Read an Excerpt
Lives Less Valuable
By Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll
PM PressCopyright © 2010 Derrick Jensen
All rights reserved.
The dream is always the same. It begins with the slightest feeling of unease, as from a misplaced sound or a sudden silence: the too-quick stopping of birdsong or the scolding of squirrels. Then from Malia a moment of hesitation, that inevitable aversion to the warning she knows she must heed, that resistance to acknowledging an unavoidable reality. Each time in the dream she pays attention not to the sound nor to the silence, but to the red-tinted lettuce leaves in her garden, and to her weeding. She pays attention to her niece Robin, and notices sunlight glinting off the twelve-year-old's dirty-blonde hair. She looks at the ground and notices the stems and leaves from yesterday's weeding lying shriveled in the brown dirt.
And then again she hears a sound from the forest across the pasture. Finally, always too late, she realizes that something really is wrong. Finally, always too late, she says, quietly yet firmly, "Robin, inside."
Always the response: "When I finish this row."
"Just a minute."
A moment's inattention. In the battle between composure and panic, so often indecision wins out, spurred by a strange desire to appear calm when everything inside wants out, and everything outside is falling apart. The desire to remain asleep, comfortable, warm, hidden safely from what you know. A belief that if only you can remain steadfast in the dailiness of your activities, your world will never collapse. And so again Malia pushes aside the sounds, stoops to pick up a basket at her feet. She tells herself not to run, not to let even herself know anything is wrong.
She straightens, and hears another sound, then more silence. At last she understands, and in so understanding realizes the unforgivable stupidity of having ignored the warnings for so long. She starts to shout, "Run, Robin! Run!"
But the words never come. They are always too late. There is a shot, or silence, and an explosion of blood, red on the dirty-blonde back of Robin's head.
Always in the dream the basket falls, slowly, and Malia runs, slowly, for the house. Gunshots. So slow she can almost see the bullets. More shots, like fireflies in the distant forest. Closer, Robin lies in the brown dirt, the back of her head gone, her skull open, jagged like a broken glass.
The doorframe splinters from gunfire. Bullets whine above her head.
Into the house. And then the voices. Always the voices. Her parents, Dujuan, Dennis, Simon, Ray-Ray, and now Robin. "Run," they say, "Run." More gunshots. Men approaching. Room to room she runs in this dream, each room smaller than the last, until she squeezes into rooms the size of coffins, rooms the size of desk drawers, rooms the size of matchboxes. She hides from the men, hears the gunshots behind her, and always the voice of Robin, "Run, Malia, run."
The dreams. A moment's inattention. A single moment.
* * *
I hardly know where to begin. Would "I miss you" be appropriate? After all these years, finally I write. After everything that's happened, somehow it seems unfair for me to suddenly reappear in your life, especially when our contact will necessarily be one way. I can write to you, but you, for obvious reasons, can't write back.
I hope you remember our relationship as fondly as I do, focusing not so much on its ending — which at the time seemed unbearably tempestuous to me, but now seems little more than a summer breeze — as on the time that made up its heart. Our relationship. It wasn't my longest, but it remains my dearest, and by a long stretch my most passionate.
I hope that after all this time you can still decipher my handwriting. For that matter I hope you're still living at the same place. I went to the library and looked you up on the Internet. Your address was the same. I'm glad for that, because that way I can picture you there, and I can picture us.
I can see you right now. You just walked to the corner to get the mail. It's hot, and already the tall grasses are turning yellow and brown. Leggy sweet clovers cascade with blossoms, and the vetch has just started to add its purple to the riot. It's dry. You kick up traces of dust with each step, and gravel rolls beneath your feet. As you walk, you don't look at the first neighbor on the left, because you never much cared for him. He never liked you either (or me, if you remember), so today when he sees you coming he busies himself a shade too quickly under his hood, fiddling with the carburetor so the two of you don't have to acknowledge each other. I remember these things. I remember so much about our time together. Little things, like this.
I guess the kids in the next house down don't play foursquare anymore, unless something has gone very wrong developmentally. Most likely they've graduated to basketball and football. Or maybe by now they've graduated altogether, and don't live there anymore.
The dogs are with you of course. Two. They were puppies then, and now they must be very old. Surely they're walking more sedately than before, maybe arthritically. I hope they've not died. One way or another there's been too much death these last few years. Theirs would add too much to the weight.
You reach the mailbox. A strange envelope. A typed address, and no return. You check the stamp: yes, first class, so it's not junk mail. The postmark. You stop and stand in the middle of the street, wondering who the hell you know in Odessa, Texas.
Well, no one now. I'm mailing this on my way out of town. I'm sure you understand why I can't say where. I'll let you know when I'm ready to leave the next place. Several months ago I moved here, on the run from the latest — and worst — of the deaths. I needed some relief. The first day I asked a woman at a restaurant, "What do people do for fun in Odessa?" She said, "They move away." I've saved a little money, so it's time for me to go.
You don't know how long I've wanted to write you, or come visit you. My family is all dead now. All of them. I don't have anyone anymore.
And I really don't have you. I did once, and I feel stupid for giving you away. I know that's not how I saw it at the time, nor maybe how you see it now, yet that's how I see it. But even that isn't so simple. If we'd stayed together I don't know if I would have followed this path, and despite it all, I'm not sure any other path would have been appropriate.
I don't know why I'm writing. It's stupid and dangerous. Yes I do. I need to talk. God, you don't know how I need to talk, and despite our problems we always knew how to listen to each other. But once again it's not so simple. It wasn't just our listening that was so beautiful about our conversations; it was our back and forth. Do you remember that night at the top of the stairs in the public library, interpreting each other's dreams, then describing the sexual play we each had in store for the other when we got home, only to learn to our horror that the stairs formed an echo chamber for the stacks? Knowing that everyone in the library had heard the details of your dream about the hermaphroditic tadpoles and the sixty-foot clam went a long way toward explaining the looks we got on the way out, though not quite so far, I'm sure, as the by-then-general knowledge that I was no longer wearing panties. And there was that time you got the book on the White Rose Society, and we stayed up all night talking about German resistance to Hitler. Do you remember? What was the name of that girl who was beheaded with her brother for distributing anti-Nazi literature? Sophia, I think. Isn't it too much that the Nazis beheaded a woman whose name means wisdom? I remember how beautiful she looked in that black and white photo. Those conversations are why I'm writing to you now, not just because we listen to each other, but because we hear, we understand, we mostly agree, and as happened so many nights, we anticipate each other.
I'm tired, and I want to come home. I can't, so this is as close as I can get.
If you are still friends with Charlie and the gang, please give them all a hug for me, especially Charlie. Of course do not tell them it's from me. I wish I could deliver it in person. And I wish I could give you a hug. I miss you.
I love you. I always have. Malia
* * *
I'm on the road. Mississippi. I've never seen so much red dirt. Red dust, red clay, red soil packed hard as concrete. Everything's hot as hell, unbelievably hot, the sort of heat that makes you forget you've ever been cool, that there's ever been any other way to be except sweating, dripping, wilting hot. So hot I hold out my arms so they won't touch my sides.
I'm in a cafe. It has red bench seats, most of which show more duct tape than naugahyde. It's strange how sweat makes these seats simultaneously slick and sticky.
The woman who runs the place is sweet. She brought me a menu, and told me the lunch special: baked ham with real mashed potatoes. I ordered it. No ham, she said. So I said fried chicken. None till tonight. Soup. Same answer. Finally I asked what they did have, and she said she'd go check. I told her it didn't matter: surprise me. She was gone a long time, and when she returned she brought this amazing meat loaf that had a trace of mustard and a smidge of pineapple. And enough mashed potatoes that even you would have been full. Now she's brought a piece of homemade peach pie. I'm too stuffed to jump, but I can't walk away from something like that, so here I sit, writing to you and waiting for the food to settle.
I've been thinking about how and where to start telling you about everything that's happened. You could say it started because one night I stayed downtown too late and got mugged coming home from work. Chance. Wrong place at the wrong time. But women are mugged and worse constantly, yet rarely does that lead to ... What do I call it? Murder? Terrorism? Stupidity? Brilliance? One of the only sane things an environmentalist has ever done?
So where do I start? My parents? The muggers' parents? Why don't I cut to the chase and go all the way back to Columbus landing in America and the Indians not slitting his throat? How different would things look today if they had resolutely killed all who came to conquer? Would eels still slide up the rivers of the Atlantic seaboard, would passenger pigeons still fly overhead? People often say they wish they could go back in time, and this go-round do it differently. Is that true culturally as well? Do I, too, want to go back and kill Columbus, and those who came after?
I don't like any of this. This theorizing about beginnings is all too abstract, and doesn't do me any good. It doesn't do anybody any good. In any case it's much too complicated. The images and memories swirl around me like so many streamers, like heavy fog in the wind, and when I try to pick out one point of origin, I find it connected to all the others.
Where does that leave me? It leaves me still not sure where to start telling you this story, yet just as sure I need to tell it. It leaves me entirely in the dark as to how it will end. It leaves me hot and full and facing a plate of peach pie that has to be tasted to be believed. It leaves me, to be honest, wishing I could go home, that I had a home where I could go. It leaves me, as everything seems to these days, too near tears for my own comfort.
I need to finish this pie and get out of here. I'll write you again soon.
All my love, Malia
* * *
Perhaps the story begins, as so many stories do, with water. Perhaps it begins with a stream, and perhaps it begins with a little girl spending summer days as long as lifetimes playing near this stream, getting wet, getting muddy, and when she gets tired, sitting on the banks to listen in on conversations between trees and frogs, grasses and water. Always water. Perhaps it begins with evenings overflowing with the sounds of crickets and early mornings heavy with fog. Perhaps it begins with this little girl watching water condense in tiny drops on leaves, then watching these drops join others to drip off the ends and into the stream.
* * *
Or perhaps it begins much later, still with water. Perhaps it begins with a river.
The river was not always this way. Once the river was full of fish: shad, river herring, sea lamprey, sturgeon, eel, trout, striped bass, salmon. The Atlantic salmon, long as an arm, swam seemingly with one goal in mind, to come home, where they would spawn. The fish — so many they kept you awake at night with the flapping of their tails against the water, so many that people were afraid to launch their boats for fear the fish would capsize them by their numbers alone — hurled themselves up waterfalls, and failing to make the top, hurled themselves again and again until through force of will they made it, battered, bleeding, exhausted, home. Now the salmon are gone. So are the bass, the eel, the sturgeon, the lamprey, the river herring, the shad. A few trout hang on, but not so well.
Once, you could drink the water. Once, there were no signs posted telling people not to eat the fish, no signs telling them not to swim in the river. That, too, has changed.
Perhaps this story starts with Malia sitting by this river. She comes to this spot often, because just right now, just right here, in the early evening sun, feeling against her skin the warmth the stones have stored through the afternoon, she can almost forget. Here she can pretend there is no city, no poison, no cancer, no dying children. Here she can pretend the fish still swim, only deep, where she can't see them.
She watches a dozen swallows dance over the surface, twisting and climbing and diving so suddenly that her breath comes in catches of surprise. In front of her, thin stems of willows quiver in the current. Some move slowly, in rhythm with the river's waves. Others resonate with a different frequency, responding to a pulse she can't see.
Quick movement makes her look again to the swallows, and she follows one as he beat his wings, coasts, then flutters out of sight behind a pine downed in last winter's flooding.
Life, she thinks. It's not so fragile as sometimes we fear. We all want so much to live. The downed pine's branches point upward, and the light green of this year's growth shows the tree hasn't given up. Its torn roots still clutch at the soil, and its branches still reach toward the sky. It still produces cones, the next generation's attempt to carry on.
Once, an amusement park covered the far bank. That was long ago. Almost no sign of it remains, at least at this distance. Malia wonders how long it will take for the same to be true of the city as a whole. She hopes within her lifetime.
A pair of mallards wing their way from her right to her left, and she barely hears the whistling of their wingtips above the roll and whisper of the river.
She's been coming here for years, ever since she went to work for the Council Against Toxics — or CAT as they sometimes call it, or more often just the Council — but each time she comes, it's harder to go back.
It's getting late, though, and she has work to do, and she can't stay here forever, not this time.
Still she sits. A gnat lands on her hand. She looks closely, careful not to breathe. So tiny, the gnat could be crushed even by an accidental exhale. It opens and closes its wings slowly, and she reconsiders her position on the fragility of life. Life is supple and tenuous, she thinks, evanescent and tangible.
The gnat leaves, and she inhales deeply of a sweetness that takes her home. Childhood. Backyard. Picnics. Her parents. A locust tree. Climbing. A treehouse filled with the scent of locust.
The smell reminds her of her niece, Robin. Eight years old. Conceived under a locust tree out back at her parents' farm. Malia's sister Helene had brought a boyfriend up for the weekend, and they slipped away in the middle of the afternoon. Robin. She was named after the locust tree, Robinia pseudacacia, so that no matter where she went, she could take the tree with her. Helene died, and Malia and her parents raised Robin as their own. Malia has no children — she's never wanted to bring a child into an industrialized, overpopulated world — and so loves Robin all the more, fiercely, like a daughter.
Excerpted from Lives Less Valuable by Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll. Copyright © 2010 Derrick Jensen. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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