Shakespeare in Space: Futurama’s Connection to the Bard

In the 1999 cartoon situational comedy Futurama, there is a character named Bender Bending
Rodriguez. He is a robot, designed specially for bending girders. Bender shares a number of characteristics in common with another famous character: Hamlet. Through Futurama’s seven season run, Bender behaves in the same passionate, morose, and obsessive manner as Hamlet time and time again.

In season 1 episode 1 of Futurama, our first introduction to Bender is in line for a suicide booth,
he having lost the will to live. Bender’s obsession with death continues throughout the series, similarly to Hamlet. In act 1 scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet laments the death of his father:

Oh, that this too, too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His cannon ‘gainst the self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

His words smack of thoughts of suicide, showing his mental anguish, just as Bender shows in his own lament after discovering his work as a bender was used in creating suicide booths. His existence is inseparable death, linked to his work and his actions.

There are also links in the capriciousness of both characters. Where Hamlet desires action with
his exclamation of “Oh, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth!” in act 4 scene
1, Bender dreams of a world where humans are no longer ruling over machines, and exclaims in his
sleep, “kill all humans!” While perhaps these two sentiments are not perfectly aligned, the similarity of a
desire to act for their own self interest is apparent. Both characters want to see their own will enacted on their worlds, as a means to grant freedom from their own personal suffering at the hands of others who claim rule over them.

The references to Shakespeare’s works in the Futurama do not end with Bender. In nearly every
season and film of the series you will find at least one reference to the Bard. With season 1 episode 4 being titled “Love’s Labor Lost in Space,” a reference to Love’s Labor Lost, and season 3 episode 4 being titled “Roswell that Ends Well,” referencing All’s Well that Ends Well, it becomes a clear pattern showing a link to Shakespeare’s works, bringing it to the forefront of this piece of popular culture.

Bender, however, remains a titular reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet with surprising frequency. Bender dies in the series dozens of times, either in alternate realities, or to be resurrected later, yet each time he meets his demise, invariably his best friend Phillip J. Fry, or others, will close his eyes, and say, “goodnight, sweet prince.” This is perhaps one of the most famous lines of Hamlet,
spoken by Horatio at the death of Hamlet by the poisoned blade which strikes him during his duel with
Laertes.

In a show where references to other popular media is a frequent gag meant to bring about a good laugh, it is not a surprise to find references to English’s most accomplished and famous writer, William Shakespeare. It is clear, though, that the Bard and the Bender have a link between them to the play of Hamlet. So whether you are a prince or not, if you are wanting a good piece of popular culture to view rich with references to Shakespeare, Futurama is not one to sleep on.

Fulfillment

There’s a cool breeze over the roof of the apartments as we work, gleaning the pear trees in section seven of our Center, our day’s harvest and song drawing to an end. That’s what we do. We do pears. Seventy Five acres. All pears. 

I like pears. The sweet, sticky juice pouring from those coarse, gritty fruits as you bite them, chew them, smash them into paste. We call our Center Pear. That’s not its name; but I like it well enough as a name. The pears we sealed in crates are taken away at the end of day by the night crew. I envy the night crew. They get to work in the cooler air, and their labor does not revolve around the continual harvesting, cultivating, and maintaining the many thousands of trees. They work inside, some of them even get to transport the pears to the Distribution Center. I have never seen the Distribution Center. I finish one last box of pears and pass it down the rolling line as the work whistle signals the end of the day. I like the whistle.

I return to my room. I sit down to a dinner of pear curry and rice, paired with pear jelly over a coarse bread of pear meal. The rice is not pears. It’s rice. Jasmine rice, from another Center probably called Rice by its residents. I wonder what meat is like. We don’t get meat. I remember my mother talking about meat like it was incredible, but aside from the meat I’ve seen when someone cuts their foot with a spade in the field, I have not seen meat. I would not like to eat that meat. It courses with blood, and glistens like a sliced pear, and it belongs to someone,  I’d not want to take what belongs to someone else, that really belongs to them. There is no one else in my apartment; I used to have mates. I do not anymore. I miss the smell of them. The smell of a good day’s labor, of pear leaves and soil. 

I smell like compost. 

I know I should shower after work, but I’m too hungry today. No roommates or neighbors means more work for me. Many of the apartments are empty these days. I like the quiet, but I miss the noise. I miss the friends who picked pears with me, and laughed with me, and went with me to the Entertainment District when the season shifted and our work load allowed for leisure. But those lulls have all but gone; the season’s don’t seem to change anymore. It’s always summer, just hotter and cooler, rain and drought. Never snow. 

There has not been snow since before my mother’s time. She never mentioned snow. Yet I know the word. Why do I know the word? I know a lot of words and I know what they mean, yet I don’t have context. The weather is good for pears, they can grow almost all year round. Sometimes it’s too hot for good pears, but we pump out mist to keep them safe. I like the mist. 

The pears we ship to the Distribution Center are always beautiful. The ones we keep are ugly. Too small, too deformed. But they still taste good, and make good bread, and good curry, and good cobbler. Everything that leaves here is beautiful. 

I miss them.

I finish my dinner, and I feel something hard in my mouth; I spit it out. It is a seed. A pear seed. It is soft, yet still whole, a complete seed, a seed which could become a tree. We’re not allowed to have seeds. We don’t own the trees, and the seeds belong to the Owners also. We only tend the trees on their behalf. The seed is a proprietary particle. It is not mine, and yet I carefully pat the seed with my napkin, holding it like the sacred stone it is. Anyone caught with seeds would be punished. I rise with the seed in hand, and quietly walk to the shelf in the back of the room. I open the drawer, and retrieve an old sock. I place the new seed among the seven others, dry and safe, and return it to the drawer.

Dinner is finished, so I return my plates to the alcove from which they came, the dishes clattering as the conveyer reclaims the pieces, taking them back to the kitchens. I wonder who is working in the kitchens. I worked there once. It is not as easy as I imagine night shift is, but not as hard as I know day shift is in the fields. Whoever is down there, they made a good curry. I go to the washroom alcove and remove my day labor suit. It is yellow stained under the arms and around the neck and around the crotch. No, not yellow. Not the right word. Muddy yellow. A brackish color, like the color of blood in water after a rain, with the virulent shades of an iridescent sheen from pesticide runoff. I like my day labor suits. They keep me covered from the sun, shield me from the prickings of pear branches, the sharp sap suckers which grow after a pruning, ready to skewer you for having the audacity to alter the tree. I have many scars from those sap suckers. My cracked mirror shows them to me as I turn on the shower. I could turn on hot water and fog over the mirror to hide my appearance but I don’t. I reach up and touch the scar behind my ear, the three pin pricks, the hard node beneath them of a bit of wood still embedded there, a childhood injury. 

I want cold. It’s been hot. So I turn the water on cold, and soak my body in the icy runoff. I fill my mouth with water. I swallow great gulps of it, and the water runs down my face from my red eyes as I think about the empty rooms, the quiet hallways, and the pears. 

I stand at the window afterwards, towel in hand, and watch the trucks leave for the Distribution Center. In five hours, they will return with new supplies for our kitchen, our fields, and our homes. That’s why so many rooms are empty, isn’t it? Because they don’t have electricity. They don’t have central air. They don’t have running water, or bedrolls that aren’t threadbear. The trucks will come back with supplies to repair. They will come back with new residents. They will. I wait for the trucks. I can’t sleep much anymore. Not since he came. Not since he told me where he came from. Not since he told me why he came. 

It was maybe four months ago now. It was hot, and the sun blazed through the filmy sky as the sounds of cicadas echoed across the Center from end to end. I was near the eastern gate, packing pears between the sheets of soft, green fiber foam paper, sheet by sheet, box by box. We call it a gate because long ago there was a door there, a wrought iron gate. But that was not there anymore; iron was needed at the Distribution Centers, and the Owners didn’t care if a few pears disappeared every once in a while. The mist sprayed over my body as I worked, and I felt beautiful, like I belonged at the Distribution Center. As I lifted the finished box of pears to add to the rolling line I noticed a footprint which was unlike any I recognized. Our work boots had small ridges, perfect for gripping the mud around the trees; but these prints were smooth with closely knit grooves, like the shoes from which they came had spent countless hours walking back and forth over a smooth, unforgiving surface. I was curious, and so I left the pears and followed the footprints, which led toward the gate and curved around the old plaster wall. Around the corner there was a slumped figure. They were not from our Center. 

He was surrounded by pears, eaten down to the nub. His hands were sticky with pear juice, and dusted with silt from the road. He must have brought that silt with him on his clothes ーThe road was far from the gate. He did not move when I came toward him. His breath moved slowly, his chest rising and falling like a leaf nudged on a faint breeze. His clothes were a kind of refined, synthetic fiber; not stained with years of sweat; yet they were sweaty. Fresh tracts of oily stain were around his armpits, yet they seemed not to belong there. His clothes were not meant for sweat. I said hello, and he stirred slowly until his eyes rested on me; then he leapt with a start, as if I were dangerous. 

I assured him I didn’t mind he’d eaten the pears. I didn’t tell him how the pears weren’t as in demand; no one would mind if some went missing. I didn’t tell him that our Center was not in demand, and that we had not had a new resident sent from a Distribution Center in years. I didn’t tell him because I wanted him to stay. I told him there was plenty of room, and the pears were so sweet after a long day’s work. He stared at me confused for some time before he extended his hand to me with an offer of friendship. I liked him. 

His hand was smooth, yet his fingertips were callused on the thumb and forefinger. My sweaty palm stuck to his pear juice fingers for a moment before we pulled apart. I asked him how he came to be here, and he told me he’d come from another Center. He did not say which one. At night, when the air was mostly clear, I could make out perhaps seven other communities across the horizon. I thought perhaps he came from a place with apples, or oats, or something more exotic, like plastics, or water purification, or boots. I invited him inside and he followed me. He took a room near the gate, even though it had no running water or electricity, and slept on the ratty sleeping mat for two days before he came out again. 

I tried to loosen his tongue, get him to tell me where he’d come from, why he came here, where his old life was in the world, what he did at his last place, why he had such strange calluses on his hands. We would eat pears together in the field, and he would talk about how the heat was too much for him. His skin was baked and cracked, red yet never tanned, as though his body refused to adapt to the weather and conditions of working in the pear fields. After the first week of my careful prying, he finally did speak. 

    He told me he worked with machines. machines which built smaller machines, churning out handheld consoles used in other Centers for managing stock, and tracking resources, and contacting Distribution Centers.  But one day the trucks from the Distribution Center came in greater numbers. They did not come for the consoles. They didn’t need the consoles. They needed metal. So they took everything. The machines to make machines, the components for the consoles, the consoles as well, only to be stripped back down to parts, sorted by brass, iron, copper, silver, silicon. They took everything. And when the parts were gone onto the trucks, they evaluated the people. They spoke of a conflict, that the Owners required the material for the common defense of themselves, and that they would need bodies to feed their army. The healthy ones were taken on trucks to the Distribution Center. He did not want to go. So he left. They didn’t try to stop him. He said they wrote him down as “material unaccounted for.” A loss. What a shame. 

I had seen that behavior before. The workers from the Distribution Centers were closer to the heartbeat of the Owners.  It is a lilting cadence. A beat that skips. It does not care about waste. It consumes without thought of the crumbs, and leaves the dishes on the table, streaks of gravy still on the plates. 

 He walked along the road for three days from his former home. Distribution trucks passed him as he walked, but they never stopped. He wasn’t their problem. He said he could smell the pears before he could see our Center, his hunger was so strong. I laughed as he told me he was so eager that he bit his tongue three times while eating his stolen fruit. But behind my enjoyment to hear him speak, the fear he collected on his flight dripped on my roots and fed me in the same way. Would they come here, for something more than pears?

We accepted him quickly. We always liked to get new people. He worked alongside us collecting the pears, and caring for the trees. I asked him about his home, and he would talk about the pears. He seemed to like pears and the simple familiarity they offered us here. The sunset would come on everyday, followed closely by the whistle, and he would return to his apartment near the gate. He always returned right at sunset. His eyes always looked rigid at the end of day, like the dark would swallow him if he didn’t stop it. 

    We are glad to have him there; it had been so long since any new hands had come to join us in the fields. Together we planted new trees, pruned old ones, shipped thousands of sweet green fruits to the Distribution Center, waited for more residents to join us, to come and be with us in the fields, waited for those who would never come. Sometimes he would smile, and I would catch it before he quickly faded away, a mote of dust on the wind, his joy a single strand of dandelion silk, quickly swallowed in the bright glowing light of the midday sun. 

    He has helped us in many ways since coming. He is very smart. He showed us a way to use grass, to let it grow longer and take the fibers, and twine them to make sacks and rope and hats. His hands are strong, his eyes bright and powerful. I often catch myself looking at him as we work, and want him to see me, too.

I have stood by the window too long, now. The trucks have not yet returned. The stars above have spun most of their sequence, and I am finally tired, so with great effort I take myself from the window to my sleeping mat, and slip into dreams. It is a tenuous sleep. I drift between visions of trees without fruit, to his face, a twisted smirk as he digs at my roots. Then there is nothing, the deepest sleep, the black sleep, where metaphor has descended beyond visual, to the purely emotional, and I fight my heart as it beats the slow comfort I cannot abide, raging, knowing something I could not know, until the sunlight strikes me, and I awaken.

I dress in a clean day labor suit; clean is relative. It is still stained from years of use, but it does not reek of yesterday’s labor. It smells fresh, and has a starchy stiffness in the joints of the arms and legs as I pull on my boots and grab the breakfast plate from the alcove: pear pancakes with pear jelly and a porcelain mug of hot water with a coffee flavored tablet beside it. I quickly eat the coarse pancake first, then place the tablet inside my cheek as I sip the scalding water. Some of us place the tablet into the water, but I find it more effective to put it in my cheek. It enlivens me as it melts against the water of the mug and my mouth. I walk to my drawer as I suck the tablet. I take out the sock of seeds, and feel them, a rosary, a prayer. I hear the morning whistle call for me to come and labor, so I put the sock into my pocket. One more sip of hot water, and I go out into the sun.

He is already among the trees, folding the plastic crates for the day’s harvest. The others are emerging as I am, and then we enter into the work. We sweat as one great being, our hands the hands of one body. We travel along the length of the field, each tree we prune and glean, and today even he is part of us, his voice blending with ours, one single sound as we harmonize our labor song and in that moment of we, I feel a singular rapture, that I am myself and he is himself and yet we are together in our singularity. In this moment, I am not lonely. In this moment, our Center is full.

    We work until the whistle sounds, our tracks of sweat a shared tattoo on our faces. I catch his furtive smile and return one as his eye shift toward the gates. I turn to see what he sees; it is the night crew, but they seem disconcerted. We all watch as they approach us. They stand sullenly as we all shift from foot to foot, unsure why they are not collecting the crates, until one speaks. The trucks from the Distribution Center have not come. The confusion echoes as our voices break from the connection of our oneness. Why have they not come? The trucks have never been late before. What will we do with the pears? The cacophony is growing and I yearn for peace as I step up onto a stack of crates, and shout above the din. They all look at me, and I am petrified. Until he steps out from the crowd. He joins me on the crates, and holds my hand. His fingers are different now, callused in the same ways as my own. 

    I open my mouth to speak, unsure what I will say. I say that we should not be afraid. That no matter why the Distribution Center has not sent its trucks, we have worked a good work, and that this time of unexpected absence is an opportunity. An opportunity to celebrate, our good work, each other, and our kinship. There is a moment of quiet, before a murmur of agreement creeps through the evening air. We step out into the field, the wet soil a soft floor under us, and open a few crates, to share our labor’s food one with another. The night crew and the day crew together share, our two becoming one. The kitchen crew emerges also, confused why no meals have been summoned to the rooms, and quickly join our soiree. There is laughter, and conversation. He asks one of the night crew to bring him a console, which they quickly produce. He takes the device with a familiarity, and explains he can use it to connect to a network of the Owners. We do not understand until he makes the device play music. We had not heard music in a long time, not since our last journey to the Entertainment District. The music is sweet, a tune I have never heard, yet it touches me with a familiarity. The music is quiet, the device cannot sing any louder, yet it is enough; we dance.

We party for hours. The kitchen crew brings out food and a table. I am surprised to see a cake. Not one of pears, but of flour. A cook happily explains they have been saving the ingredients for this sweet, white frosted cake for a special occasion. This night is special. Another cook presents a box of urns which they explain contains a special concoction they have been working on. They are full of juice, with a strong, sour aroma. They say it is pear wine, and will make our cheeks red and give our minds a respite. We all try a small cup of it. It is horrid, but we laugh at the strangeness of it; we all drink, and we laugh and dance to the music as we eat cake and pear fritters and stew of salted barley. We are happy. The pear wine does give respite to my mind, I feel light. 

He and I dance, and he holds me. The night is far spent. I go home with him.

The sun rises, and wakens me. He lays beside me, his bare skin like pear flesh in the piercing morning light. My head thumps lightly as I stand and dress myself. He wakens, and we smile at one another. He dresses also, but before we can speak we hear a familiar sound: the engines of the Distribution Center Trucks. They have come. We quickly go out into the field, where everyone is gathering in the hum of the electric engines as the trucks pull directly into the orchard, over a dozen trucks, nearly twice as many as we usually see; we have never seen them arrive in the morning.

The trucks open, and men step out. Many men, with tools, long saws and axes, their faces sullen. I go to them, we all do, to ask why they have come. We show them the stacked pear boxes. We tell them we waited for them last night, that we are ready to deliver. They say they are not here for pears. That the Owners don’t want pears. The Owners don’t need pears. They need wood. They distribute axes and saws to us, and we are ordered to take down the trees.  

    The men move into the orchard. We follow. Our tools glow in the daylight like firebrands as we approach the trees. These are my trees. I have raised them, nurtured them. I have worked hard for the Owners, to tend this garden. As the limbs fall, I see the rich, creamy wood within. The trees weep as they are laid trunk by trunk beside the rolling line, and every eye drips like sap filled cuttings as the labor continues toward the evening. These are not my trees.

    I tremble as I watch the last tree fall. The ground is covered in crushed pears, a great, muddy press, the sticky juice a bloody battlefield where the innocent slain gave no resistance. My knees give out, sobs halting my breath, and I am caught by him; he holds me up, keeps me on my feet. His eyes stream, too. They command us to load the trunks into the trucks, but we do not. They do it themselves, collecting our tools, all of them, even the pruning hooks, and shovels, and the rolling cart. They tell us our Center is being closed as they emerge from their trucks with new tools, sledge hammers, and wire spoolers, and they begin taking everything, even the doors of our apartments. We are told to line up as another Distribution Center worker begins examining us, saying the Owners will need healthy workers elsewhere. 

    I ask where they will take us. They say the Owners are in conflict with other Owners, to the south. That they will not let their property fall into enemy hands. They say we will go south, to fight and protect the Owners. I say I do not want to fight. He comes up beside me, and squeezes my hand. They stare at me, blankly, as they plug a few figures into their handheld console. They say they do not need me, that I am “material unaccounted for.” We come together, all of us who do not want to go. It is most of us. I am sad to see some of the night crew and the kitchen crew clamber onto the trucks, yet I am heartened to see every day labor suit standing in the fading light, one body, one voice, our hands the hands of one body, clasped with each other as the trucks pull away into the night. 

Our Center is a husk now. There is nothing left; we all explore our old rooms, each stripped bare, dark, even the light bulbs have been taken. Only detritus remains, with us among it. I hear lamentation growing from the field as we slowly return from our stripped homes. There is nothing left for us here. As the night before I step out among them, and again he joins me, hand in hand. This time he speaks. He tells them of his own journey, and that we can find a new home. Some murmur, unsure. He says we should go north, away from the conflict of the Owners. That we are not owned. This heartens them; they draw closer to us, a new we is formed, a new body, afraid yet willing to go in one accord. There is nothing to take with us, only the clothes on our backs and the boots on our feet. We take one last look at our former home, destitute, barren, devoid of the ardent trees, and we leave.

There are no roads that go north. Only east and west and south. East and west there are lights of other Centers in the distance. North there is only darkness and stars and distant black mountains. We walk north, the sun long gone, the stars our guide as we make the difficult work of traversing the land northward of our former Center; it has not seen human feet within memory of any of us. The earth is uneven, and tugs at our boots, and the tall, uncut grass intwines us, and pulls some of us to our knees. It pulls me to my knees, and he pulls me free, our sweat mingling in the night air from the effort of it. We walk until we cannot. We sleep.

The morning comes, and we see how far we have come. Our center cannot be seen behind us. The sky to the south is streaked with oily smears of smoke, far away. Our legs are sore, and our bellies rumble, but there is nothing but grass and soil and horizons. He orients us north once more, toward the mountains which are still far away, and we march. The land becomes more smooth as we go. Hours pass. Our hunger grows. Ahead, there is a river, cutting through the land like an icy ribbon, splashing the stones of the shore with cool, clear water. We drink. In the water there are moving things, slick and colorful, and a word swims into my mind: fish. He points them out, and tells us to gather long grass. He has us twine it into a great web, and we wade into the river, the fish collecting into it as a wriggling mass. The cooks with us understand, and make a fire, but I do not. Not until he hands us split, sharp stones by the shore, and tells us to cut open the fish. I cannot. I cannot cut the fish. I see the blood the others draw from their fish, and see how they squirm as they do so, they do the work, they kill them. They eat them. I do not sob, but tears are my own river, and I cannot understand why we must eat the fish. I feel my hunger pangs and watch the others eat in silence. He sits down beside me. He smells like blood and ick. He tells me to eat, and I turn away. I cannot. I yearn for pears.

We continue our journey, crossing the river carefully. We are all wet from the chest down, our clothes and boots squelching as we walk north, toward the mountains. As we walk, there is another group in the distance. Slowly, we intersect with them. They, too, wear day labor suits. Some of us talk as we walk. They say they worked with apples until Distribution workers came to them for wood. One of them has dried apple strips on them, and they share them with me. They are stringy, and tart, but it feels good to fill my belly after the hard trek of the last two days. As the sun sets, we can see the horizon to the south is alive with fires, smoke, and bursts of light and distant rumblings. The Owners conflict consumes the earth and air behind us, and we struggle to sleep in the coarse grass as the thunder of their struggle sounds like a distant waterfall. 

The sun rises once more, and my body aches as I rise. The oil stain of the smoky sky to the south is still there. I look at the others around me. Some familiar, some new from the apple Center. I place my hand in my pocket. There is something there, a soggy bit of cloth. I pull it free. It is a sock. I recall the seeds, and carefully withdraw them from the makeshift sack. Of the eight seeds, four are intact; the others have wrinkled or turned sour. I kneel, and place the seeds on a flat stone before me. With gentle hands I arrange them, and as I do, others gather around me. One person from the new group reaches into their own pocket, and slowly places three apple seeds beside my pear seeds. I hear a hushed whisper traveling through the group. Someone from the kitchen crew comes as well, and places ten wheat kernels and nine pear seeds with the others. 

I look at him. He is smiling.

Gender Fluidity in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, an interesting story unfolds of gender identity, love, and sexuality. In the nation of Illyria, after a storm sinks their ship, young Viola and Sebastian find themselves marooned and separated. Viola chances upon a rescue by a ship captain, who tells her about the land where she finds herself lost. He tells her about Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, and his unrequited love for the beautiful Lady Olivia.

Immediately, Viola hatches a plan to hide her identity, assuming the persona of Cesario, and becoming a servant of the duke Orsino in his court. While this may seem an unusual choice to some readers in our modern time, the act of assuming a male persona for women in Shakespeare’s time was not unheard of for many reasons—from feeling safer in traveling alone, to being afforded opportunities for work or leisure that were otherwise reserved only for men, hiding one’s gender through a change of clothing, appearance, and masking of the voice was not unheard of. However, I believe this choice on Viola’s part was more complex than a simple ruse to allow them to live unencumbered in Illyria. Viola’s new persona of Cesario is an exploration of their transgendered nature, and the play itself is a microcosm of sexual diversity for many of the characters.

First, let us look at Viola’s decision to take on a male persona. While it is true that Viola is in a foreign land, and by extension, a place that is potentially hostile to her both as an outsider and as a woman, we see early on that Viola has access to a considerable amount of resources. She is able to give a sum of gold to the captain without a second thought, and also is able to express herself and her desires to the captain and the sailors without any issue. Where the cultural elements of the time may have indicated that a woman would be at the mercy of the men around her by their patriarchal authority, Viola does not appear to be under such constraints, even castaway as she is from her home and her own ship. Viola says “I’ll pay thee bounteously,” (1.2.55) as they explain their plans to infiltrate the duke Orsino’s house under the guise of Cesario, another indicator of their wealth and status. How is it that Viola is so wealthy, so influential, that they are able to pull off this ruse? It is possible that Viola had always intended to embark on a journey the likes of which this play goes through. If Viola had always intended to throw off their female persona, and become a man, it would follow that they had made personal preparations, accumulating wealth which they kept on their person, even when traveling long distances via ship. What’s more, Viola, even before becoming Cesario on stage, behaves and presents themselves with a more traditionally masculine set of mannerisms, conversing freely with the ship captain with an air of authority all their own, even convincing that captain to go along with their plan. The captain says to Viola after they explain the proposed plan to become a servant to duke Orsino, “You be his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be,” (1.2.65). Eunuchs are servants of sultans in the middle east, who protect the harems of the kings, and the mute was a servant assigned to the duty of protecting the eunuchs. If a mute betrayed the sultan or the eunuchs whom they served, they would be blinded according to the laws of the time. (Mowat, Barbara 2019).

Since the captain makes this comparison, it becomes apparent that they are already fully on board with the plan, so much so as to stake their own reputation on it. Would a reputable person with a successful career as a ship captain put their own life and job at risk if they were not convinced the plan would work? Unlikely. This level of devotion shows either a confidence that Viola could pull off the ruse with ease, or that Viola was already so good at presenting in a masculine manner that the captain did not even consider failure as a possibility. Either way, this creates a pattern that can allow a reader to infer the possibility that Viola intended to transition into male whether they had been marooned in Illyria or had made it successfully to their intended destination.

As Cesario spends time with the duke Orsino, they grow closer and closer, both as friends and confidants, as well as in a deeper and personal way. Cesario begins to express attraction to Orsino, as the two discuss what sort of women they are attracted to. As the duke Orsino and Cesario discuss love, the duke observes an understanding of love and attraction in Cesario’s countenance:

ORSINO                                          Thou dost speak masterly.

My life upon ‘t, young though thou art, thine eye

Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.

Hath it not boy?

VIOLA              A little, by your favor.

ORSINO

What kind of woman is ‘t?

VIOLA                                          Of your complexion.

ORSINO

She is not worth thee, then, What years, i’ faith?

VIOLA            About your years my lord. (2.4.25-34)

 

In these lines we can infer quite clearly that Cesario is feeling attraction for Orsino. As yet, however, it appears Orsino is oblivious to his attraction to Cesario, or at least sees it only as a strong fraternal bond of friendship. However, as James Stone points out in Crossing Gender in Shakespeare, “… The fluidity and ambivalence of sexual identity in Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies describes a paradigm that calls univocal sexual truth into question, and finds pleasure in dwelling upon the questionable margins of truth.” As Cesario and Orsino do eventually fall in love, and choose a path of marriage, this does raise some interesting questions about Orsino’s understanding of love and his own sexuality.

Orsino spends no time in the play getting to know Cesario as the woman Viola; he knows Cesario only as his close, male friend, whom he confides his deepest feelings in. It is therefore not unreasonable to see that Orsino gains his affections for Cesario as a man, not for the Viola persona whom he has not met nor interacted with. His choice to marry Viola is more a choice to marry Cesario, and is even evident in Orsino’s final words of the play: “Cesario, come, / For so you shall be while you are a man. / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen,” (5.1.407-411, emphasis added). Orsino speaks of the male Cesario in the present tense, even after learning of Viola, the female alter ego. His words also indicate a possibility that Cesario as a person will continue to exist, even though others of their world may meet the “mistress, and… fancy’s queen,” after they are wed. For the era in which this piece takes place, a relationship between two men, married, as Cesario and Orsino, would not likely be accepted by the people of their society. However, it would not be too much of a stretch, from the language employed by Orsino in his final lines of the play, that while the outward appearance of their marriage would be one between Viola and himself, in their own private company he would continue his relationship with Cesario, whom he truly loves, whom he has come to love throughout the events of the play. By this reading, it could then be inferred that the duke Orsino is pan sexual, attracted to the transgendered male Cesario, whom he seeks to marry.

Shakespeare explored the binaries of gender through the clothing of his characters, as well as their behaviors, and the reactions of those around them in the plays (Garber, Marjorie 1992). In many of his plays, from As You Like it, Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline, Shakespeare has characters who are female don the garb of men to either blend in, pass as men, or achieve action that otherwise was reserved for men in their day. Yet where Twelfth Night differs in this regards is that the majority of the play is spent with Cesario, not Viola, as the character whom we get to know, to understand their motives, and to grow to love ourselves.

Even in the end of the play, after it is revealed that Cesario is Viola, and in many productions a change of dress returns Cesario to the raiment of Viola, yet we are not given any more time in the text to explore Viola as a character. What we know of Viola is given to us through Cesario, not the other way around. It could be said, then, that from what we are given in the play, Cesario is the real character, and Viola is whoever is needed to fill the stage when Cesario cannot be present. No matter the sex Cesario was assigned at birth, the one embodied, chosen, and enacted is that of a male. Cesario is bold, action oriented, and seen as handsome by the women of the play, including the lady Olivia, who eventually decides she wants to marry Cesario, who embodies everything she desires in a man, also calling into question her own sexuality.

The sensibilities of Shakespeare’s time, which were tending toward the puritan ideal, are a major foil to the sexuality of Twelfth Night. These puritan ideals, embodied in Malvolio, are at odds with the freedom of sexual expression and self expression of many of the characters in the play, including Cesario, whom he describes as a man of “very ill manner,” (1.5.152). Malvolio, who’s name even begins with the prefix “Mal,” meaning bad or evil, despises all pleasures, and has an apparent obsession with doing all things with manners and honesty. He is regarded by all in the play as an unpleasant presence, with one character saying of him, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (2.3.114-115). From these lines we can draw a reasonable metaphor that since Cesario represents an alternative lifestyle, Malvolio represents the status quo, upholding what is considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by the conventions of their time. These conventions would smother Cesario if given the chance, staunching out his existence altogether, allowing only Viola to exist; yet the personality of Viola is throughout the play wholly Cesario. Denying Cesario the right to exist would be no different than killing both Cesario and Viola.

The characters of the play foment a scheme to trick Malvolio, tempting him with the prospects of hetero love in an effort to make him appear crazy, so they can have him locked away until the end of the play. This could be seen as a metaphor for taking the existing conventions of gender out of the mix, to allow for Cesario and Orsino to eventually marry by play’s end. Where Malvolio represents the status quo, his removal represents a freeing of the characters in the play from the restrictive conventions of their time, allowing them to express themselves in a more open sexuality, allowing for their trans and alternative sexualities to thrive, to be explored, and to flourish.

Shakespeare’s work is still so relevant today because of the possibilities it offers for interpretations of sex, sexuality, and the gender binary. Of all his plays, Twelfth Night provides the most unique and clear opportunity to explore LGBTQ+ lifestyles, showing a positive and inspiring transition for Viola into Cesario, and the acceptance and love of Orsino toward him. Even with the conventions of Shakespeare’s time, his work shows a depth of human understanding that continues to evoke the personal experiences of day to day life, from sexuality, and beyond.

 

Bibliography

Shakespeare, William (Edited by Mowat, Barbara A., Werstine, Paul). Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Folger Shakespeare Library, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2019.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vested Interests : Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. Print.

Stone, James W. Crossing Gender in Shakespeare : Feminist Psychoanalysis and the Difference Within. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

The Guild of The Hunter God, Revised

Revisionary work is a great process for improving your work, as well as discovering your voice and your strengths. Both through reading the works of other students and through submitting my own for review, I gained a greater understanding of how storytelling in fiction can be done in a way that entertains, tantalizes the mind, and enriches the readers experience. One struggle I have had with my own writing is moralizing on my stories. From pointers given by my fellow writers, Professor and author Erin Saldin, and through my own retrospective after having experimented with this piece, I believe I have found a better balance in open endedness in my stories, as well as a good amount of weaving in meaning and moral to my work. It is my belief that this revision of “The Guild of the Hunter God” shows that application, and does it well.

Summers were always so hot in Lestmarsh. The air hung thick and wet, dotted with clouds of mosquitos and pollen wafting from the wetlands through the cypress woods. Jesri swatted at them absentmindedly as he leaned against a ruined marker off the side of the ancient road. The wood of the post had rotted from centuries of exposure to the harsh rains of the southernmost province of Silg, yet the years had also tempered it, hardened it, petrified it into a marker which would outlast kingdoms. He’d taken this road many times, on the huntsman’s trail between the neighboring province of Menganny and the fur trapper’s bazaar in the port town of The Thumb. The road was once a great thoroughfare of silks and spices from the far eastern reaches of Udai, but those days were long before his time, before his father Betor’s time even.

Jesri looked to the sun and the shadows; it was about three hours past noon now, and he was told to meet the officiator at one hour past. With a deep sigh he allowed his thoughts to drift backward in time, to before Betor’s death, to the first hunts they shared beneath the sickle moon. Betor came from a long line of hunters, stretching back before king Silgis united the lands under his name. Jesri had always been a part of his father’s work as a hunter, plucking feathers and scrubbing hides. No hunter ever hunts alone, Betor would often say to him, although Jesri was ten before his father fitted with his first bow and a pair of huntsman’s breeches. Their first game was small, pheasant and plain’s hare, yet to Jesri it the most supernal experience of his life. Betor was so proud; his boy had heard the call of the hunt.

It was only a year later they left their meager home to join a field party in pursuit of mastodon, a six month journey with fourteen other hunters. The flesh and bones of mastodons constituted a major part of the Silgen diet and manufacturing, every part of the creatures having great value from leather to meat to ivory. Betor and Jesri lived in isolation in the Menganny wilds, and aside from the infrequent trips his father made to the nearby villages to sell his fur trappings Jesri had spent almost no time with any other human soul. The hunting party accepted them quickly as they made their preparations for the long journey, following the migratory path of the great beasts through Lestmarsh, where they would drop their calves.

In the humid lowlands they stalked the creatures as one great whole, everyone in their party following the guidance of their head huntsman Antha. She was weathered in years from the harsh wilds of Silg, with a shock of straw white hair tightly braided upon her head. Jesri never knew his mother, she had died in labor. Antha was not a person who one might view as motherly, yet to Jesri, she was the closest he ever came. She knew the passage of the mastodons better than any other hunter, and their behavior. They followed the herd at a great distance, watching from afar, as Antha determined which beasts they would capture, and when, and where. She indicated a middling aged male, with a streak of gray fur along the trunk as their first mark and recorded her other plans in her leather bound journal.

It was at the edge of the wetland, where the mountain’s foot peaked from the soft peat dotted with evergreen furs, that the hunting party sprang their first attack. The gray trunked mastodon was quickly separated from his herd as the hunters erupted from their blinds with torches and spears, driving him into the low hill crevices of the mountain’s foot. Once there cornered, the arduous and long process of bringing him down began. Jesri and two other young hunters were sent to the cliff edge to rain down arrows with a simple yet potent toxin lacing their heads. The others carefully and methodically pierced the beast with their spears along the throat and forelegs, where its arteries were most exposed. After an hour, the beast finally succumbed, and knelt on the thick, blood wet grass as if to sleep, a final shuddering breath escaping its mighty lungs as the crimson sunset reflected across the mackerel sky.
In pursuit of those great, wild beasts, Betor showed him the way of the spear and taught him to skin and cure hides, no small feat when dealing with the bodies of the ruddy-haired, tusked behemoths. They would cut the skin into great squares, about the length and width of a man before using the scrambled brain to wash the wet undersides and then bind them into stacks of thirty, tied with sinew. Antha led the way in curing the meat, smoked over flames of alder wood. Once finished, it was then similarly bound, wrapped in maple bark and slathered in lard, stacked onto the wagon. The bones, too, were polished and carefully stored, ready to sell when the hunt season was concluded. Then, the smatterings of meat and tender organs were ground with sage and bitter chicory and stuffed into the intestines, braided and smoked into a kind of sausage called svetch which constituted the majority of their meals throughout the long hunting season.

After the hard labor of harvesting that first mastodon was done, Antha called all the hunters together on the blood-soaked soil, and from her satchel she retrieved a small ivory carving, made in the image of great fanged reptile, with a bow clutched in it’s claws.

“We thank you for this success,” Antha said, and kissed the icon, concluding her simple prayer, “The blood is yours, always.”

Where Betor taught Jesri the practical elements of the hunt, it was Antha’s example that taught Jesri of the philosophy. That season they brought down seven mastodons, and at each sight of the kill, Antha uttered the same prayer, the ivory icon in hand, a tear glistening in the corner of her eye.

“What is it that Antha holds after a kill?” Jesri asked his father at the end of the season.

“It’s Grukscava,” Betor said as he sharpened his bronze spearhead on his whetstone. “He’s an old god, from a bygone era.”

“Does he like the hunt?” Jesri asked.

“Some say he is the hunt,” his father replied, sitting his spear down to look Jesri in the eyes. He rubbed his hands together and pursed his lips. “I don’t much believe in gods. I believe in a good spear, a well strung bow, and the hunters by my side.”

“Why does Antha believe?” Jesri asked.

“You’d have to ask her. For me, I believe in the hunt. Always have. Whether there’s a god involved or not, I have to hope the hunt is enough, because for me, it is.”

Betor ruffled Jesri’s hair and smiled.

“And so are you,” he said, “little cub.”

Betor and Jesri spent the next five years joining Antha’s field parties in the mastodon hunts. Every season Jesri would learn of Grukscava from her, of his great feats, his apotheosis, and his teachings. He was once a hunter not unlike Betor, devoted to his family, focused on the living moment. When Grukscava achieved godhood, he had two children: the groks, which bore his appearance, and the serpents of air—dragons, who were the eventual creators of the race of man. Jesri loved Antha’s stories, as did many of the other hunters, who all sat close to her at the evening fires, joyous to hear her. Jesri wanted to know more about the groks. When Jesri would ask Antha about these mysterious hunters, she’d idly stroke the green-scaled pouch on her belt. They were apparently a people of hunters, much like themselves, but they lived deep in the marshes, their homes dug into the berms around the great lakes. Antha was not keen on telling more about these people, however. She said they were great hunters, great bipedal crocodiles as dexterous and clever as any man, and that they were dangerous. She described them as the ultimate hunt, a reasoning being, capable of hunting in return those who would attempt to take them on for their prized skin.

It was in the fifth year of Betor and Jesri’s journeying with Antha’s field party that Jesri met a grok for the first time. As the group followed the migrating mastodon, Antha gestured for the party to stop. Jesri looked to see what was the matter, and noticed Antha’s eyes scanning the mud; there were footprints there, with a strange swish following along behind—the swish of a long, scaled tail. Before anyone could act it was too late. Out of the marsh sprang a pack of grok hunters, their eyes yellow and black, their scaled skin caked in peat. The grok hunters struck with precision, but it was not mastodon that they sought. Within seconds, four of Antha’s party were taken, Betor among them. Their bodies were found later, or rather, what was left of them.
Antha raised Jesri as her own after he’d lost his father.

Jesri stretched his back, leaning away from the ancient marker. Through the gathering evening haze, he saw an approaching figure. They walked with a halting stride, a long robe hanging down to their weathered boots.

“Jesri?” the man shouted.

“I am,” Jesri replied, standing tall.

“Are you the officiator?”

“I am,” the old fellow said. His face was deeply wrinkled, like a carven marble statue weathered through heavy winters and ice. He was blind in one eye, a broad scar running down his face on the left side. The milky iris unsettled Jesri as it starred at him, unblinking.

“My name is Tolm,” the old man continued. “I’ve been an officiator for the guild for oh, thirty years now.”

Jesri shifted his weight from foot to foot.

“As you know the guild is an ancient society. No one joins it lightly. The initiation will be difficult. It could kill you. Or leave you terribly wounded.”

Jesri found himself staring at the scar on Tolm’s face.

“You come highly recommended,” Tolm continued. “I knew Antha, back in our youth. She was a fine hunter.”

“I believe I met you at her funeral,” Jesri said. “Last year.”

“Yes,” Tolm continued. “I believe so. A rare gift, for a hunter like her to pass peacefully in their sleep. She fought well, and Grukscava is with her, I am sure. But tell me, Jesri. Why do you seek to join the guild?”

Jesri breathed deep. When Antha took him in, he spent half the year with her in the mastodon hunts, and the other half on the coast, near the guild hall where she was a resident and a member. He gained his formal education in the youth house of the guild, learning to read and write, as well as learning all the rites of the guild, and the stories of their god. He had wanted to join then, but his feelings turned when we saw a grok hunting party join them at the festival of Sun Return. Antha tried to explain that the groks were also a part of their hunter’s lineage, but he could not hear it then. It was not until she passed last year that he finally felt the call to join her society, to be more near to her and his father in his loneliness.

“When I lost my father,” Jesri began, “The guild became my refuge. It has been my home for so long now. I am, and always shall be, a hunter.”

Tolm’s face looked rigid as the crimson sun headed toward the horizon.

“Do you know whom it is you serve?” Tolm asked. Jesri’s brow furrowed.

“Our guild serves Grukscava,” Jesri said, resolute.

“The guild?” Tolm asked, “Or you?”
Jesri didn’t respond.

“I know the story of your father,” Tolm said, turning to leave. “And your thoughts are clear. Perhaps you are not ready.”

“No!” Jesri blurted. Tolm stopped. “No. I am ready. I desire to formally join the guild. I serve the hunt.”

“Then you serve the god,” Tolm said heavily. “For the two are one and the same. This is no small matter. Grukscava is father to the hunt, the grok, and the dragons, and dragons are father to man. We are all brothers in the hunt. The hunt is more than the kill. It is the true way of life. To seek out and claim your own part of this world, on your skill and hunger, just as Grukscava did in the age of gods.”

“But,” Jesri said, stopping short.

“Yes?” Tolm asked.

“Do we not also hunt the groks?” Jesri said.

“Yes,” replied Tolm, “They are a mighty prize in the hunt. Our guild seeks the hunt wherever it takes us. The groks are our skin-brethren. To hunt a grok is to hunt a hunter, but this is not driven by anger or revenge. From ourselves, or from them.”

Jesri was quiet for some time, the sound of crickets beginning to grow from the wooded wetland.

“I am a hunter,” Jesri said. Tolm nodded slowly. “I am ready to become one with our people.”

“And so you shall,” Tolm said. “We shall begin your trial now, then. And not a moment too soon; the moon is rising.”

Tolm removed a satchel from his belt. The old leather bag was as ancient in appearance as his face, wrinkled and thin like a paper bag. He held it out to Jesri.

“Within you will find what you need for the hunt,” Tolm said.

Jesri opened the pouch. Inside was a cap of fungus, violet and black, streaked with red spores. It had an acrid smell, like vinegar.

“This is the bait?” Jesri asked.

“No, Tolm replied, “This is for you. You must eat it.”

Jesri chuckled. Tolm did not.

“You’re serious?” Jesri said.

Tolm nodded.

“I was raised in the guild,” Jesri said in frustration, “By Antha. I know the rites. This is not one of them.”

“It is for you,” Tolm replied, unwavering. “Antha specifically requested it for you, should you ever choose to join. It is a more ancient rite, not generally in practice in our time. You will be in no more danger than any other initiate, I assure you.”

“I am not afraid,” Jesri said.

“Perhaps you should be,” Tolm said gravely. “The beast you hunt seeks out those who have eaten this toadstool.”

“What will I be hunting?” Jesri asked.

“You will know when it comes to you.”

Jesri frowned.

“Very well,” he said, and took the cap into his sweaty hand. Without hesitation he placed it into his mouth, and chewed. The cap was rubbery, like a piece of raw fish, yet tough and sour. He nearly choked, the earthy spores flooding his sinuses as he swallowed. Immediately he felt a flush in his cheeks, the mushroom taking quick effect. Tolm nodded solemnly.

“Good,” Tolm said. “Now go. And remember, you are not the only one on the hunt.”

Jesri’s mouth felt like sand as he walked into the darkening cypress forest of Lestmarsh. He could feel his blood pounding in his ears as he went, and even in the encroaching cool of the coming night he sweat freely. His breath came and went in ragged spurts, even though he walked slowly and without any great exertion. Above him, the clouds gave way to a bright moon and the stars, yet something about them seemed off; the constellations were out of order, and he even thought for a moment that the sky was streaked with the colors of a shimmering aurora, like those told of in stories of the spirit world. A biting pain erupted in his gut, and though it subsided quickly, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Jesri stopped and sat on a large, flat stone covered in fine moss. He didn’t know where he was going, nor what he was hunting, yet his hunter’s instincts held strong—he would do what he could, so he examined his hunter’s gear and calmed his boiling blood with a drink of cool water from his mastodon skin flask.

He carried with him his two hunter’s weapons: the bow and the spear. He knew the beast would come for him, and would likely see him first; the bow would prove ineffective, so he readied his spear. The bronze head glimmered in the bright full moon as he looked to his buck knife, and finally, his last weapon. It was not a hunter’s weapon. It was an heirloom. His father’s sword. It was short, with a double-edged blade that was shaped like a long tear, made of fine steel. When his father was taken all those years ago, his body was found with the blade still clutched in his hand. He drew the blade from its sheath, examining the care both he and his father had taken in keeping it sharp, and oiled. Its surface shined like a mirror, and in the reflection Jesri noticed something: footprints. Wideset, and a long, strange swish between them. They were fresh.

Jesri’s senses heightened with recognition as he heard a faint crunching of dry grass just off to his left. He stood quickly, brandishing the sword, and there, in the woods, he saw the form of a tall, scaled being, staring at him with pale, yellow eyes.

“No harm,” it said in a deep, rumbling voice. “Lower weapon.”

Jesri did not move. The pain in his stomach returned, but he resisted the urge to wince, to show his weakness, not in the face of this grok.

“You are on the guild rite,” the grok said. “and so am I. Not enemies.”

Jesri regarded the grok carefully, and seeing that they had no weapon drawn themselves, slowly lowered his own.

“You are joining the guild?” Jesri asked.

“Always,” the grok replied.

“You met with Tolm, then?”

“A unique rite tonight,” the grok said, “the fungus can cause much pain. It helps to eat. Svetch?”

The grok reached into a tan pouch on their hip, and withdrew a strip of smoked, spiced sausage. The grok tossed the svetch to Jesri, who caught it with apprehension.

The grok took out another strip, and began to eat.

Jesri sheathed his sword and ate. The grok was right, as the svetch entered his stomach, the biting pain subsided.

“Some call me Grrk,” the grok said. “You are?”

“Jesri.”

“Do you know what we hunt tonight?” Grrk asked.

“No,” Jesri said.

Whatever he was going to face, Jesri knew it wouldn’t be small. The Guild of the Hunter-God was known throughout all Silg, even the whole world, for their daring and skill in hunting the most dangerous creatures.

“Our journey will be perilous,” Grrk said. “Many beasts have I slain in my time.”

“As have I,” Jesri replied. As he sat, his belly calmed with the bitter svetch, he began to feel a new sensation. Lights and spots materialized in his vision as he closed his eyes. His energy was fast waning, but he knew he mustn’t sleep. He rubbed his face, and stood once more, finding it harder than he’d anticipated, and turned to head deeper into the wooded marsh.

“I must go,” Jesri said. “I… I thank you, for the svetch.”

“The beast we hunt,” Grrk said, “It may be beyond your ability alone. We should work together.”

Jesri felt a knot in his stomach, but it had nothing to do with any poison other than hate.

“No,” he said. “We shall part here.” He turned to look on Grrk once more, but the grok was gone, as if he had never been there at all. Jesri took a long, ragged breath, and set forth.

There were many things he could face in the dark woods of Lestmarsh. A bulkan, with its razor horns and brute power. Or an arachnin, quiet and skittering, its faint whispering language on the still cold air as the pungent smell of its venom wafted on the night breeze. He shuddered at the thought. His fingers tightened on the shaft of his hunters spear, hoping beyond hope that he would see the beast before it saw him.

He came through a stony clearing, dotted with great boulders left long ago, when glaciers had covered the land. The soil was loose and muddy as he trudged through. His head was swimming once more, the dancing lights behind his eyes almost blinding him, when he noticed a form in the shadows before him. At first he thought it was an illusion—a faint smudge of black on the night air, a shadow, formless and undulating, perhaps light playing through the leaves of a nearby tree. But it moved toward him, unlike any shadow should have. It was a creature, alive. He could not seem to focus on its appearance, a mass of crooked spikes, like a boar covered in black quavering fire. It had no eyes, no mouth.

Jesri shouted at the beast, brandishing his spear. It didn’t move from where it was near the rocks, and yet its form seemed to change, spreading out wider, with a dozen legs or appendages, each shuddering and dripping with stygian horror. Jesri drew a deep, labored breath. He lunged with his spear, the bronze blade glowing like fire in the moonlight. He aimed his blow between the forelimbs, where the spiked plates of its body seemed to join, but the blade shattered like glass on contact. The spear splintered as if driven into the living rock of a mighty mountain, the force resonating through his body, rattling his bones. He staggered back, and the beast came forward. The creature’s limbs drew together, extending and gaining height until it stood as tall as a horse. Where the shadowy mass would have had a head it grew a long, ragged seam, which split open into a maw full of needle sharp teeth. Jesri fell backwards, rolling away through the muddy soil as the beast bucked and roared past him.

Jesri rose again, uneven yet undaunted. He drew his bow and quickly nocked an arrow. The beast turned, as if to make another charge, but it paused. He let fly the arrow, but it too shattered like the spear as it met the hide of the shadowy beast. The creature then charged once more—Jesri unleashed three more arrows, all to no effect. His eyes widened as the creature picked up speed. He leapt aside once more, but too late, the head of the beast now a mass of brutal tusks, which gored his right leg as it passed, tossing him in the process. The fresh wound seeped as Jesri turned over in the loose mud. The beast reared again on its hind legs, pawing at the air toward him as a horrid hiss escaped its body. Jesri looked about himself; his spear broken, his bow missing, his sword still hanging from his hip. He drew the blade with shaky hands and winced as he pulled himself to his knees. But the beast was already upon him again, its forelimbs like those of a bear now, pressing into his chest and pushing him deep in the mud with its colossal weight. The soft peat squelched under the pressure as he struggled against the immovable creature. It raised a forepaw, the spiked claws glistening with Jesri’s lifeblood. In a panic, Jesri held the sword between him and the beast, the mirror steel seeming so feeble against the bladed shadow which held him down.

The beast swatted its mighty paw toward him, but as it contacted the sword’s edge, the digits were cut through like cheese. Black blood oozed from the open knuckles as the creatures paw, a wild, hot hiss roiling from its form. It writhed and withdrew, the enormous weight no longer crushing Jesri’s breath from his body. He inhaled with a hungry gulp, rolling onto his side.

Jesri tried to stand, but the pain in his leg kept him in the mud. As the creature turned about for another attack, suddenly Grrk leapt between them, no weapon other than their own claws and teeth. Grrk gave a barking shout, standing their ground, and the creature turned, fleeing deeper into the marsh. Grrk turned quickly to Jesri, and helped him to his feet. Together they hobbled to a nearby stump, where Grrk bandaged Jesri’s leg with staunching moss and velvet leaves.

“Lucky to be alive,” Grrk said.

“I know,” Jesri replied. “You saved me.”

“No hunter hunts alone,” Grrk said. Jesri looked into the grok’s eyes. They were placid, like a reflection of the noonday sun in a well of deep water.
Jesri stood, and went to the site of his tussle with the beast. Grrk followed.

The creatures claws still lay in the mixed blood and mud, splayed out like silverware at a macabre dinner table. Jesri picked up one of the claws; it was deceptively lightweight.

“You cut it,” Grrk said. “How?”

“I don’t know,” Jesri replied. “My spear and arrows had no effect on it. It was like striking a cliff face.”

Jesri took out his hunter’s knife and scrapped it against the claw. The blade chipped. Jesri’s brow furrowed. Grrk knelt down in a hunter’s squat, swirling their finger in the small pool of black blood.

Jesri paused for a moment, looking between the blade and the claw. Carefully, he lowered the claw onto the blade as he held it still. As the claw grazed the blade, it was cut as easy as paper. Jesri looked on in wonder. Grrk gave a satisfied chirp as they watched.

Jesri placed his knife between his feet, the edge facing up toward him, and dropped the claw onto the blade. The claw was split in two as if it were made of soap.

“I know this beast,” Grrk said.

“Yes,” Jesri said also. “A volraith. But I thought they were a myth.”

“All myth has place in reality,” Grrk said, stroking their chin.

“I had heard they were extinct,” Jesri said, “If they had ever existed at all.”

“Yet here it is,” Grrk said.

“According to legend,” Jesri said, “it could only be harmed by its own force.” Grrk nodded as they looked at the split claw beside Jesri’s feet.

“Then we know its weakness,” Grrk said. They stood, and approached Jesri, their hand extended. “Come, together we can take it.”

Jesri hesitated.

“No hunter hunts alone,” Jesri said, and took Grrk’s hand.

Quickly Jesri collected his sword and knife, as well as the shards of the beasts claws. The hunters assessed their surroundings; the high boulders provided cover, and nearby a tall tree offered strong branches. Jesri went through his remaining tools. His sword could prove useful, but one wrong move could leave the blade shattered and broken, like his spear. No, he couldn’t risk the blade moving at all if he wanted to strike true through the volraith’s skin. A trap was in order.

With Grrk’s help, Jesri selected a good spot for their trap: a space between two great boulders, with soft soil that was shallow and dry enough for a good footing.

“This plan will require a fast runner,” Grrk said as they quickly gathered thick tree branches.

“My leg is fine,” Jesri said. Grrk scowled.

“I will run,” Grrk said.

“This is my plan,” Jesri said, heated.

“So then you should spring the trap,” Grrk replied. “I will be runner. I will be bait.”

Jesri gritted his teeth as he carved and sharpened the tree branches, weaving them into a lattice of sharp points. No more than twenty minutes had passed since the creature attacked. It couldn’t be far off. Grrk looked at Jesri, and Jesri looked at Grrk.

“Alight,” Jesri said. “I’ll mind the trap. Come, let’s see where this volraith has gone.”

They returned to the sight of the attack and searched for tracks. But the only ones there were Grrk’s and Jesri’s, as if the creature had left no mark on the world. There was one thing it couldn’t hide though: blood. Ribbons of oily splatter trailed off to the east. Grrk and Jesri exchanged a glance before the grok lowered themselves to all fours, and followed the trail into the dark.

Jesri positioned himself near the trap, hidden in a blind of moss and branches, the trap trigger in hand. As he waited, his stomach churned. His leg throbbed as his eyes flashed again with the otherworldly light, the toxins of the fungus still with him, confusing him. He began to sweat heavily, his heart pounding in his chest like a drum at the festival of Sun Return. He listened carefully to the night, for any sign of Grrk’s return, or the beast. All he could hear was his own blood thumping in his ears.

Then, suddenly, he saw Grrk hurtling toward him. And behind Grrk, the shapeless form of the volraith, a spiny blot, like a deadfall with legs, gaining on Grrk quickly as its body glinted black and blue in the light of the moon. Jesri’s fingers tense around his trap trigger as Grrk and the volraith approached. Time seemed to slow down as a thought struck him, only for a moment: if he pulled the trigger before Grrk passed the threshold, he could kill them both.

He thought of his father Betor, his body bloody and laying dead at the hands of grok hunters. His eyes streamed as he clutched the trap trigger. He knew what he must do. He would honor his father, he would honor Antha. His anger cooled into resolution as the grok and the beast came closer, Grrk ran faster, the volraith sprouted new legs and gained as well.

Grrk’s yellow eyes showed no fear as he passed through the trapped ground, the volraith just a foot behind him. Jesri pulled the trap trigger, and from the soft soil sprouted a dozen sharpened branches, their points jutting toward the racing beast. Too late to stop or turn, the volraith collided with the spikes of the trap, a loud, wet crack splitting the air as the beast writhed, the wooden spikes piercing its body like hot skewers through wax. The creature shuddered, its form drawing together like a deflated balloon, and then with final, long hiss, it melted into a pool of black blood and blue spikes of ethereal ivory.

Jesri emerged from his hunters blind, Grrk heaving breath beside him in the still night air.

“Well done,” Grrk said as the two approached the bloody stain of the volraith’s demise.

“And you also,” Jesri said.
“Take the spines,” Grrk said, gesturing to the remains of the beast.

“We’ll split them,” Jesri replied. “This is our prize. Together.”

“I will take what is mine,” Grrk said, leaning down to the blood wet earth.
Jesri watched as Grrk placed their hand into the blood, and observed in quiet awe as it was slowly drawn into their skin.

Grrk stood, their head framed in the halo of the moon, and on their right and left hand stood Antha and Betor. Jesri fell to his knees. He was the hunt. And the hunt was him. The heavens above them burst with the aurora of the spirit world as Jesri looked on, his head swimming.

“I thank you for this success,” Jesri said as Grrk rose into the moon, “the blood is yours, always.”

Jesri awoke in a soft bed, laid beneath a sheepskin cover. The room was unfamiliar to him until he noticed the insignia embossed on the curtains of the window at his bedside. He was in a Hall of the Hunter-God. He lay for some time, unable to reconcile the experiences of the days before.
He found his leg bound with a fine bandage, with careful stitching of his skin evident beneath the linen wrap. There was no sign of infection, and minimal bruising. As he examined his wound, he noticed a pitcher beside his bed on the nightstand, full of cool, clean water. He drank deeply from it, his dry throat joyous at the refreshing touch of it. As he drank, the door to his room opened. Tolm stepped in.

“You’ve awakened,” Tolm said evenly.

Jesri looked at him, his own expression stoic, calm.

“I have been on a journey,” Jesri said. “I have seen The Hunter.”

The Games I Love

I love video games. When I was eight years old, my family got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas. It was a cold morning in North Carolina in our military base housing complex as my siblings and I ran down the stairs to the living room. We opened a number of gifts, until my brother Vincent found in his stocking a stuffed Mario plush. A knowing look appeared in his eye as we exchanged glances. Then, our mother pointed to the entertainment stand, where a ribbon held the doors of it closed.

“Open it!” She said with glee, as Steven, Vincent, and myself gathered around what we knew was within. The doors flew open, and there it sat: a shiny new Nintendo 64. It was the first game console we ever owned, but not the first we’d played. We’d known other kids who had Super Nintendo’s, or the NES. We’d played with the neighbor’s Sega Game Gear at the park behind our house, and watched Ren & Stimpy galivant across bizarre worlds on the Sega Genesis. But this wasn’t some other kid’s console. This was ours.

Our parents got it in a sweepstakes, and under the tree were two rented games from our military base movie store. We had them for seven days; they couldn’t afford to purchase the games for us. Vincent and I beat STAR WARS: Shadows of the Empire in a single night. Steven blew through the worlds of Mario 64 one after the other, with the grace of an Olympic athlete. It was the beginning of a life long love affair with gaming. After our seven days of bliss with our two games, they were returned to the video store, leaving us once more without the pleasures of 3D rendered environments on our old family television.

We went to visit our uncle David and aunt Peggy in the following weeks. As we drove to Arkansas, I sat in the back of our family van, recording notes of the level’s I’d already completed in Mario 64, so that when the time came I could pick up where I’d left off. I drew maps to stars in Bob-omb Battlefield. I wrote down the sequence for opening the chests in Jolly Roger Bay. Thinking about gaming was almost as fun as the gaming itself. And while I loved my aunt and uncle dearly, and cherished the times we got to spend together near the holidays, I couldn’t quite drag myself away from the thoughts of that smooth controller and its colorful buttons, waiting for me back home. My brother’s and I talked about our new obsession so much, our uncle decided to purchase us a copy of Mario 64 as a gift. I was overjoyed as he took us to the game counter at a local store and pointed out the cardboard cover art of Mario wearing a wing cap, flying over a green meadow.

It wasn’t long after that first gifted game that our collection grew. Games were all I asked for. Birthdays, holidays, any special occasion. If my parents were offering to get a gift, I wanted a new game. We frequently purchased used rentals from Blockbuster. Star Fox, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Banjo-Kazooie, all were added to the horde as used copies. And I devoured each and every one of them. Star Fox offered a unique challenge in that it had a leader board which tracked your score each play through. My brothers quickly occupied every place on that board, yet try as I might I could never even get on at last place. That gnawed at me, an itch I couldn’t scratch, a yearning for gaming excellence that kept me going back to the title week after week, month after month.

My brothers took to the skill of gaming faster than I did. They were older by two and four years, and fine motor skills came to me haltingly as my hands and eyes battled one another for the mastery of it. Fighting titles like Super Smash Bros. taught me quick reflexes. Puzzle platformers taught me critical thinking. Every lesson was a pleasure, as I grew in years beside the stack of game cartridges.

It was around that same time when I was introduced to the internet. A friend of my father had access, and told us it could basically get you encyclopedic information on anything. So I asked for a guide to Star Fox. A week later, the man returned with not only a guide Star Fox, but a whole host of other Nintendo trivia and lore, including the now infamous rumor that you could unlock Luigi as a playable character in Super Mario 64. My brothers and I became caught in the frenzy of possibility; Luigi waiting for us to find him, to be the first people ever to unlock him in the world. We drifted back from our love of Star Fox to Super Mario 64, working every secret, every exploit we could. We scoured every world in the game, unlocking all 120 stars, searching even beyond the borders of levels through glitches and wall jumps. But to no avail. It was at least a year of fevered effort before we all silently agreed to call of the search for Luigi.

We moved west, and settled in Utah at Hill Air Force Base outside of Layton. All our other possessions were packed away for the trip, safely stored in giant shipping boxes by the professional movers the military always sent. Everything except for our Nintendo 64. That was carefully returned to its original box, and with two games tucked inside (Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Star Fox) which we played at every hotel and family members house along the journey from North Carolina to the Uinta Mountains. My devotion to gaming grew to fanatical levels in those days.

When we got to Utah, I made sure the Nintendo 64 was setup right away in the living room, ready to provide my escape from real life into the colorful worlds of video games. I threw myself again and again into the Lylat System of Star Fox, perfecting my skills in hopes of claiming a space on the leader board. There was one section of the game, a planet called Zoness, which was the final holdout for my brothers and myself which we had not yet fully completed. In the game, each world or zone had a certain point score which, when achieved, would award the player a medal. And there was a rumor passed through internet forums of the game that if a player was able to achieve all the medals, it would unlock a secret multiplayer mode. While my brothers had given up on the supposed secrets hidden in our games promised by strangers on the internet, I had a need; not only was Zoness the last world none of us had managed to gain the medal on, if I could complete that level with the winning point value, I’d finally be able to claim a spot on the leader board.

And then I did it; the perfect play through. I crushed every level, and I claimed the impossible medal of Zoness. I defeated Andros on the final planet of Venom. My heart swelled with my victory as the leader board came up, offering me a chance to place my initials among the others. But there was a complication. I had never input anything on that board. I didn’t know how to do it; in my ignorance of what to do, I pressed the A button on the controller, which ended the input process, solidifying the previously existing initials to that hallowed place on the board. I felt as if I’d plunged in icy water, the breath sucked out of my body, my skin reddening under the streaks of my tears as I shuddered in anger and deep sadness that my victory was lost, that no one would ever believe me that I’d done well enough to be on the board. My mother found me in a pool of tears on the living room floor; she couldn’t understand why it hurt so much. Neither could I.

As it turns out, the rumor of a secret multiplayer level in Star Fox was true. At first my brothers didn’t believe me, even refused to look as I pulled up the multiplayer maps, but after a period of insistence, they acquiesced. They had to scoop their jaws off the floor when they saw it: I had unlocked a new mode which allowed you to verse each other as members of team Star Fox, their tiny polygonal bodies running around with huge blasters, facing off against the Arwings and the Landmaster tank.

As the millennium rolled around, so did the advancement of gaming consoles. We got a Gamecube in 2002 near my birthday. There was a special offer for it; it came with two games: Metroid Prime and Legend of Zelda: Windwaker. It did not, however, come with a memory card. Which meant that every time we turned off the console, the progress we had made in the game was gone. Metroid Prime had such a hold on me that for several days I left the Gamecube running, completing levels in a single, drawn out go. The console practically glowed red under the heat of continued power by the time my parents buckled down and bought us a memory card. I remember plugging it in, and saving the game for the first time. When I turned it off that day, it was as if the console let out a sigh of relief, nestled on the threadbare heirloom Persian rug before the old oak armoire where the television lived. And then, come Christmas that same year, our parents chanced upon another giveaway which blessed us with an Xbox. This new generation of gaming introduced me to another of my now long time loves: FPS games, also known as the first person shooter.

Metroid Prime acted as my introduction to the world of FPS, though there were others that came later. The medium leaned heavily on hand eye coordination, instinct, depth perception, physics, you name it. The more you understood the rules of the environments, the better you could handle the challenges within them. As the legendary bounty hunter Samus Aran I stalked the corridors of abandoned facilities, uncovered hidden secrets, unlocked an arsenal of fantastic weaponry, and defeated hordes of otherworldly creatures. Next we got Time Splitters 3, a bizarre and wacky adventure across time and space with a surprising amount of tight combat and humorous storytelling. My brothers and I spent so much time in that particular game, enjoying the cooperative experience. That was something really special about FPS games: they often had cooperative modes where you could play together through the story, split screen and glorious as you sat with your comrade, waging war, slinging lead, leaving heaps of alien and zombie bodies in your wake.

When we got Halo: Combat Evolved it became my new obsession. Where Mario started my journey in video games, it appeared Master Chief would finish it for a time. I spent as often as I could fighting the alien zealots of the Covenant, the parasitic Flood, exploring every nook and cranny of the installation 04 Halo ring world. And when Halo 2 came out, I was ready for the challenge.

I remember when I took on the hardest difficulty in Halo 2, Legendary mode, that I started at about 11 am on a Saturday morning. We were living in Missouri at the time, my father having recently retired. It was summer, so I moved the Xbox to the basement where it would be cooler; but also, I wanted to have the system to myself if any family wanted to watch television. It was dim and damp, the only light coming in through the half windows and glass doors leading out into the covered parking area as I started the campaign. The first level was absolute chaos. My skills were at their peak. Yet it still took me over twelve hours of continuous play and repeat attempts to clear that first level. The enemies seemed to remember my moves better than I did, which forced me to have to vary my strategies from each attempt. ammunition was limited, and I was always vastly outnumbered. But when that final encounter was complete, with me standing over a pile of corpses, I had never felt more alive. From that point on, nothing else could compete with that feeling. I threw myself into the Halo 2 campaign on a daily basis. My acuity grew like a weed; I got to where I could hit a target with a grenade no matter where it was, even from kilometers away. Headshots were my only shots. But what gave me the greatest sense of true gaming prowess was when Steven admitted he was impressed with my aim. I had arrived.

Most of my friends all through high school were my friends because we’d game together. We didn’t talk about sports, or girls, or anything except gaming. It was life. And it wasn’t always video games, but card games and table top role playing games too; I first played Dungeons and Dragons with that group of friends, huddled around a small table in Charlie’s semi-finished basement, the sounds of Wii Sports in the background as we made characters for edition 3.5. Playing table top games like D&D introduced me to the more nuanced enjoyments a game could provide. I loved the endless possibilities of it. You could do anything, have your character do anything, and the game would continue. D&D allows for the imagination to fully engage with the game, and I loved that. It intrigued me to no end. I had always loved telling stories growing up, and while video games gave a place where I could experience great stories, D&D became a place where I could tell them myself, using the tools provided by the books and miniatures. It was video gaming in analogue. It was self expression in a pure, fantastical setting. It was, and is still, thrilling.

With the introduction of table top gaming I started a new chapter of my obsession. I spent an entire summer reading the manuals, learning to lead sessions myself as a dungeon master. I developed my own worlds, my own home brew campaigns for my friends to play through, with original stories spanning across continents, fighting zombie apocalypses, facing eldritch horrors. It was around this time that I decided to save up and purchase my own gaming handheld: a Nintendo DS. I saved up quarters and dimes, until I had the two hundred and twenty dollars to get the device. It was sleek and black, and it was all mine. My brothers had graduated by this point, and were moving on with their lives, leaving me behind at home. I took solace in handheld gaming as I went into my junior year of high school, able to play it anytime, anywhere, even when my parents were wanting to watch a movie or a television show. I started asking for DS games for birthdays and holidays, collecting unique titles like Hotel Dusk, and the ever popular cottage core game Animal Crossing. I loved Animal Crossing more than I had expected to. I had been playing action packed adventure titles for so long, going to a game about making friends and drawing constellations in the night sky seemed on the surface like a bore, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I spent the rest of my high school years playing that game, relaxing on the beach, collecting washed up coconuts and planting them along the shore. I still played other games, like Halo and Smash Brothers, but Animal Crossing became my capstone title for the years of my youth.

After I graduated, I decided to take on a volunteer job in Las Vegas, which would take me away from home for 2 years. I was excited to do it, but I couldn’t take any of my games with me. As I packed my games up in my room, I took Animal Crossing one last time and wrote myself a letter that would deliver to my mailbox in 2 years time. When I got to Vegas, I through myself into the work there, sweating in the Mojave heat seven days a week. I met a lot of great people, and found a new love in gaming: board games. I don’t know why, but my family never really played board games. We didn’t even own common games like Monopoly or Risk. When I wasn’t working, I was playing a plethora of the board games I’d missed out on as a kid. We even made our own board games; I made a Super Mario themed Risk expansion, complete with hand drawn worlds from all the classic Mario titles- Dry Dry Desert, Gusty Gulch, Bob-omb Battle Field. I wrote letters to my friends back home, and sent them a new board game/card game I discovered in Vegas called Munchkin. It was like Dungeons and Dragons, but sillier and simpler.

Those two years of volunteer work went by in a slow grind, until I finally returned home, suntanned and a hundred pounds leaner. I was happy to see my family, and my friends, but most of all, I was excited to read the letter I’d sent myself. After 2 years of work, I couldn’t remember the contents of the letter; but I knew it was something I’d given myself to boost my morale after that hard labor, to get me ready to move on with my life and take charge, like my brothers before me. I looked for my DS, but couldn’t find it. My mother had sold it, along with all the games; she thought I wouldn’t mind. I never found out what that letter said. It’s strange, to remember sending the letter but not what it said, and stranger still to know I’ll never know what was in it.

After that I searched the house for all the games we’d gotten growing up. The Nintendo 64 collection was still mostly intact, so I secretly collected it and took it with me to college. I wanted to preserve those memories, to ensure they didn’t get hocked at a garage sale. They may just seem like hunks of plastic and circuits to some, but to me, they are treasure.

I’ve continued my relationship with gaming as the years have gone by. I’ve spent thousands of hours in virtual worlds, with over five hundred hours in Skyrim and Breath of the Wild alone. It’s not that I prefer the virtual world, it’s that when I’m there I can do anything, be anyone, escape the mundanity of the everyday for a small moment.

Gaming gave me a window into other lives. I didn’t always fit in with people, and found making friends rather difficult. But gaming? That was always there fore me. I recall one day at school a girl I had a crush on came and talked to me for a little bit at the end of the school day, the day of the science fair. She invited me to hang out with her before the fair, which would begin in a few hours. I was nervous, but excited. I said I’d be there. I went home to drop off my books, and found that my older brother Steven was there already with a bunch of his friends, who had brought their Xbox’s, and televisions. They were setting up for a LAN (Local Area Network) party. And they invited me to play. I joined them, without a second thought. Sometimes I feel bad about standing her up, but I chose the thing I loved the most in the world that day, and I don’t regret it.

Sonnet 6: The Light Painter

A light is cast about thy sunny face.

My heart erupts at what thy sight imbues.

Thy mind abounds! It sees a blighted space

And transforms it into unending hues.

The theatre is blest by thine auspice.

A cyclorama shaped to shine so bright.

Thy shades of blue reflect upon the ice

Of God’s fair world. How pure this glorious sight.

Though light alone nil keeps thy full beauty. 

Bright sun, be extinguished. All darkened, rays,

Until our earths forgotten memory

Erases all of man’s performed plays.

You shall be always marked upon my heart.

For I have gazed upon thy wondrous art.

Sonnet 5: The Orange

On the path where I walk there is an orange
Which lay, five long days now, moldered, more fringe
Of peel and rind than fruit; acrid, citrus
Stink filled air, with I it’s only witness.

Surprised was I no creature dined the snack
Before rot took it, yet as I looked back
At the human intervention I knew
No thing could pass through there that crawled or flew;

Isolation is the function of man-
Made spaces. And the bleached effect of tan
Soil showed, the land was no longer fit
For anything more than man within it.

I walk and see: Earth’s peel and rind molders
A weight far too great for all our shoulders.

What is Human?

Many of the things which we may think are activities only humans participate in are not ours alone. War, animal husbandry, and agriculture are all activities that many species of ants have as staples of their societies. No, the things that are most uniquely human are not strictly for survival in the ways that food production and defense of the colony are. There are many traits our species have that only we do, and they are largely a result of our ability to think differently than other creatures. 

Our brains are designed to solve puzzles, connect patterns, and manage incredible details that for many organisms would seem completely without value. But that is not so. It is in using these unique abilities that we have become the species we are today. We have overcome trials that have left other apex species in the fossil record, and with luck and tenacity, we will continue to do so. 

The first uniquely human behavior I want to address is the use of plants. That may seem a strange thing to bring up first. But this is more than simple agricultural usage. I’m talking about discovering the properties of plants and using them to our benefit. While ants have been seen growing fungi to provide crops to their colonies, and many species of mammals have been recorded consuming medicinal plants to deal with different ailments, only humans have discovered the means to identify those effects, and to harvest the ingredients needed to create more powerful tonics. 

Our endeavor to understand plants has yielded the medical technology that we use today. Using this science has eradicated many harmful diseases, and others are now so uncommon that few people alive today have ever known anyone to be afflicted with them. 

Plant usage extends beyond the medical and the food crop variety in human history. Poisons have been derived to aid in hunting and pest control. Plants have also been used to create a variety of tools used by both modern and ancient peoples. Ropes woven from plant fibers, resins harvested from conifer trees. 

Even fire, considered mankind’s most important discovery, is bolstered by our usage of plants. Our kindling is properly dried grasses, and wood is the fuel. Certain woods such as hickory release flavorful smoke, that can be used to cure meat, increasing its self life significantly. And through the combination of fire and plants, humanity learned to extract plant oils, and create tinctures to cure ailments or reduce pain. This deep understanding, and resource management of plants is a uniquely human behavior. 

For an action to be uniquely human, in my opinion, it must fit a level of scrutiny. Birds and many mammal species construct homes of wood or grass. Many creatures show signs of familial attachments, even social structures not too unlike our own. To be uniquely human, it must be more. 

Language doesn’t even qualify. Whales show signs of using unique sounds and calls to signify names, places, even times. Chickens and geese will make noises to alert each other of approaching danger, predators, or food. Bees use a form of sign language via dance to indicate distance, position, and type of flowers to harvest for their pollen. There is one aspect of language that is uniquely human however: Writing. 

The written word is among humanities greatest achievements. By recording knowledge, we are able to pass on what we have learned to future generations. This transmission of knowledge allows our species to continue in progress that would otherwise be impossible. Sometimes it can be generations before what was recorded before becomes usable, but by keeping these forms of records, our species can overcome the entropy of time that keeps many other creatures firmly held in their stasis of habitual living. 

The first instances of recorded language date back to approximately five thousand years ago. This is not to say we as a species didn’t have great achievements before this advent. Human history begins long before that, with the first indications of civilization beginning roughly twelve thousand years ago. Even more than this, there is anthropological evidence to show that humans have advanced language and social structures as far back as sixty thousand years ago. Advancement in our species is multiplicative. Each one we make builds on the next ones, increasing the rate of development at every step. 

Written language has shown significant improvement over time. Earliest records are difficult to understand, perhaps because we do not understand the context, perhaps because they were so rudimentary that they no longer show much relevance to us. Whatever the case, we have continued to improve our use of the written word as time has progressed. Interestingly, while written language is largely attributed to being first developed by the Sumerians, it appears to have developed independently among many different people around similar time frames in human history. It’s no wonder why the use of written language took such hold on our early species. It enabled people to learn new things without having to experience them first hand. It allows for greater specialization for our species. Writing may seem commonplace to us. We used it every day. But it is this commonality of the written word that solidifies it as one of the most uniquely human things you can do. 

Along with this desire to record our experiences is the record keeping of our history. Where other creatures may find the bones of their forbears a warning to stay away, humans actively search these ruins for clues of where we came from. This curiosity is a unique feature of the human race. Now, do not confuse my words. This is not to say curiosity itself is unique to our species. Many creatures show curiosity. But the curiosity toward where we came from, what was once normal for our ever changing species, that curiosity is very human. It is hard to say whether this would occur in other species if they left behind the sorts of remains that we do; cities, monoliths, foundations. But so far, where other mammals have left foot paths through generations of use, there has been no sign of the deer or elk who walk them showing any more interest in them than simply to use them. 

Even our own fellows may show such behavior. How often do we consider how the computer came to be? Yet many of us use them daily. So perhaps curiosity is more of a behavior engaged in infrequently, whenever the moment is right. Either way, it is because of the written word that whenever a human decides to chronical how something came to be, any of us can go to it and read it, discovering more about our heritage and place in this world. 

Not everything that is unique to the human race is a positive. Alteration of our natural environments may be the first thing that comes to mind with this statement. However, this is not a uniquely human behavior. Granted, no species has had the same effect that humanity has had, with our production of plastics, abundant waste, and other ecological terrors, but it is the habit of almost all organic life to fill its niche as much as possible with its own, and to alter the environment to suit its needs along the way. Viruses and bacteria will do this so effectively that it kills their hosts with their waste products and chemical alterations. Some species will even fill their environment so much that they cause famine, leaving them with massive die offs and even extinction events. This is the balance of nature in action. No, what I am speaking of is cruelty. 

Cruelty is callous indifference to or enjoyment of causing pain and suffering. You may think that other creatures also engage in this behavior; cats will play with mice before they eat them. But this is not the same. Applying the label of here simply anthropomorphizes the creatures. Humans have shown through their history that they will do much worse, for much less. 

A perfect example is found in 19th century France, where a young woman, Blanche Monnier went missing for 25 years. After an anonymous letter came to local authorities, they searched the house of Monnier’s mother, to find that Blanche had been held captive there for that entire time. Her mother had imprisoned her over an argument they had had regarding Blanche’s desire to marry. Blanche was severely malnourished, and had not seen another person other than her abusers for 25 years. Blanche lived another twelve years after gaining her freedom, but the depravity of her mother remains a stark reminder that human beings, regardless of expectations or familial bonds, cruelty can come from any person, anywhere. 

There are countless tales of killings, brutality, and horrifying acts by our species. However, another behavior quite unique to our own species is kindness. Again, this isn’t to say animals cannot show kindness. Whether they can or not is a subject for another debate. What I am referring to is how humanity has shown an incredible capacity to do good for their own species. There are anthropological records of human bones that have been broken, then reset, and allowed to heal fully. This is not an easy process. For most creatures, a broken bone is a death sentence. Whether their fellow creatures want to save them or not makes no difference, they lack the resources of intellect, dexterity, or understanding to help their fellows survive without putting themselves at risk. Wherever their is human cruelty, there is also human kindness that rises up to stop it. Our moral sense of duty, of right and wrong, and our capacity for empathy, allow us to see where there is hurt, and desire to correct it. To end suffering and bring safety and peace to our family, children, friends, and neighbors. 

Overcoming hate allows us to achieve greater good for our entire species. There is nothing that humans cannot do so long as we work together. We’ve achieved space flight. We’ve cured previously incurable diseases. Extended the lifetime of our race by decades. Reduced child mortality the world over. But there is still so much to do. I encourage you to take time to find how you can help contribute to the end of cruelty. There is much every person can do in this effort to make a better future for our species. 

The Erasure of Women

Earlier, I saw a Twitter post in response to The New York Times attributing the creation of Science Fiction as a genre to the author H.G. Wells. Not to diminish his success in the genre, but that attribution is utterly false, as most would agree, since the preeminent Science Fiction origin novel is Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

Along with this erasure comes the exclusion among many of the literati of the incredible impact of authors who are female. Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood all invested their extraordinary skill in the genre, showing visions of the future as poignant and vital as any other work. Where Fahrenheit 451 showed the dangers of myopic thinking and unchecked authorities, The Parable of the Sower did much the same, even getting closer to the dangers of such life by showing it from the perspective of people already at the mercy of great hardship rather than from the affluent perspective of a well-to-do person already high on the social ladder. Science Fiction has long been the means we as a society have used to explore the potential horrors of the future if left unchecked in the hands of those who view the humanity of others as less than themselves. These concerns and warnings are at the heartbeat of The Lathe of Heaven, The Handmaiden’s Tale, The Power, and The Hunger Games, all written by women authors, or as I like to say, authors. Yet our societies at large continue to hide these works away, calling them of less value than literary fiction for reasons never of any deeper explanation than a handwave.

Along with the erasure of women in literature, we are now also experiencing an erasure of women’s rights in the United States of America. The decision by the Supreme Court removed a long standing precedent of protections for women’s reproductive health. Some may think this does not affect them. Some may say these changes are a benefit, protecting the life of the unborn. However, the simple truth is that roughly one out of every four pregnancies’ ends in a misarrange, and of those , roughly one third will become septic and lead to the death of the carrying woman without the medical removal of the fetus. Access to safe, legal abortion protects women from the dangers of pregnancy, all pregnancy. It is not simply a medical procedure for destroying a fetus; it is one for securing the life of the mother. And the choice to obtain one should be the mothers own decision, as it involves their own mortality.

The disparity of equal treatment for women has been and remains a long battle, one we must all become advocates for. Every single person is affected by this battle, and we cannot stand idly by as the humanity of women and girls are stripped away by the powerful, disconnected few who claim authority. The freedom of our human species is common heritage. If allowed, the defunct, patriarchal, dogmatic insanity of the few will lead all of us toward an ever darker future, the very futures warned against in the novels of countless science fiction authors, both male and female; a future where the power of the elite is absolute.

We must stand together. We must rise together. We must all fight for the freedoms of every person. We have lived under this acceptance of treating any other human being as less for too long. Allowed concessions because we ignored the plight of people who present different than ourselves. This must end, or the warnings of our authors of Science Fiction, many of whom are and were women, will continue to come true.

If you want to take action, consider learning more here, and signing the petition. Improvement begins with you.