Locust House Variations, A Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, The Archer’s Bow
If humanity were a sports team, we would never win a game. If we were an army, we would die by friendly fire. I cannot come to terms with this no matter how hard I try: even on the best days, we are the worst. For every good action done there are countless others blotting it out. It’s a firefight and a room full of screaming birds. We work against each other like we’re getting paid to do it. Meantime every smart kid and magic 8-ball in the land says, “Outlook not so good.” Such is the temper of our times. Reality is a windblown world where the breeze comes from all directions at once.
This morning during farm chores I found an archer’s bow half buried in a patch of mud where the goats, sheep, and donkeys sun themselves. After the big storms we’ve been having, things rise up from the earth—bones, rusted tractor parts, glass medicine bottles, old toys, broken tools, nails, pottery. Today it was a bow—a beautiful, slim, perfect longbow, burnished dark red like a big American car from the 1950s.
Mornings have been cold on the farm. Is this climate change or is it always this way? I’ve lost track of “this way.” My sense of both personal and geographic history has degraded beyond recognition. Time-past is a big, stewing, jumbled mess of outdated dates and seasons spent and responsibilities checked off or neglected. You meet old farmers around here who will tell you it’s been getting hotter every year since 19andwhatever. You will also meet old farmers who’ll tell you the opposite—that each spring is colder, every winter longer. We all agree the balance is off. Living in the country you see it up close. The wild polarities—the wind that never quits, snowy mornings followed by the hottest muggy nights. Things are changing. That much is true.
Three days ago, Alison flew out to her family’s farm in Washington to take care of the animals while her aunt and uncle are down in California. Frankie is making breakfast in the kitchen on the other side of the wall from me. Her boys sit at my writing table in the farm’s library doing school on their iPads. The farmhouse smells like coffee and toast. It’s comfortable, peaceful, but a chill from outside has worked its way in and threatens to blight the mood. I can feel it moving around my bare ankles like a slow and drifting spirit, working into the collar of my sweater. It seems silly to run the heater in the middle of May, but we might have to. We did yesterday. The day before that was hot—summer hot.
The U.S. is opening back up, but make no mistake: people are still dying. Dying day and night. On this cold morning, at this very moment, they are dying in hospital rooms across the globe. (Someone has died in the time it took you to read this sentence—someone who was the most important person in the world to someone else. To take this lightly is to raze any sort of goodness your heart has left.)
Walking into the grocery store yesterday, I had to squeeze around a large, energetic group of older men and women without masks standing in front of the entrance talking and shouting and laughing, blocking the way in for everyone else. It felt like they were trying to make a point. Of course, I’m trying to make a point too. A lot of us are. It’s exhausting. With that said, I believe that I’m right. I know how that sounds—how that makes me a hypocrite like anyone else. I add to the noise. I send my opinions scudding up into the face of contrasting beliefs.
On the bad days, at my very worst, I think it would be good to never see another human again. To string up that bow I found and pack a light lunch and disappear. This is not romanticism. This is me being afraid. It’s also me being stupid—fooled by the rugged individualist myth we’ve been force-fed all our lives. When my mind is right, I know that without the small group of people I love I am nothing. I am not free or happy or okay or safe. We need our tiny tribes and we need our extended families, our friends spread so far across the country. We need everyone. All of us. Together.
On this cold morning what I want to say most is that those who turn against the betterment of humanity and the health of the Earth have no place at my dinner table. You are negating the good work of others. You are shitting in the well we all drink from, and here’s the funny part: it’ll poison you too. You are not immune to this.
We must actively push for a better world and we must do what we can to the best of our abilities and with whatever skills we’ve got. It’s not enough to do no harm. Neutrality betrays the greater good. Those of us staying out of the fight are sabotaging the efforts of everyone who has ever given a damn.
Of course, figuring out what to do is the hardest part. I’m as clueless as anyone else in that regard. Maybe you’re the same way. This is alright. The fact that you might feel clueless shows that you’re thinking about the problem and asking yourself what you can contribute. Most of the time you need to come up with questions before you can reap the reward of having answers. What can I do? How can I help? Ask yourself that. Ask yourself that until you have an answer, even if that answer is small—an answer to start with, a jumping-off-point answer. Keep asking; then when you find your target, draw back your bowstring and let that arrow sing.