Philip Sockman the sockmonkey needed some Hawthorne flowers for her rucksack. The Hawthorne trees in the city weren’t yet flowering, so Philip went to the Herb Shoppe to get dried Hawthorne flowers from a big glass jar, a whole rucksack full. She had a stack of quarters in his rucksack that was the width of two thumbs, with which she intended to pay. The Hawthorne flowers cost two dollars an ounce.
It was a fine fall day with every sort of weather, and Philip Sockman the sockmonkey set out across Burnside to the Herb Shoppe, which was on 24th and Burnside, in the city of Portland, OR. Philip was a city monkey aspiring to be a country monkey, she had a rucksack that she used to cart her herbs around, but she wasn’t a country monkey yet so for convenience she got her herbs from the Herb Shoppe, instead of gathering them along the trail or at the torn-up edges of meadows the way a country monkey might.
No-one noticed that Philip had entered the Shoppe, because she was much shorter than your typical Herb Shoppe customer. The Herb-Shoppe proprietor was busy behind the counter, filling little capsules with herbs that she had powdered. The clear capsules were set on end in a small wooden board and she tipped a bit of herb in to each one, counting “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen,” and so on.
Philip went to the back of the shop where the big glass jars were, rows and rows of them, lined up clean and straight on the shelves, all the way to the ceiling, where bunches of herbs hung drying, tied up with string. Philip stood on the ground and tilted her stuffed sockmonkey head back as far as it would go, looking up at the jars. She saw Calendula, Chamomile and Catnip, Chickweed, Chicory and Crampbark. She saw Fennel, Feverfew and Flax. She saw Ginger, Ginko and Goldenseal. And finally, way up on one of the up-high shelves, she saw the Hawthorne flowers.
Philip looked around her for something that she could climb. Although Philip Sockman was a stuffed sockmonkey made of cotton yarn, she was a monkey nonetheless, and a very good climber. Soon she spotted a tall stool with rung-ladder legs, and she climbed to the top of it. Once on top of the stool she spotted a stack of white pillar candles, bundled together like felled trees, and she climbed on top of those. From the top of the candles she was at the level of a hanging tapestry, a washed out rust-colored tapestry with tassels all along the edges, and she began to climb up the tassels, hand over hand, her little sockmonkey-legs swinging in space behind her.
Soon she was on the shelf where the Hawthorne flowers jar was, and she said “Whew!” and wiped her knitted cotton brow. She edged around the jars until she found the right one. It had a white label made from an index card on it, and the card said:
“Hawthorne Flowers. Opens the Heart. Releases emotions trapped inside. Also good for circulation. Dilates blood vessels.”
The sock monkey looked up towards the wide top of the big glass jar. However would she climb it to get at the flowers inside? Nearby she spotted a stack of scented goat’s milk soaps, and she carted them over one by one, stacking them up until she had a nice set of steps and she could climb to the top of the jar. Once at the top she unscrewed the big white cap, rested her little belly on the edge and leaned inside. At once the sweet smell of Hawthorne flowers overwhelmed her senses, so red and sour it was, like rose hip jam, sticky and stuck full of hard little seeds. Philip was overcome with emotion. She took a deep breath and leaned in a bit farther, at which point she-
fell into the jar.
She gave a little sockmonkey shout, which was muffled by the flowers. The Shoppe proprietor looked up from her pleasant work, but Philip was out of sight on the almost very highest shelf and so she shrugged her shoulders and went back to her work, seeing only a stack of soaps moved a bit and thinking maybe the noise she heard was just the cat stuck in the broom closet again and she would go and check when she was finished filling capsules with powdered herb, and she had knocked the spilt herb into the trash, and put away the small herb board.
Philip righted herself in the deep flowers and looked up towards the top of the jar. She stood as tall as she could and reached her knit cotton arms as high as she could reach them, but she could not reach the top of the jar. It was a very large glass jar indeed. She jumped up and down, but could not reach the rim, and her little feet made soft Thud! noises on the flowers. She was stuck! Finally she sat, and looked out at the shop with despair, her view rippled and blurred through the glass. It was warm and cozy in the jar, and the flowers were soft and deep, and she took one up in her hands, and looked at it. It made her feel sleepy, and she thought maybe she would take a nap, and when she woke she would holler out at the nice shop Proprietor and the proprietor would save her. She would pluck Phillip from the jar and dust her off and set her down on the floor, and she would know from then on never to try and climb inside a tall glass jar, using only a stack of goat’s milk soaps as steps.
When Philip woke it was dark, and the shop Proprietor had gone home. There was no one at all in the shop, only a little monkey stuck in a jar and the sound of traffic on Burnside Street. Philip felt suddenly lonelier than she had ever felt in her whole sockmonkey life, lonely and abandoned and stuck. And not only was she alone but she was hungry too, with nothing in her rucksack but a stack of quarters two-thumbs thick and nothing to eat but a bunch of Hawthorne flowers.
Philip picked up a little flower and ate it. It tasted good so she ate another, another and another. She ate handfuls and handfuls of sweet-sour white flower heads, until she wasn’t hungry anymore. But the Hawthorne flowers opened her heart up wide like a bedroom window in the springtime, and soon Philip was feeling lonelier than ever, even more lonely and abandoned and stuck, and she began to cry big, salty sockmonkey tears. She cried and cried and cried, and the flowers around her grew damp with her tears, and so she emptied her rucksack of quarters and filled it instead with flowers, to try and save some of them from the emotional tornado that was pouring out from her embroidered eyeballs. What would the nice Proprietor think, when she found that Phillip had ruined all of her Hawthorne flowers? Phillip cried and cried and cried some more, and all of the crying made her feel even sadder. The bottom of the jar filled up with an inch of her tears, and then two inches, and then three. Soon Philip was bobbing in a bath of tears mixed with Hawthorne flowers, floating ever-higher towards the tall jar top. She saw that she was nearing the top of the jar and she stopped crying, at once hopeful for her escape. But she saw that she was still out of reach of the rim and so she ate a few more handfuls of flowers and the tears began again. Woe is me! She cried. Oh how lonely I am! And then she was at the top of the jar and she pulled herself out of her salty bath, bounding down the goat soaps and down the candles and down the ladder-legged stool all the way down to the floor of the darkened shop.
Philip fled from the dark shop, running zig-zag out the door onto Burnside, her eyes blurred from all that crying. She ran across Burnside and into the neighborhood just north of it, her little heart pounding, her rucksack bouncing on her back. She ran down the sidewalk and turned left at the end of the block, turned right, turned left, ran through a series of backyards, dodging children’s toys and stacks of hardened dog doo, parting jungles of weedy grass and crawling on her stomach through blackberry brambles. She slipped between fence boards and dodged under picnic tables, squeezed through chain-link and finally stopped to catch her breath. She looked up and saw that she was in a dirt-packed enclosure scattered with straw. She was completely lost. There were little wooden boxes all around her and the whole world was quiet, no sound but the gentle rushing of the interstate far off somewhere, hidden from view. She was about to start crying again when she herd a gentle cooing and looked up to see a great soft bird coming out of a little door in one of the enclosures, a bird the likes of which she had never seen. It eyed her with a warm black eye and clucked gently.
“Hello?” She asked it. “What are you?”
“I am a chicken,” said the chicken.
“A chicken?” said Philip. “What is a chicken?”
“A chicken is what I am,” said the chicken. “And you, are a sockmonkey.”
“Yes,” said Philip. “You’re very smart.”
“Are you lost?” asked the chicken. “It’s very easy to get lost when you are crying and running, running and crying, all at the same time.”
“How did you know that I was crying?” asked Philip.
“I’m a knowing sort of chicken,” said the chicken. “Why don’t you come into our little house? It’s warm and gently lit. The clouds are threatening rain.” And the chicken cocked a small black eye at the stuffed-up night sky.
So Philip followed the chicken, and ducked inside the little door to the chicken-house. Inside was warm and dry, and a tiny glass oil-lamp threw a yellow shadow on the wooden board walls. The floor was deep with thick straw and three or four other chickens were nestled down in the straw, regarding her gently in the glow from the oil-lamp. There was also a duck, a white runner duck with a yellow bill, and it watched her too, from the corner of the chicken-house.
“Welcome to our home,” said one of the chickens. “We were just sitting up, discussing the stars. If you are hungry we have some corn grains left over that you could have, and if you are tired you are welcome to sleep here with us, in the straw.
“I’m not hungry but I am very tired,” said Philip, sitting down gratefully in the dry straw. “I’m tired and I’m also very lost. I want to find my way home but I don’t know how.”
“Maybe we could help you!” said one of the chickens. “We know celestial navigation. We study it here in our little house, at night, by oil lamp. Alas, we are each of us too big to squeeze through the fence and escape to freedom, using our hard-learned navigation skills. But we plot and plan nonetheless, and we have learned very well how one might navigate by the stars, if one had the opportunity.”
And so Philip and the Chickens sat up late into the night, discussing celestial navigation and how one might find one’s way home by the position of the stars. Philip was getting excited and her little heart was swelling with new hope, until she realized-
That the night was cloudy.
“Yes,” said one of the chickens, blinking a leathery eyelid over its little black eye. “I suppose we hadn’t thought of that.”
“Oh well,” said Philip, sighing deeply. “I guess I’ll just sleep here in this nice straw tonight. And in the bright daylight I will think of some new plan, and I am sure that I will find my way home one way or another.”
“That is a good attitude to have,” said the chickens, blinking thoughtfully. “Sleep well, and in the morning your thoughts will be clear and empty like a cold glass of water.”
Philip fluffed a bit of straw in the corner and climbed inside, taking off her pointed felt hat with the feather in it and laying the hat next to her head. She went to sleep, and in the morning she woke late. The chickens were all out pecking in the yard, and warm sunshine fell on the yellow straw. They had left her breakfast of a few corn grains and a dandelion head, and she packed these things into her rucksack, slinging it over her shoulders and easing open the little wooden chicken-door, checking to see that there were no humans about before darting across the yard. She waved good-bye to the chickens, who were scratching under the bare rosebushes, as the sun clouded over and cold shade passed over the yard.
Philip walked a few blocks in no particular direction. As she walked she was thinking- what do I do? And how do I find my way home? After a good amount of walking and thinking had been done, Philip came to a junk shop. The sidewalk out front was crowded with rusted farm tools and peeling bicycles, rocking horses without any rockers and ten-dollar broken-necked guitars stacked on green wrought-iron garden chairs. Philip was instantly curious. Facing the front of the store, she stood up as tall as she could and looked though the bottom of a dusty front window, and beyond it she could see rows of green bottle glass and cut crystal candy dishes and tin boxes. The door jangled as a person stepped outside, and Philip darted into the shop before the door could close again.
Inside the door was the smell of mothballs and the warmth of collected sunlight. Tall glass cases to the left were cluttered with tangled jewelry and tarnished brooches, wooden tops and bone letter openers, bent hair-pins and broken-clasped watch-fobs, heavy belt buckles and pocket watches without any face-glass. Next to the glass cases were bins stuffed with silver spoons and wooden boxes of leather-handled knives, locked padlocks without any keys and bi-focal sunglasses, everything all jumbled together in stacks and piles or hanging from little brass hooks- bolo ties and strips of costume beads, tarnished fake pearls and souvenir key-chains, swimming medals and broken lockets, all of it floating in shafts of light from the cluttered front windows.
Philip spied a rack of clothing and darted under it, pulling the old furs around her as heavy boots clomped across the shop. Philip peeked out to see an old bearded man place an accordion onto a shelf stacked high with accordions, arranging it gently amongst the other music boxes, pearly and chipped and faded every one, missing buttons and keys and with tarnished silver corners and handles of broken leather. Philip looked out at the man from inside the hem of an old rabbit coat, dyed jet black and yellowed at the seams. She bent back her head and looked up at the high shelves of old junk- box cameras and sheet music and cloth-bound books, rotary phones and beaded handbags and catcher’s mitts, photo albums and broken clocks- and she felt that perhaps she had come to the right place. Here amongst all these things from long ago, was there hiding an oracle that could help her find her way home?
The man sang softly as he shuffled about the shop, plucking the strings of the guitars that hung from the ceiling and then settling down to unpack a box of faded spice tins, lining them up for sale on the plush seat of a wooden chair. He then went to a row of metal filing cabinets in the middle of the shop and opened and closed their drawers, which held jumbles of black and white photos from various decades long passed, all curled around each other and stuffed twenty deep. The man thumbed a photo here and there, pulled up the ones at the very bottom and re-jumbled them, slid the drawer closed with a satisfied bang. Next to the filing cabinets were shelves of cloth-bound books, and the man ran a finger along a shelf and then looked at the dust that had gathered there, his grey eyes squinting behind scratched glasses. He shrugged his shoulders and wiped the finger on his pants, turned and headed back to the front of the shop, the colored light from the glass bottles in the window playing over him as he went. Philip saw him step behind the counter and sit, disappearing behind a rotating glass carousel, the kind that may have once held pie but now held all manner of forgotten novelties- decks of cards and wooden tops, small metal cars and metal thimbles, saucerless teacups and salt shakers without any pepper.
Philip pushed aside the rabbit fur and stepped out onto the dusty floor. Behind her a row of shelves were stuffed with hats. The shelves sat on an old bureau, and the bureau drawers were each a little open, with bits of scarves hanging out. Philip figured she would climb the drawers to the bureau-top, and from there she would have access to the shelves of hats, and to all the shelves of the store, and the counter-tops. She would then explore freely, although cautiously, and with quiet monkey stealth.
Philip pulled herself up and over the bottom-most drawer and immediately fell waist-deep into scarves, silk and cotton and monogrammed. She pulled herself out of that musty-smelling pile and climbed the next drawer up and the next, all the way to the bureau-top, and there began her ascent of Hat Mountain- straw cowboy hats and felt bowlers and velveteen women’s hats with sprays of lace and yellowed silk flowers, piled up as far as she could see. Philip’s little stuffed arms pulled her up the hats and her long knitted tail helped her balance, until she was at the last shelf of hats, where she reached out like a tried-and-true hat-mountain climber for a stiff green military cap, testing it first before putting her weight on it to see if it would hold. The hat slid off the shelf and went tumbling down through space, dislodging other hats along its path and starting a general hat-valanche, all of the dislodged hats landing on the floor with a rustle and a thump. Philip sprang into the air and landed on the shelf above her where the green hat had been, jumping startled at what she saw there- hidden under the green cap had been a proud stuffed pheasant, and now it stood looking at her with its cold glass eye, and she could only stand stiff on the edge of the shelf, with her little monkey-arms straight out in alarm. Philip heard the man get up from his chair and stride across the floor, and she darted behind the stuffed pheasant, crouching down with her little rucksack clutched to her chest and sucking in her quick little monkey-breath.
The man stopped in front of the shelf and looked at the hats. Philip peeked out from behind the pheasant and saw the man’s shirt-pocket, closed with a pearl snap, very close to the Pheasant. The man stood in front of the shelf and stroked his chin, and then stooped to pick up the hats that had fallen, stuffing them back onto the lower shelves, ignoring the pheasant and Philip. Then he turned and went back to the front of the store, singing a little off-key tune of the sort that one might pull from one of his broken accordions, leaving behind him the faint smell of tobacco and hair grease.
Philip heard a whisper in front of her.
“What?” she said, her little heart finally slowing to its normal, somewhat rapid sockmonkey rate.
“I said, what do you have in that rucksack?” It was the pheasant, talking softy to her, its cold glass eye fixed on the front of the store.
“In my rucksack?” said Philip, looking up at the pheasant’s stiff brown wing. “A few grains of corn. A dandelion head. Hawthorne flowers.”
“Hawthorne flowers?” asked the pheasant. “What are those good for?”
“Opening the heart,” said Philip. “Feelings. Sometimes we don’t know what our heart wants. Knowing what the heart wants is important. Hawthorne flowers are good for that.” The pheasant gave a little cluck, and Philip thought she could see the feathers ruffle a bit, and then settle again.
“Feelings,” said the pheasant. “I’ve got plenty of those. I can use those just fine.” and then, after a pause, “What I can’t use so much these days, is my body. Do you have any herbs for that, little monkey? To help me use my body again? It sure does get tiresome, just being in my head all the time. Running around in circles in there, stuck in this shop. What I’d like, I’d like to fly again, make a nice nest in the tall grass somewhere. Hatch some chicks and lead them through the alfalfa in a little line, peck at some beetles. That’s what I want.”
“I don’t have any herbs for that.” said Philip, standing from her crouched position. She came out and sat next to the pheasant, dangling her legs over the edge of the shelf. “I do have some corn grains, though, that the chickens gave me. You could have those.”
“Nope,” said the pheasant curtly. “No eating for me. Only thinking.”
The two sat and looked out towards the front windows of the shop, cluttered with oil lamps and crystal candy dishes, perfume decanters and blown glass marbles. The sunlight filtered calm and gentle through the junk, and Philip thought how nice it would be to lay in one of those beams, warm where it fell on the wooden shop floor.
“Have things always been this way for you?” asked Philip. “Here in this shop, stuck on a shelf of hats, unable to move?”
The pheasant just barely opened her beak, and gave a little pheasant-sigh.
“Things used to be quite different. I used to have a friend. A golden donkey friend. A golden donkey with a green emerald eye. The donkey lived there, across the shop, on that shelf cluttered with tarnished metal. During long, dusty days the donkey and I would gaze at each other across the shop, its warm glittering eye looking long into my cold glass one. In my head I would make so many plans for ways that this donkey and I would finally meet, and I knew that the donkey was thinking the very same thing, over there across the shop. We were simply waiting for the right opportunity, waiting for the seas of time to move us closer to each other, like kudzu growing around a rusted-out car, pushing things this way and that, things that never could have moved on their own. But alas, one day the golden donkey with the emerald eye was knocked into the Bins of Worthlessness by the elbow of a clumsy customer. I heard its tiny golden screams as it sifted slowly to the bottom, never to be seen again.” The pheasant shuddered ever so slightly, and stared harder towards the far end of the shop.
“The bins of worthlessness?” asked Philip.
“The Bins of Worthlessness,” said the pheasant. Her eyes flashed just then and shone with a bit of fearful light. “Bins, endlessly deep, filled with dreadful things. Single earrings that have no match. Cheap metal necklaces with broken clasps, twisted and shedding gold flake like dead skin. Promotional enamel shirt pins. Polished rocks, broken strings of beads. Bent spoons. BROOCHES.”
“And the golden donkey with the emerald eye, is lost in one of these bins? One of these Bins of Worthlessness?”
“Yes,” said the pheasant. “Buried. Forgotten. Lost. Of course there is the odd ambitious treasure hunter, curious enough to paw through the first layer or two of these bins. But once they tire of being stuck by brooch-pins and earring-backs they turn away, never discovering my dear little donkey, lying nearly mad at the very bottom, all tangled up with the cheapest and most broken jewelry ever to be sold on a felt-lined plastic card.”
“Perhaps I could find that golden donkey for you,” said Philip, suddenly inspired. “I’m quite the able little monkey. I could fish her out of those bins for you, and then you wouldn’t be so lonely. Everyone needs company, even a stuffed pheasant or a donkey made of metal.” The pheasant made no sound, only stood softly there next to Philip, her glass eyes forever forward. “But how,” wondered Philip, “will I ever explore this shop, and look for your friend, if that man is here all day, sitting behind the counter, waiting for a tumble of hats to betray my presence?”
“Lunch.” said the pheasant.
“Lunch?” repeated the monkey.
“Lunch. At eleven forty-five the man locks up the shop with a big brass key and goes next door to eat lentil soup. He is gone for one half hour, during which time not a thing moves in this shop but the sunbeams on the dusty floor. If you wait for the man to go to lunch, you can explore this shop however you like- and no-one will be alarmed.”
And so the sockmonkey and the stuffed pheasant waited, and at eleven forty-five exactly, according to the big clock on the wall, the man stood up from his chair, let out a little groan and then bent over to stretch his lower back, dangling his fingertips above the floor. He then righted himself and hurried out of the shop, locking the front door with a big brass key he selected from a wide ring, not wanting to be late for his lentil soup.
They watched his head disappear through the clouded glass, and then with no further words the brave little sockmonkey flung herself down off of the bureau and darted quickly across the wooden floor towards the Bins of Worthlessness. They were cheap, plastic bins lined up on an old dresser beneath the window of cut-glass, and Philip scaled the dresser drawers like a champion and dove into the bin closest to the sunlit window, first taking a deep breath and closing her eyes against loose beads or sharp earring-backs, and grabbing in her paw the first twisted necklace-end that she could find, pulling it along after her.
The world churned around Philip. She squeezed her eyes shut as she fell. She had the sensation of catching her yarn-body here and there on rough metal corners and the gaps in elastic watch-bands, but she brushed them away and kept falling, squeezing her little monkey-eyes tight, and holding her stuffed arms close to her body and her legs straight, as if she were jumping into the sea from atop a tall pier crusted all over with barnacles. And as she fell that was what she wished, that she was jumping into the salty sea from atop a tall pier crusted all over with barnacles. And in her fantasy the sun was bright and the sea was warm, and there weren’t any jellyfish, not any jellyfish anywhere.
Philip landed softly on her knitted bottom, and opened her eyes.
She had landed, somehow, in the most spectacular place.
She was seated on a slab of cool stone, and all around her fell glittering metal flake, landing softly like snow. It gathered here and there and collected in drifts, blown this way and that by strange breezes from far above. In some places it had been raked into deliberate piles- broken gold leaf here, shimmering and dull, and over there piles of silver flake swept up like fall leaves. There were also stacks of unrecognizable metal bits, and of course the earring backs she had been so warned about. And lying on the floor now and again in the snow were the bones of mice, scattered and aged a pale wooden white.
Philip looked above her the way she had come, but all she could see was the gently falling snow, and the dangling end of the cheap metal necklace she had pulled down after her. The snow fell on her embroidered face and stuck to her cotton skin. She brushed it off and stood, placing her stuffed little hands on the hips of her knee-length breeches.
“Hello?” she called out, into the endless metal flake. The sound jumped out and then faded away as if she had shouted into a pillow. “Hello?!” she called again, louder. “I am Philip Sockman, and I have been sent by the Stuffed Pheasant to find The Golden Donkey With the Emerald Eye. Are you here, Golden Donkey?”
At first there was no response from the dark cavern, and Philip’s heart sank. But then there was a bit of shining behind a pile of rusted keyrings, and then out from the keyrings stepped the most beautiful little creature she had ever seen! It was a small gleaming donkey forged of the brightest gold, with a green jewel eye that shot out rainbow light like a crystal in the sun. The bars of colored light moved across the cave and fell on Philip, where she stood awestruck, and the light played on the rock beneath her- red and orange and yellow and green and blue and violet, as if a dark storm had just now blown over and in the farthest east a rainbow was shining in the new sun, way out on the ocean.
Philip could not speak. The donkey just looked at her, moving its emerald eye about, and she felt it warming her sockmonkey heart like a mason jar of strong tea.
“I am here,” Said the golden donkey, in a small golden donkey sort of voice. “You have found me. What is it that you want?”
“I want to free you from this place,” said Philip, astounded. “I want to take you back up into the shop.” The donkey said nothing, only closed her emerald eye, plunging the cavern momentarily into darkness and then bringing it out again when her eye opened, the sparkling metal snow blinking in the colored light. Philip shook herself and looked around her. “What is this place?” she said quietly, her sockmonkey voice small with awe. “What is it that happens down here?”
“This,” said the donkey in its strange donkey voice, as if speaking from inside of a small tin box, “this is the very bottom of the Bins of Worthlessness.” The donkey blinked her its again, and Philip had the sensation of rising high in the air, as if on a ferris wheel, and then dropping again. “This is where the things that we have created come after we have grown weary of maintaining them. This is where they come to separate into their original materials, this is where they come to attempt to return to the dark, secret place from whence they were first extracted. They are trying to go back under the ground, to become good and whole again- to turn back into stone.”
“Alas,” said the shining golden being, throwing its gaze against the dull walls of the cavern, where it was absorbed- “alas, this is not the center of the earth, or the bottom of the sea, where stone is made. This is, in fact, nowhere. We do not allow things to return from whence they came. This shop cannot let them have peace. And so they fall to pieces, breaking into smaller and smaller particles, and they drift like snow in this place- forever.”
Philip rapped her sockmonkey hand against the wall of the cavern.
“Plastic,” she said.
“Yes,” said the donkey. She blinked her twinkling eye again, and Philip felt dizzy with the beauty of it. “These walls are plastic. And plastic is eternal. A newly created material- no microbe has yet evolved that can digest it. And so, it cannot decay. It is a cruel prison for these simple metals, more enduring even than time itself. Plastic is the thing we have created that will never, ever go away. We do not have to maintain it. It goes on in spite of us, and stands here strong and permanent, more permanent than you or I or anything. It’s a thing that cannot be measured in time. And it stands in the very way of life itself, as you can see-” and she turned her blinding gaze to the piles of drifted metal, “it stops the natural process of death and rebirth. It stops this metal from returning to the earth, from returning to the airless rock in which it was forged. And we cannot escape it. No-one, I’m afraid, can escape it.”
At this the Donkey closed her wondrous eye, and Philip had a moment where she felt herself very alone in the dark cave, and she saw time stretching out before her, going on and on and on, and she felt curious but also trapped…
Back in the junk store, The Stuffed Pheasant watched as a handful of buttons parted and Philip’s head, gasping, rose above the surface of the Bin, and then came her little sockmonkey mitts, clutching at strands of plastic pearls, until finally she pulled herself free of that awful hole, and lay exhausted on the lumpy jewelry and panted little sockmonkey breaths. She had on her back her rucksack, and as she stood and climbed down from the bin the Stuffed Pheasant saw that the rucksack looked heavy, and her wet little eye twitched in anticipation.
Philip Sockman the Sockmonkey crested the summit of Hat Mountain just as the door-bells jangled and the man returned from his lunch, singing softly a gentle tune and letting the jangling door slam shut behind him. Philip climbed quickly past the Pheasant and ducked behind a stack of hats, where she crouched in the dark and opened up her canvas rucksack. There inside was the Golden Donkey, its brilliant eye gently closed, as if it was asleep. As soon as the man had settled behind the counter Philip sat down next to the Pheasant, and told her everything that had happened. When she finished the tale the pheasant ruffled her feathers a bit and then settled them down again, as if she had been imagining the cold drafts of a cave where flakes of metal snow always fell.
“Can I see my friend?” She asked, quietly.
Philip opened the rucksack again and carefully lifted the golden donkey out, setting it down on the shelf. The donkey’s eye stayed gently closed, and it didn’t move at all, or speak.
“Just as I remember,” said the Pheasant. “It will be sad to see the donkey go.”
“See the golden donkey go?” said Philip. “I’ve only just pulled it from the Bins of Worthlessness!”
The stuffed pheasant sighed a bit, as she was fond of doing.
“I am ready to leave this place,” said the pheasant. “I am ready to be free. And the donkey, it will go with you.”
“Leave this place?” asked Philip. “How will you do that? And why will the donkey stay with me?” And yet she shuddered, as if all along she knew that this is what the pheasant would say.
“The donkey is an oracle,” said the Pheasant. “that is how I will be free, and that is why it must go with you. The golden donkey will help you find your way home. You see, most always it will be the as you see it now, still and made of golden metal, but now and then its eye will open and brilliant colored light will fill the air, and it will speak. Now,” and the Pheasant closed her black eye soberly, “I’ll need your help for what is to happen next. Do you still have some Hawthorne flowers in your rucksack?”
“Yes.” said Phillip.
“And you said that Hawthorne flowers are good for opening the heart?”
“What I need for you to do,” said the Pheasant, “Is gather an armful of your Hawthorne flowers. Once you have them, I need you to use your tail to knock a stack of hats from the shelf, causing an avalanche on Hat Mountain, and attracting the attention of the man behind the counter. The man will approach the shelf to investigate, and when he leans in, with his face very close, I need you to throw the flowers in his face.”
“In his face?” Squealed Phillip. “Isn’t that a little bold?”
“You must do as I say,” said the Pheasant, “if you ever want to go home again.”
And Phillip did want to go home. Every minute, she was becoming even more tired of being lost. And so reaching deep into her rucksack, she gathered up all of the pale, brittle Hawthorne flowers, and then, with a sure swing of her tail, she dislodged a uneven stack of felt bowlers, sending them tumbling into space, where they met a collection of sailor caps and finally, some yellow straw cowboy hats, starting a hat-valanche that shook hat-mountain and sent up a wind of dust and mothballs.
The man behind the counter stirred, and setting down his yellowed antique pricing books, he stood, and walked slowly to the corner where the hats were kept. Phillip, meanwhile, had gathered her rucksack and ducked behind one of the remaining hats, clutching the armful of flowers and breathing small quick monkey-breaths. The Pheasant stood bravely, black eyes closed.
“Hmmmm,” said the man, as he stood before the hats. “Hmmmm….” And at that moment, the monkey was out like a shot, tossing her knitted arms into the air, flinging her flowers at the man’s face. “Gah!” he said, waving a hand. “Hachoo!” He said, sneezing. As he brushed the crumbling flowers from his eyes and beard, Phillip darted back behind the hat, standing just so to see what might happen next.
The man was looking down at where all the flowers had fallen. Confused, he stooped to pick one up. Holding it in the palm of his big hand, he wiped his eyes with the other, and then, incredibly, he looked up at the Stuffed Pheasant, as if seeing her for the first time. For a long minute he stood there, flower in hand, thinking. Presently he began to mumble to himself.
“Forgot about that pheasant. Had that pheasant since forever. Can’t remember where I got it.” He paused, rubbing the last of the leaves from his beard. “Nice animals, pheasants. Always liked seeing them in the country. Not too shy, pheasants. Look kinda like chickens.” Suddenly he had a thought, and shook his head, as if startled. “You know, I never thought about it, but it’s kinda weird to keep a Pheasant like this. You know, they live in the woods and all, in the fields. Mostly when they die they get eaten by other animals, rot away, whatever. Turn back into dirt, plants. Kinda weird to mount one on a stand and not let it decompose like it’s supposed to. Trapped. Wonder if it’s haunted?”
The man lifted the pheasant from the shelf and held it in his big hands, thoughtful. Phillip watched with horror as The Pheasant squeezed her eyes tighter, enduring.
“You know,” said the man, after a moment, “I think I’ll free this pheasant from its stand. Bury it in the old lot behind the shop. Let it go. Free it, I guess you could say.” And then he gently pulled the pheasant’s legs from the metal stand, brushing off its feathers and holding it kindly in his two hands. “Almost like it’s alive.” said the man. “Must be haunted.” And with that he turned to go, walking quickly toward the back of the shop. Phillip watched, anxious, and just before the man disappeared she heard a whisper- it was the pheasant, calling out.
“Goodbye, Phillip.” called the Pheasant. “If you ever need me,” and this part was hard to make out, the Man being across the shop, and the Pheasant whispering- “Wherever you go, if you ever need me, just say ‘Stuffed pheasant, stuffed pheasant, stuffed pheasant’. Say it three times. I’m free, Phillip! I’m free…” and then her voice trailed off, and a backdoor was opened and closed, and the junk store fell quiet, and Phillip was all alone. Well, not entirely alone. There was the sleeping oracle, after all, safe in Phillip’s rucksack. But when, and where, it might awake, and speak- no-one could say for sure.
Phillip, taking advantage of the time it would take the man to dig a hole in the yard and -shudder- bury the pheasant, pulled the rucksack onto her shoulders and bounded down the alluvial plane of hats that had formed at the base of Hat Mountain. In a flash she was across the floor of the shop and out the jangling front door, onto the sidewalk where the afternoon sun made broad yellow bands and the air was cool and fresh. Presently she turned right and started walking, thinking only that it was not the direction she had come from and so, it had to be more in the direction that she was going. She hugged her packstraps to her shoulders and looked up at the quickly changing leaves, which dropped down all around her onto the sidewalk. There was a spring in her step as she thought of the Pheasant, who had finally been freed from her cruel metal mount, where she had been trapped in time and space, unable to go forward or backward or anywhere, really, but round and round, inside of her small feathered head. As she walked Phillip took deep breaths of the cool fall air, and looked all around her, at the neatly trimmed hedges and the bare rose-bushes, and she wondered, again, where it was that she was going.
Presently she came to the post office. There was a man outside, selling newspapers. The man had a long beard and rosy, wind-burned cheeks. As Phillip approached he held a callused finger to the front of one of the newspapers and called out to her.
“You want to buy my newspaper?” he asked.
“I don’t have any money,” said Phillip, standing far below him. “I left my money in the herb jar and took Hawthorne flowers instead, which I used to free the pheasant from the junk-shop, who gave me an oracle, which will not, after all, speak.”
“That’s alright.” said the man, squinting his milky eyes against the day. “I know a sockmonkey like yourself doesn’t have much use for money. If you’d like, I can still tell you what has happened- for free.”
“What has happened- you can tell me that?” asked the sockmonkey.
“For free,” said the man. “It’s not the news that costs, after all, but the paper it’s printed on. What happens will come to pass whether you buy a paper or not. And it’s not the messenger, in the end, who gets your dollar- nor is it the news itself, for happening. It’s the printer, down there in that stuffy shop- smelling of toner- folding great skins of wood printed with symbols, and then throwing them away.” the man paused. “At least, that’s the way it used to go.”
Phillip, now, was curious.
“So what has happened?” she asked, “While I have been in the junkshop, while I have been with the chickens, while I have been trapped in a glass jar of Hawthorne flowers? What has happened?”
“So much.” said the man, speaking slowly with milky eyes skyward, as if receiving some sort of transmission from the clouds- “So much has happened.” The man reached a stiff hand into the pocket of his denim jacket, and pulled from it a glass bottle, the sort of pint bottle that might hold whiskey. But the bottle was old- the glass was thick and rounded and inside, instead of spirits, was a half-inch of moss-colored water. The man held the bottle up to his face, and watched the way the clouded light shown through it.
“What has happened?” asked Phillip, again.
“So much,” said the man, again, lowering the bottle. “but not here.”
“Then where?” asked Phillip, after a moment. The man looked down at Phillip with a sort of belligerent surprise.
“Nothing happens here any more.” said the man, waving an arm in space. “Only here.” and he pointed at his own head, unkempt hair shrouded in a knitted cap.
“I don’t understand,” said Phillip, not understanding.
“Everything has moved,” said the man, holding out his stack of papers. And now Phillip saw the paper’s headline, which read, in straight black letters, Everything Has Moved. And Phillip, turning, looked at the blank post-office windows, which proclaimed on a large white banner- We Have Moved, and showed empty counters within. “That’s why I have to sell these papers.” said the man. “Because I have been left behind. I am too old to move.” The man sighed pleasantly. “I found these papers in the dumpster behind an empty building, and each day I try to sell them- it’s all that I know to do.”
“But where has everyone gone?” asked Phillip.
“The people,” said the man, slowly- “the people are still here.” and indeed, Phillip could hear the rush of traffic in the distance, like a river through the trees. “It’s just that,” continued the man, “nothing happens here anymore.” and he waved his arm in the space before him, and then sort of spun in a circle, pointing at the trees, the clouds, and the post office.
“I still don’t understand,” said Phillip, still not understanding. Just then a woman came walking past on the sidewalk, dressed in black, head down in a checkered scarf. From her ears came the white threads of headphone wires, and in her hand she clutched a small, dark rectangle, on which her thumbs worked furiously on the very smallest of tiny keyboards. As she approached the monkey and the paper-man she looked up in surprise, and for a moment her face froze in fear- and then she was past them and her head again ducked down, focused on the small, soothing chirrups of her tiny keyboard. A gentle wind tossed the corner of her scarf and she jumped, startled, and then she turned a corner and was gone.
As Phillip watched her go a sort of creeping sensation spread through her, a feeling of recognition, as if something invisible had finally become visible, as if something else had been lost altogether. The way a clearcut hill-side practically screams the absence of the forest, the way an empty carnival echoes with loneliness. Phillip’s little sockmonkey heart had begun to race again, and she looked up at the man, who was gazing at his dull glass bottle, lost in thought.
“I’d like to go back,” said the man.
“But you can’t.” said Phillip. “Everything has already happened.”
“Maybe that’s it,” said the man. “everything that was meant to happen here, has already happened. And so, then, the big move.”
“But to where?” asked Phillip, who still did not, except on an intuitive level, completely understand.
The man again tapped his head.
“I wish there was more I could show you, by way of demonstration. But I don’t have any of those things- any of those- devices. I’m not sure how it all happened, or where it even started. I just know that we used to live outside-” and again he pointed a callused finger at the sky, the trees, the empty post-office- “and now we live in here,” placing a hand on his knitted cap. “Whole cities, in here. All of civilization, or at least a version of it. Flirtations, mysteries, dramas- everything. Only, I don’t have any of those devices- those small, physical windows- I cannot access this place, this new, invisible plane. And so I am left, alone, in the cumbersome third dimension- with this stack of papers which, while they appear flat, one needs only to hold them up close to the eye to see that each wooden sheet has its own meager width. And I have nothing here- no future, no present- they have even taken the past- taken history- taken the libraries, the documents, the photographs, the memories, leaving nothing for me but the empty sky, which, having lost them, does not seem to miss them. And when I travel,” said the man, “I use my own two feet, and when I communicate, I use my mouth. And I love nothing that I cannot hold in my warm hands, and I hear nothing that doesn’t resonate from the friction of one material against another, and I see nothing that cannot fade slowly in the afternoon sun, and I make nothing that can’t be assembled with the strength still left in these old arms.” And folding the papers under his elbow, the man looked down at his stiff hands, closing his eyes a bit and swaying on two scuffed boots.
“I had no idea,” said Phillip. “that everything had moved. I mean, I had seen it- I had felt it- a sort of shifting- an increasing distraction- a moving away from the physical world, a constant glancing- of touching pockets, feeling devices, watching tiny screens- always looking away, looking away. Waiting for messages, thumbing tiny keyboards furiously. And it did seem to be gaining momentum- every day, more minutes were gone, whole afternoons, conversations, games won and lost, fictions created and made real- and all the time, there were more reasons- this new reality seeming much simpler, shorter, cutting out the old corners of movement- walking a block in the sunshine, pulling open the jangling door of a shop, gathering handfuls of tarnished change-”
“Speaking, at all,” said the man, “has become, for most, a sort of chore- a real, vocal conversation is now a bumbling, awkward antiquity.”
The sockmonkey and the man fell silent, and in the distance Phillip could still hear, faintly, the rush of traffic, and she listened, now, and she new that in that moving, windy blur, were many humans, each one alone, each in an airtight, vinyl pod, and in the pod small devices beeped, and small devices flashed, and music played and thoughts were sent, back and forth, and back again, through the very air itself, and parties were attended, and shoes were bought, and candidates were elected, and whole civilizations were born, and raised, and lost…
“But wait!” cried Phillip, all of a sudden. “All of these ideas, all of these images, all of these emotions- where are they when they leave one vinyl pod, en route to another?”
The man rocked on his scuffed boots, thoughtful.
“In the air, I suppose. In the air, I would imagine. I think they go up, and they bounce off the sky, and they come back down.”
“A whole world, in the very air?”
“Moving through the air, yes,” said the man.
“And these histories,” said Phillip. “These stories and art and memories- an entire civilization, or what has come of one so far- where are these things stored, when they are not bouncing through the air, changing color and shape and heft? Where are the archives?”
“The archives?” said the man. “Hmmm… I’ve never thought of that. Now that you mention it, I imagine there must be archives somewhere- we are not, any of us, after all, capable of storing entire histories inside of our heads.” The man was quiet for a moment, and Phillip readjusted the pack-straps on her shoulders, and she felt the oracle resting inside, asleep. And across the road from a stand of trees, came the twitter of a small bird, and it was a real, live bird call.
The man shook his head.
“I don’t know where these archives are.” he said, looking down at the leaf-littered sidewalk. “Like I said, I am somewhat illiterate about the whole process. I’m from an old people, a people who’s time, I imagine, has come to an end.”
“No,” said a voice, just then. It was a small, strong voice, a high, ringing voice, a voice like a bell struck with a piece of wood. It was the Golden Donkey oracle, speaking from inside Phillip’s rucksack. Startled, Phillip slung off her rucksack and lifted the donkey out, whose eye was now open and shining a brilliant teal, a shot of color for the clouded day.
“No,” said the Donkey, again, as Phillip and the man watched with awe. “It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be- the end. The way of life we know, this physical, three-dimensional way of life- objects moving through space, the air clear but for the smells and sounds of good, wholesome mechanical friction- this way of life is older than anything, older than any idea, older than the very idea of an idea. You can go quietly, alone, melting back into the earth which formed you- or you can find these archives, these blocks of metal and wire, these boundless, electrical brains- and you can turn their very immobility against them! The messages in the air can’t stop you! You can smash the metal boxes! Smash them to pieces with the baseball bat of history! Use your good strong arms, push back from the desk of inevitability, tear their circuit boards to pieces, drop them from the tops of glass buildings! Send them back into the dark from whence they came, like a bank of TV screens in a power outage! Move away from that which we have created, and focus again on what is larger than us!” The Golden Donkey’s emerald eye flashed with a crystal fire as it spoke.
“The mysteries of plants! Life and death! So go! Go now! It may already be to late, in fact I know, as I speak these words, that most likely it is already too late- but go anyway! Go, if only because running on your two legs fills you with joy, and sends life to your limbs, and useful work fills you with purpose! Go now, and do not think about it any longer! You are alive! You are alive! You are alive! You must find what is real, and sabotage what is not!” And with this the Donkey’s eye fell dark, and closed, and its bronze skin seemed to tarnish, as if it had laid a long time forgotten, scuffed against a million tiny earring-backs. Phillip looked up at the man, a heat in her knitted eyes, and she knew, at this very moment, what is was that she needed to do. She knew, now, how to get home.
“I have to go.” she said, excited. “I have to go now. You can come with me, but we have to go now, quickly.”
The man shook his head sadly, and fingered the bottle in his pocket.
“I can’t go with you, friend. I am here, and I have these newspapers. I am trapped, in a way, with one foot through the portal, unable to move one way or the other. You should go, and you should leave me here, in front of this empty post-office. The age of my people, I do believe, is over, and although the Donkey said for us to take it back- I believe that the world you will find, the world you will build with what is left, after all the boxes have been smashed, and life returns to this place, like glaciers retreating after an ice-age- that world will be different. It will be different from the world I grew up in, different from the world we live in, or don’t live in, now. It will be your world, and I tired, I am exhausted, from trying to imagine it. So much has already happened, and I cannot imagine any more. Leave me here, and go. And go quickly, like the donkey said. Because it may already be too late.”
Phillip was saddened, and she stood looking up at the man, with his weathered skin and dirty clothing. Finally she reached up and handed him the Donkey, whose fire was now gone.
“Have this.” said Phillip. “An artifact, like the bottle in your pocket. A real, live artifact. Take it quickly, before someone with a camera-phone takes a picture of it and uploads it to a distant land.”
The man took the Golden Donkey and clutched it in his fist, grateful. And with that Phillip slung the rucksack, now light, onto her shoulders, and looking forward, facing east, she began to run- slowly at first, jarring a bit, but then, quicker- and although she was made of socks and stuffing, life flowed through her- the life of those who had sewn her, once, in the evening, while being read to in the living-room of a small house- the living beings who had stitched her with strong thread from a sock worn, once, on a warm and living foot- a foot that had traveled- through meadows, down sidewalks, up porch-steps, though history itself! Life flowed through her as she ran, and the neat blocks of the neighborhood sped by in a blur- faster and faster, and then she was on the quiet streets at the edge of town, and then she was out of town, and the neighborhoods fell away, and before her fields of yellow grass bent in the wind, and dark-windowed barns tilted toward the earth- and here she slowed, and, catching her little monkey breath, she pushed her way into the grass of one of these fields, as the sun sunk slowly behind her- she moved the yellow stalks out of her way, and hiked deep into the field, until all she could see was the grass all around, and a reddening sky- and here she stopped, and tilted her face to the clouds, and in her loudest, shrillest, strongest monkey voice, she called out into the empty air-
“Stuffed Pheasant! Stuffed Pheasant! Stuffed Pheasant!”
And for a moment all was quiet, and then there was the beating of wings, and a familiar brown body arced overhead in the darkening sky. The Pheasant landed, flapping, in the grass beside Phillip, and for a moment they only looked at each other, and Phillip was overwhelmed with joy, at seeing her friend made anew, freed, and living.
“Thank you for freeing me,” said the Pheasant. “Thank you for letting me do what a living thing does- rot, and live again, and move through the earth like a constant stream of electricity.”
“You’re free!” said Phillip. And then, “There’s something we need to do.”
“I know,” said the Pheasant. “I’ve been watching. Flying over, watching. I’ve seen it all unfold, from above. I’ve seen this civilization empty out like a desert aquifer, I’ve felt the charge in the air. I’ve wondered where it’s all gone. You say you know what we have to do?”
“I know what we have to do,” said Phillip. “The Golden Donkey Oracle told me, before going dark. I do not, however, know in which direction we need to go. I once learned a bit of celestial navigation from some chickens, but the night is, again, cloudy- and we cannot see the stars.”
The Pheasant laughed a smart little bird laugh.
“The clouds? Why, that’s hardly a problem at all! Climb onto my back, dear monkey friend, and hold fast to my feathers! I have living wings now, and although common knowledge has it that pheasants are hardly distance fliers- well the truth is that we are only waiting for times like this- our moments to really shine- and in these moments we fly so high, even the clouds cannot stop us!”
At this, Phillip wasted no more time, but climbed onto the Pheasant’s spotted brown back, and gripped a handful of feathers in each knitted monkey-paw. The Pheasant beat the air a few times, heavily, with her broad wings, and then they were rising above the yellow grass, rising into the cool, darkened air, moving forward over the broken barn-roofs, rising up, and up, and up, over the town- with its twinkling, shimmering electric lights and damp, musty wind, heavy with the thoughts, colors and feelings of an entire generation, an entire civilization- of people. Phillip and the Pheasant rose up and up, until they were in a sort of fog, and still the pheasant beat her wings, although the air was thinner here, and colder, and Phillip leaned forward, clutching the warm feathers in her paws. The fog stayed on and on, until Phillip could no longer tell if they were rising or falling, and she shut her eyes against the sting of wind. And then, suddenly, the Pheasant cried out in joy- and Phillip opened her eyes, to see stretched out around her, a million points of twinkling light- hanging permanent in an ink-black sky, more permanent than anything. And below them, the clouds- parting in places to show the earth below, and the earth throbbing with light or cut into neat cake-slices of agriculture.
“And now,” said the Pheasant, to Phillip- “Navigate!”
And Phillip, using what the chickens had taught her, did.