These days, it’s seen as gauche for a millionaire to keep a person as a pet.
Sure, it would be an ego-trip, but history has taught the wealthy some lessons. As Marie Antoinette’s head mouthed to any who would listen, “you may cage the bear of the labour force population – but never poke it”.
But long before Bezos decided that the ultimate massage for his swollen ego might hover in orbit, and tragically long before Netflix invented entertainment, 18th century aristocrats had a different, simpler approach: hire an actor to live on your property, feigning a hermetic life.
The garden hermit would gather herbs. They would read old-looking scrolls. They would study the stars and brew tea. And, if you were the lucky guest of their employer, they might read your fortune. Their real occupation was to create a romantic illusion, a glimmer of magic at the periphery of an industrializing world.
All they really accomplished, though, was to foretell a world of deepening irony: an expensive performance of naturalism for the benefit of the unnaturally wealthy.
Esther had been a Garden Hermit. Maybe she still is – it’s hard for me to decide if her performance still counts, now that there’s nobody to witness it.
I don’t know how time works here, but, from what I can gather, she’s been here for a couple centuries. Drinking tea. Studying counterfeited scrolls. And, now, finally, telling someone’s fortune.
I used to have the stupidest job.
Remember Target? That chain of department stores that, well, missed the target? When it was going out of business in Canada, I was a temp labourer.
Temp labour is punishing work.
I’ve worked in deafening factories, I’ve spent days digging ditches, I’ve cleaned the city’s compost bins. I’ve subjected this small body to unpleasant, damaging things.
But Target had something new for me.
My job was to spend my weekends holding up a 6-foot-tall ‘going out of business’ sign.
This creative management of talent and resources… well, who’s to say if it’s connected to the eventual demise of Target stores in Canada?
I eventually got tired of holding the sign and taped it to a hydro pole. I spent my days wearing a reflective vest and reading history books, usually shivering.
Every now and then someone would scold me for how much they disliked Target.
“Great, thanks. I’ll bring that up at the next board meeting,” says the sign-manager.
I used to have the stupidest job. Or, at least, I thought I did.
Esther pours me more tea, and tells me about her life as a garden hermit.
“So food just shows up?” I ask again.
“Food just shows up.”
“Well, it’s always been that way. Ever since they hired me. They leave me some food and stuff, but I still have to pretend to grow my own. And consult the stars and the scrolls and whatnot. But yeah.”
“Wait, you’re working for someone? Who? There’s nobody else here!”
She mulls a minute.
“It’s true that I haven’t actually seen anyone in quite a while. And there’s a lot of… of…”
“Yes, eternal blackness. Plenty of that about. I can predict the weather for you if you like.”
I step to the door, gazing out at nothing. It’s unsettling, and very tiring for my eyes.
“Yeah? Is it going to be sunny?” I ask under my breath.
“How is the business job going?”
“Quite well, thank you. Business is jobby.”
“That's the truth and a half!”
“More like one point three truths, according to studies. How are your aimless artistic misadventures?”
“Today I thought about making a thing. Tomorrow I might make it. Then I will face the fact that I have no way to cause strangers to watch, hear, or read it.”
“Isn’t that always the way?”
“Isn’t it just?”
See? How hard is that? There’s a formula. There’s a formula to human conversation. You pour the tea, you act interested. It’s stupid, it’s superficial, and god how I miss it.
Me? I’m just sitting with this stranger in the void. Drinking her tea. Listening to her give me weird love advice that I didn’t ask for.
I want to demand where she thinks we are, who she thinks I am.
I want to tell her that once she’s done giving me love advice, she may as well give me suntan lotion.
But I don’t want to argue, because I’ve been raised to do the stupid thing. The polite thing. To drink tea and act interested.
And, sadly, it’s just nice to hear another voice.
“Are you here for potions?” she asks.
“Uh, no. I’m Gabriel, I – ”
“Because I don’t have any potions!”
“Got to make them on the full moon, and, well, there isn’t really a moon anymore. I could read your tea! Or maybe you’d like relationship advice.”
“Yes! You look like a young man in love! But love that comes easily leaves just so! And when time withers the fruit, what remains? Only a reputation and one’s good name. Trust your father!”
I look over her shoulder to the room behind. It looks rustic and old-fashioned, but – somehow – wrong. I can’t quite figure it out.
“I don’t really – I mean, I’m just here to – ”
My eyes wander to the doorway she blocks. The wood, there’s something – yes, I can make it out in the dim light. Every inch of the wooden door has tiny letters carved into it.
I feel light-headed.
“Did you – did you – ” I begin.
“What, more advice? I know a little phrenology…”
“Did you say …tea?”
The little blue gate creaks open for me.
A mailbox stands resolutely, advertising its address to the limitless expanse.
Smoke uncurls from the chimney.
The wooden door waits.
Maybe I should’ve brought something. A weapon? A gift? What’s customary in these situations?
Wow, all this emphasis on good manners, dad, and you didn’t *once* mention how one announces oneself in the void.
Maybe if someone is there I’m interrupting. I shouldn’t be a bother.
Maybe I should come back another –
Aw, damn, I can hear someone moving around. This is awkward. I could leave and pretend it wasn’t me who knocked … oh, sure, it was just one of the other people wandering around the nothingness!
The door opens.
I should’ve brought a gift.
There is a beast, a great, sweltering, bubbling, heaving mass of a thing.
No. Un-focus your eyes. You can’t see it if you try to look right at it.
All that is seen, the beast sees. It has 7 billion pairs of eyes, and 7 billion pairs of ears, and a confused and crowded imagination. But still it watches.
Imagine it’s seeing everything on a television screen. Hey, that’s your house. There’s that park you like to visit but never do. There’s the back of your eyelids.
I think I’m on a different channel of the TV. A channel that remains dark until the beast flips to it, which it never will.
There’s comfort and terror in this. Trudging alone through the darkness, feeling so certain that there is no world narrative into which I contribute a line. My story isn’t a story, because there is no one to tell it and no one to hear it.
Why is that comforting?
Simply because I can’t play my part wrong. I can’t miss a cue or fumble a line. I can’t be weak or cowardly or cruel or stupid.
But it’s also terrifying. Because, well, it means I don’t really exist. I tremble and quake, at one with a howling horrified hollowness: the void of the unwatched.
Or maybe the darkness is just getting to me.
I keep walking. I turn around, see the light of my apartment building and try walking ten more steps with it directly behind me. This is my flimsy tactic to help me walk in a straight line.
Soon I’ll find the thing that caused the echo.
Either that, or my lack of a story will come to its untellable end.
What do people talk about when they discuss the void?
Think back. You're in a Starbucks. Two slim, yoga-pant wearing blonde ladies are ahead of you in line, getting their Starbucks apps ready to pay for their no-whip PSLs. You’re trying to mind your own business, but it’s hard not to hear what they’re talking about.
What are they talking about?
The void, of course.
“It’s, like, just so dark. Such a weird energy.”
“Like, the deepest dark. I mean, midnight black. The kind of dark that would make Jung uneasy. You know that kind of, like, thing, that opens up in the back of your condo? That crack that widens a bit every time you stop thinking about relationship drama and career goals and fitness? It’s basically the same colour as that crack.”
“That’s so dark.”
“I know, right?”
They order their drinks, and you’re next. You ask the barista for a dark-roast coffee.
Or, maybe, instead, you’re in a meeting. Long veneered table, white walls, you know the drill. Terry is explaining the financials.
“So, despite the high insurance costs and the event license, I think we should be able to keep this project in the black.”
“How black, Terry?”
“Well, pretty black, I’d say. If we sell sponsorship on the advertising, we could even be void-black.”
“But how would we synergize that,” you hear someone mutter under their breath.
“Uh, I think you’re thinking of photosynthesis, there, Barb,” Terry offers, “Synergy needs very little actual light to be optimized.”
Yes, in the black. Everyone agrees to aim for abyss-levels of darkness on the fiscal strategies front.
The point is that everyone talks about the void being dark. And yes, it is. It so obviously is. But what really gets to you when you’ve been searching out in it for an unknowable number of hours is how silent it is.
Still, I’ll press on. If my aim stays true, somehow, I’m bound to find whatever was causing that echo.
If the silence doesn’t drive me crazy first.
It’s funny how relative success is – how easily wealth and prosperity bend in one’s hands. Last week I was a penniless millennial, never hoping to own a house, happy enough to have enough food to last me another week.
Now I’m a timeless voidling, the sole ruler and custodian of all I see, and yet am urgently impressed by how a week’s worth of food isn’t going to be enough.
I’m trying a crude sort of echolocation to find out if there’s anything out in the void.
I take my amp and aim it out of each window. Then I crank my electric guitar to 11 and let out a blast of distorted A minor into the darkness. It might just be the most metal thing I’ve ever done.
While I’m doing this, I aim a mic in the same direction. When I go around to all the windows and all the possible directions, I listen to the recordings on their maximum volume and compression, waiting for any hint of an echo.
I’ve heard that people who listen for a noise hard enough will start auditorily hallucinating that they hear it. So far that isn’t the case. I’ve got over 35 recordings – all the windows, each with several varying degrees of aim - and I’m 24 recordings in. Still nothing.
But then –
No, I must be imagining it.
No, there – I can see it on the waveform, even!
To the East-northeast of me, there was a tiny, tiny, tiny something. Something so small it might be nothing. Might be a problem with the mic. Might be a little infidelity in the cable, or a vagary of the compression. Might be nothing.
But then, again –
It might just be something.
A faint hint of some uncertain presence here in the dark with me – it’s funny how relative success is.