On that day, I was supposed to go to the festival and trade my knife in. I was supposed to meet the old man at his table and hand it over. This was a promise I made to him, after a long and serious discussion. He was the kind of dignified old man who did not become angry, only disappointed. The kind where silence became its own condemnation, not from him, necessarily, but because you were reminded of every good thing you were letting down. Something fine and noble in the universe reflected off him, bounced from some unknown source beyond my own access. So the promise had some weight to me.
The festival was to be held at the high school, on the lawn and parking lot, with all kinds of tables and booths. There was even supposed to be an animal of some kind there, for entertainment.
But first, I went for a hike with friends, out on the coast where the land split off almost like an island, but still attached, a jumble of water, trees, stone, and brush, spilling through each other around a high rocky formation, almost like a butte, but eroded and overgrown.
They weren’t my friends. I liked them fine, but we were really just acquaintances, held together by a few common links here and there. If we had known each other better, maybe things wouldn’t have gone the way they did.
We shared a small device, a kind of portable heater. It cooked into vapor a small amount of plant matter which had been prepared for that purpose, a common and recreational plant byproduct which had cognitive effects considered by some to be entertaining, warm, and easy. I inhaled some myself, and we proceeded in a meandering way along the side of the rock mass. The path began to shrink.
J__ pointed ahead and to the right. I saw it too. The path was above a sheer cliff, which we had somehow not noticed due to our mild intoxication. The ocean was far below.
Nope, I thought to myself. Nope to that broken and barely there path. This is how people die in stupid circumstances.
Then someone said something, and I saw it again. It was a trick of refraction, and most of all, our own drugged distortion. The water was shallow and clear and the same level as the path. We had not risen in altitude at all, and were safely at sea level. It was a broken path, with water running through the cracks of it, but the sea it came from was shallows which you could see to the bottom of.
We continued along the path, slowly, smiling, abashed but in good humor, and it was then that it happened. Something whooshed by me at incredible speed. Like a fowl darting low over the water to spear a fish. I looked back at the thick wall of brush separating the rock mass from the land. I saw nothing. Then another knife shot through the air, past my head.
“Is someone throwing knives?” B__ said.
M__ laughed incredulously.
Run, I said.
But even as we ran, I had a doomed feeling. We had no time for strategy, and especially for coordination. We did not share a fundamental understanding with each other, a bond of time and trust that would have allowed instinctual cooperation. We were being funneled into the rocky tunnels, further away from land, from help, into true isolation. If we entered a dead end we would have no chance, the same chance as if we fell from the cliff that was actually shallow water.
We ran up a crude tunnel of stairs carved into the rock, becoming breathless from the exertion. At least we were going up instead of down, toward light instead of dark, I imagine was everyone’s feeling. As we reached the end, M__ went first, hauling herself up through the hole where the stairs ended. A knife hit her in the face and she reeled. I thought she would fall back toward us, but she had some footing, had taken it at the exact moment she was struck, and she fell to the ground of the surface above and was dragged away, shoes disappearing from the sky.
We stood there, caught between that sky and the sound of pursuers coming up behind us.
They took us to the top of the rock mass, which was covered in grass and even had some trees. There was a store there, like a medium-sized supermarket. It was not very dirty inside and the shelves were stocked.
The people who held us did not speak to us. We sat there, on various surfaces, waiting for an unknown determination to conclude. The people were dressed in minimal, utilitarian, outdoor clothing of reasonable quality.
I wondered if M__ was dead. We had not seen her body. But this absence was effective, just like their silence.
R__ pointed at me. “Don’t you have a knife?”
“Does this knife gang have anything to do with you?” B__ said.
“Why didn’t you use your knife?”
I could have explained to them how the knife wouldn’t do anything in outnumbered circumstances, against many knives, thrown from hiding. I could have had a good story for myself as well: I chose not to use my knife. I chose the way of peace.
But the truth is, I forgot I had it. As if part of me had already went to the festival, and handed it in, and kept my promise. But I had not kept my promise, and I had not been truly tested.
I listened to the people around me, theorizing and arguing about this situation beyond their understanding. They were precisely the kind of nothing people one meets on a day like today, a day between lives. I was nothing, so they were nothing, too. I would only know I had begun to live a different life when I stopped meeting such nothing people and met a being of totality. Until then, I would get what I deserved.
I looked at my captors until one of them caught my eyes.
“I have an appointment at the festival.”
He said nothing.
“If I’m not there, they’ll notice.”
Two of them escorted me to the high school. Close cropped hair, one blond, the other dark, wearing jeans and jackets. Their knives were close and hidden.
A bright day, the high school lawn green and white, covered in tables and booths.
We passed the gorilla enclosure. We did not slow down, so I only perceived it from the corner of my eye as a presence of power. One of nature’s animals. Even in my periphery there was a subtly deforming quality around it, as if the humans around it were judged by contrast. It felt similar to the mechanism of the old man’s presence, yet in the service of an entirely opposite force. If the old man caused one to consider the path of peace, the gorilla asked you why you had not yet gone to war. I do not say that because I believe every primate to be inherently vicious, but because this was what they called a foolthrasher gorilla, a gorilla which thrashes fools. Anyone could see it by the markings and pelt, if they had even a little curiosity about the ways a gorilla can manifest and become. It would be absurd to think a gorilla had the same ideas about fools as we do, or even knew they existed. One merely means that whatever instincts are useful to such a gorilla in the wilderness, within its particular hierarchy and the biological imperative of it all, mapped perfectly upon the human concept of a fool.
To many it would appear an ordinary gorilla, and this is a lie I would not have minded telling myself, three sixty four days of the year. But this was not one of those days. On such a day, even a small lie felt permanent.
We continued up the steps of the high school lawn, passing a hammer show. Many people are amused by a hammer of unordinary size. The hammer man swung his hammer back and forth, and the crowd clapped and cheered. I would not have been surprised if at some point, more wrinkles were added to the dynamic, and the hammer was employed in some sort of false game or athletic trick. But it was like the gorilla, something I had to feel in my periphery, the dense object reduced to the flutter of a two-ounce paper fan.
In this bright part of town in this bright part of day, away from the yellow air and pollen murk of the coast, one could imagine the knife gang and the supermarket and all that was a fantasy of some kind. But the intoxicant had worn off and I felt only a cold, captive clarity, chained to each moment. I was there to perform my previous plans as hollow ritual, to reenact what I had not yet done.
We came to the old man. He sat at a simple table like you might see at any church potluck or a meeting for people with problems, the kind where faux-wood texture is applied with adhesive. He was at the very top of the steps, perfectly still. It seemed, perhaps, enough at his age to absorb the most simple facts of the world. To take the sun on his face, the gentle wind through his long white hair, these things that are left after one’s earlier years have been spent chasing heat and strife and desire. If the troubles at my back had been lifted from me all at once, if the men with knives had vanished at that moment, I believe I could have joined him with equal equanimity.
But the men remained, with their denim jackets and their knives, peripheral as a gorilla and a hammer.
The old man’s eyes shifted, nearly imperceptibly. Or perhaps it was his lips, or head, or nostrils. Perhaps nothing had moved at all. I placed my knife, small and bronze, at the corner of the table, as far from him as I could without it falling to the ground.
“It won’t contaminate me,” he said, very quietly.
“I know,” I said, in the nearly cheating but perhaps understandable way of someone who has only come to know at the second they speak.
We stayed in silence. His skin was deeply gnarled and cracked, burnt like wood by years of sun. Mazes of wisdom in which one could easily fall into a meditative state. But I felt the knive gang at my back, insensitive to the power of the moment. But at least they were quiet, for their own closed, limited reasons. They were content to wait for me to complete the ritual, to leave no suspicion when I disappeared. These were clean, neat, and professional men, who many might never meet in their whole lives. But I had become caught in the narrow mechanism of their purpose.
The moment ran out.
I opened my mouth and said, “Thank you.” As the words emerged, they were bent by pain and fragility and longing. I desired, with the strain of heartbreak, to tell him what was happening. But I could not beg for help. I could not even alarm him, or he would be endangered, and worst of all, become witness to the ugliness which was attached to me. And it would happen in the sight of my knife.
So I let this pain pass between us, into his great receptivity and silence and dignity, hoping only, perhaps, to be witnessed in some small way, without fanfare, without excruciation.
Behind me, I could hear the limits of their silence, and perhaps others waiting to see the old man for their own reasons, at this table placed here for this purpose. So I stepped away before the perfect silence could be damaged.
As we walked down the steps, we passed the gorilla enclosure. I paused to stare at it, knowing they would accept this brief reprieve. A gorilla commands something that anyone of any morality can see.
The gorilla’s hands were wrapped around the bars of the enclosure. It rocked against them, as if soothing itself. The movements were so small I thought nothing of them. Gradually I came to think it was a form of exercise, and that the movements really were more energetic than I thought. The way the bars rotated and shifted by centimeters was calming to look at.
We continued down the steps. There was a hammer show, but it was only a man with a hammer, and I knew I could not stop for such a thing. Anyone may become a man with a hammer.
There were snacks, and I wondered if the men from the knife gang would stop for those. All men, fundamentally, at some point in their lives, will eat food. But this was not such a moment. They ignored the foil covered in flattened frosting, and the individual pieces of corn floating inside ice cubes.
After a few more steps, we became aware of a commotion behind us.
We looked back and saw the gorilla holding the hammer. Some laughed, while others made tutting sounds. But no one spoke, until one person finally said, “Is there no handler for that gorilla?” It was the hammer man, who you can imagine having an investment in the proceedings. The hammer was large and non-standard, red-handled with a black head. It almost appeared like a plastic mallet, but the heaviness of it was easy to see, even to someone who couldn’t win a jelly bean contest with an empty jar.
The gorilla swung the hammer with such a long and loose reach that I thought the hammer would sail from the tips of his fingers and fly away. He swung to either side, clearing the tables and booths from the lawn as he descended the steps. The men ran toward their car but he ambled in front of them. Perhaps he did not single them out for who they were, but because they moved so quickly. Which is perhaps the same thing.
The gorilla screamed and pounded the ground with the hammer, breaking the sidewalk into chips, quickening the erosion of years into a single second.
The men screamed and fell on the ground and raised their hands.
The gorilla screamed back, swinging the hammer and banging fat gouges of earth from the lawn. The men screamed and trembled on the ground. The gorilla smashed the sidewalk into many pieces, revealing whatever lays beneath sidewalk. The men shuddered at this loud sound and made many noises. The gorilla banged steadily on the ground like a huge child with a huge toy. The men shuddered from the vibrations. The gorilla screamed at them. The first man screamed back, then the second man. The gorilla lifted the hammer high and brought it down hard, knocking up sidewalk far from where it was standing. The men cried out but their words were not intelligible. The gorilla screamed and its mouth opened so far it seemed to eclipse its head. You don’t think of a gorilla as being like a snake, but this is what the mouth looked like, stretched so tall and so sharp. It burned like a furnace, this ugly opening, but you could not look away, the screaming at a constant pitch which suspended all thought, paralyzed every muscle. Ugly, ugly, ugly, red and black, a tunnel absorbing all light.
The gorilla waddled over to the car we had come in and bashed it with such force that the front and back of the car folded together and touched like noses. The men by now were trying to rise to their feet. The gorilla came back and screamed at them. They bowed their heads and became still, but also screaming.
I looked up the steps. A single table remained, with the old man still sitting in exactly the same spot. Everything below him was destroyed.
The gorilla ceased to hammer. He hunched there, breathing heavily, his burly form seeming to slide against itself like dark brown snowballs.
The men on the ground did not lift their heads.
The old man walked down the steps so quietly I did not realize until he passed me. He held my knife in his hands, the bronze color old and tainted against the simple crisp colors of day.
He came up to the gorilla and placed the knife on the ground. The gorilla picked it up and swallowed it. There was no sound.
The men lay on the ground, starting sometimes as if to get up or crawl away, but they never completed any of these movements. They were like the grass around them, trembling in the breeze.
The old man walked in one direction and the gorilla walked another. I stood between them, feeling their diminishment of their polarities. I looked at the sidewalk with its many cracks. I looked down at my hands, which were made open and clear by the sun.
After some time, I walked too, and the direction did not matter.