Little Government Gets Us Nowhere
By Rhonda Eikamp
Our leaders have climbed into the trees and are throwing fruit at us. Their small bodies gleam pink and black and dust through the leaves, a joyous sight. Their game is ruleless, a hit or a miss on one of us equal cause for whoops of pleasure. A father beside me clutches his bloodied head and laughs. We all laugh. My wife collects the thrown fruit — bitter yet edible, we’ve discovered — in a bag she has fashioned from leaves, but a leader, a female, descending, catches her at it and kicks the bag away. Fruit rolls across the ground.
“They taste bad,” the leader says, pouting up at her. “We’re not gonna eat those.”
A new law. There are so many. As parents we must obey, learning to unlearn, remembering to forget. I would write the laws down, but our leaders have taught us how not to write. They teach us how not to do many things, in these woods of cloying rot and autumn slick, as we follow them without question. I have no paper, no charcoal. I could write in my blood, on bark, but it would hurt and pain is sin and now our leaders are moving again, away from the denuded orchard, through fallow fields that have drunk the rain, and we follow, laughing hard.
Our leaders love the fields. No law against fields. They waltz in the wet ditches. Another game discovered, splashing. Dunking one another as we watch, they come up baptized, cleansed of the sin of thinking about tomorrow, washed in the blood and the mud of the fun. They call to us to join them, our civic duty, and we fall in.
We do what they do. This is the law, the pleasure. I’ve accepted this. The water is icy. We lift squelching mud onto each other’s heads from behind, in surprise packages, never thinking about the dusk, the nightly cold that wants our wetness, already approaching, how it will bite. My wife is crying as she laughs, quietly, from the cold. Thinner than the other parents, breasts no longer full as they were in the days (how do I remember?) before we followed. She splashes water on me and draws close, her body still her body, a scent shadow behind the mud, an imprint of love’s oldness. She says, “Sam, I don’t know where I am anymore.” I want to hold her, carry her, fold her into me, but I have to laugh.
A father with red hair and a paunch has been speaking to us as we play. Rote, a chant. He is our preacher, his daughter one of the many leaders. We listen. “Parents want to do the right thing, but how shall they learn, I say.” His mud is lifted in meaty hands like a chalice, he is fierce in devotion. “Their children can only stand aside and let them try, guide them when they fail.”
“We needed the fruit,” my wife mutters.
“Parents never understand how the world works. Their children must teach them. It is ordained.” The preacher has a way of bouncing his head, nodding over us all as he speaks, blessing each with his bearded chin.
“There’s nothing to eat.”
“They are dependents, these parents, dependent upon the things they have, their rules and worries and cleanness. Their children must teach them to be free, to think not of tomorrow. Free of it all. Only then will you control it.” He ladles water onto my wife with both hands. “Only then will you be truly grown.”
Leaders gather round us, their little bodies mud-caked, drawn by their own excitement and ours. They shriek “Down, down!” and bear my wife down, until she splutters in the shallow ditch and laughs.
This is the life, of dust and pink and black. This is the life that smells of apples and breast milk, of festival, while we eat nothing and think not of tomorrow, as the forest thickens and thins around us and the prairie curdles and we go with our leaders who are taking us nowhere. We are wrapped and warped by their joy, into shapes we never imagined before. We forget before. It was the wrong shape.
I am so happy.
In the evening a caucus is held. I’m elected to represent us. I seek out a leader, the beautiful one who frowns sometimes, and I crouch before him and show him the fruit a few of us hid in their palms and hair. I beg for clemency. He takes the bulbs from me in his little hands and smashes them on the ground.
“Eat what tastes good,” he decrees.
“But we’re hungry.” He knows what’s best and it has made me bow my head. This anger is wrong, a product of my stomach eating itself. When I look back up I see he’s forgiven me, official pardon, and I feel only love, a wish to obey, innate, ordained. He sees it. He loves me too, his beautiful face softening, and that’s all that matters. He touches my nose, thrusts his mouth in a whispery way that says here comes a secret.
“We’re going to somebody who can tell us what to do.”
It’s a shock like the ice water, this revelation, that they might need guidance too, that there could be a government behind our little government.
He scoops up strands of green and pink from the ruined fruit, offering to feed it to me. A clear felony. So much love that I gasp, trembling, and his hand misses my mouth. Smears my cheek.
A new game.
His eyes light up.
He smears cartoons on my face and chest and I paint his nose until we’re laughing so hard we can’t stand. I take care not to get any in my mouth. Other members of government spy our fun and rush to join.
My wife is losing her hair in bony handfuls. She’ll leave behind organs next and then limbs. We’ve seen it in other parents. She’ll be a torso, no longer able to keep up, hanging from a beech, part and parcel of a willow, fauna gone to flora. She’ll watch us pass below skipping and giggling and she’ll close her eyes.
My leaders draw clowns on me, veins of green mixed now with soil as the broken fruit is ground into the dirt. They run away when there’s no color left, but the beautiful one stays close, a little solemn. His hair is like mine. Memories shoot into my mouth, bitter.
“We had houses,” I say.
“It was bad for you to stay there. You were lost.”
A word, so forgotten it breaks my tongue: “Responsibilities.” It takes seconds to say. No word should be that long. Another memory comes, more bitter than the first. “You were my son.”
He lifts a finger as if to give a speech but it’s only to illustrate me with dirt. Humus and worms of green-pink pulp to close my eyelids, don’t look, and then he runs away happy into the gloom, leaping with the others, and I’m alone.
They move for the nerve and meat warmth, our leaders, never wanting to sleep, but when they do they drop suddenly, in heaps together, with moist snores. We do what they do, careful to tangle our limbs carelessly, cocks and hips crushed, aroused yes, but it’s a lesson in selectivity over mass, because I want only my wife. The two of us wriggle until we clutch each other and I slide in. It stops some hunger. Somewhere in our snake-knot the preacher is murmuring. I whisper to her what the beautiful one revealed in secret, that we’re going somewhere, while I kiss her skeleton, and it restores her faith in government.
“They’ll have coats there,” she murmurs before she sleeps.
When I awake in the pewter dawn the leaders are playing the new game. Pink and lime explosions against zigzagging bodies. Tag without free zones. Fruit is everywhere. They must have sent a committee back for more. As I lie watching, their joy lifts them, a few floating as high as the pale oaks. I didn’t know they could do this. Brown and pink and fruit-colored cherubs, arms flung wide. I’m dazed. The beautiful one is there, floating so high his gaze downward takes in the world, and lying there I recall a moment when he was still my son. When we held hands and walked beneath trees on a cracked sidewalk, in a warmer time. He let go of my hand to chase the orange ball, running ahead into the street, but it was I who retreated from him, I ran backward away from him, willful as I was, and the terrible thing happened, he had a responsibility to take care of me, why didn’t he make me hold onto his hand? The truck came out of nowhere. The nowhere. It had waited in. He flew then and it was like this floating, this cherubism among trees. He floated through the air and it took so long and he never came down.
It’s a cave. The cave is the nowhere, high in the side of a broken hill. We slip on the scree, urgent as we haven’t been before, scrabbling in a kind of destination frenzy. I think the other parents know. Inside, the warmth is a grog made with too much wine. The festival mood is silenced, reverent. The cave behind us is filling up fast with parents trying to push past, how did we get to be so many? I find my wife’s hand and keep her close. Ahead something wails. In front of us our leaders part, skittering right and left to surround the noise. Don’t look. This is the government our little government looks to. The government they look to is an infant. A newborn, nestled on the rock floor, scrunched face cheese-slick with vernix, protesting the legislation of life with filibuster lungs, until it senses us all and grows quiet. It goes to sleep. Our leaders do what it does. Dust and brown and white — all lie down to sleep. Nothing more to want here, all laws collapsed into one. The beautiful one, no longer floating, wedges down among the bodies, smiling up at me before he closes his eyes, and the rock floor beneath his body is like a street. Another memory surges. I can’t unlearn this one. Somewhere a parent is speaking.
“There were clothes and doors and eyes…”
In the back wall of the cave a crevice opens. Dark pours from it, growing larger, the crevice itself expanding, igneous rock like soft lips parting to swallow us. In a hot mass parents press to get closer. The preacher passes me, still chanting his itemization of all we left behind.
“…there were jewels and screens…”
There’s an itch in my elbows, hot wine in my mouth. I need to squeeze into that dark, all the streets end there, but my wife’s hand tugs me back.
“Sam, I can’t…” When I turn, in that dark made light, I can see her eyes. They’re alive with the real world. “I can’t do it.”
“…we worked, we fucked, we bathed…”
“It’s only another government,” I tell her. “The last one.” Bodies of parents shove us, weight on the connecting rope of our arms, dividing us. She’s retreating from me, or I from her.
“I’m here, Sam!” She knows where she is. “Don’t leave me!”
I could still follow her out, to the long words and hard objects. The warmth of her hand burns and I let go. I let go.
“…we will be truly grown…”
Bodies move me toward the crevice. It’s expanded, part of the cave now. I lie down with the rest, all of these parents who let go of their children’s hands and got lost. The floor is soft, throbbing, mapped with capillaries. We look to the dark. We see a better government coming, teaching us how not to be.