Off the trail
Author’s note: Originally written in July, 2013, this piece seems even more relevant and urgent 5 years later. It originally appeared here, on Meta/ Phor(e) /Play. A revised version appears in my flash fiction collection, The Toad’s Garden after The Palm Reading. This version has been slightly edited, most significantly to add the word “consumer” to modify capitalism, as the term “consumer capitalism” has come to my attention as one bandied about in place of democracy as the essential system of the United States (and promoted by some on the so-called “Christian” Right, although from my perspective, that political group seems neither Christian nor right…). The line about the great purges goes back to 2013, but we now see something like them beginning to form…
By chance I learned that they planned to crucify the married couple for honeymooning off the grid and outside of the mainstream consumer economy. The couple backpacked along the Appalachian Trail, using second-hand equipment, carrying home-prepared dried goods for meals , which friends provided to them as gifts.
The followers of Christ, Consumer-Capitalist, found such sacrilege untenable, especially in light of the anger it would cause the Corporate Lords of the Boardrooms.
I overheard my editor on his cell, assigning someone to cover the Meeting of Judgment where the sentence would be pronounced. When I understood that the other reporter wouldn’t be back from her current assignment in time, I sauntered in and asked what Ed had for me, like I didn’t know anything.
“The Reverend called to request we send someone to this meeting, give it coverage to send the message out. Work, spend, play inside the economy.”
“Got it. Keep the money flowing to oil the consumer capitalism machinery of wealth.”
I knew the catechism, but didn’t believe it. I’d sent dried lemon peels, home-made penne (dried to preserve it), a chunk of parmigiana traded on the underground market, and a sealed container of pesto for them to make a backpacker’s lemon pasta.
The Meeting of Judgment followed the usual pattern of these religious courts. A minister of the Reverend’s flock read out the charges. Two other ministers sat on either side, listening gravely. They conferred briefly. It didn’t matter that the accused even now were somewhere hiking in the woods.
As per custom, the ushers served cups of tea to the witnesses of the Meeting. We remained silent. I sipped a sad orange-pekoe until the lead minister announced the decision.
Crucifixion. It had come back in style around 2020, shortly after the great purges that deported, jailed, or enslaved first the non-Christians, then the wrong-type of Christians.
I had not seen a crucifixion. Up to now, it had been an advantage of a rural assignment.
“What are you going to do?” The man I knew as Germaine asked me. He’d popped up out of the crowd as I pushed out the door.
I’d seen Germaine at several social gatherings of people like me. My circles went along with the Reverend to a point, that is, enough to survive, and no more. We kept to ourselves, and tried to avoid the scrutiny of the Reverend and his ministers.
“Do? I’ll write a story about the Judgment, the reasons for it, and watch to see how many hits it gets on the Screens.”
I didn’t know Germaine enough to be baited into saying something damaging. Besides, that was what I planned to do.
“No, about them. We can’t let them get caught.”
“You could get crucified yourself for getting involved. Even what you said is a crime against Christian Consumer Capitalism.”
“What is Christian Capitalism? Something made up by corporate overlords who overeat from our consumption. There never was such a religion.”
I walked away. I considered whether he might be an agent provocateur, meaning I should report him before he denounced me for doing nothing. I decided that I didn’t want to get involved, and would invoke my sometime role as investigative reporter should he accuse me.
The next morning I had coffee with Frank, someone I thought I knew enough to trust under most circumstances. He told me that Germaine had been arrested for sedition, blasphemy, and heresy as a result of spouting the Devil’s own socialism.
“I’ll be damned.”
“Probably,” Frank said. “To tell you the truth, I thought he was a spy.”
After Frank went off to work, I looked for a screen-story on Germaine, but didn’t find one. I wondered how Frank had heard.
I read my own story on my screen, instead. It played well, several hits, re-posts, and praiseful comments.
It bored me. No, more than that, it sickened me.
I didn’t believe any of it. I knew the young couple, knew they loved the woods, knew they couldn’t afford a resort honeymoon because they wanted to buy a house and the downpayment would take everything they had.
They actually wanted to fit in and had no revolutionary or irreligious intent. They wanted to get along, but to also live their lives and not be pulled under the tide of consumer debt.
Just then, I realized that the Reverend and the ministers didn’t care. And maybe Frank didn’t read about Germaine on a screen.
The Reverend wanted to make a statement, keep people scared, keep people trying harder than ever to feed the economy and concentrate power and wealth into the Corporate Lords, who ran the Reverend.
Or maybe the other way around, the Reverend ran them. It doesn’t matter now, I realize.
Frank wanted me to play along and keep away from people like Germaine. It was almost a friendly gesture. It could have been a warning, even.
And that’s why I find myself sitting in a deer stand along the Appalachian Trail. The newlyweds should pass under it sometime today, if they haven’t yet been waylaid.
When they do, I’ll wait to see if they find the package I left out.
It has printouts of the screen story I wrote. It has a copy of the Judgment Decree. It has a map of little-known trails that cross this path, and what cash I could withdraw without getting stopped by a minister.
I thought that I would watch them pick it up and wait until they were gone, then make my way home after a few stops to justify my travel, should I get checked.
Now, I’m thinking maybe I’ll ask if I can walk with them a while when they go off the trail. I’ll cut out after a few days, find my own way.
I don’t know why I’ve decided to do this. I just don’t feel like writing another story I don’t believe in, I guess.
—Michael Dickel ©2018, 2017, 2013