by Kyle Flemmer
At 6:35 AM, on a Tuesday mid-July, Alberto Salazar woke up. It was not, however, a literal awakening, considering Salazar had tossed in bed for hours, white sheets twisting into a tourniquet around the upper half of his legs as he maneuvered fitfully. His feet stuck out from the too-short mattress into the cool morning air, yet they were damp and clammy and felt slick against the hardwood floor when he finally sat up. Salazar was feverish and grim – a voice had been nagging at him through the night, preventing him from drifting into sleep or even closing his eyes with any real conviction. The voice was telling him what he already knew, repeating arguments which had frustrated him since adolescence. It was insistent and immutable. It was the voice of God.
“Grist,” it said to him, over and over. “Grist.”
Salazar’s metaphorical awakening took the form of an unwanted epiphany. The voice of God, which sounded exactly like Salazar’s inner conscience, confirmed a long felt but half-hearted notion which percolated in the swampy regions of his mind. The noxious bubble burst, and he knew with certainty that the human race was doomed. This startling knowledge was in no way prophetic – many people had forecast the downfall of civilization prior to Salazar, and they were all correct – but he was forced to accept its immanent factuality when confronted by the omnipresent and thoroughly convincing voice in his head. All the pieces of the apocalyptic puzzle had been established well before, and it required minimal harassment on God’s behalf to make Salazar see the truth.
“Grist,” God repeated, pushing the last piece into place.
“Yes,” Salazar responded out loud, to nobody in particular. “Grist.”
He got out of bed with the sheet wrapped around his torso and wandered into the living room of his New York apartment. Salazar was of Spanish descent, Basque to be precise, though he spent most of his life in the States attempting to conform to a Mexican-American identity, feeling this historical sacrifice simplified the equation of which cultural umbrella he belonged under. He lived with his parents in Brooklyn until completing university and accepting a job at the prestigious Hollis & Moore Architectural Firm. Positions as an architectural technologist were highly coveted, and Salazar considered himself lucky to be able to afford a flat on Manhattan Island – that is, of course, until the intervention of God. He knew now that nobody was particularly lucky, himself included. Salazar’s living room, populated by mismatched furniture and curling architectural drawings, filled him with a novel and extreme disinterest which verged on disdain. But who could blame him? The task of announcing humanity’s imminent demise would deflate any man’s investment in his personal space.
Salazar left the apartment, not bothering to put on clothes or even a pair of shoes. He hailed a cab and found one without much trouble – cabbies in New York are accustomed to eccentrics, and this one hardly bat an eye as Salazar shuffled into the back seat.
“Stock Exchange, please.”
“Whateva’ ya’ say, Cato.”
Salazar glanced down at his bed sheet toga. He felt he looked more like a Cicero, or possibly a Socrates as he was lacking in footwear. Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” buzzed in the taxi speakers as they sped south down Broadway, weaving their way through the early morning traffic. It occurred to Salazar as they passed Zuccotti Park that he didn’t bring any money for the cab fare. This would make little difference in the grand scheme of things, he reflected, so he bailed from the taxi at the next stoplight, finding sanctuary behind the rosy brown stones of Trinity Church. The cabbie was mad but reluctant to shout obscenities into the churchyard, and as traffic moved on so did he.
Broadway began to thrum with morning activity. Commerce beckoned and New Yorkers answered the call, bustling back and forth in self-satisfied preoccupation, a smug anxiety which Tocqueville described as a uniquely American insanity. Unnoticed by the profit-mongers in white collars, Salazar walked the remaining few blocks to the Stock Exchange building.
“Now what?” he asked the voice in his head.
“Tell them about the grist,” said God. Salazar nodded and positioned himself on the little wedge of pavement just north of the Charging Bull statue, where Broadway splits in two around the Bowling Green, and began to tell people how the world was about to end.
At first he was diligently ignored. The small group of tourists photographing the iconic bronze statue moved away from him, somehow sensing the ready transferability of apocalyptic visions. Salazar talked about humanity’s fast-approaching fate, styling his words on familiar Christian imagery – fire, brimstone, judgment, and penitence. He talked about the afterlife, the bliss of heaven, and the tortures of hell, making sure to emphasizing how little time was left for salvation. After an hour of proselytizing like this, Salazar had an audience of none.
“Stop,” God commanded. “This isn’t working.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“Tell them the truth.”
“I thought I was.”
“Come on,” said God, “you know as well as I that what you’re spewing is blasphemous nonsense, a fat pack of lies. Tell them the truth, and thou shalt try to speak on their level.” So Salazar adjusted his toga and began again.
“A wise man once said humanity is a virus. He said we cannot settle into a natural equilibrium, cannot properly harmonize with our environment. As such, the wise man felt we could not be classified amongst the mammals, who easily strike a balance with the world around them. Human behavior is typified by a different sort of pattern – we consume everything we can, down to the last scrap and crumb, and move greedily, insatiably on.”
Several of the tourists behind the statue cast wary looks at Salazar. Uncomfortable, they nonetheless began filming him on their cellphones from the relative safety of the Bowling Green park, peeking out from around the bull to better gawk at their orator. New Yorkers are inoculated against the influence of seemingly crazy people, but there is a magical quality to the cellphone camera which no society can resist. Once one person starts recording an event, it invariably attracts more and more attention.
“This pattern is identical to that of a virus,” Salazar continued. “The wise man pointed out that humanity is properly classified as a disease, a malignant tumor multiplying across the skin of the earth. I am here to tell you he was right – but only partially. I am here to tell you he did not go far enough. Life as a whole is the virus, and it will consume itself with or without our help.”
Salazar was beginning to draw a crowd. It was still relatively small, but curiosity is a contagion. Most of the onlookers were tourists ogling the swarthy American in the bed sheet toga shouting in front of that famous symbol of capitalism, Arturo’s brazen calf in the place of Aaron’s gilded one. They felt somewhat more comfortable watching once he dropped the Christian motif. Salazar even hooked a businessperson or two – they scrutinized him from the sidewalk in front of the Stock Exchange, muttering about the troubling frequency of protesters around Wall Street.
“I want you to think about soil. Picture rich, black earth. Imagine crumbling a clod of loam between your fingers. What is this soil?” Salazar paused. His words were beginning to impact the people around him, and he watched their faces as they pondered his question. “Soil is the gradual accumulation of dead bodies. Century after century the bodies of plants and animals stack up and break down, decomposing into nutrient-filled earth. One hundred billion humans have lived and died on this planet – how many trillions upon trillions of other organisms have done the same?”
“That’s just the circle of life,” said a young girl standing behind her mother’s leg while her mother smiled proudly. The Lion King was a favorite in their home.
“It’s the circle of death, little one. Life begins from cold, dead matter and invariably returns to cold, dead matter. Everything squeezes its living from the bodies of the dead, wringing survival from a mountain of corpses like juice from an orange. You think the sun grants life? Maybe it’s the water, or could it be the air? Well you are wrong. Only death grants life. This is a world of cannibals consuming cannibals, and soon it will all be over.”
The mother’s smile vanished as she hurried her daughter away. When they had gone, four more people filled their place in the ring around Salazar, blinking in the steadily warming sunlight. They were not quite sure what to make of him yet, but they were drawn in like iron fillings to a magnet. Pedestrians cut through traffic on Broadway to get a better look at this spectacle, and the little headland of pavement where Salazar stood filled rapidly. Cars had to veer around the growing mass of people in order to pass – before long they could not get by at all. Broadway became a steadily clotting artery in the heart of the city.
“Go on,” God whispered into Salazar’s ear.
“A wise man once said humanity would be better off after social collapse. He saw a world where people frolicked in the ruins of the Rockefeller Center or climbed the vines gripping the Empire State Building. Visa and MasterCard would be no more – AmEx nothing but a memory. Everyone would be equal, as far as nature was concerned, and we would dry strips of venison on a blazing expanse of abandoned superhighway.”
Salazar ran a hand through his black hair and shifted the toga across his tan, perspiring skin. The sheet fit him poorly, often slipping from his shoulder as he gestured. Nevertheless, he spoke with increasing confidence as people clustered around him.
“The needs of the many have taken a back seat to the corporate bottom line,” Salazar said, “and the greed of the few has spoiled this planet – for us, for our children, and for the millions of innocents yet to come. The wise man showed us that the road to future freedom is found in the rubble of the past. Tear down the pillars of civilization, destroy the political oligarchs and their corporate puppeteers, and we shall emancipate humankind. I am here to tell you he was right – but only partially. I am here to tell you the reality of his plans, a reality he kept to himself. When we knock down the systems of oppression, when we finally free ourselves, almost everybody will die.”
A ripple of emotion spread through the crowd, now numbering several hundred souls. This ripple was more closely related to awe than to animosity, and though people resent being told the truth, their respect for Salazar grew. It was the first time many of those present had witnessed uncompromising honesty in public. They did not yet understand what Salazar could mean, but they knew he spoke in earnest.
“Our planet can barely support the more than six billion humans alive today, and yet the population is continuing to grow at an enormous rate. For all the empty rhetoric on the news about sustainably and eco-friendly lifestyles, it seems no one is willing to admit this simple, unfailing principle: the species at the apex of any system must be the fewest in number. Realistically, the Earth can only sustain a small fraction of the people alive today. But we ignore this fact, multiplying and consuming until whole nations starve to death and collapse in the dustbowl which has been made of their countryside. Arable land is disappearing faster than it can regenerate, so we spray chemical fertilizers in the dirt, farm more intensively, slash and burn the Amazon, and squeeze the last few drops of blood from the stone. If we all died this instant, it would take tens of thousands of years for our impact to be erased from the biosphere.
“Consider this: maybe we were never meant to become civilized. Maybe settling into farming communities and coaxing nature into producing a superabundance of food was the biggest mistake humanity ever made. We willingly left the proverbial Eden, where we hunted and gathered and roamed blissfully free – and we can never return. Once we made the shift to agrarian lifestyles, no amount of war or drought could send us back. It’s easy to see that a hundred malnourished farmers will always overcome one healthy nomad. We became greedy, and in our greed we unwittingly signed our own death sentence. Look around you – the one percent live like gods on the backs of everyone else in a sickening parody of domestication. Well, nature’s hangman has finally come to collect, and it’s time we paid our debts.”
As if summoned by Salazar’s words, traders wearing colored vests and glittering Rolex watches left their tickers and monitors in the Stock Exchange and began to flood out of the building into the street. They looked like criminals emerging from a dungeon, holding their hands up to screen the light while their long-sheltered eyes adjusted to the brightness of the sun. It was approaching noon. The burning orb was almost directly overhead, leaving the multitude no shelter from its harsh summer gaze. The traders removed their vests and merged with the crowd as they came out, two herds blending together around the troughs of a verbal feedlot. Markets began to crash around the world, but nobody was left inside the Stock Exchange to care.
Now there were thousands around Salazar, straining their ears to hear him over the sounds of a city grinding to a halt. Broadway was completely choked off – drivers had long since abandoned their cars to join the mob. They whispered Salazar’s words to one another hypnotically, passing his message backwards in a massive game of telephone. Police were arriving in droves. Some were integrated into the throng, succumbing like children to the corruptive logic of groupthink. The rest were kept out by the solid mass of people, hyenas pacing at the edge of a lion’s kill. They could not determine a cause for the human blockade, which now occupied several city blocks, so they radioed, panic-stricken, for backup.
Salazar was lifted atop the Charging Bull by his wild-eyed spectators. He stood upon its broad, bronze shoulders and shouted over the upturned faces of his audience. They listened rapturously, surging like wheat in the wind as they jostled to get the best vantage of their grisly prophet. His vitriolic sermon echoed off the buildings looming over this make-shift urban amphitheater. They sent his voice outwards in booming waves and drowned out the sirens of the approaching riot police.
“It’s time,” thought God. He grinned in Salazar’s mind’s eye wearing Salazar’s own face, and hissed through clenched teeth – “Tell them. Tell them now.” Salazar lifted his arms high over his head and the crowd fell eerily tranquil. They waited, hardly breathing, as Salazar transformed into a latter-day Magi right in front of them.
“This world is a mill,” he yelled, “a colossal meat grinder. Since the beginning of time, matter has organized itself into increasingly complex patterns, growing more sophisticated with each repetition of the cycle. The perpetual refinement of existence is accomplished through the breaking apart and reconstitution of its elements. Somehow, organic matter emerged from this process, assembling itself in an ocean of primordial muck, the world’s amniotic fluid. Early forms of life consumed each other with licentious abandon, forcing the evolution of higher and higher beings. These beasts fought cruelly and incessantly under the cold eye of Mother Nature, gladiators battling for every meal and the privilege to reproduce, clawing their way up the ecological ladder like so many crabs in a bucket – desperate and vicious. The furnace of this terrible organic engine is stoked with the bodies of the dead, the weak and the strong alike, and it’s burnt for millennia on end.
“From this inferno stepped humanity, dripping with gore and only dimly aware of our unique mental abilities. Unlike the rest of these unflinching and warlike creature, we possessed a rudimentary sort of reason, and this peculiarity would become our greatest asset and most diabolical curse. With it, humanity would leap from a Sumerian cradle to the farthest reaches of the globe, positioning ourselves at the top of every food chain along the way. Finally, we extinguished our greatest competition by outbreeding the Neanderthals, and settled into Earth’s most distant nooks and crannies.
“Oh, how the world would have been had we only stopped there! But reason turned its mighty powers against itself, forcing us to find easier and more comfortable living arrangements, making us soft, dulling our instincts, and engendering weakness in the form of empathy. We discovered how to cultivate the fields by tearing up the soil and implanted our seed, allowing us to live in larger and larger groups off the ill-begotten gains. Once we reached this point, accumulating more that we could eat and fermenting on the surplus, all had already been lost.
“You see, humanity unlearned what it is and where it came from. Love and pity eclipsed the only true virtue in this all-consuming universe: brutal self-interest. Humankind now clings together at the mouth of the meat grinder like a herd of feckless sheep, and no one is brave enough to shove the others in. Instead, we use reason to try and save each other, convincing ourselves this is clever and humane and the way things are supposed to be. But all this avoidance has accomplished is the ruination of the planet. Mother Nature smiles on the cruel and the wicked alone – only they earn the right to survive. Only cannibals go to bed satiated and serene. Calculated malice is the true currency of this anthropophagic world, this gigantic mill. Understand, we are nothing but grist.”
The crowd latched on to Salazar’s last word. It spread through the masses like wildfire, jumping from one bystander to the next and sweeping through the whole Financial District.
“Grist,” they chanted. “Grist!”
People shoved each other as their mantra grew louder. Armored police barked through megaphones for the horde to disperse, brandishing their batons and shields. It was no use – the assembly turned violent, aching for carnage and the freedom to destroy, an irreversible animal urge suppressed for far too long. The cops fired tear gas into the rioting crowd, only heightening its bloodlust, until the mob turned on the police, dragging the petty enforcers into the nucleus of the riot and tearing them limb from limb in Maenadic ecstasy. When they had finished with the cops, people began to joyfully eviscerate one another.
“Grist! Grist! Grist!” they chanted as they died.
Broadway, Wall Street, the Bowling Green – all devolved into a murderous, cannibalistic orgy spreading outwards from the brazen bull. The word triggered an apocalyptic plague as it reverberated off the skyscrapers and throughout the city, carrying madness across Manhattan and beyond. The god in Salazar laughed as the gutters of the world ran red with blood.