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The Iceman Speaks: Transcript

Friday, November 22, 2013

"The Iceman Speaks," read by the author, Stefan Merrill Block


Did I dream in that very long time in between? Maybe I did, but I do not remember. When I think of those thousands of years now, I think of an endless and ice-slick falling, like the great cracks that split the glaciers up on our highest mountains. We used to drop rocks into those beautiful and broken shadows and tell stories about the places where the rocks landed. But our stories were nothing like the place where I landed, which was a bright cave of sharp stone and wooden shapes named The Lab.


You will first want to know: what were we like back then? We were very simple. We were the kind of people who could stain a blood-image of our bears into our cave walls and then flee our own art as if it might roar to life. We were that way with our own skins too, ignorant of the differences. We lived like one very big person with many limbs. Some of our hands worked spears and arrows, others pinched off berries and grains and medicines, but if any one of us took a gash to a stomach, all our hands rushed to the wound because anyone’s stomach was everyone’s stomach. On the last of my days, as the daylight snapped and bled into the dirty snow of our mountain, mine was the relief of the traveler returned home. We had always been that mountain. 


And then one day, five thousand three hundred years later, I awoke like a hard fall, onto some place empty and flat and forever. I thought it was a nightmare, and so I waited for familiar shapes to come. And yet. I stayed just that panic, frozen in something like ice but black. I lifted my hands to tear that blackness, but I found I had no hands to lift.


The way we used to be, we battled against the parts of ourselves we had not seen before. We attacked the painted tribes that sometimes strayed into our valley as if they were just the parts of us that had become different and strange, gone to rot. When at last someone slipped a plug and my new eye lenses filled with impossible lights, I filled also with hate: what had I become now? I was not this strange cave, where hairless people wore pelts of fine white, where the many torches were fixed and sun-bright. And so, when these people wired my first new limb, a metal arm jointed to a table, I made a fist and swung it. The people kissed each other and clapped their hands and waited for me to calm.


This endless tick-tick-tick of your time? The idea of it was a slow and blurry one for me, like blinking pollen from my eyes. I do not know how long the woman in The Lab spent showing me familiar things –rocks, sticks, flowers- and telling me their new words. After a long while, I was able to point to the correct thing when she said a name. Then, one morning, wanting the little happiness of my pretty flower, I shaped the word in my new voice speaker. Flower, I said, and the woman showed it to me. That was the day that I started to feel a little bigger again, looking beyond the white bloom to the woman pinching its stem, looking at this woman’s dark and starlight hair as if it were my own. But then the woman held the flower behind her, and no matter how many times I said flower, she would not show it to me. What do you want? the woman asked. Even with the million stem cells they had needled into my brain, it took me a long time to understand. Want flower, I said, and she pressed it into my metal fist.


Much later, this woman taught me the word primitive. Here is how primitive we used to be: we had so few words that we could draw a picture of every one. But, want. How did you draw a picture of that? Back then, I was very many women big, but there was one of my women who was closer than the rest – if the rest were like fingers and legs, then this woman and I were each other’s eyes. I remember once watching my eye-woman look at the moonlight in a pond. The moon, reflected in the pond, reflected again in those eyes. Was it still the moon? That was what this word want was like.


The people told me they were scientists, which were like hunters for things you could not draw. And a scientist, one said, needs many fancy tools. I asked, Fancy?, and he smiled and pointed to a thing he called a computer screen, which he also called a simulation, which was a sunny opening onto my lost time. Here were the great blades of our mountains, the sleep-dark ponds, even our little smoking huts. My voice speaker barked with long dead words. It was too wonderful! They had just finished piecing together my new body then, and when I tried to force all that clumsy steel and silicon through the screen, I crushed the light into many sharp and dead pieces.


The scientist-people told me about something called a curriculum, which was what we did all day, every day. All those word games and thinking problems. But at the end of the days, some of them stayed, sleeping near me on brown beds they could unfold. Those loose hours were the hours I wanted most, when they told me stories of how big we had become while I had slept. One night, they even took me outside. The place they called streets were great edged canyons, a person in every tiny cave. These are called buildings, they told me. We make them for people to live and work. Our new valley called City was so big, just as big as I was proud.


The scientist-people explained that we were not just this valley-city. We were thousands of cities big! Thousands of cities in a great blue stone called Earth, which was only like a little bead in a place called The Universe, where the stars threaded millions of these globes like bracelets. But I could not think a pride as big as this universe, and I asked them to stop their stories.


Okay, the flower-woman said. How about you tell us a story instead? She looked into my eyes so long I thought she was checking the wiring of my brain. I was wrong. She was asking me a question, in a whispery voice like a close hunt. My last days? I asked, and the flower-woman said yes.


I did not want to talk about it. Do not know that, I said. But she would not quit her questions. She showed me terrible pictures of my old body, shriveled now like the dried flesh of a goat. She brought me that same copper axe that had slept next to me all those years. That ancient weight was in my new metal hands now, and I got confused and full of fire-blood, like those last days had come back too. And when I calmed, I looked to find the flower-woman breathing very hard under a snow of that strange broken ice that never melts. Glass? Glass. The bad bruise near her eye was my own ache, and, forgetting that now I had metal sticks for fingers, I almost blinded her as I tried to nurse the wound. She slapped me away. Don’t you understand? The flower-woman said. The point of everything is what you can tell us.


I did not know that everything had a point, and I wondered about what it looked like, the place where the universe-valley reached a peak. I do not understand, I said. How can I tell you that?  


The next day, the flower-woman said that they were teaching me a lesson, but it must have been different than the other lessons because they stopped the curriculum. The scientist-people left me alone in The Lab, and they did not come back the next morning or the next or the next. Alone again, would I also become dead again? Technically speaking, a scientist man had told me once, you aren’t really alive. You are on, like a light switch? I passed many of those alone hours looking for the switch to off myself. I tried every switch in the room, but only the brightness went away, never me.


At last the scientist-people came back. My metal arms clanged with very loud relief. Are you ready to tell us now? the flower-woman said. I was so happy to be as big as us again, and if my memory was what we needed then I wanted to give it. But this memory was very hot and also very dim, like the failed start of a fire. A fragile burning that cannot catch.


The axe, I said. That is the reason. The truth is that I was only doing what they called speculating, which is a way to light a memory with a new and different switch. But I had some idea of a great fire where we made rocks sweat their precious little metals. There was only metal for one axe, I said.


I told the scientist-people about that single axe, too wonderful to put down, not big enough for all our fists to share. I had held onto it. I had swung it around until the axe and I were alone. I had only understood too late what that axe had made me: different and strange to the rest. And you know what we used to do with something different and strange.


Many times, the scientist-people compared the way I used to be to a child. They were right. I was just like a small child who has lost his mother in a forest. Could that scared boy tell you very much? After a panic like blindness, could he explain all his little cuts and bruises? All I could remember were the fear and running that were mine alone. The blood in my hand that no other hand came to nurse. And at last the relief of spilling myself back into the snow and stone of our forever mountain. I tried to tell them all of this.


I understand, I said. It is very little. No one spoke any more, and I watched the flower-woman’s eyes, her sharpness lost like mountains in heavy clouds. I wanted to say more, but words were also the problem. They were like her eye-clouds, blanking away whatever I could have told.


Days passed, then weeks and months. One day I asked a new scientist-person to show me the valley screen again. He said, why not? and when the picture came into the screen I understood why not. Now that I knew about computers and speculating, this screen was awful and wrong. But when I capped my eye-lenses, I could barely see my real valley any more. And soon my memories of us were just words for things I could not draw, a reflection of the reflection of the moon in my eye-woman’s eyes.


I used to ask: if we killed me because of the axe, then why did we make many more axes? But now I know that there are some things that a curriculum could never teach me. And here is an example: if we ever find another man sleeping in that ice, I want to do with him just what you have done with me. Even still, I want to wake him and teach him and build him into a strange new body, with just my primitive hope that he might remind me how our valley looked under that lost moon.


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