Selections from Otherwhere
In this realm, small children remain unnamed, and are not considered fully “born” until their first lie, generally around the age of three, because only then is it clear that the child’s soul is sufficiently engaged with the world to experience the urge to contradict, negate, or reimagine it. The lie is duly inscribed in its appropriate spot in the realm’s detailed taxonomy of first lies, and a name is assigned to the child based on some saint or hero whose first lie fell into the same category. Once every hundred years or so, a lie is designated as officially unclassifiable in any of the existing categories, and thus with great hoopla, the creation of a new category is announced, and the child is given an original name.
Occasionally, and even more infrequently, a child grows up without lying, or at least, without ever being caught in a lie. This individual proceeds through life both unnamed and revered, for despite (or perhaps because of) the society’s manner of designating names, the populace is neither particularly dishonest nor particularly fanciful, and there is almost no crime or fiction in this realm of the late-born liars.
In this realm, the departed are interred face-down because the deep layers of the earth, its hidden springs and labyrinthine passages, the slow and ever-rolling currents of its night, are nourished and maintained by the uninterrupted gaze of the dead; without the dark rays of their gaze penetrating the underworld from all directions just below the surface of the outer crust, the springs would dry up, the passages would collapse, and the solid inner core would melt and run. Thus, the living spend most of their time in exquisite, prolonged naps, cultivating their sleep as other societies do their economies, since after death, the work of vigilance will never end. Eighty or so years of vacation, then an eternity of labor—no wonder everyone in this realm of preliminary repose seems so driven, faces creased with strain as they struggle to store up the sensation of rest within their doomed bodies.
In this realm, every newborn is given an ultrasound so that the nascent death within might be identified. The photographs are not only preserved but cherished; the children are encouraged to bring the albums to school to share with their classmates, and the teachers have been trained to honor the specific qualities of each death, no matter how awkward or ungainly it appears, so that the child whose death is shaped like a stunted octopus feels no less honored than the child whose death pattern resembles the involutions of a white rose. When two people find themselves attracted to one another, each is drawn not only to the other’s appearance, gait, manner of speaking, etc., but to the other’s death as well, which resides deep within every embrace.
And here, it is the last step, the last word, the last tooth, and the last solid meal that are celebrated, never the first. Why? Because everyone knows the basic setup people are entering when they arrive in this world, but who knows toward what mysteries they may be departing?
In this realm, after decades of debate over the fixity vs. the plasticity of human nature, a group of top scientists invented a time machine for the sole purpose of stealing an infant from forty thousand years in the past in order to conduct the experiment of bringing it up in a contemporary environment. This child who had been born to consume the bark-brewed soup streaming through his mother’s breast milk, and to hear wolves howling as it fell asleep under furs in his mother’s arms deep in a cave, was now to be nourished on the most state-of-the-art protein-and-vitamin supplements, and to listen to chamber music as it dozed under a blanket of the most processed textiles. Despite the protests of ethicists and historical preservationists, emissary after emissary was sent back to the past, but each returned not only empty-handed, but wounded, even disfigured. The public marveled: How problematic could it be to pilfer a prehistoric baby? Not problematic it turned out but, rather, impossible. The mothers of the past proved themselves to have been a ferocious bunch in defending their offspring from marauding mountain lions, large birds of prey, and the downtrodden grad students of the future designated for the kidnapping, or “retrieval,” as it was euphemistically called. By the time the fifth attempt had failed, funding was running out, a not-infrequent dilemma, and so, under pressure to come up with a result proving that the whole enterprise had not been in vain, the project leaders declared that human nature had indeed changed, as demonstrated not by the hoped-for infant, but rather by the decrease in maternal competence over time.
Here there are still a few elderly folk who remember when regret was a federal offense because of the widely held belief that if sufficient amounts of it were to accumulate in the emotional atmosphere, time itself would drag to a halt and then begin to flow backward. Remorse, bereavement, repentance: all were outlawed. The dead were not grieved, but simply disposed of—no one knew where or how. There were no erasers on pencils or retractions in newspapers, and even the most offhand apology, if reported, resulted in immediate arrest. Sneezes were never followed by “Excuse me” or even “God bless you,” since the bestowal of a blessing implied the existence of a degree of self-reproach on the part of the recipient. Back-looking was regarded not only as criminal but as contagious as well; in their mythology, it was not only individuals who were frozen or destroyed by various gruesome means because of the glance cast over the shoulder, but their entire cities as well.
So, naturally, there grew up an entire black market in contraband regret. Instead of speakeasies, there was a floating system of designated secret soundproof rooms where people could go to sob in groups or in solitude. Editors labored long nights in crudely-dug tunnels to create entire newspapers comprised of nothing but corrections and emendations of what was published by the official press, even as the leaden footsteps of the Penitence Patrol sounded on the streets overhead.
This era came to a close when a group of scientists got permission to experiment on a lone regretter, captured on a back street on his way to one of the secret rooms. They isolated him in a biosphere and watched the condensation from his tears appear on the inside of the thick glass. After several years, it was determined that his emotion had not in the least affected the flow of time within the container, for he was, in fact, growing older at precisely the same rate as his twin brother, who had been kept in a room near the sphere and monitored throughout the duration.
The ancient laws were at last repealed, and orgies of sorrow overflowed the streets and bars as grand gestures of restitution were offered and received for offenses both fresh and generations-old. Though foreign correspondents, insufficiently attuned to the emotional nuances of the culture, reported that the people were overwhelmed by their new freedom to release their emotions, what they were actually weeping paradoxical tears about was the fact that time itself had been proven to be far less fragile than had been previously supposed, and that mortals were, in the face of its flow, powerless.
The entire religious practice of this realm consists of the work of one committee whose sole purpose is to compile a list of everything that is too near to be perceived.
Because everyone on the committee is a chain-smoker, though this is not, in fact, a job requirement, the air is so densely blue that the member’s voices seem disembodied, suspended in the smoke itself, a not-altogether-unpleasant effect that creates a sense of simultaneous intimacy and timelessness.
And what is too near for notice?
“Heaven,” says one voice.
“Ignorance,” says a second.
“No, stupidity,” someone else contradicts.
The list grows, is slashed and truncated, remains static for decades, and then begins to sprout again as each item is debated, tabled, and then contested yet once more. Is there a limit to the list’s length? No one knows, because by definition, no one can know. It is not that kind of list.
In this realm, everyone checks the atmospheric indices before each decision. At times when the freewill quotient is high, citizens hurry to sell stocks and bonds, to purchase homes, to propose and accept marriage, to conceive children, and to make career shifts. When it’s low, squads of specially-trained security workers, awkwardly swathed in pressurized and oxygenated gear, patrol the streets to keep the populace at home, since any decisions made in such weather might cause not only personal but community damage. Different low freewill winds release different impulses in the populace. Sometimes those who by nature are efficient and tidy-minded become pathologically rule-bound and severe, enforcing all kinds of constrictions that turn workplaces and schools into miserable environments, while those who are lax and jolly shoplift and seduce each other while guzzling sugary alcoholic beverages; other times, it’s the reverse, and there are countless variations along not only this spectrum but many others.
Almost all of the innovations in the realm are sparked during times of high free will, when the effects of emotional and intellectual conditioning are alleviated. Inherent in the realm’s constitution is a decidedly conservative bias; therefore, when the realm is prospering, the squads are sent out on even the highest free will days to prevent the instigation of new inventions or policies. However, when things aren’t going so well, a high freewill day means mandatory work for all, and the squad proceeds from house to house, making sure that no one is lounging around in a bathrobe instead of engaging in some activity that might trigger a new idea to improve the collective quality of life; who knows but that even some street sweeper pushing a mop downtown might suddenly be struck with the notion that fixes everything?
In this realm, women give birth in cemeteries in order to honor the dead and keep them where they belong; it is believed that a birth in any other site would provoke them to leave their graves in search of the miscreant mother and unfortunate child. No live birth has ever taken place outside the cemeteries, for as soon as it is ascertained that an embryo is viable, the whole family moves to a campsite just inside the gate. The system satisfies everyone—the babies because they receive no less affection and attention than they would in a traditional medical facility; the dead because their hospitality is appreciated; and the mothers because all the cemeteries are equipped with all the most contemporary obstetrical apparatus; it doesn’t seem odd to anyone that the fathers’ video cameras capture not only the infants’ silky crowning scalps but the nearby headstones, and that the lamps illumine epitaphs as well as the little weighing scales. The tightly laced boughs of the great cemetery trees provide shade and protection from the rain, and so many plants breathe along the pathways that it is as if the babies take their first breaths in a great and glowing greenhouse.
In this realm, people take turns being old; the condition is passed from citizen to citizen like a sacred chalice or a hot potato. As with jury duty, no one has to endure it for very long, and no one is exempt, and the length of each person’s term fluctuates with the size of the population. The elderly are treated with respectful tenderness, since today’s senior citizen, who may not recognize her own adult child, will tomorrow remember all too well the fact that a neighbor took advantage of her hesitant pace to shoulder in front of her in line at the grocery store.
Though the realm’s collectivism does not extend to death itself, according to legend, this was not always so; at one time, reportedly, when there were only enough people to fill a few small villages, everyone took turns being dead, so that during any given season, about a third of the inhabitants would be laid out pulseless in the underground caverns that honeycombed the region, while the rest of the villagers scurried about their business, making up for lost time. No one is certain how this equitable arrangement came to a close—some say that the more people there were, the more difficult and complicated the rotation became; others claim that a particular group refused to take their turn in the caverns, thus disrupting the process; still others speculate that, in fact, the reverse was the case, and that some of the dead began refusing to come back. Was this because the afterlife was so wondrous or because the earthly life was so unsatisfying? All records of that era have long since been lost—or, as some maintain, suppressed; conspiracy theories abound, but no one takes them seriously, not even the ones who circulate them, since the annual brush with old age, which begins in the thirtieth year of life, has impressed upon the national character a noticeable equanimity, or, as some outsiders claim, a fatalism.
Every adult occasionally experiences cloudy, disturbing dreams of this realm because each has spent a season there in Suffering School, most commonly in adolescence. Some students, of course, have already suffered significantly before arrival, and these undergo a shortened term of study, since compared to the more or less unscathed, they are riper and more responsive to the curriculum. Always there is a special class comprised of child sufferers; not unlike those little skating rink prodigies whose elaborate geometries put to shame the footwork of the most proficient adults, these young ones quickly become so adept that, each year, a few of them are even recruited as instructors. Their success rates are so high that there are always waiting lists for their classes, which, to accommodate the faculty’s needs, include mandatory naptime.
Though it is common knowledge that some two-thirds of the alumni will not retain the skills learned at Suffering School, at the close of term, each student must be able to recite the first foundational precept in his or her native tongue: “Meet every sensation with all the curiosity available to you at the time.” Each class must demonstrate the ability to distinguish monotony from loneliness, loneliness from hunger, hunger from fatigue, fatigue from irritation, irritation from lust, and so on. Each class must be able to identify the common types of temporal suffering, from the mildest, such as being obligated to keep pace with someone much slower than oneself, to the most extreme, such as being forced to inhale time that has been contaminated from exposure to excessive velocity and torque. Each class is tested on the varieties of rage, from the camouflaged to the authentic, and the five primary methods of riding and steering the latter. The higher-level students are challenged to demonstrate cellular flexion within pain structures of variable increments and durations. A small cadre of the most dedicated actually complete several full sequences of unclenching in order to soften; softening in order to enter; entering in order to abide; abiding in order to pass through; passing through in order to speak; speaking in order to sing; singing in order to emit silence. Only the finest are tested in the advanced arts of vicarious suffering and the transmission of healing throughout as many as seven generations past and future. And each term, only two or three superlative students have proven themselves worthy to undergo the examination determining whether or not they are able to endure actual delight. Those who fail at this ordeal must, with the rest of the student population, resign themselves to a lifetime of, at the very best, mere pleasure.
For generations in this realm, not only have all the bakers turned out the same four kinds of loaves, all the dressmakers produced gowns according to only a handful of patterns, and all the streets been paved with a single size and type of stone, but everyone has followed in parental footsteps, taking on the trade or profession that is in keeping with family tradition. No decent citizen would imagine any different way.
After business hours, however, the workers proceed to the cafés, which run on an entirely different system. This disappointed lover, for instance, walking down Rejection Street, passes the Café for Suitors Snubbed on Bridges or Overpasses, as well as the Café for Suitors Turned Down by Ambidextrous Red-haired Women. It isn’t until he comes to the Café for Suitors Well-read in the Classics Who Have Been Rejected Within the Last Fortnight that he slows, then pauses, for this appellation describes him perfectly. He is moving his hand, he is reaching for the doorknob—but wait—all of a sudden he notices the sign above the adjacent awning, the Café for Suitors With Frequent Dreams of Tooth Loss. This, too, describes him. He takes a few steps toward that café, and then halts, unable to choose. Which of these categories is the most accurate, which represents his deepest, truest self? Perhaps this man will remain forever frozen in place, as if waiting to send down roots into the sidewalk where he stands between two yeses. But this may be a mercy; if it doesn’t happen here, it may happen elsewhere, for the distinctions grow ever more subtle down the length of the street, which may not actually come to an end (or at least, no one has ever reached it), and to be stuck this early saves him from ever-finer agonies of self-definition. It is not considered a shame, but rather, the highest honor, for a café’s designation to be so narrow, so particular, that at the height of business hours it serves, at the very most, a population of one.
In this realm, the moment the spring flu hits, everyone immediately goes into quarantine, even the as yet unaffected, for this dreaded precognition pandemic is notorious for wreaking havoc on even the most stable of environments. Ironically, it is the mutations that produce the smallest and nearest versions of precognition that cause the most trouble, since the flu-stricken individuals find the immediate future so familiar that they can’t tell the difference between it and the present, and are thus unable to try to compensate as do the victims who are aware they are perceiving events forty or fifty years ahead. Not even emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads during flu periods; if you are having a heart attack or giving birth, you are on your own at home. This affliction affects even unborn babies, some of whom find themselves enduring their entrance into the world twice, once as febrile hallucination, and once in reality; later, they are identifiable because they seem old before their time, having been born jaded by their “near life” experiences.
In this realm, citizens remain veiled at all times. Infants’ faces are covered immediately after birth, so that everyone grows up perceiving the world through a fine silk mesh. The only facial features anyone is ever allowed to see are his or her own. Thus, individuals with freckles or moles assume that everyone’s cheeks are as speckled as their own; people with brown eyes are unaware that eyes can be any other color, and so on.
Of course, things weren’t always this way. According to the national myth, during an ancient and mostly forgotten era of innocence, everyone went around barefaced until one night at the winter feast, a bard—the very first bard, as a matter of fact—sang a poignant ballad about two lovers who exchanged their lonelinesses by gazing into one another’s eyes. The bard had been thinking metaphorically, not literally, but since in this population, as in most others, literal thinkers outnumber metaphorical thinkers at least 500 to 1, all kinds of people immediately engaged in that same exchange, some of them with the ones they most cherished, and others of them with the nearest individual on hand. And it didn’t stop there; because each person found the new loneliness both so unbearably alien and excruciatingly familiar, everyone rushed to seek relief by entering into a different exchange, and then another, and then another, until soon, all the individual lonelinesses were irrevocably lost in the web of transpositions. Everyone longed for his or her original loneliness as if for a vanished beloved, and thus art, the alphabet, and printmaking, as well as the media, sprang into existence early in this realm, and under great pressure, rather than at the leisurely pace of most societies, as these citizens urgently tried to find ways to describe the particularities, the densities, the textures, etc. of their original conditions. A crude version of the classifieds was invented in which people listed the characteristics not of their ideal soul mates, but of their orphaned lonelinesses. Very occasionally, a loneliness would be restored to its original host, but the fit never felt quite right after the extended trauma of separation. Very occasionally, during a transfer attempt, a host soul would reject a loneliness—its own or someone else’s, or the loneliness would reject the host, leaving that individual empty, without any loneliness at all, only to die within hours, and leaving that loneliness to wander disembodied through the realm hoping that some altruistic person willing to endure more than one loneliness would absorb it (the highest number of lonelinesses which anyone was recorded as having survived was three).
Something had to be done, and the solution was, of course, a literal one. Now all loneliness-related art and image-making were prohibited on pain of death (which meant that it had to stop altogether), and the use of veils was universally mandated. But what the society was most counting on, of course, could occur only gradually, which it did—everyone who had participated in the exchange passed away, replaced by a generation that knew about it only secondhand. Now, so many centuries later, tourists are not infrequently drawn to this realm, imagining that any society so obsessed with veils must be exotic and intriguing, but they almost always leave long before their visas are up, repelled by both the stolid pragmatism of the national character and the culture of personal distance.
Immediately after a birth in this realm, a team of clinicians gathers to tabulate the newborn’s margins of error while the family waits in the reception area, not infrequently in such an intense state of collective anxiety that the attending nurse must administer sedatives.
An across-the-board, wide-margined set of results is cause for all manner of festivities amongst not only family but neighbors as well, who know that in future years, when they see this individual skateboarding down the street, or embarking on his or her first romance, or charbroiling meat in the back yard, or enlisting in the military, they won’t have cause to worry; though this person will no doubt make the usual human blunders, the consequences will be limited, even minimal, and often, more or less self-correcting. This person will acquire wisdom or at least a modicum of common sense—not too late, and generally not at anyone else’s expense.
On the other hand, everyone knows what devastation a narrow-margined person can wreak across the generations through the consequences of just one extra—or not even extra—drink, one episode of jaywalking, one ill-advised fling, one slip-up with a calculator. Thus, a set of narrow margins is cause for great solemnity and strategic planning. The family divests itself of all fragile, expensive, or potentially dangerous possessions—the stove must be uprooted and banished, so that all food may be brought in from the outside, tested, and then fed to the individual in tiny portions; the elegant, sharp-cornered wooden furniture must be exchanged for padded blobs of chairs and ugly, bulbous rubber tables; and helmets and shin and wrist guards must be ordered from special catalogues for low-margined toddlers. These changes represent only the beginning of a seemingly endless set of arrangements that will include all manner of personal guardians, chaperones, and tutelary figures, not only for the individual, but for the other family members, each of whose well-being is significantly endangered by this person’s very existence. The entire family lives under a permanent pall; neighbors move away, and property values plummet. Bankruptcies are not uncommon.
Both of the above descriptions represent extremes, of course. Most people are born with a mixed set of margins for error—wide in cards, romance and academics, for instance, lower in finances and average in employment and physical exertions. These indicators cause neither panic nor celebration, but rather, a steady, moderate attention to prevention and compensatory education in the areas of risk.
Very occasionally—only once every third generation or so—an individual’s margins in an area or areas may spontaneously widen or narrow; when this change becomes apparent, the entire society is thrown into an instant uproar, because the condition, though nearly always temporary, is extremely contagious—if the victim isn’t quarantined in time, soon no one knows what range of consequences to anticipate from any given activity. Thus, the stock market becomes volatile and erratic as the citizens who aren’t barricading themselves in their homes hurtle into speculative trading; all kinds of unlikely couples elope without warning, some within only moments after meeting, even as, at the same time, the most long-term, stable engagements are suddenly called off in the face of narrowing family-and-romance risk indicators; some shops are preemptively closed and boarded up by their owners, while others remain open at all hours with almost no supervision, and the media ceases production of all news except for the most outlandish rumors.
After both the pandemic and the pandemonium subside, a year-long period of public grace ensues, during which everyone steps back and ponders his or her new circumstances. All contracts, from marriage to real estate to employment, may be dissolved without penalty, and most purchases may be returned with no questions asked. Everyone is relieved that there will be another several generations of peace and predictability during which epidemicians can attempt to develop a preventative vaccine. Perhaps paradoxically, the many babies born from unions formed during the upheaval are universally welcomed and cherished, since they almost invariably turn out to be not only wide-margined on all fronts, but winsome as well.
In this realm, time travel works only between the present and the future. After returning from a series of visits to her later life, a twelve-year-old may choose to celebrate the anniversary of her marriage to a man she won’t meet for years and the birthdays of children she has yet to conceive. Citizens of voting age or above are permitted to observe the occasions of their demise, and most adults honor this anniversary in any style from introspective solemnity to hysterical overindulgence. Some become afficianados of their own passing, visiting daily and thus bumping into yesterday’s and tomorrow’s selves, even camping out there to take photographs from all angles, hold religious ceremonies—whether or not the dying version of the self still practices that particular religion—or to host parties. A few choose to snub the date as it comes around every year, as if by cold-shouldering it, they could somehow score a point against death itself. And there are those who hold out as long as possible, avoiding making the trip in the first place, but almost always they eventually succumb to their own curiosity. A person who finds the information too unpleasant to bear may have it surgically removed at great expense and considerable physical discomfort, but nine times out of ten, no sooner is it extracted than he or she feels compelled to make the trip to the future to regain it, even after reading multiple warnings against this written by the pre-surgical self; there are not a few unfortunate individuals who trap themselves in a perverse cycle of multiple revelations and extractions.
In all cases, though many citizens include in their living wills a directive prohibiting the presence of any and all earlier versions of the self, everyone knows that this is merely pro forma; what actual power could the dying exercise over all those relatively healthy younger selves who find such pleasure in debating or attempting to conciliate one another as they jockey for a better view?
In the language of this realm, there are so many words for “knowledge” that they comprise an ever-expanding dictionary. There is a term for knowledge that one pretends to possess as well as for knowledge that one pretends to not possess, which is not precisely the same as knowledge one is glad to not possess or wishes one possessed; there is a term for knowledge ignored or disregarded; for anachronistic knowledge, which is related but not equivalent to the one for incongruent knowledge, but very different from the term for extinct knowledge; there is a term for knowledge that one feels one must protect, as well as for knowledge by which one feels protected; there is a term for useless or unusable knowledge that occupies valuable space in the brain; there is a sacred term for knowledge that is valid but cannot be proven; there are multiple complex prefixes and suffixes for knowledge acquired with varying levels of difficulty. In this dictionary, you can find words for exothermic and endothermic knowledge; stillborn or still-forming knowledge; knowledge disfigured, crippled, or disintegrating; heavy, light, and weightless knowledge; knowledge to which someone significant to the bearer is oblivious; symbiotic (not the same as parasitic) knowledge; merely local knowledge; mutating, expanding, and contracting knowledge of many varieties.
There is, however, no word for “ignorance;” the closest reference is a crude, bordering-on-obscene gesture signifying something along the lines of “that which has not yet been categorized.”
In this realm, reading is a highly honored activity; everyone understands that it is a deep-seated human need to regularly take refuge in a mind other than one’s own. However, nobody ever knows what anyone else is reading, since to ask or to disclose would represent the most barbarous of violations. For the sake of personal privacy, all books are protected by identical blank covers, and all are the same size—a novella, for instance, is padded with empty pages to keep it from being identified as such. Only members of the booksellers’ guild know the reading tastes of the citizens with whom they meet. Even between spouses it is forbidden to reveal or ask about a title—to do either would be grounds for divorce. This situation rarely occurs, however, since every couple knows that there is nothing more erotic than lying next to each other in bed, each fantasizing about what the other is reading. That’s why the divorce rate in this realm is inversely proportional to the literacy rate.
In this realm, reading is as much a physical act as it is a mental one because the letters and illustrations are actually used up by the reader’s gaze, so that a book or newspaper is good for only one-time use. The very poor, known derogatorily as “after-readers,” must make do by rummaging in the dumpsters of the well-off in order scavenge boring descriptive passages the previous reader had skipped or skimmed. Everyone feels sorry for them, because they never get any pornography at all.
In this realm, when the behavior of a citizen becomes chronically difficult, that individual is sent back to the previous life stage, advancing again from that point until he or she has reworked the personality characteristics in question. For instance, nobody thinks it at all unusual for a truculent teenager to become an eleven-year-old again, experiencing a respite from emotional volatility—a vacation, as it were—and then begin to experience the early throes of adolescence for the second time, while yet retaining the memories of already having lived through the ages of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen. As a rule, the former teenager’s schoolmates find themselves to be significantly sobered by this spectacle, and it rarely takes more than one such regression to bring an entire group of young troublemakers to order.
However, when the difficult person is much older, the regression-as-rehabilitation scheme becomes problematic, and all kinds of brain wave tests must be administered in order to determine whether the individual is truly suffering a personality disturbance as opposed to merely faking one in order to be made younger for a while.
Traveling through this realm, tourists are grateful to the point of near-hysteria for the oases that appear at regular intervals not only throughout the countryside but in the cities as well. Each oasis consists of a series of low mud huts just large enough for one person to crawl in, sit cross-legged on the floor, and gaze at the dull sloping walls until he or she has regained equilibrium. For this is the Beauteous Realm, where the landscapes, the buildings, and the people are so radiant that without the refuge of the mud huts provided by the Society for Aid to Tourists, visitors would plummet headlong into psychosis.
The citizens, however, never enter the huts; due to both genetic immunity and constant exposure, they don’t register the glory as anything special, but rather, experience it as merely normal, and their visitors as severely, tragically aesthetically challenged.
In this realm, it is everyone’s responsibility to maintain each other’s visibility by granting the recommended daily amount of privacy, because people begin to disappear in bits and pieces when they do not spend regular time alone. Newborn babies are, of course, always visible, having been cloistered within the protective uterine walls throughout gestation, but social workers patrol the streets, keeping an eye out for any child with a translucent elbow, transparent ear, or missing hand—these are the ones who are at risk, most likely destined for foster care where sometimes a portion of the lost or vanishing body part can be restored by therapeutically administered solitude, but often, it is too late, and the individual must walk around partially or wholly invisible for the rest of his or her life. Such people generally marry each other and are not unhappy despite their handicap. By law, every bus, theater, church, etc. has seats reserved for the Full Invisibles, who, as a mark of minority pride, eschew the clothing that would establish for others their locations in space.
In this realm, divorce is non-existent only because the legislators have not been able to come up with any kind of adequate procedure for awarding custody—not of the children, who would no doubt be sent back and forth between the parental homes in the usual manner—but of the disappointment, which is apparently impossible to divvy up, especially since each member of any separating couple would not only demand full rights but would insist upon denying the other any visitation at all. And so the family remains intact, as does the disappointment: contained in the home, it burgeons as if nourished by the very relief of not having to be, at worst, raggedly severed from itself, or, slightly less traumatically, stretched across town like so much taffy.
The entertainment of this realm consists entirely of self-impersonation contests. So exacting are the judges at these events that, although many participants attain low-level awards honoring various aspects of the performances—timing, effort, etc.—only once or twice in any generation does a contestant walk away with an actual trophy.