OUR BEST SONG
Dreamed 1983/10/25 by Chris Wayan
I'm sick in bed. Too sick to write or draw. Well... I sense a writer's block, too, but I'm too sick to confront it yet.
So I just look at art books. When I started to feel sick I got a stack to tide me over.
"BALTHUS" seem just as feverish as I feel. Balthus paints children, reading or dreaming, so deep in thought they don't notice their spread bare legs...or do they? Is he empathizing with his subjects' unconscious sexuality, or exploiting them as screens for us to project our own sexual fantasies on? For me that's the line between art and pedophilic porn. His imagery feels a lot like my child's-eye world. But I'm not Balthus. What's HE mean?
Getting Up, by Balthus
Katia Reading, by Balthus
I can't take any more and turn to a lighter book: "ALPHONSE MUCHA". Heart of art nouveau! His lines are grace on grace, fertile as a jungle. He so obviously wants only to enrich the visual world, just hopes to please; and he succeeds so amiably I can't be too offended by the bicycles, crackers and beers his goddesses endorse. Some of his figures have a puffy Titianic quality, sinking under the weight of their passive feminine roly poly role, especially when surrounded by deer-taut letters, vines that dance like lightning, smoke that walks. But in his best (early) stuff the women are too lively to be offensively lovely; winking at us, they're more alter egos than pinups--Mucha's own playful energy personified.
I try to write again, from my own playful side. Thud. Feel stifled, trying to maintain a Mucha cheer. Fake for me.
Winter, by Alphonse Mucha.
Self-Portrait with Arm Up by Egon Schiele
Creative block. No, that's passive. Feel it. Deadlock.
Somewhere in Tolkien's essay 'Tree and Leaf' he says "pictures of Faerie are not snapshots." They need frames--a space for transition from one world to... Other. In my Mucha mood, I polish everything: try to present it in a form or frame so elegant it will hint of the Other World. Yet the Schiele in me smashes all forms, mad for originality, pouring out all in unreadable tangles. Cut anything out to frame it and it bleeds. No surprise! Like all visionary artists, I exhaust myself trying to shape (censor?) my overwhelming experiences to fit conventional (and oversimple, and inappropriate) forms, simply because I want to be understood, and others seem to see the raw real me as dream-nonsense, as a Balthus-child to project their own assumptions on. That feels like rape--and it is. For me to truly simplify, be less raw, is years away, if ever. Block, block, block around the clock.
I get up, agitated, and begin to draw the somber image of last night's dream.
Briefly: I'm in Stern Grove in San Francisco. Through eucalyptus to the green lip of the steep vale... skimming birdly down to the hushed fairground where we picnicked when I was small... but all is crumbled ruin, except a pedestal, fore, with a wrought iron griffin, couchant, and a half-built steel structure rusting, behind. The desert is beyond. The wind rises round me, and on the pedestal these words appear:
Just girders and dust
Where childhood was.
I am getting a headache and feel worse.
Defiantly I paint a head, aching, with a little bird driving it to create, peck peck peck peck, and a snake of ssense sssaying sssstop. Snake and bird, snake and bird... where have I...
AH! The duel of snake and bird that inspired the inventor of Tai Ji. The snake won. That image is telling me to quit thinking and uncoil.
So I wriggle like a snake, prowl my room stretching as things pop loose, and slither onto the bed, below the blanket, and down the earthen tunnel to my burrow... and sleep.
I waken under the other sky.
It's a deep throbbing brown. The smog on this muggy night reflects the city's glow. It's 4 AM. The modern witching hour. We are driving across town to the campus FM station. We made a deal--they're giving us free studio and air time in exchange for live broadcast rights of the making, the actual creative process, of the full studio version of our best song. Already top ten as a live single--The Rebels' anthem in fact--but we've grown musically this quarter, and we want to make a definitive cut, with the lyrics more audible (and explicit), now that we're too hot to be censored--they're highly political, we always are, but most stations played it for the energy and didn't hear the words (shit, we mixed it on Jody's dubbing cassette, what do you expect? It's not like we CAN'T sing!). They treated us as a high school fluke--The Rebels, hah!
Except for the city cops. Some kid's mother listened to the words and complained to our school and when they mentioned a little thing called freedom of speech (give them a brownie point) Hitler Mom went to the school board and City Hall and finally the cops. They listened! No troublemakers wanted in Futuretown, no sir. We been stopped so often we know every city cop by sight.
The steamy heat deepens as we drive. Car behind us is tailgating. Unmarked. Jody says "I don't recognize that one." Me neither. Nervous.
Jody pulls her latest toy from her pocket, a palm phone, and calls the station. "You got police frequency, don't you? Are they after us again?" The answer is instant: "You kidding? There's a warrant out for you. Incitement to riot!" Jody starts whooping and the DJ says "Get this, they actually called and ordered me to cancel my show! I told em take a flying fuck. Figure they'll drop by soon. They don't like those lyrics! I locked the doors--the upstairs window's open."
Palmer sees a cop ahead, light bar screaming, and he turns into an alley. Lights burst on in front of us! Palmer yells "OUT OF THE CAR!" We dive out and run down a delivery alley as they boom "TRUANT OFFICER! HALT!" Jody scouts round the next corner--quiet, dark. Behind, no footsteps--but a horrible crashing, on and on. TRUANT officers?
"They're smashing my car!" says Jody, incredulous.
"And our instruments," I say sourly. I just paid for that emu.
We're six blocks from the studio.
"They're not shutting me up--c'mon!" says Palmer and we go a couple blocks before we have to cross a street with traffic. We step into the light. The second car stops. "POLICE! HALT!" We jump back into the dark and climb a fence--and again they don't follow. "The game of rat and dragon." murmurs Jody in her spacy way. Dunno what she's quoting. A whisper answers her from her belt--it's Liz the DJ on the phone still. "I'm following 'em on police band. They got a couple cars circling the studio." Jody bursts out of her trance. "That test tape I gave you--can you play the instrumental track off it? We got a cordless mike--if we get within a couple blocks of you we could sing over that."
Desperation talking, but Liz answers, "Sure, it's in front of me. Gimme a minute to rewind. Get ready!" We creep round the dumpsters, smelling motor oil and pizza. Another block closer. Jody pulls out our two mikes.
"Testing--testes--tasteless--" We're close enough. Liz starts the tape. The Rebels' guitars clang. Eerie. Guitars we just heard die in an alley. Voices of the dead.
A light snaps on, gropes toward us, yelling "FBI! HALT!" We run into a sideyard and through. The first verse comes up, and absurdly, like in a dream, we cut into it, sing as we run, ragged, gasping, but there. Behind us a siren yells and we know the tape's picking it up damn it, we jump on a loading dock and over a fence, through some old folks' garden. If we're silent the cops won't find us. Palmer snags on a thorn bush and snarls "Fucking roses!", well, that decides whether to be quiet now, we lash into the second verse in the middle of their backyard, and climb the opposite fence, shouting the words over the thump of wood as we go over and drop, the crash of broken glass... the chorus, gasping as we run breakneck down through a junkyard to an empty building.
A fire escape ladder's down! Sling the mikes and climb as we sing, cop cars bashing trashcans below form a ragged savage counterpoint of our song and its enemies. Shouts of "This way, this way!" and their sirens loudening. Jody's voice breathless, unearthly in the stairwell space, leading us through verse three over the ring and echo of the metal stairs as we climb, and we know it's a dead end but it'll buy us time for the final verse and that's what matters, we know as we sing it's a classic, because it's real, they've made what we just sang about come alive. Trying to stop it, they've made it immortal.
The climactic fourth verse now, more beautiful for all its raggedness than it ever would've been all polished in the studio.
Atop the stairs we find a ladder and come out on the roof--hear the cars around the tower. The closing bars, and Jody looks up at the lightning tower and mutters 'King Kong..." in her visionary way. Clanging below tells us they've reached where the ladder was. But we pulled it up!
They turn on a light and we see a woman in olive below. "I'm a truant officer. I'm empowered to negotiate, if you'll let me up."
A faint voice says "Got it. It went out live. God, it was perfect. Perfect. I'm telling people to hook up their cassettes, then I'll play it again. They won't catch all the copies!"
Jody says "So can we get arrested now?"
"Sure, chillun. You can just all... fffffffffffade away." She does a crumby Who, but we laugh. She's right. If we never do better, we're still there forever. Plus... they won't dare disappear us now.
"Okay, lady... If you want to talk, come on up!"
"Let down the ladder!" she says. "It's 20 feet. I can't climb."
"So levitate." says Palmer. "We're not letting your cop friends storm us up the ladder. That buncha fat fascists can't fly, but you say you got an open mind. Break the law! And... we'll talk."
Jody says "Focus on rising. We'll help you, okay? If you can take our help, that counts for something." I peek down--she looks like a sad little frog stuck in a well. No wonder Jody's being kind. We're not trapped, she is--afraid to break Newton's law! I mean lady, he's dead. Long time ago.
Will she do it? She wavers--looking stupid in front of every cop in the universe, versus a chance to bag The Rebels. She nods, sits down in a half lotus... we chant "Rise, rise, rise..." from 'Tommy', and she starts rising awkwardly, spinning, like a fall leaf in reverse gear--a human rising beyond her level! We guide her up. As she lands, her shocked eyes show us what we hoped: she's facing the impossible her mind can do. Her mental cage is creaking open. She shakes her head to wake, and she is... one of us!
And then the enlightenment spills over. THIS IS OUR JOB! We provoke people to chase us, suppress us--so we can show them their abilities, make them rise past their limits.
"Welcome to The Rebels, lady." says Palmer, being polite. Now there are enough of us to transform this Level a little. The tower becomes a sandstone crag. The others decide to hide by melting into the ochre stone, like sagging twisted veiny parodies of old people, heaving spookily out of the face. I think it's unwise--looks too striking, organic. A loudspeaker, muted by the well between Levels, honks "Miss Grant, I'm coming up. You've had enough time. We have them trapped. They'll surrender, or we'll take them."
I know that voice. Capt. Ohm McKillip. Their best Hunter, brilliant. A man of order, yet with full psychic power. It's a contradiction, but he roams the high levels unmoved, never broadens, never relents. He always finds me, every lifetime, no matter who I am--and tries to shut me up, send me back to high school, gas me, shoot me down--worlds vary in the means they allow, but his goal is steady: to silence the song. To erase me and all the Rebels from every world like dirty static from the track.
He'll see their figures in the stone--the veins stand out like Schiele paintings, drawing the eye... like our song, they're distinctive, showing individuality. Fatal.
I know only one thing that works against him. I raise a wooden hall with a vast high canopy of light nylon, catching the light of the dawn sun. In a moment I cover the walls and posts with hokey carvings--clown and gnome faces, polished, cleanlined, inane. I become one--simple, silly, one of a million.
Nemesis climbs the spire.
And... I'm wrong. He stalks past my friends, part of the natural world, and charges straight to me.
I change again, to a Steller jay, and lunge past his face to beat shrieking up to the canopy miles above, miles broad. There I shift again, merge with the fine silky mesh...
But he beats up through the tented air, a buzzard hawk, matching my speed, and sniffs me out.
I bird again, and again I flee across the blue vault swollen to a sky. And he finds me.
I become a dot, a gnat. And he finds me--always. No escape.
"Well hi there!" he says, and whips a fieldnet over me so I can't shapeshift. Down we go, out of the stratospheric dawnlight, back into the city's brown darkness.
But... I got the song by him.
Yeah, I think bitterly--one song.
I'm brainwashed, of course, but released in the end. Not broken, just... chipped, dulled. Beliefs unchanged, but I find it hard to care; just want to rest.
But then, the Captain swore to win the Second Vietnam War, and look how that went. They've had to learn to live with failure too, I guess, since the nineties. I'm patient. Such a jolt when society turns a corner fast and spins out, rolling like dice in a Rhine test, and a word or even a thought can change the way it lands.
But the roll don't last. And then it sits, and nothing you do moves it an inch--til the big hand rolls us again.
TEN YEARS LATER (YET THE SAME NIGHT)
Ten years after, I'm sitting at home like always, watching a Vietnamese documentary on how they won the war. Shows the U.S. bases, their vast sealed domes like alien mushrooms hulking over fields. How to crack the domes was a major tactical problem. They had no missiles big enough. Finally they built makeshift giant imitiations of SAM missiles, the only models they had.
A reporter interviews the man who cracked the main dome outside Saigon. He was young then; graying now. A thin mild man. As he recollects, the empty shell of one missile looms behind him, rusting in a yellowgreen field. They really were huge! Amazing they flew at all.
The old domes draw me. What's in them now? I'm so unbearably curious, I crawl over the rug to the TV screen... and climb in. Aside from a slight sticky feeling that Lewis Carroll never mentioned, it's easy.
My hips wedge for a moment--outa shape compared to our Rebel days, but then I'm through.
I'm on a dirt road, in sleepy tropic heat, some tall broadleaf crop around me, and the Dome before me, looming like a rusted fogbank over the trees, six hundred feet high, a mile around. The U.S. conducted flight research here. Any air conditions could be conjured up. Do they use it for that? Or is it a greenhouse, a factory, a ruin?
I have my pocket notepad, and a broad straw hat on, and long sweaty pigtails, blond, which is too bad since people spot me as foreign right away. I'm not a tall woman and my face is broad, so I try hiding my hair under a scarf; people get noticeably more open. But in this heat I just can't bear it--peel it back off.
Besides, hardly anyone's out here in the sun. Not dumb enough.
Where the road meets the base of the dome is a people-sized door (the planes obviously went elsewhere) and I pry cautiously at it.
A woman opens it from the other side and says "There you are!"
She smiles at my surprise and adds "You are the first foreign reporter to visit. Let me show you around!" Whisks me down the hall. "I've directed the flight center for three years now." She beams, deeply proud of the facility. We step into a gallery with windows looking into the dome proper. White hazy light through ceiling panels. Huge slow nylon kites wheel--no, people! Flying red blue orange wings, like hang gliders but even more minimal.
"How can they stay up?" I ask. Surely impossible.
"The dome is pressurized to almost two atmospheres, so smaller wings can lift you. This pressure also eases the load on the dome."
There are grassy runways, but most of the floor has thick leafy ground cover--"to cushion falls a little", she explains. It was her idea; the military director left the American asphalt in, broken and grassy by then, but still bone- breaking. But this circle of green with a white sky... surreal, beautiful. I say "You have good reason to be proud of this."
She asks, "Are you modest?"
I blink and say "No; I believe I'm wonderful. All reporters do."
She laughs. "I mean, nudity does not offend you? I know that Americans are not all the same! You see, in flying, every gram counts, especially when you are learning. Also, the dome is very hot."
This isn't?! Hastily I say "No, I don't mind," though I don't want to strip; I'll really stand out. But I'd risk the stares to get in that impossible garden of live flowers... I feel like Alice.
She adds, "Of course there are no men now; they have the afternoon."
"Oh!" I WAS picturing old men elbowing each other, snickering... though that felt all wrong for this fairly puritan society. Now the tiny figures come into focus; women five feet tall, and waist-high kids, are flying those things! My scale shifts a lot; I assumed American-sized males were soaring on those little silk wings! I have my stereotypes too. "So you separate them. I wondered how you got permission."
"I did not get PERMISSION to fly! To bare ourselves would be indecent: Western decadence." Her eyes glint. "I started the program with a women's hour the first week I took over, and now an average of 73 women and girls each day attend the classes! Over four-fifths of them graduate to standard air pressure, and most of them no longer need the wing!" I blink at that. 'No longer need the wing'? Then I recall. I flew myself, once. Been a decade since I felt the energy to break Newton's law. Or any.
But did Ohm's handcuffs really rob me of my strength, or just my nerve?
"Learning in sheltered air gives one confidence." The sidelong smile again. "As I am sure you understand, even in our classless society, women must struggle to gain... confidence."
"Liberté!" I yell, and toss my hat up. "Of course, men already have confidence--they are trained to."
"Yes. They are confident they deserve the dome ALL DAY!" she laughs. "Égalité!"
She measures a nylon wing along my arm for size. "You WILL try it?"
"Fra... Sororité!" I answer. "Yes. I want to fly."
We hang our clothes on the wooden hooks, and carrying bundles of bright silk and flexible poles (still look like kites to me) we enter the airlock. A whole people learning to fly! I think. We were so few... and then I realize I probably won't even need these wings. I flew just fine without them, back when.
But I'll put them on. I like them, and my guide here, and it's true, it takes time and encouragement and sheltered air to gain confidence.
Or regain it.
My ears pop, and the inner door opens. Squeaky bamboo flute songs skirl over the loudspeakers. I look up at the vast white sky flowered with brilliant wings like a Mucha poster come alive, and gape as a straggling line of birdgirls buzz us, some fierce, intent (and quite sexy, though I don't feel safe baring my ALL my feelings in this culture, not yet)... others laughing as one yells a joke to my guide (about me, I bet), and wobbles on... learning to fly.
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