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PROLOGUE

At the heart of a story like this, The Kurd told me, there should be love—a man and woman, or friends, two people, anyway, who, amid the destruction, find in each other what may be worth dying for, what may even require it. As the city burns, imagine them at the kitchen table with cups of coffee, an atom of intimacy in a galaxy of waste. Watching the ashes drift, they might still speak of another life in another place, certain that if such goodness between two people were possible then all was not lost, even if all might be destroyed.

Forget that it wasn’t 1915, 1934, or 1984. Forget that we were hardly on death marches or stuffed into cattle cars or terror-bound to a chair—no, just the opposite, we were cock-walking pilgrims, each from a different country and caste, supercharged with will. Yes, we were a melancholy distance away from all that was familiar, at an outpost far from home; but each toted his or her best, the very most finely spun and handsomely hewn. There we showed, bartered, bought, and sold, to better store up for the long journey ahead on the magic lantern-lighted road.

Only in the middle of that sojourn we were forced to stop, such was the commotion over the high fence, stop and stoop and peer through peepholes. In black and white, the monochrome color of the plainest of dreams, several police, batons cocked, surrounded a man prone on the ground with his head vaguely raised. Then the man rose, and a policeman struck him, and the man went down, and then rose again and the policeman struck him again, and again, and with each strike the man rose rather than fell, until another policeman, appalled, put out a hand. “Stop.”

Suddenly, the man, like some cornered and wounded buffalo, lunged, and at the vile sight of his unlikely power they lunged back, his buffalo-sized body absorbing blow after baton blow. Groping in the darkness as though for a life rope, he fell to his knees like a supplicant. What must he do, melt into the ground before they would relent? He did melt to the ground, and one of the hyenas put a foot to his nape, and they struck his prostrate bulk. They were striking him for anything now, not because he was resisting them, but because he was there, because it simply struck their fancy. A tort of blows landed at each rung of his body, and when he jumped from pain they struck him for that too. Finally, convinced he was subdued, the hyenas cuffed his hands and lashed them to his ankles behind his back and dragged him facedown to the side of the street, where he was left to his debased self. And the hyenas loped back and forth, taking notes, dispatching reports, contented with their quarry.

 

What was done was done, except for a man hiding in the shadows, who at that moment had turned his camera on and now had in hand an accounting, a moving negative a mere minute long. With no floodlight or fanfare or marketing budget, this shortest-of-shorts in a matter of days awestruck the world. We watched it, endlessly studied it, tried to find a way to stamp it with reason, with purpose; but it continued to mystify, spooling upon its own tortured body, its own sadomasochistic logic.

Finally, twelve persons were charged to put its meaning to rest. They watched and listened for three weeks, frame for frame tried to fix the meaning of the moving negative; they accepted arguments, retorts, theories, and counter-theories about what was in the hyenas’ minds during each frame—what frame of mind accompanied the frame, how did the hyenas’ action comport with the hyena handbook, why did the buffalo lunge at one of them, why, once surrounded, did the buffalo not submit?

They listened to experts and counter-experts, and bystanders who told of what they had not seen:

1. The encounter that night had begun on the freeway, with the buffalo trying to outrun the hyenas for eight miles at an ungodly speed.

2. In the vehicle, three men rode alongside the beast. When orders were given to heel, only the beast demurred. His stare blank, his limbs inarticulate; sweat dripping from his brow.

3. Whipped up and frothing, the beast grabbed his arse and to provoke the hyenas shook it brazenly.

4. Forthwith, it was surmised the beast had eaten crystalline, a hellish substance, and that this was what had unleashed in him such a formidable force. Upon this surmise, the entire pack, even those hyenas of two minds, were galvanized.

5. With stun guns, twice he’d been struck. But rather than wreaking havoc upon his flesh, the guns’ hundred thousand mortifying volts by all appearance did multiply it.

6. The best science has it that no man not possessed by a malevolent force could prove so refractory to such stuns, be so impervious to pain.

7. As the malefactor was struck, emanating from his throat were grunts and reports of otherworldly import. Note: these diabolical cries rose even over the vulture’s terrific thunder.

8. Even when subdued, handcuffed, nearly snuffed, the beast’s spirit, animated by unknowns, was lambent still.

9. Of the beating, true, one of the hyenas had opined he’d never had a hand in anything akin; it reminded him, he averred, of a hard ball game, part of the good ol’ American pastime, during which he had hit a home run.

10. There were spectators to this “sport.” Some watched frozen in horror, others rallied the hyenas on, yet others pleaded for the hyenas not to mortally wound him.

11. Hospital pictures revealed that from the beating his face had lost its features. Blood-red, ochre, and plum-colored bruises, tumescent and everywhere split; it looked like something that from inhumation had begun to putrefy.

12. One eye from distension was sealed shut, and from a baton blow that had severed his face from ear to chin, a new eye was opened.

13. Before it was sewn shut, there were those who deposed: along the round of the iris was inscribed, novue ordo seclorum. “A new world has begun.”

And the jury went into a room to deliberate. There, with the information they were handed, they elevated and elaborated, parsed the pure from the impure, the subtle part from the gross, and within a matter of days returned with their verdict: not guilty. How? How! It was as though the beating was legerdemain, that your eyes perhaps were cataract, your reasoning sublimated, from dereliction deprived, or that what you saw was a base version of the real, that the deluxe, superlit version existed elsewhere, where only those twelve people had in lux-ury stood.

Sensing the fulminate taking shape, civic leaders and clergy rose to prayer, imploring, flapping, squawking, one by one, running the sky the way crows do before a storm; but no sooner had they come then space was emptied of them, of sense itself. The city had turned into a sense vacuum, and in a matter of hours into this vital negativity, this perfect black body, particles began to collide and form a kind of supernova. It was just about dusk when you felt it from the heavens with an appalling force hit.

In a section of the city there was thunder, lightening, a gale strong enough to bust open the cages and set loose a horde: they flooded into the streets throwing bottles and rocks, overturning garbage cans, and screaming from rage. Then they began striking at cars with bats and bars and jumping up and down. And then we saw, from a peephole in the sky this time, a big truck lumber like a lost elephant into an intersection and dumbly stop. Within seconds they had swung up and lifted from right out of his seat the driver, a sad, waif-like figure. They dragged him into a clearing, where he cowered and looked confused, because never, even on TV, even in the movies, had he seen anything like this. They screeched and hollered and spat at him and jumped up and down, and threw him to the ground, and one of them held his head down with a foot, and the others kicked and struck him, and he wondered—as he wobbled to his feet like a newborn calf, lost his balance and fell, and tried to find his feet again—what was going on, and they stood over him, kicking and striking, aping each other, and then a man with an X on his chest hurled a canister at his head, and then another man, at point-blank range, did a trick with a brick, busting it on the scrawny calf’s skull, whereupon his body collapsed to the asphalt and went limp. We saw the bloody mop of his newborn head; his innocent body curled up unconscious. We saw the bricklayer do a little jig.

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Excerpted from This Angelic Land, by Aris Janigian.  ©2012 Aris Janigian, West of West Publishing.

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Aris Janigian ARIS JANIGIAN is author of two novels, BLOODVINE and RIVERBIG, and co-author along with April Greiman of SOMETHING FROM NOTHING, a book on the philosophy of graphic design. A Ph.D. in psychology, from 1993 to 2005 he was senior professor of Humanities at Southern California Institute of Architecture. He has published in genres as diverse as poetry, social psychology, and design criticism. He was contributing writer to West, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, a finalist for the William Saroyan Fiction Prize, and the recipient of the Anahid Literary Award from Columbia University. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

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