March 2024

for The Big One


The twins come home from war. Here is the town that looks like a town. Here is the church, here is the steeple, here whispers the hunchbacked parson: never seek to tell thy love no matter how stale or feeble. The place has not changed. Here stands the grain elevator in its hollow slumber; there, the public pool, its wandering babble. And, per the timetable, the bus, chrome leviathan arriving now with some people in its cold belly. The vehicle stops with an abrupt little scream. The twins emerge from it and stand blinking in a cloud of dust. Briefly they confront the fact of their return. Each swallows a mild stop of disappointment and spits in the dirt to be rid of it. From their journey the men are footsore and starving. They have crossed deserts and plains and walked and run and traversed too the whole of a night sky whose stars shone faint and pale as drops of dew radially hung on the web of a garden spider. All to end up here. They shoulder their packs and leave. 

They are called Purpose and Harmony. Long ago they had real names, but these have been forgotten. Though they are identical twins, war has made Harmony very fat and Purpose very skinny. Thus even an astute observer would be unlikely to guess of the fraternal relation between the men who appear to us now as diminishing figures, mark them, one large and one small and silhouetted both against the red droopy sun. Soon then it is dusk. The twins reach the house. It is strange and unfamiliar to them, blanketed so by unruly vines and ivy and flowering weeds. Yet the tarnished key Harmony produces from his pocket fits the lock as before. Yet the things inside are in their right places. So the moth-eaten bedsheets are wordlessly lifted from the furniture, so the delicate bones are swept from the cupboard mousetraps. Finally the twins rest. They drink old beer and watch a funny West African guy play Fifa on Twitch. Later they retire to their bedrooms and lie down. Each feels a softness, a heaviness, and what meets them is a sleep is so thick and dreamless that they cannot be bothered by the souls of the dead who each night appear to cry about how none of it was fair, none of it was fair, none of it was fair. 

One day not long after the twins’ return, there was a great commotion in town. The townspeople, drawn from their fields and shops, slowly gathered at the main intersection. The twins, too, ventured from their little house to see why everything was astir. Everyone, they found, was looking at car parked on the side of the road. It was a sleek black car which emitted the purring hum of someone about to disclose a secret. Nothing happened for several minutes, and then the passenger door was pushed very slightly ajar. From the gap appeared the head of a young woman. She was mercilessly beautiful, and she promptly sneezed on account of the bright sunlight. She looked around. This, she said, will do. And then she touched the nipple of her money-colored vape to her lips, drew an inward breath, and exhaled through her nose. Matcha-scented smoke moved in twists above and about her like calligraphic letters of some fleeting and undecipherable language and all the townspeople looked at the tiny shifting cloud and wondered if in it was something written for them. The young woman got back in her car and was taken away. 

In a week’s time she returned with a line of trucks carrying all her possessions and all the people who wished to be near to the light of her boundless love. The young woman, as it so happened, was the heiress to Listerine, and she was so generous and smart that almost nobody regarded her with jealousy or veiled disdain. She had grown tired of the other places she lived, and she’d decided to relocate somewhere that would not be confused by the unexpected proximity of austerity and unbridled pleasure, and which might be easily molded to suit her wishes. And so it was and it was so. The town quickly grew and evolved. Even old people resistant to change could not help but admit it was all for the better. Now there were places to dance and places to smoke inside and drink wine that was sour and dark like blood. There were legs of room-temperature cured ham sliced thin like in Spain, and for the vegetarians there were loaves of fresh bread with rosemary butter. Pretty much everyone got along and had a lot of fun. Harmony, who was the fat one, did especially well in the new environment. The poets and models who’d moved into the old slaughterhouse were delighted by his stories about piloting his heavenly oblong machine with a Nintendo Switch, and they found his jovial, sincere presence to be endearing and entertaining. Purpose, however, remained wary of the young woman and the other newcomers, who seemed to be nourished by the seeds of shame and terror he’d tried to bury deep within himself. He came along to parties and events, sure, but he always remained reserved and judgmental, and not in a way meant to cultivate mystery or intrigue. As months passed and the whispering dead crept from the edges of his consciousness to plague him even in the day, he became increasingly withdrawn and philosophical. When he closed his eyes, the play of light on the back of his eyelids looked to him like the pixelated heat-vision images of the compounds and homes he’d blown up with his drone, and so he took to blinking as little as possible. His face was thus fixed in an expression of permanent bewilderment, like the look of a child who, for a moment after some terrible fall, cannot quite reconcile the sight of their mangled arm to the absence of pain. 

The young woman awoke one morning and, while looking at herself in a convex mirror, devoted some time to thinking. She was pleased with how the town had flourished, and she felt a sense of duty in ensuring the prosperity and well-being of all the peasants. She was more of an ideas person, though, and she didn’t want to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of governance. Therefore she thought it best to appoint a trustworthy person as her advisor. She asked around, and many of the townspeople told her that Purpose and Harmony were heroes who possessed a certain masculine know-how, and whose moral reputations bore only the minor blemish of the time they’d locked an Asian kid in a dog crate. The young woman considered what she knew of the twins, and her instincts told her the men were indeed pure of heart. Besides their physical differences, however, she was unsure of how to choose between the two. So she devised a plan. She summoned the twins to her residence and presented each with a situation. 

The men were led through the gates and beyond the faux battlements wherein the swallows had nested and up the gentle slopes of the orchards. They stopped at the door to the young woman’s chambers. Harmony was the first to enter. The room was all carpet. The door swung shut with a muted thud. Harmony wiped his brow and kneeled. The young woman wound and unwound a length of her hair around her forefinger. She explained that she would describe a situation, and that Harmony ought to offer his thoughts on it. The situation was this. She had contacted a telecommunications company and proposed that town be the site of a new data center, which would take the form of a monumental featureless cube. The structure would bring wealth, jobs, and tourists, who are inevitably drawn to monoliths, and all the townspeople would have really good cell service. However, the young woman continued, the cube would produce a constant, high-pitched hum that, while inaudible to the human ear, would cause migrating birds such as geese to tuck their wings in flight and dive headfirst into the ground. 

Harmony pondered all of this for a minute or two before he spoke. Should ever one as you, so fair and so clean, find thyself engaged in the undignified study of the skeleton of a goose, he said, then you would observe the cavity of the skull to be but the size of a chestnut. These are animals of an astounding stupidity, and thus each honk and plunge and downy thump announces not a sacrifice but, in fact, a gift. Your judgment is sound and I will enact your wishes, he said. The young woman nodded solemnly and sent Harmony from the room. Purpose then entered. The young woman considered the wide-eyed man before her and repeated the information concerning the giant cube. Only for a moment did Purpose deliberate. Nimble and sweet, he said, is the air and are the creatures who featherwise cleave it, and I must confess in the name of truth and beauty that I think your plan is greedy and bad. And then he turned away and was shown out by the chamberlains. 

The following day the twins again were summoned. The young woman informed them that Harmony was to be her advisor, for it was he who understood what it meant to be subordinate and unquestioning, like an object. He was then given a list of tasks to be completed before construction began, and both of the twins left. In the center of town, Harmony was compelled to lay his hand on the bony shoulder of his brother. He couldn’t recall a single time they had ever touched before. They parted ways. Harmony became rich, popular, and so large that the circumference of his torso at its widest was roughly equal to that of three men combined. He was given a cool apartment and a wardrobe of nice linen clothes. Purpose, on the other hand, continued to live in the old house, speaking to no one and only ever leaving to collect the flattened avian carcasses for stew. He became obsessed with Kant and Schiller, and he spent his days and nights frantically writing with inkwell and goose-feather what he felt to be a subtle and nonetheless profoundly original augmentation to the Critique of Judgment. 

The twins did not see each other for years until Harmony, moved as he sometimes was by an inexplicable current of nostalgia, went one evening to the old house. There he found Purpose barefoot and covered in dirt and eating from a bowl little bits of boiled goose meat. The sight of his brother repulsed him, and as he searched the man’s eyes for a flicker of humanity, he felt only pity. Purpose, he said quietly, if only you had learned to tell people what they want to hear, if only you had learned how to fashion yourself as an ironic prop in the grand theater of life, well, then you wouldn’t have to eat gooseflesh. Purpose nodded to himself but did not reply. He consulted some of his papers about aesthetics and how love is like a contact lens, and then he licked his lips pensively. Harmony, he said, if only you had learned to like the taste of gooseflesh, then you wouldn’t have to be a prop, and you also wouldn’t be so fat. And then Harmony left feeling insulted and Purpose returned to his important studies. Life, for each of them, went on, as it so often does, and overall Harmony was contented and Purpose was sad and angry and no one ever thought of him, even on a windy summer day much later when all his writings were blown high and swirling into the sky such that in town it snowed torn fragments of yellowed paper upon which were scrawled half-words and words like fear and guilt and mercy. 

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