Let this be real

All morning I stand on a stump as buyers file by. They take souvenir photos of my claws, using pens and matchbooks for scale. They note the cracked flesh and the swelling and doubt aloud my ability to handle fieldwork. They ask can I cook. I say no. They ask can I build furniture or supervise a cleaning staff or create interesting pastries. I say no no no. By dinnertime it’s just me and a set of Siamese twins and a few double amputees sitting hopefully on crates.

Krennup and Mollie glare at me from across the Sterno fire.

“Are we not going to be able to get anything for you?” Krennup says. “Are you literally worthless? Those feet are so off-putting. It’s frustrating.”

“Maybe we could rent a power sander,”Mollie says.

“Not to intrude, folks,”says a buyer nearby wearing a wool vest, “but you’ve talking to this man in awfully derogatory terms. I don’t even talk to my sheep so negatively. I have half a mind to buy this fellow and turn him into a shepherd.”

“If you’ve got fifty bucks you can turn him into dog food for all I care,”Krennup says.

“Oh, come now,”the man says. “What does a comment like that tell us about your self-image? Talk about an inhibitory belief system. You see yourself as someone who needs to sell someone else to a dog-food factory in order to validate yourself. And yet it seems to me that you have some very fine qualities. If nothing else, the fact that you own property says some positive things about your organizational skills and your will to power. Cut yourself some slack, friend. Come down off that cross of your own making, and believe in you!”

“Whatever,”Krennup says. “Do you want him or not? Fifty, firm.”

“Frankly, I abhor this slavery thing,”the man says to me. “But you can’t fight it. So I do my part to treat my people like human beings. My name’s Ned Ventor. I consider myself to be working for change from within the system.”

He shakes my hand, then slips Krennup a fifty and leads me to a wagon with padded seats, where four other Flaweds are sitting unchained drinking lemonade.

“Care for some lemonade?”he says. “Bagel? I hope these seats are neither too soft nor too hard. Please fill out a name tag. Attention all! What I usually like to do is hold a brief philosophical orientation session to get us all on the same wavelength. Any objections? Is this a good time for it? Great! Then let’s begin with principle number one: I trust you. I’m not going to treat you like a slave and I don’t expect you to act like one, not that I think for a minute that you would. Second principle: My sheep are your sheep. I realize that without you, the shepherds, my sheep would tend to wander all over the mountainside, being eaten by wolves or the dispossessed, not that I have anything against the dispossessed, only I don’t like them eating my sheep. Principle three: If we get through the year without a lost sheep, it’s party time. We’ll have couscous and tortilla chips and dancing and, for the main course, what else, a barbecued sheep. Principles four and five: Comfort and dignity. You’ll be getting hot meals three times a day, featuring selections from every food group, plus dessert, plus a mint. You’ll each be getting a cottage, which you may decorate as you like, using a decoration allowance I’ll distribute upon our arrival. Buy a lounge chair, or some nice prints, maybe even a coffeemaker, whatever, have some Flawed friends over for cards, I don’t care. In fact I think it’s great. You come out to the meadow next morning feeling empowered, you give your sheep that little extra bit of attention, all the better for me. My take on this is: I can’t set you free, but if I could, I would. That is, I can’t set you literally free. My business would be ruined, wouldn’t it? But spiritually free, that’s another matter. So I’ll be offering meditation classes and miniseminars on certain motivational principles we can all put to work in our lives, even shepherds. For that matter, even sheep. We’ll be doing some innovative sheep-praising, which you might think is nutty, but after you see the impressive gains in wool yields, I think you’ll do a one-eighty. They come up and lick your hands as if to say: Hey, I like who I am. It’s touching. I think you’ll be moved. Any questions?”

“Where exactly are we going?” asks a petulant Flawed on my right whose name tag says Leonard.

“Great question, Leonard!”Ventor says. “You said to yourself: Look, I want to know where I’m headed. I like that. Good directedness. Also good assertiveness. Perhaps you weren’t quite as sensitive to my feelings as you might have been, given that I should have told you where we were headed right off the bat and so therefore feel at the moment a little remiss and inadequate for not having done so, but what the heck, a good growth opportunity for me, and a chance for you, Leonard, to make yourself the center of attention, which seems to be one of your issues, not that I’m in a position to make that judgment, at least not yet. The answer, Leonard, is: southern Utah. Here, take a look.”

He passes around snapshots of his ranch and we sit oohing and aahing while holding our lemonades between our knees. It’s beautiful. The skies are blue, the cottages immaculate, the mountains white.

On my soft seat I say a little prayer:

Let this be real.

George Saunders, Bounty, [in:] George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, 1996.