“Blessed Be The Fruit: A Look Back at Handmaid’s Tale’s First Season”

“Blessed Be The Fruit: A Look Back at Handmaid’s Tale’s First Season”

I tend to get sucked into heated arguments on Facebook, I don’t know why. But this was so oddly prescient. In the wake of Trump ending the Iran Deal, side-note: the Media swearing up and down the Iranian Government was just a bunch of shelter cats and dogs that needed a home, they don’t have weapons, they’re not interested in nuclear weaponry, and then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes out with an enormous report, and suddenly Iran is bombing Israel, and not two weeks before John Oliver was making the case for Iran. Weird. How this leads into The Handmaid’s Tale is that one of my Facebook friends, actually a very dear person, a real friend before Facebook, posts something about how abandoning the Iran Deal will result in World War III. I don’t know where he gets that idea, but so be it. One of his friends starts commenting that The Handmaid’s Tale will happen in this Country. There are people out there who don’t seem to understand that movies and television shows are fantasy; a form of illusion, fiction. There may be some themes, some political or social commentary, but for the most part, there are no 25-foot Great White sharks out there. The Death Star is not real. Stuff like that.

I took a step back and thought about it. How dangerous would it be for me to confront these people directly and tell them my belief that they are being manipulated by the Media and having their fears exploited by a television show? The reaction was exactly what I thought it would be, but let’s go back for a second. All media, whatever it is, is exploitative. All media is advertising. It’s meant to evoke a response, an emotional response, to provoke a discussion, and get you to buy products. Nobody wants to think they’re being manipulated, it shows weakness in the passive sense. Looking at it from the outside, though, it’s troubling. It’s a very dangerous paranoia, and it’s coming from a television series. A family is pursued by a group of armed men. The woman is caught, and separated from her young daughter and husband as shots are fired in the distance. She is now known as Offred, the Handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford. While walking with another Handmaid, Ofglen, she and Ofglen pass by a wall on which men have been hanged for crimes such as being gay, working in an abortion clinic, or being a Catholic priest, or failing to rewind their tapes, or not lifting the lid, or wearing white after Labor Day…

I want to point out that the cast is overwhelmingly female; there are 18 female roles; principle characters compared to 5 male roles in the featured and supporting cast. 10 of the 16 episodes I’ve viewed were directed by females. It should go without saying when one portion of a group is an overwhelming majority, the material (especially such politically-charged material as this) becomes a form of propaganda. At the very least, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent employment program for women in the Industry. What, I think, is generally not understood, or misunderstood, is the nature of exploitation. You get together any group of people with different opinions, or contrarian opinions, give them content that will exploit their fears, they will rise up as one by the end of that presentation. The Handmaid’s Tale only works if you’ve shared those suspicions. This isn’t science fiction anymore – now everything is political or locked into identity or group-identity politics. If you, as a person or as a group, believe that you have been subjugated or oppressed, your belief is stronger than any reasonable set of statistics which would indicate otherwise.

I got into a heated discussion with somebody who believed “history was repeating itself.” I asked her, in the most delicate way, what part of our shared history had occurred before that is now being repeated. I also asked how long after Trump was elected that she was forced out of her job and chained to her bed to be raped repeatedly to make babies for the State. Of course, she didn’t have an answer. She just kept saying, “history is repeating itself, history is repeating itself.” I engaged her in the conversation because she was one of the rare few who didn’t resort to calling me names, or trying to shame me on some level. It’s the worst form of exploitation because it’s never permitted to be constructive. It’s always meant to be horrifying. It’s a form of pornography. The story is not a typical cross-section of politics; it has very little to do with politics and more to do with a person’s, specifically a woman’s, right to love who she wants to love, even in the midst of a plague situation that is causing the extermination of the human race. It becomes a dangerous equivocation of rape, forced impregnation, sex, and love. In the course of these first ten episodes, June is abducted, forced to become a handmaid (because of her fertility), repeatedly raped, discovers Luke is still alive, and eventually becomes pregnant. That’s it. That’s ten episodes. Oh, there are some flashbacks and character development, but that’s it. That is the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The show is beautifully shot. In fact, Gilead doesn’t look particularly dystopic except for the hanging dead bodies. Again, this is a bit much. Is this Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of the birth control movement, which started in the late ’60s? If it is (and if it is still possible to give birth to children), then she would be aware that people continued to have children long after the invention of birth control. You are so lucky! So privileged! Blessed are the meek. On to the Gilead Question. Does Gilead sink it’s teeth slowly into the neck of America? Was it gradual change? The way the show presents it, incidents occurred over the previous three years (less than a full term for a President). We know that based on the events of “The Other Side,” this complete take-over took three years. Maybe they just got lucky? I think it’s safe to speculate on the origins of the quick and easy power-grab of Gilead over the United States. After the murders of the President, members of Congress and Judicial entities, ranking members of the Gilead militia were given access to the nuclear silos and launched warheads in key areas, the sites of major Military bases and surrounding areas. This shut down the Nation, thus the “irradiated” soil of the Colonies was the result of Gilead’s attacks on American soil. Atwood’s supposition is that all men needed was one gentle push in the direction of misogyny. As if we all had the word, “slut,” forming on our lips at all times. Does Atwood hate men or women? Or both?

The men are not written to be men. They’re written to be monsters. The Commander demands a game of Scrabble from Offred, which is peculiar, but it’s obvious he’s an incredibly lonely man. In Atwood’s philosophy, the women are frail, gullible, and easily-led in order to be programmed or conditioned to believe a government’s lies. She doesn’t seem to be aware that there are female police officers, armed forces members, federal agents, lumberjacks, and other women in “manly” occupations. Gilead invades the United States, “suspends” the Constitution, murders Congress, and suddenly nobody can leave. Why? What is Gilead to care so much about malcontent or discontent citizens? It looks like they have plenty of voluntary participants in their crazy scheme. Citizens who want to leave should be allowed to leave. Otherwise, you’re going to deal with a lot of kicking and screaming, and then you have to be cruel to keep the population in line. In order to effectively pacify and control a population, you should be prepared to fulfill that population’s needs, so that there would never be want. That practice would stimulate population and then over-population. Ruling by collective misery doesn’t make a population feel particularly sexy or even express a normal biological need to procreate. Does the story proceed from the assumption that women do not want to have children, and are therefore forced to breed by the demands of “rapists” consumed in the toxic masculinity?

The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season won eight Primetime Emmy Awards from thirteen nominations. Awards were given for Best Drama Series, production, cinematography, direction, writing, and Moss, Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia), and Alexis Bledel for their performances. The episodes, “Offred” and “Night” (the first and last episodes of the season) were singled out specifically for excellence. For me, the quality of the show dropped off shortly after the third episode, “Late,” when the narrative structure began to resemble Lost more and more; the dependence on flashbacks, visual catharsis, and “ironic” music cues began to wear heavily on the storytelling. Looking back at the first season, it occurs to me the writers and producers wanted to leave any questions of world-building by the way-side, and instead concentrated on the internal struggle of Gilead after the fall in keeping with Atwood’s book. They revised their plans to include the backstory and characterization when, I assume, they recognized that Atwood’s book was too thin upon which to base a television series. Indeed, Atwood’s book (for the series) is merely a very rough first draft, an outline. Written like prose with an unreliable narrator in Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale is a false memoir that owes more to analogy than science fiction, but in 1985, when the book was published, it was taken as science fiction. When Donald Trump was elected President, Atwood came out of the woodwork to tell us the book (and resulting television series) was now science eventuality.

Shortly after the television series premiered, Atwood announced that a sequel was in the works, thus turning her “important” work into a vulgar money-grab. It goes back to my main point. All media is exploitation. All media is advertising. I believe that when Atwood wrote her book, she was postulating the “what if” scenario; a tome of speculation. What if, in our Modern Age, this age of “reason,” men seized power and forced women to have children? How would they go about doing this? It would require a literalist interpretation of religion. It would require hypocrisy, of course, as well as government yielding to such a religion; discarding science, discarding civics, discarding ethics. Gilead has no government, at least as far as I can see. It looks more like the Pentagon was moved into a man-cave, with a bunch of bearded Free Mason dorks. No one, in our modern age (2017-2019), before the rise of the Sons of Jacob, behaves as though there is a crisis, as though there is an existential threat wiping out our species. Instead we jog while people give us dirty looks. We watch Friends on DVD, drink our over-priced soy lattes, and listen to Annie Lennox. This may be the one stroke of genius the writers and producers of this show have bestowed upon Atwood’s legacy. They’ve convinced us we were too stupid and lazy to have seen the oncoming storm.

D.L.

7/3-5, 2019

Under the Eye: “Late”

“Late”

We exist in a world where men with machine guns stand on every street corner and watch you. Where women are bound and gagged so they cannot move or speak. June tells us she was asleep when there were “temporary” inconveniences. When the Constitution was “suspended.” When women en masse were denied their jobs and their pay. In a flashback, June and Moira are jogging and getting ugly stares from passersby. Do two women jogging together deserve the incredulous stink-eye? They stop for coffee. June discovers she has no money in her bank account. The barista tells her to come back when she has money. He says, “Fucking sluts, get the fuck out of here,” which is on its face ridiculous and over-the-top in attempting to establish hatred for women. Moira and June? These women do not look like “fucking sluts,” and even if they did, I’m pretty sure the customer service handbook would make a point to advise their employees not to engage people in this manner. The scene is so laughably excessive it doesn’t belong in this show, but if it were true-to-life, someone (let’s say Moira) would be recording this conversation for later posting on Twitter and YouTube. Later, June and her female co-workers are being told they are to be “let go” (a polite word for fired) and to get out. If any of this were recorded and uploaded, I’m sure it would have an effect on the body politic. Creepy Guardians are kind enough to hold doors open for the women and their personal belongings and say, “Under his eye,” as calmly as saying, “Have a nice day.”

“Wanna move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me, I swear sometimes that man is out to get me”

In the present, people (namely the Martha Rita, and Serena) are being nice to Offred, presumably because they think she might be pregnant. Serena even takes her to see the new baby. This is where I begin to suspect that people never truly change in this world. They can wear masks and pretend to be sheep, but being born a monster makes it difficult to hide that treacherous face. Serena is an object I would never consider for pity, although I do pity her and Commander Fred for their woeful ignorance and maladaption. I don’t pity Serena for her bursts of unwarranted anger and violence against either Offred or Rita. June visits Janine, who teeters on the brink of emotional collapse. She is possessive of her baby, and it is her baby, no matter what any of these ignorant women say. The “pretend” aspect of all of this frustrates me. In another life, Serena could’ve been June’s overbearing boss, and June could tell her to go fuck herself and walk away, but not in this world. This is a world where women are not permitted to read, and they are supposed to pretend that they are unable to read because they are women. June pumps Nick, the driver, for information about Ofglen. Nick is a slug, perhaps well-meaning and distracted, but a slug nonetheless. Another flashback reveals all the money has been moved into men’s accounts; husbands or next-of-kin. This is where we sense Moira’s hostility toward men. She blames Luke for the actions of the terrorists, and in fact, she denies that this is terrorism; that this is what all men want – to control women, to control their lives, and to control their money. As a man, I can tell you that’s bullshit.

“I’m just a girl who can’t say ‘no,’ and I’m in a terrible fix!”

I’ve held back on discussing Aunt Lydia because I view her as nothing more than a lifeless vessel of torture. June is interrogated by an Official while she is poked with a cattle-prod by Lydia. They ask her about Ofglen. They ask if June finds her attractive. If Ofglen ever put the moves on her. If she knew Ofglen was a lesbian. Lydia, out of nothing more than anger, beats June after scripture is quoted back to her, and the only thing that stops the beating is Serena’s intervention, believing Offred to be pregnant. You can imagine the look on her face when she has her period. Now Emily (Ofglen) strikes me as a smart girl. She’s a college professor, for fuck’s sake! Why does she engage in a sexual relationship with a Martha in this climate? Is Emily turned on by housekeepers? Is it an act of defiance? Well, she just got her Martha-girlfriend killed for it, and they make her watch. It is a chilling scene that checks off two strong political talking-points: violence against women, and violence against homosexuals. Emily is then sexually mutilated for her transgression. There is another thoughtless flashback which shows demonstrators in a violent clash with Guardians inappropriately set to the strains of “Heart of Glass.” “Living in the Real World” would’ve been a better choice, but I don’t think the producers listen to much Blondie*. Did the demonstrators think they were making their case against men with machine guns? They are killing people on the streets, unprovoked. What were the protesters hoping to achieve? It’s at this point I start to ask, “Um, why haven’t we left yet? They’re taking our money and curtailing our rights. They opened fire on demonstrators. Is the car gassed up?”

Hang in there, Baby!

Serena arranges to put Offred in a nice bedroom, rather than stay in the “suicide-attic” in which the previous handmaid resided. Offred tells her she’s not pregnant; that she got her period. This infuriates Serena who drags her back to the suicide-attic and throws her on the floor. This is Serena. This is what she is and always will be. In another life, there would be compassion and understanding. Not here. This is a television series that would have to depend considerably upon the concept of “world-building.” That is establishing a world, like a game board, and then putting the players (or pieces) on that board with each new episode accumulating knowledge about that constructed world. The writers ignore the crucial world-building aspect and instead create the players before creating the world, and then expect the audience to play catch-up with their creation. “Late” is the main offender, because the writers believe they are being clever in only letting certain components of that world be revealed at the right time and place, like Lost with it’s frustrating flashback structure that served to mirror current events. We end with a severe close-up of Emily after she is told by Lydia that she won’t want what she cannot have – meaning orgasm from sexual stimulation. She goes from confusion to sadness to anger and finally screaming. Alexis Bledel is truly the unsung hero of this show. Gilmore Girls this is not.

* Where’s Debbie Harry in this world? Good-looking woman, great singer. Is she a Martha in this world? Did she fight the Sons of Jacob? Is she dead? Did she flee to Canada when she saw the troubles? Is she in the Colonies?

Vintage Cable Box: The Slumber Party Massacre, 1982

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“All of you are very pretty. I love you. It takes a lot of love for a person to…  do this. You know you want it. You’ll like it.”

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The Slumber Party Massacre, 1982 (Michele Michaels), New World Pictures

I’m going to have to get analytical now.  I knew this day would come, where I would have to do a write-up of Slumber Party Massacre, taking into account the effect of slasher films on the market and then how this movie impacted slasher films moving forward.  If you read descriptions of the movie on other pages, they will, more often than not, point to Amy Jones, the director, and Rita Mae Brown, the writer as they attempted to deconstruct the subgenre and provide a parody of the material in it’s place.  While the movie succeeds in aping the formula, a very thick tongue is planted firmly in-cheek, but only for those who can appreciate it.

We start with the bold red titles, and the sound of organs not out-of-place in a Vincent Price movie.  Mom and Dad are off on a vacation, or something, leaving Trish (Michele Michaels) in charge of the house, so she decides to throw a party (or a “slumber” party, as the case may be – according to my research, slumber parties usually involve pizza and lesbian experimentation, but I can’t be sure).  Meanwhile, a lunatic (who uses a power drill) is on the loose, killing women everywhere he goes.  I wonder what brand of drill he uses.  We get fleeting glimpses of the horrible man as he watches Trish and her friends.  He seriously looks like a sex offender.  He has the glazed-over look of a man who recently had a vasectomy.

After basketball, there is an extended shower sequence with all the girls, and Jones spends an impressive amount of time lingering on naked female flesh (more than in any other slasher movie I’ve seen).  I suspect Jones and Brown set out to indict the male-dominated industry of slasher movies, or possibly call our attention to the amount of violence perpetrated against women in most movies.  Poor Brinke Stevens (Haunting Fear), who won’t be going to the party, gets locked inside the school and has to run from our driller-killer while her friends remain blissfully ignorant and on their way to the coolest slumber party ever!  I’m kidding, of course.  It’s really kind of boring.

Par for the course, we have a couple of fake-out gags, where the purpose seems to be to frighten young women with ridiculous situations.  A hand comes out of nowhere to frighten a female pedestrian.  A drill breaks through a front door because another young lady is installing a peep-hole (come on!).  A shadowy figure walks slowly down stairs and frightens another young woman.  All of these gags occur within minutes.  What’s the point of that?  To show that women are easily horrified?  I get it.  As a matter of fact, I’m easily horrified.  In fact, I’m horrified right now writing this.  Aaagh!  I will say Jones has a great photographer’s eye.  The compositions and colors of interior shots are deep, dark, and rich with atmospheric lighting, but when accompanied by the Vincent Price organ, the whole thing seems incredibly silly.

First order of business is weed.  The girls smoke up and talk about sex, and who the sluttiest girl is, and how to get to first base, and how their menstrual cycles line up, or something like that.  Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention in between fake-out gags (we’re up to two hundred by this point in the running time).  It’s weird that I like the idea of the movie more than the actual movie.  We have extremely dark night shots (I’ve always preferred that realistic lighting to this new-fangled modern lighting where you can see everything in any given exterior shot), sounds of dogs barking in the background, some heavy breathing and POV shots.  The Slumber Party Massacre has all the trappings of a great slasher film (great photography, great editing), but Brown’s premise is lost in the thick, choking fog of social commentary, not unlike many movies produced today.  We need more entertainment, less moralizing!

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Poor Brinke!

Second order of business is pizza (no anchovies!).  The pizza guy shows up, in the midst of all the female confessionals and make-overs, but he has bloody holes in his eyes so I’m guessing he won’t be getting a tip.  My favorite bit in the movie has one of the girls eating the pizza while they try to figure out their next move.  A particularly telling scene has a girl collapse to the garage floor and the killer brandishes his extra-long drill bit between his legs.  Brian De Palma would imitate this shot two years later in Body Double, but to much better effect.  The killer cuts the phone line, and off we go!  We’re more than halfway through the movie before these dim-wits get a clue.  I can’t blame the girls, though.  Rita Mae Brown is the true killer of this promising story.  In the end, one of our heroines uses a machete to chop the end off of the killer’s drill-bit, effectively castrating him.  There are some very interesting ideas at play here, but Brown and Jones are more interested in making a bold political statement than in entertaining or scaring their audience, and that’s unfortunate.

Next time, we take a look at the (allegedly) final chapter in the Friday the 13th franchise.  As we know, it doesn’t really work out that way.  Thank you, Corey Feldman!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

NEW PODCAST: “Ain’t That A Man” or “Skanked While You Sleep”

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Andrew and I talk about men and women. We discuss the phenomenon of “man-shaming” – the idea being that men feel bad that they are men. They will go to great lengths to apologize for being men, for their enjoyment of grilling, for their willingness to allow their wives to pursue open marriages.

We talk about a woman’s inability to pass judgement on other women who engage in dangerous sexual activities, while, most tellingly, disconnecting from the same practices. We talk about Moria Greyland, and really the less said about that, the better. Enjoy!

It should go without saying (at this point) that Andrew and I have fairly loose tongues and we tend to pepper our speech with obscenity and profanity. This is because we record a podcast in an atmosphere where we like to be comfortable. If you are easily offended by harsh or foul language and terse pronouncements, don’t listen.

I hate the concept of “trigger warnings” – REALLY hate them, but you might not want to read these articles on a full stomach, and you also might want to take a long shower and gargle with Lysol!  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Grillax, Bro By Jacob Brogan

What Open Marriage Taught One Man About Feminism By Michael Sonmore

The orgy prude: How I finally admitted I don’t like meaningless, porn-star sex By Tracy Chabala

Dear Straight Men, Come Out Already By Mason Hsieh

The Story of Moira Greyland

Our Tenth Podcast: “One Man (And Woman) Slowly Going Insane”

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Pearl and Eve

 

 

This is the second part of my talk with actress/writer/new mother, Eve Kerrigan.  Tonight we talk about the New Feminism, “Sociology of Style”, the myth of “white male privilege”, and the controversy surrounding the fraudulent Rolling Stone article and the University of Virginia.

 “I didn’t peruse the site (“Sociology of Style”) that much, only when your writing was involved.  It’s much more interesting for me to read people I know when they aren’t incredible celebrity icon-types, like say – I enjoy science fiction, so I read a lot of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlen, Arthur C. Clarke.  I read bat-shit crazy stuff too like David Foster Wallace, but he’s very much Thomas Pynchon for me.  He’s very hard to read and get – which, I think, would be a deficiency for a writer when the very act of reading you can be painful.  He didn’t write books to be read for pleasure, unless it was some kind of pleasure I was not introduced to.  I’ve enjoyed Stephen King for years.  Dean Koontz isn’t terrible, he’s derivative, he’s lazy but he can be entertaining. ” 

“I feel that women are fighting other women.  They fight over beauty, over the concept of aging, over perceived youth, over their respective abilities.  Just as all minorities tend to fight each other.  Sometimes, in my libertarian mind, I feel that each supposed minority is fighting the other for the LOSER SWEEPSTAKES, like the old Yiddish joke about the Rabbi in the schul who tells his congregation, ‘we are nothing’ and the black janitor in the back of the Temple says, ‘yeah I’m nothing, too’ and the Rabbi points to him and says, ‘look who wants to be nothing!’  It’s an enormous persecution orgy, where everybody wants to feel as though they’ve been slighted in life and they’re competing to be the most oppressed.”

“My politics changed when my daughter was born. It was a slow erosion of my liberalism. I didn’t become a conservative. I don’t value any particular political party. I’m Pro-Choice. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but I also believe abortion is murder. I’m for gay marriage, but I believe homosexuality is wrong. I’m for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs, but I don’t use drugs, nor would I encourage or promote such usage. I think we can discourage the behavior without banning it. That’s what tolerance is about, for me.”

The audio clips that precede and follow the episode are once again, from the brilliant documentary about Harlan Ellison, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth”.  There are two clips of Anne Rice and Stephen King speaking about their experiences writing.

Letter S

by Eve M. Kerrigan

Ravnel Valpole is a hairy man, hirsute to the point of appearing wolfish. He has tried every method under the sun of hair removal and has a regular habit of attending electrolysis appointments which leave him with minor pimpling and scarring at his jaw line. He has heard of something they do with lasers that is supposed to work well but he needs to do more research on that.

This scarring, coupled with the size of his head gives Ravnel a tough appearance, but he is a kind man. His mud brown eyes do not, in themselves, endear him through a shine or attractive shape, but they do convey a warmth. He has crow’s feet when he smiles, which is often, and the thicket of hair on his head is combed to a Frederick Douglas-like coif. Ravnel is 6 foot 1 but he stoops, so he is 6 feet.

Ravnel works in the industrial design plant that makes Scrabble games. The letters from a Scrabble game require an influx of Vermont Maple on a daily basis that would dwarf the lumber stores of Home Depot. Once chopped, shaped, scored and lacquered by machine, the letters come out on a conveyor belt and uniformed workers sort them into bins.

Ravnel Valpole collects the letter S. He has over 500 Ss. He hopes to tile a floor with them someday.

He has been doing this job for 15 years. 15 years ago, he was in the military. 15 years before that he was in school. It was in that school he met is wife, Serafina. 10 years later they had a child, a boy named Stephen. It was 10 years later that his wife and child were killed.

They were camping in the White Mountains. Camping is the vacation retreat of the child-rearing poor and middle class. It’s free, it’s full of beauty, it’s peaceful and kids can run wild while they learn a thing or two. Meanwhile, the grown-ups can get a little nookie in the tent.

Unfortunately, on the Valpole camping trip, there was an unusual amount of rain when an unforcasted storm hit the mountain range. The three wet campers were hiking the 8 miles back down the mountain to get the hell out of the weather when a flash flood swelled the river and rose between them. Ravnel stood on one side of the rushing torrent and his wife and child struggled to stay standing on the other. The bank they were on broke off and turned to liquid before Ravnel’s eyes. They were gone.

Ravnel nearly drowned himself searching for them. A couple of rangers dragged his nearly unconscious body from the torrent. It was hard to say how he had lived. Often, as he stood sorting A’s from B’s and stealing S’s, he wondered why he had lived.

S for Serafina
S for Stephen
S for Squander
S for Sadness
S for Suicide

But today, Ravnel was not wondering why he had lived. Today, Ravnel was excited because it was the first day of cicada season. It had been 17 years since the cicadas had last hatched and inundated his unremarkable Pennsylvania town with their music.

Ravnel’s hobby (other than collecting S’s) was insects. He loved them. Bees were his favorite. He kept a hive of honeybees in a breezeway behind his apartment building. None of the neighbors knew it was there. He collected honey twice a season and left enough for the bees when the cold weather rolled in. He put honey in everything; tea, coffee, on toast, in warm milk, on pancakes, even in spaghetti sauce. He read about using honey for hair removal and wondered about it. That suited him. One day he would figure out how to shed his pelt with honey.

Another insect he loved was the mystical and mysterious butterfly. Butterflies began as caterpillars, small and fat as pinky toes. They did nothing while in that state but eat and eat and eat some more, munching all the leaves their slow, peristaltic journeys would deliver them to. Then, they sleepily spun their little cocoons and entered a prolonged sleep state. It was here that the Imaginal cells did their work. (Imaginal!) It was then that the caterpillar ceased to exist, preferring instead to become a gooey liquid inside the cocoon.

If you held one of these cocoons up to a light during this stage (and Ravnel had) you would not see the tightly swaddled invertebrate snuggling there like a tiny bound foot. You would see the shadow of a silvery ooze simmering at the bottom, hovering in possibility. And then, slowly, an entirely new creature would begin to create itself, eventually filling the cocoon to bursting. Only then would the resulting butterfly emerge.

Once its wings were dry, this newcomer would proceed to careen wildly through the air, drunk on pollen and nectar, copulating madly, picking up speed on its suicide mission. The whole thing made Ravnel shake his big, shaggy head. He didn’t know if it was crazier that it happened at all or that people went about their lives as though everything were normal.

And cicadas… The cicada also emerges from a cocoon after undergoing a maturation process within. It comes into the world with an insatiable appetite and a song to sing.

Ravnel thought he knew something about that.

So indelible was the sound of thousands of cicadas playing their strange tymbals that, even though he hadn’t actually heard it in years, summer always had a soundtrack of cicada song in Ravnel’s mind.

And they were coming! For the first time in 17 years! He read in Real Life Bugs & Insects that conditions were correct. So, Ravnel would be making the pilgrimage to a grove of Sycamores hidden in the middle of the ancient little wood that spread out behind his apartment building.

He deposited an S into the pocket of his regulation navy blue Dickies and shut down the belt. He punched out. He climbed into his Datsun and headed home where he ate a simple dinner of sardines, crackers and cheese. He put on the khaki fishing jacket he liked to wear when he was engaging in entomological activities because it held plenty of small specimen jars and a tiny net and still left room for a few pony-sized bottles of beer.

Ravnel grabbed his flashlight and headed out. The lightning bugs helped to show him the way down the path. He breathed deep and sighed at the evening’s dew on his skin. He disappeared into the night in a way he would never be permitted to disappear in his daily life. It felt good to not exist. He wondered if this is how an owl felt, observing from the trees with luminous eyes and a head that revolved to take in everything…

When he got to the grove of sycamores, he sat down and leaned up against one of the old trees. He opened a bottle of beer and looked at the sky full of stars.

Ravnel read once about a sailor out in the middle of the ocean at night who encountered an uncharacteristic calmness there. The sea, said the sailor, went utterly motionless and shimmered with the reflection of a million stars on its glassy surface. The sailor forgot which way was up, so surrounded was he by stars peppering the blackness, and he thought, for a few blissful moments, that he was floating in outer space.

Ravnel thought of this and decided it would be completely worthwhile to brave the mercurial ocean and all its dangers if you could be guaranteed that feeling for one moment.

He slipped his hand in his pocket and traced the curve of the beveled s on the smooth wooden square there. He closed his eyes and conjured the twin faces of Serafina and Stephen. They floated before him and suddenly there was a swell of song. It was a sound strung between symphony and tribal drumming. It beat like a heart and, rattled like a maraca (chchch cicada chchch cicada) and it cried for something out there…out there…out there… …

Ravnel woke with dew covering him, his fishing jacket chilly and heavy with the damp.

S for sunrise.

He stretched his stiff joints and got his bearings. He looked around, slipped his hand into his pocket.

S.

He was about to stand when he felt a pain at his jawline, not unlike an electrolysis needle. He nearly slapped his own face in reflex but somehow had the presence of mind not to. Instead, he reached up and gingerly felt the place where the piercing was. His hand came back holding a creature, stubby and no bigger than a Scrabble tile. If it sat there long enough, a young cicada would sometimes mistake the landscape of human flesh for the nourishing surface of vegetation and insert its proboscis. In other words, it might bite you. It wasn’t an aggressive stinging, just a misplaced hunger.

Ravnel thought he knew something about that.

The two creatures surveyed each other, Ravnel with his mud brown eyes, mottled jaw and electrified shock of black and silver hair and, in his palm, this tiny pilgrim gazing back with large eyes and veinous wings still wet, translucent and green like a new spring leaf.

They stayed like that for a long time. Finally, Ravnel carefully placed the cicada onto a nearby blade of grass. He stood, breathed in deeply the scent of late spring and turned toward home. After all, he had to get to work. He instinctively reached for the S in his pocket and worried it with his fingers as he whistled his way through the woods.

S for Surprise
S for Satisfaction
S for Spellbound
S for Sentience
S for Spirit

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