On thinking of the attacks in Paris
By L. Stewart Marsden
The dream endured throughout the night, even though he awoke several times in a sweat, his bedclothes twisted about his legs and ankles. He had but a moment to realize it was not real before he plunged back into the chaos as his head hit the pillow again.
He stood before a vast, open desert. Nothing grew on the plain but dirt and the occasional stone or outcropping of rock. In the long distance a bluish outline of a mountain range undulated. The sky was yellow-hot and cloudless. There were no birds aloft.
Between him and the far mountains, which seemed to be his goal, the dirt ground was pocked with small holes. Thousands — millions of holes. As he stepped towards the mountains, the head of a snake would suddenly pop out of a hole near his foot, which was bare of shoes. The snake would unhinge its jaw, as though to swallow him up, even though his foot was several times larger than the maw of the reptile. Its fangs protruded, ready to sink into his skin and inject a deadly venom.
He carried only a stick, and swung it low toward the head of each snake. The stick transformed into a machete at the snake’s head, and the beast was decapitated. Its body withdrew back into the hole and the severed head dug into the soil like a mollusk or crab. As quickly as each snake attacked, he dispatched it and it disappeared into the earth.
Behind him, he left a wake of sand splotched with blood.
Why are there no trees?
Above the scalding sand before him shimmered mirages of large lakes of water — a promise of respite from the heat and his sere throat. As he approached, each lake vanished, only to reappear some distance away, teasing him.
He continued to step and swing his machete, lopping his way towards the mountains with no perceptible progress.
He finally came upon the dried white bones of an animal. He could not tell its species nor kind. The vacuous orbital holes in its skull were like vacant eyes, and its death grin mocked as he passed. A dry wind whistled through its gaped teeth.
You will never reach them. It is useless. Why don’t you turn around and go back?
“There is nothing to go back to,” he heard himself say, and watched himself from a distance.
Then turn aside. Surely going on will result badly for you.
“There is no turning aside.”
Ah, yes. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.
“Something like that.”
The snakes will eventually prevail against you, and you will end up like me — bones in the desert.
“The snakes are slow and small. They die easily.”
But there are many of them. As you cut off their heads, they burrow and re-seed into new snakes. They do not stay dead. And their number grows.
“Possibly true. But in the mountains there is water. Enough water to flood this entire plain. Enough to flood out every den of snakes and drown them all.”
You believe that?
“What other choice is there?”
You are a fool! Give up. Give in. Lie down and die.
“It’s not an option I will ever choose.”
Three more times he awoke, and on the last time staggered into his bathroom for a drink. He leaned over the sink and turned the cold water spigot. It soothed the dryness of his mouth and throat. He guessed he had been sleeping with his mouth open.
He crawled back into his bed, the area damp with his sweat. He closed his eyes and was back into his dream.
Behind him stretched the desert. Before him, scrub bushes and dried grasses and weeds appeared. He had managed to reach a gradual incline, and saw a pathway twisting up and away out of view.
The snakes still attacked, but with less frequency. There were fewer holes, but he still determined to be on the alert.
The first part of the climb was easy. The sand cooled, and ravaged his bare feet much less than before. He pulled some grasses out of the soil and fashioned a simple hat, weaving and twisting the dry material. The hat afforded him some relief from the hot sun, which was perpetually at its highest point in the sky.
As the pathway rose from the desert plain, the temperature also cooled noticeably, and his hope of finding some source of water grew stronger.
Rounding a bend on the pathway, he saw a shaded area sheltered completely from the sun. Sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, a bit hunched over, was an old man clad in light linen. His tanned and leather skin was in stark contrast with his clothing. His hair was bleached white, and his eyes sunken deep into his face. He, too, had a hat — made of straw and more finely fashioned than the one of the dreamer. He appeared not to notice the dreamer, and remained undisturbed.
The dreamer approached and reached out his hand to touch the old man’s shoulder, which startled the man from his sleep.
“Oh! There you are!” said the old man.
“You were expecting me?”
“Eventually. Unless, of course, the snakes got you. Which I see they did not.”
“You must rest a bit with me. And then we will continue.”
“To the mountain, of course. You were headed there, yes?”
“Yes. To find water and release the flood to kill the snakes.”
“Killing the snakes is no longer the goal.”
“What? Of course it is!”
The old man smiled and looked deeply into the dreamers eyes.
“You have much to learn. Let me show you something.”
The old man slowly pulled himself up from the log, and walked toward and past the dreamer back toward the desert.
“You’re going back?”
“No. Come look.”
The dreamer stepped up to the old man’s side and looked out over the plain he had crossed. It was no longer a desert, but filled with vibrant vegetation and animals, rivers and lakes, as far as the eye could see. He was amazed.
“I don’t understand.”
“If you look carefully, you will see the snakes.”
The dreamer looked. In the waters and on the ground he could see snakes of all kinds winding along.
“Are they not dangerous?”
“At one time they were not.”
“All you see — all of the wonderful creations — were destroyed.”
“Not how, but who?”
“Ah, were it but as simple. No. Not the snakes.”
“The ones with the power. It has been so since the beginning of time.”
“What power? Who?”
“The biggest, at first. Then the strongest. Then the smartest. Throughout all time it has been so. Power overcomes the weak. The trusting. The naïve. Power leverages its way, has its way, and ensures its way will rule.”
“Is that bad?”
“Not for those in power. But for those taken advantage of and oppressed? It is intolerable. It is what changes the weak at some point.”
“The weak tire are of the oppression. The weak understand in order to survive, they must defeat the powerful by adopting the tactics of their enemy.”
“If you are oppressed, or come from those who were oppressed, do the oppressors not become the enemy in your mind?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because you have not been oppressed.”
“But I have never oppressed anyone …”
“Ah! I suppose not. But having gained from the oppression of your ancestors, do you not still value those gains?”
“I don’t have anything I haven’t worked for. I haven’t oppressed anyone for what I have.”
“Have you not? Is not advantage gained from past oppression?”
“I don’t know. What advantages do I have? And how have those been gained from past oppression?”
“Status. Education. What I shall call ease of movement within your society. Are these not advantages? Have they not been attained at the suppression of others?”
“I don’t know! Why is this important at all? The fit survive!”
“A maxim of incredible conceit! In uttering it, those who do not survive are thus unfit. Do only the unfit suffer unjust ends? Are their prayers no less noble and honest?”
The dreamer stood and shook his head. This was stunning to him.
“Are you telling me we have brought this devastation upon ourselves?”
“Whom do you speak for? The oppressors or the oppressed?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Ha! Obviously you’ve never been oppressed! Still, the question is valid. Mark those who have risen in power and have held their power over the heads of others. The Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. All of the conquerors throughout time have oppressed others and fallen. So in one sense, the oppressors have brought it on themselves by eventually falling. In the subsequent sense, the oppressed have earned their just rewards.”
“What’s the point?”
“Exactly! You tip-toe through the desert, snakes viping at your every step. They are the enemy to you. They are to be exterminated. Yet at one point, they were the oppressed. You and yours marched into their land, their culture, their lives to take from them what which they could not develop themselves at the time. Oil, gems, minerals and other resources. Out of their ground and under their mountains. All the while giving them pittance for their wealth.
“And as their governments and countries and people came into their own, they suddenly realized how they had been used deceitfully.
“And then you are surprised at their reaction? You are amazed they do not receive you with the same open-arms of decades ago?”
“But it wasn’t me! I didn’t do anything!”
“True. You didn’t own slaves. You didn’t rob the American Indian of his land and his heritage. You didn’t suck out the vitality from country after country. You are, in a word, innocent.”
“Nonetheless, you occupy the end results of those atrocities. You have the advantage of station and class in life. You are on the inside looking out.”
The dreamer awoke and sat up in his bed. It took him a few minutes to realize where he was. It was still well before sunrise, and looking at his watch he realized only a short spell of time had elapsed.
He was wary of going back to sleep. He did not want to return to his dream.
The old man was surprisingly agile and quick, and made his way up the inclining path to the summit of the mountain. The dreamer had difficulty keeping up, though many years younger than his guide. There was little talk and no rest along the ascent. The dreamer suppressed the urge to ask his guide to slow down, as he did not want to appear weak. “Are we there yet” was an entirely inappropriate question to ask.
Toward the end of the day the two crested the top of the mountain. The sun, which had held its post at the noontide position for the longest time, finally relented, and began to sink slowly in the western sky. The aura created by sun and clouds and late-day colors was nearly too incredible to grasp, and both sat beside a monumental stone that topped the mountain. Before them lay an incredible sight: the world in all of its glory, going forever.
“What do you see?” the old man asked the dreamer.
“It is difficult to put into words,” he replied.
“There are no words to describe this. It is beyond comprehension. And please remember, that a millennia ago, it was a hundred times more spectacular. We — you and I — are complicit in its erosion and destruction.”
“We accepted the status quo. We turned our heads when we should have raised our voices. We allowed the evil to seep into our flesh and into our blood.”
“The evil of the power. That we need to have it. That we need to wield it. That we need to suppress the weak and the lowly. King of the mountain. Conquer at all cost. Demand our way and our agenda.”
“So this glory is at jeopardy, then?”
“No. Not entirely. But its fullness is. We get but a dim view of its fullness. We diminish its full potential. And this is not only in Nature, but in our fellow mankind. Remember the weak?”
“If I am partially to blame, then what can I do to turn things about?”
“What did you say?”
The dreamer repeated his question.
“Ah! That is at least a beginning. Let me ask you — was the ascent to the mountain top an easy thing?”
“But, was it worth it?”
“I would never have beheld this glory had I not attempted the climb.”
A shaft of light awoke him. It splattered on the bedroom wall and ricocheted to his closed eyes, which he opened reluctantly. The dreamer did not want to leave his dream. He sat up in bed and everything he had dreamed during the night flooded back into his memory, unlike any dream before. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he breathed in deeply, and prepared for a new day.
Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 14 November, 2015