Richard Sansom


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    Richard Sansom

    Richard Sansom
    The Apparition


Running north-south, through the bountiful San Joaquin valley of California, resplendent with its orchards of fruit and nut trees, miles and miles of vegetables in precise rows and vineyards of table and wine grapes, there are two double ribbons of highways. These well traveled ribbons carry the automobile and truck traffic at eighty miles an hour day and night, but the western most ribbon, Interstate 5, is the straightest, the fastest and the most boring in terms of sights. To the west are farms and then the low rolling hills, often piled on their tops with creeping clouds drifting in from the Pacific, and to the east are many miles of farms, laid out flat and neat, and there is the pristine concrete aqueduct, conveying water from the north of the state to the water-hungry south. The drive can be pleasant, tedious, or dangerous, since, on some occasions what is called the Tulle fog can quickly form and blanket the valley in its gray and impenetrable solidarity, often coming on an unsuspecting motorist and causing horrific wrecks, massive confusion of metal, overturned trucks and even death. In consequence of taking the western most ribbon -- Interstate 5 -- one comes by the apparition about which I am about to speak, especially when one is traveling north and comes close enough to recognize the sight for what it is.
    Recently, when driving north, in the morning of a bright early spring day, I occasionally looked out over the freshly budding orchards of plum, peach and olive trees, or witnessed the farmers pulling their machinery across the black earth in laser guided rows, preparing the soil for the seeds of onions, spinach, lettuce, and a great variety of other fare to be consumed by the state and the nation. I was traveling north, the sun brightly shining to my right, between white piles of clouds that had that night rained down snow on the highway near Los Angeles, through which I drove with some abandon, aching to be in my home, some three hundred some miles further on. Cold winds whipped my car about, tumble weeds danced across the freeway like choreographed dancers, and when hit, disintegrated into wisps of brown stubble. The trip went apace, I passed trucks carrying cars, produce, odd cargo no one could guess, steel girders, canvas covered objects of curious shape, Coke and Pepsi, small prefabricated houses, and I wondered where all these various things were aimed, no doubt at the city dwellers to the north, their cargo having been hoisted from the ships that anchored at San Pedro harbor far to the south.
    The radio had to be constantly retuned to different stations so as to avoid the babble of preachers, country-western music and the local news for farmers, decrying this or that political catastrophe, the tragedy of water loss due to environmental hagglers, or news of the recent deaths of Palestinian and Israelis in their enduring war in the name of Abraham and Mohammed. I closeted myself against these insulting entreaties that I had accustomed myself to generally ignore, and drove on, fast and fixed on my mission of simply getting home quickly and safely, as I passed line after line of lumbering trucks and timid car drivers, engaging my "cruise control" and relaxing my right foot as a measure of protection against a much to be avoided calf cramp.
    Then, as if to shock me out of my imposed ennui, I came across the apparition. I had passed it many times, as I had traveled this road so often before, but for some reason my sensitive mind had made the reasonable decision to forget its existence altogether and pretend that such a thing was too much against the sanguine nature of man to be there in its blatant and repulsive reality. So quickly it came upon my sight! To the east spread out a vast containment of ten or twenty thousand head of cattle, all standing in their bovine solitude on hillocks of black feces produced by years of these sad creatures standing thus, awaiting a fate they could no more imagine than me imagining I would soon enter the confines of Orion and encounter alien denizens of which I could never dream. I glanced them, as I had before, and watched them standing so still, so fixed in their dumb, wide eyed expectation of nothing, and pictured myself thus, entombed in a genetically formed abyss of abject innocence as to the creation and results of the next moment of my existence. There were so many different colors of hide, from black to shades of tan, and speckled, beautiful in the their diversity of shades of color, and stately in their immobile and trapped state of having no where to wander or trot, no tree beneath which to garner a bit of shade against the encroaching sunlight. They were stacked, yes, stacked up against one another like blocks of stone to be hewn into whatever shapes and purposes the hand of man devised.
    This was, as always, an apparition having no purpose beyond that of the preparatory stage before cutting the thick throats of these innocent creatures and conveying them to the next station of dissection, thence to the various departments of division of meats. I pictured the large, round eyes, sleepily closing as their blood drained out, and pictured the freezers that would protect their precious red meat from decay, and the shipping of that meat across the nation, eventually culminating on the plates of those who, for some strange reason, completely beyond my comprehension, take great relish in putting their knife into the sinew, slicing it into tidy morsels, and placing it in their open mouths for some archaic pleasure.
    I grant that, at some distant time, the inducement to stuff the stomach with great amounts of ready protein was advantageous -- it takes the blood less time to carry nutrients, a more efficient means of getting valuable food stuff to the brain, etc, etc. but I find that such an inducement is by now, far beyond its usefulness -- for surely the human brain is by now of sufficient size and capability to get its host in and out of troubles having less to do with survival than with mere reckless pleasure seeking and obscene materialism. I calculated that it is certainly far beyond the need to collect ten thousand bovine souls and cast them into such a fate, force them to stand on hillocks of fifty or more years of feces, alone, uncared for, existing only for the need of those who relish the knife slicing through a bloodied piece of dead tissue and then entering the open mouth of one who requires this ritual for the sake of -- what?
    I drove on. The stench of that vast population eventually faded and the highway opened up before me. I had imaginings of the poor beasts admonishing me to forget the scene of their misfortune -- "what will be will be, " they said in my dreamy anguish. I heard them exclaim that they had been bred only with the purpose at hand, that their destiny was preordained, that their life had been dedicated to the will of humans for some hundred years of breeding, that it did not matter that their large dark eyes would be slowly closed by the hands of indifferent laborers in the smelly caverns of slaughter houses, that it was of no consequence that their corn-fed muscles would be laid out for the pleasure of carnivorous mouths, that I should drive on, tuning the radio to melodies of less painful intents, that I, in short, should forget them and go about my life as if I had passed a great sign painting, displaying the faces of inanimate creatures, already destined to fill the niche given them by providence.
    I could not do this. I carry their visage of dumb innocence in my heart like the most dreadful baggage that cannot be opened for fear of understanding more of the animal heart than I need to know. What should I know of the ancient brain that felt connection, empathy and love long before it felt the calculations of Pythagoras or the combinations of sounds we call words? Would I be shocked and afraid to know the possibilities of what can conspire to cause us the various pains of the heart, to see past the million years of our animal ancestry to the place that was dedicated only to touch and feel that was like warm blood running between us, making us as a single creature that knew the other's heart and even their mind like a map of the cosmos, encircling every animate consciousness with a aura of one singular spirit called life?
    I went on, down the bright, wide road, escaping the apparition as I would escape the most dreadful dream -only I could not escape it. Though we may, with our new technologies and investigations into the banks of our neuronal heritages, discover that we are separated by great gulfs of genetic branch points, far more distant than we can imagine, going back to the most primeval darkness's that may forever obscure where and when and why we diverged into this and that species, there is one truth we cannot avoid confronting: we are, whatever else we may call ourselves, animals. We live, eat, breath and eventually die in the atmosphere of our animal composition -- no matter what name we choose for ourselves. While I may call the bovine countenance "sad, " or "forlorn, " or "dumb" in its obvious innocence, awaiting a fate it could never fathom, surely the few scraps of genetic material that define what they are versus what I am, are, in the greater fullness of whatever cosmic realities swirl amid the stars, insignificant and only worthy of mention in treatises that deal philosophically with these matters -- far away from the heart that beats in my breast and those that beat within those who stand by on dark hillocks, awaiting their death, as I await my own.
    No, it was no apparition, but should have been -- like some Bruegel dream-scape rendition of a monstrous unreality, set squarely among the fresh greenness of a fruitful valley and near the highway for all to witness. It remains like a sepia photograph in my memory, and when next I travel past it I will keep my eyes straight ahead and my thoughts as benign and pure as possible.
    Richard E. Sansom