Parable of the Sower, Page 2Octavia E. Butler
I’m supposed to share pleasure and pain, but there isn’t much pleasure around these days. About the only pleasure I’ve found that I enjoy sharing is sex. I get the guy’s good feeling and my own. I almost wish I didn’t. I live in a tiny, walled fish-bowl cul-de-sac community, and I’m the preacher’s daughter. There’s a real limit to what I can do as far as sex goes.
Anyway, my neurotransmitters are scrambled and they’re going to stay scrambled. But I can do okay as long as other people don’t know about me. Inside our neighborhood walls I do fine. Our rides today, though, were hell. Going and coming, they were all the worst things I’ve ever felt—shadows and ghosts, twists and jabs of unexpected pain.
If I don’t look too long at old injuries, they don’t hurt me too much. There was a naked little boy whose skin was a mass of big red sores; a man with a huge scab over the stump where his right hand used to be; a little girl, naked, maybe seven years old with blood running down her bare thighs. A woman with a swollen, bloody, beaten face…
I must have seemed jumpy. I glanced around like a bird, not letting my gaze rest on anyone longer than it took me to see that they weren’t coming in my direction or aiming anything at me.
Dad may have read something of what I was feeling in my expression. I try not to let my face show anything, but he’s good at reading me. Sometimes people say I look grim or angry. Better to have them think that than know the truth. Better to have them think anything than let them know just how easy it is to hurt me.
Dad had insisted on fresh, clean, potable water for the baptism. He couldn’t afford it, of course. Who could? That was the other reason for the four extra kids:
Silvia Dunn, Hector Quintanilla, Curtis Talcott, and Drew Baiter, along with my brothers Keith and Marcus. The other kids’ parents had helped with costs. They thought a proper baptism was important enough to spend some money and take some risks. I was the oldest by about two months. Curtis was next. As much as I hated being there, I hated even more that Curtis was there. I care about him more than I want to. I care what he thinks of me. I worry that I’ll fall apart in public some day and he’ll see. But not today.
By the time we reached the fortress-church, my jaw-muscles hurt from clinching and unclinching my teeth, and overall, I was exhausted.
There were only five or six dozen people at the service—enough to fill up our front rooms at home and look like a big crowd. At the church, though, with its surrounding wall and its security bars and Lazor wire and its huge hollowness inside, and it’s armed guards, the crowd seemed a tiny scattering of people. That was all right. The last thing I wanted was a big audience to maybe trip me up with pain.
The baptism went just as planned. They sent us kids off to the bathrooms (“men’s,” “women’s,” “please do not put paper of any kind into toilets,” “water for washing in bucket at left…”) to undress and put on white gowns. When we were ready, Curtis’s father took us to an anteroom where we could hear the preaching—from the first chapter of Saint John and the second chapter of The Acts—and wait our turns.
My turn came last. I assume that was my father’s idea. First the neighbor kids, then my brothers, then me. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense to me, Dad thinks I need more humility. I think my particular biological humility—or humiliation—is more than enough.
What the hell? Someone had to be last. I just wish I could have been courageous enough to skip the thing altogether.
So, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…”
Catholics get this stuff over with when they’re babies. I wish Baptists did. I almost wish I could believe it was important the way a lot of people seem to, the way my father seems to. Failing that, I wish I didn’t care.
But I do. The idea of God is much on my mind these days. I’ve been paying attention to what other people believe—whether they believe, and if so what kind of God they believe in. Keith says God is just the adults’ way of trying to scare you into doing what they want. He doesn’t say that around Dad, but he says it. He believes in what he sees, and no matter what’s in front of him, he doesn’t see much. I suppose Dad would say that about me if he knew what I believe. Maybe he’d be right. But it wouldn’t stop me from seeing what I see.
A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of.
Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?
There’s a big, early-season storm blowing itself out in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s bounced around the Gulf, killing people from Florida to Texas and down into Mexico. There are over 700 known dead so far. One hurricane. And how many people has it hurt? How many are going to starve later because of destroyed crops? That’s nature. Is it God? Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go and who don’t hear the warnings until it’s too late for their feet to take them to safety. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it a sin against God to be poor? We’re almost poor ourselves. There are fewer and fewer jobs among us, more of us being born, more kids growing up with nothing to look forward to. One way or another, we’ll all be poor some day. The adults say things will get better, but they never have. How will God—my father’s God—behave toward us when we’re poor?
Is there a God? If there is, does he (she? it?) care about us? Deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson believed God was something that made us, then left us on our own.
“Misguided,” Dad said when I asked him about Deists. “They should have had more faith in what their Bibles told them.”
I wonder if the people on the Gulf Coast still have faith. People have had faith through horrible disasters before. I read a lot about that kind of thing. I read a lot period. My favorite book of the Bible is Job. I think it says more about my father’s God in particular and gods in general than anything else I’ve ever read.
In the book of Job, God says he made everything and he knows everything so no one has any right to question what he does with any of it. Okay. That works. That Old Testament God doesn’t violate the way things are now. But that God sounds a lot like Zeus—a super-powerful man, playing with his toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy soldiers. Bang, bang! Seven toys fall dead. If they’re yours, you make the rules. Who cares what the toys think. Wipe out a toy’s family, then give it a brand new family. Toy children, like Job’s children, are interchangeable.
Maybe God is a kind of big kid, playing with his toys. If he is, what difference does it make if 700 people get killed in a hurricane—or if seven kids go to church and get dipped in a big tank of expensive water?
But what if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether?
❏ ❏ ❏
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change.
EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING
TUESDAY, JULY 30, 2024
ONE OF THE ASTRONAUTS on the latest Mars mission has been killed. Something went wrong with her protective suit and the rest of her team couldn’t get her back to the shelter in time to save her. People here in the neighborhood are saying she had no business going to Mars, anyway. All that money wasted on another crazy space trip when so many people here on earth can’t afford water, food, or shelter.
The cost of water has gone up again. And I heard on the news today that more water peddlers are being killed. Peddlers sell water to squatters and the street poor—and to people wh
o’ve managed to hold on to their homes, but not to pay their utility bills. Peddlers are being found with their throats cut and their money and their handtrucks stolen. Dad says water now costs several times as much as gasoline. But, except for arsonists and the rich, most people have given up buying gasoline. No one I know uses a gas-powered car, truck, or cycle. Vehicles like that are rusting in driveways and being cannibalized for metal and plastic.
It’s a lot harder to give up water.
Fashion helps. You’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself. People think you’re showing off, trying to be better than they are. Among the younger kids, being clean is a great way to start a fight. Cory won’t let us stay dirty here in the neighborhood, but we all have filthy clothes to wear outside the walls. Even inside, my brothers throw dirt on themselves as soon as they get away from the house. It’s better than getting beaten up all the time.
Tonight the last big Window Wall television in the neighborhood went dark for good. We saw the dead astronaut with all of red, rocky Mars around her. We saw a dust-dry reservoir and three dead water peddlers with their dirty-blue armbands and their heads cut halfway off. And we saw whole blocks of boarded up buildings burning in Los Angeles. Of course, no one would waste water trying to put such fires out.
Then the Window went dark. The sound had flickered up and down for months, but the picture was always as promised—like looking through a vast, open window.
The Yannis family has made a business of having people in to look through their Window. Dad says that kind of unlicensed business isn’t legal, but he let us go to watch sometimes because he didn’t see any harm in it, and it helped the Yannises. A lot of small businesses are illegal, even though they don’t hurt anyone, and they keep a household or two alive. The Yannis Window is about as old as I am. It covers the long west wall of their living room. They must have had plenty of money back when they bought it. For the past couple of years, though, they’ve been charging admission—only letting in people from the neighborhood—and selling fruit, fruit juice, acorn bread, or walnuts. Whatever they had too much of in their garden, they found a way to sell. They showed movies from their library and let us watch news and whatever else was broadcast. They couldn’t afford to subscribe to any of the new multisensory stuff, and their old Window couldn’t have received most of it, anyway.
They have no reality vests, no touch-rings, and no headsets. Their setup was just a plain, thin-screened Window.
All we have left now are three small, ancient, murky little TV sets scattered around the neighborhood, a couple of computers used for work, and radios. Every household still has at least one working radio. A lot of our everyday news is from radio.
I wonder what Mrs. Yannis will do now. Her two sisters have moved in with her, and they’re working so maybe it will be all right. One is a pharmacist and the other is a nurse. They don’t earn much, but Mrs. Yannis owns the house free and clear. It was her parents’ house.
All three sisters are widows and between them they have twelve kids, all younger than I am. Two years ago, Mr. Yannis, a dentist, was killed while riding his electric cycle home from the walled, guarded clinic where he worked. Mrs. Yannis says he was caught in a crossfire, hit from two directions, then shot once more at close range. His bike was stolen. The police investigated, collected their fee, and couldn’t find a thing. People get killed like that all the time. Unless it happens in front of a police station, there are never any witnesses.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 3, 2024
The dead astronaut is going to be brought back to Earth. She wanted to be buried on Mars. She said that when she realized she was dying. She said Mars was the one thing she had wanted all her life, and now she would be part of it forever.
But the Secretary of Astronautics says no. He says her body might be a contaminant. Idiot.
Can he believe that any microorganism living in or on her body would have a prayer of surviving and going native in that cold, thin, lethal ghost of an atmosphere? Maybe he can. Secretaries of Astronautics don’t have to know much about science. They have to know about politics. Theirs is the youngest Cabinet department, and already it’s fighting for its life. Christopher Morpeth Donner, one of the men running for President this year, has promised to abolish it if he’s elected. My father agrees with Donner.
“Bread and circuses,” my father says when there’s space news on the radio. “Politicians and big corporations get the bread, and we get the circuses.”
“Space could be our future,” I say. I believe that. As far as I’m concerned, space exploration and colonization are among the few things left over from the last century that can help us more than they hurt us. It’s hard to get anyone to see that, though, when there’s so much suffering going on just outside our walls.
Dad just looks at me and shakes his head. “You don’t understand,” he says. “You don’t have any idea what a criminal waste of time and money that so-called space program is.” He’s going to vote for Donner. He’s the only person I know who’s going to vote at all. Most people have given up on politicians. After all, politicians have been promising to return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century ever since I can remember. That’s what the space program is about these days, at least for politicians. Hey, we can run a space station, a station on the moon, and soon, a colony on Mars. That proves we’re still a great, forward-looking, powerful nation, right?
Well, we’re barely a nation at all anymore, but I’m glad we’re still in space. We have to be going some place other than down the toilet.
And I’m sorry that astronaut will be brought back from her own chosen heaven. Her name was Alicia Catalina Godinez Leal. She was a chemist. I intend to remember her. I think she can be a kind of model for me. She spent her life heading for Mars—preparing herself, becoming an astronaut, getting on a Mars crew, going to Mars, beginning to figure out how to terraform Mars, beginning to create sheltered places where people can live and work now…
Mars is a rock—cold, empty, almost airless, dead. Yet it’s heaven in a way. We can see it in the night sky, a whole other world, but too nearby, too close within the reach of the people who’ve made such a hell of life here on Earth.
MONDAY, AUGUST 12, 2024
Mrs. Sims shot herself today—or rather, she shot herself a few days ago, and Cory and Dad found her today. Cory went a little crazy for a while afterward.
Poor, sanctimonious, old Mrs. Sims. She used to sit in our front-room church every Sunday, large-print Bible in hand, and shout out her responses: “Yes, Lord!” “Hallelujah!” “Thank you, Jesus!” “Amen!” During the rest of the week she sewed, made baskets, took care of her garden, sold what she could from it, took care of pre-school children, and talked about everyone who wasn’t as holy as she thought she was.
She was the only person I’ve ever known who lived alone. She had a whole big house to herself because she and the wife of her only son hated each other. Her son and his family were poor, but they wouldn’t live with her. Too bad.
Different people frightened her in some deep, hard, ugly way. She didn’t like the Hsu family because they were Chinese and Hispanic, and the older Chinese generation is still Buddhist. She’s lived a couple of doors up from them for longer than I’ve been alive, but they were still from Saturn as far as she was concerned.
“Idolaters,” she would call them if none of them were around. At least she cared enough about neighborly relations to do her talking about them behind their backs. They brought her peaches and figs and a length of good cotton cloth last month when she was robbed.
That robbery was Mrs. Sims’s first major tragedy. Three men climbed over the neighborhood wall, cutting through the strands of barbed wire and Lazor wire on top. Lazor wire is terrible stuff. It’s so fine and sharp that it slices into the wings or feet of birds who either don’t see it or see it and try to settle on it. People, though, can always find a way over, under, or throug
Everyone brought Mrs. Sims things after the robbery, in spite of the way she is. Was. Food, clothing, money… We took up collections for her at church. The thieves had tied her up and left her—after one of them raped her. An old lady like that! They grabbed all her food, her jewelry that had once belonged to her mother, her clothes, and worse of all, her supply of cash. It turns out she kept that—all of it—in a blue plastic mixing bowl high up in her kitchen cabinet. Poor, crazy old lady. She came to my father, crying and carrying on after the robbery because now she couldn’t buy the extra food she needed to supplement what she grew. She couldn’t pay her utility bills or her upcoming property taxes. She would be thrown out of her house into the street! She would starve!
Dad told her over and over that the church would never let that happen, but she didn’t believe him. She talked on and on about having to be a beggar now, while Dad and Cory tried to reassure her. The funny thing is, she didn’t like us either because Dad had gone and married “that Mexican woman Cory-ah-zan.” It just isn’t that hard to say “Corazon” if that’s what you choose to call her. Most people just call her Cory or Mrs. Olamina.
Cory never let on that she was offended. She and Mrs. Sims were sugary sweet to one another. A little more hypocrisy to keep the peace.
Last week Mrs. Sims’s son, his five kids, his wife, her brother, and her brother’s three kids all died in a house fire—an arson fire. The son’s house had been in an unwalled area north and east of us, closer to the foothills. It wasn’t a bad area, but it was poor. Naked. One night someone torched the house. Maybe it was a vengeance fire set by some enemy of a family member or maybe some crazy just set it for fun. I’ve heard there’s a new illegal drug that makes people want to set fires.