My Name Is Lenn (Second Edit Preview)

Chapter One – Found

Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, fighting the freezing water, blustering leaves, and stabbing sticks, I fought to live. My determination was rapidly deteriorating, but fear kept me kicking, flailing. In an instant as sharp as glass, something narrow and frighteningly jagged crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood and I felt it cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by the sheer luck of the current did I drift towards bare rock. Crawling, I turned myself downwards towards the slope, and threw up the blood and swampy water. In the dark, I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury. But the last thing I perceived that night were thick black channels of my own blood drizzling down the stony ground.

In my throws of confusion and blood loss, darkness passed over me. I had no concerns for the morrow. Time abandoned me as quickly as the heat in my body. Dreams floated through my mind. Was I viewing my last thoughts? Either that, or part of me was not yet willing to let go of life, and still dared to hope.

I saw you, Aria. So clearly. Your smile. Your hope. I reached for you. But I could not feel your touch. I could not even whisper your name. Every one of us, every member of both our families was dead, and you would be last. With that realization, my dreams faded and all emotion vanished.

But though I stood knocking on Death’s mighty door that night, begging to be let in, He did not answer.

The very next thing I remember are hearing someone call out, far away:

“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”

The words did not immediately register; an unintelligible roar. They sounded like my dreams, like the buzzing of flies. Another sound quickly filled the void: the hoof-like thunder of violence pounding upon dirt. It was rhythmic at first, but it quickly filled my ears until it deafened me.

Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single breathless phrase.

“What is that?

I felt nothing. Even when a very powerful force lifted me into the air and placed me delicately upon my back, forcing my frigid equilibrium to square off against gravity. Not a sliver of reality returned.

I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.

“Look, Ian!”

“What is….? Whoa. Whoa.”

“Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.” There was a short pause. “It’s… dead.”

I felt a thick dull object compress my chest against the ground, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.

“No, look! It’s still breathing, look. It’s alive!”

I wanted to tell the voice to stop shouting in my ear. But it wasn’t shouting, exactly, and it was nowhere near my head. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source, way up high. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.

Denvi. And ka denvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I wasn’t yet dead. But I soon would be. And for an entirely different reason.

I opened my eyes. At least, I tried to. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes beside the first, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.

“It’s awake!”

“Chris, stay back. Shh! You’re going to scare it.”

“No I won’t!”

I closed my eyes again. Was I simply going to accept this fate? Part of me must have, as I felt no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, I felt winter in my throat and earth in my lungs.

“Aaron, we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”

“Eww,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked.”

The voice above me made a clucking sound.

“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a little boy. Who cares?”

“We don’t have anything to carry him in. Dad taught me never to jostle a patient, since it could make their injury worse, you know? Do we… have anything I could use?”

“Should’a brought a backpack,” said the youngest.

“Yeah,” answered the voice directly above me. “Um. Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”

At last, a vital spark of fear shot through my heart when another great force embraced my prone body and lifted me straight off the ground. Instead of becoming little more than red splatter within a terrible fist, or the force transforming into a claw to rend me into pieces, I felt myself descend into tender rest, as if placed into a warm cradle. Admittedly, the cradle smelled like someone in desperate need of a bath, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in days, I felt some source of comfort.

“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.

So?” came the haughty reply.

“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry.”

I felt a sudden acceleration, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I gasped; it felt as though I had been strapped to a falcon in freefall. I recovered my breath, and began to feel the wall upon which I leaned, heaving inwards and outwards with the effort of a heavy jog.

I didn’t know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I knew in my heart that I would never see you again.

* * * * * *

The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns; the rumble of great machines; the delightful songs of birds that would have pried me to death for breakfast if given the chance; the murmur of other denvi laughing, speaking to each other.

One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other denvi? Would I ever have freedom again? But then it occurred to me: I might not survive the next few hours. Very little else mattered if I died.

The journey felt like hours, my ripped skin fully exposed to the wind and sun. I wasn’t sure if I still bled freely, but the sapping cold I felt in my extremities told me more than enough.

“Chris! You’re faster than us! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! He should be in his office!”

“Okay!”

“Don’t move him around too much!”

“I know, I know.”

“Your dad’s not home today?”

“No, he’s at work filling out papers and stuff. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”

Sneak? Interesting. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it because of me?

I dared to open my eyes again, now that my angle had improved and my blindness somewhat faded. Above me was a horrific view. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly towards his travels. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, green-blue eyes. Everything in the right place, nothing at the right scale. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his eyes graced upon mine.

“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and oddly determined. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”

‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since Grandmother passed.

“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest.

He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon a corpse. This one’s face was more youthful than the ka that held me, with a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. His chest was also blindingly bare, but of course it was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I wasn’t certain what expression he wore from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.

For the first time in many hours, I attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise, the sound of gurgling saliva and blood. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I must have appeared as terrified as I felt, as both ka winced at my reaction.

“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “Come on, Aaron, hurry.”

“Right!”

The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of a denvi hand, slender and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead (and blocking others from viewing me in return).

Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like a newborn child. The black-blue shirt beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of the golden white, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether out of curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it against the arm. When my hand felt its warmth, I realized that I smeared it with a trail of still-wet blood.

“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great distress. “That tickles.”

I mouthed the word “sorry”, but only breath came out.

The ka denvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in smooth white clay. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed into an alleyway beside it. I saw power lines above tall wooden fencing, as well as a wide windowless wall of stone.

The ka called the place a ‘doctor’s office’. I knew the phrase, but not in context. I had only known healing through bitter herbs and roots, a chalky denvi pill two or three times when fevers threatened to kill a younger me.

If denvi medicine could cure this, I thought, it would be a miracle.

A door clunked open loudly, startling me, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of the blinding light of the early morning, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of denvi cleanliness. The air turned cold, freezing what blood still pumped through my veins. Denvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, sometimes disturbingly so; that place was devoid of color, incredibly alien.

Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway. Past ringing telephones, laughing voices, and the sickening smell of bitter chemicals.

“Dad!”

“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”

“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. It sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “No. Absolutely not. The clinic is no place for dead animals.”

“Dad, just… just look at him, okay? It’s not an animal, it’s…” The ka shot a glance back down the hallway before whispering: “It’s a little boy!”

“A what?

I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.

“What do you mean, a little…”

I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.

I then stared at the tallest denvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka that held me was gigantic; his father stood over him like a skyscraper. Though age greatly separated the two denvi, the older male appeared remarkably similar to the ka that held me: slender face, round nose, intense eyes, and a beardless complexion. His fatherly frustration melted into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning away. He reappeared instantly donning a thin pair of frameless glasses. “My goodness… Ian, where did you…?”

One of the ka closed the door behind them.

“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”

“I have no idea…”

His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee. He then felt my forehead, and must not have liked what he sensed.

“I mean, I… I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep that wound is.” I heard him sigh. “I have stitches, but… I’m not a surgeon. I’ve never stitched anything like this.”

“Well… can’t you just, I don’t know… bandage it?” asked the ka.

“And just leave a hole in his throat? If the wound is infected, it could kill him no matter what I do.”

“Please, Dad,” the boy continued. “You have to do something, I don’t want him to die!”

Emotion hit me, and it hit me hard. Beside the thought of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you would care whether I lived or died. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.

The great denvi pursed his lips and looked at me.

“Can you… understand me?”

I tried to whisper: “Yes.” No sound emerged, but he understood.

“If it were up to me,” he told me. “I’d take you to UCHealth immediately. It’s the best hospital here in town. You’ll have the best chance at survival if we take you there right now.”

I shook my head, hard and fast. If I went to a denvi hospital, even if I survived, my life was over. And yours as well, most likely. If the humans learned about me, about us… I would never see you again, and Elder Ordi would make sure of that. The bastard would bury both of us before ever allowing humans to discover our home… even if it meant better lives for them all.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Now… I’m not a bad doctor. But I’m only human. And I can’t make any promises.”

I nodded, accepting that. Truth be told, it was because he was human that I dared to hope. And somehow, I think the denvi doctor anticipated my answer. He shook his head, and sighed. But then he gave his son a determined look.

“If you’re sure,” he said. “Place him on the table, Ian. I’ll do my best.”

The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than a table. Though immense pain flashed through my body, Ian took me gently with his great hands, removing me from the warmth and placing me down on the surface. I felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what purpose it served. I gazed silently at the ka named Ian as he watched me in return, his face flush with concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, who tossed the freshly-bloodied (but fortunately dark-hued) shirt over his shoulder.

“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Okay, let’s see. Ian, boys, I need you to stay quiet for a moment.”

All the young denvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strangely-pronged metal necklace called a ‘stethoscope’. Though I would later be informed that every denvi doctor wore such a thing, and that they were quite harmless, I thought he was about to smash me flat with the hammer-like tip of the tool. He pressed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, and both the cold and the pressure made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know how else to do this. If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear you breathe.”

I obeyed as best I could, drawing in air against all odds; the tool made exhaling easier than it should have been. None of the denvi said a word.

“Okay,” said the father at last, sparing me from the tool. “His lungs sound clear. Only a little rasping.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ian.

“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like whatever cut his neck missed the vitals… except…”

He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.

“Can you speak?” he asked me. “Can you make any sound at all?”

Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips. I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’. No sound emerged. It finally dawned upon me why.

“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”

“What, Dad? What happened?”

The father pulled away from me.

“It’s possible his vocal cords were severed. The wound is certainly deep enough. He’s lucky that whatever caused this didn’t tear open his carotid artery.” He traced the left side of his neck with his finger as he spoke. “I just… I don’t think he’ll be able to use his voice.”

My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud.

Or tell you how much I love you, one more time.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out his finger and gently touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”

I couldn’t focus on him. I was too busy trying to process the world. Life, in that moment, what remained of it. I think, at long last, as the cold faded, shock had started to set in.

“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “Damn it. I don’t even want to try suturing this. Steri-strips will have to do. I’m sorry, little guy, but I have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. When I put the antibiotic on, it’s going to hurt. Probably… a lot. But I’ll put Lidocaine on it immediately, so the pain won’t last long. Is that all right? Do you understand?”

I didn’t at all, but I nodded as best I could anyway.

“I just hope this works. You said you found him near the canal?”

“Yeah. He probably almost drowned. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. “I know he will.”

I blinked a few times, and out of sheer hopelessness, I reached out to him. With his wide thumb and forefinger, he took my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”

I’d only known this ka for maybe fifteen minutes. And I didn’t believe him. But tears formed anyway. 


Chapter TwoStrange Place, Strange People

“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy for now,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘car’. Of course, I knew what a car looked like from pictures. And I had nearly been struck by one on the way down the mountain. But I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until he improves. Agreed?”

“Yeah,” said all of the ka.

Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick, light-blue towel. Ian’s father had undersold the truth: putting on those first bandages turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being sliced open. The “hydrogen peroxide”, as the denvi called it, was a clear liquid, clear as water. It was not water. He applied the substance to my skin with a cotton swab. At first, it was merely cold. But within a second, the wound in my neck stung as if I’d been set ablaze. Within ten or so seconds, I passed out. To my shock, I woke to see sunlight shining down on my face, my frail little body once again being carried by the human boy. I reached up, and discovered thick but delicate bandages completely engulfing my neck, my shoulders, and much of my chest, to the point where I could not have raised my arms above my head. The intensity of the pain had been replaced by a strange and pleasant numbness, and I had zero desire to move, lest the burning reignite.

Although I had nearly been consumed by a flood, I’d thrown up quite a bit of what I had swallowed. I was thirsty, very suddenly so. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.

“Hmm?” He looked down. “Oh, hey, you’re awake! Are you okay?”

“He is?” asked Aaron, looking at me as he sat at Ian’s side.

“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.

I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘I’m thirsty’. Hearing nothing, my hands instinctively touched the cotton muffler at my throat.

“You’re…” Ian said. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I think he said… something about being dirty?”

“You can read lips?”

“I dunno.”

They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.

“Nope, guess I can’t,” said Aaron with a chuckle.

I pointed to my mouth.

“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”

I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my puckered lips.

“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty! Dad, do we have any water in here? Like a water bottle or something?”

The father looked around a bit, despite the distraction of the road beyond the windshield.

“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But I don’t think a water bottle would be good for him anyway. You’d probably drown him. We have an eyedropper at home, that might work.”

“All right.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right until we get home?”

I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly let my chin lean forwards, but the sting in my neck kept me motionless.

The drive only took a few minutes. But as I watched the landscape beyond the vehicle’s window fly by, tree after tree, sign post after street light, I realized just how far away I was traveling from you. I know our decisions had brought me to that place. My decisions. But I had run out of choices to make. If I tried to return to our village, especially with that kind of injury, I would die within a day. Maybe with the help of these denvi, once I regained my strength, I would have a chance to return to you.

The car stopped moving when it arrived at a well-kept building of white wood and red brick, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose, exiting the vehicle without being prompted.

“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody about him. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them I have a doctor’s appointment to go to or something.”

“You’re not wrong!” Aaron said with a quick smirk.

“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. “And good job today.”

The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The car then continued its movement.

In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the denvi vehicle, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the entire terrible week, it all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? And where would I be when I awoke?

Ian noticed my distress. Looking down, his breath fell upon me.

“Are you okay?”

“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”

“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”

Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure I had much for the boy or his father yet. But his few simple words granted me the permission I needed to surrender. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.

The very next something I experienced was a powerful smell. A collection of smells all wrapped into one, in fact. They weren’t individually terrible. Together, they clashed.

One was some kind of bitter cleaning solution, what denvi use to clean their floors and furniture. The second was unfamiliar, primal, the kind of odor that marks someone. I’ve been told that denvi only sort of experience such smells, that dogs are better at identifying people this way. Do you remember when you told me mine was like juniper? I never could help having that dull smell, no matter how much I bathed or what soap I washed with. But this one was thick, the smell of an older child and something buried, like orm roots. The third smell that consumed my senses was by far the strongest: a mixture of savory herbs and flavorful stock.

My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with bright graphics and frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of English words upon them. Beside the shelves was a wide window framed with dark-red curtains, through which I could see trees, telephone lines, and the light blue of a beautiful spring afternoon.

I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the roaring pain in my neck pinned me down. I dared not move, but I again attempted to make sound, any sound at all. When I mouthed the words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since, I nearly gagged as the inside of my throat erupted in irritation and pain. After all the blood and damage, it was only natural. If the doctor had been right about my throat, that my vocal chords had been “fractured” by whatever hellish thing I hit in the river, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to force my voice to function. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared.

My ears yearned for recognizable sounds. Muffled voices echoed from elsewhere inside the denvi home, all too indistinct. Every four seconds or so, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize it. It was hollow and tinged, like the metallic ping of a bell. I hated it. With every click, it felt like something in the back of my head was being struck with a ball-peen hammer. But since it didn’t approach, I deemed it annoying but nonthreatening.

Somewhere deep within the bowels of the house, the sound of rushing water echoed. Whenever their plumbing flowed, said the gatherers, denvi would be present.

I decided that the sound was too distant to concern me. Until, of course, I reasoned that distance didn’t exactly matter when all the denvi who lived there knew what I was, where I was, what I looked like, and my current state of health.

I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. For all their faults, I mused, the gatherers had been right about one thing: the denvi adored ninety degree angles. Every room that I had seen thus far had been perfectly rectangular, perfectly geometrical. I didn’t mind it. It had to make their construction projects simple, at least. I knew many who regularly complained about them, though.

Every room is the same, they often said. The only thing different about each room are the colors on the walls and the obstacles on the floor.

If the rooms are all the same, I would always ask, then, what makes them so hard to navigate?

Nothing important is ever on the floor, they would answer. It’s always up above.

I had never been too sure about that. But the gatherers’ toolkit made things quite clear, and never changed: steel grappling hooks, tough leather belts, and as much thread as you can shoulder. Climbing was the only way to survive in a denvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. Combined with the ability to remain hidden in the shadows. If a deni had any trouble with these two skills, they were better off staying home.

Like me.

I never was a very physical person. I couldn’t be. You know that. So I taught the deni children how to read and write, content to enjoy the odd scraps of paper the gatherers would bring back. When you convinced them to find some for us, of course. For a few moments, I wondered if I would ever get to teach again. I wondered if I would I ever get to live in a villageagain. Or, come to think of it, would I even see another living deni again?

A sound. The click-thud of a closing door. Footsteps.Big ones.They distanced themselves at first, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon the solid floor nearby.

I froze. Every instinct inside me demanded me to move, to flee, but the pain grew unbearable the moment I even dared to lurch forward. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. Death was just around the corner and I couldn’t move a muscle.

A great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head, shocking me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. If the skeletal visage of Death had actually entered the room, I’d never see him coming. Was that better or worse?

Great footsteps on carpet closed the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within a second, felt the brush of stirred air as a very large someone strode past where I lay. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me, walking further into the room.

The veritable weight of his presence unnerved me, certainly, but I realized that my position was somewhere high off the ground, as if on some shelf. If I had been lower down, in a crushing position, my psychological state would have been considerably more fragile. Once the ka named Ian passed by, I could no longer see him from within my bedding. He began humming some tune, considerably off-key, and I heard the crunch of metal springs beneath dozens, maybe even hundreds,of pounds.

I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t go to bed and leave me in a state of uncertain panic for two to three hours, either.

I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I had to try. Despite the discomfort, I raised my right arm, waving my hand back and forth to grab the boy’s attention. In that moment alone, I was glad you weren’t with me; you would have stabbed me with your hairpin to make me stop. I felt incredibly foolish. But it soon had its intended effect.

“Oh!” said a quiet voice.

The metal springs complained again, and deep-thumping steps brought the ka denvi into view. I don’t quite know why I expected his appearance to differ from only a few hours before. Though my imagination had turned him into a hideous monster as I slept, he simply… wasn’t. The dim yellow light that shone from behind him cast his massive shadow upon me. Despite this, more than enough daylight entered through the window that I could see him in detail. Bright green eyes, long messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face, his collar, and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.

“Hi,” he said to me.

I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not some other poor fool.

“Oh, good, you can wave.”

I couldn’t nod real well. But I could smile. Slightly.

“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”

I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help. Dad isn’t sure how much we can give you yet. He said he’s gonna do some research about it, though, maybe give you some… relative to your size, you know? Do the bandages help, at least?”

I moved my lips. I think he took that as a “yes”. He watched me for a bit longer than would be considered polite. I even closed my eyes for a second as if tired, just to look back and see he hadn’t stopped staring. I think I glared at him. That gave him the hint, and he shook out of his daze.

“Uh…” The boy chuckled, moving on. “Oh. Hey, do you… want me to get you anything?”

Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.

“Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot! Wait right here.”

Not that I had a choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out; the entirety of him suddenly not being in front of me was almost as jarring as him being there. I heard his footsteps travel a short distance, a door open, something clatter, and a waterfall cascade into a hollow bowl. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.

“Here you go,” said Ian cheerfully. In his hands he held a large plastic tube and an even larger vessel filled with pure water. “Drink from this.”

It wasn’t just a tube, exactly; a tube with a plunger within that could fill and empty just by squeezing the plunger through it. Ian brought the tube to my mouth, and as his thumb pressed upon the plunger, my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first fist-sized drop. Metaphorically. I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in maybe two days; I’d thrown up all the unclean river water I’d dare drink before then. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time with them, enjoying every second of the incredible crisp liquid. Finally, I leaned my head backwards as a sixth drop formed. I thought it might spill across my chest. But Ian was watching the procedure closely, and simply by pulling on the plunger, the drop withdrew back into the strange tube as if by magic.

“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”

I raised a finger up.

“One more?”

I pushed my hand forwards a few times.

“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”

He was considerate, I’d give him that. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room for more, I waved at him.

“Here ya go.”

The tube lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with a second, a third, and a fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water cease, which it did.

Now, I thought to myself, what do denvi do? Then I remembered; I’d seen it in a picture from a torn magazine once, and I’d seen Grandmother do it a few times. I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’m glad Ian did, and a smile formed on his face.

“Yay,” he said. “Good. Good. Hey, are you cold? Or hot? Lift up your arm.”

I didn’t, but the boy took it in his fingers anyway. My left arm, too. It hurt.

“Hmm. What about here?”

He felt my stomach with his forefinger. I lost a bit of air as he pressed down. He then lightly squeezed my right foot. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care; they hadn’t offered any real protection. I was just grateful I still wore any piece of clothing at all (specifically, the pants that clung to my waist).

“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel? Help keep you warm?”

My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite the blood loss and relative nakedness, most of me was badly sunburned, and for the first time in a week, I felt fairly comfortable.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Um, let’s see,” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level.

I turned my head as best I could, and saw the curious light of his eyes not more than a few arm lengths away. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly horrifying, being able to seemyself in that reflection.

“Dad says that it’s super-important that your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, we can watch a movie on my TV. I’ll watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”

I knew what a “movie” was, if only because of the word. At first, I gave him a halfway shrug. Until my plodding mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. When would I ever get the opportunity to watch a denvi movie otherwise? I quickly nodded to override my shrug.

“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see…”

Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps faded, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. Everything grew quiet. A door very far away slammed, and Ian’s footsteps rebounded towards me until he entered the room. He passed me by, fiddling with something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.

Ian then came into view.

“I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. Like sitting in your own theater.”

I nodded, not fully understanding. I only knew of “theaters” by the word. But if they had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit.

“Okay, here we go,” Ian said, his slender yet gigantic hands reaching for me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left; I half-expected to be smothered. Instead, I went airborne, descending into that strange and massive room. I didn’t have too much time to marvel at the movement before my bedding and I came to rest upon an inclined surface. Although I couldn’t say so, it felt wonderful to be seated. Ian’s hands disappeared, and there, standing upon its own table, I looked upon the largest and most foreboding black rectangle in existence.

The descent hadn’t frightened me all that much. No, it was the tower of a boy that loomed over me that attracted my horrified gaze. Dressed in a gray shirt and shorts, I could see Ian in much greater detail from my new perspective, from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange piece of warped glass, making the child only appear to stand as tall as a tree. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, under the complete command of this very real denvi.

I was right about lower altitudes, but perhaps not about him.Contrary to every tale I had ever heard about them, this human named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. He didn’t intend to, at least. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.

He crossed the room between me and the rectangle, taking some device in his hand. The pitch-black rectangle suddenly gave way to a pair of bright blue words that I couldn’t pronounce. They made no sound, but the two words then became a blue illustration of a television that playfully bounced back and forth across the screen. The television was active and ready.

“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung next to the window. “I’ve got a couple of movies to choose from. What do you think? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”

I hadn’t the slightest clue what any of those words meant. Without any hint of preference, I almost shrugged again, but then an idea popped in my head: I had a very important question (a number of questions, really), and without a voice, there was going to be only one way I could ask it.

I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.

Ian cocked his head to the side.

“You want to… write something?” he asked. He then smacked his forehead. “Oh! I’m so dumb! Why didn’t I think that you could? Hang on, let me find something you can use.”

Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. The silly boy mumbled to himself in the meantime.

“No, not a pen. Too big. Nay, pencil’s too big, too. Maybe if I snap it in half, I dunno. Marker? Eh, they’re all dead. And you can’t write with a cray… Ah!”

Something snapped, surely too delicate and light to be a whole pencil. More rummaging. Then the boy reappeared, kneeling before me.

“Here you go.”

His hand hovered close, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thicker than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them all the time: it was the lead of what the denvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.

“And here, you can use these.”

With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper up to the edge of my lap. I’d used these as well. They called them “sticky notes”. People in the village generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that comes off easily enough with a thin knife.

I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”

I looked; a familiar face looked back.

“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”

“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to watch a movie with him, but guess what? He knows how to write.”

The denvi’s face brightened.

“Really?” he said. “That’s wonderful! I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”

“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.

Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.

The denvi opened the door and stepped into the room, and I imagined him hitting his head on the top of the door frame. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I had never seen someone standing so tall before. I’ve never asked him to know for sure, but the good doctor had to stand more than seven feet tall, at least.He carried a large wooden stool in one hand as if expecting to enter whether I liked it or not. After placing it beside me and sitting down, Ian leaned backwards and plopped to the floor on his bottom. With both of them seated, I felt considerably less intimidated.

I pressed my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes, thinking for a moment. It would have been so much easier with a voice. I then pressed the graphite to the paper. Aware that the denvi would likely not be able to read my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words, rewriting them as large as I dared. It took me a moment to get used to my seating position, but I soon found a way to scribble without too much discomfort. Finished, I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.

He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it.

“Why would…? Because you were gonna die, silly.”

“What does it say?” asked his father.

Ian handed the note over.

“It says, why did you save me?”

The denvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.

“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people like us.”

I shook my head.

“What do you mean?” Ian asked.

“Well, I’ve never seen someone like him, have you?” Speaking to me, he said: “You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, did you?”

I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would get me in trouble somehow. I carefully traced letters to paper anyway, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to.

Ian’s father reached out first. He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.

“My family,” he read. “…is dead because of humans.”

Ian’s eyes opened wide.

“…seriously?”

His father remained impassive when I nodded.

“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” he said.

I looked away.

“…but your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”

“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”

They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Han and Sareil, the little brother and sister I would never know. Most of my students. Grandmother, your father Andre, and your brother Xande. I had already mourned for those I loved. As for the rest, what little grief I had for them was spent, and I could write without emotion.

I know this was always difficult for you to understand. But you, the children, and Grandmother were the only people I even wanted to care about. As for the rest, well… they could all go to hell. Writing about the dead wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them had made it very clear and public that they hated me.

It’s not the most satisfying form of revenge. They died, and I remember. But it has kept me warm some nights: I can remember them however I want.

I handed my response to Ian’s father.

“’Mostly sickness,’” he read.

I wrote another.

“‘Bad water and food.’”

“’Accidents. Animals.’”

“‘It’s not your fault, though.’”

I wrote another; despite the pad of paper being nearly as wide as I was tall, my arms were short, and I had little energy to say everything I wanted.

“’You are better than my family ever was,’” Ian’s father read. “What do you mean by that? I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal and patch you up,” Ian said.

I frowned. I wrote more.

“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Oh, well, I suppose we don’t.”

Ian squinted, wrinkling his nose.

“Were you running away from home or something?”

I wrote.

“They threw me out.’”

“Why?”

“Ian,” his father growled, scolding.

“…what?” he whined back.

They didn’t need to know everything. I put pencil to paper.

“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “Hmm. I did notice something before.”

“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.

“‘I can walk slow.’ Do you know what’s wrong with your leg?”

I wrote.

“‘I became very sick.’ When?”

I wrote again.

“’As a baby’. Both of your legs? Or just one?”

I held up a finger. Then two, wiggled my hand, and shrugged.

“Hmm. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”

I wrote.

“No. Very crooked.”

“Do you mind if I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”

I wobbled my head, motioning down. Ian’s father gently grasped my wretched left foot with one hand and lifted up my pant with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.

“Can you keep it lifted? By yourself?”

I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.

“Whoa,” Ian whispered. “It’s like… his knee looks backwards.”

“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”

“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father. His breath hit me immediately as he zoomed in; he was so close, I could have kicked his nose.

“See the muscles of his calf? And his thigh. Compare the two. See how much more developed the right is than the left? Oh, here. Sorry.”

He gently took my leg with his thumb and forefinger. I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My instincts told me to be worried about how closely they were examining me, but at that point, I preferred someone tear off my bum leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.

“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or just never grew strong.”

“Atrophy.” That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys nanol. So skinny and bent.

“It does look like it bends the other way… May I?”

At his request, I quickly shook my head and twisted to pull my leg away. I could hardly bend it myself without discomfort, I didn’t want a denvi to do it for me.

“Sorry, understood.” He seemed to ponder for a second after releasing my leg. “Have you ever injured your back or your neck? Broken any bones? Or was it just from falling ill as a child?”

I shook my head at the mention of broken bones, and simply shrugged off the rest.

“Interesting. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”

“Polio?” Ian asked. “What does polio do? Isn’t that gone?”

“Nearly gone, yeah. Before immunizations, it used to kill thousands of children a year all over the world, and often crippled those that survived. Now it’s nearly eradicated from humanity, but… maybe not from his people. Polio and meningitis can act just like this, with muscle weakness, paralysis, genu recurvatum.”

“Genu wha-huh-tum?” Ian asked.

I would have asked the same thing.

“Genu recurvatum. Hyperextension of the knee.”

“Oh. That’s the technical term?”

“Yep. Although, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.” He looked to me. “You can still feel your leg, move it, and bend it. Right?”

I nodded. I’d never heard of polio before. Or “genu wha-huh-tum.” Or “hyper-whatever-he-said.” But I knew the word “paralysis.” My left leg had never lost all of its feeling, or its ability to move. It was weak and misshapen, though, and it had been for as long as I could remember.

“How do you move around?” Ian asked me. “Hopefully not just limping.”

Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and pretended to walk, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my arms.

Ian’s father nodded.

“Crutches,” he said. “Hey, whatever works, right? You’re a tough one.”

I wrote three words of doubt.

“Hey, I don’t doubt it. I know a tough guy when I see one. You’ve got the upper body strength to prove it, I can tell.”

He poked me in the chest, and I offered him a small grin in return. There really wasn’t much muscle there either, but it was a nice thought.

“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night, you weren’t actually trying to swim in the canal, were you?”

I shrugged. I had only really intended to follow the bank of the river in the direction it ran, but the slippery mud and gravity conspired against me.

“You can swim? With that leg? Wow.”

“It’s all in the arms,” Ian’s father said, flexing his own. After a chuckle, he pointed to his neck and asked: “Do you have any idea how you got hurt? Did you hit something? Or fall?”

“Yeah! Or did a cat get you with its claws or something?”

I wrote many notes in a row. Ian’s father gathered them all in his fingers.

“‘No animals. I fell into the water. I hit something sharp, metal maybe. Couldn’t breathe. Threw up blood and passed out.’” Ian’s father nodded. “We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye out for infection. Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel nauseous, you tell us right away.”

“But he can’t.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder. He paused. “He can’t tell us.”

“Hmm. And it’s hard to hear someone shout on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, something he can hit.”

“Good idea. And I’ll listen for it if he needs anything.”

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to be the night nurse tonight?”

Ian sat up straight and offered me a mighty salute.

“Yes sir! I’m at your command, sir!”

I laughed. Tried to. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two denvi motioned to stand, I closed my eyes. I dug deep and forced a growl, demanding it emerge from wherever it would. It actually did. Though filled with mucus, blood, and (for all I knew) gravel, my upper throat could still make a hoarse rasping noise.

I sighed; it was something.

“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”

“Huh?” asked Ian.

“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know this little scamp by now, this is Ian. My name is James. James Petersen.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry! I didn’t even think about that.”

“Can we ask you your name?” James asked.

I nodded gratefully, and wrote it in English. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.

“‘Lenn’. That’s a cool name. Can I call you Lenny?”

I raised a dull eyebrow at him. It made him giggle, for some reason.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn,” James said, playfully prodding his son’s head at the odd joke. “When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you. I hope we’ll be able to help you, I really do.”

I didn’t thank them, then. I should have. They had given me medicine, a bed, water, and kind words. Only two other people in my life had ever done likewise. One was long dead. The other I had left to endure misery alone.

Gratitude never was my forte.

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Quantum Plasma Rifle (“Mojave-Rust” Custom Paint Job for the Fallout Plasma Rifle Prop)

This is a project three years in the making, because I was too scared that my inexperience in paiting props would screw it up. I finally gathered my courage and rusted/battle-scarred this thing last night.

Presenting the Quantum Plasma Rifle with a “Mojave-Rusted” custom paint job. I think it turned out really well. Now to learn how to create a custom soundboard, save up the money to buy the parts, and slap a bunch of fun circuits on this thing.

See, the truth about the dead light… I didn’t do a good job with the wiring on the inside while changing out the LEDs. My one regret. But sometimes they flash on and off a bit, so I’ll say that’s part of the “age” of the gun. Can’t wait for next Halloween when my vault suit is finished.  😃

Not Good for the Heart (?)

I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. Or stress. That’s probably not surprising for anyone who knows me. If you don’t, you may wonder why I wandered into the depths of politics and religion with the last two articles I wrote. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. Nothin’ like “a waste of time” to get the blood pumping. I always find a way to stretch the barriers surrounding my own emotional containment. I’ve been told this is a good thing, but I’m not too sure about that. I feel like I’ve learned a few things this week, though, and I thought I’d share (if only to help me process my own feelings).

Hemingway once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If that’s the case, then writing is a biopsy, and the reader is a doctor. Deep inside, you hope the reader is trained to process the results. You hope the reader has a decent bedside manner. You hope what you have isn’t terminal.

Oop, it’s terminal.

It’s the big word in the middle, it’s wonderful; I’ve never had someone critique my work with something so specific before. Kind of exciting, actually. I was looking for “preachy”, but “tendentious” is fantastic. At first I thought he misspelled “tangentious”, like, going off on endless amounts of tangents. And boy, do I ever (I love parentheses). But no, that’s not what the word means.

Tendentious: “expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one.”

Thank the Lord, someone actually recognized what I was doing! It sounds like I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not: I’ve been waiting years for someone to give me feedback that’s so specific. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life working for marketing agencies where the only feedback I receive is if the details of the content I write need clarification or correcting. And if they do need correcting, I don’t often get specifics about adding things so much as deleting. Having worked for the last two-and-a-half years as a remote freelancer, I don’t get to discuss content writing much with people who do the same work, since, well… I don’t have co-workers.

I’m pretty used to being wrong, though. And I’m very used to being boring.

But “tendentious”… I never get to be tendentious, much less get recognized for it.

Hypocrite? Well, yeah, I mean, I mentioned that I was in the article. I usually assume everyone is, but it’s good to play it safe. I mentioned the possibility of being wrong many times, too, so I’m happy to get confirmation. The review even made it to the last line in the article, too, which makes this even more exciting; I only mentioned invoked Reagan’s name once, and despite agreeing with the sentiment that he was an evil hypocrite (just as every mortal who ever lived in this world is), I still believe the quote is useful, if not an actual truth.

You know how many times I’ve told myself that I’ve been wasting my time, though? That’s old news, my man; you and my brain both. And not just here, on this blog. I’ve mentioned in the past how I’ve felt about my own work, how none of the hundreds and thousands of pages of content I’ve written over the course of my life will ever be seen by human eyes. Even now, the words I’m writing amount to a fart in the wind. Nothing besides a bit of traffic from URL bot trawlers on search engines and blog scammers.

To be honest, though… I’ve never really had anything I’ve wanted to say before. Not really. I’m strange that way. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, writing silly stories for myself and never for anyone else. Only in the last few years have I reached out to my own family members to see if I had anything worth saying. Not until early 2021 did I realize how hard it was to love writing while being too scared to show people the metaphorical blood on the typewriter.

When I chose “atheism” and “religion” as two of the keywords that would be attached to the last blog post, I knew what I was doing. I knew the kind of people I was inviting to the party. And I want to thank him. Honestly. Your feedback, while not the first deconstructive criticism I’ve ever received, told me more than I ever hoped for about an article that I knew was a throwaway from the start. You recognized I gave it effort, you recognized its purpose, and you read it to the end. Not a lot of readers have given my work that much attention, much less that much recognition.

Okay, it was… mostly a throwaway. I don’t enjoy writing things that aren’t meaningful to me, in some way (it’s why I didn’t get my bachelor’s, after all). Like I’ve said, thinking gets me into trouble. No matter how heartfelt I start things, the more I bleed across the metaphorical page, the more I realize that I’m just making a mess, and not a pretty one.

But, as a writer, I am duty-bound to bleed. And the more time and effort I waste in this profession, the stronger I become as a writer and as a person. Now that I’m no longer shackled to my medications and caffeine, I am able to accept unwarranted (and delightfully-specific) heat when it comes my way. And that is a wonderful sign of progress.

This all being said, however… I’ll take my refiner’s fire by degrees, thank you. I’m still a wuss. A wuss in remission, but still certainly one.

Something, Not Anything, and Especially Not Nothing

These words have power, even in fiction. And they’re worth holding on to.

A video appeared in my Facebook feed recently by Brad Stein entitled: “Ricky Gervais Atheism Rebuttal (Part 1)“. And it got me thinking. I know I get in trouble when I think out loud, but I can’t help it. So I’ll throw my two cents out there, mostly to help me form my own understanding.

One of the main points of atheism that I understand the least is the desire to throw away all of man’s collected theological arguments, philosophies, and development. Just get rid of it, they say. All of it. Immediately. We don’t need it anymore. If the world could just “get over” God completely, they argue, we might actually start making sense to each other. After all, now that we have the scientific method, what do we need faith for?

The thing that gets me is that they speak as if a religion-less world would solve more problems than it would cause. You know the phrase, “throw the baby out with the bath water?” To get rid of all religion and God, you might as well be throwing the whole bathroom out of the house. Yes, the bathroom often smells bad, and yes, it needs cleaning more than most other rooms in the house. In fact, sometimes the sewage comes back up and explodes out of the toilet, and sometimes we have to call the plumber or even the disaster clean-up crew to come take care of things.

But no one would argue that building a house without a bathroom is a good idea, at least not in the modern world. Even if it’s an outhouse on the property, outside of the house of society, it is something man can’t do without, and to say that they can invites trouble.

But there’s more to this analogy than comparing religion to waste disposal, because the bathroom is used for much more than this. The bathroom is where man comes to become clean. It is the one place inside the home where man is renewed, when man begins and ends each day, mostly out of necessity, but sometimes… just because. (Apologies if this overstretches the analogy. But really, what parent hasn’t retreated to the bathroom for a moment of solace?) A home without a bathroom is a miserable place, and even if you’ve chosen to build your home without one, there is somewhere in your home that you wash yourself and do your business.

If not, well… I hope you use dry shampoo, at least.

Hopefully you’ve noticed by now that I’m not really talking about the optimal type of bathroom, whether you should have tile or hardwood floors, or whether a bidet is preferrable to toilet paper. Which religion is true isn’t the question here (although, due to my inexperience, my argument is from the Christian perspective, as it is the one I am most familiar with). It’s the question of, on a societal scale, whether religion is preferrable to none at all. And, like it or not, believe it or not, religion has been an absolute necessity in mankind’s development, and will continue to be, so long as man requires a source of moral integrity.

And I submit that he does.

(Yet another aspect of atheism I don’t quite grasp. They insist that man is capable of being a moral creature on his own, that left without restrictions of belief, he could make manifest a modern and moral society. All I ask is: moral to who, exactly? The greatest amount of us, or a select few? The society that accepts stories such as The Lord of the Flies, 1984, and hundreds of other godless dystopias as societal possibilities states this “fact” with a straight face, and that has always confused me.)

Let’s be fair: if it wasn’t for the very Christian founding of the United States that believes that speech is a sacred gift that ought to be protected, even if the speaker is factually or morally wrong, there are a lot of other discussions that we wouldn’t and couldn’t even be having right now (as an aside: you can, in fact, shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, especially if the theater is actually on fire, in which case you probably should, and remember to help everyone find the right exits. In fact, to expand on this analogy, in my opinion, it is the sole purpose of the religious to shout when they see fires, i.e. moral dangers, stamp them out when they can, and help the weak and downtrodden escape with their lives, sometimes quite literally.) I submit that the very site that hosts this blog and others like it would not exist without it (the fact that there are countries that block Wikipedia, of all things, or at least interfere with the free editing of its content, is astounding to me. But not unexpected, and telling of cultures and, yes, religions that do not agree that you can simply say things).

The scientific method and all the vaunted sciences which atheism loves so very much were developed by God-fearing men and women who sought to understand all the facets of creation, and might not have done so with such feverish dedication and curiosity had they not felt a moral obligation to do so (a moral obligation that arose, I might add, often because of their faith, and not in spite of it). From the ancient Greeks to the Islamic Golden Age, from Galileo to Sir Issac Newton, the search for knowledge and truth has never been separate from faith and belief until these most recent two centuries. The Renaissance, for instance, was financed and forwarded as a whole by men of faith; only now, in these days, would we question the worthiness of a scientist by his belief in a higher power. Even men like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking would not have been able to perform their work without standing upon the moral foundations laid by men who at least publicly believed in God.

Yes, men and women are foolish, and very imperfect. Petty, often, and gullible. We always have been and we always will be. Man’s religions especially so. But we would not be as “advanced” as we are without them, and, in my humble opinion, we would be dramatically worse off without God and religon existing within our societal framework. Indeed, God and religion is the framework we build on, and to rip it out and start from nothing would be both ill-advised and (in my opinion) probably impossible anyway, so long as people exist in this world who seek to help and love others.

That’s not to say that atheists are incapable of love or giving to charity. But I am saying there is a correlation between goodness and religion that is undeniable.

An article entitled “Can societies abandon religion and continue to prosper?” was written for MercatorNet by Michael Kirke and lays out a few points of evidence for this. I’ll highlight this main point:

“In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress… as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory?

“…if the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mindset. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures — with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events —  still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events, and follies, of our times.”

In my opinion, it couldn’t be less illusory if it tried. That starved, desperate, violent world is the world that our modern one was built on, and if popular media tells me anything, it’s the one we will return to if society should ever collapse under its own weight. And, in the end, you can’t get away from that. You accept the most good that you possibly can, remember it in the history books, and move on, else we go back to square one with nothing and repeat the suffering in ignorance.

Perhaps the most common argument for atheism I encountered was the argument that man is never more bloodthirsty, murderous, and trecherous than when serving a god. And yes, it’s true: under the banner of religion, man has murdered their fellow man in untold numbers, from the days of Babylon to the planes that struck the Twin Towers. But it wasn’t until we managed to get God out of the way that man made murder an industrialized endeavor. From the Holocaust to the Holodomor, from Mao’s glorious revolution to the killing fields of Cambodia, man gets awful good at killing other men and doing terrible things when they put God aside, often with the aspirations that life will be better once the undesirables are gone.

Because the first undesirable removed, inevitably, is God Himself. And that is hardly God’s fault.

The silliest argument I’ve ever got into with someone about the intrinsic value of religion was about the total death toll of the Crusades, how the conflict that spanned two centuries would not have happened had God and religion not been involved.

Such a simple theory of a simpler time, as if the greater religions of politics and desperation were not as active and far-reaching.

At the time, I didn’t have the numbers in front of me, but here they are. They’re rough, of course; anywhere from one million to nine million soldiers and civilians dead due to the 200-year, octuple-pronged conquest of the Holy Land. It’s impossible to be accurate these days, but even with rough estimates, and with all due respect for generations of people that died under terrible and barbaric circumstances, these are baby numbers.

The Third Reich was able to kill just as many people in a period of ten years. The Soviets’ five-year plan did it in a single year. Mao did four to eight times more, in only four years. And without a god to be found.

But, naturally, when you use the word “conquest”, it makes it sound so one-sided, when it was very much not. In fact, most of the “crusades” were failures, and overall they certainly were. Could I just submit the possibility that such a conflict was, in fact, not ordained of God? That, in fact, the majority of reasons the conflict began actually first conflicted with the very commandments God gave His followers, namely “thou shall not kill”? That it was men and power, not religion, that was the problem? Because, again, let’s be honest: even some Christians thought it wasn’t a good idea to continue sacking the East in 1114, and Christians were slaughtered for getting in the way. There’s a reason they started, though, that wasn’t “because God told them to”. The First Crusade began because Emperor Alexios of the Byzantines (who was not Catholic) no longer had control over the region and asked Pope Urban II to intervene, which they might have done anyway because of the massive military victories made by the Muslims in Spain in the mid 1000’s. There’s a board game about it, for Pete’s sake. Europe was in trouble, and needed to stand up for themselves. Too bad it took eight crusades to realize they didn’t need to take it that far; by then, it was just a thing to do to prove yourself a decent Catholic ruler.

Of the ten worst genocides in modern history, only the genocide that took place in Bangladesh in 1971 was committed solely on the grounds of state-sanctioned religous bigotry. All the other man-made cataclysms were performed with different primary motivations in mind, many of which were actually state-sanctioned genocides of specific religious groups, or became worse for those that followed a particular belief system.

Is that fair to say? Even as I write this, I know how complicated history is, and how uneducated I am. Even now, I have trouble believing that someone would care so much about the things I believe… that they wouldn’t merely prefer I didn’t exist, but would go out of their way to kill me, my family, and everyone who dared to share my worldview. That if I were Jewish in Poland in 1942, an SS officer’s first reaction to learning of my existence would be to reach for their gun and not shrug in indifference. That if I were Muslim and living in Cambodia in 1975, that the first reaction of an agent of Khmer Rouge to seeing me across the room would be a knee-jerk execution by machete and thrown in a mass grave with the bodies of my friends and loved ones. After all, I’ve been told so often that it’s the religious people that love killing people so much. Why would a non-believer act like this?

If this sounds naive, it’s because I’m being so on purpose. That’s my point: people are awful anyway, no matter what they profess to believe.

Yes, people are terrible. And people with power are even worse, especially when made desperate. But that does not mean the whole of the system of belief that a powerful man holds is a net evil, especially when the system is judged only by the actions of those in power.

So what is religion, then? Is it opium for the masses, like the Marxists say? Is it merely an allowance, a shield you can wield against all forms of criticism, especially if you’re able to fool enough of those terrible people? Is it an oppressive and unnecessary system of rules and regulations that forbid you from thinking for yourself? Is religion merely “the effect of a frenzied mind… [a] derangement of your minds [that] comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so”?

If that’s all it is, there’s great news. The philosophers have spoken: “God is dead, for we have killed Him.”

But what would you put in His place?

The haughty answer is: “nothing.” I think the honest answer is: “anything else.” I believe the more complicated answer is: “everything else.”

How long will that last, do you think? In this world of popularity contests and symbolism, how long can you hold together a world of people with “nothing”? With “anything”? I know from personal experience that “everything” can distract for a good couple of years, at least. But is that all I get in return? A distraction?

You’ve got to be able to make us all some promises with your “anything” and “everything else”.

If we dropped everything we believed, right now, would fewer of us die in the short-term if we followed your “everything”? And I do mean all of us, all people living right now, because that is the endless demand I hear. How about long-term? Would fewer of us encounter a broken heart, or heal from heartache and separation faster? Would fewer of us have to suffer from depression, sadness, and doubt? Would your “anything else” make us all less lonely? Would your noisy “everything” help us find meaning in our existence in this staggeringly uncaring universe? Could it protect us from hopelessness? Could it save us from sorrow? And if it could not, could it at least explain why we are destined to live in such conditions?

In my own life, I have felt abandoned by those who shared my faith. When I was at my lowest point, I did not know how to ask for help, and they did not know how to give it. But it is a commandment in my religion to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”. Yes, those that share my faith may have failed to follow that commandment sometimes, due to inexperience or insecurity.

But they succeeded far more than they failed. Nothingness didn’t have an answer for me. Atheism doesn’t care if I attempt suicide again. My one small life means nothing to nothingness, and it means much less than that to “everything” and “anything”. But my faith tells me that my God does care. A lot, actually. And because of that, I am still here.

Does your belief system compel you to act the same towards others? Does it urge you to reach out the those you love, even when you don’t know how? Or even to reach out to those who mean nothing to you? It’s likely to. If so, where does the system you follow originate?

Just as the worth of a man’s thoughts are best judged by what he thinks when he is alone, so too is a man’s beliefs. Therein lies the difficulty, because although religion and faith affects the whole fabric of society, it is a very personal thing, a very individual thing. A difficult-to-control thing. A difficult-to-explain thing.

But none of these traits make religion wrong. Or even useless. Far from it, actually. It’s only a shame it has taken this long to reach a view of individualism that we can have honest and peaceful discussions about what makes our beliefs different. And it’s a greater shame that believers are often shamed for doing so (and I share these examples because of how easily I can see them being mocked on the social media cesspool that is Twitter; I have no desire to look up examples).

Talk about “comically” missing the point. The artist has proven only that he has made the slimmest of mental effort, throwing away the whole of “white American Christianity” by lumping them with terrorists, murderers, and child traffickers. I don’t care how you feel about any of the groups portrayed, though, honestly: caricature and mockery like this removes our willingness to understand each other. Be they enemy or friend, saint or sinner, 85% of the population of the world affiliates with a religion. Like it or not, believe it or not, you do yourself a disservice by ignoring and discarding it without learning why.

Whether you believe in God or not, you must acknowledge that everything we cling to, everything we love, and everything we consider beautiful stems from something: a system of belief, a tradition, a source of morality. Even if you don’t believe it, it’s likely someone you love does, and it’s likely they were taught by others that believed. If a man removes from himself a fundamental source of morality, he allows for his children to believe in anything.

And “anything” is one of the most terrifying things someone can believe in. This article, entitled: “Believing In Anything” by Dale Ahlquist, is a wonderful read, as is G. K. Chesterton as a whole, if you ever get the chance.

I’m not asking you to believe in the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m not even asking you to believe in the god I believe in, really. I’m only asking you to watch your child’s actions and behaviors if they do believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and ponder what use that belief serves. I’m only asking you to judge how the man who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster lives his life, and if he and those he associates with are all the better for his mockery.

I’m only asking you to judge our society and people the way my God did, and if any of it has value, to not discard the whole of it, and ask why:

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Matthew 7:16-20

That’s why I can’t throw it all away, like the atheists tell me to: because there is goodness there. It is personal. It is difficult to explain. It’s also why I don’t blame those that have, if that is truly what they have experienced. But, as the Gipper once said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. And like it or not, believe it or not, faith is an inextricable virtue of freedom. Square one is not a place I want to raise my own children, no matter how flawed the people who stand on square forty-two might be. Because, for all I know, those strange people with strange thoughts on square forty-two might have something of real value.

If you’ve got a bridge you’d like to sell me, I’ve got a bathroom remodel I can offer you in return. All you need to do is ask.

The Price of (My) Education

Sorry if politics isn’t your thing. But this really gets my goat. My gander. My dander? I can’t remember the phrase, but this grinds my gears.

This opinion article by Deseret News recently appeared in my Facebook timeline. It’s titled: “President Biden forgave my student loans — I wish he hadn’t“. It really hits on how I feel about the U.S. government’s attempts to provide “charity” to its poorest citizens (or so our political leaders loudly insist).

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am on government welfare. I am on Medicaid, as I have a mental illness that has severely affected my ability to live, much less hold a job and pay my bills. I am not on food stamps, and never have been, despite my attempts to ask for it. I am not a wise person when it comes to money; I have filed for bankruptcy in the past, and I get the feeling that even if I was rolling in funds, I would be spending more than I would be making. If I were to win the lottery, I would be one of those fools that would manage to blow 500 million dollars right out the window (and having researched examples of lottery winners who lost it all, I don’t hesistate in saying that my 20-year old self would have done the same).

Yes, I am a fool. Yes, I am a hypocrite.

But, for all my faults, my country’s current leaders are making me look good.

One commentor on Facebook mentioned: “Well, what have the republicans done to improve the price of education? Haven’t they made the problem worse?”

Uh-huh. They did. It’s why the Republican party is no better than the Democratic party when it comes to forcefully funding “help for the poor” initiatives. They do it just to look good. There are no frugally-fiscal Republicans (none who would who use such a title), and very few fiscal conservatives. Look at me, becoming a fan of Ron Paul. Who knew?

Either way, I fell for the scam and made poor decisions, taking out loans for a degree I couldn’t finish due to poor health. And even if my health would allow it, to be honest, I refuse to finish it because my liberal arts English degree is taught only by communist quacks (yes, even at UVU/BYU/BYU-I, in the heart of supposedly-conservative Utah and Idaho). I didn’t want to learn about postmodernism, race theory, gender theory, or the dozens of other -isms and theories that liberal arts proports to make the college seem more scientific when it is ANYTHING but. I just wanted to learn how to write. And nobody suggested I learn how any other way (praise God I’ve been able to start my career without it).

Do I value my post-high-school education? Sure. Was it time well spent? Not really. Did it teach me to think critically? You could say that, yes, mostly about how crappy my overall experience was. Mostly about how I should have gone to a trade school and become an electrician. I love electrons more than I love Foucault, Derrida, and Marx, that’s for sure. By far, the most important lesson I learned in college was that some teachers just don’t give a damn, no matter how much you want to learn from them. No, I’m not going to name the teachers. I doubt they even know who they are, and that’s fine. Let’s just say, if you’re not the favorite, your will doesn’t really matter, no matter how expensive the tuition. The student is the servant, the peasant; feudalism hasn’t gone away, it’s moved to academia. You’re just another face in a wide sea of faces. And woe to you if your face becomes recognizable. Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned.

I’ll give a more concrete example.

One of the things about college education that really gets me these days are attendance rules. The worst class I ever attempted (yes, worse than postmodernism) was an HTML class that said, in no uncertain terms, that if you miss three days of class, even nonconsecutively, you fail, no questions asked. Well, I couldn’t find the damn class the first day, so there’s one. And then my illness hits me, as it tended to do, and there went two more. The class was held Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, held throughout the semester, so it wasn’t one of those fast-track courses that had only seven classes total or something. I might have agreed that missing MOST of a class would outright fail you, since you can’t learn anything in that case.

Worse, the class was not difficult. At all. It was a 200-level HTML class for liberal arts majors, and I had already done HTML and CSS the year previous, as I had changed my major from digital media to English. Just my luck that the credits didn’t transfer. I had even done the assignment that was due the day after my absences. But despite even attempting to communicate with the teacher why I missed those three days, the teacher wouldn’t accept my reasons, my completed assignment, or my attendance in his class. He wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of me staying, and he wouldn’t sign any papers that would let me drop the class to save money (I ‘failed’ the class well before midterms, but after the date that would allow classes to be dropped). He said: “it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else in the class.”

Oh. I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that my education was anyone else’s buisness. I wasn’t yet aware that college was a communistic affair. Now I know better.

I get that an employer would have fired me for three “no-show” days. But I submit that a good employer wouldn’t have cared had the work been done on time and correctly. Besides that, I feel like some teachers and professors create unbreakable, unbendable rules that sound good on paper but leave no room for the possibility that someone who might break them is still capable of learning.

…did I mention this was an HTML class? It wasn’t Hemmingway or Shakespeare, missing three out of the thirty-some-odd classes wouldn’t have set me back. I was taking the class in person like a lemon because they didn’t offer the liberal arts version online… because of course they didn’t. Not in that major. Not before the pandemic, though I’ve heard that covid-19 has made university attendance policies somehow less amenable, not more.

By the end of my college experience, I became too scared to attend class. Part of that was the illness, but part of it was the realization that no one cared that I was there, especially not the professors. Sad that these sentiments are the great-big asterisk hovering above my college days.

One of my favorite lines from a Medium article by Elliot Swane, speaking of Foucauldianism (yup, that is an ugly-ass noun): “…because affirming pointlessness, and then just doodling words around on the page and drawing faint connections and dropping them, is pointless, and pointless shit is pointless, ad infinitum.” That’s how it felt to take my postmodernism class. And I took it twice, from two different teachers, because I just couldn’t handle the bullshit. And each time, someone in class would ask: “Why are we learning it if everything is meaningless?” And each time, I would fully agree, and walk away.

Don’t even get me started on Derrida. That guy couldn’t philosophise his way out of a wet paper bag.

I couldn’t afford school at 18, I can’t afford it at 34, and now that the government has assumed complete monetary control over education, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I can justify taking out another set of loans to try again. Morally, I can’t do it. Otherwise, I’m going to end up forcing my friends, my family, my acquaintances, my enemies, and all the other American taxpayers I don’t know to pay for something I don’t really even want.

Maybe I’ll be one of those centenarians who goes back to get their degree. With how the future is looking, though, I doubt it. I wish I could refuse this “help”. I really do, even in my financial state. Great Lakes (the originator of my loan) does not give me the option to refuse, because they’ve already taken the money. But, then again, maybe Biden was aiming at me when he decided to spend your billions of dollars.

In that case, I guess I’m flattered. But I’m still not voting for him in 2024. Sorry, not sorry.

The Folly of the Almuftari – A Dragon’s Keep Tale

Jin Concept Art, generated by Midjourney

* * * *

Yarmaz Yln-Tapal. A khine of great strength. Resolve like the heat of the midday sun, pride powerful enough to shatter the salted dunes a hundred times and again. His memory, faded, conceals his form, leaving nothing more before you than a spectre, a trace of sandalwood and charred jasmine. A shadow, hoarse, ever-present on the edges of your memory like the scraping of tanned leather on a hunter’s knife.

He looks nothing like you. Nor do you look like Mother.

Tell me the tale of the Almuftari again, please?” you say, in Khinazhi. Excited, young, not yet cognizant enough to realize what you are asking.

Yarmaz peers down at you, the scowl writ plain upon his featureless visage. You remember this annoyance well, despite the six long decades dividing you from its last occurrence.

If I must, Muswah’tif.”

Ah, yes. You remember what he used to call you. The twisted child. Grotesque. Disfigured. A descriptor you would soon take advantage of, as fate grows darker. Yet now, you think nothing of it. The other khine tif would point and laugh at you when they said those words. He never did. For better or for worse. Though he was the originator, your hate was not yet directed at him.

With a sigh, Yarmaz sat upon the rock, opposite you from the glow of a warm and gentle fire. His eyes, cowled deep within the depths of time and the hooded dulband he always wore.

The Almuftari,” he begins. “Existed in the age before sand, in a time when the sea and the land were one place beneath the pale moon. The Alkawnum was not yet safe to live upon, as all the earth and fire and water roiled together within a chaotic storm. The khine who lived within the chaos found shelter upon islands of stone that floated upon the deep, and they huddled together for warmth, naked, fearful, for there was no comfort to be found in the world.

The Almuftari was born among them. From the moment he departed his mother’s womb, he was a marked being. Different from the khine of his village, in mind, in temperament. Of them, but not. Few descriptions of him remain, save for a single deta-”

His horns, right? Abu?” You say, cutting him off.

Yes, his horns,” Yarmaz states. “Don’t interrupt, Muswah’tif.

Asuf,” you whisper timidly in apology.

His true name has been lost to history,” your father continues after a deep cough. “Though if it could be remembered, all faithful sons and daughters of the Seleph’en—the Forefathers—would do well to erase any trace of it that could be found. For when the Almuftari came of age, his people realized that what made him different was not merely his slow steps, nor his rambling, mumbling speech. Whatever he desired, he could command the elements to grant him, and they would answer his request without hesitation. His mother and father, his brothers and sisters, scraped algae from the bark of rotting juniper to calm the pain in their bellies, and struggled to weave the barest threads of the luna moth to clothe themselves.

Not so for the Almuftari.

Upon a whim, he reached out to the nether, and upon his shoulders rested the finest garments of magic-woven gold and inle cotton. When he grew hungry, the very aether afforded him a veritable feast of the finest and most delicious victuals one could imagine. At first, he shared with the others the gifts the intractable Alkawnum granted him. But he soon grew fat, selfish, insistent that he alone deserved what the chaos provided, for none of his family or his friends had such command upon the elements. He alone could form from formlessness, so he alone would benefit.

Foolish and cruel, the Almuftari used his power to enslave his people. Though he had the ability to create food, raise the earth, and even conjure constructs and shelter, he fed only himself, clothed and housed only himself. He claimed the very island upon which his family subsisted and demanded they build for him a temple in which they would worship him. When the people told him they had no stones to build such a thing, with a wave of his hand, massive stones appeared with but a gesture. He demanded their labor, and they gave it, when he might have simply manifested such an edifice with but a single thought.

And so the Seleph’en suffered and toiled beneath the heel of the Almuftari. Every square inch of their island was soon covered by the temple stones he summoned from the aether beneath them. They, and their children, worked unto death, even as the corpulent Almuftari grew bloated, gluttened upon the endless feasts that appeared before him whenever he wished. An untold number of years passed until at last the temple was completed. A beautiful and horrific monument to greed and avarice, every glyph and design that adorned the primal rock venerating the Almuftari. So large was the structure that it could not be admired from the outside, for there was no earth beyond the island upon which one could view it. Never once did the Seleph’en rebel against the mad tyrant, even as they buried their children and their fathers beneath the cornerstones of that wicked place.

At last, the Almuftari gathered the remaining Seleph’en together, demanding that each of them kneel before him in obeisance. Each and every one of them did so.

Save one.

Azana,” you whisper.

Yes, Muswah’tif,” Yarmaz continues, only a hint of irritation in his voice. “Only the child Azana stood, even as her kin knelt before the Almuftari. As the Almuftari had been marked from the womb, so Azana was also, her shining skin bescaled like the Basilisk of Mudradrih. At birth, her mother had hidden her in the crevice of the temple’s first lain stone; the Almuftari had grown so fat, he could no longer move from his great chamber-bed at the centerpoint of the temple, and so he never learned of her existence. Though not more than four winters of age, when she first laid her eyes upon the tyrant and heard the Almuftari’s demands, she was filled with a righteous yet quiet anger.

At the sight of the child, the Almuftari did not speak for a time. He did not know what to say, as he had never once been disobeyed by anyone or any thing. A second time, he demanded the little khine girl kneel before him.

No,’ she answered him.

Again, the Almuftari did not speak. He could not even be angry, as something as simple as refusal did not make sense to him.

Out of instinct, the Almuftari set aside words and drew instead upon his eldrich powers of control. To his horror, not only could Azana refuse his supernatural command, her very essence did more than deny his reach. The more his will stretched out to force the child to kneel, the more he felt the mass of his own body drag him down, until at last he managed only to topple forwards and fall upon his belly before her.

The Almuftari, so engorged from the endless years of eating and devouring, and so weakened by an era of motionless sloth, could not so much as roll over to recover himself. He had forgotten one simple truth: despite his boundless powers of creation and enslavement, he was a khine still, a creature bound to the laws of nature. And khine cannot live without air. Suffocating beneath his own girth, he could only ask Azana a single question, with the last of his life’s breath.

Why?’

Azana did not answer him. She did not owe him the kindness.

The Seleph’en survivors did not bury the Almuftari, choosing instead to roll the putrid remains of the tyrant off the edge of the island and into the swirling and twisting elements that he had once so easily commanded. Had they known the consequences of such an action, they may have given this a second thought and simply buried the corse beneath the stones of his own temple. For where the khine horde wealth and sustenance from those in need, there the Almuftari’s essence remains.

But what of Azana?” you ask your father, breathless, although you know the answer by heart. “What happened to the Seleph’en after that?

The details are few,” Yarmaz says with a simple shrug. “With Azana leading her people, the stones the Almuftari created served as stepping-stones that the Seleph’en then used to cross the boundless deep, where they discovered untouched islands of stone, of wood, and iron. When the eons passed and the chaos of the elements grew calm, Azana led the children of her people to the edge of the distant sea. Separate from the waters, she gifted the khine the endless sands, and all the jewels of the mountains, in restitution for their suffering. Some say she even taught the children of the Seleph how to tame the first great titan lizards upon which they traverse the wastes to this day.

Satisfied that her people were safe from both chaos and fear, Azana departed into the wilderness alone to fade into the sands of time and reason. But before she did so, she granted one last gift to the children of the Selaph. Do you remember what it was?

The stars!” you exclaim, pointing to the sky.

Yes,” Yarmaz then says, gruffly, pointing upwards as well. “But which stars?

You pause, peering up into the night above you. You are unsure. He has never mentioned this detail before.

I don’t know,” you answer honestly, your gaze connecting with his. “All of them?

Stupid boy,” Yarmaz then says, sharply. “Look.

You do so, following the direction of his finger directly into the heavenly sea. All at once, you are no longer a boy who is blind. You are a man, a tired, elderly man, a khine who had seen far more winters than your father ever did, whose eyes had become attuned to the celestial array now set before you.

Rige. Bellafon. Alni-Alnan-Mintan, the triplet sisters, your mind reels at the sheer depth of the scene before you, desperate to remember the names of the constellations being set in front of your new eyes. The horizon dips before you, the shadow threatening to overtake your vision, but the view recovers as if propelled by the wings of Lendys Himself.

Saiphis. Wix. And finally, Arneb and Nihal. As the distant siblings pass, you are greeted by a familiar view: a massive stone in the shape of a paladin’s hammer. Beyond it, rushing as fast as the winds of Leshal, numberless mountains and valleys open wide to reveal a distant shoreline, an infinite expanse of sparkling water as far as your eyes can see, reflecting the star-filled sea above as flawlessly as a gilded mirror. And before the ocean, just before the stone meets the unblemished reflection, a single vertical sliver of white intersects the boundary between the finite and the plane above.

The sliver stands leagues above a metropolis of sandstone. The parapets of silver and porcelain, while glorious and glistening in the starlight, are as matchsticks in a child’s sandcastle by comparison. The sliver, to your surprise, is cold, painfully to the touch, an unnatural monument in the midst of a flat, unbroken skyline.

And then, all at once, you are, once again, a twisted child, sitting across from your father as the heat of a gentle campfire warms your tattered robes.

Yarmaz stands. Kneels before you. Takes you by the shoulders and leans in close, in a way he never did, not once.

Your Selaph’i is there, Muswah’tif,” he whispers. “Best not make him wait.

* * * *

Jin woke with a start. Blinking, the elderly sorcerer sat up, groaning, confused. Despite the sharp detail of the shadows that surrounded him, they were paired only with dull shades of featureless gray. He shut his eyes for a moment, comforted by the blindness of his eyelids, before returning his gaze to the world. While he could see his companions quite clearly in the pitch-black night, sleeping peacefully beside him, he was not yet accustomed to the gift Tamara had bestowed upon him. It was strange, almost distracting, compared to the blissful distortion of his natural sight.

So distracting, in fact, that he failed to hear a very distinct sound calling very softly just behind him. He turned, and beside his pillow was his father’s astrolabe. In stark contrast to his twilight vision, the device was softly glowing a pale blue light, each of the stars inscribed in the brass plate within sparkling in rhythm to the celestial cadence above. The brass plate spun slowly within the antique iron frame, squeaking with every rotation.

As he reached for the palm-sized device, Jin stared up at the sky; he had never seen such beauty displayed in the heavens before, especially with own imperfect, physical eyes.

Still quite tired, Jin rested back down. As his head laid upon his pillow, he watched as the spinning plate of the astrolabe began to slow of its own accord. The light of the metal-inscribed stars fading, until the device at last fell silent and still, the color vanishing into the monochromatic shadow.

“Your Selaph’i is there,” his father had said. Your forefather.

He pondered the thought for a long moment, wondered at its meaning. But then, like the distraction of Tamara’s gift, his father’s parting message had distracted Jin from something much more puzzling. Yarmaz had indeed told Jin the tale of the Almuftari. Many times, in fact, when Jin was yet young. But the way he and all his fellow khine used to tell it, the tale had ended very differently. He had never said a word of Azana. Indeed, Yarmaz had died long before he could have ever known the Sieve or their god.

And as Jin returned to sleep, he wondered, bemused, at which detail was more important.

Again and Again and Again and…

I want to cry.

Yes, it’s been about 10 years since I last had kidney stones. Well, they’re back, and with a vengeance. I walked about a mile this morning before I had to stop, collapse on the cement for about ten minutes, and turn right back home. Little wonder they decided to “show up” now; I’ve walked about thirty miles in the last two weeks, so whatever stones I’ve got dancing around in there finally came loose. I’m like a freakin’ maraca, and I can’t even stand up without feeling like I want to die.

And yes, they’re on my left side, meaning they won’t be passing without surgical assistance.

*sigh*

Do I have a job yet? No. But if I manage to get one this week, I guess I know where my next two or three paychecks is going: straight to paying for another round of lithotripsy.

Guh.

The Actual Final Fantasy Lies In Corporate

A recent article written by Inverse made a bit sad. And it was the final nail in the coffin that made me decide to write this response. It features the man, the myth, the legend, Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida (also known as Yoshi-P to fans) stating:

“In terms of whether Final Fantasy is successfully adapting to industry trends, I believe the series is currently struggling. We’re now at a point where we receive a wide variety of requests regarding the direction of our game design. To be honest, it’d be impossible to satisfy all those requests with a single title. My current impression is that all we can really do is create multiple games, and continue creating the best that we can at any given time.”

The writer states that Yoshi-P believes that “Final Fantasy has never been about chasing trends, but setting them.” While I agree that this is certainly why people love Final Fantasy, I don’t believe this has always been the case. Don’t get me wrong, no one else in the industry has had the guts to take their broken, outdated-before-it-released MMORPG, literally drop a meteor on it, and then reimagine it into the wonder-fest that is A Realm Reborn. But I believe Final Fantasy got into a troubling habit a long time ago, catching a corporate virus that all well-known entertainment brands invariably seem to catch when developers and producers try too hard to bank on nostalgia and familiarity.

It’s called sequelitis. And for Square-Enix, it became a terminal case.

This argument isn’t a new one. It’s the reason Pixar made four Toy Story movies and a Buzz Lightyear movie no one watched (although that bombed for a different reason altogether). It’s the reason they made three Cars movies. It’s the reason the Star Wars sequel trilogy was made. It’s the reason they kept trying to make Terminator 2 over and over. It’s why there are so many Jaws sequels. It’s why they made All Grown Up! from Rugrats, or The Cleveland Show from Family Guy.

It’s why they made Final Fantasy X-2 (pronounced ten-two). It’s why they made two sequels to the hallway simulator that was Final Fantasy XIII. It’s why they made two disconnected and (in my opinion) inferior sequels to Final Fantasy Tactics before remastering the original into The War of the Lions. It’s why Final Fantasy IV: The After Years exists. It’s why Final Fantasy Dissidia exists, and why everybody (including me) was disappointed to discover that the “story mode” in Dissidia NT was nonexistent, and had been designed as nothing more than an arcade fighter. It’s why they’ve made and told every before-and-after story to Final Fantasy 7 that they possibly can, and won’t be stopping for the foreseeable future, no matter how bloated and confusing the whole of it becomes. And even though Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t meant to be a sequel to Final Fantasy XI, the clunky UI and 1.0 system suggests otherwise.

Final Fantasy may not chase trends with the stories they tell. But the decisions Square-Enix makes as a company certainly does.

Earlier this year, Square-Enix sold their holdings over Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, and the Square-Enix Montreal studio over to Embracer Group, the Swedish-based owners of game developers and publishers such as Gearbox Software, THQ Nordic, and Coffee Stain Studios. What did they get for selling such well-known and popular IPs as the Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, The Legacy of Kain (which went criminally unused), and Thief franchises?

$300 million dollars. To compare, Embracer Group acquired Gearbox Entertainment (which includes the Borderlands series, Duke Nukem (for what that’s worth anymore), the Homeworld series, and a few others) for $1.3 billion dollars.

You’re telling me that the company that got rid of Lara Croft and Adam Jensen are now complaining that they’re in a bad financial situation? I totally understand that their most recent Avengers game ended up in the garbage pretty quick (games as a service is a terrible idea). But they had just released Guardians of the Galaxy, and by all accounts, it’s not that bad.

Thing is, they’re not in that bad of a bad financial situation. I mean, look at their financial reports from March 2022. 9.8% sales increase over 2021? That’s pretty dang good, isn’t it? And by their annual investor report, it looks like the only real crash that occurred in 2021 was to their “Amusement” segment, which oversees “amusement facilities and planning, development, and distribution of arcade game machines and related products for amusement facilities.” Dissidia NT, anyone? As of June, the numbers for sales don’t look as good. But is it really worth selling all of your overseas studios so quickly and for so little?

I don’t think Yoshi-P is lamenting the financial state of Square-Enix’s business practices when he says that Final Fantasy is struggling. But we know, Yoshi-P, believe me. It’s been struggling for a while. Ever since Charlie’s Angels took over Spira, by my account. I don’t even know what to make of Chocobo Racing GP, for crying out loud (although it does look fun, I want my Switch back, *sniff*). Final Fantasy has tried to be so much for so long, it’s no wonder it’s struggling to know what it is beyond chocobos and crystals.

For the last two decades, we’ve seen Final Fantasy do just about everything except what made the series so fantastic in the first place: turn-based battles, stories that told fantastic tales of heroism against nihilism, and a true middle finger to the trends of the day. Do you know why Final Fantasy IX is almost universally loved by those who played it when it came out? Because it used nostalgia the right way. It wasn’t a sequel. It wasn’t a prequel. It wasn’t a spin-off. It was a love letter to its own franchise. As stated by Alex Donaldson for vg247.com:

My personal perspective set aside, FF9 is indeed special… It is often reductively described as a throwback game, a tribute to past Final Fantasy titles. While it is absolutely packed with references and winks for fans, it is far more than that, however. It’s a unique Final Fantasy with its own style and energy that hadn’t quite been done before or since.

But what made Final Fantasy IX special, according to Alex?

Part of this is down to the game being made by a multicultural, international team of developers. While of course Japanese-led, a huge amount of FF9’s development, particularly its art, was undertaken in Hawaii, a US territory. The game’s staff included Americans, French, Germans and more. These days, many Japanese games are made by diverse teams thanks to international hiring policies and outsourcing, but FF9 was ahead of the curve.

It’s a real shame that this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

According to Eidos Montreal founder Stephane D’Astous, the reason Square-Enix let go of all of all of their Eidos and Crystal Dynamics holdings wasn’t really because they weren’t making enough money. Apparently, they just “weren’t committed” to working with overseas studios:

“The pressure was starting to build, and my employees towards me, me towards my superiors. I think when people are in a crisis situation where there’s a lot of situations, you do see their core behaviour or values. And I didn’t like what I saw. There was really a lack of leadership, courage, and communication. And when you don’t have those basic things, no employee can do their job correctly — especially when you’re heading a studio.

I was losing hope that Square Enix Japan would bring great things to Eidos. I was losing confidence in my headquarters in London. In their annual fiscal reports, Japan always added one or two phrases saying, ‘We were disappointed with certain games. They didn’t reach expectations.’ And they did that strictly for certain games that were done outside of Japan.”

It wasn’t just this lack of communication. It was poor planning, too.

“If I read between the lines, Square Enix Japan was not as committed as we hoped initially. And there are rumours, obviously, that with all these activities of mergers and acquisitions, that Sony would really like to have Square Enix within their wheelhouse. I heard rumours that Sony said they’re really interested in Square Enix Tokyo, but not the rest. So, I think [Square Enix CEO Yosuke] Matsuda-san put it like a garage sale.”

So, let me get this straight, Square-Enix. You wanted… ALL of the money. I get that. So in order to get ALL the money, you gave up… a LOT more money?

Nah, Final Fantasy doesn’t have any problems, Yoshi-P. It’s Square-Enix leadership that has the problems. Call it a symptom of late-stage capitalism if you have to. I call it “being stupid and impatient”. If Square-Enix really is planning on being acquired by Sony, great; maybe putting a company with corporate problems into a larger corporation will fix things (I say with GREAT and MIGHTY sarcasm). But Sony had better be watching. If they do acquire Square-Enix (and it looks like it may be becoming more likely), get rid of Mr. Matsuda, and whoever else thought it wise to sell Lara Croft for a penny.

Better yet, don’t acquire them. Let them stew. Make them regret not having ALL the money.

Maybe I don’t know how intellectual property rights work. But could they not have simply sold the overseas studios without giving up the rights to the IPs? Or, you know, hung onto Tomb Raider, at least? Or was that part of the package? I could just imagine Sony salivating at Playstation-exclusivity with Tomb Raider just as someone at Square signs the paperwork and hauls Lara away in a cardboard box with holes punched in the top so she can breathe.

Square-Enix is not helping to fix the image of poor corporate decision-making.

I hope Final Fantasy 16 becomes a masterpiece. I really do. I mean, the fact that they’ve put almost all of FF14’s best developers onto FF16 (Yoshi-P as director, Masayoshi Soken as composer, not to mention the battle system designer Ryota Suzuki for Devil May Cry 5) is saying something. The way Square-Enix trashed Eidos, if they “lose” Final Fantasy (or sell it to the Swedes for lunch money, who knows), it will be corporate’s fault.

Like it always is.

And that’s the real sin. Yoshi-P, you’re wonderful, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Examining the Wounds Without the Bandages, Part One

I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.

I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.

On Top of the World One Minute…

I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.

I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.

It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.

I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.

It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.

I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.

Why is the ureter so dang thin and long? Asking for a friend.

I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.

…Crashing the Next

It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.

Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.

So I did.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.

When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?

When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.

It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.

It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.

And Then It Ended

And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.

Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.

But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.

I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?

Was It Worth It Or Not?

The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.

I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.

Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.

But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.

Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:

Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.

Well. That’s only partially true.

Elder James E. Faust shared President David O. McKay’s words of what happened to the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company during a conference talk in April 1979. He stated:

Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.

“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.

“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”

I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.

But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.

In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.

Playing With the Percentages

A lot of famous (and infamous) men have had things to say about percentages and statistics through the years.

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Great Britain

“I couldn’t claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys–but the average of sixty-five other guys, certainly!”

Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush

I’ve actually got my eye on writing a whole other article about that particular quote (a serious one, too; as nonsensical as Rumsfeld’s words may first appear, there’s actually a solid chunk of truth there). But my personal favorite, and the idea around which I want to form my current hypothesis, is this:

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

Mark Twain

My hypothesis is this: there are things about myself that I cannot change, and that will never go away. But I can increase or decrease the likelihood of negative circumstances occuring through small actions I can take right now.

I call it the XCOM Strategy to Mental Fortitude.

Why In the World Is It Called That?

If you’ve ever played the pc game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2, or any one of the myriad titles in the series, then you know that the game is all about calculating percentages. When one of your soldiers aims at an alien on the battlefield, the game calculates many different variables and provides a percentage chance that your soldier will hit the enemy with whatever weapon they’re using.

It looks something like this:

I apologize for the size of the image; the important details are in the bottom left.

In XCOM 2, the system gives you the details of what will increase or decrease the chances of your soldier hitting the enemy. If your solider has good aim, the chances go up. If your soldier’s gun has a scope, or they have a height advantage over their target, the chances go up further. If the enemy is behind half-cover or out of range of your soldier’s weapon, the chances go down. If the enemy is enshrouded in smoke, or has specific resistances, chances go down further. If they’re behind full cover or invisible, you may not have any chance to hit at all.

There is, however, one option that (almost) always works: go AOE and make it explode.

Of course, going explosive is dangerous. The grenade could damage any allies in the area, or bring down local infrastructure (I’ve lost quite a few fights to poor explosion calculations). It also has the nasty habit of destroying your enemy’s weapons if they die, leaving you nothing to salvage after the battle is over.

So, in XCOM, you’ve got some facts. The enemy aliens want to turn you into goo, and there are more of them then there are of you. Your opponents know how to use the terrain, and they have technology on their side. Unless your soldiers are well-trained veterans, their aim is going to be poor and you’ll want to give them every technological and psychological advantage you can scrape together to make them more effective combatants.

In a similar way, although I have been at this mental health business for well over a decade, I am a novice. My ability to stand up to this disease is lackluster. Medicine, the one “advantage” I thought I had, instead smokescreened me to the reality of my situation, and I used it as a crutch that hindered my own desire to make any real changes. So, instead, I’m currently doing (or planning on doing) a number of things to increase the possibility that I will have fewer depressive episodes, and when I inevitably do, increase the likelihood that I can rise out of them faster.

Why is it called the XCOM Strategy, then, instead of just the Statistical Strategy? Mostly because of this:

And this (keep an eye on those percentages):

And this:

As in life, even if the statistics say you have a 99% chance of making something happen, life has a funny way of making the improbable occur instead (if in doubt, consult Murphy and his related laws). Nothing I do will give me a 100% chance of allaying a depressive episode. But that doesn’t make playing with the statistics a poor decision. Life is life, for both pessimists and optimists. No matter what happens, the more I improve my social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, the better the depressive episodes will be when they happen.

What I’m Doing Now

  • At the worst of things (March 2021), I weighed 265 pounds. I am now 222 (as of August 2022), aided by the fact that I no longer need to eat all the damn time because of my medicine.
  • I am walking regularly, at least three miles a week. Also aided by the fact that I can now exercise without being blinded by a waterfall of sweat that only seemed to fall from my forehead and absolutely nowhere else. It’s very hard to walk while blind. While this may sound silly, it really was an issue, and the main reason I never wanted to exercise. While taking my medicine, my body just “ran hot”, and I’d have hot flashes more often than I care to admit.
  • I’m writing more. Here, specifically. Fiction and non-fiction.
  • Increasing my workload with my freelance. I get to write two articles about muay thai kickboxing this week. Rock on.
  • I’m submitting applications for full-time employment. While starting a new job runs a bit contrary to my present efforts of resisting depression, the social and monetary benefits outweigh the downsides.

What I Want to Do, Immediately

  • Start studying scriptures again. One conference talk (I’m LDS) and the week’s sunday school lesson’s worth of scriptures a week. I’m still not strong or brave enough to go back to church, so I need to restart somehow.
  • Eat a protein-heavy and fat-heavy breakfast every morning. A lack of energy is currently my mood’s number one enemy.
  • Sleep better, and more regularly. Mentally, I know I function better at night. I’ll have to make adjustments when I do find a job, but this is an important one.
  • Make someone I know happy, every day. I try too hard to make strangers happy, all the while ignoring the people that I love. Strange, isn’t it, how the more depressed you feel the stronger the desire to reach outwards? And when I mean “outwards”, I mean in the wrong direction, towards the internet and total strangers who have less of an incentive to truly care. I was on Twitter a lot before March 2021. Let me tell you where that led me:
No hyperbole here, either.

What I Want to Do, Eventually

  • Make a stranger happy, every day. By this, I mean “try” to, make the world a better place one person at a time. In-person is preferred, but online too. Compliment someone for an idea, thank someone for saying something. There’s far too much tearing down online and not enough building up. I’ve sort of started doing this, but I know I’m not strong enough to endure if I do it wrong. The trigger is still very much alive there. I consider this one my AOE strats: if it works, it really works. If it doesn’t, it REALLY doesn’t.
  • Return to church. And by extension, return to the temple. I need all the assistance I can get, and if I can improve my social health and the lives of others along the way, all the better.
  • Get my weight below 180 lbs. My current goal is to get to 200 by December 31st, 2022. For a five foot, eleven inch tall man, the optimal weight is 155 – 189 lbs. I just want to have a pointy chin again. Not a round one, and certainly not more than one. With less weight, I’ll also have more energy, which will hopefully mean fewer depressive episodes related to not being able to do the things I love.

What I Want All This to Lead To, In Orders of Magnitude

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons without anticipating a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to roll with the punches and take surprise events without increasing the likelihood of a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to contemplate dating again without having a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be strong enough to finish my stupid book.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to go on an actual date.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to get married, start a family, have children.

And maybe one day, I’ll be able to look back at my life and say, unequivocally, that I resisted the urge to end my own life, and make it one worth living.

There’s always an XCOM chance that it won’t work. But there’s also an XCOM chance that it might. Either way, a blaze of glory is better than a fizzle.