I have on several occasions thus far in my recitation of how I arrived at Shackleburg described the feelings of certainty—that a compulsory force informed my very being. I am, and must be, defiant of my world, or I shall suffer a non-existence. I do not express this credo as an applicable balm for all terrors plaguing each and every human heart. I know I developed these inclinations from beneath a firm roof, with a full belly, and unburdened by threats against my bodily existence. Furthermore, I will posit once more, I am not a great man. In fact, I am a young fool, even to this day. Nevertheless, I am certain I must carry on as a young fool until I am one no longer. If I do not do this, I am not doing anything at all, and if I do not assert that factual foolishness with certainty, then I shall cease in forward momentum and become that which I imagine most childlike idiots often fear—a wordless, repetitive failure.
Will I shrink, in time? Only if I do not grow up and grow out. That is how one becomes a thing that they once were not. To be a thing we weren’t is the best way to be.
But we mustn’t neglect the philosophy. I’ve grown impatient and I do not wish for you to grow impatient, either, cautious reader. The melody of memory compels me and I’d like you to know more of how before I came to Shackleburg, Shackleburg came to me.
My father, as I’ve relayed already, died the day his heart was poisoned by silver. Metaphorically. When he realized he could not spend the wealth of his mines across one lifetime, his gaze shifted to the next lifetime—my lifetime. I had no brothers or sisters. My mother was a forgotten unknown. I felt for a time he did not speak of her because of heartbreak. This is a sociopathic trap laid by trite men. Heinrich was not a master manipulator. He simply lived in a sense of being apart from the world around him. He was correct, or perhaps a victim of blind luck, once in his life—the day he located the Platavilla vein. The ensuing events and accrued fortune were so momentous, he could not have halted them, not even with a pistol set against between his teeth and a trigger pull.
Human life is voraciously desirous of placidity. To be free of want. Want takes many forms, and for my father, that want was of himself, forever and ever. In unearthing his silver mine, he achieved it, and thus, his perception of the world morphed around his wants and whims. He became a very small world unto himself in Platavilla and once he did, this want continued. He desired a lifeless calm.
Heinrich determined a network of things that simply “must-be.” Business must-be conducted in a particular manner. Individuals must-be mindful in a particular manner. All things in our home, what passed in, out, and through, must-be as he determined, from the food, the people, down to the ivory antlers polished to silvery shines on his mounted trophies.
I recognize these instances as the moments when my mind first encountered ontology—instances I believe when Shackleburg came to me. Through the lens of my father’s bizarre and tasteless I noticed the questions of existence itself. What gives a status of being to a thing? What is a being’s meaning? What is a thing in the very first place?
Surrounded by acts and objects of such bitter existence, tainted by my father’s disconnect from my reality, I considered his believed reality.
What did he believe these things were, objects of some strange, deliberate make that he fed upon, thanks in no small part to his inconceivable wealth? What did he imagine they might do for him? And deep in his mind, what was I, by his reckoning? A vessel for his continued action? A unique soul? His son? Worthwhile, comparatively? Or physical object, and nothing more?
The possibility that I did not exist to him as a living agent of my own fate led my thoughts down a zig-zagging path, piquing curiosity that perhaps I did not exist at all. That he did not exist at all. Because I did not know how to prove or disprove one from the other. But from such an absence, could existence be gained? Re-gained? Was there a fundamental source for reality that governs us all, even when we attempt to disregard it or supersede it? Are there things that “must-be,” as demonstrated by that man’s flippant whims? Had Heinrich enacted governance over reality itself simply by imposing an order to a surrounding world, and in so doing, did he become a greater thing at a higher level of existence than I?
The determination, beyond my person and my ability to perceive what-is and what-cannot-be, was that a man that owned a silver mine in central Colorado, United States, North America, between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, planet Earth, did not define existence and non-existence. He did not speak and make potatoes appear in a pot in the kitchen. He dismissed mine workers’ salaries and left many destitute, destined to starve, but he did not unmake them from reality, because I recall them, their faces, their interactions with my passage forward through time, and now I relay this story to you, inducting their existence into your mind, reader, even if only as words to be believed or disbelieved. Existence is a thought. Existence is any creation. Existence is any perceivable possession handled by human understanding, until an almighty force supplants our capacity for feeling.
Here it was that I inadvertently stumbled upon Asristotlean metaphysics, a nerve-thick backbone of ontology itself. As ancient as the Greek philosopher himself, ontology coincidentally took shape in my mind, offering consideration for causation, form and matter, and objective existence. To wit, Aristotle’s Book IX: Theta, details an object’s potential. Potential to change. The ability to change from one certain actuality into another, wholly-different actuality. An entirely different certainty. From sleep to awakeness. From light to dark. From void to substance. From in-objectivity to objectivity.
One’s actuality is the completed state of achieved potential change—a potential no longer. We are all of substance and matter, we may just not have come into a potential form. Not yet, at least.
Perhaps it was the discovery of Aristotle, or Descartes, or Durkheim that informed my foolhardy beliefs that I could persuade my father his methods were ill-advised. Receiving, reading, and comprehending texts on the subject of ontological certainty at age 18 did not yield the intended result. I envisioned taking an impassioned stance, mighty and lively, against my father, and revealing a complex mirror of self he might gaze upon. Wisdom and truth, surely, would earn me his sight and comprehension that not only was I different than he imagined, his perceived understanding of actual cruelty perpetrated against his fiefdom at Platavilla was also not reality’s intended purpose for the people and things therein.
Realities would clash, Heinrich’s and mine, but my correct certainty would not be denied.
Spring was slow to arrive in 1890. It was June and the mud was still stiff. The town was stricken with a lingering virus, taking root deep in the lungs of many a warm body. I stood with my father on the balcony of our home on the slope above the town, up and away from nearly every sound and smell of his town of Platavilla. He was not the sheriff, the mayor, or any man of official political affiliation. Heinrich Keyes was simply a capitalist and America loved him for it. His incapability of spending every penny he earned, no matter how he tried, made him a man of admiration. He was the total of his accrued wealth and his size, physical and spiritual, was immense.
I do not mean his body. He was a thin-limbed man, like me. In fact, he was shorter than me. Much of his young days had been spent slithering through underground tunnels in search of fortune, surviving on darkness and mouthfuls of dirt, as he often told it. Those days, he subsisted on odd mixtures of juices, peppers, honey, and gallons of maple syrup. The various sockets in his head were tight and narrow, struggling to hide the quick-flicking eyes lurking under thin lids and missing eyebrows, ritualistically shaved off each morning.
A golem of want, my father did not respond to my words when first I spoke them.
“If you provided the miners with higher salaries, they would attract greater substance to the town,” I said. “If you enacted briefer shifts in the mine, they would be stronger each trip they took down. They could take time to spend their salary. More people would be needed in town to fill those vacant hours, and those new workers could enjoy the possibility of dependable work. If we had a doctor in town, he could treat hundreds of patients a month. You could pay the doctor yourself and say that any who dwell in the town would be entitled to treatment. Fewer men would die with their boots on. Fit, healthy workers in attractive towns are less likely to die in a mine shaft, father. We wouldn’t be losing skilled laborers to unforced accidents. Give them a chance to live long enough and a man might find a good woman. Men with families require schools for children. Book learning conjures a powerful need for mysterious and beautiful attractions that’d bring railroads through town. The world itself, the future gone missing, hope in the form of an idea, given shape, is all possible. To give Platavilla hope, you must permit some certainties in the lives of these men.”
My father reached up. He wiped a drop of water from above his brow, perhaps an errant raindrop, or a bead of sweat, I could not say. He tasted the wetness off his thumb. It popped when he removed the digit from between his lips.
“Did you hear me, father?” I asked.
“I did,” he said.
“Could you give the workers shorter shifts, perhaps? They, this entire town, you have such potential to offer.”
“The mine must survive, Keziah,” he said. He held his tongue between his teeth as if he were tasting something. “Without the mine, we are nothing. Look down there. Do you see? The lode is limitless. It is eternal. And those men, they reach into the earth and they pull silver out by the armful. Today—the same today as it was yesterday. As it was the day I carried my first ingot out myself.”
“It could be so much more.”
“No. It can’t. It is as pure and beautiful as the moon, and the stars, and the heavens above. It is perfect. It requires nothing.”
“It requires the men’s work. Without the men, it is a hole in the ground, and there will be nobody to bring you wagonfuls of silver.”
“The men are the mine,” my father said.
“Yes. So you see?”
“And the mine—is mine. If I wished it, I could order the work halted. I could send the men away. I could order the mine sealed. But then the men would have no jobs. And you, my son, would have no future. Your livelihood would crumble to the earth. No. I will not be responsible for those men’s deaths. Or your starvation. No, do not worry, son, all is as it should be. To alter course would be not just foolish, but terrible! Terrible, indeed. This much, I am certain of. In fact, let me assuage your fears, Keziah.” He turned at once to face me directly. “You needn’t ask why. Or what to do. You are my son and that is the only fact, the only evidence, the only proof you require of truth. I’ve made you as such. You’re mine. You’re my son.”
He reached with shaking fingers toward my face, eyes sliding upward to meet me. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“You are my son. You—you’re my son,” he said over and again, and he pawed against my cheeks. “Son. My son. And you always shall be.”
For a moment, I could smell mud and shit. The spring thaw had at last arrived.
-- Alex Crumb
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