Avant-Garde

Twenty Years Later: The Elder Brother Comes Home

by John Mark Reynolds on November 2, 2010

Here I am working. Is Dad working? No. Is the Kid working? No. Are most of the servants working? No.

I am working.

Dad is older. I am older, but the Kid is never any older. I call him the Kid, because in Dad’s eyes that is what he always will be. He lights up when he sees the Kid and talks business to me.

Here we are three middle aged men and the Kid and Dad are talking fishing. Sometimes I think I am the only grown up in the family.

The thing that irks me is that the Kid had his fun and now gets virtue too? What is the good of being good? The Kid would say, “You don’t have the scars that are on my soul, Bud. You have no idea.”

Sure.

I have no idea what it is like to party hard and then come to another party. In fact, they are having a party now. Dad has a birthday every year and every year the servants and the Kid have a big party. Meanwhile, work grinds to a halt and only I keep things going.

I am mucking out the pig pen and listening to the sounds of the party up in the main house. Suddenly, I realize that nobody was making muck out the pen. I was here by my own choice and was missing a party, why?

Maybe because it wasn’t the kind of party I wanted.

Did I wish I was out spending Dad’s money on fast horses and harlots?

Yes.

I wish I was or had been. I was in muck because I was afraid to risk my financial future by doing what I wanted. God help me. The stink on my feet was no worse than the stink in my soul. I envied the Kid’s sin. My heart was bad, but my practicality had kept me home.

I was in a pig pen with none of the fun. Sin had made me miserable, but I hadn’t even had the fun of the sin. I was an idiot.

That wasn’t right: I am no idiot. I was missing the party, because I thought the farm would fall apart if I did not keep working. Dad worked hard, the Kid even worked hard, but they also enjoyed life.

I dropped the shovel and realized: “The servants in Dad’s house get more free time than I do.” Then something else hit me harder than the shovel had hit the muck: “Some of the servants in the house spend more time with Dad than I do.”

Maybe Dad lit up when he saw the Kid, because I was a jerk. Did I love Dad? Well, of course.

Well, maybe. If I loved him, what was I doing working when he was celebrating his birthday? I had left home at the same time as the Kid … only I had left emotionally and never come home. I missed my Daddy and I wanted him back.

It looks like I had blamed the Kid for alienating Dad from me when I was making myself an alien in my own home.

What was I doing in the pig pen during a party? Why was I eating a boxed lunch when the rest of the family and the servants were eating party food?

I looked at the tin box containing my bread and cheese with disgust. The servants were eating better today than I was.

I walked out of the pen and slowly headed up the hill toward the house. My slow saunter got faster. When was the last time I danced with my wife? When was the last time I played with my kids and with Dad?

I realized that I served Dad, I did not love him.

Dad was looking out the window at the party and saw me a long way off coming up that hill. He ran out the front door and met me at the bottom of the path to the house. The Kid followed Dad and  both of them looked at me . . . lovingly.

I started to say, “Dad, I left home emotionally. I am not worthy to be called your son” but he stopped me by his look and because it is hard to talk when you are getting hugged.

“All I have is yours,” my Daddy said. “But all I want to give you is my love. Will you receive it?”

I could not say anything, because I was crying. Call it sappy and that this is a cheesy ending, but sometimes life doesn’t work out the way an intelligent man thinks it should. Sometimes it turns out my cynicism is disappointed by actual happy endings.

Daddy looked around and said, “Someone kill the fatted calf again! My beloved son who was lost has been found!”

My younger brother looked at me and smiled, “Thanks for an excuse for a party.”

I socked him on the arm.

God, it is good to be home.

The Jester’s Reply: A Fable

by John Mark Reynolds on October 18, 2010

Once upon a time in a Kingdom by the wine-dark sea, there lived a very silly king. Like most kings of his day, his kingdom was very small, but he had better people than he deserved. The castle was famous for its intricate design and the care the servants took with it. The King was also blessed with a wise Lord High Chamberlain who managed most of the estates. This was a good thing, because the King took it all for granted and was always looking for something new to distract his very short royal attention span.

One day a jester came to the court. He was very bright and able to do many things. The king was entranced with his tricks and with the improvements he made all over the castle. Soon the King was spending most of his time with the Jester and his toys, but this did not bother his royal servants. They were there to serve and were happy for anything that jollified the King. The rest of the staff was fond of the amusing fool, but he was not so fond of them.

“They get credit for so much of what is done around here,” the clown said to himself. “What if I could replace them all? Then I would get all the credit for the wellbeing of the king and the kingdom! Why in the end, I might even be made the King’s heir!”

The Jester knew that he could never personally replace the Lord High Chamberlain or the servants. They knew their jobs, but he decided to create mechanical marvels that would do work in the castle they had never dreamed of attempting. One robot the Jester made could clean the moat in a single day!

They were remarkable devices and made life easier for everyone. The gleaming bronze machines were not very attractive and the smell of their oily joints could grow annoying, but on the whole they did more good than harm.

The castle entered a new golden age and the people rejoiced, but especially the King.

The King was fascinated with his new toys, but he continued to also praise the work of his faithful servants. “It is wonderful to have both the robots and the servants,” he said. “The robots are efficient and the maids are so beautiful!”

This frustrated the jester. He could not be content with being clever and improving life for everyone in the castle. He wanted all the praise. What to do?

Then he had a very clever plan. The Jester created schools all over the Kingdom to teach people how to make clever devices like his own. This was a good thing and brought increased prosperity to the Kingdom, but over time the Jester began to twist the curriculum of the schools.

At first he merely questioned whether the servants were really up to their job and had the students worry about the cost of supporting such a large establishment. Then he suggested that very few of the servants actually did any work and that the work they did, assuming they did it, was very inferior to what students might expect. Of course the robots could not replace them yet, but soon they would do so. After all, wasn’t past success a guarantee of infinite future possibilities? Finally, he began to teach that the servants did not really exist at all or if they did exist that they did nothing in the castle.

The Jester made doubting the servants an intellectual fashion and because he was witty and everyone likes a wit many people began to pretend that the servants were not real, even people who had interactions with them! They said they had outgrown belief in servants and ignored them buying more robots to do work, even work that did not need doing.

The foolish King hated to look foolish, since it confirmed an opinion many already had of him and so he adopted the new view. When the ruler began to ignore the servants, it became the established fashion amongst anyone who wanted to be anyone.

A few still spoke to the servants, but such folk were often mocked by the Jester and his sycophants and so they did it quietly. None of this bothered the servants. They knew their job and they enjoyed doing it. Since they made most of the food, they were not likely to starve and the High Chamberlain and his staff kept paying them. The High Chamberlain was a very old man and had seen Jesters come and go enough times not to run after the latest whims of his King.

The robots continued to perform well as did the servants. When the robots learned a new task, the servants simply moved on to other work. The castle functioned like a fine watch, but now the Jester and his robots got all the credit.

Things might have gone along like this forever if it had not been for a bit of bad luck for the Jester.

One day a Lady came to visit the King and she brought with her a small boy. This boy was very bright, but also very rebellious. He had been a good student, had made many clever devices in the Jester’s schools, but he also spoke to servants.

This shocked his teachers and finally the boy was forced to run off to the country home of the old fashioned Lady. The Lady was protected by the Lord High Chamberlain and together they plotted how to deliver the King from the Jester’s trick. Finally, they decided that the King would only be able to hear the truth if it came to him from a child and they decided to bring the boy to Court.

One day the Lady appeared dressed in the whitest samite before the King and asked if she could pay him a visit with her attendants. The King, who had grown a bit tired of talking to metal men, was delighted to invite her to stay. The Lady was as amusing as the Jester and much less demanding. She had brought the young boy with her and the King also enjoyed the sound of a young boy, realizing with a start that though the Jester was fond of making new machines, he had discouraged any children around the court.

The boy, his name was Peter, was inquisitive and more fond of questioning than he was of speech making. This too was a change of pace from the Jester’s ways.

Much to the King’s consternation, however, Peter kept talking to the servants the King was valiantly pretending he could not see. The King was worried. It was hard enough looking clever for the Jester without the boy reminding him of his actual experiences. The Jester could always explain his experiences with the servants away, but it was quite a strain on the King’s imagination.

One day the King sat playing chess with Peter and was losing as usual. This did not bother him as the King rarely won any games. Peter had fixed one of the robots in the room which had wound down and it was busy cleaning the floors. A petite maid entered the room with ice creams for both of them and Peter took his gladly.

“Thank you, Mrs.” the boy said.

“There is no Mrs.,” the King said softly.

“But she just brought me the ice I requested,” Peter said.

“Jester!” the King shouted.

The Jester came running into the room, looked around, realized in a flash what was happening (he really was very clever), blushed, and began to think quickly.

“What did you say?” the king said sharply, noticing the pretty maids again for the first time in a great while.

The Jester spoke quickly to distract his King from the beauty, “What an imagination these children have!” he said.

“Yes,” the King said thoughtfully.

“How golden the days of childhood were when we too could pretend there were servants.”

“Yes,” the King became dull again, “I remember.”

The Jester relaxed. “We mustn’t be childish your majesty. What would the teachers at my schools say of you?”

“Yes.” The King looked drowsy.

“But there is a Mrs. And she just served us ices!” Peter cried out.

“What a little liar this boy is . . . and a half-wit.” The Jester looked at the King. “Imagine what folks would say of you if you agreed with him!”

“Yes,” the King said.

“Run along now Peter,” the Jester cried. “His Majesty wants to sleep.”

Peter grew angry. The Lady always treated him with courtesy and never ignored his questions, but this Jester felt rudeness his right and cared only for his own self-serving assumptions.

“I was talking to Mrs. Jones and you are the one not seeing the way things are,” the boy said, but he was heated and so his words came in a rush. The Jester got a practiced look of condescension and patted the boy on the head in the just the way that every boy hates.

“You know there isn’t really a Mrs. Jones,” the King began . . .

“But she is there!” was all the boy would say.

“Jester!” the King was looking angry, “What is the meaning of this? Have you been tricking me?”

The Jester replied, “I don’t have to answer these questions, because everyone knows there is no such thing as servants in this court. Anyway, if the servants did exist, they are very bad servants.”

“But we have spoken to the servants and Mrs. is very beautiful and not at all bad,” Peter said.

“Silly child,” the Jester scoffed, “You don’t realize that my study has shown that your conversations with the servants are just wish fulfillment, because you are lonely. Your majesty, surely you will not trust your own experience and that of a boy over my learned research.”

“I don’t know about that,” the boy said puzzled, “but if there are no servants, then who cleans up the castle?”

The King looked thoughtful and listened for the first time in a great while. He was thinking again, open to new possibilities.

“The robots do it now,” was the Jester’s curt retort. “And before that the palace was not nearly as clean as you think. If there were servants would things be as messy as they are?”

“What do you mean?” the boy asked.

“Look at the dust in that corner where the robot cannot go and remember last year when the tapestry got stained with wine?”

“But the servants don’t do everything for us, they want us to do our own rooms  . . . and you stained the tapestry yourself when one of your Christmas magic tricks went wrong! Mrs. said so!”

“Well, “she” would wouldn’t she? Good servants, and you seem to think them good, would have cleaned it up by now. Wouldn’t they?”

The boy thought for a minute and knew he could not keep up with the Jester. “Have you tried talking to the Lord High Chamberlain?” the boy said at last, “He pays the servants every week and is expert on what they do. He has studied the castle for years and knows exactly how it works.”

The Jester had anticipated this and replied, “There are no experts in a delusion, The Lord High Chamberlain is either mad or is stealing the money he is using to “pay the servants.”

The King looked thoughtful, “I don’t know. The Lord High Chamberlain is very wise and has been with me a long time.”

The Jester began to fume. “Surely your majesty will not listen to this half-idiot He is obviously badly educated.”

“I went to your schools,” the boy said.

“But learned the wrong lessons,” the Jester replied.

“But the servants are really there, I see them and their works every day!” the boy responded and he waved at the butler that was peeking in through a service door. The butler winked at the boy.

The King looked around him and realized that the cleaning in the palace took place for exactly the reason he had first thought: the servants were doing it. He laughed at the Jester and said, “Your reply almost had me until I realized that you were just stubbornly refusing the simplest answer, because it limited your power.”

The Jester said, “But at least we had a laugh and the robots are interesting!”

The King agreed and both the servants and the robots stayed. The Jester knew that to be unemployed would be to be nobody’s fool, so he accepted the outcome. The boy grew up to be a very wise man and once was heard to say: “Being closed minded and accepting only one kind of answer is very foolish, better to be open to wonderful possibilities. And sometimes what seems true is.”

And they all lived happily ever after.

My Siren’s Call: A Fairy Tale

by John Mark Reynolds on September 20, 2010

Once upon a time I was a siren.

Being a siren is not difficult; when a mommy and daddy siren loves each other very much . . . baby sirens come along. Humans find us ugly, because we are ugly. There is no way around what constant inbreeding has done to us, but Homer and the lying poets did not have to tell lies about us.

You might not have a good picture of a siren in your mind due to the failures of modern education. We are roughly human in shape, but horrifically ugly. Imagine the Little Mermaid on a very bad hair day and then make her the leper of the sea.

We are not monsters or at least we don’t mean to be. Better to say our behavior is monstrous. Older sirens pointed out that we were born with certain desires, disabilities, and one great gift. What else could we do?

But there, I am assuming you know what we do. A siren dreams greater dreams than any other beings under the heavens. Better still we know the ambitions of every living thing. And every living thing has a desire  . . . an end point that it longs to attain. Once you become an adult siren, you suddenly find that the entire world is groaning with unrealized, and often unrealizable, desire.

This gift comes to female sirens when we grow up.

Rooting through the debris on the beach in the last moment before adulthood, I saw a small sand flea. Nothing new there, but suddenly I knew. My whole being was full of longing for growth, food; water . . . a sand flea paradise. My mouth opened involuntarily and I sang it all. You might have heard it, but stranger that flea heard it, or felt it, or whatever it is a thing as simple as a flea can do with longings.

It came toward me and a feeling of irritation rose in me. It thought I was what it wanted. Did I look like sand flea paradise? I killed it.

My grandmother heard my story that night and explained to me at long last what it meant to be a siren and also the source of our food supply. A siren longs for beauty, knows what beauty is, but lacks it. Involuntarily we sing and attract only to disappoint everything . . . sand fleas, unicorns, men. They all come and they all find out that we are not the Paradise for which they seek.

It sucked to be a siren, but a girl still had to live. All our fresh meat was people . . . and we caught them by attracting them to our island as they passed in their simple wooden ships. The poets, of course, blamed us and not the gods for the situation.

You ought to see our culture, for a moment, from my point of view. Men, and the sailors were almost all men, are much the same. They have deep longings, and those are beautiful, but then they have wants. What they need and what they want are two different things . . . and believe me this tension produces a song we sirens find distasteful. Sailors love it and come swimming towards us, eagerly.

Why do we kill them?

Mostly because we cannot live on sand fleas and there is not much else alive on our island. Our ancestors bought us mental peace from all the groaning desire of nature by putting us on as barren an island as they could find. I will not bother to say what we ate when we could not get sailors.

I think I would have killed them even if I had not been hungry. Their songs were always the same and they always came slobbering onto the beach looking for someone. The look they gave when they saw me, scorning what is for what they wanted, produced the fury. I knew what I looked like and the gods know I was as disappointed as each he always was.

A siren dies when at last we see ourselves. Philosophy is fatal to us, because the moment we know ourselves, we sing of our own desires. There is no surviving the song we sing to ourselves. If you think the death of the sailors sick, you have not considered what a siren can do to herself.

Then one day a ship passed and something new happened: most of the women locked onto a soul for dinner, but I could not seem to do it. I reached out and instead of grabbing a dream, felt like I was being grabbed.

Was there a siren for sirens?

It felt like it. My mouth opened, but nothing came out. My mind was filled with love and requited desires. Whoever he was, he was going someplace, but was already where he was going. I don’t know how to describe it, but he seemed at rest. He desired, but there was no groaning in it. His desires were all happy and his longing had no taint of misery.

I stumbled toward the water. The other sirens were watching their sailors come through the waves and the song was on them. They ignored me and I ignored them so we were even. I started swimming.

I got to the boat and for once blessing my iron sharp nails as I scrambled up the side. He was standing there. There could be no doubt, because peace radiated from him. He knew himself and was content.

Sirens are ugly. I know I mentioned that, but he did not seem to notice. He looked at me and loved me. He did not want anything from me, but the chance to give love.

“I am a monster,” this was all I could say.

“No, you are wicked,” was what he said.

“Kill me.”

“I will, but so that you can live again.”

I shuddered. What god or monster was this? He began to shine like Apollo, but his light was as joyous as that of Dionysus. My mouth opened and the last siren song came out, pouring out all the evils I had done, but also all the joy and beauty and love that I wanted. I painted a picture of paradise, but knew I was fit only for hell.

My claws began to scratch my breast, but he stopped me.

“Look at me,” he said.

I died looking at him, because he was so bright that it burned through my being and this was the greatest pleasure I had ever known.

I woke up. That is the most remarkable thing in this story. I saw a god or a man or both, sang my siren song, and lived again.

He looked at me and I sang. I sang about a journey that might last one thousand years, but the journey was no longer painful. I sang about completion and happiness. He smiled.

“Follow me,” he said. I noticed then that there were still some sailors left on that ship. He had other followers, it appeared. My sisters had made quick work of his false friends. That reminded me and I spoke, “What of the other sirens?”

“They do not hear my call.”

I looked down at my form. I still looked the same, but I was no longer unhappy. I thought I knew, but still asked, “Where are we going, my lord?”

“You know.” This was all he said.

He made my siren’s call true and now I live happily ever after.

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This piece was inspired by a wonderful song written by a music group at Bakersfield Christian School.