Playboy Fiction: 1,111 Emblems

Indebted for life to pay for death

“I know Mom’s out hunting,” she said to break the long silence. “I’ll leave before she comes back.”

He held on to the door handle. The droning voice on the radio seeped out from the house and into the forest. He hadn’t seen his daughter in over two years. What should he say? Could he touch her? He moved to let her through. Their heads hung low. She walked sideways as she passed by her father, who closed the door behind her.  

He turned off the radio and, faced with the ensuing silence, repressed the desire to turn it back on. An ill-chosen word, a misconstrued gesture, a poorly timed pause, and she could turn around and leave again. A log crumbled in the hearth; the fire hissed. He sat down and gestured to her chair. It was still her chair.  
   
They sat in silence.  

Because he didn’t dare to look at her openly, he got up to get some food so he could glance in her direction as he moved around. She was the same, only thinner and harder. There was something strange about her mouth—her left cheek was unnaturally concave, as if she were missing a few teeth on that side. He knew that she knew that she was being observed. He rinsed some radishes in a pail with cloudy water and put them on a tin plate together with a few nuts.  “You’re so thin,” he said as he put the plate in front of her.  “Closer to the essence,” she replied, looking at the plate and then closing her eyes.   It was this kind of talk that had driven them apart. He didn’t respond and didn’t expect her to touch the food. But to his surprise, after whispering with her eyes shut for a moment, she picked up a radish. She stared at it for a long time and bit a piece off. From how she moved the morsel in her mouth, he confirmed that she was missing at least a couple of molars.  “I’m sorry,” he said. And he was. Sorry for her and for her missing teeth. For his wife and for himself. But he hoped his daughter would take this as an apology as well. Before she left them, he had lost all patience with her. Snapped and yelled at her. Even mocked and derided her. That was what he regretted the most: his jeering. Still, he also had to admit to himself that he had said sorry just now because it was the only safe thing to say.  She swallowed the bite of radish almost whole.  

“Your feelings are yours,” she said. “They have to become not you to touch the world.”  

Always an answer ready, as if someone were transmitting the words through her. That’s how their fights had started: Those blocks of meaning made him furious. They were, for the most part, impenetrable and hard but could also be intangible and pervasive, like a gas invisibly filling a container and taking its shape. Many of these ready-made phrases (that’s how they sounded to him) were platitudes; others were nonsense; a few were truly insightful, which he never admitted to her.

She imposed that dialect on him, throttled him with it and took everything he said and translated it into her jargon.
“We’ve missed you so much,” he said. “Your mother has been”   

“I know,” she said over him. “That’s why I came while she’s away. I trust you will let me go without making a scene.”  

His wife had never stopped fighting for their daughter. When she understood that she was losing her child, she tried to change—­become more like her. She read everything her daughter read, tried to engage her in conversation and went to some Gatherings with her. And whenever he went on one of his scornful ­tirades, she always stood up for her girl.   

“One is where one is,” she said at length. “But I can’t be here. I’ve put others at risk by coming.”   “What’s wrong?” he asked.   “Our perception of things.”   “I mean, are you all right?”   “Look at me.”   He was ashamed to have asked.   

“What you see is how I am to you,” she added. “Ask yourself if your perception is all right.”   

“I can. We can help you.”  

“Help is only an interference. Help is only a delay.”   

The oppressive feeling of being forced into that language came back. She imposed that dialect on him, throttled him with it and took everything he said and translated it into her jargon. It had all started with a few pamphlets and books she read. As she began attending the Gatherings and spending more time with the Coach and the Bond, this new language had taken over her speech almost completely. Then she left for the first time. Nine days of ­despair. He and his wife knew she had left with the Bond, of course, but they didn’t know where they had gone or for how long. When she came back, nothing of her own voice remained. It was only this language. These blocks, this vapor. At first, he tried to pull her back, responding with kind words—everyday words—to her terrifyingly distant slogans. Eventually, his patience wore off, and he started arguing with her. His wife tried to be understanding and even tended to side with their daughter, who was invariably indifferent to her support. Frustration yielded to rage, and he went on long rants, trying to reduce his daughter’s beliefs to mere superstitious gibberish. He was not angry at her but at the puppeteer whose voice he heard in her stiff utterings. She kept calm and won every fight by not fighting back. His arguments crashed against the irrefutable blocks or got lost in a mist that was vague and esoteric enough to fit any context. That’s when he started to mock her, ridiculing her ideas and scoffing at her jargon. He even used to caricature her intonation and gestures. Overcome with remorse after his one-sided quarrels with her, he would tell himself that it was not his daughter he had mocked but the ventriloquist behind her. In the end, after she left for the second time, he was disgusted to realize that it was in fact his daughter whom he had been ridiculing all along.

"Anything. Anything at all to have you back with us."
“I’m. I would do anything,” he managed to say.  

Would is a closed door to a parallel universe. You are never the subject of a conditional”  

“Anything,” he said, interrupting her and immediately regretting it. “Anything at all to have you back with us. We could. I could start going to the Gatherings with you. Maybe you could teach me.”   

“We go to the Gatherings to scatter, not to gather.”   “I have so much to learn,” he said, watching for the slightest trace of condescension in his voice. “Maybe you could introduce me to the Bond? Show me?”  She looked up and into his eyes. He didn’t allow himself to cry.  “We may not see each other again,” she said.  For the first time in years, it sounded like her.  “I won’t let that happen.”   

The generator started to rumble in the distance, making the walls tremble. It picked up speed with each cycle, and when the roar became a high-pitch purr, the house stopped vibrating.  

“They turn it on during the daytime?” she asked.  

He tried to hide his surprise. She hadn’t shown any interest in everyday matters in a long time.   

“Yes. Things are better here now.” It was probably impossible to convince her to come back, but he tried. “We get four units a week, can you believe it?”   

“I came to say good-bye.”   

“Please don’t say”   

“I have this debt. A huge debt,” she said, seeming almost pleased.  

“I. With whom?”   

“With them.”   

“With them?”   

“With the Bond. With the Coach. It will take my entire life to pay it off.”   

His blood thinned.   

“No, no, no. Listen.” His skin tingled with despair. “I’ve been saving most of our units. How many do you need?”  

“Thousands of units wouldn’t help.”   

“I can borrow. I can borrow from the system. And from our neighbors. How much?”   

She looked at the half-eaten radish.   

“We have that hidden gold, remember?” he said with a smile that felt like a grotesque grimace. “From Grandma?”   

She put the radish down and gazed at the plate, shaking her head.   

“We’ll sell the house,” he said. “Houses sell in a second, you know that. We can build a shelter inland. You won’t believe what a good hunter Mom has become. We’ll manage.”   

“My debt can’t be paid back in units.”   

He stared at her, feeling death in his chest. 

She looked up and faced him.  “What kind of debt is this that units can’t cover?”   “I owe the Coach. I owe him directly. And he’s not interested in units.”   “Oh love.” He faltered. “Oh no. Nothing of the sort,” she said, waving her hand. “The Coach has started a new currency. The Emblem.”   “What do you mean?”   “The Coach has started a new currency. The Emblem.”   “And what’s the exchange rate?” His rage was mounting. Had he managed to suppress every hint of sarcasm? “How many units to the Emblem? There must be a way to settle this.”   “Units mean nothing to the Coach. He now emits Emblems. It’s the only legal tender at the Gatherings. You can’t buy Emblems with units. You can only earn Emblems by selling your labor or your things. No exchange.”   

He took a few moments to think. “Good,” he said at last. “Good. So it’s play money. Means nothing. You don’t really owe him anything.”   

“But I do. In fact, few members owe him as much as I do.”   

“You seem proud of this.”   

“We all try to acquire as much debt as possible. It shows our commitment.”  

He looked at her. She focused on some point above his head.   

“But what did he give you? How did you get into this debt?”   

“It started about a year ago. First we had to pay for our food with Emblems.”   

“You bought food from the Coach with the currency he emitted and lent to you?”   

She ignored his false question. It was for the best. He feared he wouldn’t be able to restrain his indignation much longer.   

“Food, lodging, clothes, the use of the generator. All paid for in Emblems.”  

She picked up a nut and repeated the ceremony she had performed with the radish—closed her eyes, whispered, opened her eyes, stared at it for a long time and finally took a small bite. Again, she found it hard to chew.   

He got up, looking for something soft for her to eat. There was only some smoked fish, which he cut into small pieces and put on her plate. Dicing the food and transferring it from one plate to the other, he remembered feeding his daughter as a toddler.   

“Then the Coach had one of his realizations,” she continued. “A transcendental realization. A transcendental realization means bringing something that is beyond reality into the real. His TR was that the Bond would take over the world. The world would be the Bonded.”   

“Please have some fish,” he said, exhausted in advance by the effort of trying to pull her out of the maze that she was starting to create with her exposition. Once more, by asking her to eat her food, he felt, faintly, like her father.   

“Units are not really a currency,” she said, ignoring him. “They serve a purpose. They make all our devices and vehicles run. But money—bills and coins—never stored energy or did anything. Money was a token, with no practical use in itself. This is what the Coach is bringing back. The symbol. A symbol that will unite us. Bond us. The Emblem will be the realization of the Bond in the world.”   

“You realize that resurrecting money—any form of currency—is a step back, right? If anything good came from the war, it was the collapse of the financial”   

“There is a void,” she said, showing the slightest irritation in the way in which she closed her eyes for a moment while speaking over her father. “The void created by the absence of value. We live in a world limited to our hand’s reach. A world where everything is immediate and present. We have forgotten that our power of abstraction is what makes us human, which means we have lost our sense of value. Because the greatest values are always abstract. Abstraction and value go hand in hand.” She paused and shifted her tone, apparently regretting having condescended to engage in an open discussion with her father. “In order to spread the Emblem, the Coach needed to make its use compulsive and compulsory.”   

“I see where this is going.”   

“He realized that it was shortsighted to limit the use of the new currency to the usual goods and services bought and sold in the marketplace for millennia—food, fuel, shelter, safety and so on. No. The Emblem would go beyond that. It would go beyond the articles that support life. The Emblem would be intertwined with life itself.”  

He stared at her, disoriented.

“Emblems are backed up by our lives. It is the sum of our debts—of our abstracted ­bodies—that makes the Emblem valuable."
“Sleep. One Emblem per hour. That was the first biological function the Coach put a price on.”   

“What?”  

“Then the Coach announced that eating would cost two Emblems. That wasn’t the price of the food. The food was separate. Two Emblems was the price for the act of eating.”   

“I don’t understand,” he said. But he did.   
“I owe him two Emblems for having this food here.”   “Just because he says so,” he chortled. “Just because the ‘Coach’ says so.” He put air quotes around the word. “That’s the only reason you could possibly be in debt for eating a radish.”   “Half an Emblem for excretions. Drinking, a quarter. Reproduction is free. As is breathing. Sickness is expensive—the cost depends on the illness. Any form of bleeding, five. The list goes on. Dying is 1,111 Emblems. It’s the first thing we pay for. Until that amount has been fully covered, everything is debt. It takes a minimum of 10 or 12 Emblems to live one day, so by the time we’ve paid off death, we owe a few thousand for our living expenses.”   “This is absurd,” he said, knowing that his indignation had taken over and that he had lost again. “Who keeps the tally?” He chuckled. “Who keeps count? I mean.”  

“Who would want to cheat?” she said and coughed hollowly into her fist.   

“How much was that?” he asked with a sneer.   

Before she could even breathe in, she started coughing again. A rusty roar. Barely able to inhale, her hands clenching the edge of the table, she looked around in despair and gasped but could only cough out, in short spurts, the air she didn’t have. Swollen veins and tight tendons seemed to be about to burst under the reddened skin of her neck. The chair screeched under her when she kicked away from the table, as if she were drowning.   

“Whoa, wait! Are you sure you can afford to cough like this?”   

Her eyes bulged out and teared up, and she trembled from the exertion. Once she managed to breathe in, wheezing, she seemed to choke, until she finally exhaled in a dry hoarse bark.   

“Every Emblem counts,” he added with a condescending lilt.   

When the fit subsided, she wiped the sweat from her forehead and looked at him, briefly, with unfocused coldness.  

The generator slowed down and the purr became a low vibration. The house rattled. The small pieces of fish danced wildly on the tin plate. With a whistle, the generator came to a stop. It took the forest sounds a while to find their way back through the silence.   

“Little by little, the use of Emblems is spreading beyond the Bond.” She was still winded, clearly focusing on regaining control of her breathing as she spoke. “Some outsiders have started to accept Emblems, knowing they can always use them with us. In fact, they are glad to save their units and pay us with Emblems for the work we occasionally do for them. The Coach says this is the first step.” She paused, inhaled and started breathing normally again. “It’s only a matter of time until the Emblem becomes the general currency. And then the Bond will be effective. Then we will all be Bonded together.”   

“There is nothing in what you are telling me that makes this Emblem of yours actually valuable. Units, as you said, have a practical use. And the dollar and all those other currencies first were backed up by gold and later derived their value from interconnected”   

“Emblems are backed up by our lives. It is the sum of our debts—of our abstracted ­bodies—that makes the Emblem valuable. Human existences Bonded together.”  

“Just because he says so,” he repeated.   

“Because we say so. Because we all say so. That is precisely what the Emblem stands for.”   

He thought he detected a touch of impatience in her tone. This gave him hope. Anything that was genuinely hers gave him hope.   

“I have now reached a point where I can’t possibly pay back what I owe in my lifetime,” she continued, without a hint of emotion in her voice. “I am Beyond, as the Coach explains. Those of us who are Beyond will be relocated. Banked.”   

“You are not leaving this house.”   

“Be reasonable,” she said. And now he definitely recognized, for a moment, her voice as her own. “You can’t hold me here forever. I’ll leave sooner or later. And what would be worse for Mom? To never know I was here or to have me for a few days and then lose me again forever?”   

She got up.   

“And if you tell her about this conversation, you know she’ll leave everything to come and join me. Even if I’m Beyond, deposited in an unknown place.”   

He got up and embraced her. She hugged him back limply. He was surprised and overwhelmed, but also (despite the immense love he felt for her right then) angry at her gesture of reciprocity—part of him wished she hadn’t hugged him back, so that he could have preserved his rage intact.   

“Please,” he whispered.   

“Nobody can please.” It was the distant voice transmitting through her again.   

Somehow, she dissolved between his arms and slipped out of the embrace. Without turning back, she walked to the door, opened it, stepped outside and closed it with her arm outstretched behind her. From inside, he looked at the handle being released, slowly, until it reached its resting horizontal position. That spectral movement, he thought, would probably be the last he ever saw of his daughter. 




He woke up with a startle, relieved to see he had slept only a few minutes. After his daughter had left, he had sat at the table, rested his head on his arms and wept. He didn’t remember dozing off.    

The radish with grooves made by his daughter’s incisors had started to shrivel. He picked it up and looked at the marks. She had left another ghostly trace behind her, after all. He thought of the way she had looked at the radish before biting a piece off, and then he ate it.   

The beasts snorted like they always did uphill. His wife was getting closer. He cleaned up the food, put the tin plate away and pushed his and his daughter’s chairs back into place. Now he could hear the wagon creaking. He turned the radio back on. His wife talked to the beasts as she tethered them out front. He opened the door.   

“Hi, love,” she said. She was sweaty and grimy but beaming. “I got a huge one. Maybe the biggest ever. You won’t believe it.”   

She uncovered the wagon and showed him the mangled, blood-spattered body.  

“We should get at least 12 units for this, even after saving the best parts for ourselves.”   

He stared at it.   

“Come on, give me a hand,” she said.   

He walked over to the wagon and set to work with his wife.  

From the September/October 2018 Playboy.

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