VCO: Chapter 18

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Chapter 18

Last weekend; Friday after lunch.

Morgen walked ahead with her gun barrel aiming at the ground while scanning the horizon and sweeping the tall grass with a killer’s intensity. All morning I’d been worrying how to operate this gun. I’ve never held or used one before. It seemed pretty simple. You pump it. You point it. You make something explode like a nanoscopic Big Bang Event.

Morgen looked like she’d gotten older without her body aging. Or maybe a piece of her innocence I didn’t recognize until it was gone became clear. Desensitized to her once angelic presence. I felt the same way the last time I saw my mom. I try not to think of this feeling as a bad omen.

We stopped on a bald crest of a hill that overlooked the Eastern region of Arto County. The white brick of the East Estate standing out painfully. Facing the other way, behind us, was an orange and red forest which she pointed to. She says, “That’s where Joselyn’s cabin is.”

“I can’t see what you’re talking about.”

She says, “Now you’re getting it.”

She picked up her rifle and started down the other side of the hill into the wooded density.

“If you’re going to look like my husband I have to know if you can provide and protect me. Not that you’ll ever have to use it” Morgen says, “That’s your responsibility. Food and intruders. You can do both with a gun.” 

Which made no sense when she said it. We’ve got that covered for life.

She whipped her twenty-three-hundred-dollar gloves down into the palm of her hand like an angry drill instructor. Her over under is an heirloom that the head of the house holds. An “A” engraved and brandished with gold.

“I thought we don’t eat meat.” I say.

“The point is you’ll be able to do what you have to do when you need to and not feel anything about it.” She pressed her fingers together like a sock puppet mouth. Then she says, “Nothing.”

Birds flew in unfamiliar patterns in the sky which felt like a form of communication. I didn’t like how I looked while carrying a gun. It felt like carrying around somebody else’s sins. Any voodoo practicing high priestess worth her salt would tell you that Christ is deeply mysterious. Spiritually speaking he blew his head off.

I thought I was off the hook. But no. This is Arto County. Population: four. An untouched region of the countryside now is a minefield of hunting traps set in strategic locations. No major highways or roads pass through the forest where Joselyn’s cabin is. In fact, to find your way out there are specific dirt and gravel roads you follow for a couple of hours and make a number of unmarked turns before you make the one that lands you at the Mansion of the East Estate. There are many false turns that lead to dead ends. Only Hans, Joselyn, Morgen, and Butler know how to maneuver it.

Hans had to help bail the government out four decades ago and so as collateral they gave a section of the state to him to hold until retribution. The odds are high that someone was killed in the American Civil War within ten feet of wherever you’re standing. The blood in the soil makes the ground rich. That’s why the hillbilly wytches rejoiced when they heard about a Civil War on home soil. It also makes me wonder the specific placement of all the buildings, what direction they’re facing, and so on.

If you live on the Arto Estate you will enjoy a no waste plant-based diet. Nobody requests a carnivorous diet. The traps are set for humans. The forest is a fence in and of itself. The traps are precautionary measures. One of the duties as the head of the house is to check the traps. We brought the guns in the event that survivors, human or otherwise, are found and need to be put out of their misery.

We walk silently and my feet compress the dirt compressing the Civil War blood soil, into the secret Muskogean burial grounds, into the microscopic organisms who lost the genealogical lottery when earth first formed. 

The protozoa that couldn’t.

Everywhere you stand there is some form of death beneath you. Some believe it’s what gives the land its power. She didn’t say it directly but Morgen did some way hint at the fact that war is a means of grand scale human sacrifice that allows the supremacy of the country to continue to reign. I can’t tell whether this Joselyn is the priest or the deity.

The leafy lushness muffled out all the sound of the day. Red and yellow domes swaying into the oppression of the breeze like an open flame. Each leaf that fell like an ember; a falling star. Pirouetting stems first to the ground.

One leaf danced down onto Morgen’s hair. At the exact moment of contact I could hear an orchestra of sounds like beautiful shattering glass. Morgen continued marching unaffected, and the sound soon faded behind us.

I felt a surge of fear and hope swell in me every time we came upon another untriggered trap. The relief of finding them empty created a bliss flurry that started in my chest and shot down all of my limbs like shedding a layer a skin in an instant.

There was nothing to do before our meeting with Joselyn. So Morgen decided to check all one hundred forty-four instead of just waiting until it was time to go.

There was a sound coming from the other side of the mild hill like something slipping on leaves.

A small black rabbit.

Got its rear left paw caught in a trap set two feet from its hole.

 Seems like an oversight, a very unfortunate one.

The rabbit struggled. Straining with cries, the metal teeth tore at its exposed tendons. Blood-stained the black fur and gave it a sickly thick shine, matting it down with its weight. The energy that exists in a single drop of blood is astounding. The knowledge it must contain. You could hear the rabbit sensed Morgen’s evil by the sounds of the tops of the leaves scraping over each other frantically, harder and harder as she approached it. Its little claws were in the dirt, as if to bury itself, as Morgen knelt down to pick it up. She stared in its eyes while holding it by the nape of its neck. It flailed every other second like it was short circuiting and the muscles spasmed every fourth Mississippi.

She held the snub-faced animal at me. She says, “Go ahead.”

My neck suddenly felt heavy with disappointment, but I didn’t know if it was with her or myself. Marriage is exhausting. I’m emotionally zapped wondering what is and isn’t a test. 

I say, “You’re insane.”

Morgen goes, “I’m sorry what?”

It was a moment where you think you know what someone is asking but you know that would be crazy if they did ask you the thing you think they’re asking. Then you realize you might be married to a psychopath for her money sort of against your will. Like I said before. Life has sort of just been happening to me.

She holds the bunny up a little more, indicating to it. Then says, “I need to know if the time comes you’ll do what you need to do.”

My toes bounce against the floor of my new Paolo Scaforas. Kangaroo leather for the upper and elephant for the insole.

There are still parts of this engagement I care about. And I feel myself resisting my true feelings about the situation. Swallowing my own grievances in hopes of curing myself of them forever. But what I think is really happening is that I’m already too used to being rich that I truly don’t believe I need to do anything I don’t want to.

I need something new to hate. I need a new job.

I whisper, “I can’t do that.” In a sort of pleading way.

She swings the pitiful thing at me and I swear it’s looking at me for help. Morgen held the helpless kicking rabbit with her arm out straight. She says, “If it were you, and it was life and death. What would you do, Sullivan?”

I made eye-deep contact with the rabbit to send some emotional anesthetic. It had the same little black chips in his eyes as I do. I say, “This doesn’t prove anything.”

Morgen lowered the animal in front of her belly and the Mississippi’s I counted between spasms increased.

One Mississippi.

One Mississippi.
Two Missi—

Gripping its neck with her left hand, the rabbit’s entire head fit in her right.

One Mississippi.
Two Mississippi.
Three, then the breaking sound.

She made the knuckles of her pinkies touch. Its neck made the quick zip clap of a pocket watch.

And when she pulled her right hand away its head was unnaturally cocked to the left, locked in place.

Morgen tossed the bunny aside whilst exhaling out her nose like a dragon clearing out its sinuses. The dead rabbit flew limp. Hit the ground and slid across the leaves to the front of its rabbit hole. The ears were bent and folded wrong.

“Pick it up.” Morgan’s sharp command made me jump. She says, “Joselyn can use it.”

I knelt beside it as I set my firearm on the forest floor.

My hands came into my line of vision and I could see I was trembling.

I didn’t know which part of it to grab to pick it up.

As if nothing happened. Morgen put her hand in her peacoat pockets, she secured her rifle by wedging the gunstock in her armpit and the barrel over her forearm. 

As I’m trying to find a place to put this dead rabbit so I don’t have to look at it, Morgen talks about the most recent FMCA update as if she personally helped write it. She kept using “we” again.

That “we” wanted to do this or that. And that “we” had to make this or that go away so we could do something or go somewhere else. It was all very vague. Who the fuck is “we”?

She said stuff like, “We’re trying to protect people and that’s a responsibility many people want but could never oversee without crumbling from the pressure.” 

And “Our compensation doesn’t come from nowhere.” 

Or “You have to be born into it so that you’ve never seen anything else. It’s your life. That’s when you come in darling.” She pats her hand on my shoulder “Fresh meat.”

Morgen then started talking about the normality of sliding things into the writing of proposed legislation that may be imperceivable to an outsider. Someone not part of the royal “we”.

A liaison of royalty. A politician.

“Have you ever seen something so powerful that you feel different every time you look at it?” Morgen asks. And the pause lasts. And continues. I look at her as we’re walking, and she’s got her over-under rested against her shoulder with her fingers (index and middle) behind the trigger. “There are people who believe there’s this feeling that cannot be perceived or calculated using basic human faculties like our senses.” Morgen says, “There’s a huge amount of shady shit that goes on in that realm.”

When she describes what she meant, I from time to time couldn’t tell if she was talking about human beings or mobile devices.

She talked about prediction models. Simulations. How every minute of the day our brains are recalculating past decisions with different variables to see what the final outcome would have been.

 She describes that when we look at very specific, very rare pieces of art that we are being reoriented on a spiritual level. Our feelings about things change because of this object. It changes your mind. A totem. An idol. And every decision and action we take is caused by our feelings. Certain objects incite very specific and profound feelings. Like a key matching up to the exact tumblers in a lock that is always changing.

Some of the shapes and sigils she described matched the description of the outdated math symbols in that book Les let me look at. The one Everhet has become obsessed with.

“That’s why they’re called visual cult objects by the way.” Morgen says, “And Joselyn watches over ours for us.”

I’ve heard all about it after the last FMCA update. Every headline said WHAT IS A VCO? and WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU? But people were more concerned about the use of the word “cult” more than anything of what it meant and how it affected them. Every major power has their way of achieving an elevated state of mind. A CEO mentality.

“There isn’t a single member of any executive board at any company that doesn’t bow down and pray to something.” Morgen says.

If you can influence people’s feelings you can influence their actions. Which is essentially mind control. In the wars of humanity certain victors have collected treasures of no technical monetary value but harness immense power over a viewer’s feelings.

I imagined all the logos of the streaming services on the face of my device like hieroglyphs carved on the wall of a tomb. Immortalized by technology.

New black obsidian sorcery with a glass screen like a divider in a confession booth. A handheld divine intercessor.

She says that any of the most powerful families will guard these with more security than themselves. They’d gladly die to ensure the VCO(s) remain safe with their progeny. It would be one’s honor or duty. It is both sweet and proper.

I look down at the bunny in my hands. And I suddenly found my Stefano Ricci peacoat worthless as a kitchen rag and shoved the bunny carcass in the front pocket. 

Morgen’s voice balanced on a tonal highwire stretching across the chasm between reverence and sarcasm. I couldn’t really tell how she felt about it or how seriously I should be taking her. So I used my face to display a sentiment of neutral intrigue. Which was hard to maintain after she said something about willingness to die for the company. For the family.

At a certain point in her explanation she began slowing down. She started taking large breaths in between sentences. Because of the generality of her statements there needed to be a delay for me to compute her words and apply them to the context in my own life. Which was nearly impossible to do with this dead rabbit balled up in my pea coat pocket every time I take a step. Each snapping branch sounded like a thin bone breaking.

Last week after breakfast I wondered if the reason she picked me was because I was easy to prick and manipulate and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to keep checking my hands and feet to make sure they weren’t bound and that I wasn’t a sheep being led to slaughter.

The leaves brushed in trees as they swayed and hit each other in a slipping embrace.

And we kept walking until we reached an opening surrounded by trees and heath growing across the field, bowing in waves with the wind. On the far edge behind the first row of trees there were warm square windows radiating orange light. A cabin painted with shadows.

Morgan points at the ominous cube and says, “There.” 


James Jacob Hatfield is a displaced engineer, a painter, and many other contradictions. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Maudlin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Havik, and others. His ekphrasis poem “torrents of lahar, No. 36” was anthologized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. He is a Sterling Fellow and a Weymouth Fellow. He is the creator and curator of the Gemini Sessions Substack. He lives in Durham, NC.

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