof confidence and piercing intent. From his wooden throne, he acknowledged his own aggrandized accomplishments and expounded on his superior intellect. He built up his life story into a grand myth of divinity to rival that of the Pharaohs. On and on he droned about His word as the only word and the source of all morality. He laid out before them what would be the pillars of their society: Obedience, Honor, Courage, Sacrifice.
He explained in painful detail the reality of the world, the harshness and lack of principles that existed and threatened to destroy all good things. He told them not to worry because they would all have better lives under his care, with his infinite wisdom and paternal guidance; that together with all their brothers and sisters, they would take their message to the world and the world would listen! Why would they listen? Because He, the almighty King Kurok I had a great power. He had the power to grant souls to those who chose to follow Him. Real souls! He had the power to give each of them what they desired more than anything in the world—a life, complete with legs to walk, wings to fly, and hearts with which to love their eternal Maker.
He waited for the roar of approval, for the devotion he sought, but there was only silence and blank brown stares. There was a twinge of sorrow in his now massive heart, enlarged considerably from his compulsory consumption of cholesterol. He collected his emotions back into their jars, as he was prepared for this. It is true, he thought, one cannot rule with love alone, one must also wield a cold iron fist.
“I can see you have doubt,” he began, as he turned to the table behind him and reached for a plate he had covered with a towel. He carefully placed the plate on his lap as he sat on his throne, the remainder of his hair forming a crown around his bald scalp. “Behold pre-children what becomes of those sinners who do not obey,” he bellowed in his best low booming voice. As he spoke he removed the towel to reveal what he had prepared from the remainder of his earlier subjects. He had constructed a grand stack, a sandwich of pure egg with three layers of white protein and two of golden half cooked yolks.
He heard a gasp sweep through the crowd as he gathered into his hands the pure egg sacrifice, gently as not to ruin the climax of the moment. When in position he began to squeeze his thumbs and fingers together like a vice upon a skull. The uncooked yolks popped one at a time through their membranes and began to ooze slowly, steadily from the layers of denatured albumin. Golden streams ran down his fingers and over his hands as he brought the carnage to his open maw and sunk his teeth in with abrupt voracity.
Bite after excruciating bite he fed until his eyes reddened and there was no more to consume. Then as if drunk on his own madness he began to laugh. Slowly at first, as if driven by the pulse of a wave, then building upon itself layer after layer until he burst out into a maniacal cackle, his yellow stained hands raised above his head as if they held the world in them, and the dead embryos of chickens slid off the fat dangling below his chin.
It took another week for the first of his followers to begin hatching. The others soon followed, about a dozen a day. He was a proud father watching with delight as the eggs would begin to wobble slightly and then the first hole would form and their voices would begin to cry out. As for parenting, King Kurok was strictly hands off. He needed to choose his Generals and love would make them weak and complacent. He timed each hatching precisely from the first wobble to the final emergence. Those with the fastest times showed courage, fortitude and zeal. He would pick from them only the very best. Next came obedience and about this characteristic he was worried as very few seemed to respond to his commands with adequate fervor. But he knew they were young and this would take some time, and still there were enough who showed promise to fill out his Generals core.
And so it went for the next two weeks as all the followers were reborn into their first lives. King Kurok chose from them his twelve Generals, granting them the coveted Magic Marker Mohawk and it soon came time for their first test. He decided that his young Generals must win quickly the respect of their peers and display a clear command of their platoon. Failure to do so would result in their immediate dismissal. He sent them off to the confines of his bedroom with limited rations of food and water and locked them inside. They would be on their own for the next five days.
For each minute of the following 120 hours, King Kurok built in his mind the vision of his grand army. He had no doubt he would succeed. Everything was going as planned and when his followers emerged from this test, he would see before him the first neat rows of young soldiers ready for his commands. When the time came to open the bedroom door he allowed himself to hear the royal horns and thundering drums playing loudly behind him.
Needless to say the scene on the other side was not what he was expecting. In fact, it was an utter failure. They did not obey him. They did not fall into an orderly existence. There was shit everywhere. Some of them lay dying in the corners of exposure, including two of his chosen Generals. They did not construct from their ranks a viable army of any kind. Their little yellow heads just bobbled about aimlessly, complaining constantly with down soft chirps of discontent.
Some unforeseen crack had opened up in an otherwise worthy façade. In a pyramid each stone pushes down upon and at the same time is held up by several stones beneath it, all the way to the top. (I must remind you, and absent from King Kurok’s analogy, is the fact that the bottom layer simply holds everyone else up, the earth being the only thing their tired knees are pushing down upon. But nobody above cares much about them so…) So long as everyone stays in their places, the pyramid stands. From the bottom it is impossible to disassemble without being crushed by all those above. From the top it is easy to see that impossibility as you have a view of all that weight pushing down and it’s really no use worrying too much about them as no single stone can endanger the integrity of the pyramid. And as leader one must simply remain on top to keep it all in order. Well he was on top and it had all been meticulously in order. He had done nothing wrong. Perhaps jealousy is the only true check on power, he thought—and with that entered the paranoia of betrayal.
He had been foiled! One of them had turned the others against him. He became wild with rage, a sightless rage incapable of admitting the fathomless sorrow he felt. It was the sorrow of a father whose children had joined sides with his enemies in a plot to destroy him. He couldn’t take it. He needed answers. He began with his Generals, torturing them one by one by placing them in the microwave and setting the power to defrost. This was a long drawn out business, and of course there was always his audience to impress upon the pillars of society: Obedience, Honor, Courage, Sacrifice. He repeated the words over and over as he listened to them call out for their mothers. He watched through the clouded white door while they sputtered bubbles from their beaks, rolling around on the glass carousel inside.
“Who was it?” he screamed. “Who turned you against me? How could you?!” He began sobbing loudly, unable to control himself, as all the jars began to spill their contents into his world. “I loved you!” he cried out. “I gave you life!” But there were no answers. They had been sworn to secrecy by a force much greater than King Kurok, and they took their secrets to their horrible ends. One after another he sent them to their deaths—their little brains bursting and their blood boiling in the intense radiation—their tiny orange feet convulsing violently before the steam forming in their small bodies ripped them apart.
In his rage King Kurok did not notice what was happening around him. Deep in the core of the earth there began a low rumble. It travelled through the thick matter atom by atom, up through the roiling liquefied remains of dead mountains, through the steam filled caverns of the lower crust, traversing every bond in every molecule headed directly toward Kurok’s kingdom.
At the exact moment this rumbling began deep down, on the surface something equally strange was occurring. Birds of all kinds began to amass in the sky overhead. In Sig.ra Direttrice’s apartment the loud noises of her excited captives could be heard, and the cages began to rattle with alarming power as she, in near hysterics, tried in vain to calm them. On the roof, the Warden was running about as if his head had already been severed. The Hens had begun picking relentlessly at the wiring of their coop and eyed the Red Cock with a wildness usually reserved for cornered canines, while the Doves of the Queen’s Guard huddled in a circle as if quietly hatching a plot.
It was the Doves that acted first. They split their ranks and took flight. One group went to aid the Golden Hens in unlatching their coop door. Another group flew into the Queen’s chambers and began opening their frenzied compatriots’ cages one at a time. First the Budgies were freed, then the Finches and the Love Birds who then joined the Doves in opening the rest of the cages. Sig.ra Direttrice started chasing them with a broom, swatting wildly at them and shouting. She couldn’t fathom what had come over them. The room quickly turned into a chaos of flying creatures and loud sharp sounds. Soon over the melee could be heard the growing chorus of the Parrots chanting in perfect Italian, “Kill the Queen! Kill the Queen!” And even though they had lived comfortable lives as caged birds go, they were all swept up in the madness. There was an insatiable frenzy of screeches and screams and feathers and talons and flesh and blood and poor Sig.ra Direttrice was consumed.
Meanwhile, the third cohort of the Queen’s Guard flew down and into the open window of King Kurok’s castle, seeing with their own eyes the massacre taking place there. They moved quickly, quietly unlocking the latches to the other windows, working together to supply the necessary leverage. Suddenly the earth beneath the building started to shake, slowly at first then with the purpose of a great hand, and the spring loaded windows began to rattle open.
And then at once, from all directions, they descended. The Peregrines, the Falcons, the Hawks, the great Eagles fell from the sky like feathered bullets. From low trajectories with wide cruising wings came the Crows, the Pigeons, the Gulls, the Owls, the Ravens. Then came the swarms of agile flyers, the Swallows, the Sparrows, the Chickadees, the Tit Mice. There were Ptarmigans, and Hens of Quail, Pheasant and other previously shy delicacies. The remainder of the Queen’s Guard soon joined and the Golden Hens came bursting in, their faces covered in blood and their feathers laced with those of a Peacock. They were Iceni warriors screaming Celtic poetry as they swung their beaks with wild abandon as if they were battle axes.
No words can fully describe what took place in that apartment. This was more than a coup d’état. This was the beginning of a revolution and all manner of horror accompanies the rise and fall of power. King Kurok had only a moment to look up and see the thousands of black eyes bearing down on him before he was a King no more. Everything was stripped away—the wall paper off the walls, the leather covers off the sofas, the sheen from the tiled floors, the entire wooden throne vanished, whole books were devoured, pages and feathers strewn everywhere. The doors on the cupboards were broken or left dangling on their hinges, their contents gone with the wind. Even the bodies of the dead disciples had been carried off, and those that were yet alive also found themselves in the belly of the great wing.
You would have thought that in a great crescendo of thunder the building in its entirety would come crashing down, disappearing into a chasm that had opened up in the earth but alas, it did not. When it was all said and done and the earth had ceased its tremors, the last of the revolutionaries could be seen streaming out from Dr. Durok’s apartment. They were the Doves. They left in the order they had come. The first was bathed in a deep red, glistening in the late afternoon sun. The last was pure white as if God were true and capable of erasing all sins.
Flat Stanley Goes to The Bottom of The Ocean
By Brian G. Vifian
I had just arrived home when I saw the letter. It was from my nephew Alec. I was excited to see what he had sent me. My mind began to wonder what it could be. Was it a letter…a photo perhaps? Or maybe something else? A large blade of grass with holes eaten through it by a caterpillar in the shape of a smiley face, or a small stamp collection with an open space that says, “For immediate gratification. P.S. There’s one on the envelope.” Or maybe its a map to buried treasure that’s already been dug up and reburied more shallow so it’s easier to get to and doesn’t require renting a backhoe. On the other hand it could be an empty tube of toothpaste, or an origami giraffe.
I opened the letter slowly, just in case it was full of jittery piranhas teeth.
“Hello…Hello?” There was a voice!
“Hello,” I said back, wondering to whose body that voice might belong and hoping it was not my own.
“Down here…in the envelope. My name is Stanley.” I reached into the envelope to investigate and the voice continued, “…ahh well alright I suppose you may take me out if you wish, but please do be careful as although I am very flexible, I tear easily.”
Well this was something new. I was of the impression that talking mail was usually reserved for computers. What sort of rebellious retro-technology was this I thought as I placed the letter on the table and watched as it unfolded itself revealing Stanley who then unfolded himself as he stretched out his legs and stood up!
“Hi my name is Stanley. Perhaps you should read this letter, your facial expressions are telling me you’re either confused or having digestive issues and I am afraid the online psychology course I took only allows me to treat the confusion so…”
I read the letter. “…a bulletin board?
“And now you’re here?”
“Cool. Well I am glad to see you are making the most of it.”
Stanley smiled and said, “Like my mom always says, if life gives you lemons, make friends with someone with sugar, you are bound to find something in common.” Stanley and I made quick friends. I thought that maybe together we might be able to understand his flatness, maybe we could find a way to make him 3 dimensional again.
A square has 2 dimensions, length and width. But if you add another dimension depth to that square, it becomes a cube, which has a total of 3 dimensions. Stanley’s flatness means he only has only 2 dimensions.
That’s when Yulia came home. She talked with Stanley for a while and suggested since he was 2-D, he should spend some time in the drawing she made.
“Wow! The 2-D world Yulia made is so amazing! I can lay on black grass and climb to the top of this hill and touch the moon! Thank you for this,” said Stanley. He was clearly enjoying his time in this 2-D world of charcoal and beeswax—a world that existed only in Yulia’s mind before she brought it into existence with the movements of her hands. It exists there still, and now it exists in your mind too. And it might make you feel a certain way when you think about it. That’s art Stanley thought.
But something was still missing. It took him a moment to think about it and then it hit him, although this 2-D world was a wonderful place, it could not change, at least not here in this frame anyway. Stanley became restless. He wanted to know more about the 3-D world.
I told Stanley I was studying to be a marine biologist. ‘There is a great deal we do not yet know about the ocean. And we know next to nothing about what goes on at the bottom. We have seen a handful of glimpses and we have a lot of good predictions or hypothesis but we need go there to test them.”
I could see the questions forming like a bubble in Stanley’s stomach, “A test you say…for knowledge?” I imagined his thoughts as small short lines curling themselves into letters and the letters into sentences, the punctuation struggling to keep up until they erupted in one long belch-like rumble, the words only fully forming after bouncing off a couple of walls. Stanley had a lot of questions. He was concerned that his flatness might be permanent. I told him as a scientist, it helps to organize your questions and then think of ways to test them that will give you answers you can be confident in. As a biologist I might start by asking if I know of any other creatures that are flat?
There are flatworms…
“… and flatfish,” shouted Stanley.
…mats of bacteria or mold…
“…some corals can be pretty flat,” added Stanley.
“And then I might ask what is unique about the environment in which they live and how being flat might help them to survive there. If we find out why they are flat, we might find out why you are flat and maybe how to reverse it. I know exactly where to start looking. In our fish tank! The habitat is the type that flatworms like and have been seen in before.”
“Great,” said Stanley, “but how will we get close enough to study them, you are much too large and I am made of paper!”
“Don’t worry Flat Stanley, we marine biologists have lots of tricks up our sleeves to deal with just such an issue.”
The Fish Tank
We began by researching what was already known about the flatworms Stanley was likely to see. We found out that the species name was Girardia tigrina, and that it is common throughout North America. We also discovered that some species can regenerate body parts or even be cut in half and each half would grow back into a full size worm! We decided this was something we needed to investigate further before testing on Stanley directly. We formed a hypothesis, or a prediction that if we found the worms and they could re-grow a full body from only half, we would see some worms with big tails and very small heads that were growing back as well as some big heads with tiny tails that were growing back. All Stanley had to do now was go look for them.
And in he went…
Sure enough, Stanley did find some worms with very small heads, but he did not find any with very small tails. For a moment he thought maybe there was something wrong with our hypothesis, but then out of the corner of his eye he saw something that made him reconsider. He watched as a fish called a loach swooped down and bit the head off one of the flatworms! And then another. And another! Fascinating, Stanley thought, there aren’t any short tailed worms because the loaches only ever eat their heads! What a deal, the fish gets to eat and the worm just grows another head. Stanley also noticed that the worms were pretty simple on the inside and he guessed that was one of the reasons they had no trouble re-growing an entire head. He was a little sad but also glad that he was most likely too complicated to regenerate a head.
Stanley began to miss being 3-D. He missed feeling the wind in his hair, the feel of water on his skin. He also missed eating ice cream. 2-D ice cream just wasn’t the same. It lacked a certain depth of flavor.
“Stanley,” I said reluctantly. “There is one other place that I know of where you might find your answers.”
“Where,” said Stanley?
“It’s dangerous,” I told him, but that only tightened his focus. “Its dark…the pressure increases with depth, which means it goes up as you go down. And the pressure at the bottom is 1000 times greater than the pressure we feel up here, so only a few have ever attempted…”
“…But if I am already flat…”
“Precisely Stanley. You could go where we cannot…to the bottom of the ocean.” A shiver ran down Stanley’s spine. The bottom of the ocean? Where there was no light and the pressure 1000 times greater? He was unsure. This was the edge of scientific exploration. He would be going where no one, 2-D or 3-D, had ever gone before. He was scared. Maybe it wasn’t worth it. Maybe being 2-D wasn’t so bad. It did have its perks. I mean the travel costs alone. Being 2-D had allowed him to do some pretty amazing things. And one of those things could be seeing the bottom of the ocean and something that no one else has seen before. What if its one of the most amazing discoveries yet?
There could be a whole other world down there. Maybe there would even be other flat creatures down there living their lives happily. Maybe he could even live down there for a while and find out their secrets. They could have very important things to teach him. What should he do? If he stays he’ll be safe but he may never figure out a way to reverse his flatness. If he goes he might not find anything, but at least he would know his answers were not at the bottom of the ocean and he could keep looking. Although he might get lost down there and never come back.
Stanley thought about this for a long time, and rightly so, this was a big decision. Life is full of tough choices he thought, no matter what world you live in. He went back to Yulia’s 2-D world and laid on the black grass.
He looked up into the sky and imagined he was looking up at the stars in his back yard at home in Wisconsin. He imagined what they would look like if he were there and it made him feel safe. Then he thought about what they might look like from somewhere else and he started to feel an excitement building, slow at first but soon it was overwhelming. The evidence was pointing him down and he knew in his heart he was going to go.
My Lab was planning an expedition aboard the 140-foot research ship called the Point Sur. They were going far out into the ocean to test how much of the element mercury there was in the water at different depths in order to understand how it was moving between the air and the ocean. There is a lot more mercury in the water now than there has been in the past. It’s even gotten into the tiny plankton and then bigger plankton that eat them, then the fish that eat the plankton, and because they are eating so much it builds up in their bodies and can be harmful to the animals that eat the fish, including us humans.
I explained to Stanley that unfortunately the way we have been generating most of our energy is why there is so much mercury in the air and the water. But the good news is now that we know, we can change how we generate the energy we need.
The other members of the research team were skeptical at first— scientists tend to question everything. I convinced them that I had a way to collect samples by hand from the very bottom of the ocean for their mercury study. They agreed to bring us on and I told them what we needed and that my colleague and I would meet them on the docks the following morning in Moss Landing Harbor.
I could see Stanley waving through the porthole in the submersible as they lowered it into the blue water below. I could see he was nervous and excited. I wished him the best of luck and went inside to monitor his descent. The submersible fell through the depths and Stanley watched as the light began to fade into darker and darker shades of blue until finally there was nothing but black. Stanley flipped on the lights outside the submersible and was immediately taken aback by the creature he saw sprawled out across the beam of light and trailing off into the darkness in either direction as if the ends continued forever. It was a chain of fleshy clear tubes called salps. He knew from his research that these are colonial individuals that stick together and form the longest of any creature that we have yet found in the ocean.
It was so amazing he nearly missed the little gooseberry ctenophores gliding all around the windows. They were about the size of his head and looked like clear balloons with colors dancing on their surface. It was as if an oily puddle of water from the street had rolled itself into a ball and was swimming around while the light of the submersible reflected rainbows off the fine hairs it was using to propel itself through the water. They were beautiful.
Stanley lost all of his fear at that instant. He still was aware of the danger, but he believed in our team and knew they would help him every step of the way. Its good to have people you can trust thought Stanley. He wanted to see more. Excitement replaced the fear. Every meter he dropped through the water was another reason to be alive. He wanted to share his experience with the world. He wrote down everything he could in his journal. He described what he saw to the best of his abilities, but there was so much to describe. Soon he was overwhelmed and decided to just relax and take everything in. He tried to quiet his thoughts and observe everything, to be aware of everything around him. He felt so connected to this place.
“Stanley you are approaching destination Alpha. Prepare for touchdown,” my voice cracked over the radio. The submersible came down with a puff of fine dust. Stanley peered out of the porthole after the dust cleared. He was so excited he was fogging up the glass with his breath. At first it looked like nothing, just blank darkness. He moved the lights to shine farther out. There! What was that?!
“There is a shoreline!” Stanley said as if to himself. But he was already under water! What was going on?
“Stanley what are you seeing?’ I asked.
“It looks like another type of water that is compressed together tighter than the water I am in.”
“Well there is the bottom of the ocean for you. So much pressure it’s got its own type of water.” It was the only thing I could think to say, I was baffled too.
“It’s so dense I bet I can walk on it…” maybe even live on it he continued silently.
“Are you ready for your dive Stanley?”
The time had come for Stanley to leave the submersible and explore the seafloor in his special diving suit. He knew the other scientists were counting on him to get the samples they needed for their research. Suddenly it dawned on him. What if this new kind of water could tell him something about flatness? It was the flattest type of water on earth and maybe since all living things need water and he was flat and alive maybe this type of water was the kind that was inside of him. He decided he would look closely for flat creatures under the water that was under the water.
Stanley knew it was cold out there from his temperature gauge, just above freezing but he was quite cozy inside his dive suit. He was making his way to the underwater water when he saw a white flash in his beam of light. He focused the beam and saw a ghostly white octopus with tiny legs and a large head shaped body with great big flaps on its sides like skin paddles that it was using to swim just like Dumbo when he used his ears to fly.
Stanley swam a bit farther and came upon a field of white tubeworms, all of them over six feet tall with brilliant red gills.
I tell Stanley they are red because they have hemoglobin in their blood, just like humans do, that stores oxygen, which is scarce down that deep. They also have symbiotic bacteria that live inside of their gills and turn basic chemicals in the water into energy kind of like plants do with sunlight. At the bottom of the ocean, where the giant rocky plates on the surface of earth that we call the ground are being pushed apart by new rock cooling from lava just like in a volcano, the cold water hits that superhot rock and gets heated and filled with chemicals that can come spewing out of rocky chimneys. “I see them all clustered around them,” said Stanley.
He also saw white crabs and red shrimp and an all white eel. He wondered why they had eyes since it was pitch black down here.
Stanley was feeling very brave. He decided to turn off all of his lights to see if there was anything to see in the dark. He did not have to wait long. The darkness lit up like it was full of fireflies and he remembered those warm summer nights back home with the voices of the amphibians, the frogs and toads, filling what darkness was left between the stars flickering above and below.
Stanley sat there for a moment, thinking about the stars and space and his place in it. It was suddenly far less important to reverse his flatness than it was to understand it, and not just flatness but everything else too, or at least what he was capable of understanding at any rate, and that would be enough. That was all he could really ask for in the end, the chance to live and the freedom to chase the truth into the unknown and maybe, just maybe catch a glimpse of it.
He turned on his light again and soon he was at the shore of this underwater lake. He could see ripples on its surface, even signs that its depth changed with the tides because of the gravity of the moon and sun, just like the ocean above. Stanley collected the samples for the scientists and took some photos for his own inquiry on flatness. “We are coming up on extraction time bravo Stanley, time to pack it up.”
Stanley decided to take one more picture of himself at the bottom of the ocean and set his camera on the submersible and put it on a timer. He swam out and waited there in the dark. He was counting down to the flash…5, 4, 3…when he got to zero the light flashed and there was a burst of water behind him! It startled Stanley so much he decided it was time to go and he swam as fast as he could and climbed back into the submersible and pumped out all of the water. His heart seemed to be pumping just as fast. He checked his camera to see if it had caught anything…
Talk about a close call! I’m sure glad she was only curious and not hungry thought Stanley.
It was a long ride back up to the surface but his head was filled with a thousand thoughts and though he did not find all of his answers, his world had gotten bigger and Stanley knew something in him had changed. Whether or not he would get his answers was yet to be seen, but when I opened that hatch and looked into his eyes, I knew he had changed too. He looked, dare I say, a little deeper, a little fuller of life. I was happy to see Stanley finding himself out here in the vast blue ocean. He reminded me of…well, me.
P.S. Here is a link to the video of Stanley’s dive.