"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Aug 19, 2011

Pilgrim's Regress...Or Towards a Barbarous Shore

A galley, used for both trade and war.

And they are the same, war and trade, though often settled differently.

Rough seas, and a storm forebode by the flight of birds and the shapes of clouds to come. Slaves, chained to their oars. Rowing, and rowing some more. A merchant man, on deck - a deck he owns, because he owns the boat; ,we hear also the voices of paying passengers, their guard, and a troop on transport to a foreign war. The merchant man drinks wine with his captain, and the soldiers' headman, joined also by the merchant man's brother, a learned doctor of the law, tenured at some ancient peninsular university. Over wine, and chess and a sea roughened table, they speak of war, and profits, and of fortunes measured by rarer coin. The general tells his tales, predictable in their blood and pathos. The captain whispers of the fickle seas, and the murmuring of the slaves below. He crosses himself, but prays silently to fortuna and the gods of the oceans below.

His cabin boy rushes to fill their cups.

The general pauses, as the passengers join them. A physician, a banking house factor, a slaver and a trader in spice. The slaver fills his own cup, smiling. He has a fine catch, in the hold below, captive rebels purchased cheap from a shattered republic. He'll have to break them. He'll start with hunger. They're packed in tight, secure in chains, aft of the trader's spices. He has already contracted a deal with the trader. His prisoners, to carry the wares. At cheaper rates than the dock agent could ever offer.

The future is bright. Storm clouds are his sunshine.

But, the slaves on the oars have different designs. They have plans, too. Unlike many slaves on a host's host of different galleys, they've got it together. It's been a long voyage, this one. They've had time. Time to shape themselves, to harden. They've hoarded tools, and food, made mental maps of the guards' schedules, the merchant's habits, the passengers' private quarrels, the General's blinding hauteur, the Captain's dependence on the merchant's commands.

And they know a humble truth: every tool is a weapon. Even if only by making it go missing.

It should come as little shock that they have a sense of timing. Everything in their narrowed world is a matter of tempo. The drum beat sounding along the boards, through their chains, commanding their labor. The susurrus of the waves. The rhythm of oars slapping the heartless ocean in tempered unison. The discipline, the punishment.

Their long night is coming.

The skies, and the storm, darken on their last chained day. Rolling ocean gives way to the tormented waves of swell upon swell. They snap their oars, breaking them so the ocean's rage cannot kick them back against bodies chained to rows and benches. The galley pivots on a crest, cast adrift by slaves in rebellion.

Above, the captain knows that below decks, things have gone awry. He's peering over the edge, and he believes what he sees, back lit briefly by flashes of lightning. The oars are gone. Broken bits stick out, here and there. The slaves are no longer rowing. The merchant grabs for him, as a wave breaks over the planking. The captain braces his employer against wind, and water. He calls out to his guard and they close ranks around them as they take shelter in his cabin.

Already gathered there, hunching over a dimming lantern flame, he finds the general and the merchant's paying passengers. The doctor of law is visibly sickened.

The ship crashes downward, into the trough of a wave. It goes on like this for half of a forever.

The long night passes with the storm; daybreak brings a sea change.

Below, the galley slaves have freed the slaver's foreign prisoners, who ready to riot and rage. They've smashed open the stores of spice, and wine, and broken into the ship's larder. Rum cups travel from hand to hand, as does sugar, and tobacco. Someone strums a stringed instrument. Others take up a stomping dance.

A voice calls down from above, demanding terms and the release of prisoners.

Wiser heads prevailed, the dark night prior, and the slaves do have themselves some prisoners. The task master, a factor, a servant, an indentured laborer. The task master is a bit worse for wear. No one below seems to mind his state of bodily disrepair.

No one answers.

The doctor of law stands up again. It is unlikely the slaves will answer him. He is disturbed, and his heart is burdened. The natural order of things has been upset. The below refuses the mastery of the above. And it is that mastery which gives the world order, and harmony, and the form of a machine which improves the caliber of men. When the merchant finally agrees to let the general and his soldiers settle this trouble, he will write a missive to the appropriate Secretariat, praising his resolution of the matter. But, he will also lament the needless loss of life, and the necessary brutality which exists outside beloved law, the better to restore it. He returns to the cabin, bearing news of the the silence from decks below. He adds his voice to a debate which has raged more strongly with each hour that passes; the seas and skies may have becalmed themselves, but the betters above cannot agree about what to do with their upstart inferiors below. He argues with conviction: "For order to prevail, law must be ignored so that later it can be strengthened."

The captain disputes the general. "Who will row the oars, and get us safe to port or shore?" he wonders. "We cannot break the rebels, below. Not now, not yet. We must settle this, surely. But we need them chained back up again. Punished, yes, yes. But, worse for them when we reach our port of call."

The trader lends his support to the general, as does the slaver. Their stocks and profits can only diminish the longer this stand off is not brought to its inevitable ending.

The physician, alone, takes up the captain's standard. He argues as convincingly as the lawyer, but he knows his position weakens the longer the vessel drifts towards an outcome no one yet really wants to ponder. "We must," he mulls, "refuse the temptation to add injury to degradation. The slaves have rebelled because their conditions are terrible." The ship must reach its harbor, and then set out again, repaired and doubly commissioned towards new ports, and new horizons, increasing always its objects and its ends. He concedes this, willingly. But, has he not also bought passage on this ship? Doesn't his fare too pay towards their common destination? Hear him, then: "Why not," he wonders, "promise them an improvement? A carrot to sweeten the sting of the stick..."

He is interrupted by a knock on the door. A soldier opens it, shepherding in the indentured man.

"The task master is dead. He died from wounds, early this morning," he says. "The galley slaves have released the slaver's prisoners. They have made a riot of below, stealing what is not theirs. I have been let go to give you their demands. You must submit until the voyage has ended. You will row the remaining oars. When they reach their goal, they will leave you to your own, all but the merchant and this slaver. You two, they will take with them. The rest they will leave with a warning. 'It does not end with this'..."

He pauses, to gulp breath. His heart sobs. He was so close to earning his final stake, and buying out of his indenture. Dreams of a free man's largesse fade to webs and cobbing, and the desert wind of his impoverished future blows even those strands away. He withers. He still believes he will some day be a rich man, but the day will only arrive come Judgment and his passage to God's great heaven.

His betters do not ask his opinion, but he is too angry to withhold it.

He hopes, with faith and fervor, that the galley slaves and the filthy foreign slaves below get what is coming to them. If only they had not seized the master's larder. If only they had refused the savage urge to take what was not theirs. They could have negotiated. Spoken their grievances. Oh, they would have been punished, and rightly. But, with patience and obedience, they could have earned their master's respect. With cunning and fidelity to darkness, they have plotted evil instead. He has overheard their secret intentions. This life is a pilgrimage, but they don't understand that. It's a progress towards improvement. They are ignorant, preferring regress. They will fix oars and sail for a barbarous shore which civilized men everywhere, and anywhere, would do well to avoid, and do better to conquer.

The physician knows his case is lost, but he clings to it with desperation. The slaver grins and the general swaggers. The doctor nods, his head heavy with its cultivated gravity.

The merchant listens in. He gives no hint of his intentions.

But we know. We know - don't we? - how this will end...


Jack Crow said...

Well fuck. That's what I get for not being all that enamored of CS Lewis, even as a young zealot.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that Jack. You can't air grievances and expect change if the conversation is between slave and master. Reciprocal exchange only functions without hierarchy, once you have established positions of power and inferiority, there can be no equal exchange, only exploitation. I think some of us modern slaves are starting to learn this. The question is will the realization come before the boat burns and sinks back below the waves.

Jack Crow said...

dr. g,

My notes for this included a threat from the rebel slaves (voiced to the physician) to burn the ship and consequently sink it, if the masters refused to row; or if they sent the soldier's down below.

For slaves with no recourse to the barbarous shore, it might be a Hobson's choice to sink the ship.

I cut it out. Not sure why. It just didn't seem to fit.

And thank you.

Anonymous said...

Stop hatin' Christers. Oxy will love you.

Jack Crow said...


It's not a charge worth answering. Obsessions are better left to burn out on their own.