Saturday, February 25, 2017
Eternal Misfit (Part 2 of 3)
This is a short story I wrote a few years ago that was published in Dialogue. I’ve broken it into three parts because it’s fairly lengthy. The idea came to me one day when I was wondering what living in the terrestrial kingdom would be like. Trying to put flesh on the bones of that question revealed some perplexing paradoxes.
The next day Kim received a visit from three officials: Kay, the director of the library; Marn, city administrator of Caldora; and Alma, high priest of the local synagogue.
“Kim,” Marn began, “may we ask you what you were trying to achieve yesterday?”
“Yes,” Kim answered. “You may ask.” He smiled disarmingly.
“Well, we are asking.”
“What do you think?” Kim asked in return.
“We have no idea,” Kay answered. “Nothing like this has ever happened in the long existence of the library.”
“No, I don’t suppose it has.”
“We don’t understand,” said Alma. “Could you enlighten us?”
“We’re concerned,” said Marn. “There are rules of appropriate behavior, as you know.”
“I’m not acquainted with a specific rule that prohibits music in the Great Hall of the library.”
“These rules are understood,” Marn answered.
“Maybe I don’t understand them.”
“Well,” said Kay, attempting to be kind and stern at the same time, “you will not do this again.”
“You’re right,” said Kim.
“We’re glad you understand,” Kay nodded.
“I’ll probably do something different next time.”
His three visitors sat in stunned consternation for several seconds. Finally Alma spoke. “Such as?”
“I have no idea.” Kim held his hands out, palms up. “It depends on what I wish to learn.”
Alma opened his mouth as if to speak but then changed his mind.
“Can I be of further assistance?” Kim asked.
His three visitors looked at each other silently. Finally they stood and excused themselves. Kim saw them to the door and invited them to return whenever they wished.
After they had gone, he walked back inside and sat down on the sofa. He had never had any sort of official dealings with the authorities. He knew they were there behind the scenes, but he had never really spoken with any of them. He figured he was in trouble, but he also figured the authorities weren’t quite sure what kind of trouble he was in. This was virgin territory, and he himself wasn’t sure where he was headed.
After a half hour, Kim walked outside and wandered into town with no particular destination in mind. He felt different somehow, but nobody else seemed to notice. Several friends passed and greeted him as usual. Just when Kim was wondering if the visit by the authorities had been a gross overreaction, a citizen he didn’t know stopped him on the street.
“You’re the one who played ‘Viva la Vida’ yesterday in the library.”
“I suppose I am.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t believe we know each other,” he said. “My name is Cory.”
“I don’t know why you did it,” Cory continued, “but I’m glad you did.”
“You are?” Kim was genuinely pleased.
“Yes. It reminded me of something.”
“What?” Kim asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe a purpose.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
They stood in silence for a time. Finally Kim spoke.
“Cory, I live in Woodland Court. Please come visit me sometime, if you’d like.”
“Why not? I’ll be home in the afternoon.”
Kim walked on but was stopped again soon by an acquaintance named Leslie. By the time he returned home, he had been stopped twenty times and had issued that many invitations for the following day. He had an unusual feeling, which he recognized as satisfaction over his newfound fame. Of course he knew the dangers, but he liked the feeling anyway.
The next afternoon Kim had a houseful of guests, including Tracy, a good friend he had invited simply because he felt he needed someone there who would give him an honest assessment of the meeting after it ended. He wasn’t quite sure what to do, but a rousing discussion started more or less spontaneously. It kicked off with someone mentioning the music in the Great Hall, but the conversation ranged far and wide. The participants hadn’t had a discussion like this in five thousand years.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” Kim said after a couple of hours. “In mortality, our greatest works of art were often created not by the sensible and ordinary people, but by the disturbed and irrational ones. How many great artists were addicts? Depressed? Neurotic? Tormented? Violent?”
“Van Gogh?” Cory suggested.
“Hemingway?” said Ronny.
“Mozart?” Kelly added.
“Yes,” said Kim, “and thousands of others, millions probably, if you look at all the worlds in the galaxy.”
“So, what’s the connection to us?” asked Leslie.
“I’m not sure, but it may be that great art can only spring from great adversity and maybe great contradiction. How many great novels, for instance, were written by authors who spent their days as accountants or engineers and their evenings and weekends as model parents? Most of the truly creative geniuses in mortality were dysfunctional in some way.”
“Or in lots of ways,” Ronny added.
“And how many of those individuals ended up here in the terrestrial kingdom?” Cory observed.
“None,” Ronny nodded. “By definition, we’re the boring people. We weren’t ‘valiant,’ but we were good, decent people. No murderers or adulterers or liars ended up here. We’re the ones who weren’t very interesting in mortality. We weren’t passionate about anything, good or evil.”
“So, are there great works of art or music or literature coming from the telestial kingdom?” Kim asked.
“I’ve been there a few times to visit my kids,” said Leslie. “No, they’re pretty much like us now—content and peaceful and dull.”
“If you were going to write a history of our world,” Kim asked, “what would you write about?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Cory answered. “Nobody would want to read it.”
“Nothing ever happens here,” Ronny concluded. “Nothing interesting.”
“Not yet,” mused Kim. “Not yet.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Cory.
“I don’t know. Yet.”
Eventually the conversation lulled, and people started filtering out a few at a time. At the end, Tracy was the only guest still there. She hadn’t said a word the whole time, which worried Kim a little.
“So,” he said when they were alone, “what did you think?”
Tracy scrunched her lips together for a few seconds. “It won’t work.”
“What won’t work?”
“Whatever it is you’re aiming to stir up.”
“What if I’m not aiming to ‘stir’ anything up?”
“You are.” She paused. “You’re bored, and so are they. But what can you do about it?”
“Create a little history worth writing about maybe?”
“Creating history has always been—shall we say—dangerous,” warned Tracy.
“I suppose you’re right. But what can they do to me, kill me?”
Tracy laughed. “We both know there are things worse than death.”
The group met again the next day, but this time they brought friends. Thirty friends.
After a few minutes, Leslie spoke up. “Ever since we met yesterday, I’ve been seeing things in a new way. I can’t get an image out of my mind: I feel like I’m in one of those funhouse mirror rooms. Everywhere I look, it seems like I see a reflection of myself. And there’s no way out.”
“I’ve noticed it too,” said Ronny. “We’re all just so much the same. Do any of the rest of you feel that way?”
“Yes, exactly,” Kim answered. “Do you remember the passage in the Book of Mormon about needing opposition in all things? That’s what’s missing here: opposition. No sin, so there’s really no righteousness. No sickness, so health has no meaning. No death, so life is rather flat. There are also no rich or poor, bond or free, male or female. What’s our purpose? What are we going to do about this?”
“Well,” said Leslie, “we can’t do much about death, or about sickness.”
“No,” said Kim, “but we can create a bit more opposition, make life a bit more meaningful.”
“Sin?” asked Ronny.
“No,” answered Kim, smiling. “Sports!”
There was a moment of silence, then someone yelled out, “Cool!”
Kim had wondered at times why there were no sports in the terrestrial world. Resurrected bodies were flawless and indestructible, of course, but they weren’t identical or equal. Some were taller, some shorter, some faster, some slower, some more coordinated. He supposed it was because competition led to contention, and there was to be no contention in the terrestrial world.
“But what kind of sport?” asked Leslie.
“Well, we’ve got a little problem,” Kim stated. “We have no equipment, no balls, bats, hoops, goals, nothing.”
“I know where I can get a soccer ball made,” offered a newcomer named Mandy.
“And I know someone who could make us a couple of goals,” said Cory.
“I’ve read about soccer,” said Ronny, “but I’ve never played. I lived in the thirteenth century. We didn’t have much opportunity for sport.”
“Don’t worry,” Leslie assured him. “You’ll pick it up easily.”
“Can I ask something?” said another newcomer named Pat. “We’ve been taught that we’re not supposed to try to excel one above another. How do you reconcile sports with that commandment?”
“Sometimes two worthy goals find themselves in conflict,” Kim answered. “We have to decide which is more important. Is creating meaning in our lives through opposition more important than the risk that we’ll try to excel?”
Heads started nodding, although no one spoke.
Two weeks later the group met at Kolob Park where there was enough grass to play soccer. They set out some markers, and several of them set up the collapsible goals. Mandy had brought a fair replica of a twentieth-century Earth soccer ball. For his part, Kim had brought a pair of scissors.
“I guess if we’re going to play soccer,” he said, “we’ll have to have to modify our robes a bit.”
He cut the skirts of his robe off at the knee. “There,” he said, “our world’s first fashion statement. And it only took five thousand years.” Everybody laughed, then took the scissors one after another and made their own modifications.
They reviewed the rules and divided up into two teams. Scoring a goal was about as infrequent as in a mortal soccer match. Their bodies were quicker and more coordinated than mortal bodies, but that gave the defense just as much advantage as the offense. The biggest difference was that none of them got tired. After four hours, they called it a day. Kim’s team lost 6–5.
As they sat around afterward in the shade of a spreading mulberry, Kim came to a startling realization.
“You know, everybody,” he said, “I’m having a very strange feeling right now.”
“I know,” said Cory, “it’s the exhilaration of competing. I haven’t competed at anything since I died.”
“No,” answered Kim, “it’s more than that. And I don’t think you can understand, Cory, because your team won. What I’m feeling is this intense disappointment about losing. Do you realize that I haven’t lost at anything in several millennia? It’s incredible. I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything.”
Several other players on Kim’s team were nodding. A peculiar light was in their eyes.
“When should we play again?” Kim asked everyone.
“A week from today?” Leslie suggested.
“Yeah,” said Cory, “and maybe my team can lose next week.” He laughed, then added, “But I doubt it.”
“We’ll see,” said Kim. “Now that I’ve become reacquainted with what it feels like to lose, I’d like to try winning.”
“What about getting together to talk some more?” asked Logan, rolling over and propping herself up on her elbows. They had met three times since the first two get-togethers.
“How about two days from now, at my house?” suggested Cory.
The group met twice before they gathered at the park again. The second soccer game was even more intense; at one point, Ronny got in Logan’s face and they stared each other down. Leslie laughed at them and broke it up. A couple of hours into the game, Kim looked over to the side of the field and noticed two people watching: Marn and Alma. They were not smiling. After another hour, the players decided to take a break. As they lounged around in the shade, Marn and Alma approached.
“This activity is not permitted,” Marn announced.
“What, soccer?” Kim asked. “Why?”
“Competition is not spiritually healthy,” Alma offered in a quiet voice.
“It’s harmless,” said Ronny.
“Actually, it’s a lot better than harmless,” Cory exclaimed. “It’s invigorating, spiritually and physically. Really. You ought to try it.”
“No, thank you,” replied Marn with a grim face.
“And your robes are immodest,” added Alma.
Kim laughed. “How is that possible? We have terrestrial bodies, Alma. There’s not much to hide anymore. And besides, you can’t expect us to play soccer in long robes.”
“I can expect you to not play soccer.” He folded his arms and cocked his head to one side.
“What are you going to do to stop us?” asked Kim. “Lock us up?”
“You know there are no jails in the terrestrial world,” answered Marn.
“No,” said Kim with sudden earnestness, “there aren’t. And that’s part of the problem.”
“The lack of jails is a problem?” Alma’s eyebrows rose a notch.
“A couple of weeks ago,” Kim replied, “we discussed a verse in the Book of Mormon that talks about the need for opposition in all things. If there aren’t opposites, then ‘it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.’”
Alma just stared at him but didn’t respond.
“You’re a thing of naught, Alma. And so am I.” The truth of his own words almost took Kim’s breath away.
“I am striving with all my heart to live a life of joy,” Alma replied softly.
“But you’re failing. And so am I. Or at least I was until we started playing soccer.”
Alma shook his head slowly. “But soccer isn’t enough, is it?”
Kim’s eyes narrowed. “It’s just a game,” he admitted.
“And nobody wants to spend an eternity in which the most meaningful thing in life is a soccer game.”
Now Kim regarded Alma silently.
“This will lead to evil,” Alma declared.
“Or great good.”
“What good do you think you can accomplish with this competition?”
“I’m making it possible for you to acquire new virtues,” Kim answered.
“New virtues?” Alma looked genuinely surprised.
“Patience, for one,” said Kim. “And how about mercy? Or what about forgiveness? We’re commanded to be forgiving, but how can we be forgiving if nobody does us any wrong? Or maybe you can learn to be a peacemaker. You can’t be a peacemaker if there is no conflict. We’re creating some conflict. Maybe next week we’ll figure out a way to help you develop generosity. You’re not generous, Alma, because nobody in this world needs anything.”
The high priest merely shook his head disapprovingly.
Kim stood up. “Halftime’s over,” he shouted to the group. “Will you join us, Alma?”
Alma looked at Marn, who in turn looked bewildered. “Not today,” he answered. “Not today.”
“Your loss,” Kim said as he ran back onto the field.