Copyright ©1996, 1997 A.D. Sullivan
Politically Correct Columbus
When I was down at the port one day with twenty drinks from two month's pay I told my friends the world was round and all the things that I had found I told them of natives with gold in their hair Of beaches so clean they gleamed in the air Of coconut trees with fruit like rocks Of islands with mountains and pearls at the top And they in their wisdom took me away to sleep it all off in a pile of hay
Five Hundred Years ago Columbus discovered America. He took a wrong turn at Spain and found himself sitting on a small island somewhat south of New Jersey. He didn't even know where he was--but this single accident has changed the face of the planet in ways uncomprehensible to the somewhat Christian man who believed he'd circled the globe and this was India.
Contemporary assessments of the man paint him as either great hero or villain, refusing to allow for something inbetween. Most progressives have assumed Columbus a typical capitalistic mercenary, coming to claim possession of the New World for his imperial masters.
To some extent this view has merit-- as does the view of him as a self-centered egotist and murderer. Tales say he cut the hands off of indians who did not bring him gold, and crucified them in rows of thirteen to symbolize the Last Supper. These recollections seem harsher than the reality. And his record is at best a mixed one. He did, for instance, bring back six Arawak indians from his first voyage, and 500 on his second. Many of these indians were ill-prepared for a journey over seas, nor conditioned for the cold they encountered, dying in droves as a result. His was the first violent encounter on native Americans in a way which lasted 500 years, a fact cruelly emphasized by statistics showing only 6000 Arawak natives alive in 1533 out of an estimated one million at the time of Columbus' discovery.
Most of the mass murder, however, was not of Columbus' doing, but rather the result of those who followed after him. This is not to say Columbus was any more scrupulous in his dealings with the natives than they were. It was he who first used the old eclipse of the moon trick to frighten Jamaican natives into selling him supplies. It was he who sold three hawk bells worth one penny each for an amulet of gold in Costa Rica. It was he who to soothe the natives in Trinidad played music and danced naked on the deck of his ship. And it was he who quelled hostile natives in Panama by allowing them to watch him get a haircut on deck.
Columbus may not have had a great deal of respect for native intelligence, but there was no question that he recognized them as human beings. On the way home from his second voyage, some of his European crew urged him to use the natives as food. He refused stating clearly that the natives were people, too. His men put into Europe "the color of saffron" as a result.
Nor did Columbus give into the prejudices of the day, appointing a black man as navigator to the Nina, and jew as navigator to the Santa Maria when both blacks and jews were extremely unpopular in Spain. Despite depictions otherwise, Columbus treated his entire crew well, and it is reported they adored him.
Perhaps the 'bad rap' suffered by Columbus comes from his tendency to gamble. He was a genius at dead reckoning, for instance, but not at celestial navigation. He often followed the wrong star, though guessed correctly when he had to. Perhaps his mistake was believing too much in the progress of humanity, without considering just what measure of human kind would follow in his footsteps. But then, isn't that the curse of many other geniuses throughout history from Galileo to Albert Einstein? And does that mean people like Columbus must stop having dreams because of what others might do after the dream comes true?
Who knows? That's one of the problems with discovery.
As if the cops didn't have anything better to do with Atlantic (Sin) City right around the corner from them, They are busy investigating satanic messages again in Ocean City, New Jersey. While grandmothers are losing their social security checks at the crap tables and Young fathers put up their children's future at college for one more chance at Roulette, local police discovered what they have labeled symbols of a satanic nature written on the altar of a church.
Senior police officials said they hoped it was simply a 'bad joke' rather than activities of an organized Cult. Our Lady of Good Counsel church has had its donation box robbed several weeks in a row, and this time was accompanied by the often verse. Small windows were also broken, all of which were said to occur soon after the doors of the church were opened in the morning.
"All nights are dark. I can see through cataracts that create clouds for eyes to waft on. Out there is a city so large another world can come from the sky and exit there. Inside my skin several layers of people are being born coding language into their brains in a way that has never been tried before. I love music, especially the birthing of those new bodies rubbing against bones and pressing the skin enenating an atmosphere aliens can live in. This is a planet of aliens, no one person can live on; you must be fractured to survive. All of my bones are systematically being broken. Before long I will have destroyed every connective element in my personal solar system and will be renewed. What you will see in a new person of a person." What we saw was dead.
June 3, 1980
They ushered into the laundry mat like hillbillies with cowboy hats: mother, father, friend and child, dumping their bags into the pink plastic chairs as if they owned them -- the child wandering to the doors of the washers as father and friend tossed a hard ball back and forth in front of the machines. Mother watched and giggled.
The child, whose left arm was slung in a dirty sling with a cast dented and stained, opened and closed the doors to each washer with his unrestrained hand. The right thumb hung from the hand by a thread of flesh, like a screw clinging to the end of a magnet, wavering, wanting to fall off.
The mother went to the change machine, child screeching in panic, bobbing under her elbow like an abandoned dog, saying: "Mommy! Mommy! Don't leave me."
"Shut up, boy!" the father shouted, pausing between pitches to glare across the room. The child cringed, fell silent, then started back, slamming the washer doors.
It brushed my leg, fur sparking with static electricity in the ark. My hand descended automatically to scratch Xanthe's head, then stopped. The cat was dead two week already, and yet, my probing fingers felt out the shape of its upturned head as it waited for me to let it have my lap. The static rose and tingled over my hand and arm. I glanced down over the side of the chair and there he was, the same orange and white feline figure who had been with me for years, maybe a degree less distinct than I remembered, like an out of focus photograph or a wavering watery reflection. But then, he had always wavered a little, even the first time when I saw him as a kitten, when I had mistakenly believed I could bring him here for the exclusive purpose in ridding the house of mice. The issue, of course, had arisen when I came nose to nose with the pointy eared rodent while settling into bed. The mouse had been searching for food among my pillows and seemed put out when my cumbersome shape sunk into goose down with him.
The traps! I'd forgotten to put out the traps!
Out here on the fringe of rural civilization, one put out the traps in fall or spent the winter flicking gray-furred creatures from every corner of the house. Two years earlier, an army had descended upon the store room, vandalizing everything with their gnawing teeth.
The prospect of another such invasion had me at my neighbor's house early the next evening with the idea of borrowing his cat. A week or two and the feline scent might encourage their gnawing teeth to seek residence elsewhere. But Bob Garley shook head, his thin gray mane like dying meadow grass, bowing to the stiff fall wind. His cat had vanished the previous spring, a morsel, perhaps, for howling wolverines whose packs passed over his southern fields twice yearly. He assured me, however, that a cat could be found.
"The farm down the road has a clutch of them in its barns," he said. "I'm sure the owner wouldn't mind parting with one or two. But I have a urgent meeting to attend to first, and if you wouldn't mind an early supper, I'd be honored if you accompanied me." He said his associate's board was renowned for its quality and though the meal would be punctuated with talk of business, it would be well worth my while. I agreed and offered the service of my carriage which was already fully rigged and its driver well versed in the geography.
We took the east road, following its twisted trail through the swollen hills, the leaves just then beginning their terrible fall from the trees, their brilliant colors blinding even in the twilight. But the gate and the estate which we then approached was already bare. Those few leaves still clinging to the tangled branches wore ashen shades of brown and gray. Twilight rested deeply here, touching us with its chill as we passed in.
Maybe in Spring it might have looked more humane, but I suspected not. The trunks of trees were all of a stony hue, gray all year long, as if carved of the same rock from which the wall was made. It had a desperate air of siege, a fortress struggling against the more gentle hills around it, and everything within the wall had a practical edge without even a flower bed as relief.
"You know this man well?" I asked, finding it difficult to connect Garley's good natured spirit with this place or the man who controlled it. Even the buildings had a heavy air, thick sills outside as if the windows sought more space away from the world without.
"Not well," Garley said, shifting uncomfortably on the couch's leather seat, as the driver pulled up to the curb before the door. "But I have frequent dealings with him. He's a ruthless businessman and he frightens me at times."
I looked out. The building's upper stories leaned over us, casting an even deeper gloom, a pool of shadow engulfing us and the buildings arching doors. I eased out reluctantly with Garley behind me, saddened by the clip-clop sound of hooves on the cobblestones. I didn't particularly want my coach to leave.
Then, a spot of color appeared in the doorway, a rolling little orange flame that bounded down each cold step then stopped just before our feet. It's blue eyes sparkled as it stared up at us, ears bent back in the expression of a hiss. I might have laughed, but the creature seemed terrified of us, staggering back against the lip of the step in its fear and confusion. It mewed at us and for a moment, it seemed more like the squeak of the gnawing rodents on my estate than the cry of a cat.
A moment later the man appeared, face carved from a chunk of stone with an unchanging grim set to his thin-lipped mouth. He seemed gray from head to toe, though his clothing seemed of a fine manufacture. He glared down at the cat.
"So there's that blasted creature," he grumbled and stalked down the stairs, his thick pinching finger reaching for the scuff of the creature's neck. But the cat turned, stared up, then continued its tumble down the step till it hid between my feet, its fur stiff with static and fear.
The man paused, his dense forefinger scraping at his bristled jaw with a slow, thoughtful ease, like a bear contemplating fish through a thick sheet of ice. He hadn't noticed us at first, at least not who we were, and now seemed somewhat embarrassed about leaving the house without his coat.
"Oh, it's you, Garley," he said finally. "I was not aware of your arrival."
"We just this minute got here," Garley said, seemingly as embarrassed as the man, grinding his teeth as he nervously glanced around. But there was nothing to distract us. Everything was gray save for the cat and the rapidly reddening cheeks of the stony man.
"Perhaps we are a little ahead of schedule. We could wait elsewhere if...."
"No need," the man said gruffly. "I'll be with you momentarily, as soon as I rid myself of this minor problem."
He reached again for the cat and the cat climbed onto the top of my shoe, stretching its small paws up my legs, mewing again like a mouse. I bent and lifted the creature, its claws clinging to my pants, forcing me to dislodge them individually. When finally free, it fit neatly into my palm as if designed for that space, looking like a puff of dust someone had set to flame, its round eyes shimmering with my reflection. Yet even then, it had a hazy outline that would not come into focus, as if it or I were in a bowl of water staring out.
"I'll take that," the gray man said, holding out his flat hand, palm upward, the cracks and crevices of a hard life splintered across the surface of the skin as if through stone. "I should have drowned the damned thing when it was born. But I shall soon rectify the matter if you'll give me a moment. Meanwhile, you might as well go inside and make yourself comfortable."
"You intend to murder the cat?" I asked suddenly before Garley could lead me up the stairs and through the doorway. The man, whose fingers had closed around the cat like a cage, turned back partly, eyeing me over his rigid shoulder. "Murder is a harsh word, especially for something so small and worthless as this," he said, hefting the animal the way goldsmiths did in gauging the difference between gold and its imitations. His gaze devoured me, the eyes as cautious and deadly as any animal in the wild, like a wolverine gauging its meat. "But if you ask if I intend to kill the creature, the answer is indeed. It has been making a nuisance around the house, depositing where it may, and it's cheaper by far to be rid of it than to constantly clean my imported rugs."
"If it's simply a matter of being rid of the creature, I'll take it off your hands," I said, staring at the man, unable to drag my gaze away from his.
Garley stirred at my side, whispering at me. "It's hardly old enough to catch mice," he said. "Leave go of it. It's not worth the..."
"I wouldn't put its curse on anyone, let alone someone I know nothing about," the gray man said coldly. "It has been nothing but trouble since the day it was born, and ridding the world of it would be a blessing."
But if there was trouble in the creature's eyes, I saw none of it, as its pained glance worked its way through the bars of the man's fingers, tugging at something in me as if by electric means. I felt that our meeting on the steps had not been chance, that it had come seeking me, knowing that I would arrive at its moment of crisis. Of course, later, I thought that whole idea nonsense, but at the time, I was helpless to it.
"I said I would take the creature and I intend to," I said, Garley drawing a quick breath at my side-- his upper teeth gnawing on his lower.
For a time, no one spoke. Even the cat seemed to hold its breath. Finally, the gray man sighed and looked to Garley.
"You have a fool for a friend, Garley," he said. "But as long as I'm rid of it I could care about what curse the man takes on himself."
He cast the creature at me and spun away on his heal, marching up the stairs and into his abode, with not a word said about me or the cat the rest of the evening.
Nor did Garley say anything on the ride back, though the road seemed less treacherous than it had been coming despite the fall of night. The color of the leaves had vanished behind the veil of dark, and from between the trees, the lights of peasant homes glittered like stars, each bearing some sense of home and hearth. I could feel no sense of doom under that spell.
The cat -- if one could give the name to such an odd shape of fur -- lay in my lap, the way it would countless evenings to come, its tiny purr like an electric motor vibrating through me. It was only when Garley stepped down out of the coach at his own estate that he looked back at me and the cat, shaking his head slowly from side to side.
Later, nestled again in the wooden comfort of my own estate, I let the creature loose upon the floor. While my house had more warmth in its wood and drapes, it was no more soft a world than the one the creature had left. There were no expensive imported rugs thrown about upon which it could lay, just an endless sea of thoroughly scrubbed wood floors occupied with upright and practical furniture. It had been no easy life for me and my world seemed to reflect the struggle I'd had in creating something of value. For many years nothing so soft as that kitten had crossed its threshold, and the cat stared around, its wide blue eyes absorbing the vision – not so shocked as puzzled. It seemed unable to find its own place in the order of things.
"Well?" I said, arms folded across my chest. "Don't you know what a mouse looks like?"
The creature looked up at me, then promptly sat and began slowly to wash itself. My arms fell to my side as I hovered over it, my shadow turning its fur to gray. "I told you to mouse!"
It was the tone of voice that drew my servants. They, believing I had discovered some flaw in their labors, rushed into the room bearing the implements of jobs in which they were still involved, dust cloths and wash rags and a kettle for my tea. They stopped abruptly at the door when they discover me hovering over the cat, their concern turning instantly into barely contained mirth. It drew my rage.
"And just what are you people laughing at?" I roared. "Get back to your labors and leave me to mine!"
One by one they vanished again, like lights winking out in a darkening forest, taking with them any sense of warmth. The room seemed to grow colder without them, and the cat suddenly ceased its bathing and stared up at me again.
It began to mew, its stark little voice carrying through the building like that of a child.
"Silence!" I commanded, but my tone only inspired it to continue and continue it did, till I felt every bit as bitter as the man from whom I had received it. A curse it was, spreading its news through the house, drawing the servants again to the doors on either side. One of the wiser servants rushed in with a bowl of milk and piece of biscuit. The mewing halted. The creature ravaged the food like one of its wilder relations, stopping only when both biscuit and milk were gone.
I sighed and sent the servants away, then slowly made my own way through the house to my study. Here, I lit a lamp and sat in my armchair with a book and a pipe as was my habit. But no sooner had I sat when the creature was in my lap.
"Down," I said and placed it firmly on the floor.
The creature stared up at me wearing the same puzzled expression it had when first put on the hallway floor, only this time it seemed to have located its position in my cosmos but could not obtain it. It leaped again and again I put it down, only to repeat the act several more times before giving in to it.
I let it stay.
And stay it did. It grew old there, curling up in its fashion the same way nightly, or whenever I chose to open my book or fill my pipe. Its purring changed, of course, from the sound of a small electric motor into something more refined, like the steady flow of wind through the trees. I could see the lights shimmering in its eyes like stars. It thinned into something more recognizably feline, and learned to stalk prey, chasing the gnawing teeth from my cupboard like a soldier doing its duty.
My hand fell to it frequently with great affection. Its purr seemed to echo my heart beat, changing its rhythms, altering its hard march into softer seasons. Yet after many years, the creature died, one of the servants finding its cold form lying near the door like a piece of stone, the light gone out of its eyes, the fur around its muzzle gray.
I mourned it as if a bride, wandering from room to room across the bare wooden floors, seeking one small orange shape among the growing balls of dust. Then, as I said, it brushed my leg. The touch was electric and my fingers tingled with shock of it. It was, of course, only the product of an old man's yearning -- yet one which leaped onto my lap with the weight of a full-sized cat.
"Xanthe?" I muttered.
It did not mew. As a grown cat it become too dignified for such petty utterances. It spoke rarely and rarely out of joy. Yet the joy leaped back into my old heart, as if I had managed to escape death, too. The servants, of course, were another matter. When they saw me reading, their eyebrows rose over my inability to give up the habit of stroking the air where the cat had been. But they did not feel the fur the way I felt it, the static weaving through my fingers with every stroke. To them, I was a silly old man finally slipping over the edge into senility, whose hard-earned fortune could not buy back his wits. But when after so many years, I finally ordered a substantial rug fitted around the foot of my chair, their expression grew grim. The fools! I was not deaf to their whispering, like mice gnawing over the details of my life and habits, question whether or not someone should call in the examiner and have my sanity determined.
Yet secretly, I enjoyed their annoyance, both me and the cat becoming some out-of-focus image to which they could pin no blame. We were both invisible to them, though for different reasons, and I purred along with the creature as it sat heavily in my lap.
Nor did it wander far on the few occasions when it descended to the floor where it seemed to stalk something in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps his whole world now consisted me, like a grove of trees whose leaves have not yet turned to ashen. Yet I suspected some other purpose behind his return, some unfinished business which kept him trapped here on this side of the great divide. It went on for weeks, sleeping in my lap for a time, then off onto the floor, stirring madly like a creature caught in a cage, patrolling the boundaries of it. I thought we would both go mad.
Then, winter came and so did a pounding on the door. Visitors? The idea startled the servants into a sudden rush. I saw few guests these days and they had grown unaccustomed to the ritual of receiving them. But after several minutes of hurried activity, one came to me and said Garley had come -- and with him another gray gentleman about whom my servants seemed ill-at-ease.
I came down to the hall myself and discovered Garley's companion was none other than the man from whom I had procured the cat. He had aged little except for the hair, his rigid face had always been gray and remained so. But there was a coldness around him as if winter had followed him in. His grim smile did little to lift the weight of it.
"Well, well," the man said gruffly. "I was against Garley's suggestion that we stop here. But seeing you, I'm glad we came. It feels like the meeting of old friends after so many years."
If he honestly felt that way, I do not know. I didn't. Yet I had not forgotten entirely the role of host and invited them both to supper, ordering my servants to lay out the best from our larder since my normal fare was sparse and conservative. Out came the linen, china and silverware. Flames lighted the candles on the living room table. None of these had been used in years, and walking among them again seemed strange. Everything seemed out of focus. I was afraid to reach out and touch anything for fear of my hand passing through.
Garley had aged badly, his shoulders bent and his expression gnawed by the pain of various ailments. His eyes groaned even though no complaint escaped his mouth. He sat uneasily at the table between me and his business associate, glancing around the room.
The disuse showed with the dust, a thin film over everything like a soft gray shroud. Dinner came and I grew concerned over Xanthe who stayed even closer than usual, its fur crackling with sharp static at each accidental contact. It avoided any attempt at affection from me.
My guests grew easier in their talk as it moved on small talk to more familiar issues like the economy. Garley said the years had subtracted from his fortunes. Much of what he'd formerly owned had been sold. His house alone remained to him, a close space in which he paced when he was well enough. This amused the other man who said his fortunes had grown. He owned much of what Garley had lost and much of what formerly had belonged to others. And I shuddered, picturing the valley long ago through which Garley and I had ridden, the gentle trees with their changing leaves, the glittering forest at night. I saw a gray shape slipping over the walls of the man's estate like a heavy fog, gnawing at the land, leaving in its wake a barren landscape.
Finally, the man sat back, gray cigar smoke billowing from his gray face like smoke rising from a jutting chunk of stone. A rumble resembling a laugh escaped his lips.
"My, my," he mumbled. "I was forgetting the circumstances that surrounded our first meeting."
I felt Xanthe stir at my side.
"Circumstances?" I asked.
"The beast you got from me? What has become of it?"
All grew quiet. Even the servants paused, their fingers frozen on dishes and silverware, staring across the room at me, alarmed at what I might say.
"I'm afraid the creature is dead," I said, feeling the room relax with one long silent sigh -- all the room except for the space nearest me which had suddenly become vacant. The animal – or whatever it was these days -- had slipped away from my side and I felt a panic over it, as if something in the man's manner had chased it away, making it impossible for it to return, the man leaving his gray scent here the way a cat might to ward off mice.
"Dead?" the man said, thick brows descending like two iron-colored clouds. "Then you took my advice after all and did away with the beast?"
"I did not!" I said indignantly. "It died of old age."
The man's head nodded thoughtfully in a haze of more escaping smoke. "Yes, I suppose it has been long enough," he said. "Yet it is good that you are no longer cursed with it. Fortune doesn't seem to have treated you any better than Garley."
"On the contrary," I said. "I am quite comfortable."
But his talk disturbed me. I felt something hanging over him that his words seemed to loosen, like a stone propped up with pebbles.
Still the talk grew gentle again and the man seemed much more at ease after the news of the cat's demise. He smiled more often, though it was the cruel smile of cracking stone. I glanced often around the room for some sign of disaster. I saw only reflections of myself in the silver service, a tiny image as distorted as Garley's.
And it was only a small disaster when it came. I was bidding my guests goodnight in the front hall when the man turned to receive his hat and cloak. His heavy boot squished into something soft. He stared down at his square toe and the brown mud-like substance clinging to it, then slowly his gaze rose, his gray eyes gnawing the air before him, seeking me as it's subject.
"I thought you said the creature was dead?" he said, as my servants scrambled to find rags and water with which to wipe his boot.
"It is," I said, the chill of the man lifting from me like a morning mist to rising sunlight. I felt warmth creep back into my limbs and an odd thrill in the back of my head akin to satisfied revenge.
'Then you have another!'
'I have none.'
"Then how did this...." he waved his gloved hand at his boot, and then movement ceased. Only his eyes moved, the gray color vanishing as the pupils quickly dilated. Something flashed through the black interior. Fear, perhaps, or at least uncertainty, gnawing at the cracking foundations of his thoughts. He blinked and turned his gaze aside.
"Come, Garley," he snorted, shaking the servants from his feet like so many clinging mice. They scattered, wiping the trail he left in his retreat towards the door. Garley scrambled after the man, casting dark accusing glances at me.
Later, in my chair, I chuckled over the puzzled servants who in their effort to clean the stain from the hallway floor, stared at it, contemplating its sudden appearance. But I had already passed beyond them, the cat suddenly growing clearer as their world took on the indistinction. They were the ghosts now, floating forever in a gray haze, as Xanthe and I sat with book and pipe as we always had, passing through eternity together.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307