Go back

from A Brief Chronicle of the Plasian Civil Conflicts

          In a dream passed down through my paternal relatives, I come upon the vision of myself lying face up in a great battlefield, or, more accurately, strewn across a great battlefield, since I too am of immense size and not entirely myself. The top portion of my head has blown off through a spontaneous explosion of its own invention and now teeters like a slice of red canteloupe or cracked porcelain soup bowl on the battered soil, where it attracts flocks of quick, sweet-seeking finches and the elegiac groping of my right forearm, which has similarly detached from its massive elbow in pursuit of the brain's spongy independence. My left hand pretends toward the remainder of my credulous cranium, its middle and fore fingers pressed to the temple in a gesture of half-baked thoughtfulness which has inspired the faith of countless students preparing for their spring exams. These miniature scholars now clamber up my moldering, soil-creased palms in attitudes of divine worship, while diminuitive farmers from neighboring villages gather in strategic lines on both sides and beat my cheeks poetically with bamboo sticks, hoping to dislodge the many texts, both mundane and abstract, that have been stuffed in my orifices as protection against the slings and arrows of ill repute. A brief listing of defensive library titles spilling forth from my greening, dessicated lips would have to include such classics as Histories and Typologies of Plasian Rifle Casings: A Reference Manual, Selected Poems of Beida, Annual Report of Locust Infestations and Other Statistical Anomalies of the Soybean Crop, Treatise of the Rural House Broom, The Myth of the Pla Pota Bridge Nut and Other Inaccessible Narratives, Ataplasians and Butaplasians Together in Forced Military Harmony, and Loving Oneself in Battle: A Self-Help Pamphletette, all of which tumble to the ground, where they are raked into prosodic piles by the farmers and bartered to students in exchange for bayonets, hand grenades, and government-issue accordions. (In my grandfather's version, the farmers are replaced by milkmaids and the accordions by hand-crafted wood flutes which, when pressed to maidenly lips, produce notes of salacious tunefulness to make the lips of the students, male and female alike, quiver and salivate, and to inspire one final exhalation, a wheeze or semicarnal cough, from the ink-moistened mouth of my grandfather.)
          As for a description of my various vitals, a stalwart tally among splattered battle debris yields the following minimal remains: My larynx has liberated itself from the prisonhouse of language and landed vociferously in a large crater dug out by a misaimed high-explosive shell. There it trembles, uttering sub-vocalic lectures to a mixed audience of shrapnel and mud, and acquiring, by wriggling in the dirt, an earthy texture to its otherwise ungrounded voice. My left ear follows suit, resituating itself, with tympanic membrane and drum in tow, on the rack of a barbed electric fence, where it receives electromagnetic transmissions from the 103rd Infantry and shrinks from the embarrassing noise of its disembodied, alien voicebox just as a ragtag patriot of larval age and experience rushes up to rat-a-tat-tat the giant eardrum for purposes of posthumous morale. My three lower ribs, oozing flesh and fat charitably from intercostal regions, have set up camp in a ditch 5 feet away, providing shelter and sustenance to a young mother and her three starving children who gurgle joyfully as they peel morsels of flavorful meat like wallpaper from their newfound abode. Their domestic restitution supplies a tenderness sorely needed in this field of warring loyalties and banditry. At this very moment, several rival gangs of looters are quarreling over a sizable chunk of my right buttock, which has been severed from its gluteal hindquarters by a light machine gun volley. My wronged, wrestled rump now hovers in indecision between the opportunistic opponents, who have attached ropes and hooks to the frail edges of the roast and strain and pull ardently against one another until one set of hooks tears, catapulting the large muscle to squelch its would-be abductors beneath its formidable, Newtonian inclination to be at rest. Meanwhile, my large intestine pleads for the love of my feet by coiling odorifically around both ankles and plantar arches in a bid for polyamorous pleasures and guilt-free filth. Disgusted by this display of uninhibited vivisectional vigor and podolatry, my liver leaps out of its cavity and into a nearby rain puddle in a baptistic urge to cleanse and renew itself, leaving my obeisant vertebrae to mourn its pious passing. Finally, my pancreas turns aside from this infinite cycle of suffering; my ambition has all but melted away in the blistering, subtropical sun; my envy has been divided among the villagers as a rare, fiery delicacy for the rainy season; my pride has been captured as a prisoner of war and is presumed dead or missing; and my private parts are harvested for intelligence research in a makeshift military hangar, where they feed on discarded war maps and treaties and balloon up, with happy diplomacy, to turgid international proportions.
          Yet all these sights elicit but a fraction of the wonder contained within my opened belly, into which I now attempt to enter, dressed incognito as a devil-may-care traveler or volunteer mercenary, a sawed-off shotgun clanking at my side along with various navigational aids and a water canteen. I squeeze through the crowd of drinking, carousing villagers, averting my eyes delicately from the sight of familiar meat and entrails being forked into smoking barbeque pits, and pause at a clearing which affords me an unobstructed glimpse of the pilgrimage's end. The scale of my bodily persuasion is enormous, causing me to remove my hat and droop my posture in reverence. Verily, my cadaverous bearing posesses a grandeur and grotesque nobility I could never have hoped to achieve in my sorry and too soon shortened existence. As long in supine glory as a respectable warship of the Third Civil Conflict, my form commands the landscape, rivaling the mountains of Dailor in silhouette, the Simha plains in span, and the seas of Branditi in humid and mysterious depths. Naked and outstripped by the hungry crowd, my ribcage and breastbone glisten in the declining sun, revealing themselves indeed as a skeletal palace fit for a king-perhaps for Mirhan, the second king of the Third Dynasty who built the first Pla Pota dams and harnessed the loyalties of the wild Simha horses; or Aknan, the so-called "Shining Prince" of the House of Lam, who constructed his own summer fort from a forest of cedars; or perhaps even Queen Rhadisupar, who pacified the toothy winged creatures of Lower Heaven with her logic and whose sea gardens fed the famished, war-weary population of her time just as my fallen anatomy slakes comparable appetites today. Standing before the grandiose, blood-sculpted folds of uniform cloth that cascade from my lilting waist, I am struck by the hyperbolic and unwieldy eros of my exposed body, which seems to have stripped itself literally to the bone in the heat of slaughterous passion. Even my left arm, though attached to a bookish hand, seems to stretch languorously behind the ear, supplying a shapely, half-draped invitation to butchery. This gesture, combined with the classically recumbent pose adopted by the ancient heroes and gods of many cultures, causes me to stagger girlishly and press a palm against my beating thorax. As I gaze in slack-jawed admiration, a troop of hearty female butchers begins ascending the bamboo scaffolding erected by my shoulder. Excited by the appearance of these carnivorous girl-reapers, and with particular regard to their long, curved flensing knives and tautly-muscled calves which would, in more barbaric times, have attracted the jaws of suitors like ravenous, salivating dogs, I resolve to follow.
          The expedition leads to the ridge of my left collarbone, where a lingering sheet of skin ripples and smokes in the mild, early afternoon breeze. Much to my surprise, a small puncture in the sheet releases scalding steam and the savory aroma of cooked meat. I am cautioned to stand clear as the chief butcher, a stocky young woman of around 25 years, slices her way artfully through the bone to reveal a smoldering cavity filled with numerous carcasses of well-roasted chickens, complete with mouth-watering juices and drippings. Her juniors now join in the reconnaissance, raising up the chickens with the blunt ends of their knife poles and tossing them deftly to the ground, where they are caught by an organized group of children holding a stretched bed quilt. At first I am reluctant to sample the exotic cuisine, prepared by the technique known locally as "basting in the broth of a soldier," but the fetchingly dark eyes of a sophomore flenser helps me to forget the already dimming memory of this irrelevant taboo, and I gnaw enthusiastically at the chicken leg she extends to me between dimpled, oily fingers.
          As I am charged, through a familial and some might say genetic predeliction for thoroughness and record-keeping, with the task of reporting to the waking world on the flavor of this dream cuisine, I must confess straightaway that its unique qualities are beyond my descriptive capabilities. I refer instead to the accounts of my progenitors, who possess the advantage of olfactory memories that have progressively declined over the decades of Plasia's increasing contact with the outside world. Now, according to sociologists in the urbanized regions of central Displasia, one may encounter youths more familiar with reconstituted pork sandwiches than with the subtleties of spareribs slow-roasted in a shallow oven cleft from a limestone cliff along the western Displasian coastline, traditionally the seat of Plasia's most lavish dishes. I myself, though raised for a quarter-century on my mother's sturdy cooking, can scarcely detect the differences between a lamb stew and a ham hock, a shrimp fry and a fishcake, a goulash and a gourd. Add to this the minor variations in texture and taste between turnip-leek soup, leek-melon soup, and turnip-melon soup, as well as the use of 55 or so spices, fungal varieties, and bean paste concoctions unknown to the Territorial palate, and you may acquire some inkling of why elderly Plasian expatriates continually cluck-cluck and pooh-pooh the platters presented before them by the younger generation. Even the presence of substantial Plasian populations residing in select parts of the Territories has improved the cuisine only slightly, for the loss of indigenous herbs and vegetables is a hardship sorely overcome. One story circulating through the high-pressure veins of this community describes an octagenarian matriarch who successfully cultivated a crop of squib-ur in a patch of minor wilderness, located in the rocky mid-levels behind the capital's water-processing plant. This was of course the spiny-leaved variety of squib-ur, as opposed to the fleshy-leaved kind, which is employed more often in salads and cold summer dishes than as an all-purpose seasoning, but which, due to its delicate constitution and reliance on monsoon temperatures, cannot be employed at all in these parts. The matriarch tended her plants daily for nearly two years, porting bowls of onion-sweetened water up the winding footpath to the lumpy furrows, and adjusting umbrellas of hand-sewn cloth to approximate the moody sunlight of the mountain regions of northern Plasia, until one morning when she discovered a rather large wolf making off with two full heads of squib-ur. Several hikers passing by later reported seeing the old woman surrounded by a pack of salivating wolves. Undaunted by lupine jaws, she had thrown herself over the precious crop as an act of protection, her traditional skirts hooked around the ends of hardy, spiny leaves. No amount of shouting or physical intimidation by the hikers could budge the hungry pack, and when the authorities finally arrived with their nets they found only the frightened hikers, shivering alone in a debris of squib-ur roots.
          But according to other accounts, whispered furtively in restaurant washrooms and closed-door vehicles on the way home from banquets, the matriarch was seized not by wolves, as the Territorial media asserted, but by agents of the Butaplasian secret service, in retaliation for her work with the Ataplasian loyalists. In this narrative scheme, the squib-ur crop was destroyed because its coded geometric arrangements relayed messages to committee members soaring in commuter planes overhead; the colorful umbrella tops changed their tilt to indicate the latest schedule of black-market arms shipments across the border to guerilla groups hiding in remote Butaplasian forests. The matriarch was none other than the widow of a legendary resistance fighter who had been captured and tortured by Displasian officials, then escaped to form the secret army headquartered in the forestland and, some alleged, housed abroad in the Territories. Whether this fighter still lived or merely existed as a permanent compost-donor was irrelevant; to extremist elements he served as hero and martyr, joined now by his plucky female counterpart, the woman known to hundreds of expatriates simply as "Gran." With her traditional costume and hunched-over form she had cut a quaint figure as she returned weekly from the heights with bundles of fresh squib-ur pocketed in her skirts. These plants would be pounded with a wooden mallet and applied to meat dishes or, even more succulently, to the manufacture of squib-ur pancakes, which Gran sold by the dozens at the weekend bazaar. Few suspected that this skilled and cuddly skillet-handler was in fact an international spy, but those in the know maintained her lifelong complicity in paramilitary matters and popularized the practice of consuming squib-ur pancakes prior to business meetings and sporting events, for the gift of forbearance and courage. Social anthropologists have long knotted their brows and dropped conceptual stitches in attempts to locate the essence of the Plasian character, and most scholarly accounts fail to capture the expediency of narrative that underlies the psyche of this people. I am no trained folklorist, but this footnoted tale of Gran and her squib-ur seems to hit the nail right on its noggin.