It was all because of a bet. I made it with Samson while the angels watched. He’d been a corrupt official in his country and signed the orders that killed thousands, and yet there he was, quoting Nietzsche on a cloud. "What you call morality is merely cowardice," he said, his body scarred by the tears of the many mothers whose sons he’d killed. "You are not better than me, you are only more afraid. Deep in your heart you want to be like me, you lust like I do, you crave wealth and power like I do, but you lack the balls to go for it and the talent to attain it. You disguise your timidity and your sloth as principles. What a pitiful way to suck up to God!"
"It’s not true," I retorted under the inscrutable gaze of the angels. "I could have been like you if I’d wanted to. Even worse." I remembered what Sherlock Holmes had once said to Dr. Watson: that, if he’d been so inclined, he would have made a wonderful criminal. And I believed that of myself. "There’s more to morality than simply having duller claws. You flatter yourself, Samson."
But he would have none of it. "Here I am, trapped on a cloud that can barely bear my weight, in constant danger of falling through the fluff that, for me, is like thin ice. And there you are, light as a feather, without a care in the world, one of God’s pets. I thought God had better eyes than that! It is you who flatter yourself, Johannes! He who is last shall be first? Idiocy! You were not last because you chose to be, but because you were slow!"
The angels gave no clue as to what they thought; I believe that for them, the Bible is merely like the bell that signals school has begun, and that they fear nothing, except the possibility of telling you the answer.
"Prove it! Next time, prove it!" Samson dared me. "Screw the world like I did, use it, devour it! You’ll see, it’s not so bad. A few years of misery, which cannot be much worse than the neuroses you liberals are constantly suffering on the earth anyhow, tormented by this and tormented by that: and then, it will be time to reincarnate! To try again! You can afford to be bad just once, Johannes! Prove to me that you are brave enough to be bad, that I may believe that goodness is a virtue, and not merely an incapability!"
The faces of the angels looked nowhere, they dwelled in an untouchable inner space, there was grace in their eyes, but no road map to the place they had found; their lips were serene, as though satiated from kissing, with no lover anywhere in sight, nothing clinging to them or running from them.
"Damn you, Samson!" I cursed, as I felt the attraction of a womb somewhere I could not see. "I will show you what I am capable of! I will make your sins seem like the pompous exploits of little boys stepping on ants! I will cast ‘right living’ to the winds, I will show you I bad I can be, that you may know there is such a thing as goodness, and that men may choose it; that it is not merely the haven of those whose evil has no skill!" And I let my form evaporate and fly like light into the body of a young woman, lying quietly in bed beside a naked, spent man, asleep with a smile on his face.
There is no need to chronicle my life in detail, to explore the nuances of my childhood, the discoveries and mishaps of my adolescence, the charming gaffes and the dark nights alone listening to records; no need to write of the inspiring teachers or the pathetic ones, the thousands of trajectories suggested to me, the opportunities, the conscious decisions and rolls of the dice. I had made a bet, and everything was channeled towards fulfilling it, guided by the power of a formative thought that drew what was needing directly towards it, like a great magnet of intent. This life was not dedicated to Humanity, nor to any beautiful art which lived lightly on the earth; it was dedicated, instead, to overpowering Samson’s cynicism, and to cleansing my lifetimes of sacrifice of doubt. It was dedicated to mining the world as though it were my private gold mine, and extracting every treasure I could from it for my own benefit, to prove that I could be bad, and that if I was good, it was because I aspired to be good, not because my vileness was lame. Other lifetimes would redeem me. Even if it took a hundred, it would be worthwhile to show Samson he was wrong. Samson, who before he had been Samson and crushed Biafra like a flea, had flown a Junker dive bomber over London, made the streets of Paris run red with the blood of the Huguenots, spit at Jesus as he staggered through the streets of Jerusalem bearing the beam of the cross upon his back, and begun his earthly sojourn as Amalek, the king of the treacherous, the jackal who preyed upon the weak. This lifetime, I would make war on him, by making war on the rest of mankind.
Nor here is there much need to go into detail. I succeeded. My mind was as fast and sharp as a steel trap that springs shut on the foot of a hungering animal, seeking something to eat in woods that are bare and covered with snow. My heart, overpowered by the fierce prayers I had made in heaven, did not restrain me: appetite replaced compassion, while a discipline of iron prevented appetite from corrupting strategy. A fat eagle cannot fly; a serpent satiated by love cannot bite. I reflected every day, but not to let in God; it was to sharpen the blade of the sword I had become. I spewed poison Om’s into the dawn, my chanting was like the engine of a submarine prowling beneath the waves. I engineered, with a Third Eye completely harnessed to my vow, a level of enlightenment that did not challenge my motives, but only furthered my goals.
I was a businessman, closely linked to the highest political elites. I bought up vast amounts of land in foreign countries, and wooed my defenders in Washington to suppress the revolutions that sought to expropriate them once it became clear that the production of the land I had bought was to be directed towards the consumption of those who were already prosperous. But from the prosperous you can extract more; what good is there in selling to those who can only give you pennies? The land I used to raise cattle for the few, and to produce ethanol so that the rich could drive while the poor starved. I formed PR companies to shield myself with lies, and make my greed seem wise; I invested in armaments manufactures to contain the aggrieved, behind great dikes of war. I hired two coups, and lifted glasses of champagne to my lips, as the streets of poor lands filled with tanks: American thorns encircling the rose of foreign wealth. Let the hands of the needy bleed, reaching for what was theirs! The moist lips of my mistress mattered more to me than their empty stomachs!
When anemic protestors from my own country, who refused their share of the loot, came marching outside of my wrought-iron gates, high like a barrier of upraised, sharpened spears, I merely waited them out. Most of them tired of the battle, it did not pay their bills, and they outgrew it. I got rid of the serious ones who remained by blowing up one of my own limos with a bomb – adieu, Jose, but chauffeurs come a dime a dozen – whereupon the police swarmed in like a cloud of diving eagles, like the kind that clutch arrows in their talons on our money.
The protests ended, I enriched myself by creating poverty with my cattle and my biofuels, then doubled my profits by reaping the enraged multitudes I had planted all across the earth, with bullets I had shares in. How I loved those impassioned hearts which would not yield, which required my bullets to lay them to rest!
For some, there might have been stress in a life like this, but for me there was too much excitement to suffer. It was like flying through white-water rapids in a kayak. The board meetings, the favorable reports from the stock market, the parties with spider webs laid everywhere to entangle the powerful and turn them into my accomplices, the money transfers, the handshakes in the night, the selling of political snake oil, the helicopters that made no sound in America, as they carved my name into the flesh of millions who had no voice.
And Alexandra and Janet and Marguerite, and Premio and Perk, my beautiful pair of Afghans who the magazines loved to photograph whenever Marguerite took them for a walk in the park; and they were so kind as to leave out the bodyguards. And the three obligatory kids by Ann, who was hampered by the prenuptial agreement from weakening the clout of my ego. Little treats, this whole bunch, whenever my eyes became blurry from the chessboard, and I needed time off to restore my edge.
And then, at last, it ended, this magnificent run of empire-building, this enormous new landscape of castles made of sand, which I had to leave behind. Of course it was ephemeral, but so what? So are we all. While I was on the earth, I had a chair to sit on. I ate the best of foods, I drank the finest of wines, I cavorted with the most beautiful of women, with iron faces and hard hearts, it is true, but their bodies were soft in spite of their soullessness and I only lingered with them long enough to hurl all of the world’s woes into their moist interiors, never long enough to be bored. While others prayed to God for a loaf of bread, I ate a hundred loaves of bread without a prayer. While others lived alone, reaching in vain for love, I never asked for more than sex, and never lacked a woman who would lie on her back for me. While others dreamt of how the world should be, I made it the way I wanted it to be. ‘Should’ is for weaklings! I lived a good life, a focused life, I flew past a million inefficiencies without a thought, straight for the target, I did not take the armor off my heart nor the blinders from my eyes.
When I came back, after a gentle death, euphoric like Bismarck who changed the map of Europe with blood and iron, and sped history along by filling its sails with winds of mourning, I knew I had succeeded. Like Caesar, like Tamerlane, like the Iron Chancellor, who melted all the gold of all the minds of his country into a single war club which he passed on to the future, I had triumphed. I had left my mark on the world, and I had enjoyed leaving my mark. I had been a man of distinction, and for the first time in a thousand lifetimes, I had finished first.
"Take that, Samson!" I cried in triumph, as I staggered across rolling fields of clouds back to the starting point.
"Take what?" he demanded, as sullen as ever.
"I have proven you wrong!" I boasted. "I have beat you at your own game!"
But he only shook his head, and spit at the earth. "You’re crazy, Johannes," he said. "You haven’t gone anywhere. You’ve been here all the time."
"What are you talking about?" I demanded.
And with his head, he motioned off into the distance, where I saw a million mothers whose sons I had not killed, and a million farmers tenderly checking on the corn that was their own, and miles of winding streets that had no soldiers or tanks in them.
"You chose to be born to a woman who didn’t want you. You were aborted. You didn’t do anything of what you’d planned to do. See?" he demanded. "You don’t have the guts! It’s just like I said."
And suddenly I broken down weeping, though I knew he would mistake it for weakness: weeping tears of joy that I had lost my bet, that I had failed to prove I could be as evil as he.
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