If we take our seats now, I think I'll begin . . .
Thanks for coming. I'll be as brief as possible.
As most of you can imagine, throughout the campaign I received many orders from my commanders, and I did my best to carry them out. They all seemed straight forward, with the dangers and risks normally associated with war and slaying. The orders came from the generals in charge, warriors of tested valor and authority, some of whom are sitting here in the front row, alongside other patricians of our society.
But since we gather here today for reflection and candor, and with the promise of immunity, I feel it necessary to speak about the trials and temptations that escaped public notice, such as the near demise of our very way of life. The battle had turned against us, confounding all predictions. Even our generals were startled, and they ran off to manage the war from a distance. And before we knew it, defeat hovered over our heads; we all saw and pointed. The men were exhausted beyond compare; they lost the will to fight, some the will to live. Scores were injured, with their wounds poorly dressed with pathetic sale fliers taped to their gashed skins. The battle had dragged on way past the promises we had heard paged overhead. Many perished. Rules were broken. And no one really remembered why we were warring in the first place.
We were pinned downed, many of us pressed against the wall feeling the cold of the winter outside. I was hunkered behind some boxes near the end caps, trying to spy, when I was handed a crumpled up piece of paper with the final order. I feel no embarrassment in telling you that it nearly suffocated me. I actually felt my throat constrict and face flush. The time had come to either surrender dignity or surrender life. Victory was not part of the discourse, unless you were absolutely insane. I don't say this lightly. We had crazies among us who swore they would soon stroll by the dairy case, as the young lovers used to do during times of peace. The more desperate things became the more they spoke about it. And some actually tried the stroll, but they never made it back. Their parents are with us here today, and I'm very sorry for your loss.
The order given to me was specific: announce only that we lost the war. Strangely, there was no mention of our gilded cause, which had become as valued as an expired coupon--some halo of vague phrases that once inspired us to aim our base instincts at the other. Sentience, souls, mothers: our enemies had none of these. We were assured of this. And we weren't allowed to study the matter. They were authors of disorder, workers of corruption, makers of idols, and shoplifters--language that soften the art of harming.
So I stood up, stiff, cut, and bruised. I thought of the selection of words available to me, words seaworthy enough to cross the straits between the obvious and the spoken. At the same time I needed to look out for the next barrage from aisle nineteen, just in case the enemies decided to attack again. With nothing to say, still I opened my mouth, which always helped me before. But this time, something very peculiar happened. The ether streams ran out, ladies and gentlemen, and the fictive dream broke. A revolution fomented inside of me, as half-dead warriors turned their wizened faces toward me, waiting for their leader to say something about the next maneuver in our battle, as if the mirthless assumptions we devoted ourselves to were still in effect. How does one speak when invisible firmaments are collapsing all around him, when the paradigms and structures that once made our deeds seem so righteous implode? I needed to be swift, to steel myself before I myself ran off like a madman to the diary case. So I recalled a friend who fell dead at my feet the day the sale signs went up. His eyes wouldn't remain shut, no matter how many times I pressed down on them. He kept looking up at me, as if he had something to say after passing through some barrier, after his matriculation in the college of death. I turned the body away from me, and when I stood up, everything had become a matter of revenge, the reason for my birth and why I stepped on the ribbed mat that opened the doors like magic. The revolt inside of me was quashed, but only for a while.
Here was the situation: the enemies had just overrun the utensil aisle. They were well armed, while our arsenal was down to 48-ounce cans of puree. The condiment bottles were spent, with the sorties of glass having no apparent effect. It was a set back, of course, but minor compared to the calamity in the detergent aisle, two days before, when the battle started to turn against us. By our own hands, all the bleach had been spilt for the purpose of choking to death the devils of aisle four. Instead, we heard the howls of our own saintly men who foolishly thought they had the ultimate weapon that nothing could repel. Not a whiff was left, and somehow they still kept coming. Shocked, we resorted to the shame of retreat to another aisle, leaving our choking men and our dead on the tile. We finally ended up here, aisle 20, the last one, with hardly a weapon available to us. That's why the puree was so important. The cans, if thrown right, can strike the temple and kill a man. But the dull trajectory had to be perfect. That's how desperate we were. We were down to perfection and temples.
Just as I was about speak, a flurry of utensils flew over head. We rushed to take cover in the bottom shelves. Benign plastic forks and spoons clacked foolishly against the floor. Our enemies were either luring us into complacency or we were dealing with madmen who wanted more than victory, but also the trophy of our humiliation. And given the way things were going, we were willing to offer that, prepared to line the walls of their studies with our heads.
Things had calmed down in a few minutes. But I saw that Cubby got one in the gut, a butcher's knife. One metal weapon between the plastic! Pure evil! It was Cubby's chore to gather anything that had been thrown our way. We made the decision to ignore the rules of war convened at Customer Service: "Once a weapon is used, it cannot be deployed against the enemy." But ever since the miscreants used fans from the appliance aisle to turn the bleach clouds against our boys, rules lost all meaning, and we decided to gather up the used weapons and redeploy them at will. We knew God would forgive us. Cubby was the first to volunteer. Bless him! He stood so tall, so immersed, so damn raw, and so sure. He proclaimed, "By God, I will be the Gatherer!"
But now, blood shot out from Cubby's fresh wound. I took off my apron and jammed the cloth in the gash. Cubby's writhing grimace nearly drove me to tears. So I looked away for relief, only to see something else, a boon, a way out, a mistake on the part of an exulting enemy: a can opener. Some moron tossed over the tall shelf what not only helped us survive and saved me from my speech, but also snatched a stalemate from the jaws of certain defeat . . .
Please hold your ovation. I'm not finished yet.
Please . . . seriously.
Right then and there, a plan came to me. I can't say what the details are because I've been told, with a suggestion of threat, we'll want to sell the plans to mom and pop stores, and then sell the strategies against them. This way the wars keep coming, and you can't fight a war without buying something from someone. Sorry, but it's a reality I have embraced. Like you, I agreed to live this way, maybe against my will, if any of that is left. There wasn't a vote, but sometimes nothing is more effective than doing nothing, the main obligation of our citizenry.
I don't think bravery has survived, to be candid. That's why I sometimes think we're living in the last days, as I once heard it said. Whenever I think about the kind of men I know and the kind of boys and girls now pursuing leadership, bloated with self-importance, purveyors of frivolity disguised as seriousness, I can only look up at the ceiling and expect a big door to open and watch angels stream down to move the shelves as if they were cotton balls and turn the whole damn place around so that the sun rises from the west and sets in the east (if we have a full day to live).
The only thing I dare say--the extent of my dereliction--is that we didn't need perfection after all, just a trick, a lie, a prank that kills. Then we laid still. And we waited, not making a sound. Not a single whisper. And when they came, they reckoned us as dead. But they reckoned wrong. We swiftly "rendered them immobile" and "subjected them to permanent prone" and completed "Operation Utter Subjugation," all the stupid phrases that helped us do what we did, words with which to celebrate our violence and validate our brutality. When the enemies of the other aisles saw the extent of our pyrrhic vengeance, they were only too pleased to accept a deadlock. Neither of us could have gone any further, to take the logic to a higher conclusion, anything near a reconstruction of possibilities. What else should I have expected?
I looked closely at the leader and his rag men, the survivors who surrendered. I ordered my men to take them away, to be redeemed later when the details of the brokered deal are settled. Then I turned my head in the other direction in a fashionably hurried manner. It looked like a move of indignation on my part, and my men interpreted it that way, as they grew more aggressive in handling the captives and organizing the corpses. They cursed and slapped them around, the living and the "immobile" both. But I turned my eyes only because I couldn't stand to notice that the enemy commander looked familiar, my neighbor, in fact, and his men like my men, with sentience and mothers after all.
My friends, it must be written somewhere that one of the signs of the end is when a person is unable to change. And it's only logical to assume that when a lot of people of this kind gather in one location and agree on sloth and the culture of default for their governance, then expect the imminent. There's no omniscient narrator in this story, and these are not salvos to admire. Give them no quarter in your mind. If you do, they'll quickly turn rancid and make you ill, but that's all. In no time, you'll go on with your lives, lovers, and entertainers. But I do want to say something before I go, before we lower Cubby into the floor and down into the earth, and offer kind words for our "Gatherer": I now know why the prophets of old begged their Lord for protection against profitless knowledge. It's not the kind of knowledge that forced their hands toward the heavens, but the mores that produce people uncaring of it, when ignorance holds together the quilt that keeps us warm at night and makes us feel everything's counterfeit and disconnected again, exactly the way we like it.
So long, Cubby.
This short story "Tribute to the Last Aisle" published at IslamiCity won the Andalusia Prize for Fiction 2004
Ibrahim N. Abusharif is a Chicago-area writer and is the editor of Starlatch Press. He may be reached at [email protected]