The Self-Made World
Truth has more enemies than friends.
The nurses and stenographers waited in their white rubber coats, steam rising up from under their facemasks and fogging their spectacles, and beheld the man in bed. With Origen’s pause, an anxious sigh, sharp and perturbed, escaped from all of the room’s inhabitants. But Origen only pursed his soapwhite lips and waited for the right words to appear without being asked.
With a tightening of his eyelids, he raised one finger and said, “Ah yes, quite; the dream proceeded thusly.”
Thusly did he have every ear and eye in the room at his disposal, as, in the King’s English, he proceeded to explain a complete cure for cancer as it had appeared in the dream, followed by the correct method by which to back-breed the passenger pigeon out of extinction.
With exquisite detail, like a Swiss-built galaxy, Origen described the elements of the dream—the objects, words, peoples, places, relationships, intentions—to the utmost; no scalpel was without this or that long a blade, no woman’s or man’s eyes were of indefinite color or width apart, no article of cloth lacked the correct number of threads per square inch, and no spoken voice lacked its accompanying intonation.
The description was a flawless replication of the dream, more real than a description in a book because Origen had actually lived it, among it, upon it, in its midst, and yet apart from it enough to observe it all with the utmost objectivity and attention, so that with his gift of infinitesimally acute memory he could relate all manners of knowledge to the world.
His intuition extended into the absolutes of knowledge, not synthesized or invented by experience but knowledge in its purest form: visions of truth, models of explanation for the remedies to all of humanity’s ills. He had already conquered war, hunger, poverty, and nearly every disease. Women and men flocked to him for knowledge about their lives, their jobs, their relationships, children, futures, possessions…Origen, with an extended blink of his eyes, replied to them all with the truth. And the people took the knowledge he provided and changed their lives into what they wanted them to be.
Bard Origen…he was above all folly, all human failings like lust and greed, neuroses, disorders and complexes. Access to the purest form of truth had purged him of all self-doubt, all need, all longing, for nothing in existence could be denied him; he knew all and understood all and spoke of all of it as readily as water speaks of wetness. All things were as members of his family, who could be called upon for favors at any time and could not refuse, for a soul as pure as his deserved everything it asked for, and for himself, Origen asked nothing.
In his special bedroom, the tables and chairs and down the hall were always filled with spectators awaiting his words and the depth of their meaning to pour from those soapwhite lips like mother’s milk. The difficulties of their lives became as unfitting puzzle pieces, without purpose in the field of perception but to obfuscate something loved. The spectators came to him to simplify that field, to remove its weeds, to vanquish what didn’t belong and bring unblemished clarity to their vision. Always, the words he spoke in service to this end never failed to expose the truth, and since the truth was what they wanted, it was never met with terror or indignity. Origen rectified the injustices of their lives, and pacified their spirits—with compassion, awareness, and calm—to convince the servants of unhappiness that they are not of this world, that they are the product of an imbalance, and that they don’t truly exist.
People flocked to him constantly, both ordinary and important, for answers to all the questions of life, and Bard Origen turned away no one, for he was the embodiment of selflessness and he begrudged no one their urgent need to know. He understood and loved all such efforts, and was glad beyond belief to live in such a time when he might be of some good, before all of man’s discomforts have been cleansed from the earth by those of even nobler blood than he.
With the money he earned, completely unrequested, he modified his house to accommodate the legions of visitors as they waited their turn to see him. Were it not for these unmet friends in need, Origen hardly would have needed any other room at all besides that modest bedroom with its bed, chair, and table.
Everyone loved him, and valued him, and heaped praise upon him as a miracle-worker though he did nothing but sleep and dream, like any man. And he too took these praises, and dismissed them, saying always, “Next time I will do better.”
Yet no matter how many times he said and delivered on his promise, the people were never disappointed, for Bard Origen fulfilled all their needs without exception. A slumber, a moment, a dream recollected, and nothing could stand in the way of their lives any more than a moth could stagger an oak tree.
Yet there was one man, Antivero, who in all his life had never consulted the man named Bard Origen. Instead, he failed at everything he did: he was a priest defrocked, a policeman disarmed, a politician impeached, an artist exposed as a plagiarist, a scientist stripped of his funding.
At all of these things, Antivero had failed, not because of chance or foul play on the part of others, but because he had cheated, lied, stolen, killed, and all without shame, without conscience…in a word, without memory or a desire to improve, so he learned nothing of value and succeeded at just as much.
‘Bard Origen, paid to sleep, while I, Antivero, am a failure at everything I try. He knows all from his dreams, while in the many tracks of my life, I’ve gleaned nothing, nothing but failure, and hatred, and disgust aimed at me by those who watched me fail, and helped me not.
‘Why didn’t they help me? I wouldn’t have helped them, and they failed to help me, so I would have been right not to help them. I’m just as wise as he is, yet the world does not accept me, does not wish to know me, sees me as a blight on society. I wonder how many times Origen’s been asked, “What should I do about people like Antivero? Tell me what to do, oh Bard, please tell me what to do!”’
Antivero belittled their concerns, and his mind was often full of such thoughts. In all of his short-lived professions, he’d learned another manner of human ugliness. As a priest, he’d learned condescension. As a police officer, he’d learned oppression. As a politician, he’d learned deception. As an artist, he’d learned pretension, and as a scientist, he’d learned bias.
From all of these sources, he knew true hatred, of himself and of all the world, and he focused that hatred on Bard Origen who existed only to enrich the lives of others.
Antivero often walked the streets at night near Origen’s house, where the lines of people awaiting the services of the Sleeper were especially long. With a knife or a gun or a bomb in his pocket, he thought of tearing them all to pieces, for in their desire to be cured of ignorance, insecurity, weakness, and ill will, they nursed Antivero’s hatred for all who were different from him, and he knew they hated him with equal ferocity, for he was different from them. He didn’t seek guidance, knowledge, awareness, the content of dreams still glistening with the splendid condensation of truth. He wanted none of it, and that no one else was like him birthed that final ugliness is Antivero’s soul, the one to which all people have access regardless of experience: pride.
Yet his pride was a phantom, which came and went as it pleased. One moment, in his disgust for the world, he was above it because he roiled in misery and hopeless doubt and would never change his ways, and the next moment, there was no getting around it: Antivero was the worst kind of person, and the world would be better off without him.
‘If only it would be that easy for them. Origen lives without lust, and the people wish to be like him, yet they lust for my extinction. Hypocrisy never bore a worthy child, and they are all the proof I need, for in seeking the words of one who knows the truth they turn further and further away from the world, away from all the misery and contempt and hatred within it, in which I find myself.’
And his pride swelled when he pondered these thoughts.
There came a day when Antivero formed a plan, to destroy the Sleeper and ruin his ability, ruin his life, and make all the problems of the world fall back into the laps of its inhabitants. Without this precious oracle’s help, the people would flounder in their hopelessness, despise the world like Antivero, and see this Bard Origen for just another silly human being whose dreams are of no more value than the aspirations of an ox.
The people would stop consulting him, stop caring about him. He would grow lusts and greeds and hatreds, and hamper his own performance. He would become a failure, subject once again to the failures and follies from which he’d been free too long.
With the power of bias, he doubted Origen’s importance. With condescension, he realized that only he knew what the world really needed. With pretension, he pretended that he had always known, and with oppression, he decided that the world would just have to accept his actions; it would have no choice.
Deception would put the plan into action.
With beakers and burners pilfered during his time as a scientist, and a few chemicals and conductants, he distilled a sample of his bile, refined it and distilled it again, and mixed it with tears he shed during sleep. This done, he decanted, distilled, refined, distilled, decanted, distilled, refined, distilled, until he had a concentration unlike any other. The fluid was a blackish green like age-old bilge, smelt of decomposition aided with lye, loosed a cloud of purple steam whenever it met the air, and was corrosive to every material but wood. Inside its wooden vial, Antivero possessed the perfect poison against his enemy, an essence which had ruined many a dream, many a sound sleep, many a calmness and a life, and which bore a name well-known to every saint since Stephen: PERSECUTION.
‘I will administer this poison to him and the clarity of his sleep will fade. The details will evaporate, the knowledge will grow as remote as the moon, and nothing will make sense to him ever again. And then, when he is asked for help, he will say, “No, for you would not help me if I needed it.”
‘And then they will ignore him, insult him, or hate him.
‘I will go to his house in the very early morning when few people are in attendance, and I will offer him a drink before I ask my question of him, and when he lays down to sleep, the poison will work its course and he will awaken damaged, useless, and all the world will hate him for it. He will have nothing to say in hope, nothing but professions of failure and mistrust of those who let him fail, and seeing how he no longer trusts, no one will trust his dreams as anything but the paltry illusions of an ordinary man, just like their own, and no greater truth will exist within them.’
The morning of the following day, Antivero brought a bottle of wine and waited in line like any other of the Sleeper’s visitors. He gripped the vial of poison in his hand like a priceless bauble and was tempted to remove the lid, to gaze at his creation, but he knew the smell and the smoke would arouse suspicion in everyone around him. Everyone but Origen himself, so he resisted the temptation and merely clutched it, imagining and waiting.
‘He won’t have time for their precious little problems when he learns he’s the same as everyone else.’
He held the vial even more tightly, rubbing it with his thumb, and placed the entirety of what he called hope in the success of its contents.
A short while later, he found himself standing in the Sleeper’s doorway, the nurses and stenographers all urgently watching, listening, as Bard Origen, lying upright in the bed, extricated himself from the thick velvet blankets so he could more easily describe the detail.
“And the table,” he said, hands raised in front of him, “made of ancient cherry wood, scratched as with a fork, a fork with four tines many years ago…there is an envelope on the table, white and tattered, unsealed, containing a piece of beige paper, twenty-five percent cotton fiber and folded lengthwise into three, and on which are written the last words of your great-aunt Clothilde before she…” He rubbed together thumb and forefinger, squinted, and pursed his soapwhite lips before pronouncing the last detail. “…Before she died of a peptic ulcer, aggravated by an overdose of….polypropenol.”
Antivero didn’t see the woman’s face, but her sobs issued with greater severity like a mounting tidal wave, and then, when Origen was finished, her voice exploded into a guttural shriek and she flopped onto the bed to touch the Sleeper’s delicate fingers. “Thank you, young man!” she exclaimed. “To think the poor woman’s last words have been there ever since and nobody thought to open that envelope!”
“Yet there it remained,” said Origen, “so in your heart, you knew it was precious to you, and to her memory.” He smiled.
“No,” the woman said. “It wasn’t, I mean I didn’t know. I told my son to throw it away a million times but he never listened.”
“Then he must have known it had some value to his dear great-great-aunt.”
“He didn’t know her.”
Soon, she withdrew, thanking him again and again, and had to be practically chased from the room. Antivero took a deep breath, and when the nurse said so, he entered the room and sat down in front of the Sleeper.
“My word,” Origen said. “I feel that the next time I awaken, I will know the truest secrets of the universe. You are a most fortunate soul to be next in line.”
“I know I will be witness to that good fortune when we have drunk together. Will you honor me by accepting my humble gift, oh Sleeper?” And he held the wine aloft.
“Of course, I will be the one who is honored, my friend.”
Antivero took two cups from the nightstand and placed them on the floor as he opened the wine. With the vial in the same hand as the bottle, he poured from both into one cup, and into the other, he poured only the wine, and no one saw a thing.
Yet one nurse turned to the other and said, “What in heaven’s name is that stench?”
Antivero perspired, and turned around to look at her.
“But don’t say that,” Origen protested, “for this man must live in great unhappiness, squalor, poverty, and misfortune to carry such an unenviable odor with him in his clothes. And it is no more your right, nurses, to point it out to him as it is mine to judge him for it.”
The nurses fell silent, but a stenographer, deftly taking down the Sleeper’s words, waved a hand before her masked face and said, “What is this cloud, this purple vapor? What does it portend?”
But again, Origen sat up straighter in bed, and with a wave of his own hand said, “You, stenographer, have you never seen such a cloud as arises from a man so truly lost? Whose body gives off a frustrated steam, so unsuited it is to the world in which he finds himself?”
But the stenographer fell silent as well, and in this time, Antivero had finished preparing the wine, and handed Bard Origen his cup.
“I have never beheld such an honor,” Origen said, holding the cup aloft, “to assist in the life of someone with as much ache in his entire body as you possess in an eyelash, and so, with this generous cup of wine, I offer you all the thanks I can provide.”
And Antivero replied, smiling, “Never, sir, was there ever any greater hope in my heart that my life might be improved than what resides there now. Truly this arrangement is inequitable to you, for there is no way you could receive the pleasures and gratitude that I will in making use of your gift.”
“Well,” said Origen, smiling also, “we will see about that after I have used it, and if you aren’t satisfied, in any respect, trust me when I say, I will do better next time.”
And he lifted the cup to his soapwhite lips, and Antivero did the same, and they both drank until the cups were empty.
“A bitter brew,” said Origen, “but if I didn’t love bitterness, I wouldn’t be here. So tell me, my friend, what is it you wish to know? What answers do you desire from he who sees the truth in dreams?”
“Sleeper,” Antivero said, “I wish to know what life is.”
Origen sighed. “Your question will test my mettle, my promise, and my prognostication, for remember, I said most clearly that the next time I awaken I will know the truest secrets of the universe.”
“Then it must be truest destiny that sent me here, me, the most unsound soul ever to pollute your divine presence, to ask you this question, now, when you’ve been given such a gift as a moment of clarity into the very nature of existence.”
“And your question, then,” Origen interjected, “must then hold the truest secret in the universe, and no one can say otherwise. But now, let me lay down, fully, close my eyes, and dream up the only possible answer.”
Antivero said nothing more, but watched as Origen made himself comfortable, closed his eyes, and drifted into sleep.
Soon, the Sleeper saw a green sky, starred with eyes, above a ground from which the wind blew upwards; stinging insects were raised up and they stung his face with poisoned barbs. Bats’ wings fluttered past the sun, which pulsed over Origen’s head; he couldn’t find balance on his two feet, the blustering brown sand whipping through the air like tiny teeth. In the distance, his watering eyes discerned a tremulous row of trees, growing larger by the moment, while the upward wind sent one or another trunk flying away at random from the row. Soon, he realized they were not trees but people, carrying branches in their raised hands, who yelled and shrieked at him in full volume even across this ever-narrowing gulf of sand.
Soon, they were upon him, and in a chorus of disgust they fell upon the Sleeper with all of their might, with rocks and sticks and insults and damnation, and soon, he lay upon the piled wood, bleeding, aching, wondering why, and through the lens of a skyward eyeball, the sun was magnified upon him until the wood ignited, and the people danced around the pyre, tossing more wood and hatred into the licking flames until the selfsame eyeball that had ignited the blaze shed a single tear, which fell down, past the swirling bats and against the grounded gusts of wind, and doused the fire and it revelers in one drop…
In his bed, Origen’s legs kicked, while the single tear from his sleeping eyes rolled down his cheek, past his neck, all the way to his heart, and he awakened.
He shot upright in bed, eyes wide, face as white as his soapwhite lips, and looked around the room at the nurses, the stenographers, and Antivero, who said,
“Please tell me, my Origen, tell me what life is. Tell me what you know. Tell me and everyone here, now, what wisdom you have uncovered in the gardens of the gods.” He knew he had succeeded, for that sleep was anything but sound.
But Bard Origen said nothing for many moments. He only looked around the room, confused, anxious, his hands clutching his thighs, his breaths bated as though he’d almost drowned.
In his heart, Antivero rejoiced, as did those around him, for they could see that the visions of such profound truth must have been hard even for the Sleeper to behold, and yet he had. And soon, they would know all what he knew, without exception.
Origen parted the soapwhite many times, waiting for the right words to come without asking, and soon, with another tear, he said them.
“Life is a trial in which every testimony is a lie, every lawyer is incompetent, every juror is corrupt, and the judge finds everyone guilty.”
And with that, he got out of bed, walked to his doorway, and made the crowd disperse, and said he would see no one else that day or any day. He told the nurses and stenographers to leave, and said nothing to Antivero, who sat and smiled.
But the nurses and stenographers didn’t leave, didn’t move for many moments, until at last a stenographer jumped to his feet and ran to the highest point in the house, stood at the open window, and read the Sleeper’s last words to the people.
“Life is a trial in which every testimony is a lie, every lawyer is incompetent, every juror is corrupt, and the judge finds everyone guilty.”
A cheer arose, not just from this morning’s crowd but from the entire world to learn that what they’d suspected all along was true. They streamed away from Origen’s house; he noticed none of it, and wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.
No one ever visited Bard Origen again, nor did he ever sleep as well as he did before knowing the smell of persecution. The people knew all they needed to know, all they’d been waiting for, and they named this knowledge ‘Origen,’ in his honor. Antivero remained there, until he left the Sleeper behind him and ventured out among the people who no longer sought truth, and lived their lives without hope—helpless, scornful, and brimming with distrust—and they welcomed him at last as one of their own into the world that he had made.
And he was happy.