Sam Cha


Thanatotropism: Infectious disease characterized by victim's fascination with all things related to death, the grave, putrefaction, etc. In final stages, the victim will actively seek death, hence the name.

      As far as we can tell, it started with a few planarian worms in a psych lab. Remember the experiment where a scientist by the name of James V. McConell taught a planarian worm to run a (very simple) maze, then killed it, ground it up, and fed the resulting goop to another planarian worm, who then proceeded to exhibit an enhanced ability to solve the maze--a kind of ingested memory? It had something to do with memory getting encoded in RNA.

      Discredited bullshit, according to modern science--or at least what was modern science, up until about a year ago. We know better than that, said the academic community.

      Well, I guess we really do know better now.

      Turns out McConell got it right. Only he didn't get it all--he didn't get the whole picture.

      See, the structure of the maze wasn't the only thing getting encoded into the pulpy planarian worm memory-goop. What was also getting encoded was the memory of death.

      Only that wasn't the only thing getting encoded, either.

      Think about it. Every time a worm died, it got fed to another worm, who "remembered" getting killed--and also remembered getting fed right after a "death." And feeding, of course, is a planarian's main goal in life. The moment of feeding is the planarian equivalent of reaching Nirvana at the peak of a coke high while tripping on acid while having the best sex of your life.

      And, mind you, this happened over the course of a couple of decades: long geological eons, in planarian years. So--generation after generation: death led directly to food--to immediate fulfillment; bliss; peace of mind (insofar as planarian can be said to have minds); all thousand or so planarian neurons firing off twenty one gun salutes of blinding, figurative-toe-curling, screaming neighbors pounding on the wall begging you to please for the love of god stop having so much damn sex because it makes them feel small and paltry orgasmic pleasure.

      Which would have been ok--the planarian distributed-over-a-very-long-expanse-of-time meta-consciousness was certainly having a ball, and the lab assistants were at least getting a little extra funding, which they could then go and spend on beer or pot or stuff like that--except for the fact that one of those lab assistants got a little too drunk and stoned one night, and decided to see what would happen if he fed one of the planarians to a rat.

      And what would happen if he then fed the rat to a cat.

      And, well, we think that one of his friends may have had a large and vicious dog. Or, if not precisely vicious, at least a dog that was either really hungry, or extremely ill disposed towards cats.

      We're not really sure what happened after that.

      This is what we do know: midway through the summer, an epidemic of suicides. The emo kids and the goth posers are the first to go (they always thought they wanted it anyway). They start offing themselves in various "aesthetically pleasing" ways--one particularly imaginative young woman breaks into a department store, makes off with as many bottles of perfume as she can carry back to her specially air-tightened room, smashes all of the bottles, and proceeds to die of asphyxiation, her lungs trying in vain to extract oxygen from nano-scale droplets of Chanel Number Five. Another, employed at a flower shop, kills herself by stuffing her mouth full of exactly twelve white lilies and seven red roses: she manages to swallow most of the lilies when her not-yet-fully thanatotropically co-opted reflexes kick in, but one of the roses has a thorn and sticks in her throat, and she chokes to death. Slightly less spectacular first wave deaths: a young man who immerses himself in a bath tub full of ice water, after dosing himself with sleeping pills. A couple who die of dehydration and cardiac failure after three straight days of fucking, their bloodstreams loaded with a GHB/meth/Viagra cocktail. Death in solitude; death in pairs; death before and after and for breakfast.

      And the joy spreads.

      Elsewhere, midway through the autopsy of an AIDS patient, a coroner's hand trembles. His incision goes just a little bit crooked. He looks around the morgue: nobody there to see. He flicks his scalpel: it nicks his left hand. He continues with the autopsy as if nothing had happened. At home, his loving wife of eight years sleeps fitfully. They'll make love when he gets home, like they always do, he rousing her from sleep with hands that still smell a little like formaldehyde, she responding with kisses that still smell like sleep.

      Meanwhile, in the middle of the ocean, about three hundred feet below the surface, a submarine captain and his first mate pause in the middle of a conversation. The captain's hand wanders to his throat, where, hanging on thin, flexible titanium wire, is a single small key. The first mate looks at him, and pats his pocket, casually, questioningly. They exchange quick grins, matched shrugs. "Today, Captain?" "Tomorrow, maybe. Now, about those proposed ration increases for the men..."

      The leaves start falling early that year. Whole swathes of forest turn bright red and orange and yellow overnight. Oddly enough, there are no acorns; no chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts. Maple trees go up in a positive conflagration of crimson leaves; for all that, there are no spinning, winged fruits in the air. Orchard keepers in the Northwest are heard complaining about unusually poor apple harvests.

      The squirrels don't care about the shortage of nuts. At least that is what we assume: nobody has actually seen any squirrels since early July.

      Birds are flying into windows in record numbers. In New York City, this is hailed as a blessing; they've been trying to get their pigeon population under control for decades now.

      Subways start smelling pleasantly of roast meat; the rats have discovered what the third rail is good for.

      More time passes. Ice fishing becomes madly popular in the American midwest, despite the unseasonable late November thaw. The NRA gains a record fifteen thousand new members. Pundits blame El Niño for both the thaw and the will to automatic rifle.

      On late night talk shows, dead baby jokes are enjoying an unprecedented vogue.

      A pod of humpbacked whales beach themselves off the coast of South Carolina. The townsfolk decide to dispose of the bodies with dynamite; the town declares a Cetacean Demolition Holiday, and they line up at what they hope is a safe distance from the corpses. They use way, way too much dynamite.

      Cut-and-burn logging accelerates in the Amazon.

      And nobody realizes what's going on. Wars break out in the usual places, the geopolitical equivalent of a recurring rash. Does that trivialize war somehow? Would it have made a difference if I'd said it was the geopolitical equivalent of a metastasizing cancer? There won't be any more of them, if that's any comfort. The world's finally in remission from war. It'll be all nice and quiet from here on out. World peace, well and truly; beyond the imaginings of any beauty pageant contestant, any political analyst. It's not about the bombs so beautiful and shiny, the cruise missiles so sleek and fine, the shells crafted from the rarest, most precious metals, the guns nestled so tenderly in their crates like baby birds.

      It's about the death wish, stupid.

      But yes: the Middle East, in flames. Simooms of sarin. Napalm oases. Bombs over Baghdad, like always. Mounds of skulls in Jerusalem. Roll the disco soundtrack: daisycutter inferno; it's raining bits of men; who will survive?

      And yes: Korea. Sub-Saharan Africa. The Ukraine. Kashmir. Sri Lanka. Libya. Albania. Ireland. Tibet. Cambodia. Argentina. Alsace-Lorraine. Algeria. The Congo. The Sudan. The Bible Belt. The Rust Belt. The Mason-Dixon line. L. A. Vietnam. All the old wrongs, all the old grudges, all the old crimes coming back for one last marvelous efflorescence. One hell of a Christmas. The globe girdled with flashing lights. A happy New Year for the suicidal. The skies lit up with tracers. So gorgeous. Bright and risen angels winging their way to heaven. We all fall down.

      Business as usual.

      Why am I using the present tense for all of this? Frankly, I'm not sure. Everything happened (for the last time) a year ago, as I've said. Maybe I'm trying to keep everyone alive, in my own way. The world is dead. The leaves have fallen for the last time. No birds sing. Oh, the harvest's done. The world stripped bare of her cockroaches, even (I think I saw one moving a week or two ago--but it might not have had a head). No more drama. But I am escaped to tell thee. Call me. Oh please somebody call me. Is Ma well, I wonder?

      Me? Oh, I'm doing fine. There's enough pre-collapse Spam here to last me a couple of decades, made from untainted pigs. Or whatever it actually is that Spam is made of. Food doesn't seem to rot very fast nowadays, anyway, so I think some of the freeze dried stuff might actually last for a while, too. Of course, it is very dark in the supermarket, and it gets very silent at night. But I'm not lonely.

      Because -- would you believe it? -- I actually have a neighbor. He lives in the other supermarket next door -- I can see him through the giant window that, on some strange architect's whim, takes up the whole top half of the eastern wall. I wonder whatever possessed them to build two Krogers right next to each other? I'll never know now, of course, but it seems like a singularly bad business move. But, back to the subject of my poor neighbor. We've never actually talked, strange as it may sound. We're both pretty shy, I think, and perhaps slightly scared of each other. Nevertheless, we share a fine and comfortable, albeit largely silent, companionship. We seem to eat meals at the same time, and whenever I am engaged in tidying my little nook, between the former frozen goods aisle and the sale rack, he will do the same. Sometimes we will stand in front of the window that separates us, he on his side and me on mine, and just commune in silence. Poor man! He looks so desperately sad, and he hasn't shaved in what looks to be a year. I am not one to judge, however. I imagine that I look just as bad if not worse.

      Lately, though, I've gotten a bit worried about him. He's been pacing back and forth, back and forth, muttering to himself, gesticulating. And I can hear him (from which I infer that the window is very thin--perhaps even single glazed). He makes no sense:

      all the portals all the portals for the, for the powwows (tramp tramp) ahem, (tramp tramp tramp tramp) my duties are vast .... (tramp tramp) and... (tramp tramp) and... imperative! (tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp) hey! somebody just pulled up! you have ... (tramp tramp) ... THIRTY SECONDS! (tramp tramp) they built St. Peter's (mumble) they built in Middlesex (tramp tramp) (mumble) because the British would be upset! (tramp tramp)

      I remember seeing this show on TV some time before everything went to shit. It was this documentary about a savant; autistic, with an eidetic memory. He had 12000 books memorized, a library. His way of relating to people was to go up to them and to start spouting random facts.

      He was like this, apparently, because he was missing a connection between his right brain and his left; he didn't have a corpus callosum, the actual physiological link between the two. And so as a result, some circuit that completed other people, turned them into, more or less, complete human beings--something that closes them off from all of the millions of sub routines going on under normal consciousness and normal thought and normal perception of the world (the keystone of the arch of the mind)--simply wasn't there.

      Instead—imagine this walking library, 12000 books jangling around in the dark inside his head, only thinly connected. I think of him as this naked, wasted, pale figure lost in the dark, out of which 12000 books ceaselessly mutter their lines. Each voice is a whisper, but each voice is also terribly clear, terribly persistent. They drone on and on and on forever. 12000 whispers joined in a gale, a terrible buffeting chaotic force batting his pale shade around. The hell of endless winds.

      Like Paolo and Francesca, all he wants is to be able to hold someone's hand; to know that he is not alone. But this is denied him. Still, every now and then he hears a whisper that comes from some other place. In the dark there is a hint of light. He knows he must give something to these other voices, these ghosts of light. But he doesn't know what currency they accept. And in any case he has nothing there in the dark but the whispers, the 12000 whispers. So from the center of these winds of words he grasps at one whisper or another. He throws them out at the imagined outside world like a castaway throws a message in a bottle. But a castaway knows that there is an outside; he remembers it, or remembers remembering it. The savant does not. To the possibility of contact, of love and light, he must remain agnostic.

      My point is: my friend reminds me of that savant.

      Even though he has me for company, I guess the stress must be getting to him, or something.

      Or else he's sick. I think each word might be the sound of a neuron firing for the last time as the synapses snap; as, cell-by-cell, his brain fades into darkness. He isn't a single person--or won't be for much longer. Already he is several different people; a whole crowd pacing back and forth, a multitude. Soon he will be several thousand, several million. When he is too many people to number, he'll be dead. They won't be him. Him will be lost. The cells lose purpose. The fragile nation of the self-referential amino acids crumbles. Bye bye, social contract of cholesterol and lipids; so long, serotonin; see ya later, mitochondria; after a while, dendrites. Oh, t-cells and hemoglobin and bile; oh, bronchioles tibia metacarpals, retinae ganglia, follicles proprioceptors pores; oh, capillaries aortal valve; oh, empire of proteins; farewell, farewell!